Sindya Bhanoo is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
“Malliga Homes” first appeared in Granta.
Mr. Swaminathan died suddenly, as he was walking back to his flat from the Veg dining hall after dinner. He was ahead of me on the path, and I saw him slow down. His gait changed from a fast stride to a slower, hunched walk. His left arm went limp. He lost his footing and crumpled to the ground. If I had not been swift, I imagine he would have hit his head on the cement. There would have been blood. But I caught up with him. Before he fell, I squatted to the ground and put my hands out, and his head fell directly into my open palms. Carefully, I slipped my hands out from behind his head, set it gently on the cement and sat at his side talking to him. His left eye looked lower than his right. His left cheek sagged, as if it might slide off.
I held his hand until the ambulance arrived. It was the first time that I had held a man’s hand since my husband died. The rectangular diamond on Mr. Swaminathan’s gold ring was hard and cold in contrast to his warm skin. Before they loaded his body onto the gurney, he opened his eyes, looked at me and said, “Renuka.” Then he squeezed my hand. Whether he was asking me to summon his wife, or whether he thought I was his wife, I cannot say. He died before he reached the hospital. He was seventy-five years old, the same age my husband would be if he were alive today.
His death was our first. Hard to believe, since this is a place for old people. But Malliga Homes is a new facility, and the first residents, myself included, moved in just two years ago.
The other day, I spoke to my daughter Kamala on the phone, and told her how expertly the personnel handled the whole Swaminathan matter. They were prompt in calling for help. The area was cleared immediately, and the ambulance rolled right onto the freshly trimmed landscaping, crushing a row of golden dewdrop shrubs that took a year to grow.
“I am so glad to hear that,” Kamala said.
Malliga Homes is not a bad place. It is a rather nice place, in fact. Just a bit isolated for city people like me, coming from places like Chennai. The facility sits at the intersection of Thambur Road and NH-181, just outside of Coimbatore. Going to the outskirts of a mid-sized city gave the developers more space, and allowed them to invest in luxuries that we all appreciate. We have stone tiles in the bathrooms, cabinets made of Thermofoil, those wood laminate floors that are in style now, picturesque landscaping, and Honda inverter generators with eight-hours of run time for when the power goes out, which it does daily.
I am lucky to be here, my Kamala likes to remind me. It is only the second place of its kind in South India, and the units sold out quickly. Still, no amount of expensive stone or carefully worded praise from my daughter can change what Malliga Homes is: a place for those who have nowhere else to go.
We are of the upper middle class, here. We do not come from families who own hospitals or factories, or vast tracts of land. We work for those people—worked for those people. Those people belong to a different cut entirely, and will never move here, no matter how beautifully our gardeners maintain the bougainvillea vines and the oleander shrubs. Those people will stay in their posh city flats with their many servants, with their children nearby. The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Like me, nearly every resident of Malliga Homes has lost sons and daughters to Foreign. That is the reason why we live in a retirement community-come-nursing home, rather than with our families. My Kamala left India twenty-five years ago. She is deputy managing director of a company called Synchros Systems, in a suburb of Atlanta.
Renuka Swaminathan also has two children living abroad, one in Germany and one in Australia. They must have arrived already, to help with Mr. Swaminathan’s kariyam preparations.
I am knitting a sweater made of fine, green mohair for Renuka. After the kariyam, she is going to Adelaide to spend time with her son. I was the one who said, “Better to go. It is depressing to be alone right after.” Her son is the manager of a movie theater there. He was not able to finish his graduate degree at the University of Adelaide, but somehow found a way to stay there. “Good for him,” I said, when Renuka told me. I meant it.
Those of us at Malliga Homes with children in America rank higher than those with children in Dubai or Qatar. Somewhere in-between fall those with children working in Singapore, Australia, England, Germany, and the rest of Western Europe. Africa falls below the Middle East, both because of what people imagine it is like there, and because it is so hard to get to. What our children do, how much money they make, whether our grandchildren are bright or mediocre—all of this matters. It is a tragedy to have a brilliant child and a dunce of a grandchild.
The yarn for Renuka’s sweater cost me five rupees per meter, much more than I typically pay, but I decided it was worth it. The sweater will bring out the green in her eyes and it will be good for the Australian winter. I checked the climate in Adelaide on the Net; it can drop down to ten degrees. But also: Death turns you cold, and I want Renuka to stay warm. In the months after my husband died, a chilliness plagued my being, even in hot weather.
My husband’s death was what brought me to Malliga Homes. After he died, Kamala flew to India and spent two weeks with me in our Chennai flat. She insisted that I leave my red bottu on my forehead, and keep all my jewelry on.
“This is not the end of life for you, Amma. I don’t believe in such things,” she said.
I did insist on taking off my toe rings. I never liked them. Initially, they would not come off; Kamala tried to help, and gave up. They had been on for forty-five years, the silver rings tightening around my toes as I became fatter over the decades, my flesh curling over their edges. Finally, after soaking my feet in soapy water for thirty minutes, I had success.
Kamala collapsed on our cane sofa, the same one she spent years reading on as a teenager, her legs leisurely stretched out while she held Somerset Maugham high above her head. Her eye make-up was smeared from crying. Both of us had done a lot of that.
“Amma, come lie down with me,” she said, a cricket ball in one hand and a brochure in the other. My husband loved cricket, and she had been carrying the ball around with her since her arrival.
“Move over,” I said.
We lay squished on the sofa, side-by-side, hip-to-hip, mother and daughter. That was when she brought up Malliga Homes. She handed me the brochure.
“Open it,” she said. “Look how nice the grounds are. Like Brindavan Gardens.”
The brochure was from Kamala’s friend in America, Padmini Venugopal. Padmini’s parents had just moved into Malliga Homes.
“All the comforts of home, without any worry—and so many friends,” Kamala read out loud. She looked at me eagerly.
“Consider it,” she said.
“You will make them.”
“You cannot force me. What if I had stopped you all those years ago from going to America alone?” I asked.
“This is not the same thing,” she said. She sat up and climbed over me to get off the sofa. “It is not the same thing at all.”
The following night, I had a small fall in the bathroom. Though I was not seriously injured, Kamala became unstoppable. I could hear the determination in her voice, like when she was a girl and wanted a Peach Melba from Jaffar’s on Mount Road. She would not stop until I relented.
“You are my responsibility now,” she said. She was combing my hair, because I sprained my right wrist in the fall and could not do it myself. “I’ve already made a booking. I paid the deposit today.”
After she tied my white hair into a loose bun, she stroked my head as if I were a child. Her own hair, long and braided, was speckled with white.
“It’s a two-bedroom,” she said. “So we can visit you.”
She extended her trip by a week, so that she could move me into Malliga Homes.
Two years have passed and they have not visited. They were all supposed to be here this time next month—Kamala, my son-in-law Arun, and my granddaughter Veena. I prepared the bedroom for them as soon as Kamala told me the plan. I bought new sheets and an extra single bed. But just a few weeks ago, Kamala called to say she was coming alone. Arun is busy with work. Veena started a new job.
They would enjoy it here, I think. It is like a resort. There are three swimming pools on the property, and a boy scoops out the leaves with his large net many times each day. The Veg and Non-Veg food is cooked in separate kitchens. We have tennis matches, movies in Tamil, Hindi and English on the big screen in the lounge, yoga, a walking group, a bridge group, and a Hindu prayer group that meets at the small temple we built on the grounds. There are smaller Muslim and Christian prayer groups that meet in residents’ homes. Malliga Homes, as Kamala says, is “inclusive.”
There is nothing wrong with Alpharetta, Georgia, but for all the space and privacy that America offers, it is a country that longs for life. You go for a drive and the road is endless. One fast food restaurant after another. Wendy’s. McDonald’s. Waffle House. The colored lights shine bright in the evenings, beckoning visitors. “Like temples,” I used to say. The grocery store is three kilometers from their house. What sort of place is that? One where people are too busy driving to enjoy life, I suppose. Nobody has time to talk, and yet everyone is seeing a therapist.
“It is only a ten-minute drive to Starbucks,” Kamala would say, when we visited. “Should we go?”
Ten minutes. I may as well plant a tree, pluck the beans myself, and grind my own coffee, I used to say to my husband. He would gently put his palm over my hand and whisper, “Shush. She may hear you.”
He spoilt her. The best school. The best tutors. The clothes she wanted. The books she liked. Let her go to the movies. Let her relax. No need to make her cook with you, he would say. Do not trouble her. Do not upset her. Let her be.
He was just as bored as I was in Alpharetta, even if he never said so. He, too, hated the burned taste of Starbucks, and how we went the whole day in America—the whole bloody day—without seeing a single person but the mailman, while Kamala and Arun went to work and Veena went to school. I always enjoyed living right in the heart of Chennai, with the noises of the street cluttering my day. Everything I needed was a stone’s throw away.
“No point in living in the city in America,” Kamala said, back when they bought the house. “Dirty, unsafe, no parking, bad schools.” She said “America,” but was she also talking about her childhood home? I could not help but wonder.
What do you do with a big, empty house, full of rooms that you do not need? She never talks about this, but somewhere inside of her she must feel it. She is my daughter after all. Her house, with its vaulted ceilings and skylights, it was no better than Malliga Homes.
At least she is in America. All those years ago, when her Georgia Tech admissions letter arrived, I said this to my husband.
“If she has to go, let it be there.”
Sindya Bhanoo’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Granta, The Masters Review and elsewhere. She was the 2020 grand prize winner of the DISQUIET Literary Prize and her work has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
She has worked as a reporter for The New York Times, where she was the longtime Observatory columnist, and The Washington Post, where she is still a frequent contributor. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Michener Center for Writers, where she was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature in 2018 and 2019. She is currently a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan