Joyland

Consulate |

Neighbors

by Sanjena Sathian

edited by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

It was mid-July, the swell of monsoon season, and the rain was making Janani anxious. She and her partner Vijay, who went by V, had packed themselves into a black-and-yellow cab over an hour earlier in order to make the trek from Versova, one of Bombay’s northwest middle-class suburbs, to posh Colaba, where their friends were hosting a wedding anniversary party.

“We’re going to be late,” Janani said, drumming her fingers on the window. “And not in a cool way.”

V took her drumming hand in his broad one.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “They know where we live.”

“I wonder if Lisa’s casting agent friend will be there,” she said.

V was staring out his window, away from her, toward the crowded overpass packed with Friday evening commuters.

“Are you going to talk to Gautam about the book?” she asked.

“The book?”

“You’ve been working on it.”

“I’ve been thinking about it.”

They were stalled near the Bandra train station. Rain thrummed madly outside. Through it, Janani could make out a billboard looming alongside the highway: Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor’s gold bejeweled breasts stretched wide as a comfortable Dadar flat as she proffered a Samsung phone. A savvy photographer had captured her dynamism; she looked as though she were about to jump from the board and begin a dance sequence in the street.

They had moved to Bombay from Madison in January, after V decided to take a mid-year leave of absence from his PhD program in religious studies. Janani was thrilled to quit her own silly nonprofit job, and thrilled, too, for V. She had looked on at his work for some time now with distaste, seeing the ethical and spiritual migraines he sustained each day, the prematurely jaded advisors, the minuteness of the work and its audience.

She suggested Bombay. Janani had once wanted to be an actress; she’d auditioned some in college before discovering that parts for Indian girls, even light-skinned ones with competent breasts, are hard to come by. But in Bollywood, she stood a chance. They chose Versova because it was cheap and Janani read online that it was where the up-and-coming artists lived. They had yet to meet any.

It was, technically, temporary. They had told the university V would be back in the fall. But Bombay worked magic on people, seduced them, entranced them into staying much longer than they meant to. Something in their lives was about to change, and Janani did not intend to leave before the magic set in.

A child banged roughly on her window, wearing just a holey red t-shirt, nothing to protect him against the torrent. He was holding a plastic-wrapped paperback, beckoning her to buy. She stared at her lap, avoiding eye contact. The cab driver turned and shooed the boy in Hindi. The child ran, disappearing into the blocky, stalled traffic.

“They’re knowing you’re foreigners,” the driver said, jerking his head in the direction of the boy. “Can smelling the money.”

#

Gautam and Lisa were older, settled. Gautam, a product of Bombay’s international schools, was partner at a consulting firm in Nariman Point, but preferred to emphasize his involvement in social sector ventures. Lisa, a willowy, freckled New Yorker, co-owned a gallery.

The couples had met in March at a music night in Lower Parel, where V had dragged Janani to hear a Sufi fusion band. While jostling for drinks at the bar, V and Gautam fell into conversation about V’s dissertation, which considered the nature of morality in polytheistic systems. With so many gods of varying powers—V posited—modern Hindus might find themselves bereft of ethical direction. Gautam confessed that V had put into language some of his greatest terrors about the huge irony of unethical corporate behavior in the land that conceived of karma. “I’ve always wanted to write a book on this,” he’d said. “Thing is, I’d need a really sharp co-author.”

(Janani had since caught sight of V’s boyish scratchings on legal pads at home—she made out the phrase 'corporate social (ir)responsibility.' He was writing, often, these days, and when she asked, “Is it the dissertation?” and he said, “It’s just thinking,” she saw a whole other future for them—V, writing for people who would actually buy his books, talk about them at cocktail parties, interview him on podcasts. Janani was certain V had livened since beginning this new project, and she was grateful to Gautam for the change.)

Likewise, Lisa took a quick interest in Janani; slightly drunk and already smitten, Janani told Lisa about her film dreams. She was, that night, awaiting two calls back from directors, and optimistic (she said) about a few more. At the end of the night Lisa mentioned a woman, an agent of some sort, with an eye for faces who was sure to love Janani’s. In Lisa’s presence, Janani felt swept away, like Lisa were a large but trustworthy gust of wind which promised to gather her up and deposit her in the part of her future where she belonged.

#

A small crowd milled about Gautam and Lisa’s seventeenth-floor 2-BHK, swirling glasses of inky red wine. The apartment encompassed sweeping views of the city: you could see from Marine Drive’s flat expanse all the way to the white, winking Sea Link and the curve of the Queen’s Necklace. You could not see even the fringes of Janani and V’s neighborhood.

Lisa kissed Janani on both cheeks, took her by the elbow, and began annotating the various guests, who hailed from sundry art worlds—film (the one who screened at Venice!), literature (I sent you his op-ed in The Times), fashion (she only does indigenous prints and natural dyes, you know?). Gautam led V to the drink cart while Lisa introduced Janani to an Oxford-educated literary translator wearing large glasses and a regal black sari who mistook Janani for an author from New York.

“No,” Janani said, “I’m actually trying to be—I’m an actress.” The translator’s brow furrowed so deeply that Janani couldn’t bear to disappoint. “My partner’s the writer,” Janani said, pointing at V with her elbow.

“And what does he write about?”

Janani told her, relishing the phrase corporate social irresponsibility.

“That sounds highly relevant. Do you mind?” the woman said, and went off to talk to V.

Janani was three Cabernets into the evening when Lisa arrived at her elbow to tell her she had not yet met the most important person there. The agent? Janani reached to fluff the back of her hair, wondered if her lipstick was too burgundy, made her look dark. Lisa steered Janani toward a man, probably in his late fifties, sitting in a yellow Paisley-print armchair. His hair was speckled gray around his temples and his mustache was flecked with drops of whatever he was drinking—something clear, bubbly, no ice. He wore an oversized gray blazer, all wrong for the place and season. “This is our favorite new artist,” Lisa said.

Janani thought, for a moment, that this referred to her, until she realized that the man had given a little seated bow, and she had missed his name.

“Gautam just purchased a whole series from him, as my anniversary present,” Lisa said. “Et voila, the first.”

Gautam and Lisa’s walls had little white space. In between the large windows hung an early Hussain and a Kodallur and a number of budding talents Lisa “picked up!” like spare change. She favored mythologically inspired pieces, plentiful and trendy these days. Cubist and abstract Ganeshas and Saraswatis with boggled eyes peered out, sharp against the asylum-white walls. You never saw anthropomorphized gods at Gautam and Lisa’s: they were distilled geometries, patterns, present as concept rather than physicality.

Lisa was now pointing at a gold frame just above the artist’s head. It featured a beach. Pockets of trash glinted along the water. Tender coconut vendors stood, frozen, considering the sky. A family trooped along the sand, caravan-style, fully clothed, in jeans and salwar-kameezes. The sea beyond the sand was a bruised blue-gray, and the sky a sooty hue.

Jutting into the ocean were a few rough rocks; atop them, stood a man—a figure, at least, perhaps genderless—slender as a pinky nail. He seemed to be facing the beach, the people, almost expectant. His face was daubed that same complex bruised blue-gray as the sea.

Janani tried to think of something wise to say about the painting.

“What I love about it,” Lisa said, “is that it looks so still. But you can sort of tell something is about to change.” Then: “Coming, babe!” Lisa called over her shoulder, toward the kitchen; Janani hadn’t heard anyone summon her. “Enjoy each other, you two.”

“The sky before a tsunami strikes, I learned later, can be infamously beautiful,” the artist said. He stood. He was more than an inch shorter than her and wore a kind of wincing expression. “A horrible trick of the universe. As though it wants to teach us a lesson about the dangers of our attractions.”

“You were… there?” Janani managed.

“You must have been young. December, 2004. The tsunami struck in Kerala. It took years to gather up the image,” he said. “Hence my utterly unknown status in this fine city’s art scene.”

He dipped at the waist in a faux bow.

He had been on holiday with family: His brother, his sister-in-law, a niece, and a nephew—the youngest, just an infant. “I could not help but notice the sky—such a color. Like… blighted indigo. I was staring at it, thinking, this color, this is significant. And the sea, like impure concrete. It looked as though it were pulling away from the coast.”

He went on, casting the scene in that odd, stilted speech—she wondered how often he had delivered it.

“It was as though some spell had frozen everyone, sparing me. And then I saw that figure—” he pointed at the sea-colored man on the rocks. “Or, I think I did. Memory can impose order onto things when there is no order.”

“Thank God you were okay,” Janani asked. If she had drunk less, she would have known better than to mention a god.

“Tell me,” the artist said, “you are American. Do you believe in these things? Our gods? Our karma?”

“My partner—he’s actually writing a book about all this. Like, what it means today. For businesses and—”

Where was V? He would interact with this man much more successfully than she could.

“Some would say that I had accrued better karma than my family,” he said. “That when the wave washed me back ashore, and when I woke up clutching what I thought was a slight tree branch, I should have thought: praise Vishnu, for rewarding my devotion.” The artist inched closer, and Janani hoped someone would spot him violating her space and come rescue her. “No, instead, when medics finally got to me, at the end of a line at one of the makeshift clinics, I did not say, praise Vishnu, praise Vishnu. What happened was they unpeeled my fingers from my niece’s snapped arm, and I screamed at them to stop.”

Janani stepped backward; she was drunk, this artist’s painting was blurry on the wall like an impressionist postage stamp.

“The whole family died,” the artist said now, with composure. “I wanted to be angry with god. But god seemed so small, a faceless man on the rocks.”

#

People began to leave the party in clusters, splitting cabs back to their various neighborhoods. No one was going as far as Versova. A filmmaker took the artist off Janani’s hands and she went to find V, who was in the kitchen with one of Gautam’s classmates from Cathedral School.

“—religious about it, meditating, every morning, before work,” the guy was saying.

Janani kissed the cartilage of V’s ear in a way she thought both flirtatious and demure.

“Ready to go?” V asked.

“We should talk more,” the guy said to V, taking his phone from his back pocket. “We’re hosting a TEDx at work soon. Maybe you can talk about some of these ideas, in a business context. How long will you guys be in town?”

“Few more months,” V said; Janani said, at the same time: “Who can say!”

“Enjoy the stay,” the guy said, looking between them as though he had interrupted something, before departing. He still held his phone in his hand.

“Why didn’t you give him your number?” Janani whispered.

Gautam flung his steady arms around them both. “Are we not doing enough to keep you here?”

Janani blushed. V gripped her hand, hard.

“Don’t worry! We’re not going anywhere,” Janani said, feeling something like a very large, light bubble in her throat. She tried to keep smiling to prevent the bubble from popping.

“Well, yes, we are,” V said.

She swiveled on him, stared past Gautam’s fair, handsome face popping out in between them, astonished that V would—make up his mind like this—to stay or to go—in front of other people—it was a delicate thing, their being in Bombay, a thing full of promises to each other—

“We need to get home,” V said, making a show of looking out the living room window. “To Versova.”

“Who’s going where?” Lisa said, shutting the door behind the last guests. They had overstayed; they should be embarrassed.

“I’m so sorry,” Janani said. “It’s late, V’s right, we should…”

“Oh, but Versova’s so far away,” Lisa said. “And the rain’s probably about to start again.”

“Why don’t you guys just stay over?” Gautam said.

“You’re never down here, anyway, these days.”

“What with the rain.”

“The traffic.”

“It’s so far, Versova.”

“When are you going to move here already?”

“When I get my big break,” Janani said.

“So you’re staying!” Lisa beamed. “I’ll get you some clothes.”

#

Janani found herself anxious for V in the guest bedroom. The sex was close and warm and illuminated. The lighting in their own bedroom was cheap and dusky, but here, beneath Gautam and Lisa’s large crystal chandelier, Janani could see V in full; there was more sun in him, more salt in his sweat. Somewhere distant: the patter of water on the city. Even the Bollywood stars on the billboards were being pelted by rains.

“It was a wonderful night, wasn’t it?” Janani whispered in V’s hair, after. She pressed her bare torso against his. When they had first met, they had wondered aloud together all the boring, terrible things children of immigrants have to wonder about: where is home, where do we belong in the end—and now here they were, very much at home in the vast ballroom space of a high-ceilinged flat in posh south Bombay.

“It was nice,” V said. He rolled over and placed one warm hand on the dip of her waist. “Hey. Someone asked me about my book,” he said. “She seemed to think I planned to have a paperback bestseller in the front of an airport bookstore.”

“What did you tell them? Who was it?”

“That I’m a graduate student,” V said. “And that the only book I’m writing is my dissertation.”

“Did you say it like that?”

“Jan, did you tell everyone I was writing a book?”

“Who says it was me? Maybe Gautam was bragging about it.”

“Jan, he said ‘co-author’ once. And if I do write a book one day, it’s not going to be for MBAs to read first class en route to Singapore.” He sighed. “I mean, these aren’t our people.”

“They could be,” she said. “If you gave them time.”

“It’s late,” he said. “I love you.” He kissed her softly on her cheekbone and turned away.

“It wouldn’t kill you to write a book more than five people would read.”

“You’ve been drinking, Jan,” he said. “Go to sleep.”

She waited until he fell—or pretended to fall—into his log-like slumber and then padded into the living room wearing just the soft cotton t-shirt Lisa had lent her.

Through the window, the city stretched out: still, black, dotted with warm orange streetlights. It wasn’t raining. Janani made out the Four Seasons sign, a beacon poised above the skyline. She couldn’t think of being back in snowy Madison in a few months, of distilling the year into some quick fling with the motherland, of staring out at gray winter from her nonprofit office desk, eating reheated lunch from Tupperware.

The gods, reincarnated into various modern and postmodern forms, watched Janani. Kali’s angry, spiky limbs; beneficent Ganesha’s rhomboid trunk, like a stark obelisk; learned Saraswati’s ivory fingers levitating above a veena.

Janani examined the tsunami painting again: blighted indigo, receding water. She stepped closer. Placed one finger on the edge of the gold frame. Curious. She brought it to her lips. Water: salty, like the ocean. A kind of moist tear trail was emerging from near the painting. Perhaps a pipe leak?

Something rustled—like the sound of packing paper crinkling as a gift is unwrapped.

“V?” she whispered.

It was too late to wake Gautam or Lisa about it. Back in the guest bedroom, she fell into a blue, headachey sleep.

#

They had all become inured to the sounds of the rain. So as they slept, as the house began to fill with water, the noise must have seemed like just another storm.

When Janani woke, hungover, and flung her feet out of bed, she took a moment to realize that water the color of a bath that needed draining, water that smelled of piss and salt, was sloshing around, just past the tops of her feet. It was striking against Gautam and Lisa’s white walls the way the ocean slaps the concrete base of a pier, careless, eroding.

She stepped through it, feeling slimy. The carpet was like dissolving grain against her foot-soles. A small shaving cut on her ankle stung. She opened the drapes, and let the Bombay sun into the room. It wasn’t raining.

#

There was no sensible explanation, no sign of a leak. Lisa called the housing society manager: no burst pipe or fouled-up water tank to speak of.

“It doesn’t matter how it happened,” she kept saying to people on the phone. “Just fix it.”

All four were in the kitchen, both couples wearing Gautam and Lisa’s sleeping clothes. Lisa, perched on one of the tall barstools, kept standing up as if to open the fridge or make coffee, but as soon as her toes touched water, she gave a little ick and remembered, and reached for the phone, and then, finally, began to cry quietly.

“Put us to work,” V said, too loudly. “Need me to move anything?”

Gautam shook his head. He stood, ankle deep in the water, and went to put his arms around Lisa’s shoulders. There was no other sound to distract from her dry hiccoughs.

“The maid’s coming soon, and we’ll have the driver to help,” he said in the kind of low voice one uses around invalids. “You guys should probably just—”

“Oh, fuck,” Lisa said suddenly, lifting her head. “Isn’t that guy coming back today? He’s bringing the rest of the paintings, right? God, I’m fucking hungover.”

“The artist wanted to bring the rest of the series himself,” Gautam said to Janani and V, over Lisa’s head, as she buried her face in his chest. “Says he can’t trust a delivery-boy.”

“He was supposed to come this afternoon—we can’t have anything else in here, oh God,” Lisa was saying. “Wait,” she said. “Do you know where he lives?”

“North, somewhere,” Gautam said.

“A lot of artists live in Versova,” Janani offered.

“You know,” Lisa said, looking up. “I don’t actually know anyone else who lives north of Juhu.”

#

Janani and V did not really know their own neighbors. They lived in a begrimed second-floor 1-BHK in a middle-class housing society. Across the street was a Muslim butcher shop, where scrawny goat carcasses could be found swinging, mild and pink, as early as six in the morning. Janani was watching the bodies, sipping her filter coffee, when the artist rang the doorbell. Her head pounded. V had not spoken to her since they left Colaba; he’d plugged himself into his headphones the whole way back, while the kaali-peeli cab driver crooned along to the wheedling high-pitch of some 1970s Hindi film singer.

Janani opened the door to find the artist standing with his back to her, sniffing the air deliberately and gazing at the bird-shit-stained window on the landing of their staircase.

He shook himself to slough off rainwater. “The monsoon has been inconsistent this year, hasn’t it?” he said. “Almost seems unfair—where it strikes in the city and where it does not.”

He lifted a plastic-wrapped frame; three more lay propped against the wall. She invited him in.

As they were moving the four frames inside, V emerged from the bedroom in mesh basketball shorts.

“Some chai?” she asked both of them; neither replied, so she went off to make some. From the kitchen, she saw the artist considering the flat with a familiar sort of judgment—the one-two sweep of a film scout, determining prettiness on the fly. It was small: the two red metal gas cylinders were visible beneath the cramped stovetop and the kitchen opened onto a dining room where a large table was piled with V’s books and Janani’s audition scripts. The only art on their walls was a blithe, smiling Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, depicted in gaudy calendar art form, the top of her pale peach breasts blooming healthily outward. It belonged to the landlord; they hadn’t bothered to remove it—superstition, maybe, or the fact that they were only going to be here so long.

The artist paused, grinned a little wickedly, called out as she turned the gas on: “Your friends live a world away, don’t they? A friendship from Versova to Colaba. Like a friendship across a sea.”

Janani stiffened.

“We met in the middle,” she said, and poured the water.

Behind her, V and the artist were making introductions.

“So, like the Americans, you study Indian spirituality rather than live it.” He was glimmering at V when Janani came out, bearing a steel tray with three cups of chai like some docile bride-to-be. “Tell me, is there any belief mixed up in what you’re doing, or is it all clinical observation on foreign peoples?”

V grinned, as though he had found the intellectual sparring partner he’d wanted last night.

“There’s belief, too,” he said, “but—”

“Let me guess,” the artist said. “You are a rational man. Always Western people want me to know they are rational people.”

Janani clanged the tray of tea on the low table in front of them.

“Chai,” she said, flatly.

Her phone buzzed in her back pocket. She answered it by the dining table, across the room from the men.

“It’s fucked, it’s insane,” Lisa said over the line. They had fled to Gautam’s cousin’s 4-BHK on Pedder Road, sent all manner of experts and contractors in to power-dry their own place, and moved all the paintings to the gallery, wrapped in plastic. But it just kept coming: the water was, now, right up to the windows.

(“You can be both, I think. Rational and—”

“The challenge comes only when explaining the great, the tragic, isn’t it?”

“Like who dies when, and how?”

“Any small trauma, any tiny event. Where the rain does or does not strike, when, and how.”)

“No, no one could find a leak anywhere, and the neighbors have been completely unhelpful, and the doormen—”

(“So would you say you use your paintings to try to explain?”

“That would be a megalomaniacal impulse, my friend. No, the most I can do is conjure up a lost moment. A kind of revenant.”)

Lisa continued: The technicians in this country were morons and cheaters and perhaps even a bit mad. One reported finding a few fish, the mottled, sickly kind even a hungry fisherman would toss back. They were swimming around the apartment, bumping up against the window glass. “What nonsense these people come up with! When I said as much, the guy threatened to return with a net, to gather evidence.”

(“Can I see?”

V knelt and began to unwrap the plastic on the top frame. He held up the painting under their dim light.

“I am not sure,” the artist said, taking a final, flourishing sip of his chai, “that your room has the stomach for it.”)

“Shit!” Janani said.

“I know,” Lisa continued. And what made it all just too absurd: the gallery had begun to flood, too. Lisa hadn’t been in yet, but her assistant, whom she’d called down from Mount Mary on a Saturday, had rushed away, grabbing what she could—much was fine, but… lakhs of material, priceless, really, could be destroyed.

“There was a Lakshmi I loved,” she said. “Modern, funky. Had a kind of bling-bling to her, like Beyoncé, this fabulous commentary on wealth by an amazing new artist: ruined.”

(V propped the newly-unwrapped painting against the wall, stood next to Janani, crossed his arms like a challenge. In the top of the frame was the bottom curve of a latex glove. The glove held a diaper, and from the diaper dangled something that had once been a baby. It swung upside down, its eyes no longer eyes but transmogrified by a plaster-like, white substance. Its body was alternating stripes of brown skin and that stale white mask. The disembodied hand emerged from a folded cuff emblazoned with the United Nations crest.

Here was what happened after the tsunami struck, after that gorgeous, cerulean moment.

On the floor, still unwrapped, sat three more paintings. She remembered that the artist had lost four family members, the youngest a baby. An image for each.)

“He’s here,” Janani said finally, in answer to Lisa. “Yes, yes, I can hear you. He’s here, he’s just come. I’ve got them here. All four.”

“Christ, thank you,” Lisa said. “Thank fucking god.”

“Their apartment is still flooding. And the gallery, now, too,” Janani said when she had hung up. The artist had moved to their kitchen, where he was examining their rusted stove as though he had never seen such a humble, middle-class contraption. “But I’m sure there’s some explanation.”

V had begun to unwrap the rest, rapidly, a little manically.

“That gori woman,” the artist said, re-emerging from the kitchen, examining some dust he had gathered on his finger, “she said you hope to be an actress?” Janani nodded. “I wondered why,” he continued. “An American coming here, involving herself in all the mess of India. Do you aspire, eventually, to live in a house like your friends’—in Colaba, on the seventeenth floor, collecting art high above the city, then?” the artist said. He wore that same wince he had sported at the party, like the world was too much for him to look at straight on.

“Oh, god,” V said, having revealed three more bodies. A woman’s face, whose eyes had not yet been closed, her hair spread out like seaweed beneath her. A man, facedown on the sand, his legs contorted. A girl’s doll-like arm emerging from the dark sea, the rest of her obscured.

“Maybe,” Janani said. “Someday.”

“Well then,” the artist said, standing, looking—with a kind of sadness, perhaps—between V and Janani. He held a hand out for V to shake. “I will look for you on the billboards,” he said to Janani, bowing.

On his way out, he paused in the doorframe, and said something low, this time perhaps just to V. “I hope your friends do not impinge on your generosity too long,” he said, glancing at the paintings.

#

All the glamour of the night before was punctured. Janani’s head still ached. She gathered up the three chai cups and held them under the sink until the hot water turned her finger pads pruny. In the living room, V, on the sofa, had his face in his hands—that old migraine posture, the one she saw so often when he was weeks into some new dissertation chapter. He lifted his face a few times to stare at the paintings, then put it back in his hands.

“It’s just art,” she said, turning off the water.

He looked up, and she sighed at the sight of his pained brow.

“Call her,” he said.

“And say what?”

#

“Lisa,” Janani said, firmly. “We would like to get you these paintings today.”

“Jan. Have you been listening? There’s no way I can make it up to Versova until at least next week.”

“We could put them in a car.”

“Jan, I don’t mean to be rude, but you have no idea how much those things cost.”

“We’ll come down there.”

“There’s nowhere to put them here. Please. I know—I’m sure your space is really small, I mean, but, you’re doing us such a huge, huge favor. Please. Just a little longer. Till all this shit dries up. I mean, it’s art—enjoy it! Look at it! You know?”

“Lisa,” Janani started again.

“I’m stepping outside,” Lisa said, her voice lifting. “It’s raining. The traffic. I can’t hear you. Listen. Thank you. So much.”

After the line went dead, Janani said: “They’ve been really kind to us.”

V stood. Nodded.

“And it pays off. Being kind back.”

“I’m sorry, Jan,” he said. “But I don’t want to be here when you move to a seventeenth floor in Colaba.”

“You’re being irrational,” she called as he went into the bedroom and again as he left the apartment in his running clothes—as though he needed the drama of a front door closing to make himself heard. They could still sort it out—if he just got a clearer glimpse of all their lives might be here—if he could just allow the change.

She didn’t go stand in the window to watch his back retreating. She knelt by the frame containing the little girl’s flailing hand, pressed her cheek to it, and laughed a little at herself even as she did so.

Brown, fresh skin pulsed through the paint.