The Wait is and is Not
- Nitasha Kaul
You Don't Mess with Viru - Jayant Kripalani
The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo
Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa
For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy
The Tree's Passport - Sumana Roy
I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg
Oh God, My God - GB Prabhat
Stroke at Noon - KL Chowdhury
Unbroken Awareness - Tendair Mwanaka
Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera
My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
The Stone - Anupam Choudhary
The Return - Shirani Rajapakse
The Unsent Email - Shyama Laxman
Poetry: Naseer Ahmed Nasir
(Translated by Bina Biswas)
Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant
The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak
- Attia Hosain
London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)
Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
- Anupam Choudhary
Out of the many ways to expend energy – orgasm, exercise, fighting, drinking – Naveen most often chose to walk. He would plod along, straight-backed, hands clasped behind him, until his feet went numb and his calves burnt. Naveen was an old man; time had sculpted his dark face into something distinguished – wrinkled and severe, and as he walked this Sunday morning, he dwelt upon how silent his life had become.
At the Delhi airport his brother had warned him, 'It is Amrica bhaiya. They will say hello, but will not mean it. They will see a dark face, nothing more. And Sonu ...' he had said, '... Sonu will be too busy for you. You'll be all alone.'
His brother watched too much television, too much Hollywood, and Naveen had dismissed the caution with a wave of the hand, a pinch on the shoulder.
'Do not worry about me, Brother,' he'd said. 'It is only for a few years. I will be fine.'
But Arkansas was not fine, not for an ageing dhoti-wearing Bihari like Naveen. His English – unaccustomed to American accent or conversation – led to stifled laughs and confused expressions from the shopkeepers he bought his Marlboro Red cigarettes from. And when he sat next to teenagers on Ozark Regional Transit, they furrowed their brows and sniffed the air, as if noxious fumes radiated from the very follicles of his brown skin.
Neither was Arkansas equipped for Naveen's needs. There were no tea stalls, no haggling, no hot monsoon rains. Instead, he found himself walking for hours and hours in his chappals along the barren roadsides, kneading his mind for memories of his motherland.
Today he had chosen an unfamiliar landscape. He walked north along Highway 90 towards Missouri, and if he looked back, he could see Bentonville in the distance. A swarm of recently assembled cookie-cutter condos separated him from the town and his son's home.
Seeing small shadows of the outskirts of the town in the distance, Naveen realized he had never walked this far from Bentonville before. On his right ran Arkansas River, muddy and shallow. It was early spring, and the river had thawed mostly. Small warblers skimmed along the surface of the water, propelled by occasional, lazy swipes of their tiny wings. To Naveen's left, Arkansas Highway 90 was mostly unused, but periodically he heard the whine and purr of a car or semi-truck speeding by, and he could not help but crane his neck to catch a glimpse of the drivers' faces, their white hands on the steering wheel. Sometimes the faces would turn towards him, and he would make fleeting eye contact. And then they were gone.
Across the highway, a sign facing the direction in which Naveen walked said, WELCOME TO THE OZARK PLATEAU! ENJOY YOURSELF! Naveen stopped for a moment to look at the road sign on his side of the road, facing the oncoming traffic: WALMART HEADQUARTERS, EXIT 12B, 2 MILES. It was red with a white border and thick white letters. Naveen wondered where these signs were created. He'd imagined for some time now that everything in America had its own factory, each industrial unit churning out thousands of perfect replicas of toys and marbles and televisions and plastic caution tape. How else could Walmart (and Target next door and Fred Meyer on Berry Street and Sam's Club a few miles south in Fayetteville) sell so many things?
This Walmart sign he stared at now no doubt had its own factory, where huge machines heated and flattened and stretched the raw ore until it became what it was, perfectly flat, perfectly uniform. And surely, Naveen thought, every year or so, a Department of Transportation employee would inspect the sign for symptoms of wear or vandalism, rusty bolts or perhaps graffiti tags.
He recalled how in Bihar, in his village, the city officials – fat, happy, corrupt men – had commissioned the local artisan to paint a similar sign, its man-made nature apparent in the thick, uneven brushstrokes of paint. The paint was poisonous, and the artisan had eventually gone crazy, suffering hallucinations. Naveen remembered this clearly because the poor man had staggered over to him one day, sat on a plastic chair under the banyan tree, closed his eyes, and insisted that he was experiencing the 'inside of the universe, the true reality, through Lord Shiva's third eye'. The sun, red and dreary, was beginning to set over the hills to the west, and Naveen decided to head home. As he walked back he recalled how Sonu had shown him the first Walmart SuperCentre during his second weekend in America, on one of his son's rare days off. (Sonu had found a position in Business Operations – Strategic Logistics, and he now worked on the third floor of Walmart Headquarters, with a view of the town square and the mermaid fountain). They had driven around the SuperCentre at first.
'See, Papa!' Sonu parked at the rear of the building, and pointed to a mass of garage doors. 'It's my job to get whatever each store needs through those doors as efficiently as possible. Finely oiled machine jaisa hai.'
Sonu pointed next to a semi-truck with the blue Walmart logo painted along its trailer.
'See that. Right now our most lucrative products are Ferrero-Rocher chocolates – you know, the tasty, crunchy chocolates, the ones –mamoo likes me to ship over – plush giraffes, and extra-long pillows. I can guarantee one of those items is in that very trailer.'
Age had brought Naveen to Arkansas. Weak cartilage and arthritic bones and shortage of money. He could not look after himself any more, and it had become Sonu's duty to do so. After the initial flurry of visits to national parks and minor league baseball games and the famous Fayetteville Shopping Centre, a routine had developed. His son left food for him in the morning, daal and roti and vegetables, did his laundry and ironed Naveen's single, ill-fitting suit. But the routine did not cure loneliness, and now, only six months into his stay, he wondered all too often if it was a mistake that he had come to America at all. Of course, with a woman around everything would have been different, a doting daughter-in-law to make steaming chai for him in the morning and shower him with praise. How silly it sounded, how selfish, but he had learnt not to underestimate the comfort of a woman's adoration. And was it not comfort Naveen missed? India and Indian children, Indian wives and Indian values?
Naveen's son adored America. Sonu bowled every Wednesday and Friday at Bentonville Bowling Centre with his company team. After careful research, he had even bought a bowling ball of his own, a size twelve poly-urethane product with custom red, white, and blue stripes. Sonu had ordered a matching shirt as well with his name sewn in black, cursive script along both sides of the lapels. On the back of the shirt, a white man with jet black hair sported a blue bowling shirt of his own, and smoked a cigarette. Sonu watched 'Hannity' and 'The O' Reilly Factor' and whistled when the dolled-up, blonde analysts appeared on the television screen. Lately, he had begun to talk with a southern twang, affectedly throwing in ya'lls and how ya' doins' into his conversation. How strange, Naveen thought, that a son could be so unlike a father.
Sonu's condo sat on the outskirts of Bentonville, with a view of more unfinished condo units and the flat lands beyond, and Naveen approached the building from behind. He did this not out of convenience but from an aversion to the front yards of the condo units of Bella Vista. Everything in Bella Vista was linear and sterile – such as the bushes, uniformly dark green and sharp-edged; even the dirt – the mulch – was manicured. The perfect squares of newly added sod grass, the shapes of the condos, as if the units were comprised of cubes haphazardly merged and stacked on top of each other, and the new-fangled boxy cars his son referred to as 'crossover SUVs' – all made Naveen uncomfortable. It seemed to him that the purpose of Bella Vista was to detach itself from the unevenness of Mother Nature, and he half expected a tornado to come one day and tear it all down. The wrath of Shiva, he mused, as he removed his shoes outside the doorway slid open the backdoor.
He found his son crouched over a laptop on the kitchen table. The kitchen was new with marbled granite counter tops and Starbucks-style light fixtures dangling from the ceiling. A half-eaten quesadilla lay on a plate next to him, the cheese coagulated along the side of the tortilla. He wore cotton pajamas and a white undershirt. A part of his stomach peeked out from the bottom of the vest. He looked up when he saw Naveen, smiled, arched his back and stretched his arms.
'Papa, I was thinking, maybe you should start a garden at the back of the condo, on that patch of land between the fence and the house. Plant some zucchinis, some of those herbs you like. It'll keep you busy. I can see the restlessness in your eyes; don't think I can't. This is America. We do things here. There's nothing else to do.'
'Walking is fine for now,' Naveen replied.
'Why do you wish to go walking? You will get bored of it soon -- such slow, pointless movement, no direction, no goal.' Sonu took a bite of the stale quesadilla and suddenly perked up, returning his outstretched hands to the table. 'Oh, how silly of me. Forget about the garden, forget about the zucchinis. I have not told you yet, have I? Of course I haven't. I got back from work only an hour ago, and you were gone on your walk.' He smiled. 'I was promoted today. Your son will soon be a member of the largest Walmart corporate office east of the Mississippi. We are moving to New York. Can you believe it? New York City! The Big Apple! Where Harry Met Sally!'
Naveen sat down on the chair across the table from Sonu. His knees creaked from the early onset of arthritis, his back ached from the walk, and this news was too much for his tired bones.
'I will return to India then,' he said. 'I am happy for you, Sonu, but I did not expect this news.'
Sonu stood up slowly and poured water from a plastic pitcher sitting on the countertop into a glass. When he faced Naveen again, his tone was placating.
'You cannot,' he said. 'There is nothing left for you there. Mama is dead. Your brother is a pauper, a bhang addict. I am your only son, and you belong here, with me. It is my responsibility. I will not have you live alone in Bihar with only a servant as company.'
Naveen brought his right foot over his thigh and felt the corns on his feet, the dry scales of his epidermis. The podiatrist Sonu had taken him to had trimmed the calluses only a month ago. They had grown back, but Naveen had missed them while they were gone. He had missed the hardness, like armour for his feet. He circled the base of the largest one with his forefinger now and was glad they had returned so quickly. The doctor had informed Naveen that his feet suffered from moderate abduction. He had said it was why his corns had grown so large, why his gait must have felt awkward. 'Try not think about it though,' the doctor had continued. 'It will only irritate you, and there isn't much we can do about it.' Of course, now it was all Naveen could think about.
'I cannot stay here,' he said finally. 'It is not to my taste. I must die in India.'
'But you have no money.'
'You will give me some.'
'And the funeral rights?'
'You will, if you permit as a Brahmin son's duty, return and stay with me for the rest of my life.'
'So ... until you die?' Sonu smiled. 'Papa, do you realize how crazy you sound?'
Naveen ignored him. 'I will be cremated, my ashes scattered in the Ganges. You will do so only on an auspicious day.' The words flowed out of him now. 'You will rent a room in Haridwar with two cots, only two cots, and we will stay there till I die. I will bathe in the Ganges every day. I will eat only rice and lentils. I will grow gaunter. My skin will become dry, like paper to the touch, and I will see through Shiva's inner eye when I die.'
'And what if death is five years from now? Will I stay with you for the –' Sonu used bunny ears now,
'I suppose you will have to.'
'And if I choose not to go?'
'I will go to New York City with you, and you will have dishonoured your father's dying wish.'
Sonu told him he would not do any of those things. He told Naveen he was not dying – he was just getting senile.
'There are temples in New York. There are priests there too. In fact, there are bigger temples and the priests are more educated. I will pay for your yoga classes. It is all better in New York. Trust me.'
Sonu focused on his laptop again, began typing, blinked furiously, repeatedly. Naveen had come to realize his son was thinking hard, and the moment passed, Naveen's moment passed. He listened to his son finish the cheese quesadilla – the chewing, the gulping, the lip smacking, the burp, the single congratulatory stomach pat, and he felt mad.
'I will go anyway,' he said. 'You will go to New York. I will go to India.'
Sonu dismissed the idea with a flick of his hand. 'Papa, this is not the time to discuss this. Another time.'
'I have not fought for anything in my life. When your mother died, I did not resist the feelings, I let them pass through me and over me, and suddenly the sadness was gone. I regret that. I have lived as an atheist, I have meditated far too much, I have acted too little. And now when I want to act for myself and my place after death, you deny me.'
'You are simply asking too much, Father.' Sonu seemed annoyed. 'I will travel with you – for a month, two months, three months. But I cannot move back to India with you. Is this so hard to understand?'
Naveen did understand, but he was tired of compromise. He got up to leave, to take another walk.
'Papa, you think you need India, but you are wrong. You have become bored with yourself. You have become boring: taking walks, thinking all the time, doing the same stupid chores. You have lost yourself. You do not need India to find what you have lost. You did not leave your soul in Bangalore.'
Naveen remembered the last time he had taught someone something, the last time he had imparted knowledge. It was long ago at a squalid amusement park on the outskirts of Delhi. He had seen a child sitting by himself on a bench, and he had sat down beside him. The child was dirty, dusty, poor.
'No girlfriend?' Naveen asked.
The child shook his head. 'No friends either.'
'You came here by yourself?
The child pivoted on his butt, ran his fingers along the metal knobs of the bench.
'I like being by myself.'
'No you don't,' Naveen replied. 'But you should. I have a question for you then. What if you found a shiny stone, a blue shiny stone, and it was your shiny stone, and you knew it was special, but you did not know why. It did not do anything, did not help you with your maths homework, and did not give you superpowers.' Naveen brought his hand to the child's heart. He felt it thumping. 'But in your heart of hearts, you knew this stone was special. Would you share it with your friends?'
'No. They'd make fun of me.'
'That is how I feel, getting old,' he remembered saying to the child. 'You should never be lonely. There is no reason why you should be. You are still young. You have yourself; you may even have God on your side if you are lucky. Do not worry about God though. Do not worry about that yet....'
Anupam Choudhary is an Economics major at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington and began writing seriously during his third year of college, after taking a creative writing class. This is his first published work. He dabbles in poetry as well.