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Good Girls Don’t Say Such Things

‘We saw innocence and wisdom in the dark, leather-faced fishermen in Colaba, their broken down canoes resting ashore amidst tin shanties with colorful blankets bleached by the sun and salt of the Arabian Sea’

On Sunday, August 30, we invited five writers to the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Park to respond to works in the Museum’s exhibition of Indian modernist and contemporary art, After Midnight, which closes this Sunday, September 13.

The following piece by Chaya Babu was written in response to Subodh Gupta’s multi-media sculpture “What does the room encompass that is not in the city?”

Good Girls Don’t Say Such Things

“Don’t write anything bad,” he said, as I entered the security line. Gone were the days when you could hug your parents goodbye at the gate. “They won’t like it.”

I was going to Bombay to work at a fashion magazine, Vogue India to be specific, which I soon came to refer to as just “Wogue.” What could I write that was bad in the way my father was implying? That some Bollywood starlet wore a dress that was off-season?

But I guess parents know their kids well.

I got there and everything shocked me. Even the obvious shit. I knew so little about the place that I kept asking Rajul if she thought I might run into Letitia from Shantaram at Leopold. She was like, “You idiot, there are 20 million people in that city and that book takes place like before you were born.”

Somehow though, on day two, I ran into Gregory David Roberts himself at Crossword, Bombay’s version of Barnes & Noble that sits at a sprawling six-way web of traffic, dirty starving children without pants on living casually under the tangle of flyovers. That’s what they say for “overpass.” Seriously—I spotted some big old white dude and guessed it was him, and it was. He told me he stays in the Shantaram suite at the Four Seasons when he’s in town. As, like, the third thing he said.

Of course, asI’d learn quickly, you could know every single person who went where you went, ate where you ate, shopped where you shopped, both famous and not. Just being there as an American made you a mini celebrity.

I lived on Altamount Road with a family. A couple of people in those first few days said to me, “Oh so you must have seen the Ambani house.” I had no idea what the fuck they were talking about, and I wondered when Bombay became the type of place where the Armanis would buy a notable home. I did however glimpse the massive, gleaming grey-and-glass structure with walls of greenery, set away from the dusty street by an imposing gate, but really, at ground level, it wasn’t jarring despite the scary screaming intersection just yards away down the hill.

But wasn’t that what the city was known for? Poverty and riches right up next to each other? Disease-ridden slums where the barefoot destitution at the base of the frigid five-star hotel is just a part of the glorious passing scenery? For your enjoyment?

I remember once I ate pani puri on the street and had brunch at the Oberoi not long after. Soon I had diarrhea 65 times in one day and was all, “Ahh well, such is life.” I was convinced, though, that it was from the ceviche and not the filthy hands on my crunchy midday snack. Who could know?

I noticed that the people who owned the fruit stalls and the flower sellers seated on the gnarled roots of wide tree trunks on Altamount Road burned holes into me with their eyes as I walked toward the chaos to catch the bus to work. Good girls didn’t walk around this way. Not the ones who looked like me, young, dressed in jeans and t-shirts that clung to our curves in the heat, hair loose and swelling from the humidity. Everyone from taxi drivers to my host family thought I was a prostitute. I got taken to the Juhu police station one night at the order of the watchman at a building where I was attending a party. My friend and I couldn’t leave until we paid 14k rupees to be released. Later she told me the only reason we didn’t get gang raped by the cops was because of my New York State drivers license—she also warned me to keep quiet about the incident.

Pushpa, the grandma at the Altamount Road apartment asked me one night if I wanted milk before bed. I was 28. I politely declined.

“Would you prefer whiskey?” she quipped, giving me the once over.

“This bitch…” I thought.

They said the darnedest things.

Another evening at dinner, which was served to us as always by the two twelve-year-old girls who slept on the kitchen floor, her daughter Parul talked about her time living in Los Angeles. “The blackies,” Parul said, following it with the n-word to clarify for me, “They all lived in the bad part of the city. All of the blackies in America are poor.”

She made a face. “I didn’t like to see them.”

I wondered what she thought of the family that pissed and begged and laid their head down at night under the flyover.

At Wogue I was offered a full-time job after my three-month residency but then was swiftly and silently kicked out because the daughter of some wealthy industrialist who also worked there wasn’t into me. Big surprise. And they run shit obviously so that was that. I stayed in Bombay anyway. For almost two years. My dad later told me he didn’t think I’d last even a week. I guess India is rough like that.

But it was and it wasn’t. For all the times some asshole who had gone to business school at Harvard and come back to work at his family business felt me up at a party, I had moments that made me feel alive. I relished watching the kids going up to bat in their spontaneous cricket match below weathered ganapati decorations, the wegetable-wallah singing his wegetable song, the sinewy men with their bare chests and dhotis tucking themselves under torn sheets to sleep on the cracked sidewalk. The old lady in a cobweb-thin sari—the contours of her face in shadows and yellow light—sitting alone in her cube of concrete holding a single candle glowing in the black. The life!

We liked all this, as outsiders.

We saw innocence and wisdom in the dark, leather-faced fishermen in Colaba, their broken down canoes resting ashore amidst tin shanties with colorful blankets bleached by the sun and salt of the Arabian Sea piled high with stainless steel vessels that looked like the plates in my mothers’ cupboards engraved with my grandfather’s initials.

We found beauty in the quiet of kids who held out their small hands, saying, “Please didi.”

We thought their tear-streaked misery sacred, noble.

We looked at it when we wanted to, when it felt rich in all its wretchedness.

We drove by, windows up, blasting “Sheela Ki Jawani” in Mihir Mehta’s beamer on our way to sunset rooftop cocktails where we drank watermelon mint martinis overlooking Marine Drive.

“Do you think we romanticize it?” I asked a newish non-profiter who I was introduced to at Cafe Zoe. We were talking about how lovely it is to ride to work in a rickety rickshaw, breathing in the smell of someone burning trash somewhere. “You know, like, we can embrace things we wouldn’t otherwise because it’s exotic? It’s not ours?”

He said nothing.

Read other pieces in the series from the Queens Museum’s After Midnight exhibition:

Hari Kunzru, “The Degenerates”
in response to F.N. Souza’s “Degenerates”
Swati Khurana, “Indexing a Life”
in response to Dayanita Singh’s “File Room”
Muna Gurung, “While We Slept”
in response to Tushar Joag’s “Are You Awake?”
Chaya Babu, “Good Girls Don’t Say Such Things”
in response to Subodh Gupta’s “What does the room encompass that is not in the city?”
Amitava Kumar, “At the Queens Museum”
in response to Subodh Gupta’s “What does the room encompass that is not in the city?”

Chaya Babu reads at the Queens Museum on August 30. Photo by Preston Merchant
Chaya Babu reads at the Queens Museum on August 30. Photo by Preston Merchant