This was the first moment he’d felt outright alarm. Oh, there’d been intense feelings aplenty since arriving in India—awe certainly, delight too, and no few instances of disgust—but it was only sitting in this small dim room surrounded by eleven ladies in bright saris that he’d sensed such open hostility.

“What do you intend to offer our students?” asked Mrs. Sharma, the department chair. She gestured for a servant to pour tea.

Overhead a ceiling fan turned slowly, as if to acknowledge the heat rather than relieve it.

Matthew Saunders, sweating and uncomfortable, wondered if the question were some kind f trick. “As we discussed in the correspondence . . . ”

We were not privy to any such correspondence,” snapped Mrs. Kapoor, who was sitting at the other side of the circle, wrapped in purple and gold. “We only learned of your appointment yesterday when the faculty reconvened for the new term.”

He nodded, feeling foolish, yet unable to provide a better response on the spot. He considered tasting the tea in order to temporize, to distract his antagonists. But the chamber was already stifling and hot tea could only make things worse. A drop of sweat gathered dramatically at the tip of his chin and, before he could swipe it away, dove in full view of his audience toward his lap.

Though swathed in their lavishly flowing saris, the ladies of the English department seemed perfectly at ease, save for their open annoyance at having this male thrust upon them.

Dr. Indra Banerji, president of Lady O.D.C. College, had informed him earlier that same morning that he would be the first man ever to serve in the faculty ranks of her elite institution. She had made it sound an honor and privilege. Only now did he grasp the equal measure of peril.

“It’s not really an appointment per se,” Saunders replied in the direction of Mrs. Kapoor. “As a Fulbright lecturer, I have been assigned here for only six months. And as for what classes I might offer, Dr. Banerji suggested I go with my specialty—postcolonial literature.”

Several of the women glanced skeptically at each other.

“Yes, the principal has a habit of arranging these unexpected treats for us,” said Mrs. Sharma at his side. “They enhance the stature of the college, I am sure.  But she does not necessarily consider what the needs of our department or our students may actually be.”

Saunders pictured the footlocker he’d lugged along from the other side of the world. Heavy, unwieldy, it contained novels, textbooks, critical studies that he’d intended to bequeath to students in his classes. He’d assumed such fashionable texts would not be readily available here—that they would be a welcome gift. It had not occurred to him that they might be unnecessary altogether.

His shirt stuck to his skin. Sweat was dripping from his hair. He’d grown desperately parched. He reached for the small cup on the table. Remarkably, two swallows of milky tea helped almost at once, slaking his thirst and even cooling his skin. 

Only a few heartbeats later, however, he was all but overwhelmed by a different, urgent need.

“Excuse me,” he whispered to Mrs. Sharma. “May I use a restroom?”

She looked at him blankly.

“A lavatory?” he said.

Other members of the department rustled with their own consternation.

“I’m afraid the faculty toilet is for women only,” Mrs. Sharma explained.

“Male servants generally make use of the alley,” offered Mrs. Kapoor with a vague wave of her hand.

Saunders took her meaning at once, but he was becoming desperate enough to consider the suggestion.

“Come.” Mrs. Sharma gestured with brisk inspiration. 

She led him down a flight of stone steps to the principal’s office. “I’m sure Dr. Banerji will not mind,” she said, ushering him toward the private washroom.


“Oh, well, that’s just Americaland, isn’t it? No one ever actually goes there.” 

With simple disdain Priya Parvati had thus dismissed the idea of visiting the embassy compound. This was several months earlier, Matthew reading aloud to her from a letter. It seemed that as Fulbright Lecturer he’d be granted access to the commissary, the pool, other such amenities. 

Final plans for their separate and joint sabbaticals were just then coming into focus. Priya was to join him a month after his arrival. To all but her parents they would present themselves as husband and wife, since living openly together under any other arrangement would still, even in this day and age, be considered unacceptable. 

Saunders, now on his own in the city, was certain that once Priya did join him, arriving along about the same time as the cooling monsoons, he would be able to resist Americaland’s allure. For the time being, however, he did not even try. Its comforts beckoned.

He emerged through the college gates after the initial interview with his new colleagues—welcome didn’t seem the word to characterize it. On the main thoroughfare, taxis beat motionlessly against the thick river of other cars and busses, of bullock carts, bicycle rickshaws, peddlers with their flowers, their packs of playing cards, various portraits of gods and Bollywood stars. Over all there hovered a great cloud of dust and heat and blaring horns.

An impulse struck him. Saunders rather delighted in its recklessness. He’d never really been one given to recklessness. But what else could one call snaring a tricycle scooter on the fly? Before he’d even fully alighted on the seat the scooter wallah flung it toward the first intersection.

The air was scorching, but having it blown full in the face was better than sitting still in the immense and dusty oven of the city.

Traffic lights blinked their signals but the scooter wallah flew without notice or pause. Busses too he ignored. Their riders were leaning far out of windows, clinging to door rails as the behemoths swayed heavily down the avenues. The scooter wove between them and around, sometimes aimed in the dead center of the highway, then swerving hard and running along its verge, and on into the next eddy of vehicles.

Matthew Saunders gave himself up to death, accepting it as both imminent and certain. All fear was thereby skimmed from him. He felt giddy, light.

When at last he dismounted in the diplomatic quarter and paid the scooter wallah something equal to a month’s wages, Matthew Saunders, Senior Fulbright Fellow, was windblown and filthy. Abashed, he tucked in his shirt and pushed fingers through his hair before marching to the main gate of the embassy, precious pass held out before him.

Americaland. Yes, it really did feel that way, once he’d crossed through, as if into a different universe altogether. Everything glittered, bright and clean, calm and quiet. Orderly. Just the sight of the Olympic-sized swimming pool, families cavorting in the afternoon sun, refreshed and revived his spirit. He’d certainly take a swim himself later, before returning to his spartan flat with some groceries from the commissary.

The bar was dim and cool. At this early hour only one or two other souls sat by themselves in its pleasant gloom. CNN was blaring just a little too loudly from a TV above the bar, but even that was welcome. He signaled for a tall gin and tonic, and then a second, moisture gathering ever so delicately on the outside of its glass that was, ever so quickly, emptied.

Matthew felt he was coming to himself.

His watch read five p.m. He tried the arithmetic, and then double-checked with the bartender. Yes, six-thirty at home—a.m. Though he’d yet to figure out how the extra half hour came into the equation—no doubt some long-ago incident of superlative historical note. All that mattered, however, was telephoning Priya for their agreed-upon weekly chat.

“You’re in that place, aren’t you?” she said by way of affectionate greeting.

Why not, “Oh darling, I’ve missed you so dreadfully?”  he wondered. Then he acknowledged silently that any such dialogue belonged to a different relationship entirely.

“Well, yes,” he replied. “But it’s much easier to make the call from here. I’m not sure where else I could even manage it.”

“It’s just so, well, colonial.” She humphed. 

He sighed and traced a finger through the condensation on his glass. “Once you’re here, you’ll never have to see it—I promise. And I won’t have any desire. Not for this.”

Priya was his soul mate. So she’d told him and so he believed. Though at thirty-five he was, he knew perfectly well, rather long in the tooth for the discovery of one’s first true soul mate. That recognition only made him the more grateful.

They didn’t teach in the same department, thank heavens. No, she’d attended his panel at a Modern Language convention and sought him out in the scrum afterwards, eager to explain the manifold ways in which his understanding of postcolonial literary theory in general and of Indian culture in particular were simplistic, out-of-date, and hinted at a paternalistic condescension. He’d lifted both hands in a gesture seeking truce if not offering surrender. And because she taught at a smaller and slightly less prestigious college, because he was eight years older and tenured and already had a published book in the hamper, because of her eyes, he chose not to be wounded by her assault.

Two years later they were alternating weekends, as often as possible, between small town and big city. They’d arrange months in advance to attend the same scholarly conferences. Finally, they were each applying for sabbatical in India, he on a Fulbright, she with an NEH grant to perform research in a dusty government archive. Only in the final stages of planning did they realize that the academic year at Lady O.D.C. College commenced in early August, a full month before Priya’s visa allowed her to arrive.


The next morning he set out early for the college. Mr. Singh, the ever-present taxi wallah at the corner outside his apartment building, seemed to have anticipated the need. He had the door open to his car when Saunders emerged and this would become their invariable routine.

When he arrived in South Delhi, few of his new colleagues were yet to be seen around the grounds or hallways. The full heat of the day had not descended either. Despite the dust and dead-kiln smell that shrouded the courtyard and gardens, as if the rains had abandoned them forever, he acknowledged that Lady O.D.C. College was spare and lovely.

One of the male servants showed him his classroom. Large fans spun slowly in the ceiling. Girls began to flush into the room in small groups, though one and all of them stopped and stared when they saw him, then with giggles and averted eyes took their places among rows facing a wooden platform with table and chair.

Matthew waited until the room was full before mounting the platform. He was used to a more informal environment—he’d have his American students drag their chairs into a circle or join them at a single seminar table. This arrangement struck him as awkward, unnatural. He considered leaning against the table, but there wasn’t enough space. Grey and rickety, it seemed unlikely to bear his weight. Reluctantly, he settled on the chair, and looked out over fifty pairs of eyes dark as Priya’s.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning, Professor Saunders,” they shouted in chorus.

Much of the night he’d spent awake in his small flat, the single air-conditioning unit groaning feebly and perspiring a steady leak down the wall, as he prepped a lecture on Jane Eyre. This would have been a challenge in any event, since the Nineteenth-Century British Novel lay far outside his usual classes. That he hadn’t read Brontë’s novel himself since sophomore year in college didn’t make it easier. On the other hand, he’d discovered long ago that teaching a text he knew only casually was more straightforward than trying to make a sensible argument about those he’d wrestled years upon years. The better he knew them the more they’d baffle and bully him with nuance, with contradiction.

After class, Saunders made his way upstairs to the staff lounge, an open-air chamber shaded by great Peepul trees outside the windows. Fans induced a semblance of breeze across faded couches and chairs. He claimed a space off to one side and ordered a cup of tea from yet another male servant. This fellow smiled conspiratorially and refused the fifty paisa that Matthew offered in payment.

He was content—truly—sitting by himself with The Hindustan Times when Mrs. Sharma and Mrs. Kapoor settled onto ottoman cushions across the same table.

“And how did your lecture go today?” asked Mrs. Sharma. She was a plump woman well advanced into her sixties, her greying hair parted in the middle with a streak of vermillion powder The bindi above her eyes was a teardrop of dark gold today. What this change signified—yesterday’s round dot had been bright red—he had no clue. This was how he felt about India in general after his first week—a constant bombardment of signals for which he lacked any crib.

What he did make out, however, was that somehow his status had assumed a different slant in the hours since yesterday’s interview. No longer was he an outright intruder. Instead, Mrs. Sharma’s manner (if not so clearly the faintly puckered frown on Mrs. Kapoor’s face) suggested that he was to be treated from here on as a young and naïve apprentice, adopted by the ladies of the faculty as they might a foundling. With this, too, and very much to his surprise, he was entirely content.


“But I thought your parents lived in Gurgaon. That you’d be taking me to meet them for Diwali.”

He heard Priya sigh on the other end of the line.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m sorry, Matthew. Truly, I am. But the simple truth is I lied to you.” She sounded brisk and almost matter-of-fact.  

He knew her—they were soul mates—this meant she was being defensive, trying to hide powerful emotions.

Outside the embassy compound a long, rolling boom of thunder announced the start of that afternoon’s heavy rains. The monsoon had come late this year, vanquishing at last the dry, withering heat. Now Americaland served as refuge while the downpour lasted.

“Don’t you see?” she said. “If I’d told you all along they live in Newark, you would make such a big deal about meeting them before now. You, you’d insist on playing the proper suitor or bridegroom or something equally ridiculous.”

He could see her dismissing the absurdity with a wave of her hand.

“Oh my god,” she said, as if just now considering the image anew and finding it freshly impossible, unthinkable.

“Okay,” he said, though he had no idea what was okay.

“Mummy’s taken a bad turn. Her blood pressure is spiking high, and the doctors can’t find anything. Daddy is beside himself. He can’t possibly deal. She’s always been the one to take care of illnesses.”

“I understand, darling. But what does it mean?”

Another sigh, this one longer, leading nowhere. “It means I’ve postponed my sabbatical until next year. The dean has been very understanding.”

“Ah,” he said. Now he did of course understand.


Gita and Anjana, two of Matthew Saunders’s favorite students, third years, came originally from the south, one from Madras, one from Kerala. Since neither had family in Delhi, they were among the girls who lived in the hostel on the grounds of the college. After class one day in late October they invited Professor Saunders to join them for Diwali celebrations.

He paused, books and papers gathered in his arms. The mention of Diwali had caused a pang, but there was no way to explain, nothing to be done. “I’d like that,” he said. 

Somehow, and he’d never quite confronted his own feelings, the absurdity of what he’d planned and hoped, he’d maintained a secret fiction that Priya would yet appear. Odd though he knew it to be, they had continued to speak once a week as if nothing had happened, though all their conversations seemed un-anchored to any particular world in which they might actually live. This allowed him to believe, never breathing the thought aloud, that surely her plans would swing again by sheer force of desire. She would join him in time for the Indian holidays. She would come to him here in her city and she would take him to visit her parents in Gurgaon.

Except of course that they were in Newark, not Gurgaon. How much of all she’d told him had been made of such untruths?

It seemed the invitation from his students had lanced the little fiction swiftly, cleanly. No pain or suck of breath as it disappeared, however. That’s all that startled him. It cleared his gaze.


After a hot day, the air wrenched throughout by a clamor beyond even the excessive norm, by early evening the city had grown strangely subdued in anticipation of the Diwali festivities. In his several months’ acquaintance, Matthew had never seen the streets so empty, so quiet.

A heavy dusk had begun to settle as he arrived back at the small campus. As per their routine Mr. Singh halted the taxi on the main thoroughfare. It ran along one long red stone wall of the college. From surrounding streets and alleys firecrackers popped. Bottle rockets whizzed invisibly through the air. But this all felt distant and unthreatening. There was even the faintest hint of a gathering chill.

The gates had been drawn earlier than was usual. The guard with a bad hip recognized Saunders and saluted him with good humor. Limping, he dragged one heavy frame of the gate far enough to slip through. Inside the college grounds, the dirt paths were lined with red earthenware bowls, alight with oil and floating wicks. As he approached the hostel it too was alight, every window, every flat surface blazing with lamps and candles.

The front door swung open at his approach. Formidable as ever, Mrs. Kapoor seemed to have been waiting for him. Senior housemother and warden, she also lived in the hostel, though in a separate apartment.

“Oh, Doctor Saunders, we are so pleased you’ve come,” she said, startling him with a pat on the arm. By the standards of the last few months, this was an astonishing display of intimacy. “It’s good of you to show this special attention to our pupils. They’re terribly excited. Yes, yes, come this way,” she commanded tartly, ushering him through the hallways. She walked briskly to the small dining hall and delivered him to the waiting girls before disappearing back into her own flat. 

Gita and Anjana came up to him demurely, repressing their obvious excitement, and each bowed, hands pressed together.

“Sir, welcome,” said Anjana.

“Welcome, Sir,” said Gita.

He’d bought a bouquet of roses and carnations in the local market that afternoon but hadn’t thought to separate it. Awkwardly he offered it to the space between the two young women and they each put a hand out. Then he returned the bow as best he could, fingers touching his forehead, smiling but solemn. 

The girls were dressed in their best attire, long scarves, purple and pink, green and salmon, flowing about their necks. At one end of a long table they’d carefully arranged plates and cutlery for the three of them. Other girls looked on with mirth and excitement.

They directed him to a stool at the head of the table. Saunders allowed them to serve.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Now it’s your turn.”

“No, Sir, no,” said Gita, shaking her head. 

Anjana laughed.  “You must go first.  It’s the proper way.”

They’d set fork, spoon, and knife, along with a paper napkin at his place, and he hesitated, considering the different modes of addressing the food heaped on his plate. If Priya were here, she’d make clear with a simple gesture that he should use the utensils like the Westerner he was. At last he picked up a nan, tore it, and scooped rice and dal into his mouth. This too made all the girls laugh.

Saunders, full and sleepy and satisfied, was wondering if it might be possible to slip away before dessert without offending his hosts. As conversation continued, he eyed the syrupy balls of gulab jamun sitting in large serving bowls. At that moment, however, without apparent plan or cause, Diwali erupted in its immensity. Saunders didn’t quite notice, at least not consciously, the first rolling thunder that passed in a wave over the city. He was trying vainly to shout the end of a sentence, something about Silas Marner,to Gita, who was sitting only inches away.

But the next explosion lurched him right off his stool. Staggering, he stared out into the night through an open balustrade. The slum that leaned against the college’s outer wall seemed to have launched a terrible assault. This great boom was followed by another greater still that rang in his ears, rang in his kidneys. 

Yet these initial blasts served only to announce a more general barrage. The firecrackers he’d heard earlier had been a trickery, nothing more than a mild carbonation to the atmosphere in anticipation of this greater assault. Soon individual explosions lost all definition within the steady welter of deep, thudding blows. 

The sound pummeled him. Shock and awe overwhelmed him. He had never thought himself a coward, but only the sight of thirty girls gathered in the open windows of the dining hall, gazing out into the invisible maelstrom with excitement and perfect ease, kept him from seeking shelter under the trestle tables. What would Priya have done? For once he couldn’t imagine.

As a special treat, Anjana’s uncle had secured them a box of sparklers for the holiday. Mrs. Kapoor had granted permission as well. Each wand was a good three feet in length, its sparkles less sparks than flashing flames akin to tiny blades. Matthew feared for the girls’ clothes, their fingers, their eyes. 

Then, ever the generous host, Gita proffered one to him.

Smiling warily, he accepted the wand as he might have one of the cobras swaying atop baskets in the narrow streets. “Thanks,” he mimed as she lit it. The sparkler tingled, vibrating, sparks dancing as he waved it at arm’s length. Just as it sputtered and died, a bone-jarring blast from the alley jolted the wand from his fingers.

And still and on and forever it seemed, the deafening, pounding roar of explosions continued, pulsing through the city, joining all its citizens beneath a crashing wave beyond mere sound.

Professor Saunders had intended to share the holiday meal with his students. He’d thus store up another cultural experience to share with Priya by phone—even if she were in Newark with her ailing mother, not Gurgaon—or carry safely to the flat for later savor, transcribing the memory carefully into his Moleskine journal. By eleven o’clock, his lectures ready for the next day, he’d have been safely abed. 

Instead, no alternative offered itself other than to endure the celebration of Ram’s great victory over Ravana, the vanquishing of darkness by the forces of light, while trying to conceal his own dismay at the onslaught from Anjana, Gita, and the other girls.

It was after midnight when Matthew Saunders finally emerged from the grounds of Lady O.D.C. College. Mr. Singh had long since returned home. No other taxis or scooters were to be found. He had no choice but to return and tap at Mrs. Kapoor’s door. She seemed neither surprised nor satisfied with his plight. Rather, she motioned him to sit and telephoned a servant to come round with the ancient college vehicle, a grey Ambassador with curtains in the windows, usually reserved for ceremonial occasions.

The car glided through empty streets. A heavy pall of coarse smoke hung in the air. The city was peaceful, the kind of peace that might come after panic had chased all its denizens into exile, into traceless oblivion. No sign of life or movement appeared in a place that usually teemed with a vast surplus of both. Despite the acrid stink of smoke and gunpowder, Matthew kept the window open at his side. He needed what air his lungs could find. His ears were ringing. His chest felt hollow and battered.


In the morning Delhi had been restored to itself. Matthew emerged from his apartment block, showered and fragile. His hearing still seemed muddled. The morning light shone more weakly than before, watery, as if it had modulated to a different key. He wasn’t sure whether this was his imagination or a first suggestion of the winter approaching in what was, after all, a city built in the desert.

Something seemed changed in him too, though change was perhaps too grand a word. He couldn’t quite put his finger on the feeling. Perhaps he’d been modulated to a new key as well. That was the distant ringing in his ears, as if he’d been struck upon the skull, vibrating now to a single note that belonged to a strange new chord.

Mr. Singh the taxi wallah awaited his appearance as on every other school day. His car was freshly washed, its rear door open by the curb. Matthew climbed into the taxi and acknowledged that, however he felt, this was just another day. According to habit, after his teaching duties, a conference or two, he’d make his way across the city to the embassy, to Americaland, for the weekly call to Priya. Yet this morning Americaland seemed unnecessary, unbeckoning, as distant in its way as Priya, as Newark, eight thousand miles away.   end