I left California on Friday, not sure I would return. I was worried because Amma had summoned me home without giving any reason. Her phone call, her first contact after years of mutual silence, had yanked me out of my comfortable routine; it reminded me that people had started exchanging puzzled whispers about me, and that I needed to renew myself. I could do that when I went home. Then, after I’d finished whatever Amma wanted from me, I could decide the direction of my life. By the time I sank into my economy-class seat, three decades of my San José life wrapped up, I felt drained emotionally and mentally.
The man in the adjacent seat glared at me. An Indian like me—late fifties, bald. A wrinkled face, very familiar. Extremely familiar. Too old to be one of us. Damn. I toyed with the idea of a complete denial. Or perhaps I could be my own younger sister. Or daughter.
“Chikki,” he said.
Bhaiyya? His voice sank inside me, throwing up ripples of memories I did not want to face. I peered at him; God, he looked so old. What had gone wrong?
What could I do now? I couldn’t fool my own brother, no way. I was stuck now, in a seat next to him, for the duration of an intercontinental flight. Over the hours our rift would widen, dark with the shadow of Ronjona.
“How are you? How’s Ronjona?” I managed to squeak.
“Ronjona died.” His face was stiff.
“I . . . sorry.” Such a trite condolence, but I could think of nothing else.
“You married a Tamilian, no?” He flung it like an accusation, as if saying, See, you married an outsider yourself.
“It’s over.” Jagdeesh and I had been married for twenty years. We had lived together for two years before our incompatibility became obvious, but we continued intermittent contact over the next several years—divorce was a dirty word in his community. Our last-ditch trial to make it work, seven years ago, failed in just a couple of months. Though mutual consent had finally freed us, I found the memory of all that wasted emotion hurtful.
Silence weighed on the air between Bhaiyya and me. I wondered whether his presence was a coincidence, or whether he was heading to India to obey our mother’s summons.
I said, “You live . . . work . . . in Mumbai?”
“Amma asked me to come home for something important.” His tone was curt. “I almost refused, but then I thought I would ask her why she forced Ronjona to undergo a ritual so . . . so . . . Even you, Chikki, you lied to Ronjona.”
You wanted me to, I almost said. I took a deep breath. “You agreed to the ritual.”
His shoulders slumped. “I wanted the blessing. I didn’t know it would hurt her so much.”
I dabbed my mouth; lipstick ridged the crumpled tissue. I crammed it into a barf bag. Hell, I hadn’t even attended their wedding; I’d pleaded ticket unavailability and stayed holed up in San José, half the globe away.
“You said you loved her,” I said. “You should have thought of her.”
Thirty-one years ago.
Bhaiyya dropped me off at college.
The thirty kilometers ride from home, on the pillion of Bhaiyya’s mobike, always left my hair tousled. I was smoothing out my hair and settling my salwar so it fell softly on my flat-heeled chappals, when Bhaiyya said, “I’d like you to meet a friend today, after classes.” His ears were rimmed scarlet. “Her name’s Ronjona Mazumdar, and she’s studying here, too, doing her Comp Science diploma.”
Ronjona Mazumdar. A Bengali. Not one of us.
I said nothing, of course. Bhaiyya had this stubborn streak in him; if he sensed even a shred of concern from me, it could tip him into getting serious about her.
I didn’t hear a word of the lectures that morning. All I saw was Bhaiyya’s boyish grin, and superimposed on it, Amma’s mouth drooping in clear disapproval. Chikki, she would say, aren’t there enough beautiful girls in our community? Can’t he choose one of them as my daughter-in-law?
I saw Ronjona as soon as I entered the cafeteria—dark complexion, thick black hair, spectacles—a typical Bengali. She was talking to Bhaiyya, waving her arms, and I caught the sparkle in her eyes despite the distance. Should I act friendly? Warm and affectionate? Casual and cool, but distant? How could I make Bhaiyya see Ronjona might be all very nice, but she wasn’t suitable?
“Hi, Bhaiyya.” I rested my palm on the table and shrugged the jhola of books off my shoulders. “Hi, . . . Ronjona, no?”
Bhaiyya sprang up and pulled a chair from the adjacent table. I sat down.
“Meet my kid sister, Chikki, aka Shweta,” he said. “Chikki, Ronjona.”
Must he say “kid” sister? He was only five years older, not much of a gap, especially for us. But ever since he’d started on his job, he’d reverted to treating me like I was a teenager instead of a twenty-two-year-old about to leave for the States for my MS.
Ronjona’s eyes soaked me in, all my pimples, all sixty kilos of me straining against my clothes. Her complexion was flawless, and her figure slim. In front of her stood a tall glass of chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce.
“Chikki,” she said, her voice bubbly, sweet, a non-diet Coke. “What a great name. Deepak keeps talking of you.”
What on earth could Bhaiyya have told her? “Really?”
“Yes.” She grinned. She had buck teeth.
Bhaiyya passed me the menu card; I selected tea, no milk, no sugar please.
Ronjona poked her straw past the ice cubes to dredge out the chocolate sauce. A tiny slurp. I noticed, to my disgust, that my mouth was puckered as if I were the one finishing her drink.
“I’ll have another of these, Deepu,” she said. “God, I love chocolate.”
I wonder now whether I would have warmed towards this thin-after-oodles-of-chocolate Ronjona if I had met her when I was past my puppy-fat stage, past my calorie-counting, insecure-body days.
A week later, Amma was plucking shrivelled leaves off our pathetic guava tree when Bhaiyya approached her. Her back tautened. Her fingers twisted around a twig. Then her arm lowered, and it seemed to me that the air hissed with disapproval. I was at my window; I let fall the curtain and busied myself with macroeconomics.
When Amma came inside, she called me. “He said you have met her.”
She did not ask me what Ronjona looked like, or whether she was intelligent or good-natured. She said, “I told him we will not accept an outsider.”
“He will bring her today. Says I’ll love her.” She sighed. “This will be a disaster.”
I thought so, too.
Bhaiyya beamed when he presented an obviously nervous Ronjona to Amma, who nodded without smiling. He asked me to show Ronjona the garden; I said there was nothing worth seeing. He told Amma that Ronjona liked spicy chiwda mixture; Amma said Bengalis only liked sweets. The tea Amma served was watery, tepid. Fifteen minutes later, gaze lowered, Ronjona folded her hands and excused herself.
After Bhaiyya left to drop her at her working girls’ hostel, Amma and I sat silently, bracing for his inevitable explosion, for the bitterness poised to enter our cosy three-member family.
“Is that how you treat guests?” he shouted the moment he returned.
“Guest?” Amma retorted. “You brought her because you think she is not a guest.”
He turned to me, his face maroon. “She’s just two years older—”
“Leave Chikki out of this,” Amma said. “You know the problem.”
“No, I don’t,” he yelled. “Ronnie is intelligent, she’s beautiful, she’s—”
“Not from our community,” Amma said.
“Community, hah! A few dozen families so thoroughly inbred that diseases must be seething inside us. She is fresh—”
“When have any of us died of a heart attack or cancer? When did you hear of any genetic disease despite . . . inbreeding?”
“A truck accident is not genetic.”
Bhaiyya clenched his fist. “I will marry her.”
“Our community is entitled to blessings.” Amma’s face was as livid as his. “We have suitable matches here. You marry outside and . . .”
“And what? You’ll disown me?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.”
Sometimes time divides so slowly that a few seconds stretch beyond infinity.
Then Bhaiyya spoke and cracked the silence.
“I can’t give her up.” Pain bled in his voice. “And I can’t give you up. Or Chikki.”
A softer silence, sadder. Amma said, “She must undergo the ritual.” She got up.
I followed her to the kitchen, feeling torn between them, wishing Ronjona did not exist. I thought of how I’d often queued along with other unmarried girls at weddings for the brides to touch our heads with something wrapped in silk, and how energy had tingled through me after that. Amma had told me that we needed this “minor blessing” so that we were strong enough for the ritual when we married.
“Ronjona’s never received anything from other brides,” I blurted.
“Oh, she’ll survive,” Amma said, but she did not meet my gaze.
In the months that followed, Bhaiyya kept forcing me to meet Ronjona. After another lunch hour spent in the cafeteria, sugarless tea for me, chocolate ecstasies for her, a frigidity between us, Bhaiyya cornered me in the evening. “Chikki, Ronnie is worried about this ritual. She wants to know what it is.”
“I’ve attended only the latter half.” I shuffled my feet.
“See, she’s heard rumors about it. About us. I laughed and said, Don’t I look normal, doesn’t Chikki? I told her you’d attended rituals as a kid. If it was cruel, they wouldn’t have allowed kids in. You used to be so chirpy after them.”
“Make her feel comfortable,” Bhaiyya said. “Please?”
The next day, I sipped Diet Coke as Ronjona spooned ice cream—and would our lives have been different if her chin hadn’t been smudged with chocolate sauce? Her expression was a strange mix of determination and nervousness. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard it’s mantras, stuff chucked in the sacred fire. Very hush-hush, but no one’s died of it yet.” I forced a hearty laugh, pushing away memories of some brides tottering as they emerged from the room, supported by older women. “Got a lecture now.” I rushed away.
I knew nothing of Bhaiyya’s life these past thirty years. That monsoon, a few months after Amma agreed to Bhaiyya’s marriage, I’d escaped to San José for studies. I’d skipped their December wedding. All I saw of it was a video recording sent by Amma. She called a few months later to tell me: “Ronjona’s taken your bhaiyya to Mumbai, but at least she let the ritual happen.” And after a few more months, she told me that Bhaiyya and Ronjona had broken contact.
My letters and calls home dwindled over time. My studies, and then my job, took up all my energy. Then Jagdeesh and love burst into my life, and with it, my imminent marriage. Marriage! I could no longer deny to myself that our family had rituals and blessings I knew very little about. Tense, I called Amma. When she refused to explain the mechanics of the ritual and insisted I cancel the marriage, I broke off with her.
Now Bhaiyya and I were both headed home, sitting in adjacent seats, not talking—strangers divided by the truth that bound us.
When we were an hour from Mumbai, he turned to me, face stern like he had keyed himself up.
“Ronnie never told me what happened during the ritual, but I read her diary. I’d been wondering why I hadn’t received the blessing. The older men had told me that the blessing reached us when the bride kissed the groom on the wedding night. I’d assumed it had reached me. I’d not imagined Ronjona would have . . . When I read what she’d written, God forgive me, for a few moments I even resented her for what she did. But she was so deeply damaged . . . all our lives. . . .”
The wedding video showed Ronjona smiling as she trailed Bhaiyya around the sacred fire, but later, after emerging from the ritual room, she looked listlessly at plates heaped with chocolates. I wondered what that kiss was supposed to mean, and what went wrong for them.
“When I saw you on my flight,” Bhaiyya continued, “I wangled this seat because I wanted to ask you, why did you pretend it was nothing to worry about?”
I rubbed a wayward eyelash out. I examined my nail polish. I did not look at him. “I did not know the details; I still don’t. I married outside the community.”
I understood now: marriages were tricky with outsiders. For men, because they lost out on the blessing; for women, because we didn’t.
I wanted a happy, content life, but try as I might, I never felt comfortable in any friendship, any relationship. My reality intruded too often. A few years ago, on a vacation with Jagdeesh as part of our can-we-make-it work trial, I saw a childhood friend at a mall. I remembered how we’d played hopscotch in the evenings, gorged together on jalebis at weddings, giggled at adolescent jokes. Glad to see a familiar face, I called out to her. She ignored me.
“You know her?” Jagdeesh asked.
“A neighbor. We grew up together,” I replied without thinking.
“She’s barely over twenty. While you are forty-seven.” He stared at me. “Holy shit, is this a blessing your village water bestows on everyone?”
And here we were, Bhaiyya and I, returning to that village, I with the blessing, and Bhaiyya without.
“Chikki,” Bhaiyya said. “In her diary, Ronjona—”
“I don’t know why she wrote anything,” I cut in, desperate to close the topic. “Married women never describe what happens.”
He turned pale. “Did she fall ill because I read it?”
“Cancer,” he whispered. “Blood cancer. Was there a bond of secrecy?”
I almost said I didn’t know of any such bond, but his face was so tortured that I shrank back. The flight bumped to a halt; I pulled my laptop bag out of the overhead locker and strode off, leaving him hunched in his seat.
I did not see Bhaiyya queued for immigrations. The immigrations officer frowned as he examined my passport photograph, but said nothing. Mumbai airport overflowed with closed-circuit TVs and security-checking machines and whatnot. Soon all information would be centralized. I hoped Govind Uncle was as good with technology as his reputation claimed.
I took the bus onwards. Bhaiyya was not on it. I got down at the outskirts of our village and dragged my strolley bag down the cobbled road for home, bump-bump, choosing a path through the woods instead of the village center. I passed Sharada Aunty’s house, and almost stopped to say hello, but the house seemed deserted. Besides, Amma must be waiting. She had sounded so quietly desperate on the phone.
Creepers hid our gate, wild grass overgrew our driveway. Our house was obscured by a profusion of greenery. Trees sagged with fruit. I smiled as I remembered the pathetic guava tree; Amma sure had improved her gardening skills. I rang the doorbell.
Amma looked unchanged except for that downward turn of her mouth.
“How are you?” I asked after we hugged.
She placed her fingers over my lips and gave a tremulous smile. “Later. The walk must have tired you. Jet lag, too.”
I nodded. After a bath, I lay down for a few minutes. When I next knew, she was shaking me awake. It was evening.
We sat under the trees and sipped tea.
“If you go to Prayag,” Amma said, “you’ll see the river Saraswati meet Yamuna and Ganga. You cannot see the river Saraswati separately before that point. Saraswati is an underground river and survives only because no one sees it till it mingles with other waters.”
Evening, the breeze full of salt and sea, the leaves of the coconut trees rustling. Serrated by the fanned-out palm fronds, the sun was a crimson jag lowering into darkness.
“But once we are visible,” she said, “our blessings become curses.”
I bit into a crunchy murrukku spiral. Too oily.
“Ronjona snatched my son away.” Amma glared at a distant memory. “At least she received enough of the blessing to pass it to him.”
I thought of Bhaiyya’s bald head and wrinkles—clearly, Amma did not know. I should warn her. “I met him on the plane. He was not blessed. Ronjona died of blood cancer.”
Amma froze. For a while, she was silent. Gaze fixed on the golden mangoes outside, she said, “I have to cook dinner.”
I trailed her to the kitchen, but stopped at her writing desk. “A laptop? You use computers?” Silly me—I knew nothing of her life now, why was I surprised?
“Govind got us all laptops. He started teaching me Internet but . . .”
“He couldn’t train you?” I grinned. “Come on, it’s not difficult. Which reminds me, I need his help.”
“He’s not here.”
I needed him to make me a new set of identity papers. “Where—”
“Tomorrow, Chikki. Let Deepak also come. It’s a long story.”
I looked at the sag of her face, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Tinkles of the musical doorbell woke me up. I took a while orienting myself to the high white ceiling (corners grey with spiderwebs), to the smell of ripe mangoes and the cloying chlorophyll of a lush garden.
The bell again. Bhaiyya?
I peeped from the window.
A young man leaned his bicycle against a coconut tree, took empty bags from the bicycle’s carrier and walked to the veranda. He stuffed the bags with fruit kept ready in wicker baskets. Amma watched, resting against the wall, twining her fingers around her hair.
“The police came yesterday,” he told her. “They asked me, does an old woman live there?”
“And?” Amma adjusted her sari pallu over her blouse.
“I said, the old woman died long ago, now her daughter lives there.” His gaze wandered over her body. “Lying to the police is not good.”
“Sell those and keep the money.” Amma pointed to another basket of mangoes.
He licked his lips, stared at her for a few moments, then pedalled off. She watched him go. The raw, sad longing on her face embarrassed me. He was so young, and she! Could anyone feel so lonely? I thought suddenly of Jagdeesh, and how things could have been between us.
“Who was it?” I asked Amma later.
“Ramu sells off our fruits and buys my groceries.”
“Don’t you shop at the village?”
Amma used to love shopkeepers fussing around her, showing her this and that, wheedling, persuading, as she acted the tough customer, the coy girl, whatever.
“I should tell you,” she said. “I thought I’d wait till Deepak came.”
“Tell me what?”
She sat on the sofa and patted me to the place near her. “Some outsiders heard rumors . . . maybe thought we possessed gold . . . or maybe the devil’s work.” Her voice became hoarse. “One dark night, they came with flaming torches. Govind saw them. He managed to spread the warning. Several families bundled out in their cars. Others couldn’t escape. Govind . . . they killed him.”
A million icicles stung my skin. Such things did not happen to real people.
“I put out lights. Hid in the coconut grove.” Amma’s voice was a sheer whisper. “They were outsiders; they didn’t expect a house behind all those trees.”
I was floating in the air, watching two women, alike like sisters, sitting on the sofa. I asked, “When was this?”
“Six months ago.” She dabbed her face with her sari pallu. “I thought the families would return. Or contact me.”
“No. I called on their mobiles. Unreachable numbers. Phones not picked up. They probably thought villagers had stolen my mobile.”
This was home—it was supposed to remain unchanged. The base we started from. Safe. Okay, maybe a few accidents. A couple of families moving out, some children leaving—like I did. How could an entire community get killed? Or be scattered across the globe?
Leaving only Amma here.
“The villagers know you live here,” I said. “Ramu . . .”
“Ramu’s a sweet boy. Once the outsiders left, life returned to normal.”
Normal? I gaped at her.
She turned her face away. “Your bhaiyya should have come by now.”
No wonder she wanted her family around her. “How did you locate us?”
She blinked hard. “Govind worried about all this computerization, these databases, this biomeretics—”
“Biometrics.” I couldn’t see a connection.
“He said, our community should pool resources. Olden times, people respected us for what we were. When things started changing, we bribed when we wanted records modified. Govind said, things will become more difficult now.”
You bet they will, I thought.
She tucked a strand behind her ear. “We must enter all professions. Medicine, genetics. Computers. Lawyers, too, to know loopholes. We must marry within the community. Govind made family trees, and tracked members of our community. They found you and Deepak. Couldn’t find my oldest, Purushottam, or Neera—”
“Your oldest what?”
“I have another brother?”
Amma nodded. “Two more brothers, one sister. Neera looks like you.”
“How,” I gulped, “old are you?” Heck, I’d never asked before—maybe I hadn’t really wanted to know.
“One and seventy-five.”
I was fifty-three. Which meant—
“They left after their marriages,” she said.
Two brothers, one sister. Their spouses. Children. Grandchildren.
“You left, too.” She paused. “Then you married an outsider.”
Jagdeesh belonged to a different caste and community. We met a few years into my life in San José, after gym, dieting, and freedom from supervision had given me confidence and sparkle. His romancing was a whirl of chocolates and roses, his proposal diamond-ringed and swift, and he wanted us married within a week because his grandfather was unwell and wanted to see a granddaughter-in-law before he died. Just a week! Overwhelmed, scared, confused, I called Amma.
“Tell me how to manage the ritual,” I said. “The ceremony will use Tamilian rites.”
“Chikki, what’s the hurry?” she said. “Our community has enough nice boys.”
For a fleeting moment, I remembered Bhaiyya arguing with her over Ronjona.
“Amma, I love Jagdeesh. I don’t want to lose him, and I cannot postpone the marriage this Saturday. Can we do another ceremony afterwards, using our rites? I want both of us blessed.”
“The blessing manifests only the first time a girl circumambulates the sacred marriage fire. Don’t marry an outsider, Chikki, you don’t understand. Come home.”
I disconnected, feeling helpless—I could not explain this to Jagdeesh. I could not imagine life without him. Nor could I do the ritual alone; I had no idea what was done inside the room to bless the bride and groom. All I knew was that when the bride emerged and touched the heads of us girls queued outside, it made us happy and energetic.
I fainted after the wedding rites, but recovered within seconds as energy surged through me. It was so wondrous, so abundant, that I knew it was the blessing. I didn’t know how to share it with Jagdeesh. Stretched before us, I saw years of growing disparity, and the bitterness and suspicion and disgust: our marriage was doomed. I gave up long before my strangeness became obvious—I think now that this is what drove him away.
Bhaiyya hadn’t come yet. As Amma and I sipped our post-lunch coffee, I said, “You told me long ago you would explain the ritual to me when I came home.”
“This is a legend, but it is true.”
“Whatever. I want to know.”
“We are not natives of this region,” she said. “Our ancestors come from the Himalayan foothills. Millennia ago, driven out by other tribes, they travelled across what is now India, to the Western Ghats. They faced many hardships. Once, when camping along a dried river, they ran out of food and water. They sank down on the hard soil and prayed for delivery. They prayed and they prayed. Some beseeched Yama, to conquer death, and others pleaded with Agni, assuming the fire god would give them strength and energy. Both gods granted boons.”
I imagined thin, parched men and women, kneeling for supplication, and gods descending from the clouds of heaven in flowing garments of silk and bedecked with jewels. Like a mythological drama, except that this was the alleged past of my people.
“Ever since then, the gods bless us during the wedding ceremony. Immediately after the pheras around the fire, the bride’s life force is fully absorbed by Yama, leaving her momentarily suspended in death. Agni amplifies and gushes the energy back into the bride.” Amma’s eyes glittered. “That energy is what gives us eternity. It is so abundant that it spills over from the bride, and we form it into a crystal. The bride uses it to channel energy to unmarried girls; you have attended enough weddings to remember that. And—”
“Wait,” I said, trying to absorb the import of her words. “What do you mean by momentarily suspended?”
“The withdrawal of the life force is traumatic. The energy that young girls receive from brides gives them the strength to cope with this death that precedes eternity.”
Ronjona had not received any life force before the wedding. “What happened to Ronjona? I saw the video; she looked exhausted when she emerged from the room.”
“Ronjona, being an outsider, was not entitled to the blessing,” Amma said. “We have special mantras to invoke the blessing for such cases, mantras that must be chanted by a dozen already-blessed women. But those mantras need time to take effect. Ronjona’s death lasted around five minutes before amplified energy flooded back into her.”
“She was dead for five minutes?” I shuddered.
“She recovered, Chikki.”
“Amma, if you knew this could happen, how could you—”
Amma’s eyes blazed. “I told your bhaiyya not to marry her. Our ritual is very special, very secret. We try to adapt it for outsiders, but there is always a risk. See, Chikki, such marriages are not supposed to happen. It’s not as bad when our women marry outsiders, because so long as there is a sacred fire, they will be blessed. Of course, there is no crystal, so their husbands may not get it and their children . . .”
I did not want to discuss my marriage. “About Ronjona.”
“After she revived, we used mantras to create a crystal for Deepak. We explained to her that she should pass the crystal in a kiss to him just before they make love the first time.”
“Yet Bhaiyya aged,” I said. “Ronjona died.”
“She obviously didn’t give the crystal to Deepak.” Amma frowned. “As for what happened to her, who knows?”
Bhaiyya missed out on eternity. He had said, God forgive me, I even resented her for it.
What did Ronjona do with a crystal sparkling with life? I was about to ask Amma when I saw her looking at the trees, and I suddenly imagined a dark and tired face, a slender arm swinging in an arc, a bejewelled hand hefting the crystal and lobbing the brilliance out into the night onto the stubborn soil of our dry garden.
Bhaiyya’s impending visit was a shoe about to fall. Looking at us, both frozen at the ages when we married, he would remember cancer-ravaged Ronjona. Or notice his own wrinkles. His bitterness would brim over.
Three days passed, and he did not come home. Amma called his USA number—no reply. At least he hadn’t gone back.
To distract myself, I taught Amma how to use the Internet. She picked it up rapidly, especially Googling.
“Can we locate the others?” she asked.
I searched the names she gave; we found no likely matches. As she figured out other names to try, I Googled Bhaiyya’s name.
His website ranked first in the results. I glanced at Amma and loaded it. There was a touching memorial to “Ronnie” with a link to a family album. No, I wasn’t ready for this yet. Back on the search page, I noticed a news item dated two days earlier. Click.
The Mumbai edition of the Times of India reported him as a US national of Indian origin who died of a massive heart attack at the airport, soon after landing at Mumbai.
My body turned cold. When I was craning my neck to spot him boarding the bus, he lay dead in the airport. Or ambulance. Or hospital morgue. He looked guilty when I said he loved Ronjona and should have thought of her. He thought her cancer was related to his reading her diary. He blamed himself, and I, unwilling to face his anger, let him. Perhaps guilt killed him.
What sort of a sister was I?
Near me, Amma sobbed. Then my own sobs started.
Late into the nights, after Amma slept, I surfed. What I found shook me up. All night I searched for data, thought of options. I needed to return to the USA with my own identity to do what was needed. But I could not leave Amma alone.
Daytime, I took long walks to escape my restlessness. The broken, half-burnt shells of houses frightened me. My memories peopled them with familiar faces and bustling life and then transformed them into sites savaged by mobs. Sometimes I rushed past the ruins. At other times, I wondered about the people who escaped. How did they establish new identities? Find places to stay? Resume their lives?
On returning home, I would find Amma on the computer, her eyes bright. Scribbled papers would be lying scattered near her, and she would hurriedly gather them back into a file. She was reading the CDs Govind Uncle gave her, she once told me, her face flushed. At least she was comfortable with computers. It struck me that our condition kept us safe from dementia.
We rarely talked—I was preoccupied, and she, too, seemed lost in thoughts.
A couple of weeks later I said, “I need to go to Mumbai.” I needed more data to make decisions.
“Forever?” she asked, face held stiff.
How could she think I’d abandon her after what had happened? I gathered her into a hug. “Let’s move away from this place. We can sell this house.”
“Ownership records show the owner as a one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old woman,” she said. “A tricky sale.”
The next day, I cycled to the bus stop and boarded the coach to Mumbai. At the hospital Ronjona went to, years ago, I bribed a clerk to see the records of her stay, then made phone calls to check other records. My investigation confirmed the theory I had formed after reading Bhaiyya’s blog; it took me all my willpower not to break down.
The house was dark. I opened the door. “Amma?” I moved to switch on the light.
“Don’t,” Amma whispered. “Ramu—”
She stepped into the veranda; her face looked flushed in the moonlight.
“When he came today afternoon, he was drunk and abusive and coarse,” she said. “He tried to grab me. I used judo to fend him off. But he may return with friends.”
A beautiful face is a curse forever, I thought. Ramu was barely eighteen—his lusting after Amma sounded disgusting. Then I remembered the languid way Amma moved when he came, the sinuous sway of her body, her dreamy looks. He was only eighteen. And Amma, sultry, her loneliness so obvious, might have wanted a man, but not when he was drunk.
Who was I to judge either of them, anyway, I who could not lower my guard even before the man I thought I loved?
“We will have to leave this place,” she said. “I have the new identity Govind gave me. We can move to Mumbai.”
“You have identity papers? You never told me!”
“I was comfortable here, despite all that happened. But I must now move on and take risks.” She hesitated, then added, “Chikki, I want to do more with my life.”
I did not press for explanations; I was too relieved that she had agreed to move to Mumbai.
Early next morning, essentials crammed into two bags, we pedalled to the bus stop of the next village. As we waited for the coach, she said, “Call me Mridu—that’s my new name.”
“Mridu.” I rolled the word on my tongue. “Nice name.”
“Sharada Rao lives in Mumbai,” Amma said. “I located her new identity and address using Govind’s papers and some surfing. She will help us.”
So that was what Amma had been doing while I took my walks.
Sharada Aunty blinked at the sight of us, then, before Amma or I uttered a word, she said, “Call me Rita now,” pulled us into the apartment, and shut the door.
After an initial awkwardness, we hugged, we sobbed. We talked, we held hands.
Sharada Aunty asked, “What next?”
“I want to study medicine,” Amma said.
Amma and I had not yet discussed our plans; her statement surprised me.
“Why?” asked Sharada Aunty—no, Rita. “We don’t have health problems.”
“True.” Amma looked past me. “But others may need doctors. Maybe I can stay as your paying guest.”
Rita nodded. “We need to stick together. Chikki, you don’t have a new identity, no?”
“I will continue with my real identity for some years.” Makeup would help me. Add a touch of white at the roots of my dark hair, as if I was careless with my hair-dye; paint subtle wrinkles to become an older person trying to appear young, shade my face to harden my expression. Continuity of identity meant continuity of career, of good earning capacity—I also needed to save to buy a sturdy mid-twenties persona.
“You will return to San José?” Amma asked.
“New York. I’ve applied for jobs there.” I hoped she would not ask me Why New York? I did not want to lie to her.
Amma saw me off at the airport. The second call for security check was blaring when she gripped my hand. “I want you to meet a girl in New York. Name’s Meeta.”
“You know?” Our gazes locked. I had hoped to save her this guilt.
“I checked Deepak’s blogs,” she said. “I saw his family album.”
I wasn’t the only one who used the Internet.
“She resembles her father,” Amma continued. “No wonder Ronjona hated us. If we’d known . . .”
But no one knew Ronjona was pregnant at the time of the ritual.
“Bhaiyya placed Meeta in the best institution possible,” I said. “I checked the credentials of the place.”
Ever since I’d matched the child’s birth date with the wedding date, I had pondered my culpability. All of us made mistakes. Bhaiyya ignored the truth. I ran away. Amma chose hostility. Ronjona . . . well, she trusted us. And Meeta’s mistake? Being alive then. Getting damaged by the death, despite grabbing her mother’s life force for those crucial five minutes.
These were merely my guesses about what might have happened, given that Meeta was born seven months after the wedding, a full-term child but severely retarded.
“I will be allowed to meet Meeta,” I said. “I am her aunt.” Then I could decide the way forward.
I hugged Amma . . . Mridu . . . and boarded the plane.
It was a month since I’d flown into Mumbai airport. What was a mere month in my life? Less than a cumin seed in a camel’s throat. Yet this past month was raw in my mind, a reminder of mistakes that would haunt me over the decades and centuries awaiting me. Did Amma often agonize over her disagreements and mistakes with her other children, or had time distanced her mercifully from those memories? How did one handle a never-ending life? Perhaps, for people like us, it was all the more important for us to make peace with the past and move on. At least we got second chances.
Outside, the tarmac rolled past, a thick broad gray, then a thin line, then a wisp below. Hours later, the ground would be solid under me again, a wisp, then a ribbon, then a broad runway. A beginning, I told myself. One of many.