No One Can Pronounce My Name

Rakesh Satyal

May 2, 2017 
The following is from Rakesh Satyal’s novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name. No One Can Pronounce My Name is an insightful look into the lives of immigrants and outsiders, who must reconcile the strictures of their culture and traditions with their own dreams and desires. Rakesh Satyal is the author of the novel Blue Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award and the Prose/Poetry Award from the Association for Asian American Studies and which was a finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award. Satyal received a 2010 Fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and has twice been a Fellow at the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony.

It became a ritual: Harit and Teddy went to have drinks on Thursday after work, always at TGI Friday’s, always in the booth at the back of the restaurant, always with the same hostess and waiter. The waiter was not particularly thrilled with this arrangement, and he had given up speaking to them altogether. He delivered their drinks “as if they were on flombay”—another Teddyism—which meant that he spilled a part of the drinks on the table with every visit, and it was a rare evening when Teddy didn’t have to take a napkin and sweep up the swirls of liquid before they trickled off the edges. Teddy brought to this action the same sort of flair he had for delinting suit jackets and wrapping a scarf in tissue, and Harit had to admit in spite of himself that he loved the way Teddy’s agile fingers pulled at the napkin and brought it fluttering onto the tabletop like a light bird.

When he drank, Harit began to notice things about Teddy that he had never noticed before. This ran counter to what he had always thought happened to people when they drank; he had always assumed that drinking dulled one’s brain and made important details go flying past. But the sugary tartness of the rum heightened his senses, and he saw in Teddy a mixture of pathos and humor. Harit had never been one to laugh easily, but there was so much to laugh about when it came to Teddy. Not laugh at, but about.

Teddy’s nose was like a tiny, pink egg on his face. The color of his hair resembled barfi—white laced with yellow. His wardrobe was composed entirely of garments from Harriman’s, and those garments usually came with piping. More than anything, the funniest thing about Teddy was his shape. With his sizable paunch, he looked exactly like the cash register in the Men’s Furnishings department—an old-fashioned register, with a sloped interface and a stout money barrel. In fact, with his full jawline and pudgy chin, Teddy had a head like a miniregister atop the register of his torso. Whenever Harit drank, he imagined Teddy’s mouth opening and a tray of bills shooting out.

Their chat in the store was usually a series of fey observations by Teddy about customers, clothes, and coworkers. However, Harit learned a great deal about Teddy during their second outing. Teddy was from somewhere in Ohio but had moved to New York after high school. He had “tried to make it” in the city, the meaning of which Harit didn’t fully understand, but from Teddy’s mention of “auditions,” Harit assumed that it had to do with singing. “Honey, I’ve lived a million lives. I’m like a cat. But a really feisty cat. I’m Cleocatra.” Teddy looked at Harit questioningly. Harit stared in return. “You totally didn’t get that joke, did you?”

Harit threw back his head and laughed. He was surprised to realize that it was not the rum making him do this but the fact that he found Teddy’s comment genuinely funny.

Humor aside, he found something very strange about Teddy’s viewpoint. From the way Teddy talked about his past, it sounded like he should have been a very old man, in his seventies. He reminded Harit of some of the ancestrally English gentlemen in Delhi who had visited the movie theater: just as the carriage of their bodies conveyed something elegant, something pearled in appreciation of the Raj, Teddy moved and spoke as if he came from an older time. Harit tried to imagine Teddy as a boy, but he found it difficult. All Harit could picture was a little American boy in piped clothing and a little cash register paunch, and now it really was the rum that was making him laugh so hard.

“Honey, you are blotto,” Teddy said. He supplemented this strange word with a shake of his now-empty glass. He had learned to use gestures so that Harit could understand his slang.

“No, I am not. I know when I am drunk, Teddy. I am fine.” “It’s OK if you are, you know. I’m really happy that you’re finally living a little.”

“This is ‘living’?” Harit motioned to the restaurant, its candy- striped tablecloths, baskets of sauce-slathered foods, and the four monstrous flat-screen TVs that sat above the bar.

“You know, you have a point there,” Teddy said. “Do you want to go to a bar?”

“There’s a bar here. This is a bar.”

“No, I mean a proper bar. A good gentlemen’s establishment.” “Yes,” Harit said. Then he realized that he had actually just said, “No, I can’t.” Even the rum was not letting him stray.

Though in her sixties, Gital Didi was not, in fact, a didi—older sister—but a friend that Harit’s mother had made only weeks before Swati’s death. They had met at a temple gathering for the holiday of Karva Chauth. Gital Didi lived four blocks away, in a small condo into which she had moved after her husband’s death from cancer. She had a son, Kaushal, a medical student in California who rarely came back east to visit. What she was, then, was a woman with plenty of time on her hands, and since the same could be said of Harit’s mother—and be the understatement of the year—the two of them were often together. After Swati’s death, Gital Didi came to their house at least once a day, and although Harit’s mother offered little in the way of conversation—a soft “Yes” here, the occasional thirty-second anecdote about Swati there—Gital Didi did not flag in her commitment.

It was still more conversation than Harit got from his mother. Gital Didi bathed his mother and fed her, and although Harit had told her that it was his responsibility and that she shouldn’t burden herself, she insisted.

“It is not right for a man to do such things,” she said, time and again.

“But I am her son,” Harit would reply.

Idli sambar or rajma chawal ? I can make either one.”

She insisted on cooking at their house. Harit suggested that she make the food at her condo and bring it over, since their kitchen was so meager, but she refused, saying that the aroma of cooking was “essential to the well-being of a Hindustani home.” Her comment caused Harit some offense, since he cooked in the house, for himself. He knew that the real reason for her persistence was because she wanted to be in their house as much as possible.

Harit was jealous of her. Not because he wanted to do those things for his mother but because he didn’t. He wished that he wanted to, so that he could be a good son. He could rationalize his behavior all he wanted—I am not a very good cook anyway; It is good for Ma to have a friend; I dress in a sari to keep her alive—but Gital Didi did the things that a son was supposed to do for his mother. American children disrespected their mothers all the time. He saw it every day at Harriman’s—young girls contradicting their mothers and scolding them and emphasizing, again and again, how their senses of style were different. Haughty admonitions, annoyed harrumphs, deceptive entreaties—this was what passed for familial devotion in this country. Harit wanted no part of those children’s selfish disrespect. Yet every time Gital Didi ignored his request to do chores for his mother, he joined the ranks of those selfish Americans by feeling relieved.

Perhaps he felt indignant because his mother had changed irreversibly and he did not feel that he really knew this woman, this artifact in an armchair. He realized that he would never taste her cooking again, would never know what it was like to see her laughing with abandon or intent. He would never know again what it felt like to have his mother comfort him. All of that was lost, except to his memory, which was beginning to be washed away by alcohol like a steppe by the swishing waters of a river.

He envied Gital Didi this more than anything—that she seemed to understand the woman in the chair. Since she had known Harit’s mother for only the past year, Gital Didi could enjoy her company without the barrier of previous memories, like having eaten her kadhi in their Delhi kitchen—which always smelled like smoke and coriander—or feeling the roughness of her palms as they washed the back of his neck with milk. Gital Didi did not see in Harit’s mother the aborted joy that Harit saw; she saw a friend who would listen to her talk all day. If only things could have been so easy for him.

“Dear, where did you put the register tape?”

Teddy was slapping red markdown stickers onto a stack of waterproof wallets. He was in even higher spirits than usual, which was driving Harit a little crazy. The Harriman’s Halloween Sale was approaching, and this was not the time for unflagging optimism. During big sales, Mr. Harriman did away with all pleasantries and transformed his melodious voice to a bark.

Harit was tagging a batch of gingham Van Heusen dress shirts. He was entranced by gingham patterns because they were something that he had seen rarely in India, these pastel blues and pinks and yellows. He could not remember any time he had worn such bold colors there, aside from when everyone would celebrate Holi and douse each other in magenta dye.

The look of approbation in Mr. Harriman’s eyes as he approached now made it seem as if he had seen right into Harit’s gingham-patterned thoughts.

“Singha, what are you doing?”

“I am tagging these shirts, sir.” The answer sounded so basic that Harit struggled to elaborate. “For the sale, sir.”

“No, noooo,” Mr. Harriman said, rubbing his forehead with one hand. “Those are not the shirts that we need tagged! The Geoffrey Beene shirts are the ones on sale. How many of them have you tagged?”

Harit felt like vomiting. He had already tagged five cases’ worth. “I am so sorry, sir. I will fix the problem.”

“How many cases, Singha?”

“Sir, I will stay late tonight and make sure they are all fixed.” “Have you gone fucking deaf, Singha? How. Many. Cases?”

Harit would have been paralyzed with fear if he hadn’t been so tremblingly nervous. “Five, sir.”

“Jesus Fucking Christ. And I bet you still haven’t started on the suit markdowns.”

Mr. Harriman was right.

“You know, Singha, this is a real disappointment. If I don’t see all of these shirts tagged right—and displayed—by the end of the shift . . . you’ll see what’s what.”

Harit did not know what this phrase was supposed to mean— “what’s what”—but it sounded to him like being fired. He felt the blood pumping in his ears. He looked down at the case of shirts that he was tagging and wanted to burst into tears. Then Teddy came to his side.

“Well, well, someone’s in trouble!” Teddy gave Harit’s shoulder an encouraging rub. Harit wanted to punch him. But Teddy offered to help fix Harit’s mess, and Harit felt guilty for his initial anger. Soon enough, Teddy was plucking an expensive fedora off a rack, placing it on his head, and exclaiming, “I’m an old hat!”

Harit actually knew this phrase, and it was one of those coincidences that seemed divinely orchestrated, a random comment with a memory so firmly attached to it that he could have been living in a film. Old Hat was the name of a hat shop in his neighborhood in Delhi; its owners were a white couple from America. The woman had a face that must have once been pretty but that had been crinkled with time and then sunburned in the Indian climate. She wore hats all of the time, and it was unclear if she did this because it promoted her store or if the store had sprung forth from her penchant for headgear. The hat that she wore most often was wide-brimmed with a sunflower on it, and it stuck out unmistakably amidst the dusty heat of the Karol Bagh district. Her husband was an equally grand individual who sported kurtas but had hair long and braided like his wife’s. The couple befriended the shopkeepers to their right and left, both of them tailors. When Harit would pass the shop on his way to work, he would nod at the owners, but they were often preoccupied, chatting with their neighbors. They had moved to India to enjoy their retirement, it was said, but they never seemed to spend their spare time with Indian people. Since they lived above their shop, a string of other white couples would often enter the storefront, with corresponding silhouettes appearing in the second-floor windows moments later. Harit imagined Teddy having two such parents—free spirits with a flair for the dramatic. Harit then imagined what Teddy’s attempts at Indian fashion would look like.

It was the image of Teddy in a kurta, leaning on the doorway of Old Hat, that made Harit feel angry. The distinction between Harit, the Indian immigrant, and Teddy, the exaggerated American, was important to maintain, and to conflate the two images was bizarre. Thinking of that doorway made Harit think of the doorway to his house here in America, and thinking of his house here in America made him realize something: aside from repair men, an American had never set foot in it.

As he continued to set up for the sale, Harit could not stop thinking about this—what an isolated life he led! He had always thought of Teddy as being his only American friend, but now, as he examined his life further, he came to the sad realization that Teddy was his only friend of any kind. The Indians who formed the core of his social interaction—the people he saw at temple, the handful of Indian men who came in when heavier shipments needed unloading—were merely accessories to his life. He was lonelier than the white couple in Delhi, who, though they had a limited circle, had still found people to entertain. How had Harit, in this socially voracious new land, managed to end up more isolated than those two?

That night, Harit tossed in bed, as was his routine now. There were times when he felt that he had forgotten what his body was for. The human body, after all, was made to be useful, to perform. Humans had hands for crafting and, yes, caressing. Private parts for procreation, private parts to pleasure and be pleasured. But none of Harit’s body parts seemed to play such roles in his life. His hands tagged ties and aligned belts. His mouth muttered single-syllable words, words so slight that they barely qualified as another language. His legs—his legs carried him to the bus that proceeded to do the real carrying.

And his private parts. Even as a very small child, he was aware of the stirring between his legs, the undeniable hardness whenever he came into contact with the firm plane of a floor or a wall. His first wet dream came at the age of thirteen, and he thought at first that he was simply wetting the bed again. A year before, he had eaten beets for the first time and screamed when using the bathroom afterward, thinking that he was bleeding from the inside. His mother, in what was meant to be a helpful tone but which sounded like anger, explained that it had been the vegetables themselves, their red color like that dye squirting from a pichkari during Holi. So Harit’s first reaction, upon seeing the sticky white liquid on his sheets, was that he had eaten something similarly surprising. Only a year or so later, during a perfunctory lesson on sex education in school, would he learn what had happened to him.

The truth of the matter was that the little he knew about sex was due to—arré, this was so embarrassing—due to Kama Sutra images he had seen in books and on dirty playing cards. He hadn’t even begun to allow himself to enter the dangerous world of porn—he’d never had a computer, anyway—so his induction into the world of Sexual Being had been a shoddy thing, comprised of masturbatory fumbles during which he envisioned the breasts of Kama Sutra drawings. And to avoid that pathetic fact, he had begun to focus less on what he thought sex was and more on what kind of pleasure his hand against his—arré, here it was again—lingam could give him. Sex for him was not defined by what body parts in general were capable of but rather what Harit’s right hand could do to Harit’s lingam. (Also, he assumed that his lingam was big but, devoid of real-life experience, he couldn’t quite be sure.) He had assumed that he could not be in the brotherhood of man, that he could not be part of something larger than himself. It was too hard to situate himself within that vast throng, so he pared himself down to the act of touching himself. And inevitably, after he was finished focusing on what Harit could do to Harit, he was left with the shame of having done something debased, which seemed all the worse not because he understood it but because he didn’t understand it. And it was so much harder to justify doing something if he didn’t understand it.

Tossing again in bed, he moved beyond the thought of his loneliness to the thought of love. Had he ever really envisioned a life in which he could find love? He wasn’t sure that he was capable of being intimate with anyone. It was one thing to espouse a feeling, an idea of companionship. But it was another thing entirely to imagine a life that was informed by the presence of another person and that person’s affection. Had he ever imagined calling his wife to see if she could stop at the grocery store on the way home? Had he ever imagined holding the eyelid-soft crook of her arm as they discussed having children? The horrible conclusion was that he had never thought of what it would be like to negotiate one’s physicality to that of another human because he had not thought it possible. Every look in the mirror confirmed this line of thinking for him.

Perhaps this was why pretending to be Swati felt cathartic to him; he could be someone else, someone whole. Of this, his mother could be proud.



From No One Can Pronounce My Name.  Used with permission of Picador USA. Copyright © 2017 by Rakesh Satyal.

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