To get to California I had to travel through desert. But no, the desert was part of California, too. Perhaps the best part, I would think later. Brown land, brown sky, hills like brown breasts. The Greyhound bus fishtailed in the wind, or maybe the driver was sleepy. I slid across the worn-slick vinyl seat with a slash in its center, like someone had had to hide something fast. Or maybe he'd been searching. Or merely bored and needed it, the hard, defined sound of the rip as the knife bit in, its controlled movement across the drab olive flatness. I slid all the way across and hit my head against the dusty window, but it didn't hurt because I'd seen it coming and braced myself just before. Oh, I was quick. Because only the quick survive. Or the fortunate--but already my life had proved I wasn't that.
We were passing the dunes now, the sand rippled into a thousand lines of cursive, a dangerous alphabet. Everywhere, mica glittered like eyes. Above, vultures waited to swoop down on the helpless skitter of smaller creatures. I loved it--how could I resist? I wanted to climb to the top of the highest dune. I wanted to be transformed to the bone.
Already some of the scared hardness at my core was melting in the desert's heat. For the first time since I got to America.
I felt myself growing into all the words my sister-in-law had shouted as I packed my things in her Dallas home two days ago. Selfish, yes. Ungrateful, yes. Following only my own pleasure. I would be all that. And I was coming to California.
But first there was the lush, sweaty jostle of Bombay, the torrential monsoons that swept into the city where I was born, the greedy, flooded streets that sucked at your calves. On each corner the looming billboards promised romance, a dark, air-conditioned theater and Amir Khan in your arms--or Madhuri Dixit, depending on your preference. All the passion you could want and none of the consequences. The white ocean at night, necklaced with lights from Marine Drive, rocked just for you.
Everything I had loved, and then hated.
People thought I came to Texas because my older brother was the only relative I had left. The real reason: I needed something as different as possible from Bombay. How else could I begin to bear the memories, the city smoldering in the aftermath of riot? Hindus and Muslims, hate and slaughter, smoke that rose solid in a hundred pillars. On the street, the screams of women whose accents you could not have distinguished from mine. The smell of the water tank on our terrace, where my mother made me hide.
This is what I made myself imagine: open country, dust rising from hooves as herds headed home. Fountains of iridescent black oil. Cougars. Cowboys with creased smiles and eyes blue as sapphire stone. Their kisses would be hard and innocent. Behind us in the night, rockets would take off for the moon, searing a path brighter than any meteor's.
I found myself in a two-bedroom semi-detached exactly like a hundred others, a pocket- sized square of lawn, browning in patches because water cost too much. "We'll put in rocks, once we're sure your brother won't get laid off," said my sister-in-law, who was kind in the beginning. "Come on, Mira, let's take you to the mall."
I knew it was my fault, my own desperate mythologizing of America. But I blamed her for my disappointment. And my brother. I blamed him for his patience, his second-rate career, his crumpled, apologetic shoulders. His letter that had asked me to come stay with him. It's not safe in India, how many times I told you and mother this. Especially now that you're an unmarried girl alone.
The bus jerks to a halt. How many hours? It is a gray afternoon, a gray wind blowing Burger King wrappers across a scraggly city park. Gulls circle overhead, screaming, though there is no sign of water. I see graffiti on peeling walls, metal bars in a shop window.
"Sacramento," shouts the driver, and I climb down.
It is dusk by the time I find Malik's restaurant. The light has seeped away, leaving inkpools under the eyes of strangers in the street, in the secretive hollows of their throats.
In Bombay, before the riots, darkness had fallen decisively, dramatically, in one gay swoop. Comparisons are futile, I know that. Now is all I have. But my feet hurt, the backpack straps bite into my shoulders, and the frr-frr of white pigeons flying home is the rustle of my mother's sari.
"Malik-ji?" says the manager, who is at the cash register, picking his teeth. "Yes, he's in. You're lucky. He hardly ever comes into the restaurant anymore." He peers at the note that my brother had insisted on giving me. "I don't know if he'll talk to you. So many people come through here, claiming to be relatives of relatives."
The air is full of cumin and coriander, a roasted brown smell. They must be frying samosas inside. My mother used to make the best samosas, fat and crisp. "Stuff carefully, Mira," she'd say. "Wet the dough ends and pinch the tips together so no air bubbles remain." But I never had the patience.
"Did I say I was a relative?" I let my voice hit the shadowed ceiling, ricochet back. My head feels like a bubble, enormous with hot air, ready to burst. "I'm looking for a job. If you don't have one, I'll be happy to look elsewhere."
A few early diners turn to stare.
"Arre bas, what temper," says the manager, not unkindly. "Just left home, didn't you? A week on the streets and you'd be singing a different song. Sit there, on the empty side, I'll go ask if he'll see you. Ei Priya, bring this bahinji a cup of chai."
I sit in the banquet section of the restaurant, decorated with maroon velvet and mirrors, curtains with thick gold pull-ropes, wall-to-wall plush carpeting. I want to feel disdain. In our drawing room in Bombay there had been a hundred-year-old rug from Srinagar that belonged to my grandfather, its faded design like a glimmering of jewels through fog. But this American carpet is so soft around my ankles, so innocent of history--like young grass--that I can't stop myself from slipping off my shoes.
The tea comes, brought by a young woman in a purple sari and neat braids. Her blackbird eyes take in my wrinkled jeans, my less-than-clean shirt, my hair bundled into a knot, even--I am sure--the giant blister taking angry shape on my left heel. She is about to speak, but someone shouts, "Pri-ya!" and with a flash of a smile she is gone. The kitchen door swings open to her touch, closes on a burst of female laughter, a question that could be who is she, or maybe what does she want, the old, known smells and the boundaries they once promised. Sputtering mustard seed, the bright green glaze of chilies cooking in my mother's karhai. I no longer feel desert dangerous, only tired and, again, afraid.
The water tank in our Bombay house smelled of river bottoms, of rust, of sun-heated metal, and still water. Inside, it was colder than I had expected, shiver-cold, and the smallest sounds echoed and boomed, hitting my ear like a fist.
We were lucky to have a water tank at all. It had been put in a long time ago by my grandfather, when such things could still be done. Having grown up in the lake-filled villages of Bengal, he had liked long baths. Now it meant that when the municipal supply was cut off twice a day, we had water to cook and drink.
But our real luck lay in the fact that none of the surrounding houses had tanks. This meant the rioters would not think to look on the terrace, my mother said. From her voice I knew she was only hoping.
The tank was not large. Still, it could have held us both. When I said that, my mother shook her head. "I must padlock the house from outside," she said. "That way they might believe it's empty."
"Where will you go?" I asked.
"I've let half the tank water out," she said, "but you might need the rest. It's a good thing this old lid doesn't close too well. There'll be enough air. Don't come out, no matter what you hear. Here's some fruit, it's the only thing that'll keep in there. Eat it sparingly. Who knows when--"
There were shouts in the distance, a rumbling sound like heavy machinery. Perhaps there were guns. I thought I smelled burning oil.
My mother pushed me down into the tank, handed me a banana and two oranges. She let her hand linger for a moment on my hair. "God bless you," she said.
I thought of saying, Who? The god that's letting this happen to us, to this city? And, What if they set the house on fire? Of saying, None of this would have happened if we'd moved to America after Baba died, like my brother invited us to.
If there's one thing I'm glad of now, it's that I stayed silent.
I ate the banana that night. Next evening I ate the oranges. The screams had stopped by then, mostly. I let the peels fall from my hand and watched them float, slow motion, to the tank bottom. I crushed the seeds in my teeth as though the bitterness could bring me relief. For a long time, the moist, weighted air of the tank smelled of oranges and tears.
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