Excerpt from The Prayer Room

Shanthi Sekaran talks about her debut novel, The Prayer Room, this Wednesday, February 4th at 7:00 p.m. at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.


We’re currently working on a website for Shanthi and The Prayer Room, and it’ll be a few more days before books reach store shelves and mailboxes. In the meantime, get a head start by reading the excerpt below, from Chapter 1: Pilgrims and Indians.

This was the night that would change things.
A white cotton dress, packed away for twelve years, developed brown lines along its creases. She was half-sorry that they’d vanished in the wash. Slowly, she ironed the dress, smoothing away traces of the past, careful not to burn any new lines in. The dress was a relic of a time before things were so very certain. Warm, creaseless, supple as age, willowy as chance. She wore it over a slip, brushed her hair, and waited for the doorbell.
It rang only twice, and yet her house felt swollen with people. The first arrival had been Lupe, the Bauers’ maid, who’d come not to help serve, but to dine with the family and sit at her table. The second bell brought Kamla Mehta. Beautiful Kamla, and Anisha, Kamla’s daughter, a surly girl who put on the airs of a woman, though she was twelve, only a year older than the triplets. But Viji couldn’t dislike her. It was hard to blame a child of divorce.
From the kitchen she heard Kamla’s laugh, unmistakeable, a joyous waterfall that crashed around her. Both women and the girl had swept past the kitchen, and now stood chatting in the living room, as if this were some sort of cocktail party.
Oblivious to what would set this Thanksgiving apart from all others, aside from the fact that the children had made hats, Viji tipped a colander of cauliflower into a pot of boiling water. Cauliflower was acceptable at Thanksgiving, she assumed. They must have had cauliflower in Vermont or Massachusetts or wherever that first one was. Viji had never been to the east coast. From Madras, she and George had flown to England, and from England, in a single grand arc, to California.
She held a can over a serving dish and waited for the pull of gravity to coax the purple cylinder from its home. It plopped down. She sliced along the depressions left by the can. Cranberry sauce. There was no Thanksgiving in India of course, unless you counted Diwali. As for pilgrims and Indians, India crawled with them, naturally, but they were entirely the wrong kind.
It was hard to say what precisely set off the events that would become that night. It might have been the cranberry sauce. It might have been the pilgrim and Indian headwear the triplets had made at school, or the record heat, 81 degrees on the third Thursday of November. It might have been the effect of the record heat on the gravy from the green packet or the mashed potatoes from the box of powder. It was more likely the four brimming glasses of wine that George’s father sailed through, or his Guatemalan girlfriend sucking politely at her fork, or the doorbell, an eight-note melody, its fifth note missing, a chime pulled off by Avi and never reattached, that now coaxed Viji from the kitchen.
Around the table: Her father-in-law, Stan, and Lupe, resplendent in his-and-hers tracksuits (an early Christmas gift). The triplets—Avi, Kieran, Babygirl—each wearing a headband with a feather poking from it. ‘We’ll be Indians,’ Kieran said. ‘And obviously Dad and Granddad are pilgrims,’ handing them two pyramids of black construction paper with buckles painted across the front. ‘Lupe’s a pilgrim too,’ Avi said.
‘But she’s not white,’ Kieran argued. (From here followed a lengthy debate about the whiteness of Lupe, whether she was more Indian or more pilgrim, made longer by a lesson on colonial history from George. In the end, by virtue of being Stan’s girlfriend, she became a pilgrim.) Next to Kieran sat Anisha Mehta, just then scraping her toe up the side of his shin, making him wish for a genie that could make him disappear. Then came Kamla: Indian, Viji: Indian.
‘Mom, you get to be Squanto,’ Babygirl said.
‘Thank you, chellum.’
And finally, George, one of three pilgrims. ‘I’m beginning to feel surrounded.’
On the table: The cauliflower, sulphurous and warm. The cranberry sauce that spread across its plate like a vivisected slug. The mashed potatoes, a mountain of fluff in a bowl. Kamla had wandered into the kitchen, picked up the box of potato powder and made a joke about laundry detergent. George had laughed and offered Kamla a drink. Salad. Wine, nearly half gone. Bread rolls, store bought. Stuffing, from a pre-made mix because it tasted better that way. Gravy au paquet vert. Overseeing all was Lupe’s bounteous bust, propped onto the table, sitting attentively between her knife and fork. And finally, the turkey waited solemnly at center stage. Tom Turkey, Viji had named him after a children’s cartoon she’d seen. After she reached up his behind for the giblets, she had felt the need to apologize. Tom Turkey, she whispered, I’m sorry.
Under the table: Nine pairs of shoes, some of which barely touched the ground. Viji’s bare feet, planted firmly in the carpet. Anisha Mehta’s, now returning Kieran’s kick with more kicks. Kamla, short dress, shorter than Viji had ever seen her wear, crossing and uncrossing her legs. Hands. Stan’s right hand on Lupe’s left thigh. Fingers.
George stood and fastened onto the turkey, plunging his knife and ripping off a wing, holding it forward, who’s first?
Knives scraped on plates, and the remains of Tom Turkey hung in threads around his bones. Like the good housewives on television, Viji had made for him a bed of lettuce, bordered by potatoes and tomatoes. She had a glass of wine and George had two. Lupe held a fat paw around hers, with red nails that hid the swishing claret. Stan had drunk four, at least, and now stood opening a third bottle. Kamla, on her second glass, raised it to Viji and smiled. Suddenly shy, Viji looked down and fiddled the lace on her dress.
My God, George had said, when he first saw Viji in the dress. I can’t believe you still have this thing. I can’t believe it still fits you! Viji hadn’t known if this was a compliment. But since they were alone, she let herself sidle up and press against him, body-cloth-cloth-body. She felt, not in her gut but against it, that it was indeed a compliment. She looked up at him now, across the table. He was watching her. The two sat suspended, for those seconds, in a flush of warmth. The room around them hushed. This was them—this room and everything and everyone in it. It existed purely because George had met Viji twelve years earlier. She wondered what he could be thinking.
Her hair, he was thinking, the dip at her throat, the way she grips that wine glass by the stem, the two neat lines on either side of the bridge of her nose, earlier today when I caught her talking to the turkey, how she curls her lips in when she chews.
A fork catapulted across the table and crashed down against the turkey platter.
‘What the bloody hell was that for?’ Stan boomed.
Kieran, head down, muttered, ‘Sorry.’
‘Dad,’ George warned.
‘Sorry,’ Kieran said again. ‘It was hard to cut the meat.’ There had been much concerted chewing at the table that night, but the truth was that Anisha Mehta’s hand had crept down Kieran’s thigh and tweaked his knee, tweaked it in a way that made his elbow jerk out.
‘Kieran,’ Viji said. ‘Say sorry.’
‘I did!’
‘Will you behave, then?’
‘It wasn’t me, it was the meat. It’s tough and hard to cut.’
So, Viji thought. Her meat was tough and hard to cut. And here was her child, her light, her world, announcing the fact to everyone.
‘It’s true,’ Anish Mehta cut in. ‘This stuff ain’t easy to cut.’
‘Anisha,’ Kamla scolded.
‘That’s alright, Kamla.’ Viji’s voice was cool. You couldn’t blame a child for what she learned at home.
‘I think the turkey’s excellent, Mom,’ said Avi, whose mouth flew open with every chew.
‘Thank you, Avi.’
Everyone but the children had too much to drink. But even they glowed with the table’s giddy mist. George spoke boldly, goading and teasing. Viji wasn’t used to this and she despised him slightly for it. Stan winked at her twice, a flirtation she hadn’t invited, and Kamla seemed to run at the mouth. Her carefully planned dinner was out of her hands now. Only Lupe was soft and womanly and proper, despite her tracksuit, despite her glass being thrice refilled, and for the first time Viji admired her. Her hair was beautifully done, pulled into a bun with silken wisps that hung by her ears. And she wore three rings, not the sort of rings you’d wear to scrub toilets. They were simple jewels, and old, the kind passed down and kept in teakwood chests, the kind Viji had left in her own home in India, locked away and gathering tarnish. Back home, in her own country, Lupe might have been a doctor’s daughter, a lawyer’s wife, who knew. Nobody here seemed to care about the lives that lay abandoned, moulted skins shed at the borders of this new place. A mother, a husband, a chest full of other jewels—what had Lupe left behind? She’d rescued these three rings from her mother’s drawer, Viji imagined, chosen in favor of others that sparkled more but meant less. Or maybe they’d been pressed into her palm by an ancient aunt, to sell as needed or to wear when she went to a show.
Lupe had the sort of grace, sitting next to Stan, that Viji had only seen in women who were wealthy and wronged. Somewhere beyond this life of Lupe’s was a withering mansion, a courtyard with cracked tiling and a fountain at its center, swampy with disuse. Viji remembered the time she’d seen Jacqueline Kennedy in fuzzy black-and-white on a neighbors’ TV, sitting so still while that Monroe woman sang to her husband. That sort of composure was quite definitely beyond Viji. She would have climbed over seats, her knees knocking into statesmen’s heads, her fingers reaching for the hussy’s throat. She almost loved Lupe then, though she suspected the affection was only a symptom of her own drunken exaggeration.
Later, in the kitchen replenishing the bread, Viji caught a glimpse of herself in the window above the sink. A dinky feather stuck cockeyed from her head, and wires of hair strayed from the band. Her face, her new face, was a hollow, painted red on the mouth, heavy makeup on the eyes. She’d put on blusher, not visible in the shallow dark reflection. George’s child bride. She was a small child, with heavy makeup and a small child’s dress, a child prostitute. She looked like a child prostitute.
The dining room was silent, and then she heard soft laughter. Silence then laughter meant they were talking about her.
Back to the dining room.
‘Viji,’ Kamla said, ‘these vegetables are so lovely.’
‘Yes,’ Lupe chimed in for the first time that evening, ‘Everything’s so delicious.’
‘I made the bread rolls,’ Babygirl piped.
‘No you didn’t, you just heated them up,’ Kieran said.
‘Same thing.’
‘Is not.’
‘Well, the bread rolls are very good too, Babygirl,’ George said. People seemed happy with what they had before them. This was all Viji asked. She picked up her wine glass and took a bigger swig than she’d planned, trickling liquid down the side of her mouth. Nobody saw.
Everyone turned to Stan. ‘Victoria!’ he announced again. George stared at his father. A flake of turkey meat clung to Stan’s cheek. He pointed at George with an unsteady fork. ‘Victoria. That’s where I last saw those earrings.’
‘What earrings?’ someone asked.
‘The blue earrings, the blue earrings in—’
‘Grandad!’ Babygirl squealed. ‘You weren’t supposed to tell!’
George froze. He peeked at Viji who looked defiantly back at him. What is the old man talking about, her eyes hissed. An afterthought: And must he have meat stuck to his face? Finally, a glance at George’s wine glass: And you’d better watch how much you drink tonight, Mister Like-Father-Like-Son.
George looked down at his plate. I have no idea what he’s talking about, he eyed to Viji. But his heart was hammering and the old man was opening his mouth to speak again.
‘Stan, here Stan, have some water,’ Lupe interjected. Thank heaven for Lupe, George thought. Stan gulped at the water and helped himself to more potato mash. That night, George swore to himself, he would dig up the box in the backyard, throw the earring into the squalid depths of the garbage bin, or fling it full-armed over the neighbor’s fence. Evidence, destroyed.
‘So what’s for pudding, then?’ Stan asked. Viji rose abruptly.
‘I’ll just get it ready. Kamla, no, sit, everyone sit.’ She fled to the kitchen where the Thanksgiving preparations lay strewn across the countertop and littered the floor. It was as if someone had walked in, thrown armfuls of food into the air, and walked out. She would have to clean this. Before pudding, before anything, she would have to clean.
In the dining room, the party sat quietly amid the sounds of Viji—the hysterical run of the tap, water pinging off metal vessels, pots clanging. ‘Maybe,’ Kamla said coolly, ‘We should go around and say what we’re thankful for.’
‘I have a better idea,’ George said. He crouched before a cabinet in the far corner of the dining room, and two minutes later he rose, holding a dusty bottle. A cobweb clung to its neck. ‘I bought this,’ George said, ‘twelve years ago. I thought I’d save it for a special occasion.’ He caught Kamla’s eye, not meaning to, and sent her a wide smile. She, by equal accident, beamed back.
‘That’s sloe gin,’ Stan announced. ‘Sloe gin only keeps for ten years, eleven at most. That’ll be off by now.’ Bloody useless, he thought, and added to his list: HOW TO AVOID LIVING WITH YOUR HEAD SO FAR UP YOUR ARSE THAT YOU LET A PERFECTLY GOOD GIN GO TO WASTE.
George lost his smile. ‘Why don’t we crack it open and give it a go?’
‘What’s slow gin?’ Kieran asked. George poured a glassful for the adults, a half glass for the children, and called to Viji, who was still running the kitchen tap.
‘What is it?’ she asked, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
‘Sloe gin!’ George held her glass to her. ‘Remember, Viji?’
She gazed at the half-filled glasses of her children, then turned coolly to George. ‘No thank you, I didn’t want any now.’
‘Oh come on, darling, give it a go.’
‘I don’t think the children should be drinking, George. Their brains are still developing.’
‘A little won’t hurt, darling,’ Kamla chimed. ‘Come join.’
Viji looked at the pickled faces that circled her Thanksgiving table. Lupe, wide-mouthed, the color smudged upward from her lip. Stan, the scrap of meat fallen from his face, at rest now next to his spoon. Kamla, her cheeks on fire, her eyes brown opals. Anisha Mehta, chewing on the end of her hair, her eyes half closed. Her children, looking first at her, then at their glasses, then at her, then at their glasses. And George, the man in the Lake District who could name all the hills, who had bought farmhouse cheddar and elderflower wine and given her, on the bank of that lake, a family to call her own.
She took the glass from George and sipped from it before anyone could toast. It was worth waiting for, worth the argument they’d had on the drive home, fiery and sweet. For the second time that evening, she wished she could have George to herself.
The group dispersed, Viji back to the kitchen, the children to watch the Peanuts special. As far as Viji knew, the rest of them could have been anywhere. She felt at peace for the first time since pulling the turkey from the oven. Victoria, ringing like brass from the lips of her husband’s father, was now a soft and faraway memory. The dishwasher gurgled and belched a trail of steam onto the floor. She would get a new one for Christmas. Either that or a microwave. She’d seen Gail Bauer’s new microwave through her kitchen window when she’d gone walking with Kamla. It was a nifty robotic ally, happy to heat at the press of a button. Viji would have one soon.
She heard a thud from the living room, a muffled laugh. Unmistakably Kamla, who seemed rather jolly that night, for no reason Viji could surmise. Surely Thanksgiving for a divorcée was a sobering occasion, which was why Viji had invited her in the first place. She stepped into the dining room. And this, Viji thought, was how the divorcée showed thanks. Kamla and George sat on the carpeted steps that led down to the split-level living room, thigh to thigh, crouched together over an encyclopedia, her face just inches from his, both their hands holding the page down, George reading in almost a whisper.
‘What is it?’ Viji blurted. George looked up. What exactly she was asking was unclear even to her.
‘Sloe gin!’ he announced. ‘We’re looking it up, but it isn’t in here.’ Kamla grinned at the page, like a schoolgirl who’d caught the giggles.
‘I see,’ Viji said, and crossed the living room without a word.
She closed the bedroom door behind her and threw the dishtowel on the bed. The idea was that George, sensing her disturbance, would follow. He would ask her how she was and place his arms gingerly around her shoulders, until he sensed that she wasn’t going to push him away, at which point he’d pull her into a devoted embrace. A minute passed. She didn’t like this feeling—jealousy and aimless anger, seeping through her like liquid bleach. Another minute passed, and another. She’d been fixed to the spot with her knees clenched, until she grabbed the dishtowel from the bed and tried to rip it in half and when it refused to tear, hurled it at the mirror.
She flung open the bedroom door. The house was still, oblivious to what boiled inside of her. The plunking and tinkling of a Charlie Brown piano trailed from the television. She passed the living room where Kamla sat with George, a stack of encyclopedias now at his side. In the puja room, she would find peace. She moved without sound, so that she would not be spoken to.
What happened then, at the top of the stairs, would never be discussed, explained, or apologized for. There was Stan, there was Lupe. They filled her prayer room with red faces, excessive hips, hands on Lupe and hands on Stan. There they stood, pointing to her photographs, picking up her figurines and turning them over in their fat, oily hands. In his hand Stan held her small silver pot of vermillion, the red powder she dabbed on her forehead when she prayed. He dipped his finger in it, sniffed the powder, tasted it. They were obscene.
‘Get out,’ Viji hissed.
They were wearing their shoes. They were wearing their shoes. ‘Get out!’ she shrieked. With small hands she pushed Stan, slapped at his shoulders. ‘Get out get out get out!’ She had never touched him before. She was producing noises that weren’t words. They were nothing but words that had fallen from her lips and shattered. Stan and Lupe hurried past her, bumping her further into the room and stumbling down the stairs. She kicked the air behind them and felt burning tears. At the foot of the stairs stood George, holding the banister and looking up. His mouth hung open.
‘What in the world, Viji,’ was all he said.
‘They can’t go in there,’ she wept. Stan stood with George now, who stood with Kamla. Lupe was a form in the shadows. The children, four heads in the kitchen doorway, were very still. Everyone waited.
‘Don’t go in there,’ she gasped, pointing behind her to the lit room. A searing ache gripped her now, moving up her inner passages, encircling her womb. She held her stomach in. ‘You mustn’t—’ she began. The banister slid from under her hand, the floor leapt to meet her, a rush of movement, and the room went dark.

Night time. Viji awoke. She couldn’t remember the sun setting or climbing into bed, or taking off her clothes. She lay naked now between the warm sheets. The house was dark and silent, dinner put away, the children asleep, or at least in bed. There was something about physical weakness that created physical need. Even in her fragile state, lying limp and bare in bed, ears still buzzing with her own distant voice, Viji reached for George. It surprised him—she could tell by the way he held her forearms, nearly restraining her, before he pulled her in. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked sleepily, as she slid open the buttons of his pajamas. But his questions ended there. They made love wordlessly, lying on their sides, facing each other, as if love were just an episode of sleep. He’d waited all evening for this, from when he first saw the ardent head of her nipple press against the cloth of the dress. He was grateful for her now.
After, Viji lay quietly with George, his arm across her chest, his other arm wrapped tightly round her waist, his leg bent over hers. He held her close, as if to keep her from seeping across the covers, off the bed and into the carpet. She was calm now, and could hear her own breath billow faintly, with only the smallest rattle.
She woke again. It was almost morning. There was something wrong. Viji lay stark and frigid.
Something had happened—not that night but another, long ago. The feeling was faint, like a vanishing headache. She still felt flashes of it, blinding white behind her eyes. She looked at George. Something was not right. She had been breathless in her sleep, pinned down, her own flimsy hand covering her eyes.
She still felt the warmth of his body from earlier that night, his bear-hands that cupped her breasts and massaged the flesh of her hips. She still felt him wet against her, his weight pushing into hers. She realized her hand was around her throat, her grip lax, as if she’d been protecting herself from something in a dream.
Beside her, a mountain range beneath the sheets, George began to snore. He shifted onto his stomach. Once, he opened his eyes and looked at her. She waited for him to say something, but he just closed them and slept again. Through the window, moonlight drifted like steam and settled over the dresser. A pile of white caught Viji’s eyes—her dress, folded clumsily, stained with crimson powder. When she slid out of bed, the cold electrified her skin. She picked up the dress and still naked, walked out of the bedroom, across the house, and to the laundry room. Here she laid it in the sink and watched as water gushed into the vermillion stain, turning it bright yellow. It would stay that way. She switched off the tap and left the sink full of soggy cloth, forever blemished.

Shanthi and The Prayer Room are featured in the February issue of Writer’s Digest!

Check out Shanthi on Goodreads for more information and to read blurbs from Stephen Dixon, Julia Glass, Amanda Eyre Ward and others!


~ by Melissa on February 1, 2009.

One Response to “Excerpt from The Prayer Room”

  1. […] with your date at The Make-out Room! Shanthi Sekaran, author of The Prayer Room (read an excerpt here!), will be participating in the monthly awesomeness that is Writers With Drinks, also taking place […]

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