That evening, mother and daughter arrived at Ashoke’s party, linked by the hand. When they entered the living room, all chatter suspended. Curious faces turned toward them, and a wave of sound broke out, welcoming them. “You’re back! How are you? It’s been forever! And who is this?” Nela put a protective arm around Ranu, who clung to her, shaking slightly.
“This is my daughter.” Another murmur waved through the group as they waited for details. But Nela had finished her introduction, and made it clear she wasn’t taking questions.
One of Ashoke’s children crept in around the sea of adult hips and stood opposite Ranu. “Want to see my room?” Ranu, biting down her lower lip and lifting her eyebrows, looked to Nela. At her nodded permission, the girls ran upstairs, the helpful little hostess pulling Ranu along by the hand.
Nela caught Ashoke’s glance, the tightened lips turned down. When was the last time a lower caste had visited this house? A cripple? Even as a boy, Ashoke had been a snob. Convinced that all eyes were on him, he complied with the Brahmin code of behavior, giving alms to the poor, for instance, but chasing them from his family’s veranda when the coast was clear.
“We consider our parents gods,” his wife was saying to a guest Nela did not know. The woman standing behind the stranger seemed vaguely familiar. She looked like a model, and had had accompanied a reader who only dated models, but Nela could not remember either one’s name. The reader peered into his empty glass, bored. He had probably heard this little speech a hundred times. “It is common practice that we prostrate ourselves in front of them to touch their feet,” Priya went on.
“Even when you meet them in public, like at the airport? I never see people strewn about the floor at the baggage pickup.” The guest pursed her mouth around the word strewn.
There was a beat of silence, and then the sound of the little brass bell. The company assembled around the table. Nela did not call Ranu down for supper, although Ashoke called for his daughter, who ignored him. His face flushed after the first two calls, and he marched to the bottom of the stairs, yelling her name. Shuffling back
to the table, hands thrust in his pockets, he shrugged, as if losing face in front of colleagues was of no importance. “My children have no idea how to prostrate,” he complained. “They cannot even hear my call. Is all iTouch and earbuds these days!” He waved his hand to indicate the guests should begin without the children. Nela’s dinner partner had brought her own bottled water, and set it down heavily by her glass. “I can’t do yeast,” she explained, first to Nela and then to the man seated on her other side. “So wine is out.” She picked up the bottle and ran a lacquered nail down the label. Without looking toward Priya for help or permission, she poured some of the amber liquid into her neighbors’ glasses. Nela saw Priya’s annoyance, and gave a conspiratorial shrug.
“Why do academics drink so much, anyway?” the guest said. “Bill got so sloshed at last week’s party, he almost cried when the little girl he’d been flirting with sneaked upstairs with someone else!” She spoke with the fervor of the converted.
“Well, Bill’s hardly an academic anymore. I heard him say he resigned his position last week. He was grumbling about how good his work is, but that nobody appreciates him,” said another guest. Nela suddenly could not remember the speaker’s name, although she did recall he specialized in these conversational tangents. “So he’s taking his ball and going home.”
“Or else he is going in for being a gigolo and letting his wife do all the work,” Ashoke declared, passing the biryani. He still reveled in the role of host, attentive to his guests’ needs. Solicitous to a fault, he would hold out a steaming dish and order a guest, Have! with a waggle of his head. He loved to intone the name of some delicacy or other to the unschooled. It seemed to make him feel taller. And, surrounded by neighbors and colleagues, he did not have to be alone with Priya.
The company sniggered. It only egged Ashoke on. “There is another way to divide labor. She does all the work and he does all the complaining.”
Although Nela had lost the thread of the ongoing soap opera during her long absence, the tone of the talk was all too familiar. It was condescending and gossipy, and she had almost forgotten how much she hated it. How could exposure to all this be good for Ranu? It changed a person, and not necessarily for the better.
Her own reputation for being brusque had been built by gatherings like these. She’d get fed up and conclude conversations by simply walking away. “No decompression phrase!” a student once complained to the assembled. Stranded in the room she had just left, his hand was still unshaken, dangling from his sleeve.
When Nela left the table this time, there were again no goodbyes.
One night, long before dawn, Nela awoke to the sound of fireworks. Someone else might have identified it as gunfire, but this pop was distinctive, and immediately brought her childhood back to her. It was Divali, the Festival of Lights celebrating Rama’s triumphant homecoming after killing a foe, the time of year when she and Ramesh would rush out of the house after an excited, light sleep, armed with Atomic Bombs, and Flowerpots. Arms full of firecrackers saved for and selected weeks before, they would race to the gymkhana across the street. No matter how early, there were always children already there, waiting for the brother and sister famous for balancing the flaming flowerpots on the vertical bars of the chain link fence and setting off the fuse of the Chinese crackers. Soon the night bloomed with burning flowers, hovering over whole neighborhoods before dissolving.
Now Nela rubbed the sleep from her eyes and opened the front door. There was Ranu, crouched in the fallow garden, setting off a few tiny blazes. The path from the kitchen door to the plot had been lined by diya pots, and a kolam made from rice paste drawn outside the porch. How long it must have taken Ranu to do this! Nela ducked inside before the child noticed her and the surprise was spoiled. She went to her bookshelves. The child needed a Diwali gift! There was no time now to make traditional sweets or buy new clothes, but a book would do. Nela picked up her Gita and drew her finger along the spine, rubbed her thumbs over the embossed cover. How could she part with this piece of her history? Chitti had given the book to her when she was still too young to understand it, although she could have recited any story from it on the spot. She took the volume out to Ranu. “Happy Diwali,” she said. “This was my auntie’s book. You have seen it before, at the hut. Chitti gave it to me, and now I give it to you.” The child received the book with open palms.
“Appa coming soon?” Ranu asked later that morning. She was sitting on the floor near the whiteboard, eating some lentils with a mitt of naan, mouth wide open again.
“He would be annoyed that I have not yet enrolled you in school,” Nela responded, skirting the question. She leaned over the papers on her side of the table, trying to pick up the thought that Ranu had just broken. Where had her ability to concentrate gone? The task at hand was not difficult; she had written up research results many times before, sent them to the journals with success.
“I learn at home. You teach.” Having come up with the solution to the problem, Ranu went back to her messy breakfast.
“Don’t you want to go to school with Uncle Ashoke’s daughter?” Used to bribes, Ranu said warily, “More children there?” Nela nodded, and Ranu’s face fell. The older children in the neighborhood had already targeted her as someone to bully, a lame foreigner drawing designs with colored chalk on the front stoop. “You teach at school,” the girl haggled.
The mother’s catch-all phrase came out of Nela’s mouth. “We’ll see.”
Later on, Nela returned to the house with groceries and was greeted by the smell of butter sizzling in an iron skillet. Ghee! Ranu had found a camphor lamp in a cupboard full of ornaments and accessories for Hindu rituals, and placed the lamp on a small table near the doorway with an old stick of incense and a few flowering weeds from the garden. The clarified butter was for aarti, the traditional welcome home.
Ducking into the kitchen, Nela joked, “You wanted to welcome me back from grocery shopping?” She mimicked the ritual, making circles with her hands, quoting a mantra.
The child hung her head. “It is for them,” she confessed. She flinched, as if mentioning her missing sister and Jackson might offend. There was a part of Nela, the weak part she despised, still waiting for her husband. Ranu, too, was waiting. Nela would find her sitting on the bed sometimes, knees drawn up and locked in the spindles of her arms. Rocking back and forth, her eyes round and hopeless as the bottom of a well, she did not look to Nela for answers. They both knew there were none.