When the first rumble came, no one in the Visa Office, down in the basement of the Indian Consulate, thought anything of it. Immersed in regret or hope or trepidation (as is usual for persons planning a major journey), they took it to be a passing cable-car. Or perhaps the repair crew who had draped the pavement outside with neon-orange netting, making entry into the building a feat that required significant gymnastic skill, had resumed drilling. Uma Sinha watched a flake of plaster float from the ceiling in a lazy dance until it disappeared into the implausibly green foliage of the plant that stood at attention in the corner. She watched, but she didn’t really see it, for she was mulling over a question that had troubled her for the last several weeks: Did her boyfriend Ramon love her more than she loved him, and (should her suspicion that he did so prove correct) was that a good thing?
Uma snapped shut her copy of Chaucer, which she had brought with her to compensate for the Medieval Lit class she was missing at the university. In the last few hours she had managed to progress only a page and a half into the “Wyfe of Bath’s Tale” --- this despite the fact that the bawdy, cheerful Wyfe was one of her favorite characters. Now she surrendered to reality: The lobby of the P&V Office, with all its comings and goings, its calling out of the names of individuals more fortunate than herself, was not a place suited to erudite endeavors. She surrendered with ill grace --- it was a belief of hers that people ought to rise above the challenges of circumstance --- and glared at the woman stationed behind the glassed-in customer service window. The woman was dressed in a blue sari of an electrifying hue. Her hair was gathered into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and she wore a daunting red dot in the center of her forehead. She ignored Uma superbly, as people do when faced with those whose abject destinies they control.
Uma did not trust this woman. When she had arrived this morning, assured of a nine a.m. appointment with the visa officer, she found several people swirling around the lobby, and more crowding behind, who had been similarly assured. When questioned, the woman had shrugged, pointing to the pile upon which Uma was to place her paperwork. Clients, she told Uma, would be called according to the order of arrival for an interview with the visa officer. Here she nodded reverently toward the office to the side of the lobby. Its closed door bore the name Mr. V.K.S. Mangalam stenciled in flowery letters on the nubby, opaque glass. Craning her neck, Uma saw that there was a second door to the office, a blank wooden slab that opened into the sequestered employees area: the customer service window and, behind it, desks at which two women sorted piles of official looking documents into other piles and occasionally stamped them. The woman at the counter pursed her lips at Uma’s curiosity and frostily advised her to take a seat while there was one still available.
Uma sat. What else could she do? But she resolved to keep an eye on the woman, who looked entirely capable of shuffling the visa applications around out of bored caprice when no one was watching.
Now it was three p.m. A few minutes earlier, the women at the desks had left on their mid-afternoon break. They had asked the woman in the blue sari if she wanted to accompany them, and when she had declined, stating that she would take her break later, they had dissolved into giggles and whispers which she loftily ignored. There remained four sets of people in the room, apart from Uma. In the distant corner was an old Chinese woman dressed in a traditional tunic, accompanied by a fidgety, sullen girl of thirteen or fourteen who should surely have been in school. The teenager wore her hair in spikes. Her lipstick was black and so were her clothes. Did they allow students to attend school dressed like this nowadays? Uma wondered. Then she felt old-fashioned. From time to time, grandmother and granddaughter fought in fiery whispers, words that Uma longed to decipher. She had always been this way: interested --- quite unnecessarily, some would say --- in the secrets of strangers. When flying, she always chose a window seat so that when the plane took off or landed, she could look down on the tiny houses and imagine the lives of the people who inhabited them. Now she made up the dialogue she could not understand.
I missed a big test today because of your stupid appointment. If I fail Algebra, just remember it was your fault --- because you were too scared to ride the bus here by yourself.
Whose fault was it that you overslept six times this month and didn’t get to school for your morning classes, Missy? And your poor parents, slaving at their jobs, thinking you were hard at work! Maybe I should tell them what really goes on at home while they’re killing themselves to provide for you…
Near them sat a Caucasian couple about a decade older than Uma’s parents, their clothes hinting at affluence: he in a dark woolen jacket and shoes that looked Italian, she in a cashmere sweater and a navy blue pleated skirt that reached her calves. He riffled through The Wall Street Journal; she, the frailer of the pair, was knitting something brown and unidentifiable. Twice he stepped outside --- to smoke a cigarette, Uma guessed. Sometimes, glancing sideways, she saw him watching his wife. Uma couldn’t decipher the look on his face. Was it anxiety? Annoyance? Once she thought it was fear. Or maybe it was hope, the flip side of fear. The only time she heard them speak to each other was when he asked what he could pick up for her from the deli across the street
“I’m not hungry,” she replied in a leave-me-alone tone.
“You have to eat something. Build up your strength. We have a big trip coming up.”
She knitted another row before responding. “Pick up whatever looks good to you, then.” After he left, she put down the knitting needles and stared at her hands.
To Uma’s left sat a young man of about thirty years, an Indian by his features, but fair-skinned as though he came from one of the mountain tribes. He wore dark glasses, a scowl and a beard of the kind that in recent years made airport security pull you out of line and frisk you. To her other side sat a lanky African American, perhaps in his fifties, Uma couldn’t tell. His shaved head and the sharp, ascetic bones of his face gave him an ageless, monkish appearance, though the effect was somewhat undercut by the sparkly studs in his ears. When Uma’s stomach gave an embarrassingly loud growl a couple of hours back (trusting in the nine a.m. appointment, she hadn’t brought with her anything more substantial than a bagel and an apple), he dug into a large rucksack and solemnly offered her a Quaker Oats Peanut Butter Bar.
It was not uncommon, in this city, to find persons of different races randomly thrown together. Still, Uma thought, it was like a mini U. N. summit in here. Whatever were all these people planning to do in India?
Uma herself was going to India because of her parents’ folly. They had come to the United States some twenty years back as young professionals, when Uma was a child. They had loved their jobs, plunging enthusiastically into their workdays. They had celebrated weekends with similar gusto, getting together (in between soccer games and Girl Scout meetings and Bharatnatyam classes for Uma) with other suburbanite Indian families. They had orchestrated elaborate, schizophrenic meals (mustard fish and fried bitter gourd for the parents; spaghetti with meatballs and peach pie for the children) and bemoaned the corruption of Indian politicians. In recent years, they had spoken of moving to San Diego to spend their golden years by the ocean (such nice weather, perfect for our old bones). Then, in a dizzying volte-face that Uma considered most imprudent, her mother had chosen early retirement and her father had quit his position as a senior administrator for a computer company to accept a consultant’s job in India. Together, heartlessly, they had leased out their house (the house where Uma was born!) and returned to their hometown of Kolkata.
“But all these years you complained about how terrible Kolkata was,” Uma had cried, aghast, when they called to inform her of their decision. Apart from her concern for their well-being, she was vexed at not having been consulted. “The heat, the dirt, the noise, the crowded buses, the beggars, the bribes, the diarrhea, the bootlicking, the streets littered with garbage that never got picked up. How are you going to handle it?”
To which her mother had replied, with maddening good humor, “But sweetie, all that has changed. It’s a different India now, India Shining!”
And perhaps it was, for hadn’t her parents glided effortlessly into their new life, renting an air-conditioned terrace-top flat and hiring a retinue of servants to take care of every possible chore? (“I haven’t washed a single dish since I moved here!” her mother rhapsodized on the phone.) A chauffeured car whisked her father to his office each morning. (“I only work from ten to four,” he added proudly from the other phone.) It returned to take her mother shopping, or to see childhood friends, or to get a pedicure, or (before Uma could chide her for being totally frivolous) to volunteer with an agency that educated slum children. In the evenings her parents attended Rabindra Sangeet concerts together, or watched movies on gigantic screens in theaters that resembled palaces, or walked hand in hand (such things were accepted in India Shining) by the same lake where they had met secretly as college students, or went to the club for drinks and a game of bridge. They were invited out every weekend and sometimes on weeknights as well. They vacationed in Kulu Manali in the summer and Goa in the winter.
Uma was happy for her parents though secretly she disapproved of their newly hedonistic lifestyle. (Yet how could she object when it was so much better than what she often saw around her: couples losing interest in each other, living in wooden togetherness or even breaking up?) Was it partly that she felt excluded? Or was it that by contrast her university life, which she had been so proud of, with its angst-filled film festivals, its cafes where heated intellectual discussions raged late into the night, its cavernous libraries where one might, at any moment, bump into a Nobel Laureate, suddenly appeared lackluster? She said nothing, waiting in a stew of anxiety and anticipation for this honeymoon with India to be over, for disillusion and dyspepsia to set in. A year passed. Her mother continued as blithe as ever, though surely she must have faced problems. Who doesn’t? (Why then did she conceal them from Uma?) Now and then she urged Uma to visit. “We’ll go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal together --- we’re saving it for you,” she would say. Or, “I know the best ayurvedic spa. They give sesame oil massages like you wouldn’t believe.” In a recent conversation, she’d said, twice, “We miss you. Why don’t you come visit? We’ll send you a ticket.”
There had been something plaintive about her voice that struck Uma in the space just below her breastbone. She had missed her parents, too. Though she had always decried touristic amusements, suddenly she felt a desire to see the Taj Mahal. “I’ll come for winter break,” she promised rashly.
“How long is that?”
“Six weeks! Lovely!” her mother said, restored to buoyancy. “That should give us enough time. Don’t forget, you’ll need a new visa --- you haven’t been to India in ages. Don’t mail them your passport --- that takes forever. Go into the office yourself. You’ll have to wait a bit, but you’ll get it the same day.”
Only after she had hung up did Uma realize that she had failed to ask her mother, enough time for what? She also realized that her boyfriend Ramon, whom her parents knew and had always treated affably (her father had even given him an Indian nickname, Ramu), had not been included in the invitation.
She might have let it pass --- tickets to India, were, after all, expensive --- but then there was that other conversation, the one where Uma had said, “It’s a good thing you haven’t sold the house. This way, if things don’t work out, you’ll have a place to come back to.”
“Oh no, sweetie,” her mother had replied. “We love it in India --- we knew we would. The house is there for you, in case ---.”
Then her mother had caught herself deftly in mid-sentence and changed the subject, leaving Uma with the sense that she had been about to divulge something she knew Uma was not ready to hear.
Minutes before the second rumble, Uma felt a craving to see the sun. Had the gossamer fog that draped the tops of the downtown buildings when she arrived that morning lifted by now? If so, the sky would be bright as a Niles lily; if not, it would glimmer like fish-scales. Suddenly she needed to know which it was. Later she would wonder at the urgency that had pulled her out of her chair and to her feet. Was it an instinct like the one that made zoo animals moan and whine for hours before natural disasters struck? She shouldered her bag and stepped toward the door. A few more seconds and she would have pushed it open, run down the corridor and taken the stairs up to the first floor two at a time, rushing to satisfy the desire that ballooned inside of her. She would have been outside, lifting her face to the gray drizzle that was beginning to fall, and this would have been a different story.
But as she turned to go, the door to Mr. Mangalam’s office opened. A man hurried out, clutching his passport with an air of victory, and brushed past Uma. The woman in the blue sari picked up the stack of applications and disappeared into Mr. Mangal’s office through the side door. She had been doing that every hour or so. For what? Uma thought, scowling. All the woman needed to do was call out the next name in the pile. Uma had little hope that that name would be hers, but she paused, just in case.
It was a good time to phone Ramon. If she were lucky, she would catch him as he walked across the Student Union plaza from the class he taught to his laboratory, wending his way between drummers and dim sum vendors and doomsday orators. Once in the laboratory, he would turn the phone off, not wanting to be distracted. He was passionate about his work, Ramon. Sometimes at night when he went to the lab to check on an experiment, she would accompany him just so she could watch the stillness that took over his body as he tested and measured and took notes. Sometimes he forgot she was there. That was when she loved him most. If she got him on the phone now, she would tell him this.
But the phone would not cooperate. No Service, the small, lighted square declared.
The man with the ear studs looked over and offered her a sympathetic grimace. “My phone has the same problem,” he said. “That’s the trouble with these downtown buildings. Maybe if you walk around the room, you’ll find a spot where it works.”
Phone to her ear, Uma took a few steps forward, though not with much hope. It felt good to stretch her legs. She watched the woman emerge from Mr. Mangal’s office, shaking out the creases of her sari, looking like she had bitten into something sour. Uncharitably, Uma hoped that Mr. Mangalam had rebuked her for making so many people wait for so many unnecessary hours. The phone gave a small burp against her ear. But before she could check if it was working, the rumble rose through the floor. This time there was no mistaking its intention. It was as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building’s foundations and roared. The floor buckled, throwing Uma to the ground. The giant took the building in both his hands and shook it. A chair flew across the room at Uma. She raised her left arm to shield herself. The chair crashed into her wrist and a pain worse than anything she had known surged through her arm. People were screaming. Feet ran by her, then ran back again. She tried to wedge herself beneath one of the chairs, as she had been taught long ago in grade school, but only her head and shoulders would fit. The cell-phone was still in her other hand, pressed against her ear. Was that Ramon’s voice asking her to leave a message, or was it just her need to hear him?
Above her the ceiling collapsed in an explosion of plaster. Beams broke apart with the sound of gigantic bones snapping. A light fixture shattered. For a moment, before the electricity failed, she saw the glowing filaments of the naked bulb. Rubble fell through the blackness, burying her legs. Her arm was on fire. She cradled it against her chest. (A useless gesture, when she would probably die in the next minutes.) Was that the sound of running water? Was the basement they were in flooding? She thought she heard a beep, the machine ready to record her voice. Ramon, she cried, her mouth full of dust. She thought of his long, meticulous fingers, how they could fix anything she broke. She thought of the small red moles on his chest, just above the left nipple. She wanted to say something important and consoling, something for him remember her by. But she could think of nothing, and then her phone went dead.
The dark was full of women’s voices, keening in a language he did not know, so that at first he thought he was back in the war. The thought sucked the air from his lungs and left him choking. There was dirt on his tongue, shards under his fingertips. He smelled burning. He moved his hands over his face, over the uneven bones of his head, the stubble coming in already, the scar over his eyebrow that told him nothing. But when he touched the small, prickly stones in his ears, he remembered who he was.
I am Cameron, he said to himself. With the words, the world as it was formed around him: piles of rubble, shapes that might be broken furniture. Some of the shapes moaned. The voices --- no, it was only one voice --- fell into an inexorable rhythm, repeating a name over and over. After a while he was able to think past the droning. He checked his pants pockets. The right one held the inhaler. He pulled it out and shook it carefully. There were maybe five doses left. He saw in his mind the tidy cabinet in his bathroom, the new bottle waiting on the second shelf. He pushed away regret and anger, which for him had always been mixed together, and focused on positiveness the way the holy man would have, if he’d been stuck here. If Cameron was careful, five doses could last him for days. They would be out of here long before that.
His keys were in his left pocket. A mini-flashlight was strung through the chain. He stood and passed the pencil-thin ray over the room. A different part of his brain clicked into being, the part that weighed situations and decided what needed to be done. He welcomed it.
Half the ceiling had collapsed. People would have to be kept as far as possible from that area in case more followed. Some folks were huddled under furniture along a wall. They could remain there for the moment. He searched for flames. Nothing. His mind must have conjured the burning smell from memory. He sniffed for the acrid odor that would signal a broken gas pipe and was satisfied that there were none nearby. Somewhere he could hear water falling in an uneven rhythm, starting and stopping and starting again, but the floor was dry. There were two figures at the door that led to the passage, trying to pull it open.
He sprang forward with a yell, shocking the weeper (he had thought there were several women crying, but he realizes, there is only one.) into silence. “Hey!” he shouted. “Stop! Don’t open it! That’s dangerous!” He sprinted as fast as he could through the rubble and grabbed their shoulders. The older man allowed himself to be pulled away, but the younger one flung him off with a curse and wrenched at the handle again.
A splinter of rage jabbed Cameron’s chest, but he tried to keep his voice calm. “The door may be what’s holding up this part of the room. If you open it suddenly, something else might collapse. Also, there may be a pile of rubble pressing against the door from the outside. If it’s dislodged, who knows what could happen. We will try to open it --- but we have to figure out how to do it right.”
Something glistened on the young man’s cheekbone. In the inadequate light, Cameron couldn’t tell if it was blood or tears. But there was no mistaking the fury in his shoulders and arms, the lowered angle of his head. He came at Cameron, propelled by compressed fear. Cameron had seen men like him before. They could hurt you something serious. He stepped to the side and brought the edge of his hand down on the base of the man’s skull --- but carefully. Such a blow could snap the neck vertebrae. The men he had faced elsewhere would have known to twist away, to block with an upraised elbow. But this boy --- that’s how Cameron suddenly thought of him, a boy younger than his son would have been, had he lived --- took the full force of the blow, fell face forward onto the floor and stayed there. In the shadows someone whimpered, then stopped abruptly, as though a hand were clapped over a mouth. Cameron massaged his hand. He was out of shape. He had let himself go intentionally, hoping never again to have do things like what he had just done.
“I’m sorry I had to hit him,” he called into the semi-dark. “He wouldn’t listen.” He repressed the urge to add, I am not a violent man. A declaration like that would only spook them further. He held up his hands to show that they held nothing except the miniscule flashlight. “Please don’t be afraid of me,” he said. He wanted to tell them what he’d seen in Mexico, where he’d gone to help after an earthquake in one of his attempts at expiation. People who had been too impatient and had tried to dig themselves out of the rubble often died as more debris collapsed on them, while people who had stayed put --- sometimes without food and water for a week or more --- were finally, miraculously rescued. But it was too much to try and explain, and the memories brought up even as he contemplated the task --- all the mangled bodies he hadn’t been able to save --- were too painful. So he merely said, “If he’d yanked that door open like he was aiming to, he could have killed us all.”
Silence pressed upon him, unconvinced, unforgiving. Finally, from underneath a chair, a woman’s voice asked, “So did you kill him instead?”
Cameron let out the breath he’d been holding unawares and said, “Not at all! He’s stirring already. See for yourself. You can come out from under your chair. It seems safe enough.”
“I can’t move too well,” the woman said. “I think I’ve broken my arm. Can you help me?”
He felt a loosening in his shoulder bones at the last words, the corners of his mouth quirking up. Who would have thought he would find anything to smile about in a time like this? He stepped forward.
“I’ll sure give it a try,” he said.
Malathi gripped the edge of the customer service counter with her left hand, carefully avoiding the broken glass that littered it, and raised herself surreptitiously off the floor, just enough to check on what the black man was doing. She needed to fix her sari, which had fallen off her shoulder, but her right hand was pressed tight against her mouth, mashing her lips against her teeth, and she dared not relax it. Because then she wouldn’t be able to keep it in, the cry that was also a supplication --- Krishna Krishna Krishna --- but most of all a prayer for forgiveness, for she might have been the reason the earthquake had happened. And if the black man heard her, he might decide to turn around and walk toward her. Who knew what he would do then?
When her relatives in India --- aunties, grandmothers, spinster cousins --- heard that she was coming to America, they had shuddered --- with horror or envy, Malathi wasn’t sure which--and warned her to stay away from black men, who were dangerous. (And they had been right, hadn’t they? Look how he ran up to the door and attacked that poor Indian boy, who was half his size. For the moment Malathi forgot that the auntie brigade, ecumenical in their distrust of the male species, had gone on to caution her to stay away from white men, who were lecherous, and Indian American men, who were sly.)
No one, however, had thought to caution her about earthquakes. Where she came from, when people said America, many images flashed in their heads. But an earthquake was not one of them.
Malathi had followed the aunties’ advice --- partly because there was not much opportunity to do otherwise, and partly because she had other plans. She shared a tiny apartment with three other women who had been hired by the consulate and brought over from India around the same time. They spent all their spare time together, riding the bus to work and parting only at the elevator (the others worked upstairs in Tourism), walking to Patel Brothers to buy sambar powder and avakaya pickle, watching Bollywood movies on a second-hand DVD player, oiling each others’ hair at night as they discussed hopes and plans. The other women wanted to get married. From their salaries, which had sounded lavish when translated into rupees but were meager when you had to pay for everything in dollars, they put money aside each month for their dowry, for even though dowries had been officially banned in India, everyone knew that without one you had no chance of landing a halfway decent man.
But Malathi, who had noted how her two sisters were ordered around by their husbands, had no intention of following in their foolish footsteps. She had set her heart on something different. When she had saved enough money, she was going back --- though not to her hometown of Coimbatore --- to open a beauty shop. At night she clutched her lumpy pillow, closed her eyes, and was transported to it: the brass bells on the double doors (curtained for privacy) that tinkled as clients came in, the deliciously air-conditioned room walled with shining mirrors, the aproned employees who greeted her with polite, folded hands, the capacious swivel chairs where women could get their eyebrows threaded or their hair put up in elaborate lacquered buns for weddings, or relax while their faces were massaged with a soothing yogurt and sandalwood paste.
Then Mr. Mangalam had arrived at the Visa Office and derailed her.
Malathi’s roommates agreed that Mr. Mangalam was the best looking man at the consulate. With his swashbuckling mustache, designer sunglasses, and a surprisingly disarming smile, he looked much younger than his age (which, Malathi had surreptitiously dipped into his file to discover, was forty five). He was the only middle-aged man she knew without a paunch and ear-hairs. But alas, these gifts that Nature had heaped on Mr. Mangalam were of no use to her, because there already existed a Mrs. Mangalam, smiling elegantly from the framed photo on his desk. (The photo frames had been provided by the consulate to all its officers, with strict instructions to fill and display them. It would make the Americans who came to the office feel more comfortable, they were told, since Americans believed that the presence of a smiling family on a man’s table was proof of his moral stability.)
Malathi, a practical young woman, had decided to write Mr. Mangalam off. This, however, turned out to be harder than she had expected, for he seemed to have taken a liking to her. Malathi, who harbored no illusions about her looks (dark skin, round cheeks, snub nose) was mystified by this development. But there it was. He smiled at her as he passed by the customer service window in the morning. The days it was her turn to brew tea for the office, he praised the taste and asked for an extra cup. When, to celebrate Tamil New Year, he brought in a box of Maisoorpak, it was to her he offered the first diamond-shaped sweet. On occasions when she stepped into his office to consult him about an applicant’s papers, he requested her to sit, as polite as though she were a client. Sometimes he asked how she was planning to spend the weekend. When she said she had no plans, he looked wistful, as though he would have liked to invite her to go someplace with him --- the Naz Theater, maybe, where the latest Shah Rukh Khan mega-hit was playing, or Madras Mahal, which made the crispiest dosas but was too expensive for her to afford.
Could anyone blame her, then, for visiting his office a little more often than was necessary? For accepting, once in a while, a spoonful of the silvered betel nuts he kept in his top drawer? For listening when he told her how lonely he was, so far from home, just like herself? For allowing his fingers to close over hers when she handed him a form? In idle moments it was her habit to doodle on scraps of paper. One day she found herself writing, amidst vines and floral flourishes, Malathi Mangalam. It was schoolgirlish., Dangerous. Symptomatic of an inner tectonic shift that disconcerted her. She tore the paper into tiny pieces and threw them away. Still, she couldn’t help but think the syllables had a fine ring, and sometimes at night, instead of visualizing her beloved beauty shop she whispered them into her pillow.
Today, Mr. Mangalam had pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
Malathi had to admit that the action, though it surprised her, was not totally unexpected. Hadn’t he, just yesterday, placed in her palm a small golden cardboard box? She had opened it to find four white chocolates, each shaped like a shell and tucked into its own nest. Try one, he urged. When she shook her head bashfully, he took one out, ran it over her lips, and pushed it into her mouth. The crust had been crunchy, but the inside --- it was the softest, sweetest thing she’d tasted. Guilt and elation had filled her throat as she swallowed it.
That same guilty elation had made her scalp tingle as he pressed his lips against her mouth. If he had groped or grabbed, she would have pushed him away. But he was gentle; he murmured respectfully as he nuzzled her ear. (Oh, how deliciously his mustache tickled her cheek!) Though Malathi had never been kissed before, thanks to the romantic movies she’d grown up on, she knew what to do. She lowered shy eyes and leaned into his chest, letting her lips brush his jaw even as a worrisome thought pricked her: by dallying with a married man, she was piling up bad karma . Just when he drew in his breath with a little shudder and a strange power surged through her, her glance fell on Mrs. Mangalam’s photo, which sat next to a small sandalwood statue of Lord Ganapathi. For the first time she noticed that Mrs. Mangalam’s hair was exquisitely styled --- obviously from a tiptop-quality beauty shop. She displayed on her right hand (which was artfully positioned under her chin) wore three beautiful diamond rings. Had the man whose face was currently buried in Malathi’s throat given them to her? Mrs. Mangalam smiled sanguinely at Malathi --- sanguinely, and with some pity. The smile indicated two things: first, that she was the kind of woman Malathi could never hope to become; and second, that no matter what follies her husband was indulging in right now, ultimately he would return to her.
That smile had made Malathi untangle herself from Mr. Mangalam. When he bowed over her hand to plant a kiss on the inside of her wrist, she had snatched her hand back. Ignoring his queries as to what was wrong, she had fixed her sari and her expression and hurried out of the office.
Before she had taken ten steps, the wheel of karma began rolling, and retribution struck in the form of the earthquake.
In the sparse glow of the mini-flashlight, Malathi saw the black man holding someone by the elbow, pulling her to the center of the room. It was the Indian girl --- though could one really call her Indian, brought up as she had clearly been in decadent western ways? From the first, Malathi had disliked her because of her hip-hugging jeans, the thick college book she carried, as if to advertise her intelligence, and her American impatience. But now when the man grasped her arm and the girl gave a yelp of pain, Malathi couldn’t stop herself from sending out an answering cry. She regretted it immediately, because the man let go of the girl and started walking toward her. She ducked under the counter, though without much hope. The glass that normally sequestered her from the people who came into the visa office had shattered in the quake. It would be easy for him to lean over and grab her.
The man did lean over the counter, though he did not reach for her. He was saying something, but panic had siphoned away her English. He repeated the words more slowly. The syllables ricocheted around in her head, unintelligible. She shut her eyes and tried to imagine the beauty shop, with herself safe in its calm center. But the floor rose up, the mirrors cracked and fell from the walls, and the ground was full of shards like those under her hands.
Behind her she heard Mr. Mangalam’s door open. Glass crunched under his unsteady shoes as he walked toward her and the black man. Though she had not premeditated it, she found herself flinging herself at him and pummeling his chest, crying out in Tamil, “It’s our fault! It’s our fault! We made this happen!”
When the earthquake had hit, Mr. Mangalam had ducked underneath his desk. Subsequently, the desk had slid to the other end of the room, trapping him against a wall. He had pushed and kicked for several minutes before managing to extricate himself. When he rose to his feet, disconcerted by how badly his hands were shaking, his eyes had fallen on his prize possession --- no, not the photo, which lay on the carpet smiling with sly triumph, but the sandalwood Ganapathi that his mother had given him --- to remove all obstacles from your path --- when he had left home for college. The desk in its journey across the room had dislodged the deity from his desk and crushed it against the wall. He had felt a dreadful hollowness, as though someone had scooped out his insides. He, too, had been brought up with a belief in karma. Accusations similar to what Malathi was currently sobbing against his shirtfront had swirled like a miasma through his brain. No matter how resolutely he pushed them away as superstition, wisps kept coming back, weakening him.
Mr. Mangalam did not have any prior experience of earthquakes. He had, however, dealt with hysterical women before. He took hold of Malathi’s shoulders and shook her until she fell silent. “Don’t be stupid,” he told her in Tamil, using the icy tone that had worked well in past situations. “It was an earthquake. Earthquakes have nothing to do with people.” In English he added, “Pull yourself together and listen to what this gentleman is asking you.”
Cameron didn’t like how the officer had shaken the woman and wanted to say something about it. But there were more pressing issues. “Do you have a first aid kit?” he asked again, enunciating the words as clearly as he could. “A flashlight? How about a radio with batteries? Tylenol? Is the phone working?”
“I checked the phone in my office,” Mr. Mangalam said. “The line’s dead.” He repeated the other items for Malathi, substituting terms she would be familiar with --- torch, Anacin, medicine box --- until she nodded uncertainly and wandered off into the shadowy recesses of the office.
Dazed as she seemed, Cameron didn’t expect much from her. But in a few minutes he saw a bobbing circle of light move toward him. She placed the flashlight on the countertop, along with a plastic Wal Mart bag that held two batteries, and a white metal box painted with a large, red cross. Inside he found alcohol swabs, a few band-aids, a bottle of aspirin, some cold medication, a tube of antiseptic ointment, and a container of dental floss. It was better than nothing, though not by much.
He tried to order, in his head, the things that needed to be done. He had to check all areas of the room to determine if there were other possible exits. He had to check if anyone else was injured. He had to find out who might have food or water with them, and then persuade them to give it up. Were there bathroom facilities? If not, alternate arrangements would have to be made. He would have to walk around the room to see if there was a spot from which his cell phone worked. He would have to ask others to do the same. Sooner or later, he would have to try and open the door, even though it might cause them to be buried alive.
His chest was beginning to hurt. The dust wasn’t helping any. Soon he would be forced to use the inhaler.
It’s too much, Seva, he thought. I can’t manage it all.
Behind him he heard a swishing. He swung around, aiming his flashlight like a gun. Malathi had found a broom and was sweeping up some of the debris. He was not able to catch her eye, but at least she no longer seemed terrified. That was good, because soon he would have to ask her to do something she would hate him for.
He allowed his mind to move away from the demands of the present, to follow, gratefully, the rhythm of the broom, which sounded a little like something his grandmother, who had grown up as a house-servant in a Southern home, had described for him: a woman walking down a staircase in a long silk dress.
Uma looked down at her hand, which was so swollen that she could no longer make out the wrist bones. Cameron had given her three aspirin tablets, which she had forced herself to dry-swallow, almost gagging in the process. They did nothing for the pain, which throbbed all the way up her arm into her shoulder, and which she could not separate from her fear. Under her skin, something jagged was grinding into her muscles. She imagined a bone --- or maybe several --- ends cracked and sharp and uneven, stabbing her flesh from the inside. She wanted to escape to something outside this dreadful prison of a room --- the ocean, her parents, the Pad Thai noodles which she had been planning to make for dinner, Ramon bringing her jasmine tea in bed --- but she was unable to squeeze past the panic. Could one die of internal bleeding in the arm? By the time they were rescued, would her arm have to be amputated? She had believed herself to be the kind of person who could handle crisis with cool intelligence. Now she was abashed at how quickly pain had eroded her resources.
Everyone was huddled in the center of the room, where Cameron had summoned them. Everyone except the bearded young man, who was still lying where he had fallen, although he was conscious now. He had turned onto his side so he could watch Cameron. His unblinking eyes were like black glass in the glow of the flashlight. His head lolled at an uncomfortable angle. When a wave of pain receded, Uma would think vaguely of placing something under his head, her backpack maybe. Then the next wave of pain would break over her and she would lose track of the thought.
Cameron was checking people for injuries. They sat in a chair, their faces docile and tilted up like children’s, while he ran his pencil light over them. Almost everyone had cuts or bruises. The old woman had a nasty gash on her upper arm that was bleeding copiously. He handed swabs, band-aids and the antibiotic cream to the older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Pritchett, and told them to do what they could to help those who were not too badly hurt. People had stammered out their names by now, all except the bearded man. But they knew his name anyway, because while he had been passed out on the floor Cameron had asked Mr. Mangalam. It was Tariq. A Muslim name. Uma wondered if that had to anything to do with his violent outburst; then she was ashamed of such a stereotypical thought.
Cameron called the granddaughter, Lily, to hold the large flashlight for him as he cleaned the old woman’s wound and pressed gauze into it. Uma could see Lily biting her lips as red soaked the gauze, but the girl did not look away. Cameron frowned as he worked on the wound. He had to use up all the gauze before he could stop the bleeding. (Who would have thought the old woman to have so much blood in her, Uma longed to say to someone who would recognize the allusion.) Finally, he tore a strip off the bottom of his T-shirt and bandaged up the old lady’s arm. He instructed her to lie down and keep the arm as still as possible. Then he lowered himself heavily onto the ground. Uma felt a stab of anxiety as she saw him lean his head against the customer service wall and close his eyes. He fumbled for something in his pocket, held it to his mouth, and squeezed. Was he ill? Be strong, be strong, she thought between the bouts of pain that pulsed in the bones of her face.
But he was, up again, examining the back area for a door or window that might form a possible exit route. Perhaps a ladder that they could use to climb up to the large air vent near the ceiling? Failing to find anything, he deployed people with cell phones to move around (but carefully) in case they could catch a signal. Mangalam was put in charge of checking the office phone lines at regular intervals. Nothing there either. Cameron waited for the realization to sink in: they were stuck here until a rescue team arrived, or until they decided took the risk of pulling open the front door. Then he instructed people to pool whatever food or drink they had, for rationing.
A reluctant pile of snacks formed on the counter, along with a few bottles of water. Uma, who did not have anything to contribute, felt improvident, like Aesop’s summer-singing cricket. (But she was suspicious, too. Had people squirreled things away at the bottoms of their purses, deep inside a coat pocket, in their shoes? In their place, she would have done it.) For a moment she heard her mother reading her that old story, her voice indignant as the ant sent the cricket off into the winter to die. Right now, half a world away, her mother lay asleep on her Superior Quality Dunlopillo mattress, ignorant of her daughter’s plight. But hadn’t her mother always been that way, oblivious to trouble even if it lay down in her bed and placed its head on her pillow?
“Does anyone have pain medication with them?” Cameron called. “Something prescription strength? This young woman, Miss Uma, her arm is broken. I’d like to give her something before I try to set it. Legal or otherwise, I don’t care.”
But no one admitted to possessing anything.
Cameron turned to Mangalam. “I need some long strips of cloth for bandages and a sling. We’re going to have to use her sari.” He gestured with his chin at Malathi. “You’ve got to explain it to her.”
But when Mangalam spoke to Malathi, a rapid-fire set of staccato sounds that Uma did not understand, she retreated behind the counter and folded mutinous arms across her chest. “Illay, Illay!” she cried in a tone that was impossible to mistake. She continued with a wail of unfathomable words.
“She says it will destroy her womanly modesty,” Mangalam reported. He looked flustered. Uma suspected that Malathi had said something more, something he was withholding from them. Then another wave of pain struck and she was no longer interested.
“Ma’am, you have to cooperate,” Cameron said. “We’re in a situation where the regular rules don’t apply. I can’t help Miss Uma here unless I have enough cloth.” But Malathi had backed into a narrow space between two file cabinets at the far end of the room.
With her uninjured hand Uma groped in her backpack and pulled out a sweatshirt. The pain had taken over her head by now, making her dizzy. She walked unsteadily to the file cabinets and raised her swollen arm as best as she could for Malathi to see. The skin was turning a sick purple, visible even in the gloom. For a long moment Malathi did not move. Then she shot Uma a look of hate, snatched the sweatshirt from her hand, and retreated into Mangalam’s office. A few seconds later, the blue sari came flying through a gap in the door. Uma heard the click of a lock.
With her arm bandaged --- the enterprising Cameron had used two rulers to make a splint --- and placed in a sling, Uma felt slightly better. She took two more aspirin tablets from Cameron, picked up her backpack, and made her way to Tariq. He accepted the tablets she held out and gave a nod of thanks. Then he grimaced and clasped the back of his neck.
“Does it hurt a lot?” she asked.
He gave a bitter bark of a laugh. “What do you think?”
“I’m sorry about what happened,” she said.
He shrugged. “I’m going to kill him.”
His tone startled her. It was so casual, so chillingly certain.
“Don’t talk like that,” she said sharply.
She would have said more, but Mrs. Pritchett joined them. The older woman turned her body as though she did not want the others in the room to see what she was doing. From a bottle in her hand she tapped out two pills that glowed like tiny oval moons. “Xanax,” she whispered. “Maybe they’ll help.” Tariq looked at her palm disdainfully. Uma, however, picked them up. She was hazy about what exactly Xanax did for you, but it could only improve things for her now. She thanked Mrs. Pritchett, who gave a smile of complicity and took a pill herself. The pills glided across Uma’s tongue with ease. She was getting better at this. She wished she could have had a sip of water to wash away the aftertaste, but Cameron had said that they should wait a few hours before eating or drinking, and she did not want to make trouble for him.
“I’m going to lie down,” she announced to no one in particular. Cameron had cordoned off the area to the right of the customer service cubicle, where the ceiling sagged open like a surprised mouth, with chairs. They were to stay away from it in case an aftershock brought more of the ceiling down. Uma wandered to where the old Chinese lady was stretched out on the ground. Elsewhere the flooring had cracked into chunks and torn its way up through the carpet, but here it was fine and free of glass. She maneuvered herself into a lying position, placing her backpack under her head, where it made a lumpy pillow. After what the Muslim said, she wasn’t going to share anything with him. She should have told Cameron about the threat, though the man probably had not meant it. When people were angry and hurting, they blurted out all sorts of things that later made them feel sheepish.
In any case, it was impossible to summon the enormous energy she would need to get back to her feet. The pills were dissolving inside her, sending out little tentacles of well-being, jellying her muscles. Bless you, Mrs. Pritchett, unlikely angel! Cameron was crisscrossing the room very slowly, his cell phone held out like a divining rod. Uma angled her head so she could keep him in her line of vision. There was a restfulness to him. But a vast, misty lake had opened up around her. How enticing it was. Drifting onto it, she promised herself that she would she would warn Cameron as soon as she awoke. By then, most possibly, their rescuers would be here, and it wouldn’t matter.
Tariq Husein squinted at the lighted dial on his watch. It was seven p.m., past time for the sunset prayer. He had already missed the noon and afternoon prayers. The second time it was because the African American had attacked him from behind, the coward, and knocked him out. The memory made rage undulate in his stomach. Rage and futility, because if the bastard hadn’t stopped him, they might all be outside by now. However, missing the Dhuhr prayer earlier was no one’s fault but his own --- Tariq was honest enough to accept that. His own weakness had kept him from pulling out the prayer rug and the black namaz cap from his briefcase and kneeling in the corner of the room, because he had not wanted people to stare. He would make up for it now.
His beard was itching again. He forced himself not to scratch it. He had abominably sensitive skin, easily inflamed, and he did not want to have to deal with that additional problem now. Ammi, who blamed the beard, was always asking him to shave it off. He smiled at the irony of that. For years Ammi had begged him to get more serious about his religion, weeping and praying over his bad behavior in high school --- his drinking and fighting and getting suspended. But by the time he changed, his mother was too anxious to enjoy it, because America had changed, too.
It was a time when certain people were eyed with suspicion in shopping malls and movie theaters; when officials showed up at workplaces or even homes to ask questions; when Ammi gave a rueful sigh of relief and told her friends when they came over for chai that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing her son was so American.
The first sign of change was arguments with friends (at that time, most of them had been white) about what had led to the attacks on the Towers, about the retaliatory bombings in Afghanistan, about what Muslims really believed. To argue better, he started reading up on these things. He visited websites with strange names and seemingly baffling views and stayed up into the small hours of the night trying to decipher them. He started email conversations with people who held strong opinions and had facts to back them up. Mostly as an experiment, he quit drinking. One day he rescued from its wrappings a salwaar kameez outfit his mother had bought him from India --- and which he had promptly tossed into the back of his closet --- and wore it to the masjid. He liked the glances he got from the young women, especially a certain young woman, and did it again. Yes, he might as well admit it: women had as much to do with his transformation as his political beliefs.
When Ammi was advised by friends to stop wearing the hijab, he sat her down on the sofa and took her hands in his. He told her she must do what she believed in, not what made the people around her feel better. And most of all, she must not act out of fear. It did not work. She folded the headscarves and put them away in a drawer. Still, sometimes he would catch her watching him adjust his black cap in the mirror before he set off for Friday prayers. Pride would battle with astonishment in her face. At unexpected moments, he would be struck by a similar astonishment. What made him change? Was it 9/11, or was it Farah?
Farah. The thought of her pulled Tariq off the floor. He tried to stand tall, but pain shot through his neck, making him curse the African American. He put the anger away in a small, dark closet in his mind. This was not the time. He needed to purify his heart now, to praise Allah, to ask for help, to request blessings, particularly for Abba and Ammi, may the angels enfold them in their protective wingsHe groped through the darkness until he found his briefcase, still standing upright where he had set it down beside his chair, though the chair was gone. A small miracle whose meaning he would have to ponder. He unrolled the rug, pulled on the tight cap. He tried to ascertain in which direction Mecca lay, but he was confused by darkness and fear. (Yes, stripped of pride in front of God, he admitted to the fear that ballooned in his chest every few minutes, making it hard to breathe.) Finally he chose to face the door he had been prevented from opening.
“Allahu Akbar” he whispered. “Subhaaana ala humma wa bihamdika.” He tried to feel on his tongue the sweetness of the words that had traveled to him over centuries and continents. Against the reddish brown walls of his eyelids, he tried to picture the holy Kaaba, which, one day, Inshallah, he hoped to visit. (Sometimes the image would come to him clearly, edged with silver like a storm cloud: a thousand people kneeling in brotherhood to touch their foreheads to the ground in front of the black stone, fellowship like he longed to know.) All he could see was Farah’s face, alight with the ironic smile that, at one time, used to infuriate him.
Farah. She had entered Tariq’s life innocuously, the way a letter-opener slides under the flap of an envelope, cutting through things that had been glued shut, spilling secret contents. Her name was like a yearning poet’s sigh, but even Tariq was forced to admit that it didn’t match the rest of her. Boyish thin and too tall to be considered pretty by Indian standards, she was smart and secretive, with the disconcerting habit of fixing her keen, kohl-lined eyes on you in a manner that made you suspect that she didn’t quite believe what you said.
The daughter of Ammi’s best friend from childhood, Farah had come to America two years back on a prestigious study-abroad scholarship from her university in Delhi. (Tariq, whose own college career was filled with stutters, a senior then, trying to finish up classes he had dropped in previous semesters.) In spite of her brilliance, though, Farah almost had not made it to America. Her widowed mother, blissfully ignorant of what occurred with some regularity on the campuses of her hometown, had been terrified that American dorm life, ruled as it was by the unholy trinity of alcohol, drugs and sex, would ruin her daughter. Only after a protracted and tearful conversation with Ammi had Farah’s mother given Farah permission to come. These were the conditions: Farah would live with Ammi for her entire stay; she would visit the mosque twice a week; she would mingle only with other Indian Muslims; and she would be escorted everywhere she went by a member of the Husein family. Since Abba was busy with his janitorial business, which was growing so fast that he recently had to hire several new employees, and Ammi’s day was filled with mysterious female activities, this member most often turned out to be the reluctant Tariq.
From the beginning Farah got under his skin. Though she was polite, a disapproval seemed to emanate from her, making him wonder if his disheveled lifestyle wasn’t quite as cool as he’d thought. He couldn’t figure her out. Unlike other girls who had visited them from India, she wasn’t interested in the latest music, movies, or magazines. Brand name clothing or make-up didn’t excite her. One day, feeling magnanimous, he had offered to take her to the mall --- and even clubbing, later, if she could keep her mouth shut. She needed to see what made America America. But she had asked if they could go to the Modern Art Museum. What a waste of an afternoon that had been. He had trailed behind her as she examined, with excruciating interest, canvases filled with incomprehensive slashes of color or people who were naked, and ugly besides.
On the way back, she had been more exuberant than he had ever seen her, going on and on about how innovative modern Indian art, too, was, with Muslim artists like Raza and Husain in the forefront. She had made him feel stupid because he had never heard of these so-called artists, not even the one with the same last name as his. In retaliation, he had listed for her all the things he had hated about India from his duty-visits there. She was angry; he could tell that from the way her nostrils flared quickly, once. She said, “It’s easy to see the problems India has. But do you even know what America’s problems are?”
He was stung into that hackneyed retort: if America had so many problems, she was welcome to go back home. Right now. She had turned her face to the car window. After a few minutes, her hand had sneaked up to her face to wipe away tears. Her fingertips came away kohl-streaked. He hadn’t felt like such a jerk in a long time, though he said far worse things to the girls he went out with. Perhaps it was that Farah didn’t carry tissues, which he translated as meaning that she had not expected him to hurt her. He stopped the car and apologized. She didn’t reply, but she gave a stiff little nod. The thin, curved rod of her collarbone reminded him, illogically, of a fledgling bird. That was when he started to fall in love.
Once when he was recovering from the flu, she had come into his room with a glass of barley water Ammi had boiled for him. She had felt his forehead to check his temperature, and then touched the two-day growth of beard. “Looks good,” she had said. His defenses eroded by fever, he had been caught in the inflection of her voice. Something ancient in it reached out and reclaimed him. He stopped shaving after that. When at the dinner table his parents pelted him with questions, asking him why he wanted to do something so controversial now, when it was absolutely the wrong time, Farah lowered her eyes demurely. The beard had become a code between them. Even now, a year and a half after she had returned to India, (India, where she was waiting for him to visit her) he had only to close his eyes to feel her cool, approving fingers on his jawbone.
“Folks, please, I need your attention!”
Cameron’s voice crashed against Tariq’s eardrums, shattering the memory and jolting him back to the present. He found that he was kneeling with his forehead to the floor. He had gone through the entire evening prayer without paying attention to the sacred words. This realization, along with losing Farah all over again, made him angry again with the African American.
“We need to eat and drink a little,” Cameron was saying. “It’ll keep hunger and thirst from overwhelming us later on. If you come up to the counter and make a line, I’ll hand each of you your portion.It’ll be small, I’m afraid ---”
Tariq jumped up from the prayer mat, banging his knee on a piece of furniture because the African American had turned off the big flashlight and was, instead, holding up the pencil light --- another part of his strategy for controlling them.
“Why should you decide what we’re going to do?” he said. “Why should you order us around?” Even to his own ears, his voice bounced off the walls, too loud. He could see faces turning toward him in consternation. He bit his tongue to silence himself. They needed to realize that he was right. That way, he could have them on his side at the right time. “This is an Indian office. If anyone is to give orders, it should be the visa officer.”
But Mangalam, hair hanging limply over his eyebrows, shook his head. Even in the thin light, his face was haggard. He had been trying the phones every five minutes and had come to the conclusion that service was unlikely to be restored any time soon, if at all. He did not want the responsibility for all these lives. In his youth, before marriage and the diplomatic service had snared him with false promises of glamour and ease, he had been a student of Chemistry. It seemed to him that each person in this room (and the young man in front of him was a prime example) was like a simmering test tube that might explode if the minutest amount of the wrong element were added to it. He did not want to be in the forefront when the blasts came. He was no hero. Wasn’t that why he had escaped to a post abroad rather than battling it out with Mrs. Mangalam?
“Mr. Cameron Grant here has been in the United States army,” he said. “He is used to handling emergency situations. He knows better than I do what precautions must be taken. I vote that we follow his strategy and offer him every co-operation.” Other voices joined him, leaving Tariq stranded.
Tariq’s mouth filled with a rusty taste. Fool, he thought, glaring at Mangalam. The man was typical of the worst kind of Indian. Let a foreigner appear, even a dark-skinned one, and immediately they bowed and scraped in front of him. He weighed the cost of disobeying the African American. But first he needed allies. Patience, he told himself. After he ate and got the girl with the broken arm to fetch him more aspirin, he would undertake his own reconnaissance. Inshallah, maybe he would discover an opening the other man had missed, a possibility for escape. With God’s guidance, he might be the one to lead his companions to safety.
Excerpted from ONE AMAZING THING © Copyright 2010 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Reprinted with permission by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion. All rights reserved.
One Amazing Thing
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Voice
- ISBN-10: 1401340997
- ISBN-13: 9781401340995