Down in the basement, Aurobindo sat hunched on a low stool. A cloud of sawdust floated above him. His left hand gripped a rectangle of wood. In his right hand was the carving knife. From time to time he snorted in frustration, and looked searchingly at the row of chisels that lay on the bench next to him. But mostly he felt relief. Here, there was no talk of green cards or layoffs. The fireworks that had begun to go off in the neighborhood in anticipation of July 4th were not audible down here. He heard nothing besides the soft, dry sound of wood chipping.
Afternoon sunlight streamed in through the windows, and found its way to the used washer and dryer, the baby’s crib they had bought from a thrift store four years years ago when they first arrived in this country, and the frayed suitcases full of Indian clothes they no longer had a chance to wear. Aurobindo sat in a pool of warm midsummer sunshine with his back to the door, dressed in a faded brown T-shirt with the words Pearl Jam printed in orange. Once, the T-shirt had probably been bright and rebellious. To anyone who might come down the stairs, Aurobindo would appear a slight, young man, maybe even a teenager, sitting hunched over a piece of wood.
But Aurobindo’s face was not that of a young man. It was puffy and sagged a bit at the cheeks. His temples were white, and the rest of his head was jet black. He would look dramatic if his face were not soft. He was only thirty-five, but he had an older man’s face, one that drooped from disappointments.
But these two hours in the afternoon, poised between the completion of household chores and when his son came home from day care, were hours when Aurobindo felt at peace. The sweet, ripe smell of wood flooded the basement. The chisels, arranged in sequence, were like golf clubs. The straight chisel, the bent chisel, the skew chisel, the gouge, the veiner, the V-tool. He flipped them over, examined, pondered, rejected, selected. The basement was his country club.
On this afternoon he twisted the slab of soft wood in his hand and chipped away. Normally he used pine because it was less expensive, but today he was carving Italian walnut for a special gift for his niece in India. On the floor in front of him lay an open book with patterns. But after a point he didn’t need to look at it. He worked slowly at first, then his fingers picked up the pace, quicker and quicker until they flew. And the dust flew as well, the tiny particles swimming in the sunlight. The cloud rose over him, obscuring his head like a halo. Sweat ran down his brow. He kept the air-conditioning off until the boy came home even though it was almost July and every day was warmer than the one before. But turning the air on for just himself felt like an extravagance. Hadn’t they managed just fine without air conditioners when he was growing up in his parents’ home in Calcutta? He remembered the ceiling fans of his childhood and how their steady murmur on hot afternoons soothed his siestas. But that reminded him of the four-blade fans he later sold, in the days when he met his wife, before the layoffs. His mouth suddenly felt so dry he could barely swallow. They had thought the crisis belonged to the past and another country. The wood turned in his hand; the gouge carved out the crevices he wanted. The wood yielded to him, slipping and bending its form among his fingers. In the basement, he was the master.
He was making a peacock for his sister’s little girl. The girl’s father had drowned just three months ago. He hadn’t yet decided if he would paint it. It might ruin the look of the carving. But he did not need to make that decision just yet. The woodwork was complicated enough. Each feather in the tail had to be carved separately. There were no guidelines for peacocks in the books he had. But that only made him more determined. The used design books purchased online included flowers, zebras, owls, even Chinese dragons. But not a single peacock. As he sat there, his face stretched in concentration, Aurobindo felt like he was carving a tiny space for his memories of home right there in the basement. Indian houses did not have basements. But they had families. Aurobindo felt guilty for not having been with his sister in Calcutta after the tragedy. But money was tight and one had to be careful, especially when the man of the house wasn’t working but instead spending afternoons in the basement, whittling pieces of wood.
The clock in the basement struck four-thirty. Aurobindo sighed and put down his tools. It was time to fetch Mukut from day care. He went upstairs to the small kitchen, where the dishes he had washed lay gleaming by the sink which he had scrubbed to a sparkle. The house smelled of lemon and bleach. Sunday’s copy of The Tribune lay folded neatly on the dining table. In the master bedroom, the pile of fresh, ironed laundry Aurobindo had finished that morning lay on the bed. He had dusted the furniture, picked up the toys and put away the books. The house was spotless.
On his way out he pulled the tilapia fillets from the freezer and immersed them in a bowl of cold water in the sink. He should have done it sooner. Now they might not thaw by the time Runu came home starving. With the impending layoffs at the retail chain where she worked as a senior IT manager, the last thing his wife needed to worry about was housework. Now he would have to stick the fish in the microwave and how that ruined the flavor. His Bengali relatives back home, accustomed to eating only fresh fish from the river, would be aghast. Aurobindo muttered angrily to himself as he left the house. Already, outside in the late afternoon sunshine, the fragrance of sawdust was beginning to fade. As he drove away along the quiet, tree-lined street, he once again noticed how their blue house was the only one that did not have an American flag fluttering in front of it.
After he returned with Mukut, he washed and chopped vegetables while the little boy played noisily in the living room. The quiet afternoon seemed to be a long time ago. Aurobindo glanced at the clock. His wife was late which was unusual. She liked to rush back home after work to make the most of the remaining hours with her five-year-old son. He tried calling her but she did not answer the phone. Aurobindo tried not to worry. If anyone could look after herself surely it was Runu.
He walked over to where his son sat on the carpet, surrounded by cars and fire trucks.
“Here, look, Mukut,” he said, opening a large book of birds. He pointed to a page and asked, “What’s that?”
“Peacock,” said Mukut instantly.
It was easy to identify, with its plumes fanned out like that. In India, peacocks announced the monsoon in that fashion. It was monsoon in India right now, Aurobindo suddenly realized. The rains would have cooled the air.
“Do you know that it’s the national bird of India?” he said.
But Mukut had lost interest in the picture and was engrossed in Thomas the Engine.
Aurobindo debated calling Runu to see if she was on her way. But something stopped him. A memory of another afternoon, back in Calcutta, when he had wandered along the streets, drunk on cheap whiskey, looking for his home, unable to recognize the very streets and buildings amongst which he had grown up.
The refrigerator had a leak. Aurobindo muttered to himself as he mopped up the water. They needed a new one. But for the time being, they slipped an old towel under it to collect the puddle of soapy water. It looked odd, an ugly reminder of the imperfections of their American life. Luckily they rarely had visitors. The only people who really cared about them were so far away they would never come. They would never see in person the old refrigerator or, for that matter, the wooden nightstand he had made, or the roses he’d planted that bloomed in the backyard every spring.
The relatives in India thought he was a doctor, the only one in the family. They were all so proud of their boy, Bappa. His mother repeated their conversations about him when he called every Sunday sharp at eight in the morning, Indian Standard Time. When one of them fell ill, everyone said to his mother, “Ask Bappa, he will know what to do.” Every Sunday, she recited a litany of ailments on the phone. Alu kaka’s arthritis, Chiro jethu’s diarrhea, the neighbor’s son’s cough. Aurobindo swiftly dispensed his wisdom. His mother displayed photographs of him around their modest apartment. Images of Bappa’s house and yard, the two cars standing side by side in the drive, the happy, smiling family of three, and, of course, the doctor in his long white lab coat. He even had a stethoscope around his neck. There was never any doubt about his expertise or his prosperity.
In reality it was only twice a week that Aurobindo slipped on his coat and drove to the next neighborhood to assist an Indian ophthalmologist. Runu had paid for his one-year medical assistant training certificate program. Most of what he did was basic stuff, putting drops in patients’ eyes, checking their blood pressure, filling out forms, that sort of thing. His American co-workers took immense pride in every little function they performed, never pausing to consider how the doctors and patients regarded them. But the Indian in Aurobindo was always slightly embarrassed by himself for being on the periphery and not even legally at that.
Unable to work for pay on his spouse visa, officially Aurobindo was only a volunteer at the clinic. But the ophthalmologist, a kind man who wanted to help fellow Indians, gave him a small stipend in cash each month. Runu and Aurobindo hoped that some day when their Green Cards came through, his role would become permanent. Some day the pay would increase. Some day another opening, perhaps in a hospital, would come along. In the meantime, whenever someone wanted to take a day off, or celebrate a holiday, Aurobindo eagerly offered to fill in. The important thing was to show up. You never knew when a door could open. In the interim, twice a week, Aurobindo went out in the mornings in his long white coat, and stood by his used Toyota Camry, fiddling with the keys. The sun usually shone softly through the clouds. Families were just waking up. A newspaper boy cycled by, hurling rolled up papers into yards. He waved at Aurobindo as he passed. A middle-aged neighbor jogged along the street in his shorts. Aurobindo lingered in the drive, hoping a few others would go by and see him in his coat. He smoothed the starched fabric and looked around him. When it was clear that no one else was coming, he reluctantly got into his car and drove away.
Sometimes Aurobindo wondered what his relatives would say if they knew the truth. The Sunday morning phone calls split his life into two. For an hour he became Bappa again. The Bengali pet name that everyone back in Calcutta still used reminded him of the most innocent, truest parts of him. And yet, it was as Bappa that he had to sustain his lie.
He wired his parents five hundred dollars every month. They thought it extravagant, but he said he could afford it. He said they should hire a second maid, and a driver who could help them with errands a couple of times a week. He knew, from his mother’s outpouring of gossip, that his parents, the Dasguptas of Beleghata, had risen in the neighborhood’s esteem. That first year after he completed his medical assistant’s certification, his parents’ neighborhood Durga Puja committee jokingly suggested they pay them an extra share for the annual festivities. And of course they obliged. He wanted to send them less, but Runu insisted. If you don’t take care of your parents, who will, she said.
Aurobindo exhaled with relief when he heard his wife’s car roll into the driveway. The front door slammed shut as he bent to inspect the refrigerator again.
“Can you not leave that alone?” Runu yelled as soon as she saw him. “I told you I will buy one in the winter.”
He glanced up at her. She shoved her shoes at the back of the closet and slammed that door too. Mukut ran up to her and she gave him a perfunctory hug. When she didn’t gather him in her arms with her usual exuberance, Mukut hesitated. Aurobindo saw the look of uncertainty on his five-year-old face and his heart broke a little. He followed her down the hall into the bedroom and shut the door.
“Nothing,” she said and turned her back to him. “I just need to lie down for a bit. It’s been a long day. Can you handle dinner?”
He wanted to tell her that he always handled dinner, that he had been handling dinner ever since they had arrived in this cold, windy city one winter four years ago, armed with a one-year-old baby and four suitcases.
Back in the kitchen, he rinsed and peeled potatoes, unwrapped saran from bowls of frozen leftovers, poured a glass of milk for Mukut. When everything was ready on the table, he called them in even though, unlike other days, he wasn’t hungry.
All he could think of was that warm September day five years ago in Calcutta. When he had finally found his way home that night, and saw the looks on his parents’ faces as he broke the news, he realized that a part of his life had ended. That the modest apartment, cluttered with old newspapers and knitting yarn and little statues of gods and goddesses, no longer felt like it belonged to him.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Mukut chattered on about his day, occasionally looking up for his mother’s approval. He sensed that she was not really interested that evening, and it only made him try harder.
“Mommy, look I ate my beans,” he said, dangling one last stringy green piece on his fork.
Runu mumbled “good” without looking up.
“Mommy, look,” he said again, pushing the fork perilously close to her eyes.
“Fine,” she yelled, pushing his fork away. “You’re supposed to eat your vegetables, what do you want me to do about it?”
Mukut’s face crumpled up like a piece of used tissue.
Aurobindo put a hand on his shoulder.
“That’s good Bubu,” he said, handing out his rarely used Bengali pet name like a carefully rationed treat for a cat. “You did well. I’m proud of you,” he said, smiling. “But mommy is not feeling well today. Can we both help her and not disturb her?” he added.
Mukut looked at him gravely and nodded.
That night, after Mukut fell asleep, Runu asked for a rum and coke instead of the usual cup of tea.
Handing her the glass Aurobindo asked if they really had to go to the birthday party that weekend.
“Of course,” said Runu. “Don’t start that again.”
“Maybe if you’re not feeling that great,” he said softly, hoping against hope they could avoid this one. “You could do with some rest.”
“It will be good to go and see everyone,” Runu said, her jaw set. “Or they might worry and wonder what’s wrong.”
“What is wrong?” he asked sharply. Immediately he regretted it when he saw how tired his wife looked.
“You know very well what’s wrong. They are letting people go.“
She shrugged. The company had closed nearly a hundred stores in over forty states in the past year after a steep decline in holiday sales. The corporate employees were in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Any Friday, a boss could walk into a cubicle and ask someone to pack up and not come back. No one was indispensable in this country. The American Dream was as ephemeral as the clouds in these times. The economy was booming in India now, not here. Everything was upside down.
“A year or two until the Green Card,” he said. “The attorney promised. We just have to hold on for a little while. And you have seen how time flies.”
He began flipping channels on the remote.
She grabbed the remote from his hand. “You are always so bloody calm. You never have to do anything.” she said.
He glanced at Mukut’s door. The house was too small, just one level, two bedrooms, a half kitchen, and the basement. On the rare occasions when other Indian families had walked in through their door, their eyes had registered this fact instantly. Compared to their gated community homes, this one was tiny. No formal dining room, no large flat screen TV, no leather sofa, no stairway leading to a second floor.
They had named their son Mukut, which meant crown in Bengali, in the hope that here in America, he would grow up like a prince, never wanting for anything. That was why they had selected this excellent school district two years ago, even though it was outside their budget. They could only afford one of the smallest houses on the street.
But everyone is white, Runu had said in dismay. Will we fit in? It was true that the neighbors kept mostly to themselves. This wasn’t Calcutta where they were always in your business and people dropped in spontaneously for a cup of tea and gossip. Here, everyone was polite and distant. But Aurobindo had reminded Runu that here they could build a life together, and most importantly, a future for their son.
He looked at his wife now. Her eyes were large beneath her glasses. She leaned forward on the used plaid sofa they had bought from Craigslist. It sank beneath her heavy frame. The doctor had recommended exercise but she never had the time or energy.
The TV was tuned to the Food Channel and one of those contests where amateur chefs ran around the studio kitchen trying to put together a meal while the clock raced. The ingredients for the appetizer round were pistachio, paprika, strawberry jam and duck liver. Aurobindo thought it was rubbish.
“I have spent all day cooking. Can we watch something else?”
“All day?” Runu said sweetly, looking at him. “Really? It took you all day to come up with that?” she waved towards the kitchen.
Her entire family was given to drama. The mother had feigned a fainting spell on their wedding day. One of his aunts had overheard some of the gossip on her side of the family during the wedding meal. They don’t even have western toilets. In this day and age, you have to squat on the ground.
Aurobindo felt a twinge of pity for his wife. If she had not met him, she might have stayed behind at home, close to her elderly parents, married to a successful man with a proper job. She would not have to wake up while it was still dark outside, and commute for over an hour to work, and be on call through the weekends in case the company needed her to fix a hitch in its vast network. A small error could cause nationwide chaos.
“Do you really think you might be laid off?” he said gently. “I can’t imagine it. What would they do without you?”
Runu muted the TV and faced him.
“It is not just the job,” she said. “The attorney called.”
Aurobindo got up to pour himself a drink although he hated the taste of alcohol. “What did he say?” he asked, trying to keep his voice casual.
“The Green Card might be in jeopardy.”
Aurobindo carefully poured the vodka into his glass until it was nearly full. He swirled it slowly, reluctant to take a sip. The clear liquid shimmered like a puddle of water on a rainy day in Calcutta.
“How can that be?” he asked gently.
“Apparently I signed some papers I shouldn’t have.”
“What did you sign?” Now he turned to look at her, perplexed. Runu did not make errors like that.
“I have no idea,” Runu said. “Apparently I claimed on some form to be a US citizen which is a felony.”
“Why? When?” Aurobindo stared at her dumbly, unable to comprehend.
She stared back at him, looking helpless and confused.
“Is there anything we can do?” Aurobindo asked. Their immigration attorney seemed like a nice man. He had asked them many questions about India when they first met. He had seemed genuinely interested. “What did David say we should do?” In India, this problem would have been resolved with a bribe to some official or other. Aurobindo wondered how much money they could spare.
“He asked me if I was Hindu. Then he suggested I pray to one of my many gods.” Runu’s eyes hardened.
Aurobindo was almost relieved. He was used to seeing her strong, stronger than him, ready to prop him up when he faltered. He knew what she was thinking. Not everyone from India was Hindu or even religious. She was a computer engineer and the daughter of a statistician. They did not pray when they had trouble, they found solutions.
It must be so hard for her, Aurobindo thought, to always try to be the man in the family. He wanted to reach over and hold his wife’s hand but worried that it might upset her.
From the instant they had met on the fourth floor of an office building in Calcutta she had been the one in charge. Back then, he had been a young sales officer in the largest manufacturer of fans in India. After the economy opened up, middle class Indians began to buy air conditioning units, one room at a time. The demand for elaborate four-blade ceiling fans began to decrease. But Aurobindo’s frustration over his declining sales figures was compensated by the loud laughter of his new colleague, Runu Mitra. Runu the engineer was hired over him as a manager, of course. But instead of acting supercilious, she played down her credentials and tried to put him at ease.
They emailed each other one-liners on their personal accounts at work, knowing it was foolhardy. After work, they would sit in Flurys bakery, nibbling at their chicken patties, and talked about their families. Runu had grown up in the strict, austere household of a statistics professor, with plenty of books, but no TV. Her mother would not approve of Aurobindo, his boisterous family, their dingy flat, or his modest income.
“She will think you are a loafer,” Runu had told him. “Not respectable like us.”
But after the wedding, despite some tense moments, both their families had co-existed in relative harmony, and the new couple was sure they would live out the rest of their lives together in their hometown, surrounded by old friends. Then consumers stopped buying the fans, layoffs became inevitable, and of course the junior employees were the first ones to get kicked out. The managers were fine, so if Runu had kept on working, they would have had her income but some mysterious longing for a conventional domestic life had urged her to quit soon after the wedding. It was yet another decision that infuriated her parents. Don’t worry your feminist selves, Aurobindo wanted to say to them now. Look how it all turned out.
Aurobindo remembered distinctly the day he first took her home to meet his parents and sisters in their pokey apartment in a crowded bylane of north Calcutta. How the sounds of their raised voices and laughter spilled out onto the streets. She was plied with endless cups of sweet milky tea and shrimp cutlets and gossip about all the neighbors. Later, when he was waiting with her at the bus stop, watching the city finally wind down after another chaotic day, the rain started to fall softly. She turned to him and said that she had never felt such warmth before in her life. “I detest silence but I never realized it until today,” she said. It touched Aurobindo. After the bus had taken her away, he wandered around the streets for a while, fantasizing about living with Runu and his parents in their old age, with occasional visits from the sisters and their families. There would be children and more rainy nights and shrimp cutlets and always, always, there would be much noise.
Now, in a distant suburb in the American Midwest, he stared at the muted TV as the winner was declared. The chef had concocted a delicate dessert out of caramel and pecan and mascarpone cheese. Aurobindo wanted to turn the sound up to share the joy of the man who had just won a life-transforming sum of money, but he dared not disturb the silence.
That weekend they went to their Bengali friend’s birthday party. There, as always, the women whispered approvingly to Runu about how supportive her husband was and what an involved father. If only their husbands would cook like Aurobindo or at least help with the chores on the weekends. They laughed and flirted with him when he ventured into the large open kitchen to say hello. Aurobindo tried to laugh too but could only manage a half smile. He would have walked right out or never gone to one of these gatherings again, except that when he glanced at Runu sitting at the kitchen table, she looked so happy. Gone was the usual look of exhaustion from her face. She threw back her head and laughed loudly at every joke, however silly, and offered opinions on every topic. Every now and then, someone new would arrive at the party and Runu would be introduced with all her professional credentials. Professor’s daughter, computer engineer, indispensable senior programmer at the country’s largest department store chain. Aurobindo watched her face light up as the other women in the kitchen looked at her with slight awe. Before she could remember his presence and feel this temporary sense of importance begin to fade, he snuck out of the kitchen.
Back in the living room, the husbands drank Scotch and talked in loud confident voices. The host, Bhaskar, asked him how work was going. The other men paused their heated discussion about the fall in the stock market to listen to his response. Suddenly the room was quiet, and Aurobindo realized he was the center of attention and squirmed on the sofa. He felt like a child whom the grown ups had collectively decided to be kind to.
“It’s going well,” he said.
“How many times a week do you have to go in to the clinic now?”
“Three or four days. Depends.” He shrugged.
The men looked at one another. One of them cleared his throat.
“And what exactly do you do nowadays at the clinic?”
“Whatever they want me to do really. I assist the doctors during procedures and consult with patients.”
Aurobindo forced himself to look up and make eye contact with Bhaskar and the other pot-bellied, balding Bengali men. They smiled encouragingly at him before resuming their conversation about the US economy that Aurobindo knew he did not contribute to. Once forgotten, he glanced longingly at the kitchen where the wives who had followed their husbands to America on spouse visas just like him, or quit their jobs to care for their young children, talked without any sense of shortcoming. Aurobindo did not envy the men with their important jobs and fat paychecks and their carefree laughter. He envied the women for never having to apologize for their situations. He also hated them for lying to him. No, they did not want their husbands to be like him. He stood up and cracked open a cold beer, making as much noise as he could, and leaned against the wall, taking deliberate sips from the can, like a cowboy would in the movies. Strong, silent, masculine.
That night, after Runu went to bed, Aurobindo sat outside in the backyard and did what he hadn’t done since he was in college in Calcutta. He fished out a pack of Camel Lights and lit one. The smoke swirled away into the night. Crickets chirped. It was a still night. Aurobindo fanned himself with the fan made of peacock feathers that a childhood friend had given him when he was leaving India. The soft silky feathers caressed his skin. Even in the dark, he could see the eyes, bright and gleaming. They reminded him of the single peacock feather the god Krishna wore on his head. He made a mental note to finish carving and painting his niece’s gift that week. He wanted to send it before her birthday the following month. It was the least he could do.
The lights in his neighbors’ yards were out. Everyone slept early on weeknights in this middle class neighborhood. The men would wake up at dawn and drive to work. Most of the women would stay home to look after their kids and do groceries and cook dinner for their husbands. In just over a week, they would set up chairs all over the high school field so they could watch the 4th of July fireworks in the distance. Behind him, a lamp glowed inside the little house. Aurobindo felt a pang of affection for his home. He loved coming back to it from the clinic and seeing the blue walls against the white hydrangeas that grew out front. He loved how the snow caught in the sloping roof in the winter months. He loved how the scent of his cooking filled up the kitchen and living room every evening.
Now the thought occurred to him with a sudden force that they would lose it all if they did not get Green Cards. Their work visas would expire in another two years, and even before then, without permanent residency, they would be at the mercy of Runu’s current employer. If she got laid off, they would have exactly sixty days to pack up all their belongings and leave the country. The thought of heading back to India with no jobs and no savings, to face his old parents and all their bewildered relatives, sent a shudder down Aurobindo’s back. He felt a wave of nausea. No, no, this was wrong. They had to fight this. They had made lives here. They could not go back. It was impossible.
Aurobindo stood up suddenly, letting the cigarette butt slip from his fingers and disappear into the darkness. It was past midnight but one of the amazing things about America was that some stores were always open. He went inside to grab his car keys and then sneaked out. In the drive, he rolled his car backwards onto the street so as to not wake Runu up. There he got behind the wheel and took off. He would be back before dawn, before she woke up and started another gruelling day. As he drove down the street, all the houses looked eerily similar in the dark. He couldn’t tell the colors apart. There were only small differences if you looked closely. The silhouette of a wreath on a front door, a bird feeder in someone’s yard, an extra basketball hoop in the drive. The sort of detail you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention.
In the dead of night, he felt a little bit like a criminal, sneaking off to Walmart this way. But, he had to admit, it was also thrilling to make a decision on his own, to do something without his wife’s knowledge and approval. There were very few people at the store at that time of night. A young man stared at a row of plungers in the likely aftermath of a toilet crisis. Another wandered down the grocery aisle, possibly looking for a post-midnight snack. Aurobindo felt his chest puff up with pride as he walked to the Americana section, set up especially for the coming holiday. It caught him by surprise, this welling up of emotion at the thought of belonging here, not only in this country but also in this store, where Runu refused to shop because it represented to her America’s worst capitalist practices. The thought of how his wife would react to his decision suddenly prompted Aurobindo to stop and almost turn back. He closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, there they were.
The decorations. The center aisle had been stocked with July 4th merchandise for weeks. How had he not noticed the variety of items with stars and stripes on them -- party plates and napkins, travel mugs, umbrellas, table cloths, shower curtains, baby bibs. There were even artificial flower bouquets in red, white and blue. Aurobindo stared at the patriotic display of objects and felt a lump in his throat.
Aurobindo was not emotional because he felt important or special. On the contrary, it was because he felt completely average. An average American. When he reached the check-out counter with his purchases, the black girl, whether from lack of sleep or from a lifelong resentment of the world, was surly and robotic. But he wanted to say something, to establish a connection between her and himself, two underprivileged beings forced to be at Walmart at that hour.
“You must be tired,” he said, with a half smile. His words did not come out clipped and almost British like Runu’s. English was his second language and his accent sounded Bengali to those who knew. In Calcutta, Runu’s family would have smiled to each other when they heard it. But when he took the box out of the shopping cart and placed it on the counter, he forgot, momentarily, that his accent would betray him, so that when the girl looked up at him curiously, he said, quickly, “It’s for the 4th of July.” He was one of them. Really.
“Have a good one,” she said with a sigh.
Aurobindo wondered if he had erred somehow in speaking to her. She seemed uninterested in his purchase or his holiday plans. The slender, black cashier girl at Walmart seemed just as indifferent to him as did Runu’s friends back home. Still, he held the box prominently and strode with confidence to his car in the near-deserted parking lot. It was two in the morning and he felt like a child with a new toy.
The next morning, after dropping Mukut off at day care, Aurobindo did his morning chores and then, instead of making his way down to the darkened basement as usual, he went outside. The sun was relentless, reminding him of home. But he couldn’t afford to think of home, not today. What was home anyway? Was it not, in the end, where your child would grow up, where you paid taxes and the mortgage and the car loan and where you – or your wife – had health insurance?
He stood in the scorching sunlight in his small front yard and looked at his house as if it were the first time. The walls were cornflower blue. The white hydrangeas leaned against the wall at one end, trying to peer into the house. The roof sloped overhead in a darker, navy, blue. It looked pretty and did not really need any adornments. For the first time since he had made his decision, Aurobindo felt a twinge of doubt. It looked so unspoilt. Anyone might live there. It was unmarked by a nation’s history or values. Aurobindo looked at it for a long time, trying to memorize its walls, the scratches on the wood, the miniscule peel of paint in one corner.
The sun beat down on his back, forming beads of sweat. There was not much time to lose. He opened his toolbox. Every movement contained the same care and attention he displayed down in the basement with his woodwork. First he positioned the bracket against the wall and marked the screw holes with a pencil. Then he took out the drill and began to predrill the holes. After every hole, he stepped back to survey the wall. Then he inserted a pinch of caulking in each hole. When that was complete, he began to attach the bracket with the screws provided in the box. He let out a grunt of frustration as the T-shirt clung to his back. The screws were too small. Inside his toolbox were dozens of other screws. He rummaged to find the right ones, then began again.
Aurobindo pretended the bracket in his hand was the peacock he was making for his niece. He drilled carefully, imagining he was sanding each eye and each strand. The eyes would later be painted in different shades of blue, like the walls of the house. His fingers moved nimbly, now carving the grass-like blades of each feather into the wood. Around him the sawdust swirled, more heavily today than on other days, and the yard filled up with the sound of drilling and the scent of wood. In his hands, the block of Alpine walnut became supple and compliant once more, bending to his will, and assuming the image he had in mind, that of India’s national bird with its plumes spread out into a fan of blue, green, and gold.
When Runu came home that evening, Aurobindo was inside but he had left the front door open. He chopped garlic in the kitchen, willing the smell to kill whatever nervousness he might feel. He knew she would not be happy about what he had done. She would regard it as a sign of weakness, of giving in.
“Bappa,” she called to him. For a moment she sounded just like his mother.
“Mommy, mommy, mommy, did you see?” The five-year-old rushed out past him. He had been in a state of delighted frenzy ever since he got home an hour ago.
When he came outside, she was standing in the drive, looking up. Mukut held her hand, pointing with his other, with a huge grin on his face. Runu’s own expression was harder to decipher. Aurobindo had expected a wail of fury. But she stood quietly, staring up. In the slanting rays of the early evening sun, Aurobindo came and stood beside them and looked up as well to see his own handiwork.
There it was, hoisted from a flagpole stuck above their doorway. Three feet by five feet, made of polyester to brave the elements. It leaned from the doorway as if to greet visitors but also to form a protective shield over the house.
“We have a flag, we have a flag, we have a flag,” Mukut chanted.
Runu glanced at him, her lips parted in confusion.
“The house looks so different,” she said. She suddenly looked small and vulnerable as if she were lost and unable to find her way back home.
“Since 4th of July is coming up, I thought it might be nice. And see how happy it makes Mukut.” He paused. “Besides, with things the way they are, it is best that we assimilate. Fit in.”
Runu stared at the flag as if to reflect on the wisdom of his words.
“You think this,” she gestured towards the flag -- a bit disrespectfully, Aurobindo thought -- “you think this ornamental fabric here will make a difference?” Her tone was a little scornful.
He shrugged. “One never knows. It cannot hurt.”
Runu shook her head. He couldn’t tell if she were really disappointed. She hadn’t reacted as strongly as he’d anticipated. Perhaps her worries were beginning to suppress her spirit. Perhaps she was beginning to understand that you couldn’t just live somewhere and take their jobs and buy their properties and not acknowledge some allegiance to the place.
“Now we are just like everyone else,” she said quietly.
Mukut stood facing the neighbor’s house.
“Daddy,” he said, suddenly. “I have to tell Jeremy. Do you think he will come over more often now that we too have a flag?”
Aurobindo tried to smile at his son’s innocence, but his face felt frozen. It doesn’t matter son, he wanted to say, whether he comes over more or less often. It doesn’t matter, Runu, he wanted to say, it’s just a piece of cloth. Flags were made of fabric, passports were made of paper. What difference did they make? Every month they would wire money to his parents in Calcutta. Every Sunday they would call both sets of parents to ask how they were doing and hear a list of aches and pains. On Mukut’s birthday every year, they would make kheer with rice and milk and cardamom and force him to eat a spoonful for luck. And every night, when they went to bed, Aurobindo would pray silently in the dark, not to Christ or some Western power but to Bhagaban, the vague embodiment of so many of their gods, to please ensure that the Green Card came through so that even if Runu lost her job they could stay in the country and look for other jobs. No Runu, he wanted to say. We are not, and never will be, like everyone else.
“I’m making chicken in coconut curry,” he said instead. “It will be ready soon.”
“Yummy,” shouted Mukut, easily pleased on this day.
Runu took a last look at the doorway and went inside, still looking slightly puzzled as if the world around had shifted and she was seeing everything at an odd angle. Aurobindo glanced back at the street where American families were settling down to dinner in every house. The man from two doors down walked by with his dog. He didn’t glance up to look at them but walked on, lost in his own thoughts. Two middle-aged women in shorts paused their chatter for a second to glance at him and offer a perfunctory wave. A little girl went by on her small yellow and red bike. The eighty-year-old woman from across the street emerged in her wheelchair to get her mail and then rolled back inside. No one appeared to notice the new addition to their house.
Aurobindo felt like he was deflating like a balloon. He put a hand on the wall to steady himself. The cool touch of the blue wood against his fingers reminded him of the unfinished peacock in the basement. It would be small but perfect. He imagined his niece’s face as she opened the parcel full of love and blessings from the prosperous doctor uncle in America, and saw the delicately carved plumage and the dozen eyes staring up at her.
But the vision vanished suddenly like a dewdrop in the midday sun. Peacocks, monsoons, shrimp cutlets, ceiling fans. It all seemed like a long time ago. Aurobindo looked upwards, shading his eyes with his hand. He made a mental note to send his parents a photograph. They would show it to everyone. Neighbors and relatives would crowd around and point and gasp in admiration. He saw himself as they would see him, dressed in his white lab coat, standing erect and still next to the hydrangeas in the yard, a hand placed firmly on the blue wall next to him, beneath an American flag that trembled ever so slightly in the breeze as it watched over his home.
Oindrila Mukherjee teaches creative writing at Grand Valley State University. She has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston and was creative writing fellow in fiction at Emory University. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Greensboro Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Oxford Anthology of Bengali Literature, and elsewhere. She contributes to the Indian magazine, Scroll, and is Reviews Editor at Aster(ix) journal. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of stories.