Authors: Rakesh Satyal
At parties, my father fits in with this group so well because he is assertive. From the moment he walks into a room, he finishes his movements exactly. He reaches over and shakes everyone’s hand, nodding his head slightly each time as if striking a perfect balance between the Indian
and the American
How’s it goin’, pardner
; he sits down on the couch solidly, then lifts his leg to cross it over the other as soon as he is settled. When Harsh Gupta pours him a whiskey, my father takes it with another tough nod of his head, then sits back and listens to the conversation at hand, which is usually about George Bush—and soon, even Bill Clinton—and if he is helping or hurting Indians. The discussion is never about anything that does not relate to Indians. These men miss their homeland terribly. There is a longing, a sadness in their eyes that is difficult to miss.
Perhaps as a result of this homeland-missing wistfulness, my family’s drive home from the temple is always quiet, except for the
my father plays on the car stereo. While Lata Mangeshkar shivers up scales of notes, my mom, my dad, and I greet our newfound religious loyalty with silence. As I mentioned, silence is my least favorite state of being, and being in a closed space with my father gives me even more jitters than usual. But the one comforting thing is knowing that my mother will be the one to break the silence. She usually does this half an hour into our forty-five-minute return drive. A whole ride home without speaking would be abnormal, but a ride home capped with fifteen minutes of conversation redeems the trip from abnormality. Until my mother speaks, we have before us a drive full of truly Ohioan sights: the compact downtown of Cincinnati, defined by the majestic rind of Riverfront Stadium, where the Reds don their shiny crimson helmets again and again, and the tall mass of the Carew Tower, a lopsided rectangle of tan-colored brick that looks like a half-eaten bar of Kit Kat; past row upon row of maroon-colored apartment buildings, some of their windows smashed, some of their windows open with children peering out; then past nothing but highway, bordered by steakhouses and supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, a billboard here and there advertising the latest Ford pickup on sale at one of the numerous used-car dealerships in these suburbs; past nothing but fields dotted with Queen Anne’s lace and weeds bearing pale purple bulbs; then curving off an exit into a compact collage of small office buildings—all earth-toned and evoking the fifties or seventies; past convenience stores, gas stations, and more fast-food restaurants. Finally, as our car rounds past a new Burger King, my mother breaks the silence.
“I talked to Sushil Gupta today.” She pulls down the car’s sun visor and looks at herself in the mirror. She wipes her eyes, as if to take off the age that has crept over them. She opens them wide, then relaxes, wrinkles seizing them again. “You know, Sushil is still living here, but her husband has his medical practice in Detroit, so she flies there every veekend to see him.”
Since my mother has spoken, I can now speak freely. “What? Don’t they have a daughter now?”
“Vell, she takes the daughter vith her.”
“What kind of arrangement is that? Why doesn’t Sushil Auntie just move to Detroit?”
“Vell, all her family is here.”
“But her husband is
“Vell, he’s not going to be there for that long. He vants to take care of his patients instead of just leaving them. So he’s getting everything in order before he goes.”
“Oh, that makes sense, I guess. When does he plan on moving here?”
“In about two, three years.”
Indian logic. It’s an oxymoron.
“Wait—if she’s here and he’s there, how did they meet in the first place?” I ask.
“Her parents put out an ad. In
“That’s the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.” I love saying the word “revolting.” Roald Dahl uses it all the time in his books, and it’s such a catty, British word. Catty, British words are the best kind of words.
, it’s not such a bad idea these days,” my mom says. “You know, the more complicated things get over here, the more important it is to find someone vith good Indian morals.” She says this with a jab of her finger in the air, and I think back to the master bathroom, when she flailed her flour-dusted arms about.
“Yeah, and I’m sure their lunches in Detroit are some real quality time,” I say.
“It’s not a bad idea,” my father echoes from the wheel, taking a breather from his cat-and-mouse game of weaving through lanes on the highway and tailgating people. “Besides, ve might do that vhen finding your vife!” The silence on my mother’s side of the car means she’s considered it, too.
I imagine a headline in
, all right:
OHIOAN INDIAN CHILD JUMPS TO DEATH FROM PARENTS’ CAR
Two miles from our house, we stop at a gas station to fill up the car. Stopping at a gas station is an epic event for my father. He watches gas prices as avidly as he watches cricket scores—that is to say, insanely. At any given point in time, he knows every gas price in town to the hundredth of a cent. Ever since the bombs fell in Iraq, the prices have been quavering madly. Which has made my father even more intent in his efforts.
When he gets back into the car from filling the gas, the air is filled with the delicious scent of unleaded. I try hard not to breathe it in; when I was four, I remember him leaning in the front window, pump in hand, and saying, “
, make sure you never inhale this gas. It vill kill you.” Now, several years and countless trips to gas stations later, I sit in the backseat with tension holding my torso hostage, as if invisible marionette strings are attached from my shoulders to the top of my head. As my father starts the car, I think, “This is ridiculous. Breathe, Kiran,” and I take one deep breath. But it’s useless; the tension returns, stronger than before, and not until we reach home five minutes later and I hop out of the backseat and onto the cement of our serpentine driveway do I breathe freely.
My parents get out of the car, my mother taking a little longer than my father. She has tiny legs and feet and is plump, so every one of her moves has a certain waddle to it. This is particularly endearing when she is shopping; she passes through malls with a waddle-sweep that is both graceful and determined.
There they are, Shashi and Ramesh Sharma: solidly side by side like a salt and pepper shaker set. My mother’s hair, which has remained the same length for as long as I can remember, is pulled back in a ponytail and cinched in a white scrunchie to match her white
. Her hands are still clasped in front of her, like prayer residue. It resembles the way she stands when greeting guests at our house, just before she tells them to take their shoes off.
My father is wearing his trusty old jacket. It’s tan, vinyl, almost Members Only but no cigar. His hair is cut in the most traditional way possible, the way gents have their hair on the Just For Men boxes that my father stashes below the master bathroom sink. His eyes are very round and have maintained their intensity after his forty years on Earth. They suddenly disappear behind a Sony camera. Before I can even register comprehension on my face, my father has taken a picture of me.
If I gathered every picture he has ever taken of me and stacked the lot in one pile, I’d have a flipbook of my life. Just thumb through the stack and see me coming out of the womb, then riding a bigwheel in my OshKosh B’Gosh overalls, then doing ballet in the kitchen. He doesn’t need any particular reason to take a picture. The other day, he took a picture of me spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread.
My parents head into the house, but I linger outside for a moment. We live in front of Crestview’s token park. Like The Clearing, it’s an abnormally large piece of land, mainly because it’s really just a forest. But one day someone slapped some tennis courts, an elaborate swing set, some Druid-like stone shelters, and a steel gate bearing a
PARK CLOSES AT DUSK
sign onto the land and called it a park. Here, at our house, where only the trees—and not the playground accoutrements—are visible, the park looks primitive, untouched. As I eye it now, it seems to have lost none of its mystery after all the times I have stared into it. Sometimes, when I feel grumpy, I try to naysay my entire Ohioan experience and insist that there is no Ohioan beauty that I couldn’t find in New York or Paris or Russia or Madagascar or any of the other places I gaze at in travel books. But my grumpiness is futile. There is an implacable intrigue in the gray-brown quilt that the trees make, and above all, the dark recesses far beyond. In moments like this one, I realize that what I have been attempting to do with those travel books is re-create the marvels that have always been in my own backyard.
What is more, in Central Park you might come across derelicts playing with Campbell’s Soup cans and thinking they’re dogs; you may come across old crones feeding the birds tuppence a bag before shoving a fistful of seeds in their own mouths, crazier birds than the pigeons they feed; you may come across suicidal lovers or homeless men finding feasts in trash cans; but you most certainly would never find a middle-aged Indian recording crude-oil prices on graph paper as if his life depended on it.
I walk into our house through the side door. Only recently have I been able to detect a slight but ever-present odor of Indian cooking permeating its walls. It gets stronger as I walk into the kitchen. For a long time, I assumed that my house was immune to such an odor. I know that the other Indians in our social circle have always had house odors so stifling that an asthmatic wheeze has attacked me upon entering their foyers from time to time, but I thought my house had always been different, Americanized, as cleanly scented as a Glade air freshener. But a few weeks ago when Cody came over to play, he dropped the bomb on me. “Dude, yer house smells like curry.”
“So, vhen do I get to meet
future vife?” my dad asks, entering the kitchen with a cat-sized camcorder held out in front of him. He looks at its small fold-out screen, then twists the screen around so that it faces me. I can see the bored yet uncomfortable look in my own eyes.
“Mom, when do we eat?” I ask nervously, trying to ignore the camcorder. We’ve just eaten
at temple, but it never satisfies our hunger.
feels more like an obligation than a meal.
, it vill be another fifteen minutes. Vhy don’t you go change your clothes and then study until it’s ready? Here—drink this.”
“Okay,” I say, downing the murky concoction of vitamins that she gives me in a tall glass. I head for the foyer. My father follows. He has these stages when his affection for family life comes pouring forth. It’s nearly impossible to guess when this emotional display will occur, but when it does, it’s a full-on wave of giddiness. I can actually converse with him when he’s like this, even if it’s to berate him:
“Dad, please don’t film me while I change!”
“I’ll stop filming if you tell me your girlfriend’s name.” He laughs heartily, flipping the screen back to himself to look at my reaction, as if the screen is a better representation of my feelings than the flesh-and-blood Kiran before him.
“Her name is Stopfilming.”
“And her last name?”
“Singh, Dad. Her name is Stopfilming Singh.” I dash up the stairs, hearing my father call out, “Vell, at least she’s Punjabi…”
The next day, I sit down at our kitchen table and try to make a list of facts that I know about Krishna. If I’m going to reclaim Him, if I’m going to assert that the reason I feel so different from everyone is because I am in fact godly, I’m going to have to mold my current life after my past life. I’m going to have to mimic His behavior. Somehow, I know that this has something to do with the talent show, this reorganization of my character. I just don’t know exactly how yet.
I know that Krishna is blue-skinned, of course, so on my piece of looseleaf paper, I write
1. Blue skin
I also know that Krishna is one embodiment of Vishnu, the Preserver. You see, there are three main gods on the Hindu roster: Brahma the Creator, who was hatched out of an egg on a never-ending sea; Vishnu the Preserver, many-armed and often so light-skinned that He might just be a luxuriously jaundiced Indian; and Shiva the Destroyer, who sits cross-legged and bears that smiling cobra around His neck. Vishnu has the hardest job, I think. Brahma gets to create and let His creations go, like a doodling toddler. Shiva gets to raze everything, like Cody does while playing
, a Cold War–inspired Nintendo game that pits a pair of buff muscle men, machine gun bullets crossing their chests, against various enemies that appear on snow skis, on tanks, in underground pipes. But Vishnu has to take care of everything, like Mrs. Garrett took care of her girls on
The Facts of Life
, and this is probably why He has to split himself into so many incarnations. The fact that Krishna is such a recognizable and shining god is all the more impressive; as one of Vishnu’s many incarnations, He has to fight against other members of an elite crew, but He emerges as the most extravagant, and therefore most memorable, god.
So I write
I also know that Krishna plays the flute. It is said that when He played His flute in the sylvan Indian pastures, animals would travel from near and far to hear Him play, so beautiful were the melodies He blew out.
“Mom, why are cows so sacred to us?” I once asked, echoing the question that so many of my classmates had asked me before. I had never known how to answer; I just scoffed and acted like it was something everyone should know, or something that was offensive to ask an Indian person.
, vhen you look at the pictures of Krishnaji at the temple, vhat do you see around him?” my mother replied, her fingers smushed into a bowlful of dough.
“Um, a jungle. Lots of plants. Some mountains.”
. Cows. Vhen Krishnaji played his flute in the fields, the cows from the farms vould gather around him, and so they are considered holy animals.”
I found this explanation somewhat baffling, as I don’t recall horses and other stable animals being called holy just because they gathered around Jesus when He was in the manger. But comparing Hinduism and Christianity can be like comparing apples and oranges. Or like comparing a blue-skinned flutist and a long-tressed carpenter, to be more precise.
So Krishna played His flute…
…and He attracted cows. I put my pen to my lips and think. I somehow can’t see how I might bring cows into my life, especially cows that come across as holy. There are plenty of cows in Ohio, of course, but those cows do not resemble the cows that appear in the paintings at our temple. The cows in the paintings are clean and serene-looking, lulled by Krishna’s adept flute-playing. The cows in Ohio look sad, and they are usually covered with smears of mud from the filthy, fenced-off pens that line the road. Their sole purpose is not to be religious icons but to spurt out milk.
Then I remember: Krishna’s favorite food is butter. It is His only weakness. In the
, which my mother used to read to me, Krishna appears wise and seemingly invincible; He gives advice to the warrior Arjuna in the middle of a battlefield, bookended by the opposing armies of the brothers Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra. Krishna is the fount of wisdom, and He represents everything calm and honest and impenetrable about God and man. And yet butter was His culinary kryptonite, His dairy downfall. When He was a child, the baby-blue Krishna would raid His mother’s pantry and steal a pot of butter, which He would set on the ground and wrap His plump little legs around before ingesting all of the creamy smoothness inside. Most portraits of Krishna as a baby show what looks like a little girl, her hair festooned with gold ribbons, a sun or a moon behind her head, and her little, red-palmed hands covered in yellow goo. On her face, there is the pleased look of a child who knows she’s done wrong, and yet there is a certain momentum contained within the picture, as if, right when you turn your back on it, the little girl will resume her sloppy eating right away.
I can encapsulate cows and milk at the same time, and so I write
4. Butter eater
The last thing—which in many ways was the first thing in my mind—is Krishna’s status as the ultimate lover. In many pictures, He is pictured with Radha, His consort, a traditionally beautiful Indian girl who wears simple saris but still looks devastatingly beautiful. The two of them are usually sitting on a hillside, with Radha propped up on one arm and Krishna right behind her, sculpting His frame to fit the curves of her body. It is almost as if Radha is daydreaming but has a luxurious specter whispering things into her ear. Although Krishna wears flashy clothing and has pierced ears and has red lips, there is also something masculine about Him, a tautness in the bulge of His blue biceps and blue chest, a sense of dominance about His posture. He is the lover extraordinaire, aware of the power of his body and his sensuality. I will need to find a girl with whom I can feel entirely comfortable yet whose actions I might be able to control somewhat.
For my last item, I write
I look at my list again.
I have already mastered the art of making myself blue thanks to Estée Lauder, and so I put a check mark next to number one.
I put a check next to number two: I know that I have already succeeded in many ways in making myself extravagant. Still, I will have to find new ways to keep myself continually renowned. This is where the talent show will factor in. I just know it.
Number three. I think for a while, wondering where I may get a flute. I am stumped. Maybe I will steal one from the school. I circle number three.
I come to number four and frown. Butter. Eating butter seems like something inextricable from the persona of Krishna; it is something I will have to do full-force. Being a god is not easy, I tell myself. Gods have to attend to the entire world; they have to listen to everyone’s prayers and preserve. I circle number four, knowing that I will have to create a stash of butter to sate my Krishna appetite.
I am just about to consider number five—
—when my father comes into the kitchen with a copy of
and seats himself at the table.
“Vhat are you doing,
,” he says, smoothing the newspaper in front of him like an archaeologist planning a dig.
“Oh, nothing,” I say, folding up my list quickly and clutching it at my side. “Math homework.”
“Good,” he says, already lost in the newspaper. He acknowledges my mother with a clearing of his throat when she appears, as if by magic, and takes her place at the stove.
I am a walking museum of oddities, and the thing I want the most is genuine sympathy from someone. Well, there’s Cody, but that’s not exactly a strong friendship, either.
Cody Ulrich is a beautiful boy except for one abnormality. He’s a pseudo-hunchback. He comes from a line of unflagging chain smokers—his father Earl’s license plate reads M EARL BORO—and that included the pregnant Mrs. Ulrich, who decided that lighting a ciggie up after her intrapartum feasts of pickles and strawberry jam would only be fair since she was perpetuating the species and all. The result was a baby born with one dead nerve running along his shoulders, one that pulls them forward.
We met last year in Mrs. Nolan’s class. I wish that I could give you some grand reason why we became friends, but the truth is that we were seated next to each other. Cody often forgot to bring a pencil to school, and I was always the person who had to give him one. The second week of class, I lent him one that had red and white stripes on it, like a candy cane, and he looked at me like I had just turned into a unicorn. I expected that he would never talk to me again, but later that day, he wandered over to my empty lunch table, slammed the pencil on the table in front of me, and said, “I guess yer all I got.” Thus a friendship was born.
As if to match the elderly slant of his body, Cody has developed the cynical drollness of a Vietnam vet, and I am usually the recipient of this disposition.
“Who gets a splinter in their ass?” he asks over lunch in the cafetorium—which should actually be called a gymnacafetorium, as it is the venue of not just lunch and pageants but games of dodgeball and pep rallies. I am eating my usual sack lunch of Capri-Sun fruit punch, three sticks of celery, a cup of apple-sauce, and two Ziplocked
, the brown burn spots on them akin to the moles covering Lunchlady Packer’s skin. Cody is eating school food: a rectangular piece of pizza so undercooked in the cafeteria kitchen’s industrial-sized oven that I think I see ice crystals covering the cheese. “Seriously, Keern. Yer such a sissy.”
ass.’ Not ‘their.’ And I am
a sissy,” I insist. Cody is the only person to whom I can say anything with any trace of insistence since no matter what he says, he’ll always be the token hunchback. “I’m not the one who did something wrong. They pushed me!”
“Well, what were ya thinkin’ hangin’ out with Sarah and Melissa anyway? They’re two of the prettiest girls in school. Why would they be friends with
Oftentimes, it seems that Cody is simply a human embodiment of my shame. He always seems to say what my self-esteem has already told me.
“I am floundering,” I say, pensively.
“‘Flounder.’ ‘To act clumsily.’ It’s one of my vocab words for the week. It’s also the name of Ariel’s sidekick in
The Little Mermaid
He laughs, his hunched shoulder fluttering like the wings of a captured moth. “And ya don’t think yer a sissy? Anyway, if yer not too busy watching
The Little Mermaid
for the millionth time, ya wanna come over today after school? My parents are visitin’ my grandparents in Louisville today.”
I know what this means. It means Cody wants to spend the afternoon looking at
How to explain the universal intrigue of a tit?
There is something ever-calming about the roundness of a tit, its buoyancy, the peacefulness of the concentric circle in its middle, darker. The posturing of a tit can vary so greatly, and yet the allure of it never dissipates. Tilted forward, the iris of the eye looking at the ground, the rest of the flesh fatly stretching. Or facing upward, splayed across a chest, lolling around like a plate of Jell-O, the eye quavering. Or staring straight ahead, serene in its sternness. A tit reminds me of Madonna. It can be brash and wild when it wants to be, and yet there are those “Live to Tell” moments when it’s calm and collected.
And there are two of them. So all of this is doubled.
Cody keeps his stack of
under the desk in his bedroom. “I figger my parents are goin’ to check all of the easy hidin’ places,” he says. “Under the mattress, in the closet. So why not pick the easiest place of all? They’ll never check there.”
And it’s a miracle they haven’t yet. The bounty is easily visible under the desk, but it could be mistaken for a stack of comic books or baseball card catalogs. When we get to Cody’s room—me batting away the spaghetti western–style cigarette smoke around us—Cody closes the door, his back extra-hunched with secrecy. He tiptoes over to the stack, his stance becoming more of a wobble, for obvious genital-augmenting reasons. He slides the entire stack out. Not a speck of dust covers the top of it, which makes me immediately aware of just how often Cody looks at smut.