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Winter 1998, Volume 15.1

Fiction

 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Crossing


Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is Professor of creative writing at Foothill College. Her books include four volumes of poetry, a collection of short fiction, and the novel The Mistress of Spices, which will soon be made into a film. She is President of Maitri, a South Asian women's helpline.  Read  an interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni published in
Weber Studies.

 

The sky is streaked with grey and a strange bleeding pink I've never seen before. Or perhaps the intense cold is distorting my perceptions. I huddle in a coat that is too large for me, borrowed from my younger brother Ashu for this boat trip, trying to remember how it feels to be warm. The scratchy wool smells of musk, as new to me as the hard adult line of my brother's jaw, dark against the blinding snowbanks of the far shore. I am not quite sure why we are on this ferry, why we are attempting to cross this frozen lake whose name I cannot remember although Ashu said it just a few minutes ago. It is March in Vermont, the last day of my unhappy visit, and I still haven't done what I came here to do. I haven't been able to tell Ashu what's happening to our mother in India, haven't been able to beg him to go to her before it's too late.

The River Queen's rusty deck shudders under my feet as the boat makes its slow uneven way across the lake. I can hear the crunch of ice being crushed somewhere below. I imagine enormous metal jaws closing in underwater dark on the huge, slippery blocks, grinding down till they crack, spraying ice-needles in every direction. Perhaps there are fish down there, their slight silver bodies mangled by the steel teeth, the water slowly turning the same pink as the sky. Nonsense! The fish know quite well how to take care of themselves, my brother would say if he knew what I was thinking. Or would he? I'm not sure any more. It's been a long time since we shared our fantasies, our fears.

I hunch my shoulders and turn away from the wind, trying not to think about the photo on his dresser of the laughing girl with white skin and golden hair whom he has chosen not to introduce me to. I saw it the very first night, as soon as I arrived from Sacramento.

"Ashu, who's this?"

"A girl." He spoke in clipped English. He'd been doing that throughout my visit. Had he forgotten his Bengali, or was he doing it to annoy me?

"Ashu!" I hated the shrill sisterly note in my voice.

"O.K! It's my girlfriend."

"Your girlfriend! You never told me you had a girlfriend!" To my annoyance I found that I'd switched over to English, too.

He shrugged.

"Are you planning to get married to her?" And, when he didn't answer, "Does Ma know?" Stupid question. He hadn't called or written to her in the last two years. That was one of the reasons why I was here.

"No."

"Aren't you going to tell her?"

"No."

"Ashu! You know how hurt she'll be if you don't." I wanted to sound calm and reasonable, but my voice rose, high and brittle and accusing, beyond my control. "Don't you even care?"

"There's a nice movie at the Empire tonight. Want to go?"

I wanted to shake him and shout now you just stop that and tell me why you're behaving like this, as I would have done when he was eight or nine. Even that young, he would put on this same hard-lipped, let-me-be look which usually meant he'd got into trouble with a teacher or into a fight with the neighborhood boys. He'd skulk around the house, not talking, avoiding everyone. Leave him alone, mother would say, let him get over it on his own. I wouldn't listen. I always followed him around until he broke down. He'd scream sometimes and hit out at me blindly, like the time when his pet guinea pig died and he buried the body in the garden without telling any of us. But I would hold him tight and after a while, through his sobs, he would start talking.

Today when I looked at his eyes, though, I couldn't say a thing. They were no longer bright black like I remembered but opaque and wary, the eyes of a stranger. They silenced me. I remembered how, when I'd called him a week ago to say I wanted to visit, all he had said in an offhand way was, come if you like.

Now, standing in this desolate wind, I remember other things as well. How, over the last few years his phone calls had become shorter and less frequent, and I'd been too entangled in my own life to see it happening. When he did call, the pauses between his sentences were longer than all his words put together. But I didn't really hear them. Let me tell you what your niece did this weekend, I'd say brightly into the silence, and in my head I'd already be making up the grocery list, or trying to remember when the children had to visit the dentist.

Even when I rang up India and Ma said that it'd been a long time since Ashu's last letter, could I call him and make sure he was O.K., I didn't take it seriously. Oh, Ma! I'd say, my confident voice drowning her hesitant words, Quit worrying! He isn't a baby any more. I'd leave a brief message on his answering machine telling him to write home, and then I'd forget about it.

Once in a while, lying in bed at night, I'd feel guilty about not being a good sister, and I'd say so to my husband, Sandeep.

"I really should keep in closer touch with him. After all, I'm the only family he has here. And Ashu's always been shy, not the kind to make lots of friends. He didn't even want to come to the U.S.he's never lived away from home before. Ma had to practically force him, tell him how good going to engineering school here would be for his career..."

"I don't know why you're making such a big deal of it," Sandeep would interrupt. "That's the problem with our Indian families, always suffocating each other with love. It's good for your brother to learn to survive on his own for a while. The two of you always did shelter him too much. Anyway you're always calling himbirthdays, Indian New Year. Always sending him money, too. He's probably having a great time at the university. For all you know, he has half a dozen girlfriends and would much rather you didn't keep tabs on him."

I had a feeling, deep down, that Sandeep, who's an only child, didn't quite understand. But it was so much easier to agree, to snuggle against his warm back and relinquish the uncomfortable feeling of responsibility, to not think about the promise I'd made to Ma to take care of Ashu. As I fell asleep I'd say to myself, I'll have a real heart-to-heart with Ashu next weekend. But something always came upa trip to the laundromat, unexpected company for dinner, one of the kids running a fever. Sometimes when Ashu phoned I'd say, why don't you come visit us, but when he gave a flimsy excuse, I'd let it go at that. It had taken my trip to India last month to shake me up and make me realize how far he had receded from us all.

What did you think? I tell myself angrily now as the wind yanks at my hair. That he'd fall on your neck and weep tears of gratitude because you decided to pay him a visit after all these years? That he'd be dying to tell you all the secrets of his love life just because you finally noticed he had one? I remember how, when he'd first arrived in America, Ashu would call to tell me how he hated cooking for himself, hated coming home in the evenings to an empty room, how it was so cold all the time that he felt he was slowly freezing. There was a pleading in his voice that I made myself ignore. Because otherwise I would have had to do something about it, tell him to transfer to a university in California and come live with me, something I knew Sandeep was dead against. And those days, early in our marriage when we were just getting to know each other, Sandeep and I had our own problems. So a lot of times I cut Ashu short with a we all went through the same thing, before you know it you'll get used to it all. It was hard to think of anything more profound to say with the baby screaming in my ear or the dal boiling over and Sandeep, like most husbands straight out of India, no help at all. Ashu would be silent for a moment. Then he would say goodbye in a quiet, resigned kind of voice. As I remember that voice now my heart feels so heavy I have to hold tight to the guardrails just to bear the weight of it.

Across the deck from me, a group of young men in dull green parkas are joking around, jostling each other, drinking from brown paper bags. From time to time they dart sideways glances at me and my Indian clothes. I can tell they haven't seen many Indians. I tug upward at my coat collar, shivering, wishing myself back in Sacramento, where no one stares at me when I walk to the store in my salwaar kameez. I hate it all, this knifing wind, the furtive looks, the effortless way in which my brother ignores everything equallythe cold, the men, his visiting sisteras he gazes with great concentration at the dead landscape as though he were alone in it. And maybe in a way he is, though in his hip-hugging jeans and parka, he looks to me just like all the other young men on the ferry. Even the expression on his closed face is so totally American.

What a waste this entire trip has been. A waste of time. A waste of the money I could ill afford so soon after an expensive trip to India, as Sandeep kept pointing out. A waste of the safe, polite words with which I circled Ashu so carefully only to have him slip away each time.

"Ashu, that was a great lasagna you fixed! When did you learn to cook so well?"

"Oh, just picked it up along the way."

"Remember when Ma used to fry us pooris for lunch Sundays, how we'd sit in the kitchen and watch them puff up, all golden brown?"

"Mmm. Listen, do you mind if I go out for a while? I've got a couple things to take care of."

And so, wasted inside me, all the things I wasn't able to say: Ashu, are you O.K.? Are you happy? What went wrong between us? Maybe I was at fault, too wrapped up in my life when you needed me. But why did you cut yourself off from Ma? She just doesn't understand. Do you know how old she's become over these last two years? She's shrunk, somehow. Her sari-blouses sag on her, and the ridges of her bones push through her skin. It takes her twenty minutes just to make it upstairs to her bedroom. And sometimes in the middle of a sentence she forgets what she's saying. But one thing's always on her mind. Last month when I was in India she would keep telling me, I've lost my son, I don't have a son anymore. It's my own fault. I should never have sent him so far away. One evening she got so hysterical, saying it over and over, Dr. Mukherjee had to give her a sedative. I was sitting next to the bed, but she gazed through me as though I wasn't even there. The look in her eyes was hopeless, like that of a trapped animal which has stopped struggling.

I try to swallow the icy lump that is pressing up against my throat. I stitch a smile onto my lips. To cry now would be the final humiliation. I'm going home tomorrow, I whisper, to make myself feel better. I did my best and now I'm going home. I try to remember the smell of Sandeep's after-shave, the rough press of his beard against my cheek. But I can't quite stop the tears. It's hard to accept defeat, to admit that there's no way back across the frozen lake of the heart. I remember my daughters' voices on the phone saying, come back soon, Mama, and I look at Ashu and think, will they grow up to be this way?

"Look!" Ashu is pointing to a white blur on a nearby ice floe. I wipe at my eyes, hoping they haven't turned their usual tell-tale red, and try to show some interest. Will this miserable boat ride never end? "Look!" It's some sort of a large bird, not native to this region, judging from the comments of the parka-clad young men. Red-beaked, with long reddish legs, it spreads its white wings and looks towards us as we chug closer. I've seen a bird like this somewhere, sometime, but I can't quite remember.

"Didi, doesn't it look like a sharash?"

Yes, it does look like the marsh crane of the Bengal countryside. I am startled by the Bengali word for the bird, so unusual in my brother's mouth, together with the childhood name he hasn't called me in years.

It was monsoon vacation. We were visiting third uncle, out in the country. The rain had stopped briefly, and we ran out under the low, dark clouds, jumping into puddles with the special joy of city children. Ashu, who was three, imitated everything I did. We ran all the way past the sugarcane fields with their peculiar swishing sounds, their wonderful wet smell, and suddenly we came across them, a whole flock of sharash feeding in the submerged rice fields. My brother clapped his delighted hands, look, Didi! as the birds flew up, an arc of silver air, a sky of flashing wings. We stood with our arms around each other, watching, till they disappeared.

The ferry is closer now, and everyone is looking at the bird. Even the raucous young men are quiet. The bird looks back at us, its eyes shining like rubies, like beads of blood. Through a gap in the clouds the sun is a low red ball that hangs over the edge of the lake. Lake Champlain, the name comes to me suddenly. The bird takes off, beating its powerful wings, wheeling gracefully over our heads. I'm almost certain that my brother can't remember that long-ago day in India. Still, I step closer and touch the sleeve of his parka. He looks as though he might move away. Then he puts his arm around my shoulders and gives them a brief, awkward hug. And I know I can't give up yet. There's got to be a path back to where we started from, however narrow, however icebound, however slow.

I'll start on it tonight. Tonight I'll tell my brother what I came to say. I'll say it simple and clear, with no hidden agendas. No guilt. No blame. Maybe he'll listen, and maybe he won't. But for the moment the wind has stopped, and it is enough to stand here, shoulders touching, watching the white bird fly directly into the sun.