EXCERPT: WELL-BEHAVED INDIAN WOMEN
To her left, Simran can see her mother, Nandini, adjusting the folds of her blood red sari and pretending to be proud of her.
“Try to forget about what you told me and just focus on everyone here. You don’t want them to have a bad impression of you.” Nandini motions toward the room, which is stuffed with an array of first-generation Indians, most of them in an arranged marriage similar to her own. Women in salwar kameezes and saris, men in dress pants and button-down shirts.
“I’m going to take a wild guess and say that I’m not in danger of that at all,” Simran says, taking a dainty sip of blushed champagne.
“Simran! I’m saying this for your own good.”
“That’s what you always say. That somehow, everything is for my good. As if every time you criticize me, you’re doing me some sort of favor.”
“Look, you’re young and . . .” Her mother’s face falls, and for a second, Simran considers telling her that she’s sorry and understands.
But then Nandini’s features twist back into a scowl. “Don’t you understand that I’m your mother and that means I know what’s best for y—”
Her lecture halts as Simran’s father approaches them, wearing a suit and striped crimson tie—a dramatic change from the goofy, smiley-faced ones he wears when he sees patients. With graying sideburns and a confident posture, his physical traits echo louder than his transient accent, giving him a gentleness ideal for any pediatric surgeon.
“I’m proud of you, cupcake,” he says, pulling his daughter into a hug.
Like the Princess Jasmine snow globe on Simran’s dresser, their interactions tend to remain frozen with childhood tenderness, despite how fervently the world around it is shaken.
“At least someone is,” Simran offers.
“Ranjit, don’t push it,” Nandini says. “We are celebrating this one time, but after it’s done, it’s time for her to move on.”
Simran opens her mouth at the same time that Ranjit motions to her with a finger to his lips: Keep the peace for now.
While the three of them make towers of her books on empty tables, Simran wonders if it was a terrible idea to tell her mother about the argument with Kunal. Indian women, especially the ones in their family, take pride in suffering quietly, in knowing when to stop lamenting and start serving cups of chai. Even her feisty mother manages to conceal her naked emotions within the ridges of her heart, where they are protected under her white lab coat.
But Simran and Kunal have suffered enough already. The first three years of their relationship were “forbidden.” Most Indian parents are appalled by the idea of high school dating, so their interactions were forced to be strategically planned. She likes to think it’s similar to Romeo and Juliet’s union, minus the whimsical balcony scene and tragic ending.
She glances at her mother now, double-checking the final gift baskets and making sure to ask Ranjit his opinion. “I let him think he’s the boss even though I’m really the boss,” Nandini always says.
Simran drifts to the transatlantic words she and Kunal exchanged just one hour before the official start of her book party. This time they couldn’t stop fighting about which type of food to serve for their wedding lunch. His mom wants a traditional Gujarati lunch—with lentil flour cakes; eggplant, green pea, and potato curry; and puffy, fried bread—while Nandini and Ranjit envision something fusion. Phone arguments are always the worst, just one step ahead of online ones; not only do they feel impersonal, but making up is even more difficult without the physical comfort of the person.
Not that they made up, anyway.
Kunal started yelling and instead of taking the high road, Simran yelled back and hung up the phone. It was a childish move; a mini quiz to see if he would call back.
In any case, tonight Kunal is left with the power, because the one who can care less is the one calling the shots. The one who can be hung up on and continue saving malnourished African children. A surge of pride runs through her as she pictures all six feet and two inches of him, head to toe in teal scrubs, scribbling symptoms onto a notepad and handing out iodine pills.
Of course, she shouldn’t be upset with him in the first place. Their recent distance---both physical and emotional--- is due to the fact that, even with a taxing medical student schedule, he’s doing something that most people only get around to in theory: making the world a better place.
The yellow light dances off the clear diamond on her left hand as a winking reminder that she’s picked. She’s lucky. She’s exhausted.
This is how independent women behave, she tells herself. They whittle down their lives into distinct compartments, so they aren’t reliant on just one for fulfillment.
She forces herself to focus on more important things about Kunal, like the way he finds her sexy in mismatched sweats. Or how he wakes up in the middle of the night to stack extra blankets on her feet because they always get cold. And how, despite his private personality, he always leans down and kisses her shoulder when they’re out together.
From their parents’ arranged marriages, they both knew that nobody was perfect and relationships required hard work, work that they were both willing to put in. Work that caused their bond to become more resilient throughout the years. Work that made daily, banal activities, like flossing before bed or putting in contacts in the morning, more enjoyable simply because they were shared.
As if on cue, Simran’s phone rings with an out-of-country number. She darts from the room and finds a spot in the lobby. The buzz of Indian aunties gossiping vibrates through the walls.
“I’m sorry,” she says without waiting for either of them to say hi.
“Me too. This is dumb. Can we move past it?”
Hearing Kunal’s deep voice instantly gives her a sense of peace. He’s always known how to calm her down.
“Yes,” she says. “It was a pretty dumb argument.”
“You know, we’re going to have so many decisions to make over the next year.”
“And we can’t let those decisions cause arguments. We won’t. This is just the start. And we’ll get through it all. We’re just adjusting to this.”
“Yeah. I agree.” He sighs. “I really do wish I was there with you. I’m so proud of your book release.”
“I wish you were here, too,” she says. She refrains from telling him that it isn’t the same without him. It’ll only make him feel worse. Besides, she wants him to be able to take advantages of the opportunities he gets in med school. She gives herself a mental reminder that everything is going to be fine, that part of being a med student’s partner is dealing with an unpredictable, grueling schedule.
On Kunal’s end, Simran hears people singing in Swahili.
“How’s it going?” he asks. “What were you doing when I called?”
“I was just talking to my parents. The decorations look good and everyone se—”
“Sorry, honey, can I call you right back?” Kunal says. “Something came up. I’ll call you back in one minute.”
“Sure,” she says as he hangs up.
After ten minutes of mindless Instagram scrolling, Simran decides to go back inside. She approaches her mother as her father attends to his sister and two brothers, who have just arrived.
Nandini squints at her. “Where were you?”
“Just on the phone with Kunal. We’re fine.”
When she doesn’t say anything, Simran whispers, “You knew I was having a bad enough day even though this is supposed to be an exciting time for me. Did you really have to remind Dad and me how much you didn’t want to throw this party?”
“First of all, calm down. Second, we didn’t throw this party just because Nani insisted,” she says, referring to Simran’s grandmother, the only person in her family who has supported her writing. “Even though I’m sure you’ll tell her all this when she’s here for your engagement party.”
Simran nods. “If the pipes didn’t burst in her house, she would be here now, and she’d see for herself how unfair you’re being. I wouldn’t have to tell her anything.”
Nandini’s eyes narrow. “I’m not trying to be unfair. I just want you to remember the importance of being practical. Right now, you’re just a student. Writing isn’t something you can sustain once you’re a full-time psychologist.”
“This project is important to me. Being a psychologist isn’t the only thing in my life.”
Nandini shakes her head. “You’ll see how hard it is once you’re working. And not to mention, you don’t want your future husband and in-laws to think you’re some flighty girl they can’t take seriously.”
Simran rolls her eyes and scans the restaurant. At the entrance, there is a bronze statue of Ganesha, the Hindu god of good fortune and new beginnings. Every table has signed scarlet bookplates and a mountain of red velvet cupcakes. Nani suggested that red be the primary color since it’s auspicious for Hindus. The scent of grilled paneer and fried samosas permeates the room in the way only heavy Indian food can.
Luckily, they’re interrupted by her newly married brother, Ronak, and his wife, Namita. They are what Simran likes to call a “modern-day arranged marriage”: introduced by each other’s parents but still allowed to date and make the final decision on whether to marry.
She checks her phone again. Nothing.
Something about her brother arriving forces perspective. So what if her mother isn’t excited for her? So what if Kunal’s not here? She reapplies lip gloss and puts on her I-am-fine face, an essential for being surrounded by type A people.
Ronak rustles her hair and whistles after he soaks in the room. “Whoever thought my baby sister would be such a rock star?” He kisses the top of her forehead and places a Tiffany’s bag on the gift table.
“Don’t worry,” Simran says, handing him and Namita glasses of champagne. “According to Mom, I’m still not good enough.”
He places a finger over his lips, similar to her father from earlier. “Don’t go there. At least, not tonight.”
“Fine, but don’t worry. You’re still the golden child.”
“Golden child, my ass. You should have seen him all day.” Namita laughs. “He cancelled three of his patients, but two of them still showed up . . . and he was cursing like crazy when the train was late. We thought we’d never make it out of Boston.”
People who have physician parents either crave or abhor the idea of becoming doctors themselves. Ronak went the former route; Simran, the latter.
They briefly catch her up on how relieved they are to be done with wedding planning.
“Thank God we went straight from the wedding to that villa in Bali. We literally spoke to zero people for days. It’s the only way to recover from an Indian wedding . . . complete isolation from society,” she says as she twists her gold Cartier wedding band. Namita rarely wears her engagement ring since she’s always washing her hands at work.
“That sounds exactly right.” Simran glimpses around the room at the clusters of aunties definitely passing judgment on what everyone is wearing, who is dating whom, and anything else that’s none of their business. She can only imagine how much material they’ll have at her wedding.
“You’re next. And it’ll be perfect,” Namita says with the smile and self-assuredness of someone who has never screwed up in her life.
Simran’s uncle Rajan Kaka, an electrical engineer by day and self-proclaimed astrologer by night, appears and immediately wraps a plush arm around her, remarking, “I knew you’d be the first writer in the family. It was in your destiny.”
Although many Indians refer to horoscopes for auspicious occasions, her uncle uses them for everything, even claims that they predicted Brad and Angelina hooking up.
A few minutes later, Sheila and Vishal, Simran’s two closest friends and the only people who have read every draft of her book, arrive with some other friends from NYU. They all talk in a large circle as more guests come in.
She weaves through her extended family and parents’ friends—adults who have known her for decades. They sprinkle in mentions about their children’s MDs and JDs and PhDs. and investment banking jobs.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she tells one cluster.
“Of course, beta,” they chime in, one after another.
Charu Foi, her dad’s sister, grabs the last samosa from the appetizer table. “Simran, when is your wedding happening? We’ve all been waiting for so long!”
All of the women around her nod in agreement, as though she’s been depriving them of oxygen. Indian weddings pretty much guarantee that a stampede of overbearing, opinionated aunties will be poised and ready to trample everyone with their unsolicited advice on everything.
Payal Auntie, one of their closest family friends, smiles at her. “I can’t believe we’re talking about you getting married. You still look like a baby with those chubby cheeks!”
She beams, as if this is the highest possible compliment she could’ve given. Simran watches her tighten her fingers in preparation for a pinch. She leans back just in time to dodge her.
“So does that mean we can plan for an uncle and auntie dance sometime soon?”
Whether it’s the dance party after a reception or various group dances, an Indian wedding isn’t complete without dancing. Her parents’ circle seems to have an endless list of adults who want to do a dance for the next wedding. Since they’ve all become empty nesters, they’ve divided into two groups: those who need to choreograph and be in the middle of every dance and those who prefer the background.
It’s easy to pinpoint the Indian aunties who need to be in the center. They tend to stand taller, wear brighter colors.
Payal Auntie is stretching her neck and staring into the distance, likely picturing herself bowing to applause to the latest Bollywood medley. “When can we start preparing for this dance?”
“Actually, we just set a wedding date,” Simran says. “June 20.”
“Really?” Charu Foi’s eyes widen so much Simran thinks they may bulge out of her head. “Next year?”
She nods. “Next year.”
Charu Foi frowns. “But that’s so far away.”
“Oh, it’s fine, Charu. You just want another occasion to eat and drink and socialize. You can do that in your own home, so what’s the rush?” Payal Auntie shakes her head as if she’s any different. “Simran, where are you having the wedding?”
“We only just started planning, since Ronak and Namita’s wedding was just last month, so most of the details aren’t finalized,” she says, finding the interstitial area between what they want to hear and the truth. “Anyway, please let me know what you think of my book and if y—”
Charu Foi leans into her. “We are all so happy that things are finally working out for you. Your psychology schoolwork, wedding . . . I always told everyone they didn’t have to worry about you. I knew you would settle down and get your priorities figured out. You wouldn’t be our little misfit forever. I mean, there was no way Ranjit and Nandini’s daughter could stay a mess! It might have taken forev—”
“Thank you, Charu Foi,” Simran interrupts. “Thank you so much.”
The rest of the conversations are similar. Nobody seems to be concerned about the book, and everyone seems to be concerned about Kunal, who still hasn’t called back. She gives rehearsed answers and shakes off the heavy isolation, the type that can only come when you’re surrounded by people who care about you. Sheila confiscates Simran’s phone after she catches her checking it for the tenth time.
While she’s talking to her cousins, Simran notices an unfamiliar guy saunter into the room, more than fashionably late, the fashionably part being apt, considering his light gray button-down and navy blue blazer over dark jeans.
That guy can dress, she thinks as he grins at everyone he passes, a grin that reaches all the way up to his square glasses and reflects back twice as strongly. He seems to be in his late thirties. His build is slender but not puny, reminding her of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic—the kind of guy who is splashed with just the right balance of passionate aggression and sensitive romantic.
At first, Simran assumes the guy is just friends with one of the many guests her parents invited, since their network includes every Indian on the East Coast. She focuses on the carpet, ashamed that her eyes hang on him. He isn’t conventionally handsome but still falls into the attractive category. (Not that she prefers conventional looks anyway; she may be the only woman who doesn’t find Brad Pitt hot.)
As she scans the room, she notices a lot of people are facing his direction.
But then she takes another look, and his face registers. She knows him. She’s read about him multiple times. How is he here?
“Holy crap. Do you know who that is?” Simran leans toward Vishal and catches a whiff of his minty Armani Code.
Vishal shrugs. “No. Why, do you?”
Simran takes a deep breath. “That’s Neil. The Neil. Neil Desai.”
Vishal responds with a blank, wide-eyed stare. Simran can see that the only thing this means to him is that this guy’s parents gave him a name that automatically pardoned him from the cringe-worthy discomfort many Indian kids experienced whenever a teacher called roll.
“Neil Desai, Neil Desai,” Simran repeats. “New York Times Neil Desai? Ring a bell?”
“No,” Vishal almost chokes. “It can’t be.”
But of course it is.
The Neil freaking Desai!
Neil Desai is a contributing writer for the Opinion section of the New York Times, which has also been part of her breakfast for the past two years. He generally writes satirical pieces about economics and politics, until last year, when he compiled his pieces into a bestselling book. Neil rarely interviews and prefers to keep a low profile, even refusing to have a public Facebook page.
Simran’s learned everything about him through her mastery of Google: he graduated from Princeton summa cum laude, almost followed the Indian path of becoming a doctor but decided to pursue journalism, is happily single, has two siblings, and is a die-hard fan of Duke basketball. Every time she acquired a new fact about him, she shared it with Kunal, who would roll his eyes, as though she was divulging trashy celebrity gossip from Star magazine. The truth is, she does swoon over accomplished writers the way other people gawk over movie stars or musicians (and Kunal couldn’t care less about either).
“Shut up,” she whispers in awe, digging her nails into Vishal’s arm. “No way. There. Is. No. Way.”
“I guess there is a way,” Vishal says.
“What the heck is he doing here?!”
“He must have been invited through someone. It was an open Facebook event, and your parents told everyone to bring their friends.”
“Wow, he doesn’t look how I thought he would,” Simran says, before realizing that judging someone by their writing is probably just as unreliable as judging them by their voice on the phone.
“Very different from his picture,” she adds, referring to the faded headshot that was on his first Google hit, which eventually became his website. “I mean, that looked like some awkward yearbook picture.”
Not that she has any right to talk; every yearbook picture of hers is unflattering, off-center, or both.
But before they can continue to dissect Neil’s appearance, he approaches the table, gripping a copy of her thin collection of essays. She becomes giddy, embarrassingly giddy, the way she was when she was five years old and met Cinderella at Disney World and thought she was actually the cartoon from the screen.
“Am I too late for an autograph?” he asks, skipping an introduction and flashing her a flawless smile. Her mother says she always studies teeth because she’s so conscious about her own, but she thinks anyone would notice his.
She puts down her champagne glass on the table. “Only if I can get yours.”
He raises his eyebrows, sincerely surprised that she knows who he is. She takes the book from him and tries to keep her hands steady enough to turn to the title page.
“You know, I wouldn’t have thought you were the type of guy who read essay collections about being an Indian adolescent girl. I should have known that whole economics thing was a facade,” she blurts, surprised at how naturally the remark flows out of her, as though she’s teasing a friend, not a writer she’s admired for years.
“Okay, well, I haven’t read your work,” he admits. “Or heard of you before tonight. But I’m supposed to keep up with new Indian writers since I joined the South Asian Writers Association as a mentor. They told me about your event.”
“Of course,” Simran says. How could she assume someone like him would seek out anything of hers?
“But if it counts for anything, my niece did read your essays.”
He nods. “She did. And she loved it. Said I had to bring her a signed copy.”
“That’s so nice to hear,” she says.
“I’ll attempt to read it and decide for myself. No promises, of course.” He gives her a quick wink.
Her heart rate palpably increases as she imagines him in his frameless glasses, sitting in front of his silver laptop (he strikes her as an Apple user), scrolling through her words.
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” she mumbles. “I’m, uh, a huge fan of your work. I actually just read your piece on the US healthcare system this morning.”
“Oh yeah?” He laughs, a dimple chiseling his right cheek. “Well, it’s nice that somebody actually reads my stuff. Even my parents get bored of it.”
“Oh, I know what you mean by that!” she exclaims. “Definitely know what you mean,” she repeats in a softer voice. “My parents don’t really read my stuff, either.”
He nods. “I’m glad I’m not the only one. How’d you get into this project, anyway?”
She refrains from giving him her rehearsed speech. “To go all the way from the beginning, in high school, I thought about pursuing journalism because I liked the idea of educating others about what was going on in the world. Then, I double majored in psychology and journalism at NYU. I was working on an article about Indians raised in America for one of my journalism classes. And I realized that there were so many issues that affected Indian girls during adolescence and nobody had depicted those. So then I thought maybe I could be the one who educated others on what that experience was like. I started writing down my friends’ stories and kept finding all these common themes, and then this data to back that up, which resulted in this essay collection. Of course, then I went all the way with my psychology major, and the journalism part sort of faded away. . . .”
“And why Indian girls and why adolescence?” Neil asks.
Nobody at the party has asked that (or anything else about the book) yet.
“Adolescence is hard enough, but when you’re Indian, you deal with different hurdles, like your mom not letting you shave your legs or your parents saying you can’t like boys because you have to do well in school.”
“I see,” he says. “That’s very insightful of you.”
“It is,” he says. “To make something that educates a lot of people and then gives solace to those who went through it.”
“I’ve never thought of it that way before,” she says, mentally repeating his words. Her family and fiancé never thought of the project as a source of solace.
“It’s true,” he says.
Her phone buzzes with a group text from Sheila and Vishal.
Vishal: You’re still talking to him?!
Next to his question, there’s an emoji of a face with hearts for eyes. She turns her phone around.
It doesn’t take long for Neil to pull up a chair to continue their conversation. They sit in the same positions long after the cupcakes are eaten and the champagne is drained. She asks him about Princeton, how he felt about letting go of a career as a physician, and tells him about her master’s in psychology. Somewhere between her latest research study and his refusal to take the MCAT, she realizes that she’s no longer missing Kunal or even worried about the guests glancing at them, whispering to one another.
When Neil scoots his chair closer to hers, she reaches under the table and slips off her engagement ring. There is a split second when she asks herself what the heck she’s doing, but she decides to ignore that voice. Sometimes it’s nice to leap out of character. Not discuss wedding planning for once.
Thirty minutes later, her mom comes to their table.
“Simran,” Nandini says in her ear. “It doesn’t look good to ignore everyone and just sit with one person, one boy, in the middle of your book party.”
“Oh, so now it’s my book party?”
Nandini places a firm hand on Simran’s shoulder. No daughter of hers will behave inappropriately. “Remember what I told you before. People are leaving and expect you to say bye to them.”
Simran stands at the door to hug people goodbye but keeps glancing around the room to make eye contact with Neil. After her parents are gone and only her friends are left, she motions for Neil to join her at the table again. They discuss the trials that accompany being a writer: crappy first drafts, tedious revisions, countless rejection letters self-doubt, and the tortured-artist complex that they both don’t have.
If someone were to gaze through the glass double doors, they would see a pair of what seemed like long-lost friends, chatting effortlessly and cheerily, catching up on the years they’ve missed. The last people clear out, and the only sound is the clunk of cabs speeding over potholes.
It already occurred to her that Neil talks to all sorts of people at all sorts of times, is probably just being nice, and will more than likely forget about her. But for the rest of the night, she will not think of her life. Not when she and Neil are confined in the walls of her party, not when he places his hand on the small of her back as they cross Fifth Avenue to her favorite twenty-four-hour diner, and not on her cab ride home, when the streets are cluttered with cheap pizza and discarded beer bottles.
“She just doesn’t understand. She doesn’t even think. If she just took one second to reflect on why I say the things I do, then she’d realize that I’m right,” Nandini says.
“WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Mami yells into the phone.
“Mami, you don’t need to yell the way you had to when I used to call India. You’re not holding the phone up properly.”
Nandini hears her mother mutter something in Gujarati, followed by the sounds of her adjusting her sari.
“Okay, I can hear you,” Mami says, as if they don’t go through this during every phone call.
Nandini repeats her earlier statement.
“You’re doing what you’re supposed to do,” Mami says. “It’s your job to set boundaries and show her right from wrong.”
“Yes, but she just doesn’t get it,” Nandini says. “We don’t . . . understand each other.”
“Well, are you proud of her?”
“What?” Nandini asks, as though she didn’t hear the question, when in fact her mother’s words were clear.
“Are you proud of Simran? For her writing? For who she is in general?”
“What kind of a question is that? Of course I’m proud!”
“Of what? You have to say it.” Mami commands her like an elementary school teacher telling someone to recite the alphabet.
Nandini clears her throat. “I think it’s impressive that she put together an essay collection. A book! It doesn’t even sound real when I say the words out loud. My daughter wrote a book. I know that couldn’t have been easy. And the way she depicted what girls go through during their teenage years. . . . It was thoughtful . . . and empathetic.”
“It was,” Mami agrees. “And what about her? Are you proud of her?”
“I am. . . .” Nandini’s voice trails off.
“But nothing,” Nandini says, and then adds, “I think there’s a lot that Simran still needs to realize, to learn. She’s getting married soon. And you and I both know that’s an entirely different game. To be spending time with another person—a boy—just sets her off on the wrong foot.”
“I know what you’re saying, but that’s not what I asked you about,” Mami says. “Simran has said you never tell her you’re proud of her. That you just point out what she’s not doing right.”
“That’s not true!” Nandini says. “I try to tell her, but she doesn’t hear it. When I say something—anything—she’s already waiting to take it the wrong way.”
“That’s not true,” Mami says.
“It is true. She never really hears what I’m trying to tell her.”
“She’s coming from a different place than you. What do you expect?”
Nandini bites her bottom lip. What does she expect? “I don’t know. I guess I hoped she and I could talk the way you and her talk.”
“Our relationship is different.”
“Yes, I know,” Nandini says, not bothering to mask the irritation in her voice.
“Is it possible that maybe you, you know . . .” Mami’s voice trails off.
“What? Is what possible? Just say it.”
Mami scoffs. “Is it possible that you’re being a little harsh with her?”
Of course her mother would go there. It doesn’t matter that Nandini has built a life in America, become a physician, and raised a family. Mami could always find a way to ask a question that poked a hole through all the self-confidence she spent years building.
“Me? Harsh with her? And this is coming from you?”
“I’m only ask—”
“You took pride in being harsh with me when I was younger! You said that kids in my generation were too sensitive. And now, you get to be all soft with your granddaughter? How convenient! How things change! No wonder Simran talks to you more than she talks to me. You are completely different with her than you ever were with me.”
Nandini sits in the recliner. She takes deep, heavy breaths. There was no point in going through this with her mother. It wouldn’t get them anywhere. It never did. She would never admit (not out loud, at least) that a part of her takes pride in Mami’s tenderness with Simran and Ronak. It was as if a new part of her came to life when she became a grandmother.
“Never mind all of this,” Nandini says with a sigh. “How is the pipe repair?”
“It’s fine. Just fine.”
“At least something’s fine.” Nandini forces herself to get out of the recliner. She’s so tired that if she lets herself sit for too long, she’ll fall asleep. She walks toward the foyer. There’s an antique silver mirror by the front door, a gift from Ranjit’s sister, Charu. Nandini studies her reflection. Mami’s stubborn, strong DNA ensured that both Nandini and Simran inherited her slim, straight nose; her large, almond-shaped eyes; and her delicate chin. Nandini’s face is covered with products she only started using in America: Bobbi Brown blush and Elizabeth Arden lipstick. She still uses Pond’s talcum powder under her arms. It’s one of the few ways she’s managed to hold on to home. To Mami.
“Everything is fine, Nandini,” Mami says in the same cheerful tone she uses with customer service representatives over the phone. Mami has that ability, to make people feel better just by talking to them and make them want to confide in her. Simran once overheard a Bloomingdale’s employee tell Mami about his wife’s affair and then offer her a free makeover.
“Really? Fine? You can seriously say that?”
To her surprise, Mami laughs. Laughs. As if Nandini is a little girl saying her first word.
Something is going on with her mother. She’s been more detached lately. More relaxed. One year ago, her pipes bursting would have meant daily phone calls, maybe even a request for a visit to Baroda. But now, she doesn’t even seem to be rattled by the fact that the skeleton of her bungalow, the one Nandini grew up in, is slowly breaking.
Should she be concerned about early dementia? Maybe she needs to get Mami’s thyroid checked. Nandini sees the changes that come with aging through her clinic patients every day. But it is entirely different when it is happening to Mami. She wonders if things would have been different if Papa was still alive.
“Nandini, it’s going to be okay,” Mami says, her voice softening. “It always is. It was with you, right?”
Nandini feels something inside of her crumple. “It was very not okay before it was.”
“I know, beta.”
Mami sighs, then clears her throat. “And speaking of . . . have you thought of telling Simran about . . .”
“About what? That?”
“Yes. That.” Again with the laugh.
“What are you even saying? You think I should tell Simran about that? Now? Or ever?”
“Maybe it would help. Dr. Phil had an entire episode on the importance of not keeping secrets.”
“Well, if Dr. Phil says it, then it must be true.” Nandini covers her eyes and shakes her head. Why did she ever get her mother access to every television channel in the world?
“I happen to agree with him,” Mami says with defiance, as if Nandini insulted a relative. “If you talk to Simran, she might understand you better.”
“Understand me better? That would ruin her. Ruin everything! I can’t believe you would even think to bring that up as a possibility.”
Nandini treated her past the way she treated the Atlantic Ocean. She visited often, even dipped her feet in at times, but always refused to be submerged.
She couldn’t tell Simran about what happened all those years ago in India. Somehow, there are more things she’s kept from her daughter than she ever wanted. Simran doesn’t know about Nandini’s postpartum depression after Ronak’s birth. That entire time was a blur of fluids: Ronak’s urine, his tears, her tears. She remembers the endless mornings she spent carrying his stroller down the uneven brick steps and clutching him close to her. There were so many times she wondered if after everything she had been through and worked for, this was all it amounted to. Exhaustion, loneliness, and a gnawing sense of inadequacy.
In India, after a woman gave birth, she usually had a tribe of women in her family waiting to help her. In America, everything had to be managed alone. When Nandini told her family in India about her crying spells, fleeting thoughts of jumping off a balcony, and the weight on her chest, they told her to “stay quiet and get over it because it’s all in your head.” Mami was the only one who covertly offered to give her money for a therapist.
But omitting that part of her life from her daughter was nothing compared to what Mami was referring to. How could her mother possibly think Simran could handle that?
“Okay,” Mami says now, her voice still gentle. “Forget I said anything.”
“It’s my job to protect Simran,” Nandini says. “And make sure she doesn’t make mistakes that cost her everything.”
There’s silence on the other end, but she knows what Mami’s thinking. Make sure she doesn’t make mistakes like you did.
“Maybe this is what I should have expected from settling in America. This culture promotes kids to think for themselves, act on emotion. I just . . . don’t want her to get hurt.”
As she keeps talking, she hears her biggest fear crystallize. She came to America to escape what had happened in India, but what if, despite everything she’s done, she somehow screws things up for her daughter?
“She won’t get hurt,” Mami says. “She’ll be fine.”
“Okay . . . she won’t.” Nandini repeats her mother’s words again and again, hoping that with enough time, she’ll believe them.