Haraathi knelt at the altar and lit a stick of incense before placing it in the holder and clasped her hands together. Jaganath was at the reception desk, checking in a road-weary family but he assured her that he would join her soon enough. She still practiced her faith with a zeal that he was faintly embarrassed by, but accepted as part of the everyday material of their marriage.
The motel had been sold to them back in the 60’s, Haraathi had agonised over the offer but Jaganath’s ambitions had allied with her deference and so they found themselves taking part in the American dream. Her agonies had started, after the fact when she was told that they were sold the place in preference to the worst case scenario, of a black family owning it. Haraathi had learned a blunt, ugly truth about life in the South. A black man could work the land, but there were vested interests who worked really hard to make sure they would never own it. Still, it was a chance to own something, and she gave into him, especially when he sold her on the idea of their unborn son being able to achieve things that were the province of the wealthy, and all for swallowing their pride and rolling their sleeves up to make the place a going concern.
The motel was a peeling, squat building, raised like a boil against the black soil. The pair of them worked endless hours, drunk with exhaustion until the ratio of insects to paying guests turned in their favour. Jaganath had agreed to swear off chewing betel and made good on every promise he made to her.
Elango was born in an American hospital on bleached white sheets whilst Jaganath was held in the blissful embrace of powerful anaesthetics and soft-spoken, focused doctors. She held him in her arms and vowed that he would never have to suffer the indignities that they had.
Like so many promises, it came too true.
He had taken from both of them. His father’s ambition and his mother’s intelligence had been apparent in him in the start. What tested her unconditional love of him laid in wait until adolescence when he embraced the politics of his country. Jaganath had been proud to vote Republican. Haraathi agonised over her small act of deception when she would cast her ballot in favour of humanist or liberal candidates. Such defeats were both comforting and upsetting to her, especially when Elango and his father would become boorish and ungracious at the results. By then, the motel was doing great business and Elango was headed for college, with grades that reflected their investment and his potential. She worried about whether he would get into drugs or reckless, casual sex, drop out and reinvent himself as a beatnik of some description.
He became the chair of the Young Republicans on campus, and his heritage was sold as a shining example of the ideals that the country, she observed, spoke to but seldom practiced. His letters carried the density of political speeches, seldom sharing the things that she wished to know. She worried whether he was eating enough or getting the required amount of sleep, his concern was the tide of liberal ideas that would undermine the fabric of the nation.
Jaganath’s pride stopped her from making her worries public. He threw himself into the business, taking over a second motel and a concern in a soul food restaurant that he passed management of, onto his second cousin Pav. She noted that her son’s ambitions had paternal precedent and threw herself into community work when time allowed. That, and devotion held her upright.
What finally did it, was not when Elango announced his candidacy. Jaganath had wept with joy. It was when he introduced Jacqueline, his fiancée and then dropped in casually that he was now going by the name Eric, that his tears of joy simply became joys. Haraathi did not react as she imagined she would. She once heard a quote when she attended (tolerated, really) her monthly book club where she had weathered naïve, vaguely insulting questions about life in India that stayed with her.
‘I think being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world‘
That night, she slept well for the first time in years. That her suspicions had been correct. She loved Elango, but she was not sure that she liked him. Now that he was Eric, she was free to admit that to herself.
He announced that he was going to resolve ‘the Hindu problem’ by converting to Christianity and that he hoped they wouldn’t say anything to any journalists, well that sent Jaganath into a deep, fitful depression. He went back on the betel for a while but Haraathi prayed and with a love that had seen them through back-breaking decades, got him on his feet again. With the muted, blank expressions of torture victims, they agreed to their son’s demands.
They watched the inauguration on television. Eric sacked an aide for not sending the invitation, but the three of them knew the truth.
Haraathi took in a deep breath and chanted to Hanuman for his guidance and deliverance. She felt a rush of certainty and a mischievous amusement that made her smile in a way that life in America had not delivered to her aside from brief, manic bursts, mostly when she was alone. By the time, Jaganath joined her to pray, she had concluded her business with Hanuman and they both observed devotions to milder, kinder gods.
No one knows who managed to hack into Eric’s phone and find the salacious sext messages, sent to the buxom intern. Nor was the matter of how it ended up in the email account of the journalist who had dated Jacqueline around the same time and still held the combination grudge cum candle for her but what did make the front page was enough. Haraathi understood politics and American politics in particular, enough to know that with the left wing, it was always money and with the right wing, it was sex.
Elango came home, and in the end, took over the second motel’s management. He would join his parents in devotions but it was always with a grim reluctance which Haraathi accepted as the price of his return to the fold.
After all, she loved her son from the first. Liking him, she accepted, might take a little while longer.