Excerpts - Time Is A Fire - A Novel

In 1984, when Amrita first came to Seattle from Delhi as a sixteen-year-old, she thought there were no days in Seattle; just night and twilight.  The sky, when it was not dark, was a steely gray sheet of clouds.  Clouds very different from the monsoon clouds she had known in India.  They did not bellow or snarl or even so much as grumble.  They were simply there.  Every so often, as if to remind themselves what they were there for, they released a few drops of rain.  Rain very different from monsoon rain.  It did not stomp on your roof or plow your garden like shellfire.  All it did was flit outside your window, disappearing in a matter of minutes to return you once again to the sky’s stoic blankness. 
After the incandescent days of India, she felt she had entered a tunnel.  With the relish of starving urchins that ransack garbage cans for food, she feasted on the scraps of sunshine, committing each morsel to memory, putting together a store she could savor even on the days she went hungry.
Now, thirteen years later, however, it was the blanket of clouds that comforted her, wrapping her in the security that comes from knowing what to expect from something.  And it was the sun that brought shivers of unease, made her feel as she would in the presence of a tease. 
She was now twenty-nine.  She lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Kent—a middle-class suburb south of Seattle.  It was, by far, the only home she had known in America.  The uncle’s house—to which she emigrated from Delhi after losing her parents—had never been a home.  A master’s homestead, perhaps, but never a home.
Twenty-nine.  Already a spinster.  If that fact bothered her, however, she certainly didn’t show it.  Effortlessly, she continued to sidestep the men her uncle and aunt foisted upon her, the fact that over the past couple of years the bulk of them had been widowed or divorced not worrying her in the slightest.  Her uncle and aunt couldn’t figure it out, let alone explain it to a phalanx of disappointed men.  “Hi, rubba,” her aunt said, with her head in her hands.  “What does this girl think she is—a maharani!”
What made matters worse was that Amrita’s refusals, far from turning the men away, only spurred them to pursue her that much harder.  “Not to worry, Bibiji,” they told her aunt.  “Tell Amritaji we are wanting no dowry or housework.  And if she is not willing to live with our parents that is okay too; we can live separately.”

Still Amrita said no.  Needless to say, her aunt found that decision mindboggling.  “Is this girl a crack, ji?” she asked Amrita’s uncle.  “No dowry, no housework, and what’s more—no living with in-laws.  And still she says no!  And what is wrong with these men, ji?  Here is our Harinder all ready to get married, and no man is prepared to talk about it unless we agree to a thousand demands.  And there is this girl who shows her boot to men.  And what do they do?  They queue up to lick it.  I am not understanding, ji.”

Her husband, however, understood perfectly.  He looked at his short pudgy daughter, pouting on the sofa in front of him, and compared her to her cousin—a strapping girl of five-ten with fair skin, long lustrous black hair, large almond eyes and a lovely slim figure to boot—and sighed.

Nowadays, he couldn’ t think of his niece without feeling more than a little guilty.  True, he had taken her in over his wife’s objections after the death of her parents.  But he certainly hadn’t done very much by way of giving her a home.  At best he had been indifferent, well, extremely indifferent, not even intervening when he knew his wife was ordering her about like a servant.  True, one could argue most men would have acted no differently, considering domestic peace was at stake.  But still… And then he hadn’t done too much by way of educating her or improving her prospects in life either.  True, he had been hardpressed, raising two children of his own.  But…
Nowadays, his late brother’s pictures made him uneasy.  Pritam’s eyes had an accusing look he found difficult to counter.  Who knew in a few years they might be face to face.  After all, he wasn’t getting any younger.  In the meanwhile, he dearly wanted to settle his niece.  That would give him at least one saving grace.
Which was why he often took it upon himself to persuade Amrita to marry.  Sensing arm-twisting would not work—his wife had tried that long enough—he employed more subtle means.  He implored her to think of her parents.  If they were alive, wouldn’t they have wanted her to be settled?  Why, even now they had to be looking down anxiously from heaven.  Then he himself wasn’t getting any younger.  Who knew when Waheguru might choose to take him?  Before that, wouldn’t Amrita give him the satisfaction of seeing her settled?  Then, at least, he could go to his heavenly abode not worrying what would become of her once he was gone.
Amrita heard him out.  Once he was finished, she told him she had absolutely nothing against marriage.  Rather, she was all for it.  Now if only she could find the right man.  Surely in his haste to marry her off, he didn’t want her stuck with the wrong man.  That wouldn’t be what her parents would have wanted either.  Right?

He was forced to retreat, saying, he certainly didn’t want that.           

Such a tack was typical of her.  Early on in America she had learned to use guile rather than frank conflict to get her way.  When she was sixteen and barely a month in Seattle, she had protested against being tied to the kitchen all day.  Was she some servant hired to cook and wash the dishes? she had demanded from her aunt.  Her aunt had simply looked her straight in the eye and told her she should count herself lucky she had a roof over her head and three square meals a day.  They were not rich people.  Taking her in was really pinching their pennies.  Their own children were foregoing things for her sake… And she, instead of being grateful, was carping over a little housework!
Amrita did not complain again, accepting whatever was assigned to her with a quiet, Yes, Auntyji.  She realized resistance would merely worsen the situation.  After a while, she figured most of what she had to do was conjured by her aunt to assure herself that she was squeezing the maximum out of the unwanted orphan in her house.  Her aunt didn’t really care how well many of the chores were completed or, in some cases, whether they were completed at all.  What she did not want was to see Amrita sitting idle.
Amrita made sure she never gave the appearance of being so.  With the result, what she actually had to do decreased significantly.  However, she realized she was still very much on her own, as she had been on the night she came home to find her parents murdered.

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