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, Part 2, and Part 3 and rejoin Vivek in Part 4 below as he wonders if history is repeating itself.
There are intricate flirtations where each person weaves and meanders into lust with the other. Slow, subtle. Artful. Ready to pull back at a moment’s notice should the other prove to have lousy taste in music or an annoying laugh. And then there are flirtations that explode, opening up partners in a matter of minutes like moonflowers blooming at night. The flirtation of Anish and Aimee fell into the latter category. To Vivek’s dismay, Anish deftly steered the conversation towards the safari, which Vivek saw as the one saving grace of the long expensive trip, the time he’d taken away from his research. “You wanna come with us?” Anish asked Aimee. “Since your boyfriend’s gone for a couple days?”
“Really?” Aimee asked. “I’d love to!”
“We can change the reservation. No big. Vivek, can you do it?”
Vivek nodded grimly as Aimee clapped her hands.
As ever, it was astonishing to watch Anish’s ability to make a woman feel good — he asked questions while offering small self-deprecating observations about himself. The compliments flowed, but not so heavily that they appeared phony. A carefully choreographed seduction that gained potency by appearing spontaneous. After a certain point, Anish’s silver tongue rattled Vivek. He rose and walked around the room as the guests started mingling.
He photographed them: couples flirting and fighting, grooming each other. Single Humans were not so different from other animals, he reminded himself.folk grazing at the buffet as if they didn’t know when they would eat again. Pronking to attract their mates — or avoid predators. Humans were not so different from other animals, he reminded himself. Joining together in packs to gather resources, finding common enemies, fighting over sex. As long as he looked at his family this way, as long as he could disconnect from them, they would not overwhelm him. He was whirling around, videotaping the room when the camera fell on Anish leaning over to whisper in Aimee’s ear and her hair fell forward as she smiled and whispered back.
There was a familiar pang in his heart, but he took a picture anyway. As teenagers, Anish and Vivek had been in love with Sara, a girl who lived two blocks over. Unlike most of the girls they saw at get-togethers, the daughters of their parents’ close friends — high-achieving Brahmin girls planning to be engineers or doctors or lawyers — Sara was a little bit wild with features that were more accurately described as striking than pretty and very long curly black hair. She had grown up in a strict Indian Pentecostal family, but she carried an engraved silver flask everywhere and had gotten them to drink, convinced them to sneak out to a Cure concert, procured their first joint. She was smart without showing off. Even while stoned, she could hold complex conversations about politics that made Vivek’s head spin — he thought he loved her completely.
But Anish had been more game for transgressions than Vivek was, and Vivek was pretty sure the two had fooled around. It was so long ago he had forgotten the details of their friendship — almost purposely — but he knew it had ended with his own jealous telephone call and some regrettable words. Even the vague memory churned his emotions, triggering the sense of intense shame he experienced after hanging up.
A “triumvirate,” his father Alok still called them, or “The Three Musketeers.” Year after year, he would ask the brothers about Sara: “How’s our Third Musketeer doing?” as though completely unaware that they had all fallen out of touch. Vivek assumed this nostalgia was a consequence of immigration: trying to make family out of friends, regardless of the quality of the friendships, clinging to sentiment and hope even in the face of toxicity.
Alok had grown up in a little fishing village in Tamil Nadu, surrounded by a large, loud extended family, including cousins that were as tight as siblings, and loyal friends. His father had been a socialist who had organized for freedom from the British and mobilized the whole village, and Alok had grown up on tales, most of which illustrated a moral about the importance of community and group action. The loss of community, the vast space between American neighbors, was the greatest loss Alok had experienced in immigrating. And so Alok idealized the closeness of Vivek and Anish’s friendship with Sara, just as he had suffused his own childhood memories with a rosy cloud. It did not matter what adversity you faced in life, so long as you were connected to other people, he would lecture his sons.
As Vivek continued to take photographs, a conversation with Sara came What he would have given to be the one who understood.back to him. Vivek, Anish and Sara were huddled on towels around a bonfire at the beach watching the sparks flying off the weeds and wood, illuminating the kelp and pale green sea glass. She said, “I feel so much, it’s making me numb.” And Anish answered without skipping a beat, “Me, too.” A look of recognition passed between them — unmistakable even in the shadowy firelight. Vivek did not understand what they were talking about and in that moment part of him realized he was lucky not to have that knowledge. What did it mean to feel too much? Too much anger? Too much sadness? It seemed to him at that time that Sara’s phrase was artificial, that she was trying to sound deeper than she was. Still, he couldn’t help feeling that Anish had been given some sort of gift to be able to answer her. What he would have given to be the one who understood.
“Doesn’t it ever bother you that nothing is ours?” he heard Subashini’s voice behind him. She was looking around the room with an unhappy expression.
Vivek went back to taking pictures. “Ours? ”
“We can’t claim ownership of anything.”
“Ownership of what?”
“Anything Indian. Anything American.”
Vivek shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“No, I bet you don’t,” Subashini said. Her tone was not hostile, but matter-of-fact.
“Just because Shivani is a model doesn’t mean she’s not smart,” Vivek said.
“Typical,” Subashini said. “Just because she’s a wealthy model who went to an Ivy League doesn’t mean she’s right either.”
“Why is there so much tension between you guys?” Vivek asked.
“I don’t know,” Subashini said. When Vivek didn’t inquire further, she elaborated as if she had been thinking about it for ages, and was relieved for the opportunity to unload on Vivek. “Maybe because our mothers were always comparing us when we were little even though we grew up on different continents. It was always: whose grades are better? Who won an award? You saw what just happened. She talks to me like we’re in India and I’m inferior, and I’m supposed to just take it. What if I just stopped acquiescing?”
“I don’t want to be in the middle of your drama,” Vivek said. He took a photograph of Shivani, her arm looped in gold bangles around somebody’s shoulder and her head thrown back in a laugh that looked strangely like a grimace.
“You asked,” Subashini said. He wondered if this was Subashini’s It was like they lived in a completely different world than he did, even though they had the same family members.way of chastising him for laughing at the joke. He wanted to apologize, but something in him resisted, feeling like her opinions were as off as Anish’s. It was like they lived in a completely different world than he did, even though they had the same family members. Were they really interacting with the same people? Were they even from the same culture? What could he say that wouldn’t call attention to the unpleasant rift? Weren’t they supposed to be one large family celebrating love? He couldn’t point any of these things out without making everything more awkward. His father would have wanted him to try to cheer her up because she was his Akka, his sister-cousin. She’s family.
“Do you want to come with us on safari?” he asked her, feeling helpless. “Aimee’s coming, too, though, so you’d have to deal.”
“Really?” Subashini’s face lit up. Although she was a couple of years older than him, she looked vulnerable and young for a moment.
“Sure, it would be great for us to catch up,” he said. In that precise moment, he even meant it. Besides, there was the chance that Subashini’s abrasiveness would snuff out the romance between Anish and Aimee.