Read Quarantine: Stories Online

Authors: Rahul Mehta

Quarantine: Stories

Quarantine

 

Stories

 

Rahul Mehta

 

Dedication

 

for my father, mother, and brother
for my grandparents,
in memoriam
and
for Robert

 

Y
ou will only see him the way he is, not the way he was.”

Jeremy and I have rented a car and are driving to my parents’ house. He has never been to West Virginia. All week he has been looking forward to seeing the house where I grew up, my yearbooks, the wood paneling in the living room where I chipped my tooth, the place by the river where I drank with friends. He is annoyed that I am talking about Bapuji again.

“Don’t you think I know by now how you feel about your grandfather?” he asks.

“Yes, but I am warning you. When you see him, you will feel sorry for him. You will forget all the stories I’ve told you.”

“I won’t forget.”

“You won’t believe me.”

It is late by the time we reach the house. My parents hug me at the door. They tell Jeremy how much they enjoyed meeting him in New York last year. They are awkward. They half hug him, half shake his hand. They are still not used to their son dating men.

“Make yourself at home,” my mom says to Jeremy.

“Bapuji is in the living room,” my dad says to me.

We remove our shoes and go inside. Bapuji is sitting in a swivel chair. The lamp next to the chair is off. In the dim light it is difficult to see him, but when he stands up and comes closer, I see how loose his face is, the deep dark eye sockets and sharp cheekbones, the thin lips oval and open, as if it is too much effort to close them or smile.

I bend down to touch his feet. The seams on his slippers are fraying, and his bare ankles are crinkled like brown paper bags. He lays his palm on my head and says, “Jay shree Krishna.” Then I stand and he hugs me, my body limp.

“This is my friend Jeremy,” I say. Jeremy nods and Bapuji nods back.

Last week when I called my mom to discuss plans for our trip, she said it was better not to tell Bapuji that Jeremy is my boyfriend. “There is no way he could understand,” she said.

My mother warms up some food and, even though they are leftovers, Jeremy and I are happy to have home-cooked Indian food, to be eating something other than spaghetti and microwave burritos. After dinner, my mom tells us we can make our beds in the basement. She and I spoke about this on the phone, too. She said we shouldn’t sleep in the guest room because there is only a double bed there, and it will be obvious we are sleeping together. Better we set up camp in the basement where there is a double bed and a single bed and a couch. She said “camp” like we are children and it is summer vacation. She hands us pillows and several sheets of all different sizes and says she is going to sleep.

I make the double bed for Jeremy and the single bed for myself. Jeremy suggests we both sleep in the double bed and that we can mess up the single bed to make it look like one of us slept there. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I say. “What if we sleep late, and someone comes down and sees us?”

As we are falling asleep, Jeremy asks, “Why did you touch your grandfather’s feet?”

“It’s a sign of respect.”

“I know, but you don’t respect him.”

“I respect my father.”

“You didn’t touch
his
feet.”

“Don’t be funny,” I say. “He is Americanized, he doesn’t expect such formalities. But if I didn’t do pranaam, it would hurt my grandfather’s feelings, and that would hurt my father’s feelings.” A few seconds later I add, “It’s tradition. It doesn’t really mean anything.”

“Yeah, tradition,” Jeremy says, sighing, sleepy-voiced. A few minutes later, I hear him snoring from across the room.

Whenever I see my grandfather, I have to touch his feet twice, once when I first arrive and again as I am leaving. Each time I hold my breath and pretend I am bending over for some other reason, like to pick up something or to stretch my hamstrings. He always gives me money when I leave, just after I touch his feet. I never know what to do with it. I don’t want to accept it, but I can’t refuse. Once I burned the money over my kitchen sink. Another time I bought drinks for my friends. Once I actually needed it to pay rent. But it didn’t feel right. It was dirty, like a bribe.

Now, as I try to sleep, I toss and readjust, trying to get comfortable. I am not used to sleeping alone. I don’t know what to do with my body without Jeremy’s arms around me.

T
he basement where we are sleeping is where my grandfather lived when he first came to America. I was ten then, and Asha was eight. Bapuji came a few months after his wife, Motiba, died. At first he tried to live on his own in India, but he found it too difficult. He couldn’t take care of himself, didn’t even know how to make tea. He shouted so much that whenever he hired new servants they would quit within a couple of days. In the end, my father took it upon himself to bring Bapuji to America. As the eldest of five brothers and sisters, he thought it was his responsibility to take care of Bapuji, which, I quickly learned, really meant it was my mother’s responsibility.

My mom says Bapuji wanted to live in the basement because the spare bedroom upstairs was too small and he needed more room. After I left for college he moved upstairs into my old bedroom, which was bigger than the small spare.

When Asha and I were young, we’d hardly ever go all the way into the basement. We’d only go partway down the stairs and hang on the railing like monkeys and spy. The basement smelled of Indian spices and Ben-Gay. Bapuji made my mom hand wash all his clothes, because he said the washing machine was too hard on Indian cloth and stitching. He didn’t like the smell of American detergents. He made her scrub his clothes in a plastic bucket with sandalwood soap and hang them to dry on clotheslines he strung across the room. He tacked posters of Krishna and Srinaji to the walls, and he played religious bhajans on a cheap black cassette recorder that distorted the sound, making it tinny and hollow, as though it were coming from far away. Asha and I called the basement Little India and my grandfather the Little Indian.

Those early years in a new country were difficult for him. He barely spoke English, and there were no other Indian families in our community. He couldn’t drive, and our housing development wasn’t within walking distance of anything. He wasn’t used to the cold. Even in the house, he would have to bundle up with layers of sweaters and blankets and sit in front of a space heater. Now and then my parents would try to take him to the mall or the park, but there was nothing he wanted to buy and he claimed that Americans looked at him funny in his dhoti and Nehru hat.

But if it was hard for him, he made it equally hard for everyone else, especially my mom. She took a couple of months’ leave from her job in order to help Bapuji settle in. He made demands, and as far as he was concerned she couldn’t do anything right. He wanted her to make special meals according to a menu he would dictate to her each morning. He insisted my parents add a bathtub to the basement bathroom, even though they couldn’t afford it and there was already a standing shower. He would call my father’s brothers and sisters and tell them his daughter-in-law was abusing him, that she was lazy and disrespectful and a bad housekeeper. He would say his son shouldn’t have married her. When my mother was cooking in the kitchen, he would sit at the table and say, “This isn’t how Motiba made it.”

Years later, my grandfather even claimed that my mother was trying to kill him. Bapuji was a hypochondriac, always complaining about his health, aches in his joints, a bad back, difficulty breathing. He had started complaining about chest pains. My mom was sure it was heartburn. She said she had seen him sneaking cookies and potato chips from the kitchen cupboard late at night. She said he should stop eating junk food and then see how he feels in a couple of weeks. But Bapuji called everyone, my aunts and uncles, even relatives in India, saying his daughter-in-law was refusing to let him see a doctor because she wanted him dead.

When my mother told Asha and me Bapuji claimed that she was trying to kill him through neglect, I said, “If only it were so easy.”

“You shouldn’t joke like that,” my mom said. But then I looked at Asha and Asha looked at me and we both started laughing, and my mother laughed, too.

My mother and father often argued about Bapuji, never in front of us, but we could hear them shouting in their bedroom. Sometimes they’d go for a drive, or sit in the car in the driveway. Once after a tense dinner during which my mother served Bapuji rice and dhal and Bapuji looked at the plate, dumped all the food in the garbage, and went to the basement, my mother took my father onto the back porch. Asha and I peeked through the window blinds. It was winter, and my parents hadn’t put on coats. We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were pointing and pacing and when they spoke their words materialized as clouds.

O
n the Saturday evening after Jeremy and I arrive, Asha visits us with her husband, Eric. They live a couple of hours away and are both in med school. Jeremy and I spend the morning in the kitchen helping my mom roll and fry poori.

After dinner we play Pictionary as couples: Dad and Mom on one team, Asha and Eric on another, and Jeremy and me on the third. Bapuji sits in a corner while we play.

Asha and Eric are winning, mostly because Asha is so good at drawing. When we were kids, she drew the most beautiful pictures, mostly horses. She loved horses. They were so good my mother framed a couple and hung them in the living room. My drawings were terrible. I threw them away without showing them to anyone.

It is Asha and Eric’s turn, and the word is “snatch.” Asha guesses it quickly, but when I look at Eric’s drawing I am horrified. He has drawn something vulgar. I hold up the picture and show it to my parents and say, “This from a future doctor.” My mother giggles and blushes as though she is twelve. I tell Eric and Asha that they should be disqualified from the round because the category is “action” and he drew a noun. Eric says he can draw whatever he wants, as long as the person guesses the right word.

“Uh-uh,” I say. “Look it up. It’s in the rules. Plus, your drawing was rude, so you should lose two turns.” Everyone is laughing and arguing. My grandfather comes over to see what’s going on.

“Do you want to play?” Jeremy asks him. I look at Jeremy like he shouldn’t have done that, and he shrugs.

Bapuji shakes his head no.

“Then you should go sit down,” my mother says. “Otherwise, it’s too crowded around the table.”

Bapuji goes back to his chair. Two rounds later, we are all racing to see which team guesses “diminish” first. It’s in the “difficult” category. My mom is frustrated because it
is
difficult, and it is her turn to draw for her team and my father is guessing all wrong. “Look!” she says, pointing emphatically at her paper. “Just look what I’ve drawn. Look what’s here. Can’t you see?” Bapuji comes over again, and he is leaning over my mother’s shoulder looking at her drawings. He starts to guess “little” and “smaller” and my mother says, “Please go sit down.” She continues drawing and he continues guessing “tiny” and “shrink,” hovering over her, leaning closer and closer until his chest is touching her back. My mother slams her pencil down on the table. “Bapuji,” she shouts. “Please, just quit it!”

We all stop. Bapuji looks around at us. Then he walks over to the swivel chair and sits down. After a couple of minutes, he collects his shawl and goes upstairs without saying goodnight.

No one wants to play Pictionary anymore. Asha suggests we watch one of the movies my father rented. It is a big-budget comedy, one that I would never rent, about a man and a woman who don’t like each other at first, but end up falling in love. The movie is formulaic, the dialogue horrible, but the actress has such a stellar smile and the actor is so goofy and good-looking, we are all charmed. We laugh loudly at the bad jokes. We guess the ending, but the predictability is comforting, and we are all smiling as we tidy the living room and prepare for bed.

The next morning Asha and Eric leave. My father challenges Jeremy to a tennis match. He is eager to show off the fancy country club with the indoor courts that he joined last year. He’s always wanted to join, ever since he came to this town.

My mom and I go to a café by the river for bagels and coffee.

“I’m sorry I made a scene in front of Jeremy,” she says.

“It’s no big deal,” I say. “It seems like things are getting better, though. For you, anyway. I’ve noticed Bapuji mostly spends time in his room now. Not like when Asha and I were kids and he followed you around the house, barking orders.”

My mother takes a sip from her coffee. “I don’t like who I am when he’s around. I don’t like how I behave. I know I am mean sometimes.”

“You’re not mean.”

“Do you know what it is like to have someone living in your own house who hates you?”

“He doesn’t hate you,” I say.

“It would be easier if your dad would take my side. When we’re alone he says yes he understands, yes Bapuji is difficult, yes he disrespects me, but he doesn’t say it to Bapuji. He doesn’t stand up to him.”

“How can he?” I say. “Bapuji is his father.”

“I am his wife.”

I finish my bagel and coffee and my mother pays at the cash register. When we get in the car in the parking lot, she says, “Forget it. I’m sorry for bringing it up. I want to have fun with you and Jeremy before you leave.” She puts her hand on my knee for a minute, then starts the car.

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