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.

Everything’s fine, they kept saying to us when we called. Preeta in her dormitory room at Tufts, barely moved in, two weeks into the school year; Ajay down in his lab at Hopkins, finishing a project on cyclic radiotherapies. They were distant, shocked, a little oblivious, not willing to allow the event to knock their lives off course even for a moment. Yes, I saw it on TV, they said. Yes, it’s terrible.

Teja and I had been sitting on the couch all afternoon, unable to move from that terrible blue glare, not even getting up to make tea or turn on a light. When one station went to a commercial, Teja automatically clicked to the next. The phone rang, and I wiped my mouth and blinked, several times, as if I had been asleep, before pulling myself upright and crossing the room.

Pull down your shades, said my best friend, Sanjay Bhose, speaking from his cell phone in Indiana, without even saying hello. Close all the curtains. Turn the lights off. Put a mattress in the basement and sleep down there tonight.

Sanu, I said, don’t be ridiculous. Our neighbors know who we are.

Really? What do they know exactly, you fool? That you wear a turban and carry a knife everywhere? You think anyone’s making hard-and-fast distinctions these days?

We’ve been here for 20 years, for God’s sake, I said. We were the only Indian family in the whole town for a decade.

Look on any of the Web sites, he said. Attacks on Sikhs are happening everywhere. Look—for Teja’s sake, don’t be a fool! I don’t have long. I have 25 more people to call. When it comes down to it, you know we’re all dirty Arabs to them. Don’t take a chance.

When I hung up the phone I murmured to Teja, That was Sanjay, just checking in, and said nothing more, but immediately climbed the stairs to the third floor and went into Ajay’s room, still decorated with his wrestling and swimming trophies, his System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine posters, and opened the window that allows access onto the roof over the kitchen, and climbed out, scratching my arm badly on the windowsill. It must have been around 7:30. The sunset had a pale, milky quality, like sherbet. Earlier, the day had been blazing hot, and it was just beginning to cool; the air was full of the smell of drying grass and leaves, hot asphalt—our street had just been repaved—and the slight, sour smell of the bay at low tide. Our house is at the end of a cul-de-sac, on a slight rise, with woods behind us, and from that vantage point I could see many of the roofs of Lord Calvert Way and Landing Lane, clear down to the public swimming pool at the corner of Schoolhouse Street, and the long grass lane that leads off to the high school on the other side of that road. Nobody was stirring, it seemed. At a time like this you would think that people would come out of their houses and scream, or tear their clothes, or just weep and stare at televisions together, but we live in a suburb, of course, a place without a center—no City Hall, no Boston Common, no village church. Nobody would know where to go. All this pain and anguish, and no place to put it.

Not for another hour, after our stomachs had finally started to rumble, did Teja stand up from the couch and notice Tom Farrell’s truck backed into our driveway.

We could see through the back window of the cab that he was on the driver’s side, and his son, Colin, was sitting shotgun. It had never occurred to me what the phrase meant, until that moment, when I saw that they both had rifles across their laps, the barrels sticking out of the windows on each side, and that a third gun was on the rack behind their heads.

Most of my neighbors are hunters. On one or two occasions we’ve had to eat the gristly and dry wild ducks or geese they’ve killed—gingerly, because the shot can crack a tooth. But until that night I had never seen a gun displayed in our neighborhood, out in the open air. I had never realized I hated firearms with such a passion. My eyeballs felt as if they were being boiled in a pan. The craziness, I thought, the recklessness of bringing them into public view, on a day like today. As if we needed to be reminded of the lethal possibilities of a few carefully joined bits of steel.

Teja stood very still in a corner of the living room, her face fixed in a rictus of surprise. This isn’t their job, she said. They will just draw attention. Go tell them to go away.

It would be tempting to say that I was returned to another life, an earlier life, where, for example, I once saw a harijan, an untouchable, a little boy, beaten nearly to death in a village where my bus had stopped for a tea break. But in truth I felt no connection with any previous point in my life at all. I was dissolved, a packet of sugar in a glass of water. People say that America is closer to heaven than anywhere on Earth, and in a way this is true: heaven becomes your nearest point of comparison. Which is to say, no comparison is possible.

Teja, I said, that man is our friend.

Your friend. Your friend! To me, no different from all the other lunatics.

Then at least be glad we have one lunatic with a gun on our side.

Coward, she hissed, stepping toward me, with her palm raised. Coward! Go out there and tell them!

I caught her wrist and slapped her, quickly, lightly. I had never done such a thing before, nor even imagined it. My fingers raised a red imprint on her cheek.

So this is the kind of man you are, she said, clenching her fists. I should never have married you.

That night she slept in the front seat of our Ford station wagon in the garage, wrapped in a parka and a blanket, ready to flee a moment after waking, clasping the door handle as if it, too, was a weapon.

I last met Gopal Singh in the cocktail bar of the Ambassador Hotel in New Delhi. I was home on vacation from school, escorting Babuji to a retirement party for one of his colleagues; this job fell to me in the years after my mother’s death, when my brother and sister were already married, with jobs and children. Once my father was seated at the table of honor, gin-and-tonic in hand, I excused myself and retreated to the fringes of the crowd, hoping to find someone my own age—a girl, of course, preferably—to talk to. Instead I brushed past Gopal, grim-faced, in a tight waiter’s tuxedo, carrying a silver tray loaded with pakoras and chutney. He had a spray of acne scars across both cheekbones and his skin seemed two shades more sallow, but still, he was he and I was I, and we took three steps apart and simultaneously turned to face each other, like gunfighters in an old Western. Gurukha, he said, holy moly. What are you doing here?

I met him later that night at a tea stand outside, on Panjali Road, having asked some old friends to give my father a ride home. Gopal had changed into a dirty white kurta and dungarees; he kept the tuxedo on his lap, under his elbows, folded up in a wrinkled plastic tailor’s bag, as if he was afraid someone might snatch it away. I insisted on buying him dinner, and he dipped his poori into the chole and gobbled away rudely, as if he hadn’t eaten in days. While he ate I explained that I had a fellowship and a special visa to study X-ray technology in the U.S.A., in Fairfax, Virginia.

Fairfax, he said, nodding in recognition. A Fairfax was in command of the 39th Fusiliers. They occupied Srinagar and murdered a whole houseful of congressmen in the summer of ’21.

Independence, he said, in English, pronouncing each syllable distinctly, his eyes flickering with each bicycle and Ambassador taxi passing by. Isn’t it funny? We think we achieved it back in ’47. As if it was simply a muddle about which flag goes at the top of the pole.

What else is it, then?

I’ve been taking this class over in Saroj Nagar, he said. Given for free by the New Communist Party. We started out reading Marx, the classic stuff. Lenin. To the Finland Station. And now this. He reached into his back pocket and handed me a greasy paperback. Black Skin, White Masks was the title, the author in small black letters, a funny, French-sounding name. It’s all about the psychology of the blacks, he said. The post-colonials. It’s about psychic liberation and the thought-habits of the oppressed.

Gopal, I said, bhaiya, don’t tell me you’re becoming a politician. I expected more of you. I smiled, but it was a feeble attempt at a joke.

Do you think if I wanted to be one of those apparatchiks I’d be working here? he asked. There’s no struggle anymore in Delhi. It’s all sahibs trading favors. Indiraji has us by the throat. I’m saving money these days. In six months I’m headed to Bihar.

Don’t joke with me, I said. What, you want to be a Naxalite? A guerrilla with your face painted in the bush? Listen, get hold of your senses, Gopal. You’re a middle-class Punjabi, just like me. We’re no different. They’ll eat you alive.

Gurukha, he said, there’s only one truth. The world is going to be made over from the bottom up. Trust in what I’m saying. There is only one possible future. The 20th century tells us that.

Maybe, I said. It was a futile argument, I could see that much. I was tired, and a little disappointed that Gopal hadn’t been more impressed with me. I was done with India, and impatient to move on.

You don’t agree with me, he said. Of course you don’t. His eyes took on a kind of oily sheen, and he grinned. That’s all right. I knew you would never have done it. I always knew it, even back in those days.

Done what, bhaiya?

Take revenge, of course. Like Udhamji. Even if I handed you the pistol. You could never shoot a man in the back. Even for the honor of your whole nation. And that’s what we need, don’t you see? We have to shoot them in the back. There will never be a balance of power. We have the morality of slaves.

Gopal, I said, my good friend. Nothing will be solved that way. It’s a new world. There are too many possibilities to ignore.

Thin as he was—emaciated, really—his face had lost none of its old expressiveness. He fixed me with a look that was at once stricken and proud, his eyes shining like fresh wounds. It was as though I could see him disappearing into memory before my eyes; as though, if I got up to embrace him, he would no longer be there.

You keep that feeling, he said. America is a land of dreamers, no? May you get what you truly deserve.

With that he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and went to look for his bicycle.

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