At Frankfurt airport, the early April light deepens his pleasure in the ambient music – Bach’s cello suites under Casals’s unsentimental bow – and the thought that, at any moment, he will meet Amanda. He hasn’t seen her since his college years, and from what he recalls (she hardly posts online), he can now locate her in a context he was too newly arrived to when they first met.
For instance, there is something of the snow and wooded wild in her clear eyes and finger-run hair, and her jaw, which he once thought masculine, reappears as having a cool, assured beauty, the kind that will sit well with pearls. It is girls like Amanda who grow into women like Cathy, and Amanda must be 27 now, the age he was then. But the thought of Cathy is agitating, so he clicks on his iPad to distract himself.
In a landmark election, the Bharat Party has won with a bigger majority than any opposition to the Conclave since Independence. Tweet after tweet celebrates the new prime minister’s speech, his promise to end corruption and policy paralysis, to invest in jobs, and to clean the holy Ganga – all delivered extempore in Hindi, not English, from the central hall of the parliament. Images show him saluting the “temple of democracy” that has given a poor man’s son its mandate. His government will carry everyone along, he says, but it is dedicated to those Indian youth striving for honour, their aspiration his responsibility, and all he asks is that they give their best to their motherland.
Moved by the strongman’s tears, the crowd’s rapture, and the thought that he is flying home, home, Naren notices Amanda only when she is right in front saying, “There you are,” her scarf a faded floral blur as he leans in and pulls back before his chin touches her shoulder. “Look at you,” she says. “Look at you,” he says, though she looks the same, so girlish, as she presses her satchel to her lap, sweeps her hair off her face and sits down all at once.
They rehash the serendipity behind this reunion, and that they got the same connecting flight. She thanks him for making her fellowship possible, and he tells her to thank his brother. That gets them talking of their kin, and how America is closer to India than Europe in idolising family, which leads to a chat on city versus small-town life, with both justifying how they landed up in the latter despite their fancy degrees from UPenn. Turns out the move was not as unexpected for Amanda. Philadelphia is the only city she has lived in.
As the conversation proceeds, Naren’s shoulders relax and spread outwards, his voice rolls into a drawl, and his global Indian accent comes awake as he opines on both their countries, his insights augmented by business trips to still others (this is just her second time abroad), and quotes from a recent Economist – or was it the Wall Street Journal – on India’s demographic dividend. “See, in every country’s life,” he says, “there comes a golden generation that will ride its transformation into a modern state. That means they will make wealth in a way neither their fathers could nor their sons will. Ask me what makes my generation the one. India won her political freedom in 1947 and her economic freedom in 1991, but it wasn’t until this election that our political and business classes got aligned. And just in time. Two-thirds of our population is under 35. Couple that with a government focused on manufacturing, and we could become the world’s biggest labour force and consumer market in one go!”
“Sounds exciting,” Amanda says, and then, as women do when a conversation isn’t exciting enough, she gets personal. “Is that why you’re moving back?”
“This winter, I got my green card and an offer from two top Manhattan firms. So it isn’t like my labour wasn’t bearing fruit...it’s just that, for some time, I’ve had no altar to lay this fruit on.”
Amanda affirms it is a beautiful thought. “When I was applying for the India Impact Fellowship, I often returned to this Willa Cather quote. If you visit Jaffrey, you’ll see it on her tombstone. It says: That is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
Naren doubts the inscription is a reference to purpose, but he doesn’t point it out. He says it’s interesting, and then, from anxiety at her quoting an author he hasn’t heard of and irritation at her project in India – the usual white thing, coming for the poverty – he adds, “To return to your question on what’s taking me back, though back is the wrong word, the word is forward...frankly, it is the numbers. The Indian economy will overtake the US in 30 years. Landsworth, the consultancy I’ll be working for, is shifting its management centres this way. Trade flows are shifting too. My point is, Wall Street may recover, but the future isn’t in the West, it is in the East.”
“Well, amazing. Good for you,” Amanda says, and it’s just a manner of speaking, but Naren senses he has lost the common ground they were closing in on. He tries to correct his course, he was just hitting his stride, but her responses get shorter, and she finally yawns like a child and says, “I’m so sleepy, Naren. You think I can sleep here?”
Sure, if she is tired. Using her satchel as a pillow, she spreads across the adjacent chairs with enviable unselfconsciousness. What was all that about – the accent, the archaic phrases? Fruit on the altar? Amanda may be paler than Cathy, but he has been out in the world long enough to know the farmhouse in Jaffrey isn’t the Tudor in Weston, that her hair is still finger-run, and where the mention of certain publications brings a sparkle to some eyes, to Amanda’s it brings a mild panic. He isn’t trying to impress her, if only it were that innocent, and given where they are from, his East–West comment was bad form. Over the rim of his iPad, her breathing steadies. Her second time abroad. So, it is not a coincidence they are on the same flight. She has timed her entry with his, her fellowship doesn’t begin until later this month, and in promptly accepting a polite invitation to spend a week with his family, she has secured a safe touchpoint in a new world. A survivor, a small-towner with none of Cathy’s access or sophistication, still she has grace.
Even in sleep, her mouth doesn’t open. Her light hair, parted in the middle, catches the sun slanting in through the high glass. Her scarf is printed not with flowers but birds, her high-waist jeans of a well worn nonchalance that, though retro, seem eternal on her...and though the jacket on her chest is inviolable, and her frame too angular to compare with those reclining women in museums all over the West, she reminds him of their simultaneous frankness and vulnerability, and Naren’s hard-won awareness that the artist’s vision was never intended for the likes of him, his opinion uncalled for, his nostalgia surrogate...Stop. It is the nature of a weak moment to read too much symbolism into things.
Excerpted with permission from Quarterlife: A Novel, Devika Rege, HarperCollins India.