***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Diksha Basu
Mr. Jha had worked hard, and now he was ready to live well. “Now that all of you are here, we have some news,” he said to the neighbors assembled in the small living room of his home in the Mayur Palli Housing Complex in East Delhi. He was nervous, so he looked over at his wife, who was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, and his son, Rupak, who was at home for the summer vacation, sitting on a dining table chair. His wife met his gaze and nodded gently, expectantly, encouraging him to hurry up and share the news. And he knew he had to, before the gossip spread through the housing complex. Tonight they had invited their closest friends—Mr. and Mrs. Gupta, Mr. and Mrs. Patnaik, and Mrs. Ray—to tell them that after about twenty-five years (they had moved in when Mrs. Jha was eight months pregnant) they were moving out, and not just moving out, but moving to Gurgaon, one of the richest new neighborhoods of Delhi.
It would have been easier, in a way, to announce a move to Dubai or Singapore or Hong Kong. Mr. Jha himself had often been part of conversations that criticized families for moving to different Delhi neighborhoods the minute they could afford to.
And certainly nobody of his generation had moved out in recent years. He was fifty-two years old, his wife was forty-nine, and their twenty-three-year-old son was in business school in Amer ica. The move was going to be seen as an unnecessary display of his newly acquired wealth. And since the money had come from the onetime sale of a website, everyone in Mayur Palli treated it with suspicion. Nobody believed it was hard-earned money. "A lucky windfall," he had heard Mr. Gupta call it. But Mr. Jha knew that it had been anything but luck; it had been hard work.
If an outsider, a stranger, were to see them all gathered here, would he see that Mr. Jha was different, Mr. Jha wondered? He was five foot eight and was neither impressively fit nor impressively fat. The fact that he didn't have the traditional trappings of success worried him these days. He liked fitting in.
The new house in Gurgaon was a two-story bungalow with front and back yards, and they knew nothing at all about the neighbors yet. The house was tucked into a quiet lane away from the traffic and chaos of the rest of Delhi. Unlike in other parts of the city, all the drains were properly sealed and the streets were swept and cleaned on a regular basis. Big, decades-old neem trees lined both sides of their lane, and it was the kind of quiet that made it a place that hawkers and beggars avoided.
It was a much more lavish home and neighborhood than Mr. Jha had ever imagined himself living in. Not only did the doors fit in their frames, but most of the light switches had dimmers. There was a separate servants' quarter at the back, and a wall went around the periphery so nobody could look in or out. Unlike Mayur Palli, and the rest of East Delhi for that matter, the houses in Gurgaon were spaced grandly apart and interactions between the neighbors seemed minimal. Mr. Jha knew he was supposed to want that-that was how rich people's tastes were supposed to be.
Above his head a fat fly thumped repeatedly against the tube light. The new house had better screens in the windows to stop flies and mosquitoes from invading. Mr. Jha took off his rimless glasses and wiped them with the white handkerchief he always kept in his shirt pocket. He wished he had opted for a short sleeved shirt today instead of the long-sleeved blue one he had neatly tucked into his khaki slacks.
The Jhas were one of the original residents of Mayur Palli when they moved there in 1991. Mayur Palli meant, literally, the home of the peacock, but Mr. Jha had never seen a peacock any where near the area. Four buildings, each five floors high, were built around a dusty courtyard small enough for everyone to be able to peer into their neighbors' windows. Every morning, wet laundry hung from ropes on the balconies, water dripping down to the courtyard. Downstairs, what had once been a space for the children to run and play and ride bicycles was now a clogged parking lot. A parking lot filled with scooters and Marutis and maybe the occasional Honda, bought for aging parents as a gift by adult children living abroad.
But now, on top of the fact that the Jhas were moving, the Mercedes Mr. Jha had ordered had arrived early and, embarrassingly, he had to take possession of it here in the old housing complex. He hadn't wanted the car salesperson to see his current home, or his current neighbors to see his new car. What must the delivery person have thought driving it across the bridge to the wrong side of the Yamuna River? The silver car was big and shiny and completely out of place in the middle-class neighborhood and was nearly impossible to navigate past the cows in the narrow lanes. And clearly the car was annoying others. Just the previous morning, the undersides of the door handles had been covered with toothpaste and Mr. Jha had had a very minty-smelling morning drive. He was grateful it was only toothpaste.
Sometimes Mr. Jha himself couldn't believe how much money his site had made. It had been such a simple dream-www.simply call.com-that began as an online resource for local Delhi phone numbers and services. Mr. Jha had been trying to call his old friend Partha Sen in Chittaranjan Park to reminisce about their college days but had accidentally called another Partho Sen from the directory. He had chatted with the unknown Partho Sen for a good four minutes before either of them realized it was a wrong number.
But he had sold the website a little over two years ago, after working on it for five years, Mr. Jha said to himself. And before that he had had several more complicated ventures that had failed completely. But all that was in the past. This was now and he had to break the news.
"You've found a bride for Rupak?" Mr. Gupta said before Mr. Jha could continue. He was leaning back on the sofa and holding a fistful of peanuts in one hand and a glass of whiskey with ice in the other. He wore a crisp white kurta and pajama, his uniform of choice ever since he had become the president of the housing complex, and his feet were bare and resting on top of his sandals. "Is she also living in America? Don't let her family talk you into having a wedding in America."
As the current president of the housing complex, and one of the biggest gossips in the neighborhood, Mr. Gupta was the one who was going to take the news the hardest. He would see the move from Mayur Palli as a betrayal. The Patnaiks, who were a few years younger than the Jhas and were quieter versions of the Guptas, would probably try to move on the Jhas' heels. Mr. Pat naik already dressed similarly to Mr. Jha and had recently bought the exact same pair of glasses but then claimed it was a coincidence. And if anyone asked Mr. Jha to describe Mrs. Patnaik without looking at her, all he would be able to say was that she had strangely curly hair but no other discernible features.
"That is true," Mrs. Gupta added. She was also eating peanuts, one of which had fallen and was cradled on her glasses, which were hanging off a metal chain around her neck. She wiped her hand against her sari and leaned forward to pick up her glass. "Our nephew got married there and all the Indian weddings end up in the huge halls of the local Hilton or Marriott. You make sure the wedding is in India, in a temple."
"Or outdoors," Mr. Gupta said. "Lots of young people these days want to get married outdoors."
"Personally I don't think that is a good idea. You don't want
the flame of the fire to be blown out during the ceremony," Mrs. Gupta said.
"The flame will go out soon enough after marriage," Mr.
Gupta said, laughing loudly and tossing the remaining peanuts into his mouth.
"That's not the news," Mr. Jha said.
"Rupak will find a good bride here," Mr. Patnaik said.
His wife nodded and added, "He will. It's best to find some
one known. Someone close to the family."
She turned toward Rupak and smiled, but his attention was focused on his phone. Everyone in Mayur Palli knew that the Patnaiks wanted Rupak to marry their daughter, Urmila.
"No," Mr. Jha said. "This isn't about ... "
"Oh dear. Is Rupak marrying an American girl?" Mrs. Gupta interrupted, twisting around on the sofa to try to look at Rupak.
"This isn't about Rupak," Mr. Jha said. "We have some other news. About us."
He stopped as Reema Ray entered his line of vision, settling into the seat across from him with a glass of white wine. He knew his wife had already told Mrs. Ray about the move but had still insisted on inviting her tonight for support. Mrs. Ray was leaning forward and fixing a strap on her sandal, and the pallu of her chif fon sari slipped off her shoulder. Her blouse was sufficiently low cut for the tops of her heavy breasts to be visible. Her hair, worn loose and messily around her shoulders-unlike any of the other women in the room-fell in front of her and she tossed it back as she leaned forward.
Mr. Jha looked toward Mrs. Jha, still standing near the entrance to the kitchen, wearing a stiff starched pale blue sari that was held up on the shoulder by a safety pin and her hair pulled securely back in a low bun. He knew that his wife would never run the risk of letting her pallu casually drop. And even if it did, her blouse came up to her collarbones so nothing would be visible. And even if anything were visible, Mr. Jha would feel no thrill. Such was the problem with a stable marriage.
Mrs. Ray was sitting upright again, so Mr. Jha continued, "We wanted to invite all of you, our close friends, to dinner to night, to tell you about our home. Our new home. Our-"
Mrs. Jha sniffed the air. "Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I've left the stove on. The chicken will be burnt."
She went rushing into the kitchen, irritated with herself. The stress of moving to Gurgaon was really getting to her. She wasn't sure she wanted to leave Mayur Palli. She didn't want to live sur rounded by women in designer saris who shopped in malls. She didn't want to use olive oil instead of vegetable oil. She didn't want to understand what interior decoration meant. The point of life was not just to keep moving higher and higher. What happened if you made it to Buckingham Palace?
"Are you okay? Do you need some help in here?" Mrs. Ray came in after Mrs. Jha. "Your husband has now started on what the idea of 'home' represents. He's having a hard time making this announcement, isn't he?"
"The chicken is burnt. Oh, Reema. The chicken is burnt.
And the packing isn't finished. I know I should be happy, but I'm exhausted. I don't know why we decided to do this whole move in the middle of summer. The heat is just getting to me."
"Where are your maids? Do you want me to send Ganga over every morning until you leave? She hardly has anything to do for just me these days."
"That's very nice of you, but we still have our maids. Anil has just decided he doesn't want them at home all the time."
Mrs. Jha stirred the pan, scraping the wooden spoon along the bottom, trying to pry free the burnt bits of chicken. The screw holding the red handle in place was coming loose and she still had not ordered new kitchen supplies. This kitchen was made for maids to use; it was small and badly ventilated, and being in here meant being completely separated from the rest of the people in the apartment. The new house had a huge kitchen where a few people could stand around while the host prepared dinner or put together a platter of appetizers. That kitchen, in fact, was specifically meant for nonmaids. It was a kitchen that was meant to be shown off. It was a kitchen that needed new pots and pans with secure handles.
"Why doesn't he want maids?" Mrs. Ray asked.
"We got this dishwasher installed and Anil wants people to notice it. He's convinced that if there's a maid picking up all the dishes, everyone will just assume she's washing them by hand and won't know that we have an expensive imported dishwasher. I don't know. I don't understand half the things he wants these days," Mrs. Jha said. The kitchen was small and stuffy, but she appreciated Mrs. Ray coming in here with her. On the next stove, the pressure cooker hissed and Mrs. Jha jerked away from its angry sound. Mrs. Ray came to the stove and turned it off.
"Move," Mrs. Ray said. "You relax. Take the raita out of the fridge. I'll handle the stove. You didn't need to invite us all over in the middle of your packing."
Mrs. Jha stepped away and opened the fridge. She could feel the sweat gathering under her arms. She leaned down and allowed the refrigerated air to slip down the front of her blouse. She was gaining weight. She looked over at Mrs. Ray, who seemed to become younger and more beautiful every day. Granted, at forty two, Mrs. Ray was seven years younger than Mrs. Jha, but her glow wasn't just about age. She looked younger now than she did when Mr. Ray had died five years ago. Mrs. Ray had been only thirty-seven when her husband died, but at first widowhood had forced her to immediately become older. Mrs. Jha had noticed Mrs. Ray gradually reversing that trend, and now she looked over at her friend with happiness and a sudden stab of envy. Even her hair seemed to have become thicker.
"Your hair is looking good these days." Mrs. Jha said, and shut the fridge. "Are you using some new hair oil?"
Mrs. Ray turned around from the stove, wiped her hands on the towel that was on the counter, and touched her right hand to her hair.
"It's improved, hasn't it?"
"Share your secret, Reema."
"The usual," Mrs. Ray said. "Lots of leafy green vegetables and coconut oil in the hair overnight once a week."
"We've been doing that for years. It must be something else," Mrs. Jha said.
Mrs. Ray laughed a little and turned back to the stove to open the pressure cooker.
"What is it?" Mrs. Jha asked. "What secret are you keeping from me?"
Mrs. Ray faced Mrs. Jha.
"Oh, Bindu, it's ridiculous. Prenatal supplements! I'm taking prenatal supplements because I read that it helps the hair, and it's true-my hair has never looked better! Every alternate day I take one pill," Mrs. Ray said. "I feel so crazy when I go to the chem ist to buy it; I make up some excuse or the other each time, as if I'm buying it for my niece or for a friend or something. Imagine a childless widow getting prenatal vitamins."
Mrs. Ray spooned the daal into a glass bowl for serving. She shook her hair out and looked over her shoulder at Mrs. Jha, laughed, and said, "Prenatal vitamins for widows! Don't tell anyone."
In a way, being widowed young and childless allowed Mrs. Ray to have a second youth, one unencumbered by family. And as far as young deaths go, Mr. Ray's quick and powerful brain aneurysm five years ago at age forty was as simple as possible. At least he didn't suffer and Mrs. Ray didn't have to deal with the guilt in the aftermath of a loved one's suffering. Mrs. Jha knew it had been difficult for Mrs. Ray-young widows make people nervous. When Mr. Ray died, a lot of the other women in Mayur Palli treated Mrs. Ray like a bad-luck charm or a seductress-but Mrs. Jha looked over at her friend now and saw only vitality and a good head of hair. She immediately felt guilty for envying a widow. May God always keep my husband safe, she quickly said to herself.
"Do you know what I had to do this afternoon? I had to un pack all the decorations for the drawing room and put them back up so the guests wouldn't guess as soon as they walked in," Mrs. Jha said.
She took out the bowl of chilled yogurt with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and spices, pushed the fridge door closed with her hip, leaned against it, and sighed. Mrs. Ray was now ladling the chicken into a large glass serving bowl, and she laughed.
"You're living the dream, Bindu," Mrs. Ray said. "In any case, you should be glad you're getting out of here. This housing complex is not the same as it used to be."
Mrs. Ray reached over for a napkin to wipe the curry off the rim of the bowl. She turned off the second flame on the stove and faced Mrs. Jha.
"Someone stole a pair of my yoga pants from my balcony,"
Mrs. Ray said.
"What?" Mrs. Jha said. "Are you sure?"
"One hundred percent," Mrs. Ray said. "Anyway, it's silly. I didn't even want to mention it, but be glad you're moving. Every body here interferes too much in each other's lives. You are lucky to be going somewhere where you will have some privacy. Count your blessings."
"Reema, you have to complain about this at the next meeting," Mrs. Jha said.
"And what? Draw more attention to myself? Forget it. It's my fault. I shouldn't be doing yoga on the balcony." Mrs. Ray said. She turned back to the counter and put a large spoon in each serving bowl. "Here, the chicken and the daal are in the bowls. I'll take them out to the dining room. Do you need anything else?"
Mrs. Jha turned to Mrs. Ray and said, "Thank you. Just send my husband in here, please."
Mrs. Jha picked up the pan from the stove and dropped it in the sink. Water splashed out and wet her sari, darkening the blue fabric near her bellybutton.
Mr. Jha came into the kitchen. It was smoky and felt as though the loud exhaust fan above the window was pushing hot air back into the kitchen. It would be nice for his wife to have a new kitchen with a door leading out to the backyard instead of this small space that was the same size as one of the bathrooms in the new house. All the surfaces had become sticky with years of oil splatter. Mr. Jha wanted one of those kitchens he had seen in television cooking shows-all stainless steel with pots and pans hanging off hooks above the stoves. Even though he never cooked and hardly even entered the kitchen, he wanted the spices kept in clear glass bottles in a wooden holder hammered into the wall. He was sick of the salt and sugar being browned by fingertips and clumpy through humidity.
"I think they're ready for the news now," Mr. Jha said. "I tried to get them started on the idea of 'home.' Said it isn't de fined by location. I made some quite moving points, I think. I talked about home being where the heart is and all that. No need to mention that home is where the double servants' quarter is." He paused, then continued, "What are you doing in here? I was just about to announce our plans when you rushed off screaming about the chicken. Would you prefer it if I called people in here? The Guptas have definitely not been over since we got the new dishwasher."
"I am not screaming about anything. I'm just trying to serve our guests a decent dinner. If you had let the maid stay, I would have had the help I needed. I have been spending all day every day packing boxes, going back and forth from Gurgaon in the heat, setting up the water filters, dealing with the air-conditioning in stallation-"
"It's your fault that you're going back and forth in the heat. I've told you a thousand times to take the car. You act as if you're scared of the car. The car, the new house, a washing machine, everything. Everything, Bindu. You think the new dishwasher will ruin the serrated knives-you're scared of everything."
Rupak entered the kitchen.
"What are you two doing? The guests are getting restless. And, Dad, Reema Aunty wants some more wine. Should I take out another bottle of white from the fridge?"
"Don't call him Dad!" Mrs. Jha said as Mr. Jha returned to the living room. "What's wrong with calling him Papa? You're studying in America, but you aren't an American."
Mrs. Jha didn't want Rupak turning into one of those typical rich kids who assume they'll never have to work hard. For that, she was grateful that they had lived very average lives until recently. But Rupak was changing fast. As soon as they were settled into their new home, it would be time for them to go to the United States to see how he lived.
Rupak ignored his mother and rummaged in the fridge for the wine. His parents had gone from keeping no alcohol at home, to keeping some Kingfisher beer and Old Monk rum, to keep ing bottles of white wine that was made in vineyards outside Mumbai, to keeping imported bottles of red and white wine from countries as far as Chile. Rupak closed the fridge and opened the freezer to take an ice tray. It was next to a frosted bottle of Absolut vodka that still had the plastic seal around the neck. So much had changed at home since he had left for the States.
Once the food had been brought to the dining room and the guests sat down and began to serve themselves, Mrs. Jha whispered to her husband, "Will you please tell them? Stop avoiding it. I can't organize one more dinner like this."
Across the table, while serving themselves from big bowls of food, Mr. Gupta whispered to his wife, "I think you've taken enough chicken. Leave some for the others. It looks bad."
"The chicken is half burnt. I am doing Mrs. Jha a favor by eating so much of it," Mrs. Gupta whispered back, peering into the other bowls to see what else had been cooked. "Otherwise it will all be left and she will have to give it to the maids and she'll be embarrassed. I'm being kind."
"Would you like another drink?" Rupak asked Mrs. Ray on the other side of the table.
Ever since he had gone to America, Rupak had decided he would never date an Indian woman again, but seeing beautiful Mrs. Ray made him aware that there were exceptions to every rule. But Mrs. Ray wasn't that old, he reminded himself. He knew that she was friends with this group only because she had never had children, so now she had more in common with the older women whose children had left home. And glancing to his right and seeing Mrs. Gupta trying to pry a piece of burnt chicken out from her teeth reminded him of the rules.
"Rupak," Mr. Gupta said. "Bring me another whiskey and come and tell me more about America. My wife's niece also studies in America. Sudha, where does that girl study?"
"I can never remember," Mrs. Gupta said. "Perhaps New York? I will find out."
Mr. Gupta wobbled his head and said to Rupak, "Maybe you know her. We will find out where she is studying."
"I doubt it," Rupak said. He was always amazed by how small some people in Mayur Palli thought America was.
"Urmila is planning a trip to America next year," Mr. Patnaik added. "She should add Ithaca to her list of places to visit."
"You must meet lots of pretty women there," Mr. Gupta continued. "White skin, white hair-those girls are like cotton balls. Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Do it," Mrs. Jha whispered to her husband across the table. "Tell them now, otherwise I will. You've done well, you've bought a new house-I don't know why you're so ashamed."
"A girlfriend?" Rupak said. Here was his chance to tell them. His parents would have to react calmly to the news of his American girlfriend if all the neighbors were watching. "Well, you know in the U.S .... "
"He doesn't have time for girlfriends while he is studying.
A wife will come later. He's just like his father. They both want to do well in life," Mrs. Jha said. "Such ambitious men I'm sur rounded by. In fact, that's why we called all of you here tonight."
"So that is all," Mr. Jha said. "Nothing too big to discuss. We are not selling this apartment. We are simply renting it out for now. We have found a lovely young couple from Chennai who are going to move in. They have a young son also. Very decent people. And next time we will have dinner in Gurgaon. Enough about us. Why don't we have some more food?"
"Wait," Mr. Gupta said, "This new house you've bought-is it through the Meri tech company? I heard they got in trouble with the government about bribes. Did they accept the full amount in check?"
Mr. Gupta was certain that Mr. Jha was a tax evader. All these new-moneyed people were the same. People acted as though engineers were honest, simple-minded people, but look at Mr. Jha here-he was obviously making lots of money now and had probably paid for his house with mostly black money. But Mr. Gupta knew that just because he himself had been a police officer, the assumption was that he was corrupt. It was unfair. He had never taken a bribe over five thousand rupees. A lot of other policemen had worked their way up financially and drove fancy Hondas and Toyotas, but Mr. Gupta had simply upgraded from a scooter to a Maruti 800 to a Swift. He had been content with his life in East Delhi. He knew many young couples who used it as a stepping-stone to fancier neighborhoods, but people of his generation stayed put. They no longer got their walls painted after every monsoon, and they no longer complained about the regular electricity outages. Their lives, he thought, had fallen into a nice comforting rhythm. They didn't need to impress their spouses or their neighbors. But now here was Mr. Jha announcing their move to Gurgaon while his pretty wife looked on proudly. Their son was visiting from the United States of America and probably had a white girlfriend by now. Mr. Gupta looked over at his own wife, who was back in the dining room heaping her plate with another helping of chicken curry. Their daughter, married to a chartered accountant and also living in East Delhi, was turning into her mother far too quickly, and Mr. Gupta knew he would never have the luxury of objecting to a white boyfriend.
"I really prefer not to talk about finances like this," Mr. Jha said. "Especially not in front of the ladies. But, you know, India is changing. International business comes with different standards." Mr. Jha had in fact paid more than the usual amount with taxable money. It had raised the cost of the house considerably, but ever since he sold to a company based in America, he knew that the government was keeping an eye on him.
Mr. Gupta shook his head as he used his thumb to push an other bite of chicken and rice into his mouth. These people would never give a straight answer about taxes.