Atlas of Unknowns

Note to readers: here Anju goes to meet her host family in New York City, the Solankis.

The Solankis live in a vanilla cake. Anju has seen nothing of  such spotless grandeur, a colossus with carved accents and curls along its corners, surrounded by a shiny iron gate with the stern, bearded bust of a Roman general impaled at every post. Morning light blushes the windows, whose sills are spiked so as to ward away incontinent pigeons.  The driveway circles the front like a smile.

Gold block letters spell THE MONARCH over the revolving glass doors, which usher her onto a red velvet carpet leading past an oasis of plants and fountains, beneath a series of chandeliers like bright, brass octopi, to the front desk.  Upon hearing Anju’s name, a man in a black suit asks her how she is doing in a way that seems earnestly invested in her answer. “Very good,” she says. He tells her to go on up; her bags will arrive shortly.

Alone in the elevator, she finds a bench with a deep green leather cushion. She sits down. The ground rises up. Sitting has never seemed so luxurious.

The elevator deposits her before an open door made of rich, dark wood. Shoes off or on? Her first impression seems to hinge on this decision. Out of respect for tradition: off.

“Hello?” she calls. Hesitating, she steps inside. Her feet are greeted by cold marble, white with wisps of gray.

The living room is full of beautiful clutter, organized to keep the gaze traveling from one piece to the next. A stained-glass window on the far wall first captures her attention, a geometric design built in brilliant wedges and disks of red, yellow, and green. Niches are carved into the walls to house sculptures and vases, like the leaping salmon of glass or the bust ofa brass ram with two black, curling horns. And though the Solankis might refrain from cow, they seem to take pleasure in other piecemeal animals. An elephant foot with tough, scalloped toenails supports the round glass top of a side table. Beneath the piano, the skins of two zebra lie next to each other, arms benignly overlapping. Anju catches her foot in the smiling maw of a bear.

“Happens to people all the time,” a man says, stepping on the bear’s back. In anguish, she notes his cashew-colored shoe next to the nudity of her foot.

Once she is freed, the man shakes her hand and introduces himself as Varun. Around his mouth is a neat, black wreath of facial hair.

And then, the clean click-click of heels as a woman calls out from some upper, unseen level, “Is that Anju?” Mrs. Solanki appears in the hollow of a Spanish-looking arch. Overall, she gives the impression of shininess, from the satin tunic she wears over her pants to the laminated look ofher bobbed hairstyle.

“Hello, Auntie.” Anju makes a small, awkward bow with folded hands. “Uncle.”

“No need for that.” Mrs. Solanki descends the stairs with minimal trembling of her bob. “You can call me Sonia.”

Sonia and Varun. Using these names makes Anju feel as ifshe is trying to hug her host parents prematurely. Mr. and Mrs. will do.

“How many times have I said to get rid of that thing, Varun?” Mrs. Solanki shakes her head at the bear rug. “My mother is scared to open the door because of it.”

“Maybe we should get one for all the doors,” Mr. Solanki says.

Dismissing him with an elegant wave, Mrs. Solanki enfolds Anju into a well of spicy perfume.

Anju sits on the slippery edge of a sofa that, like all the chairs in the living room, is heaped with filigreed, loaflike cushions. Mrs. Solanki places a dish of tiny beef samosas on the coffee table, as well as another one of raw carrots and broccoli which she calls “organic.” Anju partakes from the samosa plate, only after watching Mr. Solanki plunge two into his mouth.

“My family is from Bombay,” Mr. Solanki says. “You’ve been there?”

“I was born there,” Anju says. “We moved back to Kerala when I was small. To a village called Kumarakom.”

“Such different places.” Mr. Solanki smiles. Like Mrs. Solanki’s, his skin is smooth and taut, as though it has been surgically stretched, like canvas, at the corners of his eyes. “Have you heard of my family home, Solanki Villa? On Solanki Way? Pappa wanted to call it The Solanki Villa, but Mumma said, ‘How many Solanki Villas are there?’”

She marvels at his accent, slightly Indian with a British prissiness to it, like the Bollywood actor boasting of his succulent salad.

“You and your family,” Mrs. Solanki says, “you are Keralans?”

“Yes, we are Keralites.”

“Ah yes. Kera-lights.”

They are strangers, and for the next ten months, they will be living together. This fact becomes suddenly, bluntly apparent, dragging the conversation to a stop. Mr. Solanki stuffs another samosa in his mouth, and for a moment there is only the sound of diligent chewing.

“You have a son, I think,” Anju says.

Enlivened, Mrs. Solanki reaches for the picture frame on the elephant-ankle tabletop. The photo features a bored-looking boy in cap and gown, holding his diploma as he would a lunch tray. Mr. Solanki’s hand rests on his shoulder, and Mrs. Solanki is smiling so hard that her expression seems almost bestial in its baring of teeth.

“That was Rohit’s high school graduation,” Mr. Solanki says. “He was attending Princeton—”

“He is still attending Princeton,” Mrs. Solanki corrects. “He is simply taking a year off.”

“To study at another place?” Anju asks.

“No, it is the fashion with children here, taking time off. As they say, to ‘find’ themselves.” Using her fingers, Mrs. Solanki makes peace signs around the word “find.”

With nothing else to break the silence, Anju replies, “Okay, yes.”  And with her left hand, adds a peace sign of her own.

Like a welcoming committee, Anju’s two suitcases are awaiting her in the guest room, an awkward pair of plastic visitors in the pulled-silk surroundings. The measurements of the bed are a mystery to her, expansive enough for three adults but no higher than her shin, a height that seems customized for a child. The dresser, bookshelf, and desk are all a glossy dark brown, and marigold curtains collect in pools on the carpet.

Mrs. Solanki drapes a thick white towel over the back ofa chair and a smaller towel on top of this, both stitched with the letter S. “Over there is your private bathroom,” Mrs. Solanki says, “and you’ll love the showerhead. It has the best water pressure in the whole house.”

In the shower, Anju finds herself endlessly shocked by needles of water so fierce and hot that she is forced to shield her breasts with her arms and turn her back against the onslaught. At home she bathed with bucket and cup, savoring the slow fall of fresh water as it seeped across her scalp and over her shoulders. Here, the showerhead treats her as though she is a grease-grimed pan; the scouring leaves her skin a surprised pink. But the soap is beautiful, a translucent ovoid of green, striped with blades of deeper green within. She inhales and inhales its kiwi sweetness. On impulse, she licks the soap, then vigorously wipes the chemical taint from her tongue. For all her achievements, she sometimes feels like a person of unparalleled stupidity.

Entrenched between tasseled bed cushions, she lies wide awake. Is it lunchtime back home? She pictures a pair of hands washing beneath the wobbly pump at the side of the house, rinsing the street from one’s chappals and feet before stepping inside. Back home. But they are not back, her family, they are moving forward, on another orbit, divided from her not only by miles but by time.

This is an excerpt from Atlas of Unknowns

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