By SAMBUDDHA CHATTOPADHYAY
When I was twelve, I saw a little Asian girl in a pink dress play Meditation from Massenet’s Thais. It was the most beautiful thing.
As the melody rose and fell like the crests and troughs of an ocean wave, I felt mesmerized. After the music stopped, a hush fell over the crowd that had gathered around the screen. Suddenly, an imperial voice, a voice full of authority, sounded out of the crowd.
“Well, that sounded nice. But it felt fake. She played the right notes in the right places, but there’s clearly no passion there. I mean look at her, look at her eyes. I just don’t see the emotion there.”
I agreed. When I was twelve, I saw a little Asian automaton in pink play Meditation from Massenet’s Thais. It was the most perfect thing.
When I was sixteen, I walked past the vines of ivy that writhed along the acid-stained stone buildings, grotesque gargoyles perched on the towers of the secular cathedral, solemn black iron gates adorned with baroque gold leaf.
As I walked across Harvard Yard, I saw the typical Tiger Mom chase down the sophomore schmuck who was leading us, pouncing at him with question after question on how competitive the academic atmosphere here was, if the food was appetizing and filling in the dining halls, if the past winter was harsh, if the social life here was inclusive. She was snarling, my daughter is so little, so, so small you see. I saw her daughter following along three steps behind her with machine precision, mechanically looking away, blushing at each and every question.
I saw a few salmon-panted boys, their school sweaters adorned with gaudy letters in crimson and white, saw them walking effortlessly, unbridled and proud, saw them laugh at the mother. I joined them. I too laughed at the mother.
She reminded me of my mother. You know, the one who’d always remind me how she’d stopped her career to raise me. The one who’d always remind me how she’d frantically rush through the hellfire of rush-hour traffic to pick me up before 6:30, rush past the lady at the counter who gave her that look, the look that people of “our color” know only too well. My mother, the one who’d part her arms like Moses and smother me, the one who’d pick me up time after time as I fell from that little bike until I finally was able to pedal, pedal, pedal, far, far away from her.
My mother, the one who told me a few weeks ago, “Mani, shona, tui to ar Bangla bolish na.”
To which I said, laughing, “Mom, I don’t feel Benh-ghali at all, wh-hy wh-ould I ever speak it?”
She is the one who I told a few weeks ago amidst a trickle of tears burning like booze, through a newly learned, newly conjured voice of indignation, “no, I can go alone now, I have, no, I’ve had eyes and ears of my own, you stay here. Please.”
I too laughed at the mother.
When I was seventeen, I tried to get in. “Tell your story,” they say. When I sat down in front of the blank canvas to paint the story of my life in broad strokes, I imagined all that I could paint. I imagined my parents coming to this alien land one crisp, wintry November night, the frost biting their sun-kissed, pagan faces. I imagined them carrying three pieces of luggage, three return tickets, and me bundled in layers and layers of all the warm clothing they could imagine.
I imagined the shame burning in my cheeks as I sat in the Reception Room, fork and knife slipping on the hollandaise-lathered chicken breast, as I plunged at it like a savage, later as I sat docile wearing a borrowed three-piece coat, wearing borrowed feathers, indeed looking much like Aesop’s crow.
But I didn’t paint any of that. I painted a passionate portrait of a young artist struggling with his privilege. At heart, it was an act of transformation, of emancipation, an act of escape. Somewhere sitting in a hearth-warmed New England office on a crisp, wintry November night, boiling fair-trade coffee in hand, someone must have smiled a bit and thought, this one, this one belongs. That’s how I got in.
Sambuddha Chattopadhyay ‘21 ([email protected]) is a Sophomore in Winthrop. In his free time, he rakes to avoid forest fires.