First published on October 27, 2003
There’s a stain on the ceiling; there are so many, but this one looks like a splatter of something maroon, a liquid or semi-solid that was flung up, maybe from the bed I lie on. Blood, strawberry jam, red wine?
Summers are yearlong in Katuru; no other season passes through our dusty town in Andhra Pradesh. Monsoons are hot and furious, days and nights humid and wet. Paddy fields of rice and wheat stretch acres and acres. The little town is made almost entirely of farmers, landlords, and laborers. A feudal lifestyle reminiscent of the times of the Raj.
I’m home for the hottest months of the year—May and June. School is closed for summer vacation and there’s no homework, no projects due at the start of term, at least not in the third year of engineering studies. Amma and Nana pamper me with food. Nana takes me to the home of his mistress, Chellamma and she offers me a virgin from her stable of nubile young girls, mostly runaways, and a few kidnapped from the neighboring hill station. The guardians, in their case don’t bother to come looking. A landlord’s son and his pleasures. Amma laughs as Nana tells her of our adventure and my enthusiasm.
A makeshift hammock strung between two sturdy mango trees in the orchard and heaps of cheap mystery novels keep me company. Padma, my childhood sweetheart and intended brings me tall glasses of lassi, sweetened buttermilk, nimbly dodging my advances.
The view from the window is dismal. A warped branch of an old oak or maple tree … no leaves. Even snow shuns that perch. It does not move in the wind. I’ve stared at it for five hours straight and I swear it never moved. I can’t turn on my side. The wall my bed faces has words, pictures, math equations. I fear for my sanity.
I remember my god. Remember also the time I gave my hair at the temple. I remember the promises I made, not intending to keep them. The promises I kept and the ones I intended to.
I’ll give my hair again if I make it back home.
Padma unhooks her bra and lets me look. She is crying. I am impatient.
I’ll be away for two years in a strange country and I need something from you to remember you by, I lie. I intend to marry the first white woman who’ll have me, I think at the time. This shallow, callous nature has run in my family for generations. I model myself after my father.
Padma weeps silently as I rape her. She smiles when I pout and tell her she does not love me. She tries to wipe her tears, to stop them; she tries to smile for me. I hate her at that moment, for loving me so much; I bury my impatience in empty words she fills her heart with. She is still crying when I wave her goodbye, maybe she knows I don’t love her the way she loves me.
My tears are for Padma, for that summer afternoon in my room when she wept, for that young man who left her with dreams so different from his own.
I haven’t eaten in three days. I am not hungry. At night, when the neighborhood sleeps, I creep out to the corner deli, to be chased every time by the gang who never sleeps. They have declared a battle I don’t want to fight. To make sure the nigger never leaves his stinking apartment, I hear old Mrs. Rosario whisper to another neighbor. She is so afraid of them, she doesn’t want to help. The phone is cut; the electricity will go off anytime.
Mr. Yegasis calls me to his cubicle. “Rao,” he begins apologetically, looking everywhere but into my eyes. Three months, six hundred dollars, laid off. I have no friend in this strange land. Lakshmi, a senior consultant, beckons to me then. “I’m from Andhra too. Tell me if I can help you in any way at all.” I’m stunned and in awe; she is beautiful, powerful, and so much in command of herself.
Maybe I’ll call her from the pay phone down the hall, I think. Will she remember me? I wonder if I have her number. I do, and I scramble to the phone and call her. “Sure thing,” she says. “Come and meet me at the office.” “I want help,” I tell her.
“I haven’t been out of my apartment for three days, there’s no food, I haven’t eaten. Come and pick me up,” I tell her. “I’m afraid of the wild-eyed youths who sit endlessly on the stoop of my building. Help.” She hangs up. I call again, talk in Telugu, gibberish sometimes. At one point I’m hysterical. I scare her.
On my birthday Amma arranges a feast for a hundred beggars from our town and some neighboring ones. There is a dessert of milk pudding and the beggars fed and satiated line up to offer me their blessings. I sit on a makeshift throne and they come to me one by one with folded hands. To each I offer a ten-rupee bill. Amma stands behind me, wiping away tears of pride. I have passed my graduate course in engineering with near perfect marks and have been offered a posting in the U.S.
I can’t raise my arms, I am so tired.
The mango pickle she insisted on packing, the round laddoos, sweets, she knows I love, I dump them all in the airport bin after they have left me in the airport waiting lounge.
“I remember that boy.” Lakshmi is shocked and dismayed. “I had no idea.”
Alejandro, when questioned by the police, pouts and frowns. “Who knew the nigger would up and die?” Sullenly, he admits: “Yeah, I threw that bottle against his door.” He adds: “I cleaned up afterwards. Mrs. Rosario made me clean up. Ask her. And I didn’t hurt him.”
The other boys look around. Some snigger, dismissing the whole sad story; they have their own to live.
Chitra Parayath is a writer based in Lexington, MA.