By Ravneet Sandhu
To find your mother, go to the supermarket. Take a shopping cart from the front. Be careful of the wheels running over your sneakers. Wipe down the handles. You have seen too many children slobber over them. You don’t know where people’s hands have been. Leave the gloves on. It’s still winter. Flu season. Are you inside now? Good. Take the list out, the one you made, like your mother taught you to. Did she not? Your father, perhaps? Any parental figure? (I should give up the second-person narrative, it fools no one. It lasts only for so long until the familiar runs out and new memories are made unwelcome. Then it collapses under its own weight. Like you in this new land you are beginning to call ‘Mother.’) The supermarket has fresh produce on the left side. It looks green and the aisle smells like dirt. This is the closest you’ll get to the earth. You came to America and all the produce looked perfect. You tell your mother in your head that the capsicums are called “bell peppers” and mushrooms are the fastest to cook. She doesn’t speak a word of English, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Back in India, back in a flashback, back in an alternate setting, your mother’s feet are wet in the monsoon rain. A chunni covers her hair. The cloth end is held between her teeth to prevent it from falling. Her hair is drenched so it does not make a difference if it falls. She should let it fall. The vegetable-seller sits on a sack. His feet have dirt on them. You think he has come from a faraway field where there is no electricity, and everyone wears shades of brown. Your mother wants to bargain the price of tomatoes. No one is in the mood for bargaining, not even her. His exasperation runs like the sweat on his upper lip. He says he will throw a kilo of potatoes for twenty rupees, but that means nothing because farmers have been throwing potatoes on the street. His younger associate, who is older than you—with rugged hands and darker eyes—gives him a cup of hot chai. The tea is displaced by drops of rain. You want to cup it and make it stay inside. You look up. A raindrop falls into your eyes. You blink rapidly. The makeshift shelter of a plastic sheet thrown over some branches is not protecting anyone, and if your mother was in a better mood, she would tell you to stop. You carry that sack of potatoes to the trunk of the car. Your father takes one bite of the potato-pea curry at night and pushes the plate away. He doesn’t want it. You try to eat his share after yours, trying to swallow your mother’s crestfallen look with big drinks of water that fill you up faster. You pick up another sack of potatoes under the bright fluorescent lights. The potatoes still have small buds. It brings a small satisfaction to you. Even America hasn’t figured out how to make vegetables grow uniform in the dirt. The slices of packaged meat call to you. They smell like chemicals. You feel an unnatural clump of dry cells when you touch the plastic. You don’t want to eat it, but slaughter is cheaper than anything else. Your mother told you that meat is polluted. Meat is unhealthy. Meat is the mark of an impure person. Better to eat vegetables and lentils to feed your soul. You found the calling card nested in pleather seats of the public bus. It promised love and fortune. You wanted a spell to break the deathly squall in the household. You wanted your father to walk again after two months bedrest. When your father became so sick that the doctors couldn’t help him anymore, your mother called the pandit’s number. The pandit told your mother to water the tulsi plant every day after her morning prayer. She had forgotten this ritual. Or her mother had forgotten to tell her. There was no tulsi around your house. Tulsi plants are pure; they don’t grow near the smell of meat. She went to the nursery alone and bought back two potted plants on the city bus. The cat got into a fight with the neighborhood dogs that night. As you and your family slept under the whirring fan, stray dogs broke the fence and entered the patch of grass. The cat came at night to drink from the milk your mother left outside, but it was getting old and couldn’t move as fast. The dogs ripped the cat to shreds. The morning light lit up the red blood on the dew-kissed grass. Red on light green, red on dark green, red on concrete, red in your eyes as you closed them fast, red as you blinked, blinked, blinked, red as you screamed to your mother and your father answered instead, your mother is in the bathroom, could you please bring him a cup of lukewarm water? The tulsi plant died that night. You skipped the meats. Microwaveable meals. The aisle your mother would love but should hate. The potential of these meals—the lesser time spent, the cheapness, the decreased amount of human labor—cannot make up for the lack of nutritional value. You, who had never even had leftovers more than a day old, were eating food that could be stocked up for months. When your father died, you had Maggi noodles daily. Your house was gone, sold off in a wink, and you were staying with your mother’s brother. His wife let you eat rotis rolled up in jaggery and butter. Your mother stayed in front of the television all day, watching whatever the uncle’s wife had on. You liked to turn the bathroom tap on and stand underneath it until someone called for you. Sometimes this took hours. Your hands would crinkle up with the soft sadness that permeated the house. They have instant noodles in America, but the spices are not the same. You take a box of ramen just for old time’s sake. The pharmacy section is wedged awkwardly between the ethnic food and the spices. You have read that, in America, the supermarket is an ingeniously designed trap to make you buy things you don’t need. You imagine psychologists manipulating miniature food models in blue-lit rooms. It’s at times like this you take back the faith you put in America. Your mother would support you if she were here. She would tell you that the Americans have made a mistake, and that those are unacceptable. Mistakes are not for the land of free, they’re for the land where the roads are cleaned when Obama visits. But your mother also has the strength to forgive. Your mother would tell you to forget and move on. More indignities are always on their way. She would tell you to take the tiny dignity you have, roll it up in a capsule, and swallow it with a big portion of the humble pie. Be grateful. You could be playing on the street with the migrant children who have no home and broken toes. Do what is asked of you, whatever the uncle says, and be grateful we still have a roof on top of our heads. Go down the ethnic food section. You’ll see white people there and wonder if they are ethnic. Admonish yourself for judging, you don’t know their story, they don’t know yours. Look, they are smiling at you, their lips pressed tight, isn’t it nice of them to smile? You give an honest smile that reaches your eyes and they look away. Under the yellow Indian banner, you see the cherub with the bob-cut, a style of a bygone era your mother grew up in, yellow and white lines printed on the thinnest plastic. These biscuits were treats, but the cheapest in the store, used for dipping in chai, a national habit reinforced through dark-lit advertisements that interrupted your favorite songs. Oh sorry, you mean cookies. You have been substituting them with the Spanish-titled Marie but today is your lucky day. You mutter Ram-Ram Hare-Krishan Hare-Ram Wahrguru Allah Akbar Jezus Bless Me and then take them. The last aisle has toys stuffed into the shelves like an afterthought. Your mother always told you to seize each opportunity, so you wheel your cart in. Your mother won the lottery to America. This is the only thing of significance that has happened to her after your father died. You bristled under her tight grip at the airport, in the line that stretched longer than you could see. As soon as you learned to read, she took you to the nearest big supermarket, and asked you to translate the items off the aisle. She wanted to know what sauerkraut meant. She wanted you to know the foods you had never eaten; but you didn’t know. All you wanted were those Lunchables and the chicken nuggets, but even she knew they had meat. The friendly uncle at the Indian store met you both on the street. His eyes looked away when he asked why you hadn’t been to the shop. Your mother tried to hide the Walmart bag that held your Social Science textbook. She told him she was too busy with you to go grocery shopping anyway. It was a bad lie. You could tell. But the shopkeeper had been thugging her those months you were learning English: charging for single boxes of soap that came in cartons, high premiums on bags of rice, produce costing an arm and a leg and a nose too. You see a collection of arms and legs folded together. They look so real that you avert your eyes. Disembodied hands call out to you. Not one of the nail polish stains are out of place on the unmoving fingers. Verisimilitude for anything but verisimilitude crumbles into shock-value that pleases no one. This is a big thought. You like big thoughts. Most importantly, your mother likes big thoughts. She told you to keep thinking them, that they would get you out of sticky situations, that America would value them. You want a more broken-down doll. You want an inaccurate representation of the female body with stiff arms and unblinking eyes. You want the iris off-center, no moles of any kind, a mouth that smiles and doesn’t speak. You go to the check-out aisle where there are three cashiers and one customer. They rush to service you. Unlike the stoic mask your mother wore to work at the Indian jewelry store, their smiles hang like commas of inconsequential sentences. You don’t even bother smiling. Walking out of the automatic doors, the chill hits your face, traveling through your hood to the bottom of your heart, where it meets the loneliness you had forgotten about and sudden tears (from the chilly wind? from the hot spices?) brim over your brown eyes—the ones you share with your mother, and that is it. That is it. You wish she were here with you. But the loneliness gets to her first, your sixteenth year, fifth year in this country. It kills her brain until she became soft like the molding on the roof, until she’s a body in the be—like your father had been—until she doesn’t recognize you anymore, and you are all alone in this promise of a country. Somedays she asks you why she isn’t in America. Other days she rolls over and stares out of the window. You find your mother once again when you go back home from the grocery store. You let her hold the boiled potatoes. The room smells rancid. You will have to clean up the mess under the bed later. But for right now, the potatoes are the same as in India and she laughs as she peels them, leaving soft pressures behind on their bumpy surfaces.
Read Issue 17