“Traitors! Cowards! Good-for-nothings!” Ammachy had yelled in 1979, finishing the conversation that would finish her relationship with her son, as Thomas would only come back to India to bury her.
But what a calamity! An abomination! Divorced from the mother and the motherland in one fell swoop? Who could have seen such a thing coming? Certainly not Amina, who by age eleven was well versed enough in tragedy (she had seen The Champ and Kramer vs. Kramer) to understand that it came with tinkling music and bad weather.
And what was there to fear from the sunlight that dappled the Salem train station the morning of their arrival, making everything—the packed luggage and the red-shirted coolies and even the beggars—seem sweet and full of promise? Nothing, Amina thought, stepping down onto the platform and into the funk of other people’s armpits. Plump arms sheathed in sari blouses brushed her cheeks, chai-wallahs shouted into car windows, and a coolie reached impatiently for bags she was not carrying. Somewhere above the din she heard someone calling her father’s name.
“Over there, Dad,” Akhil said, pointing at something Amina couldn’t see, and Thomas gripped her by the shoulders and propelled her forward.
“Babu!” He clapped an old man on the back. “Good to see you!”
Wrapped in a bulky dhobi and skinny as ever, Babu smiled a toothless smile, his resemblance to a malnourished baby belying his ability to toss large objects onto his head and carry them through crowds, as he did with all four of the family suitcases. Outside the station, Preetham, the driver, loaded the freshly polished Ambassador, while beggars surrounded them, pointing to the children’s sneakers and then to their own hungry mouths, as if their appetites could be satisfied by Nikes.
“Ami, come!” Kamala called, opening the car door, and once everyone else had taken their places (Preetham and Thomas in the front seat, Akhil, Kamala, and Amina in the back, Babu standing proudly on the back fender), they began the four-block ride home.
Unlike the rest of the family, Thomas’s parents had long ago left Kerala for the drier plains of Tamil Nadu. Settling in a large house at the edge of town, Ammachy and Appachen had opened a combined clinic (she was an ophthalmologist; he was an ENT), and before his sudden death by heart attack at the age of forty-five, they saw 70 percent of the heads in Salem.
“A golden time,” Ammachy would spit at anyone within distance, going on to list everything since that had disappointed her. Top of her list: her eldest son choosing to marry “the darkie” and move to America when she had arranged for him to marry Kamala’s much lighter cousin and live in Madras; her youngest son becoming a dentist producing “the no-brains” instead of becoming a doctor and producing another doctor; the many movie theaters and hospitals that had since sprung up around the house, penetrating it with noise and smells.
“Bloody Christ,” Thomas breathed as they turned onto Tamarind Road, and Amina followed his gaze. “You can’t even see the house anymore!”
This was true. It was also true that what could be seen, or rather, what could not be ignored, was the Wall, Ammachy’s solution to the changing world around her. Built of plaster and broken bottles, the Wall grew crooked and taller and more yellowed with every visit, until it resembled nothing as much as a set of monster’s dentures fallen from some other world and forgotten on the dusty side of the thoroughfare.
“It’s not so bad,” Kamala said unconvincingly.
“It’s creepy,” Akhil said.
“New gate!” Preetham beeped the horn, and the family fell silent as the gate swung open from the inside, pulling the car and its contents down the driveway.
The house, for its part, had not changed at all, its two stories painted pink and yellow and slanting in the heat like a melting birthday cake. A small crowd had gathered in front of it, and Amina watched them through the window—Sunil Uncle, dark and paunchy; his wife, the wheatish and wimpy Divya Auntie; their son, Itty, head weaving from side to side like a skinny Stevie Wonder; Mary-the-Cook, the cook; and two new servant girls. Christmas lights and tinsel twinkled in the pomegranate trees.
“Mikhil! Mittack!” Itty gurgled as the car pulled in, arm hooking frantically into the air. He had grown as tall as Sunil since their last visit, and Amina waved back, full of dread. Mittack was her name, according to Itty, and excitability was the condition that made him bite her on occasion, according to the family. Amina fingered the faint half-moon on her forearm, sinking a little in her seat.
“Hullohullohullo!” Sunil shouted as the car parked. “Welcome, welcome!”
“Hey, Sunil.” Thomas opened the door, taking long strides across the lawn to shake hands. “Good to see you.”
This was a lie, of course, as neither of the brothers was ever particularly glad to see the other, but it was the only way to properly start a visit.
Sunil fixed a blazing smile on Kamala. “Lovely as a rose, my dear!” He bestowed cologney kisses on her cheek and then Amina’s before turning and clutching his heart. “And who is this ruddy tiger? My God, Akhil? Is that you? Blossoming into a king of the jungle, are we?”
“I guess,” Akhil sighed.
Suddenly, two hands wrapped around Amina’s neck and squeezed hard, crushing her larynx. She pulled frantically at them, dimly aware of her mother patting Divya’s arm in greeting, of the hot breath in her ear.
“Mittack!” Itty let go, patting her head.
“Jesus!” Amina gasped, tears in her eyes. “Mom!”
“Itty.” Kamala smiled. She wrapped her arms around the boy, who grunted and buried his face in her neck.
“Hello.” Divya stood in front of Amina, slight, pockmarked, and branded with the expression of someone expecting the worst. “How was the train?”
“It was nice.” Amina loved the overnight train from Madras. She loved the call of the chai-wallahs at every stop, the smell of different dinners cooking in the towns they passed. “We got egg sandwiches.”
Divya nodded. “You’re feeling sick now?”
“Sick!” A voice snapped from behind Divya. “Already? Which one?”
Beneath the heat and the house and the blinking lights, Ammachy sat in her wicker chair on the verandah, sweating rings into a sea-foam-green sari blouse. The two years that had passed since their last visit had done nothing to soften her face. Long white whiskers grew out of her chin, and her spine, hunched by decades of complaint, left her head floating some inches above her lap.
“Hello, Amma.” Thomas’s fingers were firm on Amina and Akhil’s necks as he marched them up the few stairs to where she sat. “Good to see you.”
Ammachy pointed to the roll of flesh that pressed at the hem of Akhil’s polo shirt. “Thuddya. What kind of girlish hips are you growing?”
“Hi, Ammachy.” Akhil leaned in to kiss her cheek.
She turned to Amina with a wince. “Ach. I sent some Fair and Lovely, no? Didn’t use it?”
“She’s fine, Amma,” Thomas said, but as Amina bent to kiss her, Ammachy snatched her face, pinning it between curled fingers.
“You will have to be very clever if you are never going to be pretty. Are you very clever?”
Amina stared at her grandmother, unsure of what to say. She had never thought of herself as particularly clever. She had never thought of herself as particularly bad-looking either, though it was obvious enough now from the faint repulsion that rippled through the hairs on Ammachy’s lip.
“Amina won the all-city spelling bee,” Kamala announced, pushing Amina’s head forward so that her lips landed openly against Ammachy’s cheek. She had just enough time to be surprised by the taste of menthol and roses, and then she was pulled into the too-dark house and down the hallway, past Sunil and Divya and Itty and Ammachy’s rooms, to a dining room set with tea.
“So train was crowded? Nothing to eat? She’s so happy to see you.” Divya motioned for Kamala and the kids to sit and pushed a plate of orange sweets at them. “She’s been talking of nothing else for a month.”
“Itty,” Sunil boomed, dragging a lumpy suitcase in behind him. “Your uncle is insisting we see what presents he has brought. Shall we take a look?”
“Hullo?” Itty nodded vigorously. “Look? Look?”
“It’s nothing, really.” Thomas took a seat next to Amina.
“Small-small things,” Kamala added.
Ammachy limped in with a scowl. “What is all this nonsense?”
It was: two pairs of Levi’s, one bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, three bags of nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios), a pair of Reeboks with Velcro closures, a larger pair of hiking boots, two bottles of perfume (Anaïs Anaïs, Chloé), four cassette tapes (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kenny Rogers, Exile), two jars of Avon scented skin lotion (in Topaze and Unspoken), several pairs of white tube socks, talcum powder, and a candy-cane-shaped tube filled with marshmallow, root beer float, and peppermint flavored lip balms.
“It’s too much.” Sunil tried to hand back the cassette tapes. “Really, we don’t need.”
“What need?” Thomas smiled, watching Divya sink her finger into the jar of Avon cream. “It’s nice to have is all. What do you think, Itty? You like the Velcro?”
Crouched in a Spider-Man pose on the floor, Itty lunged slowly from side to side, mesmerized by the sight of his poufy white feet.
“You’ll spoil him.” Sunil reached for the scotch bottle, holding it up to the light and studying the label. “Shall we try a bit of this?”
“After dinner,” Thomas said, and Sunil poured two fingers into his empty teacup, sniffing it.
“The Velcro is big thing in the States now,” Kamala explained to everyone with a knowing look. “Easy peasy, instead of having to tie the shoes.”
Ammachy snorted. “Who else besides this no-brains won’t know to tie shoes?”
“Vel cow!” Itty shouted with unfortunate timing, fastening and unfastening his Reeboks until Ammachy smacked him with a powdered palm. She sniffed at all three flavors of lip balm and licked the tip of one before pushing them into Divya’s pile.
“So, you people had a good trip in the airplane?” Ammachy asked.
Thomas nodded. “Good enough.”
“How did you come?”
Ammachy grunted. “Singapore Airlines?”
“Those girls are pretty, no?” She refilled Kamala’s cup, saying, “Nice complexions.”
“Try the hiking boots, Sunil.” Thomas pointed to them with his chin. “The heel itself has shock absorbers!”
“Later. I have some work I should be attending to.”
“Oh, yes, this one with his people’s practice.” Ammachy rolled her eyes. “You would think he was actually saving lives instead of teeth.”
“Teeth are lives, Amma,” Sunil said, glowering. “People need to eat to live.”
“So, who all do you want to see?” she asked Thomas.
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet.”
“Yes, well, your old classmate Yohan Varghese was asking about you the other day. I told you the wife died, no? Not that she was any real help, stupid thing, but two sons to raise on his own! Ach. And we should see Saramma Kochamma of course, just for one afternoon meal. And Dr. Abraham wants to talk to you. He’s putting together that rehabilitative center, the one I told you about? Might be a nice thing to see.” This last news was delivered with such practiced indifference that even Amina felt embarrassed.
Thomas reached for a jalebi. He offered the plate to Amina, who shook her head.
“Anyway, he needs someone in head injuries, so I told him you would ring.” Ammachy poured milk into her own tea and stirred. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“It’s not really my field.” Thomas took a bite. “They would only ever need the occasional surgery.”
“Well, no one asked you to become a brain surgeon,” Ammachy snapped.
“No,” Thomas said, chewing carefully, “they didn’t.”
Akhil reached for a jalebi, and Ammachy swatted his hand away.
“It’s just an option.” Ammachy scraped something from the oilcloth. “But then I suppose Kamala likes it there? All of this women’s- libbing and bra burning?”
“What?” Kamala sat up a little taller in her chair.
“I’m sure it’s why she was so excited to go in the first place. Always wanting more and more of freedoms, is it?”
“Who burns the bras?” Kamala asked indignantly.
“How should I know?” Ammachy glared. “You’re the one who chooses to live in there. Godforsaken place.”
“I’m the one?”
“Who else? If you wanted to come home, Thomas would come. Men only go as far as the wife allows.”
“Is that so?” Kamala leaned across the table. “Well, that’s very interesting, isn’t it, Thomas?”
“Amma, please. We’ve only just arrived.”
“What’s foreskin?” Amina asked. Everyone looked at her.
“God’s foreskin place?” Amina repeated, and Akhil kicked her shin under the table. “Ouch!”
“What is this child saying?” Ammachy’s face was rigid.
“Time for naps!” Kamala pointed toward the stairs. “Go. You are overtired.”
“But it’s the middle of the day!” Akhil protested. “We just got here.”
“Jet lags! You’ll be cranky tomorrow if you don’t get some rest. Go!” Kamala stood up and ushered them to the base of the stairs, Itty hot on her heels. “Itty, you stay with us, okay? Your cousins need to sleep.”
“Hullo? Cricket?” Itty asked, and Kamala shook her head.
“Not now. They need to sleep. You stay with me.”
“Good job,” Akhil growled as they left the table and dragged themselves upstairs. “Now we’re going to sit up there in the heat forever.”
“What’s God’s—” Amina asked.
“Forsaken, dope. It means abandoned.”
“Oh.” It was getting hotter with every step. Amina’s legs felt curiously heavy, as if they were already taking a nap. “God abandoned America?”
“Probably.” Akhil opened the door to the bedroom they shared and flipped the fan onto high, sending a small cloud of mosquitoes in all directions. “Ammachy thinks so.”
“Does Dad think so?”
“No, stupid. Dad likes it. That’s what they were fighting about.”
“They were fighting?”
“What did you think that was? What do you think it is every time we’re here? Ammachy wants Dad to move back. Dad doesn’t want to move back. Ammachy gets mad at Mom about it. Classic immigrant dysfunction, duh.”
“Yeah, I know, duh,” Amina said, annoyed that she didn’t. Akhil was such a know-it-all when it came to India, like he was some big expert just because he was three years older than her and he’d been born there instead of in the States, like she had. She lifted the mosquito netting at the edge of one of the twin beds and climbed under. “But Mom wants to move back, too.”
“So?” Akhil fell back onto the bed next to hers.
“So why does Ammachy get mad at her?”
Akhil thought it over for a minute, then shrugged. “Because she doesn’t want to get mad at Dad.”
“Oh.” Amina’s head sank into the pillow. “Do you want to move back?”
“No! India sucks.”
Amina was relieved. This much even she knew. She shut her eyes, surprised by how quickly the blackness of sleep rose up to greet her, swift and persuasive as candor.
“She’s half grandmother, half wolf, you know,” Akhil whispered a few seconds later, and already half dreaming, she took it to be truth in the way unfathomable things can be. She had seen the cool lupine glow in her grandmother’s eyes, her arthritic hands curled into paws. In the days that followed, her hand would instinctively cover her throat whenever Ammachy looked directly at her.
Where was everybody? The deep blue of evening shadowed Akhil’s empty bed as Amina opened her eyes. She rose, letting the pressure in her head settle before shoving her feet into her chappals and walking across the hallway to her parents’ room.
Inside, Kamala shoved clothes into a dark dresser. She glanced up as Amina walked in. “Oh, good. You need to wake up so you can go to sleep on time.”
“Where is everyone?”
“Daddy and Sunil and all have gone to see the neighbors.”
“In the kitchen.”
Amina blinked against the dry air, feeling vaguely sick. “My head hurts.”
Instantly Kamala was next to her, with a hand on her forehead. “You drank some water?”
“No.” The water in Salem tasted like hot nickels. Amina tried to use it only when brushing her teeth.
“Go downstairs and get some right now.”
“No! None of this Miss Needed an Enema Last Time.”
“You want it again? Four days no pooping?”
“Fine! Fine! Going!”
The sun had already set behind the Wall as Amina shuffled through the shadowed yard, toward the kitchen. The taller of the servant girls smacked a coconut against the cement, staring at her as she walked by. Amina waved and then pretended she hadn’t when the girl did not wave back.
“Fingers out of the ghee, or I will chop them off!” Mary-the-Cook was shouting as Amina entered the kitchen. “How many times do I tell you this? Ah! The little one is awake now! What is it, koche? You want some bread and sugar?”
“Mom says I need water.”
“Good, good.” Black as a tire and perpetually struggling under the weight of her pillow-sized breasts, Mary-the-Cook was the exact same age as Ammachy, a fact that had been made incredible by the way time had expanded her body in the exact places it had contracted Ammachy’s. The result was a face smoothed of any wrinkles, a body that moved like a jogging meatball. “Waterwaterwater. All week I have been making the water for you people! You remember last time, nah? Four days and still you couldn’t—”
“I know, I know.” Amina took the cup Mary-the-Cook offered. “What’s for dinner?”
“Biryani.” The cook nodded triumphantly to a bloody chicken carcass resting on the counter. “And maybe a little bit of this fool if he keeps talking such nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense,” Akhil said. “Anyway, how do you know? It’s not like you were at tea with us.”
“At tea? At tea? I have myself been working at this house since this boy’s father was six years old only, and he thinks I have to be at tea to know what goes on?”
“I’m just saying Ammachy was pissed at him again. It’s like she can’t even look at him.”
“Angry. It means angry.”
“Nobody is angry! Too much of love is all! All these years Amma works and works to send Thomas to school, and then he goes and marries your dusky mother and studies in America and what? Nothing!” For reasons unclear to anyone, Mary-the-Cook had always been Ammachy’s strongest ally, regularly citing Ammachy’s teaching her English as evidence of a kindness that no one else had seen. “Like every other so-and-so from here to Bombay, this boy runs off and works and works and does not come home! What is she supposed to do?”
“She could move to the States,” Akhil said.
“Don’t be an idiot! What move? She’s too old.” Mary frowned. “Besides, it’s the children’s duty, everyone knows. And she is getting old! What if something happens?”
“She’s got Sunil Uncle.”
Mary-the-Cook snorted. “That one is a miserable good-for-nothing. It’s a miracle she lets him live here at all! Shouting at everybody, sleepwalking like some baby elephant, always unhappy!”
“Wait, what?” Akhil’s eyes widened.
“Sunil Uncle sleepwalks?” Amina had only ever seen Scooby-Doo sleepwalk. She didn’t know real people could do it.
Mary-the-Cook frowned. “Not important. Akhil, hand me an onion.”
“Where does he go?” Amina imagined Sunil Uncle in the kitchen, making himself a six-foot-long hoagie.
Akhil reached into the basket behind him. “Seriously? All the time? Like, every night?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mary-the-Cook said. “I am only saying that Thomas should be coming home. If he waits any longer, it will be too late.”
“Have you tried to wake him up?” Akhil asked. “Because that’s dangerous, you know. He could attack.”
“Waking him? What fool would try to wake him? We are too busy trying to keep our own selves safe from harm.”
“He hurts you?”
“Not me, things. He hurts things only.”
“Things he himself has bought! The china for Amma’s sixtieth birthday. That television set—you remember? Smashed like one cheap toy. The dentistry chair with its three reclining positions and the overhanging lamp.”
Akhil’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know he’s sleepwalking?”
“What fool will break things he himself has saved up so long to buy? He’s not Thomas, he can’t be breaking and buying new all the time. And you should see how he cries over it the next day!”
“Wow.” Akhil looked impressed. “Psycho.”
“Psycho,” Mary-the-Cook agreed, shearing the ends off the onion with a rusty blade.
“Well,” Akhil said after a pause. “Dad always says Sunil Uncle didn’t want to live here or be a dentist, that Ammachy forced him when he didn’t get into medical school. Maybe he’s doing it to—”
“Are you even listening?” Mary-the-Cook asked. “He’s not doing anything, he’s sleeping!”
“I mean subconsciously, duh.” Akhil rolled his eyes.
“You know, like what he wishes he could do while he was awake but can’t.”
“And what exactly is that?” Ammachy’s voice, sharp as a blade, pierced through the darkened doorway. She materialized an instant later, curled like a shrimp, her eyes fixed furiously on Mary-the-Cook.
“Oh, hi, Ammachy.” Akhil smiled bravely. “We were just—”
“I thought I told you to stay out of the kitchen.” Her teeth glinted in the bad light.
“We just came for water. OW!” Akhil yelped as his grandmother grabbed a handful of his chub.
“If I catch you in here again, I will beat you with a stick. Understand?”
What wasn’t there to understand? Amina made hastily for the door, Akhil coming up behind her. He pushed her out, and they both skittered across the darkened yard, careening around a pile of coconuts and through the pomegranate trees before running up the verandah steps. Only when they were safely at the top did they dare look back at the kitchen, where Ammachy shouted a storm of Tamil at Mary-the-Cook, who minced the onion with shamed gusto.
“Jesus!” Akhil glowered. “What was she . . . spying? She spies on us now?”
“She spied on us last time, too, remember?” Amina reminded him. “She spies on everyone, all the time. Anyway, you shouldn’t have said that about Sunil Uncle.”
“Why not? Everyone knows he’s been unhappy for, like, years. Even Dad says he should have gotten out of Salem a long time ago, when he had the chance.” Akhil rubbed his waist where he had been pinched. “So the truth hurts! Fuck her!”
“Fuck her!” Itty shouted from behind them, and Amina screamed. Her cousin’s white sneakers glowed as he unfolded himself from behind Ammachy’s chair. He looked at them expectantly. “Cricket?”
“It’s too dark,” Akhil said, and Itty’s face sank. It seemed to Amina that her cousin waited the entire two years between their visits peering anxiously at the gate with ball in hand.
“We’ll play tomorrow,” Amina promised, and Itty nodded miserably.
“Hullo? Roof?” he tried, a close second in favorite activities.
“Nah,” Akhil said.
“I’ll go with you,” Amina said.
Minutes later the two of them stepped off the upstairs verandah to the tiny ledge, climbing the ladder that would take them up to the roof. There, with the last burn of the sunset on the horizon and smoke from dinnertime fires growing, Amina could finally see over the Wall. The thoroughfare was clogged with its usual stagnating life, sluggish buses and cars honking in steady lines while rickshaws and bikes ran around them like beetles. The beggar children from the morning had scattered across the street, approaching any vehicle that slowed down long enough for them to get a hand through the window. Amina breathed in deep, sucking down the smell of gasoline and cooking onions, of cow dung and sewage and sweat, and Itty hummed to himself. Amina watched him watching Salem until it was too dark to see much of anything, and held the hand he offered to lead her back down into the safety of her bedroom.