For three decades, Chand gave his Indian graduate students his house keys when he and Raji left town. He told them to relax and use his spacious home as a place to rest and study, to use the hot tub in the back, and the grill, as long as they did not put beef on it. “Sleep in the guest bedroom,” he said. “Escape your dreary apartments.” It gave him pleasure to offer comforts that graduate student stipends could not afford. In his home, students could watch satellite channels like Zee TV and TV Asia and catch up on episodes of Koffee with Karan and Kaun Banega Crorepati. Before Skype and WhatsApp and FaceTime, some students made long distance phone calls from his landline. Chand never charged them for it. He treated them like family, because their own families were so far away.
He had been a graduate student once, in a small town in Montana, tens of thousands of miles away from Vellore, his hometown in South India. Things were different then. When he moved to America, he called his parents once every three months, and was careful to think through what to say before dialing. Back then, calls cost three dollars for the first minute and one dollar for every minute thereafter. He remembered the loneliness, the immense sorrow that came from going months without uttering a word of Tamil. There was no way for him to express certain thoughts, certain feelings, in the English language. He remembered the warmth he felt when the one Indian professor on campus, a Punjabi chemical engineer named Dr. Gupta, occasionally invited him to his home for dinner.
In the early days, there had been almost no age difference between Chand and his students. He was like their older brother. When male students arrived, if they had no apartment to live in, he offered them the couch and a sleeping bag for as long as they needed it. He drove them to campus and took them out to lunch. With female students he was courteous and helpful, but careful not to be too nice. He knew that lunch with an unmarried girl could easily be seen as something different than what he intended. When he turned twenty-eight, he flew to India and married Raji, his selection from a shortlist of potential brides his parents had ready for him. He selected Raji for her sturdy build, and her steady gaze. Unlike the others, she did not look away when he spoke to her.
After Raji joined him in Pullman, they threw dinner parties for Indian graduate students several times a year. She cooked vats of food and sent students home with full stomachs and generous leftovers. Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers full of cinnamon and clove infused pulao made with Basmati rice and korma, with coconut milk and ground cashew nuts. When a Hindu student and a Muslim student fell in love and failed to win the approval of their parents in India, he and Raji held a small wedding for them in their own backyard. The bride wore a strand of jasmine in her hair, made with flowers Raji ordered from Seattle.
Chand and Raji invited Indian graduate students over for all the holidays that Americans gather for, when foreigners don’t know what to do. Easter, Christmas, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, which for years had been a festive, fusion meal in Chand and Raji’s house. Their older son, Mo, always made turkey with black pepper brine. Raji and Deepa, Mo’s wife, took care of the Indian food.
This year, no students expressed an interest in coming over for Thanksgiving. This did not surprise Chand. Grad students these days had more money. Flights were cheap, and Chand knew they liked to travel. Vegas. San Francisco. New York. What was unusual, though, was the call he got from an unknown number the Monday before the holiday. He was standing by the duck pond at Sunnyside Park with his family. His faded tan windbreaker, purchased at Marshalls twenty years ago, was zipped up to his neck to block the fall air. His four grandchildren were throwing stale pieces of bread into the pond for the ducks.
While Chand watched the birds fight over a particularly large piece of bread, his phone rang. The voice on the line explained that she was a reporter from The Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
“We have questions about your interactions with students,” the reporter said.
“Sorry?” Chand said. “It’s noisy here. Birds.”
“Lawn mowing, dishwashing, running errands,” she said. She sounded young, he thought, and spoke with an authority that only made her sound younger. “We’ve interviewed a number of your former Indian graduate students. They claim you made them do personal work for you against their will, that you never paid them. I’d like to hear your side of the story.”
“You must have the wrong number.” He felt his voice shift, squeak a little. He tried to make it lower and louder. “Bye.”
A moment later, the reporter called again.
“Parties, shoveling, the flood,” she said. “Remember the flood?” A flutter ran through his cheeks. How did she know these things? And why was she warping the truth?
“I don’t understand,” he said. “What is this?”
He walked to the other side of the park, stood near the metal door that led to the men’s bathroom and said, “Who have you been talking to?
“Listen,” she said, “We will be running a story even if you don’t talk to me. I’ll text you my information. Please call if you would like to talk.”
* * *
That evening in bed, he watched as Raji looked into a small round handheld mirror and plucked stray hairs from her eyebrows with the tweezers she kept on her nightstand, her nightly ritual. When she was done, he told her about the call. He kept his voice calm and his tone even. He spoke to her in Tamil, as he always did. She did not say anything aside from “And then?” each time Chand paused.
Her eyes were unreadable. He remembered how, years ago, she had locked her gaze with his and asked him if it was improper for a student named Arun to be helping them with yard work every week.
“Once or twice is okay,” she had said. “This is too much.”
“We are like family,” Chand had replied. “He has no problem with it. I told him it is only while my back is giving me trouble.”
Now, Chand said, “The best thing to do is stay silent.”
When Raji looked at him but did not answer, he added, “Right? I plan to call John soon.”
“Do you actually think he does not know?”
Chand sensed the irritation in her voice. John was the dean of Chand’s college at the university, but he was also Chand’s friend, and longtime tennis partner. Raji had always thought John was the selfish type—that he acted chummy but looked out only for himself.
“I doubt he knows,” Chand said. He turned his bedside light off. “He would have called. He’s with family for the holiday.”
Before he slept, Chand whispered. “Do not tell the boys yet. There is no need.”
* * *
Two days after Thanksgiving, after Chand’s sons and their families left, John called.
“I’m in Idaho. Bad phone service,” he said. “Trust me, I wanted to call earlier.”
John was in the Bitterroot Mountain, hunting for bears. He had taken Chand there once, to show him what it was all about. “I’ll make a Westerner out of you yet,” he said, as he slapped Chand on the back. The mountains were thickly forested and steeply planed. The morning Chand went out with John and his cousins, the weather was beautiful. Then, mid-day, it started pouring without warning. The men in John’s family traversed the land like they were mountain animals themselves, their sense of direction innate in spite of the poor conditions. Chand envied them.
He could picture John right now, wearing a green khaki shirt and grey pants, a Swiss army knife and headlamp in his side pocket.
“I tried to stop them back in October, Chandy,” John said.
“You knew about it that long ago?” Chand asked. “You didn’t you tell me? That reporter called and I was shocked. And you knew?”
“It got complicated, Chandy,” John said. “We have to launch an investigation.”
“Investigation?” Chand was in the living room, sitting on his leather armchair. He knew that Raji could hear him from the kitchen.
“We’ll clear you,” John said. “It’ll all be over by January.”
“Like two years ago?” Chand asked.
He heard another voice on John’s end, in the background.
“Just a moment,” John said to someone. “I’m almost done here.”
“A little more than two years ago. You’ll get an official call soon,” he said to Chand. “But I thought I should be the one to tell you.”
John’s words clung to Chand’s skin. Official call. Investigation. “Who will take care of my lab? Just don’t say Wenz.”
John was silent.
“Don’t say Banerjee,” Chand said. “Don’t.”
“Probably Banerjee,” John said. “I know what this must feel like. But he’s the best we’ve got right now.”
“You know he framed me! It had to be him,” Chand said. “Just like last time.”
“Hang in there,” John said. “Take a deep breath. I’m here for you.”
Not long after, a woman named Frances Chavez called from the university’s Ethics and Compliance Office to tell Chand he was suspended with pay until further notice.
“Your classes will be handled by another instructor. Your key card will be deactivated.” A letter would be arriving in the mail, she said.
“Who?” Chand said.
He raised his voice. “Who is my replacement?”
“I don’t have that information. Even if I did, I’m afraid I would not be at liberty to share it with you.”
“None of it is true,” Chand said.
“Professor Chandra…er, Chandrasekharan, I understand this is difficult. You do still get your paycheck.”
Mo and Murali called. Raji had told them. She could never keep anything from them.
“You need a lawyer,” Mo said. He was upset. “You should have told me as soon as you knew.”
“I was so confused. I know nothing about these legal things.”
“I’m a fucking lawyer,” Mo said. “Remember, you came to my graduation?”
Remember? I paid for it, Chand thought. And, language.
“You could have told me while I was carving the turkey. I’ll send you some names.”
“Can you be my lawyer?”
“I live in Virginia. You need someone there.” His voice softened, like he was reading a book to his preschooler, and he repeated, “I’ll send you names.”
Murali, in contrast, was worried about Chand’s health. He was a psychiatrist at Harborview Medical Center, in Seattle.
“Make sure you keep a schedule, Appa,” he said. “Drink water. Go for walks.”
“Go when you can.”
“You are not my doctor.”
“But I am a doctor,” he said. “Just keep a routine, Appa. Any routine.”
Afterwards, when Chand and Raji were having lunch at the dining table, he said, “The children act like I am someone they must put up with.”
“They care about you,” Raji said. “You misunderstand them.”
Chand laughed. Raji looked at him and then down at his plate of rice and stew, as if the explanation for his laughter must be in the food. She shook her head at him, bewildered.
“Do you see?” he said. “Isn’t this whole thing a misunderstanding. Between me, and them, and everyone.”
He fished a green moringa stick out of his stew with his finger. He sucked out the seeds and flesh. It was flavorless today, as bland as white rice, in spite of Raji’s careful preparation.
After they finished their lunch, he helped Raji put the food away and load the dishwasher. He watched her. She had a quiet, elegant sort of beauty. She moved with confidence and kept her back straight as she worked. Her hair was short and straight, with silver and red tones, and cut to the chin. At sixty-five, she was thoughtful about her looks, much more so than when she first moved from India to join him in America. She usually read for an hour or so after cleaning but today, she and Chand sat on the sofa. He lay his head down on her lap, and she massaged his forehead with her thumb and index finger.
“What will we do?” he said.
“Call the lawyer. Then wait and see.”
“I am being hunted,” he said, before closing his eyes.
She took her fingers off his forehead. He felt her body tighten under him.
Silence. And then, “That is not what this is.”
* * *
The lawyer that Mo recommended was a woman he went to law school with, who had a practice in Spokane. Chand and Raji drove to her office early Tuesday morning. Valerie Shaw was a slender woman, tall, with long, curly red hair. Her desk was large, made of Cherrywood, and very high. There was no chair behind it.
“I stand when I work,” she said. “But let’s sit.”
She pointed them towards a round table with four chairs, by a window that overlooked the Spokane River.
“It’s important that you give me all the information you can,” she said.
Chand handed her the papers that the university had mailed him, with details about his suspension and the investigation, and orders not to go to campus.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now I’d like to hear your side.”
Chand explained how he and Raji always treated students like family, how other faculty members were jealous–Wenz, Banerjee–how they had framed him.
Valerie smiled at Raji. “And how about you? What do you think of all this?”
“My husband is a good man,” Raji said. “This should not be happening to him.”
Valerie nodded. “Everything I’ll be doing is based on that,” she said. “That he’s a good man. A man who followed the rules.”
Chand was considering providing a written statement to The Daily News reporter. He handed his draft to Valerie.
“Absolutely not,” she said, skimming the text. “Do not talk to that reporter.”
* * *
The article in The Daily News came out a week later. The day it was published, Chand woke up at 4 a.m. He sat on his leather armchair by the fireplace, sipping on a cup of hot water with lemon until he heard the newspaper thud against the door. He retrieved it from a half-inch of fresh snow, pulled it out of its blue, plastic sleeve and rolled the rubber band off. Ink blackened the tips of his fingers. He looked at his picture on the center of the front-page. It was a headshot the newspaper had taken five years ago, when he won the university teaching award. He took the paper with him into the kitchen, filled a glass with water and took his diabetes medication. He turned on the light above the breakfast table and sat down to read.
“Professor Used Students as Servants for Decades,” the headline read. Underneath, in smaller letters, it said, “University Knew, Did Nothing.”
Over the course of close to thirty years, the article said, “Dr. T.K. Chandrasekharan systematically took advantage of his position as a faculty member by bullying dozens of graduate students from his home country of India, coercing them to do work for his personal benefit.” It went on, “Chadrasekharan, a renowned professor in the College of Pharmacy, has brought millions of dollars in grant funding to the university. This was perhaps why a related incident reported two years ago was covered up, according to sources familiar with the situation.”
Chand collected saliva into a ball in his mouth and pushed it through the gap between his two front teeth. The “incident” two years ago had been nothing, over before it started. John had said so himself. Just a student who had complained to the department about having to housesit without compensation. So much had happened in the last two years that Chand had forgotten about it. Since then, he had won one major federal grant, published four papers, presented at a half-a-dozen major conferences, and seen three former graduate students receive tenure at prestigious research universities.
According to the article, Chand had forced students to serve food and clean-up after his parties, do yard work, shovel snow, and check his mail when he was out of town. It boldly pronounced, “In India, this sort of deferential behavior is the norm between students and teachers.”
What could The Daily News possibly know about India? Chand puffed his cheeks and blew the air out slowly. “Tabloid,” he whispered, before reading on. “It was a sort of cultural exploitation on the professor’s part.”
His colleague Banerjee’s name was not mentioned, but Chand knew he was responsible for the smear campaign. He had to be. Chand tried to be nice when Banerjee first arrived six years ago and was hired as an associate professor. Banerjee had been born and raised in Milwaukee, to Bengali parents; as a fellow Indian, Chand wanted him to do well. He invited Banerjee and his wife and children over for dinner. He went out of his way to chat with him in the halls and in the faculty lounge. But Banerjee took an early disliking to him. Chand could feel it. The avoidance of eye contact, the curt answers to questions, the false smile when they were face-to-face, whether it was at the office or at a party in the home of another Indian family. Chand then took his own disliking to Banerjee, this young man who did not treat him with the sort of deference that he expected. And unlike Chand, Banerjee showed no special affinity towards Indian students. In fact, he seemed standoffish with them, never offering to see or help them outside of the college.
For all of his aloofness, Banerjee was popular in the Indian community. This perplexed Chand. Banerjee did not speak Hindi or Bengali and yet he and his pretty wife, a delicate-looking woman of Thai ancestry who wore saris with grace, were invited to all of the parties other Indian faculty members threw. They were equally at ease with the Indians from India, and the Indians who, like Mo and Murali, and Banerjee himself, had grown up in America.
Chand knew the precise point when Banerjee’s dislike turned to hate. Two years ago, when Banerjee was up for tenure, Chand did not support it. His research was not strong enough yet, Chand told the committee. And it was not a spiteful statement; it was true. Ultimately, Banerjee was given tenure anyhow. But Chand believed that Banerjee—in a fit of rage, after learning that his tenure had been threatened—convinced the student to file that housesitting complaint.
Chand finished reading The Daily News article, showered, and dressed himself. It was still dark outside and Raji was sleeping. He left the newspaper on his desk in his basement study. No need for her to see it first thing. A small, translucent spider ran across the paper. He caught it in his fist and released it outside. Then—his pockets full of rolls of quarters he had withdrawn from the bank the day before—he drove around town and bought every copy of the paper that he could find in street corner stands. He could have paid a quarter and grabbed them all, but he paid for each copy that he took. Integrity, he muttered to himself. He went to Bi-Lo when it opened at 7:30 and bought every copy there. So as not to seem odd to the cashier, he grabbed a box of orange Tic Tacs, and put it on the stack.
Next, he drove to IGA. In the parking lot, he turned the engine off and let his mind wander. He was at his house, some years ago, hosting a barbeque. “Hi, how are you? Welcome to Pullman. I’m Chand,” he said, out loud. He turned the engine back on.
The supermarket could keep its papers. What was he doing? He was a professor. A man of science and logic. And now he was buying piles of newspapers and talking to an imaginary student in his car. He drove away, angry and disturbed.
At home, he took the newspapers into the study and set them down on the floor of his supply closet, unsure of what else to do with them.
Raji came downstairs to check on him. She was already dressed for the day, in pale green slacks and a black sweater. She looked calm. She surveyed the room, and spotted the stack of newspapers in the closet.
“Do you think people will not read the story if you buy every copy in town?” she asked. She pointed to her phone, which she held in one hand. “I read the whole thing this morning.”
“Oh,” he said. It was only Raji telling him, but he still felt his face grow warm with embarrassment.
He looked at her. This time he could read her eyes: pity.
“Never mind,” she said. “Come upstairs for some tea.”
“In a minute.”
He closed the closet door. Even if he bought and burnt every copy in town, people could still read the story on their laptops, on their phones, while waiting in line for a turkey sandwich at Stax, while sitting on the toilet.
The rest of the morning went by quickly. He and Raji fielded phone calls from people who said they would stand by Chand. Raji’s friends. A few calls from colleagues, though Chand did not answer those. Their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lockney. Chand heard the old woman’s voice croaking through the landline. “He’s a good man,” she said to Raji.
Geetha Hariharan called and asked Raji if she could help, since she and her husband were both professors. “I am not afraid to get involved,” she said. Dr. Reddy, the oldest Indian professor in town, called Chand and said, “Jealous people are trying to make you look bad.”
Arun called from Atlanta. Raji tried to pass the phone to Chand, but he shook his head. He did not want to talk to Arun yet.
Other former students called. “Would you speak in my favor? If needed?” Chand asked each one. They all said yes.
“We have many friends,” Raji said.
But Chand saw it another way. Some people were not calling. Their friends who were also friends with Banerjee, for instance. And he had taught many students from India over the years. Only six called.
He pulled the article up on his phone. There were comments.
“We should have never let people like him come here,” someone called “Local Washingtonian” wrote.
“Disgusting,” was another comment, from a person named “PROUD Coug Alum.”
Chand wondered if he should post a comment anonymously, but thought that the lawyer, Valerie, would say that was a terrible idea.
That evening, he and Raji sat in the living room, exhausted. Raji reading Agatha Christie on the couch, Chand flipping through channels on the television, half expecting to see himself on the nightly news.
He closed his eyes. He was at a summer barbeque again. Maybe the same one, maybe a different one. He had thrown so many. Arun was using tongs to flip the tandoori chicken, tinged red from cayenne and the dash of food coloring Raji had put in the marinade. John was standing next to Arun, reaching for a piece that was nicely grilled with his fingers. Chand always invited John, and John often accepted. He loved Raji’s chicken.
“Good, isn’t it?” Chand said.
“What?” Raji asked, looking up from her book. “Did you say something?”
“Are you talking to yourself?”
* * *
The week after the article came out in The Daily News, The Spokesman Review ran an article about Chand. Two days after that, it was The Seattle Times, and the day after, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Calls came from reporters at least once a day. Each time, Raji said Chand was not home. The Spokesman Review reporter, a white-haired man with a smile as friendly as a car salesman, showed up at their front door. Chand watched from the window upstairs as Raji shut the door in the man’s face.
Valerie called and said she was preparing paperwork for him to sign, a formal complaint against the university for unfair treatment. “Don’t talk to any reporters,” she said again.
Chand found it impossible to work on his grant proposal. Most mornings, he sat in his study after breakfast, rereading The Daily News article that started it all. Every day, he pulled a fresh copy of the newspaper out of the closet, highlighted the article’s quotes in yellow, and then threw it in a plastic bin when he was done. Without classes to teach, without a lab to work in, this was his new routine.
He wore thermal socks to stay warm in the basement, and kept the door shut so Raji would know not to disturb him. Soon he had the article memorized, but still he reread it. He found that he craved it, same as his morning tea.
He shut his eyes and squeezed them tightly, wringing them for relief. Nothing came out.
He opened his eyes and kept reading.
“I felt threatened.”
Chand dragged a highlighter over the words, a quote from a former student. The black ink smeared slightly from the pressure of his pen.
“He said our student visas would be revoked if we did not listen to him.”
Had he really said that? If he had, it had absolutely been a joke. How could it have been mistaken for anything else? He tried to remember how and where, the exact words he might have used. Maybe it was at the Hariharan’s annual Lakshmi puja. No, it was not at a puja. It was at another one of his summer barbeques. He could feel it. Hot grill. Warm sun. Blue skies. Smoky tandoori chicken. He had been feeling good-humored. He’d had a beer, maybe two. “Hey, if you want to keep your visa, you better eat this chicken and tell Raji it’s good.” Something like that. John was there, that time too. Surely John had laughed.
Chand kept reading. One student said he “felt like a slave,” when Chand asked him to help clear the basement after the ’92 floods. Chand remembered the flood, how the water collected on one side of their slightly slanted basement, soaking through two cardboard boxes of books in his study room closet.
Mo and Murali had been preschoolers then, and Raji was sick with pneumonia. It was a Sunday, and he could not find any help to hire. He put the boys into their blue station wagon and drove to the lab to make sure there was no flooding there. His Indian students offered to help when they saw him carrying two children as he walked down the hallway. He never asked them. They came on their own and brought their friends. Everything was cleaned up in an hour. Chand took them to Pizza Hut afterwards and ordered five Veggie Lovers deep dish pizzas and three pitchers of Pepsi to thank them.
Chand counted. There were seven former students quoted. One current student spoke anonymously, complaining about having to load dishes after a party; he suspected this was Pramila, the modern girl from Mumbai who called Raji by her first name, instead of Raji Aunty. The seventh student quoted in the article—from twenty years ago—was Arun. Chand still owed him a call back.
“People may perceive things in a certain way, during or after an incident,” Arun told the paper. “I never felt threatened. I always felt it was voluntary.”
Chand used a green highlighter for Arun’s quote, pressing so hard the marker squeaked. Somehow, he found Arun’s quote more disturbing than the rest.
Arun had worked in Chand’s lab for a year, then transferred to Georgia Tech where he finished his PhD. It was a better fit for his research, and they had more funding for him. But during their short time together, Chand had grown fond of Arun. He came over often, and Mo and Murali liked playing basketball with him in the driveway. Arun was from Vellore like Chand; Chand’s father and Arun’s uncle had been Rotary Club friends.
* * *
Chand avoided leaving the house. The few times he did, he felt hollow, like a ghost. It did not help that it was early December, that time of the year when everyone acted lighthearted and happy, still positive about the season, not yet fully thrust into the holiday shopping frenzy.
“We need milk,” Raji said, one day. She was sitting on the couch and looked up from her reading. “Can you go to IGA?”
“You need to get out of the house,” she said.
“I am playing tennis with John later today.”
She took her glasses off and looked at him. “If you do not go, we cannot make tea tomorrow.”
“Sorry.” He shrugged.
* * *
Chand and John first started playing tennis together in 1988, the same year they both joined the university. They were the same height, around six feet, and similar builds, lean and stringy. As the years went by they even lost hair in the same pattern, leaving two white patches on the sides of each of their heads, causing John’s wife to joke that they looked like brothers.
Chand shivered as he waited outside the fieldhouse for his friend. He had forgotten his gloves, and his hands felt stiff as he held onto his racket and bag.
“Sorry I’m late,” John said breezily, when he arrived. “Should we start? Have to dash to my meeting in an hour.”
Chand was glad they were still playing tennis. It felt good to do one thing he had been doing before. It felt good to make contact with the ball, to hear its pock and watch it fly over the net and hit the court on the other side. Chand won the set easily. John’s volleys, normally solid and surprising, were off, and kept landing beyond the baseline.
After the first set, they stood by the metal bench near the net where they left their bags. John drank a bottle of yellow Gatorade and Chand drank cold water.
“Hey,” John said. His voice echoed through the fieldhouse. He lowered it. “Did you really ask ten students to empty your flooded basement with buckets? I hadn’t heard about that one.”
“They came because they wanted to. They offered. The paper has it wrong.”
“We—I mean, they—are looking into everything,” John said. He looked at Chand, his sharp jawline tilted upwards, his eyes thoughtful. “I’ve been wondering if you should resign before the hearing.”
“Resign?” Chand asked. This had not even occurred to him. “I have a lawyer now. I listen to what she says. She is working on something,” he said.
“I know. She’s been in touch,” John said. “I’m the dean, remember? I just don’t think she can do much for you.”
“What does that mean?”
“I was thinking out loud. Let’s play.”
“No,” Chand said. “I want to know.” He felt a twist in his stomach. A cramp.
“Look, you’ve brought in tons of money. I’m sure it will be fine. It was only a thought.”
John tightened the cap to his Gatorade and set it down. He took a ball out of his pocket and bounced it on the ground. “Let’s play.”
John won the second set. The third was close, but Chand was out of energy, and John won again.
“I’m out of time today, Chandy,” John said. He put his racket into its sleeve and picked up his bag.
Chand opened his wallet.
“You forgot the bill,” he called out to John.
They had passed this two-dollar bill, now soft and well-creased, back and forth for years. The person who won the match held onto it until next time.
But John was already too far away. He tossed his empty Gatorade bottle into the trash and waved his hand at Chand. “Keep it,” he said. “Can you get the balls?”
Chand squatted to the ground, picked up the balls one by one, and dropped them into the canisters. It was such a small thing, picking up tennis balls. He was always the one to do it after they played, though he’d never told Raji this detail. It would make her furious. But it had never bothered him, until today. Think about resigning, John had said.
* * *
On his way home, Chand felt guilty about the way he had spoken to Raji. He stopped by IGA and walked straight towards the back, where the milk was. He relaxed as he moved through the produce section, sensing that nobody was looking at him. They were all busy buying their groceries. Turning apples in their hands. Pulling single bananas off larger bunches. There was a pleasant melon scent in the air.
In the dairy aisle, his eyes scanned the rows of milk. Organic. Whole. 2%. They usually bought a half-gallon, since it was just the two of them. He decided to get a gallon so she wouldn’t send him back soon. Though, it wasn’t too bad, being in the store. Feeling at ease in public for the first time in weeks, he took the longer route back to the register and grabbed some of the mint chocolates Raji liked.
At home, he found her sitting on the couch with a cup of tea. She had a photo card in her hand.
“Holiday card from the Banerjees,” she said. She handed it to him. There was a note written on it, in what looked like a woman’s writing, soft and looping. “Raji and Chand – Wishing you all the best this holiday season. We hope to see you soon.”
Chand tore it in half.
“You parked in the middle of the driveway,” he said. “I couldn’t get into the garage.”
“I went out for milk, and when I was pulling in, my phone rang, so I parked quickly.”
“I bought milk,” Chand said. He held up the brown paper bag in his hand.
“After insisting you could not?”
“I was trying to be helpful.”
“Mo,” Raji said. “I answer when my children call. He told me you did not pick up when he called yesterday.”
“You think you are so good,” Chand said. He was surprised by his own anger. “You should have stopped me. You liked it.”
“Having the students come over. Having them do things. If I am guilty, then you are too.”
“Stop,” she said. He saw that she was on the verge of tears. He could always tell when it was happening: the swallow in her throat, half-formed, and the pooling in her eyes, ready to spill. But he could not stop.
“Leave, if you think I am so terrible,” he said. “Stay with Mo or Murali. Visit your sisters in Chennai.”
“Who do you think I am?”
She was going to stand up and walk away, he knew it. There was nothing he could do. She should walk away, he thought. Now he had ruined this, too.
But she stayed put, and somehow caught hold of herself, though the pools in her eyes remained.
“It is too late to talk about whether I tried to stop you or not,” she said in a clear voice, each word sharp and succinct. “All that has happened has already happened.”
* * *
On Christmas Eve, Chand pulled down the typed list of phone numbers and addresses that he and Raji kept on the fridge door, nervously pocketing the magnet that held it up.
He found Arun’s number and dialed it.
“Chand Uncle,” Arun said. “How are you?”
“Arun, am I a bad person?”
“Did I force you to do yard work?”
“I did not have to say yes.”
“I trusted you.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you had said something. If you told me I was doing something wrong, I might have been more careful,” Chand said. “I treated you the way I treat my own kids. That’s how I treated all of you.”
“Uncle, I should go. We have guests coming.” Arun sounded distant, like his mind had already left the call.
“Wait,” Chand said. “Wait. Your transfer. Did you leave because of me?”
This was the question Chand needed the answer to. This is what he had been scared to ask Arun for weeks. If he did not ask, he could believe for the rest of his days that the paper was wrong, that Banerjee was wrong, that every student who spoke out against him was wrong.
“I left because it was better for my research,” Arun said. Chand closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“And yes, I left because of you,” he added.
After they hung up, Chand turned around to see Raji in the doorframe. She had been listening.
“I think it’s over now,” he said. She put her arms around him. She was more than half a foot shorter than him, so as she squeezed his chest he turned his head sideways to press his cheek to the top of her head, inhaling the musky scent of the amla oil in her hair.
She was there, with him. What could he count on as the facts in his life? A career, a woman, two children. A house. A life in America. Hundreds of students. For all of this, there was plenty of evidence. But what about the truth of who he was, of how he had lived? There was no accounting for this, exactly, on paper. This was not a question of salary, of summation, of awards or grants. It was a feeling, a sense of himself that he once had, that was being erased and rewritten without his consultation.
He felt the warmth of Raji’s body against his.
“I am here,” Raji said.
* * *
Chand emptied his office after New Year’s. There was no party, no cake, no farewell. It went into the books as a resignation, so his pension remained intact; the lawyer negotiated that for him. He had worked long enough to earn this. The house was paid off, and he and Raji had Medicare. Financially, he had nothing to worry about.
In the days and months that followed, he went for long walks. He played tennis with John occasionally. He could not read anything scholarly—that level of concentration was gone, and he did not know if it would ever return. He and Raji were still invited to some parties, though he suspected they were excluded from others. If she suspected the same, she never mentioned it. When Mo and Murali called, Chand held the phone for as long as they spoke, showing no hurry, but it was impossible to really listen.
* * *
One morning in mid-April, Chand woke and went downstairs to the breakfast table. He sat across from Raji, who had just finished her cup of tea. They were quieter these days, orbiting each another without ever colliding. She started talking to him—telling him about the new mystery she was reading, about the new chairs at the senior center, about pictures of the grandchildren that Mo’s wife had sent.
“Are you listening?” she asked, her voice tender. “Should I say it again?”
He tried to remember what she was talking about. Some of her eyelashes were going gray. Some of her eyebrow hairs too. He had never noticed this before. How quickly she was aging, and yet how beautiful she remained. He took a breath.
“No, keep going Raji,” he said. “Tell me about the book.”
Sindya Bhanoo is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Granta, Glimmer Train and elsewhere. She was the 2020 winner of the DISQUIET Literary Prize and her work has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A longtime newspaper reporter, she has worked for The New York Times and The Washington Post.