Not Unlike His Own
by Suhasini Yeeda

David came to America in 1967. That same year, Loving v. Virginia struck down state laws banning interracial marriage, Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. gave his Beyond Vietnam speech against U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, and theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler coined the term “black hole”:

a region of space-time exhibiting such strong gravitational effects that nothing—including particles and electromagnetic radiation such as light—can escape from inside it.

In 1967, India marked twenty years of independence. Indira Gandhi (the nation’s first and only female prime minister to date) served her fourth term, Zakir Hassain was elected the first Muslim president, and David, a young engineer from Andhra Pradesh, made the single biggest decision of his life.

David was seated in Terminal A of the Visakhapatnam Airport waiting for his plane to arrive and take him to America. This was the first time he had ever been on an airplane. Before this, the farthest David had traveled was on a childhood trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. That was about 1,000 miles and took 28 hours by train and bus. Traveling from Visakhapatnam to Dallas, however, is much farther—about 9,000 miles. David was traveling the farthest he had ever been to a country he’d never known with no family or friends to greet him at the other end.

He was thirty-three years old, 6’3, a healthy 215 pounds, dark-skinned, and baldheaded. He sat uncomfortably in a stiff plastic orange seat. He stretched his long legs out. He never felt large in his mother’s home or at university, but once he was seated around other passengers, David was acutely aware of his size. His nervousness showed through the cracking of his knuckles, the drops of sweat growing on the brow of his baldhead, and the tight squeeze he gave the small backpack he held in his lap. He closed his eyelids and took in a deep breath. His heartbeat slowed with each breath, in through his nose, out through his mouth, eyes gently shut, a technique his mother taught him to help calm his nerves before a big exam.

David worried about the mechanics. Would the small metal contraption stay floating in mid-air for the 30-hour flight to the U.S.? Would his body cramp up from the confined space? Was he making the right decision?

David grew up on the same street as his father and his father’s father. He was the fourth generation that was raised in this neighborhood, full of family and family friends. He called everyone uncle and aunty and his friends were like cousins to him. He knew every street, every marketplace, every church and temple, and almost every person there. After graduating from college and earning his internship at Andhra University, he rented a small flat with fellow students and graduates. There were five men in a tiny three-bedroom apartment, the only affordable solution on their limited salaries. It wasn’t much, but it was on the shore of Ramakrishna Beach, so David was happy.

David split his time between uni and home, visiting his mom and siblings and cousins most weekends. When he wasn’t at home with them, he was at the beach with his friends, staring out at the Bay of Bengal, daydreaming about his future. Staring at the Bay, entryway to the Indian Ocean, he always felt grounded in his dreams. The salt air cleared his mind. Daydreams became real. But David wasn’t just a dreamer.

David was a man of science. He spent most of his childhood in church sketching invention ideas on sheets of notebook paper hidden inside his Bible—an automated cricket bat that swung 90 mph with a click of a button, a dart board that lit up when you threw arrows at the holes, a tin roof cap that would stop the rain from seeping in through his home, childhood wishes sketched out in blueprint form on stray pages atop of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

David had no idea what a turn his life would take. Then the calls began. Calls from prestigious American engineering hubs: MIT, Georgia Tech, and Texas Instruments. They were calling to ask if David had any interest in coming stateside to help them develop their patents, to create his own, to flourish as an engineer, to become an American citizen. David had always been the pride of his small neighborhood, a success to his family, the leader of his friend group. His life was comfortable. So why risk it?

David continued to take in deep breaths. When he opened his eyes, he spotted a young boy, about eight, reaching for a mango at the snack kiosk. The boy was too short to reach the top, but he tried on his tippy toes. Then, when the boy recognized he wouldn’t be able to accomplish this on his own, he tugged on his mother’s hand and begged for the sweet summer treat. She looked down from the itinerary she was studying and noticed the hungry child. She agreed and reached into her purse for a few rupees to pay the man. The look of joy in the boy’s eyes as he took the mango felt oddly familiar to David. The woman walked away and David realized that she was not the boy’s mother, that she owed him nothing, that the boy was alone in this mission. The ticket concierge rang a bell and announced Mēmu ippuḍu vaijāg nuṇḍi mumbaiki veḷtunnāmu—We are now boarding Vizag to Mumbai—David began his first connecting flight on a long journey to America.

The little boy was still there. David studied the boy’s face—his jet-black hair, shiny under the fluorescent lights of the airport, his almond skin, and his eyes—dark brown and huge, not unlike his own. He had been a taller kid than this boy, but otherwise he could have been him. The boy was sitting cross-legged under the kiosk, peeling the skin from his mango, his cheeks covered in pulp, a sweet smile on his face.

Fresh fruit, mango especially, was a luxury in David’s childhood. After their father passed away, David and his older brothers took on the responsibility of looking after their large family. Often this meant only the bare minimum—so items like tropical fruits and red meats were rare. Once David graduated college, he would return home with cardboard boxes, full to the brim with mangos, always sharing with the kids in the neighborhood—children of his friends, settled down now in the same houses they were raised. In his childhood and as an adult, when David received blessings, even a blessing as small as ripe mango, his mother instructed him to pray and thank God.

Before David boarded the plane to America. Before he was offered a green card to the U.S. to work as an engineer. Before Texas Instruments, MIT, and Georgia Tech bid over him. Before he began patents on mathematic and scientific tools. Before he graduated with distinction from Andhra U. Before he put himself through university while working as a teaching assistant. Before he got accepted. Before this, David was just a child, just like that little boy at the kiosk. And he remembers fondly one cool monsoon night.

* * *

The beach house was designed in the gatiya architectural style, made from sunbaked bricks, mud, cow dung, and plaster. It had an open floor plan with a beautiful garden in front. In the backyard, there were two giant flowing mango trees. Built in the late 1800s, the beach house persevered through the torrential downpour of monsoon seasons and remained erect and beautiful. Its newest inhabitants were a family of British real estate developers. They spent most of their year looking for investment properties along the Bay to buy and renovate for western tourism. During the worst of monsoon season, however, they traveled back to England to visit family.

Usually, David and his brothers would sell the fruits and nuts to earn just enough rupees to buy dahl, okra, and even lamb—if they were lucky. Tonight, they were on a different mission. They agreed to David’s terms. They would have leftovers for dinner and spend their earnings on mango treats for their baby brother George’s 5th birthday. Soon, he and Edward were climbing slippery branches to the top of the tree, gathering only the ripest fruits and tossing them down to Francis, who stood at the base of the tree, playing lookout and hiding the plump fruit, one by one, in empty burlap rice bags.

When they got home, their mom sliced the mangos into a bowl in her lap. Her children sat, covered in towels, while the rain poured on the tin roof above. Their mouths soaked in pulp, piles of mango skins lined the concrete ground. David’s older brother Christopher entered. He was shirtless with paint stuck to his blue jeans, brushes in his pockets, and a fatigued look on his face. He was much smaller than David, but still his elder. After a full day of trying to sell his oil paintings at the beach, he came home with sheets of canvas mostly ruined from the rain and only a few rupees for small graphite portrait sketches. He said that David had wasted all these mangos, that he should have sold them and bought a proper dinner with the money.

But David insisted, It’s George Tammadu’s fifth birthday today. He tousled George’s hair. That’s more important, Pedda. We’ll eat lamb tomorrow, I’m sure.

Their mom didn’t interfere. Instead, she instructed Christopher to sit down and enjoy with his brothers and sisters. She sat, wrapped in a blue and white cotton saree, barefoot with her legs crossed. Her eight children gathered in front of her with plates full of sweet fruit. The sour sweet smell filled the room. It was so strong a smell you could barely hear the rain.

She grabbed the fruit in her hand, set it flat, cut into it one-two-three times. Edward handed a slice to his mother. She looked down at his small face and smiled. No nana, you kids enjoy. I’ll make chutney with the leftovers tomorrow! Edward didn’t put up a battle and bit right into the mango. Let us pray. She took George’s small hand in hers and thanked God for the blessing of each of her healthy caring children.

* * *

The phone was on his ear. On the other end was his mother. David had finally settled into his first apartment in Irving—a small suburb of Dallas with houses full of families and apartments full of young bachelors. Aside from calling his mother from the Texas Instruments’ office the day he landed, they hadn’t spoken.

His mother reminded David of his Andhra U roommates who worked in similar positions in India, but made much less. She reminded David that no one could have dreamed of all his accomplishments. Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ok, David?

David’s relationship with God was not at all like his mother’s. Regardless of this small detail, he said yes, that he loved her and would go and thank God, as she instructed.

David knew just where to go. He passed it when he went to get groceries. When he looked at this Baptist church, with its tall white stature and large steeple topped by a cross, the lipstick sunset glowing behind it, a shadow cast on the street, he thought of his mother. Her faith unlike his was still and poised. As a man of science, he questioned everything—especially things unproven. His mother understood faith as the belief in things unknown.

He dressed in a dark gray linen suit, a blue and white polka-dotted tie, and new black leather dress shoes that would have been pointlessly shiny on the dusty streets of Visakhapatnam. David walked to church with resistance in his heart. When he reached the end of his block, he almost turned back. He could just lie and tell his mother he went, but he knew even with 9,000 miles separating them, somehow, she’d know.

With each step came more heaviness. A sea of memories flooded his mind. David always felt isolated in church. He learned at a young age that he was an agnostic and that churchgoing was just a thing a child had to do to please their families. He would sit in the wooden pew and look around at all the adults. He felt like he was in on a secret that all the adults around him didn’t know, including his mom. He often felt bored hearing the same parables and pleas to believers that his home pastor shouted from the pulpit.

David took in a deep breath—the same breathing technique his mother taught him long ago. The irony was not lost on him. He held his Telegu Bible under his left arm and walked up the tall white staircase, his baldhead sweating slightly from nerves and the Texas summer heat.

The humidity felt familiar to summers in India, but the weight of his clothes made David feel incredibly overheated under the Texas daylight. The fabric stuck to his skin. He stopped, clutched his Telegu Bible in one hand, and used the other to adjust his pant legs.

Every part of David’s body was drenched in sweat—except his mouth, which was dry as a bone. He licked his lips and could taste the sweat that had quickly calculated on his bare upper lip. David pulled out a handkerchief from his inner suit pocket and dabbed his face and head clean.

He took in a few deep breaths as he climbed the tall white stairs, one by one. David noticed the crowd around him. He could not spot one non-white person. It was as if he was a jetty rock lost under a sea of white foam.

In India, David looked like everyone else. He had seen European whites before. There were the white real estate developers who were often hidden away in modern houses, never to be found in his village or marketplaces. Then there were white builders sent to build or more often than not to oversee Indians build westernized housing and resorts. The ones his family knew most, the ones that came to his village long ago, these were the white missionaries. They sought to bring Western religion and lifestyle to his hometown of Kakinada.

Those white Europeans were set down in his country. Now he was set down in a white American country. At once he felt his 6’3” stature shrink in the crowd. He felt that his difference must stick out even more because of his size. David looked up and down the stairs at the surrounding families. Perhaps they’d be like the engineers at Texas Instruments who had taken him in and valued his talents. Despite their kindness, David had not really made any friends at work yet. So maybe, this community of people had the potential of friendship. He smiled and took in another deep breath and relaxed his tense stance.

David noticed the rows of smiling American families. Men dressed in slick brown and navy suits, women in frocks with large hair tucked under even larger hats, holding their children’s hands tightly like they could lose them at any moment.

Finally David stepped up to the pastor, arm extended to shake his hand as other families had before him, mirroring their manners. The pastor didn’t make eye contact with him. Instead, he grasped David’s forearm in both his hands, smiled, and declared proudly, “You’re not welcome here, boy,” and shoved David’s body away from him.

It is said that when a person falls into a small black hole, their feet feel a stronger gravitational pull than their head because they are technically closer to the black hole. Their body is stretched apart as far as it will go until it is finally torn into increasingly tiny pieces.

However, if a person falls into a supermassive black hole, their body remains in one piece. Soon, the body will reach the central singularity where it is squashed into a single point of density. Physics as we know it will cease to operate. Eventually, the body will become one with the black hole.

David lost his footing. His large brown body tumbled down the wide staircase. Step by step, his flesh hit concrete. Families spread to the sides. Their swift movements were like some sort of planned choreography, their applause not unlike the accompanying music. That was David’s last visit to any church, until fifteen years later, when he traveled home to India to bury his mother. He and his siblings scattered her ashes at the beach. He stared at what remained of her body as it spread infinitely through the Indian Ocean and they watched from the shore as the sunlight flickered gently along the waves.

These are two options of falling into a black hole, just as there are two options of assimilating in America. You will either be stretched so thin you are torn to pieces, or your body will adapt to its surrounding environment until you ultimately become inseparable from the world around you.

Packingtown Review – Vol.14, Fall 2020

Suhasini Yeeda has published with Ms. Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Indian Review, and Madcap Review. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a one-time nominee for The Best American Short Stories and Best of the Net. She is a first generation Indian-American from Dallas and holds her MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

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