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Authors: Anjali Banerjee

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BOOK: Imaginary Men
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The ruby serpent eyes glitter on my wrist. I half expect the creature to come to life and flick out its tongue. The gecko has disappeared, and the snake has taken its place, as vivid as the lie I told.

Five

I
wake up sweating. My nightshirt is soaked. The mosquito net undulates around me. Merchants shout in the street outside, and the smoky odor of cow dung drifts into my nose. I lie still, taking in the peculiar angle of morning light, the curved, high ceiling, and Auntie's echoing voice as she talks to Ma and Kali in the dining room. After three trips back to India, I'm still a stranger here. Then my heart sinks as I remember—I'm going to see Pandit Parsai today.

I sit up and rub sleep from my eyes. My limbs and eyelids are heavy. My tongue swells with thirst. I miss my apartment, the windows with screens, the newspaper outside my door
every morning. San Francisco is an ache in my chest, a memory of fresh ocean air, clean streets, privacy, no mosquito nets, no dust.

I have the chills. I'm getting sick. Parasites worm their way into my stomach and remind me I don't belong here. My body has gone soft from the easy life in America. I could never survive here, with malaria and dysentery roaming the streets like criminals waiting for the next foreign victim.

I untuck the mosquito net and step down onto the cold concrete floor, unknown territory. The gecko could be hiding under the bed. I scuttle to the bathroom, then gasp when I catch a reflection in the mirror. Someone else slipped in here with me, a dark-skinned, bright-eyed woman with tangled hair. Omigod, that's me.

The astrologer will think Auntie plucked a wild ape from the jungle, draped clothes on her, and brought her home to the family. A new pet.

At least the bathroom has a door, although there's no lock. I'm nearly out of toilet paper. There's no paper dispenser by the toilet, only a water tap, which I'll never learn to use. People here master the art of self-washing from day one. I vaguely remember my two-year-old niece screaming as her Ma tried to teach her to wash. By the time she turned four, the practice had become second nature for her.

My relatives probably think American customs are filthy. Wiping with toilet paper? No washing? Here, the paper rolls
are thin and expensive—maybe a few American dollars per roll—and the tissue as rough as sandpaper. Each roll is encased in a secret unmarked wrap, like contraband. Or an artifact. I imagine toilet paper under glass at the local museum, labeled as a perverse American curiosity.

I use the last few squares. Maybe I'll find some crumpled Kleenex tissue in my luggage. I hope.

Then I get in the shower, the lukewarm water trickling from the showerhead in an annoying thin stream. Cold water pools on the floor, and the threadbare white towel isn't thick enough to wipe it up. It takes me twenty minutes to get my body marginally clean, and I'm even more convinced that I'll never belong in this country. I'm a slave to creature comforts.

After breakfast, Auntie and I squeeze into the Ambassador bound for Pandit Parsai's flat near New Market, in the city center. We wind along narrow, bumpy roads choked with Ambassador taxis, buses, tongas, bullock carts, and jaywalkers. I hold my nose against the reek of burning cow dung and exhaust. Grime settles in every pore of my skin. Our driver, a fearless, brown-skinned Evel Knievel, hurtles through traffic, jolting to a stop, yelling at crowds congregating in the streets. A cacophony of car horns blares against the onslaught of pedestrians, mangy white dogs, and the occasional bony cow.

My heart flits like a hummingbird. The damp air plasters
my shirt to my back. Just riding through the city is an exercise in fortitude. I'd rather visit the elegant Victoria Memorial—built to honor Queen Victoria—the botanical gardens, or the Birla planetarium. I'd rather do anything but see Pandit Parsai.

Kali escaped to Chowringhee Bazaar to buy saris. She knew if she came with me, the pandit would predict her future, too. Ma and Baba went to visit a second cousin named Sugar or Sweetie or Sweet'n Low—I can't keep track of my relatives' nicknames. My parents don't consult astrologers, but they've left me at Auntie's mercy.

She's adorned in a woven golden silk sari. She washed her hair with the Head and Shoulders shampoo I brought from San Francisco. The clean scent mixes with Armani perfume, which I grabbed at a duty-free shop in Heathrow Airport.

Auntie tugs the collar of my blouse. “Why are you wearing these Western clothes, Lina? Pants and top? Why no
salwar?

I rarely wear a
salwar kameez
, the long, fashionable top over billowing pants, which makes me resemble a shapeless amoeba.

I was careful to wear the golden bracelet she gave me last night, and I pinned Ma's golden brooch to my shirt. “Pandit should see me in my regular Western clothes.”

“This way of dressing is normal in the States, I suppose. No jewelry?”

“I don't want to wear a neon sari and a hundred bangles.” Women here could direct traffic with their brightly colored clothes. “Oh, I'm sorry, Auntie. I'm just nervous.”

“Nothing to be nervous about.” She pats my knee. “Last night, I gave Pandit all of your beloved's information, except his name, of course. We must have his name.”

“It's a secret, until he returns from his travels. All I gave you was his birth date!” I made up a date that includes threes, after the three forms of twilight.

“And much more, nah? Profession, hobbies. Have you got a snap of him?”

“All my photos are at home.” A calf ambles across the road, followed by a few squawking chickens. The driver hits the horn several times in staccato succession.

“Does your beloved have a natal chart?” Auntie asks.

“He comes from a family of astronomers. They're interested in science, not astrology. Black holes and galaxies and forms of twilight.”

Auntie frowns. “Vedic astrology
is
a science, Lina. He had no horoscope reading? He must've received one at birth. No diagrams of the Rasi Chakra, the Shodasavarga charts, the planetary periods—”

“Nothing like that. I doubt his parents even have an astrologer.”

“Such a shame. Well, Pandit will do what he can. And your natal chart? Have you brought it with you?”

“I don't carry it around. Ma may still have it somewhere.”

The car stops in an upscale bazaar teeming with people and stray dogs. Near the street corner, a rotting refuse pile emits a terrifying stink.

Auntie pays the driver, and we're out, heading toward a storefront reading “Pandit Parsai” in English, followed by several words in Bengali.

Inside, two men sit cross-legged facing each other on the floor. The younger, chubby man jabbers in Hindi, his face animated, arms gesticulating. The other man—tall, gray-haired, and long-nosed—wears a
dhoti punjabi
. His stately demeanor recalls the late prime minister Nehru. He nods and whispers “ha, ha,” at regular intervals.
Ha
means “yes” in Hindi. Neither man looks at us.

The air hangs thick with the heady scent of patchouli incense, and a brass statue of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, sits just inside the doorway. His great belly protrudes. One of his brass tusks is broken. As the story goes, Ganesh used his broken tusk to write the ancient Vedas, the four ancient texts of Hinduism. Ganesh is known as the Remover of Obstacles, bringer of good luck. Every Vedic astrologer's office has a Ganesh.

Auntie kneels to kiss his feet. I want to turn and run. Instead I follow Auntie's example, then straighten and clasp my hands in front of me. On the bookshelves: the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Ramayana, and numerous volumes
about astrology, healing rituals, and childhood development. In one corner is a devotional altar. I don't recognize the many-armed goddess surrounded by dried lotus flowers, sweets, and snacks. My mouth waters. My fingers itch to grab a
roshogolla
, candy made from milk and sugar, but I don't want to annoy the goddess.

Crammed in next to the altar is a Hewlett-Packard computer on a wooden desk piled with books and paper. A golden elephant screensaver dances across the monitor.

There's no reception area or chairs, so Auntie and I wait awkwardly near the door until the men stand, bow, and press the palms of their hands together in front of their chests, in a gesture of prayer called
namaste
, which means, “The divine light in me salutes the divine light in you.”

The chubby man stares at me on his way out, his critical gaze skewering my clothes.

“Come, come, my dear girls.” Pandit Parsai gestures toward the carpet. We sit cross-legged in a triangle on the concrete floor. My tailbone will be bruised for days.

Pandit takes Auntie's hands and smiles. “My dearest Kiki, how are your son and daughters? How have you been maintaining your health?” His words flow clear and cool like water.

“My son ran away to his tea gardens, my girls neglect me, and my corns are paining, Pandit.” Auntie makes the
namaste
sign and bows her head. I follow suit. I have a kink in my neck.

Pandit does the sideways head nod and clicks his tongue. “You're always in the wrong footwear, Kiki. Have I not told you?”

“Hah, you have.” Auntie gazes at her feet, clad in Indian sandals,
kolhapuri chappals
. The corns bulge at the joints of both her big toes.

Pandit turns to gaze at me. I have the uncomfortable feeling he's reaching inside my head and twisting my neurons.

“My dear Lina Ray. Last time I saw you, you were just a baby.”

“I'm sorry I don't remember you, Pandit. It's an honor to meet you.”

“Quite a fat baby you were. Now you're too thin.”

My ears heat up.

Auntie elbows me. “You see, the pandit has a perfect memory.”

“Have you brought the natal charts?” He gazes at me with mild expectation.

“I, um, haven't got them. I didn't know I would be seeing you.”

He doesn't blink. I wonder if he ever blinks. I wonder if his eyelids even close. Maybe they're perpetually open, on the alert, like gecko eyes. “No matter. Your auntie has given some information, and I've done what I can.” He speaks to her in rapid Bengali.

I clear my throat. “Excuse me. What are you saying? I don't understand.”

His eyebrows furrow. “Bangla bolo na?”

Auntie shakes her head, her cheeks jiggling. “I've tried to teach her—”

“I don't have much opportunity to speak Bengali in San Francisco,” I say. “Ma and Baba sometimes spoke in Bengali when we were growing up, but our friends spoke English. Besides, our parents wanted us to assimilate into American culture.”

“Such a shame.” Pandit Parsai clicks his tongue again. “I'm telling your auntie that your fiancé is problematic.”

“Problematic? He's perfect!”

“You must look east.”

“I did. I live in the States. India is east from there.”

“Your true home is here.” He touches my forehead as if checking for a fever. His fingers are cold. “And I see many more problems.”

“Oh, Vishnu! What problems?” Auntie groans.

“There's no problem, Mr. Pandit. With all respect, how could you know? You haven't met my fiancé.” My fingers curl into fists.

Pandit rubs his nose with his forefinger. “Your fiancé is a cipher, ephemeral. It is as if … as if …”

“As if what?” I snap.

“As if he does not exist.” He takes Auntie's hand. “I'm concerned for this dear girl.”

“Oh, Vishnu, oh, Vishnu,” Auntie says. “What to do?”

“Nothing!” I shout. “Everything's fine.”

Pandit shakes his head. “Kiki, you must go.”

“Go where?” Auntie and I reply in unison.

“To America, of course. You must meet the fiancé.”

Auntie's mouth drops open. “Me? Go to America?”

“Hah, hah. You must approve the match.”

“How will I know, Pandit? Will there be a sign?”

“You'll know.” Pandit touches her chest with his forefinger. “In your heart.”

Auntie sucks in a long breath. “I'll
know
.”

I hold up my hands. “Wait, wait.
I
know him best. Let me decide, okay? He's my fiancé.”

Auntie and Pandit give me horrified looks. Auntie straightens her back. “I shall come to America.”

“Auntie, you needn't—”

“It's time for a trip abroad, and in any case, your Baba's birthday bash falls in two months. Quite soon after yours.”

My birthday is next week. “Look, Auntie, give this some thought—”

She lumbers to her feet. “Say nothing more. It is decided.”

Six

S
an Francisco in late August.

City of cable cars, Beat poets, flower children, Alcatraz. My city of dreams stretches out, vast and uncomplicated. I'm at ease as the plane descends over rolling hillsides dotted with rows of identical rooftops. I take comfort in the familiar curve of the shoreline, the Golden Gate Bridge rising red through the mist. Skyscrapers and highways run straight and symmetrical. The streets are scoured, the sky polished to a shine. Here, I can drink water free of parasites and walk around naked in my apartment. No relatives breathe down my neck, and the doors are made of solid wood with real brass knobs
and locks. It's hard to believe the chaotic city of Kolkata even exists.

I take the shuttle to my North Beach apartment, blissfully bright and adorned with hanging plants, books, and hardwood floors. My anchors calm me—reminders that I belong here: messages from friends on my answering machine, a slew of unread e-mails, envelopes stuffed into my mailbox.

I'm home, and here for only two months before Auntie will descend like Godzilla. She'll destroy the city and eat all my friends if I don't find a real fiancé in time. I should spend every minute of every day perusing the personal ads and combing the streets for the elusive Man of My Dreams. Not just for my family, but for myself.

BOOK: Imaginary Men
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ads

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