It is a morning like any other in suburban New Jersey when Vinita Patil opens the battered envelope postmarked "Mumbai." But the letter inside turns her comfortable world upside down. It tells Vinita an impossible story: she has a grown son in India whose life may depend on her. . .
Once upon a time, a naïve young college girl fell for a wealthy boy whose primary interests were cricket and womanizing. Vinita knew, even then, that a secret affair with a man whose language and values were different from her own was a mistake. He finished with her soon enough--leaving her to birth a baby that was stillborn. Or so Vinita was told. . .
Now, that child is a grown man in desperate need. To help her son, to know him, Vinita must revisit her darkest hours by returning to her battle-scarred homeland--and pray for the faith of the family she leaves behind. . .
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About the Author
"Dazzles you with a taste of Desi culture in America."
--Caridad Piñeiro, New York Times bestselling author on The Sari Shop Widow
"Compelling and memorable."
--Mary Jo Putney, New York Times bestselling author on The Forbidden Daughter
"Vivid, rich. . .expertly portrays a young woman caught between love and duty, hope and despair."
--Anjali Banerjee on The Dowry Bride
Read an Excerpt
The Unexpected Son
By SHOBHAN BANTWAL
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Shobhan Bantwal
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePalgaum, India-1976
The applause lasted a few seconds before fading. For Vinita it was an evening to remember. She'd rehearsed for this one occasion, the grand annual college gala, for many long weeks. And all that preparation had been worth it, if only to hear the pleasant sound of hundreds of hands clapping in unison.
She took her final bow before the appreciative audience with humble grace, her hands joined in a namaskar. Remain humble when accepting praise, was what her nritya guru, her dance teacher, emphasized to his students. To be able to dance skillfully was a gift, a privilege. It was not to be used for satisfying one's ego. Humility. Always.
The instant the heavy, faded curtains closed on the stage, she exhaled a quick, hard breath. Then she ran backstage, her ghoongroo, the traditional dancing bells tied around her ankles, making a racket. She waded through the folks standing in the wings, waiting for their cue calls. She heard the emcee's voice on the microphone, announcing the next item on the program.
While she made a beeline for the women's dressing room-her long braid, intertwined with jasmine strings, swinging like a pendulum-she realized she was wheezing audibly. It was a demanding routine she'd just completed.
Sweat ran down her face and arms. Voices swirled around her, spoken in whispers so as not to reach the microphones on stage. Now that the much-awaited yet much-dreaded performance was over, everything that had happened became a blur-the blinding footlights; the quick surge of anxiety as the curtains parted and the hush settled over the sea of faces in the audience; the melody of the South Indian dance music; and minutes later, the final, frantic rhythm of her recital's finale synchronizing with the crescendo of the instruments.
It was all so familiar, the galloping heartbeat and the urge to take cover and run. And yet every presentation was a fresh new experience to be savored-if it was executed perfectly, that is. And today it was.
The evening's program was packed, with a lineup of music, skits, dances, stand-up comedy, and even a juggling act. She was glad her recital was placed toward the beginning, so she didn't have to pace in the wings, cracking her knuckles, waiting her turn.
"Very nice, Miss Shelke," someone murmured as she brushed past them.
"Good performance, Vinita," said another.
"Thanks," she panted absently, not bothering to look at their faces. Instead she kept striding toward the dressing room. She had to get out of her elaborate costume and join her friends in the makeshift open-air theater to catch the rest of the evening's entertainment.
The dressing room was blissfully quiet. There was only one other girl, getting ready for her performance in a play. They smiled at each other.
"How did your dance go?" the girl asked. She was carefully gathering up the pleats on her sari.
"Very well, thanks," said Vinita, and proceeded toward the bathroom. "It's a huge audience-bigger than last year. Good luck with your play."
At the sink, Vinita scrubbed and rinsed off the greasy makeup. The cold water felt marvelous against her heated skin.
She dried her face and studied her image in the mirror. Her performance was a success. The audience's reaction had assured her of that. The young, noisy crowd of students at Shivraj College wasn't shy about booing and heckling a less-than-acceptable performer. They'd sat in silence while she'd gone through the intricate footwork and facial expressions of a varnam-a complex, classical Bharat Natyam dance composition that told a story of love and longing. In the end had come the gratifying ovation.
She emerged from the bathroom to find the other occupant of the dressing room gone. Ridding herself of the elaborate rhinestone jewelry and form-fitting silk costume traditional to the dance form, she changed into a cinnamon-colored salwar-kameez outfit: knee-length tunic worn over drawstring pants and topped with a long piece of gauzy fabric called the chunni.
Then she unfastened the ankle bells. In a couple of minutes she had her hair neatened and a touch of face powder dabbed on.
Haphazardly she stuffed her things into her shoulder bag and thrust her feet into sandals. She didn't want to miss any part of the evening's excitement. This was the entertainment highlight of the year for both students and faculty.
Rushing out the door onto the cool, dimly lit porch that wrapped around the ancient, ivy-covered stone building, she bumped into something hard. Or someone.
"Ouch!" Her breath caught in her throat. Her bag slid off her shoulder and fell to the floor. The bells inside tinkled.
She stumbled backward. Whoever he was, he looked tall and threateningly large in the shadows cast by the sturdy stone columns. And he was strong. Her elbow was smarting from the collision.
"Miss Shelke!" exclaimed a very deep voice.
She remained silent, still reeling from the jolt. Fear made her throat go dry. She was all alone in the dark with a stranger.
But he knew her name?
"I'm sorry," he said, sounding genuinely contrite. He shifted and emerged from the shadows into the pool of dull yellow light cast by the single overhead fixture surrounded by fluttering moths.
She recognized him at once. Somesh Kori. All six feet of muscle and testosterone combined with a face that was chilling in its somberness. Despite the face, Somesh was the heartthrob of Shivraj College. A playboy. And captain of the cricket team.
"Th-that's okay," she managed to stutter after drawing a quick breath. It was a relief to discover he wasn't a robber or rapist on the prowl. "I was in a rush. I wasn't paying attention."
"But I wasn't rushing. I should have been more careful," he apologized, bending down to retrieve her bag. He handed it to her. "Did I hurt you or something?"
"Uh-uh." Her pulse was still unnaturally high.
He glanced at the bag. "Nothing breakable in it, I hope?"
"No ... just my dance costume."
"And the delightful bells," he added, as she took the bag.
She could think of nothing to say when his fingers brushed hers, making her tremble. Delightful bells? Was that supposed to be a compliment, or was he mocking her? She'd seen and heard him ridicule plenty of girls.
Then he smiled at her, the slightly lopsided motion that tickled the ovaries of even the most resolute old maids on campus. He supposedly smiled very rarely, and that usually happened when his team won a match. But the smile sure did wonders for his intimidating countenance.
"Your dance was excellent, Miss Shelke," he said, his eyes raking her in one slow, easy pass. "You have such grace and precision."
She bit on her lower lip and tried to ignore the warmth rushing to her face. Any fool could see he was used to handing out flattery. "Thank you ... Mr. Kori."
"Call me Som. All my friends call me that. It's pronounced Sohm."
She knew how his name was pronounced. "But we're not friends." He stood so close she got a whiff of his aftershave combined with cigarette smoke. With that came the forbidding thought that standing alone in the shadows with a man of his reputation was hazardous. Adjusting the bag on her shoulder, she started to move away.
"That could be remedied," he suggested, seemingly oblivious to her fear. He fell in step with her as she hastened around the bend and toward the front of the building, where the audience was seated.
She heard raucous laughter coming from the crowd. The humorous skit that followed her recital was obviously quite entertaining. It was a comforting sound; it assured her she wasn't alone with this man.
"I'm not interested in sports, Mr. Kori," she said, putting as much starch into her voice as she could. But she wasn't very good at doing the snobbish bit.
Besides, all his friends were rich-boys with cars of their own, and girls who got chauffeured around. They wore clothes bought in big city shops, unlike her and her middle-class friends, who wore simple cotton outfits made by the local tailors. Kori and his pals went for coffee at the upscale Bombay Café, while Vinita and her friends kept to the more affordable college canteen.
"Why should that matter?" he reasoned. "I have some friends who know nothing about sports, and we're still good friends."
She looked up at him from her five-foot-two height. Despite her high heels, his face seemed far above hers. The smile was long gone, but the sparkle in his brown eyes resembled the semiprecious stone known as rajvarki-goldstone. He was making her uncomfortable with his steady golden gaze. "Good-bye, Mr. Kori. I have to go now."
"Som," he insisted. "Mind if I call you Vinita?"
"Okay ... no ... yes." She clutched at her bag to keep her hands from shaking. "You know what I mean."
He chuckled. "I know what you mean."
The sneering giant could actually chuckle? This time he was laughing at her. She was an idiot to get so rattled because the most popular boy on campus was asking to be her friend.
That was the puzzling part. He wanted to be her friend.
They had almost reached the giant shamiana-canopy. The light was brighter here, even though they stood on the outside. She could clearly see the clean, smart fit of his clothes, his angular face with its barely concealed expression of amused cynicism. There was strength in the jaw and the curve of his nose. God knows those long arms and legs were capable of performing magic on the cricket maidaan-field.
She didn't want to be seen walking and conversing with him. Tongues would start to wag. Definitely not good for her reputation. The girls he got mixed up with were referred to as STs-Som's trollops. She didn't want to be one of those.
Nerves tingling, Vinita craned her neck to locate her friends amidst the crowd of spectators. She spotted them. They had saved her a seat, bless them. Thankfully none of them had noticed her with Kori.
The fact that he was making her hands tremble wasn't a good thing. You're not the type to turn into a gelatinous glob of female at the sight of a man, she told herself. "I have to go," she repeated.
"You really have to?" He tilted his head to one side, looking genuinely disappointed.
She gave an emphatic nod.
"I guess I'll have to let you go, then. But it was nice talking to you," he said with a reluctant wave, and took off.
With a perplexed frown she watched him saunter away with the effortless grace some athletes seemed to be blessed with. She observed him pull a cigarette and a lighter out of his pocket. With hands cupped around his mouth to protect the flame, he lit the cigarette and took a long drag on it. Seconds later, a plume of smoke emerged from his mouth. Then he disappeared into the shadows as abruptly as he'd appeared minutes earlier.
She stood on the spot for a while, puzzling over what had just occurred. It wasn't a mirage. And yet it was all very strange. Why was a popular playboy befriending her? Why was he lurking around the dark porch behind the building in the first place? Where were his ever-present friends? They always moved in a herd.
Giving her heartbeat a moment to settle, she turned around to find her way toward her friends amidst the swarm of students. When she plopped into the chair reserved for her, she was still wheezing. Sweat had gathered under her arms once again.
Prema Swami, her closest friend, turned to her with a frown. "Are you okay?"
"You look flushed ... agitated." Prema's frown turned to narrow-eyed speculation.
"Of course I'm flushed," Vinita retorted. "I just finished a dance recital."
But Prema was right. Vinita was behaving oddly. Was she reacting to Kori like those other girls did? Som's trollops? In the next instant she dismissed it as the most ridiculous notion.
She settled back in her seat to enjoy the rest of the evening. But she couldn't help looking back once or twice, her eyes searching for a wisp of smoke somewhere beyond the canopy.
Chapter TwoVinita closed her textbook and tossed it aside to gaze outside her window. It was a typical winter morning in Palgaum-foggy, nippy, and disinclined to welcome the sun. Warmth rarely arrived until late morning at this time of year. The dew that settled over the grass and shrubs lingered until noon.
She had her red cardigan on over her salwar-kameez, the one her mother had knitted years ago. It looked faded and threadbare, but it was incredibly soft after innumerable washings. And it was still her favorite protection against the damp chill.
In a few minutes she'd have to stir out of her room, take a bath, eat something, and head for college. Her mother was already making breakfast for the family. The sounds of pots and pans clanging had started to emerge from the kitchen about twenty minutes ago-Mummy's not-so-subtle wake-up call to the family.
Vinita wasn't sure what her mother was preparing, but the aroma of phodnee-seasoning made of smoking oil with mustard and cumin seeds sputtering in it-was seeping in through the crack beneath her door. Visions of a hot breakfast with a steaming cup of tea usually made her stomach rumble. But today they didn't.
Picking up the book, she tried to make sense out of the words on the page, but a minute later put it down again. Studying was becoming hard lately. Pressing her fingers to her eyes, she wondered why she was having such difficulty focusing on her studies. This had never happened to her before.
She'd spent the last couple of weeks in a haze. She mostly kept herself sequestered in her room, sitting at her old teakwood desk, a hand-me-down from Vishal's college days. It even had his initials crudely carved in the corner: VBS.
But keeping herself glued to her desk wasn't unusual. In fact her parents expected it of her. She had preliminary exams to study for-prelims as everyone called them. She was a good student and she hoped to maintain her grades. She was looking forward to earning her bachelor's degree in two years. She had aspirations of graduating at the top of her class.
No second class would be tolerated in the Shelke family. Vishal had been a brilliant student, too. He had gone on to become a chartered accountant and had a promising job with a large financial corporation in Bombay. Academically she was expected to follow in his footsteps.
But the odd meeting with Som crept into her mind frequently, distracting her from her goal of becoming a statistician. And the fact that something that trivial could upset her steadfastness was annoying. She had no time for silly daydreams. And frankly, a drifter like Som Kori wasn't worth one single minute of her time.
His behavior was odd, too. He'd asked her to call him Som, flirted with her, and claimed he wanted to be her friend, and yet he hadn't even bothered to acknowledge her presence on campus. It was as if that chance encounter in the dark had never happened. Maybe it hadn't meant anything to a man like him. Maybe he had feigned interest in her out of politeness. Maybe she was reading too much into a casual conversation. Maybe-
She gave a frustrated groan and shifted her fingers from her eyes to her temples. All that conjecture was giving her a headache.
Several times she'd observed him lounging as usual with his gang of five by the massive wrought-iron gate of the college compound. They called themselves The Sixers-all of them athletes with little or no interest in academics. A couple of them leaned against the gate while the others sat on the brick wall nearby, like Humpty Dumpty, legs dangling.
They all wore similar clothes that looked almost like uniforms-tight, bell-bottom pants that hugged their jock buttocks, and dark-colored shirts left open at the neck and a bit beyond to showcase their manly, hair-sprinkled chests. They blew rings of cigarette smoke, and through the gray haze watched the world, especially the girls, go by.
Theirs was a life of idle indulgence. Except when they played cricket. That was the one thing they excelled at-the only thing that got them moving at lightning speed.
When did they attend classes, if they did? Vinita sometimes wondered. How did they manage to stay in college if they kept failing courses? Did they have any ambitions in life beyond wandering around the campus, playing cricket, and letting life pass them by?
She more or less knew the answer. They were wealthy. Their fathers donated large sums of money to the small, privately run Shivraj College. With that kind of backing, the boys could get a dummy degree certificate without ever attending a class.
College was a playground to them-until they became too old to be students, and were eventually forced to join the family business, get married, and settle down. She knew of several playboys like them, who'd taken the slow, lackadaisical route to adulthood.
Som and his pals made loud remarks when girls walked in and out of the gate each day-remarks that were often crude and hurtful if a girl was heavy or short or ugly. They teased and taunted and jeered mercilessly. Sometimes they gave an appreciative whistle or comment if a girl was pretty or passably attractive. The in-betweens were usually ignored.
Excerpted from The Unexpected Son by SHOBHAN BANTWAL Copyright © 2010 by Shobhan Bantwal. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Middle-aged Vinita and Girish Patil enjoy their middle class lifestyle in suburban New Jersey. Married for almost a quarter of a century, the Indian-American couple has a daughter. However, Vinita's perfect world shatters when she receives a shocking letter postmarked Mumbai. Inside is a letter informing her that the illegitimate son she birthed stillborn back home in Palgaum, India actually lives. Her brother Vishal admits he orchestrated the hoax for her sake and that of his nephew. Now her first born, Shivraj College chemistry Professor Rohit Barve is dying from leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. Vinita remembers years back when she was pregnant and Rohit's biological father Som Kori refused to marry her as their respective people from differing cultures even languages were feuding. She finds out when she arrives to meet and hopefully help her son they still are. This excellent contemporary provides strong insight into the Indian-American culture (a trademark of talented Shobhan Bantwal; see The Sari Shop Window), a mother's eternal love for her offspring, and a fascinating "border" war inside a small village in India. Character driven, The Unexpected Son is a super Indian-American tale. Harriet Klausner
I have read all of Mrs. Bantwal's books and have never been disappointed, this is another great read. A story women of any culture can relate to. Vinita Patil is the center of this story, it opens with her living in New Jersey and happily married for almost 25 years with a grown daughter. She receives an anonymous letter telling her the son she thought died at birth is alive and in need of help, she is totally shocked and does not know what to make of it. She calls her brother and the truth comes out, they did what they thought best for her and for the family honor. Vinita then tells her husband and daughter, her husband is very upset by her "betrayal" of 30 years and doesn't really listen to what she has to say. She has kept this secret for so long because of shame and fear of losing a man she truly loved. Vinita then travels to India to meet her son and confront her family about the truth being withheld from her. While I would have liked her family to tell her after she was settled, I did come to understand to a degree why they did what they did. Thus begins her journey to meet her son and hope he will listen and to come to terms with her family and hope that her husband will not leave her. For a young girl to become pregnant in India at that time was a big taboo and very dishonorable for her family and she would forever be considered damaged goods. Her family did what they thought best. What I like about the books beside being a great story is that the subject is something as women we can relate to and feel a kinship with the woman in the story. It also gives you a chance to learn about India, their culture and food and you realize how much we all are alike and if we can see the likeness and not the differences, it would be a better world. I loved this book and it is truly a keeper, I'll pass it on to my daughter, who knows we might even begin a tradition, from mother to daughter and so on!
Shobhan is such a wonderful storyteller! She creates amazingly realistic characters, wonderful rich complicated stories that touch the reader in so many ways. The Unexpected Son does not disappoint on any of these levels! The story is rich with Indian culture, the voice of a young girls heart, and a mothers sense of duty...Oh the foolishness of youth. But oh, what a wonderful story! Imagine holding onto a secret for 30 years only to find out you were not the only one holding onto a secret. When Vinita Patil receives a letter from Mumbai, little does she realize that her world will never be the same. Vinita is such a wonderful character! She is such a strong independent woman, torn between her modern sensibilities and the traditions of her upbringing. The story follows her from a serious young 19-year-old college girl, who has little time for boys. Her studies are important to her, in order to break free from the traditional views of a woman's place in her society and in order to honor her family with good grades. But then there's this boy... He's a bad boy... and he slowly seduces Vinita with his attentions and sweet talk and then... you guessed it... "something" happens. Vinita is pregnant, unwed, dumped and an emotional wreck. The men in her family decide what to do- which is to whisk her away to Bombay, where no one will know her, keeping the family honor, and where she is told by her family that her baby was born stillborn. If the story were only one of a son showing up on a birth mother's doorstep unexpected, it would be a good story. But, in the hands a Shobhan Bantwal you can expect so much more! And it all starts with that mysterious letter...With the skills of Shobhan Bantwal's writing, we experience the culture of India through the eyes and ears of Vinita Patil. The traditional place of women, family honor, dating, marriage... The shame that Vinita carries through out her life is tempered by her happy marriage to her modern Indian husband (their courtship was a wonderful part of the story) and daughter, but the happiness she finds there will be shaken with the news of a son... The relationships between the members of Vinita's family are rich and complex, and as family secrets are revealed Vinita's strength of character shines through.I really enjoyed this book. The characters came alive off the pages, the story captured my attention, and I loved the traditional Indian culture that served as the core of the story and as the basis for the relationships between the family members. There is a wealth of book to discuss here, and it would definitely make a perfect reading group selection. Readers who enjoy stories that deal with traditional cultural values will want to put this on their TBR list, but anyone who enjoys a great story, with a strong female lead character will want to too! I couldn't help myself and read it in one sitting!
Vinita Patel was born in India but now lives in the United States with her husband and daughter. She receives an letter from a "well wisher" informing her that the son she thought died at birth was alive and very ill. Her brother, Vishal, has the information about her son she gave birth to 30 years ago. Vinita leaves her American life and goes to India in the hopes of giving her son a life saving bone marrow transplnat. Her past sins have come back to her and now will affect the lives of her entire family.I found the story to be very well written and the reading enjoyable. It was interesting to learn about the Indian culture, especially, with regard to planning a marriage. It addresses the undying love of a mother and the lengths she will go to in order to save her child.
This author has skills! Beautiful writing skills that capture the readers hearts and give them a glimpse into the life of Indian-American culture. It's a novel that's beautifully written and full of everything from love and hope to loyalty and heartache. A combination that leaves the reader with indescribable feelings. The Unexpected Son is a novel of cultural differences, secrets, and what a mother feels for her child despite thinking they are dead. Vinita is beautifully created with stunning detail, and helps to pull the reader into her life in a small Indian village, suffering from cultural wars. She's torn between her duty to her family, and an undeniable attraction to handsomely seductive Som Kori, an older boy who has a bad reputation. Her decision results in heartache on many levels,both in her past and her present life with her husband of 25 years and their daughter.These secrets leave her seeking forgiveness and giving forgiveness, but the question in Vinita's heart is this: can forgiveness bridge the gap that years of unanswered questions and heartache left behind? I was quite pleased with reading this story. It's compelling, riveting plot leaves the reader anxious for more by the last page. This 4 star novel is high on my recommendation list, while I will be seeking more work from Bantwal! Despite the mild use of language (barely any at all), I think many people will be happy with reading this new novel by an obviously talented author.
My review from my blog Rundpinne.......Stunningly beautiful, The Unexpected Son by Shobhan Bantwal is a story of family honor, deceit, and forgiveness. The top student in her University class, Vinita had a plan for her life until Somesh Kori enters her life. Som is a rake in every sense of the word, but Vini is young and her emotions took over and she suffered terribly for her mistake. Thirty years pass, Vini is now living in America with her husband Girish and daughter Arya when a mysterious letter arrives from Mumbai, shocking Vini and once again bringing scandal to her family as well as opening old and new wounds. Bantwal does an exceptional job describing life in India, the cultural biases as well as the customs and beliefs. I was fascinated by the family dynamics in India as well as in America. Bantwal has created an exceptional cast of characters that are flawed and quite human to the point the reader may forget this is a work of fiction. The Unexpected Son is filled with several storylines all stemming for Vini¿s indiscretion as an 18-year-old and I was drawn into the lives of Vinita, Arya and Girish, Rohini, Kishore, Vishal and Sayee, the Patil¿s, and into the life of Rohit and his family. Bantwal writes a beautiful story of love, loss, deception and redemption and I highly recommend The Unexpected Son to any reader and to book discussion groups.
The Unexpected Son offers an interesting look into the workings of an Indian-American family. This is an interesting look into the conservative culture of an Indian middle-class family. Vinita is a product of her culture, spends most of the book yielding to everyone else. This is the first book I have read by Shobhan Bantwal and am now a HUGE fan. Shobhan writes with eloquent detail. Shobhan¿s writing had me sitting in the coffee shop when Vintia and Som would secretly meet, in the living room when Vinita had to tell her parents and brother of her pregnancy, in Bombay when Vintia first met Girish, and then later when Vinita lays eyes on her son for the first time.I enjoyed the ending, not the fairy-tale ending you might expect, but more true to life. The only thing I wish was the author of the mysterious letter was revealed. It left me thinking it could have been a number of people. This book was a definite A for me and have put Shobhan Bantwal on the list of my favorite authors and her other books, The Forbidden Daugher, The Dowry Bride, and the Sari Shop on my TBR list.