The invitation arrived in her inbox just hours after her own arrival in Hrishipur. She was lying in bed, bruised from the long flight and slightly stunned by this return to a country she no longer recognised, a home without her mother, and the prospect of an endless summer, when the cell phone next to her lit up with the new text. As soon as she glanced at it and saw who it was from, Maneka knew she would accept. She would appear at this party, even if her reasons were all wrong.
She clutched the phone in a tight grip, afraid that if she let go the text might disappear like many other things in her life. The glow of the screen was the only glimmer of light at the end of the long, dark tunnel she had inhabited these past few months. The damp and trembling cloud she had been living inside had solidified only a few hours ago, with the proverbial return of the expatriate, the return they had always warned her would be the hardest.
The moment of landing at Indira Gandhi International Airport earlier that night had been one of confusion, when she couldn’t quite tell if she was departing or arriving. This airport was nothing like the small, sedate one in Calcutta that she had used in the past. Inside the lounge, a bewildered Maneka had stared up at the wall where gleaming bronze hands twisted in various mudras of classical dance to welcome visitors to a land of ancient traditions. But just beyond the lobby, the luxurious duty-free shop made her feel like she was in an airport in another country, somewhere in the Western world, somewhere she was just passing through.
She had lingered for a while among the bottles of Scotch and cartons of expensive cigarettes before forcing herself to walk to the entrance and confront the sight of her father standing alone. His solitary figure looked unmoored without her mother’s next to it. His hair had turned completely white since she had last seen him six years ago and he had acquired rolls of fat everywhere – under his chin, around his waist, over his previously slim shoulders. Her once handsome, athletic father looked old, almost as if he were someone else’s father. Her throat had ached as she tried to smile for him. Six years was a long time to stay away from your country. Long enough to lose one parent and become a stranger to the other.
The familiar and unfamiliar had blended together as Maneka stepped out of the airport into the blast of dry, scalding air. What she had known all her life growing up was that heat, those chattering crowds, the cacophony of car horns, the sea of brown faces, the aunties in their salwar kameezes, and the scent of Old Spice on her father’s body next to her. And then there was everything that had changed since the last time, since her parents had uprooted their lives and moved across the country to this new city just outside the capital, the city everyone in India talked about these days, the one she was about to finally discover for herself.
When they were leaving the airport, she had craned her neck to look back at it so she would remember this bittersweet homecoming for the essays she was supposed to write over the summer. What she saw was a billboard with a pertinent question: Trump Has Arrived. Have You? The letters were scrawled across an outline of a building that stretched all the way to the top of the billboard, as if it were trying desperately to touch the sky. She had flown thousands of miles but the shadow of America had nonetheless preceded her here.
As their car sped along the broad expressway that led to Hrishipur, Maneka had moved her head from left to right as if she were at a tennis match. On either side, neon signs flashed the names of multinational corporations. Sony. Google. Microsoft. ESPN. Bank of America. Even in the dim light, she could discern the silhouettes of the buildings, glass and steel, rising like trees in a forest. Despite her grief at the gaping hole that was her mother’s absence, Maneka had also felt something else. A little stirring inside as if something dormant was finally awakening. The bright lights and clusters of tall buildings reminded her that this was life in a big city, life among people. Her own people. Already, Heathersfield seemed very far away, and with it, Mike’s face had begun to recede as well.
That night, before the text came, she lay awake in the room her mother had decorated with such apparent enthusiasm as she waited for her daughter to finally pay them a visit in their new home. Maneka had looked up at the old photographs on the wall, fragments from the life she had lived in their hometown of Calcutta before she first left for America 12 years ago. Photos of her winning prizes at high school debates, of her 13th birthday celebration surrounded by friends, of a vacation with her parents among the hills of Kalimpong. Her mother was only present in the last one, where she smiled indulgently at the camera, her eyes twinkling with mirth. But Maneka, gazing up at it from her bed, knew how that smile could shift, suddenly and without warning, into a thunderous rage. And she knew her mother was present everywhere.
The first night back in India was one she had always treasured in the past, when the memories had warmed her and made her feel safe. Now they mocked her. Had her mother known all along that her daughter would come back only after she was gone? Was this her idea of revenge, placing these souvenirs of the past strategically so they would stare down at Maneka as she lay in bed?
Here in this rented flat, where her father now lived alone, with only a maid out in the servant’s room, Maneka covered her face with her hands, still unable to weep, but overcome with exhaustion. What would happen to them without her mother? How would her father live by himself, without any income apart from the meager interest from his modest savings? The future was an unknown void and this summer was the beginning.
Excerpted with permission from The Dream Builders, Oindrila Mukherjee, HarperCollins India.