Mira Levenson is bursting with excitement as she flies to India to stay with her aunt and cousin for the first time. As soon as she lands, Mira is hurled into the sweltering heat and a place full of new sights, sounds, and deeply buried family secrets. From the moment Mira meets Janu she feels an instant connection. He becomes her guide, showing her both the beauty and the chaos of Kolkata. Nothing is as she imagined itand suddenly home feels a long way away. Before Mira leaves India she is determined to uncover the truth about her family, whatever it takes, and she must also make a decision that will break someone's heart.
|Publisher:||Whitman, Albert & Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||9 - 12 Years|
About the Author
Sita Brahmachari was born in England to an Indian doctor from Kolkata and an English nurse from the Lake District. She lives and works in North London with her husband, three children, and a temperamental cat. Mira in the Present Tense was her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Sita Brahmachari
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2012 Sita Brahmachari
All rights reserved.
I can't wait to grab my suitcase and walk through to the other side.
It's hard to believe that I've finally arrived in India, and that I, Mira Levenson, made it here, all by myself ... against all odds. You'd think your mum would want to encourage you to visit the place where your granddad grew up. But it feels like it's been me who's had to make it happen ... well, to be precise ... me and Priya, my second cousin, who's the same age as me. And if we hadn't got in touch with each other through Facebook after Granddad died, I don't suppose I would be standing here now.
I don't care how many times Mum tells me that the only reason she hasn't been back to India since she was my age is that her and Priya's mum, Aunt Anjali, "just lost touch" ... I don't believe her. When I finally persuaded her to start talking to Anjali it seemed to take them hours and hours of phone calls till they could sound anything like normal with each other. Then, when Mum finally agreed I could make this trip, she kept switching between over-the-top happiness and nervousness. What was it she said to me?
"You're going in Granddad's place, Mira. If I could go with you, I would."
But I didn't believe that either, because if she really wanted to go, then what's been stopping her for all these years ... or Granddad for that matter? When I asked him when the last time he'd been to Kolkata was, he said it was when his ma died, which was thirty years ago. I didn't even know my own great-grandma's name was Medini till he told me. The more I think about it, the more I know it can't be true that the reason why no one in our family's been back to India for so long is that everyone was "working too hard," "couldn't afford it," or "just lost touch." There are kids in my year at school who go to the other side of the world every year to see family, and it's not like they're rich or anything or not hardworking.
It's sad really, because not long before he died, Granddad seemed to decide that he wanted to go back "home." I remember that's what he called it, because it made me wonder how long you have to live in a place before you think of it as home.
"If I get better, you can come to India with Nana Kath and me!" he told me in that way he had of making you think that anything he said would actually happen. But he never did get better. I suppose it's because he's not here anymore that I felt like I had to answer Priya's email, like Ineeded to keep some kind of connection to the place where Granddad was born ... for both of us. But arranging to visit India has been such a struggle: getting Mum and Anjali to talk to each other in the first place, then persuading Mum that I'd be all right flying with an airport chaperone (I am fourteen!), then Anjali convincing Mum that I'd be well looked after, then getting the time off school (mainly because I said I'll be working in Anjali's children's refuge and organizing an art project), then the luck of Priya being picked for a dance gala so she only has a couple of hours of lessons a day. I think it's probably fair to say that me and Priya have been on a mission to wear down any objections, but even after all our planning Mum was still wavering. I think it was Dad who finally persuaded her that it was a good idea for me to come here. I overheard them talking one night ...
"Let her go, Uma. I remember when I was her age I got so into tracing my roots. I drew up this whole journey of my dad's family from Poland to the East End. It's why I became interested in history in the first place."
Good old Dad!
"I suppose I did visit at her age ... so it's only fair to let Mira go too." Mum sighed as if a part of her was actually afraid to let me come here. I don't know why, but I intend to find out.
Now here I am, crushed up close to all these people yelling instructions over each other's heads, scrambling for cases and trolleys, I'm being jostled backward and forward, but mostly backward ...
The air-conditioning is either switched off or broken and sweat patches are spreading embarrassingly under my T-shirt. Jidé says boys sweat, girls glow, but I reckon whatever spin you put on it, it's the same. There's no way I can meet Anjali and Priya looking and smelling like this.
Gradually people start to steer their trolleys, laden with cases, back out through the crowd so that I catch sight of the conveyor belt for the first time. No sign of my case yet. Suddenly my stomach tenses into a nervous knot of excitement ... I know it sounds a bit sad, but I've loved everything so far—the takeoff, the hot towels, and even the moment when I handed over my passport to the sour-faced uniformed woman sitting behind her glass screen. She checked me against my photo a couple of times and for a second I thought she wasn't going to let me through, but then she handed my passport back to me and said, "Welcome to Kolkata," without even glancing up.
I take another look at my passport photo. I suppose I do look different now. I was only twelve when this was taken. Jidé laughed his head off when I showed it to him, remembering me like that. I've got jet-black hair (no sign of dye) tucked neatly behind my ears and I'm wearing no make-up (not even eyeliner or lip gloss). No dangly earrings either, just neat little gold studs. My braces must have just been fitted, because my mouth looks all pouchy, like I'm struggling to stretch my lips closed over them.
"Have I changed that much?" I asked Jidé as he handed the passport back to me.
"Smile!" he said, snapping a photo on my dinky digital camera, the one Mum and Dad gave me for my birthday. "What do you think?" he asked, laughing and showing it to me.
It's a good photo ... It actually makes me look like I've got cheekbones! The best ones are always when you don't expect them to be taken, but I still can't get used to myself without my braces. They only came off a few days ago. I scan from Jidé's photo to the passport picture. It's still me ... the eyes are just the same, but I look so little girly compared to now, and my hair's so neat! I can't believe Jidé liked me when I looked like that! I stow the camera and my passport safely back in my bag and feel around for the photo of him I always carry around with me. I don't know why I love this one so much, but it was taken when we first met. I can't believe how young he looks either! Just thinking of Jidé makes me feel a very long way from home. I wonder where he is now, probably on his way to France on the bus, winding up through the mountains.
Maybe it will make it easier to be away from him, not being able to be in touch for at least two weeks.
I glance over at an old couple who are waiting patiently for their cases. They arrived in baggage claim just ahead of me, so maybe there's no need to panic ... yet. They're not, anyway. The woman's sitting on an empty trolley and the old man's standing next to her, one hand resting on her shoulder. The woman idly unravels her tight gray plait and the old man lifts his hand and runs his fingers from the top to the bottom of her silvery waves. She tilts her neck backward and rests her head in his hand.
"My Iris," I hear him whisper to her. She looks up at him and smiles, and he struggles to bend toward her to kiss her on the lips. I don't know why it's so embarrassing for two old people to show that they love each other like that, but it just is. You hardly ever see that sort of love between people their age. Jidé and I have been together for two years, nearly, and that's way longer than any of our friends. I wonder how long those two have known each other. Probably most of their lives, like my Nana Kath and Granddad Bimal. Poor Nana Kath—it must be so hard for her to live on her own now. She said she would come with me, and I believed her, but she's not well enough. Now I think of it, the person who was happiest that I was coming here was Nana Kath.
"I spent years trying to persuade your granddad to take time off work to go back and visit his family. You're going to love Kolkata. And you must send my love to Lila," she told me.
Apparently Nana went to Kolkata for the first time after she and Granddad got married, and she loved it, meeting my great-grandma and getting to know Granddad's sister Lila, who taught her how to cook the best curries and sweets. Nana Kath is the most amazing cook. Just thinking about her curry makes my tummy rumble. Granddad always used to joke that his English wife was a better cook than any of the Bengali wives he knew!
It's actually quite weird how much the old man with the trolley reminds me of Granddad. With his thin V-necked sweater, striped shirt, tie, smart trousers, and shiny shoes, he looks just like he's stepped out of Granddad's wardrobe.
I must be staring, because the old man catches me watching him and nods in my direction. How embarrassing is that! I quickly look away. I never mean to stare, but sometimes it feels like I'm in a sort of trance, as if I'm watching a film being acted out in front of me and I forget that I'm actually part of what's going on and that I can be seen too! I get so caught up in people-watching that I forget that it's really rude to stare. I suppose what I try to do (because it wouldn't feel right to take an actual photo) is take a photo in my head so I can pluck it out of my memory and paint or draw it later. Jidé says I'm always staring. He usually gives me a nudge to snap me out of it.
The old man is still watching me as I turn back to the carousel and pretend to be interested in the same parcels, cases, and rucksacks I've been watching for what seems like forever, going round and round on the dull gray belt. Some of them are so well sealed, their surfaces plastered with addresses in permanent marker, I get the feeling that whoever packed them didn't really believe that they would arrive. Then the dreaded "what if" thoughts start to bombard me. What if my case doesn't turn up? What if I've waited here for so long that Aunt Anjali and Priya have given up on me and aren't there on the other side of that wall? What if Priya and me don't get on? I mean, I hardly know her—all we've done is Facebooked and Skyped and the odd phone conversation. What if ...?
I take my mobile out of my bag to call Anjali, but I can't seem to find a network. What if they've left and I can't get in touch with them? Suddenly my heart's racing. I know I need to keep calm, but this is exactly why I exploded at Mum. Since Granddad died she's been getting Nana Kath to teach her how to cook Indian food, and the day before I left she made this unbelievable feast all by herself. Not as good as Nana Kath's curry, as my little brother Krish couldn't help pointing out, but still tasty. The thing that got on my nerves though is that she kept trying to use the meal as a sort of rehearsal for me.
"How do you say ... that was delicious?" Mum drilled me for the hundredth time. But all the words she thought she was teaching me I'd heard Granddad say anyway, and I remember them.
"Khub bhalo," I said, just to get her off my case.
I don't know what her problem was, but for the last few days before I left she was so stressed and uptight. Dad said she was just worried about me flying alone, but it wasn't just that. She kept telling me what I had to wear, what I had to pack, what presents I had to give to who, and what I should say to Anjali. It was as if she was trying to make up for lost time and give me a crash course in all things Indian or something. She just went on and on at me about stuff that wasn't that important ... and the things that would have been really useful, like sorting out my phone, she didn't get around to doing. I just got more and more wound up until we had a huge fight. In the end I didn't even hug her at the airport or say good-bye properly. We don't really argue that much, me and Mum, not compared to most people I know, and when we do we always make up really quickly—usually by sending each other "sorry texts," even if we're both in the house, so it feels even more wrong to have left things the way we did.
I shove my mobile into the little pouch in my bag, but something's stopping it sitting snugly inside. I feel around and pull out a tiny parcel of white tissue paper, sealed with a red ribbon and a tag ...
Sorry earrings! Peace offering!
Love you, Mum x
A lump forms in my throat and a wave of tiredness washes over me. I feel mean and guilty and wish I could "sorry text" her back, but my stupid phone won't work. I wish I could text Jidé too. Just a silly, nothing text like we ping-pong back and forth all the time. It just feels so weird not to be in contact with anyone. I take a deep breath to stop the tears welling up, walk over to a bench, and sit down. The argument wasn't really about anything much and now it feels stupid to have gotten so angry. After Mum's over-the-top supper I wandered into her bedroom to ask her if I could borrow her earrings—these earrings—she never wears them anyway. She was sitting on her bed looking at some old letters. I didn't think anything of it so I just sat by her side and peered over her shoulder ...
5th November 1981
I can't believe that you are actually coming to see us, after all this time.
I quickly scanned to the bottom of the page and read ...
There will be no more time to write now before you come, so instead of waiting for your letters, as I have done for all these years, now I am waiting for you.
I thought she was about to give this and all the other letters and photos to me, but I couldn't have been more wrong. As soon as she realized I was reading over her shoulder she jumped up off the bed, gathered everything up, and bundled it into a faded cloth-covered album that I'd never seen before. Then she placed it inside her old wooden chest at the end of her bed where she keeps all her precious, not-to-be-messed-with things. She gave me no explanation. Nothing! So all I did was ask her a few questions about when she went to India at my age and what she and Anjali got up to. She's told me bits and pieces before, so I wasn't expecting her to go off into a rant—telling me it was none of my business and to stop digging up the past, whatever that's supposed to mean. What's weird is, normally she loves sharing stories about when she was growing up.
It felt like she was shutting me out when I just wanted to understand more about Kolkata. I don't think it was that outrageous of me to ask a few questions, considering I was about to fly halfway round the world on my own to meet my family for the first time.
That's why, just before we left for the airport, I snuck back into Mum's room and took her letter album. Jidé was right to tell me to put it back. I should never have taken it, because ever since then it feels like Mum's letters are burning a great big guilty hole in my conscience.
Maybe, just maybe, I can do something to put things right. So here's my deal: if there's such a thing as what I call Notsurewho Notsurewhat, what some people call God, good karma, bad karma ... whatever forces are out there operating in the universe ...
I'm going to go to the loos to freshen up and if, when I come out, my case is on that carousel I'll put Mum's letters away and never read them. When I get home I'll place them back in her old wooden chest and hopefully she'll never know I took them. No harm done. Bad karma reversed. Maybe ...
I stand up as a tall moustached man wearing a military-looking uniform walks past me. I take a deep breath from my belly like I've learned to do in singing lessons, so my voice doesn't come out all weak and wonky.
"Excuse me, my case hasn't arrived ..."
His eyes travel down my bare legs and I find myself tugging at the bottom of my denim miniskirt. He glances upward again but doesn't look me in the eye.
Instead he swipes something off his shoulder, as if I'm an insignificant insect that's been bothering him.
"Wait, little longer. Takes time," he finally mutters before wandering off.
Now I wish I hadn't bothered asking Creepy Guard anything. I scan the carousel again. There are only a few bags left, but none of them are mine.
Another wave of tiredness hits me and my stomach is well and truly tied in knots. I have got to get myself together before I meet Priya and Anjali. I walk over to the loos and lock myself in. It's like an oven in here! I start to undress and I take out the lemon wipes Mum packed for me. I wash the staleness of a night's traveling off my skin. I spray on some deodorant and begin to feel less grim. I fold my miniskirt and T-shirt into my bag and take out the soft cotton salwar-kameez, the one Granddad's sister, Lila, sent for me, the one I said I wouldn't be seen dead in ... because Mum was going on and on about how important it was that I wear "appropriate clothing." The fine cotton is paper thin and a rich autumn orange, with a paisley black and red block print all over it. Orange is my favorite color and the cloth feels soft and cool against my skin. I can't believe I was so mean to Mum about it now.
Excerpted from Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari. Copyright © 2012 Sita Brahmachari. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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