Anju, who is a terrible cook, has spent the day making lasagna because, she says, Sudha has never tasted any in India. The sink and their few dishtowels are all dyed the same stunning orange, a color which looks fearfully permanent.
Sunil doesn't comment on this. He focuses instead on the gluey orange mass on his plate, at which he jabs half-heartedly from time to time. He is a meticulous man, a man who detests chaos. Who takes satisfaction each evening in shining his shoes with a clean rag and a tin of Esquire Boot Polish before putting them away on the closet shelf. But he makes an effort today and says nothing--both about the lasagna and about Anju's question, which is not so much a question as a lament for something she fears has happened already. He is thinking of what she said a few weeks back, unthinkingly. The happiest memories of my life are of growing up with Sudha. He is thinking of what he didn't say to her.
What about me, then? What about you and me?
"Let me tell you," Sudha was fond of saying in the last months of her pregnancy, "who I used to be before the accident of America happened to me."
She would be lounging in bed with a cup of hot milk and honey and a novel, one of those rare days when she didn't have to go to class. She would knock on the curve of her stomach. "You, sir," she would say. "I hope you're paying attention."
She loved speaking to Prem. In an illogical way, it was more satisfying than speaking to Sunil, even though Sunil was a careful listener and made the right comments at the right times. But Prem--the way he grew still at the sound of her voice, the way he butted her ribs with his head if she paused too long in the middle of a story--
She told Prem about the old house, that white elephant of a mansion that had been in the Chatterjee family for generations: its crumbling marble facade, its peeling walls, the dark knots of its corridors, the brick terrace where she and Sudha went secretly at night to watch for falling stars to wish on.
"It's gone now. Demolished to make space for a high-rise apartment building. And I'm the one who kept at your grandmothers--do you know you have three grandmothers: my mom, Sudha's mom, and Pishi, who's my dad's sister?--to sell it. I used to hate that house, how ancient it was, how it stood for everything ancient. I hated being cooped up in it and not allowed to go anywhere except school. But now I miss it! I think of my room with its cool, high ceilings, and my bedsheets which always smelled clean, like neem leaves--and which I never had to wash myself!--and the hundred year old peepal trees that grew outside my windows. Sometimes I wish I hadn't been in such a hurry to come to America. Sudha used to sneak into my room at night sometimes. We'd sit on the wide windowsill, telling each other stories. I'd tell her about characters in books I'd read that I liked, such as Jo in Little Women--and she'd tell me the folk-tales she'd heard from Pishi about women who would turn into demonesses at night and the monkey who was actually a bewitched prince. She was great at doing voices! You'll see it for yourself when she gets here."
Some days, after the doctor had scolded her for not getting enough exercise, Anju went to the park. She would make a desultory round of the play area, watching the children, whispering to Prem that he'd be better than them all--more handsome, more active, and of course more intelligent. She would tell him how prettily the maples were changing color and then, choosing one to sit under, she would go back to her childhood.
"My favorite place of all was the family bookstore. For the longest time all I wanted was to be allowed to run it when I grew up. Every weekend I'd beg mother to take me there. I loved its smell of new paper and printing ink, its rows and rows of books all the way to the ceiling, its little ladders that the clerks would scramble up when a customer wanted something that was stored on a high shelf. There was a special corner with an armchair, just for me, so I could sit and read all I wanted. It was funny, Gouri-Ma--that's my mom--was strict about a lot of things, but she never stopped me from reading anything I wanted.
Excerpted from The Vine of Desire by Chitra Divakaruni Copyright 2002 by Chitra Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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