“Yamini was looking out her window at the mailman. He stopped at her residence to drop off mail before continuing on his way. There were no other people to deliver mail to. Yamini began to feel as if she was living in a haunted neighbourhood…”
A short story by Venkat Aekka about an Indian American couple in the US and how they find a new purpose in their life.
It was 6:00 p.m. in Detroit, USA, on the night of Oct 31st ‘Halloween Night’, a spooky and exciting time. Children dress up in spooky costumes, go trick-or-treating, ring doorbells and get candy from friendly neighbours. Pumpkins are carved into jack-o’-lanterns with grinning faces, which add to the spooky ambiance.
Yamini was sitting on a chair, looking at the door, waiting for the trick-or-treaters. It was raining, but just a little. She thought to herself, “Well, the kids should be outside by this time. What’s going on this year? Is there traffic on Interstate 275? It is supposed to be a fun night.” She waited patiently.
She waited for almost 2 hours with Amul, who was dressed up in a Superman costume. She thought to herself, “Why has no one shown up at our door tonight? Did our neighbours think that because we’re Indian, we don’t celebrate Halloween night?
“Last year, we were in India but the previous year, we had many young trick-or-treaters at the door. Amul was 3 years old back then and he was dressed as SpongeBob. What’s going on?
“Rakesh is with a client in New Jersey and won’t be back till Friday. Should I call him and tell him what’s going on? I can’t return the candy or the costly Halloween costume. I’ll give it some time and then wrap this up.” Yamini was very disappointed.
Yamini’s husband Rakesh worked as a software engineer for a client in New Jersey and he traveled throughout the week. He had returned on the weekend but remained busy with the project release issues. The moment he came from the airport, he went to his library room and joined a conference call. It was a long call with no breaks. He came out, quickly grabbed his beer and went back into the room as someone started addressing him with a question.
Yamini started watching her favourite show on the Indian Channel. Rakesh hated Indian media. He thought Indian political and cinema news was a waste of time. He has been following Jay Leno from his college days in Hyderabad. He had been hooked on NFL/NBA games for many decades. He got his master’s degree in the United States and started adapting to American culture in India. He may have passed the citizenship test for the F1 student visa right at the interview. He cherished American culture and yearned to lead an American lifestyle.
Rakesh eventually came out of his meeting. “Do you know no one came to our door on Halloween night?” Yamini inquired.
“Really! I still can’t believe it,” Rakesh said. “We used to have a lot of fun with the kids dressed up in costumes and trick-or-treating.”
“There’s something strange going on. I rarely see people on the streets. We only know two families here. One had their home foreclosed. The other one divorced and moved out. Amul has nobody to play with anymore,” Yamini explained.
“That’s OK. We will take him to the mall tomorrow.” Rakesh said.
The next day, Yamini and Rakesh with Amul comfortably seated in his seat, set off for the local mall. As Rakesh drove through their subdivision, Yamini observed the neighbourhood closely. Most of the houses were either empty or had “for sale” signs. She saw many lawns had not been mowed. A couple of abandoned houses had the grass so high that it almost reached the top of the patio.
They returned after eating at Rakesh’s favourite Italian restaurant. It felt good to talk to Rakesh after a confusing Halloween night. Rakesh took a cab to New Jersey the next day. Yamini was concerned about her neighbourhood. She became acutely aware of her surroundings. She proceeded to the bus stop. She wanted to count the number of school children and parents waiting for the bus. However, there was only Amul and another youngster. The bus swiftly took off.
“Are we living in an abandoned subdivision?” she speculated.
She made the decision to go see for herself. She began to feel terrified as she strolled through the streets of the community. Every house had a foreclosure notice or appeared to be vacant. Homeless individuals lived in one house. A number of the homeless people waved to her. She began walking home, exhausted. Finally, she saw a familiar face. Dave lived around ten houses down the street from Yamini and Rakesh.
“Hi. How are things going for you? How is Rakesh doing? I used to see him at Life Time,” Dave said, referring to the gym.
“These days, he travels a lot to New Jersey,” Yamini explained.
“No wonder, I don’t see him anymore.”
“I have a question,” Yamini started on her theory.
“When we bought our house a few years ago, this was a bustling neighbourhood. Association meetings, block parties, ping-pong games, graduations, and birthdays — all took place. But there appears to be no one around now. What exactly is going on?”
“You didn’t know?” Dave’s reaction terrified her.
“With the market crash, job losses, and plant closings, many of my friends here have lost their homes. We had several farewell parties, but we assumed your family was more interested in Indian things and would be uninterested. In recent months, there has been a mass exodus of families from this area. Perhaps you didn’t notice. You and I are pretty much the only neighbours left,” Dave explained.
“I’m here because my parents adore this place, and I’m looking after them. If given the opportunity, I would sell my house and relocate. We were wondering why you were still here with Rakesh doing so well in his career,” he added.
“I’m sorry, I have to leave. I’ll talk to you later,” Yamini mumbled. She almost ran home, shaken by the growing situation.
She started to wonder what had gone wrong with her and Rakesh. They were not aware of all the changes that were happening in the neighbourhood.
Yamini was looking out her window at the mailman. He stopped at her residence to drop off mail before continuing on his way. There were no other people to deliver mail to.
Yamini began to feel as if she was living in a haunted neighbourhood.
“What I do all day?” she wondered! She kept thinking, “My routine consists of getting up early, packing Amul’s lunch, getting him ready for school, and dropping him off at the bus stop. Then I phone Mom to find out about her day in Hyderabad. I have my breakfast and then turn on the Indian Channel to watch one of my favourite shows. I don’t want to watch anything else since the characters are so captivating — marathon stories and evil personalities with bindis that are as twisted as the stories. Before they say anything, I know who they are and what they want. They sometimes make me feel like they’re a member of my own family. When my favourite actress, Sandhya, was married in one of the episodes, I was so delighted and involved in the series that I dressed up as if I were a guest at the wedding. My life is fully consumed by TV shows, Vonage, and Amul. I don’t have time for society, news, or other local developments.”
Yamini’s thoughts wandered towards her husband Rakesh’s daily routine. Rakesh lived in his own universe. He was caring, quite loving and helpful at home. He enjoyed playing golf. Now that he didn’t play much physically, except on Saturdays, he spent his time watching the PGA or talking on the phone about custom-built clubs. He was constantly looking into novel golf club materials, such as titanium and graphite composites. “We’re both in our own universes, one with eagles and birds and the other with nannans and bahoos,” Yamini rued silently.
Despite their independent lifestyles, the family was filled with love and compassion. Rakesh was quite disciplined. Friday was set aside for housework and chores. After returning from the airport, he vacuumed and cleaned the furnishings. He mowed the lawn, maintained the landscaping, and then relaxed with a beer. Then he went out to the garage to clean his golf clubs in prepare for his tee time the next day. Yamini and Rakesh had travelled up north a few weekends ago to relax at the lake. Rakesh enjoyed these outings because they relaxed him, and Amul enjoyed the water rides.
“Where did we go wrong?” questioned Yamini. “Was this the America I had imagined? Was the American Dream proving to be a lifeless daily routine?”
They had chosen a reasonably priced house in a good neighbourhood. But they lacked knowledge because they were cut off from both the desi and the pardesi worlds. “We don’t have many desi or Telugu friends since Rakesh doesn’t get along with them, and they all appear to be interested in the same things. I don’t have any American acquaintances,” Yamini thought, realizing how isolated they had become. “I’m constantly on WhatsApp with my mother. She spends her days in India telling me about her sisters, renters, maids, and in-laws. I recount every detail, from Rakesh’s waist size increasing from 34 to 36 to his mother pestering him for a Gruha Pravesham present for his sister’s new home.” The thoughts flooded in, in an unending stream.
Yamini realised the issue was her phone’s connection to India. “I’m squandering my life here, as well as my mother’s life in Hyderabad. I want to make a difference in my life,” she decided. Yamini made up her mind to dress up and go to the neighbourhood temple with Amul that night. She used to occasionally say her prayers at home but could not even chant one sloka correctly.
Yamini proceeded to the temple, where she found a gathering of people preparing garlands for the next day’s celebration. She introduced herself to the group and began assisting them. They were friendly and offered her to join them for weekly sahasranama chanting. She began attending the weekly chants. She struggled at first with difficult lines, but everyone helped her out, and she soon began to enjoy the company of her new friends.
Then there was the invitation to the monthly potluck. Rakesh was apprehensive about attending a desi dinner. He wore a kurta that night, and they arrived at the Potluck location. The first hour was spent with introductions and several follow-up questions about his education, first job, and how he met Yamini, among other things. He was thrilled to meet someone who shared his enthusiasm for golf. The television was playing Hindi tunes. “There are a lot of interesting changes in movies nowadays,” Rakesh said. “After our wedding, I saw Munna Bhai MBBS. It was fantastic. Where is Sanjay Dutt these days?”
“In jail,” someone answered.
“What exactly happened?” The discussion then moved on to other Bollywood headlines, such as Aishwarya marrying Abhishek, Saif Ali Khan marrying Kareena, item songs, and the Dabbang movie.
“Too much information overload,” Rakesh thought.
Yamini was in the kitchen after dinner, assisting her new pals in packing leftovers in Ziploc bags. Someone reminded the upcoming release of Mahesh Babu’s film next week. “Let’s all go together with our families,” she suggested.
Yamini was unsure if she should agree. She was worried about Rakesh’s reaction to a group invitation to see a movie starring Prince Mahesh Babu. After some hesitation, she said she would confirm after checking with Rakesh.
Yamini and Rakesh had a wonderful night at the potluck, a very unusual one. While they were driving home, she slowly started talking with Rakesh.
“Did you like the group?” she asked softly. There was silence for a few minutes.
“Nice,” Rakesh responded in a low voice.
He cleared his throat. “I mean, they’re really nice people and we had interesting conversations. I had no idea about many of the subjects they were discussing and had opinions on.”
“I’m not sure about the movie this weekend,” Yamini ventured into Rakesh’s uncharted region. “Yeah, they were mentioning as one of them apparently is a big fan of Mahesh Babu,” Rakesh replied, taking some of the weight of the topic off her shoulders.
“I thought Actor Krishna’s son was Ramesh. Is this the younger son?” he asked.
“Yes. Apparently after the Pokiri movie, he is a big hit,” Yamini replied.
“They call him Prince, huh?” Rakesh chuckled.
“Movies have changed a lot. It seems Brahmanandam is bigger than any star nowadays.”
“Let’s go and watch the movie this weekend. I am fine.”
Yamini began preparing for the Telugu film premiere. That morning, she chose her saree and jewellery carefully. Amul seems to be looking forward to having fun with his new Akkas (sisters), Aditi, Aisha, and Komal.
When they reached the theatre, they were taken aback by the long queue and the celebratory mood. Rakesh approached the counter and requested three tickets. “Srimanthudu?” inquired the girl on the other end in a clear voice with impeccable pronunciation. “Yes,” he answered, swallowing his surprise.
Finally, everyone arrived wearing bright clothes and sarees. The children wanted to sit together in the front rows, as far away from their parents as possible. The film began with a boom after a few advertisements of upcoming Indian films. Prince Mahesh Babu slowly resurfaced from the desolate sand dunes after two heinous murders. The entire audience went nuts. A few fans ran up to the screen and flung colourful confetti at it.
Yamini quickly sat Amul in her seat, waiting for the festivities to end. Rakesh smiled at Yamini and momentarily held her. Their little family was having a new experience. The story on screen moved forward, peppered with some sisterly sympathy and father-son emotional outbursts. Amul was fascinated by massive pictures from India, such as the autoricksaw and the dhobi’s heavy iron. Komal, the little girl, approached their row cautiously and quietly asked Yamini, “Auntie, can we have Amul sit with us in the front?”
“Sure. Naana, you want to go with Akka?” Yamini asked her son with a smile.
Amul jumped with joy and ran with Komal through the darkness.
Yamini slowly started realizing how her life had begun changing with one random act of offering to help at the temple. She thought, “God tussi great ho.”
“Do you know what our problem is?” Rakesh stated when they arrived home. “We aren’t Desis or Americans. Let’s pick one and go,” he said.
“Desis,” Yamini said enthusiastically. “Starting tomorrow, I am going to make some changes.”
“I’m going to uninstall WhatsApp from my phone,” she said decidedly. “I’m tired of spending my days on the phone with my mother. I must allow her to enjoy a full life in Hyderabad, free of distractions. She’ll phone me if it’s an emergency.”
At the potluck, Yamini came to know about Telugu dance auditions that were inviting entries. The Puja group was also interested in participating. Yamini took the initiative and applied for her team’s auditions online. A query was raised regarding the team choreographer. Yamini paused for a few seconds before writing her name; she couldn’t believe what she had done.
She was feeling nostalgic. She went down memory lane, recollecting her college days when she regularly performed at college events.
The next day, Yamini made space for a dance floor in her basement and started dancing with Amul to the latest Telugu dance music.
This became a new ritual every day. Instead of making phone calls, she was practicing dance moves for future auditions. The following weekend, a few youngsters from the Puja group came over, and Yamini was prepared with routines for a song medley. She took her time teaching each step to the group, which included Amul.
Every weekend the house was full of parents and kids, getting into the dance groove.
After a few weeks, it was more enjoyable with children. The house was agog with people, snacks and meals. Rakesh was astounded that such a tiny alteration could offer so much joy to his family. He assisted with dishwashing, cleaning, and trash removal. He swiftly arranged sleeping bags and pillows for some kids who wanted to sleep over. Yamini was fatigued but overjoyed for the first time in years. She entered the bedroom after tucking the youngsters into bed.
As Amul ran around with his Akkas in the adjacent room, they exchanged smiles. Yamini’s life was reenergized by new experiences, new friends, going to parties, and having friends around for a girls’ night out or a kids’ sleepover. There were a few drawbacks to having a busy social circle, but there were many refreshing positives to the new way of life. The transition took around three months.
Yamini went to the mailbox one day and discovered a delightful surprise. Her mother had sent her a heartfelt letter written in Telugu. She was overjoyed and ran into her house, beaming. She took her time opening the letter. It was lovely to see her mother’s Telugu handwriting.
The letter began with greetings to Amul and his family. Yamini grew distraught, and by the time she finished reading the letter, her tears had soiled the last line. Yamini read the letter several times. She reasoned that a letter was worth a thousand phone calls. She dashed to the phone to thank her. Her fingers extended to dial her mother’s phone number, which she had memorised through the years. She remembered her commitment and didn’t want to be her old self again. Allow me to wait till my mother’s birthday next month, she told herself. She replaced the phone in its cradle and returned to her music in the basement.
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