A luminous, bittersweet novel of India and the American midwest, immigrants and their first-generation children, and the power of cooking to bridge the gulfs between them
When Mala and Ronak learn that their mother has only a few months to live, they are reluctantly pulled back into the midwestern world of their Indian immigrant parentsa diaspora of prosperous doctors and engineers who have successfully managed to keep faith with the old world while claiming the prizes of the new. More successfully than their childrenequally ill at ease with Holi and Christmas, bhaji and barbecue, they are mysteries to their parents and themselves.
In the short time between diagnosis and deterioration, Mala sets about learning everything she can about her mother's art of Indian cooking. Perfecting the naan and the raita, the two confront their deepest divisions and failures and learn to speak as well as cook. But when Ronak hits upon the idea of selling their experience as a book and a TV documentary, India and America, immigrant and native-born are torn as never before.
With grace, acuity, and wry compassion, Amit Majmudar has written anew the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the conflicts of assimilation, and, most poignantly, the tangled ties between generations.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.88(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.96(d)|
About the Author
Amit Majmudar is the author of Partitions, chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best debut novels of 2011 and by Booklist as one of the year’s ten best works of historical fiction. His poetry has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Best American Poetry 2011. A radiologist, he lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Read an Excerpt
The AbundanceA Novel
By Amit Majmudar
Metropolitan BooksCopyright © 2013 Amit Majmudar
All right reserved.
They arrive after midnight on the twenty-third. Mala had called from Indianapolis at around 10 PM and said they were having dinner at a Denny’s. I told her I would put everything in the refrigerator, it wasn’t a problem. She said she was sorry, but they had left home later than they wanted, it hadn’t been in her control, the snow had been heavy since they crossed into Indiana. The weather was clear where we were, I told her. She said yes, but it was snowing where they were, and she really had tried to get home in time.
I could tell she was frustrated. The children were still awake, and the food hadn’t arrived yet. I could hear Vivek’s demands in the background and her own pleading, cajoling, halfhearted threats. Sachin had taken Shivani and was pacing back and forth in the waiting area, hoping to calm her. The tone of Mala’s apology was reproachful. She assumed that I was reproaching her, even though I wasn’t, even though I don’t think like that. I know she is harried, overstretched, a mother and a career woman. I cut the call short so she could focus on Shivani and Vivek.
I am still awake when she calls my phone again.
“Were you asleep?” she whispers. Her mood seems improved, I can tell from her tone. “We’re here.”
“Did you take the exit already?”
“We’re outside, in the driveway.”
I smile into the darkness. “Okay, I’m opening the door.” I tap Abhi’s arm, and he sits up and pinches the bridge of his nose, squeezing out the sleep. I get out of bed too quickly. The pain pills make me sway. Abhi throws off the covers and guides me to a sitting position. He lays his pillow at the foot of the bed, then stacks mine on top of it.
“Lie back and put your feet up.”
“They’re in the driveway.”
“I’ll open the door.”
“No. I’m coming.”
“They’ll know something’s wrong.”
“Something is wrong.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t even think that. Not for these next few days. You promised.”
We sit for several long seconds. Stalemate.
“They’re in the driveway,” I repeat.
He scoots to my side and, arm around my shoulder, helps me stand. As we get to the top of the stairs, my fingers press all the light switches, upstairs chandelier, downstairs chandelier, the fixture over the stairs. They will be watching from the van. They will see the light through the windows, the face of the house brightening in welcome. My daughter home, and my grandchildren: Will they see us on the stairs through the high oval window, Abhi with his arm around me, helping me down? I ease his arm off me and hold on to the railing; he hurries down a few steps and looks back, below me in case I fall.
“I am not dizzy anymore.”
“I sat up too quickly. That’s all.”
The winter silence has a presence like sound. The bright snow draws its glow from the track lights and the cat’s cradle of Christmas lights in our front yard maple tree. The light inside the van comes on, and I can see, between Mala and Sachin, the children in their car seats, symmetrical, brother and sister sleeping with their heads fallen aside to face each other. They look warm, serene.
Sachin tugs down his hat. His skin, still used to Indian weather, is more sensitive to the cold. Mala is already outside, no hat, no gloves, sliding Shivani’s arms through the car seat straps. Mala covers her with a coat and a scarf and hurries her to the porch steps, footsteps crunching softly.
I have been standing with the door open, feeling through my nightgown the same cold they feel. I want my focus of sensation to shift from inside, where the pain is, to my body’s surface.
The moment Mala comes inside, I worry about being seen in so much light. I worry she will notice at once a change too gradual for me or Abhi to detect.
“Is everything ready upstairs?” Mala asks, pushing off her snowy sneakers, sole to heel.
“It’s ready,” I whisper.
The house, sensing the cold, starts up the heating system. White noise, I think. Good, this will help them sleep. I follow mother and daughter up the stairs, keeping my face close to Shivani’s lying on her mother’s shoulder, cheek pushed up until the eye is just lashes. Abhi, who has gotten into his boots and coat to help with the luggage, pauses at the door. He waits until I make it to the top. Sachin arrives behind him, holding Vivek. Sachin greets Abhi in Gujarati. His voice is much too loud. He sits down on the stairs with Vivek still on his shoulder. He bites each glove’s fingertip to pull his hand free, then begins unlacing a boot. When he drops it next to Mala’s sneakers, the snow scatters over the floor and doormat.
Vivek shifts and mewls. He squints into the light, and my hand leaps to the switches, hoping to salvage his sleep. Sachin gets to work on the second boot. I hurry down the stairs, thinking I should maybe take Vivek myself. Abhi arrives at the door, a bag in each hand held off the ground, his frail shoulders sloping. He is just in time to see me fall.
* * *
I am not out long. Mala rushes down when she hears the noise. Abhi props me against his coat’s cold sleeve. He smells of the outdoors and of the snow.
“Where are you hurt?”
“It was just a few stairs.” I look into Abhi’s eyes, and he understands he must not tell.
Mala turns the lights back on and kneels beside me on the stairs. “Is she okay? Dad?”
“I’m fine,” I say, moving away from Abhi so I don’t appear dependent or weak. I glance upstairs, toward the guest room door where I have set up the mattresses. “Did I wake her?”
“How many stairs did you fall, Mom?”
“Just a few. Two steps, right here. Go close the door, Mala, she’ll wake up.”
Sachin speaks to me in Gujarati. “There’s a bump. I’ll go get some ice.”
I touch my forehead, embarrassed. “I shouldn’t have turned off the light. I slipped.”
“You go in the room with the kids,” Mala orders Sachin. “I can get the ice.”
Sachin nods. I turn to find Vivek’s face close to mine. He is still a little disoriented. He blinks at me.
I kiss his forehead.
Sachin picks him up, and he puts his head on his father’s shoulder right away. I bring my knees close to give them passage. Mala, at the foot of the stairs, pauses. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
She comes up to touch my arm and my knee, as if to see if either gives. “Your legs? Are your legs okay?”
I know what she is thinking—that I have fallen and fractured my hip like an old woman. “I haven’t broken a hip,” I say with a little impatience.
“Just have to check,” Mala says, and kisses me, unexpectedly, on my widow’s peak.
She goes to the kitchen. Abhi holds me. I can hear the refrigerator’s ice dispenser. “Did you tell her?” I whisper to Abhi. In Gujarati, the question is only two quick words.
“When could I have told her?”
“Let’s get you to the bed.”
“No. The couch. Downstairs.”
“Everyone’s going to sleep.”
He takes me to the couch, tracking snow on the hardwood. Mala’s ice pack against my forehead, I watch the bits of white boot-print soften and clear. Sachin is still upstairs with the children, so Abhi brings in the rest of the luggage. Mala helps take it up the stairs. I lean forward to listen. Are they exchanging whispers? Mala turned on the kitchen lights to get me ice. Did she see me here on the couch and guess? She is a doctor, after all. She has called a patient’s name, swished the penlight over each glassy eye, knuckled the sternum. She has seen illness before, and she will see mine. Haven’t I seen it myself lately? Every night, I feel a stranger staring at me while I sleep, nose to nose. His shadow remains on my face.
Mala comes down with two bottles and starts washing them in hot water. I would have done it for her, but she has a specific ritual, and I have learned not to interfere. Abhi opens the closet. I hear a click and slide of hangers as his hand parts and pushes aside our coats, making room.
Sachin joins me. In his white socks he walks through Abhi’s melted boot-prints and doesn’t seem to notice. When he sits on the couch, his thighs tilt upward because he is so tall. He grew up in India, where everyone is shorter, and learned to slope his spine to hide his height. Resting on the carpet, his feet point slightly inward, just as they do when he walks.
Sachin asks me in Gujarati about my fall. He is relaxed, almost garrulous, anticipating Abhi’s arrival. When Abhi, smiling, comes into the still-dark family room, Sachin rises to hug him. They begin chatting immediately in Gujarati.
Abhi turns on the light, and I fear Sachin and Mala will see everything. I move the ice pack to hide my face. I am ashamed of this stupid bump that has brought me so much attention. Abhi, sitting close to me, murmurs a question about the drive. I know how happy Abhi usually is to see Sachin; I want to tell him he doesn’t have to distract himself with sympathy, he can sit next to Sachin.
Sachin eyes my forehead periodically. He is also a doctor, but maybe he doesn’t see the change in me, either. I wonder whether my slip on the stairs might be a windfall, this tender swelling distracting from the harder lump inside me.
Sachin turns the conversation, predictably, to OSU football. It’s what Abhi and he would usually talk about at this point. Mala, over by the sink, looks up in annoyance from the running faucet.
“Yes?” He is already on his feet.
“Sippy cups. I’m missing two.”
“Where do you think they are?”
“The back row. Or else check the floor between the car seats. I know I gave her apple juice.”
Sachin heads to the door and begins the process of lacing and zipping. Abhi says it is too cold to go out for two cups, but Sachin, in English, says it isn’t a problem. Abhi acquiesces. This is between husband and wife. Mala turns the faucet off, grabs a hand towel, and looks down the hallway at her husband. “What are you doing?”
“Putting on my glows,” he says, the v becoming a w. Most of the time he sounds American. Suddenly, under Mala’s glare, his accent comes out strong. Abhi and I keep our eyes on the carpet.
“Take your time, all right?”
The sarcasm has not registered. She keeps drying her hands while he pulls on his hat and gets his hood over it. She looks at us.
“Mom, Dad, you can go back to sleep. You don’t have to wait.”
Abhi smiles. “We’ll go up with you.”
Sachin closes the front door behind him, at last.
“How’s that bump, Mom?”
She comes close and draws a gentle fingertip across my cold skin. “It’s fine now,” I say. The bump is at my hairline. I haven’t colored my hair in some time. Neither has Abhi. Although we are stocked with L’Oréal boxes in the bathroom closet, one shelf below the towels, Soft Black, we’ve lost the desire to do it. From this close, Mala must be noticing my gray hair.
Though I, too, see some disturbing signs up close: the sinkhole above my daughter’s collarbone, the brittle lines from elbow to wrist, the too-sharp outline of her jaw. She needs to eat. She does not eat.
Have I gone completely gray under the dye? Would what is happening inside me seem less of a shock if I didn’t fool myself with young hair? I have my mother’s hair, loose at the roots, every morning a matted tangle over the shower drain, and wisps wound around two fingers and tugged free of the comb.
Sachin returns with the sippy cups. He takes off his gloves and boots but stands with the winter coat still on, shoulders dusted in fine snow. His hands look small at the ends of his puffy sleeves, the plastic Mickey Mouse cups even smaller. Mala takes them without saying thank you. As Sachin removes the rest of his gear, the talk turns to weather, how many inches of snowfall in St. Louis versus here, how bad it was last year—and I think how merciful it is that all people have the weather in common, the one subject everybody can talk about. We three speak in Gujarati, Sachin at ease again, his pleasantness undiminished by his humbling. Steam rises from the sink as Mala turns the fixture all the way left and holds the cups under the water, her face set, as though proving to herself she can withstand the heat.
* * *
Upstairs, in the dark, Abhi sits on the bed. I tug at his pajama sleeve.
“Do you really think we can do this?” he says. “Pretend this way? Let them know.”
“It’s late. The little ones will be up early.”
“Tomorrow morning. Take Mala aside.”
“This is their last visit before things change, Abhi. I told you.”
“You will have her as she is, then.”
“That’s what I want. You saw, she was sweet to me when she came in.”
“Tonight she snapped at Sachin, tomorrow morning she may snap at you.”
“I don’t mind.”
He shakes his head. “How can we walk about as if there’s nothing crushing us?”
“This is their last visit before they find out and things change.”
He covers his face a moment, palms side by side, then slides the heels of his hands up to his eyes and presses in frustration. “Things have already changed. You are in pain. I know it. I see it every time I look in your eyes.”
“It’s not nothing.”
“You should sleep, Abhi. Mala says the kids have been getting up lately at six thirty.”
“It’s not nothing.”
“Come here. Come here and sleep.”
Abhi shakes his head again and joins me under the covers. He lies apart from me for a few moments, then he turns and sets his thigh over mine, brings his arm under my breasts, nuzzles my neck. Once, this used to be a signal that he wished to make love; now it is the burrowing of a scared creature. The thigh and arm that rest on me make sure that I do not vanish without warning. I cannot remember when we last made love. I do not want to remember, either. If we let it happen now, I will keep thinking, This may be the last time. Maybe I will think it just once, then concentrate harder, focus, shake the thought from my head—but the pleasure, if there can be any pleasure, would rise between my legs like a lump in the throat. I would be conscious of every moment. And later I would remember this one night, our last, more intensely than all the others we have spent together, back when we were time’s millionaires, rolling in nights.
I lie on my back for a while, unable to sleep. I trace Abhi’s arm across my chest, the soft hairs of his hand, his rough knuckles, his fingers limp now that he has fallen asleep. I find the white gold of his wedding band and turn it around and around, as though winding a clock.
I made everything in advance the morning we went for the second opinion. I poured the dahl still steaming into a casserole dish. Condensation jeweled the glass lid. The fan over the stove kept me safe. I thought of its roar as a leaf blower’s, scattering my apprehensions. Anything not to concentrate on the appointment.
Two events were crowded into that day after weeks of waiting: my appointment at the Cleveland Clinic with Dr. D’Onofrio, and the arrival, from Buffalo, of Abhi’s nephew and his wife. Life is like that, a long lull, then all the phones ring at once. We had to leave at 10 AM to make it to our 12:45 meeting, then, after two hours, come back here to pick up the guests from the airport.
Of course we hadn’t planned things this way. Abhi called Dr. D’Onofrio’s office and got me the first available opening. His nephew Shailesh’s itinerary arrived by e-mail three days afterward. We hadn’t been able to attend his wedding in Ahmedabad, so showing this hospitality, during the couple’s visit to America, was crucial.
Abhi asked me whether he should request that they fly into Cleveland. We could pick them up on the drive back. I didn’t want that. His nephew would never tell us whether the airline had penalized them for changing flights, or if it cost more to go through Cleveland. I didn’t want to lie, either—though we did end up lying that evening, not with our words but with our bodies and faces. Eyebrows high, lips stretched, we hugged our young guests outside baggage claim after they bent to touch our slush-caked shoes.
Did they sense that something was off? Did Abhi’s eyes look sunken? He had been sleeping even less than usual. My weight loss, at least, was hidden by the winter coat. We quizzed them about their parents and their honeymoon during the car ride home. Abhi did well. How was Niagara? Where else were they going? I made sure not to leave all the work to him. How was Kaka’s health? And Kaki’s health? Always the inquiry about health. In Gujarati, you say it without thinking. You are asking about general well-being, not the heart medications or last year’s stroke.
Shailesh noticed a change when we got home. I was putting their heavy coats on hangers. They were well-worn coats, brought out for them, I suspected, from the basement of his aunt in Buffalo.
“Kaki,” he said with surprise, “you have reduced!”
Reduced was the English word he used, though the sentence itself was Gujarati. Healthy, in Gujarati, means chubby, ruddy, a second chin; reduced, having noticeably lost weight, is not the compliment it is in English. It is asked with concern. If it’s the husband who looks thinner, the next joke is usually, “Isn’t she feeding you anymore?”
Abhi played off the joke and patted his stomach. “You’re right, she has reduced. She cooks so beautifully, I leave nothing for her!” Polite laughter gave me cover to get into the kitchen.
Henna, Shailesh’s wife, followed me, offering to set the table. I wanted to be alone, like a wounded deer, I wanted my kitchen’s familiar niche. But with Henna there, I wouldn’t have the chance. Maybe this was for the best. No opportunity for despair. Having guests would keep me heating and ladling and stirring for a few days. I would have some continuity between my life before and my life from now on.
Henna filled the pitcher tentatively, with skinny, delicate fingers, her wedding mehndi’s paisleys a faded red-orange, only the pads of the fingers still dark. The jostle of ice cubes put an absurd lump in my throat. The sound, for me, meant time to call everyone to dinner. I always brought the water out last. I liked to set it cold and dripping under the chandelier. I always told the children to drink water with their meals. Enough so they could taste the food, but not so much that it would fool their hunger.
Most of the meal I had set out on the counter to cool. I had made masoor dahl—the amenable lentil, a cop-out. But in the deepest casserole dish I had something to impress them: stuffed breaded baby eggplants with yams, potatoes, onions, and even segments of banana cooked in the sleeve, the peels blackened and edibly soft. This was a dish our mothers used to cook in open-field fire pits when I was girl. That and the bhartha spiced with its own burning. You could hold an eggplant to a ring of natural gas, and the shiny skin would crinkle. But nothing flavors eggplant quite like red fire and wood.
I observed myself emerging from my mood as I set everything to heat. You are getting everything ready, you are still functioning. Then I saw the stray pot on the dormant back burner, and I remembered immediately the dahi. I curdle mine the old way, seeding it from the last pot. I had left it out overnight to take on body and the right hint of sour. It had been perfect this morning. I had tasted it and made sure. Why, why hadn’t I moved it to the refrigerator? Distraction. I had skipped forward, in my mind, to the appointment. And now, hours later, there it was.
I checked on Henna at the dining table, then hurriedly tested a spoonful. Too sour: first the pucker inside the cheeks, then the smart of it down the throat. Ruined. I slammed the lid on it as if it had a stench and hid it in the refrigerator.
The meal needed something else for coolness. What else, what else? I remembered the mango pulp. I’d gotten three dented orange cans from Bharat Grocers last week. I hurried out to the garage where we kept them to chill. The door swung shut behind me but the garage light was still on. The can felt icy under my hand, its flat top coarsely dusty. I lifted it, and the garage light timed out. I was in utter darkness and silence but for the dripping minivan. Will it happen to me like that? I brought the cold can of summer sweetness against my stomach: sweet and orange and preserved forever. I shuddered. You will come to wish it happened like that.
In the kitchen, I slid a drawer open and found the can opener. My hand shook as I clipped and pushed two triangles into the top. I realized I had forgotten to rinse the can. I went to the faucet and paused; Henna would see I had made the punctures before running water over the lid.
“Which bowls should we use? These small glass ones?” she asked. I reached past her and picked up four bowls myself. I must have seemed annoyed. Henna backed away, eyes on the ground, pulled into herself like a touch-me-not. I handed her the bowls and wiped the punctured lid with my sleeve. The dust came off visibly on my cuff. The can had been out a long time. It had come from the grocer’s shelf dusty, too—who knew how long it had sat there, across from wet coriander in the glass cooler?
Henna took the bowls with a small nod and hurried out of the kitchen. I had offended her. I had made her feel uncomfortable. I was in my kitchen, nowhere so powerful as here. Yet I did not feel in control.
I told myself I had done this thousands of times by now. This is my empire. I turned the gas up a little, took out two large spoons, and stirred the pot on the front burner and the one on the back. A familiar crackle. These scents comforted me. Only grandchildren in my lap could have calmed me more. I eased back into my mastery. I opened the drawer where I kept my hot plates and my salt-and-pepper-shaker mitt. The hand I slid into it did not tremble.
I press the lump on my forehead, exploring the pain. A hard knot of blood, nothing sinister. The sinister lumps are the ones you cannot feel, the ones that hide.
We had sat on the bed until two in the morning the night of Henna and Shailesh’s visit, roughly the time it is now. My face hidden in Abhi’s neck, I had cried, wringing out the heart’s old rag. I was careful not to be too loud. The guest room shared a wall with ours.
Abhi asked when and how we should tell Ronak and Mala. I shook my head. I didn’t want to tell them. They had their rhythms: morning alarm clocks, blue toothpaste for the children, granola in this bowl, Lucky Charms in the others, changing the children out of their pajamas, the commutes, the jobs, the microwave beeps at dinnertime, bedtime routines, that last hour padding around a quiet house, picking up toys, checking e-mail, paying bills, thumbing appointment reminders into the corkboard beside the fridge.
And then, suddenly, this? It would throw off the finely balanced movement of their lives. Over every meal: I talked to Mom today. How’s Mom holding up? What did the oncologist say? How is she feeling? Is she in pain?… I did not want the spotlight of their concern. I imagined the phone calls between Mala and Ronak, the news dominating every conversation. The idea embarrassed me. I wanted them to talk about their week or the upcoming ski trip or Shivani’s new word or Nikhil’s report card. Not me. Not this.
“But we have to tell them,” Abhi whispered. “This isn’t something we can keep a secret. We should tell India, too. Your brother may want to visit. We will cover his ticket.”
I wiped my cheeks. I could breathe and speak again. “I want everyone to stay as they are.”
Abhi shook his head.
“Things will change for me. But things shouldn’t have to change for them. I want them to stay as they are.”
“Things are going to change for all of us.”
“I want them to stay happy.”
“Of course you do.”
“As long as they can.”
“Yes. We both want that.” He gazed at the carpet, imagining, maybe, the act I was asking us to stage: three weeks’ pleasantries over the phone, and finally Mala’s Christmas visit, five days face to cheerful face. “You can’t not tell them. You can’t.”
“I will. But later. Not while I am still strong. You saw. I cooked today. A full meal. Dahl, rice, rotli, shaak.”
“Things change. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I am still strong, aren’t I?”
“You are. But it’s okay to feel tired. It’s okay to rest.”
“I don’t need to rest. You’ll see tomorrow. It will be like always, for now.”
Abhi put his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. He looked up. “We have to tell the kids. I can’t hide this from them. Not even on the phone. It’s hard enough with guests.”
“No. Please. Not yet. Mala is coming during Christmas week.”
“You’ll tell her then? Face-to-face?”
I thought ahead to her arrival. It felt good to do that. Only three weeks from now, attainable happiness. “I want to have one last time together, Abhi. Without this coloring everything.”
“You want to hide it from her the whole stay?”
“And I want Ronak here, too.”
“You know he’s spending Christmas with Amber’s family.”
“In Pittsburgh. It’s not far. They can spend Christmas there, but the next day they can come here. He has until the second off. He told me so.”
“They celebrate Christmas in a way we don’t. It’s—it’s religious for them.”
“They go to church on Christmas day. The day after, there aren’t any services. They can drive here.”
Abhi shook his head. “The only way to convince Ronak,” he said, “is to tell him why.”
“We’ll both call him.”
“When has he listened to me? He doesn’t pick up his phone when he sees it’s me.”
“You call him and invite him. I will, too.”
“You’re going to exhaust yourself getting ready for it. I know. This is no time for that kind of hard work.”
I shook my head. “I have to get a few things.”
“Give me a list.”
“There are things only I’ll know how to get.”
I stood up. “You’re acting like I can’t walk. You’re acting like I’m already bedridden.”
“All right. All right.”
I could tell from his eyes he was afraid he had offended me. The last thing I wanted was for him to watch himself around me, or to swallow his benign Gujarati puns and jokes, to give up his weekend swims and his nightly retreats to the study. I didn’t want him to alter our routine as a couple, in however minor a detail. But he would, wouldn’t he? The change had already found its way between us.
I stood and held his head and shoulders to my stomach, the way I had once, long ago, when I felt our first child kick.
* * *
The second pregnancy is supposed to be easier to carry and easier to drop, but that wasn’t the case for me. Ronak was easy. Mala kicked me awake in the last trimester. She took an eternity parting from me. In the end they had to cut me open and cut her from me.
Mala, the second born, had been strangely fearless, unlike our expectations of a daughter. Pictures show her wild-eyed, shirtless, barefoot. Wild-haired, too—she pulled out her hair bands, unraveled the careful braids I gave her. You would think I was a neglectful mother. In pictures she looks almost feral, crouched atop our old coffee table or the hood of our car. Me in a saree, Abhi with his black hair, Ronak close to my hip, a shy five. And Mala, two years younger, always apart, always in some spring-loaded pose. The most memorable snapshot (Where is it now? Where have I saved it?) is the one where Abhi caught her jumping off a fence. The pink clip sits askew in her messy black hair, her mouth is open, her arms wide, her eyebrows high; the maroon velvet birthday-party frock has fluttered up to show her skinny calves as she braces for the landing. Had we tamed that tomboy? And if we had, why?
I could not reconcile that Mala with the woman who, at twenty-nine, undernourished from a resident’s life, said she was scared she would never find someone to love. A girl like Mala—beautiful, successful. The men her age had done their playing, she sobbed, the men had dated around, and now they were marrying twenty-three- and twenty-four-year-olds. She would soon be thirty and the pool kept getting smaller. Who was left?
Mala had waited until Abhi left for work, and then she broke. She had said nothing of her despair before. He must have broken it off with her. I have no name, just he. Who, she never told me. Maybe an American boy. Virile, athletic, hairless on the back and chest. Had she worked to impress him? Had she studied his favorite movies so she could talk about them? Had she made him agree never to call her at home? Had he introduced her to his parents—“my girlfriend,” nothing momentous, the father waving hello from behind his computer—and never understood why she wouldn’t do the same? Or had they pretended for as long as they could, growing closer, wearing each other’s T-shirts sometimes, sleeping in each other’s dorm rooms when a roommate went home for the weekend—everything shared except this fenced-off part of her?
“You can make your phone calls now,” she had said, giving us the go-ahead to send inquiries about marriageable boys. (Twenty-nine was her cutoff, but still we called them “boys.” A “boy” for our “girl.”) Had there been resentment in her voice? Go, have your fun, do the thing you’ve always wanted to do. Even so, how wrong of me to treasure her resignation. To rejoice as I hugged her and stroked her arm.
* * *
My fingers could touch in a ring around her arm, above the elbow no less. I thought she was “picky,” I called her “picky”—until the ninth grade, when she collapsed during track practice. (Ronak ran track, so Mala had to run track.) I drove to school to find her looking sheepish, a scrape on her forehead of shallow parallel red lines, an ice pack to her cheek and ear. Apparently she had been crouching at the starting line when she blacked out. A few tall, broad-shouldered blond girls and a compact, exquisitely formed black girl were sitting beside her on the bleachers. I had seen Mala go running with these girls, their ponytails bouncing in synchrony. Two sets of two on the sidewalk, Mala just behind them and alone. The black girl was named Shaunte, which came, I assumed, from Shanti. Her legs and arms were so taut the flesh on them wouldn’t pinch, her calves were two sleek vases, her arms faintly muscled, but she still looked healthy. Part of it was her eyes, which were not set deep in her face, but rather on a plane with her forehead. Mala looked at me, and her eyes were sunk in dark holes. She had a layer of softness on her thighs, girl fat, normal Indian girl flesh, but her skin had no luster. I saw, for the first time, that she had been starving herself. Yet the starving had shrunk only her torso, which was wasting away atop a woman’s hips, the hips she inherited from me. Her friends had gotten her to suck on a straw without interest. “She got hypoglycemic,” they said confidently. I drew the ice pack away to check Mala’s ear and cheek, then guided it back. Mala handed me the juice box to let me inspect her scraped palm. I didn’t know how long she had been sipping, but the juice box was still heavy.
* * *
When Mala told me to start looking into a marriage partner, I was too thrilled to speculate why she had reached this point. I had been given the go-ahead. She wanted my help. During her early twenties, I had sometimes suggested this or that friend’s son, and she would snap at me or, if she was in a good mood, roll her eyes. “You and Dad had an arranged marriage that worked out, but you’re lucky. That’s not the rule,” she would say. My answer was that arranged marriages had a lower divorce rate than love marriages. She countered that couples who could be forced by their parents to marry were also the sort to force themselves to stay together. I would say no one was forcing her, just as no one forced me; we only wanted her to meet this boy, whose family we knew very well. I probably was forced back then, she would say, I just didn’t know I was being forced. “Then forcing me to marry your father was the greatest gift my mother ever gave me,” I would tell her. We would go back and forth like children after that. “That wasn’t what I meant.” “That was what you meant.” No it wasn’t, yes it was—she would clench her fists in frustration, close her eyes, and, in a quiet voice, declare she couldn’t have a conversation with me. That would begin a silence we both maintained for altogether too long.
But at last, I thought, she was willing. She had come around late, which made my job harder, but it was welcome work and something new to do. I called India, I called California, I called New Jersey and Chicago. Grandmothers were my best resource—even if their grandchildren were married, they always had a nephew’s son in Baroda or Jamnagar. I tracked every youngish man at the weddings of other people’s children, checking for a ring, checking whether he placed his hand in the small of a woman’s back or brought someone a drink. A receding hairline and a thick watch suggested a professional—such boys drew my attention. I made unsubtle inquiries. I traded e-mails, I sent and received biodata, the standard JPEG and Word file with which we advertised our aging children (some mothers, I suspect, without their sons’ knowledge). Age, caste, job and education, hobbies: year, make, model, maintenance history.
My picture showed Mala at twenty-four, but the fudging was customary. It was the same photo she had posted when she tried an online Indian dating site. About that experience she had told me with a mixture of horror, self-pity, and mirth. Because she had failed to click on a box of some sort, her profile had been made public. That night, within hours, her cell phone came alive. Men in India and the United Kingdom called to woo her without understanding the time difference. Men across the world desperately wished to meet her—she, being a doctor, could provide airfare, yes? Men in the States with student visas, men who attended obscure community colleges in Indiana, Minnesota, Connecticut, four bachelors to an apartment. She turned her phone off in horror and collected seven messages by the time her alarm clock went off. Later, she got callers who sounded like they had been born in America. They were the nervous ones. “The fobs were never nervous,” she said. They were blissfully free of insight.
I worried about her meeting them in person. No knowledge of the family meant no safeguard. A lot of the profiles, Mala told me, were posted by the parents themselves. She could tell from the grammatical mistakes and the British spelling for colour—as well as the list of Indian dishes the boy enjoyed.
One caller had something in his voice that she responded to—the faintest trace of an Indian accent, the way his v softened into a w—he had come to America at eleven. They talked twice more, asking questions about their lives and plans, but it went nowhere “We had nothing to talk about,” Mala said, shrugging, “but who we were.”
I laughed when she made fun of fobs and their accents. She imitated her callers vivaciously, viciously. Yet hadn’t Abhi and I been like that only three decades ago? Had we appeared to Americans as that inept, that silly?
I knew I had best avoid showing her boys too recently arrived from India, or worse, still in India. We would have gotten along with such a boy, I imagine. He would have made a good son-in-law. But Mala would not have respected him as a man, I could tell. I was heartened that she had been open to a boy who had come over young and, during his teens at least, had grown up here. Soon after our conversation, I invited Sachin to meet her.
* * *
While Abhi took Shailesh and Henna back to the airport, I went to the supermarket and stocked up for Mala’s visit. I kept moving. I set chickpeas to soak and Osterized the mint leaves for chutney until they tasted as bright as their green color. I rinsed the blades and ground some walnuts for dessert that evening—a roar as loud as a construction site. I felt better making that noise to fill the house. It scattered the blackbirds off my nerves a while.
It was not yet time for Mala’s dutiful daily call, and for that I was glad. I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t let the shock slip, or reveal it in my pauses or my tone. I made my first call to Ronak’s cell. Hey, this is Ron, leave me a message, thanks. Brusque, unwelcoming. I left no message. He would see the missed call—maybe he had already seen it and silenced the ringer. Left to himself, he would return it later in the week. I planned to try him more than once. Hey, this is Ron. We hadn’t named him Ronak with a mind to its American abbreviation. We had kept to easy, two-syllable names for both children precisely to prevent that. “Ron” made things easier, of course, in his line of work. Amber mingled the two versions: she called him Roan. A horse whose dark hair is interspersed with white.
I had shortened Abhi’s name from Abhishek, but not to something American. (At least “Ron” had some logic: we knew a Vrijesh once who did business as Mike.) I liked Abhi’s shortened name more. Abhishek means the bathing of an idol. Abhi means now—in both English senses, the present moment and immediately. I valued, more than ever, the urgency and the short-term focus of that name. Naming the one I loved, I said how long I would have him.
When Abhi got home that day, the rice cooker’s light had blinked off, and the rotli dough held the smooth divots where my fingertips had tested it. I loved working little rips of dough into balls. The palms were held parallel, circling each other, a few ounces of softness between them. The rolling got easier until there was no friction at all. Then the dough was worked smooth and flat by the pin. The dough seems heavy compared to the rotli itself, bright with brown pocks, steam-swelled. I had the stovetop fan going and didn’t hear Abhi come in. He still had his coat on.
“How are you feeling?”
“How is the pain? I didn’t ask you this morning. Did you take those pills they gave you?”
“I’m not in any pain. I’ll take the pills if I am.”
“I’m worried you won’t.”
I looked down into the black round of the tawa. “Are you ready to eat?”
“I talked to Ronak.”
“I called him earlier today. I got a message.”
“I was persistent.”
“How many times did you call him?”
“He picked up on the fourth call.”
“Four calls? He will suspect something is wrong.”
“He didn’t sound like he did.”
“What did he say?”
“He said they’re going to his in-laws for Christmas, as they do every year.”
“You told him we wanted the twenty-sixth, right? After Christmas? Even the twenty-seventh would do. Mala will still be here.”
Abhi unzipped his coat and turned from me, sliding it off his shoulders. “I wouldn’t count on him.”
“What did he say, exactly?”
“He said he would check with Amber.”
“Maybe I should talk to Amber.”
“She picks up her phone, at least.”
He left to hang his coat. I was used to this bitter abdication in matters pertaining to Ronak. Abhi felt he had no control. In earlier years, he used to raise his voice because he still believed shouting might accomplish something. He would shout, always in English, at Ronak’s closed door or closed stare. The reproach would start with phrases like how dare you or by what right. Sometimes he would repeat the words I am your father, as if that settled things. He was appealing to bygone rules of hierarchy and submission. How late Ronak came home on weeknights, his social drinking, the never-acknowledged but never-denied girlfriends or (Ronak’s phrase) friends-who-happened-to-be-girls—in America, this was normal teenage behavior, as natural as any physiological change. In Ronak’s case, it was harmless: he was too keenly self-interested to do anything that would give him a record. No matter how late he stayed out, we never got a call from the police, unlike some parents we knew. And he used this as a counterargument: Have you ever gotten a phone call? Ever? As if we ought to praise his moderation. In those years, the voice deepened, the height increased, the tongue grew cutting. All to be expected. Yet in India, we never saw such things. Who are you to tell me, Dad? We had never spoken that way. No stranger had to remind us, I am your father.
* * *
I cooked a lot those first weeks after the diagnosis. Usually I did not like making food and freezing it. It troubled me to see the furry crystals, the way tilting the container didn’t tilt the sauce, the potatoes embedded as if in a rock. I felt an unease, irrational I know, about living flavor hardened to tasteless ice. It could not come back the same once it had known such cold. And after that, the microwave, and the unnatural way microwaves heated the periphery first. The heart could still be icy though the container hurt the fingers. I preferred reheating dishes on the stove the few times I did freeze them. I would use a spoon to break a Tupperware-shaped square into floes that would soften, flatten, merge, and settle into a comfortable simmer. I distrusted my own food after its artificial wintering. I would bring a spoon to my lips critically, half expecting the spices to have blunted or the vegetables to have gone to slime.
But the food never really altered. The resurrection matched the life. So, those first weeks after we knew, I stocked and stored as industriously as a wintering squirrel. Who knew for how long I could keep these little crowns of blue gas going, four at a time, like plates spinning on sticks? Who knew when my own dials would click, click, click, click, and nothing would flare? Better do this while I could.
Abhi brought home a small refrigerator. I noticed that he had come home late and stayed in the garage long after he pulled in. It had gotten very cold that week. After waiting for him to come inside, I investigated. He had unpacked the gift and was plugging it in. The refrigerator was a white cube, knee high, and he had tucked it between the unused bikes and two sacks of black soil I had never gotten around to using.
“For overflow,” he said, opening and shutting the door.
My hands covered my smile and I clapped them gently. “Perfect!”
“Of course, Abhi. This is perfect. I was running out of room.”
“You’re happy.” He tapped the refrigerator distractedly. “You know … this is only for now. They will deliver a bigger one tomorrow. Full size.”
He had only just had the idea, I could tell; he had probably gone to the appliance store, debated between the two sizes, and chosen the smaller, cheaper one. Now, seeing how happy it made me, he regretted his choice. “What will I do with two full-size refrigerators?” I said. “I can’t possibly fill two.”
I thought about the huge refrigerator a year from now, silent, its triple-pronged plug resting on top. Its freezer the same temperature as the garage. Nothing in it except an open box of Arm & Hammer.
“Are you all right?”
“Your face changed.”
“I just remembered. I have the gas on.” I looked beyond him to the parallel tire tracks in the driveway snow and the salt stains speckling the lower half of the Camry. A blue sedan passed the house. It must have been parked outdoors, because its speed blew the snow off its roof. It rode ahead of a halo.
I was right about Abhi’s decision to buy the bigger refrigerator after he saw my pleasure. He hurried into his study, called the store, and gave his credit card number over the phone before he came to have his after-work snack. An apple or a few pretzel sticks were all I allowed him. Come dinner I wanted his appetite. It’s the same in all things. Satiety is an honest judge, but hunger is a favorable jury.
Mala checked in by phone every day, out of love, out of habit, out of obligation. I kept to the planning for their trip and asked what Vivek preferred to eat now.
“Mostly mac and cheese,” she said.
“That I can make from a packet. I want to make something.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mom. It’s what he wants. That and those veggie dogs. Did you pick those up?”
“There must be something I can make.”
“Mom, we’re dealing with little kids here. They’re picky. It’s how they are at this age.”
“I will make a variety. We can see if they like any of it. Good food.”
I shouldn’t have said that; it was very easy for Mala to assume I meant she wasn’t feeding her children good food. Sure enough, her voice went hard, defensive.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” she said, “but things haven’t changed since last time. He’s just not showing interest yet, Mom.”
“He won’t show interest on his own. You have to offer options.”
“I do offer him options.”
“Let him be hungry one meal. That way, next time, his stomach won’t let his tongue refuse.”
“I’m not having him go hungry, Mom.”
“It is your duty to teach him what to want.” I used the wrong word. “Duty” sounds like a reproach. Maybe I should have said her right? But even right she could have taken wrong: she’d think I implied I had rights, too, over her, and indirectly over Vivek.
“My first duty,” she said, her voice rising, “is to treat my son as a human being.”
“I know, Mala. I am trying to help.”
“That means he has likes and dislikes.”
“And if one of his likes is a soy dog with no mustard, no ketchup, and no bun, I’m fine with that for now. I’m not going to force-feed him at every meal. If he’s thirty-eight years old and that’s all he eats, then yes, I’ve failed as a mother. But he’s five now, and you know what? I’m not worrying. Can we just not worry about it for now?”
I sat back, phone to my ear, and wondered how the conversation had spoiled so rapidly. This was not the first time we had had this quarrel; we’d had this same conversation, with different words, the month prior. Mala and I had five or six regular quarrels. Our daily chats, usually affectionate, might dead-end in one of these quarrels by an infinite number of routes.
In the silence after this one, though, I was grateful. I wondered whether part of me sought it out: bringing up Vivek’s diet, baiting her, watching her fume. Our quarrel was more than just a distraction. It was a routine from the old life. After Mala found out, she would behave differently. She would be careful. That occasional harshness of hers—I would miss it. Because harshness, paradoxically, is intimate. You have to be very close; you have to be family. My nearness to death will estrange me. My family will become as well-spoken as they are around strangers and acquaintances. Already Abhi is careful not to be short with me; already he is lingering in the kitchen after his early-evening snack. When had he ever idled in a chair while I cooked? Abhi never idled. Before, he would spend that hour in his study. Things are different since the diagnosis. I am different. He gives me company as if I am a guest.
Of course, I feel like a stranger in my own body, so naturally I expect others perceive me as a stranger, too. If I were to ask Abhi why he lingers, his answer would be simpler, sweeter: that he wants to spend all the time with me that he can. Scarcity has made every minute precious. This is true for me, too.
I love watching them sleep, daughter and granddaughter spooning, Shivani resting in the curve of Mala. I used to sleep with Mala that way. It is uncanny how some of the behaviors of love recur on their own, without being taught, as if particular configurations of embrace are encoded in the genes. Did my own mother hold me to her chest that way, too, and crook her arm beneath my temple, giving me the smooth pale swell of her inner arm as my pillow? I imagine slipping behind Mala so the three of us might layer like skins of a bud.
Even better than watching Shivani sleep is being woken up by her. I am on my side, near the edge of the bed. Shivani comes over so she is face-to-face. Girls usually talk early, but Shivani is taking her time. She has only a few words. So I am awakened by her small hands patting my pillow. Perfect: first thing, my eyes open and see her face. Auspicious. Mala, too, is in a good mood, smiling from the doorway, her eyes half closed and her head resting against the door frame.
Savor this, I think, looking at Shivani and her tiny brown fingers on the white pillowcase. Remember everything. The thought distracts me, detaches me, but only briefly. I lift my granddaughter and sit her on top of me. It feels like having Mala here again. There is no wakefulness like a well-rested child’s, no weight on her eyelids, thoughts whole and simple. Shivani doesn’t sit on me for long before she ventures into the valley between Abhi and me. Abhi rolls to look at us and closes his eyes again. I get up on my elbow and tell Mala I can change Shivani so that she can get more sleep if she wants, but Mala says she’s got it and claps her hands softly. Shivani raises her arms. Before Mala carries Shivani out, she tips her so she can give each of her grandparents a small, wet kiss; then coaxes her to use her words and say a froggy Good morning. I ease myself back down to the pillow and wait while the kiss cools and dries.
My spirits are high. Between bed and toothbrush, I don’t think of it at all. Then my brushing slows. When I soap and splash my face, the protective sleep has gone. I have full knowledge again. I look in my mirrored eyes above the towel, and she and I both know.
Downstairs, after opening the blinds, I peel and twist a cylinder of croissant dough. The soft, white-yellow dough pops through the cardboard. I don’t get these croissants usually, I don’t like the perfection of the triangles and the almost voluntary way they curl into their shapes. But Mala and the children like them. So I set them to bake. I hear the buzz of Vivek’s toothbrush from the top of the stairs and rush from the kitchen to catch him. He jumps up and down and starts talking—so happy to see his grandmother! Sachin, his brush still in his mouth, says, “Ho, buddy, wait till we’re done brushing,” and wipes a drip of toothpaste foam from Vivek’s pajama shirt. Vivek follows his father back up into the bathroom. I return to the kitchen and get out the two boxes of cereal I have gotten for their visit, Lucky Charms and Cheerios, not knowing which is in favor recently. I get two skillets going on low and tilt them to slide the butter squares. Everyone comes down, one after another, chatty. They are all here: Abhi doing his stretches in the light through the east-facing bay window, Sachin with his collar wet from splashing his face awake, Mala with her hair up in a bun, holding Shivani, who is pointing at the cereal boxes, Vivek jumping on the couch and being ordered off it. Booster chair and high chair, and the chairs where the parents wait with spoonfuls dripping, open up, big bite, come on. Bowls and plates and silverware clash on the table. I bask in the joyous hubbub of a family morning.
I made sure to shower quickly and dress before everyone came down. I even put on a touch of foundation and a brush of rouge. I rarely wear makeup and certainly not at home. But this morning I knew my face would give me away if I didn’t cover it somehow. So I closed the bathroom door and painted my shadows bright.
They say flesh is grass, and flesh does grow and wither the way grass grows and withers, but not so that the eyes notice. You need an old photograph to realize how much you have changed, or the exclamation of a friend you haven’t seen in years. Or word of your mortality from a pale bespectacled man in a long white coat, practiced in giving sympathy and news—a chart of the circulation system on the wall behind him, a swath of crinkly paper on the examination table, the back of your gown open to the air.
After the examination in Dr. D’Onofrio’s office, I had gotten dressed again, and we had waited for twenty minutes, saying nothing. Abhi had brought a travel magazine from the waiting room—he turned its pages but stared past the impossibly blue seas at the floor. The nurse practitioner came and said they needed the examining room, could we wait in the discussion room, where the doctor would meet us shortly? Abhi got to his feet and followed her out. This left me to gather my purse and both our heavy winter coats.
I walked down the hall, my arms full, raging silently. I am carrying his coat. The discussion room was smaller and contained a round table and a rack of patient information brochures. Abhi had found new reading material. I stopped at his downturned head, waiting for I don’t know what, waiting for him to sense me glaring. You had me carry our coats. You had me carry our coats even though I am the one dying! Through the whole discussion with Dr. D’Onofrio, my slender manila chart laid open before him, his voice slow and dry, I kept thinking how I had to walk down the hallway with my arms full. My mind gnawed at the dry leather of anger. It was a better chew toy than fear.
Later, I told myself Abhi had been distracted, but I knew that wasn’t it. Over years I had let him get into the habit of ignoring the small chivalries. I was uncomplaining. I always made things out to be more trivial than they were—the opposite of some wives I knew (the opposite, too, of Mala). I waited out my anger in silence. And the anger went away eventually, like an itch fizzing away to nothing. On the drive home, I thought of my anger with detachment and said nothing of it to Abhi. What was the use? You couldn’t change a relationship this late. You could not force small kind gestures. They didn’t occur to Indian men, at least not to Indian men of Abhi’s generation. (I wonder if we need expectations to perceive ingratitude. Was that why I could think of Ronak or Mala as ungrateful, but never Abhi?) Still, the larger love was there. The larger love I never had cause to doubt. Just as on every other occasion, I was happy I hadn’t spoken my anger. Abhi was a good husband. Plenty of philanderers came home with brooches and tennis bracelets for their wives, making up ostentatiously for hidden transgressions. Abhi was a good husband, a good man. So what if he didn’t open doors for me? So what if he didn’t pull out chairs for me the way Ronak did for Amber?
* * *
Abhi likes three whites with one yolk marbled through it. Sachin likes his eggs with all the yolks mixed in. Men first: the traditional reflex. Besides, Mala is focused on feeding the children. She shakes one cereal box, then the other, giving them a choice. I do not break the eggs as cleanly as I usually do. My fingertip chases a fleck of eggshell through the jellied egg white until I draw it up the bowl’s slope and beach it on the lip. I spill the eggs onto the heat and I let them whiten.
Abhi is sitting straight, lotus position, lengthening his spine. He never did these asanas when he lived in India. Neither had our parents. Yoga was for sadhus, not for engineers and students. Only after seeing white women on the Fitness Channel do it, five of them on mats, blue bay and white boats behind them, he had become fascinated with this sublime science from India’s past. I set two slices of rye bread to toast for him, just in case he doesn’t want the croissants. Soon he will be restless while everyone lingers over breakfast. How wonderful these indoors winter days are! Brownies on a plate, child laughter and child tantrums to disrupt my brooding, plastic trains and picture books and stray stuffed animals on the carpet. Yet these days drive Mala stir-crazy—that is her word—come the afternoon, when dinner is as far away as the children’s sleep time is from dinner.
Abhi loves these days, too. But he is subject to the inward pull of his mind, which revolves beyond the reach of our ruckus. After Vivek takes Mala’s requisite two more bites, Abhi will play with him for a few minutes. He will roar, he will chase and capture and release and chase again, but then he will get distracted. The chasing will grow listless, the tickling less furious, and once Sachin finishes eating (Sachin is very slow), Abhi will slip into the study, body following mind.
Half an hour alone with his numbers refreshes him. He can’t accomplish much in that time. I told him once that he returned to his mathematical work the way some obsessive-compulsives wash their hands. He said that was right—except it wasn’t work, it was play.
Vivek asks for croissants, just as they are due out. Mala gets up to fetch something from the refrigerator and stops, the door wide, her profile bathed in pale, cool light.
“What’s all this?” she asks. “Mom? Is this just for the next couple days?”
Tupperware stacks are each topped by a plastic-wrapped basin of a different dahl. On every dish, I sprinkled the shredded coriander in a circle, as in a cookbook. I even have ready dough, covered in a stainless steel bowl. “I made it all yesterday. It’s fresh. There’s more in the freezer.”
“Isn’t this a little much for the four of us?”
“The kids will eat, too.”
“Good luck with that.” Her hand goes for something, then drifts back, thwarted.
“What do you want?”
“The skim milk, but…”
“Here.” I slide things out, slide things aside. “I’m sorry, I should have kept the milk more accessible.”
“No, you know what? I don’t need it. Just leave it.”
“No, Mom, it’s all right.”
“This will only take a second!”
She crosses her arms and waits. Vivek has his mouth full of steaming croissant. He opens his mouth and breathes out the heat, then gets up on his knees on the chair as if to show everyone the food.
“Don’t stuff your mouth like that,” Mala says. “Sit down in your chair. You’ll fall.”
Vivek doesn’t respond until Sachin looks his way, makes a sound like shhhhp, and points down with two fingers. He turns back to feeding Shivani. Mala sighs while I get her the skim milk. Sachin, his curiosity piqued, sets down the spoon in Shivani’s bowl and comes over to where I have put out some of my dishes. Mala passes him without a glance.
“What do we have?” he asks in Gujarati.
“Surprise, surprise, you have to wait until lunch.” I put my hand halfheartedly over one of the bowls.
“This is a lot.”
Abhi, his exercises done, approaches the table and the plate I set for him. “You didn’t see the refrigerator in the garage, did you?”
“What’s this now?” Mala asks. “You bought another refrigerator?”
“Full-size. And she filled it, too. You should have seen the cooking she was doing yesterday. She sprouted two extra arms, like Durga.”
Mala shakes her head. “These two aren’t going to eat Indian food lunch and dinner.”
“Can we have lasagna?” asks Vivek through a full mouth.
“Chew your food, V.”
“Ask Naani. But chew your food first. This is the last time I’m going to tell you or you lose those croissants.”
“I know,” I say. “It is too much food.”
“Not if I am set to work on it,” says Sachin pleasantly, returning to his seat in front of Shivani’s high chair. Shivani is playing with two spoons, one in each small hand. “Home cooking! After a long time.”
Mala has just poured herself half a glass of skim and is raising it to her lips. “A long time?”
“Naani, can we have lasagna for lunch?”
“I meant we hadn’t had your mother’s cooking in a long time.”
“If I had free time, I’d spend all day in the kitchen, too.”
“Not for lunch, Vivek. I’ve made a lot of nice things for you. You like raita, right?”
“Sorry, husband, but I have a job.”
“Mala,” Abhi interjects sharply. I close the refrigerator door. Abhi would have let the comment pass if circumstances had been different. Things are about to escalate. Vivek is not going to forget the lasagna, either.
That is when the doorbell rings.
* * *
The day before Christmas Eve? At nine in the morning?
“I’ll get it.” Mala leaves the table.
Sachin and Abhi glance at each other. Shivani, quiet, amenable Shivani, opens her mouth for another bite, and her father obliges. I listen. The door opens. Mala gives a sound of delight, a laugh crossed with a yelp. “What are you doing here? You know I saw that Spurs jacket of yours through the window and I thought, Naw, it can’t be him. God! You didn’t even tell me. And I thought I was going to be alone this whole weekend! Don’t you smirk at me!”
Abhi is looking at me with his mouth open. I rush to the door, shouting, “Ronak?”
He is standing in the doorway, looking a little abashed. I throw my arms around him and feel the chill of his jacket against my cheek. He smells of coffee. I step away and look up. He is unshaven.
“So, uh, Merry Christmas,” he says, not at ease, his eyebrows twitching, the way they do when he is nervous.
Vivek comes running full speed down the hall and jumps into Ronak’s arms. Abhi and Sachin with Shivani on his hip approach in puzzled delight. Sachin puts his hand out. “Brother, welcome, quite the surprise!” Ronak shifts Vivek to one side and shakes the hand, then draws Sachin close. The shake becomes a sideways hug. Ronak kisses Shivani on the forehead.
Abhi waits. He pats Ronak’s shoulder, studying the scruff on his cheek. “So let’s get my grandkids in here,” Abhi says, his voice just short of elation. “And Amber, too—where are they all hiding?”
Mala glances out at the driveway. “You brought the Beamer?” Meaning the sedan; meaning not Amber’s minivan, not the car seats, not the kids. “They didn’t come?”
“Right,” says Ronak, and swallows. “They’re in Pitt right now. With her parents.”
I flush. “You … you came for me?”
I look at Abhi and breathe deeply. “You told—”
“I said nothing.” I take one look at Abhi’s eyes and believe him. “Ronak?”
Ronak, seeing me and Abhi tense, grows calmer, offhand. “They’re in Pitt, like every year. But I came, you know, to be here. Here with my boy V.”
“Where’s my cousins?” asks Vivek.
Ronak purses his lips. “They’re in Pittsburgh with their mom,” he says. “But they did send along a whole bunch of presents.”
“So you dropped them off and came here?” Mala asks. “You took two cars?”
“So you left their house at what, six thirty in the morning?”
Mala smirks playfully. “Kind of early for you, isn’t it, High Finance?”
“Once in a while’s okay. You know, so I can see how the other half lives. Doctors and surgeons and that kind of riffraff.”
It pleases me to see Mala and Ronak teasing each other. Abhi is tense. “They must be up by now, right? We can do a video chat so the cousins can see each other.”
Vivek smiles. “Yeah, I want to see my cousins on the computer.”
“Okay, V, they’re probably still eating breakfast, and then they are going to see some relatives this morning…”
Vivek sticks out his lower lip, his disappointment not lost on Ronak or Abhi, who says, “Let me get my phone. I’ll see if we can catch them.”
Ronak sets Vivek down and tips his suitcase over. It is a large bag with wheels, the kind you would take for a longer stay, or a trip to a place that wouldn’t provide everything the way our house would. Presents, probably. He unzips a front pocket and brings out a Buzz Lightyear figure. “There’s an early Christmas present for you, V.” Vivek is successfully distracted, clawing at the packaging to get it open. Abhi returns with the phone on speaker ringing in his hand, over and over, until Amber’s voice-mail comes on. Her voice slows Ronak’s hand as he zips the bag.
* * *
Now that Ronak is here, the house takes on an air of celebration, mostly thanks to his effect on Mala. Abhi relaxes more as the morning goes on, like a moving body warming to water. Vivek plays on the couch, climbs on his mother, basks in her good mood.
It is unusual for Ronak to spend this much time with family at a stretch. His laptop is usually out by now, or he is sliding a fingertip across his phone, the screen’s reflection turning his glasses white, impenetrable. Generally he leaves the chitchat to Amber. His children, too, would divert us, freeing him from the obligation of interacting. This morning, he seems curiously free of his itch to retreat. Maybe, without Amber and the children, he has consigned these hours to us. Yet he seems happy to be here. Does he know? I wonder. If he doesn’t, I don’t want to tell him. I don’t want to ruin this unexpected warmth.
For a while, the grandchildren and I do some fingerpainting with a set I bought at the dollar store. Vivek keeps showing his work to Ronak, and Ronak scratches his chin, sticks out his lower lip, and says, in a British accent, “A work of astonishing grandeur!” or something like that, which pleases Vivek greatly. Shivani paints the paper and her face alternately; when she runs out of cheeks, I offer her my own. In the bathroom mirror, we look like we have been celebrating Holi. Ronak goes upstairs to shower and shave when Mala teases him about his “terrorist-mug-shot shadow,” which I think means his two-day beard. When Sachin comes down from his own shower, I slip into Abhi’s study.
He is at his desk, an architect’s table by the window, and has three separate books open, his graph-paper notepad at the center. He registers the door opening with the surface of his mind and commands his right hand to rise. His left hand keeps writing. It is his “stop where you are and don’t talk” gesture. I walk up behind him and pluck the pencil out of his moving hand, which moves for a few seconds before he startles, as if shaken from a dream. He looks over his shoulder at me, closes his eyes, and rests his elbow on the table, his forehead on the heel of his hand.
“It’s like walking a tightrope,” he says. “And you cut the tightrope.”
I clack his pencil firmly on the desk. “I never interrupt you.”
“What is it?” He picks up the pencil and begins worrying the eraser with the pad of his thumb.
“I told him nothing.”
“Did you hint at it?”
“Did you say something to Amber?”
“I never talked to Amber. I still haven’t got ahold of her. I am worried.”
“You think they had a fight?”
Abhi nods. “He will tell Mala first. He may not tell us at all.”
I bite my lip. “Do you think they fought because we asked them over?”
“How can you be sure?”
“They wouldn’t fight over coming here.”
“Why did they fight then?”
Abhi shrugs. “What do couples fight about? What do we fight about? Some trivial thing or another. Enjoy him while he’s here. She seems to have given him a sound thrashing for us.”
I smile and kiss his head where the light from the window shines on it. I tap his notebook. “You are overthinking things, Abhi. The answer is four. Two and two is four. Now come out and play with your grandchildren before they grow up.”
* * *
I wonder how much Vivek understands of the moods and shifts and silences above him. Does the chill between adults drop like cold air and discomfort him, an unplaceable draft? For the most part, he seems to soak up Mala’s moods. The only time he ever spoke to me defiantly was back in June, right after I had an argument with Mala. I had known he was mimicking his mother and had not taken offense. Still, I had expected Mala to reprimand him. She didn’t. (What had his outburst been about? I think it was the color of his Gatorade cup; he had a special Gatorade-only cup I was supposed to know about.) Mala had let him speak to his grandmother in that tone. The sting had come out in our tearful reconciliation later that night, after the kids had gone to sleep, when as usual we traded apologies and self-defense in whispers at the kitchen table.
Eventually we lapsed back into argument: “We shouldn’t have to scold him when he does something out of line around you, Mom. You can tell him, you’re his grandmother.”
“But it’s not as effective coming from me as it would be from you, Mala.”
“That’s not true, he never listens to me.”
“He listens to you all the time: he listens to how you speak to me.”
“I was speaking my mind to you because you’re my mother, but you know, I guess I’ll watch myself in the future.”
“You don’t have to watch yourself around me.”
“Well, obviously I do…”
Old quarrels: forget them. We are happy right now, aren’t we? And I am watching myself. I made no comments on her eating habits or her children’s. It is a sensitive topic with her and has been ever since her teenage years, when I began pushing her to eat more than a few spoons of rice and the skim water off the dahl.
Vivek shows Abhi two action figures he brought from home. Mala slides an India Today from under the coffee table. Sachin, Shivani in his lap, is pointing at a picture book and counting. Even Ronak, when he comes downstairs, looks lively. With his freshly shaven face, a light seems to have been switched on somewhere inside him. But the eyes are bloodshot. The eyes are not smiling.
“Did you eat anything before you left?” I ask. “You’ve been on the road for hours.”
“I grabbed something for breakfast.” He goes for the pantry and starts scanning shelves; he is hungry, he just isn’t saying it.
“Let me make you something. Go sit down. What do you want?”
“I’m fine, Mom. I’m not hungry.” He finds the cashews and shakes some into his palm.
“How about eggs?”
Mala speaks from the couch. “Might as well save room for lunch, Ronak,” she says. “There’s quite the feast coming our way.”
Ronak glances at me, and I name the dishes I made for lunch as he strolls to the glass doors that open onto the deck. Inches of snowfall balance precariously atop the legs of the upside-down patio chairs. The only color is from the patio umbrella, collapsed late last fall, propped at an angle. Its floral yellows break the snow. I will open that umbrella again. Even if I do not respond to treatment, spring is almost guaranteed me. I will get to shake the April water from that umbrella and screw it to the hub.
Ronak stares out at the backyards. Our swing set with its chairs rusted in place, a neighbor’s trampoline fenced in black netting, another neighbor’s pool, drained and covered for the winter. I remember the blond children in their blue swimming trunks, front teeth coming in outsize, shouts audible over the lawn mower two yards down. They ran and ran and flung themselves down the Slip ’n Slide. The water dried on their golden backs. Then one morning, a station wagon was loaded full of cardboard boxes, clothes and shoes, posters rolled to go up on the dorm room wall. The children came back as twentysomethings, their hair a few shades of darker brown. In the backyard they sat and chatted at Fourth of July barbecues, beer bottles in their hands and fat watches on wrists, slightly sunburned, khaki shorts, button-down shirt sleeves. The grown rich children of rich parents, the life cycle continuing, and me at the window unchanged.
I go over to Ronak, who is still pensive, his cashews finished. “Is she upset?”
“You got ahold of her?”
“No, no. I am just wondering, is she upset? And her parents—what did Dottie and Don say?”
Mala looks up from her reading and watches for Ronak’s response.
“They were fine with it. They know I’ve spent every year there for … for years now. Even before the marriage.”
Sachin stops counting. Mala says, “Did you two have a fight?” Her tone is playful—come on, out with it already, it’s not a big deal—and I fade out, knowing his sister has a better chance of getting the information than me, assuming there is information to be gotten.
Ronak’s face stays blank. “No. She’s fine.”
Mala had closed her magazine over her finger, but now her finger slips out. “Funny, for a guy who hustles old ladies out of their savings for a living, you’re an awfully bad liar.”
“I’m not lying, Mala. Everything’s fine.”
“You’re telling me your rifle-and-Bible in-laws are okay with you missing Christmas? That’s some real Christian forgiveness, I’d say.”
Sachin smiles at me in faint bewilderment, having understood nothing but Mala’s suddenly aggressive tone. She has a way of making her voice turn sharp all at once. I am not sure she always intends to be sharp, but this time probably she does. I have been on the receiving end of it before.
Ronak is used to her and smiles serenely. “You know, they’re good people, Mala. Bibles and all. You keep talking like that, and I may just take offense someday.”
“All right, all right. But think about what it looks like. You here, them there.”
“I know what it looks like. And it’s not like that.”
Abhi chases Vivek around the coffee table and between brother and sister, shouting, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you!” It is intentionally disruptive; he is breaking the tension. Mala, rebuffed, opens her magazine and sets it down forcefully on her knees. Ronak takes out his phone and brushes at its screen, wandering distractedly to the kitchen counter. At first I think he is calling Amber, but the screen has a graph on it, and all I can make out is uptick, uptick, uptick.
Mala is sometimes sweet, sometimes cutting. Her brother is neither. Better love that is quarrelsome than indifference, which is what I fear underlies Ronak’s perfectly unruffled composure whenever he comes home. With Mala, homecoming carries a charge. Without fail, at least once, she and I will fight and make up. The fault line is active. Ronak fights with no one.
That may be what happens when the father is not a template. The boys born here could not look to the fathers for a model. To know how to hold himself, what to say, when to laugh, Ronak had to look elsewhere, and elsewhere meant friends. We set out love and waited for him to come home and be a son to us, as if his teens and twenties might be just a fitful phase. As if the man might resemble the small boy, everything in between an aberration.
During those years, as now, there was no way to yell at him. At Mala we could yell. She wanted love, she wanted approval—and that meant we could say no. We could say, That is not how we do things, and it had an effect.
I could stand in Ronak’s doorway and demand to know why he hadn’t answered me when I called his name. I had lunch warm on the plate for him. Ronak would pause his game and look at me over his shoulder, there in his mess of clothes and game covers. I demanded, rapid-fire, arms crossed: When had he last showered? Was this the third straight day? Yes, this was summer vacation, but had he slept in that T-shirt and shorts? He would eye me, bored, unmoved by my reproaches. “I’ll be down in a sec. I’m almost done with this level.”
Why had we gotten that game system for him? Even his friendships were time spent in an elbow-to-elbow frenzy over controllers, laughing and shouting at the screen. The system and libraries of games he wanted—“needed”—changed every year or so, each system sleeker. Controllers grew crowded with buttons and cross-shaped pads. The screens were bewilderingly colorful and intricate. How could he keep track of his own tiny character amid so much activity? We shouldn’t have bought him those games. What if Mala had demanded something that cost over a hundred dollars, purely for her amusement?
If not the games, though, it would have been something else. There’s no sure way to win, raising children. They turn out how they turn out. Sushila, a friend of ours, refused her son Vijay a Nintendo 64 and every system that followed it. Vijay went to books instead and studied writing in the university. He lives in downtown New York now, still single, and his apartment has no room for his parents’ luggage, much less for a guest bed or sleeping bags. Sushila hardly knows him; he makes next to nothing teaching books in a dingy city college there—Vijay, the son of a breast surgeon and an anesthesiologist.
All you can do is set out love and hope they come. Ronak would eat the meals I made him, scarcely aware of what I had put on his plate. He took second helpings, but only to fill the hole with something. Not out of pleasure. Nothing was savored.
The only time I saw him taking an interest in food was during sophomore year. His body had grown thin and hard, and a scrap of track shirt hung from his shoulders. I never thought of food as fuel. I always thought food, properly enjoyed, was close to rest and leisure, to a massage and hot bath, something to make you sleep well. Ronak ate for fuel’s sake before his track meets, tossing pasta brusquely into boiling water. I was never part of those carbohydrate meals. I offered to make him rotli, insisting it was just flour and a smear of ghee. He said that pasta was “better” before a meet, garnishing his steaming rotini with oregano and Sriracha—apparently some ritual meal he and his teammates had come up with.
Whatever he was, he became by watching other people, frantically recombining himself from the boys around him. He collected comics in seventh grade because his friend Nick collected comics. He tried out for track when his best friend, Philip, tried out for track. The team was a kind of family. I didn’t know about Amber, but she was part of his life by then, too. He slept at our house, but that was all.
One day, I could see no higher than Ronak’s chest. One day, I picked up the phone, and his voice was deeper than his father’s. He ate more, but the fat on him disappeared, it seemed, over a single summer. With that softness went the last of his childhood. I saw him from behind and thought: Who is that? Is that man my son? Yet I never felt older. I thought sometimes, too, of some girl’s white hand tracing the sharp loveliness of his shoulder blade—and never felt more fearful for his future.
Abhi, in the days when he had more of a temper, used to call his son lazy—but how ferociously Ronak ran at the gunshot, palms cutting the air, like those sprinters in the Olympics! His back was straight, and I could see how tall he was, even compared to the American boys on either side of him and often behind him. I cheered from the bleachers with the other parents. If we had stayed in India, he never would have grown into such height and grace. He would have hunched over his notebooks the way we did at that age, learning things by rote.
Here a boy grows a foot taller than his father. Here he raises a fist as his legs slow their rhythm and the losers go slack, walk, spit, stop, put their hands on their waists, and bend. Here, even a boy can experience triumph. But the triumph made him proud, and pride made him still more distant. Ronak would glance up at the stands where we were waving at him, nod once, and raise his hand. An acknowledgment. Yes, we know each other. And a caution. Now, don’t embarrass me.
* * *
This country gave us clean quiet luxury and charged us nothing but our children.
Abhi had four brothers, I had one. We left them behind. They didn’t score as high as we did. We put sixteen hours and thousands of dollars between us and our widowed mothers—and then dared complain to each other, years later, about a son who applied to a college two states away when there was a good one in town.
Still worse: in college, Ronak studied neither mathematics nor science—economics, something Abhi considered inferior. After that, with no postgraduate training, he got a finance job in Manhattan. These two choices bothered Abhi more than any others. Ronak took the talent he had inherited and pursued a worldly, debased form of mathematics. Numbers-work, yes, but in a suit and tie, shuffling and dealing. Meanwhile, the father, in his study at 1 AM, inked square-root signs like a bygone Brahman drawing the bar above Sanskrit.
Numbers were sacred to Abhi. He had no gods. He downplayed his dedication, of course. His code for “leave me alone” was “I’m going to go doodle for a while.” Then he would disappear into his study. Those doodles made him famous. Six years ago, we watched him stride onstage at the University of Berkeley, a star. The professors there thought him miraculous because he had no training. He did his neurologist’s work day after day until six, sometimes seven in the evening. Then, after eleven, when we were all asleep, he would stay up writing in the graph-paper notepads his brother sent over in bulk from Ahmedabad. Always the same brand: black cover, weak thready binding, and the smell that reminded us both of school. Abhi said that smell prompted his best insights—as if he had known all of mathematics once, in his childhood or in a past life, and the smell of the notebook triggered his memory. We had learned math and penmanship in those books, each letter in its own square.
Of course he disapproved when Ronak twisted that inborn love of numbers into love of money. Ronak thought his job placement such a triumph, he gave us the news with a small involuntary pump of the fist. He never understood why his father’s face fell. Abhi muttered only to me. “You don’t know what that kind of banker does. Ronak is a gambler now. Our son will gamble for a living.” Abhi divided professions into noble and ignoble ones, and lucrative did not necessarily mean noble. Abhi would have been more pleased had Ronak become a schoolteacher. Medicine and teaching were noble. Playing the market for a living was not.
For everyone but Abhi, though, richer meant better. I confess: at dinner parties, I passed on the stories Ronak told me of recruiters and their thousand-dollar wine bottles. I enjoyed the envy. Our circle was all doctors and doctors’ wives. Their children were premed. Our son alone had made it to a higher level of wealth. How proudly I claimed Ronak for my own when he was away! When he came home—just once, that first year—I was reminded how he was mine in name only. New clothes, new shoes, a new watch, and his hair no longer parted on the left like his father’s.
I asked him whether he made any Indian friends in Manhattan. He grinned a new grin, only one side of his mouth rising. He was thinking, probably, how old-fashioned I was to make these distinctions. “Oh sure,” he said. “There’s a huge Desi singles scene, too.”
Day-c; it took me a while to realize that was our word for other Indians. His offhand comment made me wonder, helplessly, what kind of girl he would bring home. Whoever it was, we would have to acquiesce. When had we squandered the right to say what we thought? To say, We don’t like this girl. To say, We want someone who will fit in this family.
I realized, as I watched him cut open a bag of coffee he had brought from New York (how specific his tastes had become!), that we had no say. Even if he did find someone in that Desi singles scene, it would be some Asha on the neighboring gym equipment in his apartment’s workout room, some party-scene Sheena behind colored contact lenses who could talk with him about wines. This Desi singles scene was the only time he mentioned dating. Still, I thought, Indian would be better than white, even if Indian meant Bengal or Uttar Pradesh or the south.
So I came to expect an Asha or a Sheena. My accent—which is slight; I barely have an accent anymore—and my cooking wouldn’t be completely foreign, at least. I listened for hints or slips when he spoke of ski trips with friends. What friends? Who else had gone? He didn’t tell us until he was ready, and it came as a surprise. Amber accompanied him on his Christmas visit home nine years ago. I opened the door and thought this young couple had the wrong house. His smile—another new smile—made his face unrecognizably joyful. She was standing just behind him, slightly wary of me, her slender gloved hand in his.
In those first seconds, as I understood that this was it, this was her, I eyed her cruelly, coldly, as I never would afterward. She was shorter than Ronak and her legs were thick at the thighs. This was not the athletic, high-cheekboned white woman I had always worried about. Amber’s cheeks were as round, and her body as plump, as any Gujarati girl’s. I thought, If this is what he wanted, I could have found it for him. It was twenty degrees outside. Amber’s cheeks and ears had turned red. Brownish-blondish hair under her hat, a purple scarf. I did not sense wealth or finance or Manhattan from her clothes and boots. Her skin was the white that burned before it tanned. I thought, Mixed with that skin, his children will look completely American. I could not see her figure under her puffy jacket, but she seemed full at the bosom; the scarf gave her the appearance of a small bird puffed against the cold. I wondered: Does he know what childbearing will do to a figure like hers? And: Americans age worse than we do—is she at least a few years younger than him? Shamefully petty, snobbish thoughts, but I thought them. She isn’t, compared to other white women, what Ronak is compared to other Indian men.
When he led her inside, I could judge her figure better, though blurred by a snowflake-printed sweater. I said distractedly, as Ronak took her coat, “That is a lovely scarf.” I paused and formed the next word. “Amber.”
“Why thank you, ma’am,” she said, lighting up. Briefly I thought she said mom, but it was too early for this; she had said ma’am. Her green eyes met mine directly, and I looked away. “My grandmother will just love to hear that. We get one from her every Christmas. In fact she’ll probably knit you one for next time we visit.”
I looked from her to Ronak and back, and I could not connect them. This girl with a local, almost a country accent, speaking of her grandmother; Ronak, distant, money-minded, this his second time home all year. Out of her coat and hat now (was that my Ronak putting her coat on a hanger?), in the gold glow of our chandelier, animatedly speaking, her hair free over her shoulders, Amber was transformed. Her liveliness changed my perception of her. Everything that seemed plain in isolation or awkward when motionless now appeared as beauty. She exercised a calm command over Ronak that did not seem like domination. Abhi glanced at me incredulously when Ronak pulled out her chair at the dinner table. How had she made him a gentleman? We could not have imagined that Ronak was capable of monitoring another person’s comfort.
“I did not know,” I apologized, not specifying what it was that I hadn’t known—that Ronak was bringing an American guest to dinner. (He had intended to spring the visit as a surprise so that he wouldn’t have to deal with us “throwing a fit,” he told us later.) “I fear I made only Indian food.”
Ronak said, “It’s no problem, Mom. She loves Indian food.”
“Even more than Roan does. Roan’s always wanting Italian or Mexican, and I’m always the one pushing for Tandoor Oven.”
“You mean the Tandoor Oven here in town?” I asked.
She nodded. “I like the aloo gobi there. That’s what I like, right, Roan? The aloo gobi?”
“That’s right. She also likes onion naan.”
Abhi and I knew the owners. Mr. Mishra or his wife or both were at the restaurant every night. Sharmila handled the seating. I flushed. She had known. Sharmila Mishra had known about them. Who else had known?
“Roan tells me you’re a great cook. I’ve been looking forward to this. Good Lord, look at all these dishes. This must have taken you days!”
“You haven’t seen Mom cook,” said Ronak with what I was surprised to hear was pride. “She’s so fast, she could run a restaurant. How long did this take you, Mom?”
“Not too long, an hour and a half or so,” I murmured. I pointed at the eggplant bhartha. “This may be a little spicy for you, Amber.”
She threw her head back as she laughed and touched Ronak’s arm. “Don’t worry about me, I can handle spicy. Your son’s the one always asking for more water at Thai restaurants.”
Ronak nodded. “She’s amazing like that. She and Dad should have a contest.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Abhi, who hadn’t said much until then, watching the three of us. “Help yourself, Amber.”
She said she was dieting, but Amber ate with great pleasure, and it was a delight for me, seeing such obvious relish in my food by someone other than Abhi. Mala usually took thimble-sized portions; Ronak ate without recognizing what he put in his mouth; Indian guests gave formulaic praise. Amber actually inquired about what I had put into each dish. Had Ronak told her how to ingratiate herself with me, or was she naturally friendly? She accepted seconds when I pressed them on her. She ate the bhartha without resorting to her glass of ice water.
Abhi began putting the questions I wanted to ask but didn’t. How, when, where had they met? How long had they known each other? The answers saddened me. They had met in biology class. Biology? But wasn’t that … eighth grade? It was. Ronak and Amber had been paired for an owl pellet dissection. They had been going out for that long? Oh no, of course not. They didn’t go out until tenth grade. I had imagined girlfriends, but he had been faithful to this one girl all along. He had loved her and never told us. And college in Pennsylvania? And the job in New York? “On and off, you know,” murmured Ronak. “But mostly on.”
“And you didn’t feel you could tell us? All these years?”
Ronak said nothing.
“We made the decision together,” said Amber lightly. “We waited till it was the right time. No point rushing things, right?”
Abhi nodded and looked at his plate. I thought I could read guilt in the way he pushed his dahl about in the bowl, using the back of his spoon. I know I felt it. Guilt, but also embarrassment at not knowing this immense fact about our son.
Growing up in India, we hadn’t had this kind of love to conceal from our parents. Ronak’s or Mala’s children, a decade and a half from now, would never have to conceal their boyfriends or girlfriends. But during the in-between years, during the shift from Indian to American, love, for our children, was both treasure and transgression, a joy they could not bring home. Ronak had been caring and dutiful—but in secret.
No wonder he seemed remote to his parents. He had sent an effigy to live with us. His feeling self had escaped to her.
* * *
Without being asked, solely because she had noticed, Amber refilled Ronak’s water. She did it the way I would have done it, tilting the pitcher slowly so the ice cubes caught at the fluted lip. He held the glass steady while she poured, his whole hand around it. I had poured for him hundreds of times, and he had never held the glass.
I foresaw, in that moment, the mother she would be someday. I saw the dark blue minivan with cheddar cheese Goldfish crushed into the mats. The sinkside rack where she would dry the sippy cups she had handwashed in hot water. The cart at Walmart with her toddler’s creased thighs sticking through the upper basket, two cubes of Huggies stowed below. The toddler would be fair-skinned and have light brown hair: no trace of us. And then, beyond that, my teenage grandchildren unplaceably handsome, unplaceably beautiful. Maybe once, for some relative’s wedding reception, a granddaughter would be brought to me so I could dress her in Indian clothes. And she—what would they name her? something easy and dual-purpose, Maya, Nina, Sheela—she would look the way attractive white women look wearing Indian clothes, sharp-featured, strangely hard underneath, like those too-tall, too-slender mannequins at saree stores.
Within two years (he had introduced the girlfriend so he could make her his fiancée), Ronak and Amber had their wedding, or more accurately, weddings: the morning at their small church on a downtown street corner, close to boxy houses and a taqueria. I had never been inside one of these churches before, not in America. It looked exactly like the ones Abhi and I had seen on vacation in Switzerland and Austria; the builders had reproduced the darkness, the stained-glass windows, the organ pipes up front. I had thought such artistic churches existed only in Europe, but we had one just down the highway, with old Dodges and Fords in the parking lot behind it. We walked down the aisle to our places in the pew, as we had been instructed. Everyone twisted in their seats to look at us. The whole wedding took place in a funereal hush; no one behind us talked.
That afternoon, we changed our clothes and had the Hindu ceremony in a Hyatt ballroom where a mandap and wooden thrones had been set up. Red silks, marigolds in a stainless steel thali, Christmas lights spiraling up the columns, the pandit’s half-mumbled Sanskrit like the droning of an engine; and the audience free to turn and shake hands with an old friend, to follow a bolting two-year-old into the lobby, to chat.
I had made a trip to India with Amber’s measurements written on a chit of paper. I chose the darkest red that was not yet maroon and, for the reception, the darkest blue that was not yet purple. In Ahmedabad, I went to fetch my mother-in-law’s old jewelry sets from a State Bank of India safe, for which Abhi had vouchsafed me the key. He had kept the key inside a deposit envelope, a length of coarse twine for the key chain. I was very careful with that key and tucked it in with my passport. During the journey, I checked on it every time I checked on my passport. The key, especially with that twine, promised me access to the past, to our deceased mothers. It was time to hand those sets over to my daughter-in-law, just as Abhi’s mother had given them to me.
Brittle, faded velvet cases; their hinges resisted at first, and then, recognizing me, gave way all at once. Inside, the sets were as fragrant as old books. The gold was a deep yellow, and the work was in a busy older style, thick loops of chain and tiny dangling bell-beads. I tried to imagine the necklace resting on Amber. It would be only for a moment, the pose, the smile, the press of a button. I would not expect or even want her to wear this weight to the ceremony. After the photograph, this set would be hers to store away. Would she think it was gaudy, overdone? Even if she disliked it, she would never say so. Or maybe she would be indifferent. She would have no way to distinguish it from the bangles on her wrists or the bodice I laced up her back. No, Amber would take her cue from me; if I told her what the jewelry was, if I spoke of its history first, she would say it was “beautiful.” She would offer praise without comprehension, praise for my sake.
I returned the jewelry to the safe and buried the key in my purse. Outside the bank, though, I saw a billboard with a giant watch on it, and I changed my mind. I took off my watch, put it in my purse, and went back inside the bank. I told the clerk I had forgotten my watch inside the safe, where I had left it while trying on some old bracelets. Tick, tick: the future is stronger than the past. Would things have been any different if Ronak had married an Indian girl? Raised here, raised there—girls were different now. Abhi and I came from an India that did not exist anymore. We had sold my own father’s house in Jamnagar to make room for a multiplex. I put my watch back on, and I brought the sets to America.
* * *
The afternoon of the wedding, when Mala and I helped her get ready, I told Amber about the necklace and bracelets. She said they were “beautiful, just beautiful,” as I knew she would. Mala had a digital camera, and I looked over her shoulder at each new image of Amber wearing the set. When I went around to take the necklace off, her hand rose protectively to the heavy gold resting on her chest. “What are you doing, Mom?”
“I’m taking it off, of course. You wouldn’t want to wear this to the ceremony.”
“Why not? Didn’t you say it belonged to Roan’s grandmother?”
“Am I allowed to wear it?”
I looked at Mala.
“You can wear it, if you want to,” said Mala. “It’s not really the style anymore, Amber.”
“Neither were the earrings I wore in church this morning. Those were my great-grandmother’s opals. She wore them at her own wedding back in Germany.”
Mala frowned. “It looks uncomfortable.”
“It’s not uncomfortable.”
“You’re sure you want to wear that for two hours?”
“If I’m allowed to wear it, I want to wear it,” Amber said. She pressed both hands to the necklace, last night’s mehndi dark on her skin, a brown that glowed orange. The bracelets slid noisily down her arms. “This can be my something old.”
I like to take refuge with Sachin and Shivani. The enclave of the chaise longue feels like a clearing. Father and daughter. Both, I feel, harmless, without darkness or cruelty, even of the domestic kind. If Mala could see this quality in Sachin, as I do, maybe she might love him for that. But harmlessness wasn’t something women of her generation could love in a man.
A girl with her saree pulled low over her forehead, though, surrounded by relatives, being shown a potential husband over tea—such a girl might feel attracted to harmlessness. She would see whether her suitor looked capable of cruelty. What to watch for, in an interview that short? A certain thinness of the upper lip. Thick forearms, thick fingers. A rough way of setting the teacup back on the saucer.
My own yes to Abhi had been based, in part, on his slender fingers and receding hairline. Such a man, I had thought, will let me visit my mother and father. A similar conviction—he will be kind—had made me want Sachin for Mala.
I sit at the foot of the chaise, and Sachin moves his feet in their droopy white socks to the side. Shivani isn’t saying the animals by name yet, but she does point to orca, dolphin, walrus, and penguin as Sachin names them. He looks at me, raises his eyebrows, and points at the book to ask if I want to take over, but I shake my head and let them continue. I like the sight of them together. A turn of the long, glossy cardboard panel: tiger, gorilla, rhinoceros, elephant.
I begin pretending I am not there. I witness this scene as a ghost, unable to alter it. My presence does not change their awareness. I don’t even dimple the chaise cushion. This doesn’t sadden me. It is a pleasing fantasy, the kind some people have of fame or heaven.
Abhi and I noticed, from the start, how much closer Mala is to her son. Shivani came second, after Mala’s love for Sachin, perhaps, had cooled. Or maybe she felt no sense of discovery with this second child, seeing only the familiar chores. Mala would deny favoritism; she would be devastated, and then enraged, if she found out Abhi and I murmur this to ourselves. But the difference shows. Maybe she allows it unconsciously, but Sachin is always handling Shivani. He does it well. He is quick with diapers. It pleases me to see him clip the tiny ankles, raise the buttocks off the changing pad, slide the diaper under, and spread its crinkled fringe with a deft finger-splay; then fold up, wrap from the sides, and blow a raspberry on her chest for the finale.
Just one generation ago, this simply did not happen. In India, you didn’t need the man to help. You had mother, mother-in-law, sisters, cousins, grown nieces to share the shushing and cradling. For keeping the house clean, there was always a mute and serviceable bai who swung a wet gray rag over the floor tiles, fifty rupees a month and the gift of two old sarees on Diwali. Somehow, in India, you could leave a child to itself a little more confidently. In retrospect, this doesn’t make sense—the insects were more dangerous, and the outlets were uncovered. Still, collective watchfulness substituted for constant supervision. In America, in a small, resident’s apartment, the constellation of females vanished, but the husband did not register the tasks to be done. The aristocratic idleness of the Indian father came over on the same plane as the Indian husband’s entitlement to a hot meal. Even with a man like Abhi. I never expected him to crook Ronak over a forearm and rinse—and he never did. To Sachin’s generation this came naturally.
I make myself small and dwell in Shivani’s presence for a while. My storm shelter. I am happy here. She has no idea of mortality, and so, in a sense, no mortality, there in her father’s lap.
Already—beetle, bumblebee, earthworm, spider—words are getting attached to things. In a few years, words will proliferate and swarm and carry off the pictures in the books she reads, black ants hauling off the butterfly. Eventually just words will be left. The things themselves will have been devoured. What a loss! All creation. To be stuck reading instead of looking. But for now, Shivani is the first human being all over again.
After the book is finished, I give her my finger, and we walk together, kitchen, dining room, hallway, back to the family room. It is nice to have her to myself for a while. The circuit of the house becomes a scenic trail where I look up at things from her vantage. I stop her by a photo collage on the wall and lift her. Early pictures, more recent ones. Mala is in at least seven of the ten. I ask Shivani, Where’s Mommy? And she points, without hesitating, at the black-and-white photograph of my wedding ceremony, at me in my nose ring and thin gold side chain, little mehndi dots above my eyebrows, my girl face small behind the garlands.
* * *
Was there really just a year between that picture and New York City?
Abhi had just started hating his Internal Medicine residency (he would switch to Neurology that July) when I came over from India, six months pregnant with Ronak. We were still strangers then. The training programs had no work-hours restrictions. Mala, two decades later, would just miss the law limiting the workweek to eighty hours. As a new attending physician, she would see her own residents, including the senior ones just a year below her, get each other out before noon, postcall. Mercy, she realized in outrage, had been possible all along. Abhi, in those days, would go forty-eight hours straight sometimes—fourth floor, down to the Emergency department, sixth floor, fourth floor again, Emergency department again, the pages clustering, beeps interrupting one another, the operator’s cigarette-coarse voice mispronouncing his name on the overhead speakers. At each stop, he would lay two fingers in a limp palm and ask the patient to squeeze, or float his pen side to side across a fixed stare. Click, penlight in the left eye, penlight in the right eye, click. Then off to scribble a note, the phone crooked in his ear, ordering insulin in response to bed 327a’s blood sugar.
In our apartment, alone, I sang to Ronak. I kept my hands on the dome of us to complete a circuit. I imagined the water inside me shivering with my voice. I thought religious songs would make him a good child, even though I was never very religious. From medical school (still fresh then), I knew when the ears canalized. I imagined the intermediaries. Protozoan, fish, salamander: A half-dozen halflings passed through like past lives until the gills sealed and the vertebrae notched. An outsize skull trailed a torso like the radicle of a sprouted chickpea. At last the eyes glazed with eyelids. At last the fingers lost their webs. Two cells had frothed into a boy. Embryology was probably the closest I have come to feeling a religious tremor. The problem is, you can’t sing it. So I sang the old bhajans in the old language. I thought such songs would make him a good boy and a good man. Pious, even. Sound doesn’t travel well through water.
Months later, my bare still-swollen foot rocking Ronak’s cradle, I was studying for the exam that foreign medical graduates had to take. I should have waited a year. But he didn’t sleep the night through until he was three anyway. I would cup him to my breast, left thigh bobbing him, while on the other thigh I laid a textbook. He would fight it. He would crush his eyes and turn away in anguish, then, without warning, open his mouth and grope with his whole face in my direction. I swear he sensed my distraction and would not tolerate it. His mouth accepted me only when I curled over him and whispered. Rise a few degrees, turn to the book, and he broke the seal and wailed.
I went to the exam the first time with spit-up stains on my shoulder and no pencils. I kept thinking of the Latino woman who was babysitting him for those hours: she ran a day care in her living room, the television always on, six contagious older boys with cheese puff fingertips and Kool-Aid lips, all six infected with the same rhinovirus and using their sleeves. They were all delighted to see the baby. I was late. I had to go. She wished me luck and settled Ronak against her giant bosom and sat down in front of the television as the older boys gathered.
Ronak’s cold over the next two weeks prevented me from dwelling very long on the examination results. The cold got better, briefly, then worsened again, became a pneumonia, and got him admitted to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics. I received the letter late on a Tuesday night. Abhi, done with his shift, came to the Pediatric floor, set his white coat on the rocking chair, and sent me home to shower and cook (we lived in walking distance from the hospital). How distracted I must have been! I forgot to check the mail until, done cooking and packing dinner for me and Abhi, I passed the boxes. I set down the brown grocery bag full of containers and unlocked ours. The box was stuffed with several days’ junk mail, a tattered blue aerogram from India, and the envelope.
We dined beside Ronak’s hospital crib. The IV dripped noiselessly in the monitor’s green glow. I did not know which catastrophe to focus on, Ronak’s pneumonia or my envelope. I sent my thoughts to one as refuge from the other. I felt guilty for feeling shame more keenly than worry.
I could not tell Abhi. I had never failed anything before. How did people phrase such news? How, after saying it out loud, did they bear being gazed upon?
I was to stay the night in Ronak’s room. Abhi was covering the adult intensive care unit, which meant a 4:30 AM wake-up. As he gathered his white coat, I rushed to embrace him and slipped the envelope into his already cluttered pocket. He was very sensitive to changes in me, even though we did not know each other very well yet. He put a finger under my chin, lifted my face, examined my eyes. Would he figure it out? Would he tell, from my face, that I was not really the smart person he thought I was?
“Ronak is going to recover,” he said. “He’s a strong boy.”
I nodded and began to cry. I was never sure what I was crying about: The results? Ronak’s illness being a direct result of my leaving him to take the exam and pursue my ambition? Or the realization I was thinking about the trivial thing while Abhi gave me credit for thinking about the life-and-death one?
I cried a long time. It held him up. I remembered his shift the next morning and forced myself to stop. Then, as he was getting up to go a second time, I thought to myself: What if he finds it at some inopportune time? What if he is in an elevator with his superiors, and the envelope drops as he pulls out his notes on the next patient? What if someone sees the score and thinks it’s his? I stuck my hand in his pocket to take the envelope back. I was clumsy. He looked down in surprise and brought out the envelope. I fell back into my chair. He opened the letter. I could not look up. Ronak awoke and began to cry. I hurried to his crib and rubbed his head and shushed him. Abhi pressed himself to my side and kissed the top of my head. A chain of consolation. He stayed up talking me through things until well past midnight. By then it made sense to stay. We crowded onto the one couch. He smelled of my food, and under that of coffee, evaporated cologne, stale stress. Forced flush, we breathed each other in, and finally we kissed, my mouth for the first time opening to his tongue.
* * *
The full shock and shame waited until Ronak’s recovery. Abhi would come home and could tell from my eyes that I had been crying. He insisted he wouldn’t have been able to do it either if he had had to care for a newborn. He sat for the exam, he said, after two straight months of loneliness, the apartment empty and the country strange. What had he done but study?
I was not so charitable. I blamed myself, not motherhood. Hadn’t I always suspected it? In medical school it had been that way—the boys playing cricket, laughing aloud in groups of two or three even on exam mornings—me and my friends the studious, nervous girls, whose notes were far neater and color-coded, but whose scores were never quite as high. It felt like a law of nature back then, in India. As girls, we were doing something against the order of things; naturally we did it with more effort, less well.
Yet Ronak, who inherited all Abhi’s intelligence, had been third in his high school class. Both the valedictorian and salutatorian had been girls. I wondered at the conviction we girl students had back then—the conviction that we were lucky to pass. Was it the perception of us that had changed our self-perception? Were my male classmates ever “naturally” smarter? Or had their superiority, like any myth, become true by being universally believed—and shaped our scores accordingly?
I took the exam again the next year. The first time, I fell just below the cutoff. The second time I wasn’t even close. I’d had the whole year to go over the material. But the information had a strangely old feel. Not old as in familiar, but old like Scotch Tape that had lost its stickiness. I pressed my mind to those pages but nothing clung. Ronak was no easier to care for, either—twenty-two days before the exam date, he decided to start crawling. But the real factor was lack of confidence. I went in knowing I would do worse than before. My memory’s hands were shaking. They dropped everything.
For long afterward, Abhi used to encourage me back into medicine. Ronak was older now. I would have time. Things would turn out better. The old information would come back; the new information he would help me with. I put it off. Mala was born. I couldn’t possibly take the exam then—the conditions were even less favorable. More time passed. I wouldn’t just be retaking the exam. I would have to do whole years of residency with two children at home, hurry floor to floor with note cards in my pocket—hemoglobin and hematocrit, chest x-ray in AM, grand rounds, afternoons at clinic—impossible, I told myself. Impossible.
I start the preparations for lunch. Mala looks up from her reading. “Mom? Can you wait maybe five minutes? Just while I finish this article?”
“Take your time. I’ll set a few things on the stove.”
“I want to help. Just wait five minutes before you start.”
“It’s okay.” I keep moving. “There’s nothing to do. Finish what you’re doing.”
She sighs, closes her magazine, and joins me in the kitchen.
“You can read.”
“It’s all right. What do you need me to do?”
“Go. Go, finish.”
“Should I set the table?”
This is something clean and quick that she could do. “Sure,” I say, “if you want. Two bigger bowls, one smaller one for the raita.”
Her face doesn’t change. She looks glum. She slides out two stacks of bowls and uses the stacks to knock the cupboard shut. I watch her, apprehensive, as she goes into the next room with them. Annoyance surges in me, and I think, If she wants to get angry over something as small as this, let her. I roll some potential words on my tongue, waiting, just waiting to say them to her if she acts sulky. She isn’t a teenager anymore, why is she acting like one? Did I tell her to stop reading her little article? My annoyance, oddly enough, makes me feel healthy and normal for a moment. The moment lasts just as long as it takes me to lift the heavy pot of dahi from the refrigerator and set it on the counter. I become an observer again, I grow detached from my own emotion and think, Coming up with biting things to say to your daughter, are you? And you have how many months? Sadness comes through, and shame. I cannot taste my dahi when I sample some. I focus, try another spoonful, and stay focused to check for any aftershock of sour.
I make my own dahi because I love the continuity. Each pot curdles thanks to a spoonful of the one before it. With every batch, I set some aside. Every generation tastes different, of course, depending on how warm the milk is, and how long it sits on the counter before I take it to the refrigerator. But the cultures—the bacteria, Abhi likes to say, teasing me because he knows how seriously I take this dynastic succession—the cultures stay the same, like genetics. Probably Mala and Ronak don’t recognize it when they come home, not on their tongues, at least. But their bodies sense the past. Their bodies know.
I was very careful about saving that crucial dollop. Originally I smuggled some from India in a sterile stoppered test tube. Customs never searched that zippered pocket in my purse. Abhi, on our first evening together in our first New York City apartment, picked up the emptied test tube and glanced at the standing pot of milk, incredulous. Finally he laughed. “Now this,” he murmured, “is preserving Indian culture!”
Its lineage was magical. The consistency might vary, but the flavor never—pot after pot thickened identically in taste. Magic: I might have expected as much, as it came from my mother’s kitchen. Guests used to praise my dahi specifically. They were tasting Gujarat. Wherever we moved, I had at least one friend who asked for some in a stainless steel bowl. So the lineage branched.
There were breaks, inevitably, as with trips to India. Sometimes I could get away with simple refrigeration. During my long visits to take care of my mother, I left some at my friend Sujata’s house, then came home and took a little back. Sujata understood the crucial nature of such living artifacts from home. During her and Arvind’s two-week Europe trip, I cared for a tulsi plant descended from the one in her father’s courtyard.
Later, I made sure to colonize my grandchildren with the magical cultures. For those first bottle-and-burp-cloth months after each birth, I always brought some dahi in a red Igloo cooler when we visited, along with other still-warm Tupperware containers. I make sure there is dahi at every one of their stays, too, including this one, even though the grandchildren have grown used to the smooth, store-bought kind, scalloped neatly with a spoon, no murky whitish water at the bottom. Mala and Ronak are used to that kind of yogurt, too, but I offer my homemade anyway, lumps and all—to their tongues as to their bodies, familiar.
Mala and Sachin don’t eat in shifts the way they did when the grandchildren were babies. So one heating suffices for all. I ladle straight from the CorningWare. No need to stagger the eaters and microwave the meal plateful by plateful. That always feels so makeshift, so paradoxically impersonal. Sachin carries Shivani’s high chair into the dining room. I notice, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, how my lunch has crowded the table. It has grown by accretion and without my awareness. Karahi potatoes. A dahl in which I substituted New World zucchini for Old World bottle gourd. My dynastic dahi and its close cousin, the raita. More cooling: cucumbers and tomatoes, diced, salted, dusted with cumin. Heat, too: a small bowl of ginger shreds in salt and lemon juice. Kerala peppercorns pickled on the twig. Eggplant bhartha intricately beaded with seeds. Shredded carrots that have leached a crucible-sizzle of asafetida. I wonder if this proliferation looks desperate. In a way my secret lies in the open there, giving off steam and fragrance. But they are used to the table having little room left for plates. I fill the glass pitcher, and the ice cubes skate on the splash, knocking and bobbing in a circle. I call everyone to the meal.
Mala takes quarter ladles and half scoops of everything. I know not to pressure her, though even after all these years it is a reflex.
“I’ll take seconds if I need them, Mom, don’t worry,” she says, preempting me.
“I won’t be taking seconds, Mom,” declares Sachin. “I’m taking firsts and seconds, at the same time!”
He is looking at Abhi, his eyebrows high and his mouth open. Abhi and I laugh. Ronak and Mala only smile.
“Okay, we’ve got the cheesy mac, but you need to work with me on one thing. What do you want, V?” asks Mala, holding his plate.
Vivek scans the table. “Um…”
“Do you want to try a little of everything, Vivek?” I ask. “Take little bites, and try?”
“Um … I want…”
“Come on, V. You want some bhindi? You like bhindi.”
She raises a few okra in the scoop and tilts the scoop by the plate, waiting for the go-ahead.
“No. Wait. Let me see.”
“You can try a little of everything, Vivek.”
“There’s too many choices for him, Mom.”
“Just give him a little of everything.”
“I’m going to give him what he wants to eat—V, I’m waiting.”
“Hold on. I want … um…”
“Listen, V,” interjects Ronak, “you’ve got to get your bhindi, or you’re never going to get strong like your daddy.”
Sachin flexes his free arm, his left hand offering a spoonful of dahl to Shivani while his own food grows cold. “Try the bhindi, V,” he says.
Mala spoons a small pile onto his plate and sets it before him.
“No dahl?” I ask. “Not even the cucumbers?”
“You want the cucumbers, V?”
“No thank you. Remember?”
“No thank you.”
Vivek picks up a single okra nib and puts it in his mouth. I check Abhi’s plate and give him a second rotli from midstack, where they would be moist and lukewarm from their neighbors. Ronak has overlooked the raita and the shredded carrots, so I supply both. He uses the back of his spoon to shove aside the fenugreek-flecked potato slips and make room for the touch of orange on his plate. “Thanks,” he says quietly. I am surprised at how amenable he is; he must really be hungry.
My eyes go back to the near blank of Vivek’s plate, and I cannot help myself. I scoop some more shredded carrots—such a simple dish, not too spicy, not too strange a taste—and stretch to bring them near his plate.
“Your plate is empty, Vivek beta,” I say. “Do you want to try some of this?”
“Here we go,” murmurs Abhi at my elbow, then pushes a bite into his mouth.
Mala speaks before Vivek can say yes. “Look at your plate, Mom. You’re hardly eating anything.”
Ronak looks at my plate. He never noticed my plate before. “Jeez, Mala, you’re right. Are you on some crash diet, Mom?”
I set the carrots back in the dish, let go of the spoon, and glance at Abhi.
“Your mom and I are watching what we eat. We’re not as young as we used to be.”
“You’ve been losing weight,” says Mala. “That’s not a bad thing, if you do it healthily.” Ronak eyes Mala: the cups of shadow behind her collarbones, the eyes dark even without kohl. Mala is oblivious to his scrutiny. “Mom?”
“It’s not a crash diet,” I say.
We are lying now; Abhi hadn’t wanted to lie. This is exactly the kind of exchange he had wanted to avoid.
“What diet is it?” she presses.
“Like, Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, what?”
“I’m just eating smaller portions.”
“Are you getting enough protein?”
“Of course she is getting enough protein,” Abhi says irritably. “We are all doctors here, Mala.”
“How is she getting her protein?”
“Not me,” says Ronak. “I’m not a doctor.”
“I’m not a doctor either,” says Vivek, looking at Ronak in sympathy. Sachin is tearing a rotli into pieces for Shivani. Vivek pops some cheesy mac in his mouth. “I’m a boy.”
Mala insists, “Really. Look at her plate. Other than that spoonful of dahi, what source is there?”
“Dairy. Lentils. Spinach. All sorts of things.”
Ronak shakes his head. “Mala, lay off about the food, all right? Not everyone’s obsessed about this stuff.”
“Indian food is full of protein,” I assert.
“Naani, if you don’t eat protein, you can’t get muscles,” explains Vivek.
“Vivek,” says Sachin. “Eat.”
Mala is glaring at Ronak. “I am not obsessed.”
“All right. You’re not.”
“There was a Christmas carol I heard last week,” I say abruptly. “I need to know what it’s called. I really liked it.”
“Don’t try and change the subject, Mom.”
“No, Mala. Listen. I asked Abhi, he didn’t know.”
“I can’t tell these carols apart,” says Abhi, working with me. “I know ‘Silent Night,’ that’s it.”
“There were children singing.”
Silence. Mala, in a sulk, rolls her okra with her fork. “You’re changing the subject. It’s transparent.”
Ronak says, “That carol could be anything, Mom. A lot of them have children singing. How does it go?”
“I can’t sing it. There was a piano in it, too.”
Ronak takes out his phone and begins touching the screen with his free hand’s ring finger. “I have this app. Just sing a few bars of it.”
I don’t like him taking his phone out at the table, but it helps divert everyone’s attention from my plate, and mine from my own nausea. (Which is still mild, no worse than going down in an elevator forever.) Sachin looks interested, too. Ronak holds the screen so it faces me.
“I can’t sing.”
“Hum it then.”
“Are you recording me?”
“No. This app ID’s the song from a few bars.”
“Leetis,” explains Abhi. “Lines of the song. Try it.”
I shake my head, flushed. Of all the things I could have interrupted their escalation with, why did I choose this? Feeling ridiculous, I lean close to the intelligent little device, and I hum the five notes I remember. The whole table is listening. It doesn’t sound right to my ears. The machine doesn’t like it, either. Ronak checks the screen, frowns, and taps something. “Let’s try it again.”
“She’s talking,” says Mala, “about the Charlie Brown song.”
Ronak raises his eyebrows. “Let me look it up.” He taps and brushes the screen again.
Mala glances at me. “He’ll play it in a second.”
“I knew you would know.”
Under Ronak’s fingers, the screen grows suddenly bright, and the carol begins to play. He lifts the phone to take the speaker off the table, and the sound comes out very crisply. I smile. With family around and food on the table, the song doesn’t sadden me as much as it had when I heard it in the supermarket the week before. I liked its festive sadness. Now the song floats in our dining room, too mysterious and lovely to play during a chatty lunch, deserving noiseless snowfall and deep night. “That’s the one,” I say. “You can turn it off.”
Ronak taps something, and the carol stops. “Here you go, Mom.” He taps again and smiles. “I just bought the song. I’ll have Dad put it on your iPod. Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you, Mala.” I thanked the wrong person. I see, from the corner of my eye, Ronak glance up. I turn immediately to him. “And Ronak. Both of you.”
Ronak asks Mala, “How’d you figure it out so quick?”
“Piano, children.” She shrugs. “It’s my favorite carol, too. Ever since I was a kid.”
Ronak nods and looks down at his screen. “Check that out. Mom likes the Charlie Brown Christmas song,” he says softly, shaking his head. I do not know why this strikes him as hard to believe. I am in the world, I have ears. I can be charmed by music other than the old Lata songs I listen to while I cook.
As I watch, he grows increasingly distracted by his e-mail. Soon we are talking of other things. A short struggle with Vivek keeps Mala from bringing up again how little I am eating. The struggle ends with me microwaving him a soy dog until it blisters, and Mala stabbing the straw in a Capri Sun.
* * *
We have put up a Christmas tree. Mala instituted the tradition the year Vivek turned two. She had watched clips of her nephews on Christmas morning. Ronak’s Sony handheld captured it from the top of the stairs: Dev sprinting downstairs, shrieking with joy; Nikhil, not yet three then, wary of stairs, scooting, taking them one by one, shouting, Wait up! (Raj, Ronak’s third, had not been born yet.) Amber held up a hand—that was all it took—and the older brother stopped with a Simon-says-stop abruptness to wait for the younger. Then, antsy at the new starting line, the boys ran to their presents, stacked two deep under a ceiling-high Christmas tree.
I could imagine Ronak standing apart, recording it all. The open viewfinder served as a convenient wall. Being the cameraman allowed him the remove that some part of him wished to preserve. It was a curious reluctance that had shown up even in his church ceremony. He had no particular affection for Hindu ways or Hindu rituals. In fact, he liked to mock such things. But try to impose anything else, and he grew possessive, proud. There was a wafer he was supposed to eat at the end of his church ceremony, some Christian prasaad that he scandalously refused to accept in his mouth. After the wedding rehearsal, he had called me and Abhi to forbid us from doing so, too, though we were perfectly willing. (“What do you mean, why not? ’Cause it’s not our religion, Mom.”) Even at the reception, Amber had to wear Indian clothes, our clothes, though she would never have imagined her wedding this way. The Sinatra song was the one she picked out for her father-daughter dance, but she danced to it wearing a sarara.
Watching Ronak’s Christmas morning videos, Abhi and I, too, had grown jealous. Mere love could not compete with such dramatic gift-giving. Birthday counterstrikes did not suffice. The buildup wasn’t the same. Only one child got presents on a birthday, and he never tore the wrapping paper with quite as much frenzy. The birthday grandson embraced us gratefully afterward, upon instruction, while the other two looked on. Not the same! We had seen their Christmas morning gratitude. We had seen them throw their arms around Dottie and Don. Sometimes our birthday presents were opened along with others from the party—midsequence, indistinguishable, often outclassed. (Ronak, because of his work, had very rich friends.) Does a child even remember the giver when he plays with a gift? The warmth and gratitude spike for an instant, but you must have him in your lap as he opens it. Lately I have been buying gifts for all the boys, and the day before the birthday party, I make a game of it and have them hunt for clues.
The boys should be spoiled, but Amber is raising them, as she says, “with values.” Ronak has never, in my memory, actually reprimanded the boys. Sometimes he claps his hands twice, which the boys obey because their mother has trained them to do so. Ronak is relaxed to the point of indifference. And why should he worry? Amber isn’t working (she had done some secretarial work before the children, to pass time), Amber handles all that, Amber takes care of discipline … and meals, and potty training, and the sippy cups and Fruit Roll-Ups during road trips, and the shoes with little lights in the soles. Each day each boy gets to request one toy from the basement. One toy comes out for the morning. This toy is returned after lunch. A second toy is then brought upstairs, to be played with until bedtime, which is always at the same time.
We have never felt wholly at home in that gated, hilly scatter of four-car-garage houses. Ronak commutes over an hour each day, each way. You couldn’t peek through the door-length strip of window beside the door and glimpse a Ganesha or a Krishna-Lila painting that says yes, you are at the right house. The house never has the smell of an Indian house, either. I mean the turmeric and canola oil that leaches into the carpet, the couches, the guests’ winter coats piled on the guest room bed; the smell that breathes out from the coat when you sit in your car, overpowering the outdoor cold. I need that smell, I guess, to feel completely at home. What Ronak’s house has is shrink-wrapped ground chuck in the refrigerator. Crimson beads, strangely jellied. And cold cuts folded limp inside a plastic deli Ziploc, stickered with weight and price. A pale fluid, wept by the ham itself, pools along the crease and leaves the plastic murky. I always see a dark dispenser-box of beer cans—on the bottom shelf, no less, in Dev’s reach. Only a few years from now, he will have his first taste, given a sip by Ronak himself, or maybe Amber’s father, Don—during one of their backyard cookouts, hot dogs and patties striped black and flipped, Ruffles on a Styrofoam plate, ball game on the plasma screen indoors, here, Dev, here, Dave, here you go. The sound of beer pouring and foaming in a red plastic cup. An American rite of passage. Manhood is the first beer can, not a thread across the chest for this grandson of Gujarati Brahmins.
* * *
Ronak didn’t convert for her. Maybe Amber knew he didn’t really have anything to convert from; the children would be hers by forfeit. But he did stop brushing his teeth before breakfast, the way he had done his entire life, and switched to after-breakfast brushing. Amber taught the children the same habit, which I found much more disgusting than cold cuts. At least he didn’t give up scraping his tongue. His was the only one by the master bedroom sink, though, a stainless steel arch with little loops at the ends of the handle. I brought him a rubber-banded half-dozen once when I came back from India. I asked him, in a whisper, what Amber did. Apparently she “brushed her tongue.” I tried doing that the very next morning, just to see, and my tongue wasn’t nearly as clean.
Why Amber chose him, I can understand. If he had been a doctor, she would have been one of the pretty nurses who paged him on the pretext of a blood sugar, then coaxed the call into a conversation, a flirtation, a date … The analogy doesn’t entirely fit, though. Ronak had found Amber in high school. So early! How young he seemed then—his boyish face nicked after its second shave. Did that face kiss her, open-mouthed? I shudder to picture it. Had one of them been an adult, it would have been called corrupting a minor. But because both were so young, it’s puppy love and they are high school sweethearts. Their minds had an adult part and a child part. The adult corrupts, and the child is corrupted. It is twice as horrible.
Put tomatoes in a plastic bag, and they do the same thing: side by side, soaking in each other’s scent, the green ones redden, the red ones ripen, the ripe ones rot. That’s what happens to boys and girls in high school. They grow each other up before it’s time. Young doesn’t mean what it meant when I was young. The parents encourage it, sending their daughters in low-cut homecoming dresses. The schools themselves arrange and host such dances; the young don’t need secrecy. And the red flower on the front of the dress, that American tradition, the corsage, pinned where it will draw attention to the girl’s breasts, the literal flowering to mark the figurative. A child’s breasts. They are still more girl than woman at that age, no matter how they dress or speak or, in their Victoria’s Secret push-up bras, look.
But was it really any better in India, even in the past? Hasn’t it all been going on forever? My friends and I were just sheltered more successfully. The poorer classes, the slum boys and slum girls—they didn’t have exams like we did, their bodies were all they owned and their only source of pleasure. What about Navratri, the nine nights of dancing, ostensibly for the goddess? Garba let men and women dance in a circle, the still point of their orbit a full-color picture of Durga on her tiger. Raas dandia allowed vicarious contact, sticks on sticks, rhythmic, four taps and you moved on. There was never any one-on-one dancing, not even between husband and wife. But the statistics were eloquent. The number of abortions in Gujarat spikes yearly after those nine days. The raas boys in glittery red bandannas doing the showiest leaps, making the most of their brief opportunity across from us—they wanted our attention, our admiration, our lust. They were doing a mating display, like any peacock or gaudily crested tropical bird. Durga had nothing to do with it.
What was that phrase Ronak used, when he first brought Amber over? On and off. I had heard enough about on and off to know both might have had other lovers in the off times. I would never know. These were not things he would tell his mother. I had always hoped Ronak’s innate shrewdness, his selfishness, might guide him to an Indian girl. There was no shortage. I saw them at every local get-together, always someone else’s daughter-in-law. Or else out shopping, ponytailed, sunglasses hooked in the blouse, chic backpack with an Enfamil bottle in the side pocket, pushing her toddler in the shopping cart. Fresh out of their residencies, new mothers, working part-time … there were hundreds of such Indian girls, in Chicago, in the Bay Area, all of Ronak’s generation. They liked the same movies and the same bands, but he hadn’t wanted one. Since his early twenties he would dismiss the Indian girls I pointed out. He called them “future aunties.” In Amber, he found the perfect compromise. She was the good girl who would raise his children and devote herself to him—and the white woman, thrillingly foreign, parentally forbidden. His choice had its own logic. I felt I should have predicted it: how he alone would manage to have it both ways at once.
* * *
Sachin puts the children to sleep. He has an easier time of it than Mala. From Mala, Vivek demands songs and stories; Shivani plays with her mother’s hair. Sachin simply lies there, a child in the crook of either arm, and waits. Most of the time he goes to sleep alongside them, as he does tonight.
So Mala kneels and unzips the red wheeled suitcase, which is full of wrapped presents, while I go to our stash in the walk-in closet. I stacked our presents against the wall. They are hidden by Abhi’s Arrow shirts. On the shelves above them, I store my sarees in crinkly Asopalav bags. They remind me of the photographs in which I wore them rather than the occasions themselves. Old-fashioned albums, sticky background with a plastic oversheet, small envelope containing negatives stored in the back. Each negative the bookmark in a finished book. Mala used to hold them to the light, squint at our dark teeth and luminous hair, and declare, “Ghosts! Everyone’s ghosts!”
I touch my old sarees and marvel at this country where silk can lie folded so many years and no moths find it. So clean, this part of the world. Sterile, almost. Uncrowded by people, uncrowded by bugs.
The saris stay in my mind as Mala and I place the gifts around the tree. Ronak has already stacked his in a tower and gone back upstairs. We mix our boxes with his, making something arbitrary but aesthetic with the different box sizes and the three kinds of wrapping paper. Ronak and Mala have gotten Abhi and me two things each, even though they know we do the tree and gifts for the children. Ronak wanders downstairs again as Mala is putting candy canes in the stockings, which she has hung beneath the peacock-filigreed show plate on our mantelpiece. He has gift cards. He slides them casually out of his wallet.
“You still get stuff for Shivani from Babies ‘R’ Us, right? Or is she too big for that place?”
Mala cocks an eyebrow. “You’re really asking me? You’ve got three of your own, don’t you?”
“Amber handles that kind of stuff. Kid shopping.”
“You didn’t ask Amber?”
“Is this going to be any use to you or no?”
“Of course. Nipples and onesies.” Ronak shows no comprehension of what even I understand to be sarcasm. His hand is still in midair. Mala grins. “Amber’s a saint the way she treats you. What’d you get her for Christmas?”
Ronak drops the card in the stocking. “Massage treatment. One of those spa things. She likes that.”
“Any guesses what Sachin got me this year?”
Ronak glances at me. He knows Mala’s cuts at Sachin pain me. The first year, Sachin had gotten her nothing—like Abhi and me in our first years here, Sachin assumed Christmas, like Halloween, was for children. Abhi had advised him to get Mala “something special,” and the next Christmas, Sachin had purchased some earrings. He called Abhi over to record him as he handed her the gift. The smallness of the box might have made the gift seem bigger, had not the Kohl’s bag (receipt still inside) sitting on the couch armrest. We have coached him since. He has gotten better.
Ronak now senses a cut coming, just as I do. “Ooh,” he says to Mala, as if he has just noticed her baby candy canes. “Can I have one of those?” She offers him one, and he plucks it playfully from her fingers and taps it on her forehead, successfully diverting her attention. “Thanks!” he says, and makes an escape upstairs.
I watch as Mala rearranges the gifts one more time, steps back, then unhooks a silver ball and a reindeer and switches their places on the tree. “Let’s see it with the lights on.” She plugs in the lights Abhi has strung on the tree. They begin to blink. She thumbs a small device along the cord, and the fifty nipples of white light hold steady. She assesses the tree, and I know what she is thinking: When they come down the stairs, this is how it’s going to look. She stands on the couch to tilt the star atop the tree so it will face the approach.
She is stepping down onto the carpet when she loses her footing. Suddenly her body fills my arms. Her hard shoulder blades dig against my chest. I have not held her whole in a very long time. She is out of my arms immediately. “Sorry about that. Good thing you were there.”
My breath is coming quick and shallow. “You have room in the bag now, right?”
She is distracted. She tugs her shirt to make it hang correctly. “Hm?”
“In your red bag?”
“Yeah. It’s empty.”
“Let me give you some things.”
“Come on. I want to give you some things.”
I take her hand in mine as she steps down. I lead her upstairs to the walk-in closet, hurrying, her hand in mine the whole time. I begin drawing my old sarees from their stacks and laying them at her feet, like Ahmedabadi saree merchants reaching to their shelves and flinging silk after silk before mothers and daughters, everything brought out. Nothing has faded. Does she remember these? The creases stay, but the colors spill, spectacular and Indian, on the carpet’s beige. She will never have occasion to wear them. She senses the panic in my giving. I cannot conceal my panic, alone with her there in the closet. Abhi’s shirts are still clustered at one end of the shelf, and I see empty space where the presents had been. I get down my punjabis and old garba cholis with bits of mirror sewn in, and they are all unreally vivid under the bulb. My hands shake as I give her dress after dress, telling her she can send the blouses to India to have them sized, telling her they are all hers now. “Mom, stop,” Mala says. “Tell me what’s going on. Please.”
Part of me knows the children will rush down the stairs just ten hours from now. We will beam at them and crouch to see their faces light up from below with each fulfilled desire. This is the wrong time. I should wait. I cannot wait. I give her everything, and after I have given her everything, I tell her everything. If I had set the sarees down in neat piles, I might have stayed silent or made up a story. With the sarees disordered, I cannot hold back. Ronak hears Mala’s small frightened shout. He peeks through the door of the closet and shakes his head at us embracing. “More drama? Every time. Jeez, what is it with you two?” He assumes we’ve had the usual quarrel followed by the usual crying. He is about to turn and leave us to ourselves, but he senses in our faces and in the wild turbulence of silks, a rupture beyond reconciliation. His eyes fix on me alone. His hand goes out tentatively as if to touch my face, then retreats. “Everything okay?” Mala buries her face in my neck. Ronak kneels. One knee, then both. “Mom?”
Copyright © 2013 by Amit Majmudar
Excerpted from The Abundance by Amit Majmudar Copyright © 2013 by Amit Majmudar. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE Abundance,
PART TWO Famine,
PART THREE Seedtime,
About the Author,
Also by Amit Majmudar,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I highly recommend this novel, I loved how her grown children come home and quietly spend time with their Mother. The story is not about the Mothers illness but how they react as a family. My friends and I often talk about putting together a cookbook of traditional family receipes, its important not to lose these receipes.