by Bhargavi C. Mandava
I glance at the sheet for my next delivery. A
case of Barbaresco to East 66th Street, the affluent Upper East
Side, as usual. When I try to imagine
that neighborhood, the color green comes to mind. I picture wispy trees that I’m just
learning the names of, and the light, it’s soft too, like the light in mango
groves. Up and down the street, birdcalls are heard, clear and sweet and
extraordinary despite the fact that they’re being sung by ordinary brown
sparrows. The sound is the opposite of green. That’s why it’s so distinct. It
evokes flame-colored flowers and the violet of Dalaja’s sari, the one I last
unraveled in Hyderabad.
light changes to yellow and I accelerate through it. I wonder what my wife is
doing. Nearly sunset here, so it’s sunrise there. She is waking as usual, I
suppose, before the birds, striking a match to the candle she keeps by the
stove, though there’s electricity--she doesn’t want to wake my mother and
father. She removes a filter from the tin on the shelf and eases the circle
of cotton into the tea strainer. Though her mother cuts her filtering cloths
into squares, Dalaja knows my mother prefers circles, and she obliges her,
cutting them perfectly from fabric remnants the family tailor returns with
each batch of newly stitched clothing. She has also deferred to my mother’s
austere decorating sense and resisted cluttering our room with the
knickknacks her family is in the habit of collecting. Dalaja is obliging to
me, too, but passionate. I can almost feel her fingertips, unadorned yet like
candies, touching me, not too much, but enough.
light up ahead is already turning and I hit the brakes. The van jerks to a
noisy stop at Park Avenue and 19th Street. The weather prediction
called for drizzling, but the sun broke through and stayed. Consequently, the
corners are packed with people, their arms uselessly burdened with umbrellas
and raincoats. Though the red hand is flashing on the signal post, a woman in
black boots begins to cross, undoing a button on her jacket as she walks. She
has that American assuredness that I admire, believing she is perfectly in
the right while doing something blatantly wrong, and with so many witnesses.
Before she steps up to the safety of the pavement, I speed up the
avenue, timing the lights as I go. To be driving is better than walking,
though I take the subway to and from the wine shop. A truck runs the red,
startling a woman eating ice cream and nearly hitting my van, Mr. Percy’s
van. “Stupidshitmotherfuck!” I yell, sticking my head out the window. The
truck is long gone and pedestrians stare at me, as if I’m the lawless one. I
feel a charge of power in my chest.
curse now like I sneeze, suddenly, without warning. I rarely used coarse
language back in India. Though Mother has a tendency toward the occasional
indelicate usage, Father does not, and I guess I took after him. Anand
suggested, however, it was best here. “Fuck adds authority,” he said. “Use it
liberally, especially when you feel doubtful. Like when a taxi driver is
taking you the roundabout route, say, ‘Son-of-a-bitch--I’m fucking late!’ or
‘Get the fuck out of here!’ Or bark into your cellular, ‘What the fuck?’
There are plenty of our people driving cabs there, but if they realize how
green you are, Lucky, believe me, they will fuck you too.” I laughed out
loud, adequately fucked on rum. “But we’re all brothers, aren’t we?” I said,
passing him the bottle.
Still, I’m not proud of it, this gutter talk. It became more rooted
after the newsstand. It was there at Thandlay’s that I began to change,
amusements escalating into habits. Bad habits.
Nitin had met Ranjit Thandlay a long time back in an organization for Indian
entrepreneurs. They had gone their separate ways, Ranjit investing in
newspaper kiosks in Manhattan, while Uncle and Auntie bought two stalls at
Crossgates Mall in Albany. One offers Indian novelties from papier-mâché
elephants to mirrored troikas, and the other, more of a tiered cart than a
stall, is stacked with miniature crystal cakes, tea sets, prams and the like,
and at the backside, fantasy creatures carved from Lithuanian amber.
“Smashables,” Mother calls them.
Though I was content helping out at Crossgates Mall and reading
library books in Uncle and Auntie’s partially finished basement until my
working papers cleared, they wouldn’t have it. “You’ve been of great
assistance, Lakshman, but the holiday rush is over,” explained Uncle Nitin.
“This is a rare opportunity with Ranjit. He’s a very smart businessman, and
you can learn much from him. You’ll be right in the heart of the city, too,
where you plan to settle. Why postpone? With a wife waiting, you must start
earning. You’ll make the plane fare in no time.” Aunt Hema added, “And with
your English degree, you mustn’t be too particular about employment. It’s
best to go now, before you lose your sense of adventure.”
the next red, a car pulls up beside me and the driver gives two short honks.
I realize they’re trying to get my attention, probably for directions. I
switch off the radio, quickly drawing a mental map of where we are: Penn
Station is to the west; Grand Central not too far off; the Empire State
Building is a block east. Dalaja will
be impressed when I take her on a tour. I turn to my open window and the
driver leans forward and shouts, “Where’d you get your license, you fucking
A-rab!” The car pulls away as the passenger gives me the finger. An angry
horn sounds behind me and my foot presses the gas hard, my eyes searching the
lanes up ahead. It was a dark color, blue. Yes, a blue four-door. There it
is. No. There. Yes. That’s them. I go faster. I’ll tell them they’re
mistaken. I’ll tell them… The light turns red and crossing traffic blocks me.
I stick my head out the window and shout, “Fuck you!” I’ll never catch them
spite of such bastards, delivering wine is better than manning a newsstand.
I’m no longer caged as the city streams past. I’m part of the rush now.
that Thandlay’s was complete shit. It was a fancy one, jam-packed with
papers, magazines, international mints,
“I Love NY” key chains, cigarettes and an extensive offering of
pornography. According to Ranjit, given the close proximity to Times Square, the
latter was a must. “It’s true what they say, Lucky,” Ranjit told me. “Sex
really does sell. They can’t get enough of the sluts.” It was hard not to
look at them though they were displayed partially hidden, one tucked behind
the other. Somehow there was always enough skin to entice the eyes.
make quite an impression, and it wasn’t long before I began transporting them
home, concealed in the briefcase Dalaja’s parents presented me with the day I
left Hyderabad. By the end of my first month at Thandlay’s, my mind was in a
splintered state, sparking with images of splayed legs, birthing vulgar
synonyms. They say there is a period when infants are more receptive to new
languages, and I believe this to apply to fresh immigrants as well.
the past year, I’ve learned to live with this guilt, as I have with the
others--the cursing, the diet compromises, the beef, the other meats
blissfully unknowable, the consumption of wines, which I buy by the case and
take home each Friday. With my employee discount, wine is cheaper than any
other luxury beverage I could buy. In truth, a man does not leave one city
for another to stay the same. He goes with the quiet knowledge that
adaptation is not just a possibility; it’s a must. And he should welcome the novel
availabilities of things, transportation, fruits, refreshments … He should
want to witness how the streets fill and how they empty, how the sun rises up
through steel and stone. He should want to identify the invisible bird that
sings outside his window now and again.
turn onto 66th Street and there are trees, thin ones with leaves
that spin in the breeze. I hear the tinkle of glass hitting glass--the sound
of poorly packed wine bottles--and my body tenses, echoing with Mr. Percy’s
maxim, “You pack, you break, you buy.” I stop the van and get out. On the
sidewalk, the sound continues. It seems to be coming from up high and my eyes
are drawn to the foliage shimmering above me. I search for birds and see
none. I think of glass bangles, notches rubbed with gold, and then suddenly
of my wife stripped of her sari, her hands clutching the headboard, our
rhythm driven by the clink of purple rings banding her forearms. I stare into
the gray pavement wanting to see her face, that old world nose like a fig,
her eyes brimming with dedication, but I cannot.
I arrived, it has been like this. A jumble of new and old, expectations,
noises, aromas, images, each jumping in front of the other. I often have the
feeling of waking in a railway rest house, tired and hungry, the smell of
something simmering all around, but never to be tasted because my train is
leaving, and I must hurry to catch it.
Sliding the side door of the van open, I pull out the appropriate box
and head up to the door. There are only six names on the buzzer and S.
Vigiliano is in apartment F. Of course, the top floor. Of course, a walk-up.
I don’t mind as much as Gustavo or Jorge. I’m accustomed to such
exertions--all the spiral staircases I had to climb in Hyderabad, tucked behind
paanwallahs and astrologists, through mazes of complexes, up to those
balconies lined with hot little rooms with broken fans, in search of the
pundits of immigration--records seekers, application rigorists, epistolers,
passport haberdashers, resume butchers. My mind when faced with such
bureaucracy did not writhe and spit, but behaved like a drifting boat, its
motor switched off to conserve petrol. It had to be done, and so it was. That
illegible signature was compulsory. That sloppily inked stamp was compulsory.
And, yes, that misery was absolutely fucking compulsory. It all worked out in
the end. I’m here.
the button three times before the intercom crackles and a woman’s voice says,
“Who is it?” “Percy’s Wine Cellar,” I reply, and I’m buzzed inside. The
staircase is a steep chute, sagging on the left, doors all on the right.
There are more steps than usual between the floors, and by the time I reach
the second door, I must pause to hoist the box from my arms up to my
shoulder. When I reach apartment F, I knock several times, but there’s no
answer. As I raise a fist to pound harder, I hear the voice of the woman who
let me in. “So you did fuck him. I thought so. Was it everything you
moment, I stop breathing. My arm lowers, and I lean in closer. There’s
silence, and then I hear her laughter. It’s distant, nothing like the words,
which were clear, explicit. I think she’s moved farther from the entryway. I
grasp the silver knob and give it a turn. The door is unlocked. Gently, I
push it open a crack. Turning my head side-to-side, I’m able to see inside.
The apartment is enormous, the white space broken with dark wood furniture.
There are two striped sofas with needlepoint pillows and a coffee table on a
burgundy rug, and above this a fan rotating so slowly that I can count the
blades. The woman laughs again and through the black perforated screen
partitioning the sitting area, I can see her moving in white. Quickly, I give
a hard knock, push the door open fully while calling out, “Excuse me.”
head pops out from behind the screen. She mouths “One minute,” and then
disappears again. I put the wine carefully down next to a crescent-shaped
table displaying a red lacquered box and notice there are many more tables in
varied shapes and sizes scattered about, also with shiny boxes on them. I’m
reminded of British colonial villas back in India, in hill stations and other
me call you back, Gauri,” she says. “The wine boy is here.”
she doesn’t hang up. “Mmm-hmm…Mmm-hmm. Really?”
turn to the bookshelves, stare through spotless glass at the titles, mostly
architectural histories and classic literature. There seems to be no logical
order. The Pyramids of the Giza Plateau is sandwiched between Goethe
and Jonathan Swift. On the shelf below, The Evolution of the Dome is
next to Anna Karenina. The latter is bound in black leather and so
much bigger than the copy I had purchased in Abids for my Russian literature
class. I carried it around everywhere I went for weeks. How can this brick of
ebony be the same as that? It must. It must begin here as it did there, with
the Oblonskys, the infidelity of husband with governess.
really have to go,” she says. “Of course I want to know all the gory Gauri
details. Later. Later.”
wonder if gory Gauri is married.
steps out from behind the screen wearing a man’s pigeon blue button-down
shirt, dirty white socks and in between, the cordless phone presses into her
exposed right thigh.
“Sorry, but I just need a signature,” I say, holding up the order.
“Right,” she says. She starts moving around the apartment, looking for
a pen I assume. She is tall, but not taller than me, and her legs are very pale.
Pausing by the sofa, she lifts up the newspaper to reveal a pack of
cigarettes. She inserts one between her lips and offers me the red and gold
box. I decline, handing her the paper and a pen. She seems offended, lighting
up and throwing the match still aflame into the stone fireplace.
you like to confirm the order?” I ask.
Shifting the box from the crescent table to the wood floor where I
won’t be concerned about breaking anything, I take out my knife to cut open
the cardboard flaps.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” she says, walking
over. She stands close enough for me to notice the skin on her legs is tinged
blue, and shiny with oil or lotion that smells of a flower I cannot place.
“Do me a favor and put them in the kitchen, will you?”
I place the six bottles of Barbaresco on
the counter, and when I return, I find her sitting on the couch, smoking,
watching me. The order sheet is abandoned, unsigned, on the coffee table.
need that,” I remind her, pointing.
She signs quickly and hands it to me.
free to borrow a book,” she says. “You look like you’re a reader.”
not sure if I should take this as a compliment.
have a literature degree, if that’s what you mean,” I say.
“Yeah, me too,” she says.
stare at her scribble of a signature.
“Simonetta,” she says, gathering her long brown hair into a ponytail
and then releasing it all again. “Like Michael Corleone’s exploding bride.
You know, The Godfather.” I nod, clearly remembering the Sicilian
beauty. “You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I say. “All three. Back in India.”
thought you were Indian,” she says. “She’s Indian too--my friend on the
turns her face toward the books to exhale. I want to say something, but I
cannot think properly and end up remaining silent. As she gives a thoughtful
pull on her cigarette, I hear it again, that faraway tinkling.
open the door and pound down the stairs. Wine boy? Wine guy would have
been better. Boy is servile, stupid, Gunga Din. Shitty.
the street, I glance up at the windows to determine which belong to her and
am startled to see her standing on the fire escape, still wearing the soiled
socks, the button-down shirt, grinding the ash of her cigarette against the
railing as she watches three men maneuvering a beastly orange sofa into a
small truck. I give in to the temptation to stare too--between her legs--and
though I see only darkness, I decide she’s not wearing any panties. At first,
I’m excited at the thought of her suspended above me, exposed to the spring
air, and then suddenly I’m nauseous as if staring at a freshly severed
lizard’s tail, wanting to feel it spasm, but too paralyzed to do more than
gawk. When she flicks her cigarette into the street, I duck into the van and
Driving through Central Park, I wonder about this woman. She is at
least ten years my senior, her features not of classic beauty, but memorable
in their openness. Her figure, though, is striking. I emerge from a short
tunnel and see a man and woman disappear into a phalanx of trees. I wonder
what they will do there in that privacy.
Coming out of a curve, I let the steering wheel slip, enjoying the
bump of the ridges across my fingers. My hands are barely chapped now,
thoroughly healed from all the stocking of magazines, the masturbation, the
compulsive scrubbing that immediately followed. After leaving Thandlay’s, I
really thought I had regained control of my energies. I thought I was on a
Taking the subway to Jackson Heights, I stop at
the corner cash and carry to collect my usual items, some packs of two-minute
curried noodles for evening meals, and the rusks I soak in tea for breakfast.
the register, the Indian woman ahead of me looks from my purchases to
hers--green mangos, elephant garlic, one pound of chili powder.
“Pickling?” I say.
nods, adjusting her black and gold dupatta, which she wears over jeans. It’s
not stiff with starch, but soft and pliable, as if it’s a favorite. Her hair
the season for it,” she says.
wife is a pickle champion,” I say.
she says, handing her credit card to the cashier.
won many competitions back in Hyderabad. She’ll be joining me very soon.”
woman nods, and sighs, as if she has been through the separation and reunion
before, some time ago.
hang in there,” she says, glancing at my items moving on the conveyer.
watch her leave, trying to make out her ass through the long fringe of her
the windows of my apartment bear view of an alley where the trashcans are
kept. Judging from No. 6 on the sheet of rules given to me by the landlord
Mr. Ng--Always Close Lids and Bags Tight!!--I expect when summer arrives, it
will bring with it the stench of stewing rubbish. In anticipation, when I
unpacked my suitcase, I set a box of incense on the sill in the living room.
I am grateful for this scrap of color, the image of Radha and Krishna twined
with lotuses, preserved in cellophane.
the noodles are boiled, I stir in the mustard-colored powder from the
Flavormaker packet. On top of this go the sliced carrots and onions, and then
the juice of an entire lime. I ache all over. Dalaja’s last letter lays open
on the card table, demanding a reply. What can I tell her? About these, my
two-minute noodles. She would be horrified.
script flows straight as cane though there are no ruled lines.
I will help you in the
booth. I can sell papers and gum. We will be a team…
Anand accompanied his
sister and me to Chikkadpally to see the new Aamir
Khan picture. It is a
wonderful love story. Is it warming in New York?…
What are the vegetable
selections at the market? And the shopping?…Have
you enough for my
ticket yet?…in all good things …
Your Ever Loving Wife,
Quickly, I realize this aching is not muscular.
It is for her, my wife, for she has an optimism that’s so potent it could
burn away bad thinking like acid. She wants it, America. It was with her
urging, after all, that I left. “Everybody’s going foreign,” she said. I
stare into my glass of red wine, wanting to see her, speaking the words. On
the Tank Bund promenade, wasn’t it, the monolith of Buddha aglow behind her?
Instead, an image forms of Times Square, people rushing past in all
directions, men and women with briefcases and cell phones, school-bound
children, and then in the midst of all that activity, framed by the steel of
Thandlay’s stand, my placid wife bidding the cheeriest “Good day,” a collage
of boobs and ass behind her. When a paper was bought, she’d fix on making the
customer part with his change. “Some minty gum for you, Sir?” And the bloke might
think he’d forgotten to brush that morning, that his breath stank, and he’d
reply, “Sure. Why not?” It wouldn’t matter that we got paid by the hour and
the quarter she’d extracted was for Ranjit, not us. It wouldn’t matter
because this is the way my wife lives. One hundred percent. All the time.
chew a rubbery carrot, thinking of her nipples, her perfect delicate brown
nipples, and then the nipples of sluts push in. Peep show nipples. Enormous,
pink, reaching out like roots from their breasts. After we pulled down the
steel shutters, I sometimes accompanied Ranjit there. Peek-a-booties, he
called them. It is strange what I remember, the nudie cocktail stirrers that
came with the Screwdrivers, the walls of the booths carved with obscenities
and phone numbers, the sensation of the wood against my face as I pressed it
close to look through the peepholes.
Ranjit enticed me with a promise of dinner afterward at Sultana. “Very
posh Indo-Pak,” he said. “They even have belly dancers.” My tastebuds piqued
with memories of Hyderabadi favorites--Chicken 65, Seekh Kabob, Mutton
Biryani--and I agreed. But always after the peep shows, Ranjit was too
inebriated to want food, much less remember his promise. Looking back, I
suppose the Sultana was a necessary pretense for both of us. Only now can I
face the possibility that it never existed.
move aside the amber bird sitting atop the blank aerogrammes and slip out a
How are you? Good news.
I have switched jobs--from newspapers to wine.
It is not like the
shops in Hyderabad, with the loitering drunkards. I am mobile
with my own vehicle,
delivering orders to customers all over the city. It is a
my pen stops. I pick up Dalaja’s letter again and see on the back flap where
my mother claimed her space.
Are you eating
properly? Remember, no matter what these Americans
stuff themselves with, they
will grow, up, down, sideways, like amaranthus on
a dungpile. But you
need special care. Write your cravings, my son. Cousin
Karthik’s friend will
post the parcel from Ottawa. Dalaja is taking very good
care of us. How are Auntie and Uncle?
Amma & Nana
my wine, my attention falling to the amber bird I’ve come to use as a
paperweight. Aunt Hema gave it to me when I moved from Albany. She said it
was a swan, and indeed it is, but it has the exact smile of the stone Hanuman
in Anand’s mother’s village, both gentle and pervasive.
break the seal on the box of incense sitting on the windowsill. Lighting a
stick, I hold it up and watch as the room clouds up with sweet smoke.
There’s another order for Simonetta on my sheet.
Only two days have passed since the last delivery. I’m perplexed, and oddly
excited, but I stick to the sensible route, winding my way uptown.
it’s a special occasion, it’s indicated in the box below the address on the
order. I always check, tally up the simultaneous celebrations. Today, a
Wednesday, there are two birthdays, a company anniversary, a gallery opening,
and two dinner parties.
the box next to Simonetta’s address, as for the bulk of deliveries, Mr. Percy
has written “NS,” an abbreviation for none specified. The “NS” customers
could be private drinkers, ashamed. They confirmed this in the way they
received me, making me wait in the hall, leaning on the box in my hands for
support as they signed the sheet, refusing my offer to carry the wine inside
and muttering something like “I can handle it,” or “Thanks, but the place is
a mess.” Not so in Simonetta’s case. I believe wine is another item on her
grocery list, of equal importance, perhaps as milk or tomatoes. Rather than
confidential, she was convivial.
late in the afternoon when I arrive at her building. She buzzes me in
immediately, and once upstairs, I find the door ajar. I give a knock and push
it open. She is standing in front of a table backed by a large mirror,
vigorously brushing her chestnut hair until it falls in a glossy sheet
against her white dress.
in,” she says, addressing my reflection. She gestures to the box in my hands.
“Put that anywhere.”
head for the kitchen, she is right behind me. I assume she wants to check the
order, so peeling back the top, I pull the four bottles of Rioja from the box
and set them on the counter.
“Great,” she says. “This is a superior year.” I stare at the label.
It’s a 1995, from Spain and there’s a regal coat of arms. “I’ve heard there
are vineyards in India,” she continues. “In the south somewhere. The soil
analysis received high marks.”
always wanted to go to India,” she says.
pulls open a large cabinet to the right of the bookshelves and I see inside
many more bottles stocked horizontally as in the shop. She didn’t consume the
wine I delivered last time. Needing something to hold, I open the glass door
and slide a book from the shelf. By then, she has latched the cabinet and is
facing me, staring.
is a very nice apartment,” I say.
a floor-through. Where do you live?”
“Jackson Heights. I plan to move to Manhattan … after my wife
turns her back to me, and gathering her hair, she pulls it over her shoulder
to the front to reveal a series of shell buttons, the top four of which are
you lend a hand?” she asks.
the book on the coffee table and move close to her. The first button slips
easily into place, but as soon as it’s secured, I find my fingers undoing
what I have done and, worse, continuing to open the other buttons until I am
faced with her bare back. Against her thin skin, the spinal bones strain,
irregularly shaped but in perfect sequence, like a broken alphabet. I touch
them. All of them. She turns so suddenly that I expect a slap, but instead
she presses her body to mine and kisses me. I kiss her back, dark nose to
pale skin. I close my eyes and kiss her more. Closed eyes seeing colors. I
kiss the slut. I pull my fingers from her hair and step back. It takes a
moment to find my breath, another to find my voice.
have to go,” I say.
mouth closes. She turns her back again.
you mind finishing the job?” she asks.
I stare at her shoulders rising and
falling and then start in the middle, careful to handle only buttons and
“What’s her name?” she asks, still with her back to me. “Your wife.”
“Dalaja,” she repeats. “That’s beautiful. What does it mean?”
“Produced from petals.”
husband’s name is Paul,” she says. “It means jackass.”
laughs first, and then I follow.
“Where is he?” I ask.
Before I can tell her that I’m finished with the buttons, she begins
walking away and disappears down a wide hall. I see my order sheet on the
coffee table, unsigned. I sit down and wait. The apartment is silent so who
knows what she’s doing. Using the bathroom. Getting naked. Calling Mr. Percy. I run my hands over my face and reach for
the book I placed on the coffee table. The lettering still vivid in bronze on
the spine reads The Resurrection of Knossos. I open it to the
first page and am surprised not to find her name in black ink, or even
jackass Paul’s, but the initials W.D. In its span of life, this book belonged
to someone else, was touched by someone else.
footsteps sound in the hall, and she soon appears wearing white shoes with
heels. I put down the book, stand up. She is taller than me now. She scoops
up the order sheet and signs it, handing it to me along with a twenty.
“That’s not necess--” I start to say.
last time, too,” she says firmly. “It’s a lot of stairs.”
That evening, I open a fresh bottle of Italian
red table wine and sit down to finish my letter to Dalaja. Dalaja, my wife.
She nearly died of diphtheria when she was three. She fasts on Fridays. She
hates the telephone. She’s a good seamstress. She has a pea-sized black mole
on her right buttock. She hums while she cleans. She talks to birds. She will
kill cockroaches, but nothing else.
could describe Crossgates Mall to her, all the shops stacked in one deluxe
complex. But I cannot remember much about them. What I do remember is Auntie,
her voice thick with honey as she flirted with the Japanese man who sells
Hello Kitty cell phone accessories next to her stall, and, at the north end,
Uncle Nitin explaining strategies at Khan’s Mongolian where for a fixed
price, two men penned in a circular grill will cook up as much as you can
hand them in a bowl. “Bypass the noodles. First, veggies and meat. The
noodles are gummy and tangled and it’s easy to build a nice tower on
everything else. Taller! Pile it on. Let the people look. Are they thinking,
‘Look at that pig?’ No. They are thinking, ‘Oh, so that is how to do
it!’ Believe me, Lakshman, America is no place for timidity.”
I have been dreaming of
kabobs. The hot dog is no comparison. Gustavo the
Venezuelan I work with
doesn’t understand. “But have you tried the Sabretts?”
he says. “Those are the
bomb.” This is a compliment. I explain to be crystal
clear to you and anyone
else that will read my words. (Uncle Nitin says after
the Twin Towers
tragedy, correspondences from India and Pakistan are being
monitored by censors.)
I did try the Sabretts, pale tubes of waterlogged meat.
Lord, what I’d give for
a kabob! My mouth waters as I write this, longing for
the taste of lamb,
onions and wood fire. Did I mention even the limes are
different here. Larger than
an egg, but such weak juice. I miss you…how I
Heading uptown, the streets seem more congested than usual, packed
with vehicles and pedestrians. I
wonder where they are all going, looking at their own feet, muttering reminders
to adhere to diets, send flowers, call mothers, drink water, meditate. The
light starts to change, but I stay on the gas pedal. I’m almost clear of the
intersection when I look to the right and glimpse a car coming too fast to
stop. It’s going to hit me. It’s going to…There’s a roaring sound and then a
stifling silence. A man on a bike opens my door and shouts, “You all
right?” And someone farther away,
“Anyone get that fucker’s license?”
Pebbles of glass fall from my lap as I look back into the cargo area
and see the side door, the punctured steel curled like paper, white light
pouring in. I smell wine; I taste salt. “The ambulance is on the way,” the
man on the bike tells me. “Head wounds are never as bad as they look. Stay
put.” But I don’t want to. I’m not far from Simonetta’s and the engine is
still running. I shift into drive and see through the shattered, ticking
windshield the horror on their faces as the van begins to move forward.
Street, I park and find her wine bottle unharmed. Cradling it, I head
upstairs and, for the first time, I feel the number of steps. The door is
open and I walk inside, panting softly. She is by the kitchen counter with a
clear vase, arranging tall branches of lilacs, pausing to free the wide
sleeves of her robe that snag now and again on the stalks. The sight brings
tears to my eyes, and it is then that she notices me, gasps and runs over.
God! What happened?”
look in the mirror behind her and see the blood slowly dripping down the
sides of my face and joining the drops of condensation on the wine bottle in
“Let’s clean it,” she says.
leads me into the kitchen, to a stool, and takes the bottle. My arms are
suddenly weightless, and I can now feel the blood leaving. On the counter,
beside the vase and the wine, she sets down a silver box stuffed with
bandages and ointments. With some gauze, she applies pressure to my forehead.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s not bad. The bleeding has stopped.”
take a deep breath of the lilac-scented air and begin to sob.
okay,” she says, wrapping her arms about me. “Really. “It’s okay.”
cannot believe how good her body feels against mine, how good it is to be
embraced. She holds me until I am calm, and then she kisses me, not my lips,
but my cheeks, my neck. I slip the robe from her shoulders and kiss her back.
sex is like the collision, unstoppable, with a halting perception of time.
For a long moment, everything is still, until I turn my head and see the
second hand on the clock spinning round and round. It’s then that I feel my
injuries, the stinging all over my body, the hollowness in my gut. She puts
on her robe, climbs out the window onto the fire escape, and the odor of her
cigarette reaches me. That’s when I hear it, the tinkling sound I heard when
I first arrived at her building. I sit up and see above her head, a wind
chime of glass rods turning in the sun.
leans over the railing, her hair reaching down toward the street. I wish she
would disappear, suddenly and
violently. Her smoke pours in the open window, over the little tables, the
mound of khaki on the floor, my trousers that Dalaja mended with a swatch she
had originally cut for filtering tea. A familiar feeling settles over me. It’s
how I felt when I first awoke at Auntie and Uncle’s. That morning, in the
darkness of the pre-dawn, after feeling my way through the unfamiliar house,
I opened the bin on the door of the refrigerator, expecting butter as
indicated in silver cursive, and instead caused an avalanche of hot sauce
packets from Khan’s Mongolian.
up and hastily pull on my pants and shirt.
“Listen,” she says from the fire escape. “I feel terrible about this.”
She ducks back inside and picks up her wallet from the bureau. “You shouldn’t
be responsible.” She holds out a stack of bills to me. “Let me pay for the
my fault. I lied. There was no emergency, was there?”
look down at the floor, her pink painted toenails on the parquet.
it, Lakshman. You must.”
Stunned by my name on her lips, I accept the money and leave.
That night, I slip the letter I am writing to
Dalaja out from beneath the amber swan. I pick up my pen, to unburden myself,
and then I stop.
my pickle champion, what will she do with this disclosure? She will preserve
it with turmeric and garlic and chili powder in a glass jar as large as a
baby. It will sit in a cupboard for months untouched until one day she will
open the door, a stern look on her face, scrutinizing the contents to
determine ripeness. She’ll sniff at the ruby gingili oil pooled at the top,
stab at a fleshy piece with a knife, have a taste. The pungency will burn,
make her choke. She will cough and cough. I will offer her water, but she
will not take it. She will cough until tears roll down her face. I will be
unable to console her. What could possibly be uttered? Sorry. Mistake. Fuck.
will say the pepper hasn’t taken. It’s gone limp from too little salt.
Moisture has made way for fungus. But she will not discard it. She will put
it back in the cupboard. She will not serve it with piping hot rice as the
other pickles, the tomato, drumstick, lemon. She won’t check on it for some
weeks, or months, maybe years, and when she does, she will always be
Still, when we save enough to move from the studio to a two-bedroom,
it will come with us, and from there to our first house, as innocuous as a
box of dusty books, it will come. Space will be made in every kitchen; this
Oblonsky pickle will have its own special cupboard.
cannot tell Dalaja. Ever.
down the pen and stare at the amber swan with the Hanuman smile. There is
dirt beneath the left wing. I polish it with some toothpaste as Aunt Hema
instructed, but it does not go, and I quickly realize it’s embedded in the
cognac–colored crystal. I recall Auntie explaining to customers that on rare
occasions whole insects were trapped in the amber, or, more commonly, pieces
too small to see with the naked eye. But the more I study this darkness, the
more I believe it to be something prehistoric. The leg of a centipede, the
antenna of an ant…the result of some foolish creature’s meandering.
Dalaja’s parents’ house comes to mind, the cabinets crammed with
sandalwood deities, glass peacocks, an ivory Taj Mahal. I cannot bear the
thought of my wife finding this and setting it, too, on some high shelf for
display. Opening the window, I hurl it down into the alley of trash. It hits
the brick of the wall, once, twice, and though I clearly remember Auntie
cautioning me about the brittleness of amber, it does not break.
Bhargavi C. Mandava is the author
of the novel Where the
Oceans Meet (Seal
Press, 1996). She is working on a collection of stories and her next novel.