Those Old Instincts

Aunty Sumana’s Flushing seethed with thieves. The stores along Union Street robbed her blind on calling cards, the ladies outside Macy’s nearly filched her purse while trying to sell her a worse-looking one. The chicken-over-rice guys diddled her out of fair portions. Men lurked in the shadows, ready to murder her in cold blood and run away with her cane. Flushing mirrored Gotham City before Batman, Bombay in the days of Varadarajan, the Tamil gangster. The upshot was that Meera had resigned to fetching her aunt from the subway station. Some nights she tried to reason with her, warn her against the dangers of badmouthing the neighbours and the neighbourhood. To do so would only attract attention. ‘You are only hurting yourself, chinnamma. You are the notorious one, the true rowdy pilla. What if someone complains? What if ICE gets wind?’ She left unsaid how much she would despair if something were to happen to her. Aunty Sumana was the only family she had this side of the Atlantic, and for the past year her aunt had been putting her up rent-free while she attended NYU for a Masters in English. But Aunty Sumana was impervious to all of Meera’s concerns. ‘What ICE?’ she exclaimed, tapping her cane against the pavement. ‘Haven’t I overcome worse things than ICE?’ Meera shut her eyes, knowing where the discussion was headed. ‘See, yen ponnu. My mother got me married to the first gainfully employed man she spotted on the train. She got his phone number, and the next thing I know, his parents are presiding in our living room like King and Queen and I am carrying tea and murukku on a tray, and getting engaged.’ Meera knew the story by heart. On the night of the wedding the couple had argued and the husband had snatched the vase on the bedside table and hit Aunty Sumana across the face. She had walked out on her husband that same night. ‘You have to make sure you don’t end up with someone like that,’ Aunty Sumana said, unlocking the metal gate of the apartment. ‘Don’t marry someone off the train. Before you even think of long term, make sure you know where his heart is. And the size of his big toe. Measure that. If it is shorter than his second toe, you are in for trouble. There isn’t a worse thing in this world for a woman than a bad marriage.’ 

Men from over a hundred and fifty countries rode the 7-train each morning – a variety of noses, toe-sizes and 401(k)s – many who caught Meera’s eye and some who even returned her gaze. But Meera wasn’t interested in any of them. For the past two months she had been seeing her professor of Modernist Poetry in his third-floor walkup in Brooklyn. He was three, maybe four decades her senior, although to Meera he looked only forty-five. The affair, if it could be called that, had started at his wife’s wake. Aunty Sumana didn’t know. Aunty Sumana would never know. 

Meera still wasn’t sure why she had responded to the e-vite sent in error by the programme coordinator to the entire English Department when it was meant only for the faculty. Perhaps it was the fact that other than the orientation at the beginning of fall semester, she hadn’t attended any events in the department. Or the fact that she was desperate to make friends – any friends – outside the NGO. NYU was a commuter school in denial. This was evident in the way even the professors in her department, men and women in caftans and Kufi caps, in Nehru jackets and khadi saris, never congregated in the hallways. Their offices were bare, despite their abundant scholarships. The few books on the shelves belonged to previous tenants. The conversations she’d had with them, from behind computer monitors, left Meera feeling even more isolated. Unchallenged. 

The e-vite had been personalised, the clean cut of the font and the sombre messaging giving it allure. Meera had borrowed her aunt’s black silk top that no longer fit her. From a grocer on University Place she had bought a bunch of white lilies. 

In the foyer she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror, and saw that her aunt’s top had aged her, given her a seriousness and a bust heretofore hidden in the loose-fitting army jackets she wore. The door to Bart’s apartment was open, and she followed the cloud of voices into the living room, where a hundred or so people were gathered. By the fireplace a huge photo of a white-blond-haired lady leaned on an easel. Classical music played from invisible speakers. Bart was receiving condolences. The GPD towered over him, shaking hands. Meera could tell Bart did not like the guy much, the way he evaded his eyes and needlessly thanked him for coming. Twice, she thought of leaving – she seemed to be the only MA student, aside from Tom, the guy she had Bart’s class with. A while later she saw the Spanish sisters from Literary Theory, and relaxed. But they said a quick hello and disappeared into the kitchen where the wine was. She followed them and sipped some herself. Moscato D’Asti from Italy. The bubbles distracted from the bitterness. 

Soon after the GPD left, the apartment began to clear of faculty. The MA and PhD students gathered by the wine and discussed bike routes in Brooklyn. The few people still in the living room were engrossed in conversations clearly unrelated to the wake. Meera was on her way to pick up her coat when she saw Bart. In his red suede jacket and bow tie he looked extremely brave. And handsome. His concerted effort at shaving and forgoing his glasses had given him a glow Meera hadn’t seen in the classroom. She realised she had been carrying the lilies all this time; she’d been too afraid to approach the dais where, under another photo of Mary, grew a garden of expensive bouquets. 

‘Meera?’ Bart said. ‘Right?’ 

She took a step forward and let him hug her. He bent low, held her and kissed her on the cheek, making her aware of her own body, its inhibitions. He brought his face to her ear and said, not, thank you for coming, or thank you for the flowers, but, ‘You look pretty.’ As though she were the one needing assurance. She felt herself inclining toward his voice, leaning into him. 


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