Vasant 2024 Stories - Archana Ramesh

 

Chutney Sandwich

By Archana Ramesh

 

My classmate, who is my assigned buddy for the first week, has invited me to lunch with her friends. Thankful that I don’t have to skip lunch like I did yesterday, I walk into the courtyard brimming with high school chatter. I look around for Bryanna’s table and find her with a flock of girls who all seem to have one of the many hairstyles I have memorized from Teen Vogue but haven’t hacked yet.


After the customary hellos (and stumbles over my name), I take out my lunch, salivating, remembering what Amma had packed for me that morning. She had brushed coriander chutney on a bread slice before decorating it with juicy tomato and cucumber slices and dusting them all generously with chaat masala. Another bread slice with salted butter pressed down on the chutney slice makes it my favorite sandwich. It reminds me of visiting Sunil uncle and Mala aunty in Mumbai, where vegetable sandwiches wrapped in day’s old newspapers were the perfect snack on a monsoon afternoon. I unwrap my lunchbox sandwich and take an approving look before biting into it. The tomatoes burst into my mouth; the spice of the chutney hits my tongue while the butter cools it down.


“Eww…is that mold?!”


I snap out of my food stupor. The girl to my right, who I recognize from my American history class, is eyeing my lunch, her slate eyes wide with disdain. My stomach flips as if full of expired milk.


“No, no,” I rush to explain, “It’s just coriander chutney. Um, well, I think you call it cilantro. It’s very popular for sandwiches in India. Do you want to try it?” I get ready to rip off a piece with my hand.


The girl flips her shoulder length auburn hair and backs away as if I have just offered her poison, before declaring, “It looks like mold, gross.”


I sit suspended between my desire to eat the sandwich and to distance myself from what she thought of it. I feel shame gush into my insides like a broken faucet, and my appetite leaves me.


I run to the mailbox, eager to get to it before Appa does. We have been getting Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs we hadn’t signed up for, and I see it as a gift from a fairy godmother that dropped them there the day I learned there were no uniforms in my new school. I am in luck! I sneak the booklets past the kitchen where my mother has already started frying onions and garlic that fill every pore in the house. Leaning against my bed, I flip through pages and pages of girls with pencil-thin bodies poured into flawlessly placed shorts and skirts, elongating their porcelain legs.

 

I look down at my own legs, studded with scars from mosquito bites. Mosquitoes were always out in full force at my grandmother’s home in the early dusk hours. I’d sit cross-legged with her next to idols of Ganesh and Shiva while she closed her eyes to the world and recited shlokas impervious to the mosquitoes that ate me alive. I tell myself that I need to hide my dark umber elbows matching my mahogany knees. I never see these shades of brown in the catalogs, or in the Teen Vogue magazine I had begged Amma to buy.


I run my hands through my hair as I flip through more pages. At least, I had convinced Amma, the eternal believer in natural beauty, to get me a straightening iron so I could mimic the pin-straight glossy hair filling up all the pages. I was ready for the first week of American high school. I had watched the movie Mean Girls at least a dozen times for cultural lessons. It was highly unlikely I’d go from exotic outcast to it-girl, but it did give me hope there might be other misfits who would befriend me.


When I think about what I left behind in coastal Chennai for the Cary cul-de-sacs, I think about the streets familiar with the buzz of my life. I think about the droning rickshaws that took me to school, the mouthy street vendors who supplied me masala sundal - my favorite after-school snack, and the boisterous stray dogs that followed me home after I fed them biscuits. Here, on silent American streets sliced up by well-manicured lawns, I feel constantly in search of something, but I can’t find it.

 

In India, smells are the mark of life being lived. Mornings filled with aromas of my grandmother’s cup of saccharine chai that she sat with to read the newspaper and my neighbor’s medicinal Tulsi plant that he circled for good luck. The alluring wafts of my aunt’s cooking in the evening that guaranteed an invitation when I smelled my favorites. The distilled feeling of my first few months in America is how clean the air smells, like it is empty of everything. I sniff the air for something familiar, for anything at all, to give me clues about how people’s lives are lived here.


I see more deer than pedestrians in my neighborhood. When you see a deer or a person, they scamper away, uneasy with contact. Back in Chennai, life happened on foot; here life happens in cars. You hardly remember the journey because it’s always the same. Air-conditioned cars transport you from homes to strip malls and back again. Journeys in India were always eventful - daring motorcyclists stacked with three people who sidled up to rusting lorries on cozy streets, women arguing with vegetable sellers that the tomatoes were too small for the price, lovers shying walking beside each other posing as siblings to the world.


But my favorites were train journeys - usually a long distance one that rumbled through greenscapes between cities. “Kapi, kapi, kapi,” men with large steel canisters would shout as they passed carriages stuffed with families who were strangers before they got on the train. As if long-lost friends, they’d share stories and snacks with each other. I would eagerly wait until we were halfway through the journey when my grandmother’s parcels would come out. Idlis - rice cakes drenched in spicy gunpowder accompanied rushing farmlands outside my window. My tongue tingles with nostalgia as I think about my grandmother and her idlis, an ocean and many train rides away.


English is my first class of the day. I am excited; it has always been my favorite subject in school. I had even topped my entire class in India in my English finals; news I heard after we had landed in Cary. In my indigo boot-cut jeans and baby blue full-sleeve top, I sit down in a seat somewhere in the middle of the room. In my previous school, frontbenchers were the social rejects; back-benchers were handed their parents’ businesses.My English teacher is Ms. Lindquist. She looks nice, her teal eyes sparkling behind horn-rimmed glasses.


“Class, we are welcoming a new student today who joins us all the way from India,” her voice is as sunny as her hair. “Oh goodness, ok, errr, Aaaam-reeta Shie- karen? Oh gosh, did I say that right?”


Thinking it to be a serious question, I correct her.


“It’s actually pronounced Umritha Shekharun.”


Ms. Lindquist’s eyes grow behind her glasses. “OK great, um welcome to Green Hope High School. I am sure you will settle in very quickly, err…A.”


I repeat this charade a few more times that day before I realize my name is a burden on the American tongue. Until then, I had always been fond of my name. My mother told me she named me after Amrita Sher-Gil, a famous Indian artist. I had done a class project on her, learning that she was born to a Punjabi father and a Hungarian mother. I had read that she could never make sense of her dual identity as a European and an Indian. I had wondered what that would feel like, to be stuck in between two worlds and not feel at home anywhere.


I try my final hand at the phonetics of my name with Ms. Greeley to little success. She summons me to her office and introduces herself as my guidance counselor. I need a guide, I think to myself, particularly confused by the idea of having to choose my own class subjects.


“Well, to start with, you have to have two years of a foreign language to get into college, so you need to start that this year.” Ms. Greeley speaks to me slowly and somewhat louder than was necessary for the room we were in. I tell her I am fluent in my mother tongue, Tamil, and in Hindi, which I had studied for the last five years, although I had likely learned more Hindi from watching movies starring Amir Khan, my favorite Bollywood actor.


“Well, no, you need to take Spanish or French or Latin, or something like that. I recommend Spanish; there are over 40 million Hispanics in America now. It’ll be useful.” Coming from a country of over a billion people, I am not sure what to think of the statistic.


Ms. Greeley hands me a pamphlet with her jamun colored fingernails. Jamuns grew in my aunt’s backyard and I’d pluck them off the tree and eat them until my tongue turned a deep purple. “Also, you should join an SAT prep course. It’s the single most important test you will take which decides which college you will get into, and really your future. Sign up fast; most of your classmates have spent the summer prepping, so you are already behind.”


I look at her, maybe burdened in the same way everyone around me is by my name.


“I watched Slumdog Millionaire,” Ms. Greeley says after a pause, “I liked it.”


I stare out of the white window of our living room, onto the front yard of our neighbors across the street, amazed by the vastness that separates the homes, and how revered it is. I never considered that I lacked space in Chennai, even though any available inch was filled with people and dust. Here, I realize space is a right you are born with even though it’s not spelt out in the Constitution, which I was learning about in my American History class.

 

The ninth amendment in the original Bill of Rights puzzles me - “The Ninth Amendment states that listing specific rights in the Constitution does not mean that people do not have other rights that have not been spelled out.” It wasn’t the statement itself that I didn’t understand, but that it was 173 years after the Bill of Rights was written that Black Americans got the first eight rights that were spelled out.


We had met the mother of the family across the street, who, given she had two kids the same age as my brother and me, seemed very curious about the newcomers at her childrens’ school. She regarded us as you might an imported Persian rug and seemed perplexed by our names when she asked for them. “Amrita and Akshay” we had politely replied, to which she brightly retorted that she would call us “A-squared instead”. She had been reading a book about the caste system in India, she told us, and gosh she wondered how people could treat the untouchables so.

 

She whispered even though there was no one else for miles, “You aren’t part of the untouchables, are you? My goodness, I’m sure you would want to leave the country if you are. In America, we believe in liberty and justice for all.” My brother and I shook our heads tracing an eight, not entirely sure if we meant to say yes or no.


Ellen, as she wanted to be called, giggling when we called her aunty, is out in the yard now, in crisp white pants that billow around her legs. The rest of her family is with her, piling into their large van. The girl who is my classmate is now getting into the car, her shiny yellow hair swinging straight behind her like a Geisha’s fan. She is wearing blue cutoff shorts, straight out of the Gap catalog. A boy my brother’s age is last to dash into the car, lacrosse stick in hand. The father, who has the silhouette of his sunglasses traced on his otherwise salmon-hued face, maneuvers the van out of their driveway and onto the cul-de-sac.

 

The vehicle stops and before I can wonder why, the sliding door unveils a pair of long legs that jump out and in my direction. I panic as I realize that the blonde girl, my classmate, is walking toward my house. I duck in dread, wondering if my lazy daydreaming overlooking their yard would get me into trouble. I am no longer surrounded by snoopy neighborhood aunties whose business was your business, I scold myself.


The doorbell rings, and my morning dosa curdles in my stomach. Appa is in the attic, Amma in the kitchen, and my brother is playing video games in the den. I am closest to the door. I stumble toward it, keenly aware that my hair has the semblance of having survived an electrocution. My purple capri pants look especially hideous at the moment. I steer everything in me to walk toward the door instead of running up to hide in my room. I unlock the door and there she stands, her lustrous hair catching the sun and gleaming gold.


“Hey, I’m Alex. I am your classmate at Green Hope,” she says all this like she is reading instructions from the back of a pasta box.


I stare at her speechless, wondering if it would be more or less unwieldy to say my name. Fortunately, Alex didn’t seem to be waiting for a response from me.


“I am having a pool and barbecue party tomorrow at my house and a bunch of our classmates are invited. My mom asked me to invite you.”


By this point, my mother had joined me at the door smelling like she had jumped headfirst into a curry bath. I notice Alex’s button nose crinkle slightly, and I feel my eyes blur with a fresh syringe of embarrassment.


“Oh, hi Alex, so nice of you to invite Amrita. Pool party means you will play in the swimming pool?”


“Uh, yes.”


“And there will be boys there?” Amma’s words cut through my haze like a firecracker on a quiet night, and I wince. I know my mother is unimpressed by the idea of me walking around in swimwear in front of a group of boys. I am equally mortified at the idea but would have at least attempted a softer landing. Amma isn’t giving me any cushion.


Alex, bemused by the question, says, “Yes, of course.” The tone of her voice seemed to say, “Yea duh, we are fifteen. What do you think?”
Before Amma can even consider a response, I jump in, “Thanks for the invite, Alex. I will be there.”


Alex turns around the minute the words are out, and gallops back toward her family’s car, her hair trailing behind her like a field of sunflowers following the sun. I already know there is a fifty-fifty chance I will fake sickness and bail, but in the meantime, I need to study my Teen Vogue copy for a pool outfit that could cover my knees.

 

As an immigrant and third-culture kid with a hyphenated identity, Archana Ramesh from U.S. likes exploring questions about belonging, identity, and transience through fiction and non-fiction writing. Her essay Somewhere in Between was runners-up in The Preservation Foundation’s 2021 non-fiction contest.

 

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