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It happened yesterday in the aunty’s house, just three days into our trip. Somehow, I knew a breakdown would occur, despite all of Mansoor’s assurances, and now I wish I had not come with him to India, to Mumbai, his city of abject squalor and decay.
To back up, we’re here to attend a wedding—one of Mansoor’s million cousin sisters is finally getting married. The flight from LA to Dubai was a killer, the nine-hour layover in Dubai being no joke either. By the time we landed at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, we were drained, able to haul ourselves off the airplane only because we couldn’t stand it in the cabin any longer. So we scuttled out into the noisy terminal, got through immigration and customs in minutes, and proceeded to his brother’s flat in Bandra—the flat that once belonged to their deceased parents. What he hadn’t told me all along was that the flat is so small—a boxy living room and two tiny bedrooms—that it can barely contain the brother, his wife and their twenty-eight-year-old daughter.
So we’re sleeping in the “hall,” a.k.a. the living room in sensible places in the world, and managing to sleep under a squeaky ceiling fan that I fear is going to take a dive one night and decapitate us with its sharp blades. If only Mansoor had listened to me when I suggested a hotel months ago. It would have given us all the privacy we needed, but no, his brother would have felt insulted, he said, the sister-in-law would have thrown a tantrum, and the niece—well, Mansoor said nothing about the niece, Zaynab, who says nothing most of the time, stands perpetually on her toes for some reason, looks at everyone from the corners of her eyes and slouches with such poor stature that one has to wonder if she isn’t developmentally challenged in some way. Asperger’s perhaps, something like that.
The day the airport taxi delivered us to their flat—it was three or four in the morning, some such ungodly hour—it took us about an hour to get them to agree to let us sleep in the hall. They wanted us to have Zaynab’s bedroom. They would accommodate Zaynab in their bedroom, although where exactly she would sleep was not explained. Finally, after lots of raised voices, chest thumping and near-comical threats, Irfan, the brother, and Fatima, the sister-in-law, agreed to let us crash out in the hall, which we did as soon as we lay down on the ultra-thin mattress they retrieved from a dusty closet and the lights were turned off.
The invitations came the next day, one after the other, with relatives calling either Irfan or Fatima on their cell phones. There was no escaping. It was lunch with this aunty, dinner with another, and movies and picnics with different sets of cousins. Before Mansoor could fully recall who the caller was while Irfan or Fatima spoke, the phone was thrust into his hand. Poor guy. He nods and agrees now to whatever the callers say. Most of the time, he does not know who they are, and has to be reminded later by Irfan and Fatima. That’s why you should come to India more often, they’ll both tell him just about every time, pat his shoulder and admonish him for having let nine years come between his last trip and this one—about the same time we’ve been a couple.
Irfan is in his early fifties, portly, and sports a gray beard that makes him look older. Fatima is a few years younger, her thick hair tied into a bun, her sleepy eyes and drooping shoulders suggesting prolonged fatigue. While they know we’re a couple (who can know what Zaynab thinks?) the rest of the clan here—a mob of uncles, aunties and cousins—does not. But even Irfan will say when introducing us to their handful of friends, “This is Mansoor and this is Amol,” neglecting to add that we’re as good as married. Is it really that big a deal to acknowledge us as a couple? Mansoor says it is. Yeah, a big deal in fact. This isn’t Los Angeles, he’ll say. Sure there are a lot of gay people in India, but gay couples are not as many, and Indian society—his relatives for sure—needs time to process it all. Well, I don’t believe in such a glacial pace of progress, I’ll remind him. You should have come here by yourself. Why throw me back into the closet? It’s a matter of days, he said two days ago. Can’t you deal with that? Actually, I can’t. Societies can be transformed in an instant, I think. Unless we put ourselves out there as a gay couple before his relatives, they’re not going to come around to accepting us as one. And that was exactly how I felt last evening before we set out for his aunty’s place in Santa Cruz. I even warned him in the taxi that I would introduce us as a couple. Stop it, he said, and held my hand in his. Patience, sweet pea, he said. Patience.
His Sabera Aunty was the one who opened the front door, her rotund body doing little to stop the advance of a cloud of rich food aromas emanating from her flat. She lives with her husband in a high-rise building—I don’t recall what floor. She has no children; an early hysterectomy ensured that. No sooner had we stepped in and taken off our shoes than she asked if I was the friend that Fatima had mentioned to her. An awkward silence followed. As she hobbled away from us, Mansoor said, to my surprise and horror, that that was correct. I was his friend from America. I looked at him. He wouldn’t turn my way. Family originally from New Delhi, he said. Parents moved to the US in the mid-seventies, before I was born. Father: vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. Mother: director of the Center for Feminist Research at USC. That isn’t all true, I said. His aunt asked what isn’t true. The friend part, I said. You are not a friend, she asked. Well, I am—in a sense, I said. Then Amol, you are my friend also, she said, and beamed. All of Mansoor’s friends are mine as well.
Where do you live in America, she asked as we all settled into lush couches in the living room. Los Angeles, I said. In the same apartment as your nephew here, I wanted to add. We sleep in the same bed. We even have sex every once in a while. More in the early years, less so now. We’re renting at the moment. We plan to purchase a condo in Long Beach and then get married—you know, tie the knot, live happily ever after as husband and husband. Is Los Angeles where you grew up, she asked next. I grew up in Allentown, I said. It’s in Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. Ah, Philadelphia, she said, enunciating each syllable, as though she were remembering the place. I was born in Edison, New Jersey, which is where my parents first settled, I said. I am their only child, I did not bother to add. They love me and your Mansoor unconditionally. My other relatives there do, too. They accept us as a couple and include us as such in the extended family. Mansoor is my partner there, my lover, my boyfriend, and fiancé. Here in your house, however, he is my friend.
The husband emerged into the room and shook hands with us, the way one might before a business meeting. Silver-haired and beady-eyed, he wasn’t interested in me at all, his attention only on his wife and periodically on Mansoor. Had he guessed who I was, who we were? To draw his attention to me, I asked him if he’d been to America. When he replied that he had in the 1970s he looked at his wife. Mansoor asked if business had taken him there. The uncle said business and pleasure. He looked at Mansoor when he said that, then turned to his wife.
Sabera Aunty asked Mansoor when he would give her the good news. What good news, I asked. She laughed. Mansoor did not. The good news of his marriage, she said, and giggled. She patted me on the knee. He is like a son to me, he always has been, she added. My late sister’s son but he grew up mostly in my arms. Now he must get married. Yes, he must, I said. What about you, she asked me. Are you married? I said I wasn’t but that I soon would be. That’s wonderful, she said. You must find a sweet girl for my Mansoor. A Muslim girl, please. Mansoor glanced at me, all forty-three years of him. I shook my head wearily. What have you made for dinner, Aunty, I heard him say.
They’re clueless, this aunty and uncle. Even if Mansoor and I held hands right now, they would not be clued. Sabera Aunty said she made mutton biryani. It’s his favorite, she explained to me. And I have prepared some dhan saak, she added. Caramel custard for dessert. Mansoor threw a fist in the air and yelled yes. That particular custard is also his favorite, Sabera Aunty said.
She panicked suddenly and leaned forward in my direction. You eat meat, don’t you, she said. I told her I am not vegetarian. I didn’t say that while I was born Hindu, my family practiced no religion, that with the exception of my mother who had embraced the Baha’i faith a decade ago, the family bordered on atheism.
A servant girl of about ten years of age brought two tall glasses of pink colored drinks on a silver tray. She wore a white frock too large for her. Her arms and legs were cinnamon-stick thin. Mansoor protested, saying we were only consuming bottled drinks in India. He apologized profusely. The aunt insisted the drinks were made with bottled water. The servant girl looked on, unsure of what to do. Don’t be so fussy, Sabera Aunty said. You American-types are too funny, the uncle said, and chuckled from one side of his mouth. He massaged his knee. Indian food and drinks are the best way to clean up the digestive system, he said. Enough, his wife told him. She had already moved toward Mansoor with a drink in her hand. Have, have, come on now, nothing will happen, don’t insult us, she said. The servant girl came to stand before me. I reached for the drink on the tray and held it in my hand.
The house phone rang. The servant girl slapped the tray against her chest and rushed to answer it. It was Fatima calling to ask if we had made it to Sabera Aunty’s place in good time. Sabera Aunty took the phone and issued mild protests that Irfan, Fatima and Zaynab had not come also. There was silence while Sabera Aunty listened. Oh, Fatima, you don’t need an invitation, the aunt said. Don’t be so formal. You know you are welcome here any time. She put down the phone, her smile vanishing temporarily, and made her way back to her seat.
Zaynab should be getting married soon, she said. The girl was approaching thirty. If she didn’t marry before thirty, it would be too late, the aunt pronounced. Perhaps she wants to remain single, I said. Nonsense, the aunt said. What is with all of you single people? By now you should be happily married. Marriage is fundamental to life, she said.
The uncle nodded. Marriage and then children, I exclaimed, leaning forward in my chair. What other purpose is there? A pregnant silence took over the room. Sabera Aunty looked down. The uncle reached out and held her hand. Yes, children, too, she said. I am sorry, I said, remembering the hysterectomy. But children are not necessary for a marriage to be happy, the uncle said, looking directly at me for once. I said I couldn’t agree more. Mansoor gave me a look, and scowled. Look at us, the uncle said, we’re happy. If no children followed, it is only the grace of God. No doubt, I said with a measure of sarcasm. The servant girl entered the room again, the silver tray held before her like a shield, to collect our glasses but the drinks were still in our hands. Set the table for dinner, Sabera Aunty commanded. Oh good, Mansoor said. We settled our unsipped drinks on the coffee table before us and proceeded through a bead curtain toward the dining table.
We fought in the taxi on the way to Irfan and Fatima’s place. Mansoor objected to the way I behaved at his aunt’s. I objected to how he had not behaved. I am not your friend, I said. Not again, he said. I told you it’s just a matter of days. We’ll be out of here soon. I said nothing would be achieved. There is nothing to achieve or accomplish, he said.
Yes, there is, I said. We are not on a mission, he said. Yes, we are, I said. We are a couple and his family—all of them—need to know. No, they don’t, he said.
I leaned toward him, pulled him closer to me, and kissed him hard on the lips. He pushed me away, wiped his mouth and looked at the taxi driver in the rear view mirror. Have you completely lost your mind, he yelled. This is not West Hollywood, Amol! I don’t care, I retorted. That’s what I should have done at your aunt’s place—kissed you, French-kissed you before her, that strange uncle, and that pitiful servant girl. You’re mad, Mansoor said. Mad with joy and aliveness, I said. I added I would not stay another night at his brother’s flat. It’s too crammed. There’s no privacy. It’s a bloody prison. We can’t even have sex if we wanted to. I don’t want to, he said. Not here in India. Are you nuts? No, I am not nuts, I said. We’ll check into a hotel, I added. No, we won’t, he said.
But why a hotel, Fatima shrieked when I brought it up minutes later despite Mansoor’s warning. You have both come to my house from America after God knows how many years and you will stay in a hotel? What will people think? You would spoil our name in the community! We wouldn’t be able to show our faces to anyone. Out of the question! No, not possible, Irfan chimed in. Even Zaynab mumbled something that no one could decipher.
We’re running into each other all the time, I said. Mansoor sat down on the couch, leaned forward, and held his face in his hands. Please forgive me that my house is not big enough for you, Fatima said, joining her hands together. We’re inconveniencing you, I said. God promise, not at all, Fatima said. That is why you both should have listened to me the day you arrived: just let Zaynab sleep in our room, and you two can then use her bed. We won’t fit in it, I said. I saw Mansoor shake his head. It’s a twin, I said. Twin? What twin, Irfan said. Then let’s do this, Fatima said: Irfan and I will use Zaynab’s bed,and you two sleep in our bed. And where would Zaynab sleep, I asked. Fatima turned to Zaynab. Zaynab puckered her lips. She will sleep in the living room, Fatima said. Mansoor leaned back on the couch, threw his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he said nothing was going to change: we would sleep in the hall, Zaynab in her room, Irfan and Fatima in theirs. Are you ruling out the hotel option then, I asked. Just shut up, he said.
This morning, before the others woke up, I told him I would not be attending the cousin’s wedding. I lay on my back on the mattress, watching the ceiling fan spin. Mansoor was spread-eagled on the couch. As you wish, he said. Several uncomfortable minutes passed.
Wait a minute, I then said, piercing the silence. It had occurred to me he was glad I was not attending. This way he wouldn’t have to explain me to everyone. I know what I will do, I said. I will attend the wedding. I’ll show you! I’ll show everyone. I’ll wear lacy pink clothes and glittery high heels. I’ll wear dazzling jewelry, a sparkling tiara maybe, loud lipstick and nail polish. You’ve lost your mind, he said. Just do what you want. Oh, I will, I said.
Fatima popped her head into the hall. Good morning, she sang. How did you both sleep? I want to go shopping, I said. A few things urgently needed for the wedding. No problem, she said. I rose from the floor and began to fold the bedsheet we were using for a blanket. It smelled of sweat and spices. Irfan staggered into the room, scratching his arm. His nails made scraping sounds and left long white trails of dead skin. Hey guys, he said. Slept okay? What do you want for breakfast? What’s your agenda for today?
Today we are making asses of ourselves, Mansoor said. What, what, Fatima said. I burst out laughing, and clapped my hands. Irfan and Fatima exchanged glances. Zaynab burst into the room on her toes, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands.
Today is a brand-new me, I said, and threw open my arms. Let’s have some crazy wild fun!
Nobody said anything. Only Zaynab looked at me and for the first time smiled.
Iqbal Pittalwala is the author of “Dear Paramount Pictures,” a collection of short stories published by SMU Press. He lives in Southern California.
Sonia Faleiro: A quirky exploration into the challenges of expressing modern ideas in a conventional Mumbai household.
Vikram Chandra: Unsaid is sharply observed, vividly written, and emotionally engaging.
Sonia Faleiro is the award winning author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.
Vikram Chandra’s works include Red Earth and Pouring Rain (a novel), Love and Longing in Bombay (collection of short stories), Sacred Game (a novel) and Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty (nonfiction.)