From the first morning that Karom awakes in Gita’s grandmother’s house, he can tell that their time in Delhi is going to be different from the rest of their trip. They arrive late at night from Agra, and as they drag their suitcases up to the second floor, Gita caresses the nameplate outside Ammama’s apartment lightly, leaving a small wake in the dust with her fingers. “Huh,” she says. “That’s new.” Kamini Pai, it reads. Before Karom has a chance to ask what she means, they are tumbling into the small flat, sandy from road silt and Indian rail travel, blinking under the fat fluorescent tube lights like a pair of bears emerging from a long winter’s hibernation. After formal introductions and sleepy smiles, they fall into bed, Karom in the living room, Gita in her grandmother’s room, surrendering to sleep miles away from any nettlesome insect buzzing or monotonous calls to prayer that echo through the compound. The night passes swiftly, gathering snatches of reality and combining them with fancy, translating and then siphoning them into their ears so that they dream vividly, solidly.
But then, in the early morning, in fact for each of the mornings for the six days they stay with Ammama in her small flat, a gong rings somewhere outside that sounds like a frying pan being hit with a metal spoon. Karom cautiously opens one eye to peer at his vintage Rolex, perched carefully on the chair he is using as a bedside table. Five forty-five. This is when Ammama pads into the sitting room, where Karom sleeps on the hard wooden pallet, his legs tangled in the threadbare sheets, his skin cool and clammy from nightly sweats. She presses a damp cloth on his forehead and he feigns sleep, unsure of how to react, rigidly aware of Gita asleep in the next room. She lowers herself onto the slate floor beside him with a towel under her knees. She swipes a line of vermilion across the hollow in her throat, directly in the center of her clavicle and, depending on how Karom is situated, mirrors the gesture on him. She closes her eyes, reopens them immediately to ensure that Karom is still sleeping, sucks in her breath and lets out a slew of Sanskrit. Karom yearns for the sweet, strong cold coffee that she places inches away from him—he can smell the chicory as the fan gathers the scent into the air—but is afraid that Ammama will see him awake and either make him participate in her ritual or scurry away in embarrassment.
He is touched that she has remembered his love for cold coffee, that it is a sacred thing in India. Back home in New York City, there is only iced coffee: simply ice dumped on top of coffee that becomes immediately diluted and insipid. Cold coffee is creamy, strong and pure. He waits until she finishes mumbling her indecipherable words, heaves herself to her feet and leaves the room. It is only once he hears the crescendo of the bucket being filled for her bath that he dares to reach for the drink, beads of sweat gathered around the base of the brass tumbler.
On their third day in Delhi, he tells Gita as they step out into the street and the blinding light of the premonsoon summer.
“She comes into my room in the mornings,” he says. “With a tray of perfectly ripe bananas, a glass of cold coffee and a cold compress that she puts on my forehead. She kneels down next to my bed and mutters under her voice. It’s hard to tell with the whirring of the fan, but I’m pretty sure she’s praying.”
“Get out,” Gita says, hitting him playfully on the chest, smiling broadly. “What do you do?”
“Nothing,” Karom says, stepping over an open sewage grate. “I pretend to sleep. What else am I supposed to do?”
“It’s not funny,” he says. “She’s so sweet, but the whole thing is incredibly awkward.”
“It’s only for three more days,” Gita says. “Hang in there. She’s a sweet old lady who’s attached to her rituals. I’m sure she’s only doing it out of love.”
The perfectly ripe bananas don’t escape Gita. She won’t eat a banana with even a spot of brown on it, and Ammama presumes this condition extends to Karom. But it irks Gita that each day, the only bananas that remain on the breakfast table are either the ones from the day before, which Ammama will eventually turn into halwa, or those that are still green and will leave a film on Gita’s tongue and a waxy taste in her mouth long after she’s eaten one.
“You’re not going to say anything to her?” Karom asks.
“What could I possibly say to her, Karom?” Gita responds. She is still thinking about the new nameplate outside the door. It’s the first time during all her years of traveling to India that she has seen her grandmother’s name proudly proclaiming her ownership of the apartment; previously it held her grandfather’s name, a grandfather she’s never met.
Karom knows there are some skeletons in Ammama’s dusty closet, unopened for years. Gita has danced around the details of Ammama’s past, but Karom understands that there is more to the old lady than even Gita is aware of. This became apparent when they originally discussed visiting India months before their trip.
“Visiting India,” Gita had said at brunch in New York, “involves seeing my family. There’s no way I could avoid it.”
“And I’m thrilled about it,” Karom had replied. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“It’s not that easy. Visiting together, like this, for the first time…” Gita struggled for words as her eyes flitted over Karom’s plate. “You know how people think over there.”
“Let them think,” Karom said, spearing a large bite of stuffed French toast onto his fork and holding it out to Gita. He knew that she would take it without a fight, that it was a naughty departure from the egg-white omelet that sat in front of her. He knew it would keep her quiet while she chewed, giving him time to take control of the conversation. But it was she who managed to reveal a new side of her family.
Karom cut up another square of his French toast as Gita was chewing, layering it onto his fork into levels until he could no longer see the tines. He held it dangerously close to Gita’s mouth, the cream cheese touching her lip. She looked at him and then the food, back and forth like a cross-eyed little girl.
“You’re such a tease,” she said, before taking the bread in one bite. “Ammama won’t judge us, though. She’s safe.”
“Life was hard in India over there back then,” Gita proclaimed matter-of-factly, forking the remainder of his French toast onto her own plate, cutting and chewing between sentences.
“How do you mean?”
“Ammama is living proof of a marriage gone wrong. She’s lived alone most of her adult life. She’s what the rest of my family calls ‘a freethinker.’”
Copyright © 2014 by Pia Padukone
Where Earth Meets Water
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
- ISBN-10: 0778315975
- ISBN-13: 9780778315971