There is not enough water
for the earth and
not enough salt in this water, she thinks. She
is crossing the edge of the backwater where salt
pans stretch. Padded oblongs of silver,
with the white
dusty powder evaporating at the rims. A
wide expanse of it, with reeds at the edge, and herons, here and there,
arches of white, flying across the water.
The road is narrow but
they are pulling over
by the side, at the edge of the bridge. Her
mother hands her an orange. Eat, she says. Eat
Prithika motions No with
her hand and looks
out the window of the Qualis at the lustrous salt water rectangles. They are halfway to Pondicherry from Mahabalipuram,
one beach town to another. Her father is
driving the car, undertaking this trip because Bruce, who rarely reads
but has been reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi lately, on the
DC to London, and later London
to Madras, has mentioned in desultory,
tones that he has never been to Pondicherry.
Bruce is her American husband, whom everyone wants to please. On previous visits to India, she has taken him to Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho,
Kodaikanal. Sometimes she thinks she has left India
single primarily to return as
tourist. Lately at brochured destinations, bussing to temples and
marble of tombs, she has felt a blurry transforming inside her, sensed
newly foreign stream of her own thinking, a visitor’s. She too has
wander, sunglasses and camera in hand, through caves, temples, and
with the selfsame hunger for ruin and its residual: whatever can be
photographed, what can be bought, packed, cased and taken home. Souvenirs fill her purse; ballpoint pens and
chewing gum for the little children who run behind her craving pens and
gum loll in its folds. Also: cheap oxidized silver jewelry she picks up
the street, bright export-reject rayon scarves, rolls of film. She even
favorite place to return to, on each trip to India,
a place to carry in the
heart like a secret memory, a place she no longer needs photographs of.
although things exist between her and her husband they do not share,
destination is also his. Every visit they spend a few days at a beach
Mahabalipuram, which is close to Madras. Mahabalipuram,
the temple town with the
ancient stone temple eroding on the water, and its sixth-century
carvings in granite. With its long rolling surfline of beaches, and its
powdering of shell on sand. They have visited again this time, lain on
sand, let the green waters cover and burn their bodies. They went with
parents but found time to be alone. And they cut short their visit so
see with his own eyes whatever remnants of French colonialism there are
in Pondi, check for instance if the bakeries still sell French pastry,
residents speak French or Tamil. Pondi is 150 km from Mahabs, through
fields and coconut groves, backwaters and fishing villages.
their travel often is), road quiet at midday, it is a pleasant drive,
in the Qualis.
Now an hour has passed,
and the steady
rolling onward of the road has lulled the four of them into a spacious,
narcotic silence. Prithika is only
peripherally aware she is traveling in a vehicle with three other
of whom is her husband. She has mostly
entered a private state of dissolution where everything around her
the silver, glittering water of noon, nameless. The water surrounds
her, like a
lover. She is dreaming of lovers these days (virtual men, real men):
men she barely
knows, men whose eyes she meets, briefly, on the beach, in the streets
stores. Earlier, in the
airports—Heathrow this time, last year Paris.
In the plane. At Dulles.
And earlier than that, men at work, in the
corridors, men with blue eyes and gray eyes, sleepy eyes, half-open
who work, asleep. Men who work, half-awake. Men who work, alive only to
the women at work. She had never
believed such men existed, before, but now she saw they were
eyes met hers—she saw oceans crash in them, white birds fly above water. They smiled and the ocean pulled at her
mouth, dashed spray in her eyes so the opening of her face just then,
her body to them was involuntary. Unplanned, she thought, I have become
response, reflexes mechanical. The notion both stirred and rocked her. How was it possible for her to become like
this, involuntary? Where a smile could be slid from a man’s eyes into
mouth, a man she did not know, would never know? In Heathrow sometimes,
to the Toilets or to buy a soda, she had closed her eyes when men
her. They looked with abandon, with interest, wide-open, smiling. They were men a woman would look at, she
could see. Sometimes, she looked back. They were men from all over the
world—Somalian, Tunisian, French, Australian, Italian, Brazilian,
Lebanese men. She was impartial. And they were all the same, she saw, serene
in their looking. Deep in their seeing.
Bruce sits across from
her, a jute bag, three
Kamala oranges, two white paper stars between them.
He has his wraparound green aviator’s glasses
on, and he looks at the glistening vista of the backwater, neatly
into rectangles, as if he is watching a movie unfold on its fishgleam
surface. In the last hour he has said one
repeatedly, to her. No, he has said. No
to suntan lotion, no to coffee, no to juice, no to soda, no to oranges.
Once, to her mother, he has said, No, thank you.
She looks over his
shoulder, his arm across the
window, to the water. She has taken to
looking at shoulders, clavicles, the taut muscled symmetry of backs. Arms move her. Hair
on the back of a man’s hand as he lifts
his coffee cup to his lips, glint of his watch or his wedding band, all
these subtly excite her. The shaved,
upward-rising stubble on necks, hint of fuzz on a jawbone, square-cut
fingernails on a hand. The eyes. Yes, it returns to the eyes and she
understands now the slow look a man gives, when his glance, traveling,
where she is, involuntarily. Because she knows now he knows without
words he is
found and seen in her. That seeing, she sees, between a man and a
from underneath. From the bones or the
history of looking that is locked deep inside the self.
From the cells themselves, alignment of
marrow to bone, blood to vessel. Involuntary. Unplanned. Nothing to
announce it, shape or influence it. A
man looks at a woman. A woman looks at a
man. It is as singular and slight as that, as present as sand on the
a ground-up smattering of shells. All
the calcium in the world, she remembers, comes from the sea, from
lime-secreting algae and shells, simple seashells, the hard, chitinous
coverings over marine creatures from the most ancient times, from near
and a quarter billion years ago, when life as we know it on earth
began. We owe
our bones to snails. Their slow, accreting secretions, to become shell,
ever-present shells, scattered on the soft sand, embalmed in rock,
water, entering our cells to become spine, patella, clavicle, digits.
She flexes her fingers and
looks down at the
white diamond engagement ring and the gold wedding band, engraved with
snaking pattern of flowers. Pansies,
they look like. Two flowers and a bud on
a vine. Inside the ring is carved his
name. Bruce Thompson. Carved by an
Indian jeweler in Bookman Antique, just as she wanted it.
She was particular about fonts.
Their serifs and swirls spoke their own
subtextual language. She was, after all,
a graphic artist, sensitive to their whisperings and insinuations. She chose an Antique because its archaism
felt pure and rooted to her, ancient and noble. She
had wanted their marriage to back into those
delicate curves, into
the ancience. She had believed in permanence.
Then, that is. At Mahabalipuram these last two days she has
put her hands on the hot, eroded stone of centuries and felt the
crumbling. Wind, rain, salt. The dancers
are disappearing from the rocks, she thinks, once-round limbs
of the waist indistinguishable now from the dent in the stone, pocked
She looks at the white
glitter of the hardest
stone on earth on her hand and sees a rim of salt powder beyond,
window, a small mound, dissipating. You
must eat something, her mother insists, tucking her saree into her
unwrapping plastic bags, it’s one more hour to lunch.
She proffers small red bananas, soam papad
from a box, orange cream Brittania biscuits. Eat,
she says, you’ll feel hungry later.
Coffee, her father says.
Anyone want coffee?
He has opened the trunk and is pouring coffee from the red thermos into
plastic cups that say Merry Christmas on the side, in green cursive
spray of red holly leaves beside the lettering. The
font is plain, italic, something like Schoolbook
or CG Times. Long ago, coming home to Madras one
Christmas, she had bought them at
a dollar store in Ballston along with paper napkins, paper plates, and
plastic cutlery. Now the napkins appear, red holly leaves and berries
turning yellow at the edges. Her mother offers her a piece of soam
on a napkin. She takes it, eats, the soft sugar flakes dissolving on
tongue. Her father hands her coffee and she drinks.
It is hot, coffee-like. But tastes of
oranges, bananas, the plastic cup.
Bruce pulls out his bottle
of mineral water
and drinks. Her mother says,
immediately, Give him the cold one. Here, Bruce, take this one, it’s
cold. She begins to dig in the woven pink
It’s OK, Bruce says,
swallowing, this is
Here, here, just one
Her mother discovers the
cold bottle. She
hands it to Prithika, to hand to Bruce.
Prithika feels for
coldness on the
bottle. They have taken it from the
fridge in their room at Sterling Resorts an hour ago.
Now the cold has disappeared and a tepid
dampness meets her palms. It is like everything else, she thinks, one
moment, another another.
Bruce says No, as the
approaches the sacrosanct of his private space.
Right now, she sees, this
space is crushed
and miniscule, a small tent of air around his body, crushed in the back
seat. Sometimes it stretches and blows,
resolute and elastic, a body of water, she has felt it variously as a
temple tank, a subtropic ocean. Such as
the one that spreads, not far from where they sit.
That has slid this lagoon of water into the
fields, thick with salt, so the people can build little berms and walls
harvest the pools for crystals as they dry. But
there is no ocean sleek with certainty around
him now, the tent
creases and frets inward.
She withdraws the bottle.
Her father comes round to the front, stoked and
caffeine. More coffee, anyone? Bruce,
did you eat anything?
Bruce looks at her father
in the same way he
has looked at the stone dancers in the ancient temple, a crumpled look
unease to his lower lip. With his right
arm, he pushes the door open. I’m going
to take a walk, he says, and steps onto the red powdery sand. He walks up the side of the car to the front,
toward the bridge. A goat comes up the side, from the brush, it appears
see him. A small black and white goat,
crusted mud on white legs, and tiny acacia leaves spraying down from
horns. Bruce raises his hand, as if hailing the goat. The goat moves
questioningly towards him. Bruce sidesteps the goat, just in time, mounts the cement bridge.
Prithika’s father observes
these movements in
silence. Let’s see where he goes, he
Why worry about him, says
craning her neck to see Bruce disappear round the bridge’s curve
the gray glittery water. He’s old enough to take care of himself!
Look at him, invites her
father, who has
walked up the slope to the bridge and is the only one who can see him
he’s walking on the wrong side of the road. Anyone
can come up from behind and hit him!
In times past, Prithika
would have said, Oh,
stop it, or Let him be, pa, stop looking at everything he does so
closely! Or she would have jumped out,
Now she sits, mesmerized
by the loosening of
silver on water as sun catches and ripples on top of the smooth gray
shimmering. The gleam of distance that
stretches on both sides into the palm-flecked horizon purls over her,
uncreasing. Slips her without thinking
into the slow field that has opened between her and Bruce these days,
hardly understands but that seems to hold her in thrall now as if she
small, cup-shaped catamaran on the water, softly rocking.
She is relieved they are no longer fighting,
openly, with words and not-speaking, the bright barbs released without
no longer arcing and spinning to land, embedded in flesh, hers or his,
is not quite certain if the current quiet between them is wound or
senses the hostility has not abated, only transmuted, but the flat
indifference between them confuses her, she is not certain, herself,
feels. Whether this is the edging forward into a new maturing, an
and compromise that is mutual, or a slide backward into an abyss of
ever-widening distances, or merely a trudging-on in an inexplicable and
landscape, she is not certain. Neither is she moved to specific emotion
uncertainty. Everything inside her seems dull and nebulous, incapable
sharper feeling. Where he is concerned,
that is. Everywhere he is, in her feeling, has become gray and still
formless, not dissimilar from this body of gray liquid surrounding them
Abruptly Prithika snaps
open the door, jumps
out. Yes, ma, go with him, her mother
encourages from the front, much as she does each night when Bruce
is going to sleep, when Prithika resists moving, from her book or
news or newspaper.
Prithika does not say No
this time or explain
to her mother they are actually lone and separate people, Bruce and
she often does, becoming hoarse and didactic in the process. She steps
side of the bridge and walks past the brush, to the water.
The sudden heat of the sun after the
air-conditioned cool in the Qualis is astonishing.
The white light of noon grazes her seeing, blinds
her. Everything is bright, the sun, the
sand, the gray, crystalline piles of salt here and there, the shaken,
She takes her sandals off
as she approaches
the water, steps in, and the warm, viscous gleaming laps at her ankles.
Salt-laden, she thinks, this water is thick and gloomy with salt, the
weighs it down and makes it heavy. For
years this seawater directed into these flats has collected salt, for
it rests—or was it months, could it be years?--the water is stirred by
steaming away until only layers of moist remain, wrapped around a
concentrate. That waits to show itself, waits for the moisture to blow
waits to emerge, dazzling and crystal.
senses she has grown used to the barbed hostility she and Bruce have
the past. It’s become a pattern between
them, the needling, the ego, the deliberate petulance.
They have slipped from becoming aware of the
diminishing time they were spending together, as both their careers
intensified, his in programming, hers in Web interface design for
to noticing that the itch of animosity between them is continuous,
normal. Years seem to have gone by like this. Disagreement has become
standard. Prithika does not know if
Bruce has taken to being perverse or essentially disagrees with her –
things she is certain other couples must resolve amicably, or at least
whether to rent again the next time or buy a house, whether to paint or
someone to paint, whether to cook or eat out, whether to have a child
whether to travel to Greece or not. Decisions between them seem to
snail’s pace. After three years they
bought a house in Alexandria,
a fractious process, with the real estate agent clearly teetering on
of abandoning them, after they had viewed duplexes, singles,
condos, all across the circumference of the entire metro area, each
a different set of absolute must-haves. They started to paint, then had
someone because they could not agree on the colors, the textures, the
They vacillated often between cooking and eating out, often waiting
to dash out, miserable, to the late-open Anthony’s, the local Italian
attached to a motel, where the food was hot, only passably edible, and
limited, given that it specialized in veal and beef and they were
vegetarian. Sometimes they went to the
nearby Vietnamese place, which was not as good as the other Vietnamese
or the nice Thai places, further up on Mt. Vernon. They could not decide when to have the child,
after they decided, after months of wrangling, that Prithika’s decision
have a child at all was not tenable. They
never went to Greece,
although they had bought all the guide books and Prithika had mapped
route and an itinerary, because Bruce had to work late all the time and
never take two weeks off, apart from their trips to India.
With all the back and
forthing and endless vacillation, Prithika has grown cautious,
while they were flying east across various continents, their bodies
over mountains and oceans, fists curled over silted rivers, it seems
gone to sleep together and woken to a field of dull water lapping
Prithika steps further
into the lagoon, feet
sinking into the moist, grainy mud beneath. Grasses sprouting up from
shiver doubly, in reflection, as a warm noon breeze shivers light
water. Golden dragonflies buzz close to her feet. Without
consciously summoning him, she thinks
again of the one particular man who has continued to haunt her, for
the man with the dark eyes and dark hair, surely a Latino, maybe
Middle-Eastern, a waiter, whom she had locked eyes with at her friend
Shaistha’s catered party six months ago. This man, more than all the
her sudden awareness of manhood in itself as variable enticement, has
her memory. Their encounter so brief, yet intense. She shivers,
breath catches somewhere in the process of her inhale, and laps,
the skin below her nostrils, while her lungs wait, diaphragm waits,
waits, tense. She remembers his body, movement of energy inside his
body as he
walked toward her in the cool amber light of the room, offered her
His legs long and sinuous in perfectly fitting flared black pants--he
tall. Hair cut close to his ears,
slicked back on the sides and the top. Dark hair, like his eyes, openly
unafraid. He smiled when her eyes, riveted, kept looking into his. He
the glass himself, handed it to her. She
took it, not lifting her eyes from his. She stared because she felt
impelled. Their fingers touching, small
Yet this is not why he
lives in her memory
like a live irresistible being. He walked away from her that time, far
people, proffering trays, pausing. No,
it was after. After, when he came
walking back toward her, and she was alone, and he walked down and down
hall toward her, his eyes fully on hers, deeply, steadily, completely,
absolute silence. Just looking at her all that time, looking and
came toward her, stopped. The unspeaking between them hot and alive, as
He was not smiling. The candor of what they exchanged with their eyes
not, she thought, have borne the slight, civil shimmer of a smile. It was blatant, unashamed, adult. Mutual, the
insolence. The open interest in it, immediacy. The
knowing, the all-consuming seeing. They
stood for a moment as she lifted another glass,
each arrested by
their own decision to look. Then he
turned slightly, walked. He was doing
his duty, passing from one group to another, passing out the night’s
But she never forgot that
A shell or piece of stone
catches at her
foot. She stops. She sees she has been
walking, slowly and aimlessly into the rectangle of gray water that has
away from its seeming contours and flows under the bridge. She is in
of the gray pearlescence. All around her
is water. She can see the bridge hump
over and end and the water continue. She
can see the figures of men and women ahead of her in the water, bodies
working. She can see Bruce, a few
hundred feet ahead, arms folded, staring at the people working. She looks down but the water is murky and she
cannot see what has lodged between her toes. Mud smooth and slimy on
The water lapping a few inches above her ankles.
She bends, puts her hand
in, finger over big
toe, between. She pulls out the shell,
for it is a shell, lifts it out. An ivory fan of tissue appears to fold
into a tube with antennae and disappear inside the shell.
Tiny and whorled, a top shell. A
snail inside the shell, a live and ivory
snail. She drops it back reflexively,
not thinking. Not having intended to
disturb a living being in her aimless walk. To think that snails lived
this salt. She frowns and puts her
finger in the water again, dips and lifts the finger to her lips. Yes, salt. She
can taste the salt with her mouth. The
taste is of the sea. Deep saline churning on her
She walks consciously now
through the water,
taking smooth slow steps on the mud. Water
ripples up her calves, sun shines hot on her
skin. The water is cleaner here, softer
deeper, by a few inches. She is under the bridge. A
small concrete bridge, with two pillars
sunk into the mud, a peeled-off railing and a swallow swirling abruptly
beneath, diving upward, a blueblack shiny wing turned in a second to
silhouette, flash, a disappearance.
The man she keeps
returning to, as if tuning
again and again into a far sweet refrain sounding on the periphery of
awareness, returns, burning, smiling, eyes on hers, out of the gray
liquid at her feet. She smiles without
meaning to, heads for Bruce, for the place where he stands. And without
to, thinking as she walks, of not Bruce but him.
Something sharp and clear
resolves. Ahead is
an island, long narrow stretch covered scantily with grass, shrubs,
cluster of round, thatched huts the color of straw.
It floats rather than rises out of the water,
so slim and modest is its stretch, as if it were merely an extended
between the silver rectangles. The tops
of the palms smudge into the bright white of the noon sky like
the water that laps at the edges of this island and further out where
shudders purely against itself, a scattering of figures bend, hunched
man. Bare backed, bare limbed, except for a dhoti hitched around his
hips. More like him, brown-backed, bent. Women, saris folded up and knotted at the
thigh. The saris bright, even from a
distance. Specks of magenta, gem-blue, purple. Children. A little boy,
shirt and shorts. Two girls, in shirts
and skirts. Plaits going down their
back, bent over.
Up, near water’s edge at
the neck of island
and road, stands Bruce, tall, pale, hand shading eyes, searching the
She is learning to slide
forward in a way
that opens and closes the water’s skin around her legs without
smooth even meander of her thoughts. The
water has begun to feel as sinuous and warm as the blood flowing
That night at her friend
Shaistha’s party she
had felt the sharp illicit current of being by herself, a vivid thrill
possibility lurking just outside her skin. She had gone to the party
and Bruce had never been far from her side yet she had felt completely
she often did with him. It was an anniversary party and later there had
dancing. Shaistha, who was a manager at her firm, had invited all her
school friends and they were changing the CDs, turning the lights down,
the salsa, the merengue, approximations of these. Bruce
did not know anyone except Shaistha’s
husband Tim and wanted to leave early. Shaistha had introduced them to
friends but her friends kept aggregating among themselves. Prithika had
wanted to leave, after the champagne encounters. But
she left, because they left early. Later,
for weeks, his face rose toward her as
she drove nightly home, on the ground-glass face of the shower stall in
mornings as she showered, on Telegraph Road as she drove to
work, on the wall as she
worked, on the computer screen. She
thought, over and over, of asking Shaistha. For
a name. Maybe the
name of the
company. They lunched together often. She could ask, quite naturally.
Then drive, maybe, on her lunch hour the next
day, past the building. Maybe enter the
building, take the elevator, walk toward the double doors. Ask
benign ones. On rates, times,
menus. Things like that.
Natural, innocuous aspects of catering that
all caterers would be used to. No-one would suspect. What was his name? She yearned to know. But how could she
this question? Not yet. But Juan, she
thought, Vicente, Julio. Maybe Khalid, Sayeed. He
might be lounging by the desk, chatting with the
receptionist. He might be in an office, on
the phone. He
might be in the corridor. Walking toward her. He
walked, often. She
walk. She could never drum up the foolish, useless courage to ask.
passed. She was bright in Shaistha’s presence, animated.
A brightness that pushed through her without
warning, minus intention. A tingling champagne clarity, bubbly and
Now her feet slides
against the mud of the
shallow lake, creamy clay-like mud. She
has become like this mud, she thinks, this mud-like clay, slideable,
She has walked her way
closer to where Bruce
stands, his figure growing progressively larger and quieter and gloomy. His scanning of the silvery water seems to
have taken her in once or twice, with no discernible shift in his
posture. On their honeymoon seven years
ago in the Grand Canyon he could not
hands off her. His face would dissolve
into a smile each time he looked at her. They
had sat on the tour shuttle arms wrapped,
looking into each other’s
eyes and only partially at the scenery. When
they stopped and looked over the edge at the
canyons of rock wreathed in purple evening mists, they had stood back
wrapped close, breathing. Such a century
ago, she thinks, now, as she approaches the silence of his figure, the
unsmiling. When she rises, sinuous and
dripping out of
the water and walks to where he stands, he looks at her as calmly as if
were a plausible part of this saline scape, a reed blowing in the wind,
The rolled-up ends of her
jeans sink from
thigh to below her knee, wet and heavy. She
glances down and sees bits of grainy mud. She
pauses, wrings out the
hems, cloth and mud and water squeezing through her hands.
She walks up the dry cake of beach to Bruce.
Behind him is the road, and beyond that again water.
Every now and then a car drives by on the
road, an Ambassador, or a Hyundai. Sometimes
What are they doing? Bruce jerks a finger toward the people in the
Prithika turns and looks. They seem to be scooping the water into tins
they hold. Harvesting salt? She is being
facetious, but a small overlay of mockery enters her voice without her
it, she hears its familiar rasp in her words as they hang, jagged, in
Bruce slants his aviator
her. Say you have no idea, he suggests.
I have no idea. She
strives to keep her voice
cool and even, even shrugs a shoulder. They
are words after all, she tells herself, that
she can slide through
her and evict with no disruption of her fluid interior.
That’s better, says Bruce. He even sounds like he feels better. Validated, comfortable.
They stand in sunlight,
silence. The water ripples and
glimmers. Prithika notices that the
people seem to have noticed them, standing together, staring. They
among themselves. After a minute a child
loosens himself from the knot of people and wades toward them. Then another, a little girl.
Prithika hears a shout
behind them, a
clapping of hands. She turns, it is her
father. A smudge of mustard shirt and
black pants, against the dull silvery green of the haphazard acacia
A small cluster of goats beside him, black, white, biscuit-colored. He
mounted the concrete bridge and stands, calling. Preee-thikka! Come On! His
hands pump the air in a question as he meets her
eye. Like, what’s going on? Why the delay?
are you both doing? Vivid, decipherable semaphore that she is used to,
grown up with him. Her father is never
one to condone dawdling. By nature—and
by her mother’s allowance—he is impatient.
We’re Com-ing, she
calls, just as
loudly. Her voice shatters the rippling
sheen of silence around them. A group of
small brown birds paddling by the island break apart and fly abruptly
Wings beating. The people look up,
Prithika turns back to the
water. She absorbs the slow white glissade
of sun on
top, long verdigris undulation toward the skinny palms, white horizon. It is hypnotic. A warm breeze blows down the
back of her neck, where her white cotton shirt clings to skin.
I knew that would happen. Bruce is meditatively matter-of-fact, as if
accepting. Your father can’t leave us alone for a second!
Prithika surveys the small
crinkle of water
that laps at the beach, small frill of white at the edge, salt foam in
frill. He’s probably wondering what on
earth we’re doing.
Bruce laughs, a hard,
hollow sound with no
humor in it. Yeah, well, he can join the club. Do you have any
She looks at him. He stands, feet apart in their white and blue
Nikes, socks half-rolled up, half-rolled down, camera slung diagonally
shoulders, long tan shorts bulging at the pocket with their usual
of items—a pocket knife, she thinks, a nail-clipper, a crumpled Milky
orange. The way his clothes on holiday
always make him look, a boy, exploring. But
sullen this time. Rolled-up
inside and angry this time. Arms crossed across his chest, a look of
melancholy on his face. His eyes shaded
by the green wraparound glasses still, as if emptied.
Yet insight pulses in her like
conviction. He too has been looking at
this body of gray water stretching into the unbearable horizon, he too
the sun’s heat on this surface, endlessly glittering.
She looks at him looking
at her and does not
The children have arrived
at the shore and
push their way out of the water. They
are both bright-eyed, smiling. The girl
speaks. Our father says to say to you we
can make lunch for you, she says, in Tamil.
Ask her what they’re doing
out there, says
Bruce, almost in the same breath.
Tell your father many
thanks, says Prithika,
in Tamil to the child. But we have to go
Where are you going, asks
the boy. They have both come out of the
stand on the sand looking up at them. Water
drips and gleams a satin-bronze on their legs. The
boy’s shorts are torn at the hem. The
girl’s clothes too, a faded indigo skirt
with ruched embroidery and a brown cotton shirt, are ripped in
shoulder, by the middle buttons.
We’re going to Pondicherry,
We know Pondicherry,
says the girl, very soft, through gap-toothed smiling.
Our father’s brother lives there.
Have you been there, asks
Prithika. To Pondicherry?
Once, says the boy. When we were small children.
We went to the beach. They
catch big fish in Pondi!
Prithika smiles. Is your father a fisherman?
The boy nods, then
elaborates. His hair falls
in a dusty unkempt fringe into his eyes, he rubs it away. The
says. We do the work with the salt. The girl has come close to Prithika and is
touching her bracelet, an oxidized silver clasp with a tortoise head on
Prithika has picked it up near the temple at Mahabalipuram. The girl says nothing as she touches it, just
looks up at her, that small tenderness on her face, smiling.
Prithika looks back down
and catches sight of
her gold ring, glinting on her hand. The
sight of it--curl of leaves on the vine, the flowers--all of it comes
now as old-fashioned, ancient, even without seeing the words engraved
inside, his name. She feels she does not want to see the swirls and
the font in which his name is carved. She feels she has stepped into a
different font now, one she has never admired or even seen before, a
modern font that eludes classification.
A small wind blows spray
from the water over
them. She looks up at Bruce and sees the tight look of frustration on
as he looks at them. She knows his grasp of Tamil is slight, slighter
hers. She says to them, what are you all
doing out there in the water?
Crabs, says a man’s voice. From the water, behind the boy.
A young man and woman have come wading
through the water behind them. We catch
crabs. You want to see?
He holds out a tin and Prithika sees a
crammed, uneasy writhing. Creamy,
translucent crabs the size of her palm with round orange eyes and
biscuit-orange running down the insides of their legs.
Arms and legs climbing over each other, a
small mountain of crabs, frantic to escape. Salt
crabs, says the man. They
live in this water.
Bruce leans forward, puts
a hand in and
almost immediately draws it out, with a yelp. They
Everyone laughs. Prithika
half-disbelieving, even she is laughing. Even he is.
They have claws, says the
man, that’s what
they use them for.
The woman turns to
Prithika. You want to come?
We’ll make you nice colombu with the
crabs. With lots of tamarind and garlic
and tomatoes and onions. Our house is
there only, can you see? She points to
the straw-thatch huts on the island. Her
face is trusting and open and friendly.
Prithika feels this must
be because the woman
is seeing her as like herself, one of us, one of our family, one of our
country. The woman is not to know that
Prithika feels, looking at her, like a tourist observing the native
people of a
foreign country, awkward, and different, and without language.
A thread of emotion rises
inside her. It isn’t pity, a little stream
coursed through her for a moment when she saw the torn clothes of the
children. This woman too wears a blouse,
a faded aqua, that is torn at the neck, by the sleeves. Her sari is a
purple, wound tight around her hips and wet to the waist.
Prithika can see holes in it, pin-prick
holes, as if something with sharp edges—the salt?--has worn it through. The man’s white dhoti too, fully wet, wrapped
high around his hips, has frayed threads dragging down from it. But both their faces are so young, so open,
they look like teenagers. They are so
small-made and thin. Their skin smooth and gleaming, smiles wide. The woman wears gold rings in her ears and a
dot of gold for a nose-ring. Her eyes
are unprobing, accepting. The man too
looks simple (no, not like the men of her dreams), innocent. As if nothing would give either of them
greater pleasure than making this meal they are planning, for herself
Bruce. The tourists. The
American tourists, who must have
advertised their tourism from a mile off, by the mere fact of walking
the edge of this lagoon, to stare uselessly at the water. The girl
pulls at her
hand, a small weedy insistence. Will you come?
Prithika looks down at
her, intending to say,
dismissively, conclusively, We don’t eat crabs, we’re vegetarians. But
beginning to understand the feeling inside her. She
sees how the girl has the same eyes as the
father, the same long
nose of the mother. She looks at the boy
and sees how the nose is on him too, and the shiny eyes.
The resemblance between them fluid.
There is no mistaking the look of the family
in each of their faces. And there is more, it is the feeling of the
is fluid between them, a small pool of knowing that laps equally at
their feet, that surges and swirls between them, a tenderness. What
them wants, they all seem to want. There is something very gentle and
about this. Something gentle and sweet
It is hunger, she
realizes, a small uneasy
hunger that unfolds inside her. She is looking into the open trusting
the girlchild, the tender smiling. She is looking at the bright live
insouciance on the boy’s face, calm tender receiving on their mother’s
seemingly completely asexual warmth on the father’s. The hunger slips
familiar roots in her. She does not experience it as new, a moment’s
wanting. She feels instinctively it is the same hunger that has grown
sown its seeds in her and dropped its roots and started growing, day
almost without her knowing. What is it really, she wonders—secret
warmth, intimacy, family? She chafes at the thought, even as she feels,
uneasily, its metal barb of truth. It is the hunger she has come to
without thinking or wanting to. Sinuous love-hunger, that keeps her
only inside a dream. Inside the sensual dream-life that her life has
become, moving and dreaming.
Many thanks, she says to
them. But we have to go.
She mouths the refusal, feeling the old
quality of surrender in her actions, in her mechanical relay of words
to them, yet unable to say anything else. She is always the same, she
she does things and says things because these doings and sayings are
expected. Her parents would not expect
otherwise. Bruce wouldn’t.
They want us to eat with them, she says to
Bruce. They want to cook a crab sauce
That’s so nice, says
disbelieving. He looks, bemused, from
the woman to the man to the children. In much the same way, Prithika
she has been looking. Is it with hunger, she wonders briefly, the same
she holds like a canyon inside her? Is it envy, is it want, for
both can see in this family but do not seem to have, anymore, between
But we can’t, she
continues. She knows she
has made this decision alone, without him, without her parents. Just
what each of them wanted. Her father,
eager to resume the driving. Her mother,
eager to check in at the next hotel, the one in Pondi.
Bruce, falling in with the family’s plans,
No, he says, dutiful. I
They turn to leave and the
accepting of their decision, disappointed but not questioning, not
smiles, waves. They walk back to the car in the heat, in the silence.
gives herself over to the sensation she feels of floating between
of light. She imagines her body is lifting although the sand crunches
beneath her feet. She sees the rough edges of salt crystals on the
sides of the
water walls as she walks. The sheets of water ripple and glitter in the
She sees the unruly acacia bushes by the side of the road, glitter of
the sand. A heat haze appears to hang over the tar, spiral shimmer of
When they come to the car
she sees both her
parents are sitting inside, waiting. The
doors are open. A fly is buzzing on the
inside of the windshield and her father is swatting at it with a curved
of orange peel. Her mother wipes the
back of her neck with her pallu. She
says, with interest, Yenga, where did
you go? Her father says, with vehemence,
is taking you so long?
We’re here, says Prithika. We can go now. They
settle in the back seat, push the window
open. A warm breeze plays inside the car
as they move forward. They reverse, pull
back onto the bridge, drive in between the gray shimmering. Prithika looks across the rippling water as
it moves wetly across the landscape, at the people in the water, the
family, waving. Beyond is the island and
the straw-thatch huts. Then they are
gone. The water shimmers and stretches for half a kilometer, a
kilometer and a half. Here and there, in
between the rectangles, long low mounds of salt. Then
dry scrub, earth, huts. They are passing a
village. Hibiscus trees in front of the
huts and the
flowers scarlet, pulsing. Banana palms. Little tea-shops with pink diamonds of
coconut barfi inside. Glimpses of
bottles on a counter: Fanta, Miranda, Limca. A
little stray dog running after a group of children.
When they come to Pondi,
she thinks, they
will roll in along the broad promenade on the beach road, the creamy
Commissioner buildings to the right, the Bay of
to the left. They will climb the wall
abutting the rocks piled against the water and gaze upon the creamy
buildings. Bruce will see how difficult
it is to tell the French from the British style of colonial
architecture. He will look at the ocean
and see how the
water appears neither French nor Tamilian. But, salty and full of fish
minerals, is itself, an uncolonizable continent.
Now on the left, beyond
open land and a
smattering of palms rolls a slow blue line of this salt-filled ocean. All the salt in the earth comes from the
ocean, she has read. Salt beneath the crust of the earth marks the site
ancient seas, ancient evaporations. In those places, layers of rock
quietly beneath the rock. Sleep without eyes, sleep without seeing.
must happen, something must wedge, deep within, before the eyes can
in their seeing.
I wonder, says Bruce.
She might have, a year
ago, two years ago,
turned vibrantly toward him, said, teasingly, You wonder what? Wanting
piqued, engaged. Now she barely glances at him, the glance is wary.
Bruce takes off his
sunglasses. The skin
around his eyes is pale, exposed. What it would have been like, to go
meal with them.
Over his shoulder, her
eyes travel to the
distant blue of the ocean. She wants to shrug, fabricate, say what it
have been like. Somewhere inside her, she knows she wants to speak, be
animated, be again the person she was when they met, dated, were first
That warm, live, interesting person. Interested in the world around
him, in his thinking. She wants this even as she feels incapable. That
feels ephemeral, too far to recover. She seems to have become a new
person now: remote, stuck in mud. Something between herself and Bruce
have diminished, shrivelled into a powder and lifted on wind. And she
sensed this underneath, a fine sweet refrain sounding on the periphery
awareness, for a long time. She looks sleepily at him, slips without
into the dream that continually loosens its shimmering inside of her.
sweeps her along, outward and away from the ocean of the long-before
shared once with him. Whatever has happened, whatever it was, that long
continuous with fracturing, sinuous with dissolving—it has led to this
appeasement in dream, secret opening, silent meandering.
Bruce asks where the water
is, she barely
hears him. Her mother passes her the
cold-water bottle. Her calves itch and
for a moment she puts a hand down, involuntarily, to still the itching.
moment she feels the small layer of salt crystals there, drying white