For dinner, they have lamb kebobs with chutney, cucumbers and bread. She had to extend office hours today, as the students kept coming in, actually waiting outside her office for a good half an hour to fix their pronunciation or ask for clarification. With the extra pull on her time, she is grateful that it is an easy meal to prepare: defrost, stir-fry, chop, toast, and serve. Neither of them has much to say, so dinner is spent mostly in silence.
As they finish up, Shanti rises to begin washing the plates. Rajiv continues eating. Between bites, he begins, “Today, my boss told us about the department meeting next week where we decide which classes each of us is going to teach next year. Has Professor Cohen contacted you yet?”
“No, not yet. Is that bad?”
“No, I’m sure she’ll come by in the next day or two.”
“So what do I do at this meeting?” Shanti asks, as she squeezes more dish soap onto a sponge.
“Usually everyone just says what they want to teach and then the department chair makes a list of courses that have to be taught and people pick from them. It’s not so bad.”
Shanti places the last glass in the dishwasher and returns to her seat at the table. “Rajiv, has anybody ever dropped your class halfway through the term?”
“Yes, of course. Why?”
“Have they ever told you why they quit?”
“Mostly because the class was too hard for them.”
“Never for any other reasons?”
“No, not that I can think of. Why? What happened?”
Shanti is torn. When she studied history at a university in Mumbai, nobody ever dropped out of a class in the middle of the term. She studied mostly conflict and Indian history, but what might have happened had she enrolled in a Mandarin class? Would her parents have yelled at her? Would they have made her come home and not let her go back? Would they have locked her in her room and jammed a broom under the doorknob out of anger? She considers these, but the idea is too surreal and she somehow cannot believe her mother and father would be so intolerant. Why would they care if she was studying Mandarin, as long as she still went to the mandir twice a week for the puja, observed a special aarti on the full moon, and stayed vegetarian on Mondays? Her father always used to say, “Why not know more?”
Perhaps Rajiv can offer some insight. He has been at the university longer. He has been in America longer. She decides to confide in her husband.
“Today, a student of mine, Anna, came into my office with some news.” She tells him what Anna, and her parents, said.
“You know that this must be for the best,” Rajiv replies. “And you cannot take these things personally. After all, it’s not your fault she dropped. These things happen. You just have to worry about taking care of the kids who are there.”
Shanti feels like she is supposed to be satisfied with this answer. And intellectually she is, for it is very logical. She still allows herself a short moment of self-pity before rising to wipe the stovetop clean.
It is clearly November on the college green, which is no longer green but covered in red, orange, and amber leaves that wisp about passionately in the wind. Rajiv thinks they are like excited electrons. Shanti thinks they are like children when a mango seller comes into the market, swarming him, pulling their parents by their fingers, already tasting the sweet, tart juice in their mouths, salivating for the fruit’s coolness in the Mumbai heat.
Shanti steps back from the library’s sixth story window towards the corner where foreign language books are shelved. She runs a fragile finger over the spines, looking for a copy of the Ramayana. While she is partial to a copy for little children, as she knows that will be the most fun for her class, she will take any copy she can find. She remembered that Diwali is coming up in just a few weeks and wants to celebrate in Elementary Hindi I. She has a copy at home, of course, but the idea for a lesson on the significance of the festival of lights just hit her, so she wants to get her hands on a copy of the entertaining epic as soon as possible. For this reason, she trudged through the sensory overload that was the first floor and made her way up here.
As usual, she finds nothing, so she returns to the lift lobby. However, she is shaken. It is her third semester here, but this is the first time she has actually looked for the text on campus. Where is it? This work is not just important for students studying Hindu theology; it is important for anyone who wants a proper college education, she thinks. Even if she never actually read Shakespeare in secondary school, she became intimately familiar with the plots of his stories. In the same way, she thinks, the Ramayana is an important story of a great journey to the demon’s kingdom and back. Stealing herself, she pushes the door open, taking the stairs down instead of the elevator. She wants to find her husband, go home, and make a proper four-course meal for them to enjoy. Samosas. Chicken Curry. Eggplant Bhaji. Gulab Jamun for dessert. No fries or chips on the side.
When she reaches the ground floor, she leaves the library and heads towards Case. Then she reconsiders, wanting to be alone, and doubles back towards her own office.
In their bedroom, Shanti is folding the laundry while Rajiv watches the news. They are both in their post-dinner routines: Rajiv is catching up on the world’s events while Shanti catches up on the chores she’s neglected. She places the last towels in the closet and, tasks completed, returns to the room. Rajiv is absorbed in the news, but Shanti has only a passing interest in it. She pulls the covers over herself and reaches for the Ramayana that she usually keeps on the nightstand. It is a favorite book to her; she reads the same passages again and again and never stops appreciating them. It isn’t there, though, and she suddenly knows exactly where it is: on the corner of her desk in the office. Somewhat annoyed, she turns to Rajiv.
“Rajiv, I can’t find my copy of the Ramayana. Where’s yours?”
“Hmmm?” Rajiv lowers the volume and looks at her. “Oh, I don’t have one.”
“But you’ve read it, right?”
“Yeah, my mother read it to me when I was young. I myself have never actually read it though.” Footage of a fire erupts on the screen and Rajiv raises the volume.
Shanti makes a note to buy him a copy for his next birthday then rolls over to pick up an issue of People from the floor.
A glass has crashed to the ground. Shanti was asleep, but wakes with a start, much in the way a mother wakes when she hears her baby crying. Monday morning doesn’t usually sneak up on her, but she stayed up late last night with her students’ papers. The 100-word compositions are their last assignment before the final and she wanted to give the papers back today so that the students have all week to study them. The clock glares at her: she has slept twenty-seven minutes later than she should have. She comes to her senses and rustles out of bed. A shawl hangs behind the door and she grabs it on her way downstairs.
Rajiv is furiously sweeping the floor with a broom and dustpan. He looks up and a pained look crosses his face. “Oh, I didn’t mean to wake you,” he says.
“It’s fine, I should have been up sooner anyway. What broke?”
“A teacup.” He picks up the dustpan and throws the tinkling remnants away.
“What were you doing with a teacup?” “I was making the chai this morning.”
It occurs to Shanti that she was not up early enough to make the morning cup of tea. Then a second, sillier thought occurs, and she is surprised to find herself voicing it. “You know how to make chai?”
“Of course. Remember, I lived by myself before you got here.” Rajiv smiles and gets another cup from the cabinet, pours the remaining chai from the pot into it, and adds milk. “I made your cup.”
Shanti watches him. He still adds too much milk, she thinks as she sits at the table and accepts the drink. The kitchen is warm, but the idea of winter is chilly to her and she wraps her fingers around the cup gratefully. She sips it. Hmm, she thinks. Perhaps a little heavy on the cardamom, but otherwise surprisingly good. She makes a note to add more of the spice than usual to his cup tomorrow. Shanti asks Rajiv if he wants toast for breakfast. He asks instead for a ham and cheese sandwich. She reminds him that it is Monday.
The room is silent except for pages turning. The students are studying at the last possible minute for the final exam. When Shanti walks in, they look up. Tucked under her arm is a spiral notebook, a large stack of exam booklets, their textbook, the Ramayana, the latest Miss India, the latest People magazine, and today’s copy of the Boston Globe. She will have plenty of time to read during the exam. She moves to the front of the room and places the large pile of papers on the desk.
“Namaste!” she says. She briefly considers explaining the directions for the final exam in Hindi but decides that she’ll spare her students and speaks English, clarifying the details of the identification, vocabulary, letter connection, dictation, and grammar sections of the test.
The students scribble while she reads. She reads about the crisis in Lebanon. She reads a few of her favorite verses of the Ramayana, where Hanuman leaps across the ocean to Lanka. She reads movie reviews in People and interviews with actors in Miss India. She browses the textbook and a copy of the exam one last time to make sure the test is fair.
After about two hours, the students begin to leave, and after the three hour exam period is done, Shanti stands up and tells the seven remaining students to pass in their exams. She notices Rajiv in the doorframe of the classroom. As the students file out, (looking mostly pleased with themselves, Shanti notes), Rajiv files in.
“Hello, Shanti. Are you ready to go?” he asks. They both have finished administering exams for the day and have decided to go to the cinema in the city and catch a Bollywood flick.
“I will be in just a second,” she says, as she packs up her things. “Which movie do you want to see?”
“Any one is fine with me, whichever one you have heard is good.” Shanti considers the movies that she read about in Miss India. Then she
realizes that there are a few she read about in People that looked surprisingly interesting that Rajiv might like more. Besides, she has to grade fifty final exams in Hindi tomorrow. Maybe it’s better to enjoy a movie in English. She offers this suggestion to Rajiv.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Rajiv. Whichever one you want.”
He smiles, and she smiles too. She looks around to make sure there are no students lingering and kisses her husband. Then she gathers her sari around her, picks up her books, and follows Rajiv out of the classroom. She hits the lights on her way out and they begin walking home. As they walk, she spots the library in the periphery of her vision. All of a sudden, an idea occurs to her. “Rajiv, can we stop in the library for one minute?”
They walk in and, though packed, the library is buzzing with the silence of studying students. Shanti and Rajiv walk up to the service desk where a student is reading a textbook. Shanti shuffles through her papers and finds the Ramayana. She tells the perplexed student, “I’d like to donate this to the library’s collection, please.”
The student seems underprepared to handle the situation at hand. Shanti smiles amiably. Her hand brushes Rajiv’s as they prepare to leave. “It’s important for the library to have it,” she says, “And there’s space on the sixth floor.”
Suraj Uttamchandani is a senior Mathematics major at SUNY Geneseo, originally from Commack, New York. When he’s not trying to force a link between the banal and the abstract, he plays with impossible equations and other maddeningly infinite mathematical objects. If he could, he would gladly have a cup of tea or coffee with Jhumpa Lahiri, who has inspired much of his writing.