The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 6, No. 3


by Raj Parameswaran


When the phone rang the night before Thanksgiving, Savitri Veeraghavan was doing her best to forget that her husband, Ravi, lay dead on the living room floor. A pot of tomatoes and lentils and water was boiling, a simple dinner, and Savitri had put a stainless steel wok next to it on the stove, turned the heat to medium, and poured in a yellow pool of vegetable oil.
          On the phone’s first ring, Savitri threw into the oil a handful of jeera, and the oil responded with its usual eager sizzle. On the second ring, she sprinkled in two teaspoons of mustard seeds, and the oil coughed and spat and spluttered so that even Savitri, prepared for just such an outburst, took a surprised step backward to avoid the burning spatter. Then the spice found its home in the oil and the heat, settling into a slow sizzle, and the smell of a meal well begun wafted out of the wok, over the kitchen, and into the living room, where Savitri’s husband’s cold nose failed to notice it.
          She picked up the phone.
          “Hello?” she asked.
          “What?” the voice said bluntly.
          Savitri recognized Poornima’s voice instantly. “Hi-yee,” Savitri said in the weary singsong she reserved for her close friends. “What? Tell me.”
          “What time you coming tomorrow?” asked Poornima.
          What’s tomorrow? Savitri thought quickly. Poornima’s luncheon, that’s right. “I can come anytime. You tell me,” Savitri said.
          “Come early,” said Poornima. “You can give me some help. Ravi and Radha can come later if they like.”
          Savitri shook her head. “Radha won’t be here. She has so much work to do at college, all her activities.”
          Poornima hmmed in surprise.
          “Will your Arun be there?” Savitri asked.
          “Oh, yes.”
          “Really,” said Savitri. “Just for the weekend? All the way from Harvard?”
          “It’s Thanksgiving,” Poornima explained.
          After Savitri hung up the phone, she thought, Thanksgiving! The way Poornima says it. As if it were our own holiday. Actually, it’s the one day our people don’t have any plans, and that’s why she’s having a party. Savitri threw into the wok six handfuls of chopped okra and stirred them around with a large metal spatula. Okra was Radha’s favorite, and Savitri tried to imagine Radha was coming home for the weekend, something reminding her to think only good things, only good things. Savitri pulled the back of her hand over her forehead, prickly with sweat, then rinsed her hands under the kitchen faucet.
          As the cool water ran through her fingers, Savitri felt fear creep into her lungs like smoke. She was forgetting something. Something beyond the kitchen door, something worse to think of even than Radha’s not coming home, and Savitri’s arms trembled as she lifted the wok in both towel-wrapped hands and poured the simmering okra into the pot of boiling tomatoes and lentils. She covered the pot, turned off the heat, washed her hands carefully once more and dried them, and walked into the living room.
It was still there. It lay on the floor, bent at the waist so it was cocked into a V. He looked so uncomfortable (but that wasn’t the right word) twisted there on his side. He had fallen just short of the brown plaid sofa where his bottom and hers had worn two threadbare, distanced indentations. He wore a plain gray blazer and green wool-blend trousers grown shiny from wear. Ravi’s left arm was pinned under his torso, his right arm was flung backward as though he were winding up to bowl a cricket match, his fingers curled fiercely around an absent ball.
          Savitri took two steps closer. She became aware of a faintly acidic smell. Ravi’s black eyes were open, focused at some indeterminate point. She noticed, trailing from the corner of the frozen grimace of his mouth, a trickle of mealy yellow liquid that was drying into a crust on his cheek. She smelled it, too, and she covered her mouth with her hand to fight down her revulsion. This was Ravi’s final meal, she thought. The pizza he must have had at lunch, two slices with olives, onions, and red chili flakes, eaten alone and in a hurry.
          He was dead, surely he was. Savitri looked up and away. Certainly it was terrible for him to have died so young, she thought, before his daughter had even finished college or started a family. But was it her fault? She couldn’t take all of the blame. After all, he was such a simple-minded man, frustratingly so, and stubborn. But hadn’t this also been his virtue? Hadn’t his family always been the first and only thing in his heart? Savitri pictured him sitting at his desk at seven in the evening, reconciling numbers, earning money he would never spend on himself. And now for it all to end like this, on the floor. Savitri looked down again and saw that she was anointing her husband’s body with a drizzle of tears.
Savitri’s husband, Ravi, died after picking her up from work. She had been among only a few co-workers who volunteered to work late with Phillip, her boss, before the long weekend. Savitri had no special plans for the holiday, and besides, she enjoyed her job. “Phillip is perfectly happy to drop me at home afterward,” she had told her husband.
          “I don’t like you taking rides with strangers,” Ravi had replied.
          When she reminded him that Phillip wasn’t a stranger, Ravi revised himself. “There’s no need to ask other people for rides,” he said. He had said this before, but Savitri knew that it was not “other people” Ravi objected to. It was people like Phillip, with his big-toothed smile, his American confidence. The way he took people easily into his confidence, speaking to them with jocular familiarity, presuming some common language that Ravi was not privy to. In Phillip’s presence, her husband felt very small. She saw it in the way Ravi folded his hands over his stomach and smiled mawkishly, nodding along to everything Phillip said.
          But Savitri didn’t push the issue. She treated the subject delicately. She agreed to let Ravi wait outside her office in his white Tercel as she sat inside at her workstation in her blue face mask and rubber gloves, applying a delicate tweezer to the circuit boards she tested and assembled, blue to white, white to yellow, yellow to red. It was not as easy as it sounded, no, not nearly, and Savitri had a steady hand. What’s more, she could hold her own among the Phillips of the world.
          “Go home,” Phillip had told her, standing over her in his white lab coat. “Your husband is outside. Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. Go home.”
          “My husband will wait,” said Savitri, looking up, smiling behind her mask. She couldn’t ask for a nicer boss, and so handsome. Almost every day he complimented Savitri on her work. She wanted to take him home and cook for him. If only he were Indian instead of white, she would have introduced him to her Radha.
          When she finally came out, Ravi had been difficult. “Been waiting an hour,” he said. “My neck is hurting, my stomach is hurting.”
          “Who asked you to wait, then?” Savitri said, her annoyance overlapping and indistinguishable from her concern. “And with the heater off just to save gas. No wonder you’re getting sick.” She reached over to touch his forehead. “You should have gone home and taken rest. I told you I would get a ride.”
          Turning the car toward the freeway entrance ramp, Ravi said, “Don’t worry about me. Look at that traffic. Would have been fine if you came out when you said you would.”
          They stopped at Kroger to pick up milk for the next morning’s coffee.
          “I’ll come later by myself and get it,” Savitri told her husband.
          “No need,” he said. “We’re here now. It takes two minutes.”
          Ravi idled the car by the curb as Savitri went inside, took a minute to survey the produce, and picked up the milk. The store was crowded with holiday shoppers, and when Savitri finally got to the checkout counter, the boy bagging groceries produced a whole turkey from underneath the counter and slid it into her bag, next to the milk.
          “What’s this?” Savitri asked, aghast. She and her husband were Brahmins, lifelong, neurotic vegetarians.
          “It’s free,” said the boy. “A gift for Kroger cardholders.”
          Savitri couldn’t stomach the idea of the cold, slick turkey touching her milk and was about to ask the boy to take it back. But then she thought better of it. She could give it away, maybe as a Christmas gift for some American in the office. “Please put it in a separate bag,” she asked the boy, and she carried the two bags gingerly out of the store.
“What did you buy?” Ravi asked her.
          “Just milk,” she said.
          “Took you that long?”
          “Yes, took me that long,” Savitri said. “I can’t jump ahead in the line, can I? If you are not feeling right, then why did you bother to pick me up? If you are in a rush, you should have let Phillip drop me.”
          This only made Ravi angry again. “Why should you go about taking rides from people when I am here? As long as I am here, what is the need?”
          And then a thought skittered across Savitri’s mind like a stone across water: What if you weren’t here? Would it be so bad? No more arguments on the ride home. No more of your fussy demands, unrealistic expectations, strange insecurities. I could live without you to monitor everything, I could live as I alone wanted.
          These musings, Savitri now insisted to herself, were born of her momentary annoyance, but they were also, on some level, serious questions. Ravi was forty-nine. He didn’t eat right, didn’t exercise, was susceptible to long hours of simmering ill temper. What if he kicked the bucket?
          Asthu, asthu. Make it so.
Fifteen minutes later, as they pulled into their subdivision, he had said her name in a strange way, as if just her name were an urgent question he expected her to answer, or a disbelieving accusation: “Savitri?” She didn’t turn to him but continued to stare stubbornly out of the passenger window, waiting for him to continue. He hadn’t, so she simply ignored him.
          They pulled into their driveway. The electric garage door opened with grinding, excruciating slowness. Then, halfway inside the garage, halfway out, the car jerked to a stop. Savitri turned and saw her husband’s face stuck in an exaggerated grimace. She called his name but he didn’t answer, emitting instead a strained, spittly whistle. Savitri told her husband to stop it, to finish parking the car and to stop his stupid games. When still he didn’t respond, she herself put the gear into park. Ravi’s face was pale. With great effort, he lifted his hands off of the steering wheel and stepped unsteadily out of the driver’s side door, leaning on Savitri so heavily that he left a bruise on her shoulder. Savitri helped him into the living room, but then his wheezing and gasping stopped with an audible finality, and she could hold him no longer, and onto the floor he slumped. His body jerked in short spasms, his face turned purple, and then he was still.
Long ago, when Savitri was a child, she had, within hearing distance of her parents, told her little brother that she wished God would smash his face to a pulp. That very day, crossing the street on his way home from school, her brother had been knocked flat by a bicycle rickshaw, losing consciousness for several seconds and earning a minor laceration on his forehead. Savitri’s mother had been furious. She dragged a tearful Savitri by the ear and made her bow down a hundred and one times before the family altar. “Stupid,” her mother had screamed at her then. “Don’t you see? The asura ganas uttered Asthu to your wish.”
          The asura ganas, Savitri learned, are small demons in the air all around us. Bastard cousins of the gods, they mutter at odd intervals, Asthu, asthu, powerful words in their demon language. Whatever a person is thinking or saying at a given moment becomes reality if at the same moment the demons happen to utter those magical words.
          Savitri had been impressed with the lesson. For years, she corrected herself whenever an evil thought rose to her consciousness. She’d had many occasions to remind her own daughter of the dangerous consequences whenever Radha spoke ill, gossiped or conjectured, used an infelicitous euphemism, or in anger wished some bad fate on her parents.
          Savitri had evaded any serious run-in with the demons for years, but as she stood over her husband’s contorted form, she understood that her evil nature had finally caught up with her. She saw it clearly for a brief, terrible moment: her husband was dead, and she had killed him. All was panic and pressure, and then she found herself in the kitchen, cooking.
          Now, hours later, with the outline of events deepening its imprint on her mind, a feeling of overwhelming fear and guilt returned. Savitri thought through her tears, If only Radha were here. Together we could figure out what to do. Radha doesn’t have any sense, but she has one thing, she’s brave.
Savitri wiped her eyes on the back of her hands and inhaled noisily to clear her nose. She picked up the living room phone and dialed her daughter’s dorm room.
          “Hello,” a girl’s voice said.
          “Radha, it’s Mummy,” Savitri said. “Radha, you have to come—”
          “Mrs. Vee . . .” the girl’s voice said. “Mrs. Veeraghavan. This is Lisa.”
          “Oh.” Savitri hesitated. I must compose myself, she thought. I mustn’t let Radha’s roommate know what it is that has happened here, what it is I have done.
          “Lisa?” Savitri said in a voice barely controlled. “How are you?”
          “I’m fine,” said Lisa, tersely.
          “Going home for the holiday?” Savitri was trying now so determinedly to act cheerful that she smiled at the receiver.
          “Yeah,” Lisa said.
          “I’d like to meet you sometime, Lisa,” Savitri offered. “I don’t know why Radha never brings her friends home. I could cook you some of our India specialities.”
          Lisa was silent.
          “Lisa, can I please talk to Radha?”
          “Radha’s at the library,” Lisa replied.
          “Studying? But tomorrow is holiday.”
          “Well, that’s where she is,” Lisa said.
          Savitri paused. “I want to know where she is,” she said, her voice now serious. “If she is there, give it to her the phone. If she is gone to somebody’s house for the weekend, give me the number there, please.”
          “With all due respect,” Lisa started inauspiciously, “you call her, like, five times a day. It’s not normal. You have no right to control her.”
          “Lisa,” said Savitri, maintaining her composure, “I am her mother, isn’t it? And this situation is different. Tell me where she has gone.”
          “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
          “Is she gone to some boyfriend’s house?” asked Savitri, her voice becoming gradually unsteady. “Has she left already? Tell me what is the number there. Just give it to me the number, Lisa.”
          “I don’t know.”
          “Darnit!” Savitri yelled. “Lisa, this is an emergency. A big-time thing, you know? Concerning her daddy. Will you tell her please to call me? Just ask her to call me.” Savitri fought to keep from crying.
          Lisa again was silent.
          “Lisa, you will please do that, won’t you? Do that please. Promise me.”
          “What happened?” Lisa asked.
          Savitri calmed herself. “Nothing, nothing happened. Don’t worry. Just tell her I called.” Savitri remembered that she should behave normally, and she added, with desperate sweetness, “Hey, sorry I yelled, Lisa. Don’t forget to come over some weekend, okay? I’ll cook you my sambar.”
          When Savitri hung up the phone, she instinctively braced herself for what her husband might have been about to tell her: “Why you always worry over Radha? She’s a good girl.” Radha was Ravi’s pet, and he refused to have even the slightest suspicion of her. He believed, honestly, that when she graduated from college she would marry someone he would approve of, a Brahmin boy from a good family. Ravi couldn’t see that Radha was already very far from this way of thinking. But Savitri could hear the impatience in the girl’s voice whenever she had to speak even a few words to her parents.
          Radha hadn’t always been like that, distant and rude. As a child, Radha amazed her mother. She was outspoken, sometimes out of control, but fearless. She had been a smart girl, too, and good to her parents. When Savitri applied for her first job, Radha had helped her to write the cover letter. Savitri felt that she and Radha shared a special bond, because they understood things that Ravi never would.
          In her mother, Radha had someone to laugh at the jokes she made at her poor father’s expense, about his embarrassing habit of going outside in his lungi to check the mail; about how he didn’t like to eat out anywhere but Pizza Hut and Indian restaurants; how he never thought of visiting any place in the States where there were not distant relatives or friends of friends from back home they could stay with. And Savitri hungrily sought her daughter’s opinions on many things, because the girl had knowledge that her mother lacked: what American clothes to wear to work, which books were good and which politicians worthless, how Savitri should respond to her co-workers’ confusing jokes and expressions.
          They never should have allowed Radha to go away to college, but the girl had been so insistent about it, and so persuasive. Maybe Savitri had grown too reliant on her, had confided in her too desperately, had pried too frequently, but Radha behaved as if her parents’ very presence suffocated her. After she went to college, she became a different person. Strange boys began answering her phone; she took any excuse to avoid visiting home. Savitri had married Ravi in a family arrangement at the age of nineteen, and now at the same age her daughter was having experiences Savitri couldn’t even imagine. Studying anything she liked, going to parties, dating handsome boys. What must it be like? Ravi too easily believed the girl was simply busy with her studies. But Savitri saw how quickly Radha was growing away from them. She was growing away, and she was leaving Savitri behind.
          The doorbell suddenly sounded its bright, electric bling-blong, and Savitri’s mind filled immediately with panicked apparitions. She had been found out, she knew it. She hurried to the living room window and peeked carefully past the curtain. It was her neighbor, only her neighbor, Doug Naples.
          She went to the front door and unlocked it, opening it just a crack, and stared at Doug, her heart pounding.
          “Did you know your car is outside?” Doug asked. “It’s been sitting there for an hour, the engine running. I just thought I’d come tell you, case you forgot about it. It’s sticking out the garage.”
          “Oh, yes,” said Savitri. “Forgot all about it. Thank you, Doug.” She was pleased to hear that her voice still sounded steady. She felt the panic and unease of moments ago dissipating again into a strange and calculating self-confidence. Doug clearly had no idea what had happened. Here he was at the door, talking with her as on any other day. She opened the door wider. She asked Doug, “How are you these days?”
          “Oh, I’m all right,” said Doug. “I just thought I’d come by because, well, you never know. Types of people been moving in around here, somebody might just see that car sitting there, the keys inside, and decide—dear God.” He paused. “What’s up with Mister Vee?”
          “What do you mean, Doug?” Savitri asked, stubbornly holding her smile.
          Doug pointed to the floor behind Savitri. She turned around and saw her husband’s legs protruding from behind the love seat, skewed at awkward angles. Z

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