— Continued from Part I
* * *
Tom used Google Translate to talk to her most evenings when he got back home. I can tell you he got the idea from me, because I used it heavily to communicate with our house cleaner Bilma, who is from Mexico. Mrs. Nadella greeted Tom as he walked into the kitchen from the garage every evening. She talked to him in Telugu, which he politely acknowledged to but never replied to. She can only mean well-meaning inquiries about his day, wouldn’t she?
Between the two of us, Aunty and I never spoke about Sirisha. But I indicated to her every afternoon over chai that she could stay with us as long as she wanted to. “It is not my place to stay at a daughter’s house. If anyone died, it should have been me, uprooted, broke and old. He was 34, and she was 51! Surely, it is not love she felt for this fellow. I am her mother, I cannot say this to you Bhanu, but he was after her body and money.” She would inevitably end the conversation with her thoughts on her daughter.
Money? What money? I wanted to tell her that her daughter was practically an outcast in our food-coma inducing, over the top ostentatious Desi party circuit. She was scraping by to make ends meet compensating for lawyers’ fees, surgeries to repair her torn ACLs with her excessive biking, lost work wages in 2013 due to court hearings, school fees for the daughters – by working 7 days a week at the boyfriend’s Norcross Dental practice as a Hygienist.
I felt sad for Mrs. Nadella whose life was in an awful dilemma at this point. Sirisha would have constant arguments with her to learn English get better at it, so she could act as a translator of Telugu for refugees and abuse victims. She knew a victims rights advocate who said he can set her up with some basic pay which would qualify her for medicare. She was looking at options to get a job for her mother at Walmart for health insurance. She was also going to apply for a green card.
One day, Aunty picked up the phone to call her son in India. Sirisha had seperated all ties with him and brought their mother over here after he disputed their father’s will and did not give her mother’s share of property to their mother. She talked to her son and then her daughter-in-law back in her hometown of Tanuku and chatted with them as if nothing had ever soured between them. After the phone calls she would tell me, “Gopala’s father fell down in the garage and fractured his hip. He is my neighbor, he lives in Nashville [sounding of the e at the end.] It cost them 5 lakhs, you know”. I never did the math to convert Rupees to Dollars, I just listened with faked curiosity and a chai in one hand. Sometimes we sat in the same room, and she would write her Rama Koti, the practice of writing the name of the Indian God Rama over and over again in a notebook.
When she was around me, I wasn’t able to stop the replays of our conversations from that night. The last night of Sirisha’s life.
Indians have the most parties when they had their parents visiting or when their parents live with them. Atleast, that is what my observation has been. It is some form of purported entertainment I assume. It was our monthly LRC meet, and so I was eager to host for aunty’s sake. She had come by barely for half an hour that night. Siva never showed up.
Siva and Sirisha had stopped hosting long ago, but dropped in once in a while making sure not to overlap each other’s presence. Since both of them didn’t host, I felt it was my responsibility to entertain aunty. And whenever I had a party, I would ask aunty to walk over to our house irrespective of whether Sirisha or Siva were coming or not. That night, as many other nights, she sat at one corner of the breakfast table where she had a good view of us playing round after round of LRC in the middle of the living room.
The girls, Erin, Becky, Caroline, Sangeeta and Payal, my friends from the neighborhood never complained. She craved company like all of us and they were empathetic about it.
We had talked about everything, monkey meat and Ebola, stray cats around the neighborhood, the 400 feet emergency response tower that was being proposed right in the middle of the city, the bill boards that were coming up along the side of the highway. How the music nights at 37 main were creating sleepless nights to all the homes that were right behind the strip mall that lined our neighborhood.
We talked about Roy who was moving out of the neighborhood after 33 years. Pickup trucks then and minivans now, we joked, our terms of endearments to talk about the differences between Caucasians and Asians.
“He is one of the 25 million Evangelical conservatives that get brainwashed by (Rush) Limbaugh regularly. What else would he do, move to Gainsville? Hall county, I have heard is facing its first impact of the white flight from all our neighborhoods.” Someone joked.
We all had laughed, and Jeff added, “All my Korean neighbors are disappearing, shutting down their dry cleaning stores and moving out of the neighborhood. I didn’t think I would say this, but boy oh boy, the Indians are coming!” And he winked at Tom.
Tom never saw much fun in such words, he felt racism was a touchy subject as a white man. He is from Cumming, a town in north east of Atlanta, which until the late 1980’s had a controversial public ban on black people. In 1987, when The Oprah Show had been on the air for just six months, Oprah taped a show in Forsyth County, Georgia — which had gained a reputation for being a hotbed of racism. At the time, not a single black person had lived there for 75 years.
“A lot of Hall county is down at the sticks, that part of the state where you hear birthday announcements on the radio, ‘Happy birthday Selma, saw you at the grocery store this morning. Hope you are having a lovely day!'” Erin had joked to diffuse the situation quickly. And Sirisha tapped on Erin’s shoulder and laughed her most gregarious laughter, “That’s funny!” The last words I would ever hear from her.
“Isn’t that a little fitting, her blouse?” Aunty had asked me after the party while helping me with the dishes.
“Oh, you are talking about Erin?” I asked.
“No, Sirisha.” She said a little disappointed picking up the silver ware from the dinner table.
Erin was usually the one who wore the most provocative outfits not keeping her age in mind. And Tom took great pleasure hearing about aunty’s observations from me after such parties and whose lack of modesty had offended her the most.
When I dropped Aunty at the airport last Saturday, I stopped at Dunkin Donuts for a half and half of Sweet & Un-Sweet Iced Tea, Sirisha’s favorite drink. I thought of the past two weeks of my life, where I ate the best Indian food after my mother had died and had the best company that I could ask for. In a lifetime, most of us spend years that we can pick out where we cannot account for a single accomplishment. And then there will be two weeks like this that can actually form the crux of your being. At the airport, I felt she had taken a piece of me with her and left. Being around her had made me more conscious of my ancestry, my life, my future, my son, my cultural significance in this vast ocean of changing demographics around the world.
When I came home from the airport, Tom was reading his newspaper at the breakfast table. I didn’t stop in the kitchen and walked into the guest room that aunty had been using during her stay.
I arranged the pillows and attempted to sit on the bed. I felt a sheet of paper, and looked for what it might be. Tightly wrapped inside was a new Guntur saree. Inside its folds, I found a sheet of Rama Koti paper wrapped around eight 24 karat gold bangles. Written on it were most likely the only two words aunty knew how to write in English.
I sat there in my home which had never felt as warm as when she was staying with us. I sat there still but allowing my eyes to get watery.