Anita Felicelli’s The Great Sari and Mango Novel introduced warring twin brothers Vivek and Anish during a trip they took in their twenties to Johannesburg to attend their cousin Amala’s wedding to her Nigerian fiance David. Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. Part 7 is the last installment in this serial novel, but another section of the novel is forthcoming in the literary magazine Ardor.
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The trouble with families, Anish thought, was that they were always reminding you of who you were, exerting their dark gravitational force to pull you back to ground zero. He wasn’t allowed to simply forget about his time in the hospital, or last night at the wedding. He wasn’t allowed to forget that he was always f*cking up. There was no possibility of reinventing himself.
He and Vivek scarfed down the yogurt and single-serving boxes of cereal in the hotel dining room, and then they packed up their room. “Make sure you don’t forget anything,” Vivek said.
Anish groaned. He grabbed his suitcase and hurried out to the rental car.
After a few false starts that required Anish to run back to the hotel room to grab various items he had forgotten, they set off through the low sloping hills towards the highway. They drove for a few miles without a word to each other. Anish fiddled with the radio tuner.
“Look, it’s the girl from last night,” Vivek said. He was pointing at a mousy Indian teenager standing stock-still in the dusty grass on the side of the road. She had flung up one hand to shield her eyes against the bone white sun. About a mile past her, the vast stretch of highway running perpendicular to the road they were on looked clear.
“Do we know her?” asked Anish.
“How long were you blacked out? She was at our table last night,” Vivek said in an accusatory tone. “She might be a friend of Subashini’s. Maybe we should see if she needs a ride some place?”
Anish shrugged. He rolled down his window as Vivek braked. The mild smell of hay blew in with the wind, a tangible thing, like a blanket hitting his face. There were no people. There were no buildings for miles. Anish wondered where the girl had come from. “Need a ride?” he called.
She looked at him with a confused expression and shook her head. “Are you okay?” Vivek asked her. The girl responded in Tamil. The twins looked at each other. “Did you catch that?”
“You know I don’t understand Tamil,” Anish said. He couldn’t place how he knew her, but it was as if she were a part of him.The girl smiled, revealing rounded white teeth like aspirin. There was strangely familiar gap between her two middle front teeth. A cold shiver slipped down Anish’s spine. He couldn’t place how he knew her, but it was as if she were a part of him.
Vivek gestured. Pausing after each word he said, “Get in. We’ll drive you wherever you’re going.” Anish shook his head. If she didn’t understand English, Vivek speaking more slowly wasn’t going to help.
The girl shook her head, but kept smiling. She didn’t seem to understand that they wanted to give her a ride. A car honked and zoomed past them so fast their cheap rental car shook.
“Suit yourself,” Anish said. He slammed the door shut. Vivek pulled away. Their car bumped down the road towards the highway.
“She was wearing that grungy kurtha last night, too,” Vivek said.
“Maybe she’s a big partier,” Anish said. He searched his backpack for a protein bar and found a stale chocolate one. “And she’s only now getting home after a night of drugs and sex.”
They picked up Subashini first. Directions to the address she had given Vivek led them to a dilapidated rundown motel in the midst of a sea of weeds. Some young men were hanging out in the parking lot, lounging on cars, playing hip-hop from a boom box. “She’s staying here?” Vivek asked, as they approached her room.
Anish shrugged. “What’s wrong with it?” he asked. “Have you ever noticed that Mom and Dad are basically scared of poverty?” Vivek reminded Anish of his parents, so anxious about anything that didn’t seem perfectly clean and proper.
“That’s because they know what it’s like to actually be poor,” Vivek said, hitting the back of Anish’s head. “Idiot.”
Anish ignored him. “I think it’s more that they’re anti-black. They associate blackness with poverty.” Vivek tried to hit him again and he ducked. Subashini was already emerging from her motel room with an olive-green suitcase on wheels. Her hair was frizzy, a halo over her head, and she was wearing a dumpy purple t-shirt and denim cut-offs.
“That all you have?” Anish asked.
She shrugged. “I travel light.”
“Was that girl in the beige kurtha last night your friend?” Vivek asked.
“What beige kurtha? ” Subashini said. She rearranged the luggage in the trunk, trying to squish a duffel bag into the back of the trunk. “Are you guys sure you have enough room for me?”
“The girl who only spoke Tamil and was following us around at the wedding,” Vivek said.
Subashini’s face was blank. “I don’t remember anyone like that. Listen, thanks so much for saving me from having to hang out with Shivani this weekend.”
“Why?” Anish asked.
She shook her head as Vivek opened the trunk of the rental car. “I mean I know she’s a model, but ugh! Who brings up caste anymore? As if there’s something essential about it. Only someone totally fresh off the boat.”
“Ugh. I hate when white people ask you what your caste is.” Anish said.
“Nobody’s ever asked me what my caste is,” Vivek said.
“Why do you have to invalidate everything I say? ” Anish asked.
“The only way caste doesn’t matter among Indians is if your parents were both privileged upper-caste people,” Subashini muttered.
Vivek rolled his eyes at Anish. “You’re right,” Anish said, determined to be on whatever side Vivek was not. “F*cking colonialists.”
A memory came back to him, and so did the sense of humiliation that accompanied it. A memory came back to him, and so did the sense of humiliation that accompanied it.Vivek couldn’t even be bothered to visit him in the hospital. It was like he thought he was too perfect even to visit the psych ward, to get dirty among the mere mortals. Like he thought Anish had chosen to be there.
“Caste wasn’t created by the Brits.” Subashini said as she shoved her suitcase in the car. “And anyways, most people — white, brown, black whatever — are like Shivani, searching for any way to keep themselves up and other people down.” Anish said nothing, but he could tell from Vivek’s tight-lipped silence, he regretted inviting their cousin. This only made Anish more determined to ally himself with her.
After several false starts and detours, they zipped towards Aimee’s hotel. She was already waiting outside, leaning against her suitcase in a peach chiffon skirt. “Going someplace special?” asked Anish, jumping out of the car.
“I just believe in traveling in style. So, if you don’t mind, I decided to ride with you guys.”
Anish groaned. Vivek was looking at Aimee with a vaguely stupefied expression. He had it bad. Subashini jumped out of the car. “Good to see you again,” she said right away. Aimee smiled at her. Anish thought he detected something fake in the smile. Vivek was eyeing the two of them warily. “Pop the trunk, Viv.”
“You look great, Aimee,” Vivek said.
“You don’t look so bad yourself.”
They wedged Aimee’s suitcase into the trunk and Subashini and Aimee climbed into the backseat. They drove down the highway, playing Aimee’s cd.
“Is this a best of The Smiths album?” Subashini asked.
“Yes, do you like them?” Aimee asked.
“Yes. But I hate Best of albums,” Subashini replied.
“You seem tense again,” Anish said to Vivek. “Want me to drive?”
“You’re possibly still drunk, and you’re definitely hung over,” Vivek said, beating a rhythm on the steering wheel with his palm in time to the music. “And hungover driving is nearly as unsafe as drunk driving.” Keeping time to the music was something their father would do on road trips from New York to New Jersey to visit their other cousins. Anish was disturbed to see his father animating his brother’s features, his short, gentle, clueless father in his brother’s long fingers and hooked nose. Uncanny. The only trace of their mother was his teeth, the part in the middle of his teeth. The similarities made him think he should be kind, but he couldn’t. “I am the son and heir, of nothing in particular,” Vivek sang along in a quiet high-pitched voice, entirely unaware of how creepy his voice was.
Anish realized in that moment where he had seen that girl in the beige kurtha before. He took out his smart phone and logged onto an old Picasa account. He scrolled through the photographs his mother had uploaded as part of a family archive, snapshots dating back to the 1940s. And it was among the oldest photographs that he saw the sepia-tinted photograph of the girl in the kurtha. His mother’s mother. His grandmother from back around Independence time: her shy smile, the space between her teeth, and her melancholy elusive air. She had been dead for years.
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