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.

Illustration by Marc Yankus

I don’t like boats. For that matter, I don’t like water, either, unless it’s coming out of a tap, or a hose. Where would I have learned to swim, in the hot dusty Punjab of my childhood? We never traveled to the sea.

My children, grown up in a land laced with creeks and bays and rivers, find this an endless source of amusement. When they were little, they cajoled me into the deep end of the swimming pool, slithering and splashing as effortlessly as minnows. Always, on parents’ day at summer camp, they insisted that I sit in the front seat of the canoe, white-faced, gripping the sides, while they paddled across the lake, just to show they could.

This is different, Ajay says.

My son, now 27, tall and barefoot in the bottom of a bass-fishing boat, holds out his hand for me to climb down from the dock.

This kind of boat is much more stable. There’s no way we could capsize. And you can wear a life jacket if you want.

I sit on the dock’s edge, hugging the piling the way a toddler holds his mother’s skirt, and touch the boat’s rail with one foot. It gives beneath my weight. From some long-ago class in materials engineering, I remember the physical properties of a liquid: an object is buoyed by a force equal to the weight of the liquid displaced by that object. For 23 years I’ve looked at our little bay as a pleasant backdrop, a guarantor of property values, a picturesque scene. But not water as such. And if I haven’t seen this, what else haven’t I seen?

Take my hand, Ajay says. Commands, rather. He’s sweating; people are watching; he’s impatient to get out into the breeze. Put your feet solidly on the deck, he says, and lean forward, and I’ll hold you upright. Then you can sit down. You don’t have to get up again.

It sounds easy enough. But my feet strike the floor harder than I intended; the hull slides from under me, slick as a bar of soap. I pitch forward, grasping the air, swallowing a howl of terror. Ajay jerks my sleeve, and miraculously the boat rights itself.

You see? It’s not so difficult.

Don’t mock me, I say. You would find it difficult if you were me.

And he looks at me with laughing eyes, this son, who has never known a barrier he couldn’t leap, who will never have to do anything in his life he doesn’t want to.

I was an obedient child. I was a sponge. From time to time, when I was young—after we left Chandigarh and moved to Delhi, where such things were uncommon enough to mention—I heard some adult whisper, She was there, in Amritsar, and I assumed it was an indication of great respect. I thought that Amritsar was a training school, a university for old shawl-wrapped aunties who could barely read.

The day was hot, as all April days are in north India. A Sunday, a Sikh festival day, in 1919. The two great Punjabi nationalists, Kitchlew and Satyapal, had just been arrested, and three days before, a riot had occurred in the center of the city. Banks had been burned, a few unfortunate Englishmen killed by mobs. Nonetheless, that day some 20,000 people packed into the Jallianwallah Bagh, a large public market and square in the middle of the city, surrounded by high walls, with only one entrance.

They were not protesters. They were shopping and eating and saying prayers and listening to busking musicians and traveling salesmen and Congress party organizers. It was, after all, a holiday. Indians, then and now, do not take Sundays off. We have no concept of a weekly day of rest. So one takes advantage of a break in schedule—even three days after a riot, even in the midst of a gathering war.

An English general, Dyer, marched 50 soldiers into the entranceway of the Bagh, making escape impossible. Without announcing himself, without ordering the crowd to disperse, he instructed his soldiers to fire. The massacre lasted 10 minutes. Three hundred and seventy-nine unarmed men, women, and children died, some shot, some trampled underfoot as the crowd panicked and ran from one side of the square to the other. More than a thousand were injured. Afterward, Dyer ordered his soldiers to retreat, without summoning ambulances.

In my family—my parents both working frantically to climb the ranks of the civil service into middle-class respectability—this was no more than a fact, a date in time, as dry and removed as any other words on the shabby paper of our history books. But when I was 10 and 11 years old, my best friend was a boy named Gopal Singh. We became friends at school because neither one of us liked to play cricket. Instead, we sat on a dusty patch of grass in one corner of the school yard, in the shade of a mango tree that grew on the other side of the wall, and tried to best each other with elaborate lies. I was much taken with TheRamayana, and my specialty was wild speculations about what would happen to Sampati and Hanuman and all the rest in present-day India; I delighted in turning Kaikeyi and her evil maid, Manthara, into Bollywood actresses, and Ravana into a Bombay gangster. Gopal was more of a literalist; his stories were always plausible and thus all the more vivid and grotesque. In particular, he maintained that he was a descendant of Udham Singh, the Punjabi folk hero who took revenge for Amritsar, for those 379 innocent souls. He gunned down Michael O’Dwyer—the governor of Punjab during the massacre—at Caxton Hall, in London, in 1940.

That’s just the beginning of the story, Gopal would say, the rest has been ruthlessly suppressed. He loved to trill his R’s in imitation of certain politicians whose long speeches in English were often broadcast on the radio. Udham Singh was not captured, as is claimed. In Gopal’s version, he escaped over the prison wall with a rope ladder concealed underneath his jacket, hid himself among crates of china on a freight train bound for London, and lived underground for years in the city, like Jack the Ripper, carrying out a campaign of murder and mutilation on the O’Dwyer family and the families of his superiors. The devastation was total, Gopal liked to say. None of the murderers’ families escaped untouched.

Not until we were years older and our conversations had moved on to other topics—exams, colleges, imagined girlfriends—did I notice how Gopal’s talk kept veering, ineluctably, back to Amritsar. In his corner of the room he shared with his two younger brothers, he kept a photograph of Udhamji in a carved sandalwood frame, and in front of it the spent casings of two rifle bullets his uncle in the army had sent him from the Chinese border in the Himalayas. Gopal, I finally said one day, when we were perhaps 15, it isn’t right, worshipping him like a god. He was just one person. And anyway he shot O’Dwyer in the back.

By then, Gopal’s face had lost its preadolescent puffiness and had in fact become quite tight and angular, even wizened, as if he was underfed, or smoked too many bidis, though I knew he didn’t smoke at all. He looked at me and flashed a ravenous grin. You don’t understand, he said. Udhamji was the only one who stood up to the angreezis. He was the one true Sikh. The one true Indian.

But if you read about Gandhiji and Nehru—

I’m not talking about history, he said, waving his hand dismissively. I’m talking about blood. Innocent blood. It could have been us. Our mothers, our sisters. Doesn’t that matter?

It was almost 50 years ago, I told him.

Everything is boring today, he said, scratching his nose as if it was an unpleasant growth he wished he could remove. Everything is just work. I can’t help it. I was born at the wrong time, I think. India doesn’t need me.

The phrase came back to me, like a stinging slap, the day I picked up my visa papers from the American Embassy. Of course, I should have said scornfully, India doesn’t need any of us. India eats us like tinned sardines and spits out the bones. But by then Gopal had gone off to a trade school in Agra, and I thought I would never see him again.

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.

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.

There’s an art to it, Ajay says.

He crooks back the wire that holds the line in place with his index finger, and flicks the rod so that the hook, with its weights and bobs attached—the tackle, it’s called, a word I never knew before today—arcs across the water and drops 50 feet away with hardly a splash. He hands the rod to me. Now hold it gently, he says, and pay attention with your hands. Any slight vibration could be a hit. Just the smallest tug. Use the reel sparingly, don’t get all excited. It’s not Jaws, you know. You have to play the fish. You have to make it think it isn’t caught.

Like marketing, I say.

I should learn to be more philosophical. Clinical practice is a fool’s gamble these days. And Ajay wants to start a family; he wants Christine to drive a Land Rover and not work. So instead of being a proper doctor and seeing patients, he flies around the country conducting seminars for Pfizer, and pretends that no one knows the difference, especially me. He thinks that calling it practitioner education makes it just another teaching job. And when I make my sniping comments, he never responds, never reacts, just looks in the other direction and waits for the moment to pass. As if I’ve farted.

It’s good that you have hobbies, I say. I never did.

He laughs. No one uses that word anymore. When I think of hobby I think of someone in his basement using a wood-burning set or painting watercolors.

Then what would you call it?

I don’t know. Something more serious. A passion.

This? My voice sounds unpleasant and shrill, like a woman on television. I don’t believe it. Your children are your passion. Your wife. Your career. Maybe your political views could be a passion. Not fishing.

Well, I think that’s a narrow way of looking at the world.

I hope not. I hope it’s a matter of changing vocabulary.

What do you mean?

Nothing, I say, wishing he were a little quicker on the uptake. Look. You’re feeling sensitive. Your mother and I both know it. You imagine us saying terrible, censorious things behind your back. You think we’re angry because you never even discussed an arrangement with us.

I know you better than that.

Cut the crap, I say, which startles him so much he nearly drops his rod. Let’s be honest. How could you not be a little scared? It’s easy for you now. But it won’t always be easy. Your children—what will they be, exactly? Are we to call them half-Sikhs?

Why not? Would you mind?

It isn’t just what I think but what the world thinks that matters. Some things can’t be so easily combined.

People of my generation don’t look at it that way, he says. That’s what you’re missing. That’s the least important thing about her, in my eyes. Look, it’s a different world now. Everyone’s mixing it up. In 20 years nobody will be anything anymore.

I don’t know which makes me angrier: the poverty of the sentiment, or the vacuous way Ajay has with words, the way he slops them around like a child carrying water in a pail. It’s enough to make one wish for an older, stricter, cheaper kind of education, rather than the one we paid so many tens of thousands of dollars for.

It must be pleasant for you, I say. I feel my tongue loosening in my throat, coming free of its moorings. Now that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be called a sand nigger.

His eyelids draw back like a frog’s, or a fish’s, some unblinking reptilian thing. Dad, he says, what the fuck has gotten into you?

Don’t talk to me that way.

He’s reeling in his line with quick, jabbing motions, his lower lip jutting out uncontrollably, like a child’s. The trip is ruined, the day is ruined, and now my throat is full of bile, thinking of what he’ll say to Teja, what he’ll tell Christine, my God.

No, no, no, I say. Look, I was being provocative. I don’t want you to be naive.

He throws the rod down at his feet, heedless of the barb quivering at its end.

I was the one who got handcuffed and stuffed in the police car, he says, with the guys on the radio talking about the towel­head who went psycho at the middle school. I was the one who heard the jokes about Indiana Jones and how I wanted to tie girls up and tear their hearts out. You chose to move to this fucking hick town. And now you’re stuck, and you’re jealous.

Of course, I say. They would never arrest a Sikh in Hunt Valley.

I don’t have time for this, he says, his eyes skittering impatiently over the river behind me. I played lacrosse at Hopkins, for God’s sake. My friends are lawyers, prosecutors, ADAs. Nobody could ever touch me. Anyway, I’m not the one with the stack of Playboys filed away behind the old bills in the garage. Not a lot of Indian larkis in Playboy, are there? I wonder why, then.

My eyes are beginning to water.

Oh, come on, he says. Not now, Dad. Don’t turn it around on me.

We weren’t disagreeing.

Whatever it was, then. And by the disgusted look on his face, I can see that he still has no idea what we’ve been fighting about. How hard it is for the lucky, the young, the successful, to consider the alternative, to imagine what might bring them and their theories and their elaborate defenses, like Icarus, to Earth!

Just be safe. And make Christine safe. That’s your first priority. Don’t forget it.

Whatever you say, Dad.

Not for the first time in my life, I feel like an actor in a commercial. Promise me, I say, knowing he won’t, knowing I wouldn’t accept it if he did.

Having found it only late in my lifetime, you could say I believe strongly in harmony. An outdated concept, you might say. It carries with it a strong whiff of the Beatles and that terrible Coca-Cola commercial I watched with the children when they were young. But, of course, a marriage relies on harmony, a family is composed of nothing but it, and perhaps, if I may speechify for a moment, this is why I never bought the children separate TVs, though we could afford them, and most of their friends had them—separate TVs in every room, facing the bed. I wanted them to fight over what to watch.

I am learning to fish because the components of a harmony change over time. Because the song changes, if you’ll excuse the terrible analogy. Not because of what happened three years ago last November, when we were over at the Farrells’ for dinner, when Teja and Melinda were frying chicken in the kitchen, and Tom stood up from the couch, apropos of nothing, and said, Come into the garage, I’ve got something I want to show you. I followed him down the steps into the damp, gas-smelling darkness, him pulling the cord on one dim bulb after another, until he stopped at his workbench. There, lying atop a green chamois cloth, was a pistol, an enormous black automatic pistol, shiny with fresh oil.

It isn’t loaded, he said. Pick it up.

It was heavier than I thought it would be, of course, having only seen criminals waving the plastic ones on TV. I have long fingers, and it fit into my hand surprisingly well. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I gripped the handle with all four fingers and lifted it a few inches, not wanting to touch the trigger.

This is how you see if it’s loaded, he said. This is where the clip goes in. Always point it away from yourself and away from the floor.

I touched the trigger gently with my fingertip and straightened my arm.

If you want, I can take you to a shooting range next Sunday. Say we’re going to Home Depot. Teja doesn’t have to know. Though she ought to, sure. She just doesn’t have to.

Tom, I said, I can’t have a firearm in my house. I’m a doctor.

He looked as if I had told him that no, I can’t drive a car, because my feet are size 11 and my name starts with G.

Listen, he said, we all know what happened back in September.

We’re very grateful.

I don’t want you to be grateful. I want you to be prepared. There’ll be a next time, and a next time. Maybe when you’re out seeing a movie. Maybe when you stop to get gas. You people ought to know what you’re up against.

You may be right. And then having a pistol seems even more useless, doesn’t it?

He stared at me so intently that I thought I could see his eyeballs protruding, like the women with goiters you see in any alleyway in India.

Man, he said, you’re missing something. This isn’t a joke.

And then, without knowing why, I began to laugh.

It was horribly embarrassing. I clutched at my sweatered stomach, not knowing how to stop. Tom looked genuinely alarmed. After all, a weapon was there, between us—unloaded, but it makes no difference, really. A weapon is a symbol. Its power is not diminished by its practical uselessness.

In fact, of course, a weapon is always useless.

That was part of why I was laughing. We men inhabit this world with such solemnity! Such ominous forecasts! Such elaborate mechanisms of defense and safety! And then go on smoking and eating cheeseburgers and driving 80 miles per hour and waving firearms around like toys.

I think you should leave, Tom said. In a hurry now, folding the cloth over the gun like a shroud. Turning his back to me, but not so quickly that I couldn’t see his mouth knitted in boyish disappointment. I thought you might be one of us, he was thinking; I knew it as plainly as if he’d said the words aloud. Aren’t you one of us?

And who am I, after all, I was thinking, to put on airs, to refuse to join this fellowship of wishful criminals?

Tom, I sputtered, I can’t leave. We have to go upstairs and eat your fried chicken.

That earned me a sidelong glance, a pursed, sour-lemon smile.

You’ll think about it, then.

I promise I’ll think about it.

And we went up the stairs, turning out one light after another, into the bright rooms and the sound of our wives’ voices, the smell of frying things, which to all human beings is the smell of happiness. We have never discussed it since.

Jess Row’s story collection The Train to Lo Wu was shortlisted for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award. His work has appeared in Witness, Slate, The New York Times Book Review, and Granta, which named him a “Best Young American Novelist” in 2007. He is a professor and Buddhist chaplain at the College of New Jersey.
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