Author’s note: This is one of the chapters from a new novel I am writing. The novel will be called The Soldier Dog.
Vijay didn’t have to teach any classes that afternoon, so he came home early. After parking his car in the garage, he entered the kitchen via the door in the mud room and noticed an eerie silence, as if nobody was home.
“Where’s everybody?” He asked raising his voice.
“I’m here, upstairs.” It was Sharada.
A few minutes later she came down.
“You want tea?” She asked.
Vijay was looking through the mail lying on the breakfast table.
“What did you say?” He asked looking up.
“I asked if you want tea.”
“Oh, yes. Please.”
Sharada placed a tea bag in a cup, added half a spoonful sugar and placed it under the Breville coffee maker spout and pushed the “Brew” button. The hot water poured in instantly. She liked the convenience of making tea this way. Before that she had to boil the water in a pot that required waiting at least five minutes. Thanks for the gift from Vijay for the last Mother’s day.
She put the cup with hot tea in front of him with a bowl of Chiwada, a spicy snack she had made out of rice krispies.
“How was your day today?” She asked casually.
Vijay didn’t answer. He was still busy looking through the mail.
“Where’s everybody?” He asked again. “The house is never quiet like this.”
“Today’s Valentine’s Day. Arjun left early to practice for the concert. His band is playing tonight at the celebration they are having at the school. Lakshmi is getting ready for a party she is attending with her friends. ”
“Oh, my God,” Vijay said as if he suddenly realized he had done something terribly wrong. “I was supposed to bring you flowers today?”
“That’s okay. It’s not a big deal. You at least recognized.”
She wanted to add recognized your error but thought otherwise.
Vijay was not the romantic kind to bring favors to his wife. When they were newly married, in India, his mother would remind him that wives expect nice gestures from their husbands once in a while.
“You should pick up some flowers for your wife, once in a while.” His mother had said. They were living as a joint family with their parents as was customary.
“That’s a waste of money,” He would say. “Just because I don’t bring flowers, doesn’t mean I don’t care for her. It’s just a materialistic sign. The flower merchants promote this so they can make money.”
“Oh, God. What can I say to that?” His mother would say sounding hopeless. “Vijay, it’s an expression of love. Don’t you love your wife?”
“I show my love many other ways.”
After that his mother never brought up the subject.
Having come to America twenty-five years ago he probably, slowly, succumbed to the peer pressure and started bringing flowers on the Valentine’s Day. Today, he just plain forgot.
“What’s his band’s name again?” Vijay asked sipping his tea and taking a mouthful of Chiwada. He had finally finished reviewing the mail and kept it aside on the table.
“It’s DAN the Band. Named after Dan, Arjun and Naomi.”
“You know I really don’t want him playing in the band.”
“Why not? He’s a good guitar player. His friends say so. Even Dan’s mom Vicky says so.”
“I don’t know,” Vijay sounded helpless. “I would rather have him play the sitar or violin. Then he can play when we celebrate Indian festivals, in front of our friends or in the Temple.”
“Daddy, sometimes you are too much. He likes to play the guitar then he should play the guitar.”
Sharada always called her husband “Daddy” instead of addressing him by his first name, just like her children did.
“Okay. But the idea of forming a Band, getting together for practice and all. I know what happens with a band. They get into bad habits, they smoke and take drugs.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s what I read in papers. Anyway, I don’t like it. And that girl Namy, Famy, what’s her name?”
“Naomi. She’s a nice girl. I’ve met her once or twice when I left Arjun at Dan’s place for practice.”
“I don’t know what happens when these boys and girls are together, you know.”
“What has to happen?”
“They can get in trouble.”
“How would you know? I bet you never talked to girls when you were growing up, except those who were family.”
“Funny you should say that.” Vijay was a bit combative. “We both know when we were growing up, boys attended all boy’s school and girls attended all girl’s school. There never was an occasion for them to meet. In the crowded bazaar one could see boys huddled together, walking with their arms around each other’s shoulders and teasing girls passing by. If a boy and a girl were noticed talking to each other in public, it was the talk of the town as if they have committed a grave crime.”
“Yes. I know that. But, we are in America now. Look at Arjun. He attends a co-ed school. Here boys meet girls, they become friends. Not everyone gets in trouble.”
“How do you know that?”
“We women talk, daddy.” Sharada said in a conciliatory tone. “When I am talking with Betsy or Vicky all we talk about is, kids. How they are doing? In fact here, moms worry if their children haven’t found a girlfriend or a boyfriend. They think it’s not normal.”
“I don’t know.”
“Daddy, relax. We have been good parents and we should trust our son.”
Arjun visited Dan’s house when they had to practice for their performance. Naomi was their lead singer. She had a soft, rhythmic, melodic voice and she sang songs made popular by Dave Mathews and Phish. Whenever they performed, their friends cheered her. Arjun didn’t tell about the Valentine’s Day concert at school to his dad because he knew he would get into an argument. He told his mom.
“Be careful. Don’t stay too long. Do you want us to pick you up at school?”
“No. Dan’s dad said he’ll bring us back.”
“That would be great. Have a great time.”
With both kids out of the house, Vijay and Sharada were left for themselves. She fixed a glass of scotch on the rocks for Vijay and sat beside him on the sofa in the family room with a glass of Cabernet for herself. Vijay had finished his tea and had moved to the family room to watch TV.
“I wish the town of Fairfax would broadcast Arjun’s concert on local TV.” She said as Vijay was engrossed in watching the news.
“What for?” He said after a while.
“Don’t you want to watch and listen to your son play?’
“That kind of music is just too loud for me. I don’t even understand a word of what they sing.”
Sharada didn’t respond. She was disappointed. Sometimes she hoped Vijay would change and show some interest in and appreciation for Arjun’s activities. You can’t expect a boy growing up in America to abide by Indian values.
When the news ended they moved to the kitchen and had a quiet dinner. Today being Valentine’s Day Sharada made special Indian dishes that she knew Vijay savored. The Bombay Café had a special on sweets that she had picked up earlier; the almond pastry and Jilebi.
Sharada didn’t expect any comments or thanks, or a hug and god forbid a kiss from Vijay for making the special dinner. Indian husbands are not into public display of affection, she thought. But this wasn’t the first time. Sharada never complained. She had seen Betsy and Vicky, always end their calls to their husbands with “Okay, I’ll be back in while. I love you.” She thought that also was too much, like if you have been married a long time it isn’t necessary to reaffirm your love every single time you end a conversation.
“Aah. That was a good dinner.” Vijay said as he burped.
She knew that she had made him happy and started cleaning up the table.
At ten thirty when the weatherman was finished with his report, Vijay got up, spread his arms wide and gave a yawn.
“I’m tired. I’m going upstairs.” He said.
“Go right ahead. Be there in a minute.” Sharada was tiding it up in the kitchen.
“When do you expect Lakhmi?”
“She has a key to the front door. We don’t have to wait up. Same thing with Arjun. Dan’s dad is bringing him back.”
Vijay went upstairs. Sharada could hear water flowing from an open faucet. Vijay was probably getting ready to brush his teeth.
Sharada had finished up and was about to go upstairs when the phone rang. Who could be calling at this hour? She thought.
“Hello.” Sharada said.
“Sharaada, its Vicky, Dan’s mom.”
“Hi Vicky. What’s up? Everything Okay?”
Vicky’s voice was agitated that made Sharada curious.
“Well, NO.” Sharada felt the emphasis on the “No.”
“Tell me, please.”
“Sharaada. Are you sitting down? If not, do. What I have to tell you is disturbing.”
Now Sharada was really curious to know what’s going on.
“There’s been a shooting at the school where kids’ band is playing. I don’t have the details, but Dan just called saying there was a loud noise like a shot was fired during their performance. Don’t know if anyone was injured. We are going there. I advise you to do the same. See you there.”
Vicky hung up before Sharada could say anything.
“V I J A Y” she yelled forgetting that she doesn’t call him by his first name.
She ran upstairs almost shouting his name,.
“Come on. Get dressed. We are going to the school.”
“What? At this hour? What happened?”
“I don’t have time to explain. I don’t know. Oh, my god. What are we going to do? Please hurry.”
Vijay didn’t want to question. He sensed something terrible has happened. He couldn’t think of what it could be.
As they passed the kitchen cabinet adjacent to the door that lead to the garage, Sharada bowed to the idols they had kept there. It was her way to pray Oh, please God, let it be okay. Let Arjun be safe. It was a household shrine with idols of five or six of their favorite deities. Sharada prayed and sang devotional invocations ever Friday in front of this shrine.
The drive to the school took twenty minutes. The snow from a week ago was still piled up in corners, thus limiting the parking space. The police had arrived. A yellow barricade tape was placed along the front entrance and surroundings. Vijay found a spot in a corner far away from the school entrance. Several parents had gathered in front of the entrance wearing heavy winter jackets as it was still cold. Two TV crews were stationed and reporters were interviewing the parents under bright flood lights. There were several police cruisers with head lights on and two ambulance vans nearby.
“I was watching an episode of “24” and heard this loud noise like a car backfiring,” one woman was telling the reporter. “I first thought it was in the show but when I heard the ambulance sirens, I knew it was something else.”
“What did you do then?” The reporter was asking.
“I grabbed my coat and walked across the street and saw the commotion in the school parking lot. I am curious to know what happened. This is really bad, you know. I hope no one is injured.”
“We don’t know that yet.”
The reporter moved on to talk to the next person.
Vijay and Sharada had to navigate through the crowd, the police cars and the ambulances. Some boys and girls huddled together in the lobby, waiting for their rides home when permitted by the police. A few were crying. Vijay and Sharada didn’t know what to do and where to go. An officer stopped them as they tried to enter through the front door.
“The school’s on a lockdown Sir, Ma’am. We are not allowing anyone to enter.” The officer said softly, blocking them with arms stretched.
“But we are parents of one of the kids. Our son was performing today. We have to see him. Please.” Sharada pleaded.
“In that case, come this way. I’ll have someone escort you to the Principal’s office. We have detained the three members of the band there for security.”
He talked to someone on his walkie talkie.
Another officer came and said “Follow me, please.”
Vijay and Sharada walked behind him. Dan, Arjun and Naomi were sitting together, on a sofa, in the principal’s office, relatively calm. Dan’s mom and dad had just arrived. Naomi was waiting for her parents. Sharada rushed to Arjun and hugged him.
“How’re you Beta? We came as soon as we can.” She said pulling him close, with tears in her eyes “What happened? Please tell us what happened?”
Vijay was right behind. He extended his hand and touched Arjun on the head, ruffling his hair.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly.
Arjun shook his head in affirmative.
“Officer, tell us what happened?” It was Vicky.
“We don’t know all the details Ma’am. All we know is that as the band was playing and the kids were dancing having a good time, a shot was fired. It went past the stage and hit the ceiling. It apparently didn’t hurt anyone. We are told that the perpetrator shouted “Send that Muslim home. We don’t need them here.”
Vickie looked at Arjun.
“Yes. That’s true,” Dan interjected. “We were in the middle of a sequence when I was really hitting the drums in a crescendo and Arjun here had jumped with a high note on his guitar when KA BOOM. There was another loud noise. Something whizzed past the stage. We stopped playing immediately.”
“Oh, dear,” It was Vicky. “What did you do then?”
“The whole place was in a chaos.” Arjun said. “We went behind the curtain and didn’t notice what was happening in the hall.”
“Someone called 911,” The officer said. “When we arrived, kids were running every which way, shouting and crying. Some in the vicinity of the perpetrator had held him to the floor. They took the gun away from him.”
“Do you know who he is?” Sharada asked.
“We’re not allowed to release the identity of the gunman. Ma’am.” The officer replied. “He is being held for questioning and psychiatric evaluation.”
“Was anyone else injured or hurt?” It was Dan’s dad.
“A student next to the gunman was hit in his shoulder. He has been taken to the Fair Oaks hospital. We don’t know the seriousness of the injury yet.”
“This is unbelievable, you know,” Vijay finally spoke. “You think your kids are safe in school.”
“There’s always some nut in the society,” The officer replied.
“Can we take our son home?” Sharada was anxious to just get out of the place.
“As soon as we finish our preliminary investigation, Ma’am. We’ll let you go home.” The officer was very polite.
Vijay, Sharada, Dan and Naomi’s parents waited another hour before they were permitted to take their kids home. Naomi’s parent had arrived a half an hour ago. They had gone to a movie and heard about the shooting at the school on the radio.
On the way home Vijay asked Arjun if the shooter was addressing him.
“It appears that way, dad.” Arjun replied.
“But, you are a HINDU.”
“It doesn’t matter. They think all brown people are Mexicans, Muslims or Iranians and terrorists.”
“I don’t get a good feeling. I never liked you joining the band. I told your mom so many, many times.”
“What’s my being in the band has to do with anything. He could as well have targeted me or other brown kids anywhere in the school.”
“But still. Today he seems to have singled you out.”
“Only because I was out there on the stage, openly visible, and he had an opportunity to make a bold statement.
“What are you going to do about it?
“What am I going to do about it? If you think I’m going to leave the band, it’s not going to happen.”
“Your dad is right, Arjun.” Sharada added. “This is scary.”
“I’m afraid, Arjun,” Vijay’s said as he continued driving and his voice indicated he was scared, really scared. “We’re afraid. We never imagined this will happen to us, here, in America.”
Sharada was sitting in the back seat next to Arjun, to his right. She held his right hand in both of her palms and looked at him with moist eyes. Every once in a while she brushed the back of her left palm across his cheeks as she tightly squeezed his hand with her other palm.