Fiction Fiction 2008

Amritsar

Tom wanted him to be prepared, to know what he was up against. But Gurukha didn’t want a pistol in his house. He wanted to move on, to be done with India, and with Amritsar.
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Why, until this unhoped-for day, have I never learned to slide an iridescent jelly worm, a strange, slippery bit of silicone, onto a tiny jabbing hook that would prefer to bury itself in my fingertip, or to tie delicate knots with 10-pound filament, as if I was stitching lace, or to choose the proper size for the proper red-and-white plastic bobber? Being a radiologist, I’ve never had a way with scalpels and hoses and stitches and flesh. Everyone else on the staff at St. Joseph’s fishes and plays golf, save myself and Talal Mohammed and Eliot Rubenstein. We go to the symphony, and eat our wives’ elaborate dinners, and celebrate one another’s holidays: Diwali, Eid, Chanukah. We do not need to prove our masculinity by killing things wantonly, sloppily, and lazily—or, in this case, not killing them, but torturing them for sport in the sun.

Why indeed, if not that Ajay is marrying Christine Farrell, who grew up three doors down from us, whose parents, Tom and Melinda, we’ve known some 20 years. Known is perhaps stating it too strongly. We see them raking leaves in their yard, across the aisle at PTA meetings, on opposite sides of a barbecue at a block party. She teaches the second grade over in Aberdeen, near the military base, and he runs a small construction company, mostly specialty work, installing $50,000 kitchens with marble countertops and those absurd steel refrigerators you see in magazines, in the new housing developments in Fallston and Bel Air.

In a way, this familiarity makes things no easier. One wants neighbors to remain neighbors, not to move into the house and scatter their newspapers and laundry about, not to become family, as if our street is its own little village. Tom is a Vietnam veteran who returned to college but dropped out, a reader of military history, a subscriber to dozens of magazines, and is well-informed but desperately, painfully, shy. When we are together, alone, our conversation quickly dwindles into silence. We grow shifty-eyed, vaguely guilty, and seek out Teja and Melinda, who always have something to say to one another.

So I have decided that our point of contact, our common ground, will be fishing. But first I have to learn on my own. It wouldn’t do for one father-in-law to be the abject pupil of the other.

Find a shallow place, I say to Ajay, as he guides us away from the dock upstream, and he rolls his eyes and wipes sweat from his lip with the back of his arm.

It’s all shallow, he says, don’t you know, Dad, the whole river’s not more than six feet deep. You could walk across it if you had to.

On days like this, I have more and more difficulty seeing him as one who came from my loins and Teja’s small belly. Five foot 11, taller than anyone in my family, taller than any Indian I know, he’s kept his lacrosse-player physique, the broad shoulders and narrow waist and calves like bunched fists. The wearing of the turban was never really an issue. We cut his hair when he went into kindergarten. Until the age of 12, he answered us in Punjabi at home, in private; then he switched to English, and we pretended not to notice. Some children are like that: their Americanness is built into their physiognomy, into their very being. And why not? They are here, after all, not there. For them it isn’t a question of adaptation.

Now he’s obscurely angry with me. Not because I’m an obstinate old fool, who keeps turning in his seat to wave at him to slow down. And not because I made an intemperate remark the other day about the cost of the honeymoon he’s planning. Ten days in St. Kitts, I said. For that much you could go on a month’s first-class tour of Rajasthan.

He’s angry at me, yes. But I wonder if even he knows why.

The story, as I understand it, goes like this: Christine and Ajay and Preeta were all very close as children, sharing toys in the sandbox and racing their Big Wheels up and down Landing Lane. (That much I remember, though Teja claims that during my residency and fellowship I missed the first six years of my children’s lives entirely. I remember paying for the pizza at their pizza parties and I remember tending to Christine when she skinned her knee on the back patio—she must have been 7 or 8—with Betadine and Q-tips, stroking her shoulder, kissing her forehead as she wailed.) Then, some years later, she vanished from our lives. I asked after her once, and Preeta rolled her eyes and said, She’s such a stoner, a complete space case. She had a boyfriend who drove around the neighborhood in a purple van with the windows painted over and no muffler. I remember catching sight of her, once or twice, dashing in or out of her parents’ house, dressed all in black and wearing cartoonishly huge pants, her hair dyed red or pink or black.

We’ve never discussed it with Tom and Melinda, of course. I have no idea how she came to realize that there was no future in pretending to be a ghost, or a corpse, or a heroin addict, or whatever it was those girls wanted to be. She survived, with no visible damage. Perhaps we should all just be happy with that.

Christine is a tall, lovely girl, very typically American in some ways; she has thin hands, wide-set eyes, and wavy hair the color of teak, and is always changing it, growing it long or chopping it short, adding colors, having it straightened, or cut so that it looks like an accident. This is a topic of constant conversation between Teja and Preeta. She stays most of the time at Ajay’s apartment in Hunt Valley, but is always dropping by, as she says, now that the wedding approaches, particularly around four or five in the afternoon, when Teja bustles around the kitchen, making roti or chopping things for dinner. She sits at one of the bar stools and drinks Teja’s terrible instant coffee, and they talk—about what, I’m never sure. I have no interest in disturbing their fragile communion. If I happen to be home, I take the newspaper and go into the living room to watch the early news.

Teja, I say sometimes, she wants you to teach her. You need to offer, not just let her sit and watch. Start with something simple. Start with dal.

Teja shakes her head vigorously. If she wants to learn, she needs to ask, she says. She has to be assertive. It won’t just fall into her lap. She has to make the effort.

But she’s shy. And you move too fast.

Tough, she says. If an Indian woman doesn’t move fast, she’ll spend 24 hours a day in the kitchen.

It’s true that Indian cooking is very difficult to learn. Teja keeps her spices in a jumble of bags and boxes and peanut-butter jars, none labeled. I myself have no idea what goes into what. When she goes away for a few days at her sister’s in West Orange, she leaves the freezer packed with two or three weeks’ worth of food.

My fear, I suppose, is that Christine is trying to learn by osmosis. I sometimes wonder whether she wants to be Indian, in the way that so many Americans want to be something they aren’t. Not long ago she mentioned, very casually, that wedding dresses are so expensive, so difficult to fit and choose, wouldn’t it just be easier if she wore a red sari, one size fits all? Teja was making poori and nearly burned the tips of her fingers off in hot oil. When she recovered from the shock, she said, I still have mine. You can try it on sometime if you like. As far as I know, the conversation ended there.

There’s more to it than that, of course.

Whenever I see Christine—this young, coltish girl, this slender, mild-featured beauty, my daughter-in-law in a few months’ time, mother (with a little luck) of my grandchildren—I think, Sand nigger. With a certain crinkling in the back of my neck.

Sand nigger.

The phrase appeared one day on Preeta’s locker when she was in the seventh grade, painted, naturally, in Wite-Out. She scratched it off with her house key. The principal—a very nice man, Ripley was his name, but hapless, his hair combed in an elaborate vortex to disguise his baldness—accused her of defacing her locker and assigned her detention. Ajay got wind of it at lunchtime. He stormed into Ripley’s office, full of 17-year-old righteousness, accused him of covering up a hate crime, of blaming the victim, of fostering a climate of racism. An overly aggressive vice principal intervened; there was shoving; there was a half-thrown punch. The police were called.

When I promised no lawsuits, no letters to the national press or calls to the ACLU, Ajay received three days’ suspension and a fine for disruptive behavior on school property.

Half a lifetime of good feelings—of birthday parties, of school musicals, of graduation awards—isn’t undone by a child’s puerile phrase. Not even a real insult, but a kind of comic mutation. Hate lacks imagination. Hate never made art, only dreary clichés. And still! I can’t manage to rid my mind of sand nigger. In Christine’s creamy, honey-colored skin, in the slight depression of her scapula, itself like a tiny desert landscape, is something that evokes the phrase.

I won’t deny that I’ve looked for that something. Or that my eyes, when she turns with a practiced swing of the head so that her hair describes a flat arc in the air, linger an instant too long as she saunters toward the door. Or that Teja becomes snappy when I enter the room, and flicks bits of coriander at me off the tips of her fingers, and assigns me to take out the newspapers for recycling. We all have bad habits.

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