Oscillator, by Meera Jhala


When I was ten, my family moved from India to the United States. The move must have dislodged me permanently from equilibrium, because ever since then, like a pendulum, I’ve just kept on swinging.

But I’ve not just been a pendulum. Sometimes I’ve been a chameleon. Sometimes I’ve been both, and sometimes neither. I wondered what I was until my junior year of college; then I took a course in quantum mechanics where I learned that a pendulum and the atoms of a chameleon obey precisely the same equations. Mathematically they were both oscillators, swinging as they sought to find a place of equilibrium. And that was what I was, too.

The first man I married was brown, like me. Actually he was much browner; I’d grown up in Jersey, and he’d come fresh from India to a headhunter who gave him a week of training in Oracle and made him a resume that said he’d had a year. So I held my breath and I carefully tuned my own color to match his. A Good Indian Girl is not supposed to look directly at a boy, so as our families sat in our living room and his father told my father the match was suitable, I pretended to be absorbed by the ornate swirls on our Oriental rug.

After I married, I cooked and I cleaned and I smiled and smiled. And I kept my head down and my eyes downcast, so I still didn’t see what my husband was until one day I came home a bit early from Patel Grocers, and caught him screwing another man.

“Just answer me this,” I said. “Why in the Hell did you marry me?”

He was sobbing, as he answered in that unique Indianspeak that hangs English words on a Hindi scaffold: “Mummy wanted me to. How I could say no to Mummy only?”

The second time, I swore I’d get it right; no more men the color of dirt for me. My therapist had told me about the power of visualization. I think she meant I ought to visualize myself happy, but I decided to take a short cut. I envisioned taking a vacuum cleaner and sucking all the Indianness out of myself. Shortly thereafter, I met a truck driver from Nebraska.

I did my best to obliterate the Good Indian Girl. I moved in with him and I had him screw me so hard that the memories of my first marriage squirted out my ears, and only after all that did I agree to marry him. I rode shotgun in his 18 wheeler and stuck myself on the back of his Harley. I choked down dry turkey with his family at Thanksgiving and forced myself to smile. At Christmas I wrapped gifts for his stepmother in silver paper, as though the birth of Christ were something I actually cared to celebrate. I made no mention whatsoever of my own holidays, Navaratri and Diwali, and as each one passed, my silence became a hollow space inside me that hurt until the days pressed in on the abscess and crushed it, sending the sadness into my blood.

We saw some Pixar movie in a rural drive-in where men with tattoos stared at me. We ate at Sonic. We took a road trip out to Cedar Point for the Fourth of July, out in Sandusky Ohio where the only thing dusky for fifty miles was me.

I held my breath and tried to turn my neck red, but it stayed golden, even as I started to suffocate. I stayed with him because that was what a Good Indian Wife did–and as hard as I tried to be anything else, that was all I knew how to be. My soul bled drop by drop out of the hole I had cut in my heart whose scarred edges were shaped like my country, until one day I felt a small gurgle as the last of my self drained.

A few hours later, my husband told me I was too damn Oriental, and he was fed up. He gunned his Harley and rode off in a cloud of dust.

When a pendulum is done swinging, it comes to rest at its low point.

“If you’re single,” my therapist said, “why don’t you try to be the happiest single woman there is? What can you do tomorrow to make yourself happy?”

“Travel,” I said.

I think she thought I meant Hawaii. That would have been nice; I had a business trip planned to Chicago, though. I flew there, checked into a yellowish hotel near O’Hare, and swallowed a handful of yellowish pills. Not enough to kill me. Just enough to make me forget, for a while. I wanted to forget the hen-like aunties in saris clucking their tongues after the end of my first marriage. I wanted to forget the tattooed men in Sandusky.

The bed began to tilt crazily under me, and my mind came unbuckled and started to slide. It slid back to when I was ten and my grandfather and I stood barefoot on the concrete terrace of our family’s bungalow, watching green parrots wing over in thousands. Then it slid forward to when I was twenty-three; by then my grandfather was long dead and I had learned that in Hindi, the word for “parrot” was the colloquial term for a man’s genitals. Finally it slid to the last time I visited India, and stood alone on our old terrace waiting for the parrots. They did not come, and later I learned that the acid rain had killed them all.


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Posted in 2013, Fiction, Literary
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