Parathas on Sunday by Arushi Rana
My seventeenth birthday was the day I let Ma down for the first time. Not the last, definitely, but the first. I did all the things she never wanted me to do. I drank. I got in a fight. I smoked cigarettes. I stayed out past curfew. Now that I’d done it once, I knew I’d do it again.
My foray into the world of alcohol had been a resounding success. The acrid, paint-thinner taste of plastic-bottle vodka was nothing compared to what followed—the warm tingle that spread through my body, the feeling that some kind of weight I didn’t even know had been there was lifted from my shoulders, and all I wanted to do was laugh and lay back as the world swam around me. Part of me reveled in these acts of petty rebellion, but the rest of me felt dirty and ashamed.
I walked home from the party; my friends had offered me a ride, but I’d hoped the cool late March air would sober me up. The living room light was on when I walked up to the front door of our suburban four-bedroom, head spinning from the cheap alcohol churning in my stomach. I stopped on our doorstep, bracing myself. Our door and our house were identical to the houses next to it but for the decorative swastika hanging above the doorway, a loud, proud announcement that an Indian family lived here. I’d begged Ma to take it down before, terrified that my friends— white, normal, without weird symbols or garlands hanging next to their doors— would mock me.
Ma, please, it’s weird. What if someone thinks we’re Nazis?
I don’t know why you talk such nonsense, she would scold. It’s a symbol of prosperity, it gives our home good luck. If they don’t know what it really means, that’s their problem, not ours. Who doesn’t like good luck?
I took a deep breath to steady myself. The cool night air rasped against my throat, irritated from the cigarettes I’d impulsively chain smoked all night. I spat into the bush next to me without looking and immediately felt guilty. Ma loved her jasmine plant, would pick the fragrant blossoms when they bloomed in the spring and place them in bowls of water around the house. I focused on entering and taking my shoes off as nonchalantly as I could, as if I didn’t know that my mother was sitting on the couch as she always did when I stayed out late. Try as I did, though, it took a painfully long minute to untie my laces, clumsy fingers heavy with alcohol and refusing to cooperate.
“Ishan. Where have you been? I called you. Papa went to bed, but you know I couldn’t sleep until you came home. It’s hours past your curfew.” Her voice was shrill, too shrill. She had the compulsive need to control everything. I’d turned off my phone after she’d called the third time in a row. My friends had given me looks. Why is she so clingy?
I didn’t say anything, just watched through swimming vision as her face changed, shifting from motherly worry to suspicion.
“Answer me. Bolo. Why do you smell like cigarettes? Were your friends smoking? Was it Raj? I told you not to hang out with Raj. He’s not a good kid.”
“Maybe I’m not a good kid, Ma.” I watched as her expression changed again, into shock and hurt.
“Were you drinking, Ishan?”
I laughed quietly. “No.”
“You’re slurring your words.”
She looked horrified. I was too far in now, no longer felt ashamed. Just angry and defensive, reveling in the power my words had to provoke a reaction.
* * * *
Earlier that week I had been accepted into Harvard, at the top of our application list which was carefully curated by average accepted GPA and standardized testing scores. The email slid into my inbox quietly while I was in class, so that I didn’t see it until school was over. I suppose I was nervous; I couldn’t characterize the mix of emotions I felt if someone had asked me at the time. I opened it in the locker room before phys. ed. We are delighted to inform you… I closed my laptop and rested my forehead on the cool tiles of the wall. A wave of relief washed over me, followed by something I couldn’t identify. It was like a chapter of my life had been closed and I was standing on the edge of a page I hadn’t thought about writing yet.
I didn’t tell Ma and Papa until dinnertime. Their reaction was predictable; overjoyed hugs followed by eager calls to all the relatives who had been waiting, watching my high school career, rooting for my success, our family’s first American college applicant. Did I feel happy? Try as I could, I hadn’t been able to muster the delight that seemed warranted by the occasion.
Now, I left my mother sitting on our living room couch, too disconcerted to respond to my bizarre behaviour. Upstairs, I closed the bathroom door behind me and immediately threw up in the toilet, sending a watery rush of too much vodka into the bowl. My stomach, agitated by nicotine and alcohol, burned as I blinked away tears induced by the violence of vomiting. The tears didn’t stop. I sobbed as I slumped next to the toilet. Yet this too was relief; you didn’t need a reason to cry if you were drunk. There were always random girls crying at the house parties my classmates would throw, inexplicable distress excused by inebriation. The tension I hadn’t acknowledged or understood left my body as I cried for the first time in months. My limbs felt simultaneously heavier and lighter as I slipped into dreamless, drunken sleep that night.
* * * *
When I was seven, we moved to America. On our third day in Fremont, my aunt took us to Costco. Even the parking lot was big, filled with big, shiny American cars like the station wagon all eight of us piled into, a drastic contrast to the tiny dusty Maruti we’d owned in India. In Delhi, dust had been everywhere: sandy dirt lining the roads, turning asphalt brown, griming windshields, infiltrating doorjambs to be swept up by servants’ brooms. But that wasn’t a problem in America. Here, everything was big and shiny and obtainable.
When my aunt herded us all inside, I could see even my parents were surprised, barely hiding their awe at this fluorescently lit commercial display of American bigness. I craned my neck at the shelves. I had never seen so many shiny things in one place, couldn’t stop staring at the array of colorful boxes stacked against each other up, up to the towering ceilings, bright packaging screaming consumer choice. The babble of American families doing their weekend shopping was drowned out by the hum of our excitement. Ma snapped at us not to touch anything, anxious our eager fingers would send boxes toppling, but I surreptitiously ran my fingers along the glossy cardboard anyway. In one aisle we found thirteen different kinds of children’s cereal. I wanted to try all of them. Sugared chunks extended by an enthusiastic sailor, or fruity circles proffered by a big-beaked bird? We were allowed to choose one, but I couldn’t decide, my head spinning with cartoon characters and conflicting promises of sugary delights.
I should have realized that was where the problem started: if I chose one, I couldn’t choose the others. What if I picked wrong? I was taking too long. What if another cereal was better? Ma impatiently grabbed a brown carton from the shelf and tossed it in the cart, shuffling us past the cereal aisle and towards the produce section. But gorging on the styrofoam-textured chocolate puffs, flavorless yet much too sweet, gave me a stomachache the next day. I was convinced I should have picked a different box.
* * * *
“Look at this chart, Rajan. His GPA is only in the third quartile of applicants from last year. Are you sure it should be one of his match schools?”
“Anjali, you have to look at other things too. His SAT score is as high as everyone else who got in. And his counselor said his essay was one of the best he’s seen this year.”
“Ishan, what do you think?” I’d zoned out while my parents obsessed over applicant data and US News rankings.
“Um.” I stared at the spreadsheet they’d made on my computer. Every evening for the whole week before college lists were due to our counselors had gone this way, and to be honest, I didn’t have much to say about it. My parents made up for that.
“Ishan, we’ve been sitting here for an hour doing this for you. What do you think about this list?” Ma had never had patience for my indecisiveness.
Satisfied, they turned back to my screen to continue bickering and crunching numbers. I slouched lower in my chair.
* * * *
My parents were immigrants, and I suppose in a sense so was I, although almost all I could remember was America. My father worked in a lab at a nearby university, studying the wrinkled pink brains of mice, while my mother stayed at home to raise us, their two perfect children, big brother Ishan and little sister Asha. My mother and father had the kind of love that was the product of a well-matched arranged marriage; married young, had their first child soon after, and grew into their love. Ma had always been a model student, if somewhat shy, a slender and fresh-faced twenty-three-year-old, an indifferent breaker of hearts. I suppose my dad was her bad boy, always implicitly or explicitly rebelling against his uptight parents, settling down once he found someone who could counter his energy without clashing against it. Practical, pragmatic, products and creators of their circumstances: together, they were my parents.
* * * *
I woke up the next morning with a still-dizzy head full of cotton, every movement echoing in an excruciating twinge of headache and nausea. It was noon. Fuuuck. I lay in bed for a while, lacking the courage to go downstairs for lunch, staring at the ceiling where a mobile I’d made as a decidedly average six-year-old now hung. My parents were subconscious subscribers to the idea that immigrants had to go above and beyond to survive, while attempting to embrace the very American cultural value of allowing children to find their passions. My childhood was a mix of encouragement and disapproval. Ma had put us in art classes, which I’d enjoyed but showed no special talent in. We’d bounced around classes as kids. Art. Gymnastics. Ballet. Drums. Soccer. Basketball.
For the most part, we’d drop classes once we realized we weren’t very good at whatever we were doing, or if they got too hard. Our parents didn’t stop us from quitting although they’d express some disappointment, discouraging laziness while making allowances for the boredom of mediocrity. After all, they couldn’t say they hadn’t tried, compensating for the dearth of extracurriculars they’d grown up with by signing us up for everything they could. They’d given up taking me to piano lessons when I started dragging my heels, making the payoff of a son technically able to play the piano not worth the tears.
I’d previously wondered if they were letting us explore our interests or if they harbored secret hopes that we’d reveal some hidden talent that arose from our newfound Americanness. In the end, I’d been good enough at most things, from schoolwork to extracurriculars, to be easily admirable without being exceptional. I enjoyed being good at things without being sure what I enjoyed doing; I was good at math without being the best, but good enough at writing essays that I compensated. A well-rounded applicant.
Someone once said that the problem with well-rounded people is that they’ll roll anywhere with the slightest push.
I braced myself for what promised to be an unpleasant reaction when entering the kitchen that morning. I was unprepared for the indifference I received instead.
“You’re awake.” My dad didn’t even look up from the journal he was reading as he spoke to me. Ma ignored me as she flipped parathas on the tawa, but I could feel the coldness that emanated from her thin, hunched shoulders.
“Yeah. Good morning.”
“Eat.” He pointed to where a plate of stacked parathas lay on the table, steaming and fragrant, our Sunday morning breakfast. I sat down. My stomach still churned, but I was determined not to show it. Somehow both famished and nauseous, I slowly ate a paratha with my favorite pickle as my parents ignored me.
Perfectly crisped dough surrounded the spiced potato filling of my favorite breakfast. In middle school, I’d tried to convince myself my favorite breakfast was pancakes, and soggy towers of flapjacks bland in comparison replaced parathas in our Sunday breakfasts for weeks before I gave up the pretense.
“Math tutor.” My dad spoke shortly, but Ma still wouldn’t respond to me.
Asha wasn’t as good at math as I was. My parents never made her feel bad for it, exactly, but they made it clear that she was expected to do what she could to improve. Two years older, I was her role model according to my parents, the brother who got into Harvard. Maybe not role model now.
“I’m going upstairs.” No response.
It took a few hours, but eventually the nausea dissipated and my head no longer felt like someone was stepping on it. I hadn’t done anything all day, so I ventured to Asha’s room, figuring rightly that our parents wouldn’t have told her anything. Asha had always been the hardworking one, making up for what she might have lacked in natural aptitude with tenacity and confidence that was reflected in her academics and soccer. She may not have been the best player on her team, but she would practice on her own for hours on the weekends and before school because she liked to see herself improve, always knowing she could do better if she worked hard enough. She was usually right; she’d fought her way onto the varsity team but had to deal with the frustration of being benched for most of the season. When she played, though, you could always see that she was out there because she loved it.
We were joined at the hip as kids, constantly fighting when we were together but miserable if we were apart. We’d drifted apart a bit as she navigated the murky waters of early high school and I began my journey towards getting into Harvard, an alienating combination of surly teenaged-ness, long sports commitments, and back-to-back SAT practice tests. But at the end of the day, she was my sister and she had my back, even if it didn’t feel like anyone else did.
When I went to Asha’s room, though, she wasn’t alone. My parents were sitting on her bed and she was sitting at her desk, crying. I watched from the doorway; Ma saw me standing outside but ignored me.
“Listen, Asha, it’s not because we think soccer is bad for you. But we must be realistic. You aren’t going to get a soccer scholarship, but think what could happen if you could focus your time on school. We think it’s best this way.”
Asha didn’t say anything. I think she knew it was a fight she’d lose, but she looked miserable. Ma tried again, and she didn’t look happy, either. It didn’t seem like anyone was enjoying the conversation, which to me was a sign that it didn’t need to be happening this way.
“You don’t have to stop completely. Just practice less, and don’t join the varsity team next year. Use your time to focus on school. Ishan spent his whole winter break practicing for the SAT. Soccer camp isn’t the best idea this summer.”
I thought about saying something. Walking in, telling my parents they were wrong, that making Asha stop doing the things she actually liked would just make her resent them, or worse, make her stop thinking of herself as a person who did things because she wanted to, because at least she had things she really liked doing and knew about them and wanted to keep doing them.
I didn’t say anything though. I was still thinking about breakfast, and how I wanted to apologize to Ma but I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. We didn’t talk about feelings in our family unless they made sense, and what I was feeling made no sense at all.
* * * *
It went on like this for the next two months. I would act out, my parents would ignore my wayward behavior, and I would act out again. I didn’t realize I was trying to earn their concern until I realized how desperate they were to avoid giving it to me. After all, showing concern meant we had to sit down and talk about it. And that meant acknowledging something was wrong. But how could something be wrong when their son had just gotten into Harvard? I imagined they thought it was a phase, and if they ignored it hard enough, it would go away.
Was it a phase? I ambivalently reflected on this as I smoked a cigarette on the roof of our house, looking out at the uniform housing units that neatly gridded the green, rolling hills of the San Francisco bay. Asha and my parents were out grocery shopping. I wasn’t even sure I liked smoking, to be honest. But I’d started when some my friends had, and I liked the rebelliousness attached to it. I liked that my parents didn’t know. I liked imagining that smoking was my own decision.
I stubbed out the cigarette on the grey shingle that covered our roof when I saw our station wagon come up the quiet suburban street leading up to the house earlier than I’d thought. As I hastily climbed back inside through the window into my parents’ room, I was extra careful not to rumple the curtains. Ma had eyes like a hawk and had a way of asking questions that would break down even the most carefully constructed alibi.
When she called me downstairs only seconds after coming through the door, I’d already changed my shirt and attempted to wash the stink of cigarettes off my fingers. As I walked past her to get the groceries out of the car, she spun towards me.
I paused, heart racing but demeanor insisting on nonchalance. “Yes?”
“Idhar ao. Come back here.” Ma sniffed, long nostrils wrinkling in disdain. We had the same nose, people would always say. Long, aquiline, Indian. It would take me years to make peace with that nose, but you can’t say it didn’t come in handy. She stuck it into my hair, probing, tiptoeing to reach. I’d been taller than Ma since the eighth grade, but any authority that might have provided was extinguished by her immigrant-mother formidability and cultural disregard for boundaries.
“Why do you smell like smoke? It’s disgusting.” Stupidly, I hadn’t accounted for the lingering scent of smoke in my hair.
Looking down into her sharply narrowed eyes, I realized I didn’t have the energy to keep up the gymnastics act we’d been playing at since March. In its own way, acting out was hard work. All I really knew is that I’d hurt everyone involved, myself included. As I thought about this, my eyes filled with tears. Ma, braced for a lie she’d immediately pick apart, looked taken aback as her suspicion defused.
“Why were you smoking, Ishan?” My parents hated smoking. Had instilled their contempt for a habit that oozed lack of discipline and self-regard since Asha and I were little. Would wrinkle their noses when passing smokers on the street.
“I’m so sorry, Ma. I hate the taste of cigarettes. I promise. My throat hurts when I do it. I just.” Words and tears were tumbling out. I was embarrassed. I wanted to hide, but I also wanted to yell. I felt like I had when I’d gotten bad grades in middle school—angry and sad without knowing why, the humiliation of mediocrity and disappointment instilled without needing to be enforced. I wanted someone else to do the work of communicating what we’d silently agreed was incommunicable.
“Ishan, please, stop. Take a breath.” Ma looked afraid and confused. Asha and my dad, sitting at the kitchen island, stared at me.
“I don’t get it. Why haven’t you guys asked me what’s wrong? Did you think it was okay for me to be like this just because I got into Harvard? Didn’t you want to know what was going on?”
It was one of the only times in our lives that neither of my parents had anything to say. For what felt like hours, we stood in the living room in uncomfortable silence.
“Well, what was going on?” My dad ventured from the kitchen island.
He was the least emotional member of our family, had never known quite what to do when we’d thrown tantrums as children or tweens. I’d always felt stupid getting emotional around my dad and this was no exception. I hadn’t thought this through; I didn’t know what was going on, either.
“You only cared about me until I got into Harvard. Then you stopped caring what I did. You used to care about everything I did but then you stopped and I’m alone figuring out who I am.” The words, raw, imprecise, came out jumbled and ineloquent, but I could feel something in my chest loosen as I said them.
No one said anything, but I could see that Ma was about to cry. All of this had been building under the surface for months, like steam builds in a pressure cooker hissing away quietly on the stove until the whistle screams. Even knowing this, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for putting feelings I hadn’t dealt with on the table. My parents weren’t bad people. Maybe I was the bad one. In the silence that followed, I went to my room.
* * * *
When I went downstairs for breakfast the next morning, I could smell Ma making parathas, filling the air with the aroma of hot ghee, which was unusual because it was Saturday. As I walked into the kitchen, my parents immediately turned towards me.
“Where’s Asha?” She was usually up before I was.
They looked at each other, and my dad answered first. “She… Asha’s at soccer practice. We talked last night, and we all think it’s best for her to keep it up.”
He handed me a plate stacked with parathas, already portioned with my favorite mango pickle on the side.
Ma turned from where she was flipping parathas on the tawa. Her voice was hesitant. “I know we usually do parathas on Sundays, but we thought we’d do them today. For you.”