Vidya Shenoi Madiraju

Amar was busy preparing the restaurant for the next day. He worked silently, mechanically. It was the same routine every evening. No variation. Or rather, not much. He gathered the last of the dirty plates from the stained tablecloth and carried them through to the empty kitchen. He listened to the voices outside the back door, where the chef, Sawant, and his two assistants were having a smoke. He went to the scullery at the rear of the building and carefully slid the plates into the enormous steel sink. Then, leaning wearily against it for a moment, he stared down at the debris piled up in the mesh strainer on the drain hole. These Americans wasted so much food, he thought. There was enough food left over on these plates to feed his entire family back home.

He felt a sudden longing for the dusty, congested lanes of his hometown, which in a few days would come vibrantly alive during Diwali. He yearned for the sweet cool water from the large clay pot that stood on his mother’s shady entrance veranda and its faint earthy taste; the peacocks that wandered into the vegetable patch behind the house and called out harshly when they were chased away; the excitement of buying fireworks—phuljhadies, anars, chakras—and those dangerously unpredictable rockets; wearing new clothes and visiting neighbors and relatives laden with freshly prepared sweets. A rush of salty saliva filled his mouth.

He still hadn’t the money to buy a fare home, even for just a visit. It was going to take him at least another few years of saving. After sending home part of his salary and taking care of his living expenses, he was left with almost nothing. He frowned. His calling card bills had skyrocketed ever since his father’s death last year. He had called home often, sometimes every day. He was trying to cut back now, but it was difficult. He didn’t want to go back empty-handed. Not without having made his fortune. Not without her.

He pretended she was still sitting at Table 7 against the wall, under the large framed Jamini Roy print, her dark kohl-rimmed eyes looking up at him smilingly. She was Indian, but spoke with an American accent. Her name was Kavya. This he knew from listening in on conversations at her table. It took him a while to realize it was her name. The meaning of it, he knew, was poetry, though it sounded distorted and ugly on her foreigner-friends’ lips. He’d never seen her with another Indian. He wondered if she was from his community, if she understood Hindi or Haryanvi. This was important, because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to communicate with his family once they were married. He wondered if his mother would like her. He felt sure she would.

He hadn’t told anyone about her yet. At the restaurant, she and her friends always sat at Table 7. His table. Surely that meant something. He spoke to her through the food he brought to the table; he made love to her with his attentiveness, bringing her extras of something she liked or an item on the menu she hadn’t ordered but that was particularly good.

He took one last look around the pristine dining room and made his way out to the back door, picking up his jacket from his locker, past the two kitchen workers who were now cleaning the floors. Sawant was heading home too, but in his car.

“You’re running late today, bhai! Shall I drop you home?” he called out.

Amar shook his head and smiled. “No, I’m fine. You go ahead.”

The apartment he shared with three other co-workers was just two blocks away and belonged to the restaurant’s owner. The five-minute walk up the street was one of the highlights of his day. The cool night breeze neutralized some of the strong restaurant smells that clung stubbornly to his nostrils, and it calmed his restless mind. Sometimes he took three or four turns around the block before climbing the stairs to the small two-bedroom. As always, the TV was blaring from behind the closed front door. He knew his roommates were watching a pirated Hindi movie, probably just recently released in India. On Saturday nights (the restaurant was closed on Sundays) they would all watch two, sometimes three, back-to-back. After Kavya, he’d have to change some of his bachelor habits, he thought.

His roommates all looked up as he came in. “Hi yaar! Where were you? The film’s just started.” Pradeep was a distant relative. He had helped him get the job in the restaurant when he’d first arrived in the States. “There’s a letter for you from home, on the dining table.”

The table was used for everything but dining. The letter was on the very top of a massive pile of junk—old newspapers, grocery inserts, outdated copies of Indian film magazines. Pradeep was right, it was postmarked Gurgaon. He took it into the bedroom, locking the door behind him, and sat on his bed to open the flimsy envelope. As he tore away one side of it, photographs spilled out onto his lap. He stopped to look at them. Each was a full-length posed shot of a different girl, dressed mostly in the traditional attires of the sari or the salvar kameez. He barely glanced at them before opening the single folded sheet of blue-white paper that accompanied the photographs. The short letter, written in careful Hindi, was from his mother.

She asked after his health and said she hoped he wasn’t working too hard. She missed him, she said. It was time he came home and got married. Settled down. They needed him more than they needed the money he sent. She was getting old. Enclosed, she wrote, were the pictures of the girls she had narrowed her final choices down to. She was certain that any one of them would make a good bride for him. She would wait for his decision. Call soon.

Amar slowly picked up the photographs again. He had known these were coming. These summonses. The only way he’d been able to get away was by promising to be back within five years. It was nearly that now. He wished he had never given his word to his mother. He had known even then that he would have to break it. He turned the photographs over. His mother had written the name of each girl on the back: Suneeta, Aparna, Richa, Santosh, Manisha, Kirti.

Kavya. He imagined he was holding her photograph. She looked ethereal in a cream-and-gold-embroidered ghagra-choli. Her shiny raven black hair fell straight onto her slender shoulders. Her lovely dark eyes smiled that special smile for him. Her slim hands, weighed down by those unusual rings she always seemed to wear, were clasped loosely in front of her.

Suddenly he felt more tired than ever. Music from a throbbing song sequence in the movie playing in the living room pulsed in his brain. Abruptly, he gathered the contents of the envelope and walked over to the closet, stuffing them into the brimming shoebox that held countless more envelopes, letters and photographs. It was past midnight, but he didn’t have to go to work the next day. He would watch the remainder of the movie with the others.


Vidya Shenoi Madiraju, born and raised in India, presently lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the LA Times. Besides short fiction, she also enjoys writing children’s stories for her discerning five year old.


© 2007 Swink, Inc.