People often ask me where I get the ideas for my novels and why I seem to be repeatedly drawn back to India. The answer is simple: though I have not lived in India myself, I recognize it as the home of my imagination. The inspiration for my new novel, The Golden Son, dates back to an experience during a family visit to India when I was ten years old. I had become accustomed to the rhythm of these trips during my childhood, learning to leave the small circle of nuclear family to spend my days with cousins of both genders and all ages.
The sterile atmosphere of our suburban Canadian home gave way to a loud, bustling household where people came and went so often throughout the day, it sometimes felt like a train station.
Since I was used to being amongst people all the time, it was striking when, one day, the doors to the sitting room were closed, and I was told to remain outside. Inside the room were my uncle, a few elder cousins and some unfamiliar guests. But the atmosphere in the house was not the usual one of conviviality around guests, either planned or unannounced, when trays of teacups and biscuits were brought out, and lazy conversation continued until the next mealtime arrived or darkness fell.
When those doors were closed and I was shooed away, I did what any ten-year-old child would do. I stepped closer and put my ear up to the door. I could hear voices, but though I couldn’t make out the words, there was no mistaking the tone of the conversation: it was tense, perhaps even angry. I scurried away, more fearful of reprisal than I was curious.
As I tried reading one of the many books I’d brought to fill the summer, I found my mind returning to the sitting room. My childhood imagination took over, concocting elaborate stories of great riches, betrayals and lost loves that predictably reflected the novels I read. But even so, on some level, I knew what was happening in that room was important.
It was only much later, after witnessing many other such incidents through my childhood and adolescence – over late night long-distance phone calls to India, at the kitchen table, and behind more closed doors – that I understood just how important. Those discussions were, of course, an echo of the panchayat system of settling disputes within a community.
I grew up hearing many stories, in my family and others, about lives that were changed in those rooms: marital separations negotiated, wayward children bargained with, family businesses divided, homes and property bartered.
I became further intrigued by this practice as an adult, and I began to consider the burden of that responsibility on an individual. Thus was born Anil Patel, the protagonist of The Golden Son – a young man torn between West and East, between family and career, between responsibility and ambition, torn apart by love – whose maturation is shaped by his role as the arbiter of his family.
In a nod to the inspiration, the fictional Gujarat village in my novel is named Panchanagar. In this novel, all my childhood imaginings at the closed door, informed by my experiences as adult, come together in one character who decides the fate of others.
They sat cross-legged facing each other in the bottom of the gully that roughly marked the property line between the many hectares of Patel family land and Leena’s family’s small plot, one of several that bordered the Patels’. After Anil lit the beedis and handed one to her, Leena took a small puff and immediately began to cough. Anil did the same after taking a puff of his. They both began to laugh, as they had trouble keeping their balance while holding on to the small cigarettes.
Leena tried again, taking a second drag and blowing it out cleanly this time. There was a shine in her eyes. Anil tried again, slowing down his inhale and controlling his exhale, until he too could smoke without coughing. The glow of the red embers on the end on the beedis danced before Anil’s eyes.
The images at the edge of his vision, the banana trees and waving tall grasses, blurred a little and he began to feel dizzy. Was Leena feeling the same effects? The ground was calling to him, and Anil lay down on his back. Leena lay down beside him and for several moments they watched the sky, the clouds drifting by.
“My father would kill me if he found me smoking this,” Leena murmured, her voice soft.
“My mother would kill me,” Anil said, referring not only to the cigarette but also to Leena’s presence. “It doesn’t look good,” Ma had said a few weeks earlier. “You’re not a little boy anymore, Anil. You can’t run around playing with girls at your age.”
He had recently turned fourteen. Leena was almost twelve. She had not yet developed breasts, like some of the girls at school had. Girls and boys had been separated into different classrooms a few years earlier, a practice intended to enable both groups to focus on their studies but which had the opposite effect.
The boys in Anil’s class seemed to think of nothing other than girls, passing notes and explicit pictures in the classroom when the teacher’s back was turned, sharing stories outside in the schoolyard. And, as Anil’s mother never let him forget, the Patels held an important role in the community and shouldn’t be socialising with a modest family like Leena’s.
Anil’s head was buzzing, a pleasant hum that made him feel as if someone were singing softly in his ear. His beedi had burned down almost to the end. He took one last puff and mashed it into the grassy hillside with his fingers.
Leena’s beedi was also gone, and she was holding her open palm up above her, tracing the outline of a cloud with her forefinger. He stole a glance at her profile, the soft curve of her nose, the sharp angle of her chin, the glint of yellow gold against her dark earlobe.
She was not beautiful in a conventional way, like Bollywood stars with their rounded hips and plump lips, the kind of photos boys at school hid in their books. If pressed, Anil would not be able to explain what he found so attractive about Leena. But he loved looking at her, and when they were not together, he recreated her features in his mind, always starting with her mouth.
With the music humming in his ears and the fluffy white clouds floating overhead, Anil allowed himself to reach his hand up toward Leena’s open palm. Neither of them looked at the other as their hands touched, intertwined, and drifted back down to the ground between their bodies, Anil’s hand atop Leena’s. Anil found himself counting beats in his head, trying to control the quickening pace of his breath. He wanted desperately to lean over and kiss her. Instead he kept counting, ever conscious of the feel of her hand beneath his.
He had counted to thirty-eight when he heard the noise.
At first it sounded like the rustling of stalks in the fields, but the noises grew louder and closer, and shaped themselves into human voices. Anil stopped counting. Leena’s body tensed beside him. What if it was her parents looking for her? What if it was his?
The gully was deep enough that you could only see across, not into, it when standing on either bank at a distance. One would have to walk up to the very edge to see if anyone was hiding in the basin. For this reason, it was Anil’s favorite spot in hide-and-seek, but it only worked if he stayed perfectly still in the bottom of the gully, even as voices of the children looking for him echoed through the rolling fields around him.
Now, a male voice, too deep and angry to belong to either of their fathers, grew closer and more pronounced. Leena began to sit up, but Anil closed his hand tightly around hers and pulled her back down. They turned their faces to each other and kept their eyes locked as the sounds grew louder. Grunts. Panting. A weak female voice, speaking unintelligibly. The male voice, louder again. Rustling. More grunting.
When it became apparent that these people had not come to search for them and, in fact, were not aware of their presence at all, Anil nodded to Leena. Slowly, they both sat up and peered over the bank of the gully, then froze, shocked. Not ten meters away, a man’s bare buttocks were in full view as he moved back and forth violently on top of a woman.
It took a moment for Anil to recognise the man, one of the smaller landowners from nearby, not part of the Patel clan.
He did not know the man’s name, but Anil had seen his wife – and she was not this woman. From the simple cotton sari draped over her head and shoulders, and the dark skin of her bare legs, it was clear she was a servant. The man’s loincloth had been thrown hastily aside and lay on the ground.
Anil and Leena sat unmoving and soundless, yet when the servant woman turned her head to the side, her gaze fell upon them. There was a vacant, haunting look in her eyes. Leena put her hand on Anil’s forearm and he understood her meaning at once: run.
They stood at the same time, but a sharp knife of pain radiated from Anil’s right foot up through his calf and thigh. He cried out and fell back to the ground, where a swarm of bees encircled his leg.
The man looked up and caught Leena standing there. “What are you doing? Bastard child! I’ll kill you!”
Anil watched helplessly, holding his throbbing foot, and fumbled for his specs, which had fallen on the ground. The man stood up, unclothed from the waist down, and began to run toward them. Leena darted forward and picked up the loincloth. She held the cloth up in the air and jutted her chin out, daring him to come closer. The man stopped. Behind him, the servant woman stood up, covered herself with her sari, and hurried off in the opposite direction through the fields.
Anil could see at least three stingers protruding from his foot. He forced himself to calm his breathing and pluck them out carefully, aware of the sound of Leena’s heavy breathing and the man’s shouts. After pulling out the last stinger, he stood up, putting as little weight as possible on his hurt foot. He took Leena’s elbow. She flung the loin- cloth into the air and they sprinted away, the man’s shouts receding behind them.
Despite the pain, Anil could not remember ever running faster in his life, and still Leena was ahead of him all the way to the riverbank.
In the morning, the banks of the river were filled with women collecting water, in the late afternoon with men washing themselves after a day in the fields. But now, at dusk, there was no one.
Leena waded into the water in her clothes and immersed herself completely, plunging beneath the surface, while Anil sat on the edge of the bank, pulling handfuls of mud from the bottom of the riverbed to pack onto his foot. Afterward, they sat atop a broad, flat boulder on the riverbank while Leena slowly dried in the warm air and the cooling mud drew the sting from Anil’s wounds.
They did not speak about what they had seen, or about their narrow escape. They did not acknowledge the moments before: the cigarettes, their intoxication, their intertwined hands, or the near kiss. All of it – the tender, the illicit, the innocent, and the brutal – had become entangled, and thus unspeakable.
Excerpted with permission from The Golden Son, Shilpi Somaya Gowda, HarperCollins India.