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Authors: Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla

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BOOK: The Two Krishnas
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Pooja hadn’t doubted Nicky Cacioppo’s role in all this but like a typical parent, she doubted her own child was capable of such actions. In time, she refused to probe further, choosing instead to observe extra prayers for him, and Mr. Flaherty’s impassioned auguries about “angel-faced Ajay” actually being a “ticking time bomb” were dismissed from Pooja’s mind, only to be revived at the ominous mention of Nicky Cacioppo’s name once in a while.

She had tried to discourage Ajay from seeing too much of Nicky but was careful not to come across as domineering, aware that the one certain way of making young people rebel was to try and enforce absolute restrictions. She also suspected that in Rahul’s absenteeism, something that seemed to have increased in the last year; Ajay must be thirsting for male camaraderie. Even the rare occasions of going to watch the Lakers together or just watching those noisy, action DVDs at home had ceased now.

Pooja had read somewhere that there were some very specific psychological stages that a child went through on his journey to manhood. A son must negotiate the process of differentiating from his mother and she must be careful not to mollycoddle him. He had to stop seeing himself in her, develop a sense of his own identity, and eventually align with his father. She was saddened to think that while Ajay had successfully severed the umbilical cord, father and son had only managed to forge a distant affection for one another.

Even as she looked out at the street, Pooja stood next to Rahul at the edge of the Indian Ocean in Mombasa, his arm around her waist, contemplating their lives together in America; Rahul and she bent over little Ajay as he blew out the candles on a birthday cake—moments which now felt like they’d happened to somebody else. Pooja grew restless, wanted to ask Rahul if they could change things, go back. Slowly, what made her uncomfortable was growing familiar.
This is not the life I envisioned,
she thought.
This is not the family I want.
She backed away from the window.

The Jeep roared away and Ajay jogged back in, throwing his hands up in the air. “Okay, let’s bust out that
channa masala.”

“Really? Because if you’d rather not…” she found herself saying.

“Mom,” he said, walking up to her and putting a hand on her shoulder. “I want to, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, beaming. “Just the way you used to like it then, with lots of cilantro.”

While she busied herself in the kitchen, he sat on the sofa and took the small statue of cherubic Ganesha, frozen in his crawl, from the coffee table and into the palm of his hand. His finger ran over the god’s rotund belly, coiling trunk and broken tusk.

“I would rather you didn’t mention anything to your father. I really don’t want to worry him,” she said from the kitchen. “Ajay?”

“Yeah, Mom.”

She glanced out at him, found him communing with the elephant-god. “You know, when you were little, you loved to hear the story of Ganesha over and over again. Just couldn’t get enough of it. Sometimes, I’d trick you into eating all your food by telling you the same story.” Little Ajay, looking up at her with his wondrous brown eyes under a fringe of soft brown hair, crawled through her mind’s eye. “Do you remember?”

Ajay gave a short laugh, a bit embarrassed but basking in the attention.

She came out of the kitchen with placemats, napkins and utensils and started laying out the dinner table. “I used to call you my little Ganesh. I think if your grandmother hadn’t insisted on calling you Ajay or Arjun, you would have been called Ganesh only.”

“Which grandma?”

She looked up at him, realizing that she had unwittingly opened a door into the past. “Your father’s mother,” she said, hurrying back into the kitchen.

Ajay put Ganesha back on the table and walked over to the kitchen so he could see her. He stood in the doorjamb, watching her spoon out the golden curry onto a plate, her agitation palpable. “I’m sorry, but it may be a little salty for you. I can add some lime juice.”

“You never want to talk about them.”

“Whatever do you mean,
beta?”
she said, her eyes fixed on the cilantro she was sprinkling over the hillock of garbanzo beans.

“Papa’s parents. We never talk about them. No pictures, nothing.”

“But what’s there to talk about? You weren’t even born when they passed away.”

Pooja removed
parothas
glistening with a film of clarified butter from the skillet, and stacked them on another plate. Finally, she looked up him. He was not going to be discouraged. Her lips parted but there were no words. How do you describe to your son the horrors of watching your family degraded and annihilated? How to recall the hell without being dragged back into it, without robbing him off his innocence? Even now, she could hear the screams, see their faces, smell the charnel. No, it was better this way. Better he grew up untouched by the evil she had seen, just another normal, American boy.

“There was just a terrible accident, Ajay,” she said, blinking back tears. “You already know this.”

Ajay saw the tears in her eyes, how much she missed them and the pain it was causing her. He let it go. As usual, it was a closed subject. His father never spoke much to begin with but when it came to the past, he was a stone, as if nothing existed before Ajay was born, and his mother was complicit in this. As a child Ajay had been inquisitive, often asking about their lives in Kenya: What was it like growing up there? How did their family end up in Kenya in the first place? How did they come to America? What had been the names of his grandparents and the aunt who had died with them in this tragedy? When he persisted, the answers were always without elaboration, tinged with discomfort. “Kiran and your Mum were best friends in school,” or “ We were the lucky ones, won the lottery.” As he had grown older, Ajay had stopped asking completely, the curiosity dissipating with the distraction of his own life.

Holding a plate overflowing with steaming food in each hand, Pooja paused by him on the way to the dining room. “Your father—we,” she added almost as an afterthought, “don’t think it does much good to linger in the past, Ajay. The future—now that is much more important.”

* * *

After Rahul left, Atif gathered the soiled sheets to him with the care and reverence reserved for the truly sacred. He buried his face in the soft cotton, breathed in the mingled smell of sweat, semen and sticky lubricant, trying to relive the hours, to prove that they had actually been together. The human body shed so many skin cells every moment that in a few years a person could shed their entire body weight in them. Atif knew that so much of Rahul was still there, contained in those sheets.

After carefully rolling them up and depositing them into a hamper, he paused to look at himself in the mirror above the bathroom sink. There, coalesced with the thatch of hair on his stomach, he found Rahul’s crusted semen. As he fingered the ashen remains of their lovemaking, bits of it flaking from his touch, he wondered if Rahul’s wife held the same awe for her husband’s seed. If she too, had tasted it on her tongue, touched it—not with repulsion but with wonder—and let it tarry upon her skin until it had altered into this.
How can any woman who has lived with a man, who has loved him for so long not know? Was deception just this simple?

Through the paper-thin walls, he could hear his neighbor, Nona Nguyen, rummaging through her medicine chest as she prepared for yet another blind date through Matchmaker.com, to which she had become addicted. To date, Nona had been on some one hundred and thirty futile dates; she painstakingly compiled the entire correspondence—even the shortest liaison qualifying for some fifty e-mails—in hulking files alphabetized by the failed candidate’s first name. Someday, she hoped to release them as a self-help book for serial daters who could learn from her experience.

Nona was Vietnamese, in her 30’s (she was never specific), possessed a startling talent for make-up and freely told everyone within fifteen minutes that she had herpes. “Don’t use that glass, I have herpes! Oh, I’d better not kiss you because, you know, I have herpes. But then it’s quite common so you probably already have it too, right?” The other story she liked to tell, a bit more hesitantly, was how she remembered being picked up off the roof of the consulate building in Saigon by the U.S. troopers, the smell of burning napalm and death all around her.

Atif wanted to bask in the afterglow so he tried to be quiet so they wouldn’t have to speak, since mere presence in the bathroom was enough to be alerted of goings-on on the other side. He would hear from her soon enough, if not at the end of the night, then the first thing tomorrow. She’d call out his name, announcing her arrival long before she got to his door. He expected her to come in slumping, looking as dowdy in her flannel pajamas as she had looked glamorous the night before in the shocking red mini and knee-high leather boots, without the contact lenses and squinting through bottle-thick glasses, to invade him with her litany on the shortage of quality, available men in “this fucking plastic city.” She just might pop in to get a gay man’s fashion take before unleashing herself on her next victim. Or maybe she had rear-ended yet another car. Nona Nguyen had rammed into more cars than anyone Atif knew and had totaled at least two of them, one being her own, because she was rummaging for the cell phone in her purse.

She had frequently and vehemently advised him against Rahul. “Atisha,” she was fond of feminizing his name, “He’s a married man, for Chrissake! What’s wrong with you? I mean, wake up and smell the chai, baby. What do you think? He’s going to leave his wife for you? You think he’s going to jump out of the closet he’s been hiding in all his life and—tah-dah!—run out to West Hollywood with you? Come on.” When he explained that he wasn’t interested in all that anymore, she said, “Well, then take yoga, join a gym—hey, what about some kind of support group, you know, for people recovering from something? Those places must be perfect for meeting needy guys who’ve done it all and just want to fall in love.”

“Look, I don’t want him to leave anyone, okay? I don’t even want him to come out of any goddamned closet. In fact, I think I prefer it this way. I’ve been with single, gay men, trust me, they’re overrated.”

“That’s the problem,” she said, blinking vigorously like she was rapidly losing sight, “you’re a straight-hag. What you need to do is to put yourself out there, honey. In the whole of Weho, there’s got to be at least one perfect guy for you.”

But he had already been out there—foraged through “it” nightclubs packed with impeccably sculpted bodies that offered little more than façades, spun like a drunken dervish in dank rooms marinating in sex only to feel lonelier and debased in the morning with a lice-picking comb at his crotch; grown elated about a new prospect only to feel bitter because they were either sexually incompatible with each other (exclusive top or bottom) or not mutually interested.

Without the enterprise of marriage and children, which kept even unfulfilled couples hanging on in tenuous relationships, there was also a discriminating consumer mentality so that gay men were always shopping for a new love, sampling new merchandise, finding it hard to commit or settle, refusing to grow up. Most of the gay couples that had made a go of it had, within a few years, evolved into an “open relationship” where a third was brought in to fan sexual desire, or an understanding was reached about turning a blind eye to one-night stands.

Atif had ceased confiding and defending his point of view. Slowly he gave in to a hermetic lifestyle, growing tired of listening to how selfish Rahul was being, how he wanted to have his cake and eat it too, how he should be concerned about that poor woman; how, if he had no guilt about cheating on her, then he would do the same to Atif as well. He knew better than to explain the complexity of love with commonsense.

The damned fools would never understand that love—that fatalistic, inexplicable attraction between two people—was not just the virtuous, purgative ingredient of some hackneyed fairytale; love was savage, unrelenting. Not something clean or tidy. It trampled on logic. Passionate, archetypal love, the kind that had inspired great art and endured through time, never came in decorous, predictable packages. It was never free of the kind of tribulation that tested the mettle of one’s very existence, and it inevitably became the target of contempt by those people who didn’t possess either the imagination or the strength for its mysteries.

* * *

Pooja sat by Ajay, watching him eat the curried garbanzos with delight. As he parceled little mouthfuls wrapped in the flaky leavened bread into his mouth, she practically felt her own stomach thank her. She wanted to hold him, but she knew that now this kind of affectionate display would embarrass him. She settled instead for the dimpled smiles he gave her and in which she could clearly see Rahul, making her miss him even more.

Children, she knew, were supposed to be physical and spiritual extensions of their parents. Sometimes though, save for a physical trait here and there, they turned out mystifyingly different, perhaps taking qualities from past generations lost to cognition. She herself had been no exception, famous in her father’s eyes for what he saw as her peculiar eating habits and love for Krishna.

She looked tenderly at Ajay’s shaved forearm where a burn mark resembling South America had been etched. He had been only three when it happened but she remembered it as if it was only yesterday. Then Rahul and Pooja had lived in a little two-bedroom apartment on Washington Boulevard in Culver City. One evening, Pooja realized she had forgotten to pick up black mustard seeds for the potato curry she was making for supper. Although Rahul offered to dash to the neighborhood supermarket and pick some up, Pooja had insisted on the black variety that could only be found at Indian stores, and she’d driven to one nearby, leaving Rahul to give Ajay his milk bottle.

BOOK: The Two Krishnas
12.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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