After her parents moved her and her brother to America, Preeti Desai never meant to tear her family apart. All she did was fall in love with a white Christian carnivore instead of a conventional Indian boy. Years later, with her parents not speaking to her and her controversial relationship in tatters, all Preeti has left is her career at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm.
But when Preeti receives word of a terrible accident in the city where she was born, she returns to India, where she’ll have to face her estranged parents…and the complicated past they left behind. Surrounded by the sights and sounds of her heritage, Preeti catches a startling glimpse of her family’s battles with class, tradition, and sacrifice. Torn between two beautifully flawed cultures, Preeti must now untangle what home truly means to her.
A gaggle of women, all speaking over each other in loud, animated voices, filled my parents’ small living room. It was like watching a National Geographic special about social dominance, where pitch and decibel level determined the leader. They wandered around the room, grazing on homemade samosas and pakoras, careful not to get oily crumbs on the delicate fabric of their brightly colored saris.
I was sitting at the dining table near the front door so I could fulfill my assigned duty of greeting the guests as they arrived for my sister-in-law’s baby shower. From across the room, I heard snippets of conversation from my mother’s friends.
“Did you hear her son dropped out of medical school to be with that American girl?”
“I’m not surprised. I heard she walks like an elephant.”
Without knowing whom they were talking about, I sympathized with the girl. My mother had often accused me of this great atrocity walking like an elephant. I was around nine years old when I realized she wasn’t calling me fat. She meant I wasn’t demure and obedient qualities every good Indian daughter should have.
Near me, a pile of presents had amassed over the last hour. Boxes wrapped in pastel paper with cute cartoon monkeys, turtles, or bunnies. They made most thirty-year-old women feel one of two things: a maternal pang and the gentle tick of her biological clock, or the desire to run screaming from the room. I glanced at the front door, leaning toward the latter response, but wasn’t sure if it was because of the baby paraphernalia around me or the suffocating feeling I got whenever I went back to my parents’ house near Devon Avenue-Chicago’s very own Little India.
Across the room, my mother, dressed in an orange-and-gold sari that clung to her ample hips and chest, offered to bring my sister-in-law, Dipti, a plate of food. She’d been fawning over Dipti all day, telling her she needed to rest to keep the baby healthy.
“You are a mother now, beta,” she’d say, shooting me a look of disappointment every time she referred to Dipti being a mother. I winced inwardly at hearing the term of affection she used to call me as a child. It had been a long time since I had been beta.
My mother’s long hair, streaked with white, was pinned into a neat bun with dozens of bobby pins and adorned with small fragrant jasmine flowers. It opened her face and softened her sharp features. Until yesterday, we hadn’t spoken in months. Not since she found out that my boyfriend-now ex-boyfriend-and I had been living together in Los Angeles. Cohabitating with a dhoriya was, in her opinion, the most shameful thing her daughter could have done. Living with a white boy was right up there with marrying someone from a lower caste or talking back to your elders.
It’s not like I had made it my mission to disappoint her. Until then, I’d tried to convince myself that I’d end up with a caste-appropriate Indian even though I’d never met one that I’d been attracted to. But when Alex tilted my chin to meet his blue eyes before our lips touched for that first kiss, I knew I was in trouble. It wasn’t long before he became my first love, and I was convinced we were destined to be together. Until one day we weren’t. I’d just never imagined that I’d be the one letting him go. And so soon after I’d told my parents that if they couldn’t accept Alex into their lives, it was the same as not accepting me. Timing could be a real bitch sometimes.
A group of aunties who were crowded around Dipti burst into laughter. She was only five and a half months pregnant, so I’d thought I’d have a few more weeks to mentally gear up for this trip back home, but my mother had insisted on having the shower before our family well, everyone except me-went to India for my cousin’s wedding later that week. She’d consulted a priest, who’d consulted the stars, and today, Sunday, November 25, was the only auspicious date that aligned with both the cosmic universe and her social calendar.
So there I was, back in the house I’d been desperate to leave after high school, standing guard over the ever-growing mountain of onesies, rattling plastic toys, and other tiny treasures.
A chilly breeze wafted in when the door opened again. Small bumps formed along my arms. I’d lived in Southern California for nearly a decade now and couldn’t handle even a hint of the approaching Illinois winter.
“Miss Preeti!” Monali Auntie, my mom’s best friend, called as she kicked off her champals outside the front door near the other jeweled and beaded sandals before scurrying into the house. She had always been like a second, cooler, more approachable mother to me and was one of the few people I had been looking forward to seeing at this party.
“Where is your sari?” Monali Auntie asked, eyeing the sapphire panjabi I wore instead of an intricate, elaborate sari like the rest of the women in the room were wearing. She clucked her tongue before spreading her arms wide and swaddling me in a warm, caring hug. I made sure my hands steered clear of her hair, which was pulled back into a tight chignon that she had probably spent hours perfecting, and I knew better than to be responsible for a hair falling out of place. The spicy smell of cinnamon and doves lingered on her skin as if she had spent all day in the kitchen.
“The same place as your coat,” I said, raising an eyebrow. She was the first person to arrive without a jacket.
“Oy, you! Do you know how much time I spent draping this sari around my body?” She put a hand on her slender hip and posed for effect. “You think I’m going to get wrinkles on it after all that work?” She flicked her hand, dismissing the thought.
I laughed, expecting nothing less. Monali Auntie had three sons and had always insisted that because she didn’t have a daughter to pass her looks on to, she had a duty to maintain her style. Sacrificing comfort in the name of fashion was just one of those burdens.
Leaning closer to her, I whispered, “Well, I didn’t want to say it too loudly, but your sari does look much neater than everyone else’s.” How any woman managed to wrap six meters of fabric around her body without a team of NASA engineers had always been a mystery to me, but Monali Auntie managed to pull it off solo. Anytime I’d been in a sari, it had taken my mother and at least one other person to wrangle me into it.
Her lips stretched into a satisfied smile as she smoothed the thick bundle of pleats cascading from her waist to the floor. Then she tugged the delicate dupatta draped around my neck like a scarf. “I suspect your mother was not very happy with this decision.”
“Is she ever?” My clothes were still traditional Indian wear, but certainly less formal than the sari that was “expected of a respectable woman” my age, as my mother would say.
“Just because you’re a lawyer doesn’t mean you must always argue,” Monali Auntie joked before turning to scan the room. “Now, where is the guest of honor?”
I gestured toward a group of women near the sofa. Dipti’s fuchsia and-parrot-green sari flattered her figure despite the mound protruding from her belly. The silk patterned border covered her stomach and left more of her back exposed, as was the customary style of Gujarat the state in India where my family and the other women in the room were from. Despite living in America for over twenty years, my parents didn’t have any friends who weren’t Gujarati. Much to my chagrin as a teenager trying to fit into this new country, Devon Avenue gave my parents the option of living in the West without giving up the East, and expecting their children to do the same.
Monali Auntie said, “Come. I need to give her my wishes. And you need to mingle with the guests rather than sitting alone like a lazy peacock.”
I dreaded having to listen to everyone ask me why I wasn’t more like Dipti, why I was thirty and not married, a spinster by Indian standards. They’d whisper behind my back about the poor fate my mother had been dealt. An unwed daughter over the age of twenty-five reflected a failure of the parents. If only they had taught me to cook or clean properly, perhaps then I would have found a nice Gujarati boy by now. And if the fates were kind, might even have popped out a kid or two.
Monali Auntie stood poised to shoot down any excuse. Before I could utter a word, my cell phone vibrated, and my law firm’s number popped up on the screen.
“Sorry, Auntie, it’s work. I need to take this.”
She shook her head and wagged her finger at me while I backed out of the noisy room and into the kitchen.
After closing the door, I whispered into the phone, “So glad it’s you.”
Carrie Bennett, my best friend and partner in crime at work, laughed. “Is your trip down memory lane that bad?”
I slumped against the counter. “It’s as expected. Why are you at the office now?”
“Because being a lawyer sucks. The Warden forgot you were out of town this weekend, so I’m stuck working on some bullshit brief that needs to get filed tomorrow. I’m in your office-where’s our file on the senator case?”
The Warden was the moniker Carrie and I had given our boss, Jared Greenberg. “Thanks for covering,” I said before explaining where she should look to find the documents.
After we finished chatting, I lingered in the kitchen for a few moments, staring out the window at the little wooden swing hanging from the oak tree in our small fence-lined backyard. Burnt-orange and deep-red leaves littered the ground around it. The swing’s chains were rusty from many years of harsh, wet winters. A year after we’d moved into this row house, my father had put it up to remind my mother of the hichko that sat in the garden outside her family’s bungalow in India.
Whenever she received a pale-blue onion skin-thin letter from her family in India, she went straight to that swing and read it over and over until the paper nearly ripped apart at the delicate creases. The swing had been his attempt to make America feel more like home and was one of the only thoughtful gestures I remembered him showing her. Not surprisingly, an arranged marriage coupled with a culture that didn’t accept divorce did not result in many romantic gestures between my parents.
The basement door opened, and my brother, Neel, came through dressed in jeans and a hoodie. He looked so much more comfortable than I felt. I’d have traded places with him in a second. He and my father had been relegated, willingly so, to the basement, where they could watch football while the party was underway.
“Just grabbing more snacks,” he said. “How’s the babyfest going?”
“Awesome,” I said dryly. “I get to sit in a room and watch everyone fawn all over your perfect wife in her perfect sari with her perfect baby on the way.”
Neel picked up a samosa and sank his teeth into the crunchy pastry shell. He had the metabolism of a hummingbird and could probably eat his weight in fried food without it affecting him in the slightest. “If it’s any consolation, she’s less perfect when she’s puking up water and bile in the middle of the night.”
I scrunched my face. “Are you seriously eating while talking about puking bile?”
He shrugged and took another large bite. “Bile is nothing. I see way worse at the hospital. This kid came in on Friday with-“
I held up my palm. “Unless this story ends with the kid having a paper cut, you can stop.”
Our mother walked into the kitchen with a full bag of trash. “What are you doing hiding in here?” she said to me. “People are asking about you.”
After an hour of eavesdropping while I’d sat at the dining table greeting guests, I knew they weren’t, but it wasn’t worth arguing about. “I had to take a call from work.”
It was technically true. But my mother’s sour expression made clear she didn’t approve. She thought I should be more focused on starting a family than on my career. When I had been born, my parents had followed the tradition of having an Indian priest write out my Janmakshar–a horoscope that mapped out my entire life. According to that, like my cousins, I should have married by twenty-five and had two kids by now. Shunning dirty diapers in favor of clean paychecks was only one of many deviations from my Janmakshar.
“Why doesn’t Neel come out and say hi to everyone?” I said, casting him a mischievous grin. ‘Tm sure the aunties want to congratulate him too.”
Neel dashed toward the basement. “Sorry, women only,” he called over his shoulder. ”I’ll talk to them some other time!”
I had taken a step toward the living room when inspiration struck. “I’ll be right there.” I turned and ran up the stairs to my bedroom to get the one thing that would make this party more bearable while having the side effect of pleasing my mother.
With my Canon T90 SLR camera covering most of my face, people hardly noticed me. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of bringing it down sooner. My parents had given it to me for my thirteenth birthday. Presents until that point had been academic workbooks so I could pull ahead of my peers in school. As an immigrant child of immigrant parents, I grew up knowing my future had to be their future. That meant getting the best grades, going to the best college, and getting the best job to ensure the sacrifices they had made for us were validated. Spending even a dollar on something that didn’t further that agenda was unthinkable. When I got the camera, for the first time I understood how my American friends felt on their birthdays, focused more on having fun than being practical. But then the next year I’d started high school, and my birthday present had been the application packets for all the Ivy League colleges. “Never too early to start planning,” my dad had said. It made me cherish the camera even more.
After high school, I’d wanted to become a photographer, but my parents had balked at the idea. “The only wedding photos a decent girl should be taking are the ones she is in!” my mother had said. My father had summed it up more succinctly: “It’s a lower-caste job. Medicine is better.” I could not live in Neel’s shadow any longer than I already had, so medicine was not an option.
After college, I convinced my parents to let me spend a year pursuing photography. Confident I could earn a decent living at it, I pacified them by agreeing to go to law school if it didn’t work out. I’d been twenty-two, full of passion and energy, and so very naive. After interning at a studio in downtown Chicago for what amounted to less than minimum wage, I wasn’t any closer to being able to move out of my parents’ house and support myself. I hated that my mother had been right. For years I hadn’t been able to pick up the camera again, as if my failure was somehow its fault rather than my own. It wasn’t until Alex had encouraged me to start again a year ago that I had. I began slowly, bringing it out when traveling or at the occasional family event I was guilted into attending. Like Dipti’s baby shower. With the cold war between my mother and me in effect, I would never have come were it not for Neel. It was important to him, so no matter how uncomfortable it made me, I had to suck it up. Besides, even I knew not showing up would be crossing a line with my mother in a way that I couldn’t take back. My family was no different from every other Indian family we knew, and putting on the pretense of being a happy family was more important than actually being one. There would have been no greater insult than the shame of her having to explain to her friends why I wasn’t there.
I meandered through the room trying to find the best lighting. Gita Auntie, one of my mother’s friends, animatedly spoke to some of the guests. She was short and slight, well under five feet and one hundred pounds. She looked up at her friends, her eyebrows scrunched, while she gestured wildly. Peering through my lens, I waited for a moment when she appeared calm and happy, her cheeks full of color and a smile on her face, before I clicked the button and released the shutter.
She turned toward the flash, startled. “Oh, Preeti. You must give me warning so I can check my hair. Now come. We take one with all of us.” She put one arm around my mother’s shoulder and beckoned for me with the other.
“Oh, no, no, Auntie. I’m fine behind the lens. Besides, this camera is old and hard to use.”
“Oy, excuses! Keep your camera then. But at least be social.”
It wasn’t an ideal compromise, but I preferred it to pasting on a fake smile that would be preserved for years to come. As I moved closer, Gita Auntie continued her story about another friend’s daughter. “You know, now she will never find a good Indian boy. She’s damaged. What family will allow her to marry their son after she lived with that American boy, hah?”
They all nodded with that side-to-side bobble that to the untrained eye could have been yes or no, but they all understood what was meant by it.
A lump formed in my throat. My mother shifted her gaze toward the worn carpet, a light-tan color that had survived the last couple of decades remarkably well, but that was probably due to the strict no-shoes policy within our home. Her biggest fear was that her friends would find out I wasn’t so different from the girl they were gossiping about, that once everyone knew the truth, I’d be destined to be alone forever. No good Indian family would let me marry their son.
Gita Auntie reached out and cupped my chin with her thumb and index finger and shook my face from side to side. “Our little Hollywood lawyer. When will it be your turn?”
I leaned back to politely break from her grasp. Gita Auntie didn’t believe in personal space, preferring to communicate with her hands rather than her words.
“I work seventy hours a week,” I offered as my excuse.
“You must think more seriously.” She put her hand on my shoulder and then lowered her voice. “You are thirty, no? After that, you know, women lose their luster.”
I bit back the urge to say I had just bought a fancy new moisturizer that promised to keep my “luster” intact for years to come. Instead, I forced out an empty laugh and found myself using Alex’s old coping mechanism. He’d do it whenever he was agitated. It used to drive me crazy, but right now, counting slowly in my head was a better plan than causing a scene and making the day with my mother more uncomfortable than it already was. One, two, three …
Monali Auntie must have noticed the troubled look on my face, because she put down her plate and marched over to our group.
“Come. Let me take a photo of you with your family.” She was the only person in the room I would have trusted with my cherished camera. And she knew it.
My mother and Dipti adjusted the pleats on their saris as we stood in a line with my mother in the center. After making sure her clothes were in order, she reached over and took each of our hands, her quintessential family-photo pose. Nothing to give away that she hadn’t spoken to her only daughter in months. After all, what would people think if they knew?
As we stood waiting for the click of the shutter, I could focus on only one thing. It was small. Stupid. I knew that, especially given how the past year had gone. But I couldn’t shake the feeling. She had reached for Dipti’s hand first. Part of me was angry, but another part of me-the analytical side-didn’t blame her. After a long day at the hospital, Dipti still could roll out a paper-thin rotli that puffed evenly when placed on the heat and could dance a flawless twelve-step garba routine. Even if I’d been given a week to prepare, I couldn’t have done either of those things. And she never talked back to my mother. Ever.
I gritted my teeth. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen …
It seemed obvious that even though I was the daughter she had, Dipti was the one she wanted.
Excerpt from The Taste of Ginger by Mansi Shah.
Copyright © 2022 by Mansi Shah.
Published by Lake Union Publishing
Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.