Why Not Know More?
It is still awkward in the house. Shanti Jana leans one arm on a broom as she stares at a calendar on the refrigerator. It is colorful and government-provided, orange marking the days of trash pick-up and green marking recycling. She places a dark brown finger gently on November, running her finger across the rows until she hits today’s date. Her wedding was in August, which means that it has been almost four months since Rajiv, a stranger who spoke perfect Hindi but took his chai with too much milk, arrived at her family’s house in Mumbai. It has been three months, then, since she stayed up all night whispering with her mother about whether this was what he wanted, certain that no man would want to take her and her barrenness to America. It has been two and a half months since she woke up in Boston and it has been one hour since she last wondered if her husband was happier living in bachelorhood in America before his parents required that he pick up a wife in India in much the way you stop by the market to pick up chilies and lamb to make for dinner.
Rajiv comes home from the university every night at six o’clock, although once in a while he holds a review session for an Introduction to Physics exam or helps a student who is having difficulties with a problem set. It has not yet been a full semester, so Shanti doesn’t know if this will always be her husband’s pattern. She lets tonight’s dal boil as she considers this. She has only been to the university once, on the first weekend she was here—the walk was short but it was chilly—and she did not much care for it. It was efficient to the point of excess. Glass windows. Fancy new computers. Whiteboards with markers. The whiteboards are perhaps the strangest part, she thinks. She has never seen erasable markers before.
As she adds coriander to the pot, the increased pungency of the kitchen is comforting. Cooking is her most sensory connection to Mumbai since she has come here. The house is small enough that she hears keys turn in the front door’s knob, since the lentils are no longer boiling so loudly. Rajiv walks into his house.
“Hello, Shanti,” he says in Hindi. He is cordial but not romantic. Her response is friendly with an afterthought of trepidation: “Hello.”
“How was your day?” he asks, as though they have just learned the routine in a Hindi class and are practicing it with a partner for the first time.
“It was nice. I walked to the market. The fish monger gave me a good price.”
“Is that what’s for dinner?”
“It’s Monday.” Her response doesn’t compute for Rajiv. Since he is not trying to hide his confusion, she continues, “I cannot cook meat in this house on Monday.”
Her family has made a long-standing observance of this. For generations, they practiced vegetarianism on Mondays and the purnima, the full moon. Her parents have warned her to be flexible with regards to her new life in America, but this is one issue on which she cannot remain docile. After all, she thinks, I should not have to cook an animal merely because my husband has been in America longer. She has no objection to Rajiv eating meat on these days, but she refuses to prepare it. “I made dal,” she suggests, and moves to set the table. He sits.
She arrives at his office in Alan E. Case Physics Conservatory at the edge of campus with Thai food in a wrinkly brown bag from Phuckett Express. Shanti has wavered slightly from her adherence to an Indian-only diet and is no longer offended by the idea that there might be other good cooks in Massachusetts. She has grown bored of the house and its daily emptiness, so she has taken to bringing lunch to Rajiv and sitting with him. Their talk is still a rare thing—she does tell him a joke that she read in Miss India this week and he laughed—but she often watches as he works out equations on a whiteboard using symbols with which she is unfamiliar.
She cannot stop herself from wondering about the validity of his conclusions. They look believable, but how can he deduce perfectly how much cooler a hot plate will be in three hours or how fast a ball will fall from a balcony? There is something about her husband’s work, she thinks, that is ludicrously unbelievable. There is so little consistency, so few rules. She is in America now, she recalls, and does not know whether this fact proves or disproves her theory.
She convinces Rajiv to drive her deeper into the heart of the city, where the cinema has started showing foreign films. A Bollywood movie is playing and Shanti is very excited at the prospect of going. Rajiv, for his part, prefers Hollywood films.
“It will be fun!” she says.
He replies, “Shanti, I have to grade these tests.” She says, “You never take me out.”
“I didn’t know that mattered to you.”
The room is silent for a quarter of a moment before Shanti feels guilty. He has, after all, provided for her for half a year now.
“It’s not important,” she says. He gets the car keys.
Boredom permeates the house as Shanti puts the Windex back under the sink. She has only just recently begun to consider the possibility that the house is too small. It can only be cleaned so many times before it fails to get messy again. In the stagnancy, her thoughts go to little ones. Little ones would run around the house, crying, screaming, needing. She would spend thoughts on their education and values and happiness. They would smile and sob often, bundles of blankets that cannot control their emotions. Little ones would make the house messy.
She thinks about what she would name them until she knows she shouldn’t think about it anymore. Four years ago, her body simply stopped ovulating (her mother checked her temperature daily to make sure). Her parents took her to a hospital deep in Mumbai, where the British doctors still were, and they told her that she was barren. Shanti learned long ago that there comes a point where you must stop thinking or you will unravel, and if you cannot produce life you must at least retain your own. She speaks out loud. “Meh ma kabhi nahi bun sakti.” It is a phrase she is too familiar with: I can never become a mother.
She goes to the tall bathroom mirror, checks that the sari she is wearing is decent, and leaves the house, stopping at Frank’s Deli to pick up sandwiches and chips before she arrives at Case. After their quiet lunch—she mentions a new recipe she came across this week, and Rajiv expresses interest in trying it—Shanti begins walking home. The library building lies in the auxiliary of her vision every day, but today it pulls her focus more so than usual. She checks her watch but there is nothing she needs to get back to, so she wanders in.
The lobby overloads her senses. There is a couple kissing, pecking each other lightly on the cheeks until their lips finally meet. There is a clattering of the new ivory keyboards. A bell is chiming every few seconds to indicate an elevator arriving on the main floor. She cannot conceive of someone being able to get work done here. After a minute, she turns around and returns home.
Rajiv opens the door into the kitchen, and Shanti is glad of it. Her days are more humdrum than ever and she has grown to love her husband’s arrival, enjoying the uncertainty of it. There is a strange thrill in what Rajiv will or will not say on a given day. What mood will he be in: talkative or taciturn? Will the conversation be serious, or polite, or silent altogether?
She quickly concludes that today, Rajiv is talkative. He has picked up the newspaper from the kitchen table and is huffing at certain headlines. This is how he tries to convey to Shanti that there is something on his mind, and she knows this. She continues to play the game, ignoring his huffing until it is so clear that he is trying to get her attention that ignoring it for any longer would just be silly.
“How was your day?” she begins, in their usual way. “It went well. How was yours?” he replies.
“It was okay. Dull as usual.” Shanti’s sentiments are no secret to Rajiv. “It’s interesting that you say that. There was that faculty meeting today,
the one I told you about? The provost was going on and on about the general curriculum requirements. Professor Cohen, the head of the language department also spoke. It seems they are adding a mandatory foreign language requirement for all students.”
“Oh? So the kids will know not just American, but also English?” They laugh lightly.
Rajiv continues, “They’re teaching all the European languages, you know, Spanish and French and all that. But they want to have even more options.” The room is silent for a moment, since they both have a sense of where the conversation is going.
“Do you think that they would want someone for Hindi?” Shanti asks. “You have an interview next week with Professor Cohen.”
She has chosen a beautiful sari, one that she has never worn before. She performed a small puja this morning, and, with a red tilak on her forehead, she looks as though no time has passed since the day she immigrated to America despite the year between then and now. She carries a spiral notebook and the textbook she has selected—Namaste! A Friendly Introduction to Hindi Language and Letters—under her arm. The classroom is larger than she expects it to be and her figure in the front of it is not at all imposing. She lays her books out on the podium and the doors rattle as someone else enters.
Rajiv is smiling. Shanti imagines he is pleased with the way they teamed up to get her this job. She too is pleased.
“First day!” he begins. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m nervous,” she says. “What if they don’t understand me? What if I don’t do a good job?”
“Peace, Shanti. Come to Case after class and tell me how it went.” A student, the first one, walks into the room, and Rajiv switches to English. “You’ll do fine.”
With that, Rajiv shakes her hand and leaves the room.
She sits quietly in her office, unsure of what to do. The space is small but larger than the bedroom in which she grew up. She puts Namaste on the shelf, on its back since there are no other books to help keep it upright. She is out of things to do, so she begins to tidy the barren space, dusting it with the end of her sari. This task is quickly finished, so she looks up at the clock on the wall. She is supposed to be holding office hours, but it has been half an hour and no students have arrived for help. She thinks, would it really be so bad if I leave? Shanti sits at the chair, disquieted by the large desk before her, and begins to whisper-sing a bajaan under her breath.
“Repeat after me: Meh.”
“Meh: I. Bharat. India. Seh: from. Hoon: am. Meh Bharat seh hoon: I am from India. Now, repeat after me: Aap.”
“Aap: You. Umreeka: America. Seh: from. Hain: are. Aap Umreeka seh hain: You are from America.” Shanti pauses for a second, thinking about what she’s just said. The students’ pronunciation was particularly good.
“Professor Jana,” a declarative voice asserts, accompanying a polite knock on Shanti’s office door.
Shanti looks up to see Anna Johnson, a tall sophomore with curly red hair. She looks downtrodden and confused, as though she accidentally put salt in her tea instead of sugar. Her glasses make her look more intelligent, but she is skinny and looks fun-loving as well. “Can I come in?”
“Yes, of course,” Shanti says as she folds the newspaper back in half and places it in the corner of her desk. “Take a seat. What’s troubling you?”
“I have some bad news. I don’t know how to phrase it.”
Shanti wants to say, let me make us some chai and we can discuss whatever it is. Instead she merely gestures for Anna to continue.
“I have to drop Hindi.”
Shanti leans forward slightly, sitting on the edge of her chair. “Why?”
“My parents don’t want me to keep taking it.”
“We got into a fight about it last week over spring break. They didn’t want me using up credits on it since it doesn’t count for anything and I got Spanish credit from high school. I mean, I do want to graduate on time and, well, they’re paying for college so it’s their call. I’m sorry.”
Has Anna not been enjoying the class? Does she think it will never be useful? Shanti’s sadness becomes anger; why sign up in the first place when there are other people who might want this spot? She is suddenly confused. How does someone just stop trying halfway through the term? She chooses silence as Anna reaches into her knapsack and pulls out a manila folder. Inside, there is a small sheet of paper which she hands to Shanti. Printed neatly across the top, she sees Course Withdrawal Form, and then below it, Anna’s name and ID number in handwriting that carries a forced formality. She reads HIND 100—Elementary Hindi I and then her own name. Below that is a blank line, with small print under it that directs, “Instructor’s signature required.”
Shanti opens a drawer to grab a pen and briefly considers writing in Devanagari script, but decides against it and signs. “Have a good day, Anna,” she says, handing back the form as Anna stands and puts her knapsack back over her shoulder.