We Are Only Human

Mahak Jain

Both my mother and I were born in Connecticut, in the Silver Gardens Hospital Center. My father was born in Delhi, not in a hospital but in a village in its outskirts with a midwife. I had never seen India and my father never talked about it. My grandparents had disowned him after he married a white woman. 

My mother’s parents were the only grandparents I knew. Both had a flock of snow-gray hair and pale, freckled skin. I assumed I was white too. Several times a year, Aunt Bethany visited from Michigan with Ronnie, Winnie, and Annie. I liked to think of my cousins as siblings and tagged along behind them like the runt, even though I was nine years old and not the youngest. My mother didn’t want to have any children after me. She said mothers who had more than one child spoiled the experience for themselves. 

My father said no such things. He said little. At family events, my father, the darkest amongst us, sat quietly in an armchair, his presence growing the longer he went silent. After our relatives left, my parents always had the same argument. My mother asked why my father couldn’t try to be nicer and my father said he didn’t know what she meant. 

Now my father wanted me to visit my grandparents in Delhi for the first time. My grandfather had broken his decade-long silence because my grandmother was sick and she wanted to meet me before she died. My parents had an argument about this too. My mother assumed she was invited, but my grandfather didn’t want my mother to visit. My father agreed. “It is the first step,” he said. “Soon, he will welcome you as well.”

My mother and father called their arguments family discussions and they always happened in the open. My mother believed it was important for a child to witness healthy communication about difficult topics. My father allowed this as long as I remained quiet and didn’t interfere.

After my grandfather’s invitation, my mother stopped talking to my father for two days. We ate dinner as a family, but no one said a word. We had a house rule that you couldn’t go to your bedroom except to sleep, so after dinner, my father read a news magazine and my mother called a friend. I played on my Gameboy, which I’d inherited from Ronnie after he got bored with it. 

Finally, my mother and father decided the easiest way to resolve the matter was to ask what I preferred, which was too bad because I was hoping to escape notice. “Niki,” my mother asked, “do you want to stay here with me, or do you want to visit Delhi with your father?” Before I could answer, she added, “You should know that little girls like you are kidnapped all the time in India. And the food will make you sick. You won’t even be able to drink the water.”

“Stop scaring her,” my father said. “Nikita, you have more than twenty cousins in India. So many brothers and sisters! You have a whole family you don’t know. You can help them with their English and show them your clarinet. They’ve never seen a clarinet before!”

My mother rolled her eyes. She didn’t like large families or crowded spaces. “Niki,” my mother started, but my father stopped her.

“Let her speak for herself,” he said, which was weird, because he thought children should never speak for themselves.

I didn’t have experience being in between my mother and father. I was not allowed to choose sides. But I thought my father knew that if I had to pick, I would choose my mother, because I was, I believed, a miniature version of her. 

My father’s face was expectant and patient. It astonished me that he didn’t have a clue that I didn’t think much of him. My mother was equally clueless that she had the advantage. She was pulling at the hem of her shirt, nervous. 

“I want to stay here,” I said after pretending to think hard.

My mother clapped her hands. “Ah-hah!” 

And that was how the matter was resolved. 

Until a few days later, when we were sitting together in forced company after dinner. My father had returned to normalcy, looming and muted. My mother had not. She was on the sofa, staring at the ceiling. 

“Go ahead and take her,” she said. “I don’t care anymore.”  


My father said I never stirred, not when he scooped me up from my bed nor during the cab ride to the airport. I didn’t wake up until we were through security and waiting to board. Windows lined the waiting area, through which pinpoints of light marked the dark runway. Inside, the airport was fluorescent.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked, as if I didn’t already know.

“At home. She’s got work in the morning.”

I nodded. I had other questions, but I was afraid to ask them. Did Mom say we could leave in the middle of the night? What if she thought I picked Dad over her, that I let him take me? If I said I wanted to go home right now, would he take me back? 

I squared my shoulders, centered myself in my chair, and folded my hands. No part of my body touched my father’s. He was reading what looked like a travel itinerary and guarding a small suitcase. He asked if I was hungry, and even though I was, I said I wasn’t. When I answered, I stared at him the way my mother stared at him, narrow-eyed, lips pursed. He laughed and said, “It’s like your mom’s right here with us.”

 When my father walked away to check on the flight, a blond woman asked if that man was my father. I was too surprised to answer. My father returned, and the woman pretended to look for a seat. I closed my eyes because I thought I might cry, but instead I fell asleep.


I woke up for boarding and stayed awake through take-off, which made me light-headed and then I heaved into a paper bag my father handed me. A hostess gave me coloring pages and a juice box along with crackers. I ate the crackers quickly and sipped the juice. The coloring pages I crumpled into the paper bag.

“When we get off the plane, we will be in India?” I asked.

“No, we will be in Dubai.”

This was not the answer I expected. When my father wasn’t looking, I glanced at his watch, and I thought, Mom is waking up, Mom is having breakfast, Mom is wondering where I am. I turned to the window. The clouds were dissolving, but I could no longer make out the ground.


Fifteen hours later, we landed in Dubai, a sunny and humid city. My father said we were going to stay in Dubai for two days before catching a second flight. We were only a few hours from Delhi now, he said, giddy. 

Then we were in a cab. We drove alongside a body of water I thought was the ocean that separated Dubai from Connecticut, but my father said it was only a creek. There was little traffic. Parts of the city extended toward the sky dangerously, while others looked stunted. As we approached our hotel, we passed a high archway that looked like the bones of a church, but it was the entrance to a path flanked by two large buildings. My father said this was Gold Souk, the City of Gold.

We dropped off our bags at the hotel. I wanted to sleep, but my father said our clocks needed to adjust. I thought he would take me to Gold Souk, but instead, we went to a mall. It wasn’t like any mall I had ever been to. There was a play area, and I swum around in a ball pit larger than the swimming pool back at school. My father said the city was building a bigger mall with an amusement park inside.

My father led me around like he knew the city well, so I assumed I misunderstood and Dubai was in India. When I told him this, he laughed. He said he had lived here when he was younger. “It was much smaller then. There wasn’t much to see. Lucky you.” He hadn’t shaved since we left Connecticut, and stubble peppered his face. His hair was unkempt; he had forgotten to comb it. He looked messy and troubled, but he was also smiling more than I was used to and he was talking more than I was used to. I wondered if he was always like this and I had never noticed. He talked about coming to Dubai as a young student, how he was excited to explore the world. It was strange to hear him talking about exploring Connecticut, too. To me, Connecticut was the world and Dubai and India the strange and fantastic extremities that it struck some people’s fancy to explore.

We didn’t visit Gold Souk until it was getting dark. I was too terrified to sleep while we crossed the creek on a small boat full of people and bags. I was exhausted and my father held me while the boat rocked. The sea smelled of fish and another smell, something like heat and desert. My father told me camels were the animal of the country here. That’s why every place we visited had a statue of a camel. He took a photo of me on each camel, including one that was scarlet in color with oversized yellow teeth.

We passed a store with televisions that were playing a movie I recognized, the only Bollywood movie we owned on DVD. The movie was black-and-white but slipped in and out of Technicolor like some genie had been let loose in the film reels. It was about two people named Laila and Majnu and even though I never understood what anyone was saying, I could follow the story because it was the same as Romeo and Juliet. At the time, my mother had said it didn’t matter what language anyone was speaking. “Even when your father is speaking English, I don’t know what he’s saying,” she said, laughing. 

My father was delighted that I remembered the movie. “I didn’t know you liked it.”

“I don’t.”

The archway at the entrance of Gold Souk was now aglow with yellow light. On the sidewalk, outside the archway, it was quiet, but as we entered Gold Souk, it became louder. Inside was teeming with people. The yellow light came from the glow of jewelry shops that lined the pathway, windows painted with gold bracelets and gold earrings and gold necklaces. My head could not move left and right fast enough. I stared at a necklace so large and finely made that it was like a shirt. I could wear it over myself and my skin would become gold. I had been to lingerie stores with my mother and some of the jewelry looked like teddies and nightgowns. I wished I could show them to my mother. That night, I dreamed I was in a ball pit, diving in and out of gold.


My father let me sleep in the next morning. I woke up to the sound of a muezzin. From the window, I could see the head of a mosque in the distance, shining like a bald spot. I imagined that was where the sound came from, and I wondered if we would visit a mosque. I had only ever been to churches. Once, my father had taken us to a temple, but my mother was uncomfortable. She was wearing a dress that reached the middle of her calves, but she felt naked, she said. So we left quickly. 

We were catching a flight to Delhi tomorrow. My father said after lunch today we would go to a show a friend of his put together. A hired car drove us down on a road so dusty it was hard to see the road. There was no wind and no dunes and sand was flat in all directions. I watched for a camel to appear on the horizon. 

Thirty minutes passed before the car stopped alongside a carpet of closely shaved grass. I poked my feet out of my sandals and sunk in my toes. The grass was real. There were no benches, not even trees, only lonely garbage cans facing the road and a white tent the size of my school staked to the ground. Inside, bright lights shone, brighter than even the airport or Gold Souk. There were more white tourists here than at the airport or Gold Souk, too. A bright-red banner spanned the top of the tent: WE ARE ONLY HUMAN: GENETIC ODDITIES AND REVELATIONS OF THE MIND AND BODY

My father bought two tickets and perused a map while I stared at the glass boxes, each the size of our hotel room, arranged under the tent like Tetris blocks. 

“What do you think?” my father said. He seemed nervous.

I shrugged. “What is it?”

“Oh. It’s an exhibit. It’ll tour the world, but we get to see the first show. Look.” My father led me to a nearby glass box where a man as dark as my father was sitting in the corner cross-stitching. I could see he was cross-stitching because his hands and silver needles and the checkered donkey he was working on were projected onto the back wall. Thread by thread, he was filling out a nub on the donkey’s ass: the start of a blue tail. Around him were baskets overflowing with rotten food: mangoes more greenish-white than orange, bananas slipping out of black peels, cucumbers dripping goop, and bread with spots the size of coins and rimmed with fuzz.

“That’s so gross,” I said. “How can he stand it?”

“It’s not bothering him. See. He can’t smell.” My dad pointed at a black sign with gold lettering that said “anosmia” and a longer explanation below. I pushed a pink button that said “Press to Sniff” and immediately gagged. 

We visited the next box, which was set up like a booth. A middle-aged brown lady was waiting inside. We brought her dollops of yogurt from a table out of her view. She knew from a lick that I had scooped mine out using the plastic spoon and that my dad had used the wooden ladle. That was her oddity—an abnormal sensitivity to taste. The glass box after that was empty except for a water filter. A sign said to take a drink and put on headphones. When I heard the music, I suddenly tasted peppermint candy melting on my tongue, though my father said the song tasted more like potato chips to him. 

After that, I started to enjoy myself. 

At the next installation—that was what my father was now calling them—he and I stood on either side of a glass wall that divided the box in half. I had to try to recognize him among the others in the room, which I thought would be easy and boring because half the people were white, but then I had trouble distinguishing his face from the other faces. A dark-colored man whose belly fell over his belt in the same particular way my father’s did tapped the glass. I checked his face carefully: His lips were squashed and brown, the fur surrounding them black like the wool of caterpillars. His cheeks were round and made him look as young as Mom, though he was nine years older. It could have been him, except his left eye was slightly larger than his right, and I had never noticed that before. We exited and my father explained about face agnosia: how I couldn’t recognize a face, not even one that was familiar to me.

I was hungry. We walked to a café at the back which had food from around the world. I wanted a hamburger. My father hesitated. “Sure, but no hamburgers in Delhi, okay?”

“Why not?”

“Never mind that. Have your fill now, all right?”

My father bought himself a smoothie with a falafel pita. He fiddled with his phone and kept checking his watch. A few minutes later, a woman called his name. He rose to his feet. He adjusted his pants and dropped his arms like he didn’t know what to do with them. An Indian woman, a little taller than me, approached our table. She had silvery black hair that sat on her head like a pile of noodles and cheeks dappled with sunspots. 

She hugged my father, who hesitated before hugging her back. Then she held out a hand to me. “Niki, right? I’ve heard so much about you. I am Neeru.”

My fingers were smeared with ketchup and mustard, but I shook her hand anyway. “Nice to meet you,” I said around the bread in my mouth. I noticed her wipe her hands off on the table. 

“She doesn’t look anything like you or Laura. Here she’d pass as Egyptian, I bet.”

Back in Connecticut, sometimes strangers mistook me for Mexican or Cuban. I usually told them I was Caramelian, which no one thought to question. This was the first time anyone had said Egyptian, which made me think of Cleopatra, pyramids, and the Nile. Okay, I guess.

My dad said he knew Neeru from college. “She was always top,” he said. “Full of ideas. Congratulations, Neeru. This show is fantastic. And what a great venue.”

“Thank you. I love it. It’s turned out so well. And Dubai’s perfect for it, too, right? Are you liking it, Niki?”

“It’s all right,” I said. “The guy who couldn’t smell was cool.” 

“Yeah, though remember, he can’t smell roses either.”

“There weren’t any in his cage.”

“Niki—” my father said at the same time Neeru said, “They aren’t cages—” They glanced at each other and smiled.

“This is your show?” I said, after a moment.

Neeru threw her head back and laughed, though nothing I’d said was funny. “My show. I love that. Well, I helped put it together. My company is at the crossroads between art and science.”

“Niki’s learning a lot,” my father said. “Me too. It’s really something, Neeru.”

“The offer still stands, Sam. We’re going global and we need more people.” 

I smashed the last of my burger into my mouth and chewed with my mouth open because my cheeks were stuffed, which meant I didn’t have to talk anymore. We started walking again. Neeru walked with us. I took my dad’s hand, which was weird for both of us because we never held hands.

I learned that Neeru lived in Iowa, but her family was from the same part of India as my dad’s. They talked about their college friends, who married whom and how many kids so-and-so had. Neeru was telling my dad to come visit her in Iowa when I asked about a box labeled “Sun Sneezes.” My dad didn’t notice. “We’re leaving tomorrow for Delhi,” he said to Neeru. “It’s a miracle we made it to the exhibit.”

“What time’s your flight?”

“Early.” Neeru and my father stared at each other and nodded, slowly.

He looked away. “Niki loves it here so far. Don’t you, Grape?” 

“That’s a cute nickname. What’s it mean?”

“When she was a toddler,” my father said, “Niki used to say there was a grape on her belly.” 

I hid my burning face. The only people in the world who knew about my birthmark were my mom and dad, and, because I couldn’t help it, Aunt Bethany. The mark was dark gray, large as a thumbprint, and the reason I wouldn’t ever wear a crop top. I hated it. 

My dad began to lift my shirt. “No!” I screamed, swatting at his hand.

“Niki! I’m just trying to show Neeru.”

“I don’t want to!”

“Don’t be rude. Neeru is like family”

“Sam, it’s all right. She can show me some other time.” Neeru winked at me.

“His name is Sameer,” I said.

“And your name is Nikita,” my dad snapped. 

“But you hate it when people call you Sam.”

“That’s enough.”

Was it any wonder I never chose my father over my mother? I didn’t even want to be here. I dropped his hand and ran toward the closest glass box, where a small line had formed in front of two kids, a boy and girl both younger than I was, seated on barber chairs. Hairbrushes and combs were piled on an oversized vanity. People took turns running them through the kids’ hairs, which shot up like stiff stalks of dark wheat. 

When it was my turn, I picked a hairbrush whose bristles were soft and dense and ran it through the girl’s hair. The strands were wiry and coarse and pulled together like ropes. I switched to a brush with harder bristles. Though the brush moved more easily, her hair looked electrocuted. I stared at her reflection in the vanity and her cast-down eyes. She was brown, too. I remembered being five, the summer I spent mostly outdoors: “cooking in the sun,” as my mother had put it. “No kidding,” Aunt Bethany said. “Look at the color on her. She’s almost darker than him.” 

I set the brush aside and said, “I’m sorry,” before leaving.

I couldn’t find them at first. Too many people were walking by. I had to puzzle them out looking for his black coat and her shiny face through cracks between legs and elbows. They were leaning against a glass box. They were not looking for me. She was speaking, and his gaze was fixed on her. I followed the line of his arm, extending outward from his body, forming a triangle where his hand met hers and their fingers intertwined. 

This was my fault. I should have stayed, kept my hand in his, never left them alone. I could see how much sense they made together. They could be husband and wife. No one would mistake them for strangers, like sometimes people mistook my father and mother. Sometimes people didn’t believe I was my father’s daughter, other times they didn’t believe I was my mother’s. 

My father finally saw me and started walking forward. “Niki,” he said, but I turned away, toward the exit. He grabbed my arm. I screamed loudly and when everyone stared, he let go. 

I ran, swerving around glass boxes. One of them was a tunnel, open on both ends, and I ran through it. When I came out, I had no idea which way to go. I couldn’t tell where the entrance was: in front or behind me. I couldn’t retrace my steps back to my father or to the exit. The glass boxes were eerie and strangers surrounded me. I crouched against a wall and put my head on my arms. It was pounding.

A soft weight on my arm. “Niki.” 

I didn’t lift my head. “I got lost.”

“I know. The installation you ran through, it disorients you. You’ll be okay in a few minutes.” His voice was like a needle pointing north. I lifted my head and read the sign above the box. “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.” 

“I want to go home.”

“I know.” He sounded tired. “Delhi is your home, too, Niki.” 

His hand was clammy as he pulled me up. He turned us toward the exit. I didn’t ask about Neeru. He didn’t say we should wait for her. 

The distance to the entrance expanded and stretched. I no longer knew what time of day it was, here or back in Connecticut. I no longer wondered what my mother was doing. It didn’t seem important, like it didn’t seem important where we were going, when we would return. I could stay right here, in Dubai. I could join the exhibit, tour the world like my father had toured the world. I needed only an oddity and a glass box, and I could make a home in this in-between place.