I wish that you had come home when I asked you to have tea,” wrote Sunayana Dumala. Her husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, was shot dead in Olathe, Kansas, in an alleged hate crime on February 22, 2017.

The well water measured into the pan, your mother’s breath fattening the flame, the scent of burning wood, the pink threads of dawn outside the kitchen window, her patient stoop over the stove, each movement still weighted with sleep, and then, once the water boils, the quickening attention to milk and tea leaves, the sharp brown smell rising, the pan grabbed off the fire, the quick stir of sugar before the tea is poured in a high long stream into the stainless steel glass that is thrust into your waiting hand: this is the memory you carry into your new country.

Your husband, who loves your wild hair and your face soft as a child’s, comes from poor people. As a student in America, you’ve learned that no one cares. No one knows you and the old resentments of blood and soil and caste don’t matter, yet it took years of strenuous argument before you were allowed to become his wife.

Your husband decides he won’t be poor ever again. Your months grow frantic and jangly with work. He talks to the phone more than he talks to you. There are quotas and deadlines; the hours swallowed by the long tunnel of the screen. For the second time this week you haven’t laid eyes on each other for fifteen hours. He bolts down his dinner and then goes back to work until 2 am. This is America, though. It is not as if you can appeal to an elder who will scold him for forgetting that marriages need time and watering. The two of you are alone here, unmoored. Immigrants in an indifferent country. Orphans, even though your parents are alive and full of questions. Indians without India.

Your husband is 6 feet, 2 inches and handsome as the actors in the films the two of you watch on weekends, curled up on the sofa, pleased at the familiar jokes and storylines. The movies have songs. Shamelessly sentimental, full of rain and mountains and longing. Your husband, thinks he’s strong, thinks he’s giving nothing away when he sings them around the house. You don’t tell him that his voice, when it breaks, lodges a stone deeper in your chest. Still, each year your kitchen takes on a new appliance, your house new rooms. It’s okay, you say. It’s all okay.

Some days are good, though. Like the day you come home from work early. You make pakodas, taste the satisfying crunch of one before you set them aside and wait. You call your husband and tell him to come home for tea. I’m going out he says, with a friend after work. We’ll catch the game, get a drink. They call us the Jameson boys, he laughs. I’ll be home soon. No, you say, flirting a little, please come now.

When he walks in you make tea the way your mother does, cracking cardamom pods with your teeth before dropping them into the water, digging into the bright red box of Lipton Red Label to scoop out the dark leaves inside, taking pleasure in the slow patient swish of the spoon. You hand him the tea in a stainless steel glass, part of a set some Aunty gave you as a wedding gift six years ago.

Then comes the part you love.

The safe silence between you, the evening light in the windows, the distant murmur of the game on the radio somewhere, the insects clicking in the lawn grass, the bittersweet taste that lingers in the mouth, and then, his eyes rising from his cup to your face and that slow, quiet smile.

The day paused like a drawn breath.


Meera Nair

Meera Nair’s debut collection Video (NY:Pantheon) was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and won the Sixth Annual Asian-American Literary Award. A recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), Queens Council for the Arts and MacDowell Colony, you can find her work in the Threepenny Review, the New York Times, NPR's Selected Shorts, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and in several anthologies here and abroad. She has an MA from Temple University and a MFA from NYU. She lives in Jackson Heights, Queens and tweets at @MeeraNairNY.

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6 Comments on “An Alternate History

  1. Dear Guernica,

    Reading this, my heart went out to the victim and his family. Thanks for such a moving piece. However, there have been accounts of how Sunayna Dumala, the deceased’s wife, is a supporter of the right wing in India which now is publicly inciting communal violence against its many minorities, most prominently, Muslims.In no way do I want to imply that that changes the nature of her loss or the fact that her husband was victim of a hate crime but I do feel that acknowledging this fractured picture is important if we are to have meaningful conversations on race and minorities in a global context.

    1. Greetings to Alquadar. The “right wing” in India is only against pseudo-secularists who actually are the fraudsters on minorities, and much of the talk about inciting communal violence is part of an unbalanced view on things – that is, not talking about the other side. Minorities in India would not have flourished the way they have, if the hearsay accounts were right. Race and minorities in a global context need not take a cue from India, and, if they do, it will do the discussion good, provided the discussion is well-balanced. And, anyway, it is in bad taste to grind an axe here and now.

      1. Minorities in India are far beyond flourishing. I feel the piece is wonderful, as I said before. We are living in fractured times and I feel we need to start acknowledging that. There are no grounds over which one can justify what the Right wing is doing in India and it is important to question where support for them is coming from. You are entitled to your opinion. In good taste and fairness, me to mine.

  2. Another thoughtful, moving piece from Meera Nair – I love the way simple day-to-day living is so carefully and texturally drawn into the picture…how nuanced this short piece is – drawing attention to what might have been…magnifying the tragedy of what wasn’t to be…wonderful writing

  3. Was this written with the lady’s consent? Grief is very personal and private.
    I would be alarmed if this was written by the author without consent, based on many imaginary assumptions. For example, “He talks to the phone more than he talks to you.” Really?

    1. It can seem strange when one is written about, who decides who gets to have things private? Is there a right to anonymity?

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