At eight I was bewitched. I sat with Aji in her Scarborough tenement eating phoulowri and drinking Kool-Aid. On her TV, a bootleg VHS copy of the 1964 Bollywood film Sangam hummed. Aji told me that “sangam” is the confluence of not two, but three rivers: the Ganga (or the “Ganges,” as Americans say), the Jamuna (“Yamuna”), and the mythological Saraswati River, which has dried up, or perhaps which never flowed but is nonetheless a crossover from the universe that guides our decisions, where stories live and breathe. This merging of three dark bodies of water is sometimes also translated as “confluence,” where waters mix. In the film Sangam, Raj Kapoor, Vyjayanthimala, and Rajendra Kumar play out what would become, in my mind, an archetypical love story—one of the ways that brown people like me are supposed to lap one another with their waters into a confluence. More than this, I would realize later that the undertow pulled the film’s threads of homoeroticism out into the open ocean—something that would happen to me.
Aji, herself, was at the meeting place of three countries: India, Guyana, and Canada, though she never lived in India but remembered stories from her parents’ parents. She spoke Guyanese Creole, what she called Hindustani, and lived in a country where people only spoke English to her. Aji interpreted the Hindi in the film, giving me the gist in Guyanese Creole. This was the first Hindi movie I ever saw, and her translations were not exact.
“Beta, me speak broken English. Hamar Hindustani bhi tutal bhasa hai,” she said when I asked her to interpret word-for-word what Sundar sang to the smiling, river-clad Radha. Aji touched her ears in apology. She believed that inside of us was what was outside of us. The left ear was the Ganga and the right ear the Jamuna with the Saraswati being someplace else.
What haunted me about this film was that Sundar and Gopal—both men—seemed as though they wanted their brown bodies to meet, though Radha was the object to be desired. At eight years old, I could see but not yet fully understand how this love could work, or what it could actually be.
“Dis bai seh he go sit Radha ‘pon he plane.” Aji said of the quarrel between Sundar (played by Raj Kapoor) and Gopal (played by Rajendra Kumar) who attempts to seat Radha (played by Vyjayanthimala) on his plane. These two men love the same woman. Sundar grows up to become a pilot for the Indian Air Force and Gopal, after returning to India from studying in London, stays behind as Sundar goes to Kashmir on a dubious mission.
Aji explained: When Gopal and Radha hear that Sundar’s plane was shot down and that he is MIA, they allow their love for each other to bloom. But Sundar lives and returns to demand Radha’s hand, who acquiesces. Eventually Sundar finds a letter from Gopal to Radha and is so vexed, he vows to kill Gopal. Eventually Gopal shoots and kills himself with Sundar’s gun so that nothing will come between Sundar and Radha’s love.
With eyes wide as a tuna’s, I sat on Aji’s velvet couch.
“Akiya bandh kar. Shet you eye, beta,” Aji laughed.
“I don’t want to close my eyes,” I said as I drank in all the Hindi and Creole.
Radha bathes in a river, hiding her clothes on the bank. She knows what Sundar is up to. A pervy Sundar, having climbed a tree with his bagpipe to sing the movie’s title song, finds her clothes and thieves them with a fishing rod.
“I will give you your clothes back when you answer my question,” says Sundar to a bathing Radha.
“What do you want?” Radha replies, eyes besmeared in Ganga and kohl.
“Just pretend for a moment that I am not Sundar, that I’m Gopal, and Gopal wants to ask you something.” Sundar sings.
Mere man ki Ganga
Aur tere man ki Jamuna ka
Bol Radha bol sangam
Hoga ke nahi
My heart’s Ganga
and yours of the Jamuna
Tell me Radha,
will the sangam happen or no
When I was twenty-five, I moved to New York City from Chuluota, Florida, having saved up $1,500 from working at Whole Foods to join the New York City Teaching Fellows to teach in public schools while concurrently pursuing a master’s degree. At that point, I had spent six years learning Hindi and had lived in India for a year.
Jackson Heights, the neighborhood in Queens where I lived, was bright with South Asia. Along Kalpana Chawala Way, also known as 74th Street, Punjabi, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi stores and stalls lined the streets. Bright red and yellow silks on people and in shop windows, the smell of frying samosas, the metered rhythms of the dhol beating out Bhangra beats, and a swirl of brown faces made Jackson Heights into a place quite unlike the “fuck you terrorist” of Central Florida that I grew used to. I was perfectly comfortable in my brown skin in this South Asian enclave. My American Guyanese-ness made more sense in Richmond Hill, the Little Guyana of Queens, where I had family. My father had told me that I was pretending to be an Indian rather than Indo-Caribbean, that people from India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka or Nepal didn’t understand me as similar to them. But I was not convinced. Yes, I was not Indian but neither are Pakistanis or Bangladeshis or Nepalis or Sri Lankans. My living in Jackson Heights added another dimension to the South Asian contingent of the area.
All my life I had been told by my family that “Guyanese are different. We’re not like de India-man”—we were Coolie, great grandchildren of indentured laborers for whom India was only a myth. Aji was the last in the family to speak Guyanese Hindi. But I felt a kinship with other South Asians. I spoke English, learned Hindi, and loved Bollywood. All of these things peppered my life like Aji’s pepper sauce, adding flavor and the burn to learn as much as I could. I moved to Queens—rather than Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx—because of a visit to my cousin in Richmond Hill when I was eighteen. and the trip we took to Jackson Heights to eat at a famous Indian restaurant. I saw a billboard with the Bollywood film star Shah Rukh Khan on the corner of Broadway and Roosevelt Avenue and decided, yes, this is where I wanted to be—in a brown community where grocery shopping would be easier, where I wouldn’t be profiled as often by neighbors.
About a month after I moved to my studio on 37th Avenue and 80th Street, Farida called me. We were both part of an organization for radical and leftist South Asian youth who organized against exploitative labor practices, and I had met her at a protest two years before.
“You are living in Jackson Heights?” she said. “Wow. You win Desi of the Year Award,” she teased. We made plans to meet for dosas on 73rd Street.
We had protested together, chanting our throats raw, “The people united will never be divided!” in front of that same restaurant one year before. Known then for exploiting recent immigrants, the restaurant had since closed and reopened, rebranded, with new owners. How could brown folks could shape shift into overlords on the sugar plantations? Something about it made sense—the arkotiya, or recruiters, for the British were Indians themselves. They made money for every person who stamped their thumbprints onto contracts that binded them to torment in five-year terms. My ancestors were brought to Guyana like this. This current immigrant struggle was related but different. Farida and I and our group of politicized youth with banners and signs demonstrated disdain until the shop closed its gates. Afterwards, there was a huge party with oceans of whiskey.
“Is it okay if I bring my brother?” she asked. I had met her brother at the protest two years before. He had been eager to hang with his older sister. I remembered him as a high schooler who was learning leftist politics by hanging with his sister’s friends. He was politically active, with a round face and pink lips, a cherub. But that’s all I remembered about him. I dismissed him quickly thinking he was too young to be in my friend group. Yet when Farida asked about bringing him I thought, why not hang out with him now? He was older and I was new. I couldn’t wait to make as many brown friends here as possible.
“Rajiv!” Farida shouted across the room as soon as I entered the restaurant. She got up from the booth to give me a hug. Her brother watched us from his seat, with wide eyes and a faint smile.
“It’s so good to see you, Farida!” I said. As we embraced, I bumped the table. Her brother jumped up to avoid the spill. Water from a copper tumbler spilled and mixed with the ring of condensation on the table.
I moved to wipe the mess with a napkin.
“You remember my brother Yusef,” Farida said
“Sef” came his voice, correcting his sister. He grabbed a napkin from the neighboring table and wiped up the water with me. His hand brushed mine.
“Hey, Sef. Good to see you again.” Straightening up, I reached my hand towards his. Mine was dark, almost the copper of the spilled cup. His almond skin met mine. I looked at his eyes and saw what looked like a man. This surprised me. When I met him before, his hair was messy, his face round. Now, Sef was eighteen. He had a jawline and stubble. He smelled of attar al-haram and musk.
I pulled my hand away, taken aback by the transformation. I could feel my stomach churn as my attraction to this man pulsed through me. He was muscular yet still soft; his voice deep and kind. His broad shoulders would intimidate if not for his gentle eyes and Pakistani lips as pink as cotton candy.
We ate Pondicherry, rava masala, and butter dosas and laughed about having to finish college and how I will never leave school now that I was getting a master’s degree. I watched Sef’s lips as he ate, two pink clouds I wanted to jump into.
Farida worked as the leader of her college’s South Asians for Justice organization, queering the Desi population with her radical politics. “It’s funny how the belief that everyone should be equal is radical,” she mused into her salty lassi. “I mean, just because I am a Muslim queer and I believe that I should be safe—how the fuck does that make me ‘radical’?” I nodded, agreeing with her scare quotes.
Farida left in a puff of leftist ardor, having to catch a bus back to Baltimore.
“I am totally free, Rajiv, if you want to still hang out,” Sef said, eyebrows raised. He was tall and beautiful. I wanted to keep smelling him. I wanted to keep smelling him in my house.
“Want to come to my place and have chai?” I said. I could feel my rivers swell, flooding their banks.
“Sure.” He followed me to the building at the corner of 80th Street and 37th Avenue. The stone lions that guarded the entrance glared down at me as I walked by. I felt their judgment, like summer heat. I’m not doing anything wrong, I thought and wiped my brow of sweat. It was humid, with a few clouds hanging their black bellies low in the sky, though it was mostly sunny.
My studio was bright and warm. The hardwood floorboards gleamed in the sunlight that shone through the kitchen window. In the afternoon, the light painted orange and gold shadows on the prewar molding. I had just moved into this studio apartment the week before.
Sef walked around then sat on my futon. I hurried to the kitchen to boil milk.
“This place is great!” he said from the other room, crossing his legs.
“Yeah, it’s a great place, especially the location. I have never been so close to so many brown people.” I laughed. I was glad that he couldn’t see me grate the ginger, then grate my finger as I placed the grater in the sink. I was in a rush, giddy.
“But don’t you feel like you don’t really belong? I mean you are Coolie—I mean Indo-Guyanese—and these folks are Desi.”
Desi. That word stung like too much chili when he said it. Desi—from the Punjabi, meaning “from the country.” Was he saying that we were unalike? My parents used to say, “India-man na know abi dis”—Indians from India don’t see us as Indian. Sef’s family was Pakistani, though only recently after India was carved into several different countries. Part of his family fled an anti-Muslim India. My father’s own insecurity bled through my body like spilled water through a napkin.
“Well…” I shuddered.
Sef got up from the futon and grabbed my shoulder with his large hand. “What I mean is that I have a complicated history.” His hand was steady and warm. “My father’s side is Punjabi from Amritsar and my mother’s side was originally from Sindh and stayed in Pakistan after the partition. I have a hard time explaining to Desis that I am not just Sindhi, or I am not just Punjabi. I couldn’t imagine how you have to keep insisting on your place of origin.”
I was stunned. Sef did not speak like any eighteen year old I’d ever met He welcomed me as a South Asian with my own particular migration story and told his story as a parallel—a likeness that intersected with mine..
Sef sat back down on my futon, one leg curled under the other. He was relaxed and his lips were dry. He licked them now and again and I imagined how soft they could be when wet.
I pranced back into the kitchen and sang quietly to myself, “Mere man ki Ganga, aur tere man ki Jamuna ka.” I emerged from the kitchen with a tray carrying two cups of chai and chaat to eat. I covered my head with a dishtowel to mimic a “good Indian girl” serving her male guest tea.
“Chai leejiye ji,” I sang.
Sef laughed and took his tea. “I’m bisexual by the way,” he added coolly. I looked at him astonished. Was this really happening?
“Oh?” I sat down next to him, almost missing the futon. My hands were sweaty and shaking. I spilled my chai. Sef was coming on to me and I wanted him to, but if anything happened with him what would his sister say? What would the other people from the protest think? These were questions that riddled my mind, displaying my concern with appearances. What should any of them care? Sure, I was six years older than him, but he is an adult. I felt a river rise when I first saw him as an adult in the dosa restaurant. The clouds let out a low rumble.
“I’ve been out to my family for about two years,” I said, “though I had a couple boyfriends before that.” I put my cup on the ground. “Are you out to Farida?” I asked, trying to remain as cool as Sef. My leg shook and my throat balled up in anticipation. I looked at him. I was into his dark eyes and wide smile, his comfort and openness. Something about him was very familiar to me despite us being from worlds apart—my family from Guyana and his from Pakistan—and us two non-Indian South Asians meeting in Jackson Heights. I aired the homoerotic undertones of Bollywood out in the open.
“No. I am new to all of this. But I have a friend, his name is Dilip, and he has been showing me a few things.” The room was getting hot. My ears were burning and I scalded my tongue on my chai, drinking it too fast like swallowing fire. Sef’s face pinked into his lips’ shade. I wasn’t new to sleeping with men, I was wary of sleeping with a friend’s younger brother, however. I worried, What if it’s a big deal? What if it means that my ties with Farida would be dammed? I knew that I wasn’t going to say no. My enthusiasm was at a slow boil.
“Dilip—he’s Desi?” I said. “What kinds of things is he showing you?” I had somehow fallen into a queer Desi community as a Coolie outsider who was invited inside. Here was this Desi man telling me that he was seeing another Desi man. My heart beat fast in my chest and my skin warmed. I had been with only two other South Asian men before. Now there was a triangle. It was the way that they look into your eyes knowingly as you do things to each other that your parents would never fully understand.
It started to rain outside. The sun was swallowed by gray, and the air smelled of copper and electricity. Sef and I both paused to look outside.
“Some… things… you know,” he smiled, looked at me, and put his chai cup on the ground.
“Oh, your poor parents who have to deal with two queers in the family!” I chuckled. Sef let out a belly laugh and touched my thigh. He trailed his finger up to my zipper and unbuttoned my shorts.
“Is this too much?” he asked. Sef placed his fingers on my skin.
“No, it’s not.” These were all the words I could manage.
Jackson Heights was a rush of water, a deluge.
Gopal and Radha enter a party. She wears white silk—flowers in her hair—and he, a black suit. Sundar enters the room, carrying an accordion. Sundar sings a song for his beloved Radha and for Gopal. Sundar circles Gopal, then Radha as he plays his accordion.
Gopal, avoiding eye-contact with Sundar, begins to sing.
Every heart that loves
will sing this song
You have stolen my heart
my eyes are next
but don’t you know
that wherever there are flames
Radha, sitting at a piano, sings.
Those forgotten memories of our childhood
spent laughing and singing
now at night steal my sleep.
I will confess, but how many monsoons
have come and gone? Who knows when
the shyness will leave my eyes?
In the next scene, Radha and her friend read a letter to Gopal at Radha’s house. Radha’s shalwaar kamiz, white with gold borders, contrasts with her long, black, tapering braid. Her friend snatches the letter out of her hand and runs out of the room to call Gopal.
Gopal comes in and says, “Radha, you wanted to see me? Is everything okay?”
Radha fumbles for her dupatta, the scarf to cover herself, and sees that it’s across the room on a couch. She runs to get it, ashamed of her state of undress.
Sef and I were lovers. For months, he found excuses to come to my place and take off his clothes. We were a mess of saliva and late summer, our skin of afternoon’s gold light on the mattress.
Once, we lay in bed together, Sef’s pink lips smiling into the early evening.
“Did you know that I’m related to Dilip Kumar and that he was supposed to be in Sangam until Raj Kapoor vetoed his editorial decision?”
“But isn’t Dilip Kumar a Hindu name?” I blinked.
“Yes, but back then, in the 1940s, Muslim actors took on Hindu names. Have you seen Mughal-e-Azam?” He asked.
“I’m really bad at this game,” I admitted.
“There’s a song that you should know. ‘Tere Mehfil Mein Kismat Azmakar Ham Bhi Dekhenge,’” Sef said.
Sef still hadn’t told his parents about me. He told me once, rolling back the sheets, “I will marry a woman and have children one day,” as he popped a mint into his mouth.
What was the need to tell his parents that he slept with men too? What Coolie and Desi parents don’t know won’t kill them. I gave my immigrant parents the benefit of the doubt. My own mother was finally okay, though only after she had cried for two years every time we spoke. Sef’s situation was different. His parents were different. He was the only son. I was the second son. My brother already had children, so the pressure was off of me to make my mother an Aji or my father an Aja. Sef was the only son in his family and this meant something to his mother. I trusted that he’d figure himself out one day enough to let his parents in if he wanted.
“Isn’t your friend named Dilip?” I asked. We had agreed to remain casual—that Sef and I were free to fuck whomever we wanted. There was no need to put a name to anything. In my thinking, Sef was young and lived with his parents, and I was new to the city. I wanted to embody New York City and keep my options open, never resting in one relationship.
“Oh yeah—his name is Dilip Kaniyar. His first name is Punjabi but his last name is Malayali,” he said.
I yawned and mumbled. “It sounds like Dilip Kumar! Is he hot?”
“He’s pretty okay, I think he is new to all of this stuff himself,” Sef said, not daring to name it. I distrusted him. I knew Sef liked me, but I didn’t want to like him just yet. I looked down at the floor. Sef propped himself up on his elbows.
Was he trying to spare my feelings? Did he want to make me think he was more experienced than he really was, as though it would be more attractive to me? Did he know that I thought he was young and naïve, the very reason I didn’t want to be monogamous with him? He used to tell me stories about things that he’d done to impress me. He said once he jerked off with two other men, one in his forties and the other in his early twenties. He met them on the train and followed them to the forty-year-old’s apartment, where they all got naked and stroked each other’s cocks. His story had several inconsistencies—mainly the time scale of it all. He would have called me immediately after this happened, his voice trembling with excitement. We were very eager to tell each other our sex tales. Maybe he thought mine were better—the random hook-ups at parties, or the weekend I took the Chinatown bus down to Baltimore. Maybe he was trying to keep up with me, as though sexy stories make him more sophisticated. When I asked him later about particulars, he had conveniently forgot.
I was ready to call his bluff about Dilip. I stroked his nipple with my finger. “Do you think that he’d want to join us some time?” I asked coyly. I wasn’t expecting anything.
Sef stroked his stubble. “Hmm… I could ask him,” he said, tilting his head up. “This could be a lot of fun—three of us,” he said.
I wondered if Dilip was real, and whether Dilip would mysteriously be unable to join us. Was Dilip mythological, that spectral lover whose presence would make Sef seem more appealing to me? I wasn’t jealous. I wasn’t.
I was jealous.
I thought of the movie Sangam and sang, “Bol Radha bol sangam hoga ki nahin.” Will the meeting of these three rivers happen? The Ganga was a river in the real world, as was the Jamuna. But the Saraswati, the third river of this sacred confluence, was mythological. In my mind, Dilip was the Saraswati River.
“Tell him that he should come over for masala chai sometime.” I laughed. “I will add extra spice and cardamom when he comes.” I was excited at the prospect of three naked Desi bodies on my bed, and that meant more masala. Sef grabbed my boxers and disappeared under the sheets. His face was red and he giggled nervously—or was he being playful?
“I will give you back your clothes when you answer my question.” Sef’s half-smile was daring and flirtatious. I pulled the sheet from over his head. He took a few seconds to open his eyes as he smiled at me. And then he asked, “Sangam hoga ke nahi?”—Will our rivers meet?—“You ready to go again?”
Sundar sings from his boat to Radha who is on the shore. She is in love with Gopal. Sundar,. seated in the Gondola with Radha in his arms, looks into her eyes and sings:
O mehebooba, O mehebooba
Your heart is my only intended destination
That’s the only place you are not present.
What makes you angry? What makes you glum?
In which thinking are you drowning—
there will be a confluence.
One day I will hold you tight
and everyone will be astonished
that I will bring you to me one day.
Radha runs along the bank while Sundar sings. At this point, Gopal is looking on longingly, wanting so much to tell Radha how he feels. He tries to tell Sundar.
“I have fallen in love you know.”
“With whom?” Sundar asks.
Sundar runs toward Gopal with his hands in fists. He is going to spill his friend’s blood like he did when they were children.
“With my Radha?”
Gopal gulps and answers. “Is there only one Radha? I’m in love with her, who came to be with Lord Krishna.”
Sundar believes—or pretends to believe him. He thinks, “Gopal is not in love with my Radha.”
The rain fell in April, blotting out the sun for twenty-one days, much to my despair. Back home in Florida, in the late summer, the rains would fall for an intense twenty minutes—fat raindrops the size of ikura, salmon eggs. In New York, it rained like this, but mostly the rain was a spitting mist that blocked out the sun for weeks at a time. The collected trash heaped on the curbs baked in the humidity. The gutters turned into charging rivers. What I would have given for some lightning. I took to drinking Jameson. At least I could feel the heat inside my chest if the sun refused to kiss me.
Sef came over, but my buzzer was broken, so I took the elevator to the ground floor. With him was his friend, Dilip. He wore wire frame glasses and was shorter than me. His skin was darker than mine. We hugged and I pressed my hands into his back. As we stepped inside, the two stone lions that had previously glared at me. seemed to smile with open mouths. I winked at them. The three of us stepped into the elevator. I pressed 6 repeatedly until the silver doors shut.
Once in my apartment, I made chai and counted each ingredient I put into the boiling pot. It felt like something was lodged in my throat. I counted: one, two, three, four cloves, one whole stick of cinnamon. One, two, three, four, five cardamom pods, and about an inch of grated ginger to one and a half cups of water. I shook my head like a school child in a Bollywood film: tilt left, tilt right. Two naked men at once. I counted: one Coolie from Orlando, one Pakistani from Flushing, and one South Indian from Great Neck. We were about to stew in our own pot: dark tea and light milk; the Jamuna, Ganga, and now, the Saraswati.
I said, nervous, “New York City water is the best municipal water in the world.”
“For sure, and did you know Dilip, that Rajiv is so shy?” They both laughed. Sef looked down at his shoes and then up at me in a private smile. It was true. They knew each other long before I knew Sef. I fluttered about like a pigeon shaken in a cage. This wasn’t only today, but always. I’d only ever been shy initially.
I laid out sweets and salty snacks for our chai. I bought spicy sev and chocolate katli—a specialty of one of the mithai shops on 74th Street.
“Your name is from the South,” I said to Dilip.
“Yes. I’ve only ever been to India once,” Dilip said. “Where’s your family from?”
“We are Coolie—Guyanese. My father’s side is North Indian as is my mother’s father’s family. My Nani was Tamilian, so I am a mix of North and South Indian. She may have been Muslim, so I may be a mix of religions and have a neech caste. It’s the Coolie way. I have family that are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist.”
“That’s like if Sef and I made a child—it would be like you,” Dilip mused.
“My body is like a land mass where borders like India and Pakistan don’t really make sense. I mean if my left ear is Ganga, and my right is Jamuna, then where is Saraswati?” I touched his ears starting with his left and then his right. My hand lingered on Dilip’s right ear and I could see him flush. He raised his skinny hands to mine.
Dilip and Sef laughed. Dilip said, “It’s in there somewhere. Let’s find out.” He got up and pushed in his chair and took my hand. He led me to the bed where he pushed me against the wall and started kissing me. Sef followed. As Dilip and I kissed, Sef undid my pants and put me in his mouth. Here we were from three types of South Asian queers—a Pakistani, an Indian, and a Guyanese—all mixing our silt. My family had not set foot in India since 1890. I arrived in New York where I could return to a kind of Desi-ness, a Coolie-ness, borderless. My ancestors came from an India before today’s borders. In my flat, we returned to this time reimagined with our own sovereignty. And I found them too, all queer and ready to merge.
Sef kissed my mouth and I unzipped Dilip’s pants and pulled him out. He was uncut like me. By then, Sef had taken off all of his clothes. His hair had been freshly cut for today. He must have been so excited for this moment, I thought, for his two lovers to meet. I was impressed and wanted him even more than before.
Outside the rain swelled. It was a fat rain. Yet another reason I was glad to be inside. Our rivers met, our waters flowing from one to another, each one silting the other. Mine was Hindu-Muslim, South-North Indian of the Ganga, Sef’s was Punjabi-Sindhi blue of the Jamuna, and Dilip’s—no longer a figment of Sef’s stories, but real and here—the Saraswati.
We moved to the bed. Sef and Dilip were body to body and I saw a tender look in Sef’s eyes when he watched for Dilip’s reactions to his motions. Sef’s was a deflected arrow. I wasn’t supposed to see that look between them. I thought it would be amazing to have an all South Asian ménage, that we would all be equally into each other. I thought that our brown bodies would transcend petty jealousies. I realized that I was jealous. Why did Sef and Dilip look at each other like that? Sef was supposed to look at me with wide eyes and soft lips. Outside, the distant peal of thunder.
Gopal writes a letter to Radha. Cut to fantasy: It’s spring, and they are in the Swiss Alps, as Bollywood logic goes. Dream times happen far from the reality of India.
Gopal: Don’t be angry if you read my letter…
I would call you the moon
but it’s pocked.
I would call you the sun
but it’s fire.
I will understand you as Ganga
I will understand you to be Jamuna
You are inside me, I will
understand you to be my own.
The two frolic in the exotic European countryside.
I didn’t want to do it again. Sef was sorry.
“I think I just want to have you to myself…” I paused. “At least when we are hooking up. I’ve tried the polyamory thing before and it never really worked out for me.” It was true. My first boyfriend was a cutie, but I didn’t think that I could stay with him. He was white and from a world of pastors and Protestants. I wanted something browner, something siltier. I wanted to be with Sef, and I didn’t—though I was lying to him.
“I think that I’m not really that ethical—I tend to hurt people.” I was bruised and torn. I fiddled with a button on my shirt until it popped off. I didn’t want to fuck only Sef, yet I didn’t want to watch Sef fuck someone else in front of me. I thought about this as a natural boundary. Sometimes rivers cut countries and states with their lines. Certainly Guyana and Suriname are carved like this by the Courentyne’s brown water. Bangladesh and India are kind of separated by the Ganga. But these are human institutions mapped on the geological. Cultural divides are not so exact. We three were able to meet up. We were all so different from each other but were the same for a moment. We merged like a sangam. We all originated in the subcontinent and liked sucking dick.
Sef shrugged. Clouds rolled off his shoulders, crawled across the floor and entered my mouth to stick in my throat like a convulsing wren. His apathy choked me. Was it I who actually liked him more?
“That’s so sweet,” he smiled, taking off his sweater.
“I’m seeing someone else,” I said. I wanted to be cruel back. “I met this guy at a bar, his name is Ali and he’s Guyanese too.” I puffed out my chest and locked my knees. Ha! Take that. I thought.
Sef got up from his side of the bed and went to the bathroom. “What does that mean for us?” he asked. “Will we still hang out sometimes?” A chill hung about the room, the air conditioning on the window unit kicked into high gear frightening the pigeons perched on the windowsill.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I am going to try monogamy with this guy, Ali. I think he wants it and I’m ready to try it too. Ali is out to his family at least.”
Sef’s eyes opened widely and his jaw dropped. He mumbled, “I thought you didn’t believe in monogamy. Sher kabse nali ka pani pine laga?” When did the proud lion start drinking water from the gutter? He washed his face with water so hot, the mirror fogged up.
Sundar, depressed, sings to Radha as he plays the piano.
You embraced me trembling
If it wasn’t you, then who was it—
the one who wept tears as pearls
at our parting. If it wasn’t you
then who was it? It could have only been you.
The night’s intoxication leaves
no trace of our joy.
Radha looks confused. She doesn’t know what to do. Will she marry Sundar? Will she fuck Gopal?
Ali and I had a whirlwind relationship. He was all fire and alcohol, and I was brooding. Our apartment echoed with shouts. I didn’t talk to Sef for about a year and a half. It started with Ali being jealous of my intimate friendships, so I felt that I had to cut Sef out since he and I stopped sleeping together. At first, Sef tried to call at least once a week.
Once I picked up the call and answered in Hindi, “Haan kya haal hai yaar—what’s up?” I was casual as Ali sat next to me.
“Just wondering where the fuck you’ve been.” Sef’s hurt reached its tendrils out and choked me.
“Yes, fine. Talk to you later then.” I didn’t want Ali to learn who I was talking to. I kept ignoring Sef’s calls and deleting his messages before Ali could see. Sef called when Ali and I were at dinner, when we went to the movies in Forest Hills, when I was at poetry readings in Manhattan. His calls came when I was in class and when I went to Orlando to visit my mother. He called when I slept and when Ali and I fought. I never picked up.
Eventually his calls dried like a creek, slowing down to once a month and then to silence. There were no traces of where this river once flowed. He sent me several emails about his confusion—Why don’t you write to me Rajiv and Tell me if I did something wrong. I read his letter with clouds in my eyes. I wanted so much to reach out, but didn’t because Ali promised me that I would be his only. I wanted to be someone’s only, someone’s favorite. I wasn’t Sef’s. I saw it in his eyes that day in my studio two years ago with Dilip.
Ali and I broke up in a rage, and then he was out of my life. When I finally called Sef, I had to grovel. He picked up the phone and replied with short, huffy thunder.
“What do you want?” he rolled.
“Sef, what I did was mean, and I’m sorry.” I swallowed my own hurt for the sake of trying to get Sef back into my life. He was silent for a minute. Eventually convinced, he came over.
“No, this is for you,” he said when I reached for him. I laid back thinking of all the things that I wanted to say to Sef. When we finished, he said, “It’s good to see you. I’ve missed you. But I’m not sure this can continue.”
He insisted the television remain on, playing Sangam in the background. Gopal shoots himself to prove his love and loyalty to both Radha and Sundar. I wanted to change the ending. I wanted them to all live together and fuck and to love, all three of them happy and complicated with indistinguishable waters. I wanted to take back refusing to answer Sef’s calls. I wanted Pakistan and India and Bangladesh and Nepal and China to not have borders. I wanted to be a river with him so swollen and tangled that the thought of us as separate would be mythological.
Sef kissed me. His plump lower lip tasted like sweat and chocolate. He put on his shirt and walked out of my door, past the stone lions that still kept watch over my apartment building. A year later, he would board a plane to Mecca, go on Hajj, and renounce me. I didn’t know why he went—did he go with his family? Did he go because it was expected of him, the only son of the family? Was this expected of him like marrying a woman and having children? What really bothered me was why he wouldn’t call me back. Did he no longer want to tangle with me after Hajj? Was he only dating women now, or did he find another man to sing Bollywood songs to? I tried contacting him, writing him poetry—a love letter that I never signed, pieced together from Gopal’s letter to Radha.
If you read, this don’t get angry
that I’ve understood myself to be Ganga
and you Jamuna. I once thought
us close as this. One day
we will see this and laugh.