I am 34, finally feeling fortunate, when I see her envelope atop the mail. I move to the brown Victorian chair; and the stand lamp attempts to brighten the study. My shaking hands hold the ornate invitation (on gold-trimmed cardstock) from Shilpa. I close the door, even though no one is at home.
I was eight when Shilpa Aunty moved into our hilly West Lake neighborhood. Our house had just been robbed. Some of our friends’ houses, too. I was just glad no one had stolen my Yu-Gi-Oh cards. The thief had realized Indians kept collections of jewelry at home; necessary for not-so-subtle indications of wealth at parties. More people were paying attention to Indians then, because it was 2002 and people who looked like us, or at least had the same shade of skin, had done bad things in 2001. That same year, I became an only child. We didn’t talk about that, even when I tried, so I kept my memories quiet.
My mother, whom I called Amma, but everyone else called Savi, became suspicious. She started working from home every day, and in the lulls between muted conference calls, she stared out of our den window, adjudicating the trustworthiness of passersby. She opened the blinds at a slant, just enough for her to survey the street, without being seen. When I was home from school, I used to watch her watching others. She wore thin, black sweatpants that didn’t match her Indian blouses, full of patterned, colored sequins shimmering in the light. Pulling at the hems of those blouses, I would ask for sweets. Sometimes the sequins fell off. I saved them in a box for a good reason. Amma never wore t-shirts after 2001 because she was praying a lot more.
She was staring out of the window on a Sunday afternoon when she spotted Shilpa Aunty and Pavan Uncle walking, holding hands. She trusted their Indian features and scampered outside to invite them in. My father, whom I called Nana, but everyone else called Rajesh, observed from the living room, holding a yellowed copy of Waiting for the Mahatma.
Shilpa Aunty and Pavan Uncle walked in, a tad reluctantly, behind my mother. “Mani, come here,” my mother ordered me to the door. “This is Shilpa Aunty and Pavan Uncle. They live on the next street. Say hello.”
“Hello,” I said, waving both hands, one holding G.I. Joe and the other a hand-me-down G.I. Jane.
“Mm…” My mother warned.
“Hello, aunty and uncle.”
Shilpa Aunty lowered herself until her eyes met mine. “Aww, so cute.” She tousled my hair. She wore a red V-neck t-shirt, red lipstick. Red was, and remains, my favorite color. She was so fair-skinned compared to me – fair as my mother wished I was – and younger than any Aunty I knew. The four adults had tea at the dining table. I eavesdropped, lying on the fuzzy, mauve rug that covered our living room floor, pretending to play while translating their Telugu conversation to English in my head. Shilpa Aunty’s hair flowed down her shoulders like a black waterfall. She even made my father chuckle.
My mother talked at night of Aunty and Uncle again. Love marriage, she said, not arranged. She deemed it auspicious, having a young couple move to the neighborhood after the bad luck we’d had. She hoped they’d have a baby girl, soon.
I was 14 when I started music classes with Shilpa Aunty. By then, I had refused to practice for the school marching band and weaseled out of extra math classes at Kumon. My agitated mother met with the school counselor and declared that extracurriculars were mandatory to attend college and become a doctor. She pronounced it “eg-is-tra-curriculars.”
One night, at an Indian party, the kind of party where the kids snuck soda upstairs and played gory video games, Shilpa Aunty appeared from nowhere and grabbed my hand while standing in the buffet line. I became intensely aware of paneer curry and burnt chapati flakes in my fingernails. Her fingers were willowy and soft, like touching marshmallow. I glanced at my friend Atul, who stood nearby.
“Your fingers are amazing! You should learn an instrument,” Aunty declared. She let go of my hand and it fell limply between us.
“Me? Come on, Aunty.” I laughed nervously.
“I’m serious. Come over on Monday after school. You can try a few instruments.”
Amma approved, provided I would become good enough to win an award or host a concert to list on my college application. She worried about why Aunty hadn’t had a child yet despite crossing 30.
On Monday, during lunch, I relayed my excitement to Atul. My parents liked to say he was a typical jolly Punjabi, minus the turban, but I didn’t know what they meant. At 14, I was forsaking Friday night Bollywood movies with them for porn time. Atul sat across from me at the cafeteria table, eating ground beef and cheese nachos.
“Dude, nicely played.” Atul nodded. “She’s so fine. Such a MILF.”
“She’s not a mom yet.”
“Right. Even better.”
“AILF. Aunty I’d Like to—” I trailed off.
“Fuck. I love it, new word. AILF!”
I had started hearing my sister’s voice in my head by then. She said our conversation was gross. “Since when did you start eating beef?” I asked Atul.
“Since it was delicious. Try it.” He nudged the basket.
“Nah, I’m good.”
I was 18 when I packed my bags to attend UT Austin. I had given five sold-out sitar concerts around the city. Maybe I practiced as an excuse to linger at Aunty’s home, make her laugh with my Jay Leno impression until she leaned closer and her shoulder brushed mine. Maybe it was for Aunty’s cooking, too. We became friends, I suppose, and because we were friends, I knew she was sad. I didn’t know what to do about it. Aunty’s despair, like mine, was the kind that seeped into her music and bounced off her silent, suburban walls.
Once, during a lesson, when Pavan Uncle was out of town, Aunty let me use their master bathroom. I saw a lacy, pink bra with a black outline. I can still remember it, dangling off the opaque glass of the standing shower, beckoning.
College wasn’t even 30 minutes from home, but Mom cried when she saw me tear down my Lord of the Rings posters and shove my bags in the car trunk. I entrusted my sitar to Aunty’s instrument collection and bid her farewell. There was no point in carrying my West Lake memories to downtown Austin.
On the drive to campus, Amma turned to Nana. “Did you hear about Shilpa? Divorce. Filed today.”
“What? Aunty didn’t tell me.” In high school, nothing was true if your friend hadn’t shared it with you first.
“Po ra,” my mother dismissed me in Telugu. “Never got pregnant. Pavan did the right thing.”
I fumed, squirming against the grip of my seat belt and my place in the world. “Whatever.” I heard my sister’s voice in my head, mocking. “Shilpa and Mani, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”
“Shit.” My father stopped at a red light. “Too bad.”
“Inauspicious,” my mother replied. “Won’t be calling her home anytime soon.”
I was a miserable 22 when I returned home. I hadn’t been accepted by any medical schools. “Taking some time,” Amma told relatives, when they asked if I was a doctor yet. I yelled at her once to just admit that I’d failed. I spent my time back home browsing through medical school forums, spiraling through webs of anguish or promise with each new post. I hesitated to venture outside and see someone I knew, fearful of being the face of our suburb’s lost potential.
I asked my parents for an unearned graduation trip to Europe. They granted it, pitying me. I went to Rome and Amsterdam. I ate alone and ambled through the red light district, tempting myself and resisting, wondering if my morals made up for my low MCAT score. My boots clomped on the brick paths while a discarded pizza box floated neatly down the canal.
After the trip, I asked for Atul’s advice since he gained admission at Dell Medical. While he directed, I trained as an ER technician and started a graduate school application. In January of 2017, which was the January I started to feel like myself again, my parents hosted a large puja at home to pray for my admission to graduate biology programs. We had held a similar ritual when I applied to medical school. After the prayers, the afternoon was all gossip and boredom. I stood, aloof, at the foot of the stairs, scrolling through my Facebook feed, of friends in elite medical schools protesting the presidential inauguration as if they had a stake in it. I heard the door open.
A hand grabbed mine. Purple sari, gold trim, tiny golden peacocks dancing in intersecting triangles. Shilpa Aunty. She rubbed my index finger and then my middle finger with the bottom of her thumb. She peered at me. No red bottu on her forehead, so still single. Close to 40, I calculated, but her creamy skin still didn’t show wrinkles.
“These fingers miss their sitar,” she said. Something new lurked in her eyes.
“I think you’re right, Aunty.” She dropped my hand.
“Come over sometime and I’ll cook for you. You’re too skinny, Manu. Miss college?”
“Sure, sure. I’d like that.”
“I still have the same number.” She gave me a hug. She smelled of alcohol, not fully masked by her perfume. She turned, picked an apple from the puja altar, folded her hands in front of the deity, waved to my parents, and left. A sea of whispers surged through the crowd. I hadn’t seen her in five years. She’d been shunned by our community after the divorce. Superstitions gave us an excuse to kick women while they were down.
My mother hastened over to me and asked what she’d said.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Invited me over to play sitar.”
She whispered, a fierce arch in her brow, “You cannot go there, understand? Radha Aunty said Shilpa is all into black magic now. I didn’t even invite her today.”
“That’s gotta be made up.”
“Okay,” I affirmed with a nod.
I texted Shilpa Aunty after my next shift in the ER. She told me she was free on Monday and sent her new address. I lied to my parents that I was meeting Atul and left the house, borrowing one of the family cars. From behind the blinds, my mom watched me pull out of the driveway.
I was dressed in a cardigan, jeans, and suede boots. It wasn’t a date, I told Maya’s voice in my head. But I hadn’t had a date since college, so close enough, she said. I told Maya to shut up. I took two deep breaths outside Shilpa Aunty’s house and knocked on the door. She welcomed me in a sleeveless maroon top and gave me a tour of her single-story house. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a view of the Greenbelt, tiled kitchen, washer and dryer. Aunties were always concerned with washers and dryers. She could bike to work, she said, to stay fit. I imagined her legs were toned under her tight white jeans.
She invited me to play the sitar. I tossed aside my cardigan and sat with the instrument, attuning my ears to the individual strings once again. My fingers fumbled. Shilpa Aunty sat behind me, curled the tips of her fingers in between the gaps of my hand and held on, bending my hand to better form, activating dormant muscle memory. The music rushed back. I felt her bare arms slide over my skin as she rose and sat before a mridangam. Drum and sitar, we played the tone she directed. The sound mixed notes of nostalgia with the clanging present, the rhythm of the future. When we stopped, we were both sweating.
“Wine?” she asked.
She poured two glasses and we clinked them, without words, feeling the tension of the moment.
“You cook meat now?” I asked, putting my nose to a steaming mutton curry on the table.
“Ah, ah!” She tapped my nose to bat it away. “Yes, we have fish fry, mutton curry, dal, grain.”
We feasted. I didn’t know how she knew my favorite dishes since she only made vegetarian before the divorce, and I didn’t question her repeated pouring of wine. We giggled. It felt easy. I liked the way she tucked her hair behind her ear before attacking a piece of meat. She taught me how to suck the marrow out of the lamb bones, and it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. We moved to the couch afterwards, pausing before dessert.
Her bare feet matched the light suede of the couch. They had perfect arches, unlike mine: flat, brute. In the course of our smiling, flirting, reminiscing, we inched closer until our feet touched. The next joke brought our heads closer. Then, all I could see was her face. Her skin was light enough to glow, her lips pink enough to be stained blood-red by the wine. I don’t remember who kissed who, but we stuck together for an entire minute, running out of breath. She pushed me away.
“Oh, my god. Savi. Rajesh. What are we doing?”
Emboldened by the feel of her tongue in my mouth, I pulled her close again. “I don’t know.”
She gulped her drink, finished mine too, and set the glass down. We made out on her couch. She wore a red bra. I was entranced by her, unaware of my own body. She slid her hand into my pants and I finished almost instantly. Awareness rushed back along with embarrassment.
I apologized profusely, gathering my clothes and shoes, even though I wasn’t sober enough to drive yet. Aunty told me to relax and it made me panic even more, even made me angry.
My breathing finally slowed down when I reached my bed. We both wanted it, we were consenting adults. No big deal. Sure, I couldn’t tell anyone, but I couldn’t tell my parents about seeing girls my age, anyway. I texted Aunty that I was sorry for the way I left, that I wanted to see her again. She responded promptly.
“You should probably just call me Shilpa now.” Shit, she was mad.
Another text. “Don’t worry, I understand. I enjoyed it too. Free Thursday night?”
Hell yes. The next morning, I informed my parents I would be restarting sitar classes. Amma tried to discourage me, but I played up the lost soul angle. Classes would be free this time, I mentioned.
I was a happier 22 when Shilpa and I started fucking twice a week. We didn’t just have sex, and we weren’t quite making love, yet. But we did fuck. We couldn’t do much else, either, for fear of being seen in public by Pooja or Purva Aunty, who sought pleasure in spreading secrets. On Valentine’s Day, Shilpa stopped me from wearing a condom. She had started taking birth control, she said; there was no need. Shilpa contorted her body in ways I’d never seen. She placed my hands and feet as she pleased, specific 45- or 90-degree angles, and dictated acrobatic rhythms. I assumed this was the benefit of dating older women. She told me otherwise, propped up against her creaky, teak headboard, after we finished.
“Have you heard of Kama Sutra?”
“Those positions tonight?” I ran a finger down the curve of her hip, rubbing the redness left by my own body.
“No. Kama Sutra is the ‘lite’ version. Good for white people and movies. I do Tantra.”
“Isn’t that black magic?” She seemed annoyed. My body went cold, feeling naked beside a near-stranger when we weren’t in sync.
“The problem with your generation is you can’t decide what you want to believe. Religion is outdated but call yourself spiritual and it makes you ‘deep.’ Give me a break.”
“What do you believe?”
She sat up straight on the bed. I tried nuzzling her neck, but she remained stiff. She told me about worshipping the 5 Ms, which only started with M in Sanskrit. Meat, Wine, Fish, Grains, and Sex. A more potent, ritual sex. “When someone says it’s bad,” she said, “you either listen, or you find a way to make it good for you.”
“That’s why you cook meat now!”
She winked. “It’s getting late. Your parents will worry.”
I hated it when she mentioned my parents, especially in bed. I rose to leave, and she headed to her prayer room as she always did after sex. She lay there in the flickering light of one diya, a clay lamp, with her face pointed towards the Kali poster on her ceiling. Others call her the Goddess of Destruction, Shilpa had told me, but Hindus know destruction is just another name for rebirth. Seeing a part of her head from the bedroom, her hair disheveled about her wide-open eyes, I shivered. I slipped out and drove home. I resolved to confess to my parents. I didn’t.
Instead, I took Shilpa on proper dates, to places where aunties didn’t roam. We drank beers and played mini–golf. She kissed me in the open daylight, by hole number 12 with the replica of 360 bridge. We visited cocktail bars on South Congress and held hands across small, wooden tables. Any Desis we passed stared at us. I was glad to leave behind questions without answers in their minds. Curiosity, suspicion, they lingered in the air in Texas, stuffed behind the pleasantries – but Shilpa and I stayed immune. Our attraction was an escape from answers, failure, and unwritten rules, so it demanded distance from the relationships we had. That’s how she phrased it at least. I stopped seeing my friends, all but Atul. Two months in, I told him.
“Are you serious right now?” His eyes bulged, which made starker the thinning wisps of hair on the peak of his forehead. His time in medical school had made him stressed and made me jealous.
“Serious, bro.” We had barbecue brisket and beer, and I felt like a man.
“Mani and the AILF.”
“When you say it like that, sounds like I’m on a journey.”
“Shit, this is mythical, though. I mean, black magic and all.”
“Not black magic.” I bit off some beef brisket. “How’s Mandy?”
“She’s good. Great. We don’t get enough time together. Hey, is what you’re doing even right?”
He caught me off guard. “What’s wrong? We’re both adults.”
“Yeah, but, that’s like your mom’s friend.”
“No way. She was more my friend. My mom barely has friends since… You know.”
“Long as you’ve convinced yourself, man. I just wonder what Maya would think.” He took a long drink and ordered another Dos Equis.
I drove to Shilpa’s and raged against Atul in my head. Screw him. Shilpa and I did as we pleased, made ourselves more human. I slept over that night at Shilpa’s without a care for returning my parents’ car, despite her goading me to return. That was how they finally found out about us.
A certain Jaya or Jyoti Aunty reported the overnight presence of our family car at Shilpa’s place. Histrionics ensued. My mother was distraught. She couldn’t believe I’d take the family car for doing “God knows what.” She knew, I thought. She doesn’t need to ask God.
I sat still on our worn, black leather couch and endured Amma’s curses and abuse. She bemoaned the whole town, considering us inauspicious.
“All our prayers for your admission are wasted!” she shouted.
My father was aloof, peering above his bifocals from the edge of his armchair, grunting approval of my mother’s harangue. “Everything has consequences, Mani,” he said. “Reputation.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
He yelled, finally, angry because I’d spoken with disrespect. I delighted in his rare show of emotion and smirked, which was another affront. He stormed into his room and I stormed out the door, taking one of the car keys. My mother chased me out the door yelling, her feet thudding on the cold cement driveway, and in the rear-view mirror, I saw her watching me, her paisley patterned top glinting in the orange sunset. I considered turning back to collect any fallen sequins. Maya’s voice in my head was silent, as if it had moved on.
The day was Holi, festival of new beginnings. When I arrived at Shilpa’s, mini Ziploc bags of dappled powders littered the coffee table. There were suitcases packed for her work trip to Sunnyvale. I huffed about my parents and their paranoia. Shilpa seemed in a better mood than I’d ever seen her.
“They’re not wrong, you know,” Shilpa said. “What goes around, comes around.”
I thought of Maya and me riding bicycles. “You gotta be joking.”
“No. You just have to decide whether you believe this, us,” she drew me close, “is good or bad.”
“Of course it’s not bad, who is anyone to tell us what to do with our damn lives…”
“Shh, shh.” She put a finger on my lips, and brushed her other hand across my cheek, leaving a dash of red powder. “Let’s play,” she muttered.
“Not tonight. Bhang instead.” Milk with cannabis paste, a Holi tradition.
She led my hand to her bedroom, picking up the mini Ziploc bags. She’d laid out all-white sheets on the bed and across the carpet. Out of her dresser, she procured another larger Ziploc, containing grey ash. She smeared it on my forehead in three lines and uttered a mantra. “Strip,” she ordered. I obeyed. She followed. Shilpa opened all the bags and placed them at the edge of the bed. We stood face-to-face and smeared powder on each other’s bodies. Red for her plump cheeks, yellow around her breasts, torso and hips, orange for her thighs and feet. She smeared me all over in blue, and I turned her around and squeezed her tight. I threw her on the bed and we scattered powder over the sheets. We made love. Our rubbing bodies sent flashes of powder floating into the air. Collisions of blue and orange, red and yellow. There, in union with her, I had hope for myself again.
The bed resembled a Jackson Pollock when we finished. Lying exhausted, panting, she turned to me. “Do you know why I call you Manu?”
“Nickname for Mani?” I raised an eyebrow. Sweat flowed into the powder on my face.
“Manu was the first man. Like Adam. You know what they had in common?” she asked. “Desire. Desire is the root of everything. People like your parents, most people, they’ve made life opposite to desire. Tantra says embrace it, harness it. And you get what you need.”
I wasn’t in the mood. “Why you gotta bring up my parents to bed?”
She threw a damp, sultry leg over my scrawny hips, pulled me in. She kissed me like our lips were made to stick together. “I’m going to miss you,” she whispered.
“Me too.” I beamed. “Just two weeks though.”
In the morning, when I returned, Amma fussed over what I wanted for breakfast. It infuriated me. Even after all her disapproval, she insisted on making me eggs and dosa, with the coconut chutney I liked so much. I wanted her to neglect me. I went to my room and cried, locked myself in. She left the plate outside my door. My mother’s unconditional love led me to unconditional guilt. I thought of diving over the edge of a dry, grassy cliff.
I was a few days shy of 23 when I received my acceptance letter to a one-year master’s program at Columbia. 60% off tuition, like it was a blowout sale for second chances. Amma insisted we visit the temple, and I couldn’t refuse. Nana even looked happy, patted me on the back. I called Shilpa, who gushed with pride. So did Atul. He planned drinks for the next week with our friends from the hospital, on the same day Shilpa was scheduled to return from California.
The rooftop bar downtown, on 6th Street, was the sort of place I frequented on nights out in college. Seeing it in the daylight exposed all the grunge. Grimy pipes jutted out of every corner, like its insides were slowly consuming the bar. We sat at a wooden table and said cheers to my accomplishment. People passed banal remarks, asking me not to forget them in New York, and sang happy birthday. When I felt like a failure, life was urgent, moving scene to scene. Success made life slow.
Atul and I walked up to the bar and he told me he was breaking up with Mandy. He couldn’t balance everything. I told him he needs hair plugs if he’s on the market again, hoping he would laugh. If two people are close, it felt, their lives operate like a see–saw: when mine was finally up, Atul’s went down.
I left Atul and the others, anticipating Shilpa’s goat curry and fish fry. Navigation routed me towards the Congress Ave bridge. It was sunset; eager tourists lined the sidewalk. I stopped for a red light, and the bats flew out from under the bridge. Hundreds appeared, darkening the sky with tiny gaps of light. Maya adored Batwoman. She wanted to glide like her. We used to ride around the neighborhood and dream of flying our bikes over the limestone hills. Once, we snuck our bikes outside a safety fence and rode the steep part of the hill. Maya was too fast. Her bike disappeared. I peered over the dried, grassy cliff’s edge, and wanted to believe I saw nothing but red poppy flowers and dried riverbed. I almost dived after her, unsure how to return without her. They recovered the body several yards from the mangled bike.
At the cremation, the priest told us death was just a part of life, before another life. My parents prayed for her to be reborn, soon. Death was indeed a part of life, I learned – it hung like a heavy cloak on the living, dampening the way we walked through the world. Amma became religious and paranoid while Nana became silent. I inherited Maya’s G.I. Jane, and her dream of becoming a doctor, and we donated the rest, tried to be a different family with different memories. But we couldn’t shed those cloaks. I grew resentful of the past, all pasts, in which I didn’t stop Maya from falling.
Three cars honked at me. I slammed the accelerator and kept driving to Shilpa’s house. I decided to speak to her about Maya, but she didn’t answer at the first ring of the doorbell or the second. I called, hoping she was in the bath and that I could join her. No response. I sat on her stoop to wait for her and noticed something in the lawn, sticking out of the unkempt grass. I sauntered up to the sign. “For Sale,” it read.
Standing alone, on her lawn, I realized I knew little about Shilpa. I called again that day and the next, left voicemails and texts. She’d only needed two weeks to clear everything out, including my place in her life. I felt nauseous for a few days, as I often did when my parents were proven right.
I am 34 now. Doctor, house in New York, married. The comfort of family practice shines on my clean-shaven face. My wife, Danielle, is visiting her wealthy relatives in the French Alps. When she returns, we have decided we will try for a baby, who will not know its parents met on Tinder. I fish out a pair of scissors from my desk drawer to open the invitation from Shilpa. If I could just steady my hand against the flood of memories.
The invitation contains a picture of a young girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old. Looks just like Maya. Can’t be. My heart wants to leave my body and splash into the picture.
I turn the picture around. A line in Shilpa’s measured handwriting, with the stubbornly large capitals:
“Did you decide? Was what we did Good, or Bad, or in between?”
Behind the picture is a generic invitation to a Telugu coming-of-age party, when a girl wears her first half-sari. “Please join me for the occasion of celebrating Mangala’s Voni function. She will be giving a sitar concert…” Her name, Mangala, means auspicious. It had to be so. She’s our child, the outcome of two unlucky people unifying to wish better for themselves.
The party invitation reads Edison, New Jersey. Shilpa and our daughter are just two hours away from me, tucked into the anonymity of a large Indian population. There, Shilpa could weave any story she wanted: the brave widow, raising an only child; the abandoned single mother, toughing it out. She’d become a mother. In a way, she’d given me hope just when I needed it. Perhaps we all attained what we needed, as she believed we would by living outside the usual rules. Even my parents might’ve been granted their wish for Maya, but I’m reluctant to tell them. They might be consumed with investigating rebirth, hiring swamis to match astrology charts. Faith, when rewarded, can be frightening. I can’t tell Danielle or Atul either. This hope, or question, will be mine, will replace my guilt, tucked into my heart in a place which aches to believe.
From under my desk, I pull out the box where I’d saved my mother’s fallen sequins. Inside is a kaleidoscopic mound of reflective colors. All the sequins, from all the dresses I thought Maya would never wear. There is also a tattered G.I. Jane. I stick the photo of Mangala and the invitation in the box and tuck it away. I will wrap it later for Mangala, for a future that’s possible through the past.
Abhijith Ravinutala was born in India and grew up in Dallas, TX. He studied History and Business in undergrad and recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a focus on Hindu Studies. Now, he is reluctantly a corporate strategy consultant based in Atlanta. He spends most of his free time consuming or creating stories, as well as managing a mental health nonprofit named MannMukti. He is currently finishing a short story collection and starting a debut novel. Visit him online at abhijithr.com.