My mother was losing her voice on the day she moved into her new pocket universe.
She wondered if she should postpone the move. But her house was sold, there was no space for her in my Somerville one-bedroom, and Jai was off on vacation with his secret girlfriend. We’d already cleared her out of this life.
“Mom,” I said, “I think you’re going to have to go in now.”
I tapped the Teenwalla gadge, which was still in its plastic packaging. Jai and I had made the final payments on our respective gadges the week prior.
“Spent so much money, didn’t you,” she croaked. Her voice was frayed. She looked enfeebled, so much that I almost forgot all the bad stuff that had come before this point in time. Someone with so weak a voice could surely never have said the things she’d said to me.
I served her chamomile tea with lemon and honey in a floral mug.
“This is white people tea, Mansi,” she said. “You don’t make nice Indian chai?
“White people know how to handle colds,” I said in the voice the therapist taught me to use, which is so full of meditative breathing it almost makes me sound like I will fly away. “Drink it.”
“Don’t breathe like a bull like that,” she said.
While she sipped behind me, I began to unwrap the Teenwalla. On the outside of the packaging was a picture of the gadge, that makeup-compact sized device, and several cheery frames reminding the user of how it worked. Frame one depicted a sweet Indian auntie in a sari tumbling into the gadge, suitcase flying above her like Mary Poppins’s umbrella. Frame two showed her son and daughter waving down at the gadge, which rested in the palm of her son’s hand. In frame three, she landed on the soft white sand beach Teenwalla had so painstakingly manufactured to look like Goa, and she looked up to see her son’s and daughter’s large faces waving like benevolent gods before recusing themselves. In the last frame, the grown kids clinked their gadges together and stuffed them in their back pockets. Their mother was safely retired. They could drop in and visit, anytime.
There were no images showing how the parents could leave. For that you had to read the fine print about the exit button, which you held in your pocket when you dropped in, and which shot you back out. The reviews of Teenwalla were all very positive, except about the exit button. It was clunky technology, people said. The journey back out of the gadge was nauseating, like the first minutes of a space shuttle launch. The issue with the exit button, some people said, was that it made you not want to drop in and out very often.
theories of retirement
There are, in the Hindu tradition, four stages of life: one is first a student, then a householder, then a retiree, and, last, a renunciate. Retirement would have meant, in the old days, elders living in the spare room, neglected, too ancient to work in the fields, ignored, a pain. Therefore, renunciation: at a certain point, a man was to give up his home and belongings and go meditate in the woods. It prepared you for the next life, taking on that silent forest existence.
realities of retirement
Indians in America never figured out the third phase of life, never figured out how to do retirement. No Florida, no golf clubs. They studied, then worked, then got walloped by dementia or heart attacks or strokes, then died, oceans away from the motherland. My parents had talked about going back for their old age, but when they flew to Gurgaon to scout retirement communities, they said they didn’t have the constitutions for India anymore. For its air, its traffic, its bureaucracy. My father died. My mother shrunk, grew old, grew lonely, and said the big Lexington house didn’t feel like home anymore.
And so, when we read about Teenwalla—translation, “the third one,” a la the third phase of life, we bought a gadge like thousands of other diaspora brown kids. My mother found the whole idea peculiar, at first. But she was convinced when she looked through the brochure and saw how they’d made these gorgeous Disney-quality spaces. An island of Kerala houseboats with Ayurvedic masseuses on staff. A huge food plaza with Bombay-style vada pav and Madrasi dosa and Andhra kozhambu and Bengali bhetki, delicacies from every region. They would bring Bollywood stars in for special concerts and religious scholars for special talks. Here was India—the best parts of it, without the smog and crowds and drug-resistant tuberculosis—in this pocket-sized device. In the Teenwalla commercials, the CEO, who everyone just called the Wizard, paced in front of a whiteboard fingering his mala beads and said he’d called upon the logics of those four phases of Hindu life in manufacturing the pocket. He said he thanked God that he’d at last located that elusive third one.
“Theekh hain,” my mother said, in the end. “Where else am I going to go, isn’t it.”
“On a business trip,” my mother said, her voice thickening. Her throat seemed almost clogged with the honey. “Jai is always on so many business trips.”
My brother was not on a business trip, but holed up at a house in the Hamptons with his white girlfriend. We were not supposed to date white people.
“He’s never here when it counts,” I said.
“You’re always prickly when it counts, na, Mansi?”
My mother hacked and hacked and hacked, and I rubbed her back through her soft cotton T-shirt. It read mit mom. I asked her if she wanted more tea and she pooh-poohed. She glanced over at her big red suitcase, said I didn’t need to go on fussing.
I finagled open the plastic packaging on the Teenwalla. Outside my apartment, dandruffy flakes of snow were falling; it was winter in Boston, and my mother had never done well in winter. “It’ll be so warm in there, Mom,” I said, a bit pleadingly.
“Yes,” she said, and that was a favor she did me, just then, saying yes.
I placed the heavy metal gadge on the table. Then I popped open its latch. A little beam of warmth rose up through the place where powder would be in a makeup compact. In the spot where you’d find a mirror was the black-netted speaker; we could hear strains of high-pitched Hindi music, the kind my mother used to sing in the kitchen while she cooked, while I shouted for her to please, be quiet, please—her singing sounded like nails on a chalkboard.
“They’re having a dance party down there,” I said. “Hear that?”
A smile crept along my mother’s lined face—perhaps against her will. She loved dancing. She wanted to dance at her children’s weddings, to oversee a sangeet and witness us moving smoothly into the householder phase. Only, neither of us seemed ready to do things her way. Jai would marry Kristin in a church. And my mother would not have accepted my kind of wedding, because two women couldn’t marry each other in red-and-gold saris. That householder stuff was for straight brown people, suitable boy and suitable girl.
I asked if she was sure she didn’t want me to come, too, just to see her off.
She shook her head. Her thinning hair swayed with her. I remembered when it had been so voluminous that she’d needed to braid it and pin it to the back of her head so she could go to work.
“You come in and you will only say, ‘Jai did not come in.’ Only one more thing to be angry about.”
I kissed her on the top of her forehead. “Bye, Mom,” I said. “I’ll drop in anytime.”
“Don’t break this,” she said, tapping the Teenwalla with one finger and suddenly paling. The tendons in her neck protruded and shivered. “Ananya’s son broke his, can’t afford the new one, and he is not authorized on anyone else’s gadge so now he is never coming in until he saves up for a new this-thing.” She pronounced gadge like gouge, which seemed violent. “And Ananya, she has had problems with the exit-schmexit button. Says the interdimensional travel business is very sickening.”
“Mom,” I said. “I won’t break it. And if I did, Jai could afford a new one.”
“You’re always breaking things.” Her voice cracked and faded again. I almost couldn’t catch the second half of the sentence, except that I knew her, so I could fill it in.
(Years ago, my mother said I’d broken her heart. Years before that, she said I’d broken her trust.)
She pointed at my defunct television, and then through the window at the car I’d banged up at a parking garage, and at the scratches on my walls that would ensure I wouldn’t get my security deposit back.
“I won’t break it, Mom,” I said.
Then I said I loved her. She said she loved me. She leaned over the gadge and it all happened in an instant, just like in the commercials. One moment her nose was hovering above the part of the makeup compact where the powder would go. I could see a glimmer of white sand and a ridge of sweet blue waves. The next, she was gone in a kaleidoscopic swirl, and I thought I heard a cough as she sunk down into her new home.
I clamped the gadge shut and stood for a moment in the silence of my apartment and breathed a sigh of relief—that bull’s breath—and my insides went slimy with guilt as I thought about how free my universe suddenly felt, now that she was gone.
• • •
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SANJENA SATHIAN is the author of Gold Diggers, which was named a Top 10 Best Book of 2021 by the Washington Post, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and a Best Book of 2021 by NPR, and was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her short fiction also appears in the Atlantic, Conjunctions, Boulevard, Salt Hill Journal, and the Best American Short Stories 2022. She’s written nonfiction for the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Drift, Lithub, and more.