On the eve of his long journey to America, Ronit Lobo — that is, Swami Ronny, as most of Bhopal had come to know him — acquired himself a wife. The Lobos were prominent tobacconists; His bride’s parents, meanwhile, were proud farmhands of decidedly humbler means. Nevertheless, his ammi had begun to experience sleepless nights at the thought of her only child going unpampered in a foreign land, so when the Patel family offered as a parting gift one young goat, two-thirds of their life savings and their Asha — a thin, dark-skinned, quiet teenager who they secretly feared was slightly cosmically doomed — the Lobos were willing to engage.
Asha, for her part, had been withdrawn from the local convent school at age nine. The day she had been made to swap her pencil-box for a rake and a pail, she had kicked and screamed and cried herself to sleep as torrential afternoon rain battered the Patels’ thatched roof. Now, one misplaced adolescence later, she spent her days ambling around the family fields, daydreaming, ferrying milk to sleazy storemen and occasionally joining games of gully cricket with her younger siblings.
On Asha’s wedding day, the Patel children were midway through the second innings of a particularly riveting affair when their father approached from afar, clutching to his chest the finest clothes and the only earrings that the family owned. Jaldi chalo mere saath, he exhorted in Asha’s direction, sounding animated for the first time since the previous year’s bountiful summer. Emerging some time later from the makeshift bathhouse behind the barn, Asha mounted his scooter wordlessly, wearily, yet still unable to quell her optimistic curiosity as she clutched Mr. Patel’s sweaty midriff and motored toward her first meeting with her new husband — the first person, she convinced herself, who had ever voluntarily agreed to love her.
By this time, Swami Ronny, always clad in billowing, sequined orange robes, had built quite a reputation in Bhopal. The Patels could hardly believe their collective fortune. Ronny was rather unlike other Swamis, though, in that he considered the Bhagavad Gita — India’s most seminal spiritual text — to be impractical bullshit, a prized specimen of chutiyapa. In fact, at the time of his self-anointment the previous year, he had only read the Gita twice, and that too in abridged form.
His higher calling, as it were, revealed itself to him through mediums he considered far more sacred. For one, from the stack of Times of India clippings in which his father wrapped and sold paan, he had quickly gathered that the West was far more inclined toward AC/DC than anything remotely ascetic. Through the rickety radio on the counter, meanwhile, he had been introduced to one Freddie Mercury, a man with skin like Swami Ronny’s own who remarkably appeared to hold the collective Western libido in his vice grip.
Impulsive as ever, Swami Ronny quickly perceived an opportunity, a niche. Those fucking firangis, he thought, his thoughts darting away as his family performed its Diwali prayers. Those fucking firangis, they hate chastity but want to feel exotic, enlightened, smart. America, he reasoned, could use a guide, a curator, a real moderate — yes, someone who could deliver sexy South Asian lore in exactly the way people wanted to hear it. Bhopali vernacular, it bears noting, offered no precise translation for the concept of a charlatan, and Swami Ronny’s English vocabulary didn’t extend quite that far. All in all, then, it felt like an utterly inspired idea — perhaps his best since he’d convinced his papa to add bhaang to a not-so-secret menu at the shop.
Never one to waste time, he sat his parents down the very next morning and explained to them his intentions, his new identity. As his ammi cried into her shawl, his papa sat in silence, digesting, ruminating, as if for the first time considering the prospect of saying no to his son. Before long, though, his stained fingers teased open the lockbox he kept in a kitchen cupboard, and then, in a purely symbolic, uniquely Indian gesture of paternal support, peeled several thousand rupees’ worth of damp notes from within it and slammed them on the table with gusto. Jaao, Swami Ronny. Go. As father and son embraced tenderly, even ammi couldn’t help but betray half a smile.
Buoyed by his family’s support yet cognizant that his avant-garde approach would scarcely resonate in Bhopal, Swami Ronny spent the 12 months leading up to his proposed departure advertising rather than qualifying it. Indeed, on account of his intended missionary bravery, he quickly became something of a sensation, spending evening after evening basking in the felicitations and home-cooked meals showered upon him by neighbors and strangers alike. When asked at the dinner table for morsels of sagely counsel, though, he would simply laugh, returning a knowing, increasingly emblematic smile to his cherubic face. Naaa babu, he would say to aspiring devotees young and old, it isn’t time yet. The tease delighted everyone. Business at the tobaccowala boomed.
When the time did finally come, the Lobos, the Patels and assorted, weeping townsfolk followed Swami Ronny and his new bride by train to Delhi’s international airport. That morning, Asha had been tutored by Swami Ronny’s ammi in the art of hand-washing and folding a crisp robe, 11 of which were now scattered across three ‘Lobo’-inscribed trunks, each carried by an adoring shophand. Asha, for her part, brought along a single suitcase of her own. As she dragged it over the curb, it clanged metallically, her wedding bangles and Hindi books drumming against the Patels’ beloved pressure cooker within its cheap, acrylic walls. Khichdi banaa, Swami Ronny’s ammi offered Asha by way of a farewell, pausing her dramatic wailing to gesticulate toward the cooker and impart one final instruction for her son’s care as the newlyweds disappeared into the terminal. Having never been near an airport, Asha’s parents and seven-year-old twin brothers stood at the periphery of the scene, staring blankly and not knowing exactly what to think.
Swami Ronny and Asha said little to each other over their 35-hour journey to Morningside Heights. Asha refused to cry in front of her husband, stifling racking sobs with her shawl in the dusk of the Boeing 707 cabin, and withdrawing to a bathroom stall during their layover in Frankfurt. Afterwards, she ate white bread for the first time while Swami Ronny browsed for stationery. On the final leg of their journey, Swami Ronny read his dog-eared, abridged copy of the Gita cover-to-cover for the third time, using two highlighters — one a darkish pink, reserved for notions like renouncing bodily temptation, and the other green, for platitudes like ‘whatever happens is for the better’ — to begin assembling his material. From the adjacent seat, Asha watched as Sigourney Weaver fought aliens on a tiny screen at the front of the cabin, drifting in and out of sleep, waking abruptly from time to time as her husband jerked her head from his shoulder.
In New York, Swami Ronny hit the ground running. He already spoke impressive, charming English, as the receptionist at their 111th Street hostel would corroborate within five minutes of their arrival, and was thus able to begin actualizing his grand vision with rather surprising ease. On top of this, Swami Ronny could scarcely have imagined a more fortunate set of logistical circumstances. Living near a YMCA building meant that a large community venue existed not thirty seconds from home, sharing a neighborhood with Columbia in all of its hippie glory meant an endless supply of impressionable white graduate students and their curious, artsy, insidiously rich friends, and the very nature of America meant that were very few Gita scholars — or Indians of any kind, for that matter — roaming the streets, lying in wait to discredit Swami Ronny’s facade. Swami Ronny plunged himself into work.
Unfortunately for Asha, though, these latter particularities meant that her own earliest memories of New York would come to be of lugging a dictionary through Harlem’s bus network, trying and failing to find lentils and spices and with them, perhaps a friendly dark brown face to talk to, her eyes filling with hot tears as the cracks of Yankees bats over the radio reminded her of cricket with her little brothers. Her struggles meant weeks full of oatmeal and long silences, only ever punctured by Swami Ronny’s muttering scowls as he inhaled The New York Times and scrawled yet more shorthand notes into the margins of his personal Gita. Night after night, meanwhile, her earnest attempts to either seduce or simply learn more about her husband were met with the same, chaste strain of rejection. Swami hoon main. I’m a Swami. Asha felt wretched and desperately unwanted, which was the truth, but knew that there was nothing to be gained by verbalizing it. Quietly, she let her husband toil, trying her very best behind the scenes to make his life — and by proxy, the marriage that superseded her own life — more comfortable.
Precisely seven weeks after their arrival, then, Swami Ronny emerged suddenly from his haze to host his first event at the Morningside YMCA. Entitled ‘Modern Soul Food and Freethought in 1981’, it attracted 17 Caucasians who had taken notice of flyers plastered at local bus stops and now sat scattered across the square room’s plastic seating, eating wafers and drinking tepid water that Asha had served to them in plastic cups. The room hummed with anticipation, even if the precise nature of what beckoned remained unclear. Soon, though, this blind faith was to be vindicated.
Introducing himself mysteriously in an exaggerated, colonial accent, Swami Ronny wasted no time in diving into an account of the Gita so revisionist, so precariously close to the line of blasphemy, that it left its inaugural audience spellbound. For the better part of an hour, he moulded one after another of Lord Krishna’s teachings into soundbites left initially ambiguous, and then illustrated daringly with such canonically American constructs as sexual liberty (change is the law of the universe) and marijuana (discipline is crucial, but so is meditation).
Yet if his morals were dubious, the success of his strategy was not — somehow, from weeks of poring over essentially a child’s version of a single spiritual text, he had produced exotic gold. His audience on this autumn day lapped up every word, the image of a desi messiah reflected in masses of wide, blue eyes. Freddie Mercury, he congratulated himself as he pressed his palms together, bowed, and accepted his audience’s clattering applause, would have been fucking impressed.
Though she said nothing and understood even less, Asha stood near the door and smiled, clutching a thin stack of entrance fees between her thumb and finger. That same night, Swami Ronny made love to her for the first time, his rough manner leaving dark bruises on Asha’s neck, bruises she would wear on the bus the next day with pride and optimism, before concealing with a shawl in time for refreshment duty at Swami Ronny’s next event.
As leaves took on colors that neither Indian had seen before and then disappeared outright, Swami Ronny’s stature began to swell. Through the receptionist at 111th Street, Swami Ronny had become aware of several other YMCAs willing to host his gatherings and so, sporting a new handlebar moustache, he decided to take ‘Modern Soul Food and Freethought in 1981’ downtown. Asha, meanwhile, had begun to settle into a comforting routine, serving wafers and waters, collecting change at the door and then retiring to a corner of his increasingly bustling sermons to pore over the colorful Hindi-English textbooks a kindly Uruguayan night manager would borrow from the library and then lend to her. One late November evening, after a rousing climax which covered the importance of enjoying nightlife (fortunes can change in a second, and you only live once), she pulled Swami Ronny aside. Clutching his arm, she said in English “nice, I like it very much”, still understanding very little, but nevertheless wanting to prove her commitment, the love she was teaching herself to embrace. As Swami Ronny ran an affectionate if slightly performative hand through her hair and then left hurriedly to hold court among a throng of twenty-something artists, she choked back a happy tear.
‘Modern Soul Food and Freethought in 1982’ was launched the following February, by which time Swami Ronny’s stock was rising meteorically. Asha saw him less and less, taking the subway back uptown after his events with leftover cups and snacks in tow while he hit the city with groups of devotees who had started to insist on buying him drinks. Once in a while, he would return before midnight, and instead of collapsing straight into drunken snores, he would join her for a late supper on the laminated floor of their hostel room. Sitting cross-legged, they would share a pot of khichdi as he recounted the evening’s stories of Upper East Side preschools and downtown speakeasies, stories of unfamiliar people and places and things that his increasingly sophisticated clientele had begun to expose him to. Asha relished these moments. By now, Asha had found a store selling Indian sundries, which although run by Sri Lankans, meant that she could begin to put her pressure cooker to use. This had helped to endear her to her husband, even if not their neighbors along the hallway. To their mutual surprise, she was a terrific cook.
Life proceeded in benign fashion until one day — a rare snow day late in the spring — Swami Ronny announced that he was clearing his afternoon. Ever since he was a child, this had tended to mean that a big, sweeping plan was about to be unveiled. His parents, had they been around, would have seen it coming. With a copy of a tabloid in his left hand and a spring in his step, he returned to 111th Street from his weekly late-morning tea with a group of ladies he had met in December at Bleecker Street — a group for whom he had become something of an alternative sex guru. Unbeknownst to them, of course, was the fact that he had mostly only ever been with prostitutes from villages near Bhopal, and certainly no one who had ever done a tantric pelvic floor exercise. Knowing even less was Asha, who like a waiting puppy sprang to her feet to greet him. Reaching for his hat, she offered him some piping hot rajma chawal, a food she had learned he loved to eat in the still Bhopal winter after an evening of street cricket. Today, though, Swami Ronny was in a rush. His excitement was palpable. Come, he said to Asha in English, ignoring his food and beckoning her to grab her bright green puffer jacket.
Asha longed to hold Swami Ronny’s gloved right hand as they strolled through the Heights, frozen leaves crunching underfoot. Oblivious to how ridiculous her husband looked in orange robes and a coat, this felt to her like one of the movies that played on the screen in the lobby, like something truly Hollywood. As they settled onto a frigid park bench, Asha coughed quietly, peering contently at her husband through the little, staccato clouds of steamy breath collecting in front of her face.
My dear wife, Swami Ronny began, reverting to Hindi as he placed his palm on her shivering knee. Do you like the cold?
She did, but she shook her beanie-clad head anyway, perceiving the expectant expression beneath her husband’s unwieldy mustache.
People like us, he continued, buoyed by her response, belong in warmer weather. Next week, he informed Asha, we move somewhere better than New York.
Asha stared blankly at him as she grappled with the very notion of an America beyond the Big Apple. Her expression bore a striking resemblance to her mother’s at the airport some months earlier, a unique blend of awe and resignation and utter confusion. At the thought of moving, the prospect of their nascent metropolitan life unravelling as quickly as it had materialized, she felt instinctive pangs of sadness. Quickly, though, she realized that she had nothing to be sad about, nothing and no one to miss, and most pressingly, no say in the matter. So she listened.
Swami Ronny smiled obligingly as he plied his wife with a carefully curated summary of a series of events that, truth be told, hardly concerned a passenger like herself. As it happened, earlier that year, one of his star struck Bleecker Street cohort had moved with her husband — a younger IT entrepreneur with no real geographic tethers — to Puerto Rico.
Portoricko, Asha blurted back, rolling these strange, foreign syllables across her tongue, straining to make sense of them.
This lady, a Dallas-born blonde thirty-something named Gladys, apparently credited Swami Ronny with having temporarily revitalized her outlook on love — even if, he thought to himself, her resurgent sex life now extended beyond the husband in question. In any event, that day, as she rose from her seat, put her gloves back on and bid Swami Ronny a tearful farewell, she had vowed to return to New York for a catch-up when the weather got warmer, at which time she would present to him a vignette of life in San Juan, which she was sure that he and his ‘sweet’ wife would appreciate.
Saanwan, Asha parroted, more slowly this time.
After Gladys left, I started looking into San Juan, Swami Ronny explained, unfurling and then pointing for visual effect at the old paper he’d been carrying around all day, in which a fourth-page article described San Juan variously as a Caribbean cubby-hole, a tax haven and a burgeoning white Republican outpost.
Today, he continued, Gladys surprised us all and came back.
San Juan, she had recounted, was a tropical paradise, and at the very least stood in stark contrast to New York, where April snowfall had by now begun to soak through the lap of Swami Ronny’s robes. By her description, San Juan was all that they (he) longed for in one place — open-minded (read: gullible) white people, accessible (read: cheap and unstigmatized) domestic help, warm weather and what’s more, an aura of foreignness profound enough that Gladys and her adopted community would be inclined to help them (him) settle.
There’s a place for us there, he concluded triumphantly, inhaling heavy, frigid air through his nose as he waited for Asha’s ceremonial assent.
Chalo, theek hai, okay, she replied, exhaling wearily as she resolved to be optimistic for lack of any other alternative.
Swami Ronny turned out to be right about Gladys, who picked them up at San Juan’s sweltering airport exactly sixteen days of packing and logistics and phone calls later. Arriving wearing sultry red lipstick with a minivan for the couple’s luggage, she took them straight to a tiny, sun-bathed apartment in Condado, an up-and-coming neighborhood stretching along the island city’s northern coast. Rent is covered for your first month, Gladys mentioned casually on her way out, and I live in a gated compound ten minutes away. As the door shut behind her, Asha yelped and clapped her hands, barely able to contain her excitement at the tropical ambience that had replaced their 111th Street hostel room. Swami Ronny smiled. The universe seemed to have dealt them a good hand.
I’ll start unpacking, he offered magnanimously, and maybe you can make us something to eat?
Dragging his trunks to the bedroom, he pointed to the third of four wooden kitchen cabinets, where Asha would find that Gladys had left bananas, kidney beans and strange, yellow rice for her to cook with. That night, Asha unwittingly served Swami Ronny a plate of habichuelas guisadas, which he went so far as to label some of the best rajma chawal he had ever eaten.
The next afternoon, Gladys called on the apartment to check on its new inhabitants, who had just finished unpacking. Opening the door in baggy shorts and an ill-fitting banyan rather than his typical attire, Swami Ronny felt terribly self-conscious. Still, he asked Gladys to stay for tea, which Asha quickly set about to make. As Swami Ronny sat with his de facto sponsor, drank his wife’s chai and discussed how best to embed ‘Modern Soul Food and Freethought’ into an entirely new fabric — Gladys’ proposal being to start doing home consultations in her gated community, which Swami Ronny thought was ingenious — Asha retreated into the bedroom in silence, barely noticing Gladys’ painted nails on her husband’s bare knee. Digging around in her drawer for something to read, she fished out a Hindi-English textbook that she felt guilty for having forgotten to return to the kindly Uruguayan watchman at the hostel. As she flipped absent-mindedly through its juvenile illustrations, she found herself hoping — to her immense surprise — that everyone spoke English in Puerto Rico, not wanting her hard work on phonics and phrases to go to waste. The thought of such futility riled her, and she soon found herself engrossed, muttering the names of colors and vegetables with a feverish resolve interrupted only by Swami Ronny’s heavy footsteps as he walked into the bedroom an hour later. Feeling particularly chipper after his conversation with Gladys and unable to contain his laughter at his wife’s furious attempts to pronounce the word ‘apple’, he took a seat next to her at the foot of the bed and placed what felt to Asha like a protective arm around her shoulder.
Gladys left you this before she went home, he said to her in Hindi, handing her a scrap of paper with a phone number and a little heart scrawled on it in red ink.
It’s for a cleaner, he clarified, because things get mouldy in the salty air and besides, you already do so much work with the cooking.
He pointed to his right at the drawer he had kept their cash in, explaining that the cleaner would come every third day unless called and told otherwise, and that she was to be paid exactly three dollars on her way out.
Treat yourself a little bit, he crooned, basking in his own generosity. We’re really going to make it to the top here.
The thought of this left Asha dizzy, the smell of muddy Bhopali primary school floors echoing through her synapses.
Magda came to the apartment for the first time on the Tuesday of the following week, while Swami Ronny was away enjoying a working lunch of fish and tostones at Gladys’. A 67-year-old Guatemalan lady with a complexion nearly as leathery as Asha’s, Magda had a kind face and small hands which were good for reaching into small kitchen corners.
Hola, she said to Asha, flashing her an unfamiliar, maternal smile.
Hoela, Asha stuttered back, raising her hand awkwardly and retreating instantaneously to the bedroom.
30 minutes later, Magda knocked twice on the bedroom door.
¿Puedo limpiar aquí?, she asked, pointing through the doorway in the direction of the crinkled floral bedsheet behind Asha.
Nodding, Asha vacated her room and decided to keep herself busy by making some food. Her kitchen, she noticed, now sparkled. Magda was worth her rate.
She decided to make a simple vegetable porridge, throwing spices, carrots and cauliflower florets into her pressure cooker — now miraculously liberated of its gunk — along with the yellow rice she was secretly beginning to warm to. As the pressure cooker whistled, the narrow kitchen counter twinkled in the afternoon sun, and the room filled with a blended aroma of cleaning liquid and comfort food.
Magda emerged from the bedroom and set her broomstick down by the counter as Asha licked her lips and prepared to ladle a serving of porridge onto a plate for herself.
¿Qué es eso?, she asked Asha, staring at the cooker with great curiosity, inhaling deeply through her nostrils, and making exaggerated, circular hand gestures in front of her face.
Not knowing how to describe her creation in Hindi or English, let alone Spanish, Asha simply slid her plate down the counter for Magda to look at.
Huele increible, she marvelled, grinning warmly, genuinely at her newest client.
Asha blushed and flashed a fleeting smile back before the unfamiliarity of the whole situation jogged her instincts into action.
Her-is-yoor-munny, she blurted out suddenly, reaching into her pant pocket and handing Magda the three dollar bills she had carefully retrieved and folded while she waited nervously for her arrival. She handed them over with two hands, as was respectful in India, and patted them politely into Magda’s crinkled palms.
Gracias, señorita, Magda replied. As she packed her supplies back into her chipped red bucket, she chuckled to herself at the very concept of Asha, for whom she had almost instantaneously started to feel an affinity.
Not really needing the apartment to be cleaned, but equally reluctant to pick up the phone and try to tell her this, Asha welcomed Magda and her red bucket back into the apartment three days later. The two ladies moved silently around each other as they had on Tuesday — one in the kitchen, one in the room, swap — holding down the fort while Swami Ronny spent the afternoon in Dorado Beach, leading his first consultation with the wife of one of Gladys’ husband’s golf friends.
Today, Asha had decided to make a spicy bhindi and rice, thinking she would surprise Swami Ronny that evening with one of his other childhood favorites. Like clockwork, she once again lifted the lid of her cooker right as Magda emerged from her room.
Seeing Magda’s wrinkled eyes perk up at the smell of masala and charred okra sent an inexplicable affection coursing through Asha’s bony frame. Whether borne out of deprivation or homesickness she wasn’t sure, but suddenly, she found herself ladling generous servings of bhindi and rice into not one but two plates.
The two ladies said nothing to each other as they ate standing at the counter, Magda wolfing her food down ravenously, and Asha picking at it as she watched this strange, old, dark lady eating something she associated with the dust and musk of Bhopal.
Gracias, señorita, Magda said, her voice dripping with gratitude as she washed their plates clean. No one had made food for her in years.
Yoor-welcum, Asha replied, mentally patting herself on the back about her English, which she thought was on its way to being stellar, even if she spoke not a shred of Spanish. Handing Magda her pay as she walked her to the door, Asha felt both delight and devastation, like a child bidding farewell to their playmate. It had been a while since she had had a friend.
Through the summer, Asha and Magda enjoyed twice-or-thrice-weekly lunches. Swami Ronny had begun to spend more and more time on the road in San Juan, his network of clients and disciples snaking its tendrils into every corner of the island. Asha, then, began to be needed for very little — gone were the days of large events where she would serve water, and so, too, the days of Swami Ronny ever returning home in time for supper or having time for breakfast. Still, she felt grateful and relieved to have someone to miss so terribly.
In June, Swami Ronny had spent some of his earnings on a grainy, second-hand television, belatedly clocking the extent of Asha’s isolation. Asha had never owned one before, so at first, she traced wary circles around it. She much preferred to lose herself in her homemade language school, which consisted of the Uruguayan’s Hindi-English textbook, and the English-Spanish textbook that Magda had sourced for her, lined up side-by-side in perfect transitivity. Spanish, she began to find, was a forgiving language for people with Indian accents.
Over time, though, the ladies’ lunches moved from the counter to the TV area near the window, where they would sit together on threadbare cushions, eat lentils and vegetables, and watch telenovelas under the harsh glare of the afternoon sun. Magda would laugh and cry heartily, and though Asha seldom understood why, she held onto their afternoons for dear life, totally content with simply being around someone who bared first-order emotions. In July, Asha started hugging Magda before she left. In August, Magda stopped accepting money, the pair having realized that a four-hundred square-foot apartment could only be cleaned so many times, and moreover, that they’d much prefer to be able to hang out every day, to be lonely together with no transactions to worry about. One day, after an advertisement for Tourism India had appeared on TV for the first time, Asha even daydreamed about bringing Magda with her to Bhopal to meet her brothers. That afternoon, words posed no obstacle between the two ladies as Asha giggled and gesticulated in explanation of her clearest, rosiest vision of home since she had left it behind. In Bhopal, she figured, Magda would umpire one of their cricket games, eat special-occasion food with her hands under the Patels’ thatched roof, and sleep on a brand-new floormat next to Asha’s own. Magda, she reasoned, could turn even Bhopal into a place of fun.
In September, Swami Ronny packed his bags for a trip to the mainland — Dallas, to be more precise. Gladys, he explained, wanted him to meet her family and friends, to speak to them, to run a couple of events for Texans. They’re a people in dire need of guidance, he explained. Asha had asked if she could come with him, and he had dissuaded her, telling her that he would be on bumpy roads constantly, which he knew she so despised. Asha had asked if Gladys was coming with him, noticing a split-second of hesitation as he said no, her sister would pick him up at the airport. Swami Ronny was to be gone for four days.
It took nine for Asha to confront the notion that Gladys did not, in fact, have a sister. It would be even longer before her other stupidities, her total oblivion, really dawned on her. Eventually she would feel downright gullible — where in the world does it rain so much that one would need eight pairs of orange robes and all of their underwear? Why would he leave her a fraction of their money and take the rest, rather than the other way around? Why wouldn’t he call?
On the ninth day in question, Magda came to the apartment as usual. She had noticed the growing pit in Asha’s stomach on the fifth day, pointed at Asha’s reddened, cried-out eyes on the seventh, and on the eighth, had asked Asha the simplest of questions, and one she actually understood.
Swami, Asha had replied, gulping. Yo-no-sé.
On the sixth day, Magda had noticed that Gladys wasn’t home — the cook let her in, and her house was empty. They’re probably travelling, the cook had said, but they didn’t tell me anything.
On the ninth, after her second mid-morning cleaning trip to Gladys’ Condado townhouse, Magda felt nauseous. Asha noticed the somber expression on her face, her usual bubbliness absent as she accepted a bowl of daal.
Ashita, Magda began, using the endearing nickname she had coined weeks earlier. Ashita, su marido estaba llorando, y la señora Gladees no estaba en casa, she spelled out slowly, paving tear tracks under her eyelids and pinching a strand of her gray hair to confirm a suspicion that Asha hadn’t allowed herself to fully confront: the blonde whore had stolen Swami Ronny. Of that, there now remained little doubt.
With Swami Ronny no longer around, Asha wept freely, openly, desperately. She felt the wounds of season after season of alienation ripped wide open as she clutched the pile of his orange robes that remained. For nearly two hours, Magda lay with Asha on her bed, cradling her skeletal face atop her gooey, grandmotherly stomach, and running her coarse fingers through her coconutty hair.
Tengo-hahmbre, Asha finally croaked after the sun had set, her own stomach rumbling audibly.
Ven conmigo, Magda cooed back. Come.
Asha took her hand, seeing no other choice. Together, the two ladies took one bus and then another, the streets empty as they walked slowly toward Magda’s decrepit first-floor flat in La Perla, a notoriously rough shanty town running parallel to the stone walls of Old San Juan.
Magda’s flat smelled of cumin and incense — had Asha not been so desolate, she would likely have smiled at how much it reminded her of her grandmother’s cozy hut outside Bhopal. Guiding Asha through one cramped doorway and then another, she brought her to a room in which a male human being had clearly once lived. Adorned with football posters and a single, framed photo of a handsome, well-built youth in military uniform, Asha would later learn that this meticulously cleaned room had once belonged to Magda’s son Antonio, who had died in Guatemala’s Civil War some years prior, having returned home to fight at his father’s insistence. The room felt heavy with Magda’s maternal guilt, the toll she had paid from afar to be able to provide for a son she was unable to protect. Asha often wondered whether her parents felt any such guilt, but would remind herself that she had no means or medium by which to prompt it, and no reason to seek it.
After a dinner of soup and a reheated empanada, which the tearful, starving, vegetarian Asha had eaten without a second’s hesitation, Magda directed Asha toward her bathroom, where she had placed a fresh towel and a nightgown for her to sleep in. Deep into the night, Magda sat on the edge of her son’s bed and sang old Spanish nursery rhymes until Asha finally fell asleep.
The next day, Magda took Asha back to Condado to pick up some of her things. In her suitcase Asha packed everything she called her own — her pressure cooker, her eight outfits, her green puffer jacket. The apartment was in Swami Ronny’s name, so that wasn’t her problem anymore.
Returning to La Perla, the two ladies set about trying to find Asha’s feet. Asha wallowed for a week at first, draping herself over an armchair in front of the Spanish channel on Magda’s tiny television, rising only to bathe and to help Magda cook when she returned from her day’s labor. But as she regained her strength, she began to join Magda on her cleaning trips, carrying the creaking red bucket on bus after bus, and collecting a dollar or two as a token of Magda’s appreciation, even though she was really just grateful for something to do. Asha hated the work, as it were, but turned out to be very good at it, her own small hands proving as adept as Magda’s at extracting dirt from the narrowest of cracks.
By the time the notorious winter of 1982 had begun to rear its head elsewhere in the United States, Asha and Magda had settled into a routine. Every night upon the duo’s return from work, one of them would clean their equipment and the other would cook. Together, they would take piping hot bowls of food across the living room where they would sit on the floor, watch whatever cable offering caught their fancy, and rest their aching legs. Magda took care to teach Asha new Spanish phrases every day, celebrating raucously on the occasions that Asha would pronounce things perfectly. Asha, in return, had tried to teach Magda some of her own language — though she had little use for it, Magda would nevertheless sportingly pepper little tidbits of Hindi into their interactions, her old eyes glowing in the candlelight as she complimented Asha’s cooking. Yeh khana bahut achcha hai, she would often say, enunciating each word like a Bhopali native.
Somewhere in her limping heart, though — a heart which had taught itself to love Swami Ronny and still pined for his protection, his sponsorship, even if not for his reciprocation — Asha knew that the arrangement had to end at some point.
Magda, for her part, thought the same, albeit in a totally different way. She was willing to take care of Asha like a friend, a sister, her own blood, she thought, but knew that her old, creaking, arthritic body would not hold up forever. Indeed, detecting in Asha a version of herself, a version for whom there remained time to steer away from the aching loneliness that had come to mar her own life, Magda longed desperately to be able to provide Asha with a future, a purpose, something to call her own and to share with others.
Nevertheless, as the two ladies’ clocks ticked, Asha’s suspended in ambiguous, existential fear, and Magda’s in mortality, neither said anything to the other, not wanting to disturb the companionship that they had both come to depend on.
Months passed in this amber until, in March of 1983, Asha came down with the flu. At first, Magda had feared that Asha was just depressed. After all, the two ladies had just the previous week inadvertently caught the tail-end of a tabloid TV interview featuring none other than Condado’s former darlings – Swami and Gladys: Live from Texas. That evening, Asha had gasped audibly and then begun to weep at seeing her earnest affections so spectacularly, publicly rejected in favor of Gladys’ cloying, box-office smile; Magda, meanwhile, had lunged swiftly for the kill-switch, her joints creaking as she sought to protect Asha from visual manifestation of several months’ worth of nightmares. No importa, no importa, she had whispered soothingly as Asha’s shivers and sobs began to cease, a healing silence slowly easing its way into the air once more.
Asha, to her credit, and to Magda’s great relief, had seemed to take this jolt in stride. And to Magda’s even greater relief, a palm to Asha’s hot, ashy forehead that morning had confirmed that she was, in fact, quite feverish. Before heading to work, then, Magda had left her with hot tea, medicine she had bartered from an upstairs neighbor, and free reign over the television dials. Draped over the armchair once again, Asha began watching a rerun of a telenovela episode she had already seen, but quickly became bored. Heaving herself to her feet and limping toward the box, she decided to switch to the English channel — why not, she reasoned, noting that she had forgotten most of the words she had learned after months of treating the language as a symbolic conduit between Hindi and Spanish textbooks.
The last time she had watched Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens — or at least, parts of it — had been on her flight over from Delhi. Memories of bread and cold seatbelt metal and German stewardesses came flooding back into her consciousness as she tried this time to trace some semblance of a narrative.
Once again, though, she failed in this endeavor, albeit on this occasion for a wildly different reason. All of a sudden, her neurons began firing frantically, triggered by something on-screen as if jerked awake once more by Swami Ronny’s cold shoulder. In front of her, a group of CGI Androids had gathered around a table for dinner, and it was the most inspiring thing she had ever seen. She almost couldn’t believe that the thoughts that now flooded her brain had never occurred to her. She resolved to clear her afternoon the next day, and to take Magda for a walk. Suddenly, she felt a lot better.
When Magda returned home that night, she found Asha in bed, poring over her two textbooks atop the thin bedspread.
Magda, Asha began, perking up. Maneeana, no trabaho. She crossed her arms in an ‘X’ in an attempt to indicate the generality of her proposal, the fact that it applied to both of them.
Claro, cariña, estas enferma, Magda replied, as if reminding Asha that she was sick.
No, no, Asha replied, her voice growing louder, more animated. Tengo idea.
The next afternoon, Asha and Magda set off down the streets of La Perla, arriving at a benign-looking bench a couple of hundred meters from home. Asha brought homemade samosas and empanadas in foil — the former she had made that morning, and the latter were left over from a few nights prior.
¿Qué pasa, Ashita?, Magda finally implored, confused and amused in equal measure by the twitching smile Asha had worn on her face since she had awoken.
Magda, Asha responded, enunciating every rehearsed word slowly, carefully. Magda, tengo idea.
Tu, Asha said, retrieving a samosa and an empanada and holding one in each hand, y yo. Tu y yo. Magda, quiero abrir restaronte contigo.
¿Restaurante?, Magda spluttered, her face reflecting her visceral surprise at the idea Asha had just shared, her shock at its simple, elegant beauty, her memory of her son’s little feet dangling from his high chair as he purred into the food his máma served him. Cocinera, cocinera he would run around chanting, giggling as he collapsed into her arms when he tired.
Restaurante, Asha replied.
Instinctively, Magda reached for Asha’s face, cupping its sharp angles softly between her palms.
Bien entonces, mi amor, she finally croaked, pulling Asha into an embrace and sending crumbs flying from the surfaces of both pastries. Tenemos que trabajar.
There they sat for an age, both ladies aware of yet utterly at peace about the trials of recipe, spices, money, space and time that beckoned, neither lady fully comprehending how much they meant to the other, and each of them certain only of the fact that if such a spiritual construct could really, truly exist, they had found their soulmates.
“Bienvenido a La Guatemal-India, la mejor takeaway de San Juan según la lista del San Juan Tatler de 1995. Soy la jefa de la cocina. ¿Le puedo ayudar en algo?”
“One dal makhani with rice, three tostones, and a mango lassi, please. I just moved back here on my own from Tex–”
“¿Nombre?”, the lady asked, rolling her vowels, her accent equal parts Guatemalan and Puerto Rican.
“Ronit Lobo, but back when I lived here most people actually knew me as Swa–”, the man replied, his voice losing its thinness and his head beginning to swell until he heard the phone line disconnect ferociously, instantaneously. Clack. When he tried to call back, no one answered.
Asha ignored the shrill ringing as she strode numbly into the kitchen to retrieve plates of saffron khichdi for Table 23. As the ringing began to fade, she paused fleetingly beneath the framed photo of Magda which took pride of place above the stove. Under the watchful gaze of her first real friend, she basked in a deep, fragrant breath and a moment’s quiet. No importa, she reminded herself. No importa.
As her own steel returned, ushered in by a drafty Caribbean breeze buffeting the nape of her neck, Asha ran her bony fingers along the cold, metallic contours of her trusty pressure-cooker. Tracing the grooves into which thick subcontinental dust had once burrowed, she paused to admire how durable it had proved, how far from Bhopal it had come, how gracefully it had adapted to its new, exotic identity as the bringer of comforts from a home that no longer felt like hers.