1. THE RUNAWAY
Judging from how early she began longing for her last life’s love, it was inevitable that Purvi would run away. She was no one’s twin yet she was born with a feeling of separation at birth. Late in elementary school she began speculating about reunion, but only after she bolted did her parents take her recollections seriously. They eyed each other first with bewilderment—then suspiciously, certain the other was not as worldly as appearances might suggest. They studied their household temple-corner in vain, but the Gita was safely locked in a Sanskrit boldface none of them could decipher, and the picture of a tiger-mounted Devi had been propitiated with enough cash to leave no doubt why Purvi’s parents were thankful. They could come up with no explanation why their daughter should have such an assured attitude about reincarnation, much less a distinct memory of her and her lover’s tragic accident.
“I’ll be damned,” said Kishore Uncle to Shailaja Aunti after Purvi ran away, “if I’ve been anything but a money-minded professional since I came to this country. You women, doctors or no, are susceptible to religion.”
In those early days of Purvi’s absence, mother and father dredged deep tarns of mutual disaffection. Shailaja Aunti shot back, “It was your idea to name her after the past. I liked ‘Naina’ for her. A girl cannot grow up to be anything but sensual if she is named after her own eyes.”
They argued well into the nights. Eventually they resigned themselves to the fact: Religion, like lightning and lymphoma, can strike anybody’s child. Purvi had the higher risk of their two children, conceived and born in India, under its millennia-long electrical storm of the spirit. Her brother, Vinod, had been born under the bland blue skies of America’s Midwest. In spite of this explanation, Shailaja Aunti rifled furtively through shoeboxes in her husband’s closet, searching for a stash of Ramayana videotapes. Kishore Uncle, too, rummaged through the silky cloud cover of his wife’s lingerie, staring at the ceiling. He feared to feel a Gita smuggled into English or some other religious tract that could have infected his daughter’s mind with bosh about past lives.
Really it was one past life that Purvi raved about at sleepovers, thrashing against the rustling zippered straitjacket of her sleeping bag, one past life that made her look beyond every yearbook photographer’s camera that presumed to capture her in the present. Or two lives, more accurately, and their common end. She drew it obsessively from crude childhood doodles to Advanced Art projects. She developed her style but never really changed her theme: A stubborn Alpine valley, a recurrent white helicopter. Once in kindergarten, when instructed to draw her family, Purvi drew two grownups (the woman’s hair colored Lemon Yellow) falling from a flaming helicopter.
“What about your mommy and daddy, sweetheart? Don’t you have a little brother, too?”
She drew an arrow for Mrs. Rukeyser’s benefit. It pointed out the blonde was “ME.” Mrs. Rukeyser patted her own golden locks, smiled at the flattery, and pulled Black out of Purvi’s Crayola 64, setting it hopefully beside the drawing. Later, as Purvi mastered letters and numbers, she added an exact serial number on the helicopter’s side.
* * * *
In retrospect, the signs had been there all along that Purvi would run away. Shailaja Aunti noticed in her daughter’s infancy that, whichever cheek she stroked, Purvi could not be counted on to root in its direction. Sometimes she struggled to tilt her head up, which she didn’t have the strength yet to do; other times she rooted decisively in the opposite direction. After several awkward weeks of angulating baby and nipple, Shailaja Aunti decided to study this phenomenon with the same rigorous attention to scientific method that made her the favorite of her lab professors in medical school. All it took was a compass and some graph paper to prove her daughter rooted towards the west no matter what. When Kishore Uncle nibbled his nails over immigrating to the United States, she delighted in the omen, her superstition lending significance to her science.
In America, Purvi’s tendency took new forms. She learned to walk when a sunset over Lake Erie made her stand up for the first time and head for the waves. She didn’t fall back onto her diapered behind even though these were her first steps and on sand at that. The windily roaring home video of this moment dropped sideways on the beach blanket. The footage showed running feet, heels throwing back sand at the lens: Kishore Uncle realized his daughter was gaining speed and didn’t intend to stop short of the sweeping tide. Ever after Shailaja Aunti held Purvi securely from the Pied Piper sunset that tripped her lemming memory, Purvi glowed back and stretched her arms for it, behaving in her mother’s arms as she did when passed to a stranger. That sunset was her lost love easing himself over the horizon’s ledge and drowning.
* * * *
Shailaja Aunti, as a girl, used to love eerie stories of transmigration gone awry. She knew of many real-life instances. The children always outgrew their memories. The present snapped its fingers and whistled and distracted them from the past. The children remembered their deaths most vividly, deaths usually premature and violent. Birth awoke these children in the middle of a life, and they remembered the life as they would remember an interrupted nightmare, bewildered and burdened with incomprehensible images. Treetops shuddering in the breeze and a man’s fingers over the eyes. The curve of a country road, a fence with horses behind it, shrieking bright headlights. A crowd in Milan, a shove, and blood on the palms.
Shailaja Aunti assumed Purvi, too, would forget. Yet the cosmic injustice of that helicopter accident in Switzerland in 1979 coaxed Purvi’s memory along a dead woman’s neural scaffold. Barefaced Alps. Dollhouse villages. Grindelwald, First, Interlaken. The scent of glacial flowers.
Her soul, crudely transplanted from one body to another, kept this residue. Purvi’s soul still smelled of its previous owner, and that woman’s scent was mingled with a man’s, his cologne, his cigarettes, his blood.
* * * *
The valley in which the helicopter crashed was Swiss. So was Purvi, based on her distinctively un-Hindu penchant for sausages. “This Swiss-ness will get dangerous,” worried Kishore Uncle, watching his daughter spear and gnaw a sacrilegious package of the Cow Mother, “very dangerous when she reaches the drinking age. What if she goes on a binge? An Indian girl, physiologically, does not have the same enzymatic resources as those horse-bodied mothers of Nazis.” Shailaja Aunti, too, feared Purvi’s central European indifference to vegetables might accompany a love of beer. Purvi might have used drinking to forget her past if she hadn’t reached the driving age first and escaped her present. After she got her Temporary license, Kishore Uncle introduced her to accelerator, brake, and steering wheel, not knowing he acquainted her with tools for escape. Her ominously reckless driving made him clutch the armrests even when she turned into the driveway. Kishore Uncle attributed this sense of foreboding to her adolescent verve and his middle-aged nerves. He did not imagine the sunset could keep its mad pull on her so many years later; he had never taken his daughter’s yearning seriously. The sunset it was that compelled Purvi to grab the keys one evening without asking and never return.
The police called their house back that frantic night. Yes, they had found a 2003 Black Lexus SUV License #ALY 2349 along I-480 (Westbound, Kishore Uncle didn’t have to ask)—uncannibalized, having run out of gas just before the Valley View bridge with its windy vantage on distant downtown Cleveland and its drop into a leafy abyss. The vehicle itself offered no clues to help the search. No nail marks in the leather upholstery, no hair, no flecks on the windshield, no other … stains. But Purvi? What about Purvi? Still missing. As yet their flashlights found no body tangled in the trees below, and their search dogs whimpered inquisitively into the moonlight.
2. DAMAGE CONTROL
It was inevitable Purvi should run away. Inevitable, too, that Kishore Uncle should begin, within minutes of her humiliation of him, the meticulous process of forgetting her birth. Kishore Uncle’s campaign against his daughter’s traces met with fierce resistance. From the beginning (after he hung up the phone with the police), Shailaja Aunti opposed him vocally, with all her warrior-princess blood. That Rajput blood, which no amount of education could cool to match Kishore Uncle’s elitely reptilian Brahmin ichor, made her demand relentlessly to know what the police officer had told him. Kishore Uncle looked over her shoulder and asked her to pour him some Raisin Bran and milk. After suffering six such evasions, Shailaja Aunti had to call the police herself and get the details.
To the end of his life, Kishore Uncle regarded his intercaste marriage to a kshatriya woman as his grand mistake. It took him seven years to realize he had married a woman for love whom he barely knew. He had promised himself he would marry her after seeing her for less time than his elder brothers interviewed their arranged matches. Seeing her daily, two rows ahead in their medical school lecture hall, did not count because he had made his decision by then. Love at first sight had coerced him into marrying a complete stranger.
Periodically over the next week, as family pictures began disappearing, Shailaja Aunti tried to force her husband into acknowledging he had a daughter. When she said the name, he erupted instantly, and she erupted back. They did not hit each other but instead directed their violence, wishfully, on household objects. Hence the permanent scars on the house from that time: A skid mark, rough white, on the polished gray marble of the kitchen table; a linoleum tile, fractured; an upstairs doorknob shaky in its hole and ever after unlockable; a subtle asymmetry of the crystal chandelier, like a single sequin missing from a dress of them, visible only to the knowing. The backyard garden patch told its story, too. Shailaja Aunti surrendered it to weed and wild after Kishore Uncle plucked her tomatoes and crushed them individually. She watched from the upstairs window as he steadied each ripeness under his bare left heel, which he dragged clean on the grass before coming inside.
* * * *
After contemplating suicide at his desk, Kishore Uncle, still pink with shame, drew up a timetable. He sharpened a Number 2 pencil and drew rectangles. Suicide on his part, he concluded after three minutes of earnest contemplating, would only darken the shame on his last name. The best damage control would be to embrace his wayward daughter’s absence publicly until no one remembered a time of her presence. Once that happened, it would be like she had never been born.
So he ordered Shailaja Aunti to hold immediately a dinner party where, over tinkling glasses, they could announce Purvi’s decision to finish high school with relatives in California.
If they started now, he calculated, they could erase the last of Purvi before her younger brother Vinod entered the bride market. Shailaja Aunti shook with indignation at being asked to cook for their entire circle so soon after her daughter had vanished. A titanic power struggle ensued—the usual shouting, Vinod’s ears under his headphones. That weekend, their driveway filled with the Lexuses and BMWs of Indian immigrant affluence. (The lone internist drove an intimidated Camry, which he parked down the street.) The men complained of malpractice premiums as if they were paupers while the women talked about their children: Which meant Shailaja Aunti had to spend the whole night lying. Every wife had her token Purvi inquiry. Where’s Purvi? Is Purvi out with her friends tonight? How’s Purvi doing? What grade is she in now? Does she know what field she wants to go into? I see. Oh, isn’t that wonderful, California!
Of course, Shailaja Aunti was no slouch when it came to cover-ups. How often had she praised her husband’s soft heart and easygoing personality? She made sure to add the crucial detail that would keep Purvi’s relocation from seeming like exile. Because left on its own, sending Purvi to California would imply not just a boy but a black boy. “She wants to go to UCLA for medicine, you see, so she thought to save her Mummy-Daddy money by applying in-state.” This actually made those dull gulls and brazen pigeons envious: Their own children were not nearly so on-track about their careers (often threatening to major in Art History at Princeton or to “see what’s out there” at Yale); nor were their children concerned in the least with tuition fees, which they thought of as their birthright.
“But L.A. is so far away,” moaned Kokila Aunti, full of glee. “When will you see her?”
“What can you expect in this country? Girls these days ….” (Bina Aunti offered this wise generalization, and Shailaja Aunti’s neck prickled protectively as she sensed Purvi being included with Bina Aunti’s own daughter, Shefali/Shelly, the bohemian.)
“I know what you are talking about,” contributed Hema Aunti. “What can you expect in a country where the girls, as soon as they learn how to balance, are given bicycles? Girls these days are socially conditioned to run away.”
Shailaja Aunti suddenly feared that the truth had been out all along and that the women were trying to break her with oblique references. But she knew how to get the spotlight off of Purvi’s absence. She initiated a counteroffensive against these doctors’ wives, asking them back about their own daughters, but not the ones they liked talking about, no, only the ones who had married white men. How’s Shivani? How’s Sejal? How does Sheena like married life? Or better still: How’s Ryan, hm? Has Jeff found a job yet?
“Jeff is a great guy,” protested Jayshri Aunti, twisting her dupatta around her finger. They were all speaking English now; open-minded platitudes in Gujarati would have felt hypocritical. “He’s just having some trouble right now, with the economy and all.”
“Ryan is a great guy too,” insisted Bina Aunti, appealing to the ceiling for strength. The mothers so wounded addressed each other, unable to meet anyone else’s eyes.
“Reena just introduced me to Fred,” said Leena Aunti, biting her lip. “They invited us to a … to a ballgame last week. He said, ‘Oh, Mom, great to see you,’ and gave me a hug. Isn’t that great, him giving me a hug? At a ballgame?”
“I’ve never been to a ballgame before,” murmured Shailaja Aunti—in Gujarati, to emphasize how American the pastime was.
“You know, I have always believed in my heart,” Bina Aunti declared desperately, “if they are happy, I am happy!”
“After all, it’s their lives, right?” said Renu Aunti. “They are happy, I am happy!”
It was like a mantra and bore repeating. The others, most of whose daughters were keeping them in ignorance, nodded supportively and made enlightened noises.
“It shouldn’t matter if our grandchildren cannot pronounce our names. All that matters is that our daughters are happy.”
“Our grandchildren will call us ‘Grammaw.’ That is not so high a price for my daughter’s happiness, right? To be called ‘Grammaw’?”
“‘If Ryan makes you happy,’ I told her, ‘you have my blessing.’”
“It is not all downside. At least they will bear attractive halfie children.”
“They are going to do what they want anyway.”
“Not all halfie children are good looking. That is a myth.”
“We don’t have a say anymore with this second generation. America is too powerful.”
“What did we expect, coming to this country?”
“Reena really loves Fred. And he does not have any children from his previous marriage.”
“They grew up here, after all.”
“What do we have a right to expect?”
“More Coca-Cola?” inquired Shailaja Aunti, ever the graceful hostess.
* * * *
That night in bed, when Kishore Uncle inquired about the party’s success, Shailaja Aunti gave him the good news through a crying fit. During a lucid interval, she recounted her triumph over the sly aunties, but this, too, dissolved into crying: Her motherhood had failed worse than theirs, though in secret.
“There is still Vinod. You can still prove yourself with Vinod,” Kishore Uncle consoled her. He added reflectively, “Though considering Purvi, the highest you can score is fifty percent.”
Shailaja Aunti, being brilliant, had never scored fifty percent on anything before. This analogy with an exam brought home the tragedy of Purvi’s departure. “It’s not fair,” she complained, crushing her sheets in her fists. “It’s so much harder to raise a daughter. The two should be weighted differently.”
“No one has to know,” Kishore Uncle said, “if we handle things my way.” By the time Shailaja Aunti stopped crying, he had fallen asleep with his back to her.
Shailaja Aunti even resigned herself, for a while, to her husband’s emendation of her memory. The next evening, though, she sliced an apple and found a cyst of shiny caramel-colored mush in it. The knife clattered to the floor, its blade just missing her foot. The apple fell open on the cutting-board with its secret exposed. The precise omen of rotten fruit revived her terror for Purvi on her own in the world. She rushed to the news at six, where she searched the day’s murders in vain.
Amit Majmudar’s stories have won awards in the Katha: Indian-American Fiction Contest for three consecutive years. These are the two opening chapters of his novel-in-progress, Purvi.