Kalpana wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist as their motorcycle sped down the Pacific Coast Highway, her fingers tightly clutching his jacket. She felt a bit motion-sick, having forgotten to take her Dramamine tablet that morning, but still, she took in the scenery—blue skies blending into endless ocean, rocky cliffs kissing the sea. Strands of henna-dyed hair whipped around beneath her helmet, as if also trying to get a peek at the view. For the moment, all thoughts about the dreaded news she had been told earlier that week sank to the back of her mind.
When they arrived at their daughter’s San Diego home, Mohan slowly maneuvered the Enfield onto the brick driveway. Kalpana could see Sheela’s bewilderment at the sight of her parents, straddling the bike, sporting matching leather jackets and black riding gloves. They had informed her about their recent motorcycle purchase, but still, she was accustomed to seeing them arrive in their rusty ten-year old Toyota, its back fender dented in two places, from when Kalpana had backed into the mailbox pole, on two separate occasions.
“I thought your mid-life crisis was over. You’ve both got it bad.” Sheela said, arms crossed, a Winnie-the-Pooh sippy cup gripped in one hand.
“For a crisis, it’s not so bad. Imagine the road trips we could take if you and Todd got a motorcycle. Vegas, Frisco, maybe Mexico?” said Mohan.
“Road trips, huh? That would be a little hard with a certain four-year-old in tow,” said Sheela, and on cue, Tina came running towards the door, towards the hugs and kisses that her grandparents had been storing up for her.
“It is over for your Lakers.” Mohan said as he turned to his son-in-law, removing his boots in the front foyer and placing them by the door. “Bryant is injured.”
Todd tugged at his purple and gold Lakers cap and shook his head. “With the Bulls’ lousy defense this season? It’ll be a blowout.”
It was Saturday, and while Kalpana and Sheela would spend the afternoon chatting, filling each other in on the minutiae of life since their last get together, the men would sit before the 52 inch flatscreen, watching their favorite basketball teams battle it out in the playoffs. Growing up in southern California, Todd was naturally a Lakers fan. But Mohan still rooted for Chicago, the city where he first planted his feet on arriving in America 30 years back.
In the kitchen, Kalpana unpacked the small packets of rasam and turmeric powders that she had purchased earlier from Bharat Market, restocking Sheela’s dwindling supply. Sheela rarely cooked Indian food, finding it too much of a fuss, and it was primarily for Todd who, from the time he started dating Sheela, had shown such keen interest in learning Indian cooking, that Kalpana gladly shared both ingredients and family recipes.
“After 15 years in California, you would think Dad would switch sports teams,” Sheela laughed, checking on the tandoori chicken that Todd had marinated the previous night.
“You can never take the Chicago fan out of your father,” said Kalpana.
Thirty years ago, Kalpana had been far from a Chicago fan, neither a fan of the team nor the city itself. The shock from being transplanted from the wet heat of Chennai to the frigid cold of Chicago had been a severe one.
In that first year, Mohan had been preoccupied as a medical resident, working thirty- hour shifts. He would return home with barely enough time to sleep and eat the sambhar rice, green bean poriyal and appalam dutifully prepared by Kalpana, who had painstakingly copied each oil-stained page of her mother’s recipe book before leaving for America. Mohan would mention a patient who had just been admitted for a kidney transplant and tell her the sambhar had good flavor but needed a little more chili powder. Then he’d be off again, to make his rounds and check basketball scores in the residents’ lounge during all too fleeting breaks. Kalpana would be left with the sounds of whirring kitchen appliances and Sheela, who, as a toddler, was starting to add a few Tamil words to her babbling repertoire. “Amma.” “Appa.” And when the next door apartment cat was let out to play in the hallway, she added “punai kutti.”
Mohan had adapted to the city’s cold with more ease than his wife, perhaps because he was always rushing in and out, while Kalpana stayed cocooned in their heated apartment, often placing her bare feet over the floor heating vents for extra warmth. In February of that year, she resolved to take daily walks downtown and found that getting prepared to go outside took as much time as the walk itself. There was the thermal underwear she’d first have to stretch over her limbs, underneath her sari. She would also wear a winter cap, too loose-knit to keep the heat from escaping from her head, accompanied by an orange-brown plaid overcoat from Woolworth, and a long black scarf, wrapped in so many rotations around her head that her charcoal eyes were practically the only visible part of her face. Layers of sweaters and blankets similarly insulated Sheela, tucked in her stroller. Sufficiently bundled, already having worked up a bit of sweat, Kalpana would descend the elevator and brave the cold Chicago streets.
Pushing the stroller, Kalpana often thought of her mother, sorely missing the bespectacled face and voice that easily carried over to the neighboring veranda. More than pining for her husband’s company, she wished her mother could join her on these walks. Back in India, she and Amma had been joint partakers of the visual feast that was on daily display in Chennai. Since childhood she had accompanied her mother to the vegetable markets in Pondy Bazaar, helping to choose which of the golden bananas and bright purple brinjals were worthy of bringing home. They would constantly discuss the Kanchipuram silk sarees and gold jewelry that women wore at the unending parade of weddings and festivals they attended. Such savoring of visual detail could never be shared in the same way with her husband. Amma was curious and delighted in new things, and Kalpana was sure, had she been there, her mother would be enthralled by the snow.
As that first winter ensued, and the sun had not appeared for what seemed like weeks, it became more and more difficult for Kalpana to wake up early for her walks. Her letters to her mother, once diligently scheduled weekly events, became increasingly infrequent. Her sambhar, left on the stove too long, often burned, leaving a charred layer of blackened lentils stuck to the bottom of the pot. Mohan came and disappeared like a shadow. The cold, which had once left her ears burning, nose dripping, and teeth chattering, now merely left her numb. Nevertheless, her walks continued. One dark blustery morning, as Kalpana’s heavy fur-trimmed boots trudged through the dirtied snow along Lake Shore Drive, a frigid wind cut through her bones. She suddenly stopped and stared out onto the icy waters of Lake Michigan, an unfamiliar thought creeping over her. She imagined that same blast of wind, growing so strong that it would send her over the railing and into the lake. The coldness of mind and body, the isolation she had been experiencing for so long would come to an instant end, and she welcomed the thought. But just then, Sheela’s shrill cries arose from the stroller, breaking Kalpana from her trance. Sheela was usually quiet as long as the stroller was in motion, but became quite cranky when it stopped for any extended length of time, as if there was some kind of danger in too much stillness. Kalpana was grateful then for her daughter’s reminder to just keep moving. And she did.In the spring, when the snow banks melted and grass seedlings raised intent green fists through the warming soil, Mohan came home with a present for Kalpana—a Polaroid camera. It wasn’t long before Kalpana realized that this could be a way to repair the fraying cord with her mother, to share her new home with her.
And so, she started to recreate Chicago in Polaroid, inserting a single snapshot each week in a blue envelope labeled, “Par Avion.” One picture was of the vegetable aisle at Kroger, another of a row of tulips in the park outside their apartment. The Sears Tower was mailed as several separate photos, since Kalpana could only fit a little bit of the skyscraper at a time within the camera frame. As Sheela got older, old enough to walk with friends to the school bus stop, without the necessity of her mother’s company, Kalpana began attending photography classes at a local art college. She soon worked as an assistant to a professional photographer, helping to preserve for posterity the images of crying babies and newlyweds in love. Trading in her Polaroid for a Nikon F3, she shot photos at birthday parties for friends, freelanced for newspapers and eventually joined a culinary magazine as staff photographer. Decades later, Kalpana was infused with the belief that much could be achieved when one just kept moving.
Seated at the kitchen table, Tina opened the gift bag that her grandmother had given her and pulled out a plastic doll, complete with gemmed tiara, straw blonde hair, and full-length gown.
Sheela’s lips collapsed into a disapproving frown, aimed in Kalpana’s direction. “Mom, you bought Tina a Disney princess? We have had this conversation before—no toys that reinforce sexist stereotypes!”
Kalpana sighed. Her daughter saw symbolism in everything, so much that a simple doll represented the ills of society. Anyway, it was too late and Tina was already lovingly stroking the doll’s dress. Kalpana appreciated the intent behind Sheela’s overprotection of her child, but she knew it was a losing battle. In Kalpana’s mind, it was smarter to adapt to the world as it was, not cower from it.
“Girls should be able to play with dolls if that’s what they like,” Kalpana said, but in an attempt to appease Sheela, she pulled Tina close and spoke to her directly. “Now, you know this dolly is very fashionable, but she is also an extremely good soccer player. And did you know, she is a scientist too?”
“Yes I know, Achi!” the child squealed and ran off to interrupt her father’s football game with the announcement of her new doll.
Sheela’s frown softened, but still, she shook her head. “Mom, you never listen.”
“Ah, I suppose this is karma for all the times you never listened as a teenager!”
Sheela could have no comeback for that. It was true. She was once the quintessential rebellious teenager. There was a time when Kalpana had spent sleepless nights agonizing over when Sheela would become “settled.” It was a term her own mother had used in India before Kalpana got married, saying that all she wanted was for her daughter to be “well-settled.” She had never fully comprehended it at the time. But on becoming a parent herself, she understood the basic sentiment. She had wanted Sheela to be happy, to have a successful career, a family of her own; to have a secure future. Yet Kalpana knew from fifty-four years of living that security was an obscure obtainment. Once you finally found yourself “settled,” life creatively found ways to unsettle you.
When the surgeon had removed Kalpana’s tumor two years ago, he left her with a scar on her left breast, slightly raised and a shade darker than the surrounding skin, but still pronounced the lumpectomy an astounding success. Mohan had found another physician to fill in for him at work, and became his wife’s attendant, scheduling and driving her to each radiation appointment, holding her hair back when she could no longer hold in the nausea. Within three months, the magazine staff threw a huge party to welcome Kalpana back to work. “A remarkable recovery,” they called it.
But last week, at the doctor’s office, feeling the tight squeeze of Mohan’s hand in hers, Kalpana received the news that the cancer had returned. There was silence at first. Then, the sound of her own heartbeat pounding inside her ears, and the feeling that the air in the room was suffocating her, as if it too had been poisoned with cancer. She shuddered, feeling as cold and hopeless as the day she stood so many years ago, summoned by Lake Michigan. She wanted to escape the room and not look back, let the cancer take its own damned course. But instead, she stayed firmly at her seat, willing her hand to return Mohan’s squeeze. “Fix it,” she told the oncologist. “Just tell me what we have to do.”
It was still early in the weekend, and she and Mohan had agreed to wait until Sunday to break the news to Sheela and Todd. Tomorrow could wait. Now, in Tina’s bedroom, Kalpana laughed at the sight before her.
On the trundle bed, sitting on a flowered quilt, Sheela was brushing Tina’s brown pixie-cut hair, while Tina in turn worked a miniature pink plastic brush over the hair of her new doll. Kalpana paused to fully take in the scene, before pulling the camera out of her paisley-printed satchel. She framed the girls within the viewfinder and zoomed in tight.
“Told with effortless detail that weaves through the narrative like carefully drawn thread, this story is masterfully presented with attention and precision. I admire its maturity and the attention paid to narrative rhythm.” —Ray Deonandan
“This story contains so many things: a young immigrant’s first years of motherhood, her later struggle with cancer, and the budding family life of her grown daughter. And yet, “Unsettled” never loses its balance, but contains itself masterfully, and emerges as a well-rounded, beautifully quiet narrative.” —Shanthi Sekaran
Ranjini Richards is a Reading Consultant, instructor, and part-time writer based in Los Angeles, Calif.