Book excerpt

Other Waters

A Novel

Eleni N. Gage

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
 

“He says he’s there to keep an eye on her doctors, but that’s just not true.” Maya looked up at Dr. Bernard; he had on his usual listening face, forehead crinkled, blue eyes peering nearsightedly, one finger resting along his nose, the rest of his hand scratching his beard. She had been seeing him for only six weeks; it was a requirement that all second-year psychiatric residents undergo their own course of therapy, to see what it felt like to be a patient, and she’d chosen Dr. Bernard for both his sterling reputation and the fact that he charged residents on a sliding scale. Did he even remember what her father did? Had she ever told him? “My dad’s not in medicine, it’s just the girls—me, my mom, my sister. He’s a civil engineer, or was before he retired,” she said. “He’s just saying that to placate us.”
And that was the problem; since when did Pops think she needed placating? Her mom might need careful handling; although Seema was strong and she could handle the hardest, most uncomfortable truths, not being there to oversee the situation personally would be maddening to her. And her sister needed to be sheltered, definitely. Priya had her hands full with the kids and her practice; disrupting her carefully calibrated existence was only acceptable in the most extreme of circumstances. But Pops always said that Maya was levelheaded; he never had to worry about her overreacting.
“So why do you think your father went to India?” Dr. Bernard tugged on his beard again. It was sweet of him to grow a beard, such a reassuring sight for his patients. With his graying orange hair and camel-colored jackets, Dr. Bernard looked like an old-time analyst, or some white girl’s grandfather who took her to ride carousels when she was little and helped her apply to his alma mater when she turned eighteen. When he pulled on his beard, it was a sign that he was thinking about something Maya had said. He probably thought she felt abandoned by her father’s departure, but that wasn’t the issue.
“He went because he thinks my grandmother is going to die. He’s her only son, he’ll need to be there to be her chief mourner,” Maya said. “So why not tell me that? He’s trying to protect me, but from what? The inevitable? I’m an adult. A medical professional.”
“And is it inevitable? Is your grandmother going to die?”
“I guess so.” Maya sighed. “She’s ninety-six or something, no one’s really sure, the records were lost, during a fire maybe, who knows.” She smiled, buying time to regulate her breath. Dadiji wasn’t dead now; it would be ridiculous to start crying before anything tragic even happened. She needed to stay in good spirits for tonight; Sanjay was only in town every so often, and this time he was bringing his girlfriend. Maya couldn’t remember the last time her cousin had wanted to introduce a girl to her, not since they were in college, maybe. In any case, when her grandmother did die, she wouldn’t want Maya to be sad; Dadiji viewed her own death as a release from mortal existence, a step bringing her closer to moksha, spiritual liberation. “After all,” Maya said out loud, “ninety-six is old, even for India, and living long is a competitive sport there.”
Dr. Bernard leaned forward. “But it can still be hard to accept. It sounds like your grandmother is a very dynamic person to you.”
Maya stared at Dr. Bernard. He really was good if he could tell how large Dadiji’s presence was in her life, how out of proportion to her stooped, shrunken body. Dadiji was her strongest link to India; she was as vibrant and mysterious as the subcontinent itself.
“Dynamic is a good word,” Maya said. “Although maybe not in the traditional sense. I mean, she isn’t very active. She just sits on her bed in her blue room, looking out the window. But when she speaks, it’s like she’s been watching the whole universe.”
Dr. Bernard wrote something in his notebook.
“She almost never gets up; I remember the last time I saw Dadiji get out of the bed,” Maya continued. She had been five, or maybe seven, on a trip to India, they’d gone both of those years. Her parents were off at the bank or the consulate, and she was waiting in the doorway of the house for her sister to get out of the latrine when a man stomped into view, pulling a small figure behind him. The man was filthy; Maya could smell him from across the dirt road. He was yelling in Marwari, she could only make out a few phrases; the rest must have been bad words she didn’t know at the time. In one hand he held a ragged red velvet bag—it was strange to see a man holding a purse—and with the other he was yanking the arm of a little goddess. Maya knew she was a goddess because of her whitened face and the crown on her head. She was bigger than Maya, maybe as old as Priya, who was still in the latrine. Twelve, maybe. Or already a teenager.
The dirty man took his hand off of the goddess’s arm, raised it in the air, and brought it down onto her face; it landed with a cracking noise. The goddess crumpled into the dirt but didn’t say anything, didn’t cry or make a sound. A trickle of blood, darker than the red velvet of her dress, dribbled from her nose down the white paint on her face.
“Dadiji, come quick, hurry up!” Maya ran up the slippery stairs, taking them two by two. “He’s killing the goddess!”
She could hear Priya’s footsteps behind her, then Priya yelling, “Dadiji’s resting! Ma said don’t make noise! And gods don’t walk around on earth anymore, stupid!”
They arrived in Dadiji’s room at the same time, Priya’s legs being so much longer than Maya’s.
“Maya thinks there’s a goddess in the yard.” Priya snorted.
“And is there?” Dadiji asked.
Priya laughed. “It’s just a girl, like me. Maya’s just being stupid.”
“Isn’t Krishna a baby sometimes, and then a man?” Maya demanded.
“Of course he is,” Dadiji said. “There is no reason a god cannot be a child, or be outside our home.” She gestured toward the window. “Have another look.”
Maya elbowed Priya, triumphant as they walked toward Dadiji’s bed. This was why she loved Dadiji so fiercely, because her grandmother treated her like a rational human being, not a whining pest or an adorable moppet. Even as a child Maya felt that Dadiji understood her essence, knew who she was, whether Maya was in India or in Michigan. Whoever that little person was, Dadiji had decided that she mattered; she was someone whose words were worth hearing.
“You girls do not yet understand India,” Dadiji continued. “It is different from Michigan. There is room for gods to walk the streets; it is not for us to disturb them.”
Dadiji spoke as slowly as always, one word rolling leisurely into the next; Maya felt her chest was going to explode. “But the bad man is hurting her!” She pointed out the window behind Dadiji’s head.
“There is room for evil, too, and for good.” Dadiji dropped the mala she had been meditating with before being interrupted and turned to look out the window. Over her shoulder they could see the man pulling the goddess to her feet.
“It’s a beggar girl, Maya,” Priya whispered. “And he is hurting her, Dadiji.”
“Just because evil exists does not mean we should sit by and watch it,” Dadiji said, pushing herself to her feet.
This all happened over twenty years ago, but Maya could still remember the feel of Dadiji’s hand on her shoulder as they made their way downstairs. Dadiji always moved slowly, but somehow it seemed like they were on the dusty street in seconds.
“I can see the man now,” she told Dr. Bernard. “But I only remember a few things he said; I was so scared of him, I must have been dissociating, seeing it as a dream, because the reality was too upsetting. I remember he had a lot of spit in his mouth, and when he talked it would collect where his lips met, sometimes spray out onto his cheeks.”
“Who was he?” Dr. Bernard asked. He must have been engaged in her story, or impressed at her self-analysis; they’d just reviewed dissociation in her seminar last week. Otherwise Maya would have expected him to comment on her fixation on the spit.
“The girl’s father,” Maya said. “At least that’s what he told us. Whoever he was, he made her beg—the goddess outfit was supposed to inspire pious people to give more—and he felt she wasn’t earning enough. He told Dadiji that soon he would have to seek other employment for her, he had so many other mouths to feed. It made Dadiji mad, I could tell, but I didn’t get it at the time.”
“Prostitution?”
“I guess. But Dadiji would never acknowledge that, she’s a lady; she pretends everyone exists on her level instead of stooping to theirs. She played along and said how convenient, she happened to need an apprentice for her cook. She pulled out cash from the waist of her sari, and handed it to the man.” Maya could see the wad of rupees in Dadiji’s hand, the man’s fingers, crusted in dirt, as he took them. She glanced up at Dr. Bernard. “The first month’s salary, I guess.” She had no idea what the arrangement was, really, but she didn’t want Dr. Bernard to think Dadiji bought the girl, at Maya’s request. That’s not what happened at all, of course, but it had to be made clear. Dr. Bernard couldn’t be expected to understand India; he didn’t have Dadiji to explain it to him.
“Did the man ever see his daughter again?” Dr. Bernard asked.
“I don’t know. I never saw him again, but I suppose that doesn’t mean she didn’t bump into him, or even go visit him. I wouldn’t know; I never really hung out much with Parvati. She seemed so much older at the time, and so remote. I guess I was a little afraid of her.” Maybe she should have asked if Parvati ever saw her father, at some point over all those trips to India, Maya thought now. Parvati and Priya must be roughly the same age, although somehow that was hard to believe. Six years older, Priya always made it clear she considered herself superior to Maya in every way, but she still spent more time with her than anyone else. She wasn’t above playing UNO or even Barbies. Once, at Dadiji’s house, Maya left her Barbies on the kitchen table, and when Priya marched her back in there to clean them up, they found Parvati holding one, twirling the doll’s blond ponytail with her free hand. The dolls were actually just Skippers, their mother wouldn’t buy Maya Barbies even though their clothes were so much nicer, but Parvati was staring at this Skipper as if she were Christmas Dream Barbie or Malibu Princess.
“Do you want to play with us?” Maya asked.
At the sound of her voice, Parvati dropped Skipper on the floor, then bent at the knees to pick her up, bringing the doll up to touch her forehead before reaching her out toward Priya. Parvati’s downcast eyes were full of tears.
“It’s okay.” Priya took the doll in her right hand and touched Parvati’s shoulder with her left. “They’re babyish, I know, but I still play them with Maya. It can be…”
Parvati rushed past them both, holding her arm where Priya’s hand had been, as if the touch had hurt. The sound of Parvati’s skirts swishing drowned out whatever Priya had said; Maya never got to hear what Priya thought playing Barbies with her could be.
That night, in the dark, Maya asked Priya why Parvati had acted so weird.
“She doesn’t want to play with us,” Priya said. “Not everyone does.”
Maya opened her mouth but Priya said, “Good night, Maya,” before she could ask why not. She had been excited at the thought of another person joining their games, but lying in the dark Maya realized she was a little relieved Parvati didn’t want to play Barbies. Priya was her sister and had to love her. Why would someone as beautiful and mysterious as Parvati want to play with a baby like Maya anyway?
“I guess that for a long time, I still thought of her as a goddess,” Maya said to Dr. Bernard now, laughing at how limited her point of view had been as a child; she’d just accepted what she’d seen, questioning so little about the world around her. “That might not even be her name, maybe it was just the name she used when she begged.”
Dr. Bernard looked at his notes. “Parvati?”
“Girls can be called Parvati, but it’s a goddess’s name, originally. Parvati was Shiva’s consort, the perfect wife. First he was married to Kali, this black, terrifying goddess who wears a necklace of men’s skulls. But he was scared of her, so one day she peeled off her dark skin to reveal a gentler incarnation. Parvati is Kali’s lighter side, both literally and figuratively.” Maya paused for Dr. Bernard to ask questions, but he was apparently uninterested in Hindu theological genealogy.
“And Parvati, the girl, I mean, she still lives with your grandmother?”
“She’s a woman now; married a guy, has a baby girl crawling around upstairs. I’ll ask Parvati if that’s her real name when I visit in December,” Maya said, to please Dr. Bernard. But she knew she wouldn’t. She would never remind Parvati of the day they met. It would be too painful; a father that abusive, that eager to abandon her.
“Something always made me keep my distance from Parvati,” Maya said. “I knew she wasn’t really a goddess, but I also felt she wasn’t a kid like me. And her story was so sad. Maybe I thought sorrow was contagious, that her bad luck could attach itself to me. Whatever it was, I wanted no part of the life I had seen, that awful man.”
Even now, the memory frightened her. Before the man left, walking unsteadily, his hand around the rupees creating a bulge in his right pocket, Dadiji had whispered to him, softly but steadily, “I do not want to see your face here again; do not come looking for her,” and put an arm around Parvati’s shoulder, an arm Maya liked to think of as her own.
“Come back? For her?” He spat on the ground. “You think I am a sinner, a bad man. But you will see, that girl will try your patience, too. That,” he said, pointing at Parvati, “that is a wicked child. She has evil in her.”
Maybe that’s why she had steered clear of her for so many years, Maya thought, but didn’t say. To Maya, at that age, evil meant wicked stepmothers and poisoned apples and princes trapped in frog’s bodies. Maybe she was simply scared of Parvati.
Maya didn’t share this insight with Dr. Bernard. It was too new, and she was embarrassed to think that instead of pitying the poor girl, she’d believed that sadistic man, had been afraid of attracting Parvati’s attention and bringing all that evil crashing down on herself.
*   *   *
“Congratulations!” Heidi mashed Sanjay’s face into her lips, distorting his grin for a good four seconds before she pulled away, leaving a red imprint of her mouth against his right cheek. Heidi had been Maya’s college roommate for four years at Dartmouth, which meant that she’d known Sanjay for almost as long as she had known Maya herself; Sanjay was only a year older and had done his undergrad at Middlebury, visiting them at least once a semester. Still, Maya had seniority here.
“He’s my cousin!” Maya yelled. “Let me at him!” She pushed back her chair and walked around Heidi’s so she could lean over and hug Sanjay. This was why he’d come to New York a night early and asked Maya to arrange dinner; it wasn’t just that he wanted her to meet Amrita, he was going to marry her. She glanced at Amrita, who was sitting demurely, staring at a radiant-cut engagement ring Maya had failed to notice before. She seemed a little quiet so far, but she was definitely beautiful, with a thick mane of glossy black hair framing a face that seemed to glow in the dim light. Her skin was the color of caramel and it looked even smoother and richer, even more delicious because she was sitting next to Scott, whose pale skin had flushed pink in the overheated Italian restaurant. Their family would think Amrita was perfect. Maybe that’s why Maya hadn’t warmed to her on sight; she was almost too perfect, not one of her manicured nails chipped, not a speck of lipstick on her teeth, and her turquoise button-down didn’t gape at the chest despite her shapely figure. Maya made herself relinquish Sanjay and walked over to Amrita’s chair to embrace her, too. Amrita squeezed Maya’s back but pulled away so quickly that Maya was left standing next to her chair with one arm still on Amrita’s shoulder, wondering how to gracefully reclaim her limb.
“This calls for champagne!” Scott motioned to the waiter, then grabbed Maya’s free hand, pulling her onto his lap, rescuing her from the one-sided embrace. She sank onto his knee and leaned against the warmth of his body.
“So my parents know, of course, and yours, Seema-auntie, Ajit-uncle,” Sanjay said.
Maya kept smiling, and told herself she was glad they knew, glad that Sanjay was giving her parents—and his—what they wanted, a pairing of two successful desi kids who would have children who looked just like them and who could afford to fly the adorable moppets to India once a year. And, even more than that, confirmation that the family could continue to live their in-between lives with ease and unity.
“Mohan knows, too, and Priya,” Sanjay continued. “But I swore them to secrecy—I wanted to tell you in person.”
“You told my brother and sister before me!” Maya gave her most dramatic sigh. “They get to do everything good first. And you’re supposed to like me best.”
“I’m sorry, you’re a psychiatrist? An adult?” Sanjay shook his head. “Look, I knew I’d be coming to New York and I wanted to tell you in person. All of you. The wedding’s in January—that’s when we could get the most time off—and you’re all invited.”
“Great! Obviously, we’re going early to buy appropriate clothes.” Heidi was now a fashion editor at Glamour in charge of their “real women” coverage, stories like “The Best Bathing Suit for YOUR Body,” which made every June issue a bestseller. She had been on some talk show this morning, overseeing ambush makeovers of audience members; Maya had woken up early to watch her. Heidi had removed her heavy TV makeup, but Maya could see a smear of dark lipstick had made its way onto the tip of her tooth. It looked a little like blood, but her expression was too joyous to be scary.
“Fix your lipstick, Hei,” Maya said, but Heidi kept right on talking, scheming how to get more vacation time out of her top editor.
“And will you dance with some of my friends from home at the sangeet, Maya?” Amrita asked. “It turns out only three of them can make the trip, but the dance is choreographed for four; Sanjay says you’re a fabulous dancer.”
“What’s a sangeet?” Heidi asked.
“It means ‘music together’ in Sanskrit, but it’s the night before the wedding, kind of like a rehearsal dinner,” Maya explained. “Only the guests dance and sing and do skits to entertain the bride and groom.”
“Way better than a rehearsal dinner!” Heidi crowed. “Good thing we’ve been taking those Bollywood dance classes.”
“You take Bollywood dance?” Amrita asked.
Heidi looked at her evenly. “Don’t be racist.”
The caramel color of Amrita’s skin flushed more toward corn syrup.
“Just kidding!” Heidi picked up a now-filled champagne glass and raised it toward Amrita. “It’s a great workout. Cheers!”
“Watch it, Hei!” Sanjay hit Heidi on the shoulder. “Amrita’s not part of the family yet—you can’t bust on her until after the wedding.”
Amrita was smiling again, but Maya could see she was clasping her hands together under the table. Poor girl; this crowd could be tough to break into. If Maya had suspected the big news, she would have insisted they have dinner just the three of them, so that she could get to know Amrita better. Sanjay hadn’t talked much about her, he had been so busy trying to establish himself at work. He and Amrita had been at Wharton together, but didn’t start dating until the last semester of their MBAs. They’d moved to Chicago, where each had landed a consulting job, about four months ago, right after graduation. They couldn’t have been together more than eight months. That seemed awfully fast, Maya thought. And not just because she and Scott had been together, off and on, for almost seven years. She pulled Scott’s pale hands close around her waist.
The engagement might seem sudden to her because Amrita was a stranger; all Maya knew about the girl was that she was a year younger than Sanjay. And that she was Indian, which was all that her parents, and Sanjay’s, too, would have needed to know. Maya would have liked a chance to talk to her in a less rowdy setting. But Sanjay was in his glory. He loved sparring with Heidi, and made it a point to hole up in some obscure bar to watch far-flung soccer matches with Scott whenever he was in town. Sanjay had specifically asked that both Heidi and Scott be present. They’d all known each other for so long now, they could be a bit insular, even if they didn’t mean to be. She’d make an effort to be more welcoming.
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all Sanjay’s embarrassing secrets.” Maya smiled at Amrita.
“Show some respect,” Sanjay warned. “I’m your elder.”
“By ten months!” She turned back toward Amrita. “But Sanjay was a year ahead at school, so I always thought he was so cool. And he used to tell me all the things he learned from the big kids, like he’d been doing recon.”
Scott, who knew where this story was going, was already laughing; Maya could feel his body shaking beneath hers.
“So this one time,” she continued, “I remember it so clearly, I can see the Members Only jacket he was wearing! Anyway, we were on the swing set at Arjun-uncle’s house, and Sanjay makes this announcement. He leans over and says, ‘So. There’s this thing called ‘fuck.’” She took a breath, then added, “Now, keep in mind that we weren’t even allowed to watch Sesame Street growing up because Kruti-masi—your future mother-in-law—wasn’t sure what the Spanish words meant. It’s like she always sort of suspected they were dirty.”
Heidi was chuckling so hard she choked on her champagne. Maya looked at Amrita. Nothing. Not even a smile. So maybe it wasn’t high comedy, but anyone who really knew Sanjay, who saw how his whole urbandaddy persona was a reaction to the extreme geekiness of their shared childhood, would get how the story so captured his essence. Maybe not a belly laugh, but a little smile for the earnest, dorky boy he once was? Amrita just sort of stared. And now Maya had gone and cursed in front of the perfect Indian bride.
Amrita took a sip of champagne. At least she drank alcohol.
“What about you, Scott, are you in for the wedding?” Amrita asked.
Was that a dig? Had Sanjay told her Maya’s parents didn’t know she was dating Scott?
“I go where the boss tells me,” Scott said, and kissed Maya’s cheek.
“Really?” Maya asked.
“Really?” Heidi echoed.
“Your wish is my command.”
“Well, there is one thing I’d like to do right now, something Sanjay and I used to do when we were little,” Maya said. “You know, in moments of great joy, and when our parents weren’t around to watch.”
“And what was that?” Scott asked.
“‘Summer Lovin’.’”
“No!” Sanjay groaned, just as Heidi decreed, “Genius!”
“Karaoke it is,” Scott said. “I’ll call and see if we can reserve a private room.”
Maya stood to let him leave the table and smiled at Amrita in a way that she hoped seemed genuine. “You can be Sandy,” she said.
“In honor of the occasion,” Heidi supplied.
As they left the restaurant, Sanjay leaned over to Maya and whispered, “Great idea—the singing. Amrita was the soloist at Wharton graduation.”
“She’s lovely.”
Sanjay was looking over his shoulder to hail a cab so Maya wasn’t sure whether she actually heard, or imagined, him whispering, “You haven’t done so bad for yourself.”

 
Copyright © 2012 by Eleni N. Gage
ELENI N. GAGE writes regularly for InStyle, Real Simple, Travel+Leisure, and Elle, among others, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, and Parade. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University’s MFA Program, Eleni now lives in Miami, Florida with her husband.