As the parakeet-green municipal bus pulled into Cuddalore, Sai held his sign up as high as he could, his forehead burning from the morning sun. He did not want the reporter to miss him.
The sign was flimsy, made of two pieces of printer paper taped together, but it was sufficient.
He’d written SARA, THE NEW YORK TIMES in thick capital letters with a black marker. He knew of only a handful of women doing serious journalism, mostly Barkha Dutt copycats. His favorite female journalist was actually a character from the movie Gandhi. He had rented it when he was in college in Chennai and watched it alone. He was instantly smitten with the actress who played the Time magazine photographer from America, charmed by the way her short, wavy hair bounced as she squatted to the ground to take pictures of the Mahatma spinning cotton on his chakkaram.
Sai had watched the movie in a single four-hour sitting, pausing only to boil water for Maggi noodles. He waited for the credits to roll so he could note the name of the actress.
Ever since Sara’s call from America asking if he was available to help with the tsunami bride story, her voice ringing with enthusiasm, Sai had imagined driving through Cuddalore and into the fishing villages with Candice Bergen sitting behind him on his Honda Activa.
Just the night before, in a dream, when he and Candice rode over a particularly dusty bump in the road, she’d thrown her arms around him, rested her cheek against his back and squealed. Candice smelled like a slice of freshly cut Ooty apple. Somehow he was sure of this.
Sai felt guilty about the dream in the morning but told himself it was actions, not thoughts, that mattered in the end. Besides, since the first month of her pregnancy, Sai’s wife Amala had allowed him nothing more than a kiss. What was a man to do? First she had complained of nausea and said he smelled like rancid onions, though he bathed in the morning and again when he returned from work. Later, when the nausea passed, she said there was too much physical discomfort. She had left for Chennai three weeks ago, in her seventh month of pregnancy, so her mother could pamper her for a few months. She would remain there until the baby was three months old.
Sai pushed back the itchy strands of hair on his forehead and held the placard up higher. On one hand, holding up a placard like a lowly driver was beneath him. He was a junior accountant for the oil-based paint factory on the town’s outskirts. But holding the placard was also a small price to pay for what he was about to do: work as a fixer for a few days and assist an American reporter. He’d been doing it since his college days to get extra cash. It started with a gig at a travel company, taking foreigners, mostly Americans, around Chennai on city tours.
One day, he was with a family from San Francisco. The father was an editor for a big American newspaper and was impressed with Sai’s English.
“You’d be great at it,” the editor said. The pay was usually about fifty USD a day. Sai had inhaled sharply when he heard that.
The editor got Sai a gig helping an American reporter with a story on the Chennai water crisis. That led to another on a desalination plant and another on foreigners looking for surrogate mothers.
Sai watched carefully as the passengers stepped off the bus, his eyes peeled for a foreigner. No sign of Sara. Sweating now, he took two steps back, in search of shade that was nowhere to be found in the open, dusty lot.
Then he squinted. A woman was approaching him, and it wasn’t the reporter.
She was an Indian woman, a strange one, waving at him madly, dressed in a salwar kameez the color of a banana. A cloth bag hung from her shoulder, the cheap kind they sold at street markets. Her hair was a mess, and her dupatta was carelessly thrust around her neck, not artfully pinned the way Amala pinned hers, always careful to cover her breasts. Though, to be frank, this woman hardly had breasts to cover. His instinct was to turn around and walk away, to duck into a tea stand.
“Sai? Sai? I’m Sara!” Nasal. Ingratiating. Chirpy. Most certainly American.
He stared back at her, at the salwar kameez and the messy hair.
Against his own will, his eyes scanned her body, assessing her as he did all women, as all men did all women: for beauty, for spark, for fertility.
She was in her early thirties, older than Amala. Past her prime. No longer pretty. Probably never pretty.
“Sara?” he said, doubtfully.
“Short for Saraswathi,” she said, in passable Tamil, heavily accented. She was smiling widely, clearly delighted she’d duped him.
She had a thin, oval-shaped face, delicate but also too long and too lean, like the water rats that scurried through the sewer near his home. A face, Sai thought, that did not seem to suit her bloated body. Small breasts, he could not help but observe again, and a large middle. A plump brinjal.
Stop, he told himself. She is a reporter. Here to do work. I am here to assist her.
She had thick eyebrows. Long, dark hair on her arms. Circles of sweat at her armpits. Pimples on her face. She wore heavy brown athletic shoes.
“I’ve so been looking forward to meeting you,” she said enthusiastically. “Ben says hi.”
Ben was the photographer who had come the year before. Sai had taken him to the fishing villages just days after the tsunami hit.
“You know him well?” Sai asked.
“Of course. Well, not really. Not yet. I mean, he’s staff and I’m not. But I’m hoping… Oh, here, wait—I have something for you.”
He watched as she rummaged through her cloth bag. He was fluent in English, but they spoke so fast, Americans, pressing their words into one another as if their bladders might momentarily explode. For the purpose of improving his comprehension, he watched American television shows, mostly reruns of Friends and Baywatch, though the latter was not to Amala’s liking.
Sara retrieved a large Kit Kat bar and handed it to him.
“I asked Ben what you like. He said you were wild about these. A little melty. You’ll need to stick it in the fridge.”
“Too kind of you,” he said, aware of how slowly he spoke in contrast to her, how spaced out his words were. He wondered what the next few days would be like, with this woman riding on the back of his Honda Activa. He looked at the bar.
“Ben’s bringing you more,” Sara said. “I lucked out, getting him to take the pictures. He’s the best of the best.”
Ben had published a photo essay on the tsunami. Sara was here to do a follow-up.
On the December morning that the tsunami hit, Sai had been away, two hundred kilometers north and inland in Chennai, getting engaged to the woman who would become his wife. In any case, he would have been safe. His modest two-bedroom rental was in the heart of Cuddalore, removed from the seashore.
The tsunami had been most ruthless to women, engulfing them as they washed clothes and dishes at the shore, leaving their husbands, who were fishing for red snappers and scampi in the deep seas, untouched.
So much had happened in the year since Ben’s first visit. The fishermen were fishing again. Homes had been rebuilt. The kids were back in school, though some were in temporary locations or taking daily rickshaws into town to attend city schools because village schools were under construction. Sai’s life had changed too. He had become a husband, and in a month’s time he would be a father.
He turned on the ignition to his scooter. Sara was sitting behind him, her cloth bag still slung over her shoulder. He was glad Amala was away, even though he missed her. She was not a jealous woman, but she would not have liked seeing another woman on the back of his scooter. Or maybe she would have just laughed at the sight. Amala was beautiful, radiant in pregnancy, while the woman on the back of his scooter was the opposite. Sara certainly bore no resemblance to Candice Bergen.
At the first village they went to, Sai approached the men who were milling around the bus stop chewing paan and asked where he might find the village thalaivar. He knew it was important to be respectful, for city people and foreigners both to follow the village protocol.
He told Sara to wait while he talked to the men. But she did not listen and instead trailed him. He heard her heavy footsteps behind him, the sound of her plodding shoes, and felt the muscles in his back tighten. She will be the cause of her own failure, he thought.
One of the paan-chewing men, his tongue bright red, stepped forward.
“You follow me,” he said.
The thalaivar had a large home in the center of the village. They found him sitting on the floor of his porch, cross-legged in his sleeveless white bunyan and lungi, with one knee up. He was fairly young, thirty or so, with an ample moustache that curled at the ends. Sai brought his hands together into a vanakkam, whispering to Sara that she should do the same.
He explained what they were there for. The thalaivar listened, expressionless, his eyes moving from Sai to Sara, Sara to Sai.
Finally, he shook his head.
“Without full consensus from our villagers, we cannot proceed,” he said.
Sai said there was no time for that. Sara had only three days.
“She is media,” Sai said.
“Try somewhere else,” the thalaivar said. “We don’t have such brides here anyway.”
Sai knew it was hopeless. Villagers could be stubborn. They did not bend to the wishes of city folk, and certainly not to those of foreigners.
“There are no tsunami brides here, it seems,” Sai said to Sara.
“I understand him,” she said.
She turned to the thalaivar.
“How about women? Any women I can talk to?” she asked in Tamil.
“You’re one of us?” He was smirking.
Sara turned around and pointed to a woman hanging laundry up on a line.
“There’s one right there,” she said.
“She speaks Tamil?” the thalaivar asked Sai, still surprised. “You didn’t tell me.”
Sara started walking toward the woman hanging up clothes, clearly determined to talk to her.
“In a limited way,” Sai said to the thalaivar, sheepishly. He turned to watch Sara, anxious that she was roaming around without him. “She’s American-born.”
“She isn’t a tsunami bride,” the thalaivar called out to Sara. “I told you we don’t have any here. Try Pudukuppam.”
The next morning, before he picked Sara up at the bus stand, Sai made a phone call to a friend who owned a business that delivered goods—soap and toothpaste and things—to village corner stores. Perhaps he knew something about the tsunami brides?
“Pudukuppam, maybe,” the friend said, repeating the name of the village the thalaivar had suggested.
When Sai picked Sara up, her shoulders were slumped, her eyes filled with childlike worry.
“Pudukuppam today,” he said. “Are you excited?”
She sat sidesaddle on the Activa, with a sort of modesty Amala had, that he was certain Candice Bergen did not.
“This feels hopeless. Do you think I’m on a wild goose chase?” she asked.
“Come again?” he said, keeping his eyes on the road ahead of him. They were driving down Nellikuppam Main Road, the city’s busiest street.
“I mean, what if there’s no story? I’ve come all the way here. It’s the first time the paper has asked me to do anything important, and I’m messing it up.” She was speaking very fast.
“We’ve gone out once, to one village,” Sai said.
“They’ll never send me anywhere again,” she said.
Sai tightened his grip on his handlebars, annoyed that he had to deal with the emotions of a woman he was not married to.
Their luck turned in Pudukuppam. Sai planned to approach the village thalaivar again, but Sara spotted a handful of young women sitting under coconut trees, taking a morning break before continuing with their housework, and she dashed ahead.
“There!” she said. “They are the ones.” Her chuni had fallen a few times the previous day, but this time, because of her eagerness to get to the women, she did not notice when it fell to the ground.
Sai picked it up and tried to hand it to her, but she had run off, her lower half jiggling as she moved.
Sai threw it over his own shoulder, swallowing the salty smell of her body odor the best he could.
It was fun to watch her work. Some village men came to gawk. Though they surely sent word back to the thalaivar, not once was Sara interrupted or told to stop.
Her Tamil was horrible, but it put the women at ease, if only because it made them smile. Sai saw them giggle, cover their hands with their mouths when she said something. But Sara was undeterred, not at all self-conscious, happy to repeat herself if needed. She handled the crowd well, offending no one but speaking to only one woman at a time, looking each subject in the eye.
She was a sight, her hair still not tied back, her face oily, her round bottu on but awkwardly placed on the forehead, just a bit too high, and her wrists scandalously bracelet-less. And those same heavy shoes, even though the day’s temperature was supposed to reach thirty-eight.
Her mood changed so quickly, Sai thought. Just that morning she had been sullen, worried she was wasting time. Now she worked with a confidence and efficiency that Sai could not draw his eyes away from. She was focused, sure of herself as she went from woman to woman.
Eventually, he settled into a comfortable cross-legged position against a wall. He wanted to stay close by, just in case she needed him. He was getting paid, after all.
Sara was good at maintaining eye contact, nodding as the women spoke, even as her pen—sparkly and purple in color—moved along the paper. The pen surprised him. It was something Amala might pick out. She loved anything that dazzled. But Sara’s eyes were not soft and dreamy like his wife’s. They were shrewd and watchful.
Sara interviewed a fourteen-year-old tsunami bride who had a six-month-old baby at her hips. Sai could see the girl’s delight over the sparkly pen, the way her willowy arm reached out to touch it. Sara spoke to another woman whose sister had died in the tsunami. The woman had married her sister’s widower, so that the children would have a loving stepmother.
Several times, speaking to different women, Sai watched Sara blink away tears and, in one case, wipe them on her sleeve.
She was fastidious about saying no to food and drink. The villagers offered her biscuits and mango juice, or a cool drink from the village corner store. Each time they brought something, Sara shook her head and directed them toward Sai instead.
“The cool drink may be fine,” Sai called out when a teenage boy, the stepson of the woman she was speaking to, brought her a Thums Up in a clear glass bottle.
“They would have just opened it; it’s straight from the factory,” Sai said. It was a little embarrassing that she kept saying no.
Sara shook her head. “I know better than to take a chance.”
Wasn’t she taking a chance by coming out here all alone? He was a gentleman, but not all men were. Surely she knew that.
She took time to talk to the children too, and patiently answered their questions about life in America.
“Do you have many cars?”
“Have you seen snow?”
“Why is your Tamil so poor?”
“I have no excuse,” she said, laughing.
She did not glance his way once, as she worked for hours. She had no need for a translator. He had the sense that she would not allow herself to get distracted, that she never stopped seeing whoever was in front of her, never stopped listening for even a moment.
With a start, he realized he was only her driver. With Ben, it had been so different. With every other reporter, it had been different: They relied on him. What he asked, whom he asked, where he led them, it all made a difference.
Sai thought of himself at his desk job, looking over numbers on his computer, adding, subtracting, multiplying, calculating prices of jars of paint. The boredom he often felt, the sting in his eyes that he took home with him at the end of each day.
When Sara was finally done talking with the women, it was five in the evening; the whole day had passed. Before she got on the back of his scooter, she pulled a packet of Sunfeast Choco Fill Biscuits out of her bag, ripped it open, and stuffed two of the cream cookies into her mouth. “Starving,” she said. She offered Sai one, but he said no. The pasty cream did not suit him.
They ate a late lunch at Hotel Ananda Bhavan. It was the only place safe for foreigners. Diarrhea was still possible, of course—it always was with foreigners—but less likely than if he took her to one of the other restaurants in town.
When the waiter came by, they each ordered a plate of idli sambar. Sai ordered a plate of medu vada also. It was always fresh and crispy at Ananda Bhavan.
“I need to sort out the story before Ben gets here,” Sara said. “They call him the Silent Giant.”
“Because he is so tall?”
“Because when he’s working, you don’t even know he’s there.”
Sai nodded. He did remember that about Ben.
Ben was an especially pale-skinned American, late forties, tall, with a hearty, contagious laugh, a bald head and a full beard, red in color. Together they had gone from village to village on Sai’s scooter. One night, he and Ben accompanied fishermen to the seashore in the evening, sitting with them as they sipped from the bottles they passed back and forth to decompress from the stress of lost homes, lost wives, lost children.
“Can you believe it?” Ben said afterward. “How they’re spending that state aid money to get drunk, instead of taking care of their families?”
But how could Ben understand? He didn’t know what it was really like, and Sai didn’t either.
No picture could capture it. Only the fishermen knew.
Sara’s voice brought him back to the present.
“I’m nervous that he’s coming, honestly,” she said, speaking quickly again. Was she blushing?
“He’s kind of a big deal. If this story works out, it could be a major break for me.” She dipped a piece of idli into the bowl of sambar, using her fingers with ease.
Ben, bewildered by the hand-eating, had used a spoon.
“I have a camera,” Sai offered, and then felt immediately embarrassed.
It was a decent little digital camera, a wedding gift from Amala’s uncle who lived in Kuwait. He hardly had occasion to use it, except to take pictures of Amala.
“I can show it to you tomorrow, if you’d like,” he said.
Sara shrugged, waved down their waiter, and ordered a cup of hot tea.
Sai was stung. “Maybe not,” he said. “It wouldn’t be helpful anyway.”
“I still don’t have a protagonist,” Sara said. “When I find her, I’ll know.”
She took a sip from the water she had brought with her. She was so careful. Only bottled water, only Dasani, no local brands, only hot liquids and cooked foods. She avoided the chutney that came with the idlis.
Ben had been the opposite, tempted by the roadside stalls where they were roasting corn and frying pakoras. He’d dipped into the spicy green mint chutney with delight and paid for it dearly afterward. Ben was an idiot.
Sai offered Sara a vada. She shook her head.
“Love them, but I’m watching my weight.”
He did not press her. The vada was good, but the weight watching was also probably good.
She’d been with her father’s sister in Chennai for a week, she explained, and could not eat any more fried foods.
“Her daughter just got married. My aunt hounds me about getting married too. You know what I say? I say, ‘I’m over thirty-five. It’s time for you to give it up. If it happens, it happens.’”
So she was even older than he’d thought. Amala would have a ten-year-old child by the time she turned thirty-five.
“Anyway,” Sara sighed, “if this is all hopeless, I’m going back to school to get an MBA.”
Her thick eyebrows were furrowed. It was comical.
“But your job is a good one?”
“I told you: I’m a freelancer,” she said. “I paid for my own ticket here. And if I don’t bring back a good story, well—let’s be real—they won’t publish it, and I won’t get paid.”
He wondered how she managed her expenses in New York City. Maybe her parents gave her money. He was still wondering this when he dropped her off at the bus stand.
“Today was a good day, wasn’t it?” she said, as she opened her bag to take change out for the bus. Then she turned and plodded off with her heavy shoes. He watched her disappear into the crowd of passengers, her figure standing out even as she blended in. She had excellent posture.
Sai retrieved the Kit Kat Sara had given him from his refrigerator. It had lost its shape, but he opened it anyway and bit into it. Then he threw it away. He didn’t need American chocolate.
When he picked Sara up at the bus stand the next day, he knew, simply from the lethargic way she moved toward him, the way her cloth bag was not swinging, that something was wrong.
He was impressed by how well he could read her after just a day or two. Amala was still opaque, her mood never clear to him until he made the mistake of guessing incorrectly, making a joke when she was irritable or being romantic when she simply wanted to put the dinner away and go to sleep.
“What is it?” he said to Sara, as they walked to the spot where his scooter was parked. “We are getting the story you need for your paper, are we not?”
“Ben isn’t coming while I’m here,” she said. “They’re sending him to the Orange Bowl first to take pictures.”
“The Orange Bowl?”
“It’s a football game,” Sara said. “They’re sending him to a goddamn football game. And he’s going.”
Sai nodded, doing his best to hide his shock and—what else was it? Relief? It was an opening.
He needed to say something quickly.
“This football game, it is happening now?”
“Yes,” she said. “If he cared at all about this project, he would come here instead.”
“But Ben will still come here after the… Orange Bowl?”
She was quiet.
“Sorry,” he said.
He started the ignition, and then, as they drove down Nellikuppam Main Road, he thought of something. He took the turn that led to his house.
“Would you mind?” he said, turning back and shouting into the wind. “If I stop at my place for five minutes?”
“Whatever you need to do.”
Sara stayed outside while he ran in. He unlocked the almirah where he kept the camera in a canvas bag.
“Got what you need?” she said, stiffly, when he emerged with the bag.
“Yes,” he said.
She didn’t ask him what it was.
As they rode from city to village, the air between them was cool but thick with discomfort. It felt like a quarrel, and with it he felt the possibility of something more seep in.
Unlike the other women Sara interviewed, Valli had been married before. Her first husband was abusive. He liked to beat her after stripping her of all her clothes.
“That way he knew I could not cry out for help,” she said.
Valli told Sara the story in her living room as the two sat side-by-side on a loveseat, facing each other, Sara with her notebook in hand and Valli with a glass of water. Sai leaned against the wall by the front door and watched and listened.
After nine months of marriage, Valli ran away and went to her brother’s home. For two years she lived in fear as her husband made threats, showing up drunk at her brother’s home in the middle of the night, threatening to burn the house down, to kill her. He woke the whole village with his shouting, and called her a slut and a whore. The police did nothing about it, the restraining order against him meaningless and unenforced. Valli became suicidal and depressed, worried that she was ruining her brother’s life.
Sara nodded, her expression both kind and curious. “And then?” she asked.
“The tsunami killed him and saved me.”
He was lying drunk and unconscious by the water when it swept him in. Valli did not shed a tear as she told Sara the story. She was twenty-five and slim, with an attractive face but sunken eyes. Hair that was already graying.
“Were you relieved he died?” Sara asked.
“I was not sorry,” Valli said.
Sai watched them talk. He took pictures. He pretended to be Ben, quiet and invisible, but observant.
Valli’s new husband was three times her age, a sixty-four-year-old blind man named Murugan.
“Is it strange to be married to a man old enough to be your father?” Sara asked.
“An old man eats less than a young one.”
They laughed girlishly, and Sai captured it with the camera.
“But a blind man,” Sara said. “Why?”
“At least I can be of use to one person in this world.”
“He’ll die before you.”
Valli was not offended. She touched her stomach. “I won’t be alone. There is a baby.”
She had the steely look of a survivor. Sai pointed the camera toward Valli and clicked again, grateful that it made no noise.
That afternoon, as they ate in Ananda Bhavan, Sara said her story was complete.
“When you know, you know,” she said. “That’s why I do this work. Because I know.”
Instead of idlis, she ordered a paper dosa, glistening with ghee, that took up half the table.
“I know I’m fat. I really shouldn’t,” she said. “But I need to celebrate.”
Sai started to say that she was not fat, just slightly overweight, but she cut him off.
“What an honor to hear her story. I just wanted to take her hand and say, ‘I’m here. With you.’”
Sai took out his camera.
“I took some photographs,” he said. “I am not sure how they turned out.”
“You did? I didn’t notice. Wait,” she said. She stood up, went to the wash basin and then came back. Sai saw other guests at Ananda Bhavan watching her, looking at her shoes. He glowered at two of them.
When she returned, Sara took the camera from him with clean hands.
“Oh, Sai,” she said.
They were terrible, he knew it.
His heart sank.
He should not have tried. Ben was coming. He should have left it to Ben.
“These are amazing,” Sara said. “We can use these in the paper. I know it.”
Sai clicked forward a few images so she could see the one he had taken of Valli and Sara laughing. They both looked so alive.
“You’re good,” she said. She looked up at him, her eyes lit, and he felt something inside of him rise, sharp and swift.
“My wife says I can never take a good picture of her,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s the camera. We grew up next door to each other in Chennai. When she was a girl, my mother used to say, ‘Look how effortlessly beautiful she is.’ She is even more beautiful now than before.”
Sara nodded. “And?”
“Back then, she wasn’t aware of it. Now she is. So I cannot capture her naturally, you know?”
He had never said this to anyone, never admitted it to himself even. But it was true. His beautiful wife was no longer beautiful.
“Do you miss her?” Sara asked. She was leaning toward him across the table, just the slightest bit, paying close attention, just as she had to Valli and the other women.
“Yes,” he said, wondering whether Sara believed him.
“I’m sure everything will change once you become a father,” she said encouragingly as they stepped out. She spooned a pinch of pakku out of the brass bowl on the front counter and tossed the candied fennel seeds into her mouth.
On the scooter, as they rode to the bus stand, Sara chatted about the next day. Valli’s husband had agreed to an interview the following morning. She was sitting closer to Sai than she usually did.
Nothing vulgar, nothing like that at all. But he could feel her breath—its warmth and its fennel scent—in his ear and in his nose.
When she got onto the bus, she leaned out the window and waved to Sai from her seat.
“Don’t forget the camera!” she said.
Murugan had a full head of white hair. He was the father to three grown daughters, all married and older than Valli. The morning of the tsunami, his first wife had been washing clothes. Because of her arthritic knees, she could not run away from the waves fast enough. He was inside the house, taking a morning nap, when it happened.
Murugan told Sara all this while they sat on the same sofa where she and Valli had talked the day before. Sai stood to the side, quietly taking pictures.
At first, she asked Murugan questions, and he answered. He told her about his grandchildren, his reluctance to move in with his daughters after his wife died, his inability to do certain daily tasks because he was blind. But, he said, the other villagers were helpful and kind, and he might have managed for his remaining years.
“I was lonely,” he said, when she asked why he married Valli. “It was about company.”
Sara wrote this down into her notebook. “Did you feel awkward because she is young and you are old?”
“She needed someone. I needed someone,” he said. Abruptly, he switched to English. He spoke well, better than any villager Sai knew.
Must be convent-educated, Sai thought. Perhaps he’d lived with family in the city when he was young.
“And yourself?” Murugan asked Sara, again in English. Sai saw Sara shift uncomfortably, as if she felt Murugan’s gaze, though his eyes were closed.
“Not everyone wants to get married,” she said, laughing.
“I am speaking of company,” Murugan said. “Did I say marriage? You said marriage. You are listening to me now, and I to you. But then you leave, write this in the paper, then what? Forget about us and move on?”
“I will not forget,” Sara protested.
“Many foreigners have come and gone this year. But ask yourself: Why are you so hungry? Why do you feed yourself with our stories?”
Sara, for the first time since Sai had been with her, had no response. She closed her notebook and slipped it into her bag, along with her sparkly pen.
Sai took a picture.
“I’m here because this is important work,” she said.
“You are young. You are beautiful. I cannot see you, but I can hear you. I speak to you as a father,” he said. “When will you live your own life, tell your own stories?”
Sara turned away. “I don’t need to explain it to you.”
“Have it your way.” There was nothing harsh in his tone, and he said no more.
As they rode back to town and to the bus stand, Sai’s mind was racing. He could quit his job. The newspaper would see the pictures he took of Valli and Murugan and hire him. It wouldn’t be a lot of money at first, but that would not matter—he would manage the household expenses. He would travel often but return frequently to see Amala and the baby. He and Sara would be a team, their relationship purely platonic, a duo known for their photos and stories. Nobody would accuse her of not living again, because he would be there.
He heard a whimper and thought she might be crying a little, sitting behind him, but he could not turn all the way and look. He shouted back, “Should I stop somewhere?”
“No. What for?” she said.
She did not want lunch. Not hungry, she said. She just wanted to get back to Pondicherry, pack up, and have some time to rest before taking the bus to Chennai. In two days, she would be back in America.
“Something small,” he said, into the wind. “You must eat.”
“I’ve seen you looking at my shoes,” she said, sitting across from him at Ananda Bhavan.
“I have a hammertoe. That’s why I wear the shoes.”
She opened her purse and took out a marble. “Every day on the bus, I take my shoes off and squeeze this marble in the space between my big toe and my pointer toe.”
She curved her pointer finger into a hook. “This is what my toe looks like.”
“I’m sorry, I…”
She shook her head.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s just what it is.”
Somehow, this revelation gave him the courage to ask.
“Ben is a special friend of yours?”
She snorted and covered her nose with her hand.
“Ben thinks I’m a kid,” she said.
He knew she was telling the truth. Whatever it was, if there was anything, was entirely one-sided, a crush of the flavor that students have on their teachers.
He watched her reach for his medu vada, break a piece off and dip into the chutney. “I’m alone, Sai, but I’m not lonely. He was wrong about that. He couldn’t see me.”
In the quiet of his home, under the bright tube light in his bedroom, Sai goes through the pictures he has taken. He does what he promised, sending Sara pictures of Valli and Murugan.
He looks again at the pictures. The one of Sara and Valli. They look like two old friends. Sara’s fingers are touching her nose and mouth; her eyes are crinkled. Valli has her head tilted toward Sara. An awkward picture, but a beautiful one. Sai looks at it for a long time, zooming in and moving across every bit of Sara’s face.
Every photo is flawed, of course—he knows that. Every story too. Not for what it shows, but for what it does not. Murugan had been right about Sara. She was hungry for stories. She had taken what she wanted, and she had left.
Her tsunami bride story will be a good one, Sai knows. It might even get her a job.
He could show the photo of Sara and Valli to his child one day, a girl maybe. He would say, “Look. Do you know what work this aunty does?”
But even in his daydream, Sai can feel Amala watching him, her deep-set eyes full of worry. He thinks of Sara now, on the bus to Chennai, shoes off, marble between her toes, Choco Fill Biscuit crumbs on her lips. He stares at the camera a moment longer, then presses delete.
Sindya Bhanoo is the author of Seeking Fortune Elsewhere. She is the recipient of an O. Henry Award, the DISQUIET Literary Prize, and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant. A longtime newspaper reporter, she has worked for The New York Times and The Washington Post. She teaches at Oregon State University.