Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram. Who is the old, white man with prayer beads in his hands? None of us know. He pauses his chanting only to use the restroom.
We are the patrons of the Shiva Murugan Temple. Most of us are South Indians from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. We are engineers at Westinghouse and Alcoa, doctors at U Pitt, professors at Carnegie Mellon. Some of us came in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but most of us came in the ‘80s. The Mayor likes us. Every year on Diwali, he gives us special permission to launch fireworks. The history museum has a section on us. Only half a display case, but a permanent exhibit. If you visit Pittsburgh, you must not miss our temple. It is clearly visible from Interstate 376 as you drive through Monroeville. The carved white spires, chiseled by artisans we brought from Madurai, are unlike anything else in America. Our cafeteria has fresh tamarind rice and sambar rice daily, for only a one-dollar donation. On Sundays, we have ladoos. The lemon pickle is free. Our chef is the real thing. His name is Ram, and he is from Rameshwaram.
We were the first to build a Hindu temple in America. Others might not have seen this steel city as a holy one, but it sits at the junction of three rivers, and nothing is holier than fresh water. That is why, in Pittsburgh, the meeting point of the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela, we built America’s Tirupati twenty years ago. The donations came from Indians all over, as far away as Seattle, Anchorage, Belfast and Fargo.
The white man showed up here just over two months ago, at the start of the summer holidays. He sits in a metal folding chair in the lobby, at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the sanctum. He is always off to the side. He is in nobody’s way. Every day, he wears jeans and a
T-shirt bearing the name of a different technology company. They look like free shirts, the sort college students bring home from career fairs. Around his neck he has a sweatshirt, which he puts on when a draft blows through. He does not look like a techie but perhaps his son or daughter is one. In his hands, he holds wooden beads the color of milk chocolate, strung together on white thread. He chants, Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram. He does it softly, but it is a nuisance.
The Hare Krishna temple is only a hour and a half away in West Virginia. That is where the white people go. We cannot, however, rightly ask this man to leave. He is doing nothing wrong and our doors are open to all. This is a policy that is stated in our temple brochure.
Neela takes the SATs for the second time, at the high school one town over, in Monroeville. She hopes for scores that will at least get her into Penn State. She would like to study International Affairs. Maybe join the Foreign Service afterwards and travel the world. This is her current dream anyway. Her father says it is fine. Her mother urges her to consider engineering. Neela’s present SAT scores and grades suggest that this may not be the right choice for her.
“Okay, do well kanna,” her mother says when she drops her off for the test. “Remember to stay calm and do your best.” Neela finishes the exam around Noon, exhausted and unsure of whether her best will be good enough. Her mother’s shift at the hospital is not over yet, so her friend Colin picks her up. Together, they go to Monroeville Mall and smoke cigarettes in the parking lot. This is something they do once a week. Afterwards, they throw the butts on the ground and stomp on them. Then they walk back and forth along the mall’s two levels, hoping to spot Tom Hanks Not The Actor, who is Colin’s crush and the school’s star lacrosse player. “Fuck this. Tom Hanks Not The Actor is definitely not here,” Colin says. “I’m going home to see if anyone’s on IM.”
When he drops her off, Neela gives him a peck on the cheek. “Don’t waste too much time lusting after him,” she says. “There will be others.”
Today is the last day of summer. Tomorrow is the first day of school. Soon, the homework will pick up and Neela will be busy with college applications, essays and drama club during this final year of high school. She is a motivated student, though unlike the other Indian and Asian kids at school, she does not like to show it. She takes only two AP classes, not six. She studies, but only when interested. She does not take classical Indian dance at the temple, or play the violin, or dedicate herself to a sport. To her mother’s chagrin, she runs, but only for fun. She and Colin are set designers for the drama club, a role Neela’s mother feels takes too much time and has too little return. “Nobody will recognize you for background stuff,” her mother says. Once the school year starts, Neela knows that she and her mother will fight about all of this. But today, there is nothing to worry about. She is free and the rest of the day is hers to enjoy.
On the kitchen counter, she finds a plate of steamed idlis covered with saran wrap. In a small Pyrex with a blue lid, there is green mint chutney. The food was not there when they left the house in the morning. Her mother must have come home during her one hour lunch break and prepared it. There is a note scrawled on a yellow Post-It, placed in between the plate of idlis and the bowl of chutney.
Dad called from Sedona. Here is his hotel number. Call him. Wants to know about SATs.
Neela sprinkles water on the idlis so they stay soft and fluffy. Then she shoves the plate into the microwave. She eats standing at the kitchen counter, breaking idli pieces off with her fingers. She dunks each piece into the tangy chutney. She gazes at a family portrait hanging on the wall in the living room, above the sagging brown love seat. The photo was taken at Olan Mills when she was twelve, when her unplucked eyebrows met in a V. In it, her mother is wearing a sari the color of cantaloupe flesh. Her father is wearing a blue pinstriped shirt. Neela is wearing a red velvet dress. She studies her father’s image in the picture. Then she goes upstairs, peels her jeans off and puts on r