The day after Mom and I arrive in India from New Jersey, I watch the number 45B bus screech down the road. It clatters to a halt outside my grandfather's old house that we have come here to sell. Passengers tumble out. Another few feet and the bus will have gone crashing into the tea-and-soda stall that sits at a tilt against the tree on the corner. A narrow escape. The traffic hurries on.
Someone squeaks our front gate open. I look out the window again, and I see a tiny figure with gray hair pulled into a little braid so tight the end of it curls up and sticks out at a defiant angle. I grin to myself, and throw the door open for Kamala Mami.
She pretends to be all formal. "I hear you need a cook," she says. And then she's whooping with delight to see me, grabbing my face in hands as hard and rough as a coconut shell. She taps her hands against the sides of my head and kisses her fingertips, smacksmack! "Ayyo," she cries. "Kutti kunju yenna periya rajakumari ayittal!" Me? A baby bird who has grown into a princess? "Yes, yes!" she insists. She is quick and restless. She does not ask, "Do you remember me?" She assumes--and she is right--that I cannot possibly have forgotten her.
"So, Prema?" she says to my mother. "Why are you so thin? Don't they feed you properly there, in America? Good thing I'm here to cook for you."
I know well from my last visit two years before, right after my grandfather died, that Mami is just a cook the way the monsoon is just a little drizzle.
We missed my grandfather's funeral, because in the Hindu tradition you cremate dead people very soon after they die. Mom says it's probably because Hinduism is a religion born in a hot place, and the heat doesn't allow anyone the luxury of waiting till relatives arrive from far away. My mom's cousin Lakshmi and her husband took care of everything till we got here, and then we all observed thirteen long days of ceremonies. Priests invoked the blessings of the ancestors, and we kept an oil lamp lit to guide my grandfather's soul to its new life. During this time relatives I had never heard of arrived to stay and mourn, and gossip. And eat. Mami kept us kids happy with an endless stream of delicious food. Dad didn't come and Mom couldn't forgive him for that.
Now it seems only minutes before Mami takes possession of the kitchen. She scrubs the floor and pours buckets of water everywhere, and looks like she's been doing it forever. She's also moving pretty fast for someone who appears to be about a hundred years old.
"I don't know about this," says my mother under her breath. But there is no time for discussion. Mom stares at Mami, who is now sloshing at a small flood with a broom that is nothing more than a skinny bunch of reeds tied together.
"Come, come," Mami says to us. "Come and talk to me."
Mom says, "Mami, it's such a surprise to see you! I have to ask, how did you know we were here?"
Mami pauses in her mopping. She says simply, "Lakshmi told me."
Mom looks thoughtful. Mami adds, "I go to see her every now and then. For old times. And to help out when she needs me."
Mom murmurs, "It's good of you, Mami, but we can manage. You shouldn't go to all this trouble."
"Nonsense," says Mami. "I've come to help." And you can't stop me, says her chin. "And to see this old house again," she adds.
"I have to sell it."
"You have rented it out for the past two years," says Mami.
"Yes, and look how much trouble that's been for Lakshmi," says Mom. "I'm so far away. She's had to come running every time there's been a problem. Anyway, after the last tenants left, no one else wants to rent it. It's too old and too big."
"It's your house." Mami shrugs.
"Yes," says Mom. Suddenly, the tension between them is as brittle and dry as the broken branches of the old lime tree outside the window.
"It isn't my place to give you advice," says Kamala Mami, "but what would be so wrong with coming back here? To live. What have you got in America now?"
"Mami, we've been through all that. My life is there now. There's no question of coming back." Their talk is a blend of honey and chili powder fighting for room on the tongue.
"All right," says Mami, jutting a bony chin in my direction. "All right, then what about this one? You should think about her."
"Er ... I think I'll go out in the garden," I say. I snatch up my camera and escape.
Among the tangled bushes and weedy flower beds outside, I make little piles of rocks and think about my parents. The anger feels familiar. It has simmered so long it has become a friend. I knock the rocks over and lay them end to end in a long line that bends and curves about like a river. I get my camera ready to take photos of my river of rocks.
There is a picture I hold inside me, as close as I hold my resentment. It is a picture of us, back when us meant "three." Mom and Dad, and me. The timer on the camera has triggered flash, image, and smiles, all in one quick click. My parents' heads are turned toward each other, but they're looking at me. I'm holding both their hands tightly, like a magnet gripping steel. On my face is an openmouthed, gap-toothed six-yearold laugh.
That was before Mom packed up and left our house in New Jersey, and took me with her. Before she and Dad sold the house. Before Dad moved to Texas, to a new job and what he said was a glittering hi-tech future.
The father in that picture has planted himself in my head. He talks to me often. Sometimes it's practically a conversation. It's been happening ever since he went away to Texas and didn't come back. Oh, he came back for the divorce settlement. Then he went away again. I kept thinking that at some point he'd come back for me, but he didn't. At first he called often, and his parents, my grandparents, called too. The calls upset my mother. Over time, they became less frequent.
Here in this wild garden, I step back and take a look through the lens at my river of rocks. My camera feels comfortable, like an extension of my hand. The silver brand name on it is still bright, but the smaller red and white letters on the left-hand side are faded from use. Only the slashing red X of the model name, Radical X, remains. My stomach feels tight as I look at the rocks, and the years of sadness in my family come washing over me.
A mother and daughter should be a team. It isn't that way with us. We don't understand each other. Sometimes I think Mom wishes she could have had a different kind of daughter. She doesn't exactly say so, but I can tell by the way she looks at me that I make her nervous. When I was younger I used to wish I had some magic spell that could change things in my family. Fix them. Make them simpler. The Dad voice in my head says, A mom and a dad should be a team too, right?
My oldest memory is of climbing on the arm of a great wide sofa in our house in New Jersey, and gripping the soft fabric with my fingers and toes. I was standing on tiptoe to look up at a framed print that hung on the wall above the couch. It was a scene from the Ramayana. In it the prince Rama and his beautiful wife, Sita, have been exiled to the forest by Rama's jealous stepmother. A row of smooth round rocks curves about like a river, winding through the grounds. Rama's heart is so good and Sita's is so gentle that all the animals of the forest gather around them in peace. Lions and deer, tigers and sheep and peacocks, play and rest together in that picture. "See," they say to Rama and Sita, "while you are here, we can't fight with one another."
Dad came up behind me, and lifted me high so I could look right at the print. The red and yellow and black shapes in the picture blurred into pure color as I got closer. I didn't have to turn around to know Mom was there too. I could hear her laughing.
But I am not a strong enough glue to hold them together. Looking at the river of rocks I have made in this warm, bright garden, I know that what I want, more than anything, is for that image of my family to be whole again.