Fiction / Reshmi Hebbar
:: Do Not Be Afraid ::
The snow had fallen two days earlier. If it fell again tonight, Pallavi’s mother might try and get everyone to stay until Christmas Eve. But then again, if Pallavi stuck to her decision and told her parents, they might make her leave. She imagined being banished from her childhood home, a place she wasn’t keen now to arrive at anyway. She pictured driving back to Bloomfield in the black night, the white flakes falling everywhere or still packed on the ground, the voice of regret hissing in her mind instead of the voice of urgency. As she headed east around the city, the salted roads and still fresh layers of white presented a sense of order she was reluctant to disrupt. Tell them! the whooshing of the highway seemed to entreat. Pallavi gripped the steering wheel and considered contradictory possibilities: nothing she could say would get her thrown out into the cold; she would be fine out there anyway. Like an unexpected charge of serotonin surging through her brain, she remembered again events from the night before, Alex’s lips fluttering against her neck.
When she pulled into the driveway, Pallavi was struck, as she always seemed to be now, by the modesty of the structure her parents had taken care of so determinedly, repainting the siding with crisp white coats, adding a side door to the front-facing garage, calling arborists to prevent the elm tree in the front yard from dying in the passing blights. Her relatives in India might no longer be impressed by the size of the house, at least not in the same way they would have been when it was being built in the late seventies, when her mother used to send photos to Hyderabad and Bangalore of Pallavi and her brothers toddling around on the linoleum in the kitchen. Even if its promise now seemed dated, its colonial style, the snow in the yard, and the surviving tree—these spotlit a steadying truth, one that her parents would never own up to: they belonged to this place now more than the old one.
If they could only admit this, Pallavi felt, her life would be easier.
“Pallu, set smaller plates for Samir and Maya. Give them plastic cups instead of glass. Children are always spilling.” Her mother often concluded instructions with a justification for giving them. Pallavi could have reminded her that she was not unfamiliar with the habits of kids just because she didn’t have any of her own. But she was feeling grateful for her mother’s frantic hostess energy, which always supplanted the space for anybody else to come out and say what was truly on their mind. It was perverse and perhaps another paradox to contend with: her mother would be so busy entertaining that anything Pallavi wanted to tell her would have to wait; the quicker Pallavi was at performing these tasks, the more time there would be left for sitting everybody down and having a proper talk. In the meantime, these flashbacks to Alex’s hands and lips, the quick doping jolts that she treated herself to around the house now were like shaking a present not yet meant to be opened. She did not deserve to remember anything until she told them.
Pallavi’s eldest brother’s family arrived in Monroeville an hour later, her niece and nephew dragging snow in from the yard onto the engineered hardwood her parents had installed in the foyer. They demanded soda when she was pouring them some juice. It had dismayed Samir to see hockey on the television instead of Nickelodeon.
“Pallu, use the rags from the laundry room—not the kitchen—to clean up the snow, and turn on this Disney or whatever for Samir in our bedroom.”
Everyone in the Reddy family, including Pallavi’s sister-in-law, would have known not to take a rag from the kitchen to wipe up the floor.
In the small mirror her parents had hung by the front door, Pallavi caught sight of her flushed face and felt relief. She wasn’t twelve years old but a grown woman over thirty-five who could pass for thirty. Alex hadn’t just been flattering her; her skin was indeed bright and youthful. There hadn’t been a need for lines or games, just the immediate ignition when Alex had pronounced her name so perfectly, the gratitude Pallavi had felt then warming her lower back, her pelvis, her toes, until it felt necessary later to deoxidize the heat they were generating at their table in the mood-lit bistro.
“The Christmas tree looks great, Amma,” Pallavi’s older brother, Ravi, called now to their mother as he passed the living room. “When’s Arjun getting here?”
“Arjun had to work half day today,” their mother answered from the kitchen. “We’ll open the presents after dinner. You brought all the children’s gifts from home, right?”
Ravi halted at the entry to the den and gave Pallavi a look. She wanted to raise an eyebrow back at him—she was cleaning up after his kids.
“Amma, you know that Santa brings their gifts,” Ravi told the top of Pallavi’s head. “He won’t show up until they’re in bed at home tomorrow night.”
Ravi’s wife, Kavya, emerged now from the powder room.
“Leave that, Pallavi,” she said, taking the rag from her hands.
“Kavya, my mother’s asking why we didn’t bring the kids’ presents.”
Pallavi watched Kavya bend to the floor and ignore this remark. She was curious about the tensile quality of her brother’s marriage. Perhaps Pallavi felt this way towards any traditional relationship between adults of her generation, the kind that involved private skirmishes about trips to the grocery store and in-laws. The type that would not have required her to lean up and whisper in a hot moment into Alex’s ear, or any person’s she really wanted to date, that she didn’t feel comfortable in the open, so could they please take this inside?
“Tell her you’re on call, no?” Kavya murmured finally, standing up with the rag curled in her fist like a rosette.
They all turned at the footsteps, the familiar beat of Pallavi’s mother in her rubber flip-flops.
“What is this, Ravi? Kavya never did Santa and what-all in India when she was a child. Is it okay with her that you are not even staying here one night this week?”
The tension of this moment distracted Pallavi from the two parts apprehension and one part resolve that had been turning to acid inside her since she’d arrived.
“I’m on call, Amma. Starting at midnight tonight,” Ravi tested.
Look at you, Pallavi wanted to say. Instead, she took the rag back from Kavya and went to hang it up in the laundry room before her mother could ask her to. The evening was still wide open; there were still many chances left.
Her father was on the carpet of the den trying to set up the stereo.
“Come, Pallavi. I’m looking for the Vasundhara Devi record. You’ll sing later, no?”
The room’s wood paneling had been painted over in light gray, a color their mother disliked but their father claimed would help with resale whenever the time became necessary.
“Appa, I haven’t taken lessons in twenty years. I don’t do that stuff anymore.” Pallavi wished her response could have conveyed more than it did, and that her father, instead of replying with the words she felt certain he would use in a moment, would stop rooting around the cabinet for auxiliary cables and come out and say what had been obvious for too long. For as long as her parents had been updating the house, and planning for retirement, and finding Ravi a wife, and then worrying about Pallavi and her other brother, Arjun, forwarding on emails, week after week, with descriptions of people who would be the perfect mates for them, sent from people who knew other people looking for perfection. She wished her father would put down the wires and take a hard look at her. Then he would be able to answer: of course you don’t.
“Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa. It is your heritage, Pallavi.”
Alex had asked about Carnatic music on their date, and Pallavi had found that, when she was with the right kind of person, she could be eloquent about things she had taken for granted.
“That sounds amazing. I’d love to hear it sometime,” Alex had gushed, delicately forking up a last bite of flounder from its buttery skin. “I wish I came from somewhere else! All I had was middle school glee club.”
Pallavi had wanted to say that she’d been in glee club too. That she and Alex weren’t as different as you’d expect. But maybe it wasn’t true. For most people, the date wouldn’t have been as big of a step as it had been for her.
When the whole family had finally assembled for dinner, her mother asked how Pallavi’s search for a marriage “prospect” had been going. “Are you finding anyone interesting?”
Pallavi felt embarrassed in front of the kids.
“Yeah. Sure. There’re some.”
“Well, what are their names?”
Pallavi’s twin brother, Arjun, reached across the table and asked Samir to pass him the pani puris, pretending afterward to fumble with the bowl so that the boy gasped and giggled. Pallavi knew what her brother was trying to do. She took a breath.
“One’s name is Alex. We actually went out last night,” she said, glancing around the table as if she were delighted to have been asked. She did not look at her mother.
“Alex?” her father said. “So, not an Indian?”
“No.” Technically not a lie, Pallavi told herself, and inhaled again. Adrenaline began to pool inside her.
“What about the two or three boys which Radha Auntie’s sister sent us the contact info for?”
“Those never worked out.” Pallavi kept chewing carefully, even after she had swallowed her puri. Arjun was looking at her, but the moment had passed. Now didn’t feel like the right time after all.
“What do you mean never worked out? Did you call them?”
“Did you guys catch Crosby in the Penguins game last week? Jesus—”
“Arjun, wait … ”
“You know, Mom,” Kavya was speaking. Kavya almost never spoke. “Even in India these days, girls are waiting until their thirties to settle down. My college friends and all.”
Pallavi felt grateful to Kavya—the girl was always nice to her, even if she seemed devoid of a real personality. But her sister-in-law’s point would count for little given that Kavya was three years younger than her. It also didn’t fail to nettle Pallavi, as it always did, that Kavya, the only younger person at the table who had not grown up in America, could call their mother “Mom” while they could not.
“Pallavi is thirty-seven years old,” her mother rebutted.
“Hey, so am I!” Arjun widened his eyes until Samir and Maya smiled.
“That’s old!” Samir marveled.
“Not as old as your dad,” Pallavi retorted, filling up another puri to stuff her mouth with.
“Aw, come on. I’m only forty-two, guys!” Ravi grinned around the table.
“You are not old,” her mother said, and of course everyone knew what she meant. These words might have pushed open again the window for telling them, but Pallavi did not jump at the chance. Instead, she stole another peek at the memory of Alex’s hand on her neck as they had waited for the valet. Not old, not too old! she wanted to shout across the table now.
“After dinner,” her father was offering into the brief silence that followed her mother’s pronouncement, “Pallavi will entertain us with some old fashioned music. You’ll like it, kids, I promise.”
“Appa—” Pallavi began.
“I want us to watch Bend It Like Beckham!” Samir cried.
“Okay, okay. No problem. We’ll see after that.”
“Everybody rinse your plates properly before putting them in the dishwasher. They don’t get clean otherwise,” her mother said when she could command attention again.
“Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang as the dishes were being gathered. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he continued as Pallavi grabbed the broom before she could be told to sweep up under the dining table. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he trilled as he was adjusting the wiring in the media cabinet, unplugging connections to the stereo’s receiver and hooking them up instead to the video input.
Anjaathae Nee Vaa. In Tamil, which was not her parents’ mother tongue, the phrase meant “Do not be afraid.” The song was about a woman who tried to talk to common birds—pigeons, doves—to coax them into trusting her to hold them for a moment before releasing them into the sky.
Her parents’ taste in music had always been surprisingly democratic. They’d not allowed themselves to get caught up in debates about which South Indian language had the best songs, or which language Pallavi should take lessons in. They had never minded the cassettes being blasted from Ravi’s room upstairs, or the headphones Arjun took to wearing when the twins were teens, or the semi-ritualized way Pallavi had recorded and then consumed music videos on Saturdays, the intensely monogamous relationships she’d maintained with artists for months at a time: Belinda Carlisle, Debbie Gibson, Mariah Carey.
“Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father was singing as they all filed into the den, Kavya refusing to sit on the sofa, and Pallavi’s mother rushing to pick up glasses that had been left out of the dishwasher, the children claiming most of the space, Samir taking imaginary shots at an imaginary goal.
“What is his obsession with this movie?” Pallavi asked as a way to quiet herself. The voice inside her was getting shrill.
“He’s obsessed with the actress who plays Jesminder,” Ravi joked. “He loves that scene when she takes off in her soccer shorts and kicks all those boys’ butts.”
Pallavi’s mother said nothing.
“I love the soccer!” Samir protested.
“I love the wedding!” little Maya joined in.
“It sounds like you remember the movie so well that we don’t have to watch it,” Pallavi’s father tried, his finger ready on the remote. He seemed so hopeful. What would it do to her parents, this thing inside her, to people with such simple though particular needs—a daughter who would sing classical music, and children who would find partners who shared their “heritage”?
Her mother said nothing. Pallavi felt like a bird in a compound, torn between the offer of ready food and the safety of flight.
“I don’t know why they set this movie in England instead of America,” Arjun put in from the armchair.
“That’s where Beckham is, genius.” Ravi’s criticisms of Arjun had gotten milder over the years.
“I know, but they could have picked a different sport, different athletes, and done it here, right? We have kids going through those issues here.”
“Shhh!” Samir urged them. But Pallavi knew what her twin had been trying to do.
“This is the movie with the kid who … you know. The Sikh girl’s friend?” Her mother surprised them all with her wavery tone.
“Which friend, Ammamma?” Samir asked eagerly. “You mean Jules? The girl who brings Jess onto the team? She has short hair and is really good?”
Pallavi realized then what was the reason behind Samir’s infatuation with the film. She’d always been able to detect those loose ends of attraction that people tried to hide. She might have said something now, but she didn’t want to embarrass her nephew. Her nerves were refluxing again because she felt certain her mother wasn’t asking about Keira Knightley’s character.
“Not that one, sweetie.” Pallavi’s mother looked away from her grandchildren to their parents. “The other friend. The Sikh boy whom the girl’s parents want her to get engaged to. Should the children be watching this?”
Pallavi felt a strange relief bubble up through the dread roiling in her. Wasn’t this the perfect moment, then?
“You mean because that kid isn’t straight?” Ravi brushed the thought aside with a wave. “The movie is about soccer and Indian culture, Amma. Come on.”
“Don’t you think it can give children ideas though?”
“What kind of ideas, Amma?” This was Arjun again, and Pallavi’s instinct was to shoot him a look that said “take it easy,” a habit developed through their shorthand of quiet, if not direct, resistance. Where was the voice inside her head now? Where were her words? Why was she letting the others do the talking for her?
“Ideas like it is okay to be … you know.”
“Gay?” Arjun asked.
“Arjun, stop shouting,” their father said.
“Why aren’t you asking whether it’s wrong for the movie to be promoting Sikhism then?” Arjun went on. “I mean there are Sikhs everywhere. Look at them. So many.”
“Arjun, will you just shut up?” Ravi snapped.
“Daddy, we’re not supposed to say that!” Maya whimpered.
“You’re right, sweetheart. Everyone be quiet.”
“I think it’s important for kids to be exposed to as many lifestyles as possible,” Pallavi spoke into the fresh silence.
“What lifestyle?” her mother demanded. “They are immigrants living in London, and the parents are so ignorant. So traditional. This is not Indian culture, I say.”
Her mother’s anger always managed to take Pallavi by surprise. Inside her mind, the voice and the words had fluttered away, but she reached now to find them, preparing for certain failure.
“Indian culture has changed, Amma. There are newer immigrants. And more gay people. All over the world.”
Surely this was all that needed to be said. Surely she’d said it all?
“Maybe things like that happen in those communities over there, but it doesn’t happen in ours,” her mother insisted.
“How do you know that though, Amma?” Arjun asked now. For all the emotion flapping inside her, Pallavi could not decide whether she wanted him to go on. “How do you know what it was like for all of us?”
“I’m just saying,” her mother said, her voice rising as if trying to be heard over a crowded room, “that all of this being whatever you want is just a fashion.”
Arjun’s eyebrows were lifted, but Pallavi looked away. She knew what she was supposed to say next, that she was supposed to ask her mother what she meant about being fashionable, and that Arjun would likely join her in skewering their mother’s flimsy points against the wall of their shared understanding of the real world. But she had registered the tiniest hint of terror in her mother’s voice.
“It’s not fashion, Amma,” Pallavi said slowly. “It’s not something to be afraid of.”
“Why we had to pick this movie instead of something about Christmas, I don’t know!” her mother answered and stared fiercely at the television.
“Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang softly, tilting his head at Pallavi.
“You’re ruining it!” Samir stood up shouting. He grabbed the remote from the floor and jacked the volume up ten decibels.
“You have to turn it down, Samir, so the others can talk,” Kavya said.
“I want to go home.” The boy pivoted suddenly, the remote control held at his chest like a handgun.
Pallavi’s father was the first to react. “Don’t say that, Samir. We are all together here. It’s Christmas.”
“It’s Christmas Eve Eve!” Maya chanted, and Pallavi could not tell whether she shared her brother’s frustration. “Santa’s coming on Christmas!”
“Santa can come here, too,” Pallavi’s mother posited. The expression on her face now was one of unmasked panic.
“No he can’t, because we live in Sewickley,” Samir replied. “We need to leave milk and cookies out for him.”
“We can do that here. We have milk and cookies from the store.”
“Today’s not Christmas!!”
Samir’s fury seemed physiological, emotion catalyzed by a different creature, or parasite, forcing its way out of his body. Kavya jumped up from the floor.
“Tell your Ammamma you are sorry for shouting, Samir. Right now. Be a good boy.”
“Mom, it looks like we should go. Something must have happened to his stomach, or maybe he needs better sleep tonight. But we should go. I’m sorry.”
Pallavi’s mother said nothing, and over her father’s protests, Pallavi could hear Ravi detailing their schedules, offering a family dinner at his house in two days. People needed to get some rest, he said. And he was on call anyway.
“Well, I’m going to go, too. I’ll catch you guys later.” Arjun stood up and pulled his keys from his pocket.
“You cannot go back to Lewisburg now, Arjun.” Their father was incredulous. “You’ll get there in the middle of the night.”
Arjun laughed. “Appa, it’ll be fine. I can text you when I arrive. I was always going to leave late.”
“Nobody wants to stay here anymore. Everybody wants to leave.”
Their mother’s words were the truest ones Pallavi had ever heard her say. They sounded so strange, so purged of judgment. Pallavi thought of the song her father wanted her to sing, about the woman luring the birds to her hands, the clarion firmness as she sang in the foreign language: do not be afraid.
“Maybe you can take some time and think about why that is, Amma,” Arjun suggested loudly, moving his bulky body into the foyer.
“What are you saying, Arjun? Do you realize what you’re saying?”
Pallavi’s father had the old warning in his voice, the rare thorniness from when the boys’ fights became too physical when they were young, or when Pallavi overtly disobeyed their mother, the prickly timbre of final authority. She looked at his face as he rose from his chair. He appeared, so faintly that one could miss it, lost.
“You should have just sang like I asked, Pallavi,” her father said, his stature seeming so small in the room he’d proudly maintained.
“Leave her alone, Appa. It’s not her fault. You guys need to let her talk to you anyway. We should all leave,” Arjun finished, opening up the front door. “I love you all, but I’m taking off.”
A part of Pallavi wanted to laugh now at her brother’s presumption. She sensed that she had a right to be angry at him for rushing her, for manipulating the moment like this.
“What does he mean let her talk to you?” Pallavi’s mother asked her. The fear was still spuming in her face. “Do you want to leave now too?”
There were deeper ways to hurt her parents, Pallavi realized, than what she had failed to tell them her whole life. There were more devastating things they were frightened of than realizing the truth about any one of their children. And all the other emotions that blinded people, like outrage and resentment, weren’t they also just excuses for people who wanted to fly off and be left alone in the first place? She of all people knew that it was harder to stay put and sing.
Pallavi opened up her mouth and closed her eyes. “That’s not it. Alex is a woman. I’m gay,” she began and noticed that when she opened her eyes again they were still standing there in the half-empty den. “But I don’t want to leave.”
From the writer
:: Account ::
Pallavi Reddy, the heroine of “Do Not Be Afraid,” is one of four women featured in stories I’ve been working on for almost a year, ever since I got the idea to take my memory of attending Hindu temple camp in Pennsylvania when I was a kid and using it as a means to connect different adult coming-of-age narratives of characters from the same cultural community who first met as teens. Though my own experiences were different from Pallavi’s challenges as a queer South Asian girl growing up in the 1980s, I found myself enriched by writing stories from her perspective of compounded isolation, particularly when I set her life in a part of the country that I did not know but had been drawn to while attending camp as a child. That is, writing about her allowed me to imagine and create a sense of belonging to a particular Indian community I did not have real access to while also testing the limits of its ability to be socially accepting from within. After writing and publishing a first story about Pallavi as a teenager, I realized that I wasn’t finished with her family. I sensed a poetic potential in her adult repression and realized that she deserved her own story about coming out to her family as a lesbian in her late thirties; it offered a unique way to explore the theme of middle-age regrets and the onset of mid-life identity crises. Both are key connective themes within my larger manuscript of more stories of which this piece of fiction is a part.
The rhythm carrying the narrative forward (my repetition of a specific line two-thirds of the way into the story) was inspired by my watching a black and white YouTube video of the South Indian classical song from which “Do Not Be Afraid” ultimately got its title, a song, as Pallavi tells us, about a woman trying to hold birds in her hands. Having never heard the song before, I felt almost heartbroken by my lack of exposure to it and my having taken for granted such a rich cultural heritage when I was younger and my parents were keen to make it known to me. Birds as representative of women’s restricted self-empowerment is an old trope; I wanted to repurpose it as a symbol for parenting as well. Not only is Pallavi struggling like a bird to be brave and “sing” her truth, but her parents are also wrestling with the necessary lesson of learning how to let their children go. The translation of the title from its original Tamil helped me to crystalize the idea that Pallavi’s ability to speak up and come out to her parents rests on her realizing that her fear is similar to their own. Once she does, she is able to see their humanity instead of just their authority, one of many lessons essential to “growing up” as an adult.
Reshmi Hebbar publishes academically about women’s multicultural and immigrant narratives. She has published nonfiction at Slate, fiction at Funicular Magazine, and has fiction forthcoming at West Trade Review. She is an associate professor of English at Oglethorpe University, where she produces an ongoing podcast fictionalizing the experiences of South Asian immigrants and their children. She lives outside of Atlanta with her husband and two daughters.