February 6, 2012
Manoj waited anxiously at LaGuardia for the flight to land from Columbus, Ohio. He and Valsala had spent the previous evening frantically cleaning their apartment, clearing their son Raju’s room, preparing it for his grandmother’s visit. Manoj had never minded when Valsala’s parents came to stay, back in the days when his father-in-law was still alive. The heart attack was sudden and unexpected, and the saddest part was that he never set eyes on his grandson. When Valsala became pregnant with Raju she was still mourning the loss of her father, and the baby’s arrival helped a great deal in allowing the family to get on with the business of living. His mother-in-law came often then, but when Valsala’s sister in Columbus gave birth to twins, she moved into their spacious basement. Now, she came twice a year and stayed for a few weeks at a time. She never complained, at least when Manoj was around, but she often asked her daughter why they chose to live in such a god-forsaken place (Brooklyn), where you couldn’t find decent housing and rubbish piled up in the streets.
Manoj popped a Nicorette and checked his watch. The monitor said the flight had already landed and he hoped she hadn’t gone down the escalators yet. He was relieved to find that he could see the pack coming down the corridor. He stood on tip-toes, and not spotting her, maneuvered to the front of the waiting crowd, trying to determine whether the passengers seemed like they were coming from Ohio. It was a futile exercise; Ohio, Chicago, St. Louis, what really was the difference? They all looked uniformly chubby, pasty, and happy in an ersatz way. He counted four blacks, two businessmen and a couple, thinking they looked kind of edgy in contrast. And right behind the black couple he saw her tiny form, in a down overcoat, slowly pulling a carry-on suitcase behind her. She had a blue scarf knotted at the chin, and even from a distance Manoj noticed she’d grayed considerably since last year. He waved and she gave a tired wave back.“Here we go,” Manoj said.
When she neared he realized she actually looked quite well, she’d put on a little weight and it suited her, made her seem more vital. She’d also changed her glasses from the 70’s Sophia Loren she always wore to some elegant frameless ones. Close up, in her black, puffy down coat (worn over a floral sari), a big, bright red bindi like a beacon on her forehead, she looked more like an advanced planet’s queen on Star Trek. “Amma,” Manoj said greeting her with a half hug. He immediately reached for the suitcase and she handed it over gladly.
“You’re looking well,” she said.
“Tip-top,” Manoj said, although it was far from true. He wasn’t smoking any more, which was good. He’d put on twenty-two pounds, which was not good. He tried to exercise for a few weeks, but he hated the sheer monotony and loneliness of it. The truth was he felt far better over all when his habits were worse. He watched Amma carefully walking down the stairs. As time goes on you take better and better care of a degenerating system. Until it’s pointless. “We’re in the lot,” he said, leading her past the baggage carousels. “No luggage, right?”
“Only that. Valsala and Raju didn’t want to come?”
“Actually Raju is a little under the weather. Nothing serious.”
“Oh no. Fever?”
“Low grade in the morning. It’s already gone.”
“You should be careful, he’s very susceptible to sinus problems.”
“Raju doesn’t have any sinus problems.” She was doing it again. He never understood why. Once in a while Amma would make the strangest remarks about Raju, some accurate and others quite bizarre. He’d asked Valsala to talk to her and Valsala said that she did and that everything would be fine. Amma stopped, it’s true, but Valsala never explained why her mother spoke like that in the first place.
“It won’t hurt to get it checked. Even as a precaution.”
“Sure, whatever,” Manoj said. He truly didn’t want the visit to begin in a bad way. He started humming softly to calm himself down.
“We’re home,” Manoj shouted, pushing the door open for Amma. She removed her scarf and stood in the middle of the front room rubbing her hands together. “Colder here than in Columbus,” she said. Valsala came out to greet her mother. She squeezed the soft shoulders of her coat. “Amma. How was the flight?”
“Let’s get this off you,” Valsala said, helping her with her coat. “Isn’t the cold horrible?”
“Raju is sick?” Amma inquired.
“Oh, I told him not to worry you. Manoj, why did you tell her?”
“Because I’m a cruel man that wants to torment your mother,” Manoj said. He was removing his boots in the foyer.
“Big comedian,” Valsala said, then to her mother, “Raju’s fine. He just needs some rest.”
“Amma says we should have his sinuses examined, Valsala. I told her as far I know he has no sinus problems.” His delivery was deadpan to convey to Valsala that Amma was at it again.
“Amma,” Valsala said like she was scolding her. Manoj looked up in time to see Amma shrugging her shoulders. He was disconcerted to notice that mother and daughter seemed to share a secret. Although he was accustomed to not understanding them when they occasionally spoke in Malayalam, it never felt like they were talking about anything he shouldn’t know about. This was something different. “Shall I make some tea?” Valsala asked her mother in Malayalam.
Manoj knew enough to understand that much at least. His parents were originally from Kerala, but they’d moved to Delhi shortly after they’d married, and after that to Geneva, and then to New York. Manoj’s older sister was born in India, but Manoj was 100% American, born at Mount Sinai when his father was still active in the U.N. His sister had somehow managed to learn enough to know what they were saying, and she held that as a secret power all through their adolescence. Now she was almost fluent, while Manoj remained ignorant. It certainly bothered him, but not enough to spend any serious time studying it. He wasn’t even sure he liked the way it sounded, with all its impossible slippery consonants and nasal distinctions. “Yes, I would love some nice tea,” Manoj said, joining them in the living room.
“I’ll help you,” Amma said and they both got up and went into the kitchen, leaving Manoj alone. He thought he would follow them and see if he could glean any clue to the mystery. Instead he decided to check on Raju. He went to their bedroom and slowly opened the door. Raju was asleep on a small mattress next to their bed, the slash of light from the hall falling on his sleeping face. Manoj closed the door behind him and knelt in the dark. He leaned down and kissed his boy, pressed his cheek against his, happy to find no fever there. He kissed the top his head. “You’ll be fine, little buddy,” he whispered. Raju stirred and smacked his lips. For a moment his forehead wrinkled like he was thinking deeply on something, a dream creature or puzzle, then he flipped over mumbling as though it were irresolvable. He was in a completely private experience, unreachable by Manoj or anyone else. Manoj had never witnessed that before, or rather had never been reminded, that his son, ultimately, was an independent consciousness, and no matter how hard they tried to protect him, teach him, love him, he would have to take the perilous journey alone. He got up and left the room, wanting to escape the thought.
He found Valsala and Amma sitting at the table in the kitchen, animatedly talking in Malayalam. When he stepped in they became awkward. “So he’s really liking his classes,” Valsala said, and it sounded gratuitous.
“Okay, what’s going on?” Manoj asked.
Mother and daughter exchanged glances. “Where?” Valsala asked.
“Here. All this. What is it? Come on, Valsala. I’ve been under too much stress as it is. You know that. Out with it.”
Amma got up and was checking on the tea, stirring the pot. “What?” Valsala said, getting up and standing next to Amma. “This is absurd!” Amma said. Valsala cringed, in a theatrical way. “I’m telling him,” Amma said and gestured for Manoj to sit down. He did and so did Amma. Valsala stood leaning against the counter, her eyes squinted, making a tense, unpleasant face.
“Alright,” Amma said, “I wanted to tell you a long time ago, but this one said you would only get upset, so naturally I thought why unnecessarily upset him? In the meantime I have been carefully observing, so that when I did tell you, I would have more evidence.”
“Of what?” Manoj asked Valsala, and she shocked him by making a namaste and a pleading face, mouthing the words, “Please don’t get mad.”
“See, Manoj,” Amma continued, “Shortly after Achan passed away, I started to have dreams, vivid dreams, as sharp as us sitting right here, where Achan would come to me and tell me different things.”
“What kinds of things?” Manoj asked.
“All kinds of things. Not to be afraid. That he will look after me. How to manage money. Many things.”
“Stock tips?” Manoj asked. Valsala rolled her eyes to the heavens.
“I am talking about something serious here, Manoj,” Amma said, stern like a mother.
“Sorry,” Manoj said.
“So I would have these dreams. And one night, he came to me and said, I remember it so clearly. He said, ‘I will not see you here again. I am leaving this place. But I will see you soon with fresh eyes.’ Can you believe it? I woke up with goose bumps. I hadn’t mentioned these dreams to anyone, not even Valsala, because I didn’t want to concern people. Either they would think I was mad or they would feel sorry for me and I wanted none of it. But after the last dream I felt I had to tell Valsala. I waited until the next morning, but before I could telephone, she’d already called me with her news…” She turned, looking to Valsala to fill in the rest of the story. Valsala shrugged with her crimped face. “That she was pregnant with Raju, of course,” Amma concluded.
It took Manoj a few seconds to put it together, and Valsala was right, he was immediately irritated. “Wait. So, you’re saying that Achan reincarnated as Raju? Am I understanding this correctly?” He looked again to Valsala who nodded, making her pleading face.
“Yes,” Amma said, letting out a breath as though a big weight had been finally lifted off her shoulders.
“And what do you say to all this?” he asked Valsala.
“I don’t know,” Valsala said. Clearly she didn’t want to be in the middle of any unpleasantness. And Manoj and Amma had been known to lock horns from time to time. In the past he never minded because she had an interesting mind. She never really interfered in any traditional way, she wasn’t that kind of mother-in-law. But she held to her views and fought for them. Manoj was used to it and even enjoyed it; his mother was the same way. Many Kerala women were fierce.
“With all due respect, Amma, I think we’ll keep Raju as plain Raju. Raju neat, let’s call him.”
“You don’t believe it’s possible?” Amma asked.
“Sure it’s possible. All kinds of things are possible. Doesn’t make them likely.”
“If you had seen how clear those dreams were…”
“Look, I’m not doubting your dreams. But, what did he say, ‘fresh eyes’? That could mean anyone. Why Raju? Secondly,” and he was thrilled to have figured this out, “When Valsala called you she was already seven weeks pregnant and you claim to have had the dream the night before the call. So…” He got up, pacing like Perry Mason, turning and pointing. “Achan was still hanging around your dreamlife when fetus Raju was well on his way.”
“That’s what I said,” Valsala said. Manoj was happy she was supportive and simultaneously deflated that his insight had already been considered.
“And?” Manoj said.
“These things don’t necessarily occur in human time,” Amma said matter-of-factly. She was for some years a student of metaphysical literature.
“You’re saying the dream could have happened seven weeks before you remembered it?” Manoj asked, wanting to push the conversation to ludicrousness as fast as possible.
“Any number of things,” Amma said like it was obvious. “Or it was when the spirit entered the body that I had the dream. Or some other more subtle time continuum. It doesn’t matter. The dream and the news came to me together. That is the point of connection.”
Manoj was worried because he almost saw some logic in what she was saying. “Amma, again with all due respect, you may believe what you want, but please don’t ever talk to Raju about anything like this. It could have all sorts of strange effects. Psychiatrists won’t even know how to treat it.” He laughed, noticing it sounded a bit forced.
“What do you take me for?” Amma said, indignant. “I know it’s not for him to know.”
“But Amma, don’t you see if you keep looking for Achan all the time, you miss the very unique, very delightful experience which is Raju himself.”
“It’s not like that,” Amma said. “My enjoyment is far deeper.”
Raju was a sweet boy, everyone thought so. He was kind, well-mannered, a bit scrawny yet cute, with a big head and glasses. He was coordinated enough not to be the last one picked at sports, but basically he was a bookworm. Even before he could read (at the ripe age of three) he loved to handle the books that they read to him from: The Cat in the Hat and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. He was a darling to his teachers. They were considering letting him skip third, then together with the school, decided it would be bad for him to have to make new friends (at current count, one: Mickey Rae, a nice Korean kid with engineer parents). Raju’s precocity had naturally been a source of great pride for Manoj. But as he sat in his cubicle, unable to concentrate on the defective computer program of his own making, he could only think of Achan’s spirit hovering in the ether, waiting to take form as his child.
So what if Achan was an avid reader? And neither Manoj nor Valsala would qualify as such? So what, as Amma later pointed out, if Achan loved Britannia Biscuits as Raju does? “Everybody does!” Manoj had shouted in protest. So what if they both hated eggs, loved cheese, and had a moody side? “All tenuous! Circumstantial! Wouldn’t stand in any court of law,” Manoj had declaimed. Amma, however, remained confirmed in her belief, showing little desire to convince Manoj any further. “I honestly don’t understand why this upsets you,” she’d concluded. “After all, somebody has to reincarnate.” Manoj realized he was in no mood to continue. He left the table calmly with a friendly smile and later in bed he actually did calm down after Valsala agreed that it was ridiculous and gave him a nice massage. It was only on the subway the next morning that he felt in hindsight that Valsala’s denunciations seemed a bit pro forma. He wasn’t convinced that she didn’t believe in some part of her mind that their son and her father were the same soul.
But is that in fact what the belief is? Manoj wasn’t sure. The problem was not that he didn’t believe in reincarnation. There were too many uncanny stories of children describing towns and people thousands of miles away with inexplicable accuracy. Not to mention the Dalai Lama. It was that reincarnation fell into a larger category of things he didn’t like to think about. He wasn’t insensitive, nothing like it. There were just certain dimensions of life he was loathe to explore with his intellect, believing the inquiry ultimately fruitless.
Clearly he needed some expertise. He picked up the phone and dialed his friend Krishnan at Merrill Lynch. “Hello, Krish.”
“Hello Krish, this is Manoj.”
“Hey Manoj! What’s up, dude? Waaassssup?” Krishnan immigrated to the States for graduate school ten years ago and he loved talking “American” with Manoj. It was funnier when his accent was worse. Now he sounded almost convincing.
“You’ll like this,” Manoj said.
“My mother-in-law thinks Raju is the reincarnation of her husband.”
“Heavy. So is he?”
“What? What do you mean is he? How am I supposed to know?”
“It’s possible, of course.”
“You think so?”
“Have any lunch plans?”
“I am seeing you, my guru.” Manoj did his Indian accent, which was daily sounding more like Apu on The Simpsons. “Pak Tea House?”
“You know us finance types.”
“What the hell. This day sucks anyway.”
“Fifteen minutes. I will enlighten you to the best of my abilities, my son. Or is that…my father?”
“Ha ha,” Manoj said in a monotone, hanging up. He shut down his computer and the blank screen seemed to be mocking him. He flipped it his middle finger, which would have been pitiful enough, but worse, he was thrilled by the defiance. Manoj had the creeping sense of powerlessness that comes with middle age, the knowledge inscribed in your very tissues and nerves that you will spend the rest of your life fighting chaos, and losing. Stepping out onto bustling Church Street, the air cold and crisp, he was certainly ready for a drink.
When Manoj met Krishnan a decade ago at a party in Queens, he’d landed only two weeks before that, yet he was already comfortable enough to joke and get drunk with charm. They got along as soon as they met. Manoj was still single then, making good money, living in a sunny studio in the east twenties. He worked hard and played hard, dating all kinds of girls (white, black, brown, even a Jersey big-hair girl once), spending most of his evenings in clubs and bars. Krishnan joined him a few times, but admitted that he preferred jazz joints, and those tended to make Manoj restless. Typically, he liked to hit three or four spots in a night, moving constantly.
It was not Krishnan’s speed. He was more comfortable entertaining in the apartment he shared with two other Indian grad students. They’d have dinner parties where Krishnan would cook his killer vegetarian curries. He’d met Valsala at Krishnan’s house. And then everything changed. Just like that. On the nights Manoj sat up unable to sleep, he would occasionally remember those wild times in disbelief, as if it were someone else, and certainly not the man thinking of how to manage private school.
Still, here was Krishnan all these years later, gingerly walking two large martinis back to the table. And it wasn’t even two o’clock. The glasses were filled to the brim, Krishnan taking a noisy slurp of his as he set Manoj’s drink down. “Vroom,” Krishnan said, sitting. Recently Manoj worried that Krishnan might be developing a drinking problem.
“Cheers,” Manoj said. He sipped his drink without touching the glass. “Oh, that’s good. Warms your toes.” He couldn’t get Krishnan’s face into focus.
“Now,” Krishnan said. Manoj was dismayed to see him pull out a pack of Camel Filters.
“What are you doing. That’s illegal.”
“Hookah license.” He pointed to three decrepit hookahs in the corner.
“But, you quit, man! You quit for what, like ten months?”
Krishnan grinned, taking a cigarette, lighting it, inhaling like it was his last breath. Then he dropped his jaw, smoke curling slowly out of his mouth. He puckered his lips, blowing rings. “Well, you know what they say, nobody loves a quitter.”
“Hell. I have to deal with this now.” Manoj rifled his pockets, relieved to find a Nicorette. He bit the piece in half, saving the rest for later.
“Yes, my son, life is full of challenges. But if it is easier for you, I will remove the package from the table.” He put in his pocket.
“No…whatever. I mean I have to deal with it, right?”
“They are never too far away. You might as well become accustomed to it.” He blew three more rings. Krishnan’s lids came down over his bulging eyes, his brows raised in ecstasy. “I’ll never quit again.”
“Now, that’s a mature decision.”
“Let me ask you, are you happier since you quit?”
“I have a family to think about. And I’m three years older than you. Which in this instance is actually a factor.”
“All true.” Krishnan raised his glass, appearing to take only a sip, but the martini was gone. He popped the olive in his mouth and went to the bar for another. Manoj had known Krishnan through periods where he drank in excess, he’d known him through his first real relationship (and its dissolution), even through the untimely death of his mother. That’s when Krishnan went on his pilgrimage, read those Deepak Chopra-like books, and took up meditation. The pious phase probably lasted six months in all, though Krishnan wasn’t the same after it. He was deeper for sure, and Manoj thought, slightly sadder.
“Okay, I’ll tell you,” Krishnan said, sitting down. “The people that probably know the most about this currently are the Tibetans. They are the ones with the best research. And of course, it is normal there. This kind of known reincarnation. So, it does happen. There are cases.” He sipped his drink. “The fundamental idea of course has been debated through the ages. Even the Catholic Church believed in it until some bloody Pope outlawed it. You know how I see it?”
“That is what I want, guru, with all my most burning desire.”
He leaned forward, his hands out like he was clasping a soccer ball. “There is this entity, consciousness, being, identity. Are you following?”
“Yes, your most beneficent one.”
“And it appears to be a singular thing, but in fact it is comprised of other things.” He wiggled his fingers like frenzied snakes. “Many cells, and genes and mitochondria and all that, and also many different determining factors in the being itself.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Look, when you die, what happens to that energy, that consciousness, with all its memories and hopes? What precisely happens? Some conversion must take place, correct? Like they say the last thing you wish is important. If your father-in-law’s last wish was not to leave his daughter…he could have been very focused on it.”
“So what does that make me, some kind of fucked-up sperm donor? Reuniting daddy and his girl? I mean, if Valsala thinks it’s remotely possible, isn’t she going to be doing some weird psychological thing with her father when she’s dealing with Raju? I mean, that’s got to be messed up, right? It’s kinky, man! It’s an outrage!”
“Calm, my child, calm. No reason to jump the gun. Do the test.”
“The Tibetan way. Amma certainly couldn’t object to an age-old method of verification. Lay out a number of his things along with similar things and ask Raju to pick. And if he doesn’t pick correctly you get from Amma that she will drop the whole subject. See? Neat. This is why they pay me the big bucks.”
“I don’t know. Doing that to Raju doesn’t seem right, somehow.”
“Raju will take it as a game, a lark. If you get Amma to agree, the plan is nearly foolproof.”
“I mean, if he picks right…”
Manoj reached for a Camel and lit it before he could think.
He left Krishnan at the bar, ordering another round and unsuccessfully trying to chat up the pretty biker-chick bartender. At home, he thought about the test all night, the various angles of it, and he wasn’t sure whether going through the big drama would in some way be a capitulation to Amma. If he just ignored the entire issue, in time it might recede. Why stir the pot? he thought, stirring his morning tea.
Amma and Valsala had gone shopping in Queens, and he knew Raju had no play dates for the day. It would give Manoj a chance to spend some quality time with the boy (a thing he’d done little of in the last year) and see whether it would help in any way to clarify how he felt about the test. Raju had already gotten up and was brushing his teeth. Manoj got the box of Cheerios out of the cabinet, the milk from the fridge, the spoon from the drawer. The kitchen was bright with morning sunlight. “Hey,” Raju said walking in. He was still in his Spiderman pajamas, and some of his hair was sticking up at an angle.
“Morning, buddy. Hey, what’s happening on your head?” Manoj patted down the hair but it sprang immediately back up. Manoj laughed, as did Raju. “I don’t know,” Raju said. Kneeling on the chair he poured himself a bowl of cereal and milk. “I even put water on it,” he said between mouthfuls.
“You look like Alfalfa on The Little Rascals.”
“You’ve never seen them? Don’t they have them on Nickelodeon?”
“You’d like them. A group of kids get into all kinds of trouble.”
“What are you up to today?”
“Dunno.” He shrugged again. He seemed a little shy actually. Manoj realized that he hadn’t been free on a Saturday for a very long time. Raju was genuinely confused.
“Aren’t you going to work?” he asked finally.
“No. I’ve got the day off. Whatever you feel like, we’ll do.”
“Really?” he said, incredulous, yet brightening at the prospect.
“Really and truly and really.”
Now Raju was getting agitated thinking of possibilities. He leaned back in his chair, holding the spoon like it was a microphone. “Hmmm, let’s see,” he said and scratched his chin, assuming a contemplative air. He looked like a kid on TV making a difficult decision. Manoj found it amusing, but there was also something disconcerting about the staginess of his gestures. Like he wasn’t in his skin, didn’t know how to behave naturally. “Well, I was going to watch The Matrix DVD. We could do that?” Raju said.
“Excellent start. You know I’m a fan. But haven’t you seen it five times already?”
Raju picked up his bowl and slurped the rest of the milk. He wiped his lip on the back of his hand. “Six. It’s cool. Way cool.”
Manoj knew the movie was kind of violent for a seven-year-old, yet he liked it so much himself, he didn’t mind that Raju thought it was way cool. “Okay. Then after The Matrix? You want to get pizza at Mario’s?”
“Yay!” Raju said. It was one of Raju’s favorite places, though it was nothing special. Cheese, Manoj thought, and it was the first time Achan popped into his mind. He watched Raju walk his bowl and spoon over to the sink, placing them carefully down and running some water. He was such a good kid. Manoj had always secretly thought that Raju resembled his own dead grandfather. Resembled as in common gene pool, natural heredity. They had similar chins and mouths. But as Raju walked back to the table, Manoj had a flickering thought that he tried not to acknowledge: Raju’s gait seemed peculiar for a boy, ever so slightly stooped, his steps slow and deliberate, a small lean to the left side. The resemblance to Achan’s walk was unmistakable. Or was Manoj merely projecting? “After Mario’s?” Raju asked, excited, smiling. Manoj noticed his tooth was coming in crookedly and became worried about future dental bills. “I said Mario’s. Now it’s your turn to pick,” Manoj said. “You tell me.”
“Mom said she and Ammama will be back by four.”
“So?” Manoj asked. He was suddenly prickly.
“I don’t know. So…nothing, I guess.” Raju was looking at the ground.
Manoj felt horrible that he might have scared him in some way. He reached over and patted down Raju’s rebel locks of hair, to no avail. “You may have to wear your cap when we go outside,” Manoj said smiling. “We’ll see if Mom and Ammama want to do something later.”
“Yay!” he said again and, smiling happily, flung his arms out like an airplane and ran weaving to the front room. But why did Raju get so gloomy when there was the possibility that they would spend their time only with each other and not Valsala and Amma? Did he feel estranged from Manoj? Did he need his mother for reassurance? Wasn’t he too old for that? Or was it the old man’s greatest joy, to be around his wife and daughter together?
They had great fun watching the movie, Manoj spending half the time watching Raju watch the movie. Raju lay on the Ikea Gabbeh carpet on his stomach, his chin resting on his palms, his legs shooting into the air at thrilling parts, unable to contain the occasional “Cool,” or “So cool.” Manoj sat on the couch at first, then joined Raju on the floor. At one point he wrapped his arm around the boy’s skinny torso, kissing his head, and Raju wasn’t embarrassed by the attention, looking up to meet his gaze, smiling. Manoj decided his earlier feelings about Raju’s walk were simply paranoia and idiocy. In his relief he started horsing around, tickling Raju, who squirmed laughing at first, before reminding Manoj, like a grown-up might, that they were watching a movie. Later, they bundled up and went to Mario’s, getting a cheese pizza with extra cheese. Raju agreed that it was too cold to go to the local playground, so they headed back home.
All in all, a fine day was had by father and son by the time the women returned. They were into their third game of checkers, Raju winning the first two with Manoj trying his best, when they heard the key in the lock. “Oof,” Amma said, pushing the door open with plastic bags stuffed with groceries. Raju jumped up to help her. Manoj tried to follow, slowed by age and stiffness. His right leg was asleep, numb at first and then tingling with a million pinpricks. He shook his foot, momentarily afraid of dying. He limped over just as Valsala followed, equally loaded down, letting in a blast of icy air. “Brrrr,” Manoj said, taking Valsala’s bags. He closed the door and they all went into the kitchen. Without even removing her down coat or her bright red earmuffs (further enhancing the alien queen look), Amma put a kettle of water on for tea. “Beastly,” she said. “I don’t understand it. It was never so cold here before.”
“Global warming,” Raju said poking his head into the various bags.
“How can it be warming if it’s getting colder?” Amma asked.
“They just call it that. It can mean all kinds of freaky stuff. The ozone is almost all gone. I saw it on TV. Hey, pistachio!” he said, retrieving a pint of ice cream.
“We’ll have it with tea,” Valsala said, coming back after removing her layers.
“There’s Mysore Pak in there also,” Amma said.
“Alright!” Raju said, anticipating a sugar extravaganza.
“Your favorites, no?” Amma asked.
“Sure,” Raju said, rather noncommittally, before running back to the front room making his airplane noise.
Amma stood with her hand resting on the counter until Manoj couldn’t avoid looking at her. “His favorites,” Amma said.
“Amma, please,” Valsala said.
Manoj’s equanimity burned up in an instant. He was fighting mad. “Of course! Don’t you see? If you’ve had this idea all along, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You start him on pistachio and Mysore Pak, of course that’s what he’ll like best. Besides, the question just now was leading, and Raju didn’t sound all that committed to me. Amma,” he said and he had no idea where any of this was coming from, “Achan’s gone. You have to accept it. It’s sad, but that’s the fact. He’s gone. All we have are our memories. For your own sake, you must let him go. We must get on with our lives.” For some reason he felt like sobbing.
Amma didn’t respond. She merely glared at Manoj with a wildness in her eyes that he’d never seen before. He worried that he’d overstepped his bounds. “Sorry,” Manoj said, “I told you these things upset me.”
“You will never hear anything about it from me ever again,” she said with declarative force. She left the room, unsnapping her coat.
“Manoj,” Valsala scolded.
“I said I was sorry. I mean, Christ,” he said shaking his head.
“What’s the big deal, anyway?” she said. “If it gives Amma some comfort, why get so excited? I told you I don’t care about it. Isn’t that enough? I really think you’re overreacting.”
Manoj’s mind was scrambling for a response when Amma returned with an alarmingly benign smile on her face. “Amma,” Manoj said, his tone contrite.
“Please, Manoj. Let’s drop it. I’m fine. We all have our beliefs.”
He tried, lord knows he tried, not to react to the smug definitiveness of her statement. He very much wanted to let it pass. As petty as it was, though, he couldn’t let her believe she’d won the argument. “As a matter of fact, Amma,” Manoj said, and he was now cheerful in a mildly belligerent way. Valsala pinched his leg to bring him back to sanity, but she knew it was hopeless. He was swept up. “I had a rather long conversation with a friend of mine who is something of an expert in these matters.”
“Who?” Amma asked contemptuously.
“Well…my friend Krishnan.” He cleared his throat. Valsala burst out laughing. “Krishnan?” she said. “He’s your big expert? This is too much.” She continued to laugh, a bit excessively in Manoj’s estimation.
“What’s so ridiculous?” Manoj asked. He knew he sounded defensive, vulnerable.
“Because, Krishnan can barely find his way home most nights.”
“That’s not nice, Valsala.” He recalibrated, now feeling righteous. “He’s got some issues but he’s very intelligent.” Manoj went for the kill. “And he happens to have studied these things after his mother died.”
“Okay,” Valsala said, not like she had been shamed, the intended effect, but rather like Manoj was a difficult child she would leave alone.
“What does he say?” Amma asked. “Your Krishnan.”
“Well, he said the only way to be sure is to do the test the Tibetans do for reincarnations.”
“Like in Kundun?” Valsala asked and Manoj nodded.
Amma sniffed. “Those are not ordinary beings. And if you recall, the tests are performed when they are much younger.” She sounded authoritative only on the surface. Manoj detected that the idea of the test made her nervous.
“It’s crazy,” Valsala said. “Krishnan.” She shook her head dismissively.
“Look, you raised something controversial, I did the research and now I have a method to check it out and you’re squabbling over details.”
“Alright then,” Amma said taking the bait.
“Wait!” Valsala said. “What about Raju? What do we tell him we’re doing?”
“Krishnan suggested telling him it’s a game.”
“Does this Krishnan know how to administer this test?” Amma asked.
“Uh, sure. Yes, he knows what to do.”
“Krishnan?” Valsala said, high-pitched.
“Valsala, Amma and I have agreed it is the best way to resolve this. I’d think you’d be happy.”
“Whatever, as Raju says,” said Valsala.
“You must have some of his things,” Amma said. “Kerchiefs and his ring.”
Valsala nodded. “I have his watch too.”
“Call your friend and ask him what we need,” Amma said. Manoj thought he would be happy to hear her say it, but there was a strange emptiness in her voice, like she didn’t care what happened.
Krishnan laughed himself sick, he coughed so hard he had to hang up the phone. Manoj informed him that not only would they do the test, but that he would have to preside. He called back, though, with a cogent plan: he’d gone on the web and gathered some particulars, and agreed to come over in the evening. Krishnan arrived, removing his overcoat to reveal a pristine white Nehru jacket. Manoj wasn’t sure whether he was having his own joke or whether he was sincerely attempting to appear spiritually credible. Whatever his intention, he looked more like the head waiter at a fancy Indian restaurant. “Glad to see you dressed for the occasion,” Manoj said and Valsala couldn’t help chortling.
Krishnan surprised them both with a genuinely sober-sounding answer. “It’s a sign of respect for the ritual itself.”
It was difficult to know how Amma felt about Krishnan as they were introduced and gave each other a namaste. Amma’s smile seemed sincerely warm, but she didn’t linger, being hospitable, as was her usual reflex. She wanted to get moving. “We have gathered five objects,” she said, “And were able to manage three sets of similar objects from here and from the Salvation Army. So, we are completely prepared.”
“And the boy?” Krishnan asked with a gravity Manoj was finding hard to take.
“He’s gone for a play date at Mickey’s house. He’ll be back any minute,” Valsala said. She was in fine spirits, probably happy that they were reaching some resolution.
“Where are the things?” Krishnan asked, and Amma pointed to Raju’s bedroom, leading the way.
“Manoj,” Valsala said, chuckling. “Come on.”
“He looks like an idiot,” she whispered.
Manoj tried to be serious, suppressing his own desire to laugh. “Look, Amma agreed, so let’s just follow through. Okay?”
“You know Krishnan is no expert. Why are you doing this?”
“To make a point,” Manoj said and went to Raju’s room.
“You said it.” She followed him in and Krishnan was carefully inspecting a cufflink as if there was some vibration he was trying to tune into. Amma stared at his performance with a bemused smile. “Fine,” Krishnan said, coming out of his self-induced trance. “Fine. This should be very interesting. Now we have,” and he pointed at the arrangement on the bed, “Kerchief, watch, ring, cufflinks, and glasses. And the ladies have done a very fine job of collecting suitable decoys. Now is the boy familiar with any of these objects?”
“No,” Valsala said. “Not really. He might have seen Manoj’s cufflinks…”
“We will take that into account,” Krishnan said confidently.
Amma said something to Valsala in Malayalam and Valsala dismissed it immediately. “What was that?” Manoj asked.
“She’s just nervous,” Valsala said. “You see what you’re putting us all through?”
Manoj couldn’t make out Amma’s face. She was staring at the ground.
“Where’s Raju?” Manoj asked impatiently. He was beginning to feel guilty and he didn’t know why. “I’ll call the Raes to see.” He picked up the phone and was dialing when he heard Raju walking in. Krishnan took purposeful strides out to meet him and Manoj knew he didn’t trust Krishnan enough to deal sanely with his son. The thought depressed him. “Hey buddy,” Manoj said taking Raju’s cap off and ruffling his hair. “You remember Uncle Krish?”
“Hi,” said Raju.
“You’ve gotten big, eh?” Krishnan said with affection, and again Manoj had a twinge of guilt for mistrusting his friend. Raju took his coat off and flopped on the couch. “What’s up?” he asked because the two grown-ups were standing, awkward in anticipation.
“Raju, can you do Daddy a big favor? It’s actually a project of Uncle Krish.” Krishnan nodded.
“Sure,” Raju said.
“It’s…it’s…like market research,” Manoj said. “You know what that is?”
“Sure. Like the Pepsi Challenge.”
“Exactly!” Manoj said, continually impressed with his son. He looked over and Amma and Valsala were standing in the doorway listening carefully to what he was saying. “So, I want you to go into your room and you’ll see three kinds of five different things and all you have to do is pick out your favorite of each one. Right?” he asked Krishnan. Clearly Krishnan wasn’t happy with the way Manoj had framed it, but he nodded nonetheless. “Go with Mom and take your time.” Raju skipped over and Valsala ushered him into the other room, her hand resting on his shoulder.
“It’s not what he likes,” Krishnan said. “It’s what he feels an affinity to.”
“And how the hell am I going to explain that to him? Don’t be a jerk. Let’s just get this done with.”
“So now I’m a jerk,” Krishnan said. He smiled, almost proudly. Valsala was right, he needed psychiatric help. They walked in as Raju was carefully picking up one item at a time and studying it. “Whenever you’re ready, little man,” Manoj said. Krishnan leaned against the wall, his arms folded, Valsala sat in the chair next to the bed with a blank face, and Manoj was troubled to notice that Amma’s face was equally vacant. It spooked him.
“Ready?” Raju asked and they all nodded. First he went to the watches. And Achan’s old watch was nothing special, the band in tatters, and it sat next to two other watches, one of which actually worked and the other with a small calculator in the face. Raju hesitated only a moment before picking Achan’s. Manoj’s stomach dropped for miles and miles. Next, Raju went to the cufflinks, picking up each set and holding them to the light. Achan’s were silver rectangles, rather plain, compared to the Salvation Army 60’s race-cars, or even Manoj’s own red stones. And Raju picked Achan’s. At the glasses he didn’t hesitate. The kerchief only took a few seconds. And finally with the ring, he picked wrong and Manoj was hopelessly elated for a moment, before Raju set the ring down, picking Achan’s gold band instead. So fixed was Manoj on the fearful spectacle that only after a full minute of severe disorientation did he look up to see Valsala beaming a toothy smile, and Amma, weirdly, covering her face with her sari.
“Very good,” Krishnan said. He had no idea Raju had picked five out of five.
“Yes, excellent, Raju,” Manoj said mechanically, “Now, please wait in the front room while we…figure out…your score.”
“How do you score it?” asked Raju.
“We’ll explain after,” Krishnan said.
“Sure,” Raju sighed, loping out.
Manoj thought his head would explode. Or his cranium would catch fire. He shut the door carefully, then spun around. “What the hell happened here?”
“How many did he pick?” asked Krishnan.
“How many? Five out of five, you jerk! He, oh Jesus. He can’t…I can’t…” Manoj stared dumbstruck at Valsala.
“Fantastic!” Krishnan exclaimed and Manoj actually shoved him. Valsala was weaving back and forth on her heels, then her shoulders shook, and she exploded in laughter. Amma was trembling from behind her sari, but hearing Valsala laugh, she dropped the veil, covering her mouth with her hands.
“What?” Manoj demanded.
“My God. Truly something,” Krishnan said. His hands were clasped in front of his chest, his placid grin that of a small-town preacher.
“Joke,” Valsala said in hysterics. “Joke.” Amma was wiping away laughing tears.
“What?!” Manoj said.
“Raju!” Valsala called out and he opened the door, running in, his eyes flashing mischief. “Did it work?” Raju asked. “Aw, I wanted to be here.”
Manoj looked to Krishnan who looked very, very lost. Then he stared amazed at his wife.
“We told Raju we were going to play a joke with your test,” Valsala said. “So, we gave him the right answers first.” Raju laughed in a teasing way.
“You did what? Why?” Manoj said.
“You know, Manoj,” Valsala said and her big brown eyes were still and serious. “To make a point.”
“But Amma…” Manoj pleaded.
Amma walked over to Manoj, and placing her hand on his shoulder, shepherded him through the living room and into the kitchen. “Valsala wanted to play that prank,” Amma said when they were alone.
“Well, I don’t think it’s very funny,” he said, but as he gazed on Amma’s face he found it difficult to sustain his anger. Her visage beamed a softness he hadn’t seen before.
“When you said those things to me last night…about Achan…”
“I’m sorry for that. Truly. I was out of line.”
“No, no. Listen to me. Yes, it hurt. It hurt me very deeply. Because I knew in some sense it was true. I hadn’t let him go. Here.” She patted her chest.
“Let me tell you what happened,” she said more cheerfully. “After we came home with all those things from the Salvation Army, I was working on the arrangements, and Raju walked in. And I don’t know how to explain it, but the moment seemed correct, auspicious, you know? Everything laid out neatly, and there was Raju. So I asked him to pick. And this will sound even stranger, but as he picked one thing at a time,” she laughed, “Every time the wrong thing, of course, also five times out of five.”
“Unbelievable.” Manoj laughed too, becoming happier and happier.
“As he picked I stared with all my intent at Achan’s possessions and said goodbye one by one. Five strings finally cut. I let go.” She cleared her throat. Manoj put his arm around her shoulder, giving it a tiny squeeze. “So those fresh eyes that Achan spoke of in my dream could be anywhere, anyone…everyone,” she said meeting Manoj’s gaze.
“I was going to tell you directly, but Valsala insisted on playing the prank.”
“We’ll see about that,” Manoj said. “Valsala!” he bellowed, delirious.
Could it be he did something right for once?
Read more from artist-in-residence Vijay Balakrishnan on HiLobrow.
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