The next morning, Ashoke poked his head in Nela’s office. “Where did you get to last night? We looked all around! Priya made paaysam in honor of your homecoming. You did not take! ” He pursed his lips in a pout.
“That party was purely for your prospective hire. Jackson, is it? He sat next to me on the plane home.” She looked at him hard. Would he mention Jackson’s disappearance from the party as well? Put two and two together?
“He didn’t mention that! I wonder why he didn’t tell that.” Ashoke hated to be out of the loop.
“Yes. I usually make more of an impression,” Nela said wryly.
“Oh, no! I mean, of course that is true, I mean, our guest must have had too many claims on his time last night.” He was teasing her
now, a tentative wink. Nela picked up an imaginary shovel and began to dig. He gave up immediately, backing out of her office, hands raised in front of his face.
Thumbi. Little brother, she had called him in their childhood. A pest, a fetter. Always underfoot, except when she needed him. He should have stood up for her against the village gossips when they decided she had made herself unmarriageable. Instead, Ashoke had distanced himself. He was not responsible. Her own headstrong behavior had tripped her up! No one had told her to touch a boy unrelated to her in full view of witnesses. For months, if Ashoke caught a glimpse of Nela in her exile, sitting on her family’s veranda, he ignored her. He would not respond to a word or a wave if there was anyone who might see. Amma was the first to notice this behavior. “You should have accepted him when a match was possible,” she had seethed. “Now, his parents will not agree. Shame, shame.”
But since the moment she had set foot on this campus, Ashoke had haunted Nela. Far from home, they were both safe from Nela’s reputation as a fallen woman. Here, it did not matter that her family of origin regarded her as unmarriageable. Here, all roles were up for grabs.
At first, Ashoke had tried to play the part of protector. During her first few days in town, he barely left her side. He even helped her move into her apartment, despite the fact that he hated to sweat. As the labor of lugging boxes went on and on, items of his clothing came off one by one, until he was shirtless and shoeless. “I wish I had my dhoti,” he said at one point.
“Don’t you dare!” Nela responded, her words swift and hard as a slap. A look of confusion flitted across his face, but then Ashoke drew himself up and puffed out his chest. The posture made him look sway-backed, but it made him feel powerful and intimidating. He began to grumble in Tamil.
Nela thought to cool him down with some lemonade. She sat against the opposite wall with her yellow glass, hoping her body language would make itself understood. Ashoke was too thick- skinned for delicate rejections, and as soon as he had finished his drink, he took up where he left off, engineering bodily collisions, coordinating tight squeezes in the stairwells. When the job was done, he ceremoniously gave her the key to his house, and held out his hand for hers. But the key was not forthcoming, not then, not now.
Nela stood up and went to the window, letting her gaze wander over the campus. This was the same vista that had once filled her with pleasure, the one spot of sand and spit chosen by her, not her parents or her brothers or the chokehold of Indian tradition. She had plotted her escape from India carefully, choosing a time to present her plans to the committee of brothers, uncles, and father while Amma was absent.
Her new home embodied freedom. It could be molded and re-formed to reflect her changing self. Blue silk walls in her bedroom, a whiteboard in the living room, whatever she wanted, she could have. Now the idea struck her as static, the place interchangeable with any other locale.
Just below the window, a gangly kid decorated with piercings on the verge of infection slumped along the sidewalk. He was coming to see her, and suddenly she realized she had no energy for him. She could not steer him through the grand potential of his life. Not today. She hastily wrote him a note, taped it to her door, and raced down the back stairwell.
It had begun to rain, and she opened her umbrella. She walked briskly, although the rain did not bother her. People found it odd to see someone amble down the street in bad weather, so that’s what she usually did. Not today. What do you care what other people think? What indeed, Richard.
Bombay Bistro came into view, and Nela ducked into the doorway. The masala of smells she had been inhaling for half a block, layered over the wet air’s perfume of iron and wool, made her crave a milky tea with cardamom. She twisted the doorknob, pushed through the heavy wood.
Her eyes immediately fell on a hunched figure in the corner, eating a chapatti with both hands. It was Jackson. Their eyes locked, and it was too late to hurry away. Jackson was already rising from his seat, pulling the door fully open for her. “Here—it sticks a little. It’s all this rain!” he said. “How do you get used to it?” He chattered all the way to the table, where he pulled a chair out for her as if he had been expecting her. “Ashoke told me about this place,” he said. Two spots of pink appeared on his cheeks and made him seem vulnerable, younger.
Nela smiled. “Oh, he did, did he?” Jackson lifted his eyebrows, not understanding why she would say it like that. Nela labored over an explanation. Ashoke avoided Indian restaurants when he was with non-Indians, not wanting the responsibility of ordering for an entire group. They never knew what they were in for. Hot food means hot.
“This isn’t hot,” Jackson replied, flipping his flatbread like a flag. “You are supposed to take with chutney,” Nela said. She placed a
teaspoon of pickled relish on the corner of his bread. When his eyes brimmed, she smiled. “You see. Hot.” They were bickering again. In for a dime, in for a dollar, she thought. “How seduced are you by the idea of teaching at my university?”
“All yours, is it now?” he smiled, and she clucked her tongue in a way that signaled displeasure. “Oh, you’re serious! Well. I’ve spent years traveling to villages in the neediest countries, and nothing ever gets better. I feel in need of a radical change of direction.”
“Do-gooding has lost all gloss?” she quizzed him, scooping up some sambaar with a piece of bread. Jackson shrugged his shoulders. It was an exhausted heave, and it made her want to comfort him. Alarmed by the feeling, she changed the topic. “What have you heard about this so-called shake-up? I have been away and have not been briefed.”
“Your new dean wants to make his mark at your department’s expense. Doubling the teaching loads, for instance, will serve as the metaphorical head on the pike. I thought Ashoke would have given you every detail by now.”
Nela smiled. “I’m sure he will, with great relish. But it’s not a very good deal for you, coming in, is it? I actually like to teach,” she lied. “I may well be in the minority.”
A waiter came around with a brass tray of iddlies and assorted chutneys. Jackson named the rice and lentil dumplings accurately, watching for Nela’s reaction. She repeated the name slowly, pronouncing it properly this time. He tried again. A good sportsman, a quick study. Nela dipped a dumpling into the sambaar, and cupping it with the other hand, offered it to Jackson.
He was just opening wide when Ashoke burst in. Nela held the iddly in mid-air. “What is it, then?” she demanded. Ashoke ignored her—snubbed her, actually—and turned his attention to Jackson.
“Sorry to be so late! Such a commotion fetching the children from school! But I see our Nela has been entertaining you.”
“We met by chance. I am not staying,” Nela demurred, her mouth full of Jackson’s soupy iddly. Ashoke winced. “Enjoy your tea party!” she added, swallowing hard. She gathered her purse and umbrella, and nodded formally at Jackson, who winked at her.
“Not to worry,” Ashoke said loudly. “The department will pick up this tab. We take care of our own.” He dragged out the last comment, rolling his R’s for Jackson’s benefit, whose reflection cringed in the wavy window as Nela walked away.
Once home, she went straight to the whiteboard behind the living room bookcases. She paced in front of it, waiting for an idea to appear. When she first installed the board, she had explained to her puzzled friends, “Some people may have a piano, but I have a board full of elegant equations.”
“Math may be elegant, but it’s not art,” one friend had pointed out. “Why don’t you buy a nice drawing?”
“No,” Nela had argued. “This is my house. I want to fill it with my own work.”
Alone now with her numbers, she feared that she’d lost the ability to do that work. She had forgotten how to exploit solitude, thanks to the months she’d just spent at her mother’s crowded bedside. Another mathematician’s presence probably wouldn’t have helped. They were like chess players, silently thinking long past the other’s endurance before making a single move. Still, it would have been nice to have someone with whom to bounce around ideas. Jackson?
Seven fruitless hours later, she fell asleep on the canvas cot. If she had been at the office, she would have unrolled the sleeping bag from under her desk, the light burning above her numbers, making sure the calculations did not slip away.
Nela woke up the following morning, and, as was her custom, saluted the sun. There wasn’t the visible sun to salute, but that was no excuse to cut the rest of her yoga poses—fish, camel, scorpion— short. “Do you have to do that now?” one ex-boyfriend used to ask her. “What’s in it for you, anyway?”
Yogashcittavrittinirodhah. Tada drashthuh svarupe vasthanam, she had answered. He made an irritated gesture indicating she should translate. “‘Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind. Then the true self appears. Any Easterner knows that.”
Upright again, Nela went into the kitchen to make tea. She sipped her cup dry, stood up from the table like a guest taking her leave. She walked into the living room and took a look at her whiteboard. It may as well have been empty. She bit her lip harder than she meant to.
Outside, the morning drizzled. Her joints were still too young to signal the weather, and she had to depend on other sources of information. She had to pay attention. A few years earlier, a violent storm had ripped through the area, damaging the campus, lifting a dozen cars off the ground and dashing them apart like toys. She had been blissfully unaware of anything but her calculations until she stepped outside into downed branches and an end-of–the-world devastation. She stood frozen to the spot, hearing the scream coming from her own mouth as if from a great distance.
A little drizzle could not compare to that. Nela stepped into her garden. To breathe in the familiar smells of the neighborhood, the braid of bakery smells and damp soil, delighted her. Trowel in hand, she was ready to loosen her brain with her body. This was an old trick of hers, switching gears to relax the parts of her mind snarled with effort.
The neglect in her garden was much worse when viewed so close. She had assumed that when she was called to her mother’s bedside so unexpectedly, Ashoke would keep an eye out for her property. After all, he was always spouting mantras like there is nothing like relatives!
She reached in her pocket for a scarf to tie up her hair. The cloth caught at nothing. No hair, no flowers, no calculations! She got on her knees and stabbed the earth with a trowel. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched one hoverfly idle over another, enacting the principle of motion camouflage. It was like a cat stalking its prey. One had to admire a mechanism like that.
She was still thinking about the flies as she strode into campus.“Motion camouflage!” she hissed at a panhandler watching her from the curb. He cringed as if she was the one who was dangerous.
Nela entered her building and passed right by her locked office. She continued down the hall to the lounge in pursuit of Jackson, looking neither right nor left, ignoring students and professors alike. She found Jackson with Ashoke, drinking institutional coffee. Ashoke teetered on the chair legs, a trick he had learned from some how-to-succeed book or other, long ago. “It is keeping your opponent off- balance,” he had informed her. “He will listen all the more.”
Jackson smiled at her approach. Ashoke did not. “I just noticed something rather phenomenal,” she plunged in, drawing up a chair and wedging it between the men. Ashoke was forced to move to accommodate her. She was not oblivious to the fact that she was interrupting a private conversation, and that Ashoke was irritated, but she would not take his feelings into account. There was no point. He had proved many times that his feelings could not be hurt.
She spoke only to Jackson when she said, “I was just gardening, and I saw a great example of motion camouflage in hoverflies…” Within moments, the two of them were deeply engaged, heads together, each scribbling on scraps of paper pulled from their pockets. Ashoke, sighing like a punctured balloon, continued to sip his coffee, and did not budge.
“I’ve seen this in the field many times,” Jackson said, “and I can offer you an empirical proof. How would you go about doing a mathematical one?”
Ashoke broke in. “She probably cannot, just as she could not make room for you in her office.” He rocked on his heels with a look that bet on Jackson. He lost.
“Well, of course not. She is working on a difficult problem, and needs her space.”
Nela gave both men a penetrating look. “Where did they finally put you, anyway?” she wanted to know.
“I’ll show you,” Jackson said. He scooped up the bits of paper and led Nela into the back of a secretary’s office. Ashoke did not follow them.
In the room, there was an aluminum table with legs so thin they looked on the verge of collapse. “No proper desk?” Two wooden chairs, a hotplate. One filing cabinet pushed up against a windowless wall. The walls were made of stucco, whitewashed another color long ago. The air was so stale it made Nela cough. “This will not do,” she said, gently thumping her fists against Jackson’s chest, as if he was the one who had coughed.
He took her fists in his hands, and looked down at her, amused. “It’s serviceable, and anyway, it’s not your problem,” he said. But it was too late. She had already taken his problems as her own.
They went back to her office to continue their discussion. They sat at the round table, papers between them, and worked until their backs ached. At last, Jackson got up to stretch, then took out his phone to snap pictures of their calculations. “We should videotape the hoverflies right away. “
“Let’s set up the equipment.”
The overgrown field, perfumed with grasses, buzzed with life. Jackson and Nela worked together as if they already knew one another’s body and could predict a particular sequence of movement. Nela scribbled information on her pad, regarding the angle of the sun and the species of fly they were studying. At one point, she leaned into Jackson’s shoulder to steer his attention to a pair of insects, and he took her hand. An electric charge branched through her arm, and she began to lecture nervously, the way she had on the plane. “Here we have motion camouflage in mating behavior. We see that it is not only a prey-capture strategy.”
“Mating as optical illusion. Interesting.” She felt his warm breath graze her neck. She released his hand and widened the distance between them. Pretending not to see his slight smile meant that she would not have to respond to it.
“When shall we meet to analyze the data?” She brought her pad and pen close to her face, all business.
Now he was the one who looked uncomfortable. He blinked rapidly, as if he was about to tell a lie. He confessed, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” she said dully. “Oh, well, then. There is no point.” There is no point, there is no point, she repeated silently as she walked away from Jackson into the sullen air.
Jackson did not leave the university. Nela only found out this fact the following weekend, when she collided with him at a department function. “You!” she said.
“You look surprised,” he said, assessing. “Didn’t your buddy tell you I’m here for another few weeks?” Nela turned her head to meet Ashoke’s eyes, staring from the back of the room. He dropped his glance immediately.
“He said nothing!”
“Really? And I thought you were avoiding me!”
“Why would I do such a thing?” Nela believed she might find an Ashoke-manufactured reason if she shook him hard enough. But she could not bear to look at him. She leaned into Jackson, and pounced directly on the point. “Have you given any more thought to what we were talking about?” He looked into her eyes so deeply she shivered. Suddenly, she could not read the slight movement of his head. Was it a shake or a nod?
“It’s all I’ve been able to think about.”
All through dinner, course after well-lubricated course, they whispered to each other about their developing idea. They were cocooned, the only two people at the long noisy table. After awhile, although their thighs were touching and their hands mirrored each other’s movements, they both seemed to remember where they were. Jackson rather loudly said to Nela, “Who would you say is the greatest mathematician alive?” A question for the general audience. Nela smiled and played along.
“Your question is ill-defined, sir,” she retorted. “Do you mean algebraist, topologist, number-theorist, geometer, differential geometer, algebraic geometer, or…?”
“I did not ask for a rigorous answer. Hey, it’s a party. A general response will suffice.”
Nela chewed her mouthful of spicy potatoes thoughtfully. She swallowed, sipped some water, and replied with an inflection flat as a fact, “Andre Weil.”
All the mathematicians at the table, drawn by sound of the name, swiveled their heads. Each pair of eyes brightened. “Oh?” Jackson egged her on.
“Yes. One reason is as follows: we all teach courses on whatever subject interests us at any given time. We call them Lie Algebras, or Jordan alegbras, etcetera, etcetera. Weil simply called all his courses Mathematics.” There was a beat or two of dead air, broken only by the sound of chewing and gulping. Mathematicians take time with the formulation of their replies. At this table, no one was willing to risk a quip.
“Why do you suppose he turned toward the Gita when he was jailed for not going into the French army?” one of the women wanted to know.
“He wanted to be reassured that he was doing his dharma,” her husband said from out of the side of his mouth. The wife, unconvinced, looked to Nela as an expert on such matters.
“Weil defined his dharma as the duty to be a mathematician, although it is known that arbitrary definitions often lead to chaos. In the Gita, Krishna says that if the balance between right and wrong becomes distorted, he will incarnate himself to redress the balance.” The room quieted. Were the people bored or riveted? Nela could not be sure.
Another woman piped up, “Is it true that karma is what you’ve done, and dharma is what you will do?” The group tittered. Nela frowned. She would not deign to answer sound-bite philosophy.
One man changed the subject. “Paul seems to have sunk into a clinical depression.” A murmur rippled through the company.
“Does anyone know what triggered it?” Nela asked, although she did not know a Paul.
“After he won the field award, he assumed he could count on the Distinguished University Professor award. It crushed him when it became apparent that this was not to be.”
“DUP,” Nela mumbled. “DUP, DUP, DUP,” she repeated. Jackson’s smile egged her on until all heads had turned toward her. She calmly continued chewing until they turned away again.
As dessert was shuffled onto their plates, Jackson leaned down to Nela’s ear and whispered, “Let’s get out of here.” Nela rose from the table at once. She made loud, purposely unbelievable, flamboyant excuses as she bade both strangers and friends farewell. She accompanied Jackson to the door, aware of Ashoke’s dark eyes following her.
At the cottage Nela and Jackson pulled one another up the stairs, peeling clothes as they went. On the top landing, he stopped kissing her mouth to bury his head in her neck for a moment, as if that particular nook was the place he had been searching for all his life. He leaned into her hungrily, but Nela, disbelieving her own happiness, leaned away. “One pursues, the other evades,” the man murmured, undeterred.
“Is it a game to you?”
“It’s a serious one.” There was no use in starting an argument. Just be a body, Nela counseled herself. She led him into the room with the blue silk walls, climbed on the bed and tugged him to her, watching his hands trail sensation along the length of her skin. She inhaled his smell, and briefly wondered where his mouth had been. Jealous already? The thought made her smile, the absurd truth of it. He was inside her now, his breath coming fast and jagged. She closed her eyes, and rose up under him. For a moment she couldn’t remember his name. My house.
“It’ll be better next time,” Jackson reassured her a few moments later. She had not noticed the pillow damp with her own tears, but he had. How to explain them?
“Oh, the release of built-up chemicals. Nothing more.”
He smiled and rubbed her back. “Damn pheromones.” He licked the salt from her skin. “Ashoke says you and he almost married,” he said.
“That’s what you were thinking about?” she laughed. “You know he’s carrying a torch for you.”
She slipped out of bed to gaze out the window, although nothing was visible but a sliver of moon. “Our parents had some preliminary plans for a union. It did not bother them that he is a distant cousin. I would never have consented. As you see, I actually have good taste in men.” She squinted into the dark, trying to name the shapes moving under a passing cloud.
Why had she escaped Jackson’s embrace? It couldn’t have been the mention of Ashoke. He was nobody’s rival. No, it was just that this was all too close, too intimate. Nela was suddenly conscious of her naked body. She picked up her robe, pretending to be chilly.
“Are you hungry?” She wanted to continue the conversation with the barrier of a table between them.
Over tea and toast, they talked about the university, her research and his plans. “I have to see a few more people about this job, and I have to finish up on the old one. Then I’m free,” he said, meaning, I’m all yours.
“Where will you be?’ she said, meaning, How far from me?
“I’m going to a village outside Kerala.”
“Really! My old family home is still there. It belonged to my grandfather, and was passed on to my mother. The river comes right up to the door, and water buffalo still graze in the back. We loved coming back to that house after visiting relatives in the hills.” She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on her memories, and not the way Jackson was playing with her fingers. “We’d stop at a particular station on our way home, and Appa would buy us strawberry pink
or blueberry milk. I had no idea how the color got into the milk. It fascinated me, for some reason.”
“How old were you?”
“Oh, five or six. We would float to the house in a boat, and wave to the neighbors who lined the shore to welcome us back. I wish you could see it. I could give you directions. My mother’s youngest sister lives in the house. She would look after you if you wanted to stay there.”
Immediately, she wished she could call the words back. She watched Jackson tilt his chin, thinking it over. His features did the talking when words were insufficient. How many men did that? No sputtering or over-explaining for this one, no piling on the excuses. “The organizers have made accommodations for me,” he said simply, “but I could drop in and give her your regards.”
She didn’t acknowledge the offer. Her face closed off, and he switched the subject. “So what does your name mean, anyway?” he asked.
“What does it mean?”
“Yeah, yeah—does it stand for anything?”
She sighed. A foreigner question. “Ground,” she said. “Ground?” They were getting nowhere.
“Yes. As in earth, place, or even home.” Quicksand. Mud.
“Did your parents think that a name like that would make you stay with them forever?”
“A daughter permanently underfoot would not have been hoped for. But perhaps my name predisposed me to my love of walking.”
“Oh, do you hike?”
“No. Just walk. I get restless.” A warning? She tied the sash on her robe tighter, irritated equally by his questions and her desire to answer them. She eyed her running shoes by the door, tongues lolling in canvas, but then Jackson pushed aside his chair and stood behind hers. He pulled apart her sash, and reached down into her robe. He began to touch her again.