Authors: Rakesh Satyal
“Compassionate, moving, funny, and wise,
is one of the best debut novels I have read in years. Rakesh Satyal exuberantly captures the splendors and dramas of being twelve, giving us an unforgettable hero who will linger in the reader’s heart. Sharp, graceful, and generous in spirit,
reveals a young writer intelligently probing questions of family, love, and faith, while also sharing his wonderfully expansive vision of what it means to be an American.”
—David Ebershoff, author of
The 19th Wife
The Danish Girl
“The best fiction reminds us that humanity is much, much larger than our personal world, our own little reality.
shows us a world too funny and sad and sweet to be based on anything but the truth.”
“Rakesh Satyal has managed to write a novel that is as funny as it is heartbreaking. A brilliant debut!”
is a wild, rollicking, bittersweet book. For a debut novelist, Rakesh Satyal is uncommonly bold and precise, and his narrator is unforgettable.”
—Scott Heim, author of
Please turn the page for more advance praise!
proves that if you don’t quite fit in, then you might as well stand out with as much wit, color, and audacity as you can muster.”
—Josh Kilmer-Purcell, author of
I Am Not Myself These Days
, I’m reminded of Rushdie’s humor and of Michael Cunningham’s deep feeling, but more than anything I’m struck by the originality of Rakesh Satyal’s vision and voice. Kiran, the novel’s spirited and hilarious narrator, is unlike any character I’ve read, and in his struggle to forge his identity in the face of Midwestern stereotypes and cultural intolerance, he epitomizes that rarest and most human of emotions: hope. This is a poignant and important novel, and the start of a long and significant career.”
—Bret Anthony Johnston, author of
Corpus Christi: Stories
“Rich in ethnic detail and full of fey observation, Rakesh Satyal’s charming debut will inspire anyone who’s survived elementary school to fly their freak flags high.”
—Marc Acito, author of
How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater
Attack of the Theater People
In memory of James McMackin
“As fire is shrouded in smoke, a mirror by dust and a child by the womb, so is the universe enveloped in desire.”
“Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I’m surprised that my mother still doesn’t know.
Surely she must notice her cosmetics diminishing every day. Surely she has noticed that the ends of her lipsticks are rounded, their pointy tips dulled by frequent application to my tiny but full mouth. Surely she has noticed that her eyeshadows have been rubbed to the core, a silver eye looking back at her from the metal bottom of each case. But here she is again, cooking obliviously in the kitchen, adding fire-colored turmeric to the boiling basmati rice and humming in her husky alto.
“I’ve got homework,” I tell her as I pad across the linoleum floor and head for the foyer. I’m in Umbro shorts and a white T-shirt—the standard lazy-boy uniform in these parts—and my legs are tired from running barefoot in our backyard.
“Vatch your feet,” she says, pointing a powdered finger at the faint grass streaks my soles are leaving on the floor. I scurry away as I have learned in ballet class, as if grace is an able antidote to dirt.
! Your dad…”
That’s all it takes. I stop on the tiled floor of the foyer, open the front door, and step onto the front porch. The smooth cement feels nice under my feet, especially since it is a hot, humid Cincinnati day. I walk the redbrick contour of our house to the nearest spout and struggle to twist the water on. Once I have succeeded, I scrub each sole clean with my hand. As I stand back on the cement, my feet feel icy. In comparison, the rest of my body feels hot and sticky. I wipe my feet on the doormat and go back inside, back into the AC and the sound of my mother’s metal ladle stirring lentils.
“Homework,” I call out and start up the carpeted stairs. Our staircase splits in two, so that to the left one set of stairs leads to my bedroom and the guest room, and to the right another leads to the master bedroom.
My father is out playing tennis with a family friend. My mother is singing
as she stirs
. The master bathroom is all mine. Involuntarily, I sputter the theme from
. But this mission is far from impossible; I have succeeded at it time and again, so that the only impossible mission seems to be not wanting to put on makeup.
The master bathroom is regal in size and stature: a vaulted skylight above, two sparkling brass faucets popping out from the white marble counter. There is whiteness everywhere, shining at me from the tub of the Jacuzzi, from the white tile floor, from the tall white walls. The only conflict of color comes from the bright orange towel that my father keeps near the faucets. He uses it after each time he washes—not to dry his hands but to dry the faucets. “You must alvays vipe them clean or the sink vill be in trouble,” he said once, referring to the tarnish that he fears the way a hemophiliac must fear thorns.
Awash in this white, made all the brighter due to the skylight, I set to work. I open my mother’s cosmetics drawer and pull out her squat silver makeup case. It makes a high
as I set it on the counter. I roll the drawer shut: it rumbles and thuds. This sound reminds me of my mother’s rolling pin pushing balls of dough into
, and I venture a listen against the bathroom door to make sure she is still cooking. There’s the ladle once more, tapping against the stainless steel pot.
There are so many lipstick colors to choose from that one would think my mother were a model. The names are almost as exciting as the hues: Fire Engine. Mulberry. Fanfare. I love Fire Engine the most; it looks like the kind of lipstick Cindy Crawford wears in
. And it is a nice complement to my brown skin. But wait—I think I like Mulberry more. It’s dark and mysterious, like me. I push it over my lips, over Fire Engine, the two colors mixing into a murky paste. “Oops,” I say, the word echoing. I pull a streamer of toilet paper from the dispenser and wipe the goo off, my eyes settling on Fanfare. A fanfare indeed, it is almost orange on my lips. Too orange. More toilet paper.
My mom has a bright magenta
that she wears with this lipstick. The front of the
is covered in gold embroidery. Once, when my mom was out, I put on this lipstick and then put on that
and started crying. I don’t know why. Since then, I have not put on Magenta. But something about today—my feet still cold, my torso still hot, the faint strains of my mom trying on some soprano downstairs—makes me want to try on Magenta again. I apply it intently, coloring in my lips as I would a picture, and my mouth transforms into a smudge of passion.
I once asked my mom what they call eyeliner in Hindi.
. I don’t even call it eyeliner anymore. “Eyeliner” is all well and good—it conjures up Maybelline commercials, girls with lashes as fat as ants—but “
” is a whole other can of worms. Cleopatra would not have worn eyeliner. Cleopatra would have worn
. Nefertiti would have worn
. Even King Tut would have worn it. I am the King of Excess. Here, in my regal bathroom, I put on makeup too thickly, and I like it that way. I like the thickness on my lashes, the lipstick balled in tissue.
I dip my pinky into the tube of mascara and coat it in black. And then I smear it around my eye, consider spreading three long black lines out of it.
But I don’t. I don’t because I have become entranced by my own eyes in the mirror, how powerful they look when encased in black.
The thud of the ladle once more, punctuated by ardent rolling.
The dusting of durum flour my mother sprinkles on the
must be as delicate as the blush with which I am decorating my cheeks. It is very pink, baby pink. My cheekbones are high, and as I apply the blush, I aim for a sweeping effect, brushing up and over each bone. I flick the brush with melodramatic polish, but in the process I sweep a few choice flecks into my black-bordered eye.
I scream—silently, knowing that even the semblance of a whimper will reach my mother’s worrywart ears. I can see it now: me letting out a grace note of pain and the loud rolling pin suddenly stopping, my mother conscious of the sound that flour particles are making as they hit the counter, the flapping of a ladybug’s wings, the biorhythm of my father, from miles away, thumping in her ears, and then me—impaled by my pencil as I study! Electrocuted by my calculator! Abducted by local yokels! Even though my mother has come to the Midwest from the most exotic and dangerous of lands, Ohio can scare the hell out of her. India may be full of man-eating tigers, but Ohio is full of Ohioans. One whimper from me is enough to make her die of fright. Or make her come sprinting up the stairs, rolling pin still in hand like she’s a Beverly Hillbilly, ready to attack whatever it is that attacks me. Sometimes I shudder thinking just what she would do if she stumbled in, expecting a kidnapping and instead finding me in her best Estée Lauder.
I turn on the faucet and flick a few drops of water in my eye to flush out the rogue rouge. This proves to be a big mistake. My dear
has followed the blush’s lead and heads straight into my eye. My silent scream has turned into a silent caterwaul. I hop around in pain, trying again to use
to alleviate my problems. I go back to the faucet and try to flush the rouge out. This time it seems to work. The pain lessens, and I am left with a half-bloodshot eye, a mess of black and pink oozing from it.
At least my lips still look fabulous. Good ole Magenta.
“Kiran!” my mom calls. “Come help me vith the
I almost respond but realize that my mother expects my voice to come from the other end of the house, not from the master bathroom. She is used to me not coming when she calls the first time anyway, so I continue with the matter at hand. I pick up the bunched tissue again and wipe the mess out from under my eye. I set back to the makeup with more fervor than ever before, making myself a real work of art. I am entranced by the eyes in the mirror once again, entranced by their penetrating stare, how strong yet delicate they look. I choose the bluest eyeshadow that I can find and cover each of my lids in three, four coats. The girl in the mirror has grown so beautiful. She puckers her lips, winks, applies another layer of her Magenta lipstick.
I don’t spend much time looking at her; it is the simple fact that she has reached the peak of her beauty that satisfies me, and so after a few turns, a few more balletic moves, free of technique but choreographed instead by my joy, I begin to clean up. My mother may be used to me not coming on the first call, but the second call means business. In a few minutes she will let out that second call and then even the thought of the homework she thinks I’ve been doing all this time won’t compensate for my lack of punctuality. I kiss the Magenta and then sheathe her, place her lovingly in the silver case. Fire Engine and Mulberry are frumpy, as if berating me for having left them in the (pink) dust. “Sorry,” I say, stabbing the brush of the
back in her cap and placing her in the drawer, as well.
I pick up the eyeshadow as if to put it back, but before parting with it I dip my pinky in, turning the tip of my finger blue. An idea, a lightbulb throbs on blue in my head. I smear more blue over my lids and then, doing what I wanted to do before, I begin to make my harlequin lashes, except now they are baby blue. And they are gorgeous.
“Stunning,” I whisper to the mirror girl, doing my best Joan Rivers impression. The girl giggles, and when she bats her lashes, they look like enormous blue feathers.
There is something about the contrast of the blue against the Magenta, the way that the brown of my skin disappears under the blue marking, that I find irresistible, that moves my hand as if by magic across the contour of my face, down my thin nose, across my wide, smooth forehead. It makes me wonder why women don’t make their faces blue instead of tan or brown or whatever their boring compacts offer them. There is something to be said for creating a natural-looking face, but there is also something to be said for standing out, entrancing, glowing. As my pinky makes its last curve under my chin, I am breathless. Each stroke has moved the energy in the bathroom from this side of the mirror to the other, so that the magenta and black siren over there, bruised blue, seems the only presence in here.
And then—a knock on the door.
“Kiran! Vhat are you doing in there?”
There is powder all over the counter. The tissues are still bunched up in the sink. There is the unmistakable smell of makeup in the air, perfumed and gritty. The sun from the vaulted ceiling falls around me in one focused circle—a spotlight—as if I’m Harrison Ford in
Raiders of the Lost Ark
“Kiran, open this door.”
“I’m peeing, Mom!” I say, and twist the faucet slightly to mimic the sound of tinkling urine. But in my anxiety I twist a little too hard, and only if my penis were in fact a fjord would it be capable of making the watery racket that ensues.
Mar kai ga
.” I cringe at this utterance, the precursor to a mother’s ginger but firm slap across the face.
You’re going to get it.
I wipe the powder off the counter into my hand, then wash it into the sink. I grab the tissues and throw them into the garbage basket, then realize they are still visible and incriminating, so like a true felon I grab them back and throw them into the toilet. I flush, calling out, “Just a second! Just finished peeing!”
The tissues gone, I feel a wash of relief and I head to the door. I unlock it, but just before opening it I realize: the makeup. It’s still on my face. Kiran entered this room and Mirror Girl is leaving it. I grasp to relock the door, but it is already opening, and there’s my Beverly Hillbilly mom, rolling pin in her right hand, ladle in her left, and shock on her face.
?” she puffs, that indistinct Indian noise, a mixture of wonder and nonplussed horror.
I have no idea what to say. It is as if I am in my mother’s place, watching myself as I have been doing these past few minutes, my blue glow somebody else, a girl in a mirror. But no, there is no mistaking; I am on this side of the doorway, sputtering to provide an explanation. Out of desperation, I look past my mother’s shoulder to the small altar of deities she has arranged on the bookshelf near the bed—a bright portrait of Vishnu, gold encircling the tips of His many fingers like rings around a planet; an icon of Lakshmi, red and magenta on Her lush lotus flower; Shiva, eyelids drooping, cobra beaming from His shoulder like Blackbeard’s parrot. And then there’s Krishna, blue-skinned and smiling secretly into His silver flute, His peacock feather headdress more crown-like than Lakshmi’s shining helmet. In this split second, I pray to Him to help me, and then I have a genius idea.