Part 1 of Anita Felicelli’s The Great Sari and Mango Novel introduced twin brothers Vivek and Anish during a trip they took in their twenties to Johannesberg to attend their cousin Amala’s wedding. Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 and rejoin the belligerent brothers in Part 3 below as they are pulled into a debate at the wedding’s buffet lunch.
After the puja was over, everyone piled into a dining hall to eat a late buffet lunch. On long tables on the side of the hall, waiters had set out silver vats full of goat curry and vegetable korma and dal, stacks of chapatis and slowly deflating pooris, pre-mixed curd rice, fragrant pulao, and a dosa station where cooks were making dosas to order. Tiny bowls of mint and coriander and tamarind chutneys. For dessert, waiters were wheeling out carts stacked with bowls of gulab jamun soaked in rosewater syrup and payasum, a vermicelli rice pudding studded with raisins. There were thirty round tables in the hall for the guests, identical tables covered with stiff, embroidered white linens and adorned with tiny vases with single red roses with baby’s breath.
First to get out of the buffet line, Vivek and Aimee sat down at an empty table. They were sitting no more than two minutes when Anish set his plate down next to Aimee’s. “Mind if I sit here?”
Seconds later, their cousin Subashini and an unknown girl wearing an old-fashioned baggy beige kurtha dropped down in two of the other seats, further foiling Vivek’s plan to charm Aimee. Subashini who was a frizzy-haired law student, started interrogating Vivek about his graduate program. None of the cousins had seen Subashini since high school, at least not to Vivek’s knowledge — she hadn’t been to other cousins’ weddings in India or the family reunion. He wondered briefly why she turned up for this wedding. She was the black sheep of the family — at least the most obvious one before Anish had taken to drinking all day long. She was wearing a floral sundress instead of Indian clothes. The phrase “Indian time”—evoked when any of the cousins were late, which they always were — was lost on her. The unknown girl next to Subashini was petite with a thick plait down her back and when she looked around it was with a disoriented expression. In contrast to the other women at the wedding, she wore no make-up and there were dark shadows under her eyes, a haunted expression in her heavy-lidded brown eyes, which were strangely familiar. When Vivek said hello, she smiled shyly for a moment and then stared back into the tiny wheels of okra on her plate.
“Do you actually get to work with animals in your program?” Subashini asked.
“Yes.” He answered her questions in monosyllables, trying to follow the other conversation simultaneously. It ran through the highlights of Aimee’s life as Anish hit the peak of his buzz. Vivek realized what he had done wrong, as he always did, after the fact. He had asked Aimee virtually nothing about herself. Anish was scoring big points by asking about Aimee’s family (consisting of her single father and a much younger brother), her major at Yale (graphic design), and her hobbies (gourmet cooking and traveling.) Aimee turned the conversation to Anish.
“Oh, who me?” Anish said. “I’m working on The Great American Novel,” His voice fell an octave at the end of the sentence, so that the last few words were almost sotto voce. This was news to Vivek. Why hadn’t Anish just admitted he was a waiter in Manhattan? Of course he was lying to get Aimee into bed. “Like everyone else,” Anish added. To Vivek’s dismay, Aimee laughed, evidently thinking this was a clever bit of self-awareness.
“Is it an immigrant novel?” Aimee asked. “I just love those books. Jhumpa Lahiri is such a beautiful writer! I would love to be Indian so I could write that type of novel. They’re so colorful!”
Subashini had stopped questioning Vivek, and was listening to the conversation now. She frowned. “So you think Anish’s book is going to be colorful?” she asked Aimee.
“Of course. I mean, look around,” said Aimee, sipping her beer. “You’ve got the wonderful food, all those dosas and chapathis and curries and those sweet silver desserts. And mangoes! Who doesn’t love mangoes? And the sugary sweets and the beautiful clothes, the saris alone could be the subject of a treatise! And look at Amala’s henna — it’s gorgeous. Everything about India is so intense, so colorful. So yeah, I think Anish’s book will inevitably be colorful, too.”
“Just because he’s Indian?”
Aimee paused. “Yes, why not.”
“You forgot yoga,” Subashini said.
Aimee looked puzzled. “Oh, are you into yoga, too?” she asked Anish. “I find it so relaxing! I practice Ashtanga at a great little studio in downtown Palo Alto. I can almost stand on my head.”
“You know, Anish isn’t actually an immigrant.” Subashini said.
Shivani was gliding by and stopped at the table. Statuesque in her violet salwar, she hovered behind the girl in the kurtha who was entirely silent, just watching the others. “Why the long faces? It’s a wedding, people! What are we talking about?” she asked. As usual her voice had a strained joviality to it.
“My novel,” Anish said.
“Relax, this isn’t law school,” Vivek said to Subashini. He looked at Anish who was silently drinking his beer, several gulps at a time, probably not even mortified that his lie had caused so much discomfort. Aimee looked down at her plate of chapathis.
“You’re writing a novel? That’s so great! Perimma didn’t tell me that when I spoke to her.” Shivani said. “Who is your agent?”
“I’m not done with it yet,” mumbled Anish. “It was my doctor’s idea.” Vivek looked around to see if anyone else thought this was odd, but nobody looked phased.
“Oh, well how are you going to make the big bucks without an agent? I can see if one of my old classmates from Yale or any of the models I work with knows somebody,” Shivani said.
“Thanks,” Anish said, his face earnest, which only annoyed Vivek further. So Anish was going to keep up this charade.
“Thing is, nobody reads novels anymore.” Vivek started to say.
“The Great American novel full of yoga,” Subashini said in a loud voice. She was tearing her chapati into bits, dipping it into the goat curry. “And mangoes.”
Shivani laughed and shook her head. “You’re so funny. You must have inherited your sense of humor from the other side of your family.” After a second, Vivek joined in her laughter to take the pressure off Aimee, but Aimee was absorbed in picking coriander leaves out of her curd rice and stacking them on the side of her plate.
Subashini got up without looking at Shivani. “Well, I’m off to get myself one of those sugary, intense desserts now.” Without anybody noticing, the girl in the beige kurtha had disappeared.
“How have you been? Thanks for coming to the wedding. I know Amala appreciates you making such a long trip. Don’t let Subashini bother you,” Shivani said to Aimee.
“Oh, she wasn’t,” Aimee said. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“She can be…” Shivani wrinkled her nose. “I don’t want to be mean or anything, but she’s not like the rest of us.” Vivek realized with a start that Shivani was making a reference to caste — to Subashini’s lower-caste father. Anish was hailing the waiter for another beer.
Oblivious to the subtext, Aimee kept smoothing her hair behind her ears. Her tiny diamond earrings twinkled under the yellow lights. Shivani spotted someone she knew at another table and excused herself.
To hide his anxiety about laughing at Shivani’s remark, Vivek began uploading pictures of the giraffe, the springbok and the puja to his phone and posted them to Facebook under the heading, “Having a blast in Joburg.” Within a minute, there were notifications that people liked his photographs. Great shot! Can’t wait to see more! Amazeballs! He returned to equilibrium.