by Murali Kamma
Priya wasn’t the sole reason for my attraction to the House of Books—but certainly, if it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have become a member of the bookstore. I was sixteen, and that year everything changed for my family. Although I’d completed 10th grade and received my secondary school certificate, I didn’t apply to a junior college for the 11th and 12th grades—which we called intermediate—because, as my father said, Amma and I would soon be joining him in America, where I’d go to a high school that he’d already checked out. But then our departure got delayed, and Nana called from the U.S. to tell my mother and me that I should do a course in computer programming instead of wasting my time. I enrolled at an institute, reluctantly, and found the course baffling.
It was my uncle in the U.S. who had sponsored us, years ago. The wait had been so long that I’d forgotten about it until we got the call from the U.S. Consulate in India. When we cleared the interview and got our immigrant visas, I was both excited and apprehensive, wondering what our lives in a new country would be like. While I was curious about America, about which I knew little, I had no interest in learning about computer programming. Without telling anybody, I dropped out of the course.
There were no coffeehouses in my hometown back then, not to mention the Internet or cellphones, and my friends had either joined a local junior college or moved away; so I was pretty much on my own, free to do as I pleased, with nobody but Amma to question me. It’d be a lie to say that I gravitated to the House of Books because I was a reader. What drew me first was its proximity to the computer institute. And then there was the rumor that the bookstore’s first owner, a hippie poet, had come to India from America in the freewheeling ’70s. That wasn’t true, I soon discovered (the bookstore had been opened by an Anglo-Indian, who then sold it before moving away). Its name was appropriate, for without the sign it could have been mistaken for a house—and the location made sense as well because of the local university, which was close enough to bring steady business to this refuge for bibliophiles.
It was hot and muggy the day of my first visit, with the promise of rain from an overcast sky, when I got off a bus near the computer institute and dodged honking vehicles while crossing a busy street to enter the House of Books. A blast of cool air—and silence—greeted me. The front section of the store housed new books, and at this time there were few customers or browsers. With scarcely a glance, I walked past the aisles to the spacious back section, which I knew functioned as a circulating library. You could become a borrower for a modest fee or sit and read on one of the worn sofas or chairs in the rooms, which had rows of wooden shelves stacked with used books. You could also buy most of these titles. It was livelier here, and one of the first people I spotted was Priya, who seemed to be checking out some books at the circulation desk.
* * *
“How’s the computer course, Dinesh?” Nana said on the phone. “You’ll love the high school here, by the way. But it’s not that close, so you may have to take the bus.”
“Okay, Nana. How are you coping with the weather? I heard that the snow is like vanilla ice cream.” I was eager to change the subject.
He laughed. “Where did you hear that? It’s an amazing sight, no doubt…something you can look forward to. It’s nice, I think, until it becomes too much.”
My father, to nobody’s surprise, had made a swift transition to his new life in America. He’d always been enterprising and gregarious, willing and able to take on new challenges, and this time it was no different as he set about making connections, exploring possibilities. Nana was overqualified for the job he’d found, my mother said, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Seeing it as a stepping stone for bigger things, he bought a used car and moved from his brother’s house to an apartment that wasn’t far from his place of work. After frequent calls from him in the initial weeks, Nana—who was working long hours—said that he’d talk to us once a week.
So every Sunday night we went to the living room and waited for the phone to ring. Amma spoke to him first, usually on the speakerphone, and started by inquiring about his health. She wasn’t happy that he frequently warmed up frozen meals in the microwave or picked up food from an Indian eatery he’d found close by.
“Who has the time to cook?” Nana said, adding that he spent much of his spare time looking for a better job.
“You’re a well-qualified engineer with experience,” Amma said. “I’m sure somebody will be happy to hire you.”
“I trained in a different country, Shaila. It’ll take time. The economy has slowed, so a lot of people are hurting. But this is America…things will get better.”
I’d begun to notice a change in Nana, though we couldn’t see him and our phone conversations now were weekly. The way he spoke was a little different, in that he used certain phrases—like “you must be kidding” and “get cracking”—which were puzzling at first, and his accent sounded more American. ‘Pahs’ (as in “Did you pass the test?”) became ‘paas’ when he said it.
Uncharacteristically for Nana, just before leaving India, he was suddenly beset by doubts and he wondered if it was the right move for him at his age. The run-up to the Persian Gulf War, following the invasion of Kuwait, accounted for much of the anxiety. Amma didn’t want him to fly abroad during that time. My father, too, wasn’t happy about flying, and he couldn’t tell how long the crisis would last. A recession seemed certain. “The timing is bad, Shaila, but we have to do it for the boy’s sake,” I overheard him say.
But it was a different story when he called us one day from the U.S. “We have won!” he exulted. “The war is over. America is the only superpower…even the Soviet Union is breaking up. I envy you, Dinesh. It’s a good time to be young and starting out in this country. The ’90s are only going to get better. You have a bright future here. All you have to do is stay focused and work hard. The economy will bounce back soon, believe me, and Bush will be re-elected by a landslide.”
* * *
Major events may have been taking place on the world stage, but I hardly paid attention to the news. On that first visit to the bookstore, I was thrilled to see Priya. Although she’d been at my school, completing 10th grade a year earlier, we’d only exchanged smiles when we happened to see each other. I’d been eager to speak to her, but I hadn’t taken the initiative. I decided to do that now. It was Priya who spoke first.
“Hello,” she said, turning her head. “Dinesh, right? Aren’t you shifting to the U.S.?”
I nodded. As she put a couple of books in her bag, strands of her charcoal-black hair, long and loose, slid across her face and partially obscured it. “I…we…will be gone…going…later,” I managed to say. “My father is already there. Nice to see you.”
She looked up, her eyes smiling—and before moving away, said, “See you around.”
After browsing for a while in the House of Books, I became a member and started going there regularly, hoping to see her again. Sure enough, Priya was back at the bookstore a few days later, and when I walked in, she was sitting on a sofa and looking through a stack of books. An avid reader, I realized. I was more into comic books and television, but lately I’d begun gorging on fast-paced, plot-driven westerns, one of which I held in my hand. I slid the tattered paperback into my pocket. Eager to impress her, I wished I were holding a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which I’d seen in the bookstore.
“Hi,” she said, holding up a book. “Have you read The Great Gatsby?”
“No,” I said, taking it from her. “But I’ve heard of it. Isn’t it famous in America?”
Priya nodded, and again I saw a smile light up her lovely eyes. “You should read it. I want to read it, too. You should also read To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe we can form a book club. There are so many American authors, from Mark Twain to Maya Angelou.”
“So we should only focus on American writing?” I was beginning to feel a little intimidated. My acquaintance with the classics of American literature was mostly limited to comic-book versions, but I was embarrassed to admit it.
“Why not?” she said, gathering her books and rising. “We read so many Indian and British authors, but we don’t know much about American writing. Let’s correct that.”
“Sure, I’m fine with it.” The “we” pleased me and I was keen to be included in her book club. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get started. Working up my nerve, I asked her if we could discuss it further over drinks at the nearby Shalimar Restaurant.
Priya agreed, to my surprise, but said that we’d have to make it quick. In the a/c section of the restaurant, it was chilly—though it was better there than in the noisier, more crowded non-a/c section, which only had ceiling fans. Our conversation, in this very public place, was stilted at first. Priya had opted for the BPC track (biology, physics, chemistry) in junior college, and was also focusing on premed, but I sensed that she was aiming for medicine because of her parents. What she wanted to talk about was literature.
“So what do you plan to study in the U.S.?” she asked, as I drank my lukewarm coffee.
“Not sure. Economics, maybe. But not computer science, which is what my father wants me to do. In the meantime, I’m ready for a dose of American literature.”
Priya smiled. “Shall we go?” she said. “It’s time for me to catch my bus.”
On Sunday evening, my mother unexpectedly said, “Nana is not calling today, so if you’re done with your homework, you can watch TV or read.”
That night, I heard Amma’s raised voice, and though her speech wasn’t distinct because of the closed bedroom door, I could tell that she was arguing with Nana. About what? Her eyes were red the next morning, as if she hadn’t slept or was crying, but there was no mention of the phone call and she carried on with her daily routine.
Later in the day, I met Priya at the House of Books and we walked to Shalimar, where we switched to Campa Cola and discussed literature. Rather, it was Priya who talked as she compiled a list of novels that we could read together, starting with The Great Gatsby.
“We don’t know when you’re leaving, so let’s keep the list short,” she said.
Even a long list would have been fine, to be honest—I was no longer consumed by America. A new excitement possessed me. I was ready to take the plunge and do some serious reading, though not because I’d developed a sudden love for literature.
When I got home, Amma was going through a stack of bank documents in the living room. “Where were you?” she said, not looking up.
Taken aback by the tone of her voice, I hesitated. “Class, Amma,” I said. “Then I went to see a friend.”
She looked up, her eyes piercing me. “Who’s that girl?” she said sharply.
I froze. “Girl? Er…her name is Priya. She’s in my class, Amma.”
Rising swiftly, she walked over and, before I knew what was happening, her hand struck my cheek, leaving a stinging sensation. “Liar! Just like your father. You want to be a loafer and run after girls…and waste your life?” She was trembling with anger. “Go to your room—now.”
I did, hastily, and remained there until she called me for dinner. Had somebody recognized me at Shalimar and called her? I didn’t dare to say that I wasn’t hungry, but fortunately, Amma—who seemed preoccupied—left me alone. I was relieved when she didn’t ask why I had dropped out or what I was doing with my time. Still, I ate quickly and went back to my room.
That night, when I heard her on the phone again, I was tempted to step out and eavesdrop—but wisely, I resisted. Amma had never, as far as I could remember, said anything negative about Nana in my presence. So it was shocking to hear her call him a liar. What could he have done to incense her?
Before drifting off, I recalled something she’d said on my 12th birthday, just before my picture was taken at a local studio. I was wearing a blazer and tie for the first time in my life, and my hair was slickly combed.
“You resemble your father so much.” Adjusting my collar, Amma added, “But don’t be a heartbreaker.” She laughed. Though I hadn’t paid much attention, the remark stuck. And now I wondered if she’d been implying something about Nana.
“You can bring only two suitcases each,” had been Nana’s refrain before he left for America. He told me to discard what I didn’t need and save in a box what wasn’t essential for our new life. Things like books and records that I didn’t want to give away could be stored at my aunt’s house. My mother had also begun the difficult process of sorting. But now she seemed to have lost interest. She stopped packing, and I overheard her tell our neighbor that we weren’t ready to sell our flat yet. Nana, on the other hand, had been eager to put it on the market as soon as our visas came through. Amma had pleaded for more time, saying that we shouldn’t uproot ourselves from India so abruptly.
“Make sure you have a junior college application so that we can apply here on time,” she said, a day after she caught me lying.
“Aren’t we going to America?” I wanted to ask. Instead, I said, “Okay, Amma.”
The computer course wasn’t mentioned again, luckily, but she told me to borrow my cousin’s junior college textbooks and keep up with my studies. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Despite my repeated attempts, I didn’t see Priya again at the House of Books. Had her parents also found out and banned her from seeing me? Like me, I realized, she belonged to a strict, conservative middle-class family. Calling her, assuming I could get her phone number, seemed dicey—so I wondered if there was another way for me to meet her. Going to her junior college was an option, but what if she didn’t want to see me?
Another weekend passed without a call from Nana. Then, when I was home on a weekday afternoon, the phone rang, startling me. Amma had gone to her room to rest after complaining that she wasn’t feeling great. I was in the living room, reading To Kill a Mocking Bird. I had finally put away all my comic books.
“Hello, Dinesh. Nice to hear your voice! No class today? How are you doing?”
“Nana…I’m fine. How are you? Is everything okay, Nana?”
“Well, I’m chugging along. Did you hear that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated?”
“What? Who, Nana?”
“The former Indian prime minister, Dinesh. He was assassinated while campaigning about half-an-hour ago.”
Amma, bleary-eyed, was in the living room by now. I told her. “Oh, my god!” she said, reaching for the remote. But instead of turning on the TV, she sat still, listening and watching me, as Nana and I continued to talk.
“Nana wants me to turn on the speakerphone,” I said, cupping the mouthpiece. She nodded and came closer, her expression still grim.
He cleared his throat. “First, I want to apologize to Amma for my reckless behavior. I began drinking because I was depressed…I missed you both. Yes, I lied. I was embarrassed to admit that I was working as a janitor. But it’s an honest, safe job and I don’t look down on it. Yes, I spent money carelessly…I’m sorry. I have to do better.”
Nana paused. I was so stunned that I could scarcely breathe. I had never heard him talk like this. I think he wanted Amma to say something. But she remained silent.
“Most of all, as a drunken fool, I did something stupid to hurt Amma,” he continued. “It wasn’t serious at all, but it was a terrible mistake. I felt really ashamed and asked for forgiveness. The economy is improving, so my prospects are improving. In fact, I just got an encouraging response from a prospective employer. And Dinesh, of course, will have a great future here. Give me another chance—we’ll be a happy family again.”
Now Amma had a response. Snatching the handset, she ended Nana’s extraordinary monologue with a click—and then, without a word, left the living room. Still dazed, I walked to the bookshelf. Looking for the dictionary, I wondered what “janitor” meant. A little later, I could hear Amma sobbing in her bedroom. Had she uncovered an indiscretion? Perhaps somebody else had answered the phone when she called Nana, arousing her suspicion. My imagination ran wild, but I couldn’t figure it out.
Soon, it wasn’t only the American economy that began to improve. In India, following a long period of stagnation and socialist mismanagement, the brakes were finally released, starting the gradual process of liberalization. Like the former command economies of Europe—the Eastern Bloc died around that time, and the European Union was born not long afterwards—India also began to revive and move up the growth curve. However, we didn’t stick around to see how it all played out. We left India within a few months, and the ’90s became our first American decade.
Again, it was my physician uncle in the U.S. who set things in motion. He called us one evening, just as Amma and I were finishing dinner. Nana had been admitted to the hospital after experiencing chest pains, my uncle said, but there was nothing to worry about. It hadn’t been a heart attack, luckily—so he was back at home and in good spirits. But it would be better if the family stayed together, he added; the economy was improving and this period of adjustment was temporary. Tearfully, Amma thanked him for all his support and said that she’d make arrangements for our departure to the U.S.
The next several months became a blur. By the time I became accustomed to our new life in America, and it began to feel real, the news was all about the U.S. presidential election. Every evening, in our cramped and overheated apartment, while munching on snacks made by Amma, who had started a home-based catering business, we watched the drama unfold on TV. Nana was shattered when Bill Clinton defeated George Bush, but I was pleased. A new era began, and what a decade the ’90s turned out to be.
Shortly before we left India, I did make a final trip to the House of Books, where, to my surprise, the circulation clerk handed me a book.
“I didn’t reserve anything—I’m closing my account,” I said.
“One of our members asked us to give this to you,” he said, smiling.
It was a brand-new copy of The Great Gatsby, with a note attached to it. Sitting on a chair, I unfolded the sheet of paper.
I’m sorry to be saying goodbye in this manner. I hardly come to the House of Books these days (I’ve been a little busy with my studies), and when I do, I’m with somebody. I enjoyed our chats over the tepid coffee and tingly Campa Cola. Hope you had fun too.
Let me wish you all the best on your exciting passage to America. Perhaps we’ll meet again when you visit India. Our book club didn’t take off, but there’s no reason why our reading shouldn’t. Here’s “The Great Gatsby” to get you started. Wouldn’t it be cool if we both read it at the same time? Bon voyage!
Rising, I put the note in my pocket and walked to the front section. Scanning the shelves, I wondered if Priya would like The House of Mirth, which I’d seen once before in the House of Books. The title was intriguing, catching my attention, but I didn’t know anything about the novel. Picking it up as a possibility, I continued to browse. Like Priya, I decided to buy a new book and, after attaching a note, leave it with the circulation clerk.