Under the Lemon Trees

Bhira Backhaus

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One

The chance to love comes to all of us.We listen for its sound beneath our footsteps, seek it down the improbable paths that we roam. Sometimes we choose to turn away from it, or must. Or we fail to see it at all and it vanishes like a feather on air, leaving only the flicker of a shadow as it passes. By the time she married, my sister, Neelam, had surrendered herself to a fate dictated not by desire or foolish dreams but by the positions of the stars and planets. She was engaged to a man whom she had never met, whom she knew merely by the fuzzy image in a photograph, but whose destiny was clearly aligned with hers. Over cups of scalding tea, my mother watched Charan Kaur as she pored over the creased pages of her astrological charts, settling on the twenty-first of February that year, 1976, as an auspicious day for her daughter's wedding. Thus were Neelam's shame and misfortune to be swept away, forgotten altogether if memory were charitable.

The same Charan Kaur had arranged the match. My mother had developed an unfaltering faith in the woman to whom she had turned to ensure her third child would be a boy. This action troubled me when I learned of it: Had Charan Kaur merely consulted her charts, or was she present in some magical way the fated night my mother and father had, no doubt, so joyously made love, believing a son would soon bless our family? The cherished birth of my younger brother, Prem, nearly a year later only affirmed my mother's instincts. Charan Kaur had become in the interim a much-sought-after matchmaker. Those who took interest in such matters could tell you of her successes: She managed to join the feuding Gill and Thiara families, joining Oak Grove's most eligible Indian bachelor with the starchy, morose eldest daughter of the Thiaras, thereby doubling the land holdings of each. Convinced of the woman's unique and supple talents, my mother eagerly enlisted her to find a suitable boy for her troubled daughter.

My mother, after all, was not one to leave things to chance. In her own way, she was a generous woman, with a blind faith in most things working out in the end. Over the dusty-blue damask sofa in our living room hung portraits of Guru Nanak, Jesus, and John Kennedy, as if she were hedging her bets. Nothing in life is a coincidence, she'd always told us as a preface to some exemplary tale. A favorite of hers: "There was my Uncle Dev, who once took the wrong train from Jalandhar to New Delhi and wound up in a small village in the highlands. At a lunch stand, he encountered a former colleague from the postal ser vice who had retired there with his two daughters. At dinner at this man's home that very evening, Uncle Dev was particularly taken with the eldest daughter, Seema, a ravishing beauty ever so reluctant to marry, though she was nearing twenty years of age. That night, Uncle Dev, unable to sleep because of his thoughts of desire, roamed the dark village streets, when a holy man dressed in mere rags approached him. This holy man looked deep into Uncle's fevered eyes and instructed him to drink at dawn from the spring at the hill beyond to purify himself against such injurious thoughts. Uncle Dev did so the following morning, but then collapsed, exhausted, against a rock nearby. Along came Seema, the lovely daughter, her slender arms embracing a ceramic pot to collect drinking water. She revived him, and soon they were married and produced seven excellent children. Coincidence that he took the wrong train?" my mother would ask, her hands clasped triumphantly. "Impossible!"

We lived on Fremont Road in a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of the small northern California town of Oak Grove. Surrounding the town in every direction, orchards had supplanted a fertile landscape once lush with grasses and dotted with sprawling oaks. The broad domes of Sikh temples competed in the skyline with the lean spires of Christian churches. Since the immigration laws had changed, the town pulsed to the exotic beat of tablas and the sound tracks of the most recent Indian films to hit American shores. The all-white city council members learned to publish their campaign literature in Punjabi, as though each tumultuous decision made at City Hall had some great bearing on our tight little universe. My uncle Avtar, my father's older brother and the first in my family to settle in America, had taken advantage of cheap land prices following World War II to begin securing his holdings. He'd offered my father, Mohinder Singh Rai, a small share of it when he emigrated from India in 1957, seeing that my mother was already expecting her first child.

A young woman scarcely had time to weave the fragile fabric of her dreams in our town. All too soon the hazy faces and soft mouths of imagined lovers were replaced by hard, real ones. Neelam married Davinder Mahal when she was eighteen; I was fifteen then. It was a hasty affair that left all involved a bit breathless and stunned as she exited the front door carrying the last of her bags. In the days following the wedding, my mother roamed the house with a light, buoyant step, as one who is certain of victory.

I hurried off the school bus into a full, slanted wind one fall afternoon, months after Neelam's wedding, the sycamore leaves tossing around me like many brown hands. I was attending Oak Grove High School, and afternoons, I would return home to a living room where my mother, sister, and aunts sat like fleshy fixtures drinking tea. Inside the house, the air felt stiff and dry. Aunt Teji, my uncle Avtar's wife and the eldest among us, greeted me when I entered the living room and tapped the sofa seat next to her lightly with an open hand before pushing her smudged glasses back on her nose. I settled back beside her, taking in the sandalwood scent of her wool shawl. My mother's attention was focused on her sister, my aunt Manjit, who perched at the edge of her chair in her erect and ever-alert way.

"If it worked once, why shouldn't it again?" my mother said, casually flicking crumbs from her kameez. Her voice had a slightly ragged edge to it, and I recognized that, with my presence, the conversation had shifted into what I called "code talk" —matters urgent and unavoidable that required immediate discussion. For I had learned that the women who surrounded me did far more than drink tea on these balmy afternoons; they gave shape to fortune and destiny. I looked from face to face for clues. Neelam turned toward the wall in one long sweep of her lashes and a streak of crimson rose along the side of her neck.

"There's an ointment that can be rubbed into the feet each night. Santi was telling me," Aunt Manjit said. She had a closet shelf stuffed with ointments and ingredients for salves —tattered paper bags filled with old walnut husks, dried pomegranate skins and ajuwan seeds — the woody scent mixing with that of shoe leather from the scuffed collection of boots and sneakers piled on the floor. She was my mother's younger sister and they were perhaps as different from each other as Neelam and I. Only twenty-eight, her body hadn't softened and spread after three children, but had sharpened into the pointed, bony angles of her chin, shoulders, and hips, a body turning in on itself.

"I think the young bride and groom can handle these matters on their own." Aunt Teji shifted her soft, pliant weight on the sofa and playfully slapped Neelam's thigh. Neelam, who had thus far displayed no emotion other than visible agony, stirred and languidly peeled herself from the sofa back, sitting upright.

My brother, Prem, burst into the room with a basketball hooked under one arm and, without any greeting, plunged a dusty hand into the platter of pakoras.

"As many as you like, son," my mother said. "Here, take some for Deepa, too." She handed him the entire platter. Deepa was Aunt Teji's son. The two boys attended junior high together, and for a seemingly endless stretch of their lives, they likened themselves to twin Indian Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, despite their delayed growth spurts.

Neelam rose, collected teacups, and disappeared into the kitchen. The door creaked as it swung shut behind her. I wanted to follow her in, but I remained helplessly sunk into the soft cushions next to Aunt Teji. The sofa rose and fell with Aunt Teji's momentous sigh, and the others joined in a round of sighing and silent assessing. A fly buzzed and skittered against the window.

"It's all in the Lord's hands anyway," Aunt Manjit said. She flung her bony elbows in the air for emphasis. How could something that a moment ago was to be assuaged with an ointment now be in the Lord's hands? I wondered.

"Jeeto, put on another pot of tea." With a snap of her head, my mother motioned me toward the kitchen, from where I heard Neelam running the water and the clinking of cups. There was something she wished to say to the others, something dark and secretive, I was certain, that required my absence. I will miss it, I thought as I plunged past the kitchen door. I'd been unable to decipher entirely the discussion to this point. I knew it had something to do with Neelam, that after eight months of marriage, she had yet to announce any news of an imminent child.

Eight months of marriage had not healed her heart, but perhaps steeled it in some other way. I had lain awake myself those weeks before the wedding, listening to her broken, troubled sleep. Neelam had married so suddenly, married a boy she didn't know, but whom someone —Charan Kaur, apparently —had deemed appropriate. She'd abandoned her plans for secretarial school, and I had watched it all happen, though I was banned from the late-night discussions behind closed doors, when I mostly heard my mother's muffled and pleading voice. Neelam had confided little in me, but suffered in a silent, stoic way. Not that there was anything dreadful about her husband, Davinder, who liked to call himself David, since he'd now lived in the States awhile. Marriage had already softened him a bit about the edges, and around Neelam he couldn't resist the sighing and simpering. Neelam had inherited the best of my parents physically —my father's wide almond eyes, which registered the barest flicker of emotion, my mother's sumptuous curves. One couldn't say that Davinder was inattentive. But before him, I knew, there had been Hari.

In the kitchen, I filled a pot with cold bubbling water from the tap to brew a fresh pot of tea for the women. Neelam's hands were immersed in the basin of soapy water and her arms appeared as though they had been lopped off at the wrists. Her thick blue-black braid hung forward over one shoulder, snaking down her chest.

"More tea? Aren't they ready to leave yet?" She spoke as though this were still her home, that after the others left, she would remain with us, where she belonged. Though Neelam still visited the house nearly daily after her wedding, I missed her constant presence, the slow sway of her shoulders and hips ahead of me in the hallway as I would try to bolt past. She possessed an inherent grace that had bloomed at an early age, that brought approving nods and smiles from the older women and, I had noticed, not a few men. Prem missed her, too. She had been motherly to him, fussing over him, plying him with treats and favors, shielding him with her body if need be when things got rough and heated between him and me.

I cracked the kitchen door open a few inches and peered out at the ladies. Aunt Teji sprawled against the back of the sofa, her eyes shut and her chest heaving with each deep, rhythmic breath. "Aunt Teji's snoring," I said, dashing Neelam's hopes that the afternoon's gathering might soon break up. No one dared to wake Aunt Teji whenever she fell asleep, until she'd had a fitful nap replete with gruff snorts and odd mutterings.

Neelam rolled her eyes and shook the cups under the steaming stream of water. She vigorously dried them with a white cotton towel and set them on the counter. The sleeve of her kameez slipped off one shoulder, exposing the shell-shaped birthmark that kissed her collarbone. "How's driver's ed going?"

"Well, I know what it feels like to hit a curb at five miles an hour. Parallel parking." I added milk to the tea and turned down the flame. "I don't know. Mr. Ronin keeps his eyes shut most of the time when I'm driving."

"He did that with me, too. He must know we're Mrs. Rai's daughters," Neelam said, laughing. "I was so relieved to get my license and that Mom didn't have to drive us around anymore."

I nodded, though I was still regular prey to my mother's herky-jerky, foot-on-the-pedal method of getting across town. She had practically opened a driving school for newly arrived Indian women at one point, toting the three of us along for perilous, bumpy rides crammed in backseats with other children.

"Jeet." Neelam pronounced it in two slow, urgent syllables: Jee-eet. She was looking down, nervously stroking her braid as if it were an appendage, an arm with plump, dark flesh. When she lifted her eyes to me, my breath must have stopped momentarily. I knew what she was about to say, and dreaded hearing the words. "You're still checking the mail every day yourself?"

I nodded, feeling my blood slow within me. I knew of whom she spoke.

"But nothing comes for me? You'd tell me first, wouldn't you?"

"Of course. You're still getting notices for senior-class rings, that's all."

Her chin trembled faintly. I'd yet to experience that kind of love. All last semester, Joey Kaminsky and I had exchanged long, burning glances in the back of the classroom in U.S. Government, but then I had seen him the final week of school behind the crab apples planted against the wall of the gym, his mouth hovering around Cynthia Wold's neck. The memory felt dim and paltry as I stared into Neelam's warm, glistening eyes.

She gripped the edge of the sink with both hands and gazed out the window. A row of red, blue, and purple smoked-glass dishes, earned for our mother in fervent coin tosses at the county fair, lined the deep windowsill. Outside, the gnarled fruit trees stood like old men tired of stretching their limbs. In winter, with their leaves long fallen and matted copper and rust against the muddy ground, you could just make out Aunt Teji's house through the dense crisscross of branches.

"I don't think he'd try to get in touch with you here. Do you know where he is now?" I asked. The thrill of these secrets .uttered through my body.

Neelam shook her head. "Don't mention it to anyone. I wanted to ask you before, but it seemed ridiculous, in a way. I guess it still does."

My mother burst through the door with all the finesse of an invading army tank. "How long does it take to brew a pot of tea? You're standing around while the ladies are waiting." Her face turned from mine to Neelam's.

"Just sisters talking," Neelam said.

"Look, you've cooked it too long." My mother pulled the pot off the burner. The tea had boiled away to half its original volume.

"Aunt Teji was sleeping anyway," I protested.

"Well, she's wide-awake and quite thirsty. Neelam, bring out more sweets."

In the living room, Aunt Manjit was back on the topic of old Mrs. Sidhu, a favorite of hers. "Did you see what she wore to the Soba wedding? That orchid pink? You'd think she was trying to steal the groom."

"So the poor old thing wants to turn a few heads. There's plenty of lonely widowers to take notice," Aunt Teji said, waving a hand. My mother wore a poorly feigned expression of disapproval.

The air hung like sticky, thick molasses in the room. I tapped the tip of my sandal repeatedly against the worn wooden leg of the coffee table, earning another stern look from my mother. Such toe tapping was considered a brazen, wanton gesture for a woman, and all my life my mother had sought ways to keep my restless legs still. As the women finally rose to depart, Aunt Manjit sneezed —twice. Everyone retreated to the sofas again for the customary half hour it would take for bad luck to charitably exit our house hold.

I walked Aunt Teji home later. Neelam had left quietly, nudging me to indicate that we would talk more tomorrow. Aunt Teji and I set off down the dirt road that cut through to the other side of the property. The door on my father's shop was padlocked, as he was away making deliveries for the afternoon. My cousin Deepa followed behind us or scurried ahead, climbing a branch and hopping down every so often. The late-afternoon light had a way of flattering everything at that time of day. Aunt Teji's face looked blushed and radiant in the bronze light, and I could clearly imagine her as the vigorous and willful young woman who had come from India many years ago as Uncle Avtar's bride. Even now, her carriage was strong and erect, and I had trouble at times keeping up with her on these walks, stopping to linger over things as I often did. I rolled up my pant legs and slipped the sandals off my feet, letting my toes curl into the dust. It sifted like fine .our around my ankles, the dust, my skin, one color, so that my legs looked like golden stems rising from the ground.

We approached the big white house, a patchwork of extensions and add-ons constructed as the Rai family grew. Aunt Teji often invited me in, though my father didn't like me spending much time there, since he and Uncle Avtar for years now had spoken to each other only at weddings and funerals (and the women found they could tolerate their stubbornness, since such events came around often enough). When I did go in, Aunt Teji would stop in the shaded yard and provide detailed updates on the menagerie of plants that were like quarrelsome family to her —the .g tree that overproduced each year, attracting swarms of blackbirds, the weak roses that never saw enough sun. The Algerian ivy was overtaking the lawn by the front door. Behind the garage stood the goat pen, where Uncle Avtar spent a good deal of his spare time. A small corrugated-metal shed that he generously called his office was behind the house. Inside, the room was spare, with a concrete pad for a floor. In its center, a shiny black Smith Corona typewriter sat on the old scarred wooden table I'd watched him butcher goats on, though as far as I knew, he couldn't tell an a from an e, for he'd never learned to read or write. A white family had once owned the land and the house, and I imagined it must've looked quite different —tidy and tamed, not the hodgepodge of life Aunt Teji had accumulated around her even as she strived for some order. Uncle's blue Ford pickup truck pulled into the gravel driveway, and I stopped where I was, just short of the once-prolific bed of cilantro that Aunt Teji was about to tell me had gone to seed and was dying out. She disappeared into the house without so much as a wave to her husband.

My uncle hopped out of the cab. "Jeeto," he called to me, waving with his fedora in his hand. He moved in long strides across the lawn, trampling the sycamore leaves scattered in his wake. "Come help me feed the goats," he said, half-teasing. "You used to like that when you were a little girl." He wiped his brow, which was gleaming with perspiration, with his denim shirtsleeve. His hair, once his hat had been removed, lay sweaty and .at over his head; the occasional gray flecks in the day's growth of beard glinted against his dark skin. He smiled, the soft lines around his mouth and eyes in sudden relief as he squinted into the sun. When I looked at him this way, I could still imagine the young man he had once been. His face was as familiar to me as my father's.

"I'm sorry, Chacha. I can't today. I've got to get back."

He nodded, understanding in his own way how things were.

My mother must've waited that night, watched for the crack of light under my bedroom door to disappear before she came in. She rarely interrupted as I did schoolwork, yet she made certain that I wouldn't get to it until well after dinner, after the dishes were washed, dried, and put away. In this way, my education became a source of tension, a wall between us. If I wished to distance myself from her, I would merely recite theorems from my geometry book, or comment on the Louisiana Purchase, and she would grow silent. "Hoshaar, smart," she would say to the others, referring to me. I had to believe a thread of pride existed somewhere in that statement, just as there can be a vein of silver in stone, although it takes he smashing to find it. My education frightened her, for she knew one day it would take me away from her.

"Jeeto," she called to me, pushing the door open. Her long, wavy hair, loosened from its dignified bun, cascaded well past her shoulders. In the shadowy light, she appeared as a young woman, as though it were Neelam coming to bed when we shared our room.

I sat up cross-legged on the bed and flipped on a light. She wandered into the room and inspected a page in my geometry book, which lay open on my desk.

"We're learning the Pythagorean theorem, how to find the lengths on the sides of a triangle."

"Acha," she replied, "okay," as if she had gotten the essence of it. At such times, she would nonchalantly leaf through a book, and I'd see a wonder seep through her, a guarded amazement that there was a system, a body of logic beyond her gods and goddesses. This from a woman who had lived in the States nearly twenty years now, whose husband was a heavy-equipment mechanic. She smoothed my cotton blankets and rested one hip at the edge of the bed. The lamp on the nightstand cast a bright arc of light over her green kameez and the pink covers on my bed. Her full, unlined face remained in a shadow. "So what were you and Neelam talking about today?" she asked casually.

"Nothing, really. She might go shopping in Berkeley on Saturday. Can I go with her?" "With all the clothes she has? She hasn't even worn every outfit once yet."

I shrugged. "She has those empty closets to fill in that new house." Neelam and Davinder had bought a house in a subdivision on the west end of town called Stonebrook Heights, though as far as I could tell, its elevation was no different from the dull flatness of the rest of Oak Grove.

"Now that I think of it, you could use something for the festival. But I won't pay the prices in Berkeley. I'll have Balwant Kaur make you another one."

I sat forward, resting my chin in my palm and picking at the loose weave of the blanket with my other hand. "She'll make something ugly, like she always does. I think she wants me to look ugly on purpose. Last time, I had to wear that beige thing with huge light blue roses. I felt like I was walking around in someone's awful curtains."

She took my arm and patted it. "When you marry, you can have nice things to wear, like Neelam." I didn't want to look at her then, though she watched carefully for some positive reaction from me. "If Neelam's going anyway, you can go along," she continued. "Davinder's going, too, isn't he?"

"I don't know."

"Well, they had some beautiful chunis at Sardar's. You can pick up one or two for me," she said, though she owned veils of every color imaginable.

Later in the dark and quiet, I could hear a faint humming in the walls of the house. A branch on the walnut tree outside my window creaked against the eaves, as though its burden was greater now that it was shedding its oily leaves and hard, wrinkled nuts. I could imagine Neelam lying in the bed against the other wall, in the grip of a fevered slumber. As I settled back into my pillow, I felt my pulse roaring into its cushiony fibers, and I knew that Iwould lie to her again.

Excerpted from Under the Lemon Trees by Bhira Backhaus

Copyright © 2009 by Bhira Backhaus

Published in March 2009 by St.Martin's Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.