It killed him that people pronounced Kavita’s name just ﬁne. There were some people who couldn’t put the soft t into her name, making it rhyme with margarita, but most people had learned the proper way of delivering the right sound. For the ﬁrst time, he resented her. How dare she hijack his college experience? How dare she show up with her perfect smile and heaven-made hair and hell-made ass and make him question his own name?
He ran into her at the student center, a utilitarian mass of gray concrete, mauve-painted brick, and wood-varnished tables among striped couches. Unlike many of the other students, who opted for sprawling on those couches, Kavita was perched with great poise at a table, her shoulders hunched and one hand stroking the black magic of her ponytail. Her bearing was unmistakable even when her face wasn’t visible. The feeling he had seeing her, alone at this table in the busiest of places on campus, was likely the same feeling he would have had seeing a celebrity at a coffee shop. It was actually not that bad a comparison, for she often had a gaggle of people surrounding her, especially after the announcement of her campaign.
This opportunity in the student center was unique. It provided unobstructed access to her. He felt a slight panic when he realized that, at any given second, someone may approach her and ruin his chance. No worry—he deserved to approach her. If his professors were to be believed, he was a chemical genius. He was going to change the face of chemistry, and he would need a woman with disparate interests to complement his brilliance. He was going to graduate from one of the best schools in the country and get some wildly high-paying job for some enormously grand company and make more money than his parents had ever dreamed of. Why shouldn’t he feel compelled to speak to the prettiest girl on campus? He was Bill Gates and Steve Jobs before jowls and unruly facial hair. This was his chance.
She greeted him ﬁrst. “Prashant! How are you?”
“Good, good,” he said, trying to sound calm.
“Can you believe we have only a week till fall break? Everyone always said how fast our time would go here, but this is crazy, man.” She was the type of chick who said “man” unironically. He might explode.
“Yeah, it’s crazy how fast our time is going here.” He sounded like a kid who had been taught to repeat a question when providing its answer.
“You doing anything fun for it?”
“I’m just going to be back at my parents’ house. Might see some of my friends from high school. How ’bout you? You doing anything fun?” He was impressed with himself for asking a question.
“Actually, my masi in Chicago is very ill, so I’m going to go out there to help her.”
Are you fucking kidding me? he thought. Could she be any more perfect? He imagined her in Mother Teresa’s blue and white sari, and something stirred below. Great. Blasphemous nun-lust. He was one sick fuck.
“I’m so sorry to hear she’s ill. What is the prognosis?”
PROGNOSIS. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
“She’s not expected to make it, sadly.”
“Oh. I’m—I’m so sorry.”
“That is so sweet of you, Prashant. I really appreciate it. Would you like to sit down?”
“Um, sure,” he said, taking a seat. He had come to the student center for a quick slice of pizza at the food court, but his hunger had vanished. He felt particularly meager next to her, with no back-pack while she had an arsenal of books and papers in front of her.
“What are you working on?” he asked.
“I have a biology midterm coming up.”
“Biology? I thought you were an English major.”
The slight widening of her eyes showed him his mistake: How did he know her major?
“Yeah, I’m an English major, but I’m actually thinking of doing a double-major in mol bio.” Mol bio = molecular biology. She was double-majoring in English and biology? OK, this was just getting cruel. To his surprise, he found himself saying as much:
“OK, now you’re just being cruel.”
She laughed loudly. Prashant could feel the envy of everyone within a hundred-foot radius, as if it were a collection of poisoned darts shot into his skin.
“Really? A double English and biology major?” he said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“What can I say? I’m a closet science dork. Don’t tell anyone.” She whispered this last part jokingly. The tone of her voice alone made him want to confess his undying love for her. She was wearing a white blouse and black sweatpants, and he understood what Shakespeare meant about being a glove against Juliet’s cheek. Oh, that I were a stitch in that blouse, that I might touch Kavita Bansal’s boob.
“Have you gone to any of the SASA meetings?” she asked.
Here it was: the moment of cultural reckoning. SASA stood for the South Asian Student Association, and he knew that Kavita—being the proud Hindu she was—had become an active member in the association. She probably held an office in it already. The truth was, even though many of his best friends in high school had been Indian, he had made the acquaintance of very few Indian kids on campus. Since he was a chemistry major, there were enough South Asian students from which he could choose, but college afforded him the opportunity to wash away his high school life and be socially reborn, so he wanted to choose his cohorts carefully. There were two other students from his high school who had come here, a girl and a guy, but they were both nonstarters. The former was socially mobile in a way that put him off entirely, and the latter was so introverted as to be invisible. That’s why the convenience of making friends with his chemistry study group had been welcome. It had taken care of his social structure for him.
“I haven’t been to a SASA meeting yet, unfortunately,” he said. Then, unbidden, another moment of candor: “Honestly, I’m not sure how excited I am about it.”
“Oh?” It was obvious that she found this answer disappointing. He could see the movements of her thoughts, the carefully stitched-together pattern of her compassion. She composed her response and reaction carefully, aware of the need to seem charming and understanding. To Prashant, this moment of being asked about SASA seemed like the few times when he’d been asked by a Christian acquaintance if he had ever considered taking Jesus as his savior.
“I’m not sure if I see the point in joining an Indian group. I’ve spent plenty of time around Indians.”
She laughed again, and the air seemed to refract the vibrancy of her laugh. “Point taken, but I don’t know. There’s something fulﬁlling about contributing to the Indian presence here. It adds diversity to the campus in a visible way.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” He could feel the noncommittal tone of his voice. Although he wasn’t lying about his skepticism, he did not like the image that it created. He beheld the mess of books in front of her, the general atmosphere of action and enthusiasm that she represented, and he wanted to be that committed. She would want a guy who was like that.
“Listen to me,” she said. “I just said ‘Indian presence.’ I sound like a complete asshole.”
If she said one more charming thing . . .
“Maybe I should stop judging and actually go to a meeting,” Prashant replied.
“That would be great. We’re having a samosa study break Wednesday night, actually. Who doesn’t like free samosas?”
“My mom makes samosas from scratch,” he said. “She thinks the frozen ones are cheating.”
“So does my mom. I bet my mom’s are better.” Was she ﬂirting with him? This was exactly the thought that he wasn’t supposed to have. If he let himself think that she was ﬂirting with him, then he was assuming that he stood a chance, which he obviously didn’t. It was unwise for guys like him to think out of their league. It was inevitable that their tête-à-tête should be interrupted by someone. Sure enough, the interested party here was Juliana Hanson, a long-legged ﬁeld hockey player whose own face approximated Kavita’s in terms of symmetry but who wasn’t nice like Kavita. Prashant decided to avoid her snottiness by getting up preemptively and saying that he had to grab a quick bite before ﬁnishing a problem set. The words “problem set” seemed to dangle in front of Juliana like a pile of wet garbage, but there was Kavita’s trademark charm again, a tilt of the head and a look of mock-hurt in saying good-bye. Prashant gave her a pointed “See you at Samosa Night,” and as he headed down the steps toward the food court, he thought of how an otherwise mundane event could contain such possibility.
His mother called him that night. She had been calling more than he’d anticipated. It seemed odd to him that she was the parent who projected an air of neediness. While Prashant was growing up, his father had been undoubtedly the more uptight of the two. Then again, Prashant had begun to notice an increasingly resigned nature to all of the Indian fathers he knew. They seemed to acknowledge that their wives increased in anxiety as they aged, leaving the men to settle into Good Cop mode. He saw the change in his father’s personality as if it had taken physical form; even his good-bye as he had left Prashant’s dorm room had pricked at Prashant like a needle, an immediate sense that his father’s nourishment had come to an end. Prashant was going to study science at this hallowed university, and regardless of the admonitions and odd attempts at wisdom that his father had dispensed through the years, it now seemed that he would leave Prashant to his own devices. (Those attempts at wisdom, by the way, included such gems as “If you get a girl pregnant, your life is kaput” and “Unlike women, mathematics has never broken a man’s heart.”) In one sense, this was ﬂattering; his father trusted Prashant to make the right decisions. On the other hand, there was something disorienting about being, for the ﬁrst time, free of his father’s intense surveillance.
Now his mother had stepped in to take up the mantle, which surprised him. She had a desire to be eternally, undeniably cool—something that he saw in himself. She had a tendency to hold on to his youth as if it were hers. She was certainly one of the more Americanized aunties in her set of friends, and he had been told numerous times by the other Indian kids, especially girls, how much they liked his mother for this very fact. Her habit of reading mystery novels and keeping up with Anderson Cooper and Bill Maher; the day she had come to pick him up from school and was sucking a Starbucks Frappuccino; her occasional trips to Banana Republic. He wasn’t actually sure if these attempts to be cool had to do with (a) the inherent habits of women, (b) the inherent habits of Indian women, or (c) the inherent habits of his mother, but it was clear that she was having some sort of midlife crisis.
At this juncture in his life, it was important to do away with worrying about his parents and what they wanted from him; instead, he would focus on his own worries. Not just his studies but, well, someone like Kavita Bansal. He had told his parents that he wanted distance—and he was, indeed, physically distant from them, hours away from where they lived—and now, feeling the acute pain of what it meant to be totally into someone, he was glad that he had set boundaries ahead of time. He worried that telling his mother about his feelings for Kavita would exacerbate her precarious emotional state.
As of late, his thoughts of Kavita had put him on such high alert that his motor skills were not his own. So when his cell phone rang now, his hand shot out to answer it as if he were under a spell. Before he knew it, his mom’s voice was ripe in his ear.
“Hello, beta. How is everything?” There was an edginess to her voice on the phone that startled him.
“Good, good. Kind of busy working on a problem set.”
“Oh, OK. I just wanted to see how things were going. Your dad is staying late at the office for some faculty gathering.”
See: most Indian mothers would have said “faculty function”; “function” was their catchall term for any social event. His mother’s use of “gathering,” therefore, felt as anomalous as her drinking a Frappuccino.
“Classes are going OK?” she asked. She was doing something while she talked; there was the clattering of a pan and the snap of some taut vegetable. This comforted him. It wasn’t like she was sitting in the recliner in the living room with the lights dimmed and some sad Hindi music playing while she dabbed at her eyes.
“Yeah, everything’s ﬁne. Just a lot of work.” Did he sound as rude as he felt? Guilt had begun to seep into his phone conversations with her, and he felt at once resentful and justiﬁed in this. “How’s the office?”
He hadn’t been upset about his mother’s decision to take the job working in that doctor’s office, but he did hate having to ask about it. The job seemed, to put it in a snobby way, beneath her. A few years ago, he had come upon Manju Auntie, his friend Parul’s mother, working the drive-through at Burger King after her husband’s death, and the sight of her in that askew visor, to say nothing of her huffing the words “BK Broiler” into a headset, was the most depressing thing that he’d ever seen.
“Oh, the office is the same,” she said. “I’m sorry to bother you, beta. Just your sad old mother hen checking in.” She laughed, but there was an unmistakable sadness to it. God, this was awful. “I’ll let you go.”
I’ll let you go was the most damning of sentences, passive-aggressive and wounded at the same time.
“Sorry that I’m so preoccupied. This homework is just really hard.”
“No problem, beta. Good luck. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
As he hung up and bent back over his work, he wondered if he could conﬁde in his mother about Kavita. He had never done such a thing—he had never even dated anyone—so he wasn’t sure how his mother would take this. But if she were so invested in seeming hip, she would probably welcome the discussion.
No—he would be a total mama’s boy if he did that. He was certain that his friends from high school would do no such thing, and not just because they hadn’t really dated anyone, either. Anyway, his mother had no concept of dating. Indians, on the whole, were ignorant of this process. Of course, Americans wrongly assumed that all Indians were the “victims” of arranged marriage—and his parents’ marriage had certainly been arranged—but marriages these days weren’t so much arranged as urged, like marriages out of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Henry James: a series of social conveniences that capitalized on people’s proximity to each other.
He really was beginning to think in literary terms; he’d have to ﬁle this thought away as a possible topic of conversation with Kavita. After all, it was his duty now to catalog impressive thoughts in order to convince her of his attractiveness.
Excerpted from NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal. Published this month by Picador. Copyright © 2017 by Rakesh Satyal. All rights reserved.