Ranbir Singh Sidhu was born in London and studied archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Good Indian Girls, a collection of stories, and Deep Singh Blue, a novel (forthcoming 2014). He is a winner of the Pushcart Prize in fiction and a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. His plays include True East, Conquistadors, and Sangeet. His fiction appears in The Georgia Review, Fence, Zyzzyva, The Missouri Review, Other Voices, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review and other journals and anthologies. The following excerpt is from Good Indian Girls and shared with the author’s permission. For more on the author and Good Indian Girls, read The Aerogram’s interview with Sidhu.
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On Tuesday night, Lovedeep returned for a second evening to the de-cluttering class she had, two weeks previous, persuaded herself would bring order to her life and aid in accomplishing a list of modest goals. Gain self-confidence. Find a better job. Fall in love.
‘De-cluttering,’ the flyer promised, ‘empties more than the closet and the desk. It starts you on a road to shedding years of negative habits and self-sabotaging behavior.’
The class was led by a rake-thin woman with close-cropped, blonde hair who sat Indian-style on a metal desk. The room was usually reserved for karate classes. Glossy posters lined the walls, outlining positions and moves. The early arrivals helped the instructor unfold stacked chairs and carry the heavy metal desk from the utility closet so as not to scuff the floors. Lovedeep was an early arrival, and before the first meeting, as she unfolded one chair after another and set it softly on the wooden boards, the instructor smiled privately at her. When she walked to the front to formally sign in, the instructor leaned in close and whispered, ‘My heart is Indian.’
She had always wanted to go there, but never had. Except in past lives, of course.
‘I’ve lived there before. I feel it in my blood.’
The confidence angered Lovedeep. She turned and walked hurriedly to a seat and looked out with studied indifference through the window. Beyond the rows of parked cars and the uniform line of trees shielding the highway, a deep blood red soaked the sky.
That night she dreamed of a naked old man in a cowboy hat hopping cross-legged from one feathery cloud to another while his knees streamed blood and his limp penis flopped menacingly between his hairy thighs. The dream must mean something and she told herself to write it down and think on it, though she never did, and a week later, trying to recall it, all she could remember was a floating cowboy hat taunting her from the heavens. The memory held an erotic charge, though why, Lovedeep could not say.
The first week’s class had ended with a group meditation. Only by emptying the mind, the instructor said, could you successfully empty the closet.
Saying that, she began chanting. It was some sort of Indian sounding nonsense. Lovedeep kept her eyes wide open the whole time out of a rising fury. When it was over, she told herself she would not return for the second week and instead would write a fierce letter of complaint to the school. In any event, she no longer required a second week. The most important of her goals was now considerably closer to being achieved.
She was on the road to falling in love.
He sat two rows in front during that first week, tossing his head absently from side to side, scratching his neck, and leaning back to yawn. Standing and turning to exit when the instructor announced the break, their eyes met and he grimaced at her. The grimace telegraphed both boredom and complicity. Lovedeep assumed he was equally irritated by the instructor’s new age quackery.
Outside, in the parking lot of the strip mall, he told her his name. It was Ian. Amid high fluorescents shimmering against polished car bodies, the name sounded irresistibly exotic.
‘Do you like it?’ he said, nodding his head to indicate the class.
‘The instructor’s an idiot,’ Lovedeep said. ‘It’s a waste of money. I don’t know why I came.’
He nodded, saying nothing. He had driven from over fifty miles away, just for this class. He liked to get out of his own town, away from people who might know him.
‘The highways are empty this time of night,’ he said. It was as if he was revealing one of the secret laws of the universe.
Before the break was over, she had written her number on a torn corner of scratch paper and offered it to him. He stared at it, ‘Lovedeep?’ and thrust it into his trouser pocket.
‘What kind of name is that?’
‘Indian,’ she said defensively.
‘Have you been there?’
‘I’ve never thought about the place.’ He spoke dully, with a lack of excitement, as if signaling he wasn’t one of those guys hunting after the latest fad ethnicity to date and notch onto his belt of conquests.
After she handed him the phone number, his right hand began to shake visibly. ‘Are you alright?’ she asked.
He didn’t know what she was talking about, and she told him that his hand was shaking.
‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’ he said. ‘It’s not shaking, it’s perfectly still.’
It began to shake more violently after he said that. His whole arm seemed to be undergoing a series of uncontrollable spasms.
‘See,’ he said.
He must be shy of his disability, she thought, and decided not to question him further.
‘Oh, yes,’ Lovedeep said. ‘I can see it now. It’s not moving.’
It must be the light.’
‘There’s a lot of people in India,’ he said.
‘A lot of people must die? People must die and no one cares?’
She had never thought about such an India before, an India of countless thousands dying every day. It conjured an image of bodies stacked on bodies, like the movies the first horrified GIs took of the concentration camps in Germany after liberation. In her mind, the stack of bodies grew ever higher, until the ground itself could no longer support the weight, and the continent sank into the warm southern waters under the pressure of so much dead flesh.
‘It’s a cruel place,’ she said finally.
She followed him back into the class. All the while, his arm shook violently.
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