Over the course of a single transformative summer, an American teenager travels to southern India to visit her relatives and gains new insight into her past, her family and her heritage.
Born in Kerala, Maya spent the first four years of her life there, cared for mainly by her grandmother, Ammamma, until she was sent to live with her parents in New York. At 15, with her parents' marriage undergoing a rough patch, she is sent back to India to stay with her Aunt Reema and Uncle Sanjay, their 10-year-old daughter, Brindha, and Ammamma at their house in the tea hills above Coimbatore. It's been years since Maya came to visit, and this time she is keenly aware of cultural differences: the different spheres of men and women and the persistence of the caste system. She feels stifled by the attentions of Ammamma and resentful of the time she must spend with the old woman. When Maya suffers an accident while most of the family is away, she and Ammamma grow closer, and Maya learns a hidden family fact. But only when Ammamma falls ill and the entire family gathers, including Maya's parents from New York, does Maya begin to comprehend more deeply the complexities of relationships.
About the Author
Vineeta Vijayaraghavan was born in India and raised in the United States. Motherland is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
I was shipped off to India that summer because of the death of a deer. There were deer crossing signs all along the Cross-Westchester Expressway, but this one came out of nowhere. The car was totaled, and when the police came they told us not to feel bad about the deer, it was an aged old thing, and it had died quickly. They helped us get the car off the highway and called our parents, and waited with us for a towtruck. Then they arrested Steve for driving under the influence.
Steve had only had a few beers at his brother's house earlier that evening; I'd had only half of one beer because they'd just put the six-packs in the refrigerator and they were still too warm for my taste. So I hadn't been the one drinking, and I wasn't the one who killed the deer. I hadn't really done anything wrong' but I was the one being sent away for the summer. My mother wasn't interested in the details. She was only interested in confirming why she shouldn't like Steve, and why I should be separated from what she called, in a piercing voice in the car on the way home from the police station, my "frat-boy boyfriend." Steve wasn't in a fraternity, he was still in high school, and he would never join a fraternity when he went to college. I wouldn't have liked Steve if he drank a lot at parties, or at football games, or if he drank because he was happy and having fun. Steve drank because he was sad, and I understood that. Sadness had a home in me, too.
Dust whited out the view as the plane's wheels skidded beyond the undersize tarmac runway into dirt. When my windowcleared, I could see men running straight for us pushing rickety staircases on rollers like they were moving props for a play. There was no control tower, just a short, squat terminal building next to the airfield. I had a lot of hand luggage, mostly gifts my mother sent with me, electronic appliances that would have been stolen if I had put them in my suitcases: a CD Walkman, a battery-operated egg beater, components for my uncle's satellite dish, high-power camera lenses. And two cartons of Camels I had bought, at my father's instruction, in the duty-free shop in Frankfurt during the layover yesterday morning. I had never bought cigarettes legally before. I had felt conspicuous standing in front of the cashier, but, unblinking, she took my dollars and gave me a handful of Deutschemarks as change.
I gathered together my packages, hoping that my uncle might board the plane to help me carry everything. Last time we had come to India, three years ago, he and my aunt came right onto the aircraft, along with my father's old classmate who ran the airport.
I waited until most of the people had filed past me off the plane, but my uncle was nowhere to be seen. I pretended to be younger, and confused about airports, and a steward grabbed my belongings and escorted me across the airfield toward the terminal. He was short but muscular, and, like everyone else on the government-owned airline, wore a black armband to mourn the former prime minister's death. The heat hovered over the ground in those shimmery waves I'd seen on car commercials. As we walked closer to the terminal, hundreds of people were hanging over the two balconies, one on the second floor and one on the roof, yelling names and greetings. Only villagers who had never seen a plane land before were willing to stand out there in the sun. Since my uncle would not be there, I didn't even bother to look up.
The steward deposited me in the line for passport control for noncitizens, and then he scooted off in the direction of the very short lines for citizens. I half pulled, half kicked my bags forward through the slow-moving line, until I faced a passport officer across a grubby glass divider.
The officer asked me something I couldn't understand. It must have been in Tamil, but now he tried again, this time in Malayalam, "How long a stay?" The airport was in the state of Tamil Nadu, but it was on the border of Kerala, so as many Malayalam speakers traveled through it as Tamil speakers.
"Three months," I answered in English. I could understand Malayalam but I wasn't comfortable speaking it.
He looked at my passport picture and then at me, at my picture again, and then at me.
"I wear contacts now," I explained, pointing to the big glasses on the little face in the photo.
He asked, "Where are your parents?"
"They're not here, I came by myself."
He said, "You are fifteen and they sent you by yourself?"
He seemed to think my parents had shown poor judgment. "In America, I always get around by myself," I said. He shook his head, stamped my passport, and let me through.
My last resort to avoid this India trip had been to appeal separately to my father. I told him how I wanted to get a summer job, in a dentist's office or at the mall, and see my friends, and swim a lot. I told him half of what I earned I would save for college and we could even try a curfew again.
I could almost see my father and me being friends when my mother was out of town on her frequent business trips. She worked for a commercial real-estate firm, and she spent a lot of time in Canada coaxing companies to come down here and build office parks. When she was away, my dad, who ran his own leather goods company, played single parent. I would try to get him to come around to my views on Mother, and he'd listen quietly as I described how she had embarrassed me at the PTA meeting or how she had forgotten to pick me up from swim practice. But then she would come back from her business trip. He would light up when he heard the airport limo purring on the driveway, he'd run out to help her with her luggage, forgetting to wear his coat, or even shoes one time.
So I didn't ask him right away to try to renegotiate this India trip, but waited until the summer got closer. And he actually took my side, he actually said, "I don't think this is the right way to handle Maya"this was not said in front of me, but I overheard it like I overheard many things, by hanging around doorways and corners. This was followed by days of tense and terse dinnertable conversations, and seeing my mother carrying pillows and blankets to her home office. It made me a little nervousit was one thing wanting my father unglued from her but I didn't want them having problems over me.
My father broached it one last time with her while they were weeding the garden, which resulted in another night of pillows and blankets being carried up and down stairs, closet doors slamming. My mother thought spending time with her relatives might teach me to remember where we had come from. My father thought where we had come from wasn't as important as dealing with where we were now. He explained this to me with his shoulders hunched in defeat. Seeing him like that, I started to feel like going to India might be better than staying around to watch everything crumble.