The Fruit Basket

by Sumita Lall

Divi was tired of American prospects.

There was something perverse about the way Amit tossed around his "Absolutely!", a term that had itself become obscene in recent years, excessively dropped in mundane references to the weather—"Nice day." "Absolutely!"—and touted as a penultimate expression of enthusiasm, an American obsession with false assurances that the world could no longer tolerate or patrol.

It was clear to her that this man possessed enthusiasm neither for the weather nor for both their parents' desperate pleas that they indulge this collective fantasy of border-crossed romance. In fact, the latest venture involved her family's trip to Detroit for the delivery of a gift to Amit's family, a kind of apology for Divi's shunning of this shining candidate a year ago.

"It won't hurt you to call him. The Chaudharys are very forward-thinking people," Divi's mother insisted. She used her most casual tone, but it was strained and embittered after years of trying to reason with her eldest child. She was absolutely sure the children's father was to blame, hiding behind his newspaper and books, muttering his "Acha"s and "Chalo, tik hay"s and other dismissals at these obvious moments of crisis. "Hai Ram! She'll never marry, just like all your sisters and then who else can we blame for allowing this Chaudhary affair to slide so far out of reach."

"You can blame me for the affair," Divi tried to tell her mother. But it was clear how much mummy and daddy loved their roles in this game of martyr chases hermit, the suffering her mother endured relying so smoothly on the reclusion her father demanded. Many battles won and lost amounted to a pleasurable symbiosis in the end, Divi concluded, and so she need not interfere with heroic gestures. After all, thirty-four was such a perfect age for self-discovery, and what drama could marriage offer that could possibly compete with the freedom of personal growth?

In spite of her family's frantic searches through India Abroad's matrimonials, she sensed somewhere in her defiant soul that no absolute could coincide with matrimony. In fact, Amit's panicked "Absolutely!" struck Divi as perfectly empty, a sentiment they probably both shared while ordering their dinners almost one year ago, passing time with medico-banter about some latest breakthrough in a journal. And if her mother insisted she become a repository of some vestigial absolute, then Divi was sure this man would not serve his purpose.

There was nothing charming about Amit. Sure, he was accomplished—what doctor wasn't in her parents' eyes?—but, like other Michiganders, spent his Sunday afternoons watching football and, worse yet, talking about it. All her small-town Canadian life, Divi had avoided exactly this kind of man, the kind who rattles off statistics about players and plays, who treats every girl he meets like a buddy in his fantasy football league. It had to be the desperation her mother imposed on her that explained her acquiescence to the "give this boy a chance" mantra her mother loved to recite, every year passing with less and less actual desperation on her end. Or perhaps it was the dirty looks her sister and brother gave her at the dinner table when she visited on the weekends, hardly a response suitable for their ages but an accumulation of their sorry functions as confidants for an anxious mother.

The tragedy was that for all her father's slack on the marriage issue, her siblings had absorbed all their mothers' obsession, combing through the matrimonials with an almost freakish fervor usually reserved for busybody aunties in search of roles as matchmakers. Perhaps her siblings were seeking a kind vengeance for the fates they presumed awaited them, and one could detect a hint of irritability as they announced their latest finds and tittered at awkwardly untranslatable phrases like "In search of a homely girl, fair, cast no bar."

Moon-faced, Divi was indeed homely enough for the tastes of average suitors. At least her face suited the tastes of most Nutan-loving parents, reminding them of classic ingénues playing innocent village girls and naïve temptresses.

"Has anyone ever told you that you look a little like Madhuri Dixit?" Amit asked at dinner.

"No. Thanks," she said. Yes, she had been told as much but no, it wasn't necessary to coax Amit on in this silly charade. She knew her response was clipped, but Amit was clearly using flattery as a decoy behind which he could find shelter from what little existed between them as common ground. Strangely exposed, his words uncannily revealing the gap that exposed both of them, Amit returned to his chewing. There wasn't much more one could say after such a comment, was there? Regardless, Divi wasn't exactly sure she wanted to confront what would never lie ahead of them anyway.

"Amit's parents told me he had a good time," Divi's mother said the next day.

"That's nice," Divi said. She did not feel obliged to explain these words, hoping that the word nice would trick her mother into thinking she had attributed the adjective to the boy in question. The ploy worked.

So when a gift of an eight-pound fruit basket was finally delivered to the Chaudhary's suburban home almost a year later—under the pretense of a shopping trip to the U.S.—so much more than Amit's forgiveness was at stake. The mothers had orchestrated a reunion of sorts, a yoking of forgotten commonalities, a rediscovery of ancient communal bonds, and, if all worked out as planned, a little bit of revision work, too. Over their numerous conversations at parties, casual phone calls, and hints through mutual friends, the mothers had hoped they could initiate in their eldest children the very chemistry that had saved their own marriages all these years, a "getting to know each other with fresh eyes."

"...Han ji, absolutely in the dark about what really matters, nahin?" Mrs. Chaudhary told Divi's mother a month earlier during a Karwa Chauth puja, their platters clanking as they set them down on the ground in front of them.

"Bechari Divi, what can she know about true bonding?"

What the mothers knew was that their clever staging required a ruse.

Divi's mother decided late that night that a friendly gesture, perhaps some mithai for Diwali or, better yet, a neutral-seeming fruit basket for the upcoming holidays (didn't Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in November?), would be the perfect re-union excuse. The next week, she searched grocery flyers for sales but found no dried Genoa figs, Medjool dates, or pistachios that looked fresh enough. Instead, she decided to visit the Persian stall at the Rivard street market, perhaps the Lebanese bakery for jams and nuts. She imagined the plump and decadent fruits she would find at Ho Viet and Chohan's grocery stores. What would she write on the note? "From our family to yours at this festive time" sounded good. It could work charms.

"Priya, do you want to help me assemble all these items in a basket?" she asked her youngest daughter, a girl whose unique talents would keep her from a match like Amit. After all, Priya was the type of gol-matol who sang, wrote, and danced her way into hearts, and heaven only knew how little value such flightiness ever held in their own circles. Performances at Diwali were one thing, but marriage was an entirely different matter.

Priya peered into an open bag on the kitchen counter and realized she was in over her head. "The basket's too small, mom."

"It will fit."

"Not with grass! Baskets need grass. And cellophane, something bright." And with that final comment, Priya carefully placed each item on the counter, sizing up their weight and angles through squinted eyes, picturing the color of the bow to tie around the cellophane bunched like a pompom on top. She remembered seeing some fancily packaged crackers in their cupboard, randomly placed in a generic basket her father had recently brought home.

"That's stupid," Vijay said as he crept up behind her. "There's no unity to this thing you're constructing. Who puts Water (c) Crackers in an Indian-inspired basket? Give it to me: you don't know." And with that, Vijay dissembled the motley montage his little sister had spent a good hour building. Defeated, Priya found a stool with her feet, swallowed hard, and sat gazing at her brother's attempt to shove each item in their place. It was packed, sans grass, and so Vijay decided that it was ready for his finished touches. "Priya, go find some plastic wrap."

There was only one place to look. The top shelf of the guest closet was itself stuffed with saris (in their own crunchy mothball-smelling cellophane), embroidered shawls, fabric for salwars that were never sewn, brass inlaid vases and other potential gifts, but it also held a box containing little bits of ribbon, roles of wrapping paper, remnants, and used bows. Neatly tucked in one corner was a folded square of pink cellophane left over from a tube that probably went missing several years earlier. At least it was big enough for the inappropriately small basket mummy and Vijay had insisted on using. Before closing the doors, Priya grabbed a spool of green ribbon that never seemed the right color for gifts. This pink wrapping was no exception, but at least there was enough to tie all the way around the gift and leave dangling for curls at the top. The green certainly clashed once Vijay had taken away his finger and the bow was tied, but they reminded themselves that it was the gesture that counted in the end.

"It's just a token," Divi's mom loved to say about most things sentimental.

Mrs. Chaudhary had picked up gulab jamun from Troy on her way back from the Bhartiya Temple that afternoon, all in anticipation of Divi and her family's visit that afternoon. She would serve them warm with fresh strands of kesar, very auspicious, floating in the syrup and complementing the elaichi in her tea. She was a little annoyed by all the noises her very masculine household seemed to attract into her life, and so she asked Amit to turn off the television until her guests had left.

"Make an effort to ask her about her interests, Amit. These days, girls do not want to be treated like dolls."

Amit hardly knew who was planning to show up. All he knew was that a Canadian girl his mother had asked him to take out a year earlier was shopping with her family in the U.S. and would be dropping by for tea that afternoon. He remembered that she was in medical school and that he had shared with her his mother's assessment of her looks, that she looked like an actress with a name that ended in D. Dick-shit? No, that couldn't be it.

When the doorbell rang its cheery chime of a Christmas carol, "Greensleeves" coming closest to a Hindustani raga with its minor notes, Mrs. Chaudhary was a little disappointed that she had to remind her son to follow her into the foyer.

"Namaste ji, welcome." Several welcomes followed the first in a singsong chant that felt both familiar and alienating to Priya and Vijay. They had grown accustomed to forced jollity, but repeated words of welcome still made them uncomfortable. How should one respond? Hello, hello, hello, thank you, thank you, thank you? And all of this before even taking off one's coat?

Mrs. Chaudhary kept smiling and repeating her words, her voice cracking slightly on her final few welcomes and her eyes darting from face to face until they settled on the porch beyond the open door.

Divi's mother followed her friend's gaze, waiting for the perfect moment to nudge Priya so that she could hand over the basket, a peace-offering for last year's misunderstanding and wishful symbol for all that promised to unfold from that moment forward.

Amit nervously grabbed each coat, trying to remember the face he had seen a year earlier. The bright November chill of sun and snow blasted through the open door and into the foyer, briefly transporting him to the confusion he felt as a child taking his first step out the door on his way to school just before Thanksgiving break. He wondered why his mother hovered at the door, still chanting her welcomes, now almost inaudibly, and ignoring the girl that appeared before him who couldn't be older than twelve.

"Divi is still in the car?" Mrs. Chaudhary asked, hoping to see a timid ghost of a figure gathering her purse and slowly mincing her way up the sidewalk Amit's father had shoveled just that morning.

"She is busy studying," Divi's mother lied. And in that moment, elbow poised to nudge, husband puffing futile bursts of hot air into his palms, son shivering as he shimmied off his ski- jacket, youngest child anticipating the surprise she had hoped to encounter as she passed Mrs. Chaudhary the gift, Divi's mother knew the romance had ended.