Mother and daughter face religious fundamentalism in this debut novel


This is how Tara received the news. On a piece of paper scribbled with spiders: “Father is dead. Call Surjo. The message reached her in this way because she had not replied to the many messages left at the language center the day before.

The woman remained silent and gave him two more pieces of paper. They were as redundant as romance novels are today. “Urgent from New Jersey.” Call. “” We are trying to reach you. Neither does Baba.

She handed him the notes with the same serenity with which she transmitted messages when Tara missed her mother’s calls. Tara has never been special to recall. When she did, her mother had the same questions about money, sweaters, covering her ears while running, eating enough rice.

She rarely called her family from Dharamsala, except to tell them to transfer money or send her books by mail. The woman held Tara’s hands, closed her eyes and said a long prayer. Before Tara could say anything, she turned around and left.

Tara’s first instinct was to watch from her balcony. There was the sky, the pagodas of the Dalai Lama temple towering in the distance, the great deodar spreading its limbs out like men in public buses, the tea stand opposite the road, and even the Pahari cow with colorful beads around the neck that parked there daily.

The bikes chained to a metal railing were not there. It was after nine o’clock now, and they had made their way through other streets and alleys, their fates tied to their owners. The world, with its order and rhythm, was in order. Only his father, older than his world, was gone.

Children, Tara and Surjo laughed when they heard the servants use the word “expire” to designate deceased relatives. Medicines and packaged foods expire. Can a human being finish his goal, literally stop being useful? As a child, she had found this inappropriate use funny. It seemed cruel now.

But death democracy in English seemed unfair. A terrorist could have died in an encounter. A rogue elephant could be shot. And now his father was also just dead. In Indian languages, a common criminal and his father would influence verbs to conjugate differently.

She saw Noor’s braided head float on the road. Should she yell across the road and tell him what had happened? If Noor hadn’t come that morning, she would still have slept and would have completely missed it. None of this would have happened.

No, calling Noor would confirm the case. She looked her in the eyes and put her arms around her and that made her cry. Maybe there had been a mistake. Which father were the notes referring to?

It must be Laura’s father. Poor Laura. She would call and console her. But why would Surjo call him Baba? They only had one Baba. There must be some mistake, but she didn’t know what.

She put on her jacket, hung on a hook near the door last night, and started walking towards the language center. Her alley grocery store, where she bought her bottled water, had a phone. But it was too loud in there.

She should walk to the language center and use the phone there. It was ten minutes away. It would be calm and she could hear Surjo and then they would laugh in confusion. Then his father would rip Surjo’s phone off and say something smart.

The sun had not yet gained strength and Tara’s jacket was flapping around her knees as she walked. She paused to start buttoning it, but her fingers were stiff. Then she realized that it was her feet that were cold. She was wearing flip flops. She should walk fast and be done – what if she ran into Tashi in that mango-print pajama outfit, pom-pom flip flops and a sleek silk jacket?

Still, she made an effort to recognize everyone she usually smiled at on the way to the market. She passed the man at the momo counter in Lung Ta who motioned to his momo pot and seemed to ask him why she hadn’t had dinner with him last night. She nodded to the woman who tried to sell her a silver jewel set with turquoise stones every day. She smiled at the boy who sold cut fruit and at a group of students whom she always saw at the center but who she had never spoken to.

When the center of speech loomed right in front of her, she slowed down. Suddenly she wished she had walked so fast. She was hungry. She hadn’t had breakfast. Why didn’t Noor bring something more useful than oranges?

She turned around and went back to the fruit vendor and asked for a bowl of cut fruit. He gave her pineapple, banana, watermelon and some strawberries on top. She asked for more pineapple slices. It would take a while, she would have to wait for him to cut a new one. She would wait, she said. She buttoned her jacket correctly in the meantime. After she finished eating, she walked back to the center.

The language center looked minimal from the outside. Inside, it was garish. White tubes lit up every flaw. A new round of global grants had made possible, in addition to a library wing, a coffee counter in the lobby. Students usually crowded around this.

But the hall was empty today. The coffee machine was silent, not making its usual noises. It was Christmas vacation and a large number of foreign students had returned home. There were only the monks and her.

A young monk in a crimson robe was making a call, so she stood in line. He still seemed to be on the phone. Weren’t they supposed to give up on the world? Who did he call?

When he finally finished, she wiped the receiver with her sleeve and called Surjo. Laura picked up. She said she was sorry for her loss.

Tara felt like she had been on a roller coaster for the first time. There had been a chill when the ride had started, going straight first and then curving upward in a large semi-circular loop. Baba was next to her in the coupe.

It had always been like this: Baba and her, Ma and Surjo. They were the family teams even when they were playing carrom. She had held his arm through the sleeves of his shirt, her little girl’s nails digging into him. They had reached the top and she had had a glimpse of the whole amusement park – how small people looked!

“And you, Tara rani, you are at the top of the world”, Baba had said. “You and me on top of the world. She and Baba looked at each other, if only for a moment, and shouted. But when the ride passed the loop and began a downward spiral, she was taken by surprise by the feeling of hollow in her stomach. All of his entrails had been dug. She was the skin and the heartbeat. She didn’t know if it was thrill or fear.

“Ekhuni shesh hobe, Tara rani,” she heard her father’s voice say over the collective cries of children and adults. It would be over soon, all she had to do was hold on tight to the railing in front.

Extracted with permission from The Illuminated, Anindita Ghose, HarperCollins India.

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