Only one day has passed since Meera’s arrival in India, and already, America seems more distant than it is. You can’t go any further than halfway around the world, she thinks, and yet, coming home is like stepping off the edge of the earth. She closes her eyes, listening to the sing-song of peddlers selling familiar vegetables—brinjal, okra, gourds—and fruit she hasn’t eaten since she left home—guavas, custard apples, pomegranates. She listens as pots clang, spoons tinkle, the faucet gushes, and her mother hums in the kitchen. Smells of garlic and turmeric seep into the bedroom. Smiling to herself, she tosses her quilt aside and disappears into the bathroom.
Dressed in a pale purple printed sari, her hair in a loose braid, she enters the kitchen carrying a black leather satchel. “What are you cooking, Amma? Potato bhajee?”
The humming stops. “Yes, for samosa filling. You only came for a few days, so I’m hurrying to cook what you like.”
“I told you I’m here on business, Ma.” She inhales deeply. “Yum! Smell that masala! You’re going to make me fat.”
Amma turns to face her. “Fat? Look at you!” She pats Meera’s arm. “You’ve become thin. What you do in America? Starve in that rich country?”
Meera wraps her arms around her mother’s shoulders. The best part about coming home is that you feel you’ve never left. “I’m staying thin for you,” she teases. “So you can find me a husband.”
Amma’s turmeric-yellow fingers stop mid air. Her eyes moisten. “Don’t upset me Meera. Getting you settled is no joke. Not with your father gone.” Meera had meant her comment to be light-hearted, not to resurrect her father’s memories.
“Oh, Amma. I was just kidding.”
“Even your brother has tried but nothing happens.”
Meera drops her arms off her mother’s cushiony shoulder. “You asked Nilesh?”
“Of course, I did. Why not? If he knows some Indian doctor from a good family in America, maybe he could arrange . . .” Amma’s worried whining drowns in the sound of sizzling oil.
Warmth floods Meera’s cheeks. Nilesh is her only sibling, five years younger. He’d brought her to America; she’d stayed with him and his American wife, Annie, for over a year until she found a steady job and could afford her own apartment. Meera turns to her mother. “So, what did Nilesh say?”
“That you’re not interested. He thinks you’re still in love with someone here in India.”
“Someone? Who someone?” A pang of anger strums across her chest. To what extent had Nilesh betrayed her? She’d confided in him back when she’d first immigrated to America. How much had he told their mother? It appeared they’d been discussing her as if she were an antique on the Auction Block.
Amma wipes her hands to a dish towel. “I don’t know. That, he didn’t say.” She looks at her daughter, her voice surprisingly tender. “But whoever it was—it has been nearly ten years. It’s time to . . .”
Meera’s eyes burn. “I don’t love anyone here, Amma. That’s why I went to America. So there’s no need to bring it up again.”
Amma finishes kneading the dough. She begins to roll one ball out into a thin sheet. Meera watches her slice it length-wise into ribbons, two inches wide, and then crosswise, her bony fingers poised over the knife, her blue-veined skin stretched thin. She fills the squares with potato bhajee, folds them over into a pyramid shape, and arranges them on the board, one by one, like a range of mountains.
Meera looks out the kitchen window. Across the street, she sees the dhobi enter the adjacent compound, a large bale of laundered clothes balanced on his head. By the hedge, a man is pruning over-grown bougainvillea vines encroaching upon the sidewalk. In the little island of coconut trees across the street, a wiry boy’s feet fumble for footholds gouged in the tree trunk as he tries to scale up the tree; an older man, his father perhaps, close behind, reaches up to hold his ankles. Nothing has changed; nothing will. The baton will be passed. It’s as though the earth has jammed on its axis. She might as well have left home a thousand years ago.
She’d met Faisal in her senior year in college, when he’d transferred to St. Joe’s, and from the start, he was impossible to ignore. He was charming and good- looking—brown eyes, olive skin, a mischievous smile. Girls adored him and flirted openly, especially Christian girls, who wore short skirts and heels and were allowed to date boys, unlike Meera, who came from a traditional Hindu family where arranged marriages were the norm. Faisal, acutely aware of his status, enjoyed the panoramic view of worshippers from his pedestal. But Meera had stayed out of his field of vision. She would walk away as soon as class was dismissed with never a backward glance, ignoring Faisal’s magnetic draw and the girls jockeying for his attention. Sometimes, after their last class, he would stroll down to the café for iced coffee with his entourage. It didn’t matter; she didn’t care.
Then one day, Faisal disappeared. For three consecutive days Professor Singh called roll, and no one answered to “Mr. Hussein.” On the fourth day, Singh paused. “Anyone heard from Hussein? He’s not the type to bunk class.”
Teresa raised her hand. “His father is gravely ill, sir. Faisal is taking care of him; his mother is…”
“Thank you,” Professor Singh said, “I’m glad he hasn’t dropped out.” His voice implied Faisal was too good a student to lose.
Meera knew that Teresa was Faisal’s most ardent fan. There’d been rumors that they were dating—an “item.” An item on sale, Meera thought somewhat unkindly.
But two evenings later, as she stood at the crowded train station waiting for the usual 6:53 local to Khar, she heard a familiar voice.
She turned to face a smiling Faisal Hussein with two long-stemmed red roses framed in baby’s breath and green ferns, wrapped in tissue.
“Faisal? What are you doing here?” she blurted out. “How is your father?”
Faisal looked perplexed. “My father? He’s much better, but…how do you know?”
“Teresa D’mello told us. Professor Singh was concerned you’d dropped the class.”
“Oh, I see. Well, Teresa is my neighbor. Our mothers are good friends.”
A momentary relief flitted over Meera’s face. So, that explained why she’d seen them together so often, or did it?
Faisal thrust the flowers in her hands. “I brought you these.”
Meera looked at the glistening water droplets. “For me? Why?”
“I think you know. You’re the only girl who doesn’t even look at me.”
Meera laughed. “Oh, I see. And you think roses will change that?”
“No, but it’s worth a try.”
“Why? You have plenty of admirers.” She refrained from specifically mentioning Teresa.
“Except for the one I want to be admired by,” he said.
Meera looked down at her hands, saying nothing. She wanted to tell him that she more than admired him—beginning on that very first day she saw him and every day thereafter. He was insightful and articulate; she’d listened to him in class discussions; seen him on the cricket team, in the library, heard his easy laugh in the quad. But what was the use? She saw no point in fanning her attraction. His name, in itself, was taboo. He was a Muslim; she a Hindu. Hundreds of years of religious strife, traditions, and beliefs separated them. The furthest planet was closer than their families would ever be. She let the moment pass.
“Do you always go home so late?” he asked.
“Only on days I play volleyball,” she said.
“Where do you live?”
“Mind if I ride with you?”
She hesitated. “No, of course not. And where do you live?”
“But that’s in the opposite direction. Shouldn’t you be on the other side of the tracks?”
He smiled his mischievous smile, the one she’d seen out of the corner of her eyes so often. “I should, but I’m here.”
The clatter of the train rushing past, then abruptly grinding to a halt, ended the conversation. Multitudes of women rushed forward toward to the ladies compartment. “That’s my train. Got to go,” Meera called.
Faisal watched as she pushed her way into the throng, where she was instantly swallowed up in yards of multicolored saris and flailing arms fluorescent with glass bangles. She melted into the technicolor panorama of the women’s compartment. At Khar, Meera disembarked, walked through the turnstile and stopped at the curbside to adjust the strap on her slipper.
“Why did you get into the ladies compartment?”
She jumped at the voice beside her. “Faisal, for God’s sake, what are doing here? Didn’t you say you live in Marine Lines?”
“I told you. I asked if I could ride with you.”
“I didn’t believe you.”
“I know. You rushed into the women’s compartment. I had no way to disguise myself.”
They both laughed. Faisal fell in step with her. “Do you walk home, or take a bus from here?”
“Either. It’s a short bus ride, ten minutes, but if the bus queue is long, I walk.”
“Mind if we walk today?” Faisal asked.
They stepped onto the sidewalk, turned left, and then right again, onto a street parallel to the main thoroughfare. They passed through the alley at the rear of the Tata textile building, the loading dock and the big industrial complexes. Every flat wall surface was covered with billboards from which seductive movie stars gazed out. Beyond the alley, the street opened onto a narrow road lined with chai stalls, carts laden with bags and sandals, bangles, saris and underwear. Further down the road, the carts metamorphosed into a Garden of Eden. Piles of fruit—pomegranates and papayas, custard apples, mangoes, and berries—were attractively displayed as were buckets of flowers—gladioli, roses, bird of paradise.
“So, have you lived in Khar all your life?” Faisal asked.
“Pretty much. My father had his dental practice here.”
“And you are an only child?”
“I sure feel like one. My brother is in the States.”
“In dental school? To take over your father’s practice?”
“No, medical school. I doubt he’ll return to India. He just loves it there. Total freedom, and… and just a good life, he says.”
They walked on; the last rays of sun cast a haze over the evening. The wind started the trees rustling, swirling a piece of paper. Ahead the cobbler had cleared the sidewalk—rolled his tarpaulin tent, and packed his tools, leather remnants, sewing needle, and odds and ends into his knapsack. Beyond the culvert, they came to a sharp bend in the road.
“I think you shouldn’t come any further,” Meera said.
She hesitated. “Well, you know how people gossip. They’ll spread rumors in the neighborhood.”
“But, you’re just walking with a man. That’s not a crime, is it?”
Meera stopped and leaned against the stone wall, suddenly weary. “Look, Faisal, let’s not pretend. You know you’re not one of us.” She waited, but he said nothing. “You are Muslim.”
He dropped his eyes. A long moment passed. “I know. I was just hoping… I guess I’m not sure what I was hoping for.” He turned to reverse his steps. “I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble. Thanks for letting me walk with you.”
“Faisal, I… I’m sorry. You know what I mean. Will you… I mean, are you coming to class, tomorrow?”
In the circle of light under the lamp post, the mischievous smile reappeared. “Yes, but only if you’ll let me walk with you again.”
That’s why Faisal was different, Meera thought—the way he lit up life’s darkest corners in a way she never could, the way he laughed at life’s ironies. He looked down and drew a line in the mud with the toe of his shoe. “Okay,” he said, “No further, just till here. I’ll walk just till here.” He grazed his shoe deeper over the line of mud. “Agreed?”
She smiled and turned into the alley that would take her home. She could feel his eyes on her neck, her back, her legs, lingering tenderly, until she was out of sight. Years later, she would remember this day when, for the first time, she’d fallen completely in love. It was the beginning of many walks when Faisal would take her almost home.
Now she turns away from Amma, aware of tears pricking her eyelids. The sizzle of dough puffing in boiling oil follows her out of the kitchen as she heads for the bathroom. Why had Amma brought this up? She stares at herself in the mirror. Perhaps she is still in love with Faisal. Under the layers of crowded years, of leaving home, of migrating, of making a new life on the other side of the world where day was night and night was day, perhaps embers still linger. She splashes her face with water, pats it dry and walks out into the little balcony. Leaning against the railing, she watches two young boys on the flat cemented rooftop of the adjacent building. Their eyes are focused on each other—one twirls a reel, slowly releasing kite string; the other boy’s fingers are curled around the frame of a kite, as he runs backwards, holding the string taut. On the count of three, the boy hoists the kite into the wind and it sails upward, its red tail swerving serpent-like in the sky. The boys yell, pull, tug, wind and unwind as it soars, glides, dips, and swoops like a deranged eagle. Meera gazes at the boys, pretending they are her sons, watching the kite’s antics in their eyes. Dressed in short khaki pants and bright cotton tee shirts, they are about as old as her boys might have been, had she married Faisal.
Meera had ridden the train and walked home with Faisal almost every evening after that, never letting him cross the line he’d drawn in the mud that first day. On her game days, he hung out in the café or quad and waited for her.
“Aren’t you tired of going in the opposite direction?” she’d once teased.
“It’s the right direction for me,” he’d grinned.
Still, she’d never let him speak of their future. She just stole time. Some Saturdays, she lied to Amma, saying she would be at the college library. Instead, she and Faisal hid in the darkness of movie theatres or among crowds walking in the sand at Juhu beach. Sometimes they studied together on campus, or ate at small, out-of-the-way places, where they were unlikely to encounter acquaintances. She would not let herself think beyond the present—her last few months in college with Faisal. But it all ended earlier than she expected, in a way she couldn’t have imagined.
It began when Mrs. Kapoor, who lived round the corner near Bata Shoe Store, stopped waving and exchanging little perfunctory greetings from her verandah as Meera passed by. Instead, the woman would bend to scratch her ankle or pick up the comic section of the newspaper.
Then it happened. One Sunday, as Meera was returning from the Lakshmi temple, she heard a whistle from somewhere behind a clump of coconut palms outside Mrs. Kapoor’s garden. She turned instinctively. There was no one.
Several minutes later, she heard it again. She turned. Could those two boys, one with a yellow bandana, be following her? She quickened her pace.
Someone shouted. “Hey, look at that princess! She goes with a Muslim fellow, did you know?”
Someone else answered. “What? Impossible. Why are you lying? Our own women wouldn’t . . .”
“You don’t believe me? Let’s ask her. Hurry.”
Meera heard the soft thud-thud of tennis shoes on the pavement approaching her from behind. When they were abreast, flanking her, she stopped. The boys broke their stride several feet ahead and retraced their steps to where she stood. Instinctively, she wrapped her sari tight around her shoulders.
The one with the yellow bandana streaked a mouthful of red betel nut juice on the tar. “Go ahead, ask her.”
The dark-haired boy with too much oil in his hair wiped his sweat drenched face on his shirt sleeve. “True? You’re with a Muslim?” Meera did not reply. He leered. “A pretty woman like you can’t find a Hindu husband? Hah? We’re not good enough for you? Your own kind? You want the other kind? The Musla? Hah?” He spat at her feet.
Meera breathed deeply, trying to quell her thudding heart. “Let me pass, please.”
The boy with the bandana dropped to his knees at her feet. “Look at this,” he said, reaching for her sari border. “The lady is wearing pure silk.”
“You let me go. Don’t touch me.”
“You hear that? The lady gives commands like a queen! Don’t touch her, she commands, the Maharani!” He rose, taunting. “But we are not your subjects, Rani-ji.”
Meera faltered and stepped back—right into the arms of the other boy behind her. His hand darted up to her breasts. Meera screamed. Swiftly, his hand moved upward and clasped her mouth. Her head tilted back. “Quiet! You scream and you’re dead,” he growled.
The boy with the yellow bandana spoke up. “Dead?” He rolled the tip of his tongue against his palette and clucked. “Oh, no! Not so soon.”
“Yeah. I agree. Who wants to go first?” His fingers began to tear open the buttons on her blouse.
A moment passed. Was it a second, two, ten? She would never know. But, what happened would remain with her for a million moments. Like a trapeze artist, she leapt high into the thin air, her right foot shooting up, then back, a hard kick right into the groin of the boy holding her. A blood-curdling sound buried in a string of curse words rent the air. Bitch. Whore. His fingers snapped, uncurled, clasped his groin. At the same instant, Meera’s hands thrust forward in one singular motion, and with an animal strength she pushed the boy in front of her. He teetered, lost his balance and fell backward. In one sudden rush she surged forward, a gale force, her sari bunched in her hand. Tears streamed down her face. Still, she ran faster and faster, swept by a wave of fear she’d never known before. Rounding the corner onto the main street, she elbowed her way past huddles of people and disappeared into the faceless crowd.
After the incident, she had made up her mind. She would tell no one, not even Faisal. And she would give him no reason for breaking up. “It’s best this way,” she’d said, as they stood in the shadows, away from the dim street light, at the spot where he’d once drawn a line. “Please don’t keep on asking why or what. Just please accept it.”
“You’re being unfair, Meera,” he’d cried. “I have a right to know. What happened? I mean, why now? Why so suddenly? Is it your mother?”
She considered lying. Yes, let Amma take the fall, a natural fall. It was an easy bluff, far better, far safer. If Faisal knew the truth, he’d go after those hoodlums. He’d recruit his friends; a mini-riot would break out; someone would get hurt, perhaps arrested, beaten up by the police. It wasn’t uncommon for the police to administer a good thrashing first and interrogate people later. Faisal, she knew, would never stop till he found her assailants and tasted blood. And Amma? How would she live in the only neighborhood she’d ever lived in and hold her head up high when the reason for the fight got out? How could Meera, her only daughter, do that to the only person in the world who’d loved her even before she’d entered this world?
Instead, on an impulse, Meera told a different lie. “Okay, I’ll tell you,” she’d said. “But please don’t ask too many questions.” Faisal waited, breathless. “I’m going to America,” she said, hardly believing her voice. “Nilesh… you remember I told you about my brother? He wants me to come—now, after graduation, when the immigration laws are still lax.”
“America? Why?” Faisal looked as if he’d been kicked. “You’re lying.”
Tears covered her face. She’d just made the decision, right then, and shaped into tentative truth what had been fabrication a moment before. And she would follow through to make it a reality. She would write to Nilesh, tell him she had changed her mind. She would make a new life for herself in a country she could not imagine. That’s what he’d said America was!
“No,” she said. “I’m not lying, Faisal. Really, it’s better if I go, don’t you see?” She waited a moment. “In the long run, there is nothing here for me—there is no future for us.”
Faisal grabbed her arm. “Why not? We can run away, we can go live somewhere where no one knows us.”
“What are you talking? What about our families? They’ll know, and the disgrace? Please,” she begged, pulling away from him. “I’m going to America. It’s the best thing.”
His voice broke. “Okay, fine, you go. And I’ll follow you.”
She’d looked at him, longing to believe him. “But how? You have no family to sponsor you. The waiting list is five years long, and Muslim males will have trouble…”
“I’ll find a way,” he’d said, turning.
But, in the end, Faisal hadn’t found a way, at least not to her.
At the airport Meera stands in a snaking line of passengers, waiting to be checked in. Amma inches forward along with her, refusing to leave. There is so much that Amma doesn’t know, Meera thinks. She had not had the heart to tell her about Faisal—not then, ten years ago, and not now. She had left home and left behind a secret, an unspoken act of love. She looks at her mother’s crumpled face. She knows that she’ll wait, crane her neck, and wave until the last wisp of Meera’s hair disappears behind other passengers. She’ll stand at the wide windows overlooking the runway, her nose pressed to the glass, until the plane taxies out on to the tarmac, roars and lifts its wings into a cinnamon-washed sky.