Creative Nonfiction from Kristin Kostick

On Kristin Kostick:

Kristin Kostick writes poetry and nonfiction, and is an anthropologist based in Athens, Greece. She received her MFA in nonfiction in 2015 from the University of Houston’s creative writing program. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Riveter, Blackbird, Forklift, Ohio, H_NGM_N, Drunken Boat and other journals. 

Hostage Situation

Hostage Situation won the Susan Atefat Prize and appeared in Issue 31.

On the news over breakfast downstairs at the Plaza hotel they are still showing the grainy footage from Victoria Terminus, people running and then being shot and then skidding to the floor face-first. Then the various stages of aftermath: the blood streaks on the floor tiles, the sandals left behind when the bodies are moved and nobody bothers putting the shoes back on anyone’s feet. They show corpses wheeled out from the Taj Mahal on bellboy’s carts and flames licking out from a hotel room on the top floor. At the Nariman House, two Jews are being held hostage, but if nothing is happening the news switches back to the blood streaks or the fire. I sit at the table eating little bananas with cheap cereal and milk. Today they’ve set out mangos and papaya, and I jab them with my fork, watching the TV, listening to the rain and the 6 a.m. namaz through the open doors and a crow hammering its beak on a radiator somewhere above. The waiters, too, stand around watching the TV, glancing at regular intervals to see me sip my coffee or snap my newspaper into a backward fold. “Another cup of coffee?” one of them asks. “No, thanks,” I say. They quietly refill my coffee anyway, making sure I have two spoons in case I want one for creamer and one for cereal.

All I want to do is leave this hotel. For four days straight I’ve been stuck in my room trying to get on a flight out of the country, and now that the airports are open again, all the flights are overbooked. To pass the time, I spend all day every day in bed, sprawled over the tangled sheets reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Every time I venture outside, people look at me like I have a suicide grenade plastered to my forehead. The fruit stand man who sold me guava three days ago said, “What are you doing outside? Don’t you know they’re after people like you?”

Planning and Surveillance 

Let’s go back to the beginning: my first visit a year earlier in June, to help run an HIV prevention program for poor women in the slums outside of Bombay. Steve picked me up at the airport just before midnight after a long and cramped flight. I spotted him outside the airport among hundreds of people waiting in the sweltering humidity. He looked the same in India as he did in Connecticut, his mass of curly gray hair and goofy smile forming an image you wouldn’t normally associate with “boss.” We climbed into the air-conditioned taxi and rode through the busy streets. The mass of people outside seemed to indicate a festival was underway, but there wasn’t. There’s just this many people in Bombay, Steve said. We zigzagged through the ill-defined lanes of traffic, occupied not just by cars but women, men, and children flocking alongside the honking, swerving torrents, as if everyone here had a death wish. Lining the streets were shacks made from slabs of wood and metal, plastic tarps, most of them doorless so I could see into them like shadowboxes lit up from inside. They formed a flip-book of disconnected scenarios, interrupted by alleyways too dark to see into. In one: a man stacking cartons of eggs chest-high. Flip: a woman sitting on the floor cleaning a big metal pot, three kids standing around her eating from their fingers. Flip: a man sitting on the sidewalk hammering at the bottom of a shoe. Flip, flip, flip: A doorway, the silhouette of an old woman’s arm swatting a dog with a rag.

After forty-five minutes, we arrived at the research institute, a handful of classroom buildings and residential halls shielded from the noise and flurry of the streets by rows of broad-leafed trees and bushes. Steve lugged my suitcase up the three floors to my room. Two mangos and a liter of bottled water awaited me on my desk. He showed me around the room and we talked about the plugs and lights and the air conditioner, how to work the shower and whether or not the smell of mothballs in the closet would bother me and whether or not to open the windows. Then we bid each other goodnight. I would start early tomorrow morning, my first meeting at the clinic. I was eager to see Bombay by day. I slept badly, the sounds of dogs howling down the road, crows pecking at the air conditioner outside my window. Tumbling into a surreal pre-dream state, I imagined a chaotic jumble of howling dog snouts and bird beaks gathered at my window, angry beak-taps and the disconcerting brush of wet whiskers finally carrying me off to sleep.

Startle / Panic

 Day two. I woke up to the sound of rain—yesterday marked the first day of monsoon season. People were talking about the rains in the plural tense—not just rain, but rains. They seemed to come out of nowhere, with a force and fury I had never seen before. It was like the rain had harnessed the force of a tidal wave and split it into a million drops over the city, flooding the streets with brown water. After a breakfast of fried egg and toast at the campus “canteen,” Steve and I set out for the slum, the rickshaw splashing defiantly through the streets’ swill. We dodged women in bright saris and men in collared shirts and sodden slacks, everyone walking in the middle to avoid the knee-deep water on each side of the road.

The rickshaw dropped us in front of the clinic and we disembarked into the chaos of the street: horns honking, dogs barking, hundreds of people wading in different directions through the muddy water. Three oxen trudged by us, followed by a slew of mud-slicked, clucking chickens. A teenage boy on a bicycle skimmed past me, shouting something in Hindi, I thought at first, but then I realized the words were in English: Leave India!! I watched him, startled, as he twisted his torso on the bike to look back at me, almost running into a herd of muddy sheep, their wool spray-painted with patches of neon green and orange, led by an old man with a stick.

Already, the women had been standing for hours in a line that snaked from the inner lobby and tangled before the clinic’s façade. More women arrived every few minutes by rickshaw or on foot, with babies and toddlers in their arms, kids satelliting round the hems of their saris. Steve and I shuffled past them into the clinic; he knew exactly where to go. Ten years of research in this slum had made him something of a local, as much as a tall, curly-haired Jew can be a local in India. Steve would leave tomorrow on a plane back home, which meant I had exactly one day to learn the ropes before taking over the local side of the project. But at this point, I still had no idea what I was supposed to be overseeing, had only a hazy understanding of my responsibilities, how to take “ethnographic” notes on clinical procedures, the patient population. Listen, was Steve’s main advice before he left. In the near distance, you could see Asia’s largest dumping ground rising sharply into the smog-hazed sky, the slum’s inhabitants ignoring the toxic stench and flies, mere organic extensions of the hovels and lean-tos. He also said, Remember, you come with one question to answer, and this place digests it, hands you a different question.


The walls of the clinic director’s office were a dingy gray, the color of an exposed brain. Dr. Mishra sat regally at her desk, wearing a dark green and gold sari, bedecked in gold jewelry, her black hair yanked into a tight bun. We sat facing her, and after the routine introductions, Steve started talking about patient records, how—or more accurately—whether they were being kept. I learned that each patient carries a “chit” noting their diagnosis and permitting them to stand in line for the next—and most coveted—phase of their visit: the pharmacy. What happened to the chit after they got their meds was unclear. I pictured them leaving the clinic and the tiny piece of paper slipping from their fingertips into the gutter outside, swirling and turning pulpy in the streets’ awful stew. Steve diplomatically suggested that the chits and also their medical histories should be better recorded. His suspicion was that a large proportion of women were reporting symptoms that were linked to things the women were not reporting. Abuse. Feelings of captivity. But the point was dropped. So far, we had evidence for nothing. Steve and I were only able to discern that a disproportionate number of women were coming for treatment again and again for the same problem. Safed pani. I had never heard of it before coming here.

 A persistent fly buzzed around Steve’s head. He waved it away, kept talking. The director listened, swiveling her head slowly from left to right, as if politely disagreeing with every word he was saying. But Steve didn’t seem to notice, just went right on talking. The fly came back, nestling into a tuft of his grey curls. A powerful fan whirled above our heads, and when the fly left Steve’s head, it got caught up in the swirling air near the ceiling, struggling to make it back down to us, the fan’s current sweeping it up again. I watched it, feeling there was something at once sad and impressive in its perseverance. The conversation ended before I could see whether it would find its way to the window.


Fast forward to the shootings and the bombings, my third visit to India in just over a year. I have graduated from the research institute’s residence halls to a room in a cheap hotel behind a restaurant reeking of spicy food and mildewed kitchen towels. Here, I have reached day four of quarantine. I’ve almost conquered the chapter in 2666 where all the prostitutes turn up raped and murdered in Santa Teresa. Bolaño’s tale of these women stretches on in a single chapter for close to three hundred pages. The whole book is eleven hundred pages long. The women are almost all poor, working in maquiladoras—widely known for their cheap labor and their exploitative conditions—or as waitresses, some of them students. Bolaño’s accounts are fictionalized, but based on the real-life phenomenon of “femicide” in Ciudad Juárez, where since 1993 the mutilated corpses of over four hundred young women have turned up in garbage containers, vacant lots, drainage canals. Many of the women have a similar aesthetic: dark skin, slender physique, long dark hair. When they’re found, some of them have had their nipples and breasts cut off, buttocks lacerated like cattle, their genitalia penetrated with objects. Almost none of the crimes have been solved.

I’m sprawled across the hard mattress, flipping page after page. It is unbearable to think of this as a true story. My mind involuntarily reads it as fiction. But Bolano is writing about the real killings in Ciudad Juárez. I keep turning back to the chapter’s first lines, which read: “The girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved tee-shirt and yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big.” Pages later: “The first dead woman of May was never identified…” and then, flip, flip, flip: “Emilia Mena Mena died in June. Her body was found in the illegal dump near Calle Yucatecos, on the way to the Hermanos Corinto brick factory.” Bolaño goes on and on: Ema Contreras, her hands and feet bound, shot four times; Beverly Beltran Hoyos, aged sixteen, multiple stab wounds to the chest and abdominal area; Erica Mendoza, aged twenty-one, raped multiple times then stabbed to death. The cases of the women start to blend together, their ripped clothes, muddied faces. In the book, one of the corrupt police officials investigating the crimes quips, “Women are like laws, they were made to be violated.” By the two hundred and eighty-fourth page, I’m so ready to move on from the dead women that I don’t even care anymore about reading their names, how they died, what they were wearing. I think: just let me turn away from this.

I go downstairs for breakfast; there is nothing else to do but eat and read and watch the same old snapshots of the gunmen flash on the news, to marvel at how young they look. I open the paper over my breakfast, the waiters hawking on either side of me. They’re not doing anything wrong, I tell myself, but I am unjustifiably annoyed; I feel monitored. The front page of the Times of India reads “City at Gunpoint” with two grainy photographs of men and women crying into their hands. Every page has a story about the hostage situation. Towards the back of the paper are stories they had planned to run before any of this happened, stories worthy of the front page but pushed back to the section reserved for stories about elementary school fairs or people fed up with the litter on Chowpatty Beach. It’s hard to believe that less than a week ago I was walking freely around the city, wandering aimlessly in the sidestreets near Crawford market, dodging cricket games in the road, one game bleeding into another.


I remember back to one morning when I sat in part of the clinic called the “lady clinic,” a tiny room tucked into the building’s side where someone had managed to pack a big metal desk, a set of filing cabinets, and a raised aluminum cot with a curtain to pull around for privacy. There was barely room to walk. A stream of women spilled through the doorway, their expressions unanimously terrified. They had been waiting for hours already, with all that time to think about what might happen to them in this very room. Most of the women had never undergone a pelvic exam, or what American women know as a pap smear. Most had never ventured beyond the tiny Ayurvedic clinics folded among the slum’s shops and tea stands and shanty houses and mechanic shops and poultry corners and prayer spots. Most had probably never even seen an antibiotic, wouldn’t know if it’s a serum, a pill or an injection, could only imagine it as a morsel of Western medicine that might help them. Then the shame might disappear, and everything connected to the boggy discomfort at the very hub of their existence, right between their legs.

I squeezed past a crowded line of women into the exam room to “observe,” perched beside Kalpita, the “lady doctor,” at her desk. A nineteen year-old girl came in and sat down in front of us. Kalpita listened to the woman’s list of complaints, checking them off on the new patient record sheet: Lower abdominal pain; white discharge; itching in vaginal region; inguinal swelling; ulcer disease; Other—Explain. The list went on, little boxes to mark the woman’s afflictions. This time, we only needed one. Safed pani, check. According to protocol, Kalpita would give her a pelvic exam, one of over thirty she would perform a day in the tiny eight-by-eight space of the lady clinic.

The young woman undressed and lay down on the cot behind the curtain. All I could see of the exam from my vantage point were the woman’s thin, coffee-colored feet sticking up from the stirrups and Kalpita’s sandals shuffling back and forth over the concrete floor. As she examined the young woman out of view, her three young children waited quietly on the other side of the room with absorptive eyes. The rest of the women in the long line waited too. Kalpita poked her head out from behind the curtain and motioned for me to come stand next to her. “Want to see?” she asked.

I glanced at the line of women in the doorway. They were all different ages, all dressed similarly in gowns and veils, all there for overlapping reasons. I wanted their approval for being there, too, for participating in whatever this was, but I got none. They did not know how to place me, without a white jacket or a name tag, maybe just another white lady doctor from somewhere far away. Even I had trouble placing myself there. Did I look the part, dressed in my salwar kameez, the too-small armholes squeezing my underarms? I looked back at Kalpita. She smiled warmly, maternally, though we were exactly the same age. I knew what she was looking at back there. Did I want to see?

I stepped behind the curtain, confronted by the young woman’s spread legs, her thinness startling, her bony knees splayed off to the sides in a position of ultimate exposure. A fan issued strong gusts over our heads. The woman’s skin quivered, maybe from nervousness or fear, her whole body rattling the aluminum cot. Kalpita had already inserted the speculum. The two of us stood there, staring down into the dark tunnel of the woman’s vagina all the way to the scarlet pink cervix, which itself seemed to quiver and glisten.

“See?” Kalpita said, gently pointing to the cervix with her pinky. “That could be it, a slight discharge.” And sure enough, there it was—a milky film gathering at the bottom of the cervix. Was that enough to be “abnormal”? I was careful not to look into the woman’s face, as if I had no right to see any of this, to be there at all, no credentials that should allow this kind of intimacy. The fan breathed over the woman’s skin.

Here is what we know about safed pani, so far. Doctors call it a “syndrome,” as in, an experience of being ill, something with no definite beginning or end. Literally translated as “white water,” it is an experience of having too much moisture in the vagina. “Abnormal discharge” is the clinical term. Steve once told me, There is no point in being squeamish in a place like this. I realize this is not what we came to study, maybe had nothing to do with HIV, but I remember Steve’s reminder. This place hands you another question. Or questions, plural. Why is this the leading symptom among women in India? Why is it so prevalent among poor women in particular?

In the lady clinic, patient after patient describes her symptoms. A kind of heat—or garmi—builds up in the body, they say. You feel threads of weakness, or kamjori, spreading through your veins. Then it’s like your bones are melting, liquefying. The way they talk, I picture the skeleton taking on a mind of its own, finding a way out of the body. When asked what causes safed pani, the women can only shrug and speculate: poor diet, poor hygiene, too many pregnancies, too much sex. “Women’s work,” is how they sum it up, as if we—as women—should already know this.

Western doctors are perplexed, because symptoms of safed pani are most of the time perceptible only to the patients themselves. A doctor might search for inflammation, infection, flu, or even more serious conditions like an STD, but more often than not, no biological basis is identified. But the experience is quite clearly there, I can see it in their faces. This is not your typical malingering for attention. I believe the women when they say they feel it physically. Even the ones whose cervixes betray a perfect, healthy pink. Even these women say they can’t take it anymore, the constant sensation of something leaking from the bodies and draining them to the core, the burden of washing their underwear multiple times a day with nowhere to dry them in the crowded, all-seeing slum. There is something inside, a woman once whispered to me, escaping.

Behind the sheet, the young woman slipped her sari back on.

“What will you give her?” I asked Kalpita.

She shrugged. “If it’s safed pani, protocol says we have to give them antibiotics.” But the way she looked at me seemed to say, We know that won’t fix a thing.


Nariman House is still under siege, hostages still held in the Oberoi and Taj hotels. I watch footage of people who have been shot being wheeled out from the hotel, stacked on shiny brass luggage carts. In my own hotel room, I look up online what to do in a hostage situation. “None of us expects to be taken hostage but the possibility exists,” is the first line of the NATO Hostage Survival Skills manual. The first hours to days of a hostage situation, hostages are expected to move from a state of startle and panic, to disbelief, and then to hypervigilance and anxiety, extremely wary and alert to minute details as various events take place, further attacks, interrogation, the movement of captives from one place to another. Their mindsets are often accompanied by startle reactions to noise or sudden movements, a tendency to think the worst, to catastrophize the situation. You see the captors tying up ropes and think for sure they’re fashioning nooses. Then you see the ropes are just for the horses outside, according to one of the manual’s examples. Later, captives often must choose between resistance or compliance. Sometimes, the manual says, a skillful captive can make the one appear very similar to the other. I leaf through the newspaper at breakfast, my only descent for the day from my room, to see if the captors have let anybody go, but the articles reveal nothing but more watching and waiting.

Meanwhile, my research has been suspended. I look up flights to see if something opens up, if I will be going home soon, but the planes are still grounded. I hear by email that the clinic is still open, that the treatments continue, women walking for miles or longer through the flooded streets to get medicine, not just antibiotics but “vitamin tonics,” or sugar water with electrolytes, smuggling these artifacts from the outside world back into their small homes, shoving the tonics and pills out of their husband’s sight, stockpiling the possibility of feeling normal again.

I am almost through reading the awful chapter. The detective in charge of figuring out the murders is on the verge of throwing up his hands. There are simply too many to make sense of. I wonder if this was Bolaño’s point of stretching the chapter on for so many pages, to desensitize the reader in the same way that the citizens of Juárez have become desensitized to the hundreds upon hundreds of rapes and murders. Will there be some resolution? I resist the urge to flip to the end, to see whether Bolaño’s tale ever offers something more than the author’s own witnessing of these events, if the characters ever discover a way out.


A woman who had come to the clinic with symptoms agreed to tell us her experience with safed pani. She explained that, because she was only allowed to leave home for medical appointments or to buy food, we would have to come to where she lived. That afternoon, Prajakta, my translator, led me through the slum’s maze, the rain waterfalling from overhangs and umbrellas, the streets filling up like a soup. We passed three young women who stared at us from the narrow slits in their black burkhas as we waded in our sandals through the calf-deep sooty water, tiptoeing around hairy black mango pits floating in puddles, over piles of trash and ripped cloth, dirty clumps of chicken feathers and animal hair, things only vaguely identifiable.

From a distance, the nine-story trash heap climbed before us, white and brown over the tin and plastic roofs. Other colors began to pop out as we neared—flashes of red candy wrappers, bidi pouches, cigarette boxes, plastic scraps. My sense of orientation was askew. I glued myself to Prajakta’s heels, following her royal-yellow and emerald-green salwar kameez through the narrow alleys, the walls on each side of us painted bright blues, pinks, yellows. The streets looked to me like a hive brimming with pedestrians, some carrying umbrellas, some wiping sweat or rainwater from their brows, their rubber-sandaled feet expertly maneuvering around puddles and sewage ditches. I tried to catch the eyes of women as I walked by. I tried to tell them with my eyes, I’m on your side, even though I didn’t know what that side was, what that meant.

“We’re getting close,” Prajakta said. I could make out the silhouettes of skinny women and children climbing barefoot over the garbage piles in the distance, bending over to pick up scraps and stash them in bags over their shoulders. Prajakta told me they were picking out pieces of metal or plastic, bottletops to sell to others who melt them down, shape them into something else.

We stopped at a clearing to ask a woman for directions. Did she know the lady we wanted to speak to, where she lived? The woman squatted over the ground, wearing a tattered sheet fashioned into a sari. A film of dirt lightened the dark skin of her face and arms. Flies fluttered about her, alighting on her cheeks, the top of her head, her eyelashes. She looked at us unblinking and waved to a doorway down the street.

“Hello? Hello?” Prajakta called in English through the sheeted doorway. Moments passed and a skeletal hand appeared at the curtain’s edge, pulling it slowly aside. The overpowering stench of gasoline flooded from the shack’s interior and infiltrated my nostrils. The curtain opened more to reveal a tiny woman, of indefinable age, lost to the folds of her threadbare sari. She looked sickly, though her eyes shone from her wan face like oncoming comets. She invited us to sit down with her on the floor mat. Her husband would not be home for a while, she said. She could talk.

We sat about five feet from an industrial-sized blue barrel of gasoline. Her husband is a mechanic, she told us, and makes a little money every time something in the surrounding slum is broken. The smell of gasoline was omnipresent, and I wondered how she and her kids had gotten used to those venomous fumes overwhelming the small space. As we talked, each of her five children came and went through the curtain beside us leading to the street. Her youngest daughter, no more than three, circled around us and reminded me that this woman could not be more than thirty, though the deep crevices in her eyes and cheeks shrouded her with two more decades. Another daughter came to twirl some strands of my hair around her finger, laughing and leaping back playfully every time I turned to acknowledge her. Another of her daughters—about seven—had gone to put on her best red dress for us, torn at the seams near her waist, and now she hid behind her mother, peeking out at us at regular intervals and swishing the skirt of her dress left to right. The woman’s son, a lanky young boy of about ten—or perhaps fifteen, the malnutrition making age in this place so hard to decrypt—stormed in and headed straight to the back of the shack to “shower” over a small concrete slab behind the gas barrel. As the woman talked, I stole curious glances at the boy’s peculiar “shower,” which consisted of dipping a bar of soap in a bowl of water poured from a small vat near his feet, rolling up his pants legs and vigorously scrubbing his skin with the soap bar. Then the other pant leg, then each of his shirt sleeves, reaching under each of his armpits to scrub, so hard it looked as if he were punishing his skin. As he bathed, I watched a rat skitter along the edge of the concrete slab and disappear behind some crates. The boy didn’t seem to notice, quickly toweled himself off with an old rag, and left again through the faded curtain.

We got to the part of the interview where we talk about marriage and sex. Her girls seemed too preoccupied by my hair to listen. The woman told us that she and her husband only have sex with their clothes on, him lifting up her salwar as they lay in the hut’s only twin-sized bed with their children and in-laws sleeping on the floor beside them. It is the same every time, she said. She waits for him to be finished, proud that she can provide him with pleasure but always frightened by the looming humiliation that others might see or hear. Sometimes she feels pleasure too, but most often there is no time for that.

I try to put all the stories together. They sit in stacks on my small desk, their edges curling in the afternoon heat. The typical trajectory of a woman’s life in the slums is to spend her childhood in a rural village hundreds of miles from Bombay. Despite the daily burdens of poverty, these are the happiest years of her life, when her days amble by under the easy oversight of her mother and father, maybe some aunties or an older brother or sister. But after these fleeting years, the girl wakes to find life has shifted. She is expected to marry, move away. Leave forever. She finds herself in an arranged engagement by the age of fifteen, sometimes as early as twelve, to someone she hasn’t yet met, someone she and her parents have only seen in photographs. Then, after a protracted engagement, a woman (girl) finally comes via train or bus to meet and marry her husband, who has been living and waiting for her in Bombay, while making a pitiable salary as a construction worker or a rickshaw driver. Then begins the woman’s tenure in her husband’s household, cocooned amongst her in-laws. Her “women’s work” begins the first night of marriage. Maybe, if she is like many of the women we’ve interviewed, her sister-in-laws tells her, “Whatever you do, don’t scream.” The girl has never been told about sex, often knows nothing of its basic mechanics. Meanwhile, her husband has already had his first sexual experiences, usually with one or more prostitutes. In some stories, which I hope are just folklore, it is with an animal, maybe a sheep. Almost invariably, there is alcohol involved for the men, for they have their anxieties about sex too. We hear this from doctors on the “men’s” side of the clinic. Overcoming these anxieties about sexual performance becomes a bonding point among men, who goad one another to drink, to watch pornographic “blue films” in makeshift cinema booths hidden throughout the slums, or to practice with prostitutes so that they can better please their wives. The men, too, have often come from villages far away to find work in Bombay, bringing their families there in hopes of providing a better life, earning enough money to find and bring a wife to Bombay. By the time the wife arrives, the world in which her husband lives is already structured and rich with expectation. Having no education, no employable skills, and a family who cannot afford to keep her any longer back home, a poor woman arrives in Bombay with no choice but to step into the walls of a life her husband has already created.

The third stage of a hostage situation often involves shifting the location of captives to a place from which they cannot easily be freed. This could be a bunker, a closet, a hotel room. Once there, a number of psychological tactics are employed to make the captives easier to manage. Physical restraint and sensory deprivation (for example, chains and blindfolds). Mental cruelty. Interrogations. Indoctrination / brainwashing (often associated with enforced sleep loss). Verbal abuse and humiliation (such as being stripped naked). Threats of injury and death. Physical, perhaps sexual, abuse. I read on and on, scrolling through the pages of the NATO manual and wondering where captors learn these techniques, if they must enact practice scenarios or if capture comes naturally, absorbed from living within a culture of other captors.

If it is too risky to move the captives, they may remain where they are. For that reason, sometimes the former comfort of the home itself becomes a hostage zone. The NATO manual recommends that captives employ strategies to maximize chances for survival and minimize suffering. Regain—and maintain—composure. Assume a low-key, unprovocative posture. Get captors to recognize you as a human being. Follow the rules. Say little when questioned. Set goals. Keep your mind active. Try to adapt feelings of weakness into strength and hope.

At breakfast, the TV shows Indian National Guard commandos entering the Nariman House from the roof. There are two big blasts and a cascade of gunfire. One official says he heard a woman from inside say in English, “Please help immediately.” A helicopter hovers overhead as ground troops close in.


Demographic Notes. Location of residence: Baiganwadi, age: 25 years, Religion: Muslim, Number of children: 3, Type of house: Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, 37 years, Muslim, Number of children: 5, Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, Age: 31 years, Muslim, Number of children: 3, Type of house: Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, age: 19 years, Religion: Muslim, Number of children: 1, Type of house: Semi Pucca. Baiganwadi, age: 35 years, Religion: Muslim, Number of children: 3, Type of house: Semi Pucca.

One woman goes days without food because her husband won’t give her money to feed their children. He comes home from work, already drunk, and beats her when he finds no food in the house. Another woman’s husband beats her because her pregnancies have yielded only girls whose future dowries they can’t afford to pay. Only boys bring money into a family. Another woman’s husband has sex with a prostitute near the dumping ground, and comes home reeking of alcohol and of the other woman’s body. She has no idea if he uses protection, where he would even get such a thing. Another woman’s husband asks her to perform the sexual acts he has seen in blue films with his friends. She feels ashamed and unknowledgeable and repulsed, is beaten when she refuses. Another woman has sex with her husband on a tiny bed with their four children sleeping beside them on the ground, her in-laws snoring across the room. Neither she nor her husband remove their clothes; he simply pulls down her drawstring pants and enters her. She wonders who is this man, her husband. Another woman eats dry white rice to get rid of her safed pani, swallowing grain by grain without water, a small pouch throughout the day. Another woman who believes her body hair is unsanitary shaves her arms and coats her vagina with hair removal cream, letting the potent chemicals seep into her skin, devouring her pubic hairs, follicle by follicle. She, too, has safed pani. They all do. Another woman is beaten for staying too long at a neighbor’s house, “gossiping,” according to her husband. Another woman peeks over her husband’s shoulder to make sure their children are asleep when he forces her to “do sex.” She concedes only because she doesn’t want him to go “elsewhere.” She herself has nowhere else to go. A woman, she says, cannot say no to her husband. Another woman doesn’t like to have sex because she must “take a bath and wash properly” afterward or else she will feel deeply impure, a religious belief shared by others in her community, and by her husband. If it is past midnight, the only place to wash herself is the public toilet blocks away, but if she goes then all her neighbors will hear and know what she is up to. So she falls asleep quietly, feeling the impureness settle deep into her bones.

I enter the women’s data into a large spreadsheet. From each interview, I mark a ‘1’ or a ‘0,’ whether or not the woman has suffered mental or verbal abuse, difficulties with childbirth or miscarriage, too many or too few children, inability or unwillingness to eat, signs of depression or anxiety. I want to add a box: Desire for escape. But it is not in our protocol.

Resistance / Compliance

It had been weeks since I arrived. The monsoons had not let up for more than thirty minutes at a time. The improvised drainage routes along the rooflines overflowed with rainwater. The dirt streets formed a lakebed awash with broken umbrellas, lost sandals, scraps of paper and cloth. Prajakta and I arrived at the steps of the Ayurvedic doctor’s office, took refuge under the dripping overhang. We waited outside for him to see us, standing next to a stout woman with a leathery face, wearing a weathered sari, chewing bidi and spitting streams of thick, red saliva into the street. The door opened and the doctor waved us in.

We entered the threadbare white room, nothing more than a desk and an examining table crammed into an eight-by-five space, two posters hanging on the wall with “HIV” written amongst things I couldn’t read in Hindi. Prajakta and I squeezed ourselves into the same metal chair across from the doctor. He wore a white coat and slacks, a stethoscope around his neck. He was one of what they call “AYUSH” doctors, practicing a combination of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, essentially traditional medicine with a dash of Western biomedicine.

“So you are here to talk about lady problems,” he said.

“Yes. Well not ours,” we told him. We said we were there to learn more about safed pani. Maybe he could tell us his procedures for diagnosing and treating the disorder, what its causes might be?

“Leukorrhea,” he said, nodding. “Yes. Very common among women here.” He began to explain what we already knew, the whitish or yellowish discharge, feelings of weakness, no exact causes, associated with overwork, reproductive “problems” like multiple, successive pregnancies.

I asked Prajakta to ask him, “How does he spot it? What does it look like?”

The doctor shook his head, said something lengthy in Hindi before Prajakta turned to me to translate, “He doesn’t examine the women. They just come and tell him, ‘I have safed pani,’ and he writes them a prescription and then they pay and leave with their medication.”

“So he doesn’t examine them?” I asked, incredulous.

She translated again and he replied, “There is no need. All the women have it.”

“What do you give them?” I asked.

“A vitamin tonic. Antibiotics.” He stared smoothly back at us.

“What can the women do to prevent it from coming back?” I ask.

The doctor clicked and unclicked his pen. “It is inevitable,” he said. “But she must abstain from sex during safed pani, or else it can harm her, and her husband too. It is dangerous for everyone,” he said.

Abstain from sex, I thought to myself, remembering the women’s stories as we walked back from the doctor’s office. Given the circumstances, that didn’t seem like such a bad prescription. Doctor’s orders, is what the women could say. And if their husbands, too, believed in the dangers of safed pani, there would be little to no explanation needed, no arguments involved, no violence. I walked back to the clinic, clicking and unclicking my pen, as the doctor had done. Safed pani, the intangible illness, I realized, might have suddenly divulged its motive. Was this elusive syndrome the sickness or the cure? And if the cure, what was the actual malady?

Gradual Acceptance

Here’s what I think: It is not that safed pani doesn’t exist. To say that real suffering is not what brings the women here rings false to me. I’ve seen the genuine expressions of distress when they arrive, a sincere disdain for the scent of their clothes, and candid desperation for a sustainable cure. The fact is, it doesn’t matter if it exists or not. A more interesting question might be, Why do women go to so much trouble to seek treatment for it? Certainly there are some women that do, some that don’t. But what series of events must be endured and for how long in order for a woman to finally plead the dubious permission of her husband to leave her house, to walk all the way across town through a maze of hostile streets in the pouring rain, to wait in line for hours, only to finally expose herself on a hard metal table to the prods and pokes of the lady doctors, in a room where privacy is as thin as a sheet dangling loosely around your naked body? The more I consider the effort involved in seeking relief from safed pani, the more I think that seeking relief might be the most crucial aspect of the illness itself. It is more the act of trying to alleviate a chronic problem than figuring out why it is there in the first place. Rather than searching for the “real” causes, we could simply listen to what the women have already identified as their own causes. Wasn’t that Steve’s parting advice?


Anthropologists say that distress is “unlocalized,” meaning you can’t just point to a broken toe or a sprained ankle and say, There, that’s the problem. Most of the time, there is no “there.” The “there” feels everywhere, an amorphous moving target, embedded in the fibers of your clothes, the air that you breathe, the food you eat. It drifts inside you, deep in your bones, looking for expression, a buoy to the surface. That the illness just “happens” for these women to be situated in the vagina is probably not a coincidence. A problem that circulates around a woman’s private parts is just that: the issue begins there, it is understood there, it is treated there. From the time the women first come to Bombay, first meet their husbands, first have sex, up until they’ve gone through multiple childbirths (or deaths), endured countless acts of intimacy for which the word “intimacy” is probably a euphemism, they’ve amassed enough emotional and connotative timber around the idea of vagina to light the whole city on fire, monsoons or none.

One must choose between compliance and resistance. One can appear very similar to the other.


Against the advice of the hotel concierge working the front desk, I decide to go for a walk. The hostages still haven’t been freed, but I don’t care, I’m going out. I mean, of course I care. People have guns pointed at their heads this very minute, are wondering if today is their last day to live. I walk down the street in the heat of the morning, the rickshaws rushing by, the crows squawking overhead, horns honking, voices clamoring. I try to imagine what the hostages downtown are doing to stay alive, to keep calm in the confines of the Nariman House. I think, too, of Bolaño’s descriptions of the thousands of Juárez women. I wonder what tactics they tried with their captors, what they must have thought about in the darkness of some trunk or the back of a van with blindfolds over their eyes, the wheels beneath them chattering over the empty desert terrain. And then, of course, I think of the Indian women here too from the clinic, all lined up outside the door of the examining room, waiting to be treated. What are they doing to keep calm? What do they really mean when they say they can’t take it anymore? I look around to all the things they could be referring to: the poisonous dumping ground, the detachment from their natal villages, their personal histories and identities subsumed now by their husbands’ lives and families, the irony of the ever-present duty to have more children as they mortally struggle to feed the ones they have.

And then there is the matter of the vagina, the locus of this malady: the lack of control over your own sex, your own body co-opted by others for pleasure, procreation. I think of the words: take it. As in take in, into oneself, store inside, something unable to get away, locked within. There is something inside, escaping, the woman had told me, her face fraught with grief. What is it that has been trapped, that now wants out? I think of the voices of the girls who long ago arrived from their villages, voices which once echoed throughout open, rural spaces. Is that what wants out, the collective rush, the effortless, feminine treble of those girls’ voices before coming to endure all they have endured here in Bombay? Or are those girls’ voices gone now, disappeared?


I realize that what I have learned by coming here I could never have learned from an academic article or medical journal. What there is to be known about safed pani is not its cause, but the fact itself of the women’s suffering, the capacitating process of identifying and treating the otherwise unidentifiable, dispersed experience of being a woman facing this specific set of circumstances. I think of the boy in the street yelling to me: Leave India, how I have the luxury of doing that. But these women do not, stuck in the convection current of a culture that is perpetuated by its own uninterrupted dynamic.

I think of the medicines the lady doctors dole out: vitamin tonics, antibiotics, of how “compliance” is a word doctors use to describe patients who do what is best for them. And the women do, they take their medicines, compliant with their treatment, compliant with their diagnosis. I think of the word itself: compliant. From the Spanish cumplir, or compliment. One thing going with another. Complicit. Together, the women and the doctor pinpoint the problem and can move on. The medicines stop the leak, cease the struggle of whatever-it-is trying to free itself. The “treatment” stops all that nonsense, dams the flood.

Compliance. Resistance. How to tell one from the other? The manual said that to cope, one must maintain composure. Follow the rules. Try to adapt feelings of weakness into strength and hope. There is a section about Stockholm Syndrome, a name for when hostages develop feelings of affection for their captors. The manual explains that at the root of the syndrome is a desire to reposition reality to make it more bearable. Feelings of subordinance and fear gradually shift to feelings of dependence, even gratitude for being taken care of. This shift in emotional understanding is adaptive, it says, a tool for gaining control, for coping with an inherently horrible situation. I think of the women coming in with safed pani, how reconfiguring the dissatisfaction with their lives as illness gives it weight, gives it “thing-ness,” renders it capable of manipulation, alleviation. Treatment becomes a temporary taking back of control, an act of strength, empowerment. Resistance. Maybe it is what is best for them, to believe in the possibility of relief in those moments when existence feels too heavy to bear.

I round a corner near the train station to see the market a ways down under the overpass. I wonder if the man selling guavas will tell me again to return to my hotel room, to not come out until it’s all over. This is something you tell someone when you know that her situation will someday soon come to an end. I know the planes will take flight again and I will go back home. I know that, for me, the women’s stories will exist in someplace far, far away, in a never-ending book chapter, or a series of articles I write for work. For some hostages, the danger will subside, and they will be set free. For others, “Don’t come out until it is all over” is not something they will hear, not something you tell someone whose situation is permanent, when there is no “over.” For those people, you don’t tell them anything. You say other things: Antibiotics, Vitamin tonics. You do not say: All of this will go away. Maybe the reason the AYUSH doctors don’t say this to the women is because it would disrupt an implicit agreement of exchanges. Maybe it is not out of negligence that they don’t examine the women, but out of mutual understanding—that the women are in the business of seeking relief while the doctors are in the business of providing it. What appears one moment as weakness is revealed the next as strength. What is uncontrollable becomes, for a moment, controlled. It goes on this way, a system of gives and takes, steeped in a world where nothing changes.

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