Reshmi Hebbar

Agents of Purification

If there was a side to getting older that wasn’t sad, it was that dinner parties with the family friends wound up earlier. For his parents’ forty-fifth anniversary, Arjun felt that this type of large three-hour affair would be better than a whole trip away with everyone. And it wasn’t just because it was easier to stay away from pot for an evening versus a whole weekend.  

A banquet party held in the Hindu temple’s basement rec room would provide plenty of distractions, deflecting his parents’ attention away from him, from whether he had shaved, or washed his car, or whether he had updated his edition of Turbo Tax. Arjun could sidestep their reconnaissance tactics by throwing himself into organizational tasks, by horsing around with Ravi’s kids. But now that the party was over and most of the guests had left, Arjun was antsy, anticipating hostile territory before he could see it. Any minute now someone would ask him about going back to grad school or suggest that he move out of his downtown condo. And Arjun would have to take it straight.    

“Throw the leftover chutney away! Don’t put it back in the jar,” their Amma directed, swooshing across the room in her silk sari, her finger indicating the stainless-steel bowls that Arjun had covered with plastic wrap. He pivoted and overturned the bowls into his trash bag, like a needle pushed on from a skipping record track.  

“No need for everyone to have to stay,” their Appa called from the kitchen service window. “Amma and I can finish cleaning up. Ravi, the kids must be tired?”

“Appa, they’re passed out. We’re staying. We planned this party for you. You guys should take the car and go home.”

Arjun stopped himself from rolling his eyes. At forty years old, he was beginning to understand that all relationships, not just those between siblings, were difficult only when people responded to stimuli better left alone. This was why a numbing agent was preferred even if it wasn’t always the best option. Ravi’s wife, Kavya, was seconding Ravi’s motion of leaving the cleanup to the younger folks, nod-wagging her head in an annoyingly submissive way. But Arjun couldn’t worry about it. Yes, Ravi always did whatever his parents wanted, including importing a wife from India, but Arjun had come too far to fixate now on those details. Here he was at the temple again, where he hadn’t voluntarily been in over two decades. For one night, he could turn down the treble a little in his mind and isolate just the bass, follow in its strong but unremarkable tread as he’d been trying to do his whole life. He could do it without the headphones he would have needed as a teenager, without rancor, and without being high, just as Teresa had suggested.    

“We cannot just leave. No way,” their Amma said, sounding just shy of angry. “Radha Auntie and Jagdish Uncle are here helping us.”

If there was anyone who really needed to try pot for their own wellbeing, it was Arjun’s mother.

“Amma, why don’t all of you guys go, Auntie and Uncle, too,” Arjun’s twin sister, Pallavi, tried again. She stood tall in shiny leggings and a long kurti, an outfit that was neither Indian nor American. Mallory, who’d been introduced to every family friend as Pallavi’s work colleague, wore salwar kummies. Their Amma had smiled politely at Mallory while greeting her without asking her where she had got the clothes.

“Do you think that this Mallory’s parents went to college?” their Amma had whispered at Ravi and Arjun as they were setting up the microphone an hour before the party began. Arjun had bent to untangle a chord, thankful that the mic was still turned off. “Because you know I’ve heard that a lot of these blacks did not have opportunities to go to college many years ago like they do now.”

“Mallory’s multiracial, Amma,” Arjun found himself saying.

“Why does it matter whether Mallory’s parents are educated?” Ravi cut in, and Arjun felt an unfamiliar flare of pride in his brother shoot upwards. “She’s Pallavi’s work buddy, right? That’s what we’re telling people. That’s what we told the kids. This is your night, Amma. We don’t need any weird complications.”

Arjun had remembered then why he needed drugs to handle being around his family. He clicked the mic into its stand. “Amma, please don’t say anything about being black tonight,” he tried. “This is someone Pallavi loves.”

“I’m not hearing this,” Ravi had said in a singsong voice, and Arjun had been reminded of long-ago family road trips, the three kids squashed in the back bench seat, Ravi with his fingers over his ears as the twins chanted television theme songs at an impossible pitch: “Together, we’re going to find our way, you and I . . . !”

When they had been children, Pallavi and Arjun had worked together in this way, like two players inexpertly whacking the ball of unmet expectations back and forth under the eager umpiring of their parents, until Ravi would come home from mowing the neighbors’ yards, or volunteering at the temple, or making the Dean’s List in the Ivy League, with the perfect slice shot to end every game. Even back when Ravi had told their parents about the marijuana Arjun had hidden in the cassette cover of his dubbed copy of Moondance, Pallavi had not jumped to taunt Arjun or make his high school years any harder than they then became.  

“Appa and I pack up food at home every day, so this is no big deal,” their Amma said now. “You kids should go,” she finished without enthusiasm.

“Excuse me but has somebody seen our key fob?” their Amma’s oldest friend, Radha Raman, asked. She held a stack of silver trays in one hand and rifled through the tote bags arranged on the setup table with the other.

“Everybody check your purses and pockets,” their Appa ordered, jumping into project-manager mode, as if he had not been retired for years. “Arjun, you check the stage, and Ravi and Pallavi, go look in the bathrooms.”

“So sorry,” Radha Auntie mumbled. “Shruti’s already taken the kids and gone home, but I don’t think our key is with them.”

Arjun listened to the sounds of worry and reassurance cooing behind him as he mounted the stage, skirting the sides where the curtains hung. This hunt for keys was a better diversion than he’d hoped for. It would probably take another half hour at most to find them and get out of there. He would have survived the evening, and he would have done so clean. Teresa would see it as a step in a healthy direction. The smell of incense and old leather, sugar cubes and cashews were somehow held in the stage curtains’ folds, the aroma of his teen years, of the last events he’d been forced to participate in, the skits for Gandhi’s birthday, the folk dances on Diwali.

“It’s not in the bathrooms,” Pallavi called from the doorway to the stairs. “Amma, do you think that the priest could have taken it?”

Their mother had emptied all the tote bags out onto the setup table, whether in search of the keys or revising their packing efforts Arjun could not guess.

“Why would the Pujari take the key? He lives here in this compound only.”

“Never mind, Amma. It was just a thought.” Pallavi waved her hand. “Sometimes people can get those key fobs mixed up.”

“I’m telling you, Pallavi, the man does not need to drive!”

“Ok, ok. Forget it.”

Not for the first time in recent years, Arjun wondered if something else besides her disappointment in her younger two children had occurred in his mother’s life to make her so testy. His position on top of the stage granted him a rare vantage point of his family stepping out of their usual roles. He could see the truth of Ravi’s wife’s exhaustion as she sat at a table and stroked the hair of one of her sleeping children. He saw his Appa warily turn away from the doorway where Mallory was joining Pallavi, as if he was frightened by the prospect of them being amorous. He saw Jagdish Uncle, whose keys they were all seeking, yawn and pop a laddu from one of the unpacked containers into his mouth. Ravi had disappeared. If the brothers had a better kind of relationship, this would have been the time to share a smoke in the parking lot, to decompress after the stressful weeks of party prep, the micromanagerial e-mails from their Appa, the priest’s interminable ritual that took place upstairs near the gods before dinner started. The showy congratulation toasts given by family friends hours earlier, the slightly awkward speeches made by himself and Pallavi.

“No keys in the men’s bathrooms! I checked the upstairs ones, too,” Ravi’s voice shot across the room now. He strode over to their father, not quite dismissing his wife’s hand motions that beckoned him towards the table where she sat. Their Amma was at the sink by the kitchen service window, a rush of water hissing around her unseen. Itchy for activity, Arjun trudged down the stage steps and noted that the tote bags had been somehow refilled, the trash bags stuffed and cinched. Trays of fruit from the pooja upstairs were set in a row on the table’s bench seat, one for every group of guests remaining, ready to be taken like party favors as soon as the sign was given that this evening could be concluded. In his peripheral vision he saw his Appa coming towards him. Arjun held his breath.   

“I took a round through the parking lot, but I didn’t see anything,” his Appa spoke. “So, Arjun, how’s that Maxima these days? Amma and I need to buy a new car. We’re thinking SUV.”

Arjun unclenched his fingers around the tote bag he’d picked up. There had been a time when just the sound of his father’s footsteps coming downstairs would be enough to make his fingers twitch for a joint. Would make him regret not wearing his headphones out of his room.

“Appa, I told you we’d get you a car for your seventy-fifth birthday,” Ravi said, appearing by their father’s side. “Just give it a couple of years.”

Their Appa laughed and took the tote from Arjun’s hands. When he moved out of earshot, Arjun couldn’t resist.  

“That’s going to be one of those situations where I just put my name on the card,” he quipped, watching his brother check his phone. Ravi was still trim, even at forty-four. Though his face had filled out and was prone to give an “Uncle” expression in photographs, his brother was still the posterchild of how to grow up, with prosperity and physical health plainly evident in his ironed kurta over dress slacks, his late-model iPhone gleaming with updates about fifteen patients under his care at the hospital.

“Hmmm?” Ravi looked up from his phone with a smile, his poise unruffled. Even after all these years, he was still asking to be messed with.

“Not all of us has got that kind of cash, you know. I’ll probably just get Appa a year’s worth of Netflix for his seventy-fifth.”

“Oh,” Ravi responded, his phone back in his pocket, an uncertain look replacing the smile that had been there. “I meant Kavya and I would get him a car. No worries.”

“Relax. I’m kidding,” Arjun said, not certain if he meant it. 

“Ravi, Samir says his stomach is hurting,” Kavya announced. She was carrying Arjun’s nephew in her arms although the kid was two thirds her size, his arms dangling down her back, his sneakers digging into the gauzy fabric of her Indian formalwear.

“Just put him over there and let him lie down.” Ravi pointed to the large setup table. “I’ve got to talk to Arjun about that thing.”

Arjun watched his sister-in-law heave her son onto the table and deftly set a tote on its side to serve as his pillow. He didn’t want to guess what his brother wanted to talk to him about. As recently as five years before, Ravi had offered to get Arjun a position at the hospital architecting software for insurance compliance, which would have paid more than Arjun’s role as a network administrator for the university that employed himself and Teresa. Arjun hadn’t verbally attacked his brother then as he had done whenever Ravi had tried to steer Arjun’s career in high school, hounding him about not giving up Forensics and insisting that he sign up for Advanced Placement courses. He’d simply said that he wasn’t interested in working at a hospital and left it at that. There was no need for Arjun to explain his fear of random corporate “drug” tests, or his even greater concern that working in an environment with access to so many substances might prove too strong a temptation, especially if he tried to do something to impress his family.  

“What’s up?” Arjun asked his brother now.  

“You’re still single, right?” Ravi began.

Arjun laughed for a moment before answering. “I’m not interested.” He did not want to talk about Teresa.

“No, no. I’m not trying to set you up with someone,” Ravi tried again, his face rippling with concern.

“Then, what?”

“I need to talk to you about being the kids’ primary guardian in case something happens to Kavya and I,” Ravi finished.

Arjun stared at his brother. Then his eyes searched the room for a sign that someone else had heard this wild request. There were his parents, bending under the back tables, and Radha Raman, sweeping the floor. Kavya was holding their other child, a girl sleeping peacefully with her mouth open. Mallory and Pallavi had disappeared.

 “I just figured you would be the closest thing to us,” Ravi spoke nervously over Arjun’s silence. “I thought about Pallavi, but, you know . . . ” 

Arjun ran his fingers through his hair and tried to locate a sense of resolve. It was like Ravi was proposing to him in a way, and he had become one of those would-be fiancés who needed time to think before accepting. Arjun had never understood how people could be so wishy-washy in those moments, and now here he was in the same predicament, never having been proposed to or having proposed anything so serious in his life. Could he be a parent? 

“You’re saying my lifestyle choices are a better match for your kids than Pallavi and maybe Mallory?” Arjun asked hesitantly. He wanted but also did not want to allude to the past.  

“Yeah. Sure. I mean, you’re straight. You may get married still, and that’s fine.”

“Ah,” Arjun replied. Ravi clearly did not suspect him of recreational marijuana use in his adulthood. But hadn’t his brother liked their cousin’s post on Facebook a while back when California legalized pot? Did clicking “like” on a post mean you totally approved, though? Could Arjun really open up to Ravi now about his occasional use–no more than twice a week, really? Would it put Arjun lower on Ravi’s list of desirable replacement parents?

Did Arjun want to be desirable?

“I mean, I think it’s great how you seem to be getting stuff together,” Ravi went on, unconsciously playing with some coins in his pockets.

Arjun felt pleased, then insulted, and then sad.

“Look,” Arjun stepped closer to his brother and whispered. “You should know that I still smoke pot sometimes. I’m trying to stop. Eventually.”

Ravi’s expression was unreadable, one which Arjun assumed was the face he wore to give his patients alarming news.

“Why are you trying to stop if you’ve been doing it all along?” he asked.

Arjun opened his mouth and closed it. Was this some sort of Jedi mind trick? Why was Ravi being so blasé about Arjun’s admission?

“Whatever, Arjun. Just think about it, ok? Hopefully, it never happens. If you still want to do that once in a while, I’m not going to let it deter me. Maybe I’ll leave both you and Pallavi as guardians, and the kids can be raised in some sort of hippy commune or whatever. At least it will be family.”

Arjun blinked at his brother, trying to process the implications of Ravi’s words. What did it mean if Ravi could be cool about smoking pot (was Ravi cool?), and what did he mean by “once in a while”?

What did it mean that Ravi could say this now after the manner in which he’d exposed him when he was a teen, the self-righteous way he’d allowed Arjun to be persecuted by his parents, banned from temple camp, banned from temple activities, banned from closing the door to his room, so that every time Arjun listened to his stereo, he’d have to use headphones, isolating him further from the world he’d only wanted to escape and not lose permanently. Who was Arjun if he was not the opposite of Ravi, if he did not believe in the things that Ravi would find unthinkable? What did it mean that Ravi was now making allowances for a habit that Teresa could not?   

“Sure man, of course. Put me down,” Arjun heard himself say now. He batted aside a suspicion about Teresa’s religion being the reason she’d skipped out on the temple party. He had liked the thought of presenting her at the anniversary, her lithe Korean body looking graceful in a sari, his Appa raising an eyebrow at her biology PhD, his Amma noting her polite Asian way of being around parents. But then Teresa had said that he should go to the party alone, that he should try to make himself “stronger” about dealing with reality. One of the things Arjun loved about being high was the displacement of time and sense, the feeling of not knowing whether things that seemed real were actually happening or not. Now here was Arjun with absolutely nothing in him, wondering what reality was.

“We should all go home now,” Radha Auntie suggested, taking a tote over her shoulder. “I’ll call everybody tomorrow to see who has the key.”

Pallavi, who had returned with Mallory, exchanged a glance across the expanse of the rec room with Arjun. They were finally being released.

“No, no, Radha!” their Amma cried from the stage, where she appeared to be redoing Arjun’s search. “Once we go home and put everything back, the key will definitely be lost.”

“But Amma, what if somebody else has already taken it? What difference will us staying make now?” Pallavi was more frank than usual. Mallory had one hand on her back and was rubbing it.

“Nobody else has taken it. I am sure.”

At this point, a noise rang out around the rec room and repeated itself, a liquid vacuum sound familiar enough but incongruous with the setting of a temple.  

“Samir!” Kavya cried, setting down her daughter and rushing over to the setup table, where the boy was now sitting up, his sneakers dangerously close to their Amma’s purse. He was crying miserably. “Oh, no! He’s vomited everywhere,” Kavya reported, using the clinical term that Indians favored and causing her son to start hiccupping in humiliation.  

“My goodness,” their Appa cried from the far end of the table, “it’s all over the prasadums, too!” He rushed back towards the kitchen, their Amma at his heels calling out specifications.

“We’ll have to clean everything again. The prasadums must be washed in the sink completely. They’re blessings from God!” she exhorted, as if everyone in the room, save maybe Mallory, did not know this.

“It’s ok, buddy,” Ravi was saying to his son before disappearing into the kitchen after his parents and wife.

“Use soapy paper towels!” their Amma commanded.

“Cleanup is taking very long, no?” the priest intoned as he trotted now into the rec room, his white loin cloth having been replaced with sweatpants and an overlarge T-shirt. “Somebody is missing this?” he asked, holding up a narrow and flinty object.

“Oh, Pujari, that is our key fob!” Radha Auntie scrambled away from the mess at the table and took it. “Thank you for finding it.”

“My mistake. Without my glasses it was looking like my pocketknife, you see,” the priest explained before turning away to go. “Everyone drive safely!” he called when he got to the doorway, and Arjun, for reasons he could not explain, felt a strange longing for the past from the ring of his accent, the sharp extra vowel added to his admonition: “yeveryone.”  

Arjun heard the Van Morrison track cue up in his head then as he walked towards his nephew and tousled his hair.

“You just had to go and puke your guts out on our blessings, huh, kid?” he said, sparking animation out of poor Samir, who started laughing through his tears.

“What did the Pujari say?” he heard his Amma demand as she rushed out of the kitchen with wisps of wet paper towels in her hands. “Did he see all the prasadums?”

Arjun ignored her. It wasn’t the first time she’d been wrong, not including when, in his fifteenth year, while laying down the punishment for smoking, she told him angrily that “God would not forgive” him, and not including the afternoon he was busted, after Ravi had returned from college and shown her the cassette cover with the little baggie in it, when she’d insisted that it was only oregano, furious at her children for having raided her spices.

Who could be sure what smaller impulses motivated people to respond the way they did, whether it was denial, or betrayal, shame, or ultimate acceptance?

Arjun shepherded his nephew towards the men’s room, moving easily out of the commotion, his mother, father, and his brother and wife, all of them with spray bottles and towels, agents of purification in their hands. His sister stood next to her lover with the same look she’d worn that day when Arjun assumed his life would be ending, his mother raving about oregano, Ravi smirking, and Pallavi flashing a look of fear mixed with thrill, like a driver passing an accident on the side of the road. I wonder if it will be bad, her face had said. I wonder if there will be a body.

Reshmi Hebbar has a PhD in English from Emory University and is an associate professor of multicultural literature at Oglethorpe University, where she produces a fictional podcast series on South Asian lives. She has published nonfiction at Slate and fiction at Funicular Magazine and The Account and has fiction forthcoming at West Trade Review and The Santa Fe Literary Review. She lives with her husband and two daughters outside of Atlanta.