Every morning Anju rose early to make two paranthas for Maya, triangle ones, the way Maya liked, folded them in half and wrapped them in aluminum foil. She put these into the Barbie lunchbox, along with a small plastic container of subji and a foil-wrapped packet of mango achar. Then she added peeled orange slices that she had offered as prasad to God in her morning prayers so that Maya would have his blessings. Every day Maya took the Barbie lunchbox to school, swinging it in her hand, and brought it back empty in the afternoon.
When Maya came home that day, Anju was silent and didn’t give her the usual welcome kiss at the door. Maya shrugged off her coat and dropped her backpack on the chair in the dining room. “Guess what, Mom! I got a 94 on the math test! It was the highest grade in the class!” She came into the kitchen while Anju turned on the heat under the kadhai to make her after-school snack. Anju tested the oil to see if it was hot enough and then slipped in the first poori. The oil sizzled and bubbled around the edges as it inflated into a round balloon. She turned it over to let the other side brown for a few seconds before scooping it out onto the paper-towel-lined platter.
Maya continued chattering excitedly about her test while her mother worked. “Why didn’t you get 100?” Anju finally asked. “Your father has told you many times that maths are the only subject where you can get 100 percent. Ninety-four is not okay. You did not study hard enough. You will study more for the next test.” She fried two more pooris and added them to the platter. Maya watched in silence, the broad smile she had on her face gone. Anju put the pooris along with some ahlu bhujia onto a plate and set it in front of Maya. “Neena Auntie says you owe Tina twenty-five dollars. What have you been doing? Why does my eight-year-old daughter need twenty-five dollars? Why?!” When Maya didn’t answer, she continued, her voice rising. “She says Tina told her you throw your lunch in the garbage every day and then borrow money from her to buy cafeteria food. You lie to me and to God every day. What did I do to deserve such a daughter?”
“Mom, it’s weird food. It looks and smells funny. The kids make fun of me.”
“What weird! You love paranthas and subji.” Anju was outraged.
“Yeah, but not in school. I can’t eat it in front of everyone else. They laugh and call me curryhead.”
“Then why do you not tell me this, Maya? Why must I hear it from Neena that you are borrowing money. If you want to buy lunch, you ask me. Why must you lie?”
“I asked you, Mom. You said no. You said we can’t afford it.”
“Yes, beta, we cannot afford to waste two dollars every day for you to buy lunch in school when you can take perfectly good food from home. Your father works hard to provide for us, and we must spend carefully. But better I give you money than for you to put shame on your family with deceit and dishonesty. Jai does not think weird food. I do not hear about Jai doing this hateful thing.”
“Jai! Jai is a nerd. Everyone calls him an Indian geek. He doesn’t have any friends except for Rajiv and Aakash, also geeks. They sit all alone at a table. No one else talks to them. I don’t want to be like Jai!”
“So you want to be one of the Amreekan? Your brother and his friends are Indian geek. Your mother and father are Indian geek. Your family is Indian geek. Then you are Indian geek too, Maya beta. Remember that. You will never be like the goras because the color of your skin is different. You cannot change the color of your skin. You can throw all your lunches away, but they will never accept you. They will call everything about you weird and funny.”
“Tina buys school lunch. Neena Auntie lets her.”
“That’s because Neena Auntie is too lazy to get up in the morning to cook. She doesn’t even make roti for dinner, just heats up pita bread from the store. Be grateful you have a mother who loves you enough to get up early and cook good healthy food for you.”
“So don’t get up early. I didn’t ask you to do it. I don’t want it. I’m not going to eat Indian food in school. I’m not! You can keep giving it to me and I’ll keep throwing it away. And if you don’t give me the lunch money, I just won’t eat lunch!” Maya shouted. She pushed the chair back and ran to her room, slamming the door shut.
Anju followed, railing at the closed door. “What did I do that God gave me this ungrateful daughter? She has no respect for her family, for the sacrifices her mother and father make for her! She does not care that she disgraces her parents, her family name, with lies! She cuts off my nose so that I can’t show my face to our friends and neighbors!”
Maya lay sobbing on her bed until her mother finally stopped shrieking through the door. Her mother would never understand. Her mother, walking all around town in her sarees, never noticing how people stared at them.
Maya only came out in the evening when she couldn’t hold off going to the bathroom anymore. Papa was home and her mother was setting dinner on the table. “Aap ki Amreekan beti nikli kamre se. Your American daughter came out of the room,” said her mother coldly.
Papa sighed, put down the newspaper, and motioned Maya to come sit next to him on the sofa. “Ye kya sun raha hoon, beta? What am I hearing? It’s wrong to lie. I know it’s hard for you to be different. It’s difficult to be the target of others’ laughter and jokes, but there is not much we can do. If you want to buy lunch in school, then your mother will give you the money. But please, beta, do not lie. It is dishonorable and will only hurt you.”
“I’m sorry, Papa.” Maya was ashamed. She hung her head, gazing down at the floor. Papa was gentle and soft spoken, unlike her mother. He worked long hours and tried his best to set an example for them. She loved him so much. She didn’t want to hurt him.
The next morning, her mother refused to look at her. Jai’s lunchbox was on the breakfast table, but hers was missing. Instead, next to her plate, was a small pile of money.
That was the day her life split into two. Always wanting to belong, she continued to live a double life, one person at home with her family and a different one outside of it. Before, she had never given a second thought to deceiving her parents. She was just doing what had to be done to fit in with the American kids, the way they brush their teeth or their hair. But after the confrontation with her mother, her lunchbox sat, never used again, on a bookshelf in the corner of her room, the blonde Barbie’s wide-open blue eyes a constant witness to her guilt and shame.