Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.
—Adrienne Rich, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"
Old Mr. M. M. Nair anticipated his death for quite long—every breath was his last, every sunshine a new beginning—and so he lived, alone in Delhi with the lizard who wasn't his, surrounded by a billion people that he had learned to call his own. Solitude, as Mr. M. M. Nair saw it, was a choice, and in India, never challenging. He formed special bonds with the maid and the milkman and the postman and the gardener, slowly leaking into their lives. He had sponsored the postman's daughter's wedding and purchased the diamond ring that sits on her husband's finger. And of course, his problems became theirs. The milkman's knees ached with Mr. Nair's arthritis, and now and then, he sat by him and massaged the old man's legs.
Mr. Nair and the kitchen lizard inhabited the house. The lizard, with imposing black beads for eyes, never complained—the spice cupboard had enough tidbit delicacies to chew, and an excellent selection of mosquitos to savor after dinner, when Mr. Nair watched the cable channel on TV that played pirated new movies, sucking ginger flavored toffees.
Like Ganesha with 108 names, the common house gecko had a unique name in every inch of Asia. Mr. Nair conducted the ambitious and unfulfilled research with the prospects of drafting The Nair's Dictionary of Regional Animal Names. In Bengali, informed his neighbor Mrs. Bannerjee, geckos were called Ticktickis for the tick-tock sound of their gait. "Should I call you Tickticki then?" Mr. Nair took the lizard's immobility for a yes. How to tell a lizard's sex? For some reason, she was a she. Geckos possessed a mysterious, feminine air for him—possibly because they were called Chip-Kali in Hindi, like the court-dancer Anar-Kali known for her graceful dance, or because their black, monochromatic eyes showed no utterance. Tickticki had never spoken to him, and she chose to never roam the kitchen when he did. He enjoyed Tickticki's presence distantly, fearing that in proximity she may drop on his head or crawl on his body. Although he had never heard the sound of a lizard falling on the floor, he imagined a slushy pudge-pudge sound that he wished to avoid.
Tick-tock. Two decades ago, before Tickticki was born, Mr. Nair's son left for the United States. One decade ago, his wife left him forever. When she left, the son returned to Delhi briefly with his New York this and New York that, complaining about the heat and humidity of the city that once loved him. As the priest sang prayers for his mother's soul, the son managed multi–million-dollar projects on his Blackberry phone. His nonchalance, his scant participation, his silence on losing his mother disturbed Mr. M. M. Nair. The grandson, on the other hand, an altogether new breed—racially one, geographically another—vaguely associated with the garlanded idols in the temple that blankly stared at him.
"Look, the elephant one is Ganesha! That one's Shiva!" cried his mother, introducing him to his gods like forgotten cousins. Just like Amala and Kamala, the girls raised by a pack of wolves in the forests of Bengal who walked like quadrupeds and howled like beasts; Mr. Nair couldn't decipher the feral anomaly of his grandson. Betrayal marked his whitewashed accent.
Mr. Nair remained in the reverie of her last words: Don't forget to feed the sparrows. Every time he visited his wife's garden, he remembered the vast deserts and oceans he had crossed for his research, the countries he had lived in, the cuisines he had eaten, and how he somehow managed to return to his wife who always stayed in the garden with the sparrows. The apartment was lined by a bedding of grass with dense ferns and leaves littering every corner. She had only entrusted marigolds as her kin. Born from the earth, returned to the earth, built by the software of nature, clothed in the orange of holy sages. He fondled the marigolds that she had planted in her final days. Mr. Nair envied her temporariness in the world, that for fifty years of knowing her she rocked in her rocking chair reading prayers every morning, exercising her toes. The sparrows, fat-breasted and brown as the Earth, gradually disappeared from Delhi. Where were the sparrows? Dead, or somewhere else. The son returned to the United States, and every once in a while, on Skype, showed him the snow in his backyard.
"That is a huge shovel!" Mr. Nair would say.
"Did you just hear grandpa pronounce shovel as show-well?"
One afternoon, while watching Cheeni Kam on the TV, he received an unwanted call from the United States. Manju Nair, his grandson, would visit him. Mr. Nair had only a few recollections of his grandson, who was once fat and little and brown, his little sparrow; who disappeared from the city, too, in no time. Upon learning that his grandson was visiting, he had made elaborate plans of picking him up from the airport with a bouquet of orchids, but his son instructed him to stay at home.
"But the boy doesn't know Hindi, how will he come home?"
"Don't worry, Papa, Uber is very simple."
Now twenty-one years old, Manju was visiting India for a project to document the lives of the poor. He started the project soon after arriving. Shooting on the roads with his large Nikon camera, he often stopped by a beggar whose black-and-white picture would appear on his Instagram. #storiesofindia #travelgram #poverty
In one nation the man begged for a meal; in another, for a white man's arousal. But Manju wasn't a white man—he was one of the shades of brown between Morocco and Myanmar, yet strangely manicured, exfoliated, affluent looking. Not that he dressed in American clothing, not that he wore boots on a sunny Delhi day—yet one could tell from the perfection of his skin how every pore held New York and not New Delhi, a desire to return and not emigrate. He enjoyed the weightlessness of blending in. For once he forgot the burden of exotic elephants and Slumdog Millionaire. He forgot about the time his boyfriend Toby asked: Does your mom wear sari to sleep?; and when his friend Ezra's mother made chicken-tikka masala for his bar mitzvah; and when Toby had assumed that their marriage would be arranged.
They sat together for breakfast—the old man with a newspaper, the young man with his cell phone.
"How do you book the Uber?" Mr. Nair asked, devouring his bowl of cornflakes. The idea of the Uber animated him. He felt younger than the other men in his circle. Mr. Nair was the only one not sick or lazy or dying; still, showing up to events got challenging with his arthritis. With the Uber, he could go anywhere. And for many his age, anywhere usually meant funerals.
"You put down the destination, and the car comes."
"Won't the driver need to my address?" Closing the newspaper, staring at Manju.
"Nope. Just enter where you have to go. It takes care of itself."
"So it knows where I live." Unsettled, he finished the bowl of cornflakes with his spoon.
The Uber indeed knew where he lived, and one afternoon, he decided to get an Aadhar card. The Aadhar scheme, the government's new mission to register every one of the billion point two citizens of India, took the nation by storm. Without an Aadhar card, you couldn't open a bank account; you couldn't apply to a university; you couldn't even buy a SIM card for a new phone—and old Mr. M. M. Nair couldn't die. The government had mandated this card even for death registry. Without it, Mr. Nair would live for hundreds of years, according to the government of India, unless someone from his family decided to register him later, which he thought was quite unlikely.
Only two minutes after he requested a cab, the driver, Indrajeet, parked the car like a palanquin waiting for its princess. Mr. Nair shook hands with the driver because he wasn't a driver, he was the Uber driver. A man from his caste would never stoop to shake a driver's hand, let alone, a Muslim. The driver's name, Indrajeet, was a Hindu name, yet his car featured an Arabic snippet hanging from the rear-view mirror. Mr. Nair found the situation funny as Islam highly discouraged Hinduism for its belief in idol worship and multiple gods, and here, his very obviously Muslim driver, bore the name of Lord Indra: the council minister of every god.
"Are you...a Hindu?"
"In this country I am," the driver replied. "One has to change."
"Ran away from Bangladesh. No jobs there."
What must Bangladesh look like? Do you miss it? Mr. Nair wanted to ask but didn't.
One has to change. As the car paced, the sprinting trees reminded him of a day when he ran for miles on the coast by the wavering waters of the Indian Ocean. What year was it? What time was it? He just remembered the waters gulping the sun, the viscous, cutting air, the endless beach—and his mother, shouting, "Stop you fool!" But Mr. Nair, with his little toes covered in sand, didn't stop, he never stopped. He ran so far away from the coast and the coconut trees, the Southern simplicity of his tumbledown cottage, the cutting blades of grass, the boulders, the sea, that once he entered the streets of Delhi so intricately packed with life, ambitions, and family, he began to miss himself. Memories of one evening, running on the beach, throbbed in his mind, as if it summed up a lifetime.
One has to change. He realized that after becoming a husband, becoming a grandparent, becoming a geologist, becoming a professor; of the multiple becomings that he had achieved, he'd forgotten who he was in the first place. The guilt of such a realization haunted him; that the solitude he finally earned was devoid of his loving wife and child, as if his love, a phase, a mortality, never meant anything; as if his money couldn't afford him solitude; as if nothing mattered. Solitude came with a tax: the people he loved had to leave him to remind him of his importance. His wife, who packed his lunch every morning before work, had to leave him one day so that every time he chopped onions, the knives would remind him of her love and her years of service. The objects began not only to remind him of them, but to become them.
Tick-tock, a month later, when Tickticki was still alive, his Aadhar card arrived, and he could, officially die.
Dear Mrs. Nair,
I am ready to die. You are lucky you didn't need an Aadhar card to die. I have taken care of all matters. I have asked Dubey to ring the bell three times and wait for me every morning for fifteen minutes. If I don't wake up, he will break into the house and check if I'm alive. Sometimes I take such deep naps I think I'm dead. I wake up and forget what year it is. Sometimes I forget who I am. It is a humbling feeling to forget everything, but slowly I come to remember. I remember you. I remember me without you. I remember our son. He is well. Manju is staying with me. He likes boys. At night he says "I love you" to a boy called Toby. Did I ever say "I love you" to you? I didn't need to. This Toby boy is a foreigner. I did a special ceremony at the temple to bless Manju from this Toby's evil eye. Did you know that if you kept a ripe avocado next to an unripe banana, the next morning the banana ripens? These days I only buy unripe bananas for this thrill. This Toby boy has a similar effect on our Manju. Very very influential. Very. Hopefully, he will become okay. Americans can be too forward you know. The sparrows still haven't come. At the zoo, they have pheasants and peacocks but not sparrows. Waking up without you is hard, but I manage. I hope you have forgiven me.
Yours, M. M.
Dubey, the milkman, appeared in his cream shirt with an orange bindi on his forehead. Before he handed Mr. Nair the milk, he touched his feet out of respect and pressed his palms in the best namaste he had ever seen. Such an elegant namaste that all his chakras aligned with the universe. And his incandescent smile glowed pink below his bushy mustache. Born in Benares by the Ganges in a family of priests, Dubey managed the local goshala, or cow-shelter, behind the temple and delivered the milk he collected. He had the indifference of an accountant, a long-nosed accountant of short-stature, yet an accountant of strong character, an accountant who deserved respect. He made little money, roamed around on his bicycle, yet held his head high, for he belonged to the caste of Brahmins, the Hindu elite, honored with the responsibility of the temple.
"Nair sahib," he began, sighing, "My cow doesn't talk to me anymore. I pat her on her back and give her grass. She doesn't even look me eye to eye. I think she is depressed. Nair sahib tell me one thing: can cows be depressed?"
"Your cow talks to you?"
"Of course she does! The purest connection on this planet I've had was with my cow! Oh Sonali. So. Na. Lee. Light of my life."
"Did you try asking her why she doesn't talk to you?"
"I have. Cows and women all the same Nair sahib. They stop loving. My wife also same. All they want is something to chew. And it's never enough. I'm never enough. Cows want more; women want it more and faster. But hey, we Hindus respect them—cows and women equally. It's the only path to salvation." Mr. Nair pulled up his pants, Dubey ducked, and massaged the old man's legs. "Nair sahib you tell me what I must do. My Sonali doesn't love me anymore."
But Mr. Nair didn't respond. From inside the house, he heard the clatter of utensils in the sink. Mrs. Nair washed them in a white sari, blocking the light from the window, appearing as more shadow than a figure. One half of her face turned orange with the sun, the other blackened with darkness. The essence of sandalwood from the incense sticks diffused in the air, blurring her portrait by the window.
"Nair sahib?" repeated Dubey. "Wait here."
He pulled his leg from Dubey's hands and limped into the kitchen. It wasn't her. Manju, still half asleep, wearing a long white kurta, stood tall spreading butter on toast. Mr. Nair, relieved and panting, returned to his living room where Dubey waited crouching, complaining about his cow.
"Dubey, why don't you show the Taj to your wife. Here," he reached his wallet, "Take three thousand rupees and go see the Taj Mahal with her. Take your cow with you!"
He remembered that when he had visited the white marble mausoleum, now yellowed with pollution, his wife had smiled after for ages. She smiled at the love story of Emperor Shah Jahan and Queen Mumtaz. Mr. Nair had traveled all across the world and for him, the place stank of tourists. Mrs. Nair was sixty and hadn't ever seen the Taj Mahal. They had held hands. He remembered that before and after the Taj Mahal trip, life was bland.
"But, Nair sahib, do they let cows see the taz mahil?"
That night Mr. Nair didn't sleep alone, but the wrinkled hand of his wife sat on his shoulder as fell asleep. Her hand moved to his chest, once full of hair, now sagging to the sides as he slept. Between his feet was another foot, her foot. The smell of Horlicks chocolate milk in her breath suffocated him, and when he opened his eyes to roll onto his other side, she held him tightly by the shoulder and kissed him on the lips—once, twice, tick-tock, like a woodpecker. He slid his hand in her blouse, caressing her back, and when he woke up in the morning, she was gone, the sparrows were gone, and the Horlicks chocolate milk was gone.
Dear Mrs. Nair,
Last night you kissed me. I still remember your embarrassment when we first kissed in the American style, with the lips and all you know, like in North by Northwest. I think you have forgiven me.
He was in mid-sentence when Manju walked in.
"Do you have pictures of Grandma?"
"I do," Mr. Nair replied. Since she died, Mr. Nair hadn't dared to look at her pictures again. The pictures carried not the portraits of his wife, but the portraits of his younger self. "Why do you ask?"
"I want to write about her life. Tell a story through pictures, ya know?"
"What would you gain from that?"
"I want to submit the photo essay for an art fellowship at Columbia. I think that the piece would let us understand her better through a third-person narrative. And of course, I will juxtapose it with images of her village in Madras, the food... just like the culture like super Indianish."
"Your grandmother was an exceptional woman. But she is not your pet project."
"If Grandma were alive, she'd be happy."
In fact, she wouldn't be, thought Mr. Nair.
Cleaning his flower-vase with a dirty towel, he said, "If she was." Her entire lifetime spent nurturing her child, preparing food, loving and learning—how could an art project ever materialize the woman? Apart from her contributions, how would it ever tell her flaws? What about her loneliness, the hours spent in the garden with sparrows and marigolds and not him? What about the morning she appeared in a blue sari holding a knife, the very knife that smelled of chopped onions, wanting him to stab her in the heart? How beautiful she looked, the sari textured like lapis lazuli—partly gold, partly ocean. The white flowers seated upon the bun in her hair. The back of her blouse, still wet from her hair after she showered. Or how she wailed when she delivered their son, how her chocolate skin turned red. How their son was always her son and not theirs. How could a college student's photo essay encompass an entire lifetime?
"Listen, Manju, she's in a better place, and if her soul finds utterance here, we will never let her rest." He ruffled Manju's hair, and smiled at him, "If you need the scholarship then I am ready to pay you the same amount. But don't sell my wife's story."
"I'm not selling her story. The art faculty is sensitive, understanding, open... Rupi Kaur's photo essay had her period stains to sensitize people on the internet about menstruation. I'm a journalist. And the world needs to know about where I come from, my parents' struggles as Indians in America. My struggle as a first generation Indian in America. My grandmother's struggle as a South Indian villager in New Delhi."
Mr. Nair laughed, "Struggles," he said, in imaginary brace quotes, "Why do you think Indians are always struggling? Let me tell you something: your grandmother struggled with far worse problems than being South Indian in Delhi. She liked learning languages, so she caught on Hindi as we all did. What else did she have to do anyway? She had no purpose. Your father caught onto that American accent, and you were born with it. I met a poor Uber driver from Bangladesh the other day. I pitied that he had to leave everything only to drive cabs. One has to change, Manju, and changing doesn't mean struggling."
Mr. Nair certainly wouldn't give the photographs of his wife to Manju. Manju kept requesting, and Mr. Nair kept rejecting. No one could see his wife. Mr. Nair stepped into his wardrobe to retrieve her pictures from the topmost shelf. A massive, imposing ruby ring sat on her delicate finger, even in those pictures in front of the Taj Mahal. Oh, my darling, he wept, pressing the picture to his heart. Next to the album lay a plastic bag from a sweetshop with letters he wrote to her: stamps from Iceland, 1985; stamps from Hungary, 1973; stamps from Brazil, 1979; stamps from Sydney, 1981; stamps, envelopes, stamps and envelopes; pictures of ships, boats, mountains, deserts; pictures with the president of Venezuela; pictures of seas, oceans, white people, black people, snow, Arabians, Machu Picchu, more stamps, more envelopes, letters with three words: Dear. Mrs. Nair. Letters addressed to a woman who waited in a kitchen for a husband who returned, for a husband who left.
Among the letters was a prescription of Dr. Dutta who had once warned him: Mr. Nair, your wife is suicidal. She had been seeing the doctor for months in secrecy, telling him that she visited a gynecologist at the hospital. With the prescription, Mr. Nair remembered his younger self, one with thin, black, waning hair that hardly covered his scalp, seated at Dr. Dutta's clinic, saying, "One cannot negotiate life from a position of weakness. There is nothing wrong with my wife. She is just bored at home you know. She needs to read, write, do yoga, make friends, or something; have vitamins and get her life in place. She has no talents. I would take her with me to my trips, but she embarrasses me sometimes. Her English isn't that great. She still eats with her hands and can't use a fork and knife properly. How am I supposed to take her with me? She needs a lot of polishing, but who has the time to do that, especially at this age. Let me enroll her in a painting class and she might do better. Give this mental illness crap to someone else. Mrs. Nair will not visit you after today. I will see to it."
Dear Mrs. Nair,
I remember the smell of garlic in your fingers today. Each time I returned, the smell of garlic in your fingers when we slept reminded me I was home. Sometimes I wish I had taken you along, that you had seen as much of the world I had. But how could I take you? Who would've taken care of our son? Who would have taught him maths? Manju is like him—he wants what he wants. Today he asked if he could see pictures of you. But you are mine and only mine.
When Dr. Dutta told me you were suicidal, I told her she was wrong. When she asked me if she could contact our son in case of an emergency, I lied. I told her that we didn't have children. I wanted to cry and shout. But do you think he would've returned from New York anyway? He would've said "Give this mental illness crap to someone else." Was he ever our son after he left? I told her that you couldn't conceive. She insulted me. She said I failed miserably as a husband but now that you are gone, Mrs. Nair, tell me, did I ever fail you? Did we ever have little money? Didn't we afford Princeton University for our son? Didn't I get you a souvenir from every corner of the world I visited for research? You didn't even know a country called Burkina Faso existed till I got you a fridge magnet from there. You think I wasn't miserable seeing you that way? But the more I stayed at home, the more you haunted me. I have no regrets but one: that you told the doctor I left you. Do you remember how happy you were at Taj Mahal? When you died, you smiled; for once you believed your sparrows would return and you asked me to feed them. I haven't broken my promise.
He took the album to the kitchen, lit the gas stove, and burned every photo. Tickticki observed. Picture by picture. Memory by memory. The stench of bromine killed the sandalwood in the air, and an entire lifetime came to burn in the same kitchen that contained her. As one of the four minarets of the Taj Mahal photograph caught fire, the last proof of her smile disappeared from the face of the earth. The soot from the photographs filled the entire kitchen. Mr. Nair, aware that he added to the pollution of Delhi that pushed out the sparrows, cried with shame. I am killing your sparrows.
"What the hell is goin' on here? You're going to set the house on fire, Grandpa!" Manju rushed to the kitchen filled with smoke, holding his weeping grandfather tightly from the shoulders.
"Shh... I got you, Grandpa, I got you. Stop crying. You didn't have to burn everything." He gave the old man a glass of water and walked him to his bedroom. "Sit down, sit down."
"Your grandmother didn't die a natural death," his speech slurred, his hands trembled, "I... All my fault. She... would be here. I can't do this anymore... oh my darling Mrs. Nair..."
"Shhhh... Grandpa, stop it. What are you saying?"
Mr. Nair pointed at the shabby cupboard in his bedroom, lined by bottles, vials, pills, herbs, oils, and everything that kept him alive. "Mrs. Nair wasn't happy here... she committed–"
"You're imagining things, Grandpa. And stop calling her Mrs. Nair, she was your wife."
"Yes, your wife. Now go to sleep."
Mr. Nair wept silently in his bed. Manju comforted him till he fell asleep. He wondered if what his grandfather had said was true, returning to the kitchen, finding only ashes of what could have confirmed.
The next morning, Dubey appeared, worried. "Nair sahib," he said, "the stupid man at the ticket center said I can't take cows on the train. Thinks my cow will dirty his train. Nonsense. Anyway, my friend has agreed to give us a ride in his truck."
"Where are you going?" Manju asked.
"Taz mahal, where else?"
Manju had never visited the Taj Mahal, often the first place people saw when they visited India. He had to post a picture on his Instagram. He imagined he'd return there someday with Toby and sit there an entire afternoon, holding hands.
"Tell your friend that my grandfather and I will come too."
Mr. Nair disagreed at first, but his heart couldn't resist the travel. On the way he smiled at the sprinting trees, the same scenes, the changing times. He had journeyed many times, but never with his kin, never with his family. Manju practiced his Hindi each time a signpost appeared, studying the alphabet so carefully that Mr. Nair never thought of it as a foreign language. He forgave Manju's whitewashed accent. He forgave Manju for a mistake that he never committed. As soon as they reached the medieval city of Agra, Mr. Nair didn't stand as tall as he had before—his knees shortened him, his wrinkles burdened him. Right outside the Taj Mahal, a placard shouted: "ANIMALS NOT ALLOWED" and Dubey, dumbfounded, standing awkwardly with a cow and his angry wife, had nowhere left to go.
Manju laughed, grouping them all for a picture. They all stood still next to a silent cow. "Say cheese!" he hollered, pointing his camera at them, and old Mr. M. M. Nair, the man who had recently gotten his Aadhar card to die, couldn't stop smiling.
"Cheeeej" cried Dubey and his wife. The cow didn't moo.
Mr. Nair knew that this would be his last visit to the Taj Mahal; his last visit to the ghost of his smiling Mrs. Nair, standing wrapped in the sari she had worn to their wedding, red in color, sprinkled with a galaxy of golden stars. This was their last picture together, last moment together, with the milkman and his wife and cow; his family, captured by Manju, his little brown sparrow.