Today's Reading

Pival knew this was blasphemy to the maid, who had left her village of one-room houses and well water and now lived in the luxury of the Senguptas' apartment, with a maid's quarters she barely had to share and fresh milk delivered daily. Pival was lucky, she knew. In another age, in another family, she would have been banished to a wing of the house, forced to live as a pariah for her widowhood. In villages outside of Kolkata these things still happened. Perhaps where Tanvi was from, even. She knew that she, Pival, was privileged, for being so free, for having so much when most people around her had less than nothing. She saw the maid's eyes dip to the jewelry sitting in a box. She felt her face hardening.

"Please repack my things. I've already told you, you can take whatever you like. You needn't worry about your salary, Tanvi. I told you, I will pay everyone through to the new year. So you may stop pretending to be concerned about me now. You can have everything you need. Do you understand?"

Tanvi began to cry again, angrily this time, and stomped from the room, though not, Pival observed, without a trailing handful of sari silks streaming from the pocket of her apron. Good. Tanvi should take such things from her. For Tanvi they were riches. For Pival they were fetters, caging in her life. Tanvi could keep them all. Pival only hoped Tanvi would share them with the other maids, who were even now peeking out from their quarters, watching their leader return.

She decided to call her travel agent. She slipped a disposable cell phone she'd bought on the street out of her pocket. It took a long time for a phone call to reach America. Pival wondered how it would be for her, when even the phone seemed afraid to let its call leave India. The phone rang and rang and then the now-familiar voice of her travel agent, a nasal drone, began, inviting her to leave a message in three languages. She left her message softly and carefully, merely asking him to call her back without explaining in either English or Bengali what she really needed, because she wasn't sure herself. Assurance, maybe, that America was a real place.

Carefully removing the drying flower garland, she opened up the back of Ram's photograph, smiling gently to think of the appropriateness of this as her hiding place. Between the back of the frame and the benevolent, falsely smiling image of her husband was all her trip information. Her itinerary, her ticket, her passport with its crisp new tourist visa, everything she would need. It was far worse than her servant could have possibly imagined. Pival wasn't going to meet anyone at all in America. She had no family to meet there, no matter what she had told the maids. At least, not in the way they thought.

Ram had had a large family, many of whom still lived in Kolkata, all of whom had been quick to guide Pival through the rituals of death and widowhood with a speed and sense of authority that left her breathless. While they might not have been true dyed-in-the wool Brahmins, they acted that way when interacting with the world and expected her to do so as well. This was why it was essential for her trip to happen soon, and silently, while the noise of the massive Durga Puja festival left them distracted. She would escape from her life and take a tour, a cross-country trip of America. It would give her a chance to see the country her son had known and loved, the place he had refused to leave, even for her. It would bring her to Los Angeles. She would have time to prepare, time to make herself ready to meet 'him,' the person who had taken her son away.

Pival looked back at the family portrait, her hands in the shot around a plump and grinning version of Rahi, theirs the only two smiling faces in a sea of familial disapproval and stern Bengali brows. She walked up to it and traced Rahi's tiny face with her pinkie. She then dipped her pinkie back into the depression left by her halfhearted suicide attempt of the previous fall. November would mark a year since Ram had told her Rahi died. She wondered as she stared into the fat baby face, not for the first time, if it was really true. Surely her son couldn't have died while she still lived. She refused to accept a universe in which Rahi had died. She knew she would have felt his death like a blow to her own body. She didn't care what had been said, what had been told to her. Everyone could be lying. Ram had always tried to control the way she saw the world, not lying, exactly, but forcing reality to fit his desires. He might have told her Rahi was dead because he was already dead to Ram. It could have been something he had told people so often he really started to believe it himself. She had to go to America and find Rahi, alive and whole or dead and gone. She had to be sure. And if he was gone? Well, then it was her time, too.

Ram had declared their son dead so often by the time the phone call came from America that afterward Pival was never sure if the phone had really rung or not. While she had always nodded along with Ram in public, in private she had never agreed that their son was dead, and that had, she knew, troubled Ram. When she looked up that day and watched him put down the phone, she realized that she hadn't heard the ringing. That was not surprising; she lived in such a dream world in those days. Ram said, "It's done. He's gone," and Pival had believed him in that moment. But now, months later, she couldn't decide if Ram had really heard news from across the world or if he couldn't stand her continued love for the son who had so dishonored him. Things were so blurry, even now. She had to find the truth, even if it stabbed at her heart.

Pival Sengupta was going to America to find her son or his lover.

And to kill herself.

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