It’s not about land, it’s about money. He whispers his mantra as the world drops away, swinging like a pendulum around the plane. The glittering ribbon of the Thames, the official stamps of the Royal parks, a bald white dome spiked with a yellow crown, are swallowed by summer’s deep twilight. The plane lifts, the clouds quilt beneath it, tucking England into bed to dream of better times. It is still yesterday, according to his watch. He winds the dial forwards. Now it is tomorrow, only eight hours to go.
He’s landed the window seat with the broken touchscreen: it’s either in-flight information or Slumdog Millionnaire, the last movie he ever took Ma to. They went on release weekend. The entire line of people had been brown so for once Ma didn’t hunch in his shadow as if his jeans and camel coat would protect her, explain her. Instead they had the same old fight about Iris, and as he bought toffee popcorn she began to sniff: she said she was catching a chill. She kept up the sniffing as the credits rolled over the entire cast line-dancing on the set of an Indian train station. When they got outside he thought she’d been crying. He put his arms around her: her head was the perfect place for his chin to rest. He asked her if she liked the movie, she said she didn’t at all. It was not real India, except for the songs.
It’s been a long haul from JFK to the LHR stopover. He’s half shot with the comfort of Johnnie Walker, knows it’s not the best but he appreciates the label. It feels bespoke to him, like a child in a gift shop who finds a mug with his own name on it. No gift shop in America has a JIVAN mug so he borrowed JON, and that’s been it since he did this trip the other way. Thirteen-years-old: sold on leaving India by the promise of his first time in the air.
Forward, forward, he wills the plane, drumming his hands on his tray-table, earning himself a sideways glance from the woman wedged into the seat next to him. She’s using her iPhone (4) to photograph the back page of the inflight magazine: Ambika Gupta: offering you the miracle of advanced Numerology: a digit for your future. She pokes the man on her other side: Sardarji in a blue turban, matching jersey stretched over his belly, stitched with a white Number 5. Dude looks like he’s birthing quintuplets under there. She smiles at him, sits back in her seat. There are thin red lines traced all over her hands in fading bridal henna as if she’s been turned inside out, painful, beautiful, the pattern of her is all paisleys. Her ring is a platinum band with a square cut white diamond and her bag is Longchamps like all the pretty-pretty girls have; navy waterproof with brown leather trim, but small, the cheapest. Don’t you know, pretty girl, that no bag is better than trying too hard? She’s flicking through the in-flight magazine: ads for Marc Jacobs, Charlize Theron, flicks to the gadgets, flicks to the movies, clink-chime-clink go the red glass bangles stacked up her wrists.
It sounds like the overture to Ma’s practice music. Played for her to dance Kathak, with precision, while Jivan kept time. Fist thumping into palm, Dha-din-din-dha. His memories are coloured by her last months – Ma, fading from brown to yellow, a bruise that would not heal against the hospital white. Dha-din-din-dha became her fingers beating lightly on his temples – blurring into the rattle of her breath towards the end – the background hum of the plane’s engine in his ears. They are cruising high over the mountains of who knows where.
He pulls out his own magazine. The cover is a cartoon illustration – a tiny brown body topped with an oversized head. Under a halo of white hair, two puffed cheeks blow out candles on a vast birthday cake the shape of an udder. India, sprouting with the turrets of heritage hotels, factory chimneys. Cars race off its surface, bolts of cloth unfurl, tigers hunt goats through spurting oil rigs. The orange headline shouts: Happy 75th Birthday Devraj Bapuji! The spotlight falls on the wily old face. This man, on this cover, on this flight – this is what Ma would have called a sign.
— Sir, beverage?
The airhostess is white bread, plum jam lickable; her smile promises drinks, upgrades, a hand to hold if the plane goes down. Jon wants to show-and-tell the magazine to her, Hey, my real name is Jivan! When I was a kid, I knew this guy! He is Bapuji, my half-brother’s Godfather. He’s like my Uncle, not blood, but you know. I grew up with his daughters, Gargi and Radha. I remember when Sita, his youngest was born. He might even speak the verboten words: Have you heard of Ranjit Singh, Bapuji’s second in command? He’s my actual, like, Pa! He should just draw her a cast list complete with family trees.
— Nothing, he says. For me.
The plane turns east. On screen its tiny replica inches forward, crossing out half the world with a thin red line. He shifts again, trying to keep his shirt from creasing, his suit from getting crumpled. His tie has a stripe that confirms a certain university (Harvard); his shoes are handmade English (Lobbs). These are the spoils he is returning with. After fifteen years. To Delhi, city of his childhood, a diamond inside a diamond on the map.
The cabin lights fade. The passengers recline, stiff like store dummies, eyes masked against each other. He opens the magazine.
Birthday Greetings, by Barun J. Bharat.
J.J.J. Maybe, Jivan thinks, Barun’s one of those guys who needs that extra initial, like some men need a tie-pin, to make him feel safe. Or maybe he has a more famous brother.
The Age of Devraj, writes Barun. We salute him, founder of The Devraj Company, one of India’s most loved tycoons, who has just achieved his Seventy Fifth year.
Devraj. Grinning from a double page spread, dressed in a safari suit and hat. Up to his knees in the watery, fragile Sunderbans, a tiger cub cradled in his arms. Visionary Business man, Guru to millions, employer of thousands, head of the hundred-hotel Company, father of three lovely daughters, Gargi, Radha and Sita, the caption says. Adoptive father to Tipu Sultan, a two-year-old tiger cub, who was raised by Devraj Bapuji, Animal Lover and Environmental Hero, in the Company private zoo.
And also – also – Godfather to one lucky bro called Jeet. How could Barun J. Bharat, in-flight journalist, miss that? What about the textile mills from Punjab to Trivandrum, busy spinning silk into gold? Or the cement and brickworks in some serious backwaters? Huff and puff, said the big, bad wolf, aré, of course the house won’t blow down. Don’t forget the transport industry that runs on parts made in Company factories, from steel, mined and smelted in Company concerns – Barun needs a lesson in proper research: the kind of deep Googling a person might do if they were banished to a galaxy far, far away, surviving in exile, waiting.
There is some news. The Company is moving into cars. It will produce, in the name of Devraj’s youngest, most precious daughter Sita, and in recognition of her commitment to many causes, but particularly to Mother Nature, India’s first hybrid, the world’s smallest vehicle, aimed at the common man. The Company reach is only growing in these times when India, Barun writes, is claiming her rightful place on the global stage. All has been brought into being by Devraj Bapuji’s sheer determination, his far-reaching gaze. One of our most venerated business leaders, his spirituality ever feeding his superlative business ethos, his work for the girl-child in education recognised by a special Businesses in Charitable Endeavours Award given to him by Akshay Kapil, honourable Minister of Education, and the President of India, Pratibha Patil. A close personal friend of left and right and an adviser on fiscal policy, his skill with a skillet at family barbecues is most appreciated by his friends. He is a man whose fearlessness in business has grown from grassroots to luxury hotels into one of India’s leading brands yet he remains humble.
Wow, could Barun use a class in white writing. His prose is cloying like Diwali sweets, clogging the throat. Jalebi language, full of twists and turns, slick with the street oil it’s fried in. Yet, Jon can taste his longed-for Delhi in the words. Could he speak Barun, if he tried? He has the core skills. Before he was sent to America, his father would task him to take the daily national newspapers, to search and cut and read out loud any coverage that mentioned Devraj, Ranjit or the Company concerns. He was an obedient nine-years-old: he only told the good stories. In those days it seemed that was all there was: it looks as if nothing has changed.
He smiles. Who would guess from this report that Devraj used to wear specially dyed, saffron coloured Y-fronts every day? That some guru told the old man he would live past a hundred if he did? Those are true facts. Once when he was still called Jivan, and only about ten, he was playing The Bold and the Beautiful with Radha (it was her idea), somewhere they should not have been (Devraj’s walk-in closet). In a drawer under the kurta pyjama, the handloom shawls, the ties hanging flaccid from a rack, he saw the stacks of orange underwear for himself. Radha told him what the Pundit had said for longevity of body and name: saffron must be worn each day, next to the most precious skin. Was that the first time Radha showed Jivan her own panties? Pink they were, with frills. Then, she cried because he would not show his.
He skims the pages until a smaller headline stops his eye. Devraj Celebrates as Company forays to Kashmir. This, he did not know. Soon, according to Barun J. Bharat, the discerning tourist will be able to holiday courtesy of the Company in seven-star luxury in the coolest (literally!) new destination for domestic and international travellers, reclaiming the world’s most beautiful memory of love. Where the latest iteration of the iconic Company Mukti Spa, the article says, will make you say ‘Ahh.’
New car launching, new hotel opening. Domestic tourist market growing in a city ripe for takeover. The whole world in recession except at Devraj Company, Main Street, New India. He sits back, the magazine a baton in his hands.
It’s not about land, it’s about money.
The article ends with a love letter to Sita. One of Delhi’s top young beauties-with-brains: elegant, accomplished, so devoted to Bapuji that since she returned from UK she is at his side for every public engagement. Still single aged 22, she is India’s most eligible Bachelorette, writes Barun.
There is a picture of Devraj in a white kurta pyjama and brown shawl. He is looking down at Sita, her back is to the camera - her sari blouse is laced like an old-school corset, pinching her skin to diamonds. In the final shot they are under a banner Green Delhi Clean Delhi! with the Minister for Tourism, he’s having a great trip with his arm around Sita’s shoulder. She is holding a hand over her mouth as if yawning or laughing, it’s hard to tell which. John examines the picture. There it is, on her third finger: Gargi, Radha and Jeet all have a ring like this - Devraj’s initial twinned with theirs carved out in the flat-faced gold.
The caption says Devrajji, Sita Devrajkumari. Special VVIP guests at the Annual Convention of Indian Tourism and Heritage dinner function, hosted at The Company Delhi Grand Hotel and Mukti Spa.
Mukti again, mukti. Jon cannot remember what it means. He closes his eyes. Liberation. Sita was five when Jivan left. All he remembers is a little princess, attached to her Lottie, who was never allowed to play out. Held in the sky and the world is turning. Perhaps he has always been here, aging on this plane. Perhaps the last years in America are no more than Disney dreams
Outside: nothing. He calls for another whisky.
—Sorry sir, we only serve unlimited drinks in First Class.
The flight attendant walks away, her hair so neat, her makeup so pat she could be Company-made, remote-controlled. She sweeps behind the red curtain that divides the rich from the not so much. Beyond that curtain is wonderland. Drinks and legroom; stewardesses who never say ‘no’.
The captives of economy surround each other. A tangle of saris, plaits, cardigans, high-heeled sandals slung into empty Dunkin’ Donuts boxes, torn-up Glamour magazines. The men stretch across the aisles and the seats, the women clutch the children, the children won’t let go of their Nintendo DSis even as they sleep. Dinner is given, not served: brown plastic lumps in a Makhani sauce, rice and pickles. Or white plastic lumps with herb sauce instead. He chooses Indian, then Western, cannot stomach anything. Next to him, the newlyweds try to keep food, sachets, cutlery on the tray, to eat without elbowing each other. The bride’s fork breaks: she uses her fingers for rice. The smells are of rehydrated flesh, the toilets, feet..
Jon’s face is reflected in the touchscreen. It looks warped, as if he has become his own old man. Ranjit Kumar Singh, the Company’s Head of New Business, a taste for bright socks and matching breast-pocket handkerchiefs. Suits bespoke from Heritage, fabrics fresh from Company supplies.
The bride beside him is finishing her food, scraping the plastic tub with her plastic fork. He shifts to avoid any falling grains of rice. On this kind of journey, it is impossible to keep clean.
Six weeks ago, he wore this suit for visiting hours. Ma in the bed, getting more quiet and thin. He thought she might dissolve. Slide off the plastic sheet to be mopped away by a hospital orderly. Yet she smiled when she saw her Jivan dressed up. When she was lucid, she said, in her lilting singer’s voice:
— Jivan, go to your father like this only. He will see that you are my boy. Please water my window boxes in Nizamuddin. Don’t forget.
Nizamuddin. The house where he grew up, the son of Ranjit and a Ma so light she seemed to rise from the ground when she danced. She was from a family of Punjabi performers. She always said her distant cousin was Roshan Kumari, who danced for Satyajit Ray. Her skin pale, her head draped with her silken dupatta, her eyes photographed for all the best magazines. She was seventeen when Bapuji and Ranjit saw her dance in Chandigarh. They summoned her to Delhi, to sing exclusively for them. Both men were already married, both dashing, Ma said, with gold Raybans and side-parted hair. They wore collar shirts tucked into their pants, creased down the middle, such style. And love happened. In the early 80s, sex happened. Unto Ranjit a second son was born.
Tucked away somewhere in Punjab, Ranjit’s real wife heard all of this in whispers telegraphed across hundreds of miles. She, apparently, did not blame him or Ma, but locked herself up in shame. The story was: she went mad in her father’s upper storeys. Before she did that though, she sent Ranjit’s real son, Jeet, quiet, a gem of a boy, to live with his father in his beautiful house in Nizammudin. It had once belonged to an army officer: it even had stables, and a yard where iron rings to tie horses still protruded from the walls. That yard was perfect square, exactly proportioned for marching games, or exercise, for playing Generals and Subalterns when Jeet got home from school. Unless Jeet had extra tuition in Sanskrit or math or whatever Bapuji and Ranjit thought he should have, they would stay out until Jeet’s ayah came to get him.
In Jivan’s memory, Jeet was always there, a detail of that house like the ring of the doorbell, deep, thrilling, like the clock chimes that came on the stroke of each midnight from the BBC world service radio. The polished wooden floors covered in silk rugs, rolled up all summer, sometimes, when they played, with one of them inside. The main part was for Jeet and Ranjit; Jivan lived in the converted stables, with Ma. One front of house, the other backstage, Ma said. In Jivan’s two rooms, Ma’s beauty, the sound of her voice, held his life safe. They also had a small kitchen, with a gas stove and a fridge. Their own squat toilet tiled in white, with a bucket and jug for showers. Two brushes in the toothcup. Living like this, Ma always insisted, was her own choice.
When the 80s gave out, Delhi changed. Tongues started spitting red shame. By the mid-90s, Devraj decreed enough was enough. Ranjit did not demure: Jivan and Ma had to go. There was an older second cousin in America – a widowed bank manager wanting a wife. A flight to Boston followed: American passport, a house with a double garage, dishwasher, freezer, a square of lawn to strim. Ma, only a little bit older than Jon is now, wrestling every night with an Urdu/English dictionary, Martha Stewart on TV. In America, language is the power, Jon-beta, Vivek Uncle said. Mom and Jon make breakfast, lunch and friends. Do sports, argue, shop. High school diploma, one for Jon, one for Mom, rewards of TV in English only (except on Sundays, when Vivek Uncle played golf ). Slowly, Jivan’s tongue loosed from his past. Words, never spoken, sank to sediment so easily. Jivan was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – he did not really notice, nor much care. The old world was sounded in movie phrases – hum aapke hain koun – and fragments of songs. Rupees became dollars, earned working service jobs – not because Jonnie had to, but because Vivek Uncle said he should. Later, Jon only dated white girls: a choice of which his stepdad approved.
Ma refused to take a job in an estate agency or town advice bureau like the other brown moms. Nor would she become a Yoga instructor or Bollydancerxiser like the white ones. She worked instead as a receptionist for the local water board. After Vivek Uncle died (heart attack, too much golf laced with pina coladas) Ma was promoted to sample collector, pushing her implements deep into designated ground to test for contamination. Bad water causes breast cancer, she said.
Jon can still feel her soft, lined hands in his. She always had perfect nails, painted a dark maroon. Five weeks ago, he stood in the Chapel of Peace (a box room attached to the crematorium’s oven), trying to recite the only line of prayer he could remember. Om bhur bhuva svaha. The place was lit by a green exit sign, on which a white man was running for the door. He waited alone for the standard issue urn, then stored her in a bank vault in Boston because he did not know what else to do.
A week later, he called Jeet.
Thank God for Jeet, who, in the first year after he came to America, answered his Mickey Mouse-embossed letters with notes on Ranjit’s thick, Company-headed paper. After the Internet happened, there had been emails, sometimes texts, then Viber. In his final year of college, they began to use WhatsApp, with messages months apart. Sometimes, Jon thought about Skyping, but had not mentioned it; neither did Jeet.
Gargi wrote to Jon three times in the first year, once in the second. Saying, look after Ma, don’t forget us! Nothing ever came from Radha. Once upon a time, Radha’s moods, her big feet, her way of kicking the ground to get what she wanted, were more familiar to him than he was to himself. He could not bring himself to ask Jeet about the girls.
His contact with his half brother dwindled to birthdays. Sometimes a song lyric that brought childhood to mind appeared in a text. Selfies of nights out; sent when one was getting up, the other coming down. If they spoke, they stuck to movies and music, dating, financial news, Jon’s American life.
Which is over. Ma is in the bank and the house has been sold, the money swallowed up in mortgage and fees. He is here because of Jeet, who promised to get him home.
— What are big brothers for? Jeet said. How long will you stay?
— I’ll see. It depends.
— Fine, Jeet said. Wait for me to call you after I have talked to Dad. I’ll get Radha to persuade him. Then I’ll meet you at Indira Gandhi International with a flower garland, a box of suji ke ladoo and a big old Namaste. We’ll give you a traditional VIP Welcome Home.
Jon doesn’t eat Indian sweets. He didn’t tell Jeet that. When the time came, he would eat whatever was offered, he would swallow it down.
It took just three weeks to shut up America. Jon told Iris he loved her, ignoring any hints that she would come with him, if he asked. Iris, his blue-eyed girl. With her lawyer Pop, and stay-at-home Mom and just enough security to major in comp lit. Lithe, mocha-loving Iris, always trying to get him to read Orwell or Baldwin or Morrison or Lahiri, names she scattered like birdfeed in the park, talking about racial prosestyling and poetic realism while combing her fingers through her butter-blonde hair.Iris thinks he’ll be coming back to her soon. (He won’t, he has decided, even if India doesn’t work out. It’s not a question of her hair, her precious stack of Korla Pandit vinyls (a gift from her mother), or her preference for generic Nina Simone over the specificity of the Rolling Stones. Is it her land? No. It is her lack of appreciation for money.)
Another week passed. There was no call from Jeet. Three more days. Jivan had stood in Ma’s empty kitchen, barefoot in his shorts and vest, staring into the microwave as it went round and round. Heating up the last of the freezer meals Ma prepared for him, before she went into hospital. All his favourites, labelled in capitals. His plan was to spoon up the KAALI DAAL straight from the carton, dredge the Black Label, then start writing his resumé for Pierce & Pierce – he had heard they were hiring in the Far East. Then his mobile rang. International call.
It was Ranjit himself. His father’s unmistakable cigar-scarred voice, with no preamble, asked:
— Who wants to be a crorepati? Jivan Singh, your number is up. Ticket booked. Time to come home.
It was the first time they had spoken in ten years. Mothers, alive or dead, were not mentioned.
The plane dips, the blinds are raised. Sunlight floods the cabin as the whole of Delhi rushes up to meet him. He is caught by the city below. His mantra is right: from the air there is no sight of earth. Instead, miles after miles of corrugated rooftops, unfinished brick buildings and a dump covering the ground as far as he can see.
Picking over it, inside it, giving it life, he imagines all those legs, arms, heads, eyes: with no idea how big the whole is, or care for how little they own of it. All crushed together breathing in, and out, and in. Bodies covering the land, children squatting in the mud: wanting and working to have enough money to survive and then to thrive. Not a patch of dirt left free.
He can make out flyovers strewn like necklaces across the city, jewelled with billboards promising reincarnation in this life, and ways to afford it, because it must be achieved. There will be ads for new cars, mobiles, modified milk for bachchas’ bone strength and protein powder for abs; ads for Company hotels full of romance, for new detergents and washing machines. For flour to make perfect chapattis: pictures of fat young execs and good Indian girls promising hot married sex with their homemade bread. Now they are cruising over acres of flat white rooftops dotted with satellite dishes, hundreds of ears all listening for his arrival.
The bride in the seat next to him puts on her pink lipstick, her mouth a silent O.
— So we return, humare apne India, says Number 5, smiling.
Is he for real? Right on, man. Then, Yaar, Jon corrects himself; he’s about to land in India: talking the talk is a key methodology to winning trust. He considers America where land is king, where everything works to make it pretty or make it yield. In America, the pundits talk about India Rising like they used to talk about the Russians Coming. Here, they talk about India Shining. Come visit Incredible Ind!a. Rising, shining, waking, sleeping, he knows the habits of both. He knows, he does, he really does. In America he could star as a standard TV Asian in a supporting role: good schools, a sense of humour and a Ma fixation. Here, of course they will see his American smile, his suit and tie, first class, pure gold. The truth is: he is Jivan Singh, half brother to Jeet Singh, son of Ranjit Singh. He was born on this Indian earth, has waited all this time to return.
— Hari Om, Number 5 mutters.
The plane touches down with force.
A smile he cannot stop splits his face. Jon has left the building. It is time for Jivan to greet the hordes.
He joins the other passengers swaying down the aisle. It is high noon and a hundred degrees fahrenheit or more. On the bridge, Jivan can smell his India: fuel, dust, the choking air. This day has waited for him like his mother used to after grade school, arms out to press his face into her damp breasts. He wants to shout (but doesn’t) where’s my milky-dood?
He is half expecting Jeet to have got past security. To be here, right at the plane. When they were boys, some nights they would be escorted to this point by armed police. They would clutch their bottles of Company Cola, playing with their bendy-straws (red for Jivan, yellow for Jeet) while they waited for the jet to land. Devraj and Ranjit would appear, wearing those dark glasses even at night, cradling their briefcases to their chests. He would trail Devraj, Ranjit and Jeet all the way through security and into the Arrivals Hall. Where groups of stick-thin men leaned on each other, eyeing up the white girls and the rich sons of Sahibs as if the girls were marrowbone; the boys were sauce. Through the hall the Company entourage progressed, dripping petals from their welcome-home garlands, bright orange tears on the dirty ground.
No Jeet. Jivan must get through immigration. He might have to dodge the porters and the trolley-boys alone. If Jeet hasn’t come (but he will, of course he will), then Jivan will change the last of his dollars to a wad of rupees, go outside and find a black and yellow beetle cab with clean as possible seats. And then? To the house in Nizamuddin, for lunch.
He is inside. Instead of the old, airless immigration hall tiled in speckled grey, a floor that belongs in a Maharaja’s palace stretches out for anyone, for everyone to walk on. Enormous bronze sculptures hang above each booth, blessing arrivals as they pass through. It is air-conditioned – Jivan had no idea.
Only the lines are the same. Emirates slaves hoist their bundles, middle-aged men carrying imitation Samsonites eye up the young bloods with leather weekend bags; there are the Juicy Couture wives, all don’t-touch-velour and overdone hair. Last come the whiteys, panicking politely as they try to keep some space between themselves and the natives without actually pushing anyone out of the way. He is none of them. He feels himself being checked out; he cannot tell whether it is with admiration, or something else. Is it his suit? Is it too much? He takes off his jacket. He loosens the Harvard tie. In America he wanted to take off his skin, as he peeled onions in his step-dad’s friend’s restaurant for his first job. When he was young, in India, his illegitimate blood made him an outsider. His blood, which sometimes it seemed, everyone could see.
The immigration guard has a full chest of medals and a deep-set frown. He looks exhausted by combat, bored of protecting the border from cut-price bandits and thieves; he flicks through every blank page of Jon’s passport until a lonely Indian tourist visa reveals itself. To picture, to visa, to picture.
— Main Jivan hoon, says Jivan (and does the guard smile?). Main bahut saal ke baad ghar aaya hoon.
— Good job! Welcome back, Foreign Return, the guard says. He rolls his r’s, ‘foe-reign.’ Emphasises both syllables, equally.
— Thank you, sir.
Jivan is stamped, and can enter. In Arrivals, the visions duplicate, triplicate: on the walls, ads for HSBC mock him, they show the same stubble-faced guy, hands up and grinning. First in jeans, then a suit, jeans, then a suit. Leader, says the caption, follower, says the next. Leader/ follower/ leader/ follower: can you spot the difference between the two? Which one, Jivan are you? Everything has caught up, grown up, without him.
He fixes on a crowd of men outside. Who can’t afford shoes, forget proper suits. They cup their faces to the windows, trying to see into the hall. No matter how much has changed, those poor bastards still hang out here. He catches the desire to bow.
Where is Jeet? There are families spilling over Louis Vuittons to get to each other, drivers holding signs, people waiting at coffee bars and kiosks like any other international airport in the world. No Jeet. Homecoming. Pah. He wants to spit (but doesn’t). His eyes follow a worker, uniform grey as a spent cigarette, using a machine to polish the floor. Standing still, rotating the brush over the same spot again and again and back again.
Move, Jivan! A thin red carpet leads him out of the terminal, into the glaring day.
For a freak moment, he wonders if he’s landed in the right city. The crowd is only one-deep. The honking, bleating black and yellow Ambassadors he remembers are gone, replaced by a line of shiny white sedans waiting politely for fares. A few people stand in quiet groups, waiting for rides. And Jivan himself is nothing. Just a clean-shaven young man who was teased as a child because his skin was so light. Like a girl, his father used to joke. Before sending him to America, where pale enough cheeks and dark eyes helped him to navigate being the brown one through college and grad-school while working every service industry from door-man to tech. Back on demand, with his US accent, his dutiful bottle of black label in his Duty Free bag, how should he speak now? Barun would know. He takes a step, feels sweat bathe his sides under his jacket. The attention of the crowd has waned, as if he was the warm-up act and they are restless for the main event.
Then it comes. Beyond the line of cabs, the 4×4s and bags and bodies, a powder blue Bentley is nosing everything out of its way. He wants to pretend he hasn’t seen it – but everyone can see it. The people in the planes circling the sky over the airport can probably see it, even through the smog.
Jeet, he thinks. What are you playing at?
Any boy can get a nice suit, a briefcase and a pair of good shoes. Such a boy might indeed ride in a taxi to a hotel in the city. But see the gleaming beauty of the rare, vintage car; see it pull up on the curbside near that tired looking Foreign Return! See the driver, sharp as if his wife irons him each morning, jump out and salute as he opens the doors. And the two passengers who climb from the back: each a mirror of the other – black linen Nehru collar suits, silverplated hair, like two handmade domino tiles. This you could only be born to, if your past lives decree it and God loves you. And look – one is carrying such a handsome bone-topped cane. What style! This is to be worshipped, and prayed for in the next life. Who are they?
This is not Jeet, playing the fool. Here is his father, Ranjit Singh, Director of the Devraj Group. With a man Jivan has not seen for over twenty years. Kritik Sahib, Vice President, Intelligence and Research, shadow wolf from boyhood. The right hand and the left hand, come to meet Jivan, the Foreign Return, straight off the plane. Where, he thinks, is Barun when you need him? Where the fuck is Jeet?
— Jivan. Welcome, Ranjit says.
Before America, Jivan had a Kathputli puppet that looked a bit like Ranjit. Wooden face, oval eyes, curling smile. White beard painted close to its chin. He could make it move by putting an arm up its body; make it nod, or make it wave. Shake it, and it would blink.
— Wah, Ranjitji, wah, says Kritik Sahib. What a man you have brought from America!
Kritik Sahib has kept himself better than Ranjit over the years. He is bigger than Ranjit. Chest wider, arms thicker. At least five-nine to Ranjit’s five-six. His body is more toned, and while Ranjit wears splashes of colour, Kritik Sahib has always cultivated a quiet, contained manner, as if he listens without judgement, as if he hears all sound. Looking at him one would think he had a comfortable life, loved his fellows, would do no harm to anyone. But what Jivan remembers clearly about Kritik Sahib is still there: tempered steel around his eyes and mouth. Strangely white teeth. If ever Ma admonished Jivan or even Jeet, Gargi, or Radha, Kritik Sahib was the threat. Now he is smiling. Waiting for Jivan or Ranjit to make the first move.
Ranjit. Cane hooked over his fingers, holding out his arms at a precise forty-five degrees from his body. Not quite high enough for an embrace.
— Jivan, beta. Come and greet your father.
Kneel. He wants me to kneel. All of the curious eyes around Jivan focus into one ferocious gaze. The heat is fierce. His vision blurs, his upper lip turns to salt water; it is the hours in the plane, it is the lack of food. My God. No way. He is an American, he has been in America for fifteen years. Ranjit never came to see him. Or wrote to him. Or called. Or emailed. Or texted. Or thought of him, talked of him, dreamt of him.
Ranjit waits, standing on the curb. Arms stretched, palms upward.
We stay still; it is the world that turns.
Jivan puts down his Duty Free. The driver watches at his window and Kritik Sahib says:
— Yes, just right.
Jivan bends towards the earth, hot as the punishing sun. He reaches, palm down, fingers straight, to touch his father’s feet.
— Aré nahin, beta, nahin, says Ranjit. He laughs, cups his shoulders and guides him upright. Come. Car is here. Chalo.
He climbs into the back with Ranjit. Kritik Sahib in front. The doors shut, the driver revs. Without checking his rear-view or sides, pulls into the traffic. The porters and the passengers and all of the families watch them disappear, then go back to their business. Inside the terminal, the floor man keeps shining the floor. Show is over, he thinks. He wants to spit (but doesn’t). Time to get back to work.
PRETI TANEJA'S NOVEL, WE THAT ARE YOUNG, WAS PUBLISHED BY GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS IN AUGUST 2017. SINCE THEN, IT HAS BEEN LONGLISTED FOR THE JHALAK PRIZE AND SHORTLISTED FOR THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIOUSNESS PRIZE AND THE JAN MICHALSKI PRIZE. IN JUNE 2018, WE THAT ARE YOUNG WON THE DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE. TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY, SIMPLY HEAD HERE.