Chapter One

  1. Synopsis
  2. Chapter One
  3. Simon & Schuster Award
speechless Chapter One

September 1998

She huddled in the musty roof attic, trembling, for fifteen minutes, maybe longer. Then she heard a long drawn out yelp, followed by whimpers that faded into silence.

She refused to process what the sounds meant, but knew she had to move. She started to crawl forward on her belly. As she inched ahead through the dust, she felt the disgusting squelch of soft, live things being squished beneath her. Vomit stung her throat. She swallowed hard, kept going. Agonizing minutes passed. She was now directly over the dining room. A few more yards and she would be in the guest-room attic. With renewed energy, she propelled herself forward, squeezed through the narrow opening into it. The guest-room opened onto the front porch and the street. Somehow, she had to jump down and reach that door. They would hear her for sure, but there was no other choice.

She crouched to jump.

But her weak, cowardly body wouldn’t co-operate. She couldn’t move. She tried – repeatedly – but her muscles refused to support her. Tears of frustration slid down her face. She bit her lip, tasted blood. She was running out of time. She had to do this right now, or it would be too late.

She wasn’t aware she had jumped until she heard the thwat of her body connecting with the floor. She lay there breathless for a second, then as fear surged through her, picked herself up and hurtled towards the door.

They heard her, of course. Their approaching footsteps echoed the hammering in her chest. Her fingers slipped twice on the handle. She started whimpering, expecting to feel their rough hands yanking her back any second.

Then the door swung open and she was outside, blinking in the sudden light.

#

 

Part One: June 2002, Bangalore, India

 

 

Chapter One

 As they turned the last corner and entered the Bangalore airport terminal, Mina’s heart started pounding. She tried to breathe deeply but her tightening throat allowed only shallow little gulps of stale air. The constricted, airless feeling began spreading through her torso until she felt dizzy. She dug her nails into her palms and began mentally repeating what she had been telling herself on the long flight from California, while her husband dosed beside her in cramped discomfort.  Things are different now. Vijay is here with me. I am safe.

A few repetitions later, it began to sound true. She would be okay. They would be okay. Her family would get through this together.

The band around her loosened slowly and she could breathe again. She turned to see Vijay staring at her, worry written all over his broad, pleasant face. She had better reassure him before he changed his mind about going along with all her plans. She produced a weak smile. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

He looked skeptical at first, then nodded. “Okay. Just remember I’m right here with you. And you can still change your mind about the house, you know.”

He had misread the reason for her momentary panic, but she didn’t correct him.  “I know. Thanks.”

He smiled then and her heart lifted automatically – he was one of those people whose smile could acutally brighten a room. Hoisting their toddler Yamini onto his shoulder, he said, “Now let’s get out of here. Hold on to your handbag tight so no one grabs it.”

They elbowed their way like everyone else through customs. In the blur of heat and noise outside the terminal, Mina scanned the sea of brown faces for her best friend Neelu.

“Mina! Here I am!”

The exhaustion of twenty-eight hours of travel sloughed off as Mina turned eagerly in the direction of her friend’s voice. Neelu was jostling through the mob towards them, a huge smile on her pretty face.

Mina rushed forward to hug her friend. As she smelled the familiar lemony fragrance of Neelu’s hair, tears came to her eyes. “God, Neelu. It’s wonderful to see you again. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Ditto.” Neelu’s voice was soft with feeling. She stepped back and looked at Mina, her beautiful brown eyes asking what she wouldn’t verbalize in front of everyone: Are you sure about this? Are you ready? Will you be okay?

Mina touched her arm, then answered the unspoken questions. “I’m fine.” Deliberately, she lightened her tone. “Can you believe it’s been four years? You look exactly the same. More gorgeous, if anything.” She meant it – Neelu, always lovely with her shining hair and slim figure, seemed especially radiant today.

“You look good too, Mina.” Neelu smiled. “I’ll admit it – I was hoping you’d gained some weight after a baby. But you’re still skinnier than me, you lucky thing.”

As Vijay and Yamini joined them, Neelu smiled at her friend’s husband. “Hey, Vijay. How are you? Welcome back to India.” She bent down to Yamini, now standing beside her father, gawking at the crowds through grayish-green eyes so like Mina’s. “So this is little Yamini. I am Neelu, sweetie. Your mama’s best friend.”

The toddler hid behind Vijay, who shook his head ruefully, and picked her up again. “Sorry, she’s just not used to this much noise. She’ll be fine in a little while.”

As they started walking to the parking lot, Mina looked around. Everything seemed so familiar, yet unfamiliar, after her four years in America – the US was so shiny somehow by comparison. Yet she remembered the red earth, the wrappers and cans strewn carelessly around, the skinny stray dogs and the sheer crush of sweaty people. And the unique India-smells, the fragrance of jasmine mingling with the delicious aroma of deep-fried food and the stink of an open drain.

People, some like her, affluent, hurried towards parked cars, anxious to escape to their air-conditioned villas or upscale hotels. The rest, mostly men, just loitered around, smoking cheap bidis or chewing betel leaves. Their stained, torn clothing marked them as belonging to the “lower” social classes. They would, when desperate, work as toilet cleaners and porters, and then spend most of those earnings on cheap liquor. While their wives and children waited at home, hoping the man of the house would bring home enough money for at least a few decent meals.

Feeling someone’s stare, she turned around. Her heart nearly leaped out of her chest as her eyes fell on a thin young woman. The girl wore a faded sari and a red bindhi on her forehead. There was a sneer on her darkly attractive face as she stared at Mina with jealous eyes.

As Mina watched, she slipped her hand into a tattered shoulder bag and started to pull something out.

A cry rose in Mina’s throat. She reached for Vijay in a blind panic.

Before her husband could get to her, Neelu was at her side, gripping her shoulders. “Mina, it’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s not her. She’s gone, remember? It’s someone else. Turn around, see for yourself.”

The quiet words penetrated her fog of terror. Neelu was right – of course, it was someone else. She forced herself to look back at the young woman. She had a familiar build and facial structure but Mina could now see she was a total stranger. There was no malevolence in her gaze, just the natural curiosity the poor in India displayed towards the well-heeled. All she’d retrieved from her bag was a squishy banana. She was eating it now, with obvious enjoyment.

Vijay caught up. “What’s going on?”

Mina found her voice. “It’s nothing. I just thought…” She broke off, shook her head. “I think the heat is already getting to me. Let’s get to the car.”

Her legs were still a bit shaky as they continued walking. She exhaled hard. It would get better once they were at the hotel. Away from all these people.

They soon got to Neelu’s van, large by Indian standards, but still cramped, piled in their luggage and got in. Child seats didn’t exist yet in India so Mina sat in the back, Yam in her lap. She tugged at the seat belt but it was stuck, probably from the lack of use, so after a brief struggle she gave up.

She soon forgot to worry about safety-standards in India as they drove to their hotel. Stylish office buildings and malls had sprung up everywhere. Imported new cars snaked along the undivided road, amid pedestrians, cyclists, auto-rickshaws and motorcyclists. Bangalore was clearly thriving, unlike Silicon Valley. No sign whatsoever of a recession here.

Vijay apparently felt the same way because he said, “Wow, there’s a lot of new development.” He glanced across at Neelu. “Looks like the slump in the US technology sector hasn’t slowed things down here.”

“Well, not yet. But I bet it will, since we have so many software companies in Bangalore too.” Neelu’s eyebrows furrowed in concern. “You both will be okay back in California, right? I read about lots of internet start-ups in Silicon Valley going out of business recently.”

Vijay shrugged. “We hope so. Mina’s job is safe for now, since she’s at a big company. Things at my start-up are less stable, but the company is doing okay so far. Of course – there are never any guarantees. In fact, we debated whether taking time off now to come here was a good idea. Then Das finalized the house-sale.” Das was their realtor. While initially eager to take on the property-sale because of the prime location, he’d been upset when Vijay disclosed the house’s history. However, greed overcame superstition soon enough and he agreed to proceed. “And Mina insisted on being here for it.” His tone made it clear he thought that was a bad idea, but he turned and took Mina’s hand. “I couldn’t let her come alone, obviously.”

Mina entwined her fingers in his. It was nice of him to phrase it as if coming to India alone was even an option for her. She caught Neelu’s worried eyes on her in the mirror. She smiled reassuringly though she knew Neelu would not be fooled, especially after the incident in the parking lot.

They got to the five-star hotel where they had decided to splurge and stay a couple of days. They had pretended it was for the experience when Vijay booked it, but they both knew it was to make her feel safe her first time back in Bangalore.

When they got out, a turbaned door attendant ran over to help them out, while another parked Neelu’s car. They went into the lobby. Mina gaped, struck by the grandeur of her surroundings.  The lobby was enormous, with a huge crystal chandelier hanging from the recessed ceiling-dome. Marble pillars and columns with delicate carvings rose into the roof. A flower-arrangement dominated the mosaic floor; embroidered tapestries and oil paintings by famous Indian artists covered the walls. The seating-area, separated from the reception-area by a hand-sculpted balustrade, was full of well-dressed people, sipping drinks.

“Stop gawking.” Neelu dug an elbow into Mina’s ribs. “You’re from America. You should be turning your nose up at everything here.”

Mina smiled. “Well, I don’t stay at hotels like this back home.” She stepped gingerly around the Kashmiri rug on the floor. “I feel like I should dust myself down or something before I proceed.”

Once they checked in, Neelu joined them for a quick lunch in the hotel cafe, and then stood up. “I’ll let you rest for some time now.” She hesitated. “When are you going to the house?”

Vijay put an arm around Mina. “At four-thirty, after we take a nap.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” Neelu looked at Mina as she spoke.

Mina shook her head. “I’ll be okay. But thank you, Neelu.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then. Call me if you need anything in the meantime, okay?” She hugged Mina tightly again and left.

They went up to their room on the twenty-third floor. Though fair-sized, an intricate four-post bed took up most of the area. A breakfast-table and a couch filled the rest. Mina would have preferred less furniture and more space, but it was what it was. She opened the silk draperies. The city swelled below. Even from this height, she could see the dust and exhaust-smoke. She raised her eyes to the apartment-complex across the street. Clothing hung out to dry on the balcony walls. Manual help in India was cheap, while laundry dryers weren’t. As she watched, a man walked to the railing of one balcony and spat onto the parking lot below. Grimacing, Mina stepped away. Some things would never change.

She checked the door again to see that it was locked – yes, it was a fancy hotel with great security but why take chances – then joined Vijay and Yam on the bed. Yam’s eyes were closed, but she burrowed into Mina, becoming a temporary extension of her mother’s body. Mina kissed her gently, feeling a sudden surge of love. How lucky she was to have Yam. And Vijay too. She smiled at her half-asleep husband and shut her own eyes. She needed to rest to be in shape for the house visit.

The house visit. Dread fluttered in the pit of her stomach as she remembered her last time there. Hairy policemen questioning her while their eyes roved over her body. Neighbors feigning sympathy as they gossiped behind her back. Some friends staying away because they were reluctant to get involved, others visiting but leaving as soon as possible, unable to mask their horror.

She clenched her teeth against the memories. She had to focus on getting some sleep now or she wouldn’t be able to get through the evening. She repeated her mental mantra to herself silently. She was married now, had a man’s support. In India, that made all the difference. It would be hard, dealing with the memories and guilt – there was no getting away from that. But at least she didn’t have to be afraid any more.

A sudden wave of exhaustion shut off her thoughts like a switch and she fell asleep.

#

 

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