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Ruchita and the Foreigner

 

Once upon a time, two girls collided. 

 

One girl was named Ruchita. The other girl was known as the Foreigner. The Foreigner arrived in Valvada in sticky darkness in the summer of 1996. She was squished inside a Maruti van with family and luggage, a tangle of sweaty limbs and duffle bags. The van’s headlights bobbed on the gravelly driveway illuminating dark, brown sweaty faces. They stared in both anticipation and fear. Who would come out of the groaning belly of the Maruti beast? Was it kin? Would they recognize each other’s scent after so many summers? 

 

The Foreigner slunk into the house shyly in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by all of the grinning faces and fluttering moths. She fell into a thick, deep sleep on a mattress on the floor under a weary ceiling fan, remembering the sharp bones she felt under layers of saris.   

 

The following day, she met Ruchita. The Foreigner was listening to the slap of her sweaty feet on cool tile, desperately trying to pass the time. The ground outside sizzled in the sun. The villagers slowed to a crawl like giant lizards in the desert and tried to doze through the heat. 

 

The Foreigner watched a small figure emerge from the afternoon swelter like a shimmering mirage. She walked barefoot over the hot pebbles of the scorched dirt road, up the stone steps, and into the dark, cool house. Her name was Ruchita. She wore a dusty pink frock and held a dirty bucket in her left hand. 

 

The Foreigner stared and stared. There she was, a girl her age—but she was not for play. She walked briskly past her with a furtive smile into the stone floored kitchen with its corrugated roof. She would pop in and out of the back room with various props: a soapy rag, a wilting broom, a handful of coins, a wad of leftover rotli.  

 

The Foreigner watched her, fascinated as she crouched and swept the floor balancing on the almond-colored balls of her otherwise dark chocolate feet. Her dresses were just a size too big, slipping on her thin collarbones. The Foreigner said hi and smiled and asked what she was doing and where she was going and told her she liked her frock. Ruchita did not know how to answer, so she smiled shyly and continued to mop. “She’s from America,” the Foreigner’s Aunt would explain to bemused neighbors, “they don’t have housemaids there.”

 

The Foreigner does not remember how and when it happened, but suddenly they were best friends. The monsoon rains came in overnight and their friendship blossomed next to the gaping hibiscus flowers. They prattled on about their day, giggled in the dark corners of the house, and played cards on the porch while the water fell in sheets behind them. They held hands and skipped from one end of the house to the other, barefoot with big gapped teeth. 

 

The Foreigner loved the way Ruchita’s soft brown eyes were nestled in her oval face, her chin coming to a tiny point. She had never seen hair so thick and black that it reflected nearly white in the sun. She loved her easy smile, the way her head cocked to the side when she was paying close attention. 

 

Family watched with unease. Smiling explanations turned into thin lips and worried brows. One day both girls were scratching their heads, and then truly digging and scraping. The girls had lice. 

 

“See, this is what happens. This is why the kids can’t play with housemaids” one of the adults tsked. 

 

Just like that, the fragile friendship was over. The Foreigner waited for Ruchita each afternoon, but she was gone. “Where did she go?” she asked. 

 

Ruchita lived with her family deep in the forest of the village. They were referred to as “lower caste,” an archaic hierarchy still prevalent in their region. They were assigned a destiny of menial work and poverty. In Valvada, they built homes made of mud, tin, and decaying wood. There was no electricity or formal latrine. Most were barefoot, illiterate, and plagued by betel leaf and alcohol. It was common for girls like Ruchita to start working early—and domestic work was one of the better occupations. Depending on the disposition of the lady of the household, a housemaid could receive not only leftover food but second-hand clothes and jewelry. The unwritten rule is that one remembers one’s place and dares not ask, not even once, “Why me? Not her?” 

 

*****

 

The Foreigner left and returned thirteen years later to the same village, now twenty years old. She is sure Ruchita must be a beautiful woman now, with her onyx hair and shy smile. She imagined her as a tailor with her nimble fingers and pretty frocks. She wanted to see her, to ask her if she remembered her at all. 

 

“Ruchita? Oh god, she died years ago, dear she must have been twelve or thirteen. They think it was pneumonia.”

 

The Foreigner imagines Ruchita in her mud hut surrounded by gaunt family members. She lies in a cot with her cracked lips and rattling breath, her brow burning fiery hot, hot as the stones she walked on every day that summer. 

 

*****

 

It has been over twenty-five years since that summer in 1996. The Foreigner wonders some mornings: what if Ruchita had been her sister? What if, in a magical twist of fate, she came back with her across the ocean and she entered elementary school in Cherry Hill, NJ? What if she grew soft and fat on Doritos and Dunkaroos? What if they both played with rotli dough on the floor of her mother’s kitchen and used rolling pins only as toys? 

 

What if they laughed about the time they both got head lice in India and blamed one another? What if they went to high school, shared fruit roll-ups and bellbottoms and bad days, and fought and made up like sisters do? What if coughs were just pesky and antibiotics tasted vaguely like grapes? Who would Ruchita have fallen in love with? Would her children have her eyes or her chin? Who would Ruchita be, the Foreigner wonders. Who would I be? 

 

*****

 

Memories are fading every day. The syllables in her name. The sound of her voice. The Foreigner knows one day time will erase her memory along with everything else, like water over stone. The Foreigner hopes she can hold onto just one: Ruchita climbs the stone steps in her dusty pink frock, her baby hairs curl in the summer heat and frame her head like a halo. 

 

Cover Art: Royal Thistles Going to Seed #5, by Jim Ross

Monali Desai

Monali Desai is a family medicine physician and a graduate student pursuing her MA in English at the University of Connecticut. Her primary interest is medical humanities. She is drawn to stories about illness, healing, and caregiving, but lately has been exploring cultural identity and hybrid language writing. She hikes, cooks, and has the expected number of cats for an English graduate student (two). This is her first published story.

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