“What did you say?” said her grandmother.
“Hot,” her grandmother repeated. “Han, it is hot.”
The silence grew. The girl put her hands around her cheeks, rested the weight of her head in her palms.
“What time does your flight leave, Anu?”
She looked over at her grandmother’s face. Her eyes blinked as easily as a brand-new doll’s. “At five,” she said. “Do you want some water?”
“No thank you, kanna.”
Above them, the fan stirred the thick, aging air. It settled around their shoulders like straightjacket shawls, impossible to take off. She felt sweat collect between her shoulder blades, the place where her bra pushed against the crease of her breasts, the bends of her elbows and her knees. She could not remember how long she had been sitting like this, waiting. The tiles, at least, were cool under her bare feet.
“Did you put the fan on?”
“Yes, the fan’s on.”
Her grandmother nodded. Her sari was impossibly bright, yellow and freshly pressed. Her sweet and empty face drooped, the cheeks sagging, the mouth pulled down as if by gravity. She wanted to say something and could think of absolutely nothing. When she smiled at her grandmother, the grandmother blushed and looked away, wearing the expression of someone who has just been caught eavesdropping. The girl looked at a fixed point over her head and allowed her mind to wander.
“NO WONDER NOBODY LIKES YOU. YOU EAT FOOD THAT SMELLS LIKE BARF.” She had opened her lunchbox so many times at school, wishing for just once her mother had packed her a peanut butter-jelly sandwich just like everybody else’s mothers had, and her mother never did. There they were, the idlis, round and white, innocuous and insidious and smelling strongly of home. She opened the Tupperware container and shut it again. She blushed and put it back into her lunchbox. Her stomach rumbled.
“What is that?” Annamarie Ellis asked, her sometimes friend who sat next to her at lunch.
She picked at the peeling green paint of the picnic table. The wood was pale underneath, bare and pretty. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, Anu, what is it?” Across from her, Susie Bhur’s nose was wrinkled, and her eyebrows pulled together meanly across the bridge of her nose.
“I said, nothing. It’s just this thing my mom makes.”
“It smells weird,” said Susie.
“Yeah,” said Annamarie, “It smells like burnt pancakes and …”
“BARF,” Danny Rose finished from another table. “P.U. I can smell it from all the way over here.”
“It doesn’t smell like barf,” she said. She felt too big and too small. “Shut up.”
“Do you really eat that stuff?”
“No,” she said. “I mean, my mom makes it but I don’t eat it.”
“Good,” said Annamarie, eyeing the lunchbox like it contained live rats, “I was worried.”
“Did you know she doesn’t eat meat?”
“Yeah,” said Annamarie, “like her whole family. And her dad wears skirts.”
“Shut up, he does not.”
“Yeah he does,” said Annamaire. “I saw him one time when I went over to her house. He was wearing this blue plaid skirt and an undershirt.”
Susie’s jaw opened wide at the hinges, the edges of her lips up in a delighted smile. “I can’t believe you have to eat all this weird food. Your parents should like, get reported for child abuse.”
She opened her lunchbox and took out the idli container. She walked over to the trashcan and flung it in. “Yeah, it’s pretty gross. I don’t know why she makes it for me, I hate that stuff.” They traded a set of disgusted looks, and she took care to look extra-disgusted.
“What time are you leaving?” Her eyes snapped back to her grandmother’s face.
She realized she was slouching in her chair and adjusted herself so she was sitting up straight. She fanned herself with the newspaper lying on the table. The Hindi movie music from the next-door neighbors pressed itself against the window screens. There was something wide and dreamy, dry and lonely about India that she slipped into when she was in this house. “How old were you when you met Thatha?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. She laughed in a soft, sad way.
“I remember you telling me, last time I was here.”
“You should come here more often to see us.”
“Eleven, right? You were eleven.”
She thought. Her eyebrows bunched up into her forehead and she rolled her eyes to the corners. “Yes. You’re right. Eleven.”
“And what did you think when you met him?”
“I can’t remember anymore.”
“Not anything at all?”
“I’m sorry, Anu.” They looked at each other with their matching almond eyes. The girl saw something in her grandmother’s eyes flicker. “I was so young then. I didn’t … think about it so much. They told me, this is the person you are going to marry, and then I went back to playing.”
“What were you playing?”
“I can’t remember.”
“You have to remember. You can remember. Just think for a little while.”
Her grandmother sighed into her lap. “I can’t.” She laughed again, soft, embarrassed. Her brown face flushed, her ears turning slightly pink.
“You remembered so much just now. Just try for me, please?”
The grandmother closed her eyes and folded her hands in her lap. The music from next door was high-pitched and unrelenting, mixing itself with the noises of cars and the tire repair shop on the corner and the dogs barking lazily on the road and the chatvalas selling samosas and chai: “SAAAAAMOSSSSSSSAAAAAAAA!” She imagined herself singing the music from next door in a chiffon sari with a mirrored blouse, her eyelids heavy with makeup and fake lashes, reaching her arms out to her hero in front of an iconic building, the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal. This is a stupid thing to think, she told herself, now of all times.
“What time are you leaving?”
The girl dropped her eyes to the plastic tablecloth, garishly floral and faded. “Five.”
“Thatha will be back soon,” her grandmother said, “with the vegetables.”
“Yes. I hope he gets here before the taxi.”
“I wish you weren’t going. You don’t ever come to see us. Why don’t you come more?”
“It’s very far,” she said. “It’s hard to come, just like that.”
“It’s a long journey.”
The air was too thick for her here, suffocating, stifling. Her grandmother had the face of an old rose hung upside down and dried out in the sun. She remembered the way, almost a decade ago and on another continent, her grandmother had run into the ocean with her sari tucked up between her legs, joyful and boundless as a dog. “You just can’t stop her,” her father had said then, smiling. He shaded his eyes with his hands and watched his mother dive into the Pacific. “If she sees the ocean she must swim.”
She had said to her once, “You are indeed a grand daughter.”
And she had replied, “And you are a grand mother.”
They had found this terrifically funny and laughed for five solid minutes.
There was the sound of a car in the driveway, the engine idling then cut. She listened to the car door slam and then the footsteps of her grandfather outside opening the screen door and letting it shut with a snap. He took off his shoes and appeared in the doorway holding a cloth bag full of vegetables. “Hi Anu.”
He walked to the wheelchair and turned his face down to his wife. “How are you, ma? Feeling alright?”
“I read her some poetry earlier, but she got bored, I think.”
“Very good,” he said. He touched the top of her head absently. “She likes that.”
“And we talked for a little bit too before you came.”
“It’s very hot in here, isn’t it?” her grandmother asked.
“The fan’s on, ma. Do you want some water?”
“Yes,” she said. He went into the kitchen and handed her a stainless steel tumbler. He unscrewed the lid of the thermos and poured her a cup of warm water. She held it in a trembling hand, and brought it to her lips.
On the way home, the day she had thrown away the idlis, she practiced what she was going to say to her mother.
“What did you do with the idli container?” She stood by the sink in a blue-and-white salvar-kameez, her long hair knotted at the nape of her neck.
“Oh!” she said, feigning surprise. “I think I left it at school.”
“Just the one dabba?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I’m sorry. I’ll get it tomorrow.”
Her mother looked into her face. “Look at me.”
“You threw away the dabba.”
“No I didn’t.” Her mother smiled at her, and helplessly, she smiled back.
“You’re smiling,” her mother said, as evidence.
“That’s because you’re smiling.”
Her mother sighed. She took the rest of the containers out of the lunchbox and put them into the sink. The house smelled of cardamom and cloves and saffron and she felt warm and slightly nauseated. “You love idlis. They’re your favorite. I make them just like your grandmother.”
“No, mom,” she said. She looked down at the ground. “I hate idlis and I never want to eat them ever again and I think they taste like barf.”
“Aré,” her mother said. Her eyes widened in shock. “You must never speak of food like that. We’re lucky to have food and we should never waste it. Lots of people in the world don’t have any food at all.”
“Well, why don’t you send them my idlis?”
“I don’t understand this,” her mother said. She lifted her daughter’s chin with her hand and looked at her upturned face as if it were a mystery novel with the last chapter missing. “I just made them for dinner last week and you told me they were your favorite food.”
She felt hungry, lonely. She pulled away, guilt twisting in her stomach like snakes.
“I never said that,” she said. “I wish you’d just pack me some pizza. Like a normal mom.” The weight of this sentence was unbearable. She looked at the hurt blooming in the corners of her mother’s eyes and the pull of her mouth. She ran upstairs to her room and slammed the door.
It was the same expression she saw later, when she watched Seinfeld reruns on the weekends with her best friend in high school. Elaine was talking to a woman who said she was Gandhi’s lover. “He loved it when I rubbed oil all over his bald head.”
They had laughed loudly, holding their bellies, spilling popcorn, and her mother had come in the room. “What were they saying about Gandhi?” she said. Her face was hopeful, like she was about to get on the inside of a joke she would be uniquely qualified to understand.
“Nothing,” she said, still laughing. “The lady was just saying that Gandhi was her boyfriend. And that she would …” and here she could not contain her laughter, it spilled out into the edges of her words, her friend next to her wiping the corners of her eyes with her index fingers, “… rub oil onto his bald head.”
“She was making fun of Gandhi?”
“Not really,” she said, “I mean, yeah, I guess so, a little. It was a joke, though.”
And there was the look again, in the dark parts of her eyes, in the corners of her mouth.
“You shouldn’t joke about things like that,” her mother said, and left the room.
“Yes.” Her bags sat next to the door, a big black suitcase with a broken zipper and an old sari scarf tied to the handle, and a blue duffle bag that had been filled with American chocolates for Indian relatives, now filled with murukku and mango pickles to smuggle past the customs counter and eat at home.
“The taxi should be here soon. Unless you want me to drive you? I can call them.”
“No, you should stay here with her.”
“What time is your plane?” Her grandmother asked.
“I wish I could see you again,” she said. “I wish I could see you again just one more time.”
“You’ll see me again. I’ll come back soon. And you’ll be better when I come back.”
Her grandfather sat down at the table. “She’ll be back soon, ma.”
“You’ll be home soon,” her boyfriend had said that first day, when she had called him on the phone at some ungodly hour, his voice gruff with sleep. Her grandparents were taking an afternoon siesta in the other room, and she spoke quietly even though the door was closed.
“I know, I’m fine,” she said. “I just miss you already.”
“Your flight was okay?”
“Yeah. I got stuck in Paris for a while and they wouldn’t tell us what was going on. They just drove us from one end of the airport to another in these buses. All these Indians packed into these buses driving god knows where. I swear, there wasn’t a single white person on the bus except the guy who was driving it, and he looked so disdainful. We didn’t know where we were and they only announced everything in French. But I’m okay. I got on the right flight. I’m here.”
“Good.” He inhaled sharply in a way that meant he was sitting up, committing to waking up. “How are your folks?”
“They’re alright, I guess. I majorly f—ed up though, when I first got here. When my granddad picked me up at the airport, I should have touched his feet. My dad even told me, reminded me, he actually called me to remind me the day I left.”
“To touch his feet.” She exhaled. “You know. It’s a sign of respect or whatever. I told you already.”
“Oh, right. I just woke up. I’m sorry.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called so late. Or … early. I wanted to hear a familiar voice.”
“Did you call your parents yet?”
“Yeah, like the moment I walked in the door. My granddad made me.”
The particular smell of the house, the smell of wet cement, mothballs, incense from the prayer room, the smell of cumin, raw mangoes, jasmine from outside, and rubber from the tire factory, the smell of drying laundry and red-brown dirt, it hit her all at once when she closed her eyes. “God,” she said. “I’ve f—ed up this time.”
“They don’t care,” he said. “They’re just happy to see you.”
She pictured him in bed, his cheeks rough, rubbing his eyelids with his thumbs, the sheets crumpled around his knees. Three hours in India and already his voice sounded too heavy, too broad, the a’s not pulled tight enough, left loose and lazy. “I guess so.”
“What did your dad say about it?”
“I didn’t tell him. I was so embarrassed. It was awful, I was standing there at the airport, and he looked so small, so much smaller than I remember, with his shirt tucked in and his pants belted neatly and everything. And he was smiling so much, but I guess he was waiting for me to do it, and then instead I just gave him this hug, which completely caught him off guard and he wound up just patting me on the back.”
“You’re really making a big deal out of something that isn’t a big deal.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she snapped.
“Fine,” he said. He sneezed into the phone. “’scuse me.”
She rubbed the back of her hand over her rough lips. “You’re probably right, anyway.”
The sound of the engine running outside the house rose above the street noise, the purr of it, the sharp sound of an impatient horn, and she rose to her feet. “He’s early. I’ll go tell him to wait a second.”
She slipped her shoes on and picked up the larger suitcase. She realized she had not been outside all day. The day was burning and the pomegranate trees in the corner of the yard were lush and flowering in the heat, waving their branches up to the high dusky sky. The taxivala leaned against his car. His face was handsome, dark brows and a long, equine nose.
“Ek minute,” she said. “Mein ati hun.”
“Achha, theek hai, madam,” he said. He took the bag from her and put it in the trunk. Their hands brushed, and she smiled and drew away. She felt acutely conscious of how much skin he could see—the distance between her ankles and her knees, the tops of her shoulders. There she was, glittering with lust and makeup, singing love songs to him on the terrace of the Taj Mahal. He would run to her in slow motion, throwing a long red scarf up in the air, which would ripple with poetry and fall behind him on the pristine marble. The music in her head swelled into a climax, she thought of her grandmother inside, and the new things she saw in her grandfather’s face when he looked at his wife, the way his hands hung at his sides, and the way his shoulders curved forward.
The taxivala took a skinny bidi out of his pocket and lit it.
She went back inside the house. Her grandparents were sitting quietly at the table. Her grandfather rubbed the tablecloth between his fingers. She sat down at the table.
“Did you take some food?” said the grandmother.
“I did,” she said. “The cook gave me some idlis.” She swung the strap of her duffle bag over her shoulder. “I think I should go.”
“Shall I help you?” asked her grandfather.
“No, no,” she said. “It’s quite light.” She leaned in close to her grandmother, who put a papery hand on her cheek.
“Be safe, naa.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
“You have food?”
“Yes. Goodbye, Pati.”
“Goodbye.” She folded her hands and put them on her lap. She bit her bottom lip like a little girl. The girl walked out onto the verandah and hugged her grandfather around the waist. He patted her back. “Do you have money?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine.”
He chuckled. “The last time you were here you were such a little girl. And now you’re ready to go all by yourself, you’ve got all your money.” He touched her cheek. “I’ll always remember that time when your parents left you here, the time you were two years old. And you saw that woman in the market, with the long braid, and you thought she was your mother, and you ran to her. You hugged her but then you started screaming when she turned around.”
“I remember too.”
She knelt down, in an awkward, unpracticed gesture, touched his feet in rubber flip-flops and touched her hand to her heart.
Her grandfather nodded. “Come back soon, kanna.”
She walked to the car, opened the door, slammed it. The taxivala started the engine, and her grandfather stood in the doorway, his eyes slanted against the sun. The schoolkids ran outside on the road in pairs, ribbons looped in the girls’ oiled hair, laughing. The stray dogs were laughing, a mother dog with her pups, her teats heavy with sour, old-dog milk. The men smoking bidis near the tire shop, laughing. The trees were filled with kites, kites twisted in the wires of the telephone poles. “It’s like putting your finger in a glass of water,” her dad had said to her over the phone, his voice stretching thin between continents, “when you take it out, there’s nothing to say it was ever there.”
She had committed a thousand tiny betrayals, and the largest one was watching her granddad, dark and waving on the verandah get smaller and smaller, until she would not be able to see him at all. The taxi rounded the corner. She closed her eyes until she got to the airport.
Shruti Swamy is a senior at Vassar College, where she is studying English.