Ticket to Minto, Sohrab Homi Fracis's premier fiction collection, offers readers a passage to an unfamiliar destination-a world suspended between East and West, India and America, home and away.
With piercing insight, Fracis expertly reveals the underlying differences between immersion in India's culture-Hindu, Muslim, or Parsi-and life as an Indian in America. Alternating between East and West, the stories in Ticket to Minto serve as companion pieces, interrelated across continents in both theme and content. A middle-aged man's search for love in Bombay is contrasted with an Indian American family's hopes for the marriage of their westernized daughter. A university student rushes to save the life of a servant in his homeland only to find his own life threatened while attending graduate school in America.
Poignant and daring, Ticket to Minto underlines the harsh realization that the immigrant never truly arrives but is in constant limbo between two worlds. As one character relates, "There's a part of me that's American and a part that's Indian. I'm clear about that and comfortable with it, except that sometimes people want me to be just the one or the other."
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A fire burns on the hillsides of Khandala every December. The hill station's farmers survive the way mankind has done since prehistory: by the earth's provisions. They cultivate millet and root crops on the hillsides near Rajmichi Point in no fear of droughtbetween June and September the monsoons bring torrents of rain to Khandala, steaming the summer heat out of its air and soil, turning it a glistening jade. Months later in December, before next year's planting, the farmers set fire at night to the underbrush choking the slopes, burning it off and leaving fertile ash in its place. Somehow, trees in the fire's path never catch; they just remain to grow taller, their foliage more unreachable. Townspeople stepping out of their bungalows to take the cool night air get a whiff of the brush burning and look up. In silhouette against the indigo sky, a long, low blaze creeps across the top of the hills, hugging the dips and crests like a luminous serpent.
The fire can be seen from the broad, rear-facing dormitory windows of St. Mary's Villa, a century-old, barrackslike structure that serves the lower end of the tourist trade, either families unwilling to pay hotel rates or groups of schoolchildren from Bombay and Poona accompanied by their teachers. For years, the scout troop at Campion, an upper-class boys' school in Bombay run by Jesuits, has held its annual camp in Khandala. Normally the camp is timed for the monsoon holidays, so rather than pitchtents for three slush-ridden nights, the scoutmasters book the villa, knowing the rambling old place is large enough to stable forty to fifty colts. Over the years, the troop's activities in and around the villa have evolved from experimental to repeated to established to traditional, barely short of ritual, until somewhere along the line it became unthinkable that the camp should be held anywhere other than St. Mary's. So when one of the scoutmasters came down with malaria during monsoons, the year after the Indo-Pak war of 1971, and the camp had to be shifted to December holidays (when Khandala is cool but dry and quite suitable for tenting), the villa was booked anyway.
On camp day the Screwvalas of Bombay drove to Campion after a lunch of Parsi sali-boti and coconut prawn curry with rice, prepared Goanese style by Lucy, the cook. Pesi Screwvala, like his father at the wheel of the Herald and his sister on the backseat with him, was silent. His mother was speaking quietly but insistently, her intestines well up to the task of digesting the meal without an after-lunch nap, something he knew his father often craved but rarely had time away from Ahura Chemists for.
"Pesi, the last thing we want is you falling sick again. There'll be a nip in the air at nights, so make sure you wear your sweater to sleep and cover yourself. Sit close to the campfires when you're outside. If any of the scout activities makes you too tired, remind Mr. Garewal that you had typhoid just a year ago and excuse yourselfafter his malaria, he'll be the first person to realize how much it takes out of you. The sweater is right at the top of your haversack. And I've put six pairs of underwear inside, just in case you need more than one every day."
Two undies per day. Stifled giggles came out of his elder sister, Soona, like bits of steam bursting musically from the bathroom geyser.
"I want you to promise me that you'll say your kusti every morning after your bathyour prayer topee is inside, folded up in the corner. I've put in a sadra for each day, so your khaki shirt will stay fresh over it even if you're running around. Yezdi, will you please speed up? At this rate, the bus will be at Khandala before we get to Campion."
His father's face registered some subtlety of expression, but the Herald seemed to actually slow through the tricky Eros junction before picking up its pace. The wispy-mustached mongoose face was as composed and mild as ever, and Pesi felt a swelling of annoyance with it in anticipation of the annoyance he knew his mother would feel at the lack of a response. He remembered the time she had told him privately that sometimes Daddy acted like such a martyr she felt like slapping him.
"I don't know if I was supposed to put on my uniform for the bus ride, Mummy," Pesi said, leaning up against their backrest. If Carl Fontaine or Manohar Bhandari saw him dressed in daily clothes when everyone was in uniform, he was destined for sneers and some merciless arm twisting. The tiny interior of the car seemed armored and cozy at the thought of three unbroken days around those good scouts.
"Did you ask Mr. Baptista?"
"No, but I think last time we went in uniform." The previous summer the family had journeyed to Aspi Uncle's house in Bharuch, so it was now two-and-a-half years since Pesi's last Khandala camp. He was only a cub scout then, and it was a haze of rainy treasure hunts and coastguards-and-smugglers games outside the chapel, in his mind.
"It doesn't matter. We'll see now." Nadia Screwvala turned her dark-haired but light-skinned Mediterranean features smartly to the front as they passed the bandstand and paralleled the riding path around the park.
They rounded the bend toward the Cooperage stadium and approached a red-and-white school bus parked below the similarly painted school building. Around the bus spun dozens of students and parents, and he saw that all the boys were in brown, wearing their khaki scout uniforms.
"I told you," he cried. "I knew we had to wear the uniform."
"You didn't know, and you never told us," said his mother, as the Herald lined up at the curb. "Put on your haversack and come with me now; you can change in two seconds."
She took his hand and strode along toward the entrance steps, smiling and waving at parents she knew from PTA meetings, an attractive woman, assured and strong, in Western dress among mostly sari-clad mothers, her calf-length skirt flaring a little. Her heels clacked up to the foyer, paused a second at the base of the central, impressively broad stairway, then moved past it, and he went despondently with her, knowing it was too latehe must have been seen by half the troop already.
"Where is the bathroom, Pesi?" she asked.
"In this building? I don't know," he said. "Our class is in the next building."
"Even then, isn't your lunchroom here?" she said, as they came to the side staircase and the lift. "Come on now, get your uniform out; this is good enough."
And she moved underneath the first flight of steps and began to unbuckle his belt. He cringed as it became clear she meant to help him change right there in the open, covered by only a stairway, just yards from the side entrance. It was an accepted practice up to the third or fourth standard for mothers to change the clothes of little children whenever and wherever necessary, but he was in the sixth standard now, eleven years old. Off came the terylene anyhow, and on the khaki. She was buttoning his shirt while he stepped into the shorts when another mother came through the sun-laden side door and stared briefly at the tableau, her face a shadowed mask. He stared back open-mouthed at her, the shorts still well below his underpants. Then she turned around the way she had come. As the stockings and broad leather belt came on he could only thank God in a daze that her son had not been with her. Even worse, what if Carl or Manohar came to know? There was a thick layer of dust on the underside of the steps, and he felt a tickling in his nose. His mother twirled the scarf into a long cylinder of red and white peppermint, arranged it around his neck, and slid the leather toggle up around the ends. She folded his discards into the haversack in a minute, and they walked out into the sun, back to the bus. It was almost ready to leave.
"You look smart now," his father said, clearly not noticing he was in shock, and his sister looked coyly up at the senior scout on the rear ladder who slung Pesi's haversack up to the carrier. His mother bent over for him to kiss her. He pecked at her powdered cheek, then climbed up the bus steps. The rows of dark blue-bereted heads inside seemed to be looking at him and talking about him at first, but after a second he could tell it was a more general buzz. In one of the front seats Mr. Garewal, still a bit thin and shaky from the malaria, motioned him toward the rear, and as he pulled himself along the aisle by the backrests, a space opened up between Carl Fontaine and Manohar Bhandari.
Years later, when he understood himself better, Pesi would come to believe that each person's universe contains its share of demons, real and imagined, each child's more than its fair share. His incorporeal demons in childhood did not erupt out of flames. Rather, the Screwvalas' ancestral community, the Zoroastrians of India, held fire sacred, had done so for thousands of years starting in ancient Persia. So, conventionally demonic settings did not inspire fear in Pesi's imagination. If he dreamed of monsters, they were more likely to inhabit bleak, odorless landscapes of perpetual rain, lurking behind the gray sheets of monsoon downpour that enveloped his world for months each year. Strangely, the beasts in his mind were indeterminate not only in appearance, shapeless forces, but also in intention. At times he felt that, more than harm him, they wanted to make him one of them.
As to corporeal threats, for almost two years Carl Fontaine had traversed Pesi's universe as chief demonic body. He was big and ruddy and foreign, old enough to be in the eighth standard, boyishly handsome and freckled enough to be a Vienna choirboy. His actual nationality Pesi did not know, just that his parents had transferred in to work at one of the Commonwealth consulates. Clearly accustomed to making a place for himself in new schools, he had quickly allied himself with the bigger boys in class and brought a dormant taste for domination to life within the group. Pesi, who used to stand either first or second in class at the time, was a natural target, but something beyond that about him, something to do with his fair skinonly a shade or two darker than Carl's, without the ruddinessand sharp Persian features, the tinge of foreignness of his own, seemed to make it imperative for Carl to draw a line between them, a line that, as it cast Pesi out, kept Carl on the same side as the darker-skinned majority.
During recess, if they found Pesi playing table tennis in the basement with someone, Carl and Manohar would lean over the dark green table and flick the ball out of the air, crunch it beneath their Bata leather soles, pick it up and send it cracked and skittering across the table at him. If he was out in the back gardens, crouched over a marble pressed against the tip of his left middle finger, aiming it, Carl would come up from behind and push his face into the dust, then catch hold of him if he sprang up and twist his arm up behind his back till he was arched backward and on his toes to minimize the pressure. He held off from pleading as long as he could each time, but the feeling of impending fracture would finally crash through his armor, an armor Carl was aware of and eager to pierce.
Once in class, not long after Carl joined Campion, he had pressed the point of a compass into the back of Pesi's hand, pinning it to the desk. As Mr. Baptista spoke of fractions and Pesi stayed motionless, silent, the point pushed deeper and a bright bead of crimson welled up by its side. But Pesi hadn't moved or given sign of pain, and a minute later the compass was withdrawn and a whisper said, "You're a freak; you don't feel the pain?" He had smiled in a small triumph, yet to understand his adversary's nature (later, he'd look on sickly as the same compass point dismembered wriggling, wingless flies), revealing a shield in boasting of it: "I do, but I'm able to stand it somehow." So when subsequently he held on to his silence, he found his arm jerked ever higher with each refusal to voice submission, feelings of impotence, pain, and alarm mounting until they broke through in garbled, shrill utterances. Carl would smile then, a confusingly seductive smile, and Pesi was left to nurse the fire in his head and arm.
Before the typhoid, he had tried to match up to his enemies by increasing his size. He envied them theirs. Pull-ups, he'd heard, could make you taller by stretching your spine; push-ups made you stronger. From only half a struggling pull-up, hanging off the doorjamb, and five push-ups at a time, he'd got to fifteen and seventy, when the illness hit. Two-and-a-half months later, when he flattened to the tiling and tried to lift, he barely made it once before he dropped, his head spinning, and next morning the beginner's ache was in his shoulders all over again.
Now, as the bus moved out for Khandala, Carl smiled at him, all poisonous charm, and said, "Did you kiss Mummy bye-bye like a good boy?"
Pesi edged away distractedly, but Carl pulled him down. The two bigger boys' uniforms were crisp and smelled of starch.
"So sweet, Baby Screwvala kissing Mummy Screwvala."
And Manohar, his voice almost adult-deep, said, "The whole screwy family was there."
Pesi hated his surname.
"I saw them." Carl's blue eyes searched Pesi's armor for new chinks. "Mummy Screwvala's all milky white and bigger than Daddy Screwvala. Isn't that nice? Mummy Screwvala screwed Daddy Screwvala and Baby Screwvala came out of Mummy Screwvala's cunt and kissed her. What did you see while coming out, Pesi-Waysi?"
Pesi was fuzzy on the scenario Carl had painted, but, like his mother, he wished his father's family had never made screws and never acquired the appellation. Yezdi Screwvala's changing tack, so to speak, from the family business to running Ahura Chemists had unfortunately had no impact on the family name, unless, as Nadia pointed out was a possibility, a few generations down the road they came to be known as the Pillvalas. She made no secret of her disaffection for her married name; her maiden name, Deboo, had lacked the sophisticated and powerful ring of a Commissariat or the rich sound of Readymoney, but anything was better than Screwvala.
"Forgot how to talk, Screwvala, just like you forgot how to read?" Manohar Bhandari leered at him. "What happened to all your marks in class? My rank's better than yours now. Some of your screws came loose?"
Pesi stared sullenly back, refusing to comment on the precipitous slide in his class performance after his battle with typhoid.
"Why don't you open your mouth?" Carl switched off his smile.
"You think we're talking to the air? Think you can insult us like that?"
"What am I supposed to say?" Pesi muttered, barely audible above the bus. "You insult me all the time for nothing."
"Oh, acting tough now," said his freckled tormentor, who clearly had no intention of either being appeased or conceding logic. "I'll teach you to act tough with us."
And in a jiffy he had Pesi's arm jacked up between his back and the thinly cushioned backrest. Not enough to arc Pesi out of his seat, but the leverage was sufficient to keep him captive.
"I don't insult you for nothing, Screwvala." Carl yanked up on nothing for emphasis. "I don't have to have a reason, and I don't have to tell you, but bloody simpleI feel better when you feel worse! Like my reason?"
For the two seconds before he sensed the next yank coming, Pesi considered asking why it made Carl feel better, then bobbed his head quickly. He suffered a final yank anyway, but was released to ponder the simplicity of it all in Carl's mind even as the bus rounded the Dadar Train Terminus circle and rumbled out on the highway. Mr. Baptista started up "She'll Be Coming 'round the Mountain When She Comes" in a robust baritone, and soon the whole troop was chanting "Ai-yai-yippee, I come from Mississippi." After Panvel, they wound slowly up the Western Ghats to the tunes of "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean" and "When I Get to Heaven." The bus, its engine straining to do number two, dropped all the way into first gear to crawl up the steep bends.
"Coming to the mandir," Mr. Garewal shouted from the front seat. "Get your coins ready." The bus grunted past a miniature Hindu temple set into the hillside, pitted stone showing through thin coats of blue and yellow paint, and everyone crowded over to the inner windows to toss five- and ten-paisa coins into the arched opening for luck. Pesi moved quickly up to one of the seats vacated in front and slouched in it so his head was invisible from the rear once everyone settled back. Bhushan Sanghvi started up "Rolling Home" and was shouted downthe song was reserved for the return tripso they sang "Oh! Susanna" instead, and Pesi joined in for the first time with a lighter heart. Once or twice, he was surprised by his voice dropping in pitch, and shouted all the louder to see if he could crack it for good.
The oldest boys in his class had voices that had either broken already or cracked frequently, and he felt there was a connection between that and the strange things they spoke of at times. In moral science class they had often argued with balding, honey-haired Father McLeary before he returned to Ireland.
"Noo, noo," he would insist, soft voiced. "Masturbation is a sin before God."
"But why, Father?" Manohar Bhandari would say, winking at the others, a broad mixture of Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, and Sikhs. Pesi envied his sangfroid and his popularity. "What's wrong with it?"
Father McLeary would not elaborate, however; he only turned the discussion gently to less mysterious sins: lying, stealing, disobeying your elders.... When Pesi asked Robin D'Sousa what masturbation was, he laughed and shook his head. But Sharukh Billimoria, the other Parsi in class, spoke confidently of what to Pesi seemed the rather bizarre and unlikely practice of men peeing into women, even sometimesand this had Pesi's mind in a spiral for weeksinto women's mouths.
The bus had been stiflingly warm when they began, but gradually, as they climbed the Ghats, the air whisking in through the windows acquired a brisker edge, and the skies turned a watercolor blue. Almost four hours after it had started from Campion, the bus entered Khandala to maneuver the narrow, autoriksha-cluttered streets of the old British hill station. Then it turned past a painted plaster statue of virgin and child into the grounds of St. Mary's Villa.
Bunks were quickly assigned within the huge dormitory wing. Through the vertical bars of the broad rear window behind Pesi's cot, as he pulled a T-shirt and pair of shorts from his haversack, he could see a range of hills miles away. They looked rounded and soft. Once everyone had washed up and changed, the scoutmasters divided the troop into several duty patrols, and Pesi found himself on the campfire preparation patrol, searching the grounds for deadwood.
Lines of trees fronted the three long wings squaring off the courtyard; red-flowered creepers twined up the tree trunks. He slipped beneath the volleyball net strung from one of the trees to a wooden post and moved along the dining wing, picking up fallen branches, feeling their roughness against his arms as the pile took on volume and weight. Rounding the far corner he saw, set against the short wall, a statue of Jesus Christ in plaster and paint. Jesus stood, child-sized, in full robes on a cross-embossed pedestal, pointing to his heart with one hand. Pesi put his wood down to step up and investigate: with the other hand, Jesus had uncovered his bare red beating heart, and out of it burst petals of flame and a cross.
The image captivated Pesi; he stood staring at it. Christ had mostly been an abstract figure, a prophet of the priests and some of the teachers and boys at Campion, except when moral science classestaught now by Father Coslo, the principal, an indigenous product with a full head of very black hair and a cold, thin smiledeveloped somewhat on the lines of sermons. But here was something that reminded Pesi of his own Parsi fire temples. In the fire that sprang from Jesus' heart, he could see the crackling blaze in the great silver chalice at the Wadiaji Atash Bahrain. His parents had taken him there early in the year to give thanks to Ahura Mazda for lifting the typhoid that had kept him on his bed for two months all told and almost taken his life. His mother had on a lacy white sari instead of her usual dresses and pulled its top fold up to cover her neatly permed hair as they climbed the steps into the front hall. On the opposite wall was a gigantic, almost floor-to-ceiling, framed painting of the white-robed, full-bearded Zarathustra, his index finger and eyes raised to a sky done in muted, dark tones. Pesi's father helped him adjust his prayer cap, and they followed Nadia into the inner sanctum after removing their shoes.
"Thank you, Zarthust saheb," she'd said in an uncharacteristically lowered voice, "for sparing our dear son so he can grow up and have Parsi children himself, in your honor. As you know, Yezdi and I are too old now to risk having more, even though we are worried about the way the community is dying out after all these thousands of years. But now Pesi can carry on the family name"he noted that she did not actually say Screwvala" and both he and Soona can have many good Parsi children who will carry on your teachings."
She had then recited Ashem Vohu and Yatha Ahu Vairyo in the original Avestan, nudging them to join in. They fed sweet-smelling sandalwood sticks to the sacred fire and threw ash into it that sent it sparking all over the somber inner room. Legend said the fire had first been kindled more than three thousand years ago in ancient Iran, when the Persian Empire was at its mightiest and Ahura Mazda the most venerated God on the face of the earth. Today the Parsis were only a tiny, dwindling community in India, self-exiled from Islamic Iran since before the second millennium began, but they had escaped conversion, kept the sacred fires burning. The deep hush and dusky corners around the central orange glow had sent a dreamy peace into Pesi, and as he offered the ash in approved fashion, between two fingers and thumb of his right hand, elbow supported by his left hand, he'd felt a warmth course through his arm and engulf him in its strength....
Across from the little statue of Christ was the chapel wing. Stepping down finally, Pesi picked up his growing pile of firewood and moved along the wing, looking for more. At the far corner of the villa, resisting the attraction of a small cannon on wheels set halfway to the entranceprobably a relic from British days or even Maratha wars when, he'd learned in history class, Shivaji's forces had fought a pesky guerrilla action in the hilly, wooded terrain, against the powerful Moghul emperor Aurangzebhe turned back toward the center of the courtyard where the older boys were using hand axes to split large limbs into small logs and kindling. They sent him off again to collect bark and husk for tinder, and that night after dinner served up by the kitchen duty patrol, the troop sat cross-legged around the tepee-shaped pile of wood lit and nursed into red, flickering life by Pesi's patrol.
The chill night air made all the cozier the warmth radiating from the campfire, and he planted his palms in the dirt behind him and leaned back as Ismail Khan, the school captain, struck up a breezy song on the mouth organ, lank black hair flip-flopping over brown forehead, and people clapped in time and sang along. The raspy strains seemed to reach Pesi from a distance, as if filtered through the fire, and when the entertainment patrol announced they would next perform a short play, he didn't catch the name.
Through the haze around the fire he could see three actors mouthing lines, but it took a familiar voice pitched higher than usual before he leaned forward in confusion and disbelief for a closer look. It could never be, and yet ... it was! The slender figure, smallest of the three, clearly a junior among senior scouts, dressed in a belted, flower-patterned sheet for a gown and a scout scarf drawn over curly brown hair like a bonnet, was none other than Carl Fontaine! The face beneath the bonnethow had this escaped him before?was exceptionally pretty, a natural choice for the female role in an all-boys' cast.
Excerpted from Ticket to Minto by Sohrab Homi Fracis. Copyright © 2001 by Sohrab Homi Fracis. Excerpted by permission.
Table of Contents
Matters of Balance
Hamid Gets His Hair Cut
Ticket to Minto
Who’s Your Authority?
The Mark Twain Overlook