When I was much younger, I wandered out of my bedroom in the early hours of the morning, before the sun could yawn and peak out its head. No one heard me besides the birds and cicadas. My feet slipped across the marble stone pathway of my father’s and danced over twinkling ponds and their waterlily eyes. Had I fallen, my body would have hit the dew-damp arms of tall, forest grass. The sweltering heat would have subsided, and the stars would have shone in front of me like a banner of my homeland. But I did not fall; I was timid and careful, a tiger in the final calculated seconds before it lashes out toward its prey.
I ignored my heart, whose pounding frightened me, and angled my sight on the rolling hills of Bengal’s jungles and children. It had never felt like this before. My arms swung against my sides, my hands reaching out to stroke and admire every branch, stem, bug, leaf, bird, trunk, root. My eyes swelled at the sight of such treasures, and I felt secure in my naivety. One who thinks they know Bengal well has almost certainly lost the beauty of it.
That night, I had left my mother and father asleep with my brother in his creaky crib at the foot of their bed. As I slipped on my leather shoes and took down my satchel from its place on the mantelpiece, I glanced into their tiny bedroom down the hall. The wooden panels of the walls still carried chipped, mint-green paint, and the small fireplace by my mother’s jewelry box was piled high with ashes. Both wore smiles in their slumber, and by the bedside lay my father’s list of quotas for the next week’s harvest. He never dared to stray away from it. Business allowed us to live happily, and happily, he did his business.
It is difficult to articulate, but I suppose that’s what I was running from. The mundanity of the land I called home. The fields of indigo on which my father and myself toiled away for a profit that never manifested itself. A profit that was promised by the white men who drove in with supply cars to take our daily quotas, yet never arrived. Since taking my first steps, I had always seen the beauty in the work of my father and myself, but what frightened me, rattled me, was the way in which the British did not.
But I refused to accept this as my story; I refused to accept this indigence and pain as inevitable. I would not become just another Bengali that the British left behind as a sorry side effect of “progress.” I would not become another rank in their platoon. People change, and so do their stories. People rise from the ashes of their tiny, filthy fireplaces and shape their futures with the stroke of one brush.
That night, my feet tapped over miles of soil and stone; my heavy breathing bounced off leaves around me like music from a temple. My plan was loose, I will admit. I was never good at spontaneity.
One thing about Bengal the white man always forgets is its peculiar aura of light, the most extraordinary radiance to exist beyond the mountains. It is quiet and shy; many do not think to look up above them and observe it. In the night hours, as I wove my way through mulberry and mango, an orange radiance draped over me. Trekking to the highest peak of a hill, I gazed out at an illuminated sky and the small towns and villages that it held in its hands. There was beauty in my country. There was a grace beyond explanation that dressed me from my head to my toes. There was ambition in my heart and a new story of hope urging me to listen.