11 min read.Updated: 03 Jul 2014, 08:15 PM ISTMira Jacob
A debut novel that recounts a heart-warming family saga set amid a Syrian Christian community in New Mexico in the US
A chosen madness
It was a fever, a hot rage of words. For three nights in a row Thomas Eapen sat on the porch, one side of a furious conversation rolling over his tongue to spill out the window screen. The neighbors heard him; his wife, Kamala, could not sleep. Prince Philip, their aging and arthritic Labrador, had taken to pacing the hallway and whining. Kamala told her daughter all of this over the phone one early June evening, her voice as smooth as a newscaster’s.
“I am thinking he’s on his way out," Kamala concluded, and Amina pictured her father at the edge of the desert, waiting for a bus.
“Who knows. My judgment is impairing. I haven’t slept since Saturday."
“Not kidding," sniffed Kamala, whose ability to sleep through anything that her insomniac husband could cook up (raccoon hunts, ditch fires, tractor mishaps) had long been a point of pride. Amina dropped her keys onto the kitchen counter.
“You are just now home from work?" Kamala asked.
“Yes." Amina placed her mail and camera next to the keys. The answering machine blinked anxiously at her. She turned her back to it.
“Three nights? Seriously?"
“Busy. Everyone in Seattle is getting married in the next month."
Amina ignored her. “What do you mean talking? Talking about what?"
“What kind of stories?"
“What kind of anything? Fits and nuts and now this man with his idiot yak-yak all the time!" Kamala said. “I told him his tongue would fall out and rot like a vegetable, and still he wouldn’t shut up."
“You always say that."
“No I don’t."
“But this is different, koche," Kamala sighed. Night noises snaked through the phone line, pressing New Mexico right up to Amina’s ear—the hushed applause of the wind rolling through the cottonwoods, the hollow scritch of crickets echoing against the mesas, the click of the gate latch in the garden. Amina shut her eyes and felt herself in the darkening yard with the tickle of the wild grass at the back of her knees.
“You out in the garden?" she asked her mother.
“Mmm-hmm. You in the rain?"
“I’m in the kitchen." Amina checked the linoleum under her boots. Its yellow edges spoke of a former life, one in which the Crown Hill Apartments had been envisioned as good starters for middle-income families, replete with real marble fireplaces and sunny-day kitchen floors. Now they were a thin piss color, pocked with air bubbles that snapped when stepped on.
“How’s the weather?" Kamala asked.
“It’s raining a little."
“Nobody knows why you stay there."
“You get used to it."
“ That’s not a good reason to stay somewhere. No wonder that dirty man shot himself—all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses."
“Kurt Cobain was a junkie, Ma."
“Because he needed more sun!"
Amina sighed. Had she known that leaving her copy of Rolling Stone in the bathroom on her last visit would make Kamala a self-proclaimed expert on all things Seattle (“The grunges! The Starbucks! The start-ups!"), she might have been more careful, but then, it served a good-enough purpose, this disdain her mother held for Amina’s choice of residence. For one, it cut down on her visits. (“I never get warm here!" Kamala made a point of saying the few times she did come, rubbing her hands together and looking around suspiciously. Once, she told the very nice barista at Amina’s local coffee shop that he smelled funny from “too much damp.")
“Did I tell you the mint is coming like one forest?" her mother asked now, her voice brightening. “Bigger than last year!"
“That’s great." Amina opened her refrigerator. A collection of takeout boxes slumped together like old men in bad weather. She shut it.
“I made chutney and had the Ramakrishnas and the Kurians over last night, and they loved it! Bala wanted the recipe, of course."
“What did you leave out?"
“Nothing. Cayenne and cilantro."
Cooking was a talent of her mother’s that Amina often thought of as evolutionary, a way for Kamala to survive herself with friendships intact. Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.
“So, what did they think about Dad?"
“What about Dad?"
“The talking or whatever."
“I didn’t tell them! Don’t be stupid!"
“It’s a secret?" Amina marveled. “You’re not telling the family?"
A secret between the Ramakrishnas, the Kurians, and the Eapens only happened once every five years or so, and usually came out within months anyway, the keepers assuring the kept-from that it was nothing personal, just family business, the kept-from uttering comforting words about being family in this country anyway even though no blood relation existed among them.
“No secret!" Kamala said a bit too emphatically. She tucked her voice a few notches lower. “No big deals. Let’s not bother anyone about it, okay?"
“Well, did anyone else think he was acting funny?"
“He isn’t acting funny."
“I thought you said—"
“No, not like that. He’s going to work and all; he’s fine with everyone else. All the nurses in the OR still follow him around like gaggling geese. It’s just late at night."
It would have to be late. Thomas did his best to stay at the hospital until sundown, and his insomnia often kept him up between midnight and 6 a.m. Those were the hours he would sit on the porch and tinker some unfathomable object—a cricket gun, a pet petter—into life.
“He’s probably just talking to the dog, Ma. He does that all the time."
“No he’s not."
“How do you know?"
“I just told you! The dog is stuck inside whining! And besides, I heard him."
“He was talking to Ammachy."
Amina stopped moving. Her grandmother had been dead for almost twenty years. “You mean praying to her?"
The sharp rip of weeds being yanked from the dirt came across the phone line with a small grunt. “No, I don’t. I mean talking. Telling stories."
Kamala huffed. Rip, rip, grunt.
“Just stupid stories! How you won that photography award in the tenth grade! How I begged the man at the Hickory Farms to order some ginger pickle in 1982 and then that nuts goes and orders candied ginger!"
“Right in front of you? You were standing right there?"
“I listened from the laundry room."
To live in the Eapens’ house was to acknowledge the sharpness of invisible borders, the separations that had divided it like two countries since 1983. It had been years since Amina had seen her mother wade into the yellow light of her father’s porch, and as far as she knew, Thomas had never once crossed the gate into Kamala’s garden.
“And you’re sure it was Ammachy?"
Kamala hesitated for a moment. “He could see her."
Amina straightened. “What are you talking about?"
“He told her to go sit somewhere else."
“Yes. And then I think he maybe saw . . ." Kamala’s voice trailed off into silence, the world of grief that lived invisibly between all the Eapens revealing itself like a face waiting behind the curtains.
“Who?" Amina’s voice pinched in her throat. “Who else did he see?"
“I don’t know." Her mother sounded far away.
“Mom," Amina said, worried now, “is he depressed?"
“Don’t be dumb!" Kamala huffed. A flurry of activity released over the phone line in what sounded like something heavy being dragged. “No one is depressed. I’m just telling you is all, like that. I’m sure you’re right, it’s fine. It’s nothing."
“But if he thinks he’s seeing—"
“Okay! Talk to you later."
“Well, is Dad around? Can I talk to him?"
“He’s at the hospital. Big case. Some young mother hit her head on the bottom of a pool two days ago and hasn’t woken up." The Eapens had never spared their daughter the details of her father’s work, so even at five years of age Amina heard things like Her medulla has a ski pole lodged into it or His wife shot him in the face, but he should live.
“Are you sure he should be working right now?" Amina had gone into surgery with her father once, in second grade. She remembered the sharp, bitter smell of the operating room, the glint of her father’s eyes over his face mask, the way the floor rushed up to greet her when his scalpel ran a red seam down the back of his first patient’s head. She had spent the rest of the day eating candy at the nurses’ station.
“He’s fine," Kamala said. “It’s not like that. You’re not listening."
“I am listening! You just told me he’s delusional, and I’m asking—"
“I DID NOT SAY HE IS DELUSIONAL. I SAID HE WAS TALKING TO HIS MOTHER."
“Who is dead," Amina said gently.
“And that’s not delusional?"
“There are choices, Amina! Choices we make as human beings on this planet Earth. If someone decides to let the devil in, then of course they will see demons everywhere they look. This is not delusional. This is weakness."
“You can’t really think that." It was a wish more than a statement of fact, as Amina was well aware that Kamala, with her Jesus, religious radio shows, and ability to misquote the Bible at random, could and did believe anything she wanted to.
“I am just reporting the facts," her mother said.
“Right. Okay. Listen, I’ve got to get going."
“You just came home! Where are you going?"
“Now? With who?"
“Dimple," her mother repeated, like a curse. According to Kamala, Dimple Kurian had been afflicted with low morality since the day her parents gave her that ridiculous name for giggly Gujarati starlets. According to Dimple, Kamala had a Jesus complex where her heart should be. “Is she still opening relationships?"
“So she can be with one boy then another, all in one week."
“Chi! Dirty thing. No wonder they had to send her to reform school! You run around with everyone and then cry ‘Oh no, he thinks I’m a whore, he thinks I’m a whore,’ when he thinks you’re a whore."
“When have you seen Dimple cry about anything?"
“I’ve seen it in the movies. Henry Meets Sally."
“When Harry Met Sally...?"
“Yes! This stupid girl is with too many men and crying about ‘Nobody loves me,’ and then she goes with that poor boy and expects him to love her!"
“That’s what you think When Harry Met Sally... is about?"
“And then what is he supposed to do? Commit with her?"
“He does commit to her, Ma. That’s how the movie ends."
“Not afterward! Afterward, he leaves her." Her mother’s conviction that movies continue in some private offscreen world had always been as baffling as it was irrefutable. Whole plots had found themselves victims to Kamala’s reimagining, happy endings derailed, tragedies righted. “And anyway, someone should tell Dimple to call home. How can her parents know she is okay if she doesn’t call?"
“Because I see her every day and I would tell them if she wasn’t."
“Inconsiderate so-and-so. Bala gets so worried about her, you know."
“Tell Bala Auntie she’s fine. And I’ll call Dad tomorrow."
There was a round silence on the other end of the line. Had she hung up?
“It’s not something for on the phone."
Amina blinked at her cabinets in disbelief. “So, what, I’ve got to wait until I fly home to talk to him?"
“Oh," Kamala said, voice rich with feigned surprise. “Sure, if you think it’s best."
“When can you come?"
“You want . . . I should . . . wait, really?" Amina looked in a panic at the kitchen wall, where a bright list of to-dos for the Beale wedding hung like an accusation. “It’s June."
“It’s some big thing? So don’t come."
“It’s just a bad time. It’s my busiest time."
“Yes, I understand. It’s just your father."
“Oh, stop. I mean, if you really need me to come out, then of course I’ll come, but . . ." Amina pressed her fingers to her eyelids. Leaving work in the high season? Insane.
Her mother took a deep breath. “Yes. That would very nice, if you could manage it."
Amina pulled the receiver away from her ear, staring at it. She had never heard a sentence sound less like it could have come from Kamala’s mouth, but there it was, her mother’s attempt at accommodation as discordant as the hidden message in a record played backward. Something is wrong. Something is really wrong.
“I’ll get a ticket out next week," Amina found herself saying. She paused hopefully, waiting for a Never mind, a Don’t bother. Instead she heard a long, strained grunt and the satisfying chorus of roots popping up from the ground. The muffled thwack of palms against pants beat through the phone line, and Amina saw her mother as she would be in that moment—standing in the garden, tiny puffs of cottonwood dander floating around her dark hair like dusk fairies.
“Okay, then," Kamala said. “Come home."
Excerpted from The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing ( ₹ 599), with permission from Bloomsbury India.