Priya hugged the receiver to her ear, savoring the sound of the metallic “brrrrrng, brrrrrng.” Without closing her eyes, she could imagine her grandparents hearing the first ring. They would decide who would run the other end of the large house (where the phone was) on the second ring. The third ring signaled that the chosen one would be stiffly rising to his/her feet, and the fourth ring would bring the grandparent in a shuffled run to the phone room. The fifth ring was the dangerous one. Priya’s left hand always hit the end call button before the fifth ring.
Calling India was troublesome and expensive. But the thought that she had made a sound in her grandparents’ house had done something to attract their attention and make them move, was enough to keep her in good spirits for days. To Priya, it was a reminder of a childhood spent in a large dusty house full of adults. The seriousness of the adults could have smothered the child, but instead she flourished in the hidden world she built for herself. A world that included many games.
Older now, Priya quickly hit the button before the other line picked up. Giggling to herself, Priya hurriedly threw her bag over her shoulder and ran off to work.
At the bank, the other tellers noted the change in the usually stern faced girl. But they did not venture to speak idly with her or exchange any of the other conventions that usually come to pass when people work in such close proximity to one another. Priya was a hardworking girl; a girl who kept he remind diligently focused on her work and at the anointed hour gathered her things and clocked out on her way to class at the nearby University.
Life was hard in these United States. It was harder than her grandparents would ever be able to know. Theirs was a gifted life. One where wealth and power had been handed to them, security and necessities were always to be had, and opening an office in the front part of the house only a way to pass the time. The office space collected a lot in rent, but by comparison it only added peanuts to the cornucopia of their existing wealth.
For Priya there were tuition bills to be paid, loan papers to tend to, hospital bills to scrutinize, insurance companies to haggle with, a laid-off father to console and a sick mother to nurse. Phone calls to India ate away at money that could pay for textbooks, for medication, for a day at the movies, away from this dreary daily drama of work and worry.
And when she did allow her grandparents to pick up the line, they did anything but cheer her up. “Why won’t you come see us?” “You have forgotten us.” How the accusations flew. They would pick trifling quarrels, and make dramatic statements, as only the rich and well-fed are able to.
But Priya’s childhood in India had been fanciful. Often she escaped to the coconut groves away from the echoing sounds arguing voices made in the house’s large hall. The coconut grove stretched farther than the voices could reach, and then some. There she played many games, sometimes alone, sometimes with the groundskeeper’s children. She learned to climb the base of the coconut trees, chase the chickens and make them fly, and play with dolls and toys made from pieces of coconut.
Priya’s arms lacked their strength, for she never had to carry a pot of water for long distances or grind large quantities of dosa flour manually in the grinding stone. Not once did she succeed in breaking a single coconut, the husks were too old and stubborn to give way to her delicate touch. But this game and the others occupied her mind, until at least either the sun began to set or the voices in the house began to quiet. As the days passed, the voices carried long into the night, until at last it was time to leave. By then, when Priya and her mother and brothers gathered to leave, her mother’s face was swollen with tears and her grandfather was finally silent.
Someone once asked why her grandfather was such an angry person. Had her parents done something wrong? Did they try to cheat him of his wealth? Were they showing him some disrespect? Priya thought hard and long over this question. Finally the answer came, “No, to him it’s just a way to pass the time, like playing cards or carom. It’s just a game.”
“Oh,” someone responded, “then why don’t you cut him out of your life? You live far enough away, and you have enough things to worry about anyway.”
Looking up from her books Priya had thought, no. Blood is thicker than the thousand of miles of water that separates us. There is something within me that makes me care for them. And something makes them feel a kind of love for me also. There has to be some bond that is stronger than their anger and ignorance. Some bond that connects us, something that transcends the obvious, something that makes me know how many rings it will take before they reach the phone.
So any time Priya’s head swam with numbers, hours, and papers, she would reach out and wait for five rings. She came close enough to the fire to warm herself without having to suffer from the burn.
Years passed, and the hardness of her life eased. Priya played the phone game less frequently. One day, her mother called, “Priya, some angry workers set the coconut grove on fire. The fire torched the main house also. Your grandparents are living with a relative for now, but everything they had is now gone.” There was nothing she could do for them. And it pained her that it was so.
Then the strange calls began. When the phone would ring, and cut, right as she reached to pick it up. How they knew how long it would take her to reach the phone she never knew, but it delighted her anyway.
Mayurie Vel is a recent graduate from UC Berkeley.