Nick Taylor is the author of the novel The Disagreement (Simon & Schuster, 2008), which won the 2009 Michael Shaara Prize for Civil War Fiction. In 2011 he was a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in Hyderabad, India. He teaches in the creative writing program at San Jose State University.
You are only twelve years old, but you understand that your mother is playing games. Loud enough for the neighbors to hear, she repeats your father's question: “Why am I asking for the car? I am asking you for the car because I need the effing car, that's why. Two hours in the morning is not enough!”
“Not enough for what?” Your father's voice is reasonable—he has made a career of being reasonable—but you hear the layers of frustration underneath. “Do you have a job to go to? Are you teaching a class?” Then he clears his throat for emphasis, his trademark, a one-two cough you would recognize anywhere. “I don't understand why you need the car all day.”
“What do you want me to do, Toby? Do you want me to stay here all day, trapped in the house like one of these repressed Indian women? Is that why we came all the way here, so you could imprison me?”
The truth is that your mother wanted to come to India most of all. In fact she was the one who encouraged your father to apply for the grant that paid your way here. You guess she wants the car so she can be at the mall every day when it opens. Of course she never went to malls in California—she was opposed to them, she said—but here on the sweltering Deccan Plateau she wants nothing more than an air-conditioned place to shop for sandals. The irony, of course, is lost on her.
You were the one who didn't want to come. You are the one who begged and pleaded not to go; who said she liked California (even though you didn't); that she was going to miss her friends (you don't); and that nothing disgusted her more than the thought of living in India (actually you could name half a dozen more disgusting things, and that was before you saw the night market in Hong Kong).
Your mother's reply? “It will be good for you, sweetie. You will learn about another culture.”
But California has plenty of cultures, you argued. Wasn't it enough that you were already bilingual, fluent in English and español, courtesy of the elementary school your parents changed neighborhoods for you to attend? In California, you had friends from all over the world—or at least friends with parents from all over the world, and also sometimes live-in grandparents who spoke with funny accents and lit incense before a shrine in the pool house. Wasn't that the essence of India right there?
But you were forced to go, and despite yourself, you have found things you adore about this place. You have discovered that you love South Indian food, for example, and though you would never tell your mother, you have started eating rice and lentils with your fingers, just like the kids at school. Also last week you took an Indian shower, and you liked how it felt, the water racing down your back one small bucket at a time.
And then there is Lakshmi, your nursemaid. That was how she introduced herself: “I am ayah,” she said in her adorable broken English. “That meaning, nursemaid.” Lakshmi is eighteen and perfect, with smooth dark skin the color of your grandfather's cigars. Every morning she puts coconut oil in her hair, combs it through, and makes a thick ropey braid. You think she wears mascara, but you can't tell for sure because she is so dark to begin with. Sometimes, when you're watching TV after school, you see her eyeing the actresses with fair skin—almost as white as yours—and you ask if she buys the fairness creams they advertise. “Too expensive,” she says. You tell her you like her skin dark, because you do. She looks at you cautiously, and when she is sure you are not pulling her leg, she scowls, because who would prefer dark skin? You tell her white people in America go to shops to have their skin darkened by electric lamps. Her expression of fear is so unnerving you tell her you were kidding. No one would do that, of course not. Stupid you.
But seriously—if a tanning bed could make your skin the color of Lakshmi's, you would use it.
During one of your many school holidays—dad at the university, mom at the mall—you ask Lakshmi to teach you Telugu, her mother tongue. Although she has never taught anyone anything—in fact she left school in sixth grade—Lakshmi the nursemaid shrugs and starts humming the Telugu alphabet to a lively, syncopated beat. When she forgets a verse, she consults your cook, who chimes in off-key. This is another thing you adore about India: nothing is impossible.
You go into your closet, take out the bangle-box where you keep your rupee notes and change. There is also a folded piece of notebook paper in there, where you wrote Lakshmi's address the day she taught you the Telugu numbers. You had asked if her house was nice—actually, what you meant to ask was if her house was as stunning as she was, as perfumed, as exotic, but you bowed to the limits of your Telugu vocabulary and just asked if it was nice. She said she would show you sometime. She said you were welcome anytime. You remember the cook looked at her funny when she said this, but Lakshmi made a point of smiling at you, reassuring you she was serious.
You hear your mother stomping back and forth, hear your father's pathetic pity-me huffs. You wonder why he doesn't just give her the car. He could take the train, or an autorickshaw—what does he care? You know his hours at the university are flexible. He once bragged that he could make the students meet at midnight on the roof if he wanted them to. He is a professor of Cultural Studies, whatever that means, and he is teaching a course on American ethnicity. Again—whatever that means. As far as you can tell, his work is about studying exotic people from a comfortable distance, for example from behind a language barrier. Before you left the States, he ordered twenty pounds of Telugu reference books from Amazon, which he carried here in his luggage, but he has yet to learn a single word. You fail to understand how he can be studying the local culture without even learning the language, but what do you know? You are twelve years old.
You are also rather good at Telugu, thanks to Lakshmi, and you dash off a quick note to your parents in the beautiful curling South Indian alphabet, telling them where you are going. You went to bed an hour ago; in all likelihood they won't notice you are missing. And even if they found your note, neither of them will be able to read it. But that is more their problem than yours, to be totally honest.
Your building has eight floors, but your flat is on floor one. The ground floor is called zero, which your mother can't stop harping about whenever she meets another American. The numbering scheme makes perfect sense to you. But there are plenty of perfectly logical things that confuse your mother. Maps for example. Also cricket.
You drape a brightly-colored scarf over your head, tucking the sides behind your ears. You pull one of the loose ends over your nose and mouth like a veil. Only your eyes remain visible. You open your bedroom's sliding window and lower yourself onto the balcony. It is an easy jump down to the alley, where a group of half a dozen drivers are congregated around a carom board. Your family's driver has gone home for the night, but you would not have needed him anyway. A private car, you have decided, is an unnecessary luxury in Hyderabad, where you can take an autorickshaw—or better yet, a shared autorickshaw—any place you want to go, usually for whatever spare change you have in your pocket. Speaking of petty complaints, you dad likes to complain that there are two prices for everything in India: the Indian price and the foreigner price. Once again, you are on the side of logic: Indians make less money for the same work, so they should pay less—and besides, if your dad really wanted to save that precious twenty cents, he could knuckle down and learn the language.
A couple of the drivers follow you with their eyes as you pass—not in a predatory way, but only because it is unusual to see a girl alone after dark, even in the confines of your gated community. You know that you are perfectly safe, but you don't need the attention. Ten meters ahead, a couple of off-duty ayahs are heading home for the night. You fall in behind them, close enough that it will appear you are their charge. You pull the veil away to expose your pale face. The guards at the gate wish the girls good night and tip their hats to you, making a note in their lined ledgerbooks, as they do with every entry and exit from your complex.
The street is alive as two tides of workers collide—the computer engineers just now leaving their desks after passing the baton to their counterparts in America, and the droves of vendors jockeying to serve them ice cream, samosas, fresh lime sodas—actually whatever they want, and plenty they don't. A man pushes a cart stacked with peeled cucumbers; another hawks bundles of mint, fenugreek, and curry leaves. An elderly couple sits cross-legged on a blanket threading marigolds onto silk twine. Grown women in headscarves wait like schoolgirls by the side of the road for the bus, which will slow down but never stop, and they will climb aboard through the open doors.
There is a boy about your age selling coconuts from a rusty metal table. You have seen him there at all times of the day and night and are quite sure he does not go to school. He always smiles at you, wagging his head side to side in the Indian way, before cutting the next fruit from the bunch with the sharp side of his machete. He hacks quickly with the knife, spinning the head-sized coconut several times so that he can lodge cuts at various angles. Every time you see him perform this routine, you worry that his hand will slip and the machete will take a finger. But the boy never misses. When he has carved a cone of white fibrous coconut flesh, he bores into the tip with the end of his blade, making a drinking hole. He takes a blue plastic straw from a bag, gently inserts it into the hole. A sign says the coconuts cost ten rupees, but he has never let you pay.
A few men gather around the tobacco stall. Next to them, a tea wallah pours chai between his two steel beakers, dissolving tablespoons of sugar, and finally distributing the mixture among half a dozen tiny paper cups. He sweeps up five-rupee coins like a card dealer. A line of yellow and black autorickshaws waits beside the bus stop. Most of the drivers are gathered by the coconut stand, laughing and putting their arms around one another's shoulders. You walk over and wave your arms. To the first one who turns his head, you say, “Miyapur entah avutundee?"
The man is obviously surprised to hear you speak Telugu, but he pretends he didn't hear, stoops down and puts his hand to his ear.
Again you ask how much it costs to go to Miyapur.
He smiles. “Nee koo Telugu eh cha?" From the look on his face, you would think a raccoon had asked him for a cigarette. Yes, you know Telugu—obviously.
“Ah vu nu,” you say, giving a half head wag—to the right and quickly back—the universal Indian sign for “duh.”
“Where is your mother?" he asks.
“Where is yours?” you counter.
He sucks air through his teeth. “You want to go to Miyapur. Why?"
You were prepared to negotiate, but you have no interest in exposing your plan. Especially not to a rickshaw wallah. You turn your small back and move on to the next driver: “Miyapur ki enta avutundee?"
The first guy clicks his tongue (“Hey!”).
“Twenty rupees,," you say to him, even though you know it is a lowball. You have seen the map: Miyapur is five kilometers away.
“Fifty,” he says.
“Thirty.” You are offering the equivalent of seventy-five American cents. The wallah thinks for a minute, rolls his eyes at the other driver. Can you believe it, brother? he seems to be saying. I am negotiating with a child.
“Thirty,” you repeat, “and no more. Or I take the bus.”
Head wag. “Ah vu nu.” You have won. Even if he hadn't agreed to take you to Miyapur, you know that you are now his responsibility, now that you have had this conversation. He cannot let you take the bus. Not alone, not at night.
This is of course another thing you love about this country.
The bench of the rickshaw is covered in green plastic, and your butt slips back and forth happily on the seat. You hold onto the steel skeleton of the canopy as the driver yanks the starter. After a few unsuccessful pulls, the engine sputters to life, and the driver turns the handlebars hard to right. You pull out into traffic facing the wrong direction. The driver is nonchalant as he waits for his opportunity to cross the traffic. The oncoming vehicles honk encouragements, and soon your driver has picked his way to the other side of the road. Falling in behind a double-decker bus, he picks up speed. You notice that he has a small plastic rectangle clutched in his fist—a mobile phone, you think at first, but now you see that it is a remote control. With his thumb, he pushes a button, and your eardrums explode. There is a rack of enormous speakers behind the seat, the black paper cones inside the grills literally jumping to the beat. You recognize the song as one Lakshmi plays on her cell phone when she is helping the cook fold laundry—but you have never heard this version. The driver turns and flashes a smile. His teeth are straight and white. Though you want badly to put your hands over your ears, you give him a thumbs up, and he smiles even more brightly with your approval. You realize the man is probably much younger than you thought. You are still learning to discount for the South Indian mustache.
You turn right onto the Kothaguda Road, past the constable waving haplessly with his bamboo cane. In addition to the usual food stalls, there is a kind of street market going on tonight. Vendors have spread blankets along the dusty sides of the road, offering pots and pans, leather goods, DVDs, used electronics, bangles, and piles of mismatched clothes. Dark-skinned men and women pick through the goods while their children play in the street, dodging honking motorcycles as if it were a schoolyard game. The whole neighborhood is out tonight. You realize these are your neighbors, your neighborhood, and you are out tonight, too. All at once you feel much older than you ever wanted to be.
The breeze comes in waves through the open sides of the rickshaw. You think about your mother. You wonder if she has ever done this, or something like this, and if not, why? The warmth of the night washes over you, promising well-being, but just as quickly comes the smell of an open sewer, and you feel cautious again. You wonder if danger ebbs and flows like this, like smells, if you can be safe one minute and at dire risk the next. You smell kebabs roasting in a storefront, followed by goats grazing a rancid dumpster. Fresh sandalwood incense, then the reek of burning plastic.
“Addrass su ayn ti?" The question startles you. Of course he needs the address. Without thinking, you hand the driver the sheet of notebook paper. He accepts the sheet but doesn't look at it. He repeats the question.
You feel like a jerk.
“The turn is near the petrol pump," you say, trying to remember Lakshmi's directions. “Indian Oil, I think.”
“No Indian Oil in Miyapur,” the driver says. “There is HP only."
“Okay, HP. Turn right after the pump.”
A minute later you are in the congested heart of Miyapur, another dusty village now a dusty neighborhood in this high-tech city. You see the sign for Hindustan Petroleum, a stylized black gusher under the bright red English letters. The driver weaves to the side of the road, sounds his horn, and shoots off to the right. You are on a dark lane now. What did Lakshmi say to do next? There are no street signs, and no house numbers. You tell the driver what you remember: “There is a temple. Above that, and a little behind, there is a residence."
He wags his head, stops suddenly, and reverses course with a quick U-turn. “One temple in Miyapur only."
He takes you behind cinderblock sheds, under clotheslines, over dirt so rough your tiny body bounces against the vinyl sides of the passenger compartment. A minute later you are in another dark lane, identical to the first, but your driver is surer now. He mutes the stereo out of courtesy towards the neighbors. From the dark concrete balconies you hear their voices, but you cannot make out the words over the tuk-tuk-tuk of the two-stroke diesel engine.
Then, on the left, there is a break in the line of buildings and you see the sloping ziggurat of a Hindu temple. From far away the bumps on the roof look like uniform, repetitive accents—like the terra cotta tiles on your parents' house in California. Close up you see that each bump is a statue, each statue a god, each one painted a different Easter-egg inside, a raised platform like a long flat wedding cake, and a bell. The driver pulls into the parking very quickly—you no longer consider a sharp turn “hard,” because there is only one kind of turn in a rickshaw. “Residence in back,” he says in Telugu. Then in English (as if reminding you who you are): “I wait here.” He cuts the engine and pulls a single cigarette from the pocket of his checkered workshirt.
You know better than to argue. In fact, you are glad he is going to stay. There is a chance—which you have not allowed yourself to consider consciously until now—that Lakshmi will not be home, and in that case you will need to leave quickly. You thank the driver, but like most Indians, he refuses to acknowledge it. In this country, it seems that nothing but life-saving heroism deserves a thank-you. You have found thanking a difficult habit to break, and you wonder what that says about you. The driver tips his head to the side and lights his smoke.
You walk into the halo of light coming off the sides of the temple and unfold the address. You stare at the Telugu numerals, their curvy cloven undersides like the bare bottoms of cartoon babies. You think that it says ten. Like the houses and the streets, the flats in the tenement behind the temple are unnumbered. You tap the next person walking past (in India, you are never alone—another item for your India crush list) and ask about flat ten.
“Come,” the young man says in English. He is younger than your rickshaw driver—about fifteen, if you had to guess. He is wearing a pair of tight polyester trousers that flair at the bottom but are not quite bell-bottoms. His long-sleeved collared shirt is emblazoned on the breast pocket with the Playboy bunny. He smiles at you. His lips are moist and pink. You follow him into a narrow passage between the temple and the tenement. It is dark between the buildings, and damp, and you hear gunshots coming from a TV somewhere. “What is your name?” the boy asks. His English is pretty good, considering most kids in this neighborhood probably go to a Telugu-medium school and only study English one or two hours a day—if their teacher has enough English to teach it.
You tell him your name.
“That is a pretty name. It is a color, na?”
“And a flower,” you say. You return to the thought of danger coming and going like smells. This boy is like that. As you follow him down the passage, at first he smells sweet, like chocolate or tea, but every few steps you get a whiff of something else, something mannish and sour.
“I am Anand. Which country are you?”
You tell him America, and he says he has an uncle in America. They all say this, all the kids at your school. You were skeptical at first. But then as you got to know them and heard their stories one by one you realized they weren't lying, not one.
“You are friend of Pranathi?” Anand asks merrily over his shoulder.
“Pranathi.” He slows down. “How old are you?”
You want to tell him the truth now, because you are pretty sure he's harmless, and if you misread the Telugu flat number, he will be able to point you in the right direction. But you don't want to give Lakshmi's name. If you wanted to put yourself in potential danger, fine. But not Lakshmi. That would be unforgiveable.
You say nothing. You know that if you ignore the question, he will think he didn't say it right. He might try again, but how long can this passage be? From the road, the apartment building looked tiny.
Suddenly the alley comes to an end—a third wall of concrete blocks seals you off. You still hear the TV but can't see any doors or windows except maybe way above your head, but you are too scared to take your eyes off Anand.
He turns to face you, his back against the third wall. His smile, like the driver's, is preternaturally straight and bright. You wonder if he brushes his teeth with charcoal powder. You once saw a boy doing that near the mosque downtown, and he too had incredibly white teeth.
For the first time you notice the slightest hint of a mustache on Anand's upper lip. You are not sure why, but this observation makes your stomach clench.
“Pranathi is your friend. But why you come alone?”
It takes every fiber of strength in your thirty-kilogram body to keep your mouth shut now. The hint of jaggery on the boy is gone: you smell his onion breath, his body odor, his cheap aerosol cologne. You want to scream—you know the Telugu word for help—but you cannot. You will not allow yourself to scream.
Anand reaches into his hip pocket, searching. Or scratching, you are not sure which. Somewhere above you, a mobile phone rings. It is the song from the rickshaw. You wonder if this is Lakshmi's phone—you know the song is not her ringtone, but she might have changed it this evening, after she came home from your house. You want to call to her—Lakshmi! Kaparundi! If this were your house, she would come running, because that is what your parents pay her to do. Maybe this boy, this Anand, works in an American house as well. Maybe you got him all wrong—maybe he learned his English at work. Maybe Lakshmi would hear you and shrug her shoulders, maybe she would roll her eyes and say to her mother or whoever else was over (whatever relative or countryman or brother-in-arms): poor little rich girl—too bad I am off-duty! Because no matter how many languages you learn, no matter how far from home your parents drag you, no matter how near you are living to the stink and unseatbelted chaos of the developing world, that is what you will always be: A poor little rich girl. Even if you can say it Telugu.
Finally Anand's hand emerges from his pocket, and with it comes a cheap mobile phone, the kind even the cows in India seem to check every five minutes for new texts. He taps the keys with his thumbs and raises the phone to his ear. He speaks too fast for you to understand. Probably on purpose. You remember—with shame now—the time you and your best friend in California played a joke on her maid, a Guatemalan immigrant, by speaking really fast in English. You said horrible things, about the woman's weight, her clothes, her thinning hair. You begin to regret all kinds of things now. Most of all that note to your parents. They deserved something, some kind of wake-up call, but not this.
You think you hear Anand say the name “Lakshmi.” You listen closely and hear it several more times. He wags his head side to side—yes, even on the phone they do this—and then he ends the call. He holds your eyes for a moment expectantly, then reaches out with his right hand and knocks on the wall. But it is not a wall; it is a door. There is no number, no doorknob, and certainly not a porch light, but there is the wooden rectangle, painted the same thin, flat white as the wall.
You hear the rattle of hardware, then the scrape of wood against concrete. Anand steps back, and the door opens outward.
And there she is: barefoot, unadorned, wearing an old kurta you have never seen before. Her hair is pulled back into a long ponytail—an immodest style, she told you once, compared to a braid. Her eyes are sharp, bouncing back and forth between you and Anand. The only light in the apartment comes from the television, tuned to the Telugu news.
“Nuwendu ku ee kurah unahvu?" she says to you. Then either forgetting that you know Telugu or doubting your ability to get her point, she repeats herself in English. “What are you doing here?”
“Acca, she has come to see Pranathi," Anand explains. You notice that he addresses Lakshmi formally, as he would an older sister, even though they are around the same age. From the way he refuses to make eye contact when he speaks, you guess that he is an admirer of hers.
From the way she stares him down, sharp-eyed, you see that the feeling is not mutual.
“Pranathi is sleeping," Lakshmi says. And then to you, in English, “Where are your parents?” And again, “Why are you here?”
"They are fighting,” you say. “I could not listen any longer. I came here because you said I was welcome."
For the third time, Lakshmi addresses you in English: “You cannot be here. I have to take you home.” She calls you by your full name, which stuns you like Kryptonite. She must have heard your mother use it, because you are quite sure you never told her your middle name.
Though he will not look at Lakshmi, Anand has no problem looking at you. It is clear he is confused about what just happened. “You are the friend of Lakshmi?"
“Chalu, Anand—” Lakshmi interjects. “I work for the family."
"It is you?” Anand asks. His eyes become tall windows, and you see that he knows everything about you: he knows about your parents' fights; about the immodest way you prance around the house in the nude after a bath; about your family's squeamish refusal to eat fruit unless it is peeled. He knew all this the whole time of course, but he did not know who you were. And you were wrong about him and Lakshmi. Obviously.
Anand becomes solicitous, offering to hold Lakshmi's purse, to hail her an autorickshaw—of if she prefers, to give the two of you a ride on the back of his cousin's motorcycle, which he is sure he can borrow, no problem, if you give him five minutes.
“You go home," she says to him. “I have enough trouble without you."
This strikes you as cruel. You have never known Lakshmi to be anything but warm and kind. It occurs to you that you might have only seen a facade. In reality, she may be cold and heartless. You feel bad for yourself, having come all this way only to be turned away at the door, but also you feel bad for Anand. He was only trying to be helpful. And so it is for you, but also for him, that you take the next step—to use the only weapon you have, which you save only for the most desperate situations. Balling up your fists and letting your body collapse on itself, you summon tears. Your face turns red, your cheeks wet. Your moans fill the little concrete-block alley. Inside the apartment, someone mutes the television. A stout woman in a yellow sari and a long braid down her back waddles into view.
“Aunty," you wail in your best Telugu, “I have nowhere else to go. My father drinks! He won't work! My mother does nothing about it…”
The woman frowns, as you expected she would, but you can see that she is also amused. She did not expect you to speak her language.
"Is this true?” she asks Lakshmi.
“Mother, go back to your program. This is my trouble."
"“he comes here to my home, she is my trouble. Bring her inside.”
The woman waddles into the darkness. The television snaps off.
“Lakshmi!” she calls. “Make tea.”
Lakshmi turns to Anand. “Make tea."
Anand nods and starts down the alley, you assume to his family's apartment. “Aray!" she calls after him. “Make it here."
Happily, Anand returns, and the three of you enter flat ten, where Lakshmi's mother has switched on a fluorescent tube light. There is a puja shrine in one corner, a beaten old upholstered armchair in another. An assortment of unmatched plastic patio chairs complete the furnishings. Anand disappears behind a wall and you hear him strike a match.
Aunty offers you the armchair, but you refuse, telling her in Telugu that you prefer to sit on the floor. Her black eyes—Lakshmi's eyes, you see now—burn with curiosity. "Where did you learn to speak?" she asks. She means, of course, where did you learn Telugu, but your mind flashes back to California, to kindergarten and the chart of Spanish phonics your maestra drilled you with to start each day: Oso, oso, oh, oh, oh. Avión, avión, ah, ah, ah. Imán, imán, ee, ee, ee.
"Lakshmi-acca taught me, Aunty."
Lakshmi's mother looks at her daughter with surprise. “You speak well," she says.It is a compliment to you, but also meant for Lakshmi. “How did you find our home?"
"Your home is lovely, Aunty."
"No, you misunderstand my question. How did you get here?"
You produce the folded leaf of notebook paper, covered on both sides with Telugu numerals.
“You can read, too?" She pauses, and then says, without a hint of self-pity, as though she were talking about the color of her hair, "I never learned to read. I had to leave school. My father was sick, so I had to work. I was about your age."
You open your mouth to say that you are sorry, that you understand her childhood must have been difficult, but you stop yourself. You can't remember if apologizing is like thanking.
The stout woman shrugs, casting away the topic of her education. That is all in the past, she seems to say. “Lakshmi tells me you are from America. Your father is in the computer field?"
"No, Aunty. He is a professor."
Her hands rise like a preacher's, and she turns to her daughter. “Well, that explains it.”
"She learns very quickly, mama."
“Of course she does—her father is a professor."
"Actually, Aunty, he cannot speak Telugu or any Indian languages. He speaks only English."
The woman shakes her head. First of all because how dare you speak ill of your father? And second because she simply does not believe you. Even a rickshaw wallah can speak two or three languages. She raises a brow. "Not even Hindi?"
"But Sanskrit, yes?"
Lakshmi's mother sits silent for a moment. You imagine that she is comparing this unexpected revelation with the charges you made when you were crying. The accusations seem more likely on one hand. Less, on the other.
Anand arrives with a plastic tray bearing four thimble-sized cups of frothy brown tea. Lakshmi and her mother wag their heads to acknowledge Anand and make space on the low wooden table for his tray. The boy beams with delight at having carried out his duty so flawlessly. He dares to look at Lakshmi now, but she refuses to return the attention, blowing slowly over the top of her teacup, waiting for her mother to speak.
At luck would have it, you are just now suffering the first pull of fatigue. Your eyes itch around the edges, and you have fought the urge to rub them for ten minutes, knowing that to do so would signal to all present that you are, in fact, tired. And a child.
But now there is tea. Thank God for tea! You reach for one of the two cups remaining on the tray. Anand stops you with a gentle hand on your shoulder. “Other is for you,” he says in English. “Is Horlicks.” Then he turns to Lakshmi and her mother and says, in Telugu, “No tea for little girls."
The two women laugh.
Your mother lets you have tea whenever you want, but when she is out (at the mall or wherever), the cook will only serve you this childish substitute. You suspect that your dislike for the malty chocolate powder has to do more with your struggle for recognition—for equal treatment—than with the taste of the beverage, which is sweet and kind of tasty, once you get used to it.
What really gets you about the tea thing is this: what is the difference between you and Lakshmi, really? A few years? She still lives with her parents, just like you. Why is she a woman, while you are still a girl? You already have more schooling than she does. There is the biological explanation: a few hormones, a flow of blood once a month, some hair where there used to be none. You understand that Lakshmi's mother has no education, but she must understand that there is more to maturity than pubic hair.
“So," Aunty says after finishing her tea, “you want to live here?"
You nearly choke on the dregs of your Horlicks. “Excuse me?”
“Your father drinks, and he won't work. Your mother, from what Lakshmi tells me, is somewhat confused, although her heart is kind."
Lakshmi fidgets in the plastic chair, embarrassed that her mother has revealed that she gossips about your family. To be honest, you agree with her assessment of your mother. But it makes you uncomfortable anyway.
"You can share a room with Pranathi. Or even with Lakshmi. You are not so different, you and Lakshmi."
She winks at you. She has read your mind. Maybe it is the kick of sugar from the Horlicks, but you are suddenly anxious.
"Madam, my parents would not allow it. They would be furious with me if I told them I wanted to leave their home."
"But you have already left it, na?"
"You have no problem leaving, but telling them you want to leave—the problem is there. I see how you think of it."
"Aunty, if I have disturbed your evening, I am sorry."
"No need to apologize. You were curious, that is all."
You want to tell her that no, that is not all: you had real reasons for sneaking out of your apartment tonight. Reasons besides curiosity. Your parents deserved to lose you! Your father can't even speak Telugu! There were other reasons, too, which you would be able to remember if you weren't so tired. You realize, too late, that you have been rubbing your right eye with your fist.
Lakshmi's mother asks Anand to clear the tea service, and then she says something to Lakshmi in very fast Telugu. If it were earlier, you tell yourself, or if she didn't have an accent, or if you'd been given some tea like everyone else—then you would have understood. But now the words rush over your ears, reduced to curly lines and squiggles, disconnected phonics.
Oso, oso, oh, oh, oh…
Lakshmi responds in the same quick tongue. Her mother laughs at something she says, wagging her head swiftly from side to side.
And then there is a knock at the door. It must be nearly eleven o'clock, but neither Lakshmi nor her mother seems surprised. You guess this is how it goes when your door looks like a wall. Random knockers, all night long.
“Anand!" the woman calls to the kitchen. “Will you be a good boy and answer the door?" You hear genuine affection in Aunty's voice, and you feel hopeful on his behalf. Another few years, another few late-night tea services, and he might have something.
Grinning, Anand unscrews the deadbolt and pushes open the door. There is the same bone-chilling scrape as the plywood clears the concrete. And then there is a woman's voice, in English, and a familiar one-two clearing of the throat.