There it was again, the fluttering in my stomach, the ache in my throat, the sudden dryness in my mouth. Count to ten, I tell myself, one, two, three, four … infinity, infinity plus one, infinity plus two. Don’t look at him, no, no, look at him. There, you feel better now? He is looking at me, is he looking at me, no it can’t be, yes he is, oh god please, please let it stop, please don’t test me, god, he is looking at me, I better leave before anyone sees …
Ma sets the tea tray on the rickety old coffee table, oddly out of place in our $2.5 million home, decorated with the finest antiques and objects d’art money and bad taste can buy. A pink flamingo nestles right under a bronze Ganesha statute and what Ma and Dad call their eclectic taste spells plain old Tacksville to me! I am suddenly awash with shame, shame at the display of ostentatious wealth, of the leather furniture, of Sal’s diamonds and of Ma’s simpering.
The Pillais look suitably impressed. Mrs. Pillai’s eyes take in the room; I can almost hear her busy little mind calculating Dad’s worth as her eyes sweep across the room and the Persians scattered about the hall.
“We’ve brought our kids up as pucca Hindus, Indian culture is so important to us …” Dad is nodding his head on cue and I feel a little sorry for old Ma. Always having to apologize to Sal’s Hindu suitors for her Christianity. The Pillais don’t seem to care and Ma keeps on with her senseless chatter.
When Satish Menon “Hindu” married Daisy Selvaraj “Christian” circa 1970, all hell broke loose. Dad’s parents vowed to disown him, Ma’s threatened suicide. The two weathered many a storm before getting hitched and hightailing it to the U.S. of A.
A more mismatched pair you will not find in heaven, thinks everyone who meets them.
In my twenty-three years of existence, I have seldom seen them communicate anything non-verbally. An emotional void shrouds their relationship and the children they begat found nurture in that very emptiness.
To survive and thrive in such a void is a lot easier than one would imagine. Expectations are minimal, as are personal interactions. Social norms dictated our lifestyle. Both parents took care to raise us “normal.” There were violin and Gita classes, private lessons in bharatanatyam and drama, we attended expensive, snotty, private schools, and were deprived of no material luxury. This house I live in is the easiest to inhabit. My shadow and I serve the same purpose in the general scheme of things. The only bond we share, my family and I, are a few insignificant, inconvenient secrets: a malpractice suit brought against Dad, hushed and settled out of court, my botched attempt at putting an end to my existence (a small psychiatric episode) and Sal’s short-term addiction to her history teacher at school.
Sal is now 27, unmarried and unattached. Had a boyfriend, Leon Sharon, for seven years before they split up last fall. Ma was mortified when she moved in with Leon and then again when, all steely eyed and determined, she moved right back in with us after the break-up. Since then this is the third “Hindu, Indian” suitor who has come a’ calling to see, sample, and wed her.
Now Ma is on a mission to wed Sal off, one check on her shortlist of maternal duties before she passes on. To see me settled down with a nice, “understanding” Indian girl is also on the cards.
“Of course, we don’t believe in dowry,” Ma gushes. “I am so proud of their Nair roots, but what Satish and I have is all for the children. Why, Sal loves the villa in Ft. Lauderdale so much, and I remember when we bought it thirteen years ago, the first thing she said to us was, ‘can I have this house when I grow up?’”
Sal simpers obligingly and goes “awwww … Ma” while the Pillais brighten up again.
Sal is okay, she is my sister and all that, but she is shallow as a puddle and right now her brain is addled with dreams of a wedding and babies and diapers and whatever!
The Pillais are upper middle-class boors, a lot like us. They own a chain of dry-cleaning stores “alloverflorida” as Mrs. Pillai puts it. Mr. Pillai is a bit of a cipher, there is more boom in his voice than bite and he is obviously not half as vicious as his wife.
Dad stands up abruptly. “Well, the children will want to talk, we oldies have to let them talk, take a drive, in my days we …” he is babbling and everyone is nodding so hard I expect heads to roll off their necks.
I try to sink deep into the cavernous couch and into deep oblivion, hoping they’d all go away and leave me alone with my misery when Mr. Pillai turns his jolly old voice at me. “And you mon, what are you studying? What is your interest? A cardiologist like your father or gynecologist like your mother?” At this the room seems to break up as they laugh hysterically. Sal shoots me a silent look of sympathy and I still can’t look at him.
My heart is pounding as I answer the phone, “Take it, it’s Dash, it is for you,” she says. “I think he wants to discuss brotherly or is it brother-in-lawy stuff with you.” Sal is convinced that Dash Pillai is besotted with her and has been waiting for his call all day.
“We have to meet. Can you talk?” I nod, say yes, try to look nonchalant as Sal raises her eyebrows.
Some things are not to be, I say. I cannot look you in the eye. I cannot look the world in the eye. I am Indian; I have my culture to uphold. My values. Hinduism, Christianity, Indian-ness, Indianism? It all hinges on this decision. I shall not covet thee. I shall not. I shall not. Some things are just not to be.
And what about Sal, Ma, Dad?
Yes, this is natural, he says. There is no denying this feeling. This is to be, he says.
We go around in circles, we draw rectangles, squares, impossible angles in air, we talk, we weep silently, we plead to a power we cannot see or feel but want to believe in.
I am brave and so is he but are we ready to take on the world, our world, our parents, siblings, friends, relatives, fellow Hindus, Christians, Indians? Will we betray everything we are told is sacred if we unite?
How can I relate to you the agonies in my breast, the uncertainties, the burden I am born to bear? I shall look back one day and laugh at this moment, I promise my heart. No, you will not, ever, says my heart to me.
Of course, this is not the first flutter of love or lust that I have felt towards another male. My life is strewn with infatuations, much like any other person’s. No girl could ever stimulate me, intellectually or physically, and crippled by feelings of what I perceived to be misogyny, I shunned intimacy of any kind. When I was around men, I tried to disappear into myself. So well had I honed my skill of vanishing that sometimes even I found it hard to see or feel myself.
This time the pull, the magnetism is hard to resist.
Dinesh “Dash” Pillai. He has no past, no skeletons in his closet. None that rattle, anyway. Like thousands of “us” he has learnt to cloak his identity in a fabric chosen by society.
We decide to elope. We decide against it two minutes later.
We walk home hand-in-hand. Two grown men, very much in love.
“In lust!” shrieks Ma as Sal, hiding the betrayal in her eyes, tries to calm her.
“Just one look and you decide you want him? What about your sister?” I look away in shame as the sari falls from her breast; she is crying streaks of mascara. “What will people say? How will I ever look at anyone in the face again?” She is beating her breast, clutching her hair. Dad stands by her, still, watching it as if he were from a distance. Waiting for the drama to play out.
“You miserable, fucking loser,” she screams as Dash comes toward me, she implores him to reconsider. Her ire is towards me, towards what I am or what I have turned into.
“What did we do wrong? We gave you everything, everything … Sal, leave the room this instance, you do not have to see these … these depraved … things!” she hurls accusations at us, points to Dad, to her gods and his.
Sal turns and appeals to Dad, “Da, please, please Da, let them be. Let them go. Please Da, let him be happy, let him get away …”
“I will marry your son, we’ll be happy, you’ll see. We’ll move away, far away from you all …” Dash falls to the ground, surprised at the force of Dad’s punch.
Dad avoids my eyes. He has known my secret all along, I realize with an ache I cannot name.
“Just go away. Get out.” His rage is barely contained, his shoulders sag with resignation.
I walk away from home, the family I was born into. I decide to seek the happiness I think I deserve. I look at Dash and wonder if he is the love of my life. I love him this moment and I know he feels it too. My first love.
Chitra Parayath is a writer based in Lexington, Mass.