I once met a woman who lived in a cardboard house. By the edge of a wastewater lake, at the end of Para Street. Neighborhood Street. She had no neighbors. I’d gone down to skip rocks, watch them plop, plop, slop under the murky surface. The lake was lined with plastic straw wrappers and discarded hard candies and cigarette butts. That’s where I discovered the house. It was the size of a Tata car; it was the color of clay. It had a greeting on the front door—Esho! It had two eyes that peeked out through a crack.
“Come in,” she said, spotting me.
And so I did.
Though I was eleven, the old woman was shorter than me. Hunched over, like an origami crane. Her stiff folds covered in white cloth. She was lined with the markings of an aged tree. But her skin was clean, soft, sari unstained. She gave me a glass of water and a slice of chocolate cake. The water was from a stream, the sweetest I’d ever tasted. The cake, fluffy and rich.
“Can I live with you?” I asked her. Her lazy eye spotted me.
“You can live here if you catch a fish from the river. If you can clean the rust off of a steel pot. If you can eat a paan.”
And then she shooed me home.
I forgot about Para Street and went to school. And then the summer before university, I stopped by the river and watched a fish leap into the air. I made a detour on my way home, walked past apartment buildings. A paan seller stood with his cart in the street and I bought one. It was bitter and sour and I spit it back out into the road. It stained my teeth. I arrived by the Hooverville, tiptoed around the wastewater lake. Esho! was still there, but a little faded.
The old woman greeted me with open arms. She hobbled more slowly this time. She gave me a glass of water and a slice of chocolate cake.
“Did you do what I told you to?”
“No,” I answered guiltily. “I’ve seen many fish in the river. I tasted a paan. I forgot what else you told me.” The water was clean and filtered, but not cold. The icing on the cake was a little too solid.
“If you want to live with me, plaster a wall. Eat the burnt toast from the stove. Relieve yourself without a commode.”
And I promised her I would. And then I left for university in America. And there I learned about streets like Para Street and urban planning and how to get the old woman out of her cardboard house. And when I came back to visit, I ran into the maze of Hooverville homes. Even though I tried to avoid the mud, the soles of my boots filled with grime. Mosquitos left red welts on my palms. Her cardboard house had been damaged by the rain. The roof had collapsed on one side.
The old woman fixed me my snack. Dirt caked the edge of her sari. She used a cane now.
“Come live with me,” I told her, in between small bites of my stale cake. But she only shook her head. I looked into my cup. The water was brackish and so I didn’t drink.
“Did you do what I told you to?”
I stayed silent.
“Find a child on Para Street and make them the same offer you’ve made me.” Hearing this, I looked up, caught her eye. Her gaze didn’t falter.
But I was angry at the old woman for not taking my offer, for not accepting my help.
So I left.
Back to America where I found myself an American wife and we bought an American house and had children who were half-American. And who were all filled with the brackish water of the wastewater lake.
It was many years later that I returned. This time, I trudged through. Waded across the lake. The house stood only by its foundation. Inside, there was a plate of moldy chocolate cake. A cup that was empty. The old woman was nowhere to be found. I shivered because I was soaked.
I went back to America, to my house in a welcoming neighborhood with an asphalt driveway and two stories and crown molding and a water-filtering refrigerator. I dug through the cabinets and emptied them of everything until I found it. I placed the rusty pot under the sink and started to scrub.