BOOK EXCERPT

‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me’: Remembering Miss Liberty in the Donald Trump era

An excerpt from an Indian novel in which a 12-year-old girl sees the statue whose promise seems ironic suddenly.

It is time to move on.

I have stood herald before this city for years, signalling people into the New World and watched history disembark on its harbour like a book. Shiploads arriving from the sea sailed past my raised arm in hushed reverence. I never smiled. People held their breath as they passed, eyes lifting for a moment in silent salute to the immortal flame that I held aloft as they glided into Ellis Island. I marked a gate of destiny. But their eyes already searched beyond, a little to the right, across the Hudson River, where they saw that concrete mirage of their dreams shimmer through the Atlantic haze at noon. New York! Every time those ships entered with people packed on the deck, it used to send a jolt through my heart.

Now, I only see tourists.

I always look across the water, somewhere between the cold Hebrides and the warmer wind of the Canaries. I came here as a gift from the people of France, in three hundred and fifty copper pieces, packed in two hundred and fourteen crates, a birthday present to mark the hundredth year of the New World. It took them another ten years to set me up here, on Liberty Island. It was on Eighteen Eighty-Six.

I was looked after by the Lighthouse board first, then the War Department, and the National Park Service. But after immigration closed on Ellis I became mostly a symbol of a cult called democracy. I watched the high velocity imagination of this stalagmite city rise up over the rocks and become history.

Behind me stretches a nation, ranging mythic across great plains and canyons, rivers and forests. A land where one could be anything and be free. Liberty was powerful and hypnotic: an exhilarating thing. The soul leapt with it and galloped like a wind horse into the sky. Commerce was at its crown and they were free to market anything. Culture on the free market became that American word: Entertainment! Coney Island weekends. Luna Parks and wonderlands! And Manhattan rose swiftly, compacting a thousand cities of fantasy on a single island, climbing, climbing, climbing.

The energy was unbelievable. Some say it is because the muted cry of the ancestors entered the rocks and the rivers when they were all massacred brutally and no one will ever be able to stop unless peace is smoked with the butterfly. Not just men, all of them. The women too, and the slaves, the children, sent here alone, exiled kings and their lost tribes and the criminals. All immigrants to a New World.

Now, I only watch tourists come and go.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Then, one night, some years ago, a small boat entered the harbour. It was a white sailing boat with twin-masts.

It was not a Mexican boat, not from Cuba. It had set sail from Florida and up the Atlantic, with a middle-aged couple and a girl. It is that Columbus drive that gets people to take risks. Yet they were clearly desert people who had long dreamed of the sea. But the girl with them was different. I sensed that straight away. She was twelve years old and her name was Alia. She waved to me as they slid inland, past Ellis, up towards the southern tip of Manhattan, and around Battery Park where they finally anchored at a jetty.

Then suddenly, the girl looked back at me and winked.

I think I blinked.

First thing after she woke up the next morning, Alia clambered up on the deck, yelling for me; “Hey Miss Liberty, hello! Good Morning Liberty!” She jumped into a ferry boat before her parents could say no, “I’m going to see Miss Liberty!” she hollered over the drone of engines and the deep burr of the bay.

She was so unlike them, it made me curious. Her hair was gold and silky, her parents were both dark haired. Her eyes were soft golden-brown, her parents, both dark eyed. She was like a changeling standing against the rails, her hair streaming in the wind as the small transport ferry skimmed briskly over the water. She jumped off at the Liberty Island jetty and raced up the quay at top speed, a ticket-less imp, skidding to a stop at my gate. The guards let her inside after a reprimand. Alia bowed quaintly and skipped inside. She looked up at me, straight and very intense. And then a flashing grin.

I got a salute.

She was inside all day. Alia ran up the three hundred and fifty steps to the crown chamber, out of breath but without stopping. She stuck her nose out from every window, twenty five, to mark the twenty five gemstones of earth. She squinted up at the seven rays of my crown that pointed to the seven seas and continents.

But Alia was still not convinced.

She craned her neck to study my upheld torch and had a fit of laughter. People frowned but she pointed to my raised arm. “Look, Miss Liberty’s arm is aching!”

She was right. It was aching like hell.

Years later, it grew even more painful when they closed everything down once Liberty Island was declared a high security risk area.

I became strictly off limits. People could walk around at ground level and look up at me. Or, look out at Ellis and Manhattan or New Jersey. But they couldn’t see what I saw. They couldn’t see what Alia saw that day. Fear blinds freedom with a dark flame and no one misses Liberty when you get to buy “Freedom Fries”.

First, it was that young man who crashed his para-glider into my arm and swung around like a rubber band till he was taken down. It got people in a huge flap. Then, the city was assaulted, in a way no one will ever forget and, for the first time, I felt that my immortal flame was just clay.

Alia studied the stone tablet in my arm and rolled her eyes at me.

“Ever read what it says, Miss Liberty? Bet you two dollars you can’t even spell.”

Too right she was. They’re selling Freedom Fries on push carts down by the entrance and I can’t even lodge a written protest.

It gets very lonely here on Liberty Island, I hardly know what the city looks like anymore. Manhattan, Brooklyn, it is all a blur. The sea calls to me like a siren.

Alia came with her parents the second time.

How different they seemed and yet how close they were. Her father said I must be Sophia because I looked Greek, like Michelangelo’s David. He studied the information brochure and exclaimed. “Look, Bartholdi. An Italian sculptor, just like Michelangelo, what did I tell you?”

“Yes, but it says the iron frame was designed by Eiffel,” her mother pointed out. “Remember we saw the original prototype, by the Seine. It was much smaller. Miss Liberty is French, Meher.” But Alia laughed at them. “Miss Liberty is All-American. If you free her hands I bet you she’ll play baseball.” “Not with that flame from Olympus,” her father grunted.

I observed Alia’s parents carefully. Suddenly, her mother looked up, embarrassed, and I understood.

They were step-parents from another land, but the girl did not know.

What land was Alia’s? She cocked up her golden head and frowned. Her step-mother put a protective arm around her and the three walked away, arms interlinked, singing a song from the land of deserts and oilfields. Her step father made up a new line and the three of them burst out laughing.

Something made me pay attention to their conversation. A name that I had heard whispered off and on: Puromi. I pricked up my ears. They were here to meet Puromi, but he had not yet arrived. Alia stood with her parents by the jetty, watching out for him as new visitors continued to off load from the arriving ferries. Her parents sniffed the salt wind growing anxious.

“Meher! Zarine!” A voice hailed them suddenly. “What a surprise!”

I saw a portly woman, in her fifties, hurrying towards them eagerly. From what transpired, I understood that the lady had been their neighbour when they all lived in California. She asked after their son and exclaimed in surprise to learn he was already nineteen. She remembered him as a boy of seven. How time flies! Rihan is in military college now, Meher explained slowly. After a bit of hesitation he added, “He wants to join the army. They are recruiting again, as you know. The war…”

The woman’s expression faltered as the irony of it hit her, full force. She embraced Zarine quickly and took her leave.

The last time Alia came to visit me, she brought an old man who wore feathers in his hair. Sioux? He looked up at me for a long time: I am a colossus in bronze green. Then he looked at the sea and shook his head quietly. He followed Alia all the way up to my crown and stuck his nose of the window without a word. He saw the gemstones and the seven seas. He saw the continents, he saw the people, the animals and rivers and the ninety-nine winds. He heard the memory of the stars and he wept without blinking. I struggled to hold my tears. At last, someone else had seen it too.

Alia was silent. She was holding a butterfly between her lips. The old man smiled. Alia opened her mouth and the butterfly flew up and out of the crown. We lost it in the arrow of light between the blue sea and the blue sky, out in the blue wind.

The old man looked up.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

“You are free now, my lady. You are free to choose your place.”

Alia’s golden hair lit up my crown chamber as he spoke. Its warm glow spread out of the windows like rays of sun. John, the black saxophone player from Harlem, who came with his horn every day, looked up in surprise.

“Man, look at that! Miss Liberty’s dancin’ with the sun today.”

The next morning I saw the small white boat lift anchor from the jetty at Battery Park and ease back into the river. It cruised along the southern tip of Manhattan in a slow farewell, one blue sail, one white, unfurling softly as it coursed down the Hudson, gliding past Ellis, past me, past the bay and out, rapidly, into the sea.

Alia was on the deck waving and blowing kisses. “Next time,” she yelled through the breeze, “you and I will go for a walk together Miss Liberty, but not in that dress.”

I heard her like a dream. “Bye John! Bye Puromi!”

She was waving both her hands now. “We’ll meet agai..!”

The wind turned and her voice was lost.

Suddenly the sound of a saxophone lifted in the morning light. It was John, down by the quay, starting to play. Alia blew him a kiss as she vanished into the blue distance.

Puromi, she had said. “Bye Puromi!”

I looked down at the quay again. A lone man stood waving back at her. He didn’t look Sioux. He didn’t look old either. He could be from anywhere, dressed in an old pair of jeans and a faded blue shirt. He opened the gate, walked up to my pedestal and stood with his back against it, whistling very softly. So this was him. The one who knew Alia’s real father once and many other things. Rumours fly in the wind like seagulls, I listen for the ones that matter in the sunlight.

The day before Alia and Puromi took the elevator up to the Pedestal platform before coming up to the crown. Alia made a sudden grab for Puromi’s arm. ‘Oh, look!’

A rainbow arched across the sky like a greeting.

It hadn’t rained for months. Yet the rainbow grew strong and splendid. What, I asked the sky, was that rainbow doing there, on such a bright, sunny blue day?

“She’s tre-men-dous!” Alia said breathlessly and stood very still.

Puromi coughed, ever so lightly.

“Oh no, she’s starting to break, Puromi. She’s going to fade away...”

“She doesn’t have to, if you know how to mend a rainbow.”

“But that’s impossible…”

“Not if you know how to.”

“Huh?” The soft brown eyes questioned doubtfully.

Puromi pulled out a blue feather from his hair and turned to the rainbow.

Alia watched him intently and the sky. The rainbow had stopped dissolving. It was growing strong again.

She gasped “Will you show me how to?”

“The rainbow belongs to the world Alia. You need to get her permission first. Then I can teach you anything. “

“But…”

“Joe would have wanted it too.”

“Joe? Who is he? Why do you and Daddy keep talking about him all the time?”

“Ask your Aunty Miriam.”

“Aunty Miriam? But we’ve never even met.”

“But you will,” Puromi handed her the blue feather, “and then we’ll meet again.”

Puromi does not live in New York City. Never did. He lives where he has to. Some say he is from India where Alia’s mother belonged. He goes whereever he is needed. I’ve heard it mentioned that he belongs to Sila’s town. Oh, how young Sila’s name flies on every lip these days! Such a sweet defiance. He was scheduled to address the UN some weeks ago. I was waiting to see the boy, but they banned him in the last moment. But I digress.

Puromi left long ago.

The quay is empty except for John. Tourists can never fill that void successfully.

It gets lonely when no one, absolutely no one understands that I am a prisoner.

The sea throws up its spray but I stand so high and far now, even the spray does not reach me. I have grown empty and unreachable. Ellis Island is a museum where tourists come all day. Hundreds of them. They look at immigrant history, they eat Freedom Fries and leave in their ferries. They don’t see anything at all.

John is my only companion now. He comes every morning, doffs his cap in greeting and begins to play. I used to worry for him when he stopped playing completely for a while. Sometimes I think I remain standing just for him. Then Alia went past us both and John lifted his saxophone again. Now it is his sound that holds me up.

Without it, I’d have fallen off my pedestal long ago.

One morning John played till he broke right through, into the light of sound. Instantly, the sound became gold. A vast sea of god. So tender, and yet so mighty, like a love supreme, and I broke free.

What people see standing now is an empty shell.

I remain here only for John but I am already an immigrant to a new land that is being born.

Excerpted with permission from God Enchanter, Anu Majumdar, HarperCollins India.

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