The dusty ambassador bounced down the dirt track. It was supposed to be a road, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the track and pitted field of dry grass edged with half-constructed flats in the distance.
Bangalore wasn’t the garden city any longer. I had pictured a leafy green place from Vivek’s childhood stories, but the tech boom and population growth had changed the city irrevocably. And indeed, over the next 15 years, every time I would visit, I wouldn’t recognize where we’d stood before.
But today, we were piled into a wreck of a car, rattling across a field to meet a guru that my mother-in-law revered. It was hot, dusty, and I was fretting over whether I should have worn western clothes, the threads of the new salwar rough against my neck. But I was half sure the trip was to show the Guru how Amma’s white daughter-in-law was a proper south Indian wife, so I swallowed any thoughts about cultural appropriation and concentrated on staring out the window.
Vivek’s cousin Srini was in the front seat, directing the driver. We turned left, skirting a ragtag soccer game, children laughing and calling to each other like magpies, and the car slowed, pulling in next to a whitewashed stone hut with a rusted metal roof. A young woman in a pale blue sari and bare feet stood in the doorway.
We clambered out of the car, Vidhya, her mother, Vivek, Srini, and me. The soccer game came to halt, and we were surrounded by a gaggle of 8 and 9-year-old boys, all fixated on the white girl. Our unorthodox entourage chattered away as we approached the house and saw an elderly man emerge from the shadows. His dhoti was as white as his long beard; his skin, brown as a chestnut; his dark eyes sparkling. Straight out of central casting, I thought.
“Come in, come in. Welcome,” he said beckoning us into the house.
The young girl pulled a few plastic chairs from a room deeper in the cottage and gestured for us to sit. The room was painted the now-familiar medicinal green, a color you’d find in the U.S. in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and VFW halls, but it was everywhere in India. From airport lounges to living rooms to roadside Dabbas, always paired with the harsh blue light of fluorescent bulbs.
The conversation flowed around me. In and out of Kanada, Tamil and English. I nodded when Vidhya nudged me and sipped my tea. Everything was fine until it was time to leave.
Vivek’s mother stood up and we stood in a half-circle around her, facing the sitting guru. He would bless us before we left. I shifted my weight from one foot to another, not knowing what was expected of me. Methodists don’t have gurus. We’re barely comfortable talking about God. Our last stand as a church had been the banning of styrofoam plates for church dinners, and here I was, sunburnt and awkward about to be blessed and return the blessings of a Hindu holy man.
His voice thrummed in the room, the heft of Sanskrit echoing like a bass drum in my chest. Vivek’s mother was motioning to me. Hand gestures like wigwam semaphore and I had no idea what she wanted. She motioned forward and down with her hand towards the sitting guru, looking from me to him. I froze, unsure. Did she want me to sit in his lap?
Like some slow-motion dream, I imagined myself perched on his bony knees, asking the Desi Santa Claus for a long and happy life. And I think I must have pivoted slightly toward him, turning just enough for my mother-in-law to blanch. But then I saw, out of the corner of my eye, Vidhya kneel the way I’d been taught, and I brought my hands together as I knelt to the floor, sanctifying like a good Indian girl.
I shifted in my chair, the faint squeak of springs the only sound in the dim room, light laddering across the floor through the Venetian blinds. Outside, the late summer sun beat down, the air swirling with the pop and fizz of insects. But inside we sat still and silent, Vidhya, her mother, and me.
Vivek and his father had disappeared, a mere half-hour after arriving from the airport, off to Home Depot to buy the necessary supplies to fix a leaky faucet. The accounting professor and his bookish son suddenly with a desperate interest in home repair. Cowards.
But I was still here, and I was terrified.
“Ma,” Vivek had said as we stood on the doorstep, “This is Tami.” Unsaid, hanging in the air between us, Tami, the white girl I want to marry, the one I never told you about, the one I moved with halfway across the country without a word.
Amma was unmoved by the introduction. She stood still on the doorjamb, her expression inscrutable, no malice in her coal-black eyes, but no softening around the mouth either. We hung in the doorway frozen in place for what seemed a long time, until Vivek’s sister broke the spell, rushing to the door and pulling me inside.
“So glad to see you. Was the flight long? Did you eat?” Vidhya’s words filling the emptiness; One awkward moment lived through until the next.
I’ve never been able to let silence lie -- I have to fill the void. Job interviews, cocktail parties, traffic stops; stories just bubble out, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
And now the room around me felt like it was filling with heavy air, the silence taking on the consistency of another body in the room. I crossed my legs and tugged at my braid -- carefully plaited since Vivek had mentioned proper Indian girls didn’t leave their hair loose.
Vivek’s mother sat in the shadows, hands around a cup of milky tea. The silence stretched and I felt like my heart would thrum right out of my chest as I began to speak.
“You have a dog, Misha. We always had dogs growing up. Dachshunds mostly. Except for Sam, he was a mut, Heinz 57 as my Grandpa would say. How old is Misha? Seven? My parents have a German Shepherd mix now, named Rascal.”
I couldn’t stop myself, not even slowing for answers. Vidhya watched, side-eyed over her teacup as she drank.
“My aunt and uncle, well, great aunt and uncle, they have Basenji’s and travel with them everywhere. They’re an African dog, with curly tails. They don’t even bark; they make a sound like laughing or yodeling.”
“My grandmother calls them the Blasted Basenjis, and probably worse when no one’s in earshot. But Nana puts up with them because Thurman is her baby brother, and she loves him, even if he did a marry did marry that damn Yankee and has two African laughing dogs that climb the furniture like cats.”
“One morning, Nana found them sitting bold as brass on top of the kitchen counter, wearing their outdoor coats and eating the bacon. She had found muddy footprints on the antimacassars on the couch the day before and broken crockery on the shelves in the living room too. She snapped, and chased them out of the house, waving a mixing spoon like a police baton.”
Vidhya snorted, tea spluttering back into her cup.
“After that, the Basenjis had to stay in their kennels when they came to visit. And Nana would mutter about cat dogs for weeks after they left.”
Amma quietly got up and left the room. We could hear the sound of the water running in the sink. The hinges of cabinets doors squeaked as they opened and closed.
The clock ticked in the corner of the room and time lengthened until we heard the peal of laughter, deep and uncontrolled, from the kitchen.
Vidhya smirked and grabbed my hand. “You’re in,” she whispered. “It will be rough, but just wait. You made her laugh.”
My mother-in-law died eight years ago. It could be eight months, eight days, eight seconds. We were as different as two women could be, joined first by our love for her son, and then our love of my children. I've been writing down snippets of memories of her, of us, of our family. This is the first ...
Persona no grata
Vivek’s mother had called again. I watched him pace a quick circuit around the tiny two-room studio, floorboards creaking beneath the stained gray carpet, cell phone held in the crook of his neck. Outside, the Tenderloin thrummed-- shouts, sirens, and car horns. And downstairs, our neighbor haltingly began the opening chords of Pink Floyd’s Money once again.
I sat cross-legged on the bed, twisting the Afghan’s yarn around my index finger, pink flesh darkening to red, listening and wishing that I wasn’t.
“Work’s fine, Ma.. … Yeah, I’m still driving to San Jose… No, I haven’t called Raju Uncle… I’ve been busy... That’s nice Ma, but I’m not interested… No, I don’t want to meet her… I’m sure she’s a nice girl, Ma, but no…”
He sighed and slammed his foot to the floor as our neighbor missed the 10th note and began again. “I’m sure you won’t die before having grandchildren… You do have more than one child. Why don’t you bother Vidhya?”
I could hear the musical hum of his mother’s voice, no words, but the tone persistent.
This was a conversation I knew well, at least one side of it, and I was heartily sick of the “there’s a nice Iyengar girl you should meet” chorus. I mouthed V’s responses involuntarily as he said them, his flat anywhere-American accent, slowly rising and falling to match his mother’s soft sing-song.
“It’s just how she is, Tam,” he’d say when he hung up. “ She’s just a typical Tam Bram mother.”
And I’m the white devil, I’d think.
We’d moved from Baton Rouge to San Francisco the year before, after only dating a few months. I think my parents thought I was insane, and looking back, nothing about that decision was logical. But I had been on my own, living a day’s drive from home for nearly 5 years, and was full-on “adulting” before it was cool. (Unlike my siblings, who still had Mom make their dentist appointments well into their 30s.)
I’d applied to the Ph.D. program since I was nearly done with my MFA except for thesis hours. So maybe, not quite adulting. But, then I got the form letter announcing I’d been wait-listed for admission, and a whole world of possibilities broke open.
I’d never left the South except for a brief internship in New York. But my neighbor had been everywhere it seemed, moving to Lousiana from San Francisco. She’d regaled us with stories about her job at the Booksmith in the Haight, meeting authors and having drinks before alleyway art shows and punk shows at Bottom of the Hill. “It’s the Island of lost toys,” she would say to me. “Everyone fits in there, everyone who doesn’t fit in anywhere else.”
And that was it. No matter how different we were, both Vivek and I felt like misfits in our families. We piled what we could fit in his white Honda Accord, sold the rest, and took off across the south and the southwest to San Francisco.
I’m sure my mother would have liked to have lectured me chapter and verse about the move, especially once she discovered that Vivek’s parents didn’t know I existed, and wouldn’t for years. But for some reason, she never did. And looking back, maybe she knew, the way I sometimes know what will happen when I shouldn’t.