"So why don't you buy her some bananas with my money?" I have to ask.
"I will, but it has to come from your hand. Cows remember that sort of thing. The scent of your hand giving bananas will please her. She will know that you gave her a gift, you see? She will think well of you and bless your entire family."
"Does the cow know the scent of my hands?" I can't help myself.
"Oh sure," she replies. "A cow's memory is second only to an elephant's. It remembers everything and everyone. You just watch.
When this cow sees you on the road, she will recognize you. She will shake her head, wag her tail, and bound towards you."
I am not sure if that is a good thing, but say nothing.
"Help me push her into the elevator, will you?" Sarala asks. "I'll go in first with the rope and you push from the back. The cow is used to wide open spaces, you see. The elevator is starting to freak her out."
I nervously follow the lady and the cow to the elevator. She asks me to put my hand on the cow's rear and gently push.
"But what if she poops on me?" I ask.
"That is a good sign for your house," she replies. "Do you know how many people give me a bonus to get the cow to poop in their construction sites? But what can I do? I cannot make her poop on demand. I have even tried feeding her extra sugarcane on the day before a housewarming. Sugarcane has lots of fiber, you see, but sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. Just pray that she poops before she leaves. I won't charge you extra."
The elevator comes. I put both hands on the cow's rear and push. "Don't touch its tail," Sarala says.
The startled animal sort of jogs into the elevator. It does not poop.
The doors close. I have sanctified my new abode with the cow. For reasons that I cannot put my finger on—that may or may not have to do with keeping up with the Joneses, or, in my case, the snarky neighbor who lectured me about holy animals—I am inordinately pleased.
The elevator doors open. This time, it is not an animal that exits but a human—my husband.
"What happened?" Ram asks. "You look happy."
I shrug. "I got the cow to walk through our house," I say. "My uncles will be thrilled."
"But not the kids. Don't tell them."
After Ram, the movers come, carrying large boxes filled with our belongings. Within moments, we get caught up in directing them to the different rooms. The boxes smell of New York—a potent combination of subway, hot dog, petrol fumes, and smoke. I gulp. What have we done?
We used to live on Sixty-sixth Street and Central Park West, in the shadow of Lincoln Center. In many ways, it was an idyllic life. We walked across Sheep Meadow—had sheep ever grazed on that particular meadow?—to pet the animals in the Central Park Zoo. We woke up before dawn to move our car across the street depending on the day's alternate-side parking rules. We bought Priscilla's Pretzels from a cart down the street before ducking into the Museum of Natural History to see dinosaurs on winter afternoons. I knew exactly which subway car to get into so that I could escape through the turnstile at the 116th Street station before anyone else in order to sprint up the steps to Columbia University's Journalism School when I was late for class. I knew the cashiers at Fairway, and could catch the eye of the baker behind the counter at Zabar's—a decided privilege, particularly on weekends when the suburban hordes descended. He would nod slightly and throw me a box of chocolate rugelach.
We used nebulous words—culture, identity, and homeland—to explain the impending move to our friends, our two young daughters, and mostly to ourselves. Both Ram and I grew up in India. Though we became naturalized American citizens, we ate vegetarian Indian food at home and went to the Hindu temple in Queens. We spoke to our daughters in English and to our parents in Tamil. We have American passports but listen to Carnatic and Hindustani music. I watch 'House of Cards,' 'Homeland,' and 'The Good Wife' rather than Indian soap operas; indeed I cannot relate to their high-octane histrionics, which make 'Jane the Virgin' seem tame in comparison.
Exile, wrote Palestinian-born cultural critic and scholar Edward Said, is the "unhealable rift forced between a human being and his native place; between the self and its true home. It's an essential sadness that can never be surmounted." For immigrants like Ram and me, this is a double whammy. Born in India, we came of age in America. We could relate to both cultures, yet belonged to neither. We were like the primordial Trishanku of Indian mythology, who hung between heaven and earth, unable to choose his home. We straddled India and America, sandwiched between our Indian parents and American-born daughters.
This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.