October 31, 2018
The monsoons had already started by the time Geetha arrived in Bombay. She stepped into a large puddle of brown water as she hurried out of the taxi in front of Nandini’s flat. It was half past midnight and the city was almost quiet. Even in the darkness she could see the fiery orange gulmohar tree next to the building. Geetha had forgotten how lush Bombay could be, despite its pollution and concrete roads. Her jeans stuck to her thighs and droplets of sweat gathered on her forehead and nose. The damp smell of rain reminded her of childhood. It had been twenty-five years since she left for Chicago, and though she’d been back since then, she felt she was finally coming home.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Nandini said as she led Geetha inside. The light in the flat was dim, and the women spoke in low voices, not wanting to wake Nandini’s family.
Geetha fell onto the sofa. “I didn’t think I’d ever land.”
Nandini handed her a metal cup of tepid water and sat down. “So, what happened?”
“Can I have just a minute?” Geetha had known the question was coming and had even come up with what she thought was a pithy answer. But now, in the home of her friend, she couldn’t quite bring herself to speak. She took a lazy sip of water and watched Nandini’s eyes narrow. She laughed, hoping to sound carefree. “It just didn’t feel right.”
“After fifteen years, you decided it didn’t feel right?” Nandini asked. “Geetha, even for you this is too much! Tell me you didn’t come all this way to not give me the full story.”
“Fine, there was someone else.”
Her friend leaned forward.
“No, not me, him.” This time, Geetha’s laugh was real. She went on to explain that they’d been at the supermarket when her husband suddenly blurted out that he was seeing someone else. She was holding a pineapple and the soft spikes poked her palm. The image was ridiculous and she hoped it would amuse her friend, but Nandini remained serious.
“He told you out in public like that?”
Geetha shrugged, remembering how she and Hari had driven home without any groceries. The woman was a sociologist named Carol who’d joined their university seven months earlier. Hari had decided that he wanted to be with her, instead.
“That’s terrible,” Nandini said. “I always knew he was bad news.”
Geetha tapped the metal glass with her short nail. She knew that wasn’t true. Everyone loved Hari. It felt like you were the only person in the world when he talked to you. That’s what had drawn her to him in the first place. She had moved to Chicago a year before they met. He was born in the U.S. but something about his manner reminded her of home. He offered a bridge of sorts, a mediation between her past and her future.
“How are you doing with all of this?” Nandini placed a soft hand on Geetha’s shoulder.
“I’m fine.” Geetha didn’t want to admit that a part of her felt relieved. She hadn’t been particularly surprised when Hari told her. It was a slow process, but she’d become less and less invested in their marriage. She realized that the bridge could be crossed in either direction. The summer holidays from her teaching job allowed her the freedom to leave, and it was a quick decision to return to Bombay, where she’d grown up. She thought that maybe she could start her life again there.
“It’ll be good for you to be home for a little while,” Nandini said.
Geetha took a sip of water. She liked that her friend called Bombay home even though she’d been gone for so long.
“We wanted to have a dinner on Wednesday night to celebrate your homecoming,” Nandini continued. “Nilim and all are excited to see you.”
Geetha looked up at the sound of Nilim’s name. She and Nilim had been childhood sweethearts. They’d been in love in the way only teenagers can be, spending every possible moment together, scheming to be alone to feel the other’s timid hands. Her parents were concerned, saying in public that they were too young to be so serious. This was probably true, but everyone also knew that her parents had greater ambitions for Geetha in marriage and in life. At their urging, she applied to a university in Chicago where her eldest sister lived.
“This is the end,” Nilim had said when she showed him her acceptance letter.
“No,” Geetha said. “We have no end.”
But, of course, they did. It was the fault of time, of distance. Maybe that was what it meant to grow up.
Now, Geetha stifled her desire to ask Nandini how Nilim was doing, telling herself that she’d find out soon enough. “Let’s talk more tomorrow.” She rolled her suitcase into the extra bedroom and lay down on the hard bed.
The next morning, outside Nandini’s building, Geetha couldn’t flag down a taxi, so she got into an auto-rickshaw that stopped for her. Nandini had offered to put her up, but she said that she wanted to stay alone. She found a flat to rent in Bandra, where she grew up. It was relatively close to her sister, Meera, the only one of the four sisters who had stayed in India. Soon, Geetha would start looking for a more permanent place to live.
They drove past the billboard ad with the cheeky girl with ocean blue hair. It was the same image the company used when Geetha was a child and she’d jokingly told her parents that she wanted to dye her hair the same color. The rickshaw driver, sitting with one bare foot folded beneath him, aggressively cut between cars. Dried limes and red chilies swung from the rearview mirror like a pendulum, and Geetha imagined them falling and rolling onto the pedals. Rain misted into the rickshaw, but she didn’t pull the heavy curtain to protect herself. She liked watching the city, and positioned herself in the middle of the narrow seat. She held onto the side of the rickshaw with one hand and the suitcase next to her with the other. The driver sped up before slamming on the brakes behind a bus. She let out a deep breath when they finally pulled up in front of the building.
The watchman helped her carry her bag up the two flights of stairs and jiggled the lock of the door. The one-bedroom flat was small and modestly furnished. Its loud floral decorations and Catholic trinkets were similar to those Geetha’s parents had used to decorate their home. Geetha found it charming and welcoming. The landlady had left her a note that pointed out the switches for the water geezer and the electricity. Remember to turn on the geezer fifteen minutes before you shower to heat the water. The woman’s handwriting was straight and precise, the product of a strict colonial education. Geetha’s penmanship had been the same when she exchanged letters with Nilim. I miss you. I promise to return. She’d meant those words when she wrote them. But she was just a girl, twenty, and so far from home. She hadn’t known what the future held. Three years later, Nilim had continued to write to her. She told herself that she needed to move on, but she knew she owed him a response. How could she say, I’m engaged. How could she say, I’m so lonely here, but I don’t think I’m coming back. I’ve made my life with Hari. It’s not the same, but it will have to be enough.
When the watchman left, the silence filled Geetha like the rain that was gathering in the gray clouds outside. She emptied out her suitcase and put her clothes into the metal cupboard. It was strange that everyone she knew on the other side of the world was fast asleep. She couldn’t reach out to them even if she wanted to. Turning on the overhead ceiling fan, she wondered what Hari was doing. Were he and Carol now sleeping in their bed together? She pictured the room, the bedspread she’d chosen, the paintings they’d bought. It felt like another life. She was glad, in a strange way, to be the one wronged, rather than the other way around. She lay backwards on the top sheet and her long legs spilled over the edge of the mattress. The fan buzzed above her. One of its wings dipped slightly as it spun.
A few hours later, Geetha went out to buy vegetables for dinner. She thought she remembered the route to the market, but she wandered in circles for forty minutes, avoiding potholes and the rickshaws and motorbikes that drove too close. She finally stopped and asked an older woman in a mustard-colored sari for directions. The woman didn’t speak English, and after a series of broken Hindi phrases and hand gestures, Geetha found her way.
She wasn’t used to buying food for one and didn’t know how much she’d need. At the closest stall, she handed two onions to the shopkeeper and slowly counted her coins. He grabbed the money and shoved the bag into her hands. Sweat speckled her nose. People pushed past her as she fiddled with a handful of green beans, clumsily trying to sort out the fresh ones. Exhausted, she dropped the beans back into their wicker basket. The shopkeeper called after her, offering a lower price, but she left anyway. She picked up bhel puri from an air-conditioned restaurant meant for tourists whose stomachs couldn’t handle street food, and carried it home, the bag of onions heavy on her wrist.
Back at the apartment, Geetha went into the bathroom to wash off her sweat and frustration. She was already in the shower before she realized that she’d forgotten to turn on the geezer. She cursed, standing under the icy spray with her arms limply at her sides. She turned off the faucet a few minutes later and found the floor flooded because there wasn’t a proper divider between the shower and the rest of the bathroom. Leaving wet footprints on the tiles, she got dressed.
Geetha pulled a chair onto the small balcony and placed the container of bhel puri onto her lap. A few rickshaws and scooters zipped by, trying to avoid traffic on the main road. Their honking punctuated the steady rainfall. Two young girls in navy-blue school uniforms strolled arm in arm, and she remembered walking this way with her sisters.
Geetha let out a deep breath and forked the stale bhel puri into her mouth. It felt strange to live alone. She’d never had her own place, going straight from her parents’ home to one with her eldest sister in Chicago, and then a few years later into the apartment with Hari. No one knew what she was doing or how she felt. In one of the densest cities in the world, a fierce aloneness hooked into her. She pushed the food around before setting the container aside. The rain spattered against the pavement and the girls jumped in the puddles.
The next evening was Nandini’s dinner. Geetha stared at the clothes she’d hung in the cupboard, wishing she’d brought better blouses. She changed a few times in an attempt to find something appropriate in the heat and that could hide the curves of her stomach. She finally settled on a sleeveless dress she’d bought years before that Hari had always liked. The eggplant-colored fabric fell to her knees and was loose around her middle. She grabbed a grey scarf to cover her bare shoulders.
Standing before the mirror, she tried to see herself as Nilim would. The last time she had seen him, she’d been a girl, her hair dark and thick, her waist narrow and taut. She tried to flatten out her short hair but the humidity clung to it. Thin grey strands had taken over her hair like weeds, and for the first time, she wished she dyed it. Would Nilim recognize her when she looked so much older? She wore little makeup usually, but now, she carefully brushed foundation onto her face. Lowering the skin beneath each eye, she dragged kohl across the bottom lids with shaking fingers. She felt an ache in her chest at the thought of seeing Nilim again, as though she were still a teenager.
She stood outside Nandini’s apartment and listened to the sound of laughter coming through the door. Taking a deep breath, she rang the bell. Nandini’s husband greeted her and she followed him inside. Nilim and his wife, Priya, were sitting on the sofa and their young daughter was playing with Nandini’s two children in the corner of the room. Geetha had known that Nilim was married and a father. She had known this even before Nandini told her. Still, it stung to see him so comfortable in his life, a reminder of how it had gone on without her.
Priya was dressed casually, in jeans and a blouse. Her hazelnut eyes were striking against her wavy black hair. Glancing at Nilim, Geetha realized that she’d been afraid she might not recognize him, but his boyish features were obvious underneath a greying beard. She lingered in their hug for a moment, the hair on his face brushing against her cheek.
“It’s great to finally meet you,” Priya said. “Nandini talks about you all the time. How long are you in town?”
Geetha wondered whether Priya knew about her and Nilim’s history. “I’m not sure yet, probably for a little while.”
“Everyone leaves and then they decide it’s better to come back home,” Nandini said, pouring Geetha a glass of wine.
“You’ve never wanted to go to America?” Priya asked. “Whenever we go, I tell Nilim we should shift there.”
“Do you go to the States a lot?” Geetha glanced toward Nilim. “Where?”
“Usually New York or Chicago,” Priya said. “My brothers live out there.”
“I didn’t know you visited. It would’ve been good to see you.”
“It was always busy,” Nilim said quickly and took a sip of his drink. “How’s Meera doing?”
Geetha fidgeted with her wine glass. “She gets along with the ayah who takes care of her, so that’s a relief.”
She liked that he knew her family well. He’d been there when her sister’s illness had gotten bad, had even gone with her to the hospital after Meera started treatment.
“Don’t be ashamed,” he’d said to her, squeezing her hand.
In Chicago, it felt like freedom at first that no one knew about Meera. But eventually, it felt like no one knew her at all. She didn’t mention her sister to people she met. She hardly even talked about her with Hari, who’d only met Meera twice. It was too much to explain.
A child in a shirt the color of green grapes wandered out of the bedroom, his eyes sleepy.
“This is Aunty Geetha.” Nilim ruffled his curly hair and pointed in her direction.
Geetha looked from the boy to Nilim. They had the same dark eyes and round face. “How old is he?”
“Four,” Priya said. “You never had any kids?”
“No,” Geetha hesitated. “I’ve been very busy with work.” It was a stupid answer, but it was the best she could do. Her teaching schedule had always been demanding, though she knew she could have had children if she’d wanted them.
“It’s not too late,” Priya said.
Geetha smiled politely and shook her head. It was too late. Both she and Hari had been sure they didn’t want children, and yet something in her body softened when looking at Nilim’s son. What would her life have been like if she’d stayed in Bombay and married Nilim instead? He’d proposed the day before she left for Chicago. It was the first dry day after weeks of rain and they were standing near the rocks at the Bandstand promenade. She could almost taste the salty air. He didn’t have a ring, but Geetha said it didn’t matter. She said yes and she’d meant it then. Watching his nervousness as he asked her, she’d felt full, like the world had expanded just for them. But they were both so young; how could they make a decision for the rest of their lives? She should have known better.
Geetha spent the next few weeks walking around Bombay in between monsoon storms. The heat wrapped around her. She used a tissue to dab at the sweat that gathered on her eyelids and neck, leaving tiny white specks on her face. She took the train to art galleries and to have lunch in town, things she never did as a teenager. She practiced her broken Hindi with the rickshaw drivers, navigating her way through tangled roads. She went to the Bandstand promenade and watched the waves crash onto the slippery rocks. The city started to come into better focus; suddenly she knew the way to the market, where to easily get a rickshaw, where to stand for the ladies’ compartment on the train. Bombay was like a distant world, both familiar and foreign, and she held onto a seed of hope that she could live there again.
The weather was simultaneously horrible and perfect. Everything flooded so quickly, brown water caught in potholes and uneven pavement. “It’ll be miserable being there in the rainy season,” her sisters in the U.S. had said when Geetha told her she was going back. But people live here all year round, she thought; even her sisters had been used to it at one time. She liked the monsoons, how they cooled off the city and brought out a more vibrant green in the trees. Being in Bombay in bad weather made her feel less like a tourist.
Once, she got caught in the rain at the promenade and remained sitting on a bench, her umbrella moving with the wind above her. On the pathway nearby, a pit of a mango looked like a wet animal. Most people around her huddled underneath awnings and trees, and she was glad to watch the sea unobstructed. The waves roared as if they were racing to the rocks. She could feel people’s eyes on her, wondering why she was just sitting there getting wet, but she didn’t mind.
She saw Nilim and Nandini a few times too, and felt comforted by being around people who knew where she came from, her context. Though Hari’s parents grew up in India, he considered himself American and didn’t enjoy going back. He didn’t know her in this city. Around Nilim, she saw who she’d been, back when her life lay open in front of her like the sea she watched from the promenade.
Priya invited Geetha and Nandini’s family to their apartment in South Bombay for dinner one Saturday, and Geetha went into town early to walk around. She bought bhutta at a road stand, the open flame that grilled the corn warming her arms. As she was eating, the sky turned to charcoal. The rain started as a sprinkle, and then suddenly, as if a cloud above had exploded, it fell all at once. Everyone around her scattered and took shelter, and Geetha ducked into a taxi. The downpours could strand a person for hours. She felt savvy for being smart enough to get ahead of the storm. Still, Geetha held her breath as they drove down Marine Drive. The waves crashed onto the side of the road. The cab churned down the street, and it took almost forty minutes to get through the traffic to Nilim and Priya’s flat.
She hurried out of the taxi when they arrived, water pooling at her ankles. She attempted to smooth out her hair in the elevator, though it dripped onto her shoulders. Nilim answered the door in a black t-shirt and jeans. His hair was tousled as though he’d just woken up.
“I was trying to get a hold of you.” He motioned Geetha to come in. “The rain’s pretty bad. Nandini and all were taking a cab but decided to turn back. Priya and the kids are stuck at her mother’s. It’s not going to let up for a while.”
“They aren’t coming?” Geetha glanced up as she slipped off her wet sandals and tried to brush off the dirt from her feet. “I think my phone was off. I can go back—”
“No, no,” he said. “There are already a few accidents on the road. You can’t go back tonight.”
Geetha walked to a large window to watch the rain. People huddled beneath bus stops to shield themselves. Others waded through the floods, the water now at their calves. A sea of umbrellas covered the pavement. They were mostly black, but there were some blues, greens, and yellows. Water came up to the middle of the tires of a red BEST bus, and a group of men tried to push it to the side of the road. Geetha hadn’t experienced rain like this in years.
“We’ll have to just heat up some food they left,” he said. “Hope that’s okay.”
The air conditioning in the apartment was on full force and Geetha wrapped her scarf around herself. The spotless kitchen counters shone in the overhead light. She leaned against a tiled wall and watched as Nilim heated up rice and chicken curry. His apartment was on the thirteenth floor and, for the first time since she’d arrived in Bombay, she couldn’t hear the crowds outside.
They sat at the dining table to eat, and she was glad for the conversation. It was as though no time had passed. Nilim looked older and more mature, and yet he was exactly the same as she remembered. The power went out with a crack as they finished dinner, and darkness flooded the apartment.
“This building is supposed to have a backup generator,” Nilim said, but nothing kicked in.
He called down to the watchman, who said they were fixing it. Geetha moved to the sofa in the living room and finished the last drops of her wine. The rain slapped against the windows as if trying to get in.
“It’s okay,” Nilim said as he came back into the room. “We have candles.” He lit a handful of tea lights and distributed them around the table and apartment. The candles lit up the curves of Nilim’s face and his eyes looked browner. A burst of thunder interrupted the dark silence.
“It’s kind of nice,” Geetha said. Without the air conditioning, she was no longer cold. She slipped off the scarf, revealing her bare shoulders, and could feel Nilim’s eyes on her.
“Have you decided whether you want to stay in Bombay?” Nilim asked. “It must be strange to be here after so long.”
“It is strange, but it feels like finally coming home.” Geetha ran her fingers through her hair. “It’s been good to see old friends.”
“Do you want some scotch?” Nilim poured a drink into two low glasses. He added an ice cube to each and gave one glass to Geetha.
“Moving up in the world, I see.” She nudged him. “Remember when we’d sneak Kingfishers from your parents’ fridge?”
“You were a bad influence on me.”
Geetha rolled her eyes. “Oh, sure, I was the bad influence!”
They laughed for a while. Geetha thought about Hari and Carol and wondered what ran through their heads the first time they slept together. This was different. Nilim understood her. They had a history. She’d made a mistake by leaving, but now they could go back to how it had been. She shifted on the cushions, her bare feet close to Nilim’s.
“I’m getting divorced,” she blurted.
“So I’ve heard,” he said, carefully.
“He was never right for me. I see that now.”
To her surprise, Nilim began to laugh. It started rumbling up from the pit of him until he was consumed with his own amusement. “He was never right for you? You didn’t see it when I was begging you for just a phone call? I still have the ring, you know. I saved for it.”
He was trying to make his voice hard, but Geetha knew him. She could see the boy he’d been just underneath the person sitting beside her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and she was. She held in her excuses, not reminding him how young she was, how young they’d both been. “I was wrong.”
Nilim took the last sip of his drink. “I should probably go to bed.”
“It’s still early!” Geetha tried to smile. “Let’s have one more. Don’t tell me now that you’re a dad you go to bed at ten o’clock.”
“Just one more.” Nilim refilled their glasses and sat back down next to her. “What happened between you and Hari?”
“He was having an affair.” Geetha could feel the slight burn of the scotch as it went down her throat. “He’s leaving me for her.”
“Oh.” Nilim’s voice was quiet. “Is that why you’re sorry?”
“I’ve been sorry a long time.” The candlelight caused Nilim’s shadow to grow large behind him, and after so long, Geetha felt less alone. Nilim understood where she came from. With him, she didn’t have to pretend to be someone else.
She leaned toward him and brushed his cheek with her lips. Nilim turned her face and they kissed, softly, like they had the very first time in eleventh standard when they were shy, and a little bit afraid.
He sighed but didn’t pull away. “I can’t.”
She inched closer to him and placed a soft hand on his leg. Her body felt flushed. “I’ve missed you.”
“Geetha—” Nilim moved back and knocked the icy drink off the table and onto the carpet below. He cursed and went to the kitchen. Geetha’s hand stayed on the couch where it had fallen. Her heart beat in her throat. He came back a few seconds later and laid a towel onto the carpet.
“It’s not going to stain,” Geetha said.
“I’m married and have two kids—”
“She isn’t right for you. We had something—”
“You don’t get to say what’s right for me,” he said in a loud voice she didn’t expect. “I waited for you.” He gathered both of her hands in his and squeezed hard enough to hurt. “I saved money for a goddamn ring. Everyone said you weren’t coming back—they said you’d get there and marry an American, but I believed you.”
“I’m back now,” she said quietly. She searched his face, looking for something similar to what he’d once felt for her, but he suddenly looked like a different person.
His voice softened. “It’s too late.”
They remained still on the sofa, like two strangers afraid of disturbing the other by moving. Geetha watched the cold sweat of her glass drip onto the wooden coffee table. She thought of how empty her rented apartment was. It didn’t belong to her, like everything else in this city. She’d been chasing a life she’d given up years ago, and at every turn, it moved further and further from her like a mirage on a hot road. The tea lights flickered even though Geetha didn’t feel a breeze. She couldn’t bring herself to blow them out.