Pittsburgher Geeta Kothari is the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review and a co-founder of www.novelworkshop.org. Her writing has appeared in various anthologies and journals, including New England Review, Massachusetts Review, and others — and her essay “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” is widely taught in universities and has been reprinted in several anthologies, including in Best American Essays. Kothari is the editor of “Did My Mama Like to Dance?” and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters…
And her debut collection of short stories — I Brake for Moose and Other Stories — is now available from Pittsburgh’s Braddock Avenue Books!
From the publisher: “In story after story of this highly anticipated collection, Geeta Kothari lays bare an America deeply uneasy about its heterogeneity. In ‘Small Bang Only,’ a man from the former Yugoslavia struggles to come to terms with his wife’s successful career in America only to find the resolution to his grief in violence. In ‘Missing Men,’ a woman from an unnamed African country wrestles with her sense of self when she is forced to hide her identity after her boss, the editor of a community newspaper, is arrested in a post 9/11-related investigation. And in ‘Her Mother’s Ashes,’ a young Indian woman taking her dead mother’s cremated remains ‘home’ to spread in the Ganges comes to realize that the very idea of home may have vanished forever. In stories bristling with the tensions of an increasing globalized world, Kothari’s luminous prose pulls back the curtain on one of the most pressing problems of contemporary life: how can we understand ourselves in an ever-shifting world…”
“There are many ways to leave home… Geeta Kothari is here to tell us, and the tricky road back is always charged and uncertain. These stories chart that journey with aching accuracy.” — Ron Carlson
HER MOTHER’S ASHESShe hears the children at the front door before she sees them. They rush into the hall, a mass of slickers and rubber rain boots, squeaking and slipping across the floor. Lally remembers when raincoats came only in yellow, and suddenly, she feels old. From the room, Lally watches them tear their coats off, struggle with their outdoor shoes, grabbing onto each other or the wall for support, laughing and breathless. Joke trips into the classroom, still wearing her red galoshes.
When she started working at the afterschool program, Lally told the children that while growing up, she wasn’t allowed to wear shoes in the house. The one exception was the time her parents went to Boston and brought back a pair of red Oxfords for her. They were new and clean, shiny and beautiful; she’d worn them to bed that night. Her parents didn’t know they were called Oxfords; for years the shoes were simply Boston shoes, the only shoes she ever wore indoors.
“Joke,” Lally calls out, anxious to get her before she takes another step into the clean classroom.
Joke looks up.
“Don’t you want to put on your slippers?” Lally asks. The children take their shoes off when they come in and put on the slippers lined up under their pegs in the hallway. She doesn’t want to tell Joke what to do, but the order is implicit in her question, said in a tone used only with children.
Joke looks down at her feet, as if surprised to see her outdoor shoes still there.
Before Lally knows it, they are standing around her, their strange little voices trying to drown each other out. Some of them have surprisingly low voices, as if they’ve been staying up late nights with a bottle of whiskey and pack of cigarettes. They are short enough to trip her without trying. Looking down at them, she feels very tall and awkward, not old but young now, like an unsure teenager.
“Tell us about the thousand-ton man, again, please Lally, please?”
“Twelve-hundred-pound-man,” she says automatically, and then wonders what difference accuracy makes to a story culled from the National Enquirer and the evening news.
“Whatever. Tell me what he eats.”
“I told you yesterday, Davey.”
Davey is giggling behind his hands. He loves this story, as do his ten giggling cohorts, standing in a rough semi-circle at her feet.
“Okay.” She sighs. Why do children love to hear the same story again and again? “But only if you promise, all of you, not to get on my nerves.”
They nod, sort of, and shuffle to the big low table in the middle of the room. Over the sound of chairs scraping the floor, a question:
“What’s get on your nerves?”
As the afternoon progresses to dusk, they draw pictures of the twelve-hundred-pound man. His profile, his bedroom, his chins, his tummies. The man stuck in the bathroom doorway. What he eats for breakfast, what he will look like after his diet, what he eats on his diet. They draw his life inside out, and when she tries to show them a photo of the real fat man, they are dismissive, as if his existence could never measure up to their stories.
She has never considered herself a storyteller, a necessary skill for this job that fits her like her old school coat—several sizes too big, with the saleslady’s assurance she’d grow into it. At first, she felt herself shrinking. When the children crowded around her feet, she’d pull into herself, like a flower closing up for the night. Eventually she reached a comfort zone where she no longer felt the automatic closing off. Now, however, when she tells the same story again and again, she moves neither forward nor back.
Lally tries to read while they draw, but they won’t let her. All the attention goes to the fat man. The questions and comments are constant. Lally gives up on her book, drawn into their world in spite of herself. It amazes her how fresh their fascination is, how their incredulity grows each day. They greet the story like a long-favorite fairy tale.
Lally’s mother didn’t tell fairy tales. Instead, she would tell her about the Partition. “We lost everything. We had so much, and then, one day, we had nothing but the clothes we wore.” Independence Day did not mean freedom; it meant Partition, the day Lahore became part of Pakistan forever.
Lally wanted to hear more, but even at ten she knew that if she asked for a happy ending, her mother would clamp her lips tight and walk away. Instead, she imagines her mother, eighteen and frightened, holding onto her uncle’s hand—the little boy her grandfather so desperately waited for, through five daughters and two miscarriages—as they board a train bound for Hoshiarpur. What would it feel like to travel without luggage? Now when Lally’s mother traveled, she packed large, unwieldy suitcases, stuffing packs of dry cereal and powdered milk into the corners as if she would never see food again.
“Your great-grandfather was the richest man in Lahore. He had a big house—the joint family lived there—and he had his own shop. One day he saw two young men eyeing my fifteen-year-old cousin. He had two of his men kill them the next day.”
“Didn’t anyone say or do anything?” Lally was stalling, hoping to distract her mother, so that she would not have time before school to finish off the cold, milky dregs of oatmeal in her bowl.
“Nope.” Her mother covered her toast in marmalade, thick and sickly sweet. The morning paper was spread over her half of the kitchen table, and she read while crunching her toast, occasionally brushing the crumbs from the page.
Her mother shrugged, turning the page. “That’s the way it was. It’s the parents’ duty to take care of the girls, to protect them and make sure they are settled.”
Even then, Lally knew what “settled” meant. It meant a home. It meant a doctor or engineer husband, a house in Cherry Hill, and two children—a boy, first, for the family, and then a girl, for herself.
“Did that girl, your cousin, ever get married?”
Her mother sighed, and her lips tightened. She looked up from her paper. “She ran off with a Muslim boy, a few years before the partition. Grandfather was so stupid; he thought everything would stay the same, that nothing would change. He let the girl go, and we never saw her again.”
“Why not? Where did she go?”
Her mother started clearing the dishes from the table, her toast half-eaten, Lally’s oatmeal forgotten. “You’re going to be late for school. Come on, now. You’re making me late.”
Later, on the corner of Elm Street, the point where Lally would walk to school by herself, her mother said, as if there had never been a pause, “We used to see that girl in the market sometimes. I wanted to speak to her, but grandmother wouldn’t let me. By the time I found out where she lived, it was too late. It was 1947. We went on holiday, and never came back.”
She hugged herself against the chilly autumn air, crunching dry leaves under her feet. When Lally turned back to wave, from half way down the block, she was gone, already around the corner.
When Lally’s mother died a year ago, Lally was in India, waiting for her. In between her tears, Lally smiled at the irony of her mother dying in New York, visiting friends for a few days before her flight to Delhi, when her express wish had been to have her ashes scattered in the Ganges. Lally dutifully obliged her mother, making the round trip, hassling with customs officials who gave in only when she started to cry, trekking up to the Ganges for the first time in her life, and finally, mingling with pilgrims and hippies on the banks, surreptitiously slipping her mother’s ashes into the water. Looking around self-consciously, she noticed a couple of men bathing upriver, while a man in white beat some clothes against the rocks. At first she was repulsed by the brown water with islands of foam and flecks of ash floating on its surface. A line of marigolds, rose petals, and lighted clay lamps bobbed past her. The smell from the nearby ghats bothered her—it felt like she was breathing the dust of the dead—but she had learned that actively resisting a smell only made it worse.
A long time ago, when she was nine, Lally watched her mother feed her father’s ashes into the Connecticut River with equal surreptitiousness. He’d always been slightly perturbed by her mother’s wish to be scattered in the Ganges—”This is your home now,” he’d say, pointing to the Berkshires that encircled the small Massachusetts town he taught in. But that had been no more her mother’s home than this was.
Lally looked around to see if anyone else was doing the same thing—she didn’t know the proper ritual, the right prayers. She’d been too embarrassed to ask her aunt; the family already thought she hadn’t been raised properly. All she had were her mother’s stories. What did they mean? Lally hears her mother’s voice. “Saraswati sits on your tongue once a day; she is the goddess who watches us for correct speech. When I was ten, I said, ‘One day we’re going to lose all of this.’ We lost everything. No home, no business, no nothing. My parents had to start all over again.” And that was it. She never said how she felt, and the harder Lally tried to remember, the less she knew.
Dusk fell, and Lally stood on the banks of the muddy river, waiting for someone to tell her what to do. The cawing of the crows grated her ears, and she hesitantly opened the urn. But as she became absorbed in her task, less concerned with everything around her, more concerned with the ashes, with saying goodbye to her mother, who she would never see again, who would probably not even be able to come back as a ghost now that she was ash, Lally slowly left her perch on the sandstone bank and waded into the water. When all the ashes were gone, and she was left with an empty urn, she realized she was crying.
Lally missed part of the fourteen-day grieving period, wanting to dispose of the ashes immediately, almost afraid she’d forget her mother’s directive. Family and friends crowded into the living room, the women seated on the Persian carpet, dominating the conversation, the men on the periphery of the over-decorated room, uncomfortably perched on the overstuffed couch. The room was dark, even during the day, built deliberately to avoid the hot summer sun. Lally’s grandfather built this house after the partition, working two jobs to resettle his family. The house took two years to build, and by then Lally’s mother had already left for the States.
Lally couldn’t stay in New Delhi, with the family, because they reminded her too much of her mother. The way her two aunts cackled in Punjabi, the heavy, spicy smell of the food, the lingering scent of jasmine soap on her cousins’ skin—it was familiar and unknown, both at the same time.
At the end of her last meal in New Delhi, she asked her youngest aunt about the missing cousin, the one who ran off with the Muslim. “I wouldn’t know,” her aunt said, getting up to clear the table. “Such things weren’t discussed in my presence.”
From I Brake for Moose by Geeta Kothari. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Braddock Avenue Books.