It was the summer of 1983, and at the time she didn’t think of it as the trip that would define the rest of her life. She simply saw it as a way to escape the sticky, sweltering, oppressive heat of India in August.
For weeks she had endured sweat stinging her eyes, matting down her hair and soaking her cotton salwaar kameez. The air was thick and always smelled faintly of smoke and eucalyptus. She had spent most of those summer days fanning herself in the shady veranda of her parents’ farmhouse drinking Limca, listening to the radio and waiting for nothing in particular.
Finally one day in July, she caught sight of the letter boy, biking down the long, unpaved road to the farmhouse with unusual urgency. “Letter for Priya!” he was yelling breathlessly. “It’s from the Embassy!” Inside the crisp white envelope with the blue and red border was a B2 visitor’s visa to the United States. The entire village rejoiced – their golden child had gotten a golden ticket.
For Priya’s parents this was an opportunity for her to marry and settle in the West and to serve as an anchor for her two younger sisters to do the same. They had spent several weeks and several thousand rupees calling their friends in America to inquire about eligible bachelors. One had sounded like a suitable match – Ajit. He was a doctor in California, not very tall, a bit older than they had hoped, but handsome and from a good family. His sister had briefly known Priya in secondary school. This seemed to them a good enough foundation for marriage. His parents had all but sealed the deal, but the suitor himself was reluctant. Ajit had refused to travel to India to meet and marry Priya, citing the demands of his busy new career. Both families quietly hoped this trip would be the final nudge Ajit needed to agree to the arrangement.
Priya, meanwhile, boarded her plane blissfully unaware that her trip to America was a marital audition, too naïve to know that the ticket she had in her hand was only good for one way. She knew nothing about the phone calls, the letters, the black and white photos that had been exchanged by mail. She had dreamed of marrying a businessman or perhaps an army officer, moving to the nearest city and having a big house with air-conditioning. A fortuneteller had told her as a child that she would live and die by the sea. Having spent her entire life until that moment in the landlocked state of Punjab, this had always seemed an unlikely fate.
But now, from 30,000 feet in the air with endless blue waves stretching out in all directions beneath her, she felt a stir of possibility – a brief flicker of a future that was too foreign and bright to even see clearly. She felt she was on a precipice – both frightened and exhilarated by the thought of never looking back.
“Can I offer you anything to drink?” a flight attendant asked.
“Limca, please?” Priya responded after a moment of hesitation, wondering how much it would cost and if she would have to pay in rupees or dollars.
“We only have Sprite, miss. Don’t worry though – it’s just like Limca… but better!”
She was pleasantly surprised when the beverage arrived a few moments later, free of charge. In India, Limca was served in a glass bottle often close to room temperature. Her Sprite, arrived in a small plastic cup filled to the brim with smooth, uniform ice cubes and only a few splashes of the crystal-clear soda. She held the cup to her lips for a moment, inhaled the crisp citrus scent and felt the cool effervescence against her nose. The first sip was fresh, tangy and shockingly cold. It was a bit like Limca, but different. She wasn’t quite sure yet if it was better. It felt like her first sip of America, her first taste of a new life.
Today Priya sits on her patio alongside her daughter, Simran, who is engrossed in her iPhone – posting, scrolling, liking mindlessly. She is most similar to Priya in appearance, most similar to Ajit in temperament, and unlike either in attitude, accent or beliefs. She is the product of their 30 years of first getting to know, then liking, then loving each other – decades of ups and downs, discoveries and disappointments, joys and struggles. She is also a product of the West. They’ve raised her in a house by the beach, where the breeze is salty and cool even on summer days like this. There’s no need for air conditioning.
“Why don’t you get us something to drink, beta?”
Simran reluctantly puts down her phone and a few minutes later emerges from the house with a can of Sprite and two glasses filled with ice. She always fills the glass to the brim with ice – it’s one of her many distinctly American habits. Simran has never breathed the thick, smoky air of India in the summer, never drank Limca from a glass bottle warmed by the sun, never gotten on a one-way flight to a new home. She has, however, gone to college, started a career and bought a small house not too far from here – all on her own. And when she finally did choose a partner, her parents were among the last to know. Some days Priya has to remind herself that she’s given her daughter a better life, or at least that’s what she hopes.
Priya picks up her glass and settles back into her chair, holding it to her lips for just a moment as she closes her eyes.
“Did I ever tell you why I named you ‘Simran’?” Priya asks, with her eyes still closed.
“It means remembrance.”