Posted: February 26th, 2023
Building our Knowledge of the Story Cycle
Building our Knowledge of the Story Cycle
Like the previous discussion post, compose a reading reflection journal in which you discuss one, or one set, of the themes listed below in one of the stories, "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," or "A Real Durwan." To do so, make sure that you present evidence (meaning quotes) from the text, to demonstrate your skills with close textual analysis. In addition, make sure that your reading response journal contains an argument, an opinion, about how the theme(s) are used. Here are the themes from which you may choose:
- barriers to communication
- care / neglect
- love / loss
- race / racism
- Journals should be thesis driven with supporting examples and evidence
- Journals should be written in MLA format using Times New Roman 12pt font
- Journals should be 250-350 words
- Since you are providing quotes and close visual analysis, a separate works cited page is expected.
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Interpreter of Maladies
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
A Temporary Matter
When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
Interpreter of Maladies
A Real Durwan
This Blessed House
The Treatment of Bibi Haldar
The Third and Final Continent
A Mariner Original • Mariner Books
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
BOSTON • NEW YORK
Copyright © 1999 by Jhumpa Lahiri
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton MifflinHarcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Interpreter of maladies / Jhumpa Lahiri.
Contents: A temporary matter—When Mr. Pirzada
came to dine — Interpreter of maladies — A real durwan —
Sexy—Mrs. Sen’s — This blessed house — The treatment
of Bibi Haldar—The third and final continent.
1. East Indian Americans — Social life and customs —
Fiction. I. Title.
PS 3562. A316158 1999
813’.54—dc21 98-50895 CIP
Printed in the United States of America
Book design by Robert Overholtzer
DOC 40 39 38 37 36 35
Some of the stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere,
in slightly different form: “ATemporary Matter” in The New
Yorker, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” in The Louisville
Review, “Interpreter of Maladies” in the Agni Review, “AReal
Durwan” in the Harvard Review, “Sexy” in The New Yorker,
“Mrs. Sen’s” in Salamander, “This Blessed House” in Epoch, and
“The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” in Story Quarterly.
For my parents and for my sister
WITH THANKS TO
the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown,
Janet Silver, and Cindy Klein Roche
A TEMPORARY MATTER
WHEN MR. PIRZADA CAME TO DINE
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES
A REAL DURWAN
THIS BLESSED HOUSE
THE TREATMENT OF BIBIHALDAR
THE THIRD AND FINALCONTINENT
A Temporary Matter
THENOTICEINFORMEDTHEM that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity
would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M. A line had gone down in the last
snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take advantage of the milder evenings to
set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quiet tree-lined street, within
walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and
Shukumar had lived for three years.
“It’sgood of them to warn us,” Shoba conceded after reading the notice aloud, more for
her own benefit than Shukumar’s. She let the strap of her leather satchel, plump with
files, slip from her shoulders, and left it in the hallway as she walked into the kitchen.
She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers,
looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never
She’d come from the gym. Her cranberry lipstick was visible only on the outer reaches
of her mouth, and her eyeliner had left charcoal patches beneath her lower lashes. She
used to look this way sometimes, Shukumar thought, on mornings after a party or a
night at a bar, when she’d been too lazy to wash her face, too eager to collapse into his
arms. She dropped a sheaf of mail on the table without a glance. Her eyes were still
fixed on the notice in her other hand. “But they should do this sort of thing during the
“When I’m here, you mean,” Shukumar said. He put a glass lid on a pot of lamb,
adjusting it so only the slightest bit of steam could escape. Since January he’d been
working at home, trying to complete the final chapters of his dissertation on agrarian
revolts in India. “When do the repairs start?”
“It says March nineteenth. Is today the nineteenth?” Shoba walked over to the framed
corkboard that hung on the wall by the fridge, bare except for a calendar of William
Morris wallpaper patterns. She looked at it as if for the first time, studying the wallpaper
pattern carefully on the top half before allowing her eyes to fall to the numbered grid on
the bottom. A friend had sent the calendar in the mail as a Christmas gift, even though
Shoba and Shukumar hadn’t celebrated Christmas that year.
“Today then,” Shoba announced. “Youhave a dentist appointment next Friday, by the
He ran his tongue over the tops of his teeth; he’d forgotten to brush them that morning.
It wasn’t the first time. He hadn’t left the house at all that day, or the day before. The
more Shoba stayed out, the more she began putting in extra hours at work and taking
on additional projects, the more he wanted to stay in, not even leaving to get the mail, or
to buy fruit or wine at the stores by the trolley stop.
Six months ago, in September, Shukumar was at an academic conference in Baltimore
when Shoba went into labor, three weeks before her due date. He hadn’t wanted to go
to the conference, but she had insisted; it was important to make contacts, and he
would be entering the job market next year. She told him that she had his number at the
hotel, and a copy of his schedule and flight numbers, and she had arranged with her
friend Gillian for a ride to the hospital in the event of an emergency. When the cab
pulled away that morning for the airport, Shoba stood waving good-bye in her robe, with
one arm resting on the mound of her belly as if it were a perfectly natural part of her
Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was
the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was
cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands
too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back
seat. As the cab sped down Beacon Street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba
might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from
music lessons and dentist appointments. He imagined himself gripping the wheel, as
Shoba turned around to hand the children juice boxes. Once, these images of
parenthood had troubled Shukumar, adding to his anxiety that he was still a student at
thirty-five. But that early autumn morning, the trees still heavy with bronze leaves, he
welcomed the image for the first time.
A member of the staff had found him somehow among the identical convention rooms
and handed him a stiff square of stationery. It was only a telephone number, but
Shukumar knew it was the hospital. When he returned to Boston it was over. The baby
had been born dead. Shoba was lying on a bed, asleep, in a private room so small there
was barely enough space to stand beside her, in a wing of the hospital they hadn’t been
to on the tour for expectant parents. Her placenta had weakened and she’d had a
cesarean, though not quickly enough. The doctor explained that these things happen.
He smiled in the kindest way it was possible to smile at people known only
professionally. Shoba would be back on her feet in a few weeks. There was nothing to
indicate that she would not be able to have children in the future.
These days Shoba was always gone by the time Shukumar woke up. He would open
his eyes and see the long black hairs she shed on her pillow and think of her, dressed,
sipping her third cup of coffee already, in her office downtown, where she searched for
typographical errors in textbooks and marked them, in a code she had once explained
to him, with an assortment of colored pencils. She would do the same for his
dissertation, she promised, when it was ready. He envied her the specificity of her task,
so unlike the elusive nature of his. He was a mediocre student who had a facility for
absorbing details without curiosity. Until September he had been diligent if not
dedicated, summarizing chapters, outlining arguments on pads of yellow lined paper.
But now he would lie in their bed until he grew bored, gazing at his side of the closet
which Shoba always left partly open, at the row of tweed jackets and corduroy trousers
he would not have to choose from to teach his classes that semester. After the baby
died it was too late to withdraw from his teaching duties. But his adviser had arranged
things so that he had the spring semester to himself. Shukumar was in his sixth year of
graduate school. “That and the summer should give you a good push,” his adviser had
said. “You should be able to wrap things up by next September.”
But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and Shoba had
become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as
much time on separate floors as possible. He thought of how he no longer looked
forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and
her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude. He
thought of how long it had been since she looked into his eyes and smiled, or whispered
his name on those rare occasions they still reached for each other’s bodies before
In the beginning he had believed that it would pass, that he and Shoba would get
through it all somehow. She was only thirty-three. She was strong, on her feet again.
But it wasn’t a consolation. It was often nearly lunchtime when Shukumar would finally
pull himself out of bed and head downstairs to the coffeepot, pouring out the extra bit
Shoba left for him, along with an empty mug, on the countertop.
Shukumar gathered onion skins in his hands and let them drop into the garbage pail, on
top of the ribbons of fat he’d trimmed from the lamb. He ran the water in the sink,
soaking the knife and the cutting board, and rubbed a lemon half along his fingertips to
get rid of the garlic smell, a trick he’d learned from Shoba. It was seven-thirty. Through
the window he saw the sky, like soft black pitch. Uneven banks of snow still lined the
sidewalks, though it was warm enough for people to walk about without hats or gloves.
Nearly three feet had fallen in the last storm, so that for a week people had to walk
single file, in narrow trenches. For a week that was Shukumar’s excuse for not leaving
the house. But now the trenches were widening, and water drained steadily into grates
in the pavement.
“The lamb won’t be done by eight,” Shukumar said. “We may have to eat in the dark.”
“We can light candles,” Shoba suggested. She unclipped her hair, coiled neatly at her
nape during the days, and pried the sneakers from her feet without untying them. “I’m
going to shower before the lights go,” she said, heading for the staircase. “I’llbe down.”
Shukumar moved her satchel and her sneakers to the side of the fridge. She wasn’t
this way before. She used to put her coat on a hanger, her sneakers in the closet, and
she paid bills as soon as they came. But now she treated the house as if it were a hotel.
The fact that the yellow chintz armchair in the living room clashed with the blue-and-
maroon Turkish carpet no longer bothered her. On the enclosed porch at the back of the
house, a crisp white bag still sat on the wicker chaise, filled with lace she had once
planned to turn into curtains.
While Shoba showered, Shukumar went into the downstairs bathroom and found a new
toothbrush in its box beneath the sink. The cheap, stiff bristles hurt his gums, and he
spit some blood into the basin. The spare brush was one of many stored in a metal
basket. Shoba had bought them once when they were on sale, in the event that a visitor
decided, at the last minute, to spend the night.
It was typical of her. She was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad. If she
found a skirt or a purse she liked she bought two. She kept the bonuses from her job in
a separate bank account in her name. It hadn’t bothered him. His own mother had fallen
to pieces when his father died, abandoning the house he grew up in and moving back to
Calcutta, leaving Shukumar to settle it all. He liked that Shoba was different. It
astonished him, her capacity to think ahead. When she used to do the shopping, the
pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil, depending on
whether they were cooking Italian or Indian. There were countless boxes of pasta in all
shapes and colors, zippered sacks of basmati rice, whole sides of lambs and goats from
the Muslim butchers at Haymarket, chopped up and frozen in countless plastic bags.
Every other Saturday they wound through the maze of stalls Shukumar eventually knew
by heart. He watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing behind her with
canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the morning sun with
boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up brown paper bags of
artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on their scales, and tossed
them to Shoba one by one. She didn’t mind being jostled, even when she was pregnant.
She was tall, and broad-shouldered, with hips that her obstetrician assured her were
made for childbearing. During the drive back home, as the car curved along the
Charles, they invariably marveled at how much food they’d bought.
It never went to waste. When friends dropped by, Shoba would throw together meals
that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen and
bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary,
and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes.
Her labeled mason jars lined the shelves of the kitchen, in sealed pyramids, enough,
they’d agreed, to last for their grandchildren to taste. They’d eaten it all by now.
Shukumar had been going through their supplies steadily, preparing meals for the two
of them, measuring out cupfuls of rice, defrosting bags of meat day after day. He
combed through her cookbooks every afternoon, following her penciled instructions to
use two teaspoons of ground coriander seeds instead of one, or red lentils instead of
yellow. Each of the recipes was dated, telling the first time they had eaten the dish
together. April 2, cauliflower with fennel. January 14, chicken with almonds and
sultanas. He had no memory of eating those meals, and yet there they were, recorded
in her neat proofreader’s hand. Shukumar enjoyed cooking now. It was the one thing
that made him feel productive. If it weren’t for him, he knew, Shoba would eat a bowl of
cereal for her dinner.
Tonight, with no lights, they would have to eat together. For months now they’d served
themselves from the stove, and he’d taken his plate into his study, letting the meal grow
cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her
plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of
colored pencils at hand.
At some point in the evening she visited him. When he heard her approach he would
put away his novel and begin typing sentences. She would rest her hands on his
shoulders and stare with him into the blue glow of the computer screen. “Don’t work too
hard,” she would say after a minute or two, and head off to bed. It was the one time in
the day she sought him out, and yet he’d come to dread it. He knew it was something
she forced herself to do. She would look around the walls of the room, which they had
decorated together last summer with a border of marching ducks and rabbits playing
trumpets and drums. By the end of August there was a cherry crib under the window, a
white changing table with mint-green knobs, and a rocking chair with checkered
cushions. Shukumar had disassembled it all before bringing Shoba back from the
hospital, scraping off the rabbits and ducks with a spatula. For some reason the room
did not haunt him the way it haunted Shoba. In January, when he stopped working at
his carrel in the library, he set up his desk there deliberately, partly because the room
soothed him, and partly because it was a place Shoba avoided.
Shukumar returned to the kitchen and began to open drawers. He tried to locate a
candle among the scissors, the eggbeaters and whisks, the mortar and pestle she’d
bought in a bazaar in Calcutta, and used to pound garlic cloves and cardamom pods,
back when she used to cook. He found a flashlight, but no batteries, and a half-empty
box of birthday candles. Shoba had thrown him a surprise birthday party last May. One
hundred and twenty people had crammed into the house—all the friends and the friends
of friends they now systematically avoided. Bottles of vinho verde had nested in a bed
of ice in the bathtub. Shoba was in her fifthmonth, drinking ginger ale from a martini
glass. She had made a vanilla cream cake with custard and spun sugar. Allnight she
kept Shukumar’s long fingers linked with hers as they walked among the guests at the
Since September their only guest had been Shoba’s mother. She came from Arizona
and stayed with them for two months after Shoba returned from the hospital. She
cooked dinner every night, drove herself to the supermarket, washed their clothes, put
them away. She was a religious woman. She set up a small shrine, a framed picture of
a lavender-faced goddess and a plate of marigold petals, on the bedside table in the
guest room, and prayed twice a day for healthy grandchildren in the future. She was
polite to Shukumar without being friendly. She folded his sweaters with an expertise she
had learned from her job in a department store. She replaced a missing button on his
winter coat and knit him a beige and brown scarf, presenting it to him without the least
bit of ceremony, as if he had only dropped it and hadn’t noticed. She never talked to him
about Shoba; once, when he mentioned the baby’s death, she looked up from her
knitting, and said, “But you weren’t even there.”
It struck him as odd that there were no real candles in the house. That Shoba hadn’t
prepared for such an ordinary emergency. He looked now for something to put the
birthday candles in and settled on the soil of a potted ivy that normally sat on the
windowsill over the sink. Even though the plant was inches from the tap, the soil was so
dry that he had to water it first before the candles would stand straight. He pushed aside
the things on the kitchen table, the piles of mail, the unread library books. He
remembered their first meals there, when they were so thrilled to be married, to be living
together in the same house at last, that they would just reach for each other foolishly,
more eager to make love than to eat. He put down two embroidered place mats, a
wedding gift from an uncle in Lucknow, and set out the plates and wineglasses they
usually saved for guests. He put the ivy in the middle, the white-edged, star-shaped
leaves girded by ten little candles. He switched on the digital clock radio and tuned it to
a jazz station.
“What’s all this?” Shoba said when she came downstairs. Her hair was wrapped in a
thick white towel. She undid the towel and draped it over a chair, allowing her hair,
damp and dark, to fall across her back. As she walked absently toward the stove she
took out a few tangles with her fingers. She wore a clean pair of sweatpants, a T-shirt,
an old flannel robe. Her stomach was flat again, her waist narrow before the flare of her
hips, the belt of the robe tied in a floppy knot.
It was nearly eight. Shukumar put the rice on the table and the lentils from the night
before into the microwave oven, punching the numbers on the timer.
“Youmade rogan josh, ” Shoba observed, looking through the glass lid at the bright
Shukumar took out a piece of lamb, pinching it quickly between his fingers so as not to
scald himself. He prodded a larger piece with a serving spoon to make sure the meat
slipped easily from the bone. “It’s ready,” he announced.
The microwave had just beeped when the lights went out, and the music disappeared.
“Perfect timing,” Shoba said.
“AllI could find were birthday candles.” He lit up the ivy, keeping the rest of the candles
and a book of matches by his plate.
“Itdoesn’t matter,” she said, running a finger along the stem of her wineglass. “It looks
In the dimness, he knew how she sat, a bit forward in her chair, ankles crossed against
the lowest rung, left elbow on the table. During his search for the candles, Shukumar
had found a bottle of wine in a crate he had thought was empty. He clamped the bottle
between his knees while he turned in the corkscrew. He worried about spilling, and so
he picked up the glasses and held them close to his lap while he filled them. They
served themselves, stirring the rice with their forks, squinting as they extracted bay
leaves and cloves from the stew. Every few minutes Shukumar lit a few more birthday
candles and drove them into the soil of the pot.
“It’s like India,” Shoba said, watching him tend his makeshift candelabra. “Sometimes
the current disappears for hours at a stretch. I once had to attend an entire rice
ceremony in the dark. The baby just cried and cried. It must have been so hot.”
Their baby had never cried, Shukumar considered. Their baby would never have a rice
ceremony, even though Shoba had already made the guest list, and decided on which
of her three brothers she was going to ask to feed the child its first taste of solid food, at
six months if it was a boy, seven if it was a girl.
“Are you hot?” he asked her. He pushed the blazing ivy pot to the other end of the table,
closer to the piles of books and mail, making it even more difficult for them to see each
other. He was suddenly irritated that he couldn’t go upstairs and sit in front of the
“No. It’s delicious,” she said, tapping her plate with her fork. “It really is.”
He refilled the wine in her glass. She thanked him.
They weren’t like this before. Now he had to struggle to say something that interested
her, something that made her look up from her plate, or from her proofreading files.
Eventually he gave up trying to amuse her. He learned not to mind the silences.
“I remember during power failures at my grandmother’s house, we all had to say
something,” Shoba continued. He could barely see her face, but from her tone he knew
her eyes were narrowed, as if trying to focus on a distant object. It was a habit of hers.
“Idon’t know. A little poem. A joke. A fact about the world. For some reason my
relatives always wanted me to tell them the names of my friends in America. I don’t
know why the information was so interesting to them. The last time I saw my aunt she
asked after four girls I went to elementary school with in Tucson. I barely remember
Shukumar hadn’t spent as much time in India as Shoba had. His parents, who settled in
New Hampshire, used to go back without him. The first time he’d gone as an infant he’d
nearly died of amoebic dysentery. His father, a nervous type, was afraid to take him
again, in case something were to happen, and left him with his aunt and uncle in
Concord. As a teenager he preferred sailing camp or scooping ice cream during the
summers to going to Calcutta. It wasn’t until after his father died, in his last year of
college, that the country began to interest him, and he studied its history from course
books as if it were any other subject. He wished now that he had his own childhood
story of India.
“Let’s do that,” she said suddenly.
“Say something to each other in the dark.”
“Likewhat? I don’t know any jokes.”
“No, no jokes.” She thought for a minute. “How about telling each other something
we’ve never told before.”
“Iused to play this game in high school,” Shukumar recalled. “When I got drunk.”
“You’re thinking of truth or dare. This is different. Okay, I’llstart.” She took a sip of wine.
“The first time I was alone in your apartment, I looked in your address book to see if
you’d written me in. I think we’d known each other two weeks.”
“Where was I?”
“Youwent to answer the telephone in the other room. It was your mother, and I figured it
would be a long call. I wanted to know if you’d promoted me from the margins of your
“No. But I didn’t give up on you. Now it’s your turn.”
He couldn’t think of anything, but Shoba was waiting for him to speak. She hadn’t
appeared so determined in months. What was there left to say to her? He thought back
to their first meeting, four years earlier at a lecture hall in Cambridge, where a group of
Bengali poets were giving a recital. They’d ended up side by side, on folding wooden
chairs. Shukumar was soon bored; he was unable to decipher the literary diction, and
couldn’t join the rest of the audience as they sighed and nodded solemnly after certain
phrases. Peering at the newspaper folded in his lap, he studied the temperatures of
cities around the world. Ninety-one degrees in Singapore yesterday, fifty-one in
Stockholm. When he turned his head to the left, he saw a woman next to him making a
grocery list on the back of a folder, and was startled to find that she was beautiful.
“Okay,” he said, remembering. “The first time we went out to dinner, to the Portuguese
place, I forgot to tip the waiter. I went back the next morning, found out his name, left
money with the manager.”
“Youwent all the way back to Somerville just to tip a waiter?”
“I took a cab.”
“Why did you forget to tip the waiter?”
The birthday candles had burned out, but he pictured her face clearly in the dark, the
wide tilting eyes, the full grape-toned lips, the fall at age two from her high chair still
visible as a comma on her chin. Each day, Shukumar noticed, her beauty, which had
once overwhelmed him, seemed to fade. The cosmetics that had seemed superfluous
were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow.
“By the end of the meal I had a funny feeling that I might marry you,” he said, admitting
it to himself as well as to her for the first time. “Itmust have distracted me.”
The next night Shoba came home earlier than usual. There was lamb left over from the
evening before, and Shukumar heated it up so that they were able to eat by seven. He’d
gone out that day, through the melting snow, and bought a packet of taper candles from
the corner store, and batteries to fit the flashlight. He had the candles ready on the
countertop, standing in brass holders shaped like lotuses, but they ate under the glow of
the copper-shaded ceiling lamp that hung over the table.
When they had finished eating, Shukumar was surprised to see that Shoba was
stacking her plate on top of his, and then carrying them over to the sink. He had
assumed she would retreat to the living room, behind her barricade of files.
“Don’t worry about the dishes,” he said, taking them from her hands.
“It seems silly not to,” she replied, pouring a drop of detergent onto a sponge. “It’s
nearly eight o’clock.”
His heart quickened. Allday Shukumar had looked forward to the lights going out. He
thought about what Shoba had said the night before, about looking in his address book.
It felt good to remember her as she was then, how bold yet nervous she’d been when
they first met, how hopeful. They stood side by side at the sink, their reflections fitting
together in the frame of the window. It made him shy, the way he felt the first time they
stood together in a mirror. He couldn’t recall the last time they’d been photographed.
They had stopped attending parties, went nowhere together. The film in his camera still
contained pictures of Shoba, in the yard, when she was pregnant.
After finishing the dishes, they leaned against the counter, drying their hands on either
end of a towel. At eight o’clock the house went black. Shukumar lit the wicks of the
candles, impressed by their long, steady flames.
“Let’s sit outside,” Shoba said. “I think it’s warm still.”
They each took a candle and sat down on the steps. It seemed strange to be sitting
outside with patches of snow still on the ground. But everyone was out of their houses
tonight, the air fresh enough to make people restless. Screen doors opened and closed.
A small parade of neighbors passed by with flashlights.
“We’re going to the bookstore to browse,” a silver-haired man called out. He was
walking with his wife, a thin woman in a windbreaker, and holding a dog on a leash.
They were the Bradfords, and they had tucked a sympathy card into Shoba and
Shukumar’s mailbox back in September. “Ihear they’ve got their power.”
“They’d better,” Shukumar said. “Or you’ll be browsing in the dark.”
The woman laughed, slipping her arm through the crook of her husband’s elbow.
“Want to join us?”
“No thanks,” Shoba and Shukumar called out together. It surprised Shukumar that his
words matched hers.
He wondered what Shoba would tell him in the dark. The worst possibilities had already
run through his head. That she’d had an affair. That she didn’t respect him for being
thirty-five and still a student. That she blamed him for being in Baltimore the way her
mother did. But he knew those things weren’t true. She’d been faithful, as had he. She
believed in him. It was she who had insisted he go to Baltimore. What didn’t they know
about each other? He knew she curled her fingers tightly when she slept, that her body
twitched during bad dreams. He knew it was honeydew she favored over cantaloupe.
He knew that when they returned from the hospital the first thing she did when she
walked into the house was pick out objects of theirs and toss them into a pile in the
hallway: books from the shelves, plants from the windowsills, paintings from walls,
photos from tables, pots and pans that hung from the hooks over the stove. Shukumar
had stepped out of her way, watching as she moved methodically from room to room.
When she was satisfied, she stood there staring at the pile she’d made, her lips drawn
back in such distaste that Shukumar had thought she would spit. Then she’d started to
He began to feel cold as he sat there on the steps. He felt that he needed her to talk
first, in order to reciprocate.
“That time when your mother came to visit us,” she said finally. “When I said one night
that I had to stay late at work, I went out with Gillian and had a martini.”
He looked at her profile, the slender nose, the slightly masculine set of her jaw. He
remembered that night well; eating with his mother, tired from teaching two classes
back to back, wishing Shoba were there to say more of the right things because he
came up with only the wrong ones. It had been twelve years since his father had died,
and his mother had come to spend two weeks with him and Shoba, so they could honor
his father’s memory together. Each night his mother cooked something his father had
liked, but she was too upset to eat the dishes herself, and her eyes would well up as
Shoba stroked her hand. “It’s so touching,” Shoba had said to him at the time. Now he
pictured Shoba with Gillian, in a bar with striped velvet sofas, the one they used to go to
after the movies, making sure she got her extra olive, asking Gillian for a cigarette. He
imagined her complaining, and Gillian sympathizing about visits from in-laws. It was
Gillian who had driven Shoba to the hospital.
“Your turn,” she said, stopping his thoughts.
At the end of their street Shukumar heard sounds of a drill and the electricians shouting
over it. He looked at the darkened facades of the houses lining the street. Candles
glowed in the windows of one. In spite of the warmth, smoke rose from the chimney.
“Icheated on my Oriental Civilization exam in college,” he said. “Itwas my last
semester, my last set of exams. My father had died a few months before. I could see
the blue book of the guy next to me. He was an American guy, a maniac. He knew Urdu
and Sanskrit. I couldn’t remember if the verse we had to identify was an example of a
ghazal or not. I looked at his answer and copied it down.”
It had happened over fifteen years ago. He felt relief now, having told her.
She turned to him, looking not at his face, but at his shoes—old moccasins he wore as if
they were slippers, the leather at the back permanently flattened. He wondered if it
bothered her, what he’d said. She took his hand and pressed it. “Youdidn’t have to tell
me why you did it,” she said, moving closer to him.
They sat together until nine o’clock, when the lights came on. They heard some people
across the street clapping from their porch, and televisions being turned on. The
Bradfords walked back down the street, eating ice-cream cones and waving. Shoba and
Shukumar waved back. Then they stood up, his hand still in hers, and went inside.
Somehow, without saying anything, it had turned into this. Into an exchange of
confessions — the little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves.
The following day Shukumar thought for hours about what to say to her. He was torn
between admitting that he once ripped out a photo of a woman in one of the fashion
magazines she used to subscribe to and carried it in his books for a week, or saying
that he really hadn’t lost the sweater-vest she bought him for their third wedding
anniversary but had exchanged it for cash at Filene’s, and that he had gotten drunk
alone in the middle of the day at a hotel bar. For their first anniversary, Shoba had
cooked a ten-course dinner just for him. The vest depressed him. “Mywife gave me a
sweater-vest for our anniversary,” he complained to the bartender, his head heavy with
cognac. “What do you expect?” the bartender had replied. “You’remarried.”
As for the picture of the woman, he didn’t know why he’d ripped it out. She wasn’t as
pretty as Shoba. She wore a white sequined dress, and had a sullen face and lean,
mannish legs. Her bare arms were raised, her fists around her head, as if she were
about to punch herself in the ears. It was an advertisement for stockings. Shoba had
been pregnant at the time, her stomach suddenly immense, to the point where
Shukumar no longer wanted to touch her. The first time he saw the picture he was lying
in bed next to her, watching her as she read. When he noticed the magazine in the
recycling pile he found the woman and tore out the page as carefully as he could. For
about a week he allowed himself a glimpse each day. He felt an intense desire for the
woman, but it was a desire that turned to disgust after a minute or two. It was the
closest he’d come to infidelity.
He told Shoba about the sweater on the third night, the picture on the fourth. She said
nothing as he spoke, expressed no protest or reproach. She simply listened, and then
she took his hand, pressing it as she had before. On the third night, she told him that
once after a lecture they’d attended, she let him speak to the chairman of his
department without telling him that he had a dab of pâté on his chin. She’d been irritated
with him for some reason, and so she’d let him go on and on, about securing his
fellowship for the following semester, without putting a finger to her own chin as a
signal. The fourth night, she said that she never liked the one poem he’d ever published
in his life, in a literary magazine in Utah. He’d written the poem after meeting Shoba.
She added that she found the poem sentimental.
Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other
again. The third night after supper they’d sat together on the sofa, and once it was dark
he began kissing her awkwardly on her forehead and her face, and though it was dark
he closed his eyes, and knew that she did, too. The fourth night they walked carefully
upstairs, to bed, feeling together for the final step with their feet before the landing, and
making love with a desperation they had forgotten. She wept without sound, and
whispered his name, and traced his eyebrows with her finger in the dark. As he made
love to her he wondered what he would say to her the next night, and what she would
say, the thought of it exciting him. “Hold me,” he said, “hold me in your arms.” By the
time the lights came back on downstairs, they’d fallen asleep.
The morning of the fifth night Shukumar found another notice from the electric
company in the mailbox. The line had been repaired ahead of schedule, it said. He was
disappointed. He had planned on making shrimp malai for Shoba, but when he arrived
at the store he didn’t feel like cooking anymore. It wasn’t the same, he thought, knowing
that the lights wouldn’t go out. In the store the shrimp looked gray and thin. The coconut
milk tin was dusty and overpriced. Still, he bought them, along with a beeswax candle
and two bottles of wine.
She came home at seven-thirty. “I suppose this is the end of our game,” he said when
he saw her reading the notice.
She looked at him. “Youcan still light candles if you want.” She hadn’t been to the gym
tonight. She wore a suit beneath the raincoat. Her makeup had been retouched
When she went upstairs to change, Shukumar poured himself some wine and put on a
record, a Thelonius Monk album he knew she liked.
When she came downstairs they ate together. She didn’t thank him or compliment him.
They simply ate in a darkened room, in the glow of a beeswax candle. They had
survived a difficult time. They finished off the shrimp. They finished off the first bottle of
wine and moved on to the second. They sat together until the candle had nearly burned
away. She shifted in her chair, and Shukumar thought that she was about to say
something. But instead she blew out the candle, stood up, turned on the light switch,
and sat down again.
“Shouldn’t we keep the lights off?” Shukumar asked.
She set her plate aside and clasped her hands on the table. “Iwant you to see my face
when I tell you this,” she said gently.
His heart began to pound. The day she told him she was pregnant, she had used the
very same words, saying them in the same gentle way, turning off the basketball game
he’d been watching on television. He hadn’t been prepared then. Now he was.
Only he didn’t want her to be pregnant again. He didn’t want to have to pretend to be
“I’vebeen looking for an apartment and I’ve found one,” she said, narrowing her eyes
on something, it seemed, behind his left shoulder. It was nobody’s fault, she continued.
They’d been through enough. She needed some time alone. She had money saved up
for a security deposit. The apartment was on Beacon Hill, so she could walk to work.
She had signed the lease that night before coming home.
She wouldn’t look at him, but he stared at her. It was obvious that she’d rehearsed the
lines. All this time she’d been looking for an apartment, testing the water pressure,
asking a Realtor if heat and hot water were included in the rent. It sickened Shukumar,
knowing that she had spent these past evenings preparing for a life without him. He was
relieved and yet he was sickened. This was what she’d been trying to tell him for the
past four evenings. This was the point of her game.
Now it was his turn to speak. There was something he’d sworn he would never tell her,
and for six months he had done his best to block it from his mind. Before the ultrasound
she had asked the doctor not to tell her the sex of their child, and Shukumar had
agreed. She had wanted it to be a surprise.
Later, those few times they talked about what had happened, she said at least they’d
been spared that knowledge. In a way she almost took pride in her decision, for it
enabled her to seek refuge in a mystery. He knew that she assumed it was a mystery
for him, too. He’d arrived too late from Baltimore—when it was all over and she was
lying on the hospital bed. But he hadn’t. He’d arrived early enough to see their baby,
and to hold him before they cremated him. At first he had recoiled at the suggestion, but
the doctor said holding the baby might help him with the process of grieving. Shoba was
asleep. The baby had been cleaned off, his bulbous lids shut tight to the world.
“Our baby was a boy,” he said. “His skin was more red than brown. He had black hair
on his head. He weighed almost five pounds. His fingers were curled shut, just like
yours in the night.”
Shoba looked at him now, her face contorted with sorrow. He had cheated on a college
exam, ripped a picture of a woman out of a magazine. He had returned a sweater and
got drunk in the middle of the day instead. These were the things he had told her. He
had held his son, who had known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened
room in an unknown wing of the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and
took him away, and he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba,
because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted
to be a surprise.
Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the
sink, but instead of running the tap he looked out the window. Outside the evening was
still warm, and the Bradfords were walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the
room went dark, and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back
to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept
together, for the things they now knew.
When Mr.Pirzada Came to Dine
INTHEAUTUMNOF 1971 a man used to come to our house, bearing confections in his
pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family. His name was Mr.
Pirzada, and he came from Dacca, now the capital of Bangladesh, but then a part of
Pakistan. That year Pakistan was engaged in civil war. The eastern frontier, where
Dacca was located, was fighting for autonomy from the ruling regime in the west. In
March, Dacca had been invaded, torched, and shelled by the Pakistani army. Teachers
were dragged onto streets and shot, women dragged into barracks and raped. By the
end of the summer, three hundred thousand people were said to have died. In Dacca
Mr. Pirzada had a three-story home, a lectureship in botany at the university, a wife of
twenty years, and seven daughters between the ages of six and sixteen whose names
all began with the letter A. “Their mother’s idea,” he explained one day, producing from
his wallet a black-and-white picture of seven girls at a picnic, their braids tied with
ribbons, sitting cross-legged in a row, eating chicken curry off of banana leaves. “How
am I to distinguish? Ayesha, Amira, Amina, Aziza, you see the difficulty.”
Each week Mr. Pirzada wrote letters to his wife, and sent comic books to each of his
seven daughters, but the postal system, along with most everything else in Dacca, had
collapsed, and he had not heard word of them in over six months. Mr. Pirzada,
meanwhile, was in America for the year, for he had been awarded a grant from the
government of Pakistan to study the foliage of New England. In spring and summer he
had gathered data in Vermont and Maine, and in autumn he moved to a university north
of Boston, where we lived, to write a short book about his discoveries. The grant was a
great honor, but when converted into dollars it was not generous. As a result, Mr.
Pirzada lived in a room in a graduate dormitory, and did not own a proper stove or a
television set. And so he came to our house to eat dinner and watch the evening news.
At first I knew nothing of the reason for his visits. I was ten years old, and was not
surprised that my parents, who were from India, and had a number of Indian
acquaintances at the university, should ask Mr. Pirzada to share our meals. It was a
small campus, with narrow brick walkways and white pillared buildings, located on the
fringes of what seemed to be an even smaller town. The supermarket did not carry
mustard oil, doctors did not make house calls, neighbors never dropped by without an
invitation, and of these things, every so often, my parents complained. In search of
compatriots, they used to trail their fingers, at the start of each new semester, through
the columns of the university directory, circling surnames familiar to their part of the
world. It was in this manner that they discovered Mr. Pirzada, and phoned him, and
invited him to our home.
I have no memory of his first visit, or of his second or his third, but by the end of
September I had grown so accustomed to Mr. Pirzada’s presence in our living room that
one evening, as I was dropping ice cubes into the water pitcher, I asked my mother to
hand me a fourth glass from a cupboard still out of my reach. She was busy at the
stove, presiding over a skillet of fried spinach with radishes, and could not hear me
because of the drone of the exhaust fan and the fierce scrapes of her spatula. I turned
to my father, who was leaning against the refrigerator, eating spiced cashews from a
“What is it, Lilia?”
“Aglass for the Indian man.”
“Mr. Pirzada won’t be coming today. More importantly, Mr. Pirzada is no longer
considered Indian,” my father announced, brushing salt from the cashews out of his trim
black beard. “Not since Partition. Our country was divided. 1947.”
When I said I thought that was the date of India’s independence from Britain, my father
said, “That too. One moment we were free and then we were sliced up,” he explained,
drawing an X with his finger on the countertop, “like a pie. Hindus here, Muslims there.
Dacca no longer belongs to us.” He told me that during Partition Hindus and Muslims
had set fire to each other’s homes. For many, the idea of eating in the other’s company
was still unthinkable.
It made no sense to me. Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language,
laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes
with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents, Mr.
Pirzada took off his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after meals as
a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups
of tea. Nevertheless my father insisted that I understand the difference, and he led me
to a map of the world taped to the wall over his desk. He seemed concerned that Mr.
Pirzada might take offense if I accidentally referred to him as an Indian, though I could
not really imagine Mr. Pirzada being offended by much of anything. “Mr. Pirzada is
Bengali, but he is a Muslim,” my father informed me. “Therefore he lives in East
Pakistan, not India.” His finger trailed across the Atlantic, through Europe, the
Mediterranean, the Middle East, and finally to the sprawling orange diamond that my
mother once told me resembled a woman wearing a sari with her left arm extended.
Various cities had been circled with lines drawn between them to indicate my parents’
travels, and the place of their birth, Calcutta, was signified by a small silver star. I had
been there only once and had no memory of the trip. “As you see, Lilia, it is a different
country, a different color,” my father said. Pakistan was yellow, not orange. I noticed
that there were two distinct parts to it, one much larger than the other, separated by an
expanse of Indian territory; it was as if California and Connecticut constituted a nation
apart from the U.S.
My father rapped his knuckles on top of my head. “Youare, of course, aware of the
current situation? Aware of East Pakistan’s fight for sovereignty?”
I nodded, unaware of the situation.
We returned to the kitchen, where my mother was draining a pot of boiled rice into a
colander. My father opened up the can on the counter and eyed me sharply over the
frames of his glasses as he ate some more cashews. “What exactly do they teach you
at school? Do you study history? Geography?”
“Liliahas plenty to learn at school,” my mother said. “We live here now, she was born
here.” She seemed genuinely proud of the fact, as if it were a reflection of my character.
In her estimation, I knew, I was assured a safe life, an easy life, a fine education, every
opportunity. I would never have to eat rationed food, or obey curfews, or watch riots
from my rooftop, or hide neighbors in water tanks to prevent them from being shot, as
she and my father had. “Imagine having to place her in a decent school. Imagine her
having to read during power failures by the light of kerosene lamps. Imagine the
pressures, the tutors, the constant exams.” She ran a hand through her hair, bobbed to
a suitable length for her part-time job as a bank teller. “How can you possibly expect her
to know about Partition? Put those nuts away.”
“But what does she learn about the world?” My father rattled the cashew can in his
hand. “What is she learning?”
We learned American history, of course, and American geography. That year, and every
year, it seemed, we began by studying the Revolutionary War. We were taken in school
buses on field trips to visit Plymouth Rock, and to walk the Freedom Trail, and to climb
to the top of the Bunker HillMonument. We made dioramas out of colored construction
paper depicting George Washington crossing the choppy waters of the Delaware River,
and we made puppets of King George wearing white tights and a black bow in his hair.
During tests we were given blank maps of the thirteen colonies, and asked to fillin
names, dates, capitals. I could do it with my eyes closed.
The next evening Mr. Pirzada arrived, as usual, at six o’clock. Though they were no
longer strangers, upon first greeting each other, he and my father maintained the habit
of shaking hands.
“Come in, sir. Lilia, Mr. Pirzada’s coat, please.”
He stepped into the foyer, impeccably suited and scarved, with a silk tie knotted at his
collar. Each evening he appeared in ensembles of plums, olives, and chocolate browns.
He was a compact man, and though his feet were perpetually splayed, and his belly
slightly wide, he nevertheless maintained an efficient posture, as if balancing in either
hand two suitcases of equal weight. His ears were insulated by tufts of graying hair that
seemed to block out the unpleasant traffic of life. He had thickly lashed eyes shaded
with a trace of camphor, a generous mustache that turned up playfully at the ends, and
a mole shaped like a flattened raisin in the very center of his left cheek. On his head he
wore a black fez made from the wool of Persian lambs, secured by bobby pins, without
which I was never to see him. Though my father always offered to fetch him in our car,
Mr. Pirzada preferred to walk from his dormitory to our neighborhood, a distance of
about twenty minutes on foot, studying trees and shrubs on his way, and when he
entered our house his knuckles were pink with the effects of crisp autumn air.
“Another refugee, I am afraid, on Indian territory.”
“They are estimating nine million at the last count,” my father said.
Mr. Pirzada handed me his coat, for it was my job to hang it on the rack at the bottom of
the stairs. It was made of finely checkered gray-and-blue wool, with a striped lining and
horn buttons, and carried in its weave the faint smell of limes. There were no
recognizable tags inside, only a hand-stitched label with the phrase “Z. Sayeed, Suitors”
embroidered on it in cursive with glossy black thread. On certain days a birch or maple
leaf was tucked into a pocket. He unlaced his shoes and lined them against the
baseboard; a golden paste clung to the toes and heels, the result of walking through our
damp, unraked lawn. Relieved of his trappings, he grazed my throat with his short,
restless fingers, the way a person feels for solidity behind a wall before driving in a nail.
Then he followed my father to the living room, where the television was tuned to the
local news. As soon as they were seated my mother appeared from the kitchen with a
plate of mincemeat kebabs with coriander chutney. Mr. Pirzada popped one into his
“One can only hope,” he said, reaching for another, “that Dacca’s refugees are as
heartily fed. Which reminds me.” He reached into his suit pocket and gave me a small
plastic egg filled with cinnamon hearts. “For the lady of the house,” he said with an
almost imperceptible splay-footed bow.
“Really, Mr. Pirzada,” my mother protested. “Night after night. You spoil her.”
“Ionly spoil children who are incapable of spoiling.”
It was an awkward moment for me, one which I awaited in part with dread, in part with
delight. I was charmed by the presence of Mr. Pirzada’s rotund elegance, and flattered
by the faint theatricality of his attentions, yet unsettled by the superb ease of his
gestures, which made me feel, for an instant, like a stranger in my own home. It had
become our ritual, and for several weeks, before we grew more comfortable with one
another, it was the only time he spoke to me directly. I had no response, offered no
comment, betrayed no visible reaction to the steady stream of honey-filled lozenges, the
raspberry truffles, the slender rolls of sour pastilles. I could not even thank him, for
once, when I did, for an especially spectacular peppermint lollipop wrapped in a spray of
purple cellophane, he had demanded, “What is this thank-you? The lady at the bank
thanks me, the cashier at the shop thanks me, the librarian thanks me when I return an
overdue book, the overseas operator thanks me as she tries to connect me to Dacca
and fails. If I am buried in this country I willbe thanked, no doubt, at my funeral.”
It was inappropriate, in my opinion, to consume the candy Mr. Pirzada gave me in a
casual manner. I coveted each evening’s treasure as I would a jewel, or a coin from a
buried kingdom, and I would place it in a small keepsake box made of carved
sandalwood beside my bed, in which, long ago in India, my father’s mother used to
store the ground areca nuts she ate after her morning bath. It was my only memento of
a grandmother I had never known, and until Mr. Pirzada came to our lives I could find
nothing to put inside it. Every so often before brushing my teeth and laying out my
clothes for school the next day, I opened the lid of the box and ate one of his treats.
That night, like every night, we did not eat at the dining table, because it did not
provide an unobstructed view of the television set. Instead we huddled around the
coffee table, without conversing, our plates perched on our knees. From the kitchen my
mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans
with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water
glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers, purchased on monthly
trips to Chinatown and stored by the pound in the freezer, which they liked to snap open
and crush into their food.
Before eating Mr. Pirzada always did a curious thing. He took out a plain silver watch
without a band, which he kept in his breast pocket, held it briefly to one of his tufted
ears, and wound it with three swift flicks of his thumb and forefinger. Unlike the watch
on his wrist, the pocket watch, he had explained to me, was set to the local time in
Dacca, eleven hours ahead. For the duration of the meal the watch rested on his folded
paper napkin on the coffee table. He never seemed to consult it.
Now that I had learned Mr. Pirzada was not an Indian, I began to study him with extra
care, to try to figure out what made him different. I decided that the pocket watch was
one of those things. When I saw it that night, as he wound it and arranged it on the
coffee table, an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca
first. I imagined Mr. Pirzada’s daughters rising from sleep, tying ribbons in their hair,
anticipating breakfast, preparing for school. Our meals, our actions, were only a shadow
of what had already happened there, a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada really
At six-thirty, which was when the national news began, my father raised the volume
and adjusted the antennas. Usually I occupied myself with a book, but that night my
father insisted that I pay attention. On the screen I saw tanks rolling through dusty
streets, and fallen buildings, and forests of unfamiliar trees into which East Pakistani
refugees had fled, seeking safety over the Indian border. I saw boats with fan-shaped
sails floating on wide coffee-colored rivers, a barricaded university, newspaper offices
burnt to the ground. I turned to look at Mr. Pirzada; the images flashed in miniature
across his eyes. As he watched he had an immovable expression on his face,
composed but alert, as if someone were giving him directions to an unknown
During the commercial my mother went to the kitchen to get more rice, and my father
and Mr. Pirzada deplored the policies of a general named Yahyah Khan. They
discussed intrigues I did not know, a catastrophe I could not comprehend. “See,
children your age, what they do to survive,” my father said as he served me another
piece of fish. But I could no longer eat. I could only steal glances at Mr. Pirzada, sitting
beside me in his olive green jacket, calmly creating a well in his rice to make room for a
second helping of lentils. He was not my notion of a man burdened by such grave
concerns. I wondered if the reason he was always so smartly dressed was in
preparation to endure with dignity whatever news assailed him, perhaps even to attend
a funeral at a moment’s notice. I wondered, too, what would happen if suddenly his
seven daughters were to appear on television, smiling and waving and blowing kisses to
Mr. Pirzada from a balcony. I imagined how relieved he would be. But this never
That night when I placed the plastic egg filled with cinnamon hearts in the box beside
my bed, I did not feel the ceremonious satisfaction I normally did. I tried not to think
about Mr. Pirzada, in his lime-scented overcoat, connected to the unruly, sweltering
world we had viewed a few hours ago in our bright, carpeted living room. And yet for
several moments that was all I could think about. My stomach tightened as I worried
whether his wife and seven daughters were now members of the drifting, clamoring
crowd that had flashed at intervals on the screen. In an effort to banish the image I
looked around my room, at the yellow canopied bed with matching flounced curtains, at
framed class pictures mounted on white and violet papered walls, at the penciled
inscriptions by the closet door where my father recorded my height on each of my
birthdays. But the more I tried to distract myself, the more I began to convince myself
that Mr. Pirzada’s family was in all likelihood dead. Eventually I took a square of white
chocolate out of the box, and unwrapped it, and then I did something I had never done
before. I put the chocolate in my mouth, letting it soften until the last possible moment,
and then as I chewed it slowly, I prayed that Mr. Pirzada’s family was safe and sound. I
had never prayed for anything before, had never been taught or told to, but I decided,
given the circumstances, that it was something I should do. That night when I went to
the bathroom I only pretended to brush my teeth, for I feared that I would somehow
rinse the prayer out as well. I wet the brush and rearranged the tube of paste to prevent
my parents from asking any questions, and fell asleep with sugar on my tongue.
No one at school talked about the war followed so faithfully in my living room. We
continued to study the American Revolution, and learned about the injustices of taxation
without representation, and memorized passages from the Declaration of
Independence. During recess the boys would divide in two groups, chasing each other
wildly around the swings and seesaws, Redcoats against the colonies. In the classroom
our teacher, Mrs. Kenyon, pointed frequently to a map that emerged like a movie screen
from the top of the chalkboard, charting the route of the Mayflower, or showing us the
location of the Liberty Bell. Each week two members of the class gave a report on a
particular aspect of the Revolution, and so one day I was sent to the school library with
my friend Dora to learn about the surrender at Yorktown. Mrs. Kenyon handed us a slip
of paper with the names of three books to look up in the card catalogue. We found them
right away, and sat down at a low round table to read and take notes. But I could not
concentrate. I returned to the blond-wood shelves, to a section I had noticed labeled
“Asia.” I saw books about China, India, Indonesia, Korea. Eventually I found a book
titled Pakistan: A Land and Its People. I sat on a footstool and opened the book. The
laminated jacket crackled in my grip. I began turning the pages, filled with photos of
rivers and rice fields and men in military uniforms. There was a chapter about Dacca,
and I began to read about its rainfall, and its jute production. I was studying a population
chart when Dora appeared in the aisle.
“What are you doing back here? Mrs. Kenyon’s in the library. She came to check up on
I slammed the book shut, too loudly. Mrs. Kenyon emerged, the aroma of her perfume
fillingup the tiny aisle, and lifted the book by the tip of its spine as if it were a hair
clinging to my sweater. She glanced at the cover, then at me.
“Is this book a part of your report, Lilia?”
“No, Mrs. Kenyon.”
“Then I see no reason to consult it,” she said, replacing it in the slim gap on the shelf.
As weeks passed it grew more and more rare to see any footage from Dacca on the
news. The report came after the first set of commercials, sometimes the second. The
press had been censored, removed, restricted, rerouted. Some days, many days, only a
death toll was announced, prefaced by a reiteration of the general situation. More poets
were executed, more villages set ablaze. In spite of it all, night after night, my parents
and Mr. Pirzada enjoyed long, leisurely meals. After the television was shut off, and the
dishes washed and dried, they joked, and told stories, and dipped biscuits in their tea.
When they tired of discussing political matters they discussed, instead, the progress of
Mr. Pirzada’s book about the deciduous trees of New England, and my father’s
nomination for tenure, and the peculiar eating habits of my mother’s American
coworkers at the bank. Eventually I was sent upstairs to do my homework, but through
the carpet I heard them as they drank more tea, and listened to cassettes of Kishore
Kumar, and played Scrabble on the coffee table, laughing and arguing long into the
night about the spellings of English words. I wanted to join them, wanted, above all, to
console Mr. Pirzada somehow. But apart from eating a piece of candy for the sake of
his family and praying for their safety, there was nothing I could do. They played
Scrabble until the eleven o’clock news, and then, sometime around midnight, Mr.
Pirzada walked back to his dormitory. For this reason I never saw him leave, but each
night as I drifted off to sleep I would hear them, anticipating the birth of a nation on the
other side of the world.
One day in October Mr. Pirzada asked upon arrival, “What are these large orange
vegetables on people’s doorsteps? A type of squash?”
“Pumpkins,” my mother replied. “Lilia,remind me to pick one up at the supermarket.”
“And the purpose? It indicates what?”
“Youmake a jack-o’-lantern,” I said, grinning ferociously. “Like this. To scare people
“Isee,” Mr. Pirzada said, grinning back. “Very useful.”
The next day my mother bought a ten-pound pumpkin, fat and round, and placed it on
the dining table. Before supper, while my father and Mr. Pirzada were watching the local
news, she told me to decorate it with markers, but I wanted to carve it properly like
others I had noticed in the neighborhood.
“Yes, let’s carve it,”Mr. Pirzada agreed, and rose from the sofa. “Hang the news
tonight.” Asking no questions, he walked into the kitchen, opened a drawer, and
returned, bearing a long serrated knife. He glanced at me for approval. “Shall I?”
I nodded. For the first time we all gathered around the dining table, my mother, my
father, Mr. Pirzada, and I. While the television aired unattended we covered the tabletop
with newspapers. Mr. Pirzada draped his jacket over the chair behind him, removed a
pair of opal cuff links, and rolled up the starched sleeves of his shirt.
“First go around the top, like this,” I instructed, demonstrating with my index finger.
He made an initial incision and drew the knife around. When he had come full circle he
lifted the cap by the stem; it loosened effortlessly, and Mr. Pirzada leaned over the
pumpkin for a moment to inspect and inhale its contents. My mother gave him a long
metal spoon with which he gutted the interior until the last bits of string and seeds were
gone. My father, meanwhile, separated the seeds from the pulp and set them out to dry
on a cookie sheet, so that we could roast them later on. I drew two triangles against the
ridged surface for the eyes, which Mr. Pirzada dutifully carved, and crescents for
eyebrows, and another triangle for the nose. The mouth was all that remained, and the
teeth posed a challenge. I hesitated.
“Smile or frown?” I asked.
“Youchoose,” Mr. Pirzada said.
As a compromise I drew a kind of grimace, straight across, neither mournful nor friendly.
Mr. Pirzada began carving, without the least bit of intimidation, as if he had been carving
jack-o’-lanterns his whole life. He had nearly finished when the national news began.
The reporter mentioned Dacca, and we all turned to listen: An Indian official announced
that unless the world helped to relieve the burden of East Pakistani refugees, India
would have to go to war against Pakistan. The reporter’s face dripped with sweat as he
relayed the information. He did not wear a tie or a jacket, dressed instead as if he
himself were about to take part in the battle. He shielded his scorched face as he
hollered things to the cameraman. The knife slipped from Mr. Pirzada’s hand and made
a gash dipping toward the base of the pumpkin.
“Please forgive me.” He raised a hand to one side of his face, as if someone had
slapped him there. “Iam—it is terrible. I willbuy another. We will try again.”
“Not at all, not at all,” my father said. He took the knife from Mr. Pirzada, and carved
around the gash, evening it out, dispensing altogether with the teeth I had drawn. What
resulted was a disproportionately large hole the size of a lemon, so that our jack-o’-
lantern wore an expression of placid astonishment, the eyebrows no longer fierce,
floating in frozen surprise above a vacant, geometric gaze.
For Halloween I was a witch. Dora, my trick-or-treating partner, was a witch too. We
wore black capes fashioned from dyed pillowcases and conical hats with wide
cardboard brims. We shaded our faces green with a broken eye shadow that belonged
to Dora’s mother, and my mother gave us two burlap sacks that had once contained
basmati rice, for collecting candy. That year our parents decided that we were old
enough to roam the neighborhood unattended. Our plan was to walk from my house to
Dora’s, from where I was to call to say I had arrived safely, and then Dora’s mother
would drive me home. My father equipped us with flashlights, and I had to wear my
watch and synchronize it with his. We were to return no later than nine o’clock.
When Mr. Pirzada arrived that evening he presented me with a box of chocolate-
“In here,” I told him, and opened up the burlap sack. “Trick or treat!”
“Iunderstand that you don’t really need my contribution this evening,” he said,
depositing the box. He gazed at my green face, and the hat secured by a string under
my chin. Gingerly he lifted the hem of the cape, under which I was wearing a sweater
and a zipped fleece jacket. “Willyou be warm enough?”
I nodded, causing the hat to tip to one side.
He set it right. “Perhaps it is best to stand still.”
The bottom of our staircase was lined with baskets of miniature candy, and when Mr.
Pirzada removed his shoes he did not place them there as he normally did, but inside
the closet instead. He began to unbutton his coat, and I waited to take it from him, but
Dora called me from the bathroom to say that she needed my help drawing a mole on
her chin. When we were finally ready my mother took a picture of us in front of the
fireplace, and then I opened the front door to leave. Mr. Pirzada and my father, who had
not gone into the living room yet, hovered in the foyer. Outside it was already dark. The
air smelled of wet leaves, and our carved jack-o’-lantern flickered impressively against
the shrubbery by the door. In the distance came the sounds of scampering feet, and the
howls of the older boys who wore no costume at all other than a rubber mask, and the
rustling apparel of the youngest children, some so young that they were carried from
door to door in the arms of their parents.
“Don’t go into any of the houses you don’t know,” my father warned.
Mr. Pirzada knit his brows together. “Is there any danger?”
“No, no,” my mother assured him. “Allthe children willbe out. It’s a tradition.”
“Perhaps I should accompany them?” Mr. Pirzada suggested. He looked suddenly tired
and small, standing there in his splayed, stockinged feet, and his eyes contained a
panic I had never seen before. In spite of the cold I began to sweat inside my
“Really, Mr. Pirzada,” my mother said, “Liliawillbe perfectly safe with her friend.”
“But if it rains? If they lose their way?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. It was the first time I had uttered those words to Mr. Pirzada, two
simple words I had tried but failed to tell him for weeks, had said only in my prayers. It
shamed me now that I had said them for my own sake.
He placed one of his stocky fingers on my cheek, then pressed it to the back of his own
hand, leaving a faint green smear. “Ifthe lady insists,” he conceded, and offered a small
We left, stumbling slightly in our black pointy thrift-store shoes, and when we turned at
the end of the driveway to wave good-bye, Mr. Pirzada was standing in the frame of the
doorway, a short figure between my parents, waving back.
“Why did that man want to come with us?” Dora asked.
“His daughters are missing.” As soon as I said it, I wished I had not. I felt that my saying
it made it true, that Mr. Pirzada’s daughters really were missing, and that he would
never see them again.
“Youmean they were kidnapped?” Dora continued. “From a park or something?”
“Ididn’t mean they were missing. I meant, he misses them. They live in a different
country, and he hasn’t seen them in a while, that’s all.”
We went from house to house, walking along pathways and pressing doorbells. Some
people had switched off all their lights for effect, or strung rubber bats in their windows.
At the McIntyres’ a coffin was placed in front of the door, and Mr. McIntyre rose from it
in silence, his face covered with chalk, and deposited a fistful of candy corns into our
sacks. Several people told me that they had never seen an Indian witch before. Others
performed the transaction without comment. As we paved our way with the parallel
beams of our flashlights we saw eggs cracked in the middle of the road, and cars
covered with shaving cream, and toilet paper garlanding the branches of trees. By the
time we reached Dora’s house our hands were chapped from carrying our bulging
burlap bags, and our feet were sore and swollen. Her mother gave us bandages for our
blisters and served us warm cider and caramel popcorn. She reminded me to call my
parents to tell them I had arrived safely, and when I did I could hear the television in the
background. My mother did not seem particularly relieved to hear from me. When I
replaced the phone on the receiver it occurred to me that the television wasn’t on at
Dora’s house at all. Her father was lying on the couch, reading a magazine, with a glass
of wine on the coffee table, and there was saxophone music playing on the stereo.
After Dora and I had sorted through our plunder, and counted and sampled and traded
until we were satisfied, her mother drove me back to my house. I thanked her for the
ride, and she waited in the driveway until I made it to the door. In the glare of her
headlights I saw that our pumpkin had been shattered, its thick shell strewn in chunks
across the grass. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes, and a sudden pain in my throat, as
if it had been stuffed with the sharp tiny pebbles that crunched with each step under my
aching feet. I opened the door, expecting the three of them to be standing in the foyer,
waiting to receive me, and to grieve for our ruined pumpkin, but there was no one. In the
living room Mr. Pirzada, my father, and mother were sitting side by side on the sofa. The
television was turned off, and Mr. Pirzada had his head in his hands.
What they heard that evening, and for many evenings after that, was that India and
Pakistan were drawing closer and closer to war. Troops from both sides lined the
border, and Dacca was insisting on nothing short of independence. The war was to be
waged on East Pakistani soil. The United States was siding with West Pakistan, the
Soviet Union with India and what was soon to be Bangladesh. War was declared
officially on December 4, and twelve days later, the Pakistani army, weakened by
having to fight three thousand miles from its source of supplies, surrendered in Dacca.
Allof these facts I know only now, for they are available to me in any history book, in
any library. But then it remained, for the most part, a remote mystery with haphazard
clues. What I remember during those twelve days of the war was that my father no
longer asked me to watch the news with them, and that Mr. Pirzada stopped bringing
me candy, and that my mother refused to serve anything other than boiled eggs with
rice for dinner. I remember some nights helping my mother spread a sheet and blankets
on the couch so that Mr. Pirzada could sleep there, and high-pitched voices hollering in
the middle of the night when my parents called our relatives in Calcutta to learn more
details about the situation. Most of all I remember the three of them operating during
that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single
silence, and a single fear.
In January, Mr. Pirzada flew back to his three-story home in Dacca, to discover what
was left of it. We did not see much of him in those final weeks of the year; he was busy
finishing his manuscript, and we went to Philadelphia to spend Christmas with friends of
my parents. Just as I have no memory of his first visit, I have no memory of his last. My
father drove him to the airport one afternoon while I was at school. For a long time we
did not hear from him. Our evenings went on as usual, with dinners in front of the news.
The only difference was that Mr. Pirzada and his extra watch were not there to
accompany us. According to reports Dacca was repairing itself slowly, with a newly
formed parliamentary government. The new leader, Sheikh Mujib Rahman, recently
released from prison, asked countries for building materials to replace more than one
million houses that had been destroyed in the war. Countless refugees returned from
India, greeted, we learned, by unemployment and the threat of famine. Every now and
then I studied the map above my father’s desk and pictured Mr. Pirzada on that small
patch of yellow, perspiring heavily, I imagined, in one of his suits, searching for his
family. Of course, the map was outdated by then.
Finally, several months later, we received a card from Mr. Pirzada commemorating the
Muslim New Year, along with a short letter. He was reunited, he wrote, with his wife and
children. Allwere well, having survived the events of the past year at an estate
belonging to his wife’s grandparents in the mountains of Shillong. His seven daughters
were a bit taller, he wrote, but otherwise they were the same, and he still could not keep
their names in order. At the end of the letter he thanked us for our hospitality, adding
that although he now understood the meaning of the words “thank you” they still were
not adequate to express his gratitude. To celebrate the good news my mother prepared
a special dinner that evening, and when we sat down to eat at the coffee table we
toasted our water glasses, but I did not feel like celebrating. Though I had not seen him
for months, it was only then that I felt Mr. Pirzada’s absence. It was only then, raising
my water glass in his name, that I knew what it meant to miss someone who was so
many miles and hours away, just as he had missed his wife and daughters for so many
months. He had no reason to return to us, and my parents predicted, correctly, that we
would never see him again. Since January, each night before bed, I had continued to
eat, for the sake of Mr. Pirzada’s family, a piece of candy I had saved from Halloween.
That night there was no need to. Eventually, I threw them away.
Interpreter of Maladies
ATTHETEASTALL Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet.
Eventually Mrs. Das relented when Mr. Das pointed out that he had given the girl her
bath the night before. In the rearview mirror Mr. Kapasi watched as Mrs. Das emerged
slowly from his bulky white Ambassador, dragging her shaved, largely bare legs across
the back seat. She did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the rest room.
They were on their way to see the Sun Temple at Konarak. It was a dry, bright
Saturday, the mid-July heat tempered by a steady ocean breeze, ideal weather for
sightseeing. Ordinarily Mr. Kapasi would not have stopped so soon along the way, but
less than five minutes after he’d picked up the family that morning in front of Hotel
Sandy Villa, the little girl had complained. The first thing Mr. Kapasi had noticed when
he saw Mr. and Mrs. Das, standing with their children under the portico of the hotel, was
that they were very young, perhaps not even thirty. In addition to Tina they had two
boys, Ronny and Bobby, who appeared very close in age and had teeth covered in a
network of flashing silver wires. The family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did,
the children in stiff, brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors. Mr. Kapasi
was accustomed to foreign tourists; he was assigned to them regularly because he
could speak English. Yesterday he had driven an elderly couple from Scotland, both
with spotted faces and fluffywhite hair so thin it exposed their sunburnt scalps. In
comparison, the tanned, youthful faces of Mr. and Mrs. Das were all the more striking.
When he’d introduced himself, Mr. Kapasi had pressed his palms together in greeting,
but Mr. Das squeezed hands like an American so that Mr. Kapasi felt it in his elbow.
Mrs. Das, for her part, had flexed one side of her mouth, smiling dutifully at Mr. Kapasi,
without displaying any interest in him.
As they waited at the tea stall, Ronny, who looked like the older of the two boys,
clambered suddenly out of the back seat, intrigued by a goat tied to a stake in the
“Don’t touch it,”Mr. Das said. He glanced up from his paperback tour book, which said
“INDIA”in yellow letters and looked as if it had been published abroad. His voice,
somehow tentative and a little shrill, sounded as though it had not yet settled into
“Iwant to give it a piece of gum,” the boy called back as he trotted ahead.
Mr. Das stepped out of the car and stretched his legs by squatting briefly to the ground.
A clean-shaven man, he looked exactly like a magnified version of Ronny. He had a
sapphire blue visor, and was dressed in shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt. The camera
slung around his neck, with an impressive telephoto lens and numerous buttons and
markings, was the only complicated thing he wore. He frowned, watching as Ronny
rushed toward the goat, but appeared to have no intention of intervening. “Bobby, make
sure that your brother doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“Idon’t feel like it,”Bobby said, not moving. He was sitting in the front seat beside Mr.
Kapasi, studying a picture of the elephant god taped to the glove compartment.
“No need to worry,” Mr. Kapasi said. “They are quite tame.” Mr. Kapasi was forty-six
years old, with receding hair that had gone completely silver, but his butterscotch
complexion and his unlined brow, which he treated in spare moments to dabs of lotus-
oil balm, made it easy to imagine what he must have looked like at an earlier age. He
wore gray trousers and a matching jacket-style shirt, tapered at the waist, with short
sleeves and a large pointed collar, made of a thin but durable synthetic material. He had
specified both the cut and the fabric to his tailor—it was his preferred uniform for giving
tours because it did not get crushed during his long hours behind the wheel. Through
the windshield he watched as Ronny circled around the goat, touched it quickly on its
side, then trotted back to the car.
“You left India as a child?” Mr. Kapasi asked when Mr. Das had settled once again into
the passenger seat.
“Oh, Mina and I were both born in America,” Mr. Das announced with an air of sudden
confidence. “Born and raised. Our parents live here now. They retired. We visit them
every couple years.” He turned to watch as the little girl ran toward the car, the wide
purple bows of her sundress flopping on her narrow brown shoulders. She was holding
to her chest a doll with yellow hair that looked as if it had been chopped, as a punitive
measure, with a pair of dull scissors. “This is Tina’s first trip to India, isn’t it, Tina?”
“Idon’t have to go to the bathroom anymore,” Tina announced.
“Where’s Mina?” Mr. Das asked.
Mr. Kapasi found it strange that Mr. Das should refer to his wife by her first name when
speaking to the little girl. Tina pointed to where Mrs. Das was purchasing something
from one of the shirtless men who worked at the tea stall. Mr. Kapasi heard one of the
shirtless men sing a phrase from a popular Hindi love song as Mrs. Das walked back to
the car, but she did not appear to understand the words of the song, for she did not
express irritation, or embarrassment, or react in any other way to the man’s
He observed her. She wore a red-and-white-checkered skirt that stopped above her
knees, slip-on shoes with a square wooden heel, and a close-fitting blouse styled like a
man’s undershirt. The blouse was decorated at chest-level with a calico appliqué in the
shape of a strawberry. She was a short woman, with small hands like paws, her frosty
pink fingernails painted to match her lips, and was slightly plump in her figure. Her hair,
shorn only a little longer than her husband’s, was parted far to one side. She was
wearing large dark brown sunglasses with a pinkish tint to them, and carried a big straw
bag, almost as big as her torso, shaped like a bowl, with a water bottle poking out of it.
She walked slowly, carrying some puffed rice tossed with peanuts and chili peppers in a
large packet made from newspapers. Mr. Kapasi turned to Mr. Das.
“Where in America do you live?”
“New Brunswick, New Jersey.”
“Next to New York?”
“Exactly. I teach middle school there.”
“Science. In fact, every year I take my students on a trip to the Museum of Natural
History in New York City. In a way we have a lot in common, you could say, you and I.
How long have you been a tour guide, Mr. Kapasi?”
Mrs. Das reached the car. “How long’s the trip?” she asked, shutting the door.
“About two and a half hours,” Mr. Kapasi replied.
At this Mrs. Das gave an impatient sigh, as if she had been traveling her whole life
without pause. She fanned herself with a folded Bombay filmmagazine written in
“I thought that the Sun Temple is only eighteen miles north of Puri,” Mr. Das said,
tapping on the tour book.
“The roads to Konarak are poor. Actually it is a distance of fifty-twomiles,” Mr. Kapasi
Mr. Das nodded, readjusting the camera strap where it had begun to chafe the back of
Before starting the ignition, Mr. Kapasi reached back to make sure the cranklike locks
on the inside of each of the back doors were secured. As soon as the car began to
move the little girl began to play with the lock on her side, clicking it with some effort
forward and backward, but Mrs. Das said nothing to stop her. She sat a bit slouched at
one end of the back seat, not offering her puffed rice to anyone. Ronny and Tina sat on
either side of her, both snapping bright green gum.
“Look,”Bobby said as the car began to gather speed. He pointed with his finger to the
tall trees that lined the road. “Look.”
“Monkeys!” Ronny shrieked. “Wow!”
They were seated in groups along the branches, with shining black faces, silver bodies,
horizontal eyebrows, and crested heads. Their long gray tails dangled like a series of
ropes among the leaves. A few scratched themselves with black leathery hands, or
swung their feet, staring as the car passed.
“We call them the hanuman,” Mr. Kapasi said. “They are quite common in the area.”
As soon as he spoke, one of the monkeys leaped into the middle of the road, causing
Mr. Kapasi to brake suddenly. Another bounced onto the hood of the car, then sprang
away. Mr. Kapasi beeped his horn. The children began to get excited, sucking in their
breath and covering their faces partly with their hands. They had never seen monkeys
outside of a zoo, Mr. Das explained. He asked Mr. Kapasi to stop the car so that he
could take a picture.
While Mr. Das adjusted his telephoto lens, Mrs. Das reached into her straw bag and
pulled out a bottle of colorless nail polish, which she proceeded to stroke on the tip of
her index finger.
The little girl stuck out a hand. “Mine too. Mommy, do mine too.”
“Leave me alone,” Mrs. Das said, blowing on her nail and turning her body slightly.
“You’remaking me mess up.”
The little girl occupied herself by buttoning and unbuttoning a pinafore on the doll’s
“Allset,” Mr. Das said, replacing the lens cap.
The car rattled considerably as it raced along the dusty road, causing them all to pop up
from their seats every now and then, but Mrs. Das continued to polish her nails. Mr.
Kapasi eased up on the accelerator, hoping to produce a smoother ride. When he
reached for the gearshift the boy in front accommodated him by swinging his hairless
knees out of the way. Mr. Kapasi noted that this boy was slightly paler than the other
children. “Daddy, why is the driver sitting on the wrong side in this car, too?” the boy
“They all do that here, dummy,” Ronny said.
“Don’t call your brother a dummy,” Mr. Das said. He turned to Mr. Kapasi. “InAmerica,
you know … it confuses them.”
“Oh yes, I am well aware,” Mr. Kapasi said. As delicately as he could, he shifted gears
again, accelerating as they approached a hill in the road. “Isee it on Dallas, the
steering wheels are on the left-hand side.”
“What’s Dallas? ” Tina asked, banging her now naked doll on the seat behind Mr.
“Itwent off the air,” Mr. Das explained. “It’sa television show.”
They were all like siblings, Mr. Kapasi thought as they passed a row of date trees. Mr.
and Mrs. Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents. It seemed that they
were in charge of the children only for the day; it was hard to believe they were regularly
responsible for anything other than themselves. Mr. Das tapped on his lens cap, and his
tour book, dragging his thumbnail occasionally across the pages so that they made a
scraping sound. Mrs. Das continued to polish her nails. She had still not removed her
sunglasses. Every now and then Tina renewed her plea that she wanted her nails done,
too, and so at one point Mrs. Das flicked a drop of polish on the little girl’s finger before
depositing the bottle back inside her straw bag.
“Isn’t this an air-conditioned car?” she asked, still blowing on her hand. The window on
Tina’s side was broken and could not be rolled down.
“Quit complaining,” Mr. Das said. “It isn’t so hot.”
“I told you to get a car with air-conditioning,” Mrs. Das continued. “Why do you do this,
Raj, just to save a few stupid rupees. What are you saving us, fiftycents?”
Their accents sounded just like the ones Mr. Kapasi heard on American television
programs, though not like the ones on Dallas.
“Doesn’t it get tiresome, Mr. Kapasi, showing people the same thing every day?” Mr.
Das asked, rolling down his own window all the way. “Hey, do you mind stopping the
car. I just want to get a shot of this guy.”
Mr. Kapasi pulled over to the side of the road as Mr. Das took a picture of a barefoot
man, his head wrapped in a dirty turban, seated on top of a cart of grain sacks pulled by
a pair of bullocks. Both the man and the bullocks were emaciated. In the back seat Mrs.
Das gazed out another window, at the sky, where nearly transparent clouds passed
quickly in front of one another.
“I look forward to it, actually,” Mr. Kapasi said as they continued on their way. “The Sun
Temple is one of my favorite places. In that way it is a reward for me. I give tours on
Fridays and Saturdays only. I have another job during the week.”
“Oh? Where?” Mr. Das asked.
“Iwork in a doctor’s office.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“Iam not a doctor. I work with one. As an interpreter.”
“What does a doctor need an interpreter for?”
“He has a number of Gujarati patients. My father was Gujarati, but many people do not
speak Gujarati in this area, including the doctor. And so the doctor asked me to work in
his office, interpreting what the patients say.”
“Interesting. I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Mr. Das said.
Mr. Kapasi shrugged. “It is a job like any other.”
“But so romantic,” Mrs. Das said dreamily, breaking her extended silence. She lifted her
pinkish brown sunglasses and arranged them on top of her head like a tiara. For the first
time, her eyes met Mr. Kapasi’s in the rearview mirror: pale, a bit small, their gaze fixed
Mr. Das craned to look at her. “What’s so romantic about it?”
“Idon’t know. Something.” She shrugged, knitting her brows together for an instant.
“Would you like a piece of gum, Mr. Kapasi?” she asked brightly. She reached into her
straw bag and handed him a small square wrapped in green-and-white-striped paper.
As soon as Mr. Kapasi put the gum in his mouth a thick sweet liquid burst onto his
“Tellus more about your job, Mr. Kapasi,” Mrs. Das said.
“What would you like to know, madame?”
“Idon’t know,” again she shrugged, munching on some puffed rice and licking the
mustard oil from the corners of her mouth. “Tellus a typical situation.” She settled back
in her seat, her head tilted in a patch of sun, and closed her eyes. “Iwant to picture
“Very well. The other day a man came in with a pain in his throat.”
“Did he smoke cigarettes?”
“No. It was very curious. He complained that he felt as if there were long pieces of straw
stuck in his throat. When I told the doctor he was able to prescribe the proper
“That’s so neat.”
“Yes,”Mr. Kapasi agreed after some hesitation.
“So these patients are totally dependent on you,” Mrs. Das said. She spoke slowly, as if
she were thinking aloud. “In a way, more dependent on you than the doctor.”
“How do you mean? How could it be?”
“Well, for example, you could tell the doctor that the pain felt like a burning, not straw.
The patient would never know what you had told the doctor, and the doctor wouldn’t
know that you had told the wrong thing. It’s a big responsibility.”
“Yes, a big responsibility you have there, Mr. Kapasi,” Mr. Das agreed.
Mr. Kapasi had never thought of his job in such complimentary terms. To him it was a
thankless occupation. He found nothing noble in interpreting people’s maladies,
assiduously translating the symptoms of so many swollen bones, countless cramps of
bellies and bowels, spots on people’s palms that changed color, shape, or size. The
doctor, nearly half his age, had an affinity for bell-bottom trousers and made humorless
jokes about the Congress party. Together they worked in a stale little infirmary where
Mr. Kapasi’s smartly tailored clothes clung to him in the heat, in spite of the blackened
blades of a ceiling fan churning over their heads.
The job was a sign of his failings. In his youth he’d been a devoted scholar of foreign
languages, the owner of an impressive collection of dictionaries. He had dreamed of
being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries, resolving conflicts between people
and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides. He was a
self-educated man. In a series of notebooks, in the evenings before his parents settled
his marriage, he had listed the common etymologies of words, and at one point in his
life he was confident that he could converse, if given the opportunity, in English, French,
Russian, Portuguese, and Italian, not to mention Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, and Gujarati.
Now only a handful of European phrases remained in his memory, scattered words for
things like saucers and chairs. English was the only non-Indian language he spoke
fluently anymore. Mr. Kapasi knew it was not a remarkable talent. Sometimes he feared
that his children knew better English than he did, just from watching television. Still, it
came in handy for the tours.
He had taken the job as an interpreter after his first son, at the age of seven, contracted
typhoid—that was how he had first made the acquaintance of the doctor. At the time Mr.
Kapasi had been teaching English in a grammar school, and he bartered his skills as an
interpreter to pay the increasingly exorbitant medical bills. In the end the boy had died
one evening in his mother’s arms, his limbs burning with fever, but then there was the
funeral to pay for, and the other children who were born soon enough, and the newer,
bigger house, and the good schools and tutors, and the fine shoes and the television,
and the countless other ways he tried to console his wife and to keep her from crying in
her sleep, and so when the doctor offered to pay him twice as much as he earned at the
grammar school, he accepted. Mr. Kapasi knew that his wife had little regard for his
career as an interpreter. He knew it reminded her of the son she’d lost, and that she
resented the other lives he helped, in his own small way, to save. If ever she referred to
his position, she used the phrase “doctor’s assistant,” as if the process of interpretation
were equal to taking someone’s temperature, or changing a bedpan. She never asked
him about the patients who came to the doctor’s office, or said that his job was a big
For this reason it flattered Mr. Kapasi that Mrs. Das was so intrigued by his job. Unlike
his wife, she had reminded him of its intellectual challenges. She had also used the
word “romantic.” She did not behave in a romantic way toward her husband, and yet
she had used the word to describe him. He wondered ifMr. and Mrs. Das were a bad
match, just as he and his wife were. Perhaps they, too, had little in common apart from
three children and a decade of their lives. The signs he recognized from his own
marriage were there—the bickering, the indifference, the protracted silences. Her
sudden interest in him, an interest she did not express in either her husband or her
children, was mildly intoxicating. When Mr. Kapasi thought once again about how she
had said “romantic,” the feeling of intoxication grew.
He began to check his reflection in the rearview mirror as he drove, feeling grateful that
he had chosen the gray suit that morning and not the brown one, which tended to sag a
little in the knees. From time to time he glanced through the mirror at Mrs. Das. In
addition to glancing at her face he glanced at the strawberry between her breasts, and
the golden brown hollow in her throat. He decided to tell Mrs. Das about another patient,
and another: the young woman who had complained of a sensation of raindrops in her
spine, the gentleman whose birthmark had begun to sprout hairs. Mrs. Das listened
attentively, stroking her hair with a small plastic brush that resembled an oval bed of
nails, asking more questions, for yet another example. The children were quiet, intent
on spotting more monkeys in the trees, and Mr. Das was absorbed by his tour book, so
it seemed like a private conversation between Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das. In this manner
the next half hour passed, and when they stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant
that sold fritters and omelette sandwiches, usually something Mr. Kapasi looked forward
to on his tours so that he could sit in peace and enjoy some hot tea, he was
disappointed. As the Das family settled together under a magenta umbrella fringed with
white and orange tassels, and placed their orders with one of the waiters who marched
about in tricornered caps, Mr. Kapasi reluctantly headed toward a neighboring table.
“Mr.Kapasi, wait. There’s room here,” Mrs. Das called out. She gathered Tina onto her
lap, insisting that he accompany them. And so, together, they had bottled mango juice
and sandwiches and plates of onions and potatoes deep-fried in graham-flour batter.
After finishing two omelette sandwiches Mr. Das took more pictures of the group as they
“How much longer?” he asked Mr. Kapasi as he paused to load a new roll of film in the
“About half an hour more.”
By now the children had gotten up from the table to look at more monkeys perched in a
nearby tree, so there was a considerable space between Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi. Mr.
Das placed the camera to his face and squeezed one eye shut, his tongue exposed at
one corner of his mouth. “This looks funny. Mina, you need to lean in closer to Mr.
She did. He could smell a scent on her skin, like a mixture of whiskey and rosewater.
He worried suddenly that she could smell his perspiration, which he knew had collected
beneath the synthetic material of his shirt. He polished off his mango juice in one gulp
and smoothed his silver hair with his hands. A bit of the juice dripped onto his chin. He
wondered ifMrs. Das had noticed.
She had not. “What’s your address, Mr. Kapasi?” she inquired, fishing for something
inside her straw bag.
“Youwould like my address?”
“So we can send you copies,” she said. “Of the pictures.” She handed him a scrap of
paper which she had hastily ripped from a page of her filmmagazine. The blank portion
was limited, for the narrow strip was crowded by lines of text and a tiny picture of a hero
and heroine embracing under a eucalyptus tree.
The paper curled as Mr. Kapasi wrote his address in clear, careful letters. She would
write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor’s office, and he would
respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would
make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey. In time she
would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship
would grow, and flourish. He would possess a picture of the two of them, eating fried
onions under a magenta umbrella, which he would keep, he decided, safely tucked
between the pages of his Russian grammar. As his mind raced, Mr. Kapasi experienced
a mild and pleasant shock. It was similar to a feeling he used to experience long ago
when, after months of translating with the aid of a dictionary, he would finally read a
passage from a French novel, or an Italian sonnet, and understand the words, one after
another, unencumbered by his own efforts. In those moments Mr. Kapasi used to
believe that all was right with the world, that all struggles were rewarded, that all of life’s
mistakes made sense in the end. The promise that he would hear from Mrs. Das now
filled him with the same belief.
When he finished writing his address Mr. Kapasi handed her the paper, but as soon as
he did so he worried that he had either misspelled his name, or accidentally reversed
the numbers of his postal code. He dreaded the possibility of a lost letter, the
photograph never reaching him, hovering somewhere in Orissa, close but ultimately
unattainable. He thought of asking for the slip of paper again, just to make sure he had
written his address accurately, but Mrs. Das had already dropped it into the jumble of
They reached Konarak at two-thirty. The temple, made of sandstone, was a massive
pyramid-like structure in the shape of a chariot. It was dedicated to the great master of
life, the sun, which struck three sides of the edifice as it made its journey each day
across the sky. Twenty-four giant wheels were carved on the north and south sides of
the plinth. The whole thing was drawn by a team of seven horses, speeding as if
through the heavens. As they approached, Mr. Kapasi explained that the temple had
been built between A.D. 1243 and 1255, with the efforts of twelve hundred artisans, by
the great ruler of the Ganga dynasty, King Narasimhadeva the First, to commemorate
his victory against the Muslim army.
“It says the temple occupies about a hundred and seventy acres of land,” Mr. Das said,
reading from his book.
“It’s like a desert,” Ronny said, his eyes wandering across the sand that stretched on all
sides beyond the temple.
“The Chandrabhaga River once flowed one mile north of here. It is dry now,” Mr.
Kapasi said, turning off the engine.
They got out and walked toward the temple, posing first for pictures by the pair of lions
that flanked the steps. Mr. Kapasi led them next to one of the wheels of the chariot,
higher than any human being, nine feet in diameter.
“‘The wheels are supposed to symbolize the wheel of life,’”Mr. Das read. “‘They depict
the cycle of creation, preservation, and achievement of realization.’ Cool.” He turned the
page of his book. “‘Each wheel is divided into eight thick and thin spokes, dividing the
day into eight equal parts. The rims are carved with designs of birds and animals,
whereas the medallions in the spokes are carved with women in luxurious poses,
largely erotic in nature.’”
What he referred to were the countless friezes of entwined naked bodies, making love
in various positions, women clinging to the necks of men, their knees wrapped eternally
around their lovers’ thighs. In addition to these were assorted scenes from daily life, of
hunting and trading, of deer being killed with bows and arrows and marching warriors
holding swords in their hands.
It was no longer possible to enter the temple, for it had filled with rubble years ago, but
they admired the exterior, as did all the tourists Mr. Kapasi brought there, slowly
strolling along each of its sides. Mr. Das trailed behind, taking pictures. The children ran
ahead, pointing to figures of naked people, intrigued in particular by the Nagamithunas,
the half-human, half-serpentine couples who were said, Mr. Kapasi told them, to live in
the deepest waters of the sea. Mr. Kapasi was pleased that they liked the temple,
pleased especially that it appealed to Mrs. Das. She stopped every three or four paces,
staring silently at the carved lovers, and the processions of elephants, and the topless
female musicians beating on two-sided drums.
Though Mr. Kapasi had been to the temple countless times, it occurred to him, as he,
too, gazed at the topless women, that he had never seen his own wife fully naked. Even
when they had made love she kept the panels of her blouse hooked together, the string
of her petticoat knotted around her waist. He had never admired the backs of his wife’s
legs the way he now admired those of Mrs. Das, walking as if for his benefit alone. He
had, of course, seen plenty of bare limbs before, belonging to the American and
European ladies who took his tours. But Mrs. Das was different. Unlike the other
women, who had an interest only in the temple, and kept their noses buried in a
guidebook, or their eyes behind the lens of a camera, Mrs. Das had taken an interest in
Mr. Kapasi was anxious to be alone with her, to continue their private conversation, yet
he felt nervous to walk at her side. She was lost behind her sunglasses, ignoring her
husband’s requests that she pose for another picture, walking past her children as if
they were strangers. Worried that he might disturb her, Mr. Kapasi walked ahead, to
admire, as he always did, the three life-sized bronze avatars of Surya, the sun god,
each emerging from its own niche on the temple facade to greet the sun at dawn, noon,
and evening. They wore elaborate headdresses, their languid, elongated eyes closed,
their bare chests draped with carved chains and amulets. Hibiscus petals, offerings from
previous visitors, were strewn at their gray-green feet. The last statue, on the northern
wall of the temple, was Mr. Kapasi’s favorite. This Surya had a tired expression, weary
after a hard day of work, sitting astride a horse with folded legs. Even his horse’s eyes
were drowsy. Around his body were smaller sculptures of women in pairs, their hips
thrust to one side.
“Who’s that?” Mrs. Das asked. He was startled to see that she was standing beside him.
“He is the Astachala-Surya,” Mr. Kapasi said. “The setting sun.”
“So in a couple of hours the sun will set right here?” She slipped a foot out of one of her
square-heeled shoes, rubbed her toes on the back of her other leg.
“That is correct.”
She raised her sunglasses for a moment, then put them back on again. “Neat.”
Mr. Kapasi was not certain exactly what the word suggested, but he had a feeling it was
a favorable response. He hoped that Mrs. Das had understood Surya’s beauty, his
power. Perhaps they would discuss it further in their letters. He would explain things to
her, things about India, and she would explain things to him about America. In its own
way this correspondence would fulfillhis dream, of serving as an interpreter between
nations. He looked at her straw bag, delighted that his address lay nestled among its
contents. When he pictured her so many thousands of miles away he plummeted, so
much so that he had an overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around her, to freeze with
her, even for an instant, in an embrace witnessed by his favorite Surya. But Mrs. Das
had already started walking.
“When do you return to America?” he asked, trying to sound placid.
“In ten days.”
He calculated: A week to settle in, a week to develop the pictures, a few days to
compose her letter, two weeks to get to India by air. According to his schedule, allowing
room for delays, he would hear from Mrs. Das in approximately six weeks’ time.
The family was silent as Mr. Kapasi drove them back, a little past four-thirty, to Hotel
Sandy Villa. The children had bought miniature granite versions of the chariot’s wheels
at a souvenir stand, and they turned them round in their hands. Mr. Das continued to
read his book. Mrs. Das untangled Tina’s hair with her brush and divided it into two little
Mr. Kapasi was beginning to dread the thought of dropping them off. He was not
prepared to begin his six-week wait to hear from Mrs. Das. As he stole glances at her in
the rear-view mirror, wrapping elastic bands around Tina’s hair, he wondered how he
might make the tour last a little longer. Ordinarily he sped back to Puri using a shortcut,
eager to return home, scrub his feet and hands with sandalwood soap, and enjoy the
evening newspaper and a cup of tea that his wife would serve him in silence. The
thought of that silence, something to which he’d long been resigned, now oppressed
him. It was then that he suggested visiting the hills at Udayagiri and Khandagiri, where a
number of monastic dwellings were hewn out of the ground, facing one another across
a defile. It was some miles away, but well worth seeing, Mr. Kapasi told them.
“Oh yeah, there’s something mentioned about it in this book,” Mr. Das said. “Builtby a
Jain king or something.”
“Shall we go then?” Mr. Kapasi asked. He paused at a turn in the road. “It’s to the left.”
Mr. Das turned to look at Mrs. Das. Both of them shrugged.
“Left, left,” the children chanted.
Mr. Kapasi turned the wheel, almost delirious with relief. He did not know what he would
do or say to Mrs. Das once they arrived at the hills. Perhaps he would tell her what a
pleasing smile she had. Perhaps he would compliment her strawberry shirt, which he
found irresistibly becoming. Perhaps, when Mr. Das was busy taking a picture, he would
take her hand.
He did not have to worry. When they got to the hills, divided by a steep path thick with
trees, Mrs. Das refused to get out of the car. Allalong the path, dozens of monkeys
were seated on stones, as well as on the branches of the trees. Their hind legs were
stretched out in front and raised to shoulder level, their arms resting on their knees.
“Mylegs are tired,” she said, sinking low in her seat. “I’llstay here.”
“Why did you have to wear those stupid shoes?” Mr. Das said. “Youwon’t be in the
“Pretend I’m there.”
“But we could use one of these pictures for our Christmas card this year. We didn’t get
one of all five of us at the Sun Temple. Mr. Kapasi could take it.”
“I’mnot coming. Anyway, those monkeys give me the creeps.”
“But they’re harmless,” Mr. Das said. He turned to Mr. Kapasi. “Aren’t they?”
“They are more hungry than dangerous,” Mr. Kapasi said. “Do not provoke them with
food, and they willnot bother you.”
Mr. Das headed up the defile with the children, the boys at his side, the little girl on his
shoulders. Mr. Kapasi watched as they crossed paths with a Japanese man and
woman, the only other tourists there, who paused for a final photograph, then stepped
into a nearby car and drove away. As the car disappeared out of view some of the
monkeys called out, emitting soft whooping sounds, and then walked on their flat black
hands and feet up the path. At one point a group of them formed a little ring around Mr.
Das and the children. Tina screamed in delight. Ronny ran in circles around his father.
Bobby bent down and picked up a fat stick on the ground. When he extended it, one of
the monkeys approached him and snatched it, then briefly beat the ground.
“I’lljoin them,” Mr. Kapasi said, unlocking the door on his side. “There is much to
explain about the caves.”
“No. Stay a minute,” Mrs. Das said. She got out of the back seat and slipped in beside
Mr. Kapasi. “Raj has his dumb book anyway.” Together, through the windshield, Mrs.
Das and Mr. Kapasi watched as Bobby and the monkey passed the stick back and forth
“Abrave little boy,” Mr. Kapasi commented.
“It’snot so surprising,” Mrs. Das said.
“He’s not his.”
“Ibeg your pardon?”
“Raj’s. He’s not Raj’s son.”
Mr. Kapasi felt a prickle on his skin. He reached into his shirt pocket for the small tin of
lotus-oil balm he carried with him at all times, and applied it to three spots on his
forehead. He knew that Mrs. Das was watching him, but he did not turn to face her.
Instead he watched as the figures of Mr. Das and the children grew smaller, climbing up
the steep path, pausing every now and then for a picture, surrounded by a growing
number of monkeys.
“Are you surprised?” The way she put it made him choose his words with care.
“It’snot the type of thing one assumes,” Mr. Kapasi replied slowly. He put the tin of
lotus-oil balm back in his pocket.
“No, of course not. And no one knows, of course. No one at all. I’ve kept it a secret for
eight whole years.” She looked at Mr. Kapasi, tilting her chin as if to gain a fresh
perspective. “But now I’ve told you.”
Mr. Kapasi nodded. He felt suddenly parched, and his forehead was warm and slightly
numb from the balm. He considered asking Mrs. Das for a sip of water, then decided
“We met when we were very young,” she said. She reached into her straw bag in
search of something, then pulled out a packet of puffed rice. “Want some?”
“No, thank you.”
She put a fistful in her mouth, sank into the seat a little, and looked away from Mr.
Kapasi, out the window on her side of the car. “We married when we were still in
college. We were in high school when he proposed. We went to the same college, of
course. Back then we couldn’t stand the thought of being separated, not for a day, not
for a minute. Our parents were best friends who lived in the same town. My entire life I
saw him every weekend, either at our house or theirs. We were sent upstairs to play
together while our parents joked about our marriage. Imagine! They never caught us at
anything, though in a way I think it was all more or less a setup. The things we did those
Friday and Saturday nights, while our parents sat downstairs drinking tea … I could tell
you stories, Mr. Kapasi.”
As a result of spending all her time in college with Raj, she continued, she did not make
many close friends. There was no one to confide in about him at the end of a difficult
day, or to share a passing thought or a worry. Her parents now lived on the other side of
the world, but she had never been very close to them, anyway. After marrying so young
she was overwhelmed by it all, having a child so quickly, and nursing, and warming up
bottles of milk and testing their temperature against her wrist while Raj was at work,
dressed in sweaters and corduroy pants, teaching his students about rocks and
dinosaurs. Raj never looked cross or harried, or plump as she had become after the first
Always tired, she declined invitations from her one or two college girlfriends, to have
lunch or shop in Manhattan. Eventually the friends stopped calling her, so that she was
left at home all day with the baby, surrounded by toys that made her trip when she
walked or wince when she sat, always cross and tired. Only occasionally did they go out
after Ronny was born, and even more rarely did they entertain. Raj didn’t mind; he
looked forward to coming home from teaching and watching television and bouncing
Ronny on his knee. She had been outraged when Raj told her that a Punjabi friend,
someone whom she had once met but did not remember, would be staying with them
for a week for some job interviews in the New Brunswick area.
Bobby was conceived in the afternoon, on a sofa littered with rubber teething toys,
after the friend learned that a London pharmaceutical company had hired him, while
Ronny cried to be freed from his playpen. She made no protest when the friend touched
the small of her back as she was about to make a pot of coffee, then pulled her against
his crisp navy suit. He made love to her swiftly, in silence, with an expertise she had
never known, without the meaningful expressions and smiles Raj always insisted on
afterward. The next day Raj drove the friend to JFK. He was married now, to a Punjabi
girl, and they lived in London still, and every year they exchanged Christmas cards with
Raj and Mina, each couple tucking photos of their families into the envelopes. He did
not know that he was Bobby’s father. He never would.
“Ibeg your pardon, Mrs. Das, but why have you told me this information?” Mr. Kapasi
asked when she had finally finished speaking, and had turned to face him once again.
“For God’s sake, stop calling me Mrs. Das. I’m twenty-eight. You probably have children
“Not quite.” It disturbed Mr. Kapasi to learn that she thought of him as a parent. The
feeling he had had toward her, that had made him check his reflection in the rearview
mirror as they drove, evaporated a little.
“I told you because of your talents.” She put the packet of puffed rice back into her bag
without folding over the top.
“Idon’t understand,” Mr. Kapasi said.
“Don’t you see? For eight years I haven’t been able to express this to anybody, not to
friends, certainly not to Raj. He doesn’t even suspect it. He thinks I’m still in love with
him. Well, don’t you have anything to say?”
“About what I’ve just told you. About my secret, and about how terrible it makes me feel.
I feel terrible looking at my children, and at Raj, always terrible. I have terrible urges, Mr.
Kapasi, to throw things away. One day I had the urge to throw everything I own out the
window, the television, the children, everything. Don’t you think it’s unhealthy?”
He was silent.
“Mr.Kapasi, don’t you have anything to say? I thought that was your job.”
“Myjob is to give tours, Mrs. Das.”
“Not that. Your other job. As an interpreter.”
“But we do not face a language barrier. What need is there for an interpreter?”
“That’s not what I mean. I would never have told you otherwise. Don’t you realize what it
means for me to tell you?”
“What does it mean?”
“Itmeans that I’m tired of feeling so terrible all the time. Eight years, Mr. Kapasi, I’ve
been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing.
Suggest some kind of remedy.”
He looked at her, in her red plaid skirt and strawberry T-shirt, a woman not yet thirty,
who loved neither her husband nor her children, who had already fallen out of love with
life. Her confession depressed him, depressed him all the more when he thought of Mr.
Das at the top of the path, Tina clinging to his shoulders, taking pictures of ancient
monastic cells cut into the hills to show his students in America, unsuspecting and
unaware that one of his sons was not his own. Mr. Kapasi felt insulted that Mrs. Das
should ask him to interpret her common, trivial little secret. She did not resemble the
patients in the doctor’s office, those who came glassy-eyed and desperate, unable to
sleep or breathe or urinate with ease, unable, above all, to give words to their pains.
Still, Mr. Kapasi believed it was his duty to assist Mrs. Das. Perhaps he ought to tell her
to confess the truth to Mr. Das. He would explain that honesty was the best policy.
Honesty, surely, would help her feel better, as she’d put it. Perhaps he would offer to
preside over the discussion, as a mediator. He decided to begin with the most obvious
question, to get to the heart of the matter, and so he asked, “Is it really pain you feel,
Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?”
She turned to him and glared, mustard oil thick on her frosty pink lips. She opened her
mouth to say something, but as she glared at Mr. Kapasi some certain knowledge
seemed to pass before her eyes, and she stopped. It crushed him; he knew at that
moment that he was not even important enough to be properly insulted. She opened the
car door and began walking up the path, wobbling a little on her square wooden heels,
reaching into her straw bag to eat handfuls of puffed rice. It fell through her fingers,
leaving a zigzagging trail, causing a monkey to leap down from a tree and devour the
little white grains. In search of more, the monkey began to follow Mrs. Das. Others
joined him, so that she was soon being followed by about half a dozen of them, their
velvety tails dragging behind.
Mr. Kapasi stepped out of the car. He wanted to holler, to alert her in some way, but he
worried that if she knew they were behind her, she would grow nervous. Perhaps she
would lose her balance. Perhaps they would pull at her bag or her hair. He began to jog
up the path, taking a fallen branch in his hand to scare away the monkeys. Mrs. Das
continued walking, oblivious, trailing grains of puffed rice. Near the top of the incline,
before a group of cells fronted by a row of squat stone pillars, Mr. Das was kneeling on
the ground, focusing the lens of his camera. The children stood under the arcade, now
hiding, now emerging from view.
“Wait for me,” Mrs. Das called out. “I’mcoming.”
Tina jumped up and down. “Here comes Mommy!”
“Great,” Mr. Das said without looking up. “Just in time. We’ll get Mr. Kapasi to take a
picture of the five of us.”
Mr. Kapasi quickened his pace, waving his branch so that the monkeys scampered
away, distracted, in another direction.
“Where’s Bobby?” Mrs. Das asked when she stopped.
Mr. Das looked up from the camera. “Idon’t know. Ronny, where’s Bobby?”
Ronny shrugged. “I thought he was right here.”
“Where is he?” Mrs. Das repeated sharply. “What’s wrong with all of you?”
They began calling his name, wandering up and down the path a bit. Because they
were calling, they did not initially hear the boy’s screams. When they found him, a little
farther down the path under a tree, he was surrounded by a group of monkeys, over a
dozen of them, pulling at his T-shirt with their long black fingers. The puffed rice Mrs.
Das had spilled was scattered at his feet, raked over by the monkeys’ hands. The boy
was silent, his body frozen, swift tears running down his startled face. His bare legs
were dusty and red with welts from where one of the monkeys struck him repeatedly
with the stick he had given to it earlier.
“Daddy, the monkey’s hurting Bobby,” Tina said.
Mr. Das wiped his palms on the front of his shorts. In his nervousness he accidentally
pressed the shutter on his camera; the whirring noise of the advancing film excited the
monkeys, and the one with the stick began to beat Bobby more intently. “What are we
supposed to do? What if they start attacking?”
“Mr.Kapasi,” Mrs. Das shrieked, noticing him standing to one side. “Do something, for
God’s sake, do something!”
Mr. Kapasi took his branch and shooed them away, hissing at the ones that remained,
stomping his feet to scare them. The animals retreated slowly, with a measured gait,
obedient but unintimidated. Mr. Kapasi gathered Bobby in his arms and brought him
back to where his parents and siblings were standing. As he carried him he was
tempted to whisper a secret into the boy’s ear. But Bobby was stunned, and shivering
with fright, his legs bleeding slightly where the stick had broken the skin. When Mr.
Kapasi delivered him to his parents, Mr. Das brushed some dirt off the boy’s T-shirt and
put the visor on him the right way. Mrs. Das reached into her straw bag to find a
bandage which she taped over the cut on his knee. Ronny offered his brother a fresh
piece of gum. “He’s fine. Just a little scared, right, Bobby?” Mr. Das said, patting the top
of his head.
“God, let’s get out of here,” Mrs. Das said. She folded her arms across the strawberry
on her chest. “This place gives me the creeps.”
“Yeah. Back to the hotel, definitely,” Mr. Das agreed.
“Poor Bobby, ”Mrs. Das said. “Come here a second. Let Mommy fix your hair.” Again
she reached into her straw bag, this time for her hairbrush, and began to run it around
the edges of the translucent visor. When she whipped out the hairbrush, the slip of
paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it fluttered away in the wind. No one but Mr. Kapasi
noticed. He watched as it rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze, into the trees
where the monkeys now sat, solemnly observing the scene below. Mr. Kapasi observed
it too, knowing that this was the picture of the Das family he would preserve forever in
A Real Durwan
BOORIMA, sweeper of the stairwell, had not slept in two nights. So the morning before
the third night she shook the mites out of her bedding. She shook the quilts once
underneath the letter boxes where she lived, then once again at the mouth of the alley,
causing the crows who were feeding on vegetable peels to scatter in several directions.
As she started up the four flights to the roof, Boori Ma kept one hand placed over the
knee that swelled at the start of every rainy season. That meant that her bucket, quilts,
and the bundle of reeds which served as her broom all had to be braced under one arm.
Lately Boori Ma had been thinking that the stairs were getting steeper; climbing them
felt more like climbing a ladder than a staircase. She was sixty-four years old, with hair
in a knot no larger than a walnut, and she looked almost as narrow from the front as she
did from the side.
In fact, the only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice:
brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut. It
was with this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stairwell, the
details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition.
At that time, she maintained, the turmoil had separated her from a husband, four
daughters, a two-story brick house, a rosewood almari, and a number of coffer boxes
whose skeleton keys she still wore, along with her life savings, tied to the free end of
Aside from her hardships, the other thing Boori Ma liked to chronicle was easier times.
And so, by the time she reached the second-floor landing, she had already drawn to the
whole building’s attention the menu of her third daughter’s wedding night. “We married
her to a school principal. The rice was cooked in rosewater. The mayor was invited.
Everybody washed their fingers in pewter bowls.” Here she paused, evened out her
breath, and readjusted the supplies under her arm. She took the opportunity also to
chase a cockroach out of the banister poles, then continued: “Mustard prawns were
steamed in banana leaves. Not a delicacy was spared. Not that this was an
extravagance for us. At our house, we ate goat twice a week. We had a pond on our
property, full of fish.”
By now Boori Ma could see some light from the roof spilling into the stairwell. And
though it was only eight o’clock, the sun was already strong enough to warm the last of
the cement steps under her feet. It was a very old building, the kind with bathwater that
still had to be stored in drums, windows without glass, and privy scaffolds made of
“Aman came to pick our dates and guavas. Another clipped hibiscus. Yes, there I
tasted life. Here I eat my dinner from a rice pot.” At this point in the recital Boori Ma’s
ears started to burn; a pain chewed through her swollen knee. “Have I mentioned that I
crossed the border with just two bracelets on my wrist? Yet there was a day when my
feet touched nothing but marble. Believe me, don’t believe me, such comforts you
cannot even dream them.”
Whether there was any truth to Boori Ma’s litanies no one could be sure. For one thing,
every day, the perimeters of her former estate seemed to double, as did the contents of
her almari and coffer boxes. No one doubted she was a refugee; the accent in her
Bengali made that clear. Still, the residents of this particular flat-building could not
reconcile Boori Ma’s claims to prior wealth alongside the more likely account of how she
had crossed the East Bengal border, with the thousands of others, on the back of a
truck, between sacks of hemp. And yet there were days when Boori Ma insisted that
she had come to Calcutta on a bullock cart.
“Which was it, by truck or by cart?” the children sometimes asked her on their way to
play cops and robbers in the alley. To which Boori Ma would reply, shaking the free end
of her sari so that the skeleton keys rattled, “Why demand specifics? Why scrape lime
from a betel leaf? Believe me, don’t believe me. My life is composed of such griefs you
cannot even dream them.”
So she garbled facts. She contradicted herself. She embellished almost everything. But
her rants were so persuasive, her fretting so vivid, that it was not so easy to dismiss her.
What kind of landowner ended up sweeping stairs? That was what Mr. Dalal of the third
floor always wondered as he passed Boori Ma on his way to and from the office, where
he filed receipts for a wholesale distributor of rubber tubes, pipes, and valve fittings in
the plumbing district of College Street.
Bechareh, she probably constructs tales as a way of mourning the loss of her family,
was the collective surmise of most of the wives.
And “Boori Ma’s mouth is full of ashes, but she is the victim of changing times” was the
refrain of old Mr. Chatterjee. He had neither strayed from his balcony nor opened a
newspaper since Independence, but in spite of this fact, or maybe because of it, his
opinions were always highly esteemed.
The theory eventually circulated that Boori Ma had once worked as hired help for a
prosperous zamindar back east, and was therefore capable of exaggerating her past
at such elaborate lengths and heights. Her throaty impostures hurt no one. Allagreed
that she was a superb entertainer. In exchange for her lodging below the letter boxes,
Boori Ma kept their crooked stairwell spotlessly clean. Most of all, the residents liked
that Boori Ma, who slept each night behind the collapsible gate, stood guard between
them and the outside world.
No one in this particular flat-building owned much worth stealing. The second-floor
widow, Mrs. Misra, was the only one with a telephone. Still, the residents were thankful
that Boori Ma patrolled activities in the alley, screened the itinerant peddlers who came
to sell combs and shawls from door to door, was able to summon a rickshaw at a
moment’s calling, and could, with a few slaps of her broom, rout any suspicious
character who strayed into the area in order to spit, urinate, or cause some other
In short, over the years, Boori Ma’s services came to resemble those of a real durwan.
Though under normal circumstances this was no job for a woman, she honored the
responsibility, and maintained a vigil no less punctilious than if she were the gatekeeper
of a house on Lower Circular Road, or Jodhpur Park, or any other fancy neighborhood.
On the rooftop Boori Ma hung her quilts over the clothesline. The wire, strung diagonally
from one corner of the parapet to the other, stretched across her view of television
antennas, billboards, and the distant arches of Howrah Bridge. Boori Ma consulted the
horizon on all four sides. Then she ran the tap at the base of the cistern. She washed
her face, rinsed her feet, and rubbed two fingers over her teeth. After this she started to
beat the quilts on each side with her broom. Every now and then she stopped and
squinted at the cement, hoping to identify the culprit of her sleepless nights. She was so
absorbed in this process that it was some moments before she noticed Mrs. Dalal of the
third floor, who had come to set a tray of salted lemon peels out to dry in the sun.
“Whatever is inside this quilt is keeping me awake at night,” Boori Ma said. “Tellme,
where do you see them?”
Mrs. Dalal had a soft spot for Boori Ma; occasionally she gave the old woman some
ginger paste with which to flavor her stews. “Idon’t see anything,” Mrs. Dalal said after a
while. She had diaphanous eyelids and very slender toes with rings on them.
“Then they must have wings,” Boori Ma concluded. She put down her broom and
observed one cloud passing behind another. “They fly away before I can squash them.
But just see my back. I must be purple from their bites.”
Mrs. Dalal lifted the drape of Boori Ma’s sari, a cheap white weave with a border the
color of a dirty pond. She examined the skin above and below her blouse, cut in a style
no longer sold in shops. Then she said, “Boori Ma, you are imagining things.”
“I tell you, these mites are eating me alive.”
“Itcould be a case of prickly heat,” Mrs. Dalal suggested.
At this Boori Ma shook the free end of her sari and made her skeleton keys rattle. She
said, “Iknow prickly heat. This is not prickly heat. I haven’t slept in three, perhaps four
days. Who can count? I used to keep a clean bed. Our linens were muslin. Believe me,
don’t believe me, our mosquito nets were as soft as silk. Such comforts you cannot
even dream them.”
“Icannot dream them,” Mrs. Dalal echoed. She lowered her diaphanous eyelids and
sighed. “Icannot dream them, Boori Ma. I live in two broken rooms, married to a man
who sells toilet parts.” Mrs. Dalal turned away and looked at one of the quilts. She ran a
finger over part of the stitching. Then she asked:
“Boori Ma, how long have you slept on this bedding?”
Boori Ma put a finger to her lips before replying that she could not remember.
“Then why no mention of it until today? Do you think it’s beyond us to provide you with
clean quilts? An oilcloth, for that matter?” She looked insulted.
“There is no need,” Boori Ma said. “They are clean now. I beat them with my broom.”
“Iam hearing no arguments,” Mrs. Dalal said. “Youneed a new bed. Quilts, a pillow. A
blanket when winter comes.” As she spoke Mrs. Dalal kept track of the necessary items
by touching her thumb to the pads of her fingers.
“On festival days the poor came to our house to be fed,” Boori Ma said. She was filling
her bucket from the coal heap on the other side of the roof.
“Iwillhave a word with Mr. Dalal when he returns from the office,” Mrs. Dalal called
back as she headed down the stairs. “Come in the afternoon. I willgive you some
pickles and some powder for your back.”
“It’snot prickly heat,” Boori Ma said.
It was true that prickly heat was common during the rainy season. But Boori Ma
preferred to think that what irritated her bed, what stole her sleep, what burned like
peppers across her thinning scalp and skin, was of a less mundane origin.
She was ruminating on these things as she swept the stairwell—she always worked
from top to bottom—when it started to rain. It came slapping across the roof like a boy in
slippers too big for him and washed Mrs. Dalal’s lemon peels into the gutter. Before
pedestrians could open their umbrellas, it rushed down collars, pockets, and shoes. In
that particular flat-building and all the neighboring buildings, creaky shutters were
closed and tied with petticoat strings to the window bars.
At the time, Boori Ma was working all the way down on the second-floor landing. She
looked up the ladderlike stairs, and as the sound of falling water tightened around her
she knew her quilts were turning into yogurt.
But then she recalled her conversation with Mrs. Dalal. And so she continued, at the
same pace, to sweep the dust, cigarette ends, and lozenge wrappers from the rest of
the steps, until she reached the letter boxes at the bottom. To keep out the wind, she
rummaged through her baskets for some newspapers and crammed them into the
diamond-shaped openings of the collapsible gate. Then on her bucket of coals she set
her lunch to boil, and monitored the flame with a plaited palm fan.
That afternoon, as was her habit, Boori Ma reknotted her hair, untied the loose end of
her sari, and counted out her life savings. She had just woken from a nap of twenty
minutes, which she had taken on a temporary bed made from newspapers. The rain
had stopped and now the sour smell that rises from wet mango leaves was hanging low
over the alley.
On certain afternoons Boori Ma visited her fellow residents. She enjoyed drifting in and
out of the various households. The residents, for their part, assured Boori Ma that she
was always welcome; they never drew the latch bars across their doors except at night.
They went about their business, scolding children or adding up expenses or picking
stones out of the evening rice. From time to time she was handed a glass of tea, the
cracker tin was passed in her direction, and she helped children shoot chips across the
carom board. Knowing not to sit on the furniture, she crouched, instead, in doorways
and hallways, and observed gestures and manners in the same way a person tends to
watch traffic in a foreign city.
On this particular afternoon Boori Ma decided to accept Mrs. Dalal’s invitation. Her
back still itched, even after napping on the newspapers, and she was beginning to want
some prickly-heat powder after all. She picked up her broom—she never felt quite
herself without it—and was about to climb upstairs, when a rickshaw pulled up to the
It was Mr. Dalal. The years he had spent filing receipts had left him with purple
crescents under his eyes. But today his gaze was bright. The tip of his tongue played
between his teeth, and in the clamp of his thighs he held two small ceramic basins.
“Boori Ma, I have a job for you. Help me carry these basins upstairs.” He pressed a
folded handkerchief to his forehead and throat and gave the rickshaw driver a coin.
Then he and Boori Ma carried the basins all the way up to the third floor. It wasn’t until
they were inside the flat that he finally announced, to Mrs. Dalal, to Boori Ma, and to a
few other residents who had followed them out of curiosity, the following things: That his
hours filing receipts for a distributor of rubber tubes, pipes, and valve fittings had ended.
That the distributor himself, who craved fresher air, and whose profits had doubled, was
opening a second branch in Burdwan. And that, following an assessment of his
sedulous performance over the years, the distributor was promoting Mr. Dalal to
manage the College Street branch. In his excitement on his way home through the
plumbing district, Mr. Dalal had bought two basins.
“What are we supposed to do with two basins in a two-room flat?” Mrs. Dalal
demanded. She had already been sulking over her lemon peels. “Who ever heard of it?
I still cook on kerosene. You refuse to apply for a phone. And I have yet to see the
fridge you promised when we married. You expect two basins to make up for all that?”
The argument that followed was loud enough to be heard all the way down to the letter
boxes. It was loud enough, and long enough, to rise above a second spell of rain that
fell after dark. It was loud enough even to distract Boori Ma as she swept the stairwell
from top to bottom for the second time that day, and for this reason she spoke neither of
her hardships, nor of easier times. She spent the night on a bed of newspapers.
The argument between Mr. and Mrs. Dalal was still more or less in effect early the next
morning, when a barefoot team of workmen came to install the basins. After a night of
tossing and pacing, Mr. Dalal had decided to install one basin in the sitting room of their
flat, and the other one in the stairwell of the building, on the first-floor landing. “This way
everyone can use it,” he explained from door to door. The residents were delighted; for
years they had all brushed their teeth with stored water poured from mugs.
Mr. Dalal, meanwhile, was thinking: A sink in the stairwell is sure to impress visitors.
Now that he was a company manager, who could say who might visit the building?
The workmen toiled for several hours. They ran up and down the stairs and ate their
lunches squatting against the banister poles. They hammered, shouted, spat, and
cursed. They wiped their sweat with the ends of their turbans. In general, they made it
impossible for Boori Ma to sweep the stairwell that day.
To occupy the time, Boori Ma retired to the rooftop. She shuffled along the parapets, but
her hips were sore from sleeping on newspapers. After consulting the horizon on all four
sides, she tore what was left of her quilts into several strips and resolved to polish the
banister poles at a later time.
By early evening the residents gathered to admire the day’s labors. Even Boori Ma was
urged to rinse her hands under the clear running water. She sniffed. “Our bathwater was
scented with petals and attars. Believe me, don’t believe me, it was a luxury you cannot
Mr. Dalal proceeded to demonstrate the basin’s various features. He turned each
faucet completely on and completely off. Then he turned on both faucets at the same
time, to illustrate the difference in water pressure. Lifting a small lever between the
faucets allowed water to collect in the basin, if desired.
“The last word in elegance,” Mr. Dalal concluded.
“Asure sign of changing times,” Mr. Chatterjee reputedly admitted from his balcony.
Among the wives, however, resentment quickly brewed. Standing in line to brush their
teeth in the mornings, each grew frustrated with having to wait her turn, for having to
wipe the faucets after every use, and for not being able to leave her own soap and
toothpaste tube on the basin’s narrow periphery. The Dalals had their own sink; why did
the rest of them have to share?
“Is it beyond us to buy sinks of our own?” one of them finally burst out one morning.
“Are the Dalals the only ones who can improve the conditions of this building?” asked
Rumors began spreading: that, following their argument, Mr. Dalal had consoled his
wife by buying her two kilos of mustard oil, a Kashmiri shawl, a dozen cakes of
sandalwood soap; that Mr. Dalal had filed an application for a telephone line; that Mrs.
Dalal did nothing but wash her hands in her basin all day. As if this weren’t enough, the
next morning, a taxi bound for Howrah Station crammed its wheels into the alley; the
Dalals were going to Simla for ten days.
“Boori Ma, I haven’t forgotten. We willbring you back a sheep’s-hair blanket made in the
mountains,” Mrs. Dalal said through the open window of the taxi. She was holding a
leather purse in her lap which matched the turquoise border of her sari.
“We willbring two!” cried Mr. Dalal, who was sitting beside his wife, checking his
pockets to make sure his wallet was in place.
Of all the people who lived in that particular flat-building, Boori Ma was the only one who
stood by the collapsible gate and wished them a safe journey.
As soon as the Dalals were gone, the other wives began planning renovations of their
own. One decided to barter a stack of her wedding bracelets and commissioned a
white-washer to freshen the walls of the stairwell. Another pawned her sewing machine
and summoned an exterminator. A third went to the silversmith and sold back a set of
pudding bowls; she intended to have the shutters painted yellow.
Workers began to occupy this particular flat-building night and day. To avoid the traffic,
Boori Ma took to sleeping on the rooftop. So many people passed in and out of the
collapsible gate, so many others clogged the alley at all times, that there was no point in
keeping track of them.
After a few days Boori Ma moved her baskets and her cooking bucket to the rooftop as
well. There was no need to use the basin downstairs, for she could just as easily wash,
as she always had, from the cistern tap. She still planned to polish the banister poles
with the strips she had torn from her quilts. She continued to sleep on her newspapers.
More rains came. Below the dripping awning, a newspaper pressed over her head,
Boori Ma squatted and watched the monsoon ants as they marched along the
clothesline, carrying eggs in their mouths. Damper winds soothed her back. Her
newspapers were running low.
Her mornings were long, her afternoons longer. She could not remember her last glass
of tea. Thinking neither of her hardships nor of earlier times, she wondered when the
Dalals would return with her new bedding.
She grew restless on the roof, and so for some exercise, Boori Ma started circling the
neighborhood in the afternoons. Reed broom in hand, sari smeared with newsprint ink,
she wandered through markets and began spending her life savings on small treats:
today a packet of puffed rice, tomorrow some cashews, the day after that, a cup of
sugarcane juice. One day she walked as far as the bookstalls on College Street. The
next day she walked even farther, to the produce markets in Bow Bazaar. It was there,
while she was standing in a shopping arcade surveying jackfruits and persimmons, that
she felt something tugging on the free end of her sari. When she looked, the rest of her
life savings and her skeleton keys were gone.
The residents were waiting for Boori Ma when she returned that afternoon at the
collapsible gate. Baleful cries rang up and down the stairwell, all echoing the same
news: the basin on the stairwell had been stolen. There was a big hole in the recently
whitewashed wall, and a tangle of rubber tubes and pipes was sticking out of it. Chunks
of plaster littered the landing. Boori Ma gripped her reed broom and said nothing.
In their haste the residents practically carried Boori Ma up the stairs to the roof, where
they planted her on one side of the clothesline and started screaming at her from the
“This is all her doing,” one of them hollered, pointing at Boori Ma. “She informed the
robbers. Where was she when she was supposed to guard the gate?”
“For days she has been wandering the streets, speaking to strangers,” another
“We shared our coal, gave her a place to sleep. How could she betray us this way?” a
third wanted to know.
Though none of them spoke directly to Boori Ma, she replied, “Believe me, believe me. I
did not inform the robbers.”
“For years we have put up with your lies,” they retorted. “Youexpect us, now, to
Their recriminations persisted. How would they explain it to the Dalals? Eventually they
sought the advice of Mr. Chatterjee. They found him sitting on his balcony, watching a
One of the second-floor residents said, “Boori Ma has endangered the security of this
building. We have valuables. The widow Mrs. Misra lives alone with her phone. What
should we do?”
Mr. Chatterjee considered their arguments. As he thought things over, he adjusted the
shawl that was wrapped around his shoulders and gazed at the bamboo scaffolding that
now surrounded his balcony. The shutters behind him, colorless for as long as he could
remember, had been painted yellow. Finally he said:
“Boori Ma’s mouth is full of ashes. But that is nothing new. What is new is the face of
this building. What a building like this needs is a real durwan. ”
So the residents tossed her bucket and rags, her baskets and reed broom, down the
stairwell, past the letter boxes, through the collapsible gate, and into the alley. Then
they tossed out Boori Ma. Allwere eager to begin their search for a real durwan.
From the pile of belongings Boori Ma kept only her broom. “Believe me, believe me,”
she said once more as her figure began to recede. She shook the free end of her sari,
but nothing rattled.
ITWASAWIFE’SWORSTNIGHTMARE. After nine years of marriage, Laxmi told Miranda, her
cousin’s husband had fallen in love with another woman. He sat next to her on a plane,
on a flight from Delhi to Montreal, and instead of flying home to his wife and son, he got
off with the woman at Heathrow. He called his wife, and told her he’d had a
conversation that had changed his life, and that he needed time to figure things out.
Laxmi’s cousin had taken to her bed.
“Not that I blame her,” Laxmi said. She reached for the Hot Mix she munched
throughout the day, which looked to Miranda like dusty orange cereal. “Imagine. An
English girl, half his age.” Laxmi was only a few years older than Miranda, but she was
already married, and kept a photo of herself and her husband, seated on a white stone
bench in front of the Taj Mahal, tacked to the inside of her cubicle, which was next to
Miranda’s. Laxmi had been on the phone for at least an hour, trying to calm her cousin
down. No one noticed; they worked for a public radio station, in the fund-raising
department, and were surrounded by people who spent all day on the phone, soliciting
“I feel worst for the boy,” Laxmi added. “He’s been at home for days. My cousin said
she can’t even take him to school.”
“It sounds awful,” Miranda said. Normally Laxmi’s phone conversations—mainly to her
husband, about what to cook for dinner—distracted Miranda as she typed letters, asking
members of the radio station to increase their annual pledge in exchange for a tote bag
or an umbrella. She could hear Laxmi clearly, her sentences peppered every now and
then with an Indian word, through the laminated wall between their desks. But that
afternoon Miranda hadn’t been listening. She’d been on the phone herself, with Dev,
deciding where to meet later that evening.
“Then again, a few days at home won’t hurt him.” Laxmi ate some more Hot Mix, then
put it away in a drawer. “He’s something of a genius. He has a Punjabi mother and a
Bengali father, and because he learns French and English at school he already speaks
four languages. I think he skipped two grades.”
Dev was Bengali, too. At first Miranda thought it was a religion. But then he pointed it
out to her, a place in India called Bengal, in a map printed in an issue of The
Economist. He had brought the magazine specially to her apartment, for she did not
own an atlas, or any other books with maps in them. He’d pointed to the city where he’d
been born, and another city where his father had been born. One of the cities had a box
around it, intended to attract the reader’s eye. When Miranda asked what the box
indicated, Dev rolled up the magazine, and said, “Nothing you’ll ever need to worry
about,” and he tapped her playfully on the head.
Before leaving her apartment he’d tossed the magazine in the garbage, along with the
ends of the three cigarettes he always smoked in the course of his visits. But after she
watched his car disappear down Commonwealth Avenue, back to his house in the
suburbs, where he lived with his wife, Miranda retrieved it, and brushed the ashes off
the cover, and rolled it in the opposite direction to get it to lie flat. She got into bed, still
rumpled from their lovemaking, and studied the borders of Bengal. There was a bay
below and mountains above. The map was connected to an article about something
called the Gramin Bank. She turned the page, hoping for a photograph of the city where
Dev was born, but all she found were graphs and grids. Still, she stared at them,
thinking the whole while about Dev, about how only fifteen minutes ago he’d propped
her feet on top of his shoulders, and pressed her knees to her chest, and told her that
he couldn’t get enough of her.
She’d met him a week ago, at Filene’s. She was there on her lunch break, buying
discounted pantyhose in the Basement. Afterward she took the escalator to the main
part of the store, to the cosmetics department, where soaps and creams were displayed
like jewels, and eye shadows and powders shimmered like butterflies pinned behind
protective glass. Though Miranda had never bought anything other than a lipstick, she
liked walking through the cramped, confined maze, which was familiar to her in a way
the rest of Boston still was not. She liked negotiating her way past the women planted at
every turn, who sprayed cards with perfume and waved them in the air; sometimes she
would find a card days afterward, folded in her coat pocket, and the rich aroma, still
faintly preserved, would warm her as she waited on cold mornings for the T.
That day, stopping to smell one of the more pleasing cards, Miranda noticed a man
standing at one of the counters. He held a slip of paper covered in a precise, feminine
hand. A saleswoman took one look at the paper and began to open drawers. She
produced an oblong cake of soap in a black case, a hydrating mask, a vial of cell
renewal drops, and two tubes of face cream. The man was tanned, with black hair that
was visible on his knuckles. He wore a flamingo pink shirt, a navy blue suit, a camel
overcoat with gleaming leather buttons. In order to pay he had taken off pigskin gloves.
Crisp bills emerged from a burgundy wallet. He didn’t wear a wedding ring.
“What can I get you, honey?” the saleswoman asked Miranda. She looked over the
tops of her tortoiseshell glasses, assessing Miranda’s complexion.
Miranda didn’t know what she wanted. All she knew was that she didn’t want the man to
walk away. He seemed to be lingering, waiting, along with the saleswoman, for her to
say something. She stared at some bottles, some short, others tall, arranged on an oval
tray, like a family posing for a photograph.
“Acream,” Miranda said eventually.
“How old are you?”
The saleswoman nodded, opening a frosted bottle. “This may seem a bit heavier than
what you’re used to, but I’d start now. Allyour wrinkles are going to form by twenty-five.
After that they just start showing.”
While the saleswoman dabbed the cream on Miranda’s face, the man stood and
watched. While Miranda was told the proper way to apply it, in swift upward strokes
beginning at the base of her throat, he spun the lipstick carousel. He pressed a pump
that dispensed cellulite gel and massaged it into the back of his ungloved hand. He
opened a jar, leaned over, and drew so close that a drop of cream flecked his nose.
Miranda smiled, but her mouth was obscured by a large brush that the saleswoman was
sweeping over her face. “This is blusher Number Two,” the woman said. “Gives you
Miranda nodded, glancing at her reflection in one of the angled mirrors that lined the
counter. She had silver eyes and skin as pale as paper, and the contrast with her hair,
as dark and glossy as an espresso bean, caused people to describe her as striking, if
not pretty. She had a narrow, egg-shaped head that rose to a prominent point. Her
features, too, were narrow, with nostrils so slim that they appeared to have been
pinched with a clothespin. Now her face glowed, rosy at the cheeks, smoky below the
brow bone. Her lips glistened.
The man was glancing in a mirror, too, quickly wiping the cream from his nose. Miranda
wondered where he was from. She thought he might be Spanish, or Lebanese. When
he opened another jar, and said, to no one in particular, “This one smells like
pineapple,” she detected only the hint of an accent.
“Anything else for you today?” the saleswoman asked, accepting Miranda’s credit card.
The woman wrapped the cream in several layers of red tissue. “You’llbe very happy
with this product.” Miranda’s hand was unsteady as she signed the receipt. The man
“I threw in a sample of our new eye gel,” the saleswoman added, handing Miranda a
small shopping bag. She looked at Miranda’s credit card before sliding it across the
counter. “Bye-bye, Miranda.”
Miranda began walking. At first she sped up. Then, noticing the doors that led to
Downtown Crossing, she slowed down.
“Part of your name is Indian,” the man said, pacing his steps with hers.
She stopped, as did he, at a circular table piled with sweaters, flanked with pinecones
and velvet bows. “Miranda?”
“Mira. I have an aunt named Mira.”
His name was Dev. He worked in an investment bank back that way, he said, tilting his
head in the direction of South Station. He was the first man with a mustache, Miranda
decided, she found handsome.
They walked together toward Park Street station, past the kiosks that sold cheap belts
and handbags. A fierce January wind spoiled the part in her hair. As she fished for a
token in her coat pocket, her eyes fell to his shopping bag. “And those are for her?”
“They’re for my wife.” He uttered the words slowly, holding Miranda’s gaze. “She’s going
to India for a few weeks.” He rolled his eyes. “She’s addicted to this stuff.”
Somehow, without the wife there, it didn’t seem so wrong. At first Miranda and Dev
spent every night together, almost. He explained that he couldn’t spend the whole night
at her place, because his wife called every day at six in the morning, from India, where it
was four in the afternoon. And so he left her apartment at two, three, often as late as
four in the morning, driving back to his house in the suburbs. During the day he called
her every hour, it seemed, from work, or from his cell phone. Once he learned Miranda’s
schedule he left her a message each evening at five-thirty, when she was on the T
coming back to her apartment, just so, he said, she could hear his voice as soon as she
walked through the door. “I’mthinking about you,” he’d say on the tape. “Ican’t wait to
see you.” He told her he liked spending time in her apartment, with its kitchen counter
no wider than a breadbox, and scratchy floors that sloped, and a buzzer in the lobby
that always made a slightly embarrassing sound when he pressed it. He said he
admired her for moving to Boston, where she knew no one, instead of remaining in
Michigan, where she’d grown up and gone to college. When Miranda told him it was
nothing to admire, that she’d moved to Boston precisely for that reason, he shook his
head. “Iknow what it’s like to be lonely,” he said, suddenly serious, and at that moment
Miranda felt that he understood her—understood how she felt some nights on the T,
after seeing a movie on her own, or going to a bookstore to read magazines, or having
drinks with Laxmi, who always had to meet her husband at Alewife station in an hour or
two. In less serious moments Dev said he liked that her legs were longer than her torso,
something he’d observed the first time she walked across a room naked. “You’re the
first,” he told her, admiring her from the bed. “The first woman I’ve known with legs this
Dev was the first to tell her that. Unlike the boys she dated in college, who were simply
taller, heavier versions of the ones she dated in high school, Dev was the first always to
pay for things, and hold doors open, and reach across a table in a restaurant to kiss her
hand. He was the first to bring her a bouquet of flowers so immense she’d had to split it
up into all six of her drinking glasses, and the first to whisper her name again and again
when they made love. Within days of meeting him, when she was at work, Miranda
began to wish that there were a picture of her and Dev tacked to the inside of her
cubicle, like the one of Laxmi and her husband in front of the Taj Mahal. She didn’t tell
Laxmi about Dev. She didn’t tell anyone. Part of her wanted to tell Laxmi, if only
because Laxmi was Indian, too. But Laxmi was always on the phone with her cousin
these days, who was still in bed, whose husband was still in London, and whose son
still wasn’t going to school. “Youmust eat something,” Laxmi would urge. “Youmustn’t
lose your health.” When she wasn’t speaking to her cousin, she spoke to her husband,
shorter conversations, in which she ended up arguing about whether to have chicken or
lamb for dinner. “I’msorry,” Miranda heard her apologize at one point. “This whole thing
just makes me a little paranoid.”
Miranda and Dev didn’t argue. They went to movies at the Nickelodeon and kissed the
whole time. They ate pulled pork and cornbread in Davis Square, a paper napkin tucked
like a cravat into the collar of Dev’s shirt. They sipped sangria at the bar of a Spanish
restaurant, a grinning pig’s head presiding over their conversation. They went to the
MFA and picked out a poster of water lilies for her bedroom. One Saturday, following an
afternoon concert at Symphony Hall, he showed her his favorite place in the city, the
Mapparium at the Christian Science center, where they stood inside a room made of
glowing stained-glass panels, which was shaped like the inside of a globe, but looked
like the outside of one. In the middle of the room was a transparent bridge, so that they
felt as if they were standing in the center of the world. Dev pointed to India, which was
red, and far more detailed than the map in The Economist. He explained that many of
the countries, like Siam and Italian Somaliland, no longer existed in the same way; the
names had changed by now. The ocean, as blue as a peacock’s breast, appeared in
two shades, depending on the depth of the water. He showed her the deepest spot on
earth, seven miles deep, above the Mariana Islands. They peered over the bridge and
saw the Antarctic archipelago at their feet, craned their necks and saw a giant metal
star overhead. As Dev spoke, his voice bounced wildly off the glass, sometimes loud,
sometimes soft, sometimes seeming to land in Miranda’s chest, sometimes eluding her
ear altogether. When a group of tourists walked onto the bridge, she could hear them
clearing their throats, as if through microphones. Dev explained that it was because of
Miranda found London, where Laxmi’s cousin’s husband was, with the woman he’d
met on the plane. She wondered which of the cities in India Dev’s wife was in. The
farthest Miranda had ever been was to the Bahamas once when she was a child. She
searched but couldn’t find it on the glass panels. When the tourists left and she and Dev
were alone again, he told her to stand at one end of the bridge. Even though they were
thirty feet apart, Dev said, they’d be able to hear each other whisper.
“Idon’t believe you,” Miranda said. It was the first time she’d spoken since they’d
entered. She felt as if speakers were embedded in her ears.
“Go ahead,” he urged, walking backward to his end of the bridge. His voice dropped to a
whisper. “Say something.” She watched his lips forming the words; at the same time
she heard them so clearly that she felt them under her skin, under her winter coat, so
near and full of warmth that she felt herself go hot.
“Hi,”she whispered, unsure of what else to say.
“You’re sexy,” he whispered back.
At work the following week, Laxmi told Miranda that it wasn’t the first time her cousin’s
husband had had an affair. “She’s decided to let him come to his senses,” Laxmi said
one evening as they were getting ready to leave the office. “She says it’s for the boy.
She’s willing to forgive him for the boy.” Miranda waited as Laxmi shut off her computer.
“He’llcome crawling back, and she’ll let him,” Laxmi said, shaking her head. “Not me. If
my husband so much as looked at another woman I’d change the locks.” She studied
the picture tacked to her cubicle. Laxmi’s husband had his arm draped over her
shoulder, his knees leaning in toward her on the bench. She turned to Miranda.
She nodded. Dev’s wife was coming back from India the next day. That afternoon he’d
called Miranda at work, to say he had to go to the airport to pick her up. He promised
he’d call as soon as he could.
“What’s the Taj Mahal like?” she asked Laxmi.
“The most romantic spot on earth.” Laxmi’s face brightened at the memory. “An
everlasting monument to love.”
While Dev was at the airport, Miranda went to Filene’s Basement to buy herself things
she thought a mistress should have. She found a pair of black high heels with buckles
smaller than a baby’s teeth. She found a satin slip with scalloped edges and a knee-
length silk robe. Instead of the pantyhose she normally wore to work, she found sheer
stockings with a seam. She searched through piles and wandered through racks,
pressing back hanger after hanger, until she found a cocktail dress made of a slinky
silvery material that matched her eyes, with little chains for straps. As she shopped she
thought about Dev, and about what he’d told her in the Mapparium. It was the first time
a man had called her sexy, and when she closed her eyes she could still feel his
whisper drifting through her body, under her skin. In the fitting room, which was just one
big room with mirrors on the walls, she found a spot next to an older woman with a
shiny face and coarse frosted hair. The woman stood barefoot in her underwear, pulling
the black net of a body stocking taut between her fingers.
“Always check for snags,” the woman advised.
Miranda pulled out the satin slip with scalloped edges. She held it to her chest.
The woman nodded with approval. “Oh yes.”
“And this?” She held up the silver cocktail dress.
“Absolutely,” the woman said. “He’llwant to rip it right off you.”
Miranda pictured the two of them at a restaurant in the South End they’d been to, where
Dev had ordered foie gras and a soup made with champagne and raspberries. She
pictured herself in the cocktail dress, and Dev in one of his suits, kissing her hand
across the table. Only the next time Dev came to visit her, on a Sunday afternoon
several days since the last time they’d seen each other, he was in gym clothes. After his
wife came back, that was his excuse: on Sundays he drove into Boston and went
running along the Charles. The first Sunday she opened the door in the knee-length
robe, but Dev didn’t even notice it; he carried her over to the bed, wearing sweatpants
and sneakers, and entered her without a word. Later, she slipped on the robe when she
walked across the room to get him a saucer for his cigarette ashes, but he complained
that she was depriving him of the sight of her long legs, and demanded that she remove
it. So the next Sunday she didn’t bother. She wore jeans. She kept the lingerie at the
back of a drawer, behind her socks and everyday underwear. The silver cocktail dress
hung in her closet, the tag dangling from the seam. Often, in the morning, the dress
would be in a heap on the floor; the chain straps always slipped off the metal hanger.
Still, Miranda looked forward to Sundays. In the mornings she went to a deli and bought
a baguette and little containers of things Dev liked to eat, like pickled herring, and potato
salad, and tortes of pesto and mascarpone cheese. They ate in bed, picking up the
herring with their fingers and ripping the baguette with their hands. Dev told her stories
about his childhood, when he would come home from school and drink mango juice
served to him on a tray, and then play cricket by a lake, dressed all in white. He told her
about how, at eighteen, he’d been sent to a college in upstate New York during
something called the Emergency, and about how it took him years to be able to follow
American accents in movies, in spite of the fact that he’d had an English-medium
education. As he talked he smoked three cigarettes, crushing them in a saucer by the
side of her bed. Sometimes he asked her questions, like how many lovers she’d had
(three) and how old she’d been the first time (nineteen). After lunch they made love, on
sheets covered with crumbs, and then Dev took a nap for twelve minutes. Miranda had
never known an adult who took naps, but Dev said it was something he’d grown up
doing in India, where it was so hot that people didn’t leave their homes until the sun
went down. “Plus it allows us to sleep together,” he murmured mischievously, curving
his arm like a big bracelet around her body.
Only Miranda never slept. She watched the clock on her bedside table, or pressed her
face against Dev’s fingers, intertwined with hers, each with its half-dozen hairs at the
knuckle. After six minutes she turned to face him, sighing and stretching, to test if he
was really sleeping. He always was. His ribs were visible through his skin as he
breathed, and yet he was beginning to develop a paunch. He complained about the hair
on his shoulders, but Miranda thought him perfect, and refused to imagine him any
At the end of twelve minutes Dev would open his eyes as if he’d been awake all along,
smiling at her, full of a contentment she wished she felt herself. “The best twelve
minutes of the week.” He’d sigh, running a hand along the backs of her calves. Then
he’d spring out of bed, pulling on his sweatpants and lacing up his sneakers. He would
go to the bathroom and brush his teeth with his index finger, something he told her all
Indians knew how to do, to get rid of the smoke in his mouth. When she kissed him
good-bye she smelled herself sometimes in his hair. But she knew that his excuse, that
he’d spent the afternoon jogging, allowed him to take a shower when he got home, first
Apart from Laxmi and Dev, the only Indians whom Miranda had known were a family in
the neighborhood where she’d grown up, named the Dixits. Much to the amusement of
the neighborhood children, including Miranda, but not including the Dixit children, Mr.
Dixit would jog each evening along the flat winding streets of their development in his
everyday shirt and trousers, his only concession to athletic apparel a pair of cheap
Keds. Every weekend, the family—mother, father, two boys, and a girl—piled into their
car and went away, to where nobody knew. The fathers complained that Mr. Dixit did
not fertilize his lawn properly, did not rake his leaves on time, and agreed that the Dixits’
house, the only one with vinyl siding, detracted from the neighborhood’s charm. The
mothers never invited Mrs. Dixit to join them around the Armstrongs’ swimming pool.
Waiting for the school bus with the Dixit children standing to one side, the other children
would say “The Dixits dig shit,” under their breath, and then burst into laughter.
One year, all the neighborhood children were invited to the birthday party of the Dixit
girl. Miranda remembered a heavy aroma of incense and onions in the house, and a pile
of shoes heaped by the front door. But most of all she remembered a piece of fabric,
about the size of a pillowcase, which hung from a wooden dowel at the bottom of the
stairs. It was a painting of a naked woman with a red face shaped like a knight’s shield.
She had enormous white eyes that tilted toward her temples, and mere dots for pupils.
Two circles, with the same dots at their centers, indicated her breasts. In one hand she
brandished a dagger. With one foot she crushed a struggling man on the ground.
Around her body was a necklace composed of bleeding heads, strung together like a
popcorn chain. She stuck her tongue out at Miranda.
“It is the goddess Kali,”Mrs. Dixit explained brightly, shifting the dowel slightly in order
to straighten the image. Mrs. Dixit’s hands were painted with henna, an intricate pattern
of zigzags and stars. “Come please, time for cake.”
Miranda, then nine years old, had been too frightened to eat the cake. For months
afterward she’d been too frightened even to walk on the same side of the street as the
Dixits’ house, which she had to pass twice daily, once to get to the bus stop, and once
again to come home. For a while she even held her breath until she reached the next
lawn, just as she did when the school bus passed a cemetery.
It shamed her now. Now, when she and Dev made love, Miranda closed her eyes and
saw deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes beneath a full moon.
One Saturday, having nothing else to do, she walked all the way to Central Square, to
an Indian restaurant, and ordered a plate of tandoori chicken. As she ate she tried to
memorize phrases printed at the bottom of the menu, for things like “delicious” and
“water” and “check, please.” The phrases didn’t stick in her mind, and so she began to
stop from time to time in the foreign-language section of a bookstore in Kenmore
Square, where she studied the Bengali alphabet in the Teach Yourself series. Once she
went so far as to try to transcribe the Indian part of her name, “Mira,”into her Filofax,
her hand moving in unfamiliar directions, stopping and turning and picking up her pen
when she least expected to. Following the arrows in the book, she drew a bar from left
to right from which the letters hung; one looked more like a number than a letter,
another looked like a triangle on its side. It had taken her several tries to get the letters
of her name to resemble the sample letters in the book, and even then she wasn’t sure
if she’d written Mira or Mara. It was a scribble to her, but somewhere in the world, she
realized with a shock, it meant something.
During the week it wasn’t so bad. Work kept her busy, and she and Laxmi had begun
having lunch together at a new Indian restaurant around the corner, during which Laxmi
reported the latest status of her cousin’s marriage. Sometimes Miranda tried to change
the topic; it made her feel the way she once felt in college, when she and her boyfriend
at the time had walked away from a crowded house of pancakes without paying for their
food, just to see if they could get away with it. But Laxmi spoke of nothing else. “IfI were
her I’d fly straight to London and shoot them both,” she announced one day. She
snapped a papadum in half and dipped it into chutney. “Idon’t know how she can just
wait this way.”
Miranda knew how to wait. In the evenings she sat at her dining table and coated her
nails with clear nail polish, and ate salad straight from the salad bowl, and watched
television, and waited for Sunday. Saturdays were the worst because by Saturday it
seemed that Sunday would never come. One Saturday when Dev called, late at night,
she heard people laughing and talking in the background, so many that she asked him if
he was at a concert hall. But he was only calling from his house in the suburbs. “Ican’t
hear you that well,” he said. “We have guests. Miss me?” She looked at the television
screen, a sitcom that she’d muted with the remote control when the phone rang. She
pictured him whispering into his cell phone, in a room upstairs, a hand on the doorknob,
the hallway filled with guests. “Miranda, do you miss me?” he asked again. She told him
that she did.
The next day, when Dev came to visit, Miranda asked him what his wife looked like.
She was nervous to ask, waiting until he’d smoked the last of his cigarettes, crushing it
with a firm twist into the saucer. She wondered if they’d quarrel. But Dev wasn’t
surprised by the question. He told her, spreading some smoked whitefish on a cracker,
that his wife resembled an actress in Bombay named Madhuri Dixit.
For an instant Miranda’s heart stopped. But no, the Dixit girl had been named
something else, something that began with P. Still, she wondered if the actress and the
Dixit girl were related. She’d been plain, wearing her hair in two braids all through high
A few days later Miranda went to an Indian grocery in Central Square which also rented
videos. The door opened to a complicated tinkling of bells. It was dinnertime, and she
was the only customer. A video was playing on a television hooked up in a corner of the
store: a row of young women in harem pants were thrusting their hips in synchrony on a
“Can I help you?” the man standing at the cash register asked. He was eating a
samosa, dipping it into some dark brown sauce on a paper plate. Below the glass
counter at his waist were trays of more plump samosas, and what looked like pale,
diamond-shaped pieces of fudge covered with foil, and some bright orange pastries
floating in syrup. “You like some video?”
Miranda opened up her Filofax, where she had written “Mottery Dixit.”She looked up
at the videos on the shelves behind the counter. She saw women wearing skirts that sat
low on the hips and tops that tied like bandannas between their breasts. Some leaned
back against a stone wall, or a tree. They were beautiful, the way the women dancing
on the beach were beautiful, with kohl-rimmed eyes and long black hair. She knew then
that Madhuri Dixit was beautiful, too.
“We have subtitled versions, miss,” the man continued. He wiped his fingertips quickly
on his shirt and pulled out three titles.
“No,”Miranda said. “Thank you, no.” She wandered through the store, studying shelves
lined with unlabeled packets and tins. The freezer case was stuffed with bags of pita
bread and vegetables she didn’t recognize. The only thing she recognized was a rack
lined with bags and bags of the Hot Mix that Laxmi was always eating. She thought
about buying some for Laxmi, then hesitated, wondering how to explain what she’d
been doing in an Indian grocery.
“Very spicy,” the man said, shaking his head, his eyes traveling across Miranda’s body.
“Too spicy for you.”
By February, Laxmi’s cousin’s husband still hadn’t come to his senses. He had returned
to Montreal, argued bitterly with his wife for two weeks, packed two suitcases, and flown
back to London. He wanted a divorce.
Miranda sat in her cubicle and listened as Laxmi kept telling her cousin that there were
better men in the world, just waiting to come out of the woodwork. The next day the
cousin said she and her son were going to her parents’ house in California, to try to
recuperate. Laxmi convinced her to arrange a weekend layover in Boston. “Aquick
change of place willdo you good,” Laxmi insisted gently, “besides which, I haven’t seen
you in years.”
Miranda stared at her own phone, wishing Dev would call. It had been four days since
their last conversation. She heard Laxmi dialing directory assistance, asking for the
number of a beauty salon. “Something soothing,” Laxmi requested. She scheduled
massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures. Then she reserved a table for lunch at
the Four Seasons. In her determination to cheer up her cousin, Laxmi had forgotten
about the boy. She rapped her knuckles on the laminated wall.
“Are you busy Saturday?”
The boy was thin. He wore a yellow knapsack strapped across his back, gray
herringbone trousers, a red V-necked sweater, and black leather shoes. His hair was
cut in a thick fringe over his eyes, which had dark circles under them. They were the
first thing Miranda noticed. They made him look haggard, as if he smoked a great deal
and slept very little, in spite of the fact that he was only seven years old. He clasped a
large sketch pad with a spiral binding. His name was Rohin.
“Ask me a capital,” he said, staring up at Miranda.
She stared back at him. It was eight-thirty on a Saturday morning. She took a sip of
“It’sa game he’s been playing,” Laxmi’s cousin explained. She was thin like her son,
with a long face and the same dark circles under her eyes. A rust-colored coat hung
heavy on her shoulders. Her black hair, with a few strands of gray at the temples, was
pulled back like a ballerina’s. “Youask him a country and he tells you the capital.”
“You should have heard him in the car,” Laxmi said. “He’s already memorized all of
“It’snot a game,” Rohin said. “I’mhaving a competition with a boy at school. We’re
competing to memorize all the capitals. I’m going to beat him.”
Miranda nodded. “Okay. What’s the capital of India?”
“That’s no good.” He marched away, his arms swinging like a toy soldier. Then he
marched back to Laxmi’s cousin and tugged at a pocket of her overcoat. “Ask me a hard
“Senegal,” she said.
“Dakar!” Rohin exclaimed triumphantly, and began running in larger and larger circles.
Eventually he ran into the kitchen. Miranda could hear him opening and closing the
“Rohin, don’t touch without asking,” Laxmi’s cousin called out wearily. She managed a
smile for Miranda. “Don’t worry, he’ll fall asleep in a few hours. And thanks for watching
“Back at three,” Laxmi said, disappearing with her cousin down the hallway. “We’re
Miranda fastened the chain on the door. She went to the kitchen to find Rohin, but he
was now in the living room, at the dining table, kneeling on one of the director’s chairs.
He unzipped his knapsack, pushed Miranda’s basket of manicure supplies to one side
of the table, and spread his crayons over the surface. Miranda stood over his shoulder.
She watched as he gripped a blue crayon and drew the outline of an airplane.
“It’s lovely,” she said. When he didn’t reply, she went to the kitchen to pour herself more
“Some for me, please,” Rohin called out.
She returned to the living room. “Some what?”
“Some coffee. There’s enough in the pot. I saw.”
She walked over to the table and sat opposite him. At times he nearly stood up to reach
for a new crayon. He barely made a dent in the director’s chair.
“You’re too young for coffee.”
Rohin leaned over the sketch pad, so that his tiny chest and shoulders almost touched
it, his head tilted to one side. “The stewardess let me have coffee,” he said. “She made
it with milk and lots of sugar.” He straightened, revealing a woman’s face beside the
plane, with long wavy hair and eyes like asterisks. “Her hair was more shiny,” he
decided, adding, “Myfather met a pretty woman on a plane, too.” He looked at Miranda.
His face darkened as he watched her sip. “Can’t I have just a little coffee? Please?”
She wondered, in spite of his composed, brooding expression, if he were the type to
throw a tantrum. She imagined his kicking her with his leather shoes, screaming for
coffee, screaming and crying until his mother and Laxmi came back to fetch him. She
went to the kitchen and prepared a cup for him as he’d requested. She selected a mug
she didn’t care for, in case he dropped it.
“Thank you,” he said when she put it on the table. He took short sips, holding the mug
securely with both hands.
Miranda sat with him while he drew, but when she attempted to put a coat of clear
polish on her nails he protested. Instead he pulled out a paperback world almanac from
his knapsack and asked her to quiz him. The countries were arranged by continent, six
to a page, with the capitals in boldface, followed by a short entry on the population,
government, and other statistics. Miranda turned to a page in the Africa section and
went down the list.
“Mali,”she asked him.
“Bamako,” he replied instantly.
She remembered looking at Africa in the Mapparium. She remembered the fat part of it
“Go on,” Rohin said.
He paused, squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them, defeated. “Ican’t remember.”
“Port Louis,” she told him.
“Port Louis.” He began to say it again and again, like a chant under his breath.
When they reached the last of the countries in Africa, Rohin said he wanted to watch
cartoons, telling Miranda to watch them with him. When the cartoons ended, he followed
her to the kitchen, and stood by her side as she made more coffee. He didn’t follow her
when she went to the bathroom a few minutes later, but when she opened the door she
was startled to find him standing outside.
“Do you need to go?”
He shook his head but walked into the bathroom anyway. He put the cover of the toilet
down, climbed on top of it, and surveyed the narrow glass shelf over the sink which held
Miranda’s toothbrush and makeup.
“What’s this for?” he asked, picking up the sample of eye gel she’d gotten the day she
“Here,” she explained, pointing.
“After you’ve been crying?”
Rohin opened the tube and smelled it. He squeezed a drop of it onto a finger, then
rubbed it on his hand. “It stings.” He inspected the back of his hand closely, as if
expecting it to change color. “Mymother has puffiness. She says it’s a cold, but really
she cries, sometimes for hours. Sometimes straight through dinner. Sometimes she
cries so hard her eyes puff up like bullfrogs.”
Miranda wondered if she ought to feed him. In the kitchen she discovered a bag of rice
cakes and some lettuce. She offered to go out, to buy something from the deli, but
Rohin said he wasn’t very hungry, and accepted one of the rice cakes. “Youeat one
too,” he said. They sat at the table, the rice cakes between them. He turned to a fresh
page in his sketch pad. “Youdraw.”
She selected a blue crayon. “What should I draw?”
He thought for a moment. “Iknow,” he said. He asked her to draw things in the living
room: the sofa, the director’s chairs, the television, the telephone. “This way I can
“Our day together.” He reached for another rice cake.
“Why do you want to memorize it?”
“Because we’re never going to see each other, ever again.”
The precision of the phrase startled her. She looked at him, feeling slightly depressed.
Rohin didn’t look depressed. He tapped the page. “Go on.”
And so she drew the items as best as she could—the sofa, the director’s chairs, the
television, the telephone. He sidled up to her, so close that it was sometimes difficult to
see what she was doing. He put his small brown hand over hers. “Now me.”
She handed him the crayon.
He shook his head. “No, now draw me.”
“Ican’t,” she said. “Itwon’t look like you.”
The brooding look began to spread across Rohin’s face again, just as it had when she’d
refused him coffee. “Please?”
She drew his face, outlining his head and the thick fringe of hair. He sat perfectly still,
with a formal, melancholy expression, his gaze fixed to one side. Miranda wished she
could draw a good likeness. Her hand moved in conjunction with her eyes, in unknown
ways, just as it had that day in the bookstore when she’d transcribed her name in
Bengali letters. It looked nothing like him. She was in the middle of drawing his nose
when he wriggled away from the table.
“I’mbored,” he announced, heading toward her bedroom. She heard him opening the
door, opening the drawers of her bureau and closing them.
When she joined him he was inside the closet. After a moment he emerged, his hair
disheveled, holding the silver cocktail dress. “This was on the floor.”
“It falls off the hanger.”
Rohin looked at the dress and then at Miranda’s body. “Put it on.”
“Put it on.”
There was no reason to put it on. Apart from in the fitting room at Filene’s she had never
worn it, and as long as she was with Dev she knew she never would. She knew they
would never go to restaurants, where he would reach across a table and kiss her hand.
They would meet in her apartment, on Sundays, he in his sweatpants, she in her jeans.
She took the dress from Rohin and shook it out, even though the slinky fabric never
wrinkled. She reached into the closet for a free hanger.
“Please put it on,” Rohin asked, suddenly standing behind her. He pressed his face
against her, clasping her waist with both his thin arms. “Please?”
“Allright,” she said, surprised by the strength of his grip.
He smiled, satisfied, and sat on the edge of her bed.
“Youhave to wait out there,” she said, pointing to the door. “I’llcome out when I’m
“But my mother always takes her clothes off in front of me.”
Rohin nodded. “She doesn’t even pick them up afterward. She leaves them all on the
floor by the bed, all tangled.
“One day she slept in my room,” he continued. “She said it felt better than her bed, now
that my father’s gone.”
“I’mnot your mother,” Miranda said, lifting him by the armpits off her bed. When he
refused to stand, she picked him up. He was heavier than she expected, and he clung
to her, his legs wrapped firmly around her hips, his head resting against her chest. She
set him down in the hallway and shut the door. As an extra precaution she fastened the
latch. She changed into the dress, glancing into the full-length mirror nailed to the back
of the door. Her ankle socks looked silly, and so she opened a drawer and found the
stockings. She searched through the back of the closet and slipped on the high heels
with the tiny buckles. The chain straps of the dress were as light as paper clips against
her collarbone. It was a bit loose on her. She could not zip it herself.
Rohin began knocking. “May I come in now?”
She opened the door. Rohin was holding his almanac in his hands, muttering something
under his breath. His eyes opened wide at the sight of her. “Ineed help with the zipper,”
she said. She sat on the edge of the bed.
Rohin fastened the zipper to the top, and then Miranda stood up and twirled. Rohin put
down the almanac. “You’re sexy,” he declared.
“What did you say?”
Miranda sat down again. Though she knew it meant nothing, her heart skipped a beat.
Rohin probably referred to all women as sexy. He’d probably heard the word on
television, or seen it on the cover of a magazine. She remembered the day in the
Mapparium, standing across the bridge from Dev. At the time she thought she knew
what his words meant. At the time they’d made sense.
Miranda folded her arms across her chest and looked Rohin in the eyes. “Tellme
He was silent.
“What does it mean?”
“That word. ‘Sexy.’ What does it mean?”
He looked down, suddenly shy. “Ican’t tell you.”
“It’sa secret.” He pressed his lips together, so hard that a bit of them went white.
“Tellme the secret. I want to know.”
Rohin sat on the bed beside Miranda and began to kick the edge of the mattress with
the backs of his shoes. He giggled nervously, his thin body flinching as if it were being
“Tellme,” Miranda demanded. She leaned over and gripped his ankles, holding his feet
Rohin looked at her, his eyes like slits. He struggled to kick the mattress again, but
Miranda pressed against him. He fell back on the bed, his back straight as a board. He
cupped his hands around his mouth, and then he whispered, “Itmeans loving someone
you don’t know.”
Miranda felt Rohin’s words under her skin, the same way she’d felt Dev’s. But instead of
going hot she felt numb. It reminded her of the way she’d felt at the Indian grocery, the
moment she knew, without even looking at a picture, that Madhuri Dixit, whom Dev’s
wife resembled, was beautiful.
“That’s what my father did,” Rohin continued. “He sat next to someone he didn’t know,
someone sexy, and now he loves her instead of my mother.”
He took off his shoes and placed them side by side on the floor. Then he peeled back
the comforter and crawled into Miranda’s bed with the almanac. A minute later the book
dropped from his hands, and he closed his eyes. Miranda watched him sleep, the
comforter rising and falling as he breathed. He didn’t wake up after twelve minutes like
Dev, or even twenty. He didn’t open his eyes as she stepped out of the silver cocktail
dress and back into her jeans, and put the high-heeled shoes in the back of the closet,
and rolled up the stockings and put them back in her drawer.
When she had put everything away she sat on the bed. She leaned toward him, close
enough to see some white powder from the rice cakes stuck to the corners of his mouth,
and picked up the almanac. As she turned the pages she imagined the quarrels Rohin
had overheard in his house in Montreal. “Is she pretty?” his mother would have asked
his father, wearing the same bathrobe she’d worn for weeks, her own pretty face turning
spiteful. “Is she sexy?” His father would deny it at first, try to change the subject. “Tell
me,” Rohin’s mother would shriek, “tell me if she’s sexy.” In the end his father would
admit that she was, and his mother would cry and cry, in a bed surrounded by a tangle
of clothes, her eyes puffing up like bullfrogs. “How could you,” she’d ask, sobbing, “how
could you love a woman you don’t even know?”
As Miranda imagined the scene she began to cry a little herself. In the Mapparium that
day, all the countries had seemed close enough to touch, and Dev’s voice had bounced
wildly off the glass. From across the bridge, thirty feet away, his words had reached her
ears, so near and full of warmth that they’d drifted for days under her skin. Miranda
cried harder, unable to stop. But Rohin still slept. She guessed that he was used to it
now, to the sound of a woman crying.
On Sunday, Dev called to tell Miranda he was on his way. “I’malmost ready. I’llbe
there at two.”
She was watching a cooking show on television. A woman pointed to a row of apples,
explaining which were best for baking. “You shouldn’t come today.”
“Ihave a cold,” she lied. It wasn’t far from the truth; crying had left her congested. “I’ve
been in bed all morning.”
“Youdo sound stuffed up.” There was a pause. “Do you need anything?”
“Drink lots of fluids.”
“Do you remember that day we went to the Mapparium?”
“Do you remember how we whispered to each other?”
“I remember,” Dev whispered playfully. “Do you remember what you said?”
There was a pause. “‘Let’sgo back to your place.’” He laughed quietly. “Next Sunday,
The day before, as she’d cried, Miranda had believed she would never forget
anything—not even the way her name looked written in Bengali. She’d fallen asleep
beside Rohin and when she woke up he was drawing an airplane on the copy of The
Economist she’d saved, hidden under the bed. “Who’s Devajit Mitra?” he had asked,
looking at the address label.
Miranda pictured Dev, in his sweatpants and sneakers, laughing into the phone. In a
moment he’d join his wife downstairs, and tell her he wasn’t going jogging. He’d pulled a
muscle while stretching, he’d say, settling down to read the paper. In spite of herself,
she longed for him. She would see him one more Sunday, she decided, perhaps two.
Then she would tell him the things she had known all along: that it wasn’t fair to her, or
to his wife, that they both deserved better, that there was no point in it dragging on.
But the next Sunday it snowed, so much so that Dev couldn’t tell his wife he was going
running along the Charles. The Sunday after that, the snow had melted, but Miranda
made plans to go to the movies with Laxmi, and when she told Dev this over the phone,
he didn’t ask her to cancel them. The third Sunday she got up early and went out for a
walk. It was cold but sunny, and so she walked all the way down Commonwealth
Avenue, past the restaurants where Dev had kissed her, and then she walked all the
way to the Christian Science center. The Mapparium was closed, but she bought a cup
of coffee nearby and sat on one of the benches in the plaza outside the church, gazing
at its giant pillars and its massive dome, and at the clear-blue sky spread over the city.
ELIOTHADBEENGOING to Mrs. Sen’s for nearly a month, ever since school started in
September. The year before he was looked after by a university student named Abby, a
slim, freckled girl who read books without pictures on their covers, and refused to
prepare any food for Eliot containing meat. Before that an older woman, Mrs. Linden,
greeted him when he came home each afternoon, sipping coffee from a thermos and
working on crossword puzzles while Eliot played on his own. Abby received her degree
and moved off to another university, while Mrs. Linden was, in the end, fired when
Eliot’s mother discovered that Mrs. Linden’s thermos contained more whiskey than
coffee. Mrs. Sen came to them in tidy ballpoint script, posted on an index card outside
the supermarket: “Professor’s wife, responsible and kind, I will care for your child in my
home.” On the telephone Eliot’s mother told Mrs. Sen that the previous baby-sitters had
come to their house. “Eliot is eleven. He can feed and entertain himself; I just want an
adult in the house, in case of an emergency.” But Mrs. Sen did not know how to drive.
“As you can see, our home is quite clean, quite safe for a child,” Mrs. Sen had said at
their first meeting. It was a university apartment located on the fringes of the campus.
The lobby was tiled in unattractive squares of tan, with a row of mailboxes marked with
masking tape or white labels. Inside, intersecting shadows left by a vacuum cleaner
were frozen on the surface of a plush pear-colored carpet. Mismatched remnants of
other carpets were positioned in front of the sofa and chairs, like individual welcome
mats anticipating where a person’s feet would contact the floor. White drum-shaped
lampshades flanking the sofa were still wrapped in the manufacturer’s plastic. The TV
and the telephone were covered by pieces of yellow fabric with scalloped edges. There
was tea in a tall gray pot, along with mugs, and butter biscuits on a tray. Mr. Sen, a
short, stocky man with slightly protuberant eyes and glasses with black rectangular
frames, had been there, too. He crossed his legs with some effort, and held his mug
with both hands very close to his mouth, even when he wasn’t drinking. Neither Mr. nor
Mrs. Sen wore shoes; Eliot noticed several pairs lined on the shelves of a small
bookcase by the front door. They wore flip-flops. “Mr. Sen teaches mathematics at the
university,” Mrs. Sen had said by way of introduction, as if they were only distantly
She was about thirty. She had a small gap between her teeth and faded pockmarks on
her chin, yet her eyes were beautiful, with thick, flaring brows and liquid flourishes that
extended beyond the natural width of the lids. She wore a shimmering white sari
patterned with orange paisleys, more suitable for an evening affair than for that quiet,
faintly drizzling August afternoon. Her lips were coated in a complementary coral gloss,
and a bit of the color had strayed beyond the borders.
Yet it was his mother, Eliot had thought, in her cuffed, beige shorts and her rope-soled
shoes, who looked odd. Her cropped hair, a shade similar to her shorts, seemed too
lank and sensible, and in that room where all things were so carefully covered, her
shaved knees and thighs too exposed. She refused a biscuit each time Mrs. Sen
extended the plate in her direction, and asked a long series of questions, the answers to
which she recorded on a steno pad. Would there be other children in the apartment?
Had Mrs. Sen cared for children before? How long had she lived in this country? Most of
all she was concerned that Mrs. Sen did not know how to drive. Eliot’s mother worked in
an office fiftymiles north, and his father, the last she had heard, lived two thousand
“Ihave been giving her lessons, actually,” Mr. Sen said, setting his mug on the coffee
table. It was the first time he had spoken. “Bymy estimate Mrs. Sen should have her
driver’s license by December.”
“Is that so?” Eliot’s mother noted the information on her pad.
“Yes, I am learning,” Mrs. Sen said. “But I am a slow student. At home, you know, we
have a driver.”
“Youmean a chauffeur?”
Mrs. Sen glanced at Mr. Sen, who nodded.
Eliot’s mother nodded, too, looking around the room. “And that’s all … in India?”
“Yes,”Mrs. Sen replied. The mention of the word seemed to release something in her.
She neatened the border of her sari where it rose diagonally across her chest. She, too,
looked around the room, as if she noticed in the lampshades, in the teapot, in the
shadows frozen on the carpet, something the rest of them could not. “Everything is
Eliot didn’t mind going to Mrs. Sen’s after school. By September the tiny beach house
where he and his mother lived year-round was already cold; Eliot and his mother had to
bring a portable heater along whenever they moved from one room to another, and to
seal the windows with plastic sheets and a hair drier. The beach was barren and dull to
play on alone; the only neighbors who stayed on past Labor Day, a young married
couple, had no children, and Eliot no longer found it interesting to gather broken mussel
shells in his bucket, or to stroke the seaweed, strewn like strips of emerald lasagna on
the sand. Mrs. Sen’s apartment was warm, sometimes too warm; the radiators
continuously hissed like a pressure cooker. Eliot learned to remove his sneakers first
thing in Mrs. Sen’s doorway, and to place them on the bookcase next to a row of Mrs.
Sen’s slippers, each a different color, with soles as flat as cardboard and a ring of
leather to hold her big toe.
He especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things, seated on
newspapers on the living room floor. Instead of a knife she used a blade that curved like
the prow of a Viking ship, sailing to battle in distant seas. The blade was hinged at one
end to a narrow wooden base. The steel, more black than silver, lacked a uniform
polish, and had a serrated crest, she told Eliot, for grating. Each afternoon Mrs. Sen
lifted the blade and locked it into place, so that it met the base at an angle. Facing the
sharp edge without ever touching it, she took whole vegetables between her hands and
hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then
quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato
in seconds. At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an
array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped
While she worked she kept an eye on the television and an eye on Eliot, but she never
seemed to keep an eye on the blade. Nevertheless she refused to let Eliot walk around
when she was chopping. “Just sit, sit please, it will take just two more minutes,” she
said, pointing to the sofa, which was draped at all times with a green and black
bedcover printed with rows of elephants bearing palanquins on their backs. The daily
procedure took about an hour. In order to occupy Eliot she supplied him with the comics
section of the newspaper, and crackers spread with peanut butter, and sometimes a
Popsicle, or carrot sticks sculpted with her blade. She would have roped off the area if
she could. Once, though, she broke her own rule; in need of additional supplies, and
reluctant to rise from the catastrophic mess that barricaded her, she asked Eliot to fetch
something from the kitchen. “Ifyou don’t mind, there is a plastic bowl, large enough to
hold this spinach, in the cabinet next to the fridge. Careful, oh dear, be careful,” she
cautioned as he approached. “Just leave it, thank you, on the coffee table, I can reach.”
She had brought the blade from India, where apparently there was at least one in
every household. “Whenever there is a wedding in the family,” she told Eliot one day,
“or a large celebration of any kind, my mother sends out word in the evening for all the
neighborhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous
circle on the roof of our building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fiftykilos of
vegetables through the night.” Her profile hovered protectively over her work, a confetti
of cucumber, eggplant, and onion skins heaped around her. “It is impossible to fall
asleep those nights, listening to their chatter.” She paused to look at a pine tree framed
by the living room window. “Here, in this place where Mr. Sen has brought me, I cannot
sometimes sleep in so much silence.”
Another day she sat prying the pimpled yellow fat off chicken parts, then dividing them
between thigh and leg. As the bones cracked apart over the blade her golden bangles
jostled, her forearms glowed, and she exhaled audibly through her nose. At one point
she paused, gripping the chicken with both hands, and stared out the window. Fat and
sinew clung to her fingers.
“Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?”
“Mrs. Sen, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I am only asking if someone would come.” Eliot shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Athome that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your
voice a bit, or express grief or joy of any kind, and one whole neighborhood and half of
another has come to share the news, to help with arrangements.”
By then Eliot understood that when Mrs. Sen said home, she meant India, not the
apartment where she sat chopping vegetables. He thought of his own home, just five
miles away, and the young married couple who waved from time to time as they jogged
at sunset along the shore. On Labor Day they’d had a party. People were piled on the
deck, eating, drinking, the sound of their laughter rising above the weary sigh of the
waves. Eliot and his mother weren’t invited. It was one of the rare days his mother had
off, but they didn’t go anywhere. She did the laundry, and balanced the checkbook, and,
with Eliot’s help, vacuumed the inside of the car. Eliot had suggested that they go
through the car wash a few miles down the road as they did every now and then, so that
they could sit inside, safe and dry, as soap and water and a circle of giant canvas
ribbons slapped the windshield, but his mother said she was too tired, and sprayed the
car with a hose. When, by evening, the crowd on the neighbors’ deck began dancing,
she looked up their number in the phone book and asked them to keep it down.
“They might call you,” Eliot said eventually to Mrs. Sen. “But they might complain that
you were making too much noise.”
From where Eliot sat on the sofa he could detect her curious scent of mothballs and
cumin, and he could see the perfectly centered part in her braided hair, which was
shaded with crushed vermilion and therefore appeared to be blushing. At first Eliot had
wondered if she had cut her scalp, or if something had bitten her there. But then one
day he saw her standing before the bathroom mirror, solemnly applying, with the head
of a thumbtack, a fresh stroke of scarlet powder, which she stored in a small jam jar. A
few grains of the powder fell onto the bridge of her nose as she used the thumbtack to
stamp a dot above her eyebrows. “Imust wear the powder every day,” she explained
when Eliot asked her what it was for, “for the rest of the days that I am married.”
“Like a wedding ring, you mean?”
“Exactly, Eliot, exactly like a wedding ring. Only with no fear of losing it in the
By the time Eliot’s mother arrived at twenty past six, Mrs. Sen always made sure all
evidence of her chopping was disposed of. The blade was scrubbed, rinsed, dried,
folded, and stowed away in a cupboard with the aid of a stepladder. With Eliot’s help the
newspapers were crushed with all the peels and seeds and skins inside them. Brimming
bowls and colanders lined the countertop, spices and pastes were measured and
blended, and eventually a collection of broths simmered over periwinkle flames on the
stove. It was never a special occasion, nor was she ever expecting company. It was
merely dinner for herself and Mr. Sen, as indicated by the two plates and two glasses
she set, without napkins or silverware, on the square Formica table at one end of the
As he pressed the newspapers deeper into the garbage pail, Eliot felt that he and Mrs.
Sen were disobeying some unspoken rule. Perhaps it was because of the urgency with
which Mrs. Sen accomplished everything, pinching salt and sugar between her
fingernails, running water through lentils, sponging all imaginable surfaces, shutting
cupboard doors with a series of successive clicks. It gave him a little shock to see his
mother all of a sudden, in the transparent stockings and shoulder-padded suits she
wore to her job, peering into the corners of Mrs. Sen’s apartment. She tended to hover
on the far side of the door frame, calling to Eliot to put on his sneakers and gather his
things, but Mrs. Sen would not allow it. Each evening she insisted that his mother sit on
the sofa, where she was served something to eat: a glass of bright pink yogurt with rose
syrup, breaded mincemeat with raisins, a bowl of semolina halvah.
“Really, Mrs. Sen. I take a late lunch. You shouldn’t go to so much trouble.”
“It is no trouble. Just like Eliot. No trouble at all.”
His mother nibbled Mrs. Sen’s concoctions with eyes cast upward, in search of an
opinion. She kept her knees pressed together, the high heels she never removed
pressed into the pear-colored carpet. “It’sdelicious,” she would conclude, setting down
the plate after a bite or two. Eliot knew she didn’t like the tastes; she’d told him so once
in the car. He also knew she didn’t eat lunch at work, because the first thing she did
when they were back at the beach house was pour herself a glass of wine and eat
bread and cheese, sometimes so much of it that she wasn’t hungry for the pizza they
normally ordered for dinner. She sat at the table as he ate, drinking more wine and
asking how his day was, but eventually she went to the deck to smoke a cigarette,
leaving Eliot to wrap up the leftovers.
Each afternoon Mrs. Sen stood in a grove of pine trees by the main road where the
school bus dropped off Eliot along with two or three other children who lived nearby.
Eliot always sensed that Mrs. Sen had been waiting for some time, as if eager to greet a
person she hadn’t seen in years. The hair at her temples blew about in the breeze, the
column of vermilion fresh in her part. She wore navy blue sunglasses a little too big for
her face. Her sari, a different pattern each day, fluttered below the hem of a checkered
all-weather coat. Acorns and caterpillars dotted the asphalt loop that framed the
complex of about a dozen brick buildings, all identical, embedded in a communal
expanse of log chips. As they walked back from the bus stop she produced a sandwich
bag from her pocket, and offered Eliot the peeled wedges of an orange, or lightly salted
peanuts, which she had already shelled.
They proceeded directly to the car, and for twenty minutes Mrs. Sen practiced driving. It
was a toffee-colored sedan with vinyl seats. There was an AM radio with chrome
buttons, and on the ledge over the back seat, a box of Kleenex and an ice scraper. Mrs.
Sen told Eliot she didn’t feel right leaving him alone in the apartment, but Eliot knew she
wanted him sitting beside her because she was afraid. She dreaded the roar of the
ignition, and placed her hands over her ears to block out the sound as she pressed her
slippered feet to the gas, revving the engine.
“Mr. Sen says that once I receive my license, everything will improve. What do you
think, Eliot? Will things improve?”
“Youcould go places,” Eliot suggested. “Youcould go anywhere.”
“Could I drive all the way to Calcutta? How long would that take, Eliot? Ten thousand
miles, at fiftymiles per hour?”
Eliot could not do the math in his head. He watched Mrs. Sen adjust the driver’s seat,
the rearview mirror, the sunglasses on top of her head. She tuned the radio to a station
that played symphonies. “Is it Beethoven?” she asked once, pronouncing the first part of
the composer’s name not “bay,” but “bee,” like the insect. She rolled down the window
on her side, and asked Eliot to do the same. Eventually she pressed her foot to the
brake pedal, manipulated the automatic gear shift as if it were an enormous, leaky pen,
and backed inch by inch out of the parking space. She circled the apartment complex
once, then once again.
“How am I doing, Eliot? Am I going to pass?”
She was continuously distracted. She stopped the car without warning to listen to
something on the radio, or to stare at something, anything, in the road. If she passed a
person, she waved. If she saw a bird twenty feet in front of her, she beeped the horn
with her index finger and waited for it to fly away. In India, she said, the driver sat on the
right side, not the left. Slowly they crept past the swing set, the laundry building, the
dark green trash bins, the rows of parked cars. Each time they approached the grove of
pine trees where the asphalt loop met the main road, she leaned forward, pinning all her
weight against the brake as cars hurtled past. It was a narrow road painted with a solid
yellow stripe, with one lane of traffic in either direction.
“Impossible, Eliot. How can I go there?”
“Youneed to wait until no one’s coming.”
“Why willnot anybody slow down?”
“No one’s coming now.”
“But what about the car from the right, do you see? And look, a truck is behind it.
Anyway, I am not allowed on the main road without Mr. Sen.”
“Youhave to turn and speed up fast,” Eliot said. That was the way his mother did it, as if
without thinking. It seemed so simple when he sat beside his mother, gliding in the
evenings back to the beach house. Then the road was just a road, the other cars merely
part of the scenery. But when he sat with Mrs. Sen, under an autumn sun that glowed
without warmth through the trees, he saw how that same stream of cars made her
knuckles pale, her wrists tremble, and her English falter.
“Everyone, this people, too much in their world.”
Two things, Eliot learned, made Mrs. Sen happy. One was the arrival of a letter from her
family. It was her custom to check the mailbox after driving practice. She would unlock
the box, but she would ask Eliot to reach inside, telling him what to look for, and then
she would shut her eyes and shield them with her hands while he shuffled through the
bills and magazines that came in Mr. Sen’s name. At first Eliot found Mrs. Sen’s anxiety
incomprehensible; his mother had a p.o. box in town, and she collected mail so
infrequently that once their electricity was cut off for three days. Weeks passed at Mrs.
Sen’s before he found a blue aerogram, grainy to the touch, crammed with stamps
showing a bald man at a spinning wheel, and blackened by postmarks.
“Is this it, Mrs. Sen?”
For the first time she embraced him, clasping his face to her sari, surrounding him with
her odor of mothballs and cumin. She seized the letter from his hands.
As soon as they were inside the apartment she kicked off her slippers this way and that,
drew a wire pin from her hair, and slit the top and sides of the aerogram in three
strokes. Her eyes darted back and forth as she read. As soon as she was finished, she
cast aside the embroidery that covered the telephone, dialed, and asked, “Yes, is Mr.
Sen there, please? It is Mrs. Sen and it is very important.”
Subsequently she spoke in her own language, rapid and riotous to Eliot’s ears; it was
clear that she was reading the contents of the letter, word by word. As she read her
voice was louder and seemed to shift in key. Though she stood plainly before him, Eliot
had the sensation that Mrs. Sen was no longer present in the room with the pear-
Afterward the apartment was suddenly too small to contain her. They crossed the main
road and walked a short distance to the university quadrangle, where bells in a stone
tower chimed on the hour. They wandered through the student union, and dragged a
tray together along the cafeteria ledge, and ate french fries heaped in a cardboard boat
among students chatting at circular tables. Eliot drank soda from a paper cup, Mrs. Sen
steeped a tea bag with sugar and cream. After eating they explored the art building,
looking at sculptures and silk screens in cool corridors thick with the fragrance of wet
paint and clay. They walked past the mathematics building, where Mr. Sen taught his
They ended up in the noisy, chlorine-scented wing of the athletic building where,
through a wide window on the fourth floor, they watched swimmers crossing from end to
end in glaring turquoise pools. Mrs. Sen took the aerogram from India out of her purse
and studied the front and back. She unfolded it and reread to herself, sighing every now
and then. When she had finished she gazed for some time at the swimmers.
“Mysister has had a baby girl. By the time I see her, depending ifMr. Sen gets his
tenure, she willbe three years old. Her own aunt willbe a stranger. If we sit side by side
on a train she willnot know my face.” She put away the letter, then placed a hand on
Eliot’s head. “Do you miss your mother, Eliot, these afternoons with me?”
The thought had never occurred to him.
“Youmust miss her. When I think of you, only a boy, separated from your mother for
so much of the day, I am ashamed.”
“Isee her at night.”
“When I was your age I was without knowing that one day I would be so far. You are
wiser than that, Eliot. You already taste the way things must be.”
The other thing that made Mrs. Sen happy was fish from the seaside. It was always a
whole fish she desired, not shellfish, or the fillets Eliot’s mother had broiled one night a
few months ago when she’d invited a man from her office to dinner—a man who’d spent
the night in his mother’s bedroom, but whom Eliot never saw again. One evening when
Eliot’s mother came to pick him up, Mrs. Sen served her a tuna croquette, explaining
that it was really supposed to be made with a fish called bhetki. “It is very frustrating,”
Mrs. Sen apologized, with an emphasis on the second syllable of the word. “To live so
close to the ocean and not to have so much fish.” In the summer, she said, she liked to
go to a market by the beach. She added that while the fish there tasted nothing like the
fish in India, at least it was fresh. Now that it was getting colder, the boats were no
longer going out regularly, and sometimes there was no whole fish available for weeks
at a time.
“Try the supermarket,” his mother suggested.
Mrs. Sen shook her head. “In the supermarket I can feed a cat thirty-two dinners from
one of thirty-two tins, but I can never find a single fish I like, never a single.” Mrs. Sen
said she had grown up eating fish twice a day. She added that in Calcutta people ate
fish first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, as a snack after school if they were
lucky. They ate the tail, the eggs, even the head. It was available in any market, at any
hour, from dawn until midnight. “Allyou have to do is leave the house and walk a bit,
and there you are.”
Every few days Mrs. Sen would open up the yellow pages, dial a number that she had
ticked in the margin, and ask if there was any whole fish available. If so, she would ask
the market to hold it. “Under Sen, yes, S as in Sam, N as in New York. Mr. Sen willbe
there to pick it up.” Then she would call Mr. Sen at the university. A few minutes later
Mr. Sen would arrive, patting Eliot on the head but not kissing Mrs. Sen. He read his
mail at the Formica table and drank a cup of tea before heading out; half an hour later
he would return, carrying a paper bag with a smiling lobster drawn on the front of it, and
hand it to Mrs. Sen, and head back to the university to teach his evening class. One
day, when he handed Mrs. Sen the paper bag, he said, “No more fish for a while. Cook
the chicken in the freezer. I need to start holding office hours.”
For the next few days, instead of calling the fish market, Mrs. Sen thawed chicken legs
in the kitchen sink and chopped them with her blade. One day she made a stew with
green beans and tinned sardines. But the following week the man who ran the fish
market called Mrs. Sen; he assumed she wanted the fish, and said he would hold it until
the end of the day under her name. She was flattered. “Isn’t that nice of him, Eliot? The
man said he looked up my name in the telephone book. He said there is only one Sen.
Do you know how many Sens are in the Calcutta telephone book?”
She told Eliot to put on his shoes and his jacket, and then she called Mr. Sen at the
university. Eliot tied his sneakers by the bookcase and waited for her to join him, to
choose from her row of slippers. After a few minutes he called out her name. When Mrs.
Sen did not reply, he untied his sneakers and returned to the living room, where he
found her on the sofa, weeping. Her face was in her hands and tears dripped through
her fingers. Through them she murmured something about a meeting Mr. Sen was
required to attend. Slowly she stood up and rearranged the cloth over the telephone.
Eliot followed her, walking for the first time in his sneakers across the pear-colored
carpet. She stared at him. Her lower eyelids were swollen into thin pink crests. “Tellme,
Eliot. Is it too much to ask?”
Before he could answer, she took him by the hand and led him to the bedroom, whose
door was normally kept shut. Apart from the bed, which lacked a headboard, the only
other things in the room were a side table with a telephone on it, an ironing board, and a
bureau. She flung open the drawers of the bureau and the door of the closet, filled with
saris of every imaginable texture and shade, brocaded with gold and silver threads.
Some were transparent, tissue thin, others as thick as drapes, with tassels knotted
along the edges. In the closet they were on hangers; in the drawers they were folded
flat, or wound tightly like thick scrolls. She sifted through the drawers, letting saris spill
over the edges. “When have I ever worn this one? And this? And this?” She tossed the
saris one by one from the drawers, then pried several from their hangers. They landed
like a pile of tangled sheets on the bed. The room was filled with an intense smell of
“‘Send pictures,’ they write. ‘Send pictures of your new life.’What picture can I send?”
She sat, exhausted, on the edge of the bed, where there was now barely room for her.
“They think I live the life of a queen, Eliot.” She looked around the blank walls of the
room. “They think I press buttons and the house is clean. They think I live in a palace.”
The phone rang. Mrs. Sen let it ring several times before picking up the extension by the
bed. During the conversation she seemed only to be replying to things, and wiping her
face with the ends of one of the saris. When she got off the phone she stuffed the saris
without folding them back into the drawers, and then she and Eliot put on their shoes
and went to the car, where they waited for Mr. Sen to meet them.
“Why don’t you drive today?” Mr. Sen asked when he appeared, rapping on the hood
of the car with his knuckles. They always spoke to each other in English when Eliot was
“Not today. Another day.”
“How do you expect to pass the test if you refuse to drive on a road with other cars?”
“Eliot is here today.”
“He is here every day. It’s for your own good. Eliot, tell Mrs. Sen it’s for her own good.”
They drove in silence, along the same roads that Eliot and his mother took back to the
beach house each evening. But in the back seat of Mr. and Mrs. Sen’s car the ride
seemed unfamiliar, and took longer than usual. The gulls whose tedious cries woke him
each morning now thrilled him as they dipped and flapped across the sky. They passed
one beach after another, and the shacks, now locked up, that sold frozen lemonade and
quahogs in summer. Only one of the shacks was open. It was the fish market.
Mrs. Sen unlocked her door and turned toward Mr. Sen, who had not yet unfastened his
seat belt. “Are you coming?”
Mr. Sen handed her some bills from his wallet. “Ihave a meeting in twenty minutes,” he
said, staring at the dashboard as he spoke. “Please don’t waste time.”
Eliot accompanied her into the dank little shop, whose walls were festooned with nets
and starfish and buoys. A group of tourists with cameras around their necks huddled by
the counter, some sampling stuffed clams, others pointing to a large chart illustrating
fiftydifferent varieties of North Atlantic fish. Mrs. Sen took a ticket from the machine at
the counter and waited in line. Eliot stood by the lobsters, which stirred one on top of
another in their murky tank, their claws bound by yellow rubber bands. He watched as
Mrs. Sen laughed and chatted, when it was her turn in line, with a man with a bright red
face and yellow teeth, dressed in a black rubber apron. In either hand he held a
mackerel by the tail.
“Youare sure what you sell me is very fresh?”
“Any fresher and they’d answer that question themselves.”
The dial shivered toward its verdict on the scale.
“Youwant this cleaned, Mrs. Sen?”
She nodded. “Leave the heads on, please.”
“Yougot cats at home?”
“No cats. Only a husband.”
Later, in the apartment, she pulled the blade out of the cupboard, spread newspapers
across the carpet, and inspected her treasures. One by one she drew them from the
paper wrapping, wrinkled and tinged with blood. She stroked the tails, prodded the
bellies, pried apart the gutted flesh. With a pair of scissors she clipped the fins. She
tucked a finger under the gills, a red so bright they made her vermilion seem pale. She
grasped the body, lined with inky streaks, at either end, and notched it at intervals
against the blade.
“Why do you do that?” Eliot asked.
“To see how many pieces. If I cut properly, from this fish I willget three meals.” She
sawed off the head and set it on a pie plate.
In November came a series of days when Mrs. Sen refused to practice driving. The
blade never emerged from the cupboard, newspapers were not spread on the floor. She
did not call the fish
store, nor did she thaw chicken. In silence she prepared crackers with peanut butter
for Eliot, then sat reading old aerograms from a shoebox. When it was time for Eliot to
leave she gathered together his things without inviting his mother to sit on the sofa and
eat something first. When, eventually, his mother asked him in the car if he’d noticed a
change in Mrs. Sen’s behavior, he said he hadn’t. He didn’t tell her that Mrs. Sen paced
the apartment, staring at the plastic-covered lampshades as if noticing them for the first
time. He didn’t tell her she switched on the television but never watched it, or that she
made herself tea but let it grow cold on the coffee table. One day she played a tape of
something she called a raga; it sounded a little bit like someone plucking very slowly
and then very quickly on a violin, and Mrs. Sen said it was supposed to be heard only in
the late afternoon, as the sun was setting. As the music played, for nearly an hour, she
sat on the sofa with her eyes closed. Afterward she said, “It is more sad even than your
Beethoven, isn’t it?” Another day she played a cassette of people talking in her
language—a farewell present, she told Eliot, that her family had made for her. As the
succession of voices laughed and said their bit, Mrs. Sen identified each speaker. “My
third uncle, my cousin, my father, my grandfather.” One speaker sang a song. Another
recited a poem. The final voice on the tape belonged to Mrs. Sen’s mother. It was
quieter and sounded more serious than the others. There was a pause between each
sentence, and during this pause Mrs. Sen translated for Eliot: “The price of goat rose
two rupees. The mangoes at the market are not very sweet. College Street is flooded.”
She turned off the tape. “These are things that happened the day I left India.” The next
day she played the same cassette all over again. This time, when her grandfather was
speaking, she stopped the tape. She told Eliot she’d received a letter over the weekend.
Her grandfather was dead.
A week later Mrs. Sen began cooking again. One day as she sat slicing cabbage on
the living room floor, Mr. Sen called. He wanted to take Eliot and Mrs. Sen to the
seaside. For the occasion Mrs. Sen put on a red sari and red lipstick; she freshened the
vermilion in her part and rebraided her hair. She knotted a scarf under her chin,
arranged her sunglasses on top of her head, and put a pocket camera in her purse. As
Mr. Sen backed out of the parking lot, he put his arm across the top of the front seat, so
that it looked as if he had his arm around Mrs. Sen. “It’sgetting too cold for that top
coat,” he said to her at one point. “We should get you something warmer.” At the shop
they bought mackerel, and butterfish, and sea bass. This time Mr. Sen came into the
shop with them. It was Mr. Sen who asked whether the fish was fresh and to cut it this
way or that way. They bought so much fish that Eliot had to hold one of the bags. After
they put the bags in the trunk, Mr. Sen announced that he was hungry, and Mrs. Sen
agreed, so they crossed the street to a restaurant where the take-out window was still
open. They sat at a picnic table and ate two baskets of clam cakes. Mrs. Sen put a good
deal of Tabasco sauce and black pepper on hers. “Like pakoras, no?” Her face was
flushed, her lipstick faded, and she laughed at everything Mr. Sen said.
Behind the restaurant was a small beach, and when they were done eating they walked
for a while along the shore, into a wind so strong that they had to walk backward. Mrs.
Sen pointed to the water, and said that at a certain moment, each wave resembled a
sari drying on a clothesline. “Impossible!” she shouted eventually, laughing as she
turned back, her eyes teary. “Icannot move.” Instead she took a picture of Eliot and Mr.
Sen standing on the sand. “Now one of us,” she said, pressing Eliot against her
checkered coat and giving the camera to Mr. Sen. Finally the camera was given to Eliot.
“Hold it steady,” said Mr. Sen. Eliot looked through the tiny window in the camera and
waited for Mr. and Mrs. Sen to move closer together, but they didn’t. They didn’t hold
hands or put their arms around each other’s waists. Both smiled with their mouths
closed, squinting into the wind, Mrs. Sen’s red sari leaping like flames under her coat.
In the car, warm at last and exhausted from the wind and the clam cakes, they
admired the dunes, the ships they could see in the distance, the view of the lighthouse,
the peach and purple sky. After a while Mr. Sen slowed down and stopped by the side
of the road.
“What’s wrong?” Mrs. Sen asked.
“Youare going to drive home today.”
“Yes, today.” Mr. Sen stepped out of the car and opened the door on Mrs. Sen’s side. A
fierce wind blew into the car, accompanied by the sound of waves crashing on the
shore. Finally she slid over to the driver’s side, but spent a long time adjusting her sari
and her sunglasses. Eliot turned and looked through the back window. The road was
empty. Mrs. Sen turned on the radio, fillingup the car with violin music.
“There’s no need,” Mr. Sen said, clicking it off.
“Ithelps me to concentrate,” Mrs. Sen said, and turned the radio on again.
“Put on your signal,” Mr. Sen directed.
“Iknow what to do.”
For about a mile she was fine, though far slower than the other cars that passed her.
But when the town approached, and traffic lights loomed on wires in the distance, she
went even slower.
“Switch lanes,” Mr. Sen said. “Youwillhave to bear left at the rotary.”
Mrs. Sen did not.
“Switch lanes, I tell you.” He shut off the radio. “Are you listening to me?”
A car beeped its horn, then another. She beeped defiantly in response, stopped, then
pulled without signaling to the side of the road. “No more,” she said, her forehead
resting against the top of the steering wheel. “Ihate it. I hate driving. I won’t go on.”
She stopped driving after that. The next time the fish store called she did not call Mr.
Sen at his office. She had decided to try something new. There was a town bus that ran
on an hourly schedule between the university and the seaside. After the university it
made two stops, first at a nursing home, then at a shopping plaza without a name,
which consisted of a bookstore, a shoe store, a drugstore, a pet store, and a record
store. On benches under the portico, elderly women from the nursing home sat in pairs,
in knee-length overcoats with oversized buttons, eating lozenges.
“Eliot,”Mrs. Sen asked him while they were sitting on the bus, “willyou put your mother
in a nursing home when she is old?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But I would visit every day.”
“You say that now, but you will see, when you are a man your life willbe in places you
cannot know now.” She counted on her fingers: “Youwillhave a wife, and children of
your own, and they willwant to be driven to different places at the same time. No matter
how kind they are, one day they willcomplain about visiting your mother, and you will
get tired of it too, Eliot. You willmiss one day, and another, and then she willhave to
drag herself onto a bus just to get herself a bag of lozenges.”
At the fish shop the ice beds were nearly empty, as were the lobster tanks, where rust-
colored stains were visible through the water. A sign said the shop would be closing for
winter at the end of the month. There was only one person working behind the counter,
a young boy who did not recognize Mrs. Sen as he handed her a bag reserved under
“Has it been cleaned and scaled?” Mrs. Sen asked.
The boy shrugged. “Myboss left early. He just said to give you this bag.”
In the parking lot Mrs. Sen consulted the bus schedule. They would have to wait forty-
five minutes for the next one, and so they crossed the street and bought clam cakes at
the take-out window they had been to before. There was no place to sit. The picnic
tables were no longer in use, their benches chained upside down on top of them.
On the way home an old woman on the bus kept watching them, her eyes shifting from
Mrs. Sen to Eliot to the blood-lined bag between their feet. She wore a black overcoat,
and in her lap she held, with gnarled, colorless hands, a crisp white bag from the
drugstore. The only other passengers were two college students, boyfriend and
girlfriend, wearing matching sweatshirts, their fingers linked, slouched in the back seat.
In silence Eliot and Mrs. Sen ate the last few clam cakes in the bag. Mrs. Sen had
forgotten napkins, and traces of fried batter dotted the corners of her mouth. When they
reached the nursing home the woman in the overcoat stood up, said something to the
driver, then stepped off the bus. The driver turned his head and glanced back at Mrs.
Sen. “What’s in the bag?”
Mrs. Sen looked up, startled.
“Speak English?” The bus began to move again, causing the driver to look at Mrs. Sen
and Eliot in his enormous rearview mirror.
“Yes, I can speak.”
“Then what’s in the bag?”
“Afish,” Mrs. Sen replied.
“The smell seems to be bothering the other passengers. Kid, maybe you should open
her window or something.”
One afternoon a few days later the phone rang. Some very tasty halibut had arrived on
the boats. Would Mrs. Sen like to pick one up? She called Mr. Sen, but he was not at
his desk. A second time she tried calling, then a third. Eventually she went to the
kitchen and returned to the living room with the blade, an eggplant, and some
newspapers. Without having to be told Eliot took his place on the sofa and watched as
she sliced the stems off the eggplant. She divided it into long, slender strips, then into
small squares, smaller and smaller, as small as sugar cubes.
“Iam going to put these in a very tasty stew with fish and green bananas,” she
announced. “Only I willhave to do without the green bananas.”
“Are we going to get the fish?”
“We are going to get the fish.”
“Is Mr. Sen going to take us?”
“Put on your shoes.”
They left the apartment without cleaning up. Outside it was so cold that Eliot could feel
the chill on his teeth. They got in the car, and Mrs. Sen drove around the asphalt loop
several times. Each time she paused by the grove of pine trees to observe the traffic on
the main road. Eliot thought she was just practicing while they waited for Mr. Sen. But
then she gave a signal and turned.
The accident occurred quickly. After about a mile Mrs. Sen took a left before she
should have, and though the oncoming car managed to swerve out of her way, she was
so startled by the horn that she lost control of the wheel and hit a telephone pole on the
opposite corner. A policeman arrived and asked to see her license, but she did not have
one to show him. “Mr. Sen teaches mathematics at the university” was all she said by
way of explanation.
The damage was slight. Mrs. Sen cut her lip, Eliot complained briefly of a pain in his
ribs, and the car’s fender would have to be straightened. The policeman thought Mrs.
Sen had also cut her scalp, but it was only the vermilion. When Mr. Sen arrived, driven
by one of his colleagues, he spoke at length with the policeman as he filled out some
forms, but he said nothing to Mrs. Sen as he drove them back to the apartment. When
they got out of the car, Mr. Sen patted Eliot’s head. “The policeman said you were lucky.
Very lucky to come out without a scratch.”
After taking off her slippers and putting them on the bookcase, Mrs. Sen put away the
blade that was still on the living room floor and threw the eggplant pieces and the
newspapers into the garbage pail. She prepared a plate of crackers with peanut butter,
placed them on the coffee table, and turned on the television for Eliot’s benefit. “Ifhe is
still hungry give him a Popsicle from the box in the freezer,” she said to Mr. Sen, who
sat at the Formica table sorting through the mail. Then she went into her bedroom and
shut the door. When Eliot’s mother arrived at quarter to six, Mr. Sen told her the details
of the accident and offered a check reimbursing November’s payment. As he wrote out
the check he apologized on behalf of Mrs. Sen. He said she was resting, though when
Eliot had gone to the bathroom he’d heard her crying. His mother was satisfied with the
arrangement, and in a sense, she confessed to Eliot as they drove home, she was
relieved. It was the last afternoon Eliot spent with Mrs. Sen, or with any baby-sitter.
From then on his mother gave him a key, which he wore on a string around his neck. He
was to call the neighbors in case of an emergency, and to let himself into the beach
house after school. The first day, just as he was taking off his coat, the phone rang. It
was his mother calling from her office. “You’re a big boy now, Eliot,” she told him. “You
okay?” Eliot looked out the kitchen window, at gray waves receding from the shore, and
said that he was fine.
This Blessed House
THEYDISCOVERED the first one in a cupboard above the stove, beside an unopened
bottle of malt vinegar.
“Guess what I found.” Twinkle walked into the living room, lined from end to end with
taped-up packing boxes, waving the vinegar in one hand and a white porcelain effigy of
Christ, roughly the same size as the vinegar bottle, in the other.
Sanjeev looked up. He was kneeling on the floor, marking, with ripped bits of a Post-it,
patches on the baseboard that needed to be retouched with paint. “Throw it away.”
“But I can cook something with the vinegar. It’s brand-new.”
“You’ve never cooked anything with vinegar.”
“I’lllook something up. In one of those books we got for our wedding.”
Sanjeev turned back to the baseboard, to replace a Post-it scrap that had fallen to the
floor. “Check the expiration. And at the very least get rid of that idiotic statue.”
“But it could be worth something. Who knows?” She turned it upside down, then
stroked, with her index finger, the minuscule frozen folds of its robes. “It’spretty.”
“We’re not Christian,” Sanjeev said. Lately he had begun noticing the need to state the
obvious to Twinkle. The day before he had to tell her that if she dragged her end of the
bureau instead of lifting it, the parquet floor would scratch.
She shrugged. “No, we’re not Christian. We’re good little Hindus.” She planted a kiss on
top of Christ’s head, then placed the statue on top of the fireplace mantel, which
needed, Sanjeev observed, to be dusted.
By the end of the week the mantel had still not been dusted; it had, however, come to
serve as the display shelf for a sizable collection of Christian paraphernalia. There was
a 3-D postcard of Saint Francis done in four colors, which Twinkle had found taped to
the back of the medicine cabinet, and a wooden cross key chain, which Sanjeev had
stepped on with bare feet as he was installing extra shelving in Twinkle’s study. There
was a framed paint-by-number of the three wise men, against a black velvet
background, tucked in the linen closet. There was also a tile trivet depicting a blond,
unbearded Jesus, delivering a sermon on a mountaintop, left in one of the drawers of
the built-in china cabinet in the dining room.
“Do you think the previous owners were born-agains?” asked Twinkle, making room the
next day for a small plastic snow-filled dome containing a miniature Nativity scene,
found behind the pipes of the kitchen sink.
Sanjeev was organizing his engineering texts from MIT in alphabetical order on a
bookshelf, though it had been several years since he had needed to consult any of
them. After graduating, he moved from Boston to Connecticut, to work for a firm near
Hartford, and he had recently learned that he was being considered for the position of
vice president. At thirty-three he had a secretary of his own and a dozen people working
under his supervision who gladly supplied him with any information he needed. Still, the
presence of his college books in the room reminded him of a time in his life he recalled
with fondness, when he would walk each evening across the Mass. Avenue bridge to
order Mughlai chicken with spinach from his favorite Indian restaurant on the other side
of the Charles, and return to his dorm to write out clean copies of his problem sets.
“Or perhaps it’s an attempt to convert people,” Twinkle mused.
“Clearly the scheme has succeeded in your case.”
She disregarded him, shaking the little plastic dome so that the snow swirled over the
He studied the items on the mantel. It puzzled him that each was in its own way so silly.
Clearly they lacked a sense of sacredness. He was further puzzled that Twinkle, who
normally displayed good taste, was so charmed. These objects meant something to
Twinkle, but they meant nothing to him. They irritated him. “We should call the Realtor.
Tell him there’s all this nonsense left behind. Tell him to take it away.”
“Oh, Sanj.” Twinkle groaned. “Please. I would feel terrible throwing them away.
Obviously they were important to the people who used to live here. It would feel, I don’t
know, sacrilegious or something.”
“Ifthey’re so precious, then why are they hidden all over the house? Why didn’t they
take them with them?
“There must be others,” Twinkle said. Her eyes roamed the bare off-white walls of the
room, as if there were other things concealed behind the plaster. “What else do you
think we’ll find?”
But as they unpacked their boxes and hung up their winter clothes and the silk
paintings of elephant processions bought on their honeymoon in Jaipur, Twinkle, much
to her dismay, could not find a thing. Nearly a week had passed before they discovered,
one Saturday afternoon, a larger-than-life-sized watercolor poster of Christ, weeping
translucent tears the size of peanut shells and sporting a crown of thorns, rolled up
behind a radiator in the guest bedroom. Sanjeev had mistaken it for a window shade.
“Oh, we must, we simply must put it up. It’s too spectacular.” Twinkle lit a cigarette and
began to smoke it with relish, waving it around Sanjeev’s head as if it were a
conductor’s baton as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony roared from the stereo downstairs.
“Now, look. I will tolerate, for now, your little biblical menagerie in the living room. But I
refuse to have this,” he said, flicking at one of the painted peanut-tears, “displayed in
Twinkle stared at him, placidly exhaling, the smoke emerging in two thin blue streams
from her nostrils. She rolled up the poster slowly, securing it with one of the elastic
bands she always wore around her wrist for tying back her thick, unruly hair, streaked
here and there with henna. “I’mgoing to put it in my study,” she informed him. “That way
you don’t have to look at it.”
“What about the housewarming? They’ll want to see all the rooms. I’ve invited people
from the office.”
She rolled her eyes. Sanjeev noted that the symphony, now in its third movement, had
reached a crescendo, for it pulsed with the telltale clashing of cymbals.
“I’llput it behind the door,” she offered. “That way, when they peek in, they won’t see.
He stood watching her as she left the room, with her poster and her cigarette; a few
ashes had fallen to the floor where she’d been standing. He bent down, pinched them
between his fingers, and deposited them in his cupped palm. The tender fourth
movement, the adagietto, began. During breakfast, Sanjeev had read in the liner notes
that Mahler had proposed to his wife by sending her the manuscript of this portion of the
score. Although there were elements of tragedy and struggle in the Fifth Symphony, he
had read, it was principally music of love and happiness.
He heard the toilet flush. “By the way,” Twinkle hollered, “ifyou want to impress people,
I wouldn’t play this music. It’s putting me to sleep.”
Sanjeev went to the bathroom to throw away the ashes. The cigarette butt still bobbed
in the toilet bowl, but the tank was refilling, so he had to wait a moment before he could
flush it again. In the mirror of the medicine cabinet he inspected his long
eyelashes—like a girl’s, Twinkle liked to tease. Though he was of average build, his
cheeks had a plumpness to them; this, along with the eyelashes, detracted, he feared,
from what he hoped was a distinguished profile. He was of average height as well, and
had wished ever since he had stopped growing that he were just one inch taller. For this
reason it irritated him when Twinkle insisted on wearing high heels, as she had done the
other night when they ate dinner in Manhattan. This was the first weekend after they’d
moved into the house; by then the mantel had already filled up considerably, and they
had bickered about it in the car on the way down. But then Twinkle had drunk four
glasses of whiskey in a nameless bar in Alphabet City, and forgot all about it. She
dragged him to a tiny bookshop on St. Mark’s Place, where she browsed for nearly an
hour, and when they left she insisted that they dance a tango on the sidewalk in front of
Afterward, she tottered on his arm, rising faintly over his line of vision, in a pair of
suede three-inch leopard-print pumps. In this manner they walked the endless blocks
back to a parking garage on Washington Square, for Sanjeev had heard far too many
stories about the terrible things that happened to cars in Manhattan. “But I do nothing all
day except sit at my desk,” she fretted when they were driving home, after he had
mentioned that her shoes looked uncomfortable and suggested that perhaps she should
not wear them. “Ican’t exactly wear heels when I’m typing.” Though he abandoned the
argument, he knew for a fact that she didn’t spend all day at her desk; just that
afternoon, when he got back from a run, he found her inexplicably in bed, reading.
When he asked why she was in bed in the middle of the day she told him she was
bored. He had wanted to say to her then, You could unpack some boxes. You could
sweep the attic. You could retouch the paint on the bathroom windowsill, and after you
do it you could warn me so that I don’t put my watch on it. They didn’t bother her, these
scattered, unsettled matters. She seemed content with whatever clothes she found at
the front of the closet, with whatever magazine was lying around, with whatever song
was on the radio—content yet curious. And now all of her curiosity centered around
discovering the next treasure.
A few days later when Sanjeev returned from the office, he found Twinkle on the
telephone, smoking and talking to one of her girlfriends in California even though it was
before five o’clock and the long-distance rates were at their peak. “Highly devout
people,” she was saying, pausing every now and then to exhale. “Each day is like a
treasure hunt. I’m serious. This you won’t believe. The switch plates in the bedrooms
were decorated with scenes from the Bible. You know, Noah’s Ark and all that. Three
bedrooms, but one is my study. Sanjeev went to the hardware store right away and
replaced them, can you imagine, he replaced every single one.”
Now it was the friend’s turn to talk. Twinkle nodded, slouched on the floor in front of
the fridge, wearing black stirrup pants and a yellow chenille sweater, groping for her
lighter. Sanjeev could smell something aromatic on the stove, and he picked his way
carefully across the extra-long phone cord tangled on the Mexican terra-cotta tiles. He
opened the lid of a pot with some sort of reddish brown sauce dripping over the sides,
“It’sa stew made with fish. I put the vinegar in it,” she said to him, interrupting her friend,
crossing her fingers. “Sorry, you were saying?” She was like that, excited and delighted
by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting
a new flavor of ice cream, or dropping a letter in a mailbox. It was a quality he did not
understand. It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could
not anticipate, or see. He looked at her face, which, it occurred to him, had not grown
out of its girlhood, the eyes untroubled, the pleasing features unfirm, as if they still had
to settle into some sort of permanent expression. Nicknamed after a nursery rhyme, she
had yet to shed a childhood endearment. Now, in the second month of their marriage,
certain things nettled him—the way she sometimes spat a little when she spoke, or left
her undergarments after removing them at night at the foot of their bed rather than
depositing them in the laundry hamper.
They had met only four months before. Her parents, who lived in California, and his,
who still lived in Calcutta, were old friends, and across continents they had arranged the
occasion at which Twinkle and Sanjeev were introduced—a sixteenth birthday party for
a daughter in their circle—when Sanjeev was in Palo Alto on business. At the restaurant
they were seated side by side at a round table with a revolving platter of spareribs and
egg rolls and chicken wings, which, they concurred, all tasted the same. They had
concurred too on their adolescent but still persistent fondness for Wodehouse novels,
and their dislike for the sitar, and later Twinkle confessed that she was charmed by the
way Sanjeev had dutifully refilled her teacup during their conversation.
And so the phone calls began, and grew longer, and then the visits, first he to
Stanford, then she to Connecticut, after which Sanjeev would save in an ashtray left on
the balcony the crushed cigarettes she had smoked during the weekend—saved them,
that is, until the next time she came to visit him, and then he vacuumed the apartment,
washed the sheets, even dusted the plant leaves in her honor. She was twenty-seven
and recently abandoned, he had gathered, by an American who had tried and failed to
be an actor; Sanjeev was lonely, with an excessively generous income for a single man,
and had never been in love. At the urging of their matchmakers, they married in India,
amid hundreds of well-wishers whom he barely remembered from his childhood, in
incessant August rains, under a red and orange tent strung with Christmas tree lights on
“Did you sweep the attic?” he asked Twinkle later as she was folding paper napkins and
wedging them by their plates. The attic was the only part of the house they had not yet
given an initial cleaning.
“Not yet. I will, I promise. I hope this tastes good,” she said, planting the steaming pot
on top of the Jesus trivet. There was a loaf of Italian bread in a little basket, and iceberg
lettuce and grated carrots tossed with bottled dressing and croutons, and glasses of red
wine. She was not terribly ambitious in the kitchen. She bought preroasted chickens
from the supermarket and served them with potato salad prepared who knew when,
sold in little plastic containers. Indian food, she complained, was a bother; she detested
chopping garlic, and peeling ginger, and could not operate a blender, and so it was
Sanjeev who, on weekends, seasoned mustard oil with cinnamon sticks and cloves in
order to produce a proper curry.
He had to admit, though, that whatever it was that she had cooked today, it was
unusually tasty, attractive even, with bright white cubes of fish, and flecks of parsley,
and fresh tomatoes gleaming in the dark brown-red broth.
“How did you make it?”
“Imade it up.”
“What did you do?”
“I just put some things into the pot and added the malt vinegar at the end.”
“How much vinegar?”
She shrugged, ripping off some bread and plunging it into her bowl.
“What do you mean you don’t know? You should write it down. What if you need to
make it again, for a party or something?”
“I’llremember,” she said. She covered the bread basket with a dishtowel that had, he
suddenly noticed, the Ten Commandments printed on it. She flashed him a smile, giving
his knee a little squeeze under the table. “Face it. This house is blessed.”
The housewarming party was scheduled for the last Saturday in October, and they had
invited about thirty people. Allwere Sanjeev’s acquaintances, people from the office,
and a number of Indian couples in the Connecticut area, many of whom he barely knew,
but who had regularly invited him, in his bachelor days, to supper on Saturdays. He
often wondered why they included him in their circle. He had little in common with any of
them, but he always attended their gatherings, to eat spiced chickpeas and shrimp
cutlets, and gossip and discuss politics, for he seldom had other plans. So far, no one
had met Twinkle; back when they were still dating, Sanjeev didn’t want to waste their
brief weekends together with people he associated with being alone. Other than
Sanjeev and an ex-boyfriend who she believed worked in a pottery studio in Brookfield,
she knew no one in the state of Connecticut. She was completing her master’s thesis at
Stanford, a study of an Irish poet whom Sanjeev had never heard of.
Sanjeev had found the house on his own before leaving for the wedding, for a good
price, in a neighborhood with a fine school system. He was impressed by the elegant
curved staircase with its wrought-iron banister, and the dark wooden wainscoting, and
the solarium overlooking rhododendron bushes, and the solid brass 22, which also
happened to be the date of his birth, nailed impressively to the vaguely Tudor facade.
There were two working fireplaces, a two-car garage, and an attic suitable for
converting into extra bedrooms if, the Realtor mentioned, the need should arise. By then
Sanjeev had already made up his mind, was determined that he and Twinkle should live
there together, forever, and so he had not bothered to notice the switch plates covered
with biblical stickers, or the transparent decal of the Virgin on the half shell, as Twinkle
liked to call it, adhered to the window in the master bedroom. When, after moving in, he
tried to scrape it off, he scratched the glass.
The weekend before the party they were raking the lawn when he heard Twinkle shriek.
He ran to her, clutching his rake, worried that she had discovered a dead animal, or a
snake. A brisk October breeze stung the tops of his ears as his sneakers crunched over
brown and yellow leaves. When he reached her, she had collapsed on the grass,
dissolved in nearly silent laughter. Behind an overgrown forsythia bush was a plaster
Virgin Mary as tall as their waists, with a blue painted hood draped over her head in the
manner of an Indian bride. Twinkle grabbed the hem of her T-shirt and began wiping
away the dirt staining the statue’s brow.
“Isuppose you want to put her by the foot of our bed,” Sanjeev said.
She looked at him, astonished. Her belly was exposed, and he saw that there were
goose bumps around her navel. “What do you think? Of course we can’t put this in our
“No, silly Sanj. This is meant for outside. For the lawn.”
“Oh God, no. Twinkle, no.”
“But we must. It would be bad luck not to.”
“Allthe neighbors will see. They’ll think we’re insane.”
“Why, for having a statue of the Virgin Mary on our lawn? Every other person in this
neighborhood has a statue of Mary on the lawn. We’ll fit right in.”
“We’re not Christian.”
“So you keep reminding me.” She spat onto the tip of her finger and started to rub
intently at a particularly stubborn stain on Mary’s chin. “Do you think this is dirt, or some
kind of fungus?”
He was getting nowhere with her, with this woman whom he had known for only four
months and whom he had married, this woman with whom he now shared his life. He
thought with a flicker of regret of the snapshots his mother used to send him from
Calcutta, of prospective brides who could sing and sew and season lentils without
consulting a cookbook. Sanjeev had considered these women, had even ranked them in
order of preference, but then he had met Twinkle. “Twinkle, I can’t have the people I
work with see this statue on my lawn.”
“They can’t fire you for being a believer. It would be discrimination.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Why does it matter to you so much what other people think?”
“Twinkle, please.” He was tired. He let his weight rest against his rake as she began
dragging the statue toward an oval bed of myrtle, beside the lamppost that flanked the
brick pathway. “Look, Sanj. She’s so lovely.”
He returned to his pile of leaves and began to deposit them by handfuls into a plastic
garbage bag. Over his head the blue sky was cloudless. One tree on the lawn was still
full of leaves, red and orange, like the tent in which he had married Twinkle.
He did not know if he loved her. He said he did when she had first asked him, one
afternoon in Palo Alto as they sat side by side in a darkened, nearly empty movie
theater. Before the film, one of her favorites, something in German that he found
extremely depressing, she had pressed the tip of her nose to his so that he could feel
the flutter of her mascara-coated eyelashes. That afternoon he had replied, yes, he
loved her, and she was delighted, and fed him a piece of popcorn, letting her finger
linger an instant between his lips, as if it were his reward for coming up with the right
Though she did not say it herself, he assumed then that she loved him too, but now he
was no longer sure. In truth, Sanjeev did not know what love was, only what he thought
it was not. It was not, he had decided, returning to an empty carpeted condominium
each night, and using only the top fork in his cutlery drawer, and turning away politely at
those weekend dinner parties when the other men eventually put their arms around the
waists of their wives and girlfriends, leaning over every now and again to kiss their
shoulders or necks. It was not sending away for classical music CDs by mail, working
his way methodically through the major composers that the catalogue recommended,
and always sending his payments in on time. In the months before meeting Twinkle,
Sanjeev had begun to realize this. “Youhave enough money in the bank to raise three
families,” his mother reminded him when they spoke at the start of each month on the
phone. “Youneed a wife to look after and love.” Now he had one, a pretty one, from a
suitably high caste, who would soon have a master’s degree. What was there not to
That evening Sanjeev poured himself a gin and tonic, drank it and most of another
during one segment of the news, and then approached Twinkle, who was taking a
bubble bath, for she announced that her limbs ached from raking the lawn, something
she had never done before. He didn’t knock. She had applied a bright blue mask to her
face, was smoking and sipping some bourbon with ice and leafing through a fat
paperback book whose pages had buckled and turned gray from the water. He glanced
at the cover; the only thing written on it was the word “Sonnets” in dark red letters. He
took a breath, and then he informed her very calmly that after finishing his drink he was
going to put on his shoes and go outside and remove the Virgin from the front lawn.
“Where are you going to put it?” she asked him dreamily, her eyes closed. One of her
legs emerged, unfolding gracefully, from the layer of suds. She flexed and pointed her
“For now I am going to put it in the garage. Then tomorrow morning on my way to work I
am going to take it to the dump.”
“Don’t you dare.” She stood up, letting the book fall into the water, bubbles dripping
down her thighs. “Ihate you,” she informed him, her eyes narrowing at the word “hate.”
She reached for her bathrobe, tied it tightly about her waist, and padded down the
winding staircase, leaving sloppy wet footprints along the parquet floor. When she
reached the foyer, Sanjeev said, “Are you planning on leaving the house that way?” He
felt a throbbing in his temples, and his voice revealed an unfamiliar snarl when he
“Who cares? Who cares what way I leave this house?”
“Where are you planning on going at this hour?”
“Youcan’t throw away that statue. I won’t let you.” Her mask, now dry, had assumed an
ashen quality, and water from her hair dripped onto the caked contours of her face.
“Yes I can. I will.”
“No,”Twinkle said, her voice suddenly small. “This is our house. We own it together.
The statue is a part of our property.” She had begun to shiver. A small pool of bathwater
had collected around her ankles. He went to shut a window, fearing that she would
catch cold. Then he noticed that some of the water dripping down her hard blue face
“Oh God, Twinkle, please, I didn’t mean it.”He had never seen her cry before, had
never seen such sadness in her eyes. She didn’t turn away or try to stop the tears;
instead she looked strangely at peace. For a moment she closed her lids, pale and
unprotected compared to the blue that caked the rest of her face. Sanjeev felt ill, as if he
had eaten either too much or too little.
She went to him, placing her damp toweled arms about his neck, sobbing into his chest,
soaking his shirt. The mask flaked onto his shoulders.
In the end they settled on a compromise: the statue would be placed in a recess at the
side of the house, so that it wasn’t obvious to passersby, but was still clearly visible to
all who came.
The menu for the party was fairly simple: there would be a case of champagne, and
samosas from an Indian restaurant in Hartford, and big trays of rice with chicken and
almonds and orange peels, which Sanjeev had spent the greater part of the morning
and afternoon preparing. He had never entertained on such a large scale before and,
worried that there would not be enough to drink, ran out at one point to buy another
case of champagne just in case. For this reason he burned one of the rice trays and had
to start it over again. Twinkle swept the floors and volunteered to pick up the samosas;
she had an appointment for a manicure and a pedicure in that direction, anyway.
Sanjeev had planned to ask if she would consider clearing the menagerie off the
mantel, if only for the party, but she left while he was in the shower. She was gone for a
good three hours, and so it was Sanjeev who did the rest of the cleaning. By five-thirty
the entire house sparkled, with scented candles that Twinkle had picked up in Hartford
illuminating the items on the mantel, and slender stalks of burning incense planted into
the soil of potted plants. Each time he passed the mantel he winced, dreading the
raised eyebrows of his guests as they viewed the flickering ceramic saints, the salt and
pepper shakers designed to resemble Mary and Joseph. Still, they would be impressed,
he hoped, by the lovely bay windows, the shining parquet floors, the impressive winding
staircase, the wooden wainscoting, as they sipped champagne and dipped samosas in
Douglas, one of the new consultants at the firm, and his girlfriend Nora were the first to
arrive. Both were tall and blond, wearing matching wire-rimmed glasses and long black
overcoats. Nora wore a black hat full of sharp thin feathers that corresponded to the
sharp thin angles of her face. Her left hand was joined with Douglas’s. In her right hand
was a bottle of cognac with a red ribbon wrapped around its neck, which she gave to
“Great lawn, Sanjeev,” Douglas remarked. “We’ve got to get that rake out ourselves,
sweetie. And this must be…”
“Call me Twinkle.”
“What an unusual name,” Nora remarked.
Twinkle shrugged. “Not really. There’s an actress in Bombay named Dimple Kapadia.
She even has a sister named Simple.”
Douglas and Nora raised their eyebrows simultaneously, nodding slowly, as if to let the
absurdity of the names settle in. “Pleased to meet you, Twinkle.”
“Help yourself to champagne. There’s gallons.”
“Ihope you don’t mind my asking,” Douglas said, “but I noticed the statue outside, and
are you guys Christian? I thought you were Indian.”
“There are Christians in India,” Sanjeev replied, “but we’re not.”
“I love your outfit,” Nora told Twinkle.
“And I adore your hat. Would you like the grand tour?”
The bell rang again, and again and again. Within minutes, it seemed, the house had
filled with bodies and conversations and unfamiliar fragrances. The women wore heels
and sheer stockings, and short black dresses made of crepe and chiffon. They handed
their wraps and coats to Sanjeev, who draped them carefully on hangers in the
spacious coat closet, though Twinkle told people to throw their things on the ottomans in
the solarium. Some of the Indian women wore their finest saris, made with gold filigree
that draped in elegant pleats over their shoulders. The men wore jackets and ties and
citrus-scented aftershaves. As people filtered from one room to the next, presents piled
onto the long cherry-wood table that ran from one end of the downstairs hall to the
It bewildered Sanjeev that it was for him, and his house, and his wife, that they had all
gone to so much care. The only other time in his life that something similar had
happened was his wedding day, but somehow this was different, for these were not his
family, but people who knew him only casually, and in a sense owed him nothing.
Everyone congratulated him. Lester, another coworker, predicted that Sanjeev would be
promoted to vice president in two months maximum. People devoured the samosas,
and dutifully admired the freshly painted ceilings and walls, the hanging plants, the bay
windows, the silk paintings from Jaipur. But most of all they admired Twinkle, and her
brocaded salwar-kameez, which was the shade of a persimmon with a low scoop in
the back, and the little string of white rose petals she had coiled cleverly around her
head, and the pearl choker with a sapphire at its center that adorned her throat. Over
hectic jazz records, played under Twinkle’s supervision, they laughed at her anecdotes
and observations, forming a widening circle around her, while Sanjeev replenished the
samosas that he kept warming evenly in the oven, and getting ice for people’s drinks,
and opening more bottles of champagne with some difficulty, and explaining for the
fortieth time that he wasn’t Christian. It was Twinkle who led them in separate groups up
and down the winding stairs, to gaze at the back lawn, to peer down the cellar steps.
“Your friends adore the poster in my study,” she mentioned to him triumphantly, placing
her hand on the small of his back as they, at one point, brushed past each other.
Sanjeev went to the kitchen, which was empty, and ate a piece of chicken out of the
tray on the counter with his fingers because he thought no one was looking. He ate a
second piece, then washed it down with a gulp of gin straight from the bottle.
“Great house. Great rice.” Sunil, an anesthesiologist, walked in, spooning food from his
paper plate into his mouth. “Do you have more champagne?”
“Yourwife’s wow,” added Prabal, following behind. He was an unmarried professor of
physics at Yale. For a moment Sanjeev stared at him blankly, then blushed; once at a
dinner party Prabal had pronounced that Sophia Loren was wow, as was Audrey
Hepburn. “Does she have a sister?”
Sunil picked a raisin out of the rice tray. “Is her last name Little Star?”
The two men laughed and started eating more rice from the tray, plowing through it with
their plastic spoons. Sanjeev went down to the cellar for more liquor. For a few minutes
he paused on the steps, in the damp, cool silence, hugging the second crate of
champagne to his chest as the party drifted above the rafters. Then he set the
reinforcements on the dining table.
“Yes, everything, we found them all in the house, in the most unusual places,” he heard
Twinkle saying in the living room. “In fact we keep finding them.”
“Yes! Every day is like a treasure hunt. It’s too good. God only knows what else we’ll
find, no pun intended.”
That was what started it. As if by some unspoken pact, the whole party joined forces
and began combing through each of the rooms, opening closets on their own, peering
under chairs and cushions, feeling behind curtains, removing books from bookcases.
Groups scampered, giggling and swaying, up and down the winding staircase.
“We’ve never explored the attic,” Twinkle announced suddenly, and so everybody
“How do we get up there?”
“There’s a ladder in the hallway, somewhere in the ceiling.”
Wearily Sanjeev followed at the back of the crowd, to point out the location of the
ladder, but Twinkle had already found it on her own. “Eureka!” she hollered.
Douglas pulled the chain that released the steps. His face was flushed and he was
wearing Nora’s feather hat on his head. One by one the guests disappeared, men
helping women as they placed their strappy high heels on the narrow slats of the ladder,
the Indian women wrapping the free ends of their expensive saris into their waistbands.
The men followed behind, all quickly disappearing, until Sanjeev alone remained at the
top of the winding staircase. Footsteps thundered over his head. He had no desire to
join them. He wondered if the ceiling would collapse, imagined, for a split second, the
sight of all the tumbling drunk perfumed bodies crashing, tangled, around him. He heard
a shriek, and then rising, spreading waves of laughter in discordant tones. Something
fell, something else shattered. He could hear them babbling about a trunk. They
seemed to be struggling to get it open, banging feverishly on its surface.
He thought perhaps Twinkle would call for his assistance, but he was not summoned.
He looked about the hallway and to the landing below, at the champagne glasses and
half-eaten samosas and napkins smeared with lipstick abandoned in every corner, on
every available surface. Then he noticed that Twinkle, in her haste, had discarded her
shoes altogether, for they lay by the foot of the ladder, black patent-leather mules with
heels like golf tees, open toes, and slightly soiled silk labels on the instep where her
soles had rested. He placed them in the doorway of the master bedroom so that no one
would trip when they descended.
He heard something creaking open slowly. The strident voices had subsided to an
even murmur. It occurred to Sanjeev that he had the house all to himself. The music
had ended and he could hear, if he concentrated, the hum of the refrigerator, and the
rustle of the last leaves on the trees outside, and the tapping of their branches against
the windowpanes. With one flick of his hand he could snap the ladder back on its spring
into the ceiling, and they would have no way of getting down unless he were to pull the
chain and let them. He thought of all the things he could do, undisturbed. He could
sweep Twinkle’s menagerie into a garbage bag and get in the car and drive it all to the
dump, and tear down the poster of weeping Jesus, and take a hammer to the Virgin
Mary while he was at it. Then he would return to the empty house; he could easily clear
up the cups and plates in an hour’s time, and pour himself a gin and tonic, and eat a
plate of warmed rice and listen to his new Bach CD while reading the liner notes so as
to understand it properly. He nudged the ladder slightly, but it was sturdily planted
against the floor. Budging it would require some effort.
“MyGod, I need a cigarette,” Twinkle exclaimed from above.
Sanjeev felt knots forming at the back of his neck. He felt dizzy. He needed to lie down.
He walked toward the bedroom, but stopped short when he saw Twinkle’s shoes facing
him in the doorway. He thought of her slipping them on her feet. But instead of feeling
irritated, as he had ever since they’d moved into the house together, he felt a pang of
anticipation at the thought of her rushing unsteadily down the winding staircase in them,
scratching the floor a bit in her path. The pang intensified as he thought of her rushing
to the bathroom to brighten her lipstick, and eventually rushing to get people their coats,
and finally rushing to the cherry-wood table when the last guest had left, to begin
opening their housewarming presents. It was the same pang he used to feel before they
were married, when he would hang up the phone after one of their conversations, or
when he would drive back from the airport, wondering which ascending plane in the sky
“Sanj, you won’t believe this.”
She emerged with her back to him, her hands over her head, the tops of her bare
shoulder blades perspiring, supporting something still hidden from view.
“Yougot it, Twinkle?” someone asked.
“Yes, you can let go.”
Now he saw that her hands were wrapped around it: a solid silver bust of Christ, the
head easily three times the size of his own. It had a patrician bump on its nose,
magnificent curly hair that rested atop a pronounced collarbone, and a broad forehead
that reflected in miniature the walls and doors and lampshades around them. Its
expression was confident, as if assured of its devotees, the unyielding lips sensuous
and full. It was also sporting Nora’s feather hat. As Twinkle descended, Sanjeev put his
hands around her waist to balance her, and he relieved her of the bust when she had
reached the ground. It weighed a good thirty pounds. The others began lowering
themselves slowly, exhausted from the hunt. Some trickled downstairs in search of a
She took a breath, raised her eyebrows, crossed her fingers. “Would you mind terribly if
we displayed it on the mantel? Just for tonight? I know you hate it.”
He did hate it. He hated its immensity, and its flawless, polished surface, and its
undeniable value. He hated that it was in his house, and that he owned it. Unlike the
other things they’d found, this contained dignity, solemnity, beauty even. But to his
surprise these qualities made him hate it all the more. Most of all he hated it because he
knew that Twinkle loved it.
“I’llkeep it in my study from tomorrow,” Twinkle added. “Ipromise.”
She would never put it in her study, he knew. For the rest of their days together she
would keep it on the center of the mantel, flanked on either side by the rest of the
menagerie. Each time they had guests Twinkle would explain how she had found it, and
they would admire her as they listened. He gazed at the crushed rose petals in her hair,
at the pearl and sapphire choker at her throat, at the sparkly crimson polish on her toes.
He decided these were among the things that made Prabal think she was wow. His
head ached from gin and his arms ached from the weight of the statue. He said, “Iput
your shoes in the bedroom.”
“Thanks. But my feet are killingme.” Twinkle gave his elbow a little squeeze and
headed for the living room.
Sanjeev pressed the massive silver face to his ribs, careful not to let the feather hat slip,
and followed her.
The Treatment of Bibi Haldar
FORTHEGREATERNUMBER of her twenty-nine years, Bibi Haldar suffered from an ailment
that baffled family, friends, priests, palmists, spinsters, gem therapists, prophets, and
fools. In efforts to cure her, concerned members of our town brought her holy water
from seven holy rivers. When we heard her screams and throes in the night, when her
wrists were bound with ropes and stinging poultices pressed upon her, we named her in
our prayers. Wise men had massaged eucalyptus balm into her temples, steamed her
face with herbal infusions. At the suggestion of a blind Christian she was once taken by
train to kiss the tombs of saints and martyrs. Amulets warding against the evil eye
girded her arms and neck. Auspicious stones adorned her fingers.
Treatments offered by doctors only made matters worse. Allopaths, homeopaths,
ayurvedics—over time, all branches of the medical arts had been consulted. Their
advice was endless. After x-rays, probes, auscultations, and injections, some advised
Bibi to gain weight, others to lose it. If one forbade her to sleep beyond dawn, another
insisted she remain in bed tillnoon. This one told her to perform headstands, that one to
chant Vedic verses at specified intervals throughout the day. “Take her to Calcutta for
hypnosis” was a suggestion others would offer. Shuttled from one specialist to the next,
the girl had been prescribed to shun garlic, consume disproportionate quantities of
bitters, meditate, drink green coconut water, and swallow raw duck’s eggs beaten in
milk. In short, Bibi’s life was an encounter with one fruitless antidote after another.
The nature of her illness, which struck without warning, confined her world to the
unpainted four-story building in which her only local family, an elder cousin and his wife,
rented an apartment on the second floor. Liable to fall unconscious and enter, at any
moment, into a shameless delirium, Bibi could be trusted neither to cross a street nor
board a tram without supervision. Her daily occupation consisted of sitting in the storage
room on the roof of our building, a space in which one could sit but not comfortably
stand, featuring an adjoining latrine, a curtained entrance, one window without a grille,
and shelves made from the panels of old doors. There, cross-legged on a square of
jute, she recorded inventory for the cosmetics shop that her cousin Haldar owned and
managed at the mouth of our courtyard. For her services, Bibi received no income but
was given meals, provisions, and sufficient meters of cotton at every October holiday to
replenish her wardrobe at an inexpensive tailor. At night she slept on a folding camp cot
in the cousin’s place downstairs.
In the mornings Bibi arrived in the storage room wearing cracked plastic slippers and a
housecoat whose hem stopped some inches below the knee, a length we had not worn
since we were fifteen. Her shins were hairless, and sprayed with a generous number of
pallid freckles. She bemoaned her fate and challenged her stars as we hung our laundry
or scrubbed scales from our fish. She was not pretty. Her upper lip was thin, her teeth
too small. Her gums protruded when she spoke. “Iask you, is it fair for a girl to sit out
her years, pass neglected through her prime, listing labels and prices without promise of
a future?” Her voice was louder than necessary, as if she were speaking to a deaf
person. “Is it wrong to envy you, all brides and mothers, busy with lives and cares?
Wrong to want to shade my eyes, scent my hair? To raise a child and teach him sweet
from sour, good from bad?”
Each day she unloaded her countless privations upon us, until it became unendurably
apparent that Bibi wanted a man. She wanted to be spoken for, protected, placed on
her path in life. Like the rest of us, she wanted to serve suppers, and scold servants,
and set aside money in her almari to have her eyebrows threaded every three weeks
at the Chinese beauty parlor. She pestered us for details of our own weddings: the
jewels, the invitations, the scent of tuberoses strung over the nuptial bed. When, at her
insistence, we showed her our photo albums embossed with the designs of butterflies,
she pored over the snapshots that chronicled the ceremony: butter poured in fires,
garlands exchanged, vermilion-painted fish, trays of shells and silver coins. “An
impressive number of guests,” she would observe, stroking with her finger the
misplaced faces that had surrounded us. “When it happens to me, you willall be
Anticipation began to plague her with such ferocity that the thought of a husband, on
which all her hopes were pinned, threatened at times to send her into another attack.
Amid tins of talc and boxes of bobby pins she would curl up on the floor of the storage
room, speaking in non sequiturs. “Iwillnever dip my feet in milk,” she whimpered. “My
face willnever be painted with sandalwood paste. Who will rub me with turmeric? My
name willnever be printed with scarlet ink on a card.”
Her soliloquies mawkish, her sentiments maudlin, malaise dripped like a fever from her
pores. In her most embittered moments we wrapped her in shawls, washed her face
from the cistern tap, and brought her glasses of yogurt and rosewater. In moments
when she was less disconsolate, we encouraged her to accompany us to the tailor and
replenish her blouses and petticoats, in part to provide her with a change of scenery,
and in part because we thought it might increase whatever matrimonial prospects she
had. “No man wants a woman who dresses like a dishwasher,” we told her. “Do you
want all that fabric of yours to go to the moths?” She sulked, pouted, protested, and
sighed. “Where do I go, who would I dress for?” she demanded. “Who takes me to the
cinema, the zoo-garden, buys me lime soda and cashews? Admit it, are these concerns
of mine? I willnever be cured, never married.”
But then a new treatment was prescribed for Bibi, the most outrageous of them all. One
evening on her way to dinner, she collapsed on the third-floor landing, pounding her
fists, kicking her feet, sweating buckets, lost to this world. Her moans echoed through
the stairwell, and we rushed out of our apartments to calm her at once, bearing palm
fans and sugar cubes, and tumblers of refrigerated water to pour on her head. Our
children clung to the banisters and witnessed her paroxysm; our servants were sent to
summon her cousin. It was ten minutes before Haldar emerged from his shop,
impassive apart from the red in his face. He told us to stop fussing, and then with no
efforts to repress his disdain he packed her into a rickshaw bound for the polyclinic. It
was there, after performing a series of blood tests, that the doctor in charge of Bibi’s
case, exasperated, concluded that a marriage would cure her.
News spread between our window bars, across our clotheslines, and over the pigeon
droppings that plastered the parapets of our rooftops. By the next morning, three
separate palmists had examined Bibi’s hand and confirmed that there was, no doubt,
evidence of an imminent union etched into her skin. Unsavory sorts murmured
indelicacies at cutlet stands; grandmothers consulted almanacs to determine a
propitious hour for the betrothal. For days afterward, as we walked our children to
school, picked up our cleaning, stood in lines at the ration shop, we whispered.
Apparently some activity was what the poor girl needed all along. For the first time we
imagined the contours below her housecoat, and attempted to appraise the pleasures
she could offer a man. For the first time we noted the clarity of her complexion, the
length and languor of her eyelashes, the undeniably elegant armature of her hands.
“They say it’s the only hope. A case of overexcitement. They say”—and here we
paused, blushing—”relations willcalm her blood.”
Needless to say, Bibi was delighted by the diagnosis, and began at once to prepare for
conjugal life. With some damaged merchandise from Haldar’s shop she polished her
toenails and softened her elbows. Neglecting the new shipments delivered to the
storage room, she began hounding us for recipes, for vermicelli pudding and papaya
stew, and inscribed them in crooked letters in the pages of her inventory ledger. She
made guest lists, dessert lists, listed lands in which she intended to honeymoon. She
applied glycerine to smooth her lips, resisted sweets to reduce her measurements. One
day she asked one of us to accompany her to the tailor, who stitched her a new salwar-
kameez in an umbrella cut, the fashion that season. On the streets she dragged us to
the counters of each and every jeweler, peering into glass cases, seeking our opinions
of tiara designs and locket settings. In the windows of sari shops she pointed to a
magenta Benarasi silk, and a turquoise one, and then one that was the color of
marigolds. “The first part of the ceremony I willwear this one, then this one, then this.”
But Haldar and his wife thought otherwise. Immune to her fancies, indifferent to our
fears, they conducted business as usual, stuffed together in that cosmetics shop no
bigger than a wardrobe, whose walls were crammed on three sides with hennas, hair
oils, pumice stones, and fairness creams. “We have little time for indecent suggestions,”
replied Haldar to those who broached the subject of Bibi’s health. “What won’t be cured
must be endured. Bibi has caused enough worry, added enough to expenses, sullied
enough the family name.” His wife, seated beside him behind the tiny glass counter,
fanned the mottled skin above her breasts and agreed. She was a heavy woman whose
powder, a shade too pale for her, caked in the creases of her throat. “Besides, who
would marry her? The girl knows nothing about anything, speaks backward, is
practically thirty, can’t light a coal stove, can’t boil rice, can’t tell the difference between
fennel and a cumin seed. Imagine her attempting to feed a man!”
They had a point. Bibi had never been taught to be a woman; the illness had left her
naive in most practical matters. Haldar’s wife, convinced that the devil himself
possessed her, kept Bibi away from fire and flame. She had not been taught to wear a
sari without pinning it in four different places, nor could she embroider slipcovers or
crochet shawls with any exceptional talent. She was not allowed to watch the television
(Haldar assumed its electronic properties would excite her), and was thus ignorant of
the events and entertainments of our world. Her formal studies had ended after the
For Bibi’s sake we argued in favor of finding a husband. “It’swhat she’s wanted all
along,” we pointed out. But Haldar and his wife were impossible to reason with. Their
rancor toward Bibi was fixed on their lips, thinner than the strings with which they tied
our purchases. When we maintained that the new treatment deserved a chance, they
contended, “Bibipossesses insufficient quantities of respect and self-control. She plays
up her malady for the attention. The best thing is to keep her occupied, away from the
trouble she invariably creates.”
“Why not marry her off, then? It willget her off your hands, at least.”
“And waste our profits on a wedding? Feeding guests, ordering bracelets, buying a bed,
assembling a dowry?”
But Bibi’s gripes persisted. Late one morning, dressed under our supervision in a sari of
lavender eyelet chiffon and mirrored slippers lent to her for the occasion, she hastened
in uneven steps to Haldar’s shop and insisted on being taken to the photographer’s
studio so that her portrait, like those of other brides-in-waiting, could be circulated in the
homes of eligible men. Through the shutters of our balconies we watched her;
perspiration had already left black moons beneath her armpits. “Apart from my x-rays I
have never been photographed,” she fretted. “Potential in-laws need to know what I look
like.” But Haldar refused. He said that anyone who wished to see her could observe her
for themselves, weeping and wailing and warding off customers. She was a bane for
business, he told her, a liability and a loss. Who in this town needed a photo to know
The next day Bibi stopped listing inventory altogether and regaled us, instead, with
imprudent details about Haldar and his wife. “On Sundays he plucks hairs from her chin.
They keep their money refrigerated under lock and key.” For the benefit of neighboring
rooftops she strutted and shrieked; with each proclamation her audience expanded. “In
the bath she applies chickpea flour to her arms because she thinks it willmake her
paler. The third toe on her right foot is missing. The reason they take such long siestas
is that she is impossible to please.”
To get her to quiet down, Haldar placed a one-line advertisement in the town
newspaper, in order to solicit a groom: “GIRL, UNSTABLE, HEIGHT 152 CENTIMETRES,
SEEKSHUSBAND.” The identity of the prospective bride was no secret to the parents of
our young men, and no family was willing to shoulder so blatant a risk. Who could
blame them? It was rumored by many that Bibi conversed with herself in a fluent but
totally incomprehensible language, and slept without dreams. Even the lonely four-
toothed widower who repaired our handbags in the market could not be persuaded to
propose. Nevertheless, to distract her, we began to coach her in wifely ways. “Frowning
like a rice pot willget you nowhere. Men require that you caress them with your
expression.” As practice for the event of encountering a possible suitor, we urged her to
engage in small conversations with nearby men. When the water bearer arrived, at the
end of his rounds, to fillBibi’s urn in the storage room, we instructed her to say “How do
you do?” When the coal supplier unloaded his baskets on the roof, we advised her to
smile and make a comment about the weather. Recalling our own experiences, we
prepared her for an interview. “Most likely the groom willarrive with one parent, a
grandparent, and either an uncle or aunt. They will stare, ask several questions. They
willexamine the bottoms of your feet, the thickness of your braid. They willask you to
name the prime minister, recite poetry, feed a dozen hungry people on half a dozen
When two months had passed without a single reply to the advertisement, Haldar and
his wife felt vindicated. “Now do you see that she is unfit to marry? Now do you see no
man of sane mind would touch her?”
Things had not been so bad for Bibi before her father died. (The mother had not
survived beyond the birth of the girl.) In his final years, the old man, a teacher of
mathematics in our elementary schools, had kept assiduous track of Bibi’s illness in
hopes of determining some logic to her condition. “Toevery problem there is a solution,”
he would reply whenever we inquired after his progress. He reassured Bibi. For a time
he reassured us all. He wrote letters to doctors in England, spent his evenings reading
casebooks at the library, gave up eating meat on Fridays in order to appease his
household god. Eventually he gave up teaching as well, tutoring only from his room, so
that he could monitor Bibi at all hours. But though in his youth he had received prizes for
his ability to deduce square roots from memory, he was unable to solve the mystery of
his daughter’s disease. For all his work, his records led him to conclude only that Bibi’s
attacks occurred more frequently in summer than winter, and that she had suffered
approximately twenty-five major attacks in all. He created a chart of her symptoms with
directions for calming her, and distributed it throughout the neighborhood, but these
were eventually lost, or turned into sailboats by our children, or used to calculate
grocery budgets on the reverse side.
Apart from keeping her company, apart from soothing her woes, apart from keeping an
occasional eye on her, there was little we could do to improve the situation. None of us
were capable of understanding such desolation. Some days, after siesta, we combed
out her hair, remembering now and then to change the part in her scalp so that it would
not grow too broad. At her request we powdered the down over her lips and throat,
penciled definition into her brows, and walked her to the banks of the fish pond where
our children played cricket in the afternoon. She was still determined to lure a man.
“Apart from my condition I am perfectly healthy,” she maintained, seating herself on a
bench along the footpath where courting men and women strolled hand in hand. “Ihave
never had a cold or flu. I have never had jaundice. I have never suffered from colic or
indigestion.” Sometimes we bought her smoked corn on the cob sprinkled with lemon
juice, or two paisa caramels. We consoled her; when she was convinced a man was
giving her the eye, we humored her and agreed. But she was not our responsibility, and
in our private moments we were thankful for it.
In November we learned that Haldar’s wife was pregnant. That morning in the storage
room, Bibi wept. “She says I’m contagious, like the pox. She says I’llspoil the baby.”
She was breathing heavily, her pupils fixed to a peeling spot on the wall. “What will
become of me?” There was still no response to the advertisement in the newspaper. “Is
it not punishment enough that I bear this curse alone? Must I also be blamed for
infecting another?” Dissent within the Haldar household grew. The wife, convinced that
Bibi’s presence would infect the unborn child, began to wrap woolen shawls around her
tumid belly. In the bathroom Bibi was given separate soaps and towels. According to the
scullery maid, Bibi’s plates were not washed with the others.
And then one afternoon, without word or warning, it happened again. On the banks of
the fish pond, Bibi fell to the footpath. She shook. She shuddered. She chewed her lips.
A group encircled the convulsing girl at once, eager to assist in whatever way possible.
The opener of soda bottles pinned down her thrashing limbs. The vendor of sliced
cucumbers attempted to unclasp her fingers. One of us doused her with water from the
pond. Another wiped her mouth with a perfumed handkerchief. The seller of jackfruits
was holding Bibi’s head, which struggled to toss from side to side. And the man who
cranked the sugarcane press gripped the palm fan that he ordinarily used to chase
away flies, agitating the air from every conceivable angle.
“Is there a doctor in the crowd?”
“Watch that she doesn’t swallow her tongue.”
“Has anyone informed Haldar?”
“She’s hotter than coals!”
In spite of our efforts, the tumult persisted. Wrestling with her adversary, wracked with
anguish, she ground her teeth and twitched at the knees. Over two minutes had passed.
We watched and worried. We wondered what to do.
“Leather!” someone cried suddenly. “She needs to smell leather.” Then we
remembered; the last time it had happened, a cowhide sandal held under her nostrils
was what had finally freed Bibi from the clutches of her torment.
“Bibi,what happened? Tell us what happened,” we asked when she opened her eyes.
“I felt hot, then hotter. Smoke passed before my eyes. The world went black. Didn’t you
A group of our husbands escorted her home. Dusk thickened, conch shells were blown,
and the air grew dense with the incense of prayers. Bibi muttered and staggered but
said nothing. Her cheeks were bruised and nicked here and there. Her hair was matted,
her elbows caked with dirt, and a small piece of one front tooth was missing. We
followed behind, at what we assumed to be safe distances, holding our children by the
She needed a blanket, a compress, a sedative tablet. She needed supervision. But
when we reached the courtyard Haldar and his wife would not have her in the flat.
“The medical risk is too great for an expectant mother to be in contact with an
hysterical person,” he insisted.
That night Bibi slept in the storage room.
Their baby, a girl, was delivered by forceps at the end of June. By then Bibi was
sleeping downstairs again, though they kept her camp cot in the corridor, and would not
let her touch the child directly. Every day they sent her to the roof to record inventory
until lunch, at which point Haldar brought her receipts from the morning’s sales and a
bowl of yellow split peas for her lunch. At night she ate milk and bread alone in the
stairwell. Another seizure, and another, went unchecked.
When we voiced our concern, Haldar said it was not our business, and flatly refused to
discuss the matter. To express our indignation we began to take our shopping
elsewhere; this provided us with our only revenge. Over the weeks the products on
Haldar’s shelves grew dusty. Labels faded and colognes turned rank. Passing by in the
evenings, we saw Haldar sitting alone, swatting moths with the sole of his slipper. We
hardly saw the wife at all. According to the scullery maid she was still bedridden;
apparently her labor had been complicated.
Autumn came, with its promise of the October holidays, and the town grew busy
shopping and planning for the season. Film songs blared from amplifiers strung through
trees. Arcades and markets stayed open all hours. We bought our children balloons and
colored ribbons, purchased sweetmeats by the kilo, paid calls in taxis to relatives we
had not seen throughout the year. The days grew shorter, the evenings colder. We
buttoned our sweaters and pulled up our socks. Then a chill set in that made our throats
itch. We made our children gargle with warm saltwater and wrap mufflers around their
necks. But it was the Haldar baby who ended up getting sick.
A doctor was summoned in the middle of the night and commanded to reduce the fever.
“Cure her,” the wife pleaded. Her shrill commotion had woken us all. “We can give you
anything, just cure my baby girl.”The doctor prescribed a glucose formula, crushed
aspirins in a mortar, and told them to wrap the child with quilts and covers.
Five days later the fever had not budged.
“It’sBibi,” the wife wailed. “She’s done it, she’s infected our child. We should never have
let her back down here. We should never have let her back into this house.”
And so Bibi started to spend her nights in the storage room again. At the wife’s
insistence Haldar even moved her camp cot up there, along with a tin trunk that
contained her belongings. Her meals were left covered with a colander at the top of the
“Idon’t mind,” Bibi told us. “It’sbetter to live apart from them, to set up house on my
own.” She unpacked the trunk—some housecoats, a framed portrait of her father,
sewing supplies, and an assortment of fabrics—and arranged her things on a few empty
shelves. By the week’s end the baby had recuperated, but Bibi was not asked to return
downstairs. “Don’t worry, it’s not as if they’ve locked me in here,” she said in order to set
us at ease. “The world begins at the bottom of the stairs. Now I am free to discover life
as I please.”
But in truth she stopped going out altogether. When we asked her to come with us to
the fish pond or to go see temple decorations she refused, claiming that she was
stitching a new curtain to hang across the entrance of the storage room. Her skin looked
ashen. She needed fresh air. “What about finding your husband?” we suggested. “How
do you expect to charm a man sitting up here all day?”
Nothing persuaded her.
By mid-December, Haldar cleared all the unsold merchandise off the shelves of his
beauty shop and hauled them in boxes up to the storage room. We had succeeded in
driving him more or less out of business. Before the year’s end the family moved away,
leaving an envelope containing three hundred rupees under Bibi’s door. There was no
more news of them.
One of us had an address for a relation of Bibi’s in Hyderabad, and wrote explaining the
situation. The letter was returned unopened, address unknown. Before the coldest
weeks set in, we had the shutters of the storage room repaired and attached a sheet of
tin to the doorframe, so that she would at least have some privacy. Someone donated a
kerosene lamp; another gave her some old mosquito netting and a pair of socks without
heels. At every opportunity we reminded her that we surrounded her, that she could
come to us if she ever needed advice or aid of any kind. For a time we sent our children
to play on the roof in the afternoons, so that they could alert us if she was having
another attack. But each night we left her alone.
Some months passed. Bibi had retreated into a deep and prolonged silence. We took
turns leaving her plates of rice and glasses of tea. She drank little, ate less, and began
to assume an expression that no longer matched her years. At twilight she circled the
parapet once or twice, but she never left the rooftop. After dark she remained behind
the tin door and did not come out for any reason. We did not disturb her. Some of us
began to wonder if she was dying. Others concluded that she had lost her mind.
One morning in April, when the heat had returned for drying lentil wafers on the roof, we
noticed that someone had vomited by the cistern tap. When we noticed this a second
morning as well, we knocked on Bibi’s tin door. When there was no answer we opened
it ourselves, as there was no lock to fasten it.
We found her lying on the camp cot. She was about four months pregnant.
She said she could not remember what had happened. She would not tell us who had
done it. We prepared her semolina with hot milk and raisins; still she would not reveal
the man’s identity. In vain we searched for traces of the assault, some sign of the
intrusion, but the room was swept and in order. On the floor beside the cot, her
inventory ledger, open to a fresh page, contained a list of names.
She carried the baby to full term, and one evening in September, we helped her deliver
a son. We showed her how to feed him, and bathe him, and lull him to sleep. We bought
her an oilcloth and helped her stitch clothes and pillowcases out of the fabric she had
saved over the years. Within a month Bibi had recuperated from the birth, and with the
money that Haldar had left her, she had the storage room whitewashed, and placed
padlocks on the window and doors. Then she dusted the shelves and arranged the
leftover potions and lotions, selling Haldar’s old inventory at half price. She told us to
spread word of the sale, and we did. From Bibi we purchased our soaps and kohl, our
combs and powders, and when she had sold the last of her merchandise, she went by
taxi to the wholesale market, using her profits to restock the shelves. In this manner she
raised the boy and ran a business in the storage room, and we did what we could to
help. For years afterward, we wondered who in our town had disgraced her. A few of
our servants were questioned, and in tea stalls and bus stands, possible suspects were
debated and dismissed. But there was no point carrying out an investigation. She was,
to the best of our knowledge, cured.
The Third and Final Continent
I LEFTINDIAIN 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of
ten dollars to my name. For three weeks I sailed on the SS Roma, an Italian cargo
vessel, in a cabin next to the ship’s engine, across the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the
Mediterranean, and finally to England. I lived in north London, in Finsbury Park, in a
house occupied entirely by penniless Bengali bachelors like myself, at least a dozen
and sometimes more, all struggling to educate and establish ourselves abroad.
I attended lectures at LSE and worked at the university library to get by. We lived three
or four to a room, shared a single, icy toilet, and took turns cooking pots of egg curry,
which we ate with our hands on a table covered with newspapers. Apart from our jobs
we had few responsibilities. On weekends we lounged barefoot in drawstring pajamas,
drinking tea and smoking Rothmans, or set out to watch cricket at Lord’s. Some
weekends the house was crammed with still more Bengalis, to whom we had introduced
ourselves at the greengrocer, or on the Tube, and we made yet more egg curry, and
played Mukesh on a Grundig reel-to-reel, and soaked our dirty dishes in the bathtub.
Every now and then someone in the house moved out, to live with a woman whom his
family back in Calcutta had determined he was to wed. In 1969, when I was thirty-six
years old, my own marriage was arranged. Around the same time I was offered a full-
time job in America, in the processing department of a library at MIT.The salary was
generous enough to support a wife, and I was honored to be hired by a world-famous
university, and so I obtained a sixth-preference green card, and prepared to travel
By now I had enough money to go by plane. I flew first to Calcutta, to attend my
wedding, and a week later I flew to Boston, to begin my new job. During the flight I read
The Student Guide to North America, a paperback volume that I’d bought before
leaving London, for seven shillings six pence on Tottenham Court Road, for although I
was no longer a student I was on a budget all the same. I learned that Americans drove
on the right side of the road, not the left, and that they called a lift an elevator and an
engaged phone busy. “The pace of life in North America is different from Britain as you
will soon discover,” the guidebook informed me. “Everybody feels he must get to the
top. Don’t expect an English cup of tea.” As the plane began its descent over Boston
Harbor, the pilot announced the weather and time, and that President Nixon had
declared a national holiday: two American men had landed on the moon. Several
passengers cheered. “God bless America!” one of them hollered. Across the aisle, I saw
a woman praying.
I spent my first night at the YMCA in Central Square, Cambridge, an inexpensive
accommodation recommended by my guidebook. It was walking distance from MIT,and
steps from the post office and a supermarket called Purity Supreme. The room
contained a cot, a desk, and a small wooden cross on one wall. A sign on the door said
cooking was strictly forbidden. A bare window overlooked Massachusetts Avenue, a
major thoroughfare with traffic in both directions. Car horns, shrill and prolonged, blared
one after another. Flashing sirens heralded endless emergencies, and a fleet of buses
rumbled past, their doors opening and closing with a powerful hiss, throughout the night.
The noise was constantly distracting, at times suffocating. I felt it deep in my ribs, just as
I had felt the furious drone of the engine on the SS Roma. But there was no ship’s
deck to escape to, no glittering ocean to thrill my soul, no breeze to cool my face, no
one to talk to. I was too tired to pace the gloomy corridors of the YMCA in my drawstring
pajamas. Instead I sat at the desk and stared out the window, at the city hall of
Cambridge and a row of small shops. In the morning I reported to my job at the Dewey
Library, a beige fortlike building by Memorial Drive. I also opened a bank account,
rented a post office box, and bought a plastic bowl and a spoon at Woolworth’s, a store
whose name I recognized from London. I went to Purity Supreme, wandering up and
down the aisles, converting ounces to grams and comparing prices to things in England.
In the end I bought a small carton of milk and a box of cornflakes. This was my first
meal in America. I ate it at my desk. I preferred it to hamburgers or hot dogs, the only
alternative I could afford in the coffee shops on Massachusetts Avenue, and, besides, at
the time I had yet to consume any beef. Even the simple chore of buying milk was new
to me; in London we’d had bottles delivered each morning to our door.
In a week I had adjusted, more or less. I ate cornflakes and milk, morning and night,
and bought some bananas for variety, slicing them into the bowl with the edge of my
spoon. In addition I bought tea bags and a flask, which the salesman in Woolworth’s
referred to as a thermos (a flask, he informed me, was used to store whiskey, another
thing I had never consumed). For the price of one cup of tea at a coffee shop, I filled the
flask with boiling water on my way to work each morning, and brewed the four cups I
drank in the course of a day. I bought a larger carton of milk, and learned to leave it on
the shaded part of the windowsill, as I had seen another resident at the YMCAdo. To
pass the time in the evenings I read the Boston Globe downstairs, in a spacious room
with stained-glass windows. I read every article and advertisement, so that I would grow
familiar with things, and when my eyes grew tired I slept. Only I did not sleep well. Each
night I had to keep the window wide open; it was the only source of air in the stifling
room, and the noise was intolerable. I would lie on the cot with my fingers pressed into
my ears, but when I drifted off to sleep my hands fell away, and the noise of the traffic
would wake me up again. Pigeon feathers drifted onto the window-sill, and one evening,
when I poured milk over my cornflakes, I saw that it had soured. Nevertheless I resolved
to stay at the YMCA for six weeks, until my wife’s passport and green card were ready.
Once she arrived I would have to rent a proper apartment, and from time to time I
studied the classified section of the newspaper, or stopped in at the housing office at
MIT during my lunch break, to see what was available in my price range. It was in this
manner that I discovered a room for immediate occupancy, in a house on a quiet street,
the listing said, for eight dollars per week. I copied the number into my guidebook and
dialed from a pay telephone, sorting through the coins with which I was still unfamiliar,
smaller and lighter than shillings, heavier and brighter than paisas.
“Who is speaking?” a woman demanded. Her voice was bold and clamorous.
“Yes, good afternoon, madame. I am calling about the room for rent.”
“Harvard or Tech?”
“Ibeg your pardon?”
“Are you from Harvard or Tech?”
Gathering that Tech referred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I replied, “I
work at Dewey Library,” adding tentatively, “at Tech.”
“Ionly rent rooms to boys from Harvard or Tech!”
I was given an address and an appointment for seven o’clock that evening. Thirty
minutes before the hour I set out, my guidebook in my pocket, my breath fresh with
Listerine. I turned down a street shaded with trees, perpendicular to Massachusetts
Avenue. Stray blades of grass poked between the cracks of the footpath. In spite of the
heat I wore a coat and a tie, regarding the event as I would any other interview; I had
never lived in the home of a person who was not Indian. The house, surrounded by a
chain-link fence, was off-white with dark brown trim. Unlike the stucco row house I’d
lived in in London, this house, fully detached, was covered with wooden shingles, with a
tangle of forsythia bushes plastered against the front and sides. When I pressed the
calling bell, the woman with whom I had spoken on the phone hollered from what
seemed to be just the other side of the door, “One minute, please!”
Several minutes later the door was opened by a tiny, extremely old woman. A mass of
snowy hair was arranged like a small sack on top of her head. As I stepped into the
house she sat down on a wooden bench positioned at the bottom of a narrow carpeted
staircase. Once she was settled on the bench, in a small pool of light, she peered up at
me with undivided attention. She wore a long black skirt that spread like a stiff tent to
the floor, and a starched white shirt edged with ruffles at the throat and cuffs. Her
hands, folded together in her lap, had long pallid fingers, with swollen knuckles and
tough yellow nails. Age had battered her features so that she almost resembled a man,
with sharp, shrunken eyes and prominent creases on either side of her nose. Her lips,
chapped and faded, had nearly disappeared, and her eyebrows were missing
altogether. Nevertheless she looked fierce.
“Lock up!” she commanded. She shouted even though I stood only a few feet away.
“Fasten the chain and firmly press that button on the knob! This is the first thing you
shall do when you enter, is that clear?”
I locked the door as directed and examined the house. Next to the bench on which the
woman sat was a small round table, its legs fully concealed, much like the woman’s, by
a skirt of lace. The table held a lamp, a transistor radio, a leather change purse with a
silver clasp, and a telephone. A thick wooden cane coated with a layer of dust was
propped against one side. There was a parlor to my right, lined with bookcases and
filled with shabby claw-footed furniture. In the corner of the parlor I saw a grand piano
with its top down, piled with papers. The piano’s bench was missing; it seemed to be the
one on which the woman was sitting. Somewhere in the house a clock chimed seven
“You’re punctual!” the woman proclaimed. “Iexpect you shall be so with the rent!”
“Ihave a letter, madame.” In my jacket pocket was a letter confirming my employment
from MIT,which I had brought along to prove that I was indeed from Tech.
She stared at the letter, then handed it back to me carefully, gripping it with her fingers
as if it were a dinner plate heaped with food instead of a sheet of paper. She did not
wear glasses, and I wondered if she’d read a word of it. “The last boy was always late!
Still owes me eight dollars! Harvard boys aren’t what they used to be! Only Harvard and
Tech in this house! How’s Tech, boy?”
“It is very well.”
“Youchecked the lock?”
She slapped the space beside her on the bench with one hand, and told me to sit down.
For a moment she was silent. Then she intoned, as if she alone possessed this
“There is an American flag on the moon!”
“Yes, madame.” Until then I had not thought very much about the moon shot. It was in
the newspaper, of course, article upon article. The astronauts had landed on the shores
of the Sea of Tranquillity, I had read, traveling farther than anyone in the history of
civilization. For a few hours they explored the moon’s surface. They gathered rocks in
their pockets, described their surroundings (a magnificent desolation, according to one
astronaut), spoke by phone to the president, and planted a flag in lunar soil. The voyage
was hailed as man’s most awesome achievement. I had seen full-page photographs in
the Globe, of the astronauts in their inflated costumes, and read about what certain
people in Boston had been doing at the exact moment the astronauts landed, on a
Sunday afternoon. A man said that he was operating a swan boat with a radio pressed
to his ear; a woman had been baking rolls for her grandchildren.
The woman bellowed, “Aflag on the moon, boy! I heard it on the radio! Isn’t that
But she was not satisfied with my reply. Instead she commanded, “Say ‘splendid’!”
I was both baffled and somewhat insulted by the request. It reminded me of the way I
was taught multiplication tables as a child, repeating after the master, sitting cross-
legged, without shoes or pencils, on the floor of my one-room Tollygunge school. It also
reminded me of my wedding, when I had repeated endless Sanskrit verses after the
priest, verses I barely understood, which joined me to my wife. I said nothing.
“Say ‘splendid’!” the woman bellowed once again.
“Splendid,” I murmured. I had to repeat the word a second time at the top of my lungs,
so she could hear. I am soft-spoken by nature and was especially reluctant to raise my
voice to an elderly woman whom I had met only moments ago, but she did not appear
to be offended. If anything the reply pleased her because her next command was:
“Go see the room!”
I rose from the bench and mounted the narrow carpeted staircase. There were five
doors, two on either side of an equally narrow hallway, and one at the opposite end.
Only one door was partly open. The room contained a twin bed under a sloping ceiling,
a brown oval rug, a basin with an exposed pipe, and a chest of drawers. One door,
painted white, led to a closet, another to a toilet and a tub. The walls were covered with
gray and ivory striped paper. The window was open; net curtains stirred in the breeze. I
lifted them away and inspected the view: a small back yard, with a few fruit trees and an
empty clothesline. I was satisfied. From the bottom of the stairs I heard the woman
demand, “What is your decision?”
When I returned to the foyer and told her, she picked up the leather change purse on
the table, opened the clasp, fished about with her fingers, and produced a key on a thin
wire hoop. She informed me that there was a kitchen at the back of the house,
accessible through the parlor. I was welcome to use the stove as long as I left it as I
found it. Sheets and towels were provided, but keeping them clean was my own
responsibility. The rent was due Friday mornings on the ledge above the piano keys.
“And no lady visitors!”
“Iam a married man, madame.” It was the first time I had announced this fact to
But she had not heard. “No lady visitors!” she insisted. She introduced herself as Mrs.
My wife’s name was Mala. The marriage had been arranged by my older brother and
his wife. I regarded the proposition with neither objection nor enthusiasm. It was a duty
expected of me, as it was expected of every man. She was the daughter of a
schoolteacher in Beleghata. I was told that she could cook, knit, embroider, sketch
landscapes, and recite poems by Tagore, but these talents could not make up for the
fact that she did not possess a fair complexion, and so a string of men had rejected her
to her face. She was twenty-seven, an age when her parents had begun to fear that she
would never marry, and so they were willing to ship their only child halfway across the
world in order to save her from spinsterhood.
For five nights we shared a bed. Each of those nights, after applying cold cream and
braiding her hair, which she tied up at the end with a black cotton string, she turned
from me and wept; she missed her parents. Although I would be leaving the country in a
few days, custom dictated that she was now a part of my household, and for the next six
weeks she was to live with my brother and his wife, cooking, cleaning, serving tea and
sweets to guests. I did nothing to console her. I lay on my own side of the bed, reading
my guidebook by flashlight and anticipating my journey. At times I thought of the tiny
room on the other side of the wall which had belonged to my mother. Now the room was
practically empty; the wooden pallet on which she’d once slept was piled with trunks
and old bedding. Nearly six years ago, before leaving for London, I had watched her die
on that bed, had found her playing with her excrement in her final days. Before we
cremated her I had cleaned each of her fingernails with a hairpin, and then, because my
brother could not bear it, I had assumed the role of eldest son, and had touched the
flame to her temple, to release her tormented soul to heaven.
The next morning I moved into the room in Mrs. Croft’s house. When I unlocked the
door I saw that she was sitting on the piano bench, on the same side as the previous
evening. She wore the same black skirt, the same starched white blouse, and had her
hands folded together the same way in her lap. She looked so much the same that I
wondered if she’d spent the whole night on the bench. I put my suitcase upstairs, filled
my flask with boiling water in the kitchen, and headed off to work. That evening when I
came home from the university, she was still there.
“Sit down, boy!” She slapped the space beside her.
I perched beside her on the bench. I had a bag of groceries with me—more milk, more
cornflakes, and more bananas, for my inspection of the kitchen earlier in the day had
revealed no spare pots, pans, or cooking utensils. There were only two saucepans in
the refrigerator, both containing some orange broth, and a copper kettle on the stove.
“Good evening, madame.”
She asked me if I had checked the lock. I told her I had.
For a moment she was silent. Then suddenly she declared, with the equal measures of
disbelief and delight as the night before, “There’s an American flag on the moon, boy!”
“Aflag on the moon! Isn’t that splendid?”
I nodded, dreading what I knew was coming. “Yes, madame.”
This time I paused, looking to either side in case anyone were there to overhear me,
though I knew perfectly well that the house was empty. I felt like an idiot. But it was a
small enough thing to ask. “Splendid!” I cried out.
Within days it became our routine. In the mornings when I left for the library Mrs. Croft
was either hidden away in her bedroom, on the other side of the staircase, or she was
sitting on the bench, oblivious to my presence, listening to the news or classical music
on the radio. But each evening when I returned the same thing happened: she slapped
the bench, ordered me to sit down, declared that there was a flag on the moon, and
declared that it was splendid. I said it was splendid, too, and then we sat in silence. As
awkward as it was, and as endless as it felt to me then, the nightly encounter lasted
only about ten minutes; inevitably she would drift off to sleep, her head falling abruptly
toward her chest, leaving me free to retire to my room. By then, of course, there was no
flag standing on the moon. The astronauts, I had read in the paper, had seen it fall
before they flew back to Earth. But I did not have the heart to tell her.
Friday morning, when my first week’s rent was due, I went to the piano in the parlor to
place my money on the ledge. The piano keys were dull and discolored. When I
pressed one, it made no sound at all. I had put eight one-dollar bills in an envelope and
written Mrs. Croft’s name on the front of it. I was not in the habit of leaving money
unmarked and unattended. From where I stood I could see the profile of her tent-
shaped skirt. She was sitting on the bench, listening to the radio. It seemed
unnecessary to make her get up and walk all the way to the piano. I never saw her
walking about, and assumed, from the cane always propped against the round table at
her side, that she did so with difficulty. When I approached the bench she peered up at
me and demanded:
“What is your business?”
“The rent, madame.”
“On the ledge above the piano keys!”
“Ihave it here.” I extended the envelope toward her, but her fingers, folded together in
her lap, did not budge. I bowed slightly and lowered the envelope, so that it hovered just
above her hands. After a moment she accepted, and nodded her head.
That night when I came home, she did not slap the bench, but out of habit I sat beside
her as usual. She asked me if I had checked the lock, but she mentioned nothing about
the flag on the moon. Instead she said:
“Itwas very kind of you!”
“Ibeg your pardon, madame?”
“Very kind of you!”
She was still holding the envelope in her hands.
On Sunday there was a knock on my door. An elderly woman introduced herself: she
was Mrs. Croft’s daughter, Helen. She walked into the room and looked at each of the
walls as if for signs of change, glancing at the shirts that hung in the closet, the neckties
draped over the doorknob, the box of cornflakes on the chest of drawers, the dirty bowl
and spoon in the basin. She was short and thick-waisted, with cropped silver hair and
bright pink lipstick. She wore a sleeveless summer dress, a row of white plastic beads,
and spectacles on a chain that hung like a swing against her chest. The backs of her
legs were mapped with dark blue veins, and her upper arms sagged like the flesh of a
roasted eggplant. She told me she lived in Arlington, a town farther up Massachusetts
Avenue. “Icome once a week to bring Mother groceries. Has she sent you packing
“It is very well, madame.”
“Some of the boys run screaming. But I think she likes you. You’re the first boarder
she’s ever referred to as a gentleman.”
“Not at all, madame.”
She looked at me, noticing my bare feet (I still felt strange wearing shoes indoors, and
always removed them before entering my room). “Are you new to Boston?”
“New to America, madame.”
“From?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Iam from Calcutta, India.”
“Is that right? We had a Brazilian fellow, about a year ago. You’llfind Cambridge a very
I nodded, and began to wonder how long our conversation would last. But at that
moment we heard Mrs. Croft’s electrifying voice rising up the stairs. When we stepped
into the hallway we heard her hollering:
“Youare to come downstairs immediately!”
“What is it?” Helen hollered back.
I put on my shoes at once. Helen sighed.
We walked down the staircase. It was too narrow for us to descend side by side, so I
followed Helen, who seemed to be in no hurry, and complained at one point that she
had a bad knee. “Have you been walking without your cane?” Helen called out. “You
know you’re not supposed to walk without that cane.” She paused, resting her hand on
the banister, and looked back at me. “She slips sometimes.”
For the first time Mrs. Croft seemed vulnerable. I pictured her on the floor in front of the
bench, flat on her back, staring at the ceiling, her feet pointing in opposite directions.
But when we reached the bottom of the staircase she was sitting there as usual, her
hands folded together in her lap. Two grocery bags were at her feet. When we stood
before her she did not slap the bench, or ask us to sit down. She glared.
“What is it, Mother?”
“It is improper for a lady and gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a
private conversation without a chaperone!”
Helen said she was sixty-eight years old, old enough to be my mother, but Mrs. Croft
insisted that Helen and I speak to each other downstairs, in the parlor. She added that it
was also improper for a lady of Helen’s station to reveal her age, and to wear a dress so
high above the ankle.
“For your information, Mother, it’s 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house
one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?”
Mrs. Croft sniffed. “I’dhave her arrested.”
Helen shook her head and picked up one of the grocery bags. I picked up the other one,
and followed her through the parlor and into the kitchen. The bags were filled with cans
of soup, which Helen opened up one by one with a few cranks of a can opener. She
tossed the old soup in the saucepans into the sink, rinsed the pans under the tap, filled
them with soup from the newly opened cans, and put them back in the refrigerator. “A
few years ago she could still open the cans herself,” Helen said. “She hates that I do it
for her now. But the piano killed her hands.” She put on her spectacles, glanced at the
cupboards, and spotted my tea bags. “Shall we have a cup?”
I filled the kettle on the stove. “Ibeg your pardon, madame. The piano?”
“She used to give lessons. For forty years. It was how she raised us after my father
died.” Helen put her hands on her hips, staring at the open refrigerator. She reached
into the back, pulled out a wrapped stick of butter, frowned, and tossed it into the
garbage. “That ought to do it,” she said, and put the unopened cans of soup in the
cupboard. I sat at the table and watched as Helen washed the dirty dishes, tied up the
garbage bag, watered a spider plant over the sink, and poured boiling water into two
cups. She handed one to me without milk, the string of the tea bag trailing over the side,
and sat down at the table.
“Excuse me, madame, but is it enough?”
Helen took a sip of her tea. Her lipstick left a smiling pink stain on the inside rim of the
cup. “Is what enough?”
“The soup in the pans. Is it enough food for Mrs. Croft?”
“She won’t eat anything else. She stopped eating solids after she turned one hundred.
That was, let’s see, three years ago.”
I was mortified. I had assumed Mrs. Croft was in her eighties, perhaps as old as ninety.
I had never known a person who had lived for over a century. That this person was a
widow who lived alone mortified me further still. It was widowhood that had driven my
own mother insane. My father, who worked as a clerk at the General Post Office of
Calcutta, died of encephalitis when I was sixteen. My mother refused to adjust to life
without him; instead she sank deeper into a world of darkness from which neither I, nor
my brother, nor concerned relatives, nor psychiatric clinics on Rash Behari Avenue
could save her. What pained me most was to see her so unguarded, to hear her burp
after meals or expel gas in front of company without the slightest embarrassment. After
my father’s death my brother abandoned his schooling and began to work in the jute mill
he would eventually manage, in order to keep the household running. And so it was my
job to sit by my mother’s feet and study for my exams as she counted and recounted
the bracelets on her arm as if they were the beads of an abacus. We tried to keep an
eye on her. Once she had wandered half naked to the tram depot before we were able
to bring her inside again.
“Iam happy to warm Mrs. Croft’s soup in the evenings,” I suggested, removing the tea
bag from my cup and squeezing out the liquor. “It is no trouble.”
Helen looked at her watch, stood up, and poured the rest of her tea into the sink. “I
wouldn’t if I were you. That’s the sort of thing that would killher altogether.”
That evening, when Helen had gone back to Arlington and Mrs. Croft and I were alone
again, I began to worry. Now that I knew how very old she was, I worried that something
would happen to her in the middle of the night, or when I was out during the day. As
vigorous as her voice was, and imperious as she seemed, I knew that even a scratch or
a cough could kill a person that old; each day she lived, I knew, was something of a
miracle. Although Helen had seemed friendly enough, a small part of me worried that
she might accuse me of negligence if anything were to happen. Helen didn’t seem
worried. She came and went, bringing soup for Mrs. Croft, one Sunday after the next.
In this manner the six weeks of that summer passed. I came home each evening, after
my hours at the library, and spent a few minutes on the piano bench with Mrs. Croft. I
gave her a bit of my company, and assured her that I had checked the lock, and told her
that the flag on the moon was splendid. Some evenings I sat beside her long after she
had drifted off to sleep, still in awe of how many years she had spent on this earth. At
times I tried to picture the world she had been born into, in 1866—a world, I imagined,
filled with women in long black skirts, and chaste conversations in the parlor. Now,
when I looked at her hands with their swollen knuckles folded together in her lap, I
imagined them smooth and slim, striking the piano keys. At times I came downstairs
before going to sleep, to make sure she was sitting upright on the bench, or was safe in
her bedroom. On Fridays I made sure to put the rent in her hands. There was nothing I
could do for her beyond these simple gestures. I was not her son, and apart from those
eight dollars, I owed her nothing.
At the end of August, Mala’s passport and green card were ready. I received a
telegram with her flight information; my brother’s house in Calcutta had no telephone.
Around that time I also received a letter from her, written only a few days after we had
parted. There was no salutation; addressing me by name would have assumed an
intimacy we had not yet discovered. It contained only a few lines. “Iwrite in English in
preparation for the journey. Here I am very much lonely. Is it very cold there. Is there
snow. Yours, Mala.”
I was not touched by her words. We had spent only a handful of days in each other’s
company. And yet we were bound together; for six weeks she had worn an iron bangle
on her wrist, and applied vermilion powder to the part in her hair, to signify to the world
that she was a bride. In those six weeks I regarded her arrival as I would the arrival of a
coming month, or season—something inevitable, but meaningless at the time. So little
did I know her that, while details of her face sometimes rose to my memory, I could not
conjure up the whole of it.
A few days after receiving the letter, as I was walking to work in the morning, I saw an
Indian woman on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue, wearing a sari with its free
end nearly dragging on the footpath, and pushing a child in a stroller. An American
woman with a small black dog on a leash was walking to one side of her. Suddenly the
dog began barking. From the other side of the street I watched as the Indian woman,
startled, stopped in her path, at which point the dog leapt up and seized the end of the
sari between its teeth. The American woman scolded the dog, appeared to apologize,
and walked quickly away, leaving the Indian woman to fix her sari in the middle of the
footpath, and quiet her crying child. She did not see me standing there, and eventually
she continued on her way. Such a mishap, I realized that morning, would soon be my
concern. It was my duty to take care of Mala, to welcome her and protect her. I would
have to buy her her first pair of snow boots, her first winter coat. I would have to tell her
which streets to avoid, which way the traffic came, tell her to wear her sari so that the
free end did not drag on the footpath. A five-mile separation from her parents, I recalled
with some irritation, had caused her to weep.
Unlike Mala, I was used to it all by then: used to cornflakes and milk, used to Helen’s
visits, used to sitting on the bench with Mrs. Croft. The only thing I was not used to was
Mala. Nevertheless I did what I had to do. I went to the housing office at MIT and found
a furnished apartment a few blocks away, with a double bed and a private kitchen and
bath, for forty dollars a week. One last Friday I handed Mrs. Croft eight one-dollar bills in
an envelope, brought my suitcase downstairs, and informed her that I was moving. She
put my key into her change purse. The last thing she asked me to do was hand her the
cane propped against the table, so that she could walk to the door and lock it behind
me. “Good-bye, then,” she said, and retreated back into the house. I did not expect any
display of emotion, but I was disappointed all the same. I was only a boarder, a man
who paid her a bit of money and passed in and out of her home for six weeks.
Compared to a century, it was no time at all.
At the airport I recognized Mala immediately. The free end of her sari did not drag on
the floor, but was draped in a sign of bridal modesty over her head, just as it had draped
my mother until the day my father died. Her thin brown arms were stacked with gold
bracelets, a small red circle was painted on her forehead, and the edges of her feet
were tinted with a decorative red dye. I did not embrace her, or kiss her, or take her
hand. Instead I asked her, speaking Bengali for the first time in America, if she was
She hesitated, then nodded yes.
I told her I had prepared some egg curry at home. “What did they give you to eat on the
“Allthe way from Calcutta?”
“The menu said oxtail soup.”
“But surely there were other items.”
“The thought of eating an ox’s tail made me lose my appetite.”
When we arrived home, Mala opened up one of her suitcases, and presented me with
two pullover sweaters, both made with bright blue wool, which she had knitted in the
course of our separation, one with a V neck, the other covered with cables. I tried them
on; both were tight under the arms. She had also brought me two new pairs of
drawstring pajamas, a letter from my brother, and a packet of loose Darjeeling tea. I had
no present for her apart from the egg curry. We sat at a bare table, each of us staring at
our plates. We ate with our hands, another thing I had not yet done in America.
“The house is nice,” she said. “Also the egg curry.” With her left hand she held the end
of her sari to her chest, so it would not slip off her head.
“Idon’t know many recipes.”
She nodded, peeling the skin off each of her potatoes before eating them. At one point
the sari slipped to her shoulders. She readjusted it at once.
“There is no need to cover your head,” I said. “Idon’t mind. It doesn’t matter here.”
She kept it covered anyway.
I waited to get used to her, to her presence at my side, at my table and in my bed, but a
week later we were still strangers. I still was not used to coming home to an apartment
that smelled of steamed rice, and finding that the basin in the bathroom was always
wiped clean, our two toothbrushes lying side by side, a cake of Pears soap from India
resting in the soap dish. I was not used to the fragrance of the coconut oil she rubbed
every other night into her scalp, or the delicate sound her bracelets made as she moved
about the apartment. In the mornings she was always awake before I was. The first
morning when I came into the kitchen she had heated up the leftovers and set a plate
with a spoonful of salt on its edge on the table, assuming I would eat rice for breakfast,
as most Bengali husbands did. I told her cereal would do, and the next morning when I
came into the kitchen she had already poured the cornflakes into my bowl. One morning
she walked with me down Massachusetts Avenue to MIT,where I gave her a short tour
of the campus. On the way we stopped at a hardware store and I made a copy of the
key, so that she could let herself into the apartment. The next morning before I left for
work she asked me for a few dollars. I parted with them reluctantly, but I knew that this,
too, was now normal. When I came home from work there was a potato peeler in the
kitchen drawer, and a tablecloth on the table, and chicken curry made with fresh garlic
and ginger on the stove. We did not have a television in those days. After dinner I read
the newspaper, while Mala sat at the kitchen table, working on a cardigan for herself
with more of the bright blue wool, or writing letters home.
At the end of our first week, on Friday, I suggested going out. Mala set down her
knitting and disappeared into the bathroom. When she emerged I regretted the
suggestion; she had put on a clean silk sari and extra bracelets, and coiled her hair with
a flattering side part on top of her head. She was prepared as if for a party, or at the
very least for the cinema, but I had no such destination in mind. The evening air was
balmy. We walked several blocks down Massachusetts Avenue, looking into the
windows of restaurants and shops. Then, without thinking, I led her down the quiet
street where for so many nights I had walked alone.
“This is where I lived before you came,” I said, stopping at Mrs. Croft’s chain-link fence.
“In such a big house?”
“Ihad a small room upstairs. At the back.”
“Who else lives there?”
“Avery old woman.”
“With her family?”
“But who takes care of her?”
I opened the gate. “For the most part she takes care of herself.”
I wondered ifMrs. Croft would remember me; I wondered if she had a new boarder to sit
with her on the bench each evening. When I pressed the bell I expected the same long
wait as that day of our first meeting, when I did not have a key. But this time the door
was opened almost immediately, by Helen. Mrs. Croft was not sitting on the bench. The
bench was gone.
“Hello there,” Helen said, smiling with her bright pink lips at Mala. “Mother’s in the
parlor. Willyou be visiting awhile?”
“As you wish, madame.”
“Then I think I’llrun to the store, if you don’t mind. She had a little accident. We can’t
leave her alone these days, not even for a minute.”
I locked the door after Helen and walked into the parlor. Mrs. Croft was lying flat on her
back, her head on a peach-colored cushion, a thin white quilt spread over her body. Her
hands were folded together on top of her chest. When she saw me she pointed at the
sofa, and told me to sit down. I took my place as directed, but Mala wandered over to
the piano and sat on the bench, which was now positioned where it belonged.
“Ibroke my hip!”Mrs. Croft announced, as if no time had passed.
“Oh dear, madame.”
“I fell off the bench!”
“Iam so sorry, madame.”
“Itwas the middle of the night! Do you know what I did, boy?”
I shook my head.
“Icalled the police!”
She stared up at the ceiling and grinned sedately, exposing a crowded row of long gray
teeth. Not one was missing. “What do you say to that, boy?”
As stunned as I was, I knew what I had to say. With no hesitation at all, I cried out,
Mala laughed then. Her voice was full of kindness, her eyes bright with amusement. I
had never heard her laugh before, and it was loud enough so that Mrs. Croft had heard,
too. She turned to Mala and glared.
“Who is she, boy?”
“She is my wife, madame.”
Mrs. Croft pressed her head at an angle against the cushion to get a better look. “Can
you play the piano?”
“No, madame,” Mala replied.
“Then stand up!”
Mala rose to her feet, adjusting the end of her sari over her head and holding it to her
chest, and, for the first time since her arrival, I felt sympathy. I remembered my first
days in London, learning how to take the Tube to Russell Square, riding an escalator for
the first time, being unable to understand that when the man cried “piper” it meant
“paper,” being unable to decipher, for a whole year, that the conductor said “mind the
gap” as the train pulled away from each station. Like me, Mala had traveled far from
home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no reason other
than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death
would affect me, and stranger still, that mine would affect her. I wanted somehow to
explain this to Mrs. Croft, who was still scrutinizing Mala from top to toe with what
seemed to be placid disdain. I wondered ifMrs. Croft had ever seen a woman in a sari,
with a dot painted on her forehead and bracelets stacked on her wrists. I wondered
what she would object to. I wondered if she could see the red dye still vivid on Mala’s
feet, all but obscured by the bottom edge of her sari. At last Mrs. Croft declared, with the
equal measures of disbelief and delight I knew well:
“She is a perfect lady!”
Now it was I who laughed. I did so quietly, and Mrs. Croft did not hear me. But Mala
had heard, and, for the first time, we looked at each other and smiled.
I like to think of that moment in Mrs. Croft’s parlor as the moment when the distance
between Mala and me began to lessen. Although we were not yet fully in love, I like to
think of the months that followed as a honeymoon of sorts. Together we explored the
city and met other Bengalis, some of whom are still friends today. We discovered that a
man named Bill sold fresh fish on Prospect Street, and that a shop in Harvard Square
called Cardullo’s sold bay leaves and cloves. In the evenings we walked to the Charles
River to watch sailboats drift across the water, or had ice cream cones in Harvard Yard.
We bought an Instamatic camera with which to document our life together, and I took
pictures of her posing in front of the Prudential building, so that she could send them to
her parents. At night we kissed, shy at first but quickly bold, and discovered pleasure
and solace in each other’s arms. I told her about my voyage on the SS Roma, and
about Finsbury Park and the YMCA, and my evenings on the bench with Mrs. Croft.
When I told her stories about my mother, she wept. It was Mala who consoled me when,
reading the Globe one evening, I came across Mrs. Croft’s obituary. I had not thought
of her in several months—by then those six weeks of the summer were already a
remote interlude in my past—but when I learned of her death I was stricken, so much so
that when Mala looked up from her knitting she found me staring at the wall, the
newspaper neglected in my lap, unable to speak. Mrs. Croft’s was the first death I
mourned in America, for hers was the first life I had admired; she had left this world at
last, ancient and alone, never to return.
As for me, I have not strayed much farther. Mala and I live in a town about twenty
miles from Boston, on a tree-lined street much like Mrs. Croft’s, in a house we own, with
a garden that saves us from buying tomatoes in summer, and room for guests. We are
American citizens now, so that we can collect social security when it is time. Though we
visit Calcutta every few years, and bring back more drawstring pajamas and Darjeeling
tea, we have decided to grow old here. I work in a small college library. We have a son
who attends Harvard University. Mala no longer drapes the end of her sari over her
head, or weeps at night for her parents, but occasionally she weeps for our son. So we
drive to Cambridge to visit him, or bring him home for a weekend, so that he can eat
rice with us with his hands, and speak in Bengali, things we sometimes worry he willno
longer do after we die.
Whenever we make that drive, I always make it a point to take Massachusetts Avenue,
in spite of the traffic. I barely recognize the buildings now, but each time I am there I
return instantly to those six weeks as if they were only the other day, and I slow down
and point to Mrs. Croft’s street, saying to my son, here was my first home in America,
where I lived with a woman who was 103. “Remember?” Mala says, and smiles,
amazed, as I am, that there was ever a time that we were strangers. My son always
expresses his astonishment, not at Mrs. Croft’s age, but at how little I paid in rent, a fact
nearly as inconceivable to him as a flag on the moon was to a woman born in 1866. In
my son’s eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world. In a few
years he willgraduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected. But I remind myself
that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong. Whenever he
is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no
obstacle he can not conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on
the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my
achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home,
and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have
traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have
slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.