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[End Page 116]
On the flight to India, Ashwin spoke to baby Ravi as though the baby would understand.
"Tungsten is the metal with the highest melting point," he said, adjusting and tucking a blanket and pattering the tips of his fingers lightly on his son's arm. "The only letter of the alphabet that doesn't appear on the periodic table is the letter J."
Chatting kept the baby quiet, but the trip to India took fifteen hours, not even including the six-hour layover at Heathrow. The journey had nearly ended, and they had caught their connection to Kerala. The baby had been awake since they'd left Mumbai. Every time he heard his son begin to whimper, Ashwin would ease into mild, one-sided [End Page 117] conversation. Naturally he began to run out of things to say. He had started by telling stories, "The Three Little Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood," even a French play he had once memorized, "Le Cerf-Volant Magique," but he wasn't really a storyteller, never remembering the orders of events. And anyway, he didn't enjoy all the truth-bending in children's literature: the personification of animals and suspension of disbelief. Not that he was anti-imagination, but he preferred to find the wonder in things that were real and concrete, things he could see for himself.
Ashwin worked as a chemical engineer. He spent nine hours a day in a lab and loved his job with a ferocity his wife, Shilpa, couldn't understand. His job had evolved into a point of contention, especially after Ravi's birth. Originally Shilpa had planned to take the baby to India by herself for a few weeks, for his Namkaran, his naming ceremony, but during a particularly harsh argument, she had picked the baby up from his high chair and thrust him at Ashwin, spitting out, "You take him to India, then. Be a father." So Ashwin had agreed to miss work to be with his son, and Shilpa had said she would join them in India in two weeks for the ceremony. He wondered why they couldn't just all travel together, but Shilpa had said she wanted him to be alone with the baby; anyway, he was bottle-feeding now. She also babysat three or four kids after school and didn't want to lose the job and the extra income.
Flight attendants slowed their carts near his seat, offering beverages and extra blankets.
"His eyes are so big," one of them said, an Indian girl with a neatly cultivated British accent. "And he's so well-behaved. He's barely even cried!" She widened her own dark eyes and shook her head at the baby. The flight attendant moved to the next row. Ashwin mumbled about melting points and precipitates, and the baby intoned a series of pitches and exposed his gums. Sometimes he hoped that the baby's first word would be scientific and impressive, a word like "stoichiometry."
The plane landed, and the baby began to cry from pressure in his ears. Ashwin gave him his pacifier. As soon as the plane stopped, the air conditioning turned off, and the temperature inside the cabin began to rise. There was some mix-up at the gates, and it took another hour before they let everyone exit the aircraft. Passengers stood in the aisles and complained loudly about their connections. They pulled bags from overhead bins, and as a man opened one compartment, a backpack fell out and landed on an elderly woman's neck. She began to shout at the man about how she was going to sue him, trying to get his name. Finally the doors opened, and the crowd pulled forward. [End Page 118]
The heat in the Mangalore airport felt nearly unbearable. After only two years in North America, Ashwin had forgotten the humidity, how drops of perspiration could replenish themselves continuously on the surface of his skin. His handkerchief grew damp from constantly wiping his forehead. He was still wearing clothes appropriate for the...