The Limits of the World

Jennifer Acker

April 15, 2019 
The following is from Jennifer Acker's novel The Limits of the World. The Chandarias are a successful Indian-Kenyan-American family, each of whom is harboring a secret, which are revealed when an emergency prompts them all to return to Nairobi. Jennifer Acker is founder and editor in chief of The Common. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1, Guernica, The Yale Review, and Ploughshares, among others. Acker teaches at Amherst College, where she directs the Literary Publishing Internship and organizes LitFest.

Urmila rearranged the animals. They were homely, unwelcoming; no one was buying. Should she group them by type: elephants next to rhinos next to giraffes?

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All morning, only two customers came into the shop. The first peered, scowled in confusion, then left. The second was a girl with hair stuck together in clumps, wanting to buy a dashiki.

“You want to dress like a man? Wait until Halloween,” Urmila said.

“Seriously?” The girl stood defiantly on short, thick legs.

“You tell me there is anything else you like. I can find you a nice dress,” Urmila offered, putting on a smile.

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But the girl walked out, and Urmila was left with the animals.

Two-inch heels, slacks, and a striped sweater had seemed smart when she’d dressed in her dim bedroom, but now Urmila felt exposed like one of her zebras, alone on the plains. Then, with an arrow of hope, she remembered the latest shipment from Habari Exports, still in boxes in the back. Soapstone candlesticks were her best seller.

The messy taping was the first bad sign: the careless, tightly wound crisscrosses. There were scissors near the register, but Urmila was already on the floor, so she ripped off the recalcitrant tape with her hands, even her teeth. Pulled out the loosely balled newspaper, heart sinking. The candlesticks were cracked, every one of them! Some snapped in half, others chipped. The soft stone’s pretty rose colors wrecked by black faults.

This was not the first broken shipment. She bit her thumb, strangling a furious cry. How close to the margin she already was.

Outside the store window, shoppers and mall workers walked by, ignoring her sign and her displays, the square paper she’d pasted up twelve years ago on opening day: Authentic African Goods. Low Prices.

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Gifts. She would change goods to gifts. More high-class.

This morning, Urmila had reminded Premchand that his April transfer of funds to the store was due. She didn’t believe her husband forgot; he was withholding. Sending money to their son Sunil. The two of them thought it was a secret, but Urmila had known for more than a year. Many summers when he was a boy, she had taken Sunil to Nairobi, where he’d worked with her brothers in their businesses, but clearly he’d not learned about work ethic, about savings. Sunil’s upbringing had been too easy, she often thought. He didn’t know the meaning of struggle.

Sunil was thirty and still in school. Too busy squandering to phone his own mother.

“Why all this schooling?” she asked him once. “You were never in the smart set.” When friends asked how Sunil was, Urmila said he’d made the dean’s list, a phrase she’d heard on TV.

Yet she missed him. His boyish face, his humor. He was often the only one who could make her laugh. Surprise her with tenderness; his endearing awe and curiosity. For a time when Sunil was young they’d sailed smoothly along. She guiding, he sweetly following. If she was honest, she had to admit she learned from him, too. Things about her adopted country, new ways to understand the people around her. He tried to show her people meant to be kind. He told her that people in Ohio were unusually nice. This belief was his American birthright. But after thirty-five years here, people were still rude to Urmila, and why should she not say so?

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She sometimes thought about visiting Sunil in Cambridge, but it was hard to get away from the shop, and he’d just put her up in a hotel, like a dog in a kennel. He had an American girlfriend now, too, and Urmila did not want to encourage things. Her visit would be an endorsement. Best to ignore the girl and let it pass. Act as if Sunil were simply flirting and would come around. Still, Urmila found herself wondering what the girl looked like, what she studied, what she wanted with her son. There were a lot of successful Indians in this country—her friends’ children were doctors, lawyers, accountants—but Sunil was not one of them. The last time she talked to him, his voice had sounded worn, defeated, and it had hurt her. “I’m working hard,” was all he said. Trying to teach and study and write, to embody a life unknown to any of them, and terrifying to Urmila and Sunil both, if for different reasons.

Breaking the store’s quiet morning, Urmila now saw a darting movement in the back. Hangers clanged, and a long printed cloth crumpled to the floor. She stepped closer, but she already knew. She did not hesitate. She kicked off her heels. She’d always been faster barefoot.

Urmila ran after the hippie girl, hair hanging like a dirty mop; she did not know she’d been caught and was walking with no hurry toward the fountain. In Urmila’s mind, her hands were claws that stretched spectacularly to snag the prey.

This was the real America, the one that thought of her as low, like the neighbor who’d asked if she wore a bra. If her husband had other wives. Was she a fool to be cheated?

Near the mall exit, the girl turned, realized she was being hunted. Clearly she knew about the security cameras, because she whipped around now and stood alert, ready. She flung the dashiki to the floor. “You can have your stupid robe!”

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“Raand!” Urmila shot back, the English escaping her.

But the girl just stared. “You’re crazy,” she said, backing away on those stubby legs. She had pretty green eyes and a sweet pink mouth.

Urmila followed the girl outside, onto the cold concrete in her bare feet. She wanted to punch her. That saucy mouth. The revolting hair. The disrespect.

The girl floated two twenties to the ground. “Those cheap things are overpriced.”

Urmila breathed in hard, the air spiked with car exhaust. Just in time, just as the girl turned to walk away, English words arrived, and she shouted, “Thieving whore!”

Surprised, exhilarated, and only a little ashamed, Urmila picked up the bills and carried the dashiki back to her store. She hung it on the rack next to the others.

Four hours later, at closing, she peeked in a tiny wall mirror and yanked out her gray hairs. A fresh layer of lipstick. No beauty, but presentable enough for the walk to her car.

At home, she ate dinner alone. She was watching Connie Chung on 20/20 in the den when Premchand poked his head through the door. “Hello, darling.” His wiry eyebrows, stern and curious, fringed his brow. In Gujarati she said, “Listen, there is tepla and potato shaak in the fridge to microwave. Also rasmalai for dessert.” Except on weekends, they did not eat together. He always came home too late, even when Sunil was a boy, when her son had insisted on eating meat like a real American. Urmila had been forced to give in when her husband took the boy’s side, admitting that he often ate ham sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria. How could she argue with a doctor, even when back until forever Jains were vegetarian? She cooked Sunil’s hamburgers wearing rubber gloves, turning her face away while they bled and sizzled.

After 20/20, there was a story about the civil war in the Congo—Belgian Congo, as she knew it. Though Africa’s murder and mayhem were often in the news, Urmila wasn’t sure what to do with the jolt of recognition that arrived with stories like this. Tonight she thought first not of her own childhood, the tumult of Mau Mau and independence, but of the white-haired lady who’d come into the store last week. Who’d announced, looking around, “My husband was in the war in Africa.”

Urmila did not know which war she meant, but the woman did not look friendly to questions. So Urmila had showed her a long Maasai spear, authentically rusty at the point, and an accompanying leather shield. “Maasai colors. For your soldier husband.”

But the woman had looked appalled. She peered into the display cases. “Don’t you have any ivory?”

Ivory, of course. This was a rich woman. And so, to impress her, Urmila showed her the chain of ivory elephants, hooked trunk to tail. They marched in place on a glass shelf next to the register. “Touch the sides, so smooth,” she said. The carving was precious to her, one of the fine things she’d bought for herself during her and Premchand’s one visit to India. After seeing the great sites, they’d detoured to the rural town near Jamnagar, where both of their parents were born and had lived until leaving for Kenya as teenagers. Where the homes were still made of mud and the Untouchables glued their eyes to the ground. Premchand had been disgusted by the lack of sanitation, and they had not stayed even one night. Her husband had preferred to sleep on the train than in one of their far-flung relative’s poor homes. Secretly, she was glad, if embarrassed. She agreed with her husband that they had not escaped poverty in Nairobi only to return to the dirt in India.

“How much?” the woman had asked.

“Oh, it’s illegal to sell now.”

Her husband was a collector, the lady said. She was willing to pay a high price and left her phone number, and her name, Lillian Ross, in case Urmila changed her mind. She hadn’t.

Urmila turned off the television and listened to the neighborhood. No jungly children, no barking dogs. She listened warily for the spring sounds of insects and mice.

In Nairobi, rats had been a problem. Every couple of years the population burst, usually during a wet season when the rice and lentils molded. When the tears in the burlap sacks appeared, the children were supposed to alert a servant, who set out the poison. Sometimes a neighbor came over to commiserate and tease Urmila for sending the rats next door: “You told them where the better food was, eh?”

Her father had lost a brother to plague in the early years, when Nairobi was just rotten railway headquarters. Bapuji had mentioned it only once, when Urmila was a child. Surely he’d revealed other things she had failed to remember, and sometimes she yearned for knowledge—memories, artifacts—of her childhood so fiercely her hands unconsciously balled into fists. Now that her father was losing his grip, and her mother had been dead ten years, there was no one left to pull up the truth of their past.

Urmila heard her husband scrape his chair back from the table and slot his plate in the dishwasher, careful not to leave a mess for her.

This house, on a curved street with narrow walks, had been their home for twenty years. It was carpeted and comfortable, the furniture bought in discounted sets from Sears, display models right off the floor. In Urmila’s pantry were grains and pulses from the Asian grocer, and in the drawer next to the stove her spices cozied up next to each other like babies. Urmila could tell a good cook in an instant from how she laid out her spices. To line them on a shelf was casting them into dusty exile. Now that Sunil was gone, she cooked less, and they never used the parlor, where an old Coca-Cola stain blotted the carpet. Urmila no longer hosted parties; the cooking and the conversation tired her too much and made her feel small. When they wanted to see friends, and her husband almost never wanted, there were plenty of Indian restaurants in Columbus to dine out.

Their house used to be one of the newer ones, but now, all around, people were demolishing homes like theirs, putting up two and three stories, adding high fences. But at least it was not like Nairobi, where fences were not enough. Where you hired armed guards and still you feared for your life.

Near midnight, Premchand found her in the computer room. He was wearing his green flannel pajamas, and his hair stuck up like grass.

“I woke you?” she said.

“I wasn’t asleep.”

“Just lying there doing nothing?”

“I tried to read JAMA—to put me to sleep—but nothing is working. So I am reading the paper.”

“Darling, you need a vacation.”

He leaned over her shoulder toward the screen. His night breath was stale and smelled of betel nut and fennel. He’d been snacking from the jar of supari. “You are taking me to Nairobi?” he said. “That’s not a vacation.”

“Yes, it’s a break from work! Plus I need to have a business talk with Gopal. You know they sent me another broken shipment today?”

Her husband clucked his tongue. “I did warn you about relying on your brother for wholesale.”

“Just two weeks,” she said. “I can’t be away from the store for more than two.”

He didn’t answer. Instead he slipped on his reading glasses and brought the folded paper up to his chin. In English, he said, “There is a very interesting article here. It is saying we Americans are not good savers. The economy is doing so well, stock market going up and up, but it’s not enough. In other countries, they are smarter, families have cushions to fall on in emergencies. We should be saving more.”

“What are you talking about? We have savings account. We have retirement account.” She wished she hadn’t told him about the shipment.

“The store is one of these places to reduce, perhaps selling fewer items,” he said, removing his glasses and pointing them to the paper the way Urmila imagined he did when showing a patient a test result. “Or maybe you prefer to save money by not buying expensive plane tickets to Kenya?”

“It’s business,” she said. “Tax deductible.”

“Not my ticket. Maybe you should take the trip by yourself.”

“This is what you always say! Last two times I have gone by myself.”

He sighed, ready to give in. But she hated his if-you-want-it-I-will-do-it-darling sigh. When he’d decided to work in USA, he’d promised that they’d go every year back to Nairobi. For two years they did, but shortly after Sunil was born her husband began saying he couldn’t take the time off, the airfare for three was too expensive, he preferred to spend on vacations in America. In the twelve years since Sunil had left home, Urmila and Premchand had gone to Nairobi together just once. Sunil had stayed behind, away at school.

Suddenly, she was overcome. She couldn’t wait. “It’s settled,” she said. “We go the first two weeks in May.”

Premchand left the office, slipped through the doorway. When Urmila entered their bedroom a few minutes later, a sharp chill raised the hairs on her arms. He’d left the window open. She rushed to close it, but not before the icy night circled her ankles and pinched the nerves running up her legs.

Climbing into bed, under the warmth of the electric blanket, she had a thought she’d not had so urgently since the early years of their life in this country. It was just one word, but it said everything she wanted. It meant heat, love, life, yesterday and tomorrow all in one.

Urmila knew USA was not home. Yet she also knew that the lack of script and social order in this country had freed her. From living with her controlling mother-in-law in Nairobi, for one thing, kissing the woman’s wrinkled feet, following her orders like a slave. But these same freedoms had also built the walls of her loneliness. Raising a son in this country should have rooted her, but it hadn’t.

What made Sunil so hard to talk to? So eager to condemn her high standards and her absences from his school events. The un-American things she’d done when she hadn’t known any better. Running into the arms of an American girl was spite, she was sure. A way of showing her how little he cared, how well he could do without her. Urmila worried Sunil and the girl were living together, and thinking about their sharing an apartment suddenly made her feel cornered, helpless. She could lose him for the rest of her life.

What would heal the years of anger and bind them together again? There were many things she had never told him. Maybe if he knew.


From The Limits of the World. Used with permission of Delphinium Books. Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Acker. 

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