Stealing the Ambassador showcases an astonishing new talent that captures the clashing dynamics of family and cultures with a power that will remind readers of Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies.
Twenty-three-year-old Rajiv Kothari is caught between two formidable men: a father who believed success and freedom could be found only in America and a grandfather who fought to guarantee such ideals in India, their homeland. As the stories of each generation unfold, Stealing the Ambassador illuminates the interplay between the forces of history and family ties. A beautifully rendered depiction of the immigrant experience, Stealing the Ambassador is also an unforgettable portrait of the tortured yet loving relationships between fathers and sons.
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About the Author
Sameer Parekh was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. He graduated from Brown University and was a 1996-1997 Fulbright Scholar in India. He is currently completing medical school and lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Read an Excerpt
In 1966 my father was born for a second time in this, his most recent life, baptized by a gentle and lazy January snowfall, flake after flake, a thousand perfect welcomes, he remembered aloud once, to a new country. When he woke the next day, snow covered the earth in swells and valleys of unbroken, unrelenting white, and my father thought, because he had, hours ago, been on a plane for the first time, if you could steal the clouds from the sky and spread them over the earth, neatly, evenly, this is what it would look like. To hear him tell it, before he'd ever seen a spring or summer or fall, he'd found a favorite season.
He mentioned his arrival to me once. I was eleven, sitting with my parents and my brother on folding chairs at the dinner table. "Oh, I liked it, that is for certain." My father's English was accented, a thick and general auditory reminder that his passport had once been Indian. To those more attuned to such nuances, his speech said northern, not southern, India, his grammar an obvious clue that his schooling had been Gujarati, not English medium. This night, like most nights, he jumped between the two. "This is not to say, of course, that the winter liked me. Think on it. I had only two suits when I came here. One blue, one gray, neither wool. And only one coat that was much too thin. Less than adequate."
As my father spoke, his right hand would tear at the roti and use it to collect subzi in an off-centered cone of bread and vegetable. This he'd dip into a bowl of daal, so the structure was moistened and flavored, and then feed himself. His left hand would gesticulate like a drunken butterfly, flapping, soaring then falling, attentive always to his story. I remember friends showing me they could pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time and theirs seemed mean feats.
The immensity of that first winter overwhelmed him. With two suits and a coat he was always on the edge of cold, always aware that he was bothered. He supplemented money from his graduate student grant by working part-time at a small shoe store, nine to six on Saturday, twelve to five on Sunday, off the books. He alternated between his suits and hoped the knees of his pants didn't wear thin. Laughing, on another night, he said, "The craziness of Americans. Their whole day was make or break if they do or don't find the right shoes. They made me the responsible party." He folded his hands together and pressed them against his forehead in mock supplication. "Arre baba, it's not my fault. My job is to squat down, measure your feet, to stand up, to get your shoes, to put them on your feet, and then to package them all again when none suit you. This only. For manufacturing, this is not my department. Talk to Florsheim, sahib."
That next winter he used the money he'd saved to buy a coat, orange and down-filled, the pick of the Salvation Army's litter. Short and slight, the coat doubled half of him, making his torso seem a burden too large for his thin legs. He appeared, from a distance, to wobble as he walked down streets. He was warm, though, and he made it a point to roam about when wiser folk stayed indoors.
He got mittens, a scarf, and a hat. He learned the difference between slush and sleet, between wet and dry snow, about snowmen and toboggans. He bought a shovel, enjoying the banter with neighbors who were also awake early, clearing front steps and sidewalks. He decided that four inches of snow was the right amount, not too great an obstruction, significant enough to turn the city beautiful.
When he was done talking that night his left hand would have fallen to the table, exhausted, and his right might have reached for a glass of water. He'd drink in long swallows, his throat sliding up and down inside his neck like a hurried earthworm. When he'd finished, the glass would have been marked by the oil and ghee of my mother's cooking, pressed by the tips of my father's fingers into five patterns, unique the whole world over.
Twenty-five months after he came from India, my father graduated with a master's in electrical engineering from the Newark College of Engineering and landed a job with a computer company in upstate New York. After a year with the company he flew home to India, in February 1969. My grandfather and grandmother had been inquiring and conducting interviews. When he arrived, my father chose my mother from the six options his parents offered. They spent an hour together, chaperoned, and my mother and father decided they were both agreeable to the match. They married three weeks later, in a ceremony surprisingly large given the time constraints involved.
After the wedding, the new couple, and my father's mother and father, and my father's younger brother, piled into a brand-new Ambassador with a driver and began a weeklong honeymoon, just the six of them. They visited Rajasthan, paying particular attention to temples along the way. At the end of the week my father flew back to America and returned to work. My mother lived with my father's family for the next four months, until her visa was ready and her packing done. In June she landed at JFK and my father picked her up, wondering what to say.
I was born six years later. Four years after that, they had my brother. Two months before that second birth, the three of us moved out of our one-bedroom apartment into a raised ranch, upstate, far enough from New York City that real estate prices were manageable. My father and mother shared one bedroom, my younger brother and I shared another, and it was the third room, the smallest of the three, nine by ten with an old green carpet and a small closet, through which my father's family, thirteen people in all, spread mattresses and blankets and pillows on the floor and arrived in a new country.
They came in two and threes, following my father to America. Some had always wanted to come; some came because they had failed in India. I was twelve when they started to arrive.
First came my father's older sister, my aunt and her husband. He was skinny, she was not. They both found work in the same strip mall, she at Bradlees, in cosmetics, he as a stock boy at Wal-Mart. Together, they made $9.25 an hour and worked eighty hours a week. When they got overtime they'd make time and a half, just about fourteen every hour, and treat themselves to ice cream at Baskin-Robbins before returning home. After dinner they would lose themselves in Hindi films, watching a life of wealth and power from which it seemed they were forever removed, to forget the day they had worked, that tomorrow, they would do the same.
They stayed with us for sixteen months. When they left, back to India to sell their house, their children came to live with us, two sons and a daughter. The two men moved into the spare bedroom and their sister passed the night on a sleeping bag in front of the television, downstairs. I watched shows over her sleeping body that year, the volume so low that I would have to concentrate, rebuilding dialogue from the indistinct contours of actors' voices.
When my aunt and uncle returned they moved in with their daughter to the living room. This is how we lived for the next nine months, the house always filled, growing like an overlush garden, thicker and denser with new lives and new clutter; more shoes at the front door, more towels in the bathroom, more praying, more incense, more coats, more toothbrushes, new brands of toothpaste, new newspapers, saris, bindis, till with this new weight, this mass of people, space and time were forced to warp.
The day assumed new cadences. The kitchen table could seat only six people, so the men and my brother and I would eat first, my mother and aunt and her daughter serving us. The men would talk among themselves, my brother and I would talk to each other, the women would feed us until we were full. Afterward, we'd leave the table to them, going downstairs to watch Dan Rather, my father explaining America, referring to the broadcast. When they'd eaten and cleaned the kitchen, the women would come sit with us and we'd all watch on television a pirated cassette rented from the Indian grocery store. By nine-thirty the set was off in deference to my uncle and aunt, tired and in need of sleep. Upstairs, my uncle's two sons would shower, one after the next, readying themselves for work on the night shift. Washing, they'd sing aloud, filmi songs, and their voices would carry, over the shower curtain and through the door, down the hall and into the bedroom my brother and I shared, the room where nightly my parents would sequester themselves with their children, resurrecting for a third of an hour the nuclear life they had grown accustomed to since arriving in America.
Waking, again the house was full. My cousins would return from work and eat a meal in the kitchen. My brother and I would get ready for school; my parents, my aunt and uncle and their daughter, would get ready for work. Everyone took lukewarm showers and ate bowls of cereal and despite the rush it seemed that we were all always late.
They moved out, to a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey. Four months later two more people came, my father's younger brother and his wife. They moved, after half a year, to Jackson Heights. After them came five more: two of my father's nephews for eight months; afterward, an older brother and his wife for a little longer; finally, a niece who stayed for four months, until she was arranged to marry a man from Michigan. Five months after the house emptied I left for college. Four years later I finished and began studying to be a doctor. It was during my first semester in medical school that my father had a heart attack, shoveling snow from the driveway of the house he'd bought in seventy-nine.
My mother drove my father to the hospital, snow be damned. When he'd stabilized and was assigned to the cardiac care unit, my mother sat by his bed, holding her husband's hand as he woke and slept in ten-minute cycles. She left briefly to buy herself a cup of coffee. When she returned she wasn't allowed back into his room. From the hallway, through the glass, she watched, as though it were a silent movie, a cast of stolid doctors and pretty nurses flurry around my father. They slowed and finally stopped and where you might expect the movie to have spliced in a screen of printed dialogue, a white coat opened the door to let my mother know her husband was dead.
Her own father died before I was born, two years after she married. My keenest impression of the person he was comes from my mother's recollection of events at the end of her seventeenth year. She was a senior in high school at an all-girls academy, second in a class of two hundred, when she decided to take the entrance examination for medical school. My mother asked for her parents' permission. Initially reluctant, they acquiesced and through the following four months she studied for the exam. On the evening prior my grandmother arranged for a puja. My mother prayed intently, first for her family's well-being and, afterward, to pass the exam.
Three hundred boys and thirty girls took the statewide test in a too warm auditorium at a local college. In years past, with similar numbers taking the examination, four people were offered admission. My mother sat with the girls in the front two rows of the auditorium. Behind them two rows were left empty and behind these two rows the boys filled what space remained. The exams were distributed and the room collapsed to the smell of sweat and the sound of pen on paper. The test lasted six hours. At its end my mother avoided her friends and hurriedly commandeered a cycle rickshaw to take her home. She cried intermittently through the night, embarrassed and devastated by how poorly she knew she had done. She applied, the next day, for a place in the Bachelor of Commerce class entering the following year. Time passed. She was admitted. Her family convinced her that events had worked out for the best, because now she could stay at home while attending college.
Two months later my mother fell ill with malaria. Her temperature peaked every third day, approaching one hundred and five degrees each time, and in the days between the fever spikes my mother would lie in bed and anticipate feeling much worse. She imbibed quinine. Three days after the fever finally broke, word arrived that the results had been posted for the medical school entrance exam. She begged her father not to check her score but my grandfather insisted to his debilitated daughter that it was best to confront one's failures head-on. He sent a man from his office to get the grade. Later that evening, when my grandfather returned from work, curiosity had gotten the better of my mother and she asked him for the score. Her father, his face tight and serious, told his daughter the results were not good, that in this case, it was better not to know.
My mother understood her failure must be severe. No one mentioned the examination again. She entered college that August and graduated in three years, in the first division, thoroughly uninterested by her course work. Six months after her graduation she and my father were married and four months after this she came to America to be his wife.
After her first year in America, her father got sick, but not so seriously, she supposed. She called home to speak to him and there was nothing in his voice, she'd recall later, that indicated that he might be about to die. They exchanged pleasantries and gossip till she said good-bye.
"A moment, please," her father said.
"Yes," said my mother.
A moment passed. "Are you happy in America?"
"I am happy," my mother answered, reflexively at first, and then again, with the same words, in a more considered fashion.
My grandfather grunted affirmatively. "Your husband, he is a good husband?"
"Really, Papa," she said, embarrassed.
"He is good," my mother replied.
She waited again for him to say good-bye. Instead he said nothing and my mother, fearing the line had been disconnected, called "Hello" twice, loudly, into the receiver. My grandfather, his voice delayed, tinny and echoing on the overseas line, said, "You were admitted to medical school. You placed third on the exam. I was proud of you. I decided, however, that you were too sickly to go away to school. Also, I did not think it made sense to educate a girl in that manner. I thought I may have been wrong. But you are happy now, yes? I do not feel I made such a bad decision. I hope that you will feel the same. Beti, you cannot change a part of who you are now without changing the whole."
My mother said nothing, weighing the betrayal, twelve thousand miles away and five years removed. "Thank you, Papa," my mother said flatly. Her father waited, trying to gauge the sincerity of her statement. He said good-bye and hung up. They exchanged aerograms dutifully and spoke once again, in taut phrases and long, heavy pauses, before he died.
It is the instinct toward self-preservation that allows me to rationalize his action. Without him there would be no me and my mother would have been part of some other whole. But though I accommodate this deceit, man that he might have been, my mother's father is forever framed for me by this one choice.
My father, to his credit, was incensed by the whole affair and in the months before her father's death pushed my mother to apply to medical school in the States. My mother understood, however, that she didn't have the degree, or the language skills, or the money to go to school, at least not in America. Despite herself she came to advocate her father's decision. Perhaps it was in deference to his memory; more likely, I think, it was because she recognized that to do otherwise would make my father feel like the flat tire that had waylaid her on the road to more exciting times, and he was, after all, her husband.
I don't know what my parents were like when they married. In the photo albums, they seem alive in the thrill of each other's company, and even in those few pictures where one or the other is alone, reading or walking, happiness seems implicit in their carriage and the light in the space around them. It may be that this sort of photo is unavoidable, that at every marriage's onset, it is easy to get the good picture. The world is before them and who might say to the two in the photo that theirs will not be a union for the ages, that their children will not be splendid, that money and happiness are not guaranteed.
Even still, the photos surprise me, because as a child raised in a country that, despite its own troubles managing the institution, marvels skeptically at the notion of an arranged marriage, it was impossible that my parents would not seem slightly suspicious. The dynamics of such a union seemed fraught with potential for mishap. Once you've been married, what next? What do you talk about, what do you want to tell each other? Are trust and affection immediate, like an orphan reunited with his long-lost mother? If not, when does it come, how does one wait?
Though theirs was an arranged marriage it was in many ways an atypical Indian marriage for the time. My parents were alone from the time my mother arrived in the country. They could be private, angry and amorous, silly and intimate, in ways in which their lives in India would not have allowed. I think sometimes that it was these opportunities as much as it was the simple accident of their wedlock that made the photographs luminous.
A stranger probably took my favorite picture of them. They are on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, which is a distant but distinct blue-green figure in the photo. They are standing, leaning lightly against a white railing, New York Harbor and a summer sky in the background. The wind is blowing wisps of my mother's hair across her face, along her forehead and cheeks. She is wearing sunglasses, the kind Jackie Kennedy wore, and, slight and regally beautiful, she looks very much like an Indian Audrey Hepburn. Kissing her temple and smiling is my father, his nose pressed lightly into the side of her head, the frames of his glasses almost in profile. On either side of them are two white couples, dressed much like my parents, looking at the both of them, smiling approvingly. The rest of the boat is entirely unconcerned.
Another picture, taken by a friend of my father's, is a close second. There were two students, Gujarati like he was, who had completed engineering degrees in the States and with whom my father became close. My father was the first of the three to marry, and in pictures from her first years in the States, my mother is often framed with my father and his friends, the neighborhood tomboy. In this particular picture, the two friends are implied, one as the picture taker, the other a leg and arm along the left edge of the photo. My father and mother are in the picture's center, sitting in the snow, trying to attach chains onto the tires of a white car that must have been their first. My father is sitting cross-legged, looking confused but smiling slightly, the chains lying in his lap, his hands trying to fit part of the tangle over the tire. He is in a long gray overcoat, without a hat, black leather gloves on his hands. My mother is sitting next to him in a blue coat and a blue hat. She is laughing, pointing, her hands gloveless, to a spot on the tire where she presumably thought the apparatus attached. The picture appeals to me because though my father looks confused, he doesn't seem disappointed, only amateurish. The scene seems hopeful, with the excitement of a winter trip to somewhere building, not dissipating. My mother's joy is obvious, a burst of exuberance on her face.
In the year before his death, my father had ceased viewing obstacles as anything less than an affront. He seemed to be fed up with it all, annoyed to frustration that more often than he liked, he couldn't get the chains onto those damned tires. He'd rage about the people at work, about the people in town, about the country in general, about the country in descriptive particulars. He'd wonder aloud about returning to India.
After my father's cremation, relatives stayed on, some for weeks, as if their old rooms needed filling. To close each day, they sang bhajans, desperate, perfected appeals to God. Receding into night, the house rang with the sounds of their devotion, and we slept on the warm and raspy vibrations of the harmonium's last note.
But I didn't rest well. I ranged back and forth between sleep and wakefulness, stopping occasionally, en route from one to the other, in a neither-here-nor-there stupor that felt heavy and alcoholic. At some point, during each of these episodes, my father, one, then five, then ten days dead, sat down on my bed. A younger man, twenty pounds lighter, his hair was trimmed into a shined shock of black. He was in a suit, dark gray and smart, and he had on a thin black tie and black horn-rimmed glasses. His face was fresh, his eyes were bright. He'd sit there and I'd lay there, the room frozen more still and brittle than the winter world outside, till he reached down for his suitcase, and was off, out the door.
My father talked of India increasingly as he aged, but was still more excited by Super Bowl parties than by navratri garbas, and though most years he took the train into the city on the Fourth, he could never be convinced to attend the India Day parade. He was twenty-four, a year older than I am now, when he arrived in America. Thirty years later, in November 1998, he was caught in some confused middle; dead of a vegetarian diet that wasn't the least bit healthy, dead in a funeral home in upstate New York, on Washington Street, surrounded by a hundred Indian faces.
We hardly talked in the years preceding his death. We'd try to converse, feeling there was a form to be followed and that fathers and sons ought not be so silent together but, despite our efforts, we were peculiar reagents that produced a collective fizzle, our conversations abortive. I disagreed with him about most things; he wondered how I could think the way I did. In the way a person progresses from a cigarette on weekends to a few cigarettes during the week till all at once he can't remember a time, not so clearly, in any case, when he wasn't a smoker, my father and I learned in increments to be silent, each failure making the next conversation more difficult, until the very notion that we might have anything at all to talk about seemed an idea belonging to our past.
My mother is small and thin and besides the creep of gray over her head, she does not look so different from the pictures of her taken before I was born. She is mild and slow to anger. She is curious but she is cautious in her curiosity. She moderates her expressions, her smiles and her frowns, when she senses someone watching. When, early in the morning, six days after my father died, I walked into the kitchen, she was lost in some private thought and, missing my approach, I caught her face unrestrained and happy.
"Good morning, beta," she said.
"What were you thinking?"
"Oh, about your father."
"I was remembering that, after my marriage, I would wake in the night, trying to remember my husband's face."
My mother was dressed that morning in a long white cotton nightgown, flowers on the fabric multicolored and minute, faded, too, into a blurry softness by the aggression of rinse and soap and spin. She had a robe on over the gown, heavy and blue, that she had cinched round her waist. She looked, for most of the week after my father's death, antique and worn. Her clothing seemed a protective wrap, to dull jostles from her world before they disturbed her.
"You should understand," she said, continuing, "it is not easy being a new wife. Your father was in America and I was living with his family, my new family. In those days, before we had all come to America, we were seventeen people.
"Everyone was nice, I'm not saying anybody was not nice. But I was trying to remember who liked their tea strong, who liked their roti crisp, where all the things were kept, what work needed to be done. I didn't have the time to think on your father."
It was still dark outside. On the panes of the window, behind the plants that sat on the sill behind the kitchen sink, on those plates of glass, crystal fronds of frost had grown overnight, sharp and jagged, new life, almost. My mother made as though to scratch at them, but they were outside and she was inside. She tapped on the window and the arbor remained adherent. My mother shrugged.
"I knew his face, of course. We had wedding photos. But when I would think about him at night, something would happen. His nose would grow or his ears would grow, or he would have a beard. Something. I would try with my mind to give his face that right shape, to give him a shave if that is what he needed. Then, as soon as I fixed one thing, before everything was back to normal, something else would go wrong. I knew what he should look like, but I couldn't imagine him in the right way. I thought it was my failure."
She shook her head, amused at the thought. "What a headache I gave to myself!"
My mother is not a cosmopolitan Indian woman. There are women, her age, Indian, who were raised in those households where worlds of alternate possibility existed for girls. Having missed her shot at medical school, though, my mother was given no option but to locate her aspirations around her family. She stayed at home until I was fourteen and my brother was ten, working part-time as a bookkeeper out of her bedroom, because she felt that a mother's place was, should be, with her children.
It's not so hard to imagine her as a much younger woman, newly arrived in my grandfather's house, practicing her wifely chores so diligently that her husband, newly met, waiting on the other side of the world, was relegated to foggy obscurity. It is even less surprising that almost thirty years removed from the event, it seems to her like a story that involves an altogether different person in a life that, though familiar, can scarcely be believed.
On her first day in this country, my mother met Red Holtzmann, then the coach of the soon-to-be-world-championship New York Knicks. Neither she nor my father discovered this until the next year, 1970, when watching, halfheartedly, the television, they recognized the person on the screen as the man who had taught my mother to eat pizza.
My mother had flown into New York during the early summer of 1969. Too nervous to eat on the plane, she was ravenous by the time she arrived in America. My father, excited to welcome his bride, anxious as well, began to talk and explicate as soon as my mother landed, perhaps to orient her, maybe to settle himself. My mother nodded her head and kept quiet, responding when she was asked a question, unsure of how much detail her husband desired, unsure of what she should and shouldn't be saying. It was not until they had almost reached home that my father asked my mother if she was hungry.
He took her to Frank's Pizzeria and found it closed at four in the afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. But pressing his face to the glass, he sensed some movement inside and knocked on the window. Frank, big and round, hair on his arms but not on his head, opened the front door and, recognizing my father, said, "What can I do for you, Vasant? It's a little early for dinner, don't you think?"
"This is my wife," said my father, and as Frank turned to my mother she took a step backward. "She has just come from India and she is hungry."
Frank extended his hand, and my father took hold of my mother's forearm and placed it in his friend's callused paw. Frank smiled at my mother and said softly and slowly, "Well, little lady, let's see if I can't make you something that you'll like."
My father said, "Thank you," and the three of them stepped inside.
I'd often wonder what it was about my mother that drew my father to her. His choice, of course, was not made at random: his parents had offered him six options. Still, he could have chosen five other women. Perhaps he picked my mother because she was attractive. I say this objectively my father was less handsome than my mother was pretty. "Beauty and the beast," he'd say when he looked with us at old photographs. She'd protest, but there was some truth in what my father said, we all recognized this, especially my brother and I, who looked more like our father than we hoped to.
But my father would have understood that this was not a decision to be lightly taken. He would spend the rest of his life with this woman. He might have recognized, through whatever conversation he had with her, that this was someone who was his match, as acute as he was forgetful, as neat as he was messy. It's possible that this was evident at their meeting, but maybe not. Maybe they grew to complement each other later, my father realizing he could be dissolute with his memory because his wife would keep the trains running on time, my mother's temper growing moderate as my father's grew labile.
My dad was probably concerned with his household. He would have wanted a wife who could raise children and cook and clean. But then, none of the six women my father met would have failed in any of those criteria. My grandmother, his mother, would have seen to it that each of her potential daughters-in-law was capable of what she understood to be a wife's duties. I can't imagine my father differentiating more finely around that point.
The quality of that first interaction must have been deciding. Did she laugh when my father joked, did she make him laugh? Did she say something that struck him as being particularly keen or appropriate?
Inside the pizzeria, behind the counter, was another man, a friend of Frank's, whom my father did not recognize. The man was wearing a checkered jacket and a collared white shirt underneath. His age was unclear, because though my parents would eventually become skillful at differentiating gradations of that middle stretch of the lifespan, in 1969 my father was twenty-seven, my mother almost twenty-two, and all ages beyond forty especially among Americans, who aged differently, it seemed, than Indians were, to them, near indistinguishable. This older man waved hello and my parents waved hello back and sat down at a table.
My mother did not, that first time at the restaurant, register much about the place. She did not notice the fake-wood-looking wallpaper, the neon pink cursive in the window naming the place, the bathrooms in the back, one for men, one for women, the shared sink located in the hall between the two. She did not notice that there were three booths and six tables, that the booths could fit four, that the tables could fit two, that the tables were newer than the booths. She did not see that next door was a barbershop, could not have known that inside the shop was a table littered with magazines. These are things that came later, when, like a mapmaker, through a thousand small forays, she related in her head one place to the next in this, the New World.
Frank disappeared, then returned with two glasses of water. To my father he said, "Cheese, right?" and my father nodded. To my mother, Frank asked, "And what would you like to eat?"
My mother, unsure of her options, looked to her husband, who gestured to Frank and said in Gujarati, "Ask him what he can make for you."
But my mother, too uncertain with English to begin a conversation, said instead, "I will have what my husband is having."
"You like pizza?" asked Frank.
Searching for the right phrase, my mother said, "I think I will."
From behind the counter Frank's friend called out encouragingly, "That's the spirit."
When the pizza arrived, a small pie between the both of them, my father placed a slice onto my mother's plate and then another onto his own. My mother managed a bite or two. My father nudged, "It is good, yes?" and my mother nodded, though she thought the food miserable. It burned the roof of her mouth. The cheese stretched in cambers, long and languid, from her lips to the bit edge of the pizza and she could not, for the life of her, figure how to disconnect without using her left hand.
My father had begun to tell her about the first time he had eaten pizza when the stranger, Frank's friend, approached the table and said to my father, "Excuse me, son, would you mind if I helped your wife with her pizza?"
"Please," said my father, and the man they would, that next summer, when watching a televised basketball game, identify incredulously as Red Holtzmann, ruddy and cantankerous as his team loped across the Garden floor, pulled a chair alongside my mother and, laughing with her, explained that this was difficult food to eat. He showed her how to hold the slice by its crust, how to bend the slice almost in half, to let the tip droop slightly, so the oil would run off its surface, so that it would present itself easily to her mouth. He showed her to use her left hand to pull the stubborn mozzarella from her lips and when she had finished the slice, he left the table, patting her on the back, and said, "Young lady, you have a brilliant future in New York."
"Thank you," said my mother, and feeling more comfortable, she smiled at herself and with her husband.
"Now you are an expert," her husband said happily. "I should have shown you myself."
"We are both learning," said his wife, smiling broadly for just an instant.
I think this is what happened in February 1969. My father met with six women, all pretty, all smart, all capable of raising a family and managing a home. He sat and spoke with each of them, in the presence of their parents and his, over a cup of tea. There would have been nothing outrageous in the conversation, only a polite, lukewarm exchange. During the conversation, and in the hours afterward, my father would dwell on what was said, trying to intimate the young women's inner workings. He'd picture his wife in America, talking to Americans, learning with him a new way of living, because, I think, my father wanted a bride that he could share this new country of his with, someone who would marvel at the place with the same affection he did. And in my mom, perhaps, he sensed the edginess of a dream deferred. She couldn't be a doctor, she understood that her marks weren't good enough, but she still wanted a glimpse of a larger world, and something in her speech or her dress or her look conveyed that to him in their first meeting.
In choosing her, he was choosing a good Indian wife. Above all, my mother was that; her views, her tastes, her points of orientation not so different from those of her siblings in India, or heroines in Hindi films. But he was also choosing a fellow immigrant, someone who could navigate in his new home without pining the whole while for her old haunts, someone to whom he could whisper, "Look at that," and expect that she was seeing the same thing he was through the same appreciative eyes. Which is to say, my father chose his wife after he'd chosen his country.
On Tuesday it began to rain early in the morning, the sound a reliable monotone made, somehow, by a billion random collisions. The sky wavered between dark and darker gray overhead, and it turned to some compromise between the two out toward the horizon. My father's eldest brother was leaving for California, where the air was warmer and the sky more forgiving, after two weeks at our house.
My uncle and I passed two accidents on the way to the airport. The automobiles in each had slid into the median divider, jettisoning debris and paint and side-view mirrors, coming to rest closely applied to the concrete that kept the rest of us safe from oncoming traffic; the cars seemed bled of their vitality by the rain, the color of puddles. We on the road to other places were made misers by the resulting traffic snarls, grudging when we let other automobiles into our lanes, snatching, to the time of windshield wipers, inches and feet in fitful accelerations, decelerations.
We reached Kennedy at five-fifteen. My uncle's flight was at six. I helped him check in. He said mumbled kind words and I thanked him. Then he left, boarding pass in hand, to walk to his gate.
I had taken a leave from school. I had nothing to do at home. This is why I had time on my hands and why, after watching my uncle pass through security, I wandered about the terminal. In the bookstore, I thought to buy a book but didn't. I thumbed through the Atlantic, glancing every few paragraphs surreptitiously at the covers of the adult magazines high on the back shelf, hidden for the most part by Field & Stream, or else Home, by the respectable sorts of magazines people ought to be drawn to after their fathers have died.
I crept into a first-class lounge, just to see what it was like, but a pretty and fragile blonde, icy in her airline uniform, noticed my skulking. She asked to see my ticket and then asked me to leave. At a gift shop I bought Toblerone for my mother and my brother.
Later, feeling hungry, I bought myself a burger, fries, and a Coke for nine dollars at an airport cafeteria. The tables were crowded and I stood with my tray, rotating in a circle, looking for an empty seat. I had turned round three times when a seated Indian man, five tables away, pointed to the chair opposite him.
"Please," he said, gesturing to the seat.
The man was short and round, in his early thirties, eating onion rings and sipping from a can of Coke. His mustache was neatly trimmed, his bald spot smallish, his glasses a thin, gold-colored metal frame. He was wearing an exuberantly patterned polyester shirt rolled back from his wrists to just below his elbows. It matched, just barely, his ironed beige pants.
As I sat down, he said, with a newer immigrant's accent, "I brought this Coke from my home. If you buy the same Coke here, they'll take two dollars from you. If I bring it from home, it costs me ten cents."
"That's smart of you," I said, feeling the rube.
"Smart, nothing" said the man. "The smart people are the ones selling. In an airport people will spend anything."
"You may be right," I agreed.
"Maybe, nothing. Definitely, I'm telling you. I'm in business myself. Definitely." He leaned toward me over the table and motioned to the terminal surrounding with his arms, short and plump. "People are thinking one of two things in the airport. They are thinking, I am traveling, taking this trip, spending so much money, so what if I lose another ten or fifteen dollars? Or they are cursing themselves, because they do care about the money, but they are stuck in the airport and their car is parked in the parking lot. Where is your car?"
"In the lot," I said, on my way to proving his point.
"Of course. Now you are hungry. What to do, go walk to your car, drive twenty minutes there and back to get some food or some item?" He waited till I shook my head. "Not at all. People will grumble and people will mumble, but they will spend the money. In either case, if you are selling, you come out ahead. Your name, please."
"Rajiv Kothari," I said.
"Ajit Joshi," he replied, extending his hand.
Ajit was from Chandigarh, the best-planned city, he assured me, in all of India. He lived in Jackson Heights and worked at Sam & Raj, the electronics store. When he asked my line, I explained I was a medical student, and he beamed. "Very good," he said. "It is the best profession to be. My children will be doctors also."
"How many children do you have?" I asked.
Ajit looked at his watch. He had finished his onion rings and wiped his hands on a napkin. "Thirty minutes till our flight arrives," he said, inferring that we must be waiting for the same plane. "You know, my wife is coming today."
"Thank you," he said, smiling.
"How long have you been married?"
"More than three years now. She has stayed with my parents." He shook his head in a side-to-side wag. "We didn't think it would take this long. I spoke to an immigration lawyer and he told me ten months, maximum."
"You've seen her since the marriage?"
"I flew home three months ago, for her visa interview."
"You must be very happy," I said to Ajit.
"Like I cannot describe."
My family, too, their applications sponsored by my father, had waited to come to America. In this, they were not unusual. Often years after they had first requested permission to emigrate, applicants would be scheduled for an interview in Delhi or Mumbai or Chennai. Traveling from all over India, they'd assemble on the pavement outside the American embassy or consulate, in the still-dark morning, and fight not to lose their places in line. Three hours later, when the building opened for business, the applicants passed through a security check and into a waiting room, with its industrial-strength floors, its fluorescent lights and molded plastic seats. There they'd sit, nervous and edgy in their new clothes and their newer haircuts, rehearsing their smiles and handshakes, reviewing silently, in tones of sincerity and practiced English, answers to the questions they anticipated.
Visa officers, minor American bureaucrats, were feared generally through the populace of hopeful travelers. After fifteen minutes of conversation the applicants were either approved or rejected, both instances sending the person to the nearest long-distance-dialing booth, to call home in either triumph or defeat, watching while they talked the meter that ticked away and measured their rupee charges in bright, digital red.
"Honestly, though, I tell you, I am a bit nervous about this business," Ajit said, his voice low and conspiratorial. "Our life will be difficult for her. At home she has a dhobi for the clothes and another woman comes to sweep and clean. Here, we have nothing. For three years she has been watching the American programs on Star television, to prepare. She thinks everyone in America lives so well." He looked again at his watch. "We should go now to wait for the plane. It will get so crowded soon. Pushing and shoving, just like India."
Arriving visitors, after completing examination at customs and immigration, passed into the receiving hall, where a clamor of persons waited, three deep to either side, behind metal railings. New arrivals walked slowly between the barriers, fumbling with baggage trolleys whose wheels seemed to jam diligently. They scanned faces, hoping to find one that looked familiar; they listened, hoping to hear their names called out. All around were other arrivals, and as they were recognized, they began to shout to whomever it was they knew and everyone else's job was made that much more difficult.
After thirty or so strides the path defined by the railings forked into left and right branches and the branches ended in a throng of hellos and hugs. People stopped at this bifurcation, sometimes for a desperate half minute, before, like a clarion or beacon, they heard a voice or saw a face, and knew they were safe.
This didn't happen to Ajit's wife. He stood, wedged between two larger people, against the rail, beside the entrance from customs. He'd wet and combed his hair. He was standing as straight and tall as he could manage. His wife, beautiful in an indigo sari, was one of the first through the doors and Ajit whooped her name, "OOOmaaa." She turned to him. She waved. He pointed her forward and walked parallel to the railing, behind the crowd, his head bobbing, sometimes visible, calling to her the whole way. I lost sight of the both of them.
I stood where I was for forty minutes, till all the passengers from India had left the receiving area, and two flights, one from Switzerland and the other from Russia, arrived and their passengers began to emerge simultaneously from immigration and customs.
When my father reached America, thirty-one years ago, he'd have disembarked from his plane, been interviewed by immigration, and passed through doors into some older reception hall. He'd have been more noticeable, though, one of a few Indians arriving.
The other Indians on the flight would have been almost exclusively young men, approximately his age. They would, like him, be heading to educational institutions, for graduate or postgraduate work. Most would be oriented toward the sciences: physicians, mathematicians, engineers. Their families would have come from a select subsection of the Indian population, if not exceedingly wealthy, enfranchised enough to afford some of the costs of travel and education.
When my father walked through the doors, a third cousin, already in the country, whom he hadn't seen since he was twelve, met him at the airport. This cousin's face would have been striking, one of a few Indian faces among the many more which blended into some generally white visage.
This evening the airport's receiving hall was flush with subcontinental mugs. There were more men than women, but enough women that a person wouldn't notice a disproportion unless he sat for forty minutes, counting and figuring as he watched. Though some people seemed to be new to the process, many more seemed practiced in moving over oceans and between continents. Entire families arrived after vacationing with relatives in India. Grandparents navigated the crowd familiarly, on their second or third trip abroad, meeting their children and their children's children.
My father would have had a more spacious amazement at his surroundings. The country would have been more distant, less familiar than it is to newly arriving immigrants from India, who have come to anticipate the place through television, through photographs and letters, through phone conversations and e-mail, through a creeping Westernization in their own country.
I left my post at the railing and was walking toward the exit when a hand tapped my shoulder and a man's voice said, softly, "Bhaisaab?" I turned to the voice and the man repeated, "Bhaisaab? I require some assistance."
The man was my age, perhaps a year or two older or younger, thin and wiry, my height. He wore gray slacks and a plain white shirt. He had one suitcase and a bag slung over his shoulder. "Bhaisaab?"
My father was a distinctive-looking man. Like his father, he had eyes and ears that seemed, on third or fourth glance, a hint too large. His nose, too, was largish, but defined so sharply that the impression it gave was one of decision, not oafishness. When he was younger, his face had been drawn but by the time he had died, the weight he'd gained had softened his face. His forehead was unremarkable, except when he would frown and it would furrow into haphazard creases, an irregularly tilled field.
The second man I met at the airport that day had none of these features. But he had my father's name, Vasant. He was starting a master's program in engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, once the Newark College of Engineering, and he needed a ride.
Dear Father and Mother, dear Chotuji, dear brothers and sisters, dear nieces and nephews,
Jai Shri Krishna!
I am in America, at Suresh's flat in New Jersey, and my long flight is over. I wish I need never travel by air again. Lifting from the ground was itself a marvel. Though my seat was not near a window, I was able to sense our motion. The feeling was at first something like a train leaving the station. As we rose, however, I was pushed down into my seat, not simply backward, and it was as a person feels as a lift starts to move, only much faster. Later the plane leveled and it seemed my trip would be pleasant enough. But then our flight became violent, and I felt as though I were being thrown up and down and then from left to right. I began to think I might become sick.
For some time it seemed the feeling would pass, but the plane began to pitch and I experienced more strongly the need to vomit. I rose to go to the bathroom, so that no one else would be disturbed by my illness, but the room was occupied. I waited and waited, feeling my stomach as it turned and tumbled. When finally the occupant emerged from the bathroom, I was nearly lost. Narrowly avoiding the man, but missing also the toilet, I vomited. The bathroom in the airplane is very small and the last meal I had eaten in India covered it quite thoroughly.
I was forced to clean my mess while the plane was making it difficult simply to stand straight. When I returned to my seat, I realized I had made my new suit dirty as well, staining my right sleeve. Four times more during the flight I vomited, but during each of these instances I was able to reach the bathroom quickly.
Almost all the Indians who had boarded at Bombay disembarked in London and so Suresh found me at the airport without great difficulty this though he approached first the fellow with whom I passed through immigration. That man was Gujarati also and as we were walking from the plane we found ourselves next to each other and began to talk. He is going to study medicine here. We collected our luggage together and passed through customs and immigration. He had forgotten his chest X ray in Bombay so I went before him, showed my own, without any suggestion of tuberculosis, and the official did not ask for his.
As it was, Suresh thought the doctor was me and introduced himself. The doctor redirected him and then Suresh and I waited until that doctor found the doctor who had come to meet him. We exchanged addresses and I hope to be in contact.
What to say about the American winter? How to describe the cold except to say that it hurts like a burn? As we walked to Suresh's car, frozen rain fell down upon us and it felt as though needles were stabbing at your skin. I don't know how a person can survive in a place like this. I sat in the car shivering and cursing. Suresh slapped my back and the cold made even that contact painful. He said, "Welcome to America." He asked me, "Do you have anything warm to wear in these two bags of yours?" I said, "I am wearing my warm clothing." He laughed like I was a clown and I laughed with him, though more from desperation than from amusement
It took us two hours to reach his house. You should see the roads here. They are as quiet and organized as lines on a sheet of paper. If it were possible, I would rather drive to America than fly to it. Suresh's flat itself is very nice. It has a drawing room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom. He shares it with two other students, one from Pune, one from near Madras. They fed me something and Suresh apologized for the food. "It is impossible to get the right ingredients here," he said. When I saw Suresh at the airport, I thought that he looked much thinner than he had in the photograph of him I had seen at home. Tasting the food here, I understand why.
Suresh, Naveen (from outside Madras), Rohit (from Pune), and I stayed awake until late into the night. They are all engineering students. I asked many questions about how to interact with Americans. They asked me question after question about news from India. They were hungry for even the smallest details. It was late at night when finally we slept.
I woke first the next morning, just as the sun was rising, and I took Suresh's keys from where he had left them on the table and put on his heavy overcoat. I went outside. I had seen from the window in the flat that the earth had been covered by snow. Even still, I could not anticipate the feeling of being in it. When I went to pick up the snow, it was light. When I pressed it between my hands, it became firm. When it began to melt into water I ate and drank it. It was so cold that my throat made a knot around it and I felt the knot until the water passed into my belly. I stayed outside for some time, experimenting with the substance.
When I went to return to the flat, my fingers could not put the key into the lock. I tried for minutes but my fingers did not feel familiar. Finally, someone leaving the building opened the door and let me in. I had the same problem at Suresh's door, but I knocked and the locks were undone. My body has only now returned to me, after almost forty minutes and some pain, and so I am writing you. Both Suresh and his friends are now awake, preparing breakfast. I will ask Suresh to post this letter today so that you may all know what I have been doing.
With love and regards,
Copyright © 2002 by Sameer Parekh
Reading Group Guide
Discussion questions for Stealing the Ambassador
1. Discuss the significance of the William Kennedy quote at the beginning of Stealing the Ambassador. Why do you think Parekh chose it to frame this story? What do you think "I liked all their lies best, for I think they are the brightest part of anybody's history" refers to?
2. Look at the opening prologue that begins, "There's an old story in my family...." Consider it in light of the entire book. Examine how the author manages to distill the essence of the entire book into a few pages. How does the opening set up your expectations as a reader? Do you think the narrator "became a thief for the cause, for the story"? Why?
3. The narrator's father's name appears for the first time on page 34, and the narrator's much later. What are some of the reasons that the author keeps the character's names out of the text for many pages? How does this affect the reader? What does it do to the story as a whole?
4. Were you surprised that Rajiv's mother had been lied to about her medical school entrance exam (page 25)? What is your reaction to her father's lying about it? Explore the cultural implications of this lie, and the significance of her Indian-born American husband being incensed by the whole situation. Look at page 39, when the narrator says of her mother that "she couldn't be a doctor, she understood that her marks weren't good enough." Considering the impact of the choices we make (or those that are made for us) in life, how did the father's lie affect her life?
5. How does Parekh's use of English and the family's native Indian dialect affect your perception of the characters? How does it affect your sense of place and time and society? How does the phrasing and placement of certain Indian words flesh out the characters?
6. Look at the Grandfather's story on page 60 that begins, "Listen." Why did the author place it at this point in the book? What is the story's importance?
7. Examine the letters from the narrator's father that end each chapter. How do these color the book's narrative? What do they reveal about the immigrant struggle to balance - and reconcile - the new life with the old?
8. What was your first impression of the narrator's attraction to the young Vasant in the airport? Looking at the narrator's interpretation of reincarnation on page 217, do you believe that the young Vasant really is the narrator's father? Are there any other reasons, besides reincarnation, that Rajiv thought Vasant was his father? How does his belief in reincarnation affect Rajiv's life? What are your feelings about it in your own life?
9. Parekh shifts back and forth in time and place throughout Stealing the Ambassador. Look at a couple of places where this happens and, keeping voice and language in mind, discuss how the author makes these shifts clear. Were you able to follow the story? Explore whether or not these shifts mirror the narrator's train of thought. Why do you think the author used this technique? Share whether or not you think this is an effective method for this book.
10. On page 112, Rajiv talks about his thirteenth birthday. What does this story reveal about his father, and about the roles we play in our family?
11. If you are an immigrant, or know someone who is, what is your reaction to the narrator's "feeling as though situated in a demilitarized zone"? (page 116) Looking at pages 131 and 132, beginning with, "I was struck that morning...," and also at pages 170 and 171, "This was part of our immigrant canon...," discuss your interpretation of what the author is saying. Do you feel these are common themes for immigrants? Share some of your own family lore about coming to America and how it is or is not similar to Rajiv's family's experiences.
12. Discuss the significance of the story about the robins on page 172. What is going on at this point in the story, and why is it placed at this particular moment?
13. Look at the grandfather's speech on page 231, "In India now, you can buy a Coke...." Why is this important? Does it add a different perspective on the difference between East and West? Talk about how this may shed some light on his political involvement and interests.
14. Why does the grandfather's brother tell Rajiv his version of the bombing of the bridges (page 234 on)? Does this change Rajiv's impression of his grandfather? For example, on page 244, Rajiv seems to be re-evaluating his grandfather when he says, "It occurred to me...." Could he have seen or understood this about his grandfathe before his uncle's speech? What does this reveal about the nature of history and family lore? Does this relate to the opening quote by Kennedy?
15. What is the significance, and symbolism, of Rajiv's Stealing the Ambassador? Share whether or not you think it's a good title for the book, and why.