A couple years ago, Erin went to live in Poland. And she went with certain prejudices. She was Jewish, and she was scared of anti-Semitism. Now, many Poles will tell you that this prejudice is completely unfair. But Erin lost Polish family members in the Holocaust. And Poland's where some of the most infamous concentration camps operated, Auschwitz and Birkenau and Treblinka.
I'd only heard one thing about Poland my entire life, from my mother, from my grandparents, that they had always hated Jews. And they had always wanted to see Jews killed. And then, when the Holocaust started to happen, they were happy to see it happen, and they were collaborators. Even though my mother was saved by a Pole, that was always told to me as, well, she only did it for the money.
So you were scared about anti-Semitism there. What did you find?
Well, the first thing I found is that I had a roommate with a Hebrew letter tattooed on her shoulder. I found the old Jewish quarter in Krakow, which is where I was living, has been converted into this kind of Jewish theme park. There's Jewish-themed cafes that have matzoh ball soup and latkes, all this Jewish food.
And they play it with klezmer music. And there's all these pictures of Jews with black hats on the walls. And there's this huge enthusiasm for Jewish culture. And I went to a nightclub with a friend, and the nightclub singer, as part of a set that included all kinds of jazz songs and "When the Saints Go Marching In," all of a sudden started playing Fiddler on the Roof songs.
Now, you brought tapes of this. Here's a recording recorded in the nightclub. Just describe this nightclub.
It's a nightclub that appeals to the up-and-coming yuppie set of Krakow, 20-, 30-something, really beautiful people in really tight clothes. All the women have midriff-baring, and men are in leather pants, and Euro hipster. When we walked in, she was singing "Yesterday," by the Beatles. But she does a whole diverse set. But her climax, the thing she builds to, is this sort of montage of Jewish music. And the climax of the whole thing is "Hava Nagila."
We should say to people who have never been to a Jewish wedding, this is the old-school, dance at a bar mitzvah, dance at a wedding kind of song.
And they were just crazy for it. They loved it, loved it.
And Krakow is how close to Auschwitz, the concentration camp?
It's about an hour's drive, maybe a little less than an hour. A friend of mine, an American Jew visiting me in Krakow, he'd spent the day at Auschwitz. And then I took him to this nightclub. And when the singer starts singing-- first, she's singing Fiddler on the Roof songs, and he thought that was pretty funny because, here, it's a Broadway take on the old country right here in the middle of the old country. And that was sort of kitschy and funny.
And then she started singing "Hava Nagila." And everybody's like, wooooo! And they got all excited, and they jumped to their feet. And they're belly-dancing, and they're singing along. And my friend turned to me, and he says, I'm sorry. Where was I eight hours ago?
It can throw you when somebody you thought was your enemy shows up to what you thought was going to be a fight dressed as you, wearing your favorite suit, and those shoes that you thought really only looked good on you. It's hard to throw the first punch in that situation. It's hard to know whether you should stop hating them or not.
After all, they're trying so hard to be like you. It's almost flattering. Or maybe you should hate them all the more. I mean, the sheer gall of it. There they are, you.
Well, today on our program, Fake ID. We bring you stories of people traveling under fake papers, false identities, not for money, not for power, not for personal gain, but only for their own pleasure and amusement, which, I have to say, makes the whole thing all the more confusing. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.
Act One of our program today, Pole Vault. In that act, the very confusing story of a Jew in Krakow among non-Jews who think that Judaism is just kind of cool. Act Two, This Blessed House. In that act, a story from Jhumpa Lahiri about an Indian couple that keeps finding trinkets from a religion that is not theirs, which you think would not really cause much trouble. Act Three, The Lie That Binds. David Sedaris explains how to stay in love. Stay with us.
Act One: Pole Vault
Act One, Pole Vault. So, Erin Einhorn went to Poland, to find the Catholic family that had sheltered and saved her mother from the concentration camps during World War II. And she found that in Krakow, where she was living, in a country where the Jewish population had been exterminated, Judaism was suddenly trendy, hip even, for all sorts of reasons.
Jews comprised, at one point in time, 10% of the population and were living throughout that country. So there's cemeteries, buildings. There's just Hebrew letters etched in stone that once said "pharmacy" in Yiddish. Yet most people under 60 have never met a Jew. So when they hear about it, when they get a piece of it, they're excited about it. They're fascinated by it. They're drawn to it.
Right, because there are these clues all around, and they feel like, oh, finally, that's what that means.
The Polish national television, still under communism, played Fiddler on the Roof at some point in the late '80s on television. And when I was doing interviews this year, people constantly referred to, oh, the first time I saw Fiddler on the Roof. It was this thing that-- their grandmothers would gather them around the television and say, "Oh, look, look, look. That's what it looked like. These are the people I grew up with. It looked like this." One of the other clips I think you have is of a woman who's actually writing her master's thesis about Isaac Bashevis Singer, and is taking Yiddish, and is fascinated by Jewish culture, who the first time she experienced Jewish culture was when they ran Fiddler on the Roof on television.
Here's that clip.
My first contact was quite a long time ago, when I first saw Fiddler on the Roof. And it was in the times when we didn't have a VCR at home, so my father would record it on a tape recorder. So I had three hours, and I would listen to that again and again, so that after some time, I knew it by heart.
And then whenever I had some difficult times, I would go back to the cassette and listen to that, to the songs, and to the humor, and the culture, the different-- well, different to what I've been taught before. I was taught on communist history books. And you had no mention about Jewish people living in Poland. You just said one word about the king Casimir the Great, who invited Jews in the 14th century, then big nothing, and then the Holocaust.
How many Jews were in Poland before the war?
In Poland, I think about 3.5 million.
Now it's about 3,000, something like that. And in Krakow, which is where I spent most of my time last year, there's about 170 Jews, most of them over 80.
[KLEZMER MUSIC PLAYING]
Erin, what's this recording of?
Yeah, this is the annual Jewish cultural festival in Krakow. And in a country with almost no Jews, it's really an extraordinary thing. The clip you're playing is the final concert of the festival at which, the Polish newspapers reported this year, there were 10,000 participants.
It's an outdoor concert right in the center of what had been the Jewish quarter. And they set up a stage on one end, decorated with menorahs and other Jewish symbols, and it's nationally televised. Polish national television carries this concert live.
And they bring in klezmer musicians from around the world, the top klezmer musicians in the business. And they put them on stage, and they bring in thousands and thousands of young people, mostly in their 20s, teens, 20s, 30s, and they just pack this square. And they go crazy. It's just like this big rock concert, only it's klezmer music.
And they're non-Jews. These people in the crowd, just to be clear, are non-Jews.
There might be some tourists there. There's a mix of people. But by and large, this is the youth culture of Krakow. But this concert capped a week of, there were classes on Jewish dancing that drew 200 people to a high school gym, 200 people who really wanted to learn the horah. There were 60 mostly college-aged kids in a workshop on the Yiddish language.
Give your best understanding of how this trend came about. How did this happen?
It was sort of an intellectual thing in the 80s. There was this group of people who were interested in it. And they would have meetings about Jewish culture, and bring in Jewish writers to come speak, or have concerts of Jewish music. But it was a small thing.
And from this group emerged a number of things, such as the first Jewish cultural festival, which actually started as a Jewish film festival in, I think, 1988. And what happened is it was a huge success. They expected a few dozen people. And in fact, a couple hundred came. And it was a full room. And that was 1988.
And the following year, communism falls. So suddenly, not only is there interest, but now there's opportunity. And actually, and then the big turning point around 1993, Spielberg comes to make Schindler's List. And suddenly, there's this big American director in Krakow, making a movie.
A movie about the Jews.
And he's filming it in the Jewish quarter. He turned this little Jewish quarter into the set for his movie. And it was a huge success. And then when the movie comes out, all these people start flocking to this part of town to see where it was that Spielberg made this big movie, Schindler's List.
Now, one of the pieces of tape you've brought in that you recorded there is with the owner of a bookshop?
Right, right. And he was a guy who had this love of Jewish culture, and he had just opened up this bookshop. And he put Jewish book titles on the shelves. And then one day, this movie gets made, and the whole world changes.
Here we go. Here's the tape.
We should build memorial for Spielberg in the center of this place. Because thanks to Spielberg, we can exist now in better situation. After Spielberg's film, it was a kind of revolution in the mentality of people. You know that premiere of this film was in December, in New York. First days of January, '94, first American tourists visited me in the bookshop. And every day, it was the same.
The bookstore started giving tours. First, they wrote a guidebook of where all the places in the movie were. And then the tourists were coming, and the locals would start to come. It wasn't just foreigners. The whole city wanted to come. And Poles who came to visit from other parts of the country would want to come.
And actually, it was so successful, before the movie, there was just the bookshop and one cafe, called the Ariel Cafe. After the movie came out, it was such a success, the people who owned the building where the Ariel Cafe was actually evicted the people who had started the cafe.
The Jewish cafe.
They were kicked out, and he opened his own Ariel Cafe. And they rented the building next door and opened their own Ariel Cafe. So for the better part of the 1990s, you had two Ariels there. And then there was a lawsuit, and one of them subsequently changed its name to the Olive Cafe. Now it's a whole thriving industry. There's actual Jewish gift shops in Krakow, where they sell wood carvings of Jews playing the violin.
And how are you feeling about this, as a Jew whose family had to flee Poland in the Second World War?
Well, at first, I was somewhat offended, actually, on the grounds of, OK, now that we're not here, now they're interested in Jewish culture? And I wondered, well, gosh, are people making money from this? Are they marketing my culture? It's this weird thing.
I hadn't been appropriated before. So on one hand, you're kind of flattered. And on the other hand, there's just something about it that doesn't sit right.
I wonder if the feeling you're feeling is something that happens to other groups a lot. I would imagine that an older black person visiting the House of Blues, which is, if I understand right, mostly white-owned and white audiences there walking in with a kind of kitschy presentation of black music.
I often compared it to Santa Fe. You have a culture that's primarily selling, marketing Native American culture. And it isn't Native Americans necessarily doing the marketing. There may be some involved, but primarily, their culture is being packaged and sold as part of a tour to tourists.
Right, after we've driven them off the land.
You brought in another clip of tape from your interviews in Poland, a woman named Eva?
Yeah, Ewa Nowakowska. She's an English translator. Her perspective on it really reflects the romanticism that this younger generation has. Her grandmother had described for her how beautiful the Jewish culture was and how the Jewish quarter would light up.
Here, let's hear that tape.
I think that there is a strong feeling of regret whenever I just roam along the streets of Kazimierz, of the former Jewish district, because I can realize how many people were just crowding the streets, how many small shops were opened. It was a thriving culture. And my grandmother's sister told me about all the festivals, especially about Shabbat on Saturdays, when she-- she can recall the whole thing. She could just walk along the streets. And she could see the lit windows in which there were the candlesticks, and they started singing all the Jewish songs. And it was very-- even for the Catholics, it was incredible to feel and experience. And then everything perished, everything disappeared.
And this was this woman who had actually-- she's a poet-- and she had actually written a series of poems as a tribute to the Jewish family that used to live next door to her grandmother. And she has her grandmother's old diary, and the Jewish family that lived next door had written some Hebrew letters in the book or something. And she talks about it in these romantic terms as this is this last relic, this last holdover, the last thing we have from this family. Whether or not that's true, whether or not that family even survived, we don't necessarily know.
So for her, does Jewishness connote a simpler, more innocent time?
I think probably, yes.
And how strange that the time that it connotes is 1930s eastern Europe.
But you always have a romantic idea of what life was before you experienced it. And what was in Poland at that time, but Jews? It's something from the past. It's something magical and mystical.
It's funny how being gone can make it magical and mystical.
Yeah. And that's why these Jewish-themed cafes are all designed like 19th-century living rooms. They used old, white, lace tablecloths and antique furniture and antique frames on the portraits on the walls. It's got a poignant, melodramatic flair to it that the artistic types are drawn to.
Was it just that the people who you were getting to know were fascinated by Jewish culture, or were they actually looking for their own Jewish roots? Was there a sense of, oh, maybe I'm part Jewish?
There is an absolute trend among certain young Poles to go try and find the Jewish ancestor in the closet. If you actually find a Jewish relative, it's something that distinguishes you from everybody else. Not only is the country largely homogeneous ethnically, but under communism, there were restricted colors of paint and restricted kinds of architecture. And everybody had the same sort of job and the same sort of house and the same sort of life. And it was all very same and really bland.
And this young culture wants to try and distinguish themselves from the previous generations, and try and show we're different. We're Western, we're capitalistic, I don't know, ethnically different. And so if you can actually prove that you are, in fact, ethnically different, well, that's taking it to the next level.
So as somebody who actually is Jewish, when you would explain to people that you're actually Jewish, was it suddenly like you were a celebrity?
I don't think I was a celebrity, but it was like I just told them I came back from Mars. They want to hear everything about it. And actually, one of the things I think I said I heard all the time, people would hear I was a Jew. I'd be at a party. I would tell them what I was doing in Poland. And they'd say, "Oh my God. Wow. Really? You're a Jew? Wow, that's so exciting. My grandmother's best friend was a Jew." It's like every Polish grandmother had a Jew for a best friend.
That's such a weird variation on "some of my best friends are Jewish." "Some of my grandmother's best friends were Jewish."
And it could be legitimate because their grandmothers were children just before the war. And especially if they were in a place like Krakow, which was urban and educated, there were lots and lots of Jews. The schools were integrated. Yeah, maybe. Maybe they aren't lying or-- and they tell their grandchildren about it.
When you never meet a Jew, you never have a problem with a Jew. You never have a conflict. And all the things that may or may not have threatened their grandparents or their great-grandparents or the things that may have defined several hundred years of Polish-Jewish relations are moot. All they have is the romance, and the memory, and none of the things that create problems.
Do you think it's possible for Poles to honor Jews in a way that wouldn't feel a little bit creepy or disturbing to Jews?
Yeah, I think I do have this suspicion, I guess, that I can't seem to get past. When people would come up to me and say, "Oh, yeah, my grandmother's best friend was a Jew," there's this part of me that would want to say, "Yeah? And what did Grandma do when they came to take away her friend?" Granted, Grandma was a nine-year-old girl, so she did nothing.
I wish I could view it not cynically. I wish that I were that open-minded and not so biased and prejudicial. But I'm a product of my own history.
And my mother had this crazy-- she had five mothers by the time she was nine because she was tossed around. And my grandmother was killed. And my grandfather was in Auschwitz. So you just can't set aside that context and that history, as much as you can try.
Erin Einhorn is a reporter for the New York Daily News. She's finished her book about the family that hid her mother from the Holocaust, and she's looking for a publisher. The family, it turns out, did not just do it for the money. One of them burst into tears when Erin showed up at his door. Coming up, when your trivet does the talking, and you get ignored, and David Sedaris on love. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two: This Blessed House
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Fake ID, an idea so simple, a theme so simple that, for a change, I do not have to explain it. We have arrived at act two of our program, Act Two, This Blessed House. In this act, we bring you a piece of short fiction from Jhumpa Lahiri, a story whose similarities to Erin's story about Poland will become all too clear. Mira Nair reads this story for us.
They discovered the first one in a cupboard above the stove, beside an unopened bottle of malt vinegar. "Guess what I found?" Twinkle walked into the living room, lined from end to end with taped-up packing boxes, waving the vinegar in one hand and a white porcelain effigy of Christ, roughly the same size as the vinegar bottle, in the other.
Sanjeev looked up. He was kneeling on the floor, marking, with ripped bits of a Post-it, patches on the baseboard that needed to be retouched with paint. "Throw it away." "Which?" she said. "Both."
"But I can cook something with the vinegar. It's brand new." "You've never cooked anything with vinegar." "I'll look something up in one of those books we got for our wedding." Sanjeev turned back to the baseboard to replace a Post-it strap that had fallen to the floor. "Check the expiration, and at the very least, get rid of that idiotic statue." "But it could be worth something, who knows?"
She turned it upside down, then stroked with her index finger the minuscule, frozen folds of its robes. "It's pretty." "We're not Christian," Sanjeev said. Lately, he had begun noticing the need to state the obvious to Twinkle. The day before, he had to tell her that if she dragged her end of the bureau, instead of lifting it, the parquet floor would scratch.
She shrugged. "No, we're not Christian. We're good little Hindus." She planted a kiss on top of Christ's head, then placed the statue on top of the fireplace mantle, which needed, Sanjeev observed, to be dusted.
By the end of the week, the mantle had still not been dusted. It had, however, come to serve as the display shelf for a sizable collection of Christian paraphernalia. There was a 3-D postcard of Saint Francis done in four colors, which Twinkle had found taped to the back of the medicine cabinet, and a wooden cross keychain which Sanjeev had stepped on with bare feet as he was installing extra shelving in Twinkle's study. There was a framed paint-by-number of the three wise men against a black velvet background tucked in the linen closet. There was also a tile trivet depicting a blond, unbearded Jesus delivering a sermon on a mountaintop left in one of the drawers of the built-in china cabinet in the dining room.
"Do you think the previous owners were born-agains?" asked Twinkle, making room the next day for a small, plastic snow-filled dome, containing a miniature nativity scene, found behind the pipes of the kitchen sink. Sanjeev was organizing his engineering texts from MIT in alphabetical order on a bookshelf, though it had been several years since he had needed to consult any of them. At 33, he had a secretary of his own and a dozen people working under his supervision who gladly supplied him with any information he needed. Still, the presence of his college books in the room reminded him of a time in his life he recalled with fondness, when he would walk each evening across the Mass Avenue bridge to order Mughlai chicken with spinach from his favorite Indian restaurant on the other side of the Charles and return to his dorm room to write out clean copies of his problem sets.
"Or perhaps it's an attempt to convert people," Twinkle mused. "Clearly, the scheme has succeeded in your case," Sanjeev said. She disregarded him, shaking the little plastic dome so that the snow swirled over the manger.
Sanjeev studied the items on the mantle. It puzzled him that each was, in its own way, so silly. Clearly, they lacked a sense of sacredness. He was further puzzled that Twinkle, who normally displayed good taste, was so charmed. These objects meant something to Twinkle, but they meant nothing to him. They irritated him.
"We should call the realtor, tell them there's all this nonsense left behind. Tell him to take it away." "Oh, Sanj," Twinkle groaned. "Please, I would feel terrible throwing them away. Obviously, they were important to the people who used to live here. It would feel, I don't know, I mean, sacrilegious or something?"
"If they're so precious, then why were they hidden all over the house? Why didn't they take them with them?" "There must be others," Twinkle said. Her eyes roamed the bare, off-white walls of the room, as if there were other things concealed behind the plaster. "What else do you think we'll find?"
Nearly a week had passed before they discovered, one Saturday afternoon, a larger than life-sized watercolor poster of Christ, weeping translucent tears the size of peanut shells and sporting a crown of thorns, rolled up behind a radiator in the guest bedroom. Sanjeev had mistaken it for a window shade. "Oh, we must, we simply must put it up. It's too spectacular." Twinkle lit a cigarette and began to smoke it with relish, waving it around Sanjeev's head as if it were a conductor's baton, as Mahler's Fifth Symphony roared from the stereo downstairs.
"Now look, I will tolerate for now your little Biblical menagerie in the living room. But I refuse to have this," he said, flicking at one of the painted peanut tears, "displayed in our home." Twinkle stared at him, the smoke emerging in two thin, blue streams from her nostrils. She rolled up the poster slowly, securing it with one of the elastic bands she always wore around her wrist for tying back her thick, unruly hair, streaked here and there with henna. "I'm going to put it in my study," she informed him. "That way, you don't have to look at it."
"What about the housewarming? They'll want to see all the rooms. I've invited people from the office." She rolled her eyes. Sanjeev noted that the symphony on the stereo, now in its third movement, had reached a crescendo, for it pulsed with the telltale clashing of cymbals.
"I'll put it behind the door," she offered. "That way, when they peek in, they won't see. Happy?" Sanjeev stood watching her as she left the room with her poster and her cigarette. A few ashes had fallen to the floor where she'd been standing. He bent down, pinched them between his fingers, and deposited them in his cupped palm.
On the stereo downstairs, the tender fourth movement, the adagietto, began. During breakfast, Sanjeev had read in the liner notes that Mahler had proposed to his wife by sending her the manuscript of this portion of the score. Although there were elements of tragedy and struggle in the Fifth Symphony, he had read, it was principally music of love and happiness. He heard the toilet flush. "By the way," Twinkle hollered, "if you want to impress people, I wouldn't play this music. It's putting me to sleep."
A few days later, when Sanjeev returned from the office, he smelled something aromatic on the stove. He opened the lid of the pot with some sort of reddish-brown sauce dripping over the sides, boiling furiously. "It's a stew made with fish. I put the vinegar in it," she said, crossing her fingers.
She was like that, excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavor of ice cream or dropping a letter in the mailbox. It was a quality he did not understand. It made him feel stupid, as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate or see.
They had met only four months before. Her parents, who lived in California, and his, who lived in Calcutta, were old friends. And across continents, they had arranged the occasion at which Twinkle and Sanjeev were introduced, a 16th birthday party for a daughter in their circle, when Sanjeev was in Palo Alto on business.
At the restaurant, they were seated side by side at a round table, with a revolving platter of spare ribs and egg rolls and chicken wings, which they concurred all tasted the same. They had concurred, too, on their adolescent, but still persistent fondness for Wodehouse novels and their dislike for the sitar. And later, Twinkle confessed, she was charmed by the way Sanjeev had dutifully refilled her teacup during their conversation.
And so the phone calls began and grew longer. And then the visits, first he to Stanford, then she to Connecticut, after which Sanjeev would save in an ashtray left on the balcony the crushed cigarettes she had smoked during the weekend, saved them, that is, until the next time she came to visit him. And then he vacuumed the apartment, washed the sheets, even dusted the plant leaves in her honor.
She was 27 and recently abandoned, he had gathered, by an American who had tried and failed to be an actor. Sanjeev was lonely, with an excessively generous income for a single man, and had never been in love. At the urging of their matchmakers, they married in India amid hundreds of well wishers whom he barely remembered from his childhood, in incessant August rains, under a red and orange tent strung with Christmas tree lights on Mandeville Road.
"Did you sweep the attic?" he asked Twinkle later, as she was folding paper napkins and wedging them by their plates. The attic was the only part of the house they had not yet given an initial cleaning. "Not yet. I will, I promise. I hope this tastes good," she said, planting the steaming pot on top of the Jesus trivet. There was a loaf of Italian bread in a little basket, and iceberg lettuce and grated carrots tossed with bottled dressing and croutons, and glasses of red wine. She was not terribly ambitious in the kitchen.
She bought pre-roasted chickens from the supermarket and served them with potato salad prepared who knew when, sold in little plastic containers. Indian food, she complained, was a bother. She detested chopping garlic and peeling ginger, and could not operate a blender, and so it was Sanjeev who, on weekends, seasoned mustard oil with cinnamon sticks and cloves in order to produce a proper curry.
He had to admit, though, that whatever it was that she had cooked today, it was unusually tasty. "How did you make it?" "I just put some things into the pot and added the malt vinegar at the end." "How much vinegar?" She shrugged, ripping off some bread and plunging it into her bowl. "What do you mean you don't know? You should write it down. What if you need to make it again for a party or something?" "I'll remember," she said.
She covered the bread basket with a dish towel that had, he suddenly noticed, the Ten Commandments printed on it. She flashed him a smile, giving his knee a little squeeze under the table. "Face it. This house is blessed."
The housewarming party was scheduled for the last Saturday in October, and they had invited about 30 people. All were Sanjeev's acquaintances, people from the office and a number of Indian couples in the Connecticut area, many of whom he barely knew, but who had regularly invited him, in his bachelor days, to supper on Saturdays.
So far, no one had met Twinkle. Back when they were still dating, Sanjeev didn't want to waste their brief weekends together with people he associated with being alone. Other than Sanjeev and an ex-boyfriend, who she believed worked in a pottery studio in Brookfield, she knew no one in the state of Connecticut. She was completing her Master's thesis at Stanford, a study of an Irish poet whom Sanjeev had never heard of.
The weekend before the party, they were raking the lawn when Sanjeev heard Twinkle shriek. He ran to her, clutching his rake, worried that she had discovered a dead animal or a snake. A brisk October breeze stung the top of his ears as his sneakers crunched over brown and yellow leaves.
When he reached her, she had collapsed on the grass, dissolved in nearly silent laughter. Behind an overgrown forsythia bush was a plaster Virgin Mary as tall as their waists, with a blue painted hood draped over her head in the manner of an Indian bride. Twinkle grabbed the hem of her t-shirt and began wiping away the dirt staining the statue's brow.
"I suppose you'll want to put her by the foot of our bed," Sanjeev said. She looked at him astonished. "No, silly Sanj. This is meant for outside, for the lawn." "Twinkle, no, all the neighbors will see. They'll think we're insane." "Why? For having a statue of the Virgin Mary on our lawn? Every other person in this neighborhood has a statue of Virgin Mary on the lawn. We'll fit right in."
"We're not Christian." "So you keep reminding me." She spat onto the top of her finger and started to rub intently at a particularly stubborn stain on Mary's chin. He was getting nowhere with her, with this woman whom he had known for only four months, and whom he had married, this woman with whom he now shared his life. He thought, with a flicker of regret, of the snapshots his mother used to send him from Calcutta of prospective brides who could sing and sew and season lentils without consulting a cookbook. Sanjeev had considered these women, had even ranked them in order of preference. But then he had met Twinkle.
"Twinkle, I can't have the people I work with see this statue on my lawn." "Why does it matter to you so much what other people think?" "Twinkle, please." He let his weight rest against his rake as she began dragging the statue toward an oval bed of myrtle beside the lamppost that flanked the brick pathway. "Look, Sanj, she's so lovely."
He returned to his pile of leaves and began to deposit them by handfuls into a plastic garbage bag. Over his head, the blue sky was cloudless. One tree on the lawn was still full of leaves, red and orange, like the tent in which he had married Twinkle.
He did not know if he loved her. He said he did when she had first asked him, one afternoon in Palo Alto, as they sat side by side in a darkened, nearly empty movie theater. Before the film, one of her favorites, something in German that he found extremely depressing, she had pressed the tip of her nose to his, so that he could feel the flutter of her mascara-coated eyelashes. That afternoon, he had replied, yes, he loved her. And she was delighted and fed him a piece of popcorn, letting her finger linger an instant between his lips, as if it were his reward for coming up with the right answer.
Though she did not say it herself, he assumed then that she loved him too. But now he was no longer sure. In truth, Sanjeev did not know what love was, only what he thought it was not.
It was not, he decided, returning to an empty carpeted condominium each night and using only the top fork in his cutlery drawer, and turning away politely at those weekend dinner parties when the other men eventually put their arms around the waists of their wives and girlfriends, leaning over every now and again to kiss their shoulders or necks. It was not sending away for classical music CDs by mail, working his way methodically through the major composers that the catalog recommended, and always sending his payments in on time.
In the months before meeting Twinkle, Sanjeev had begun to realize this. "You have enough money in the bank to raise three families," his mother reminded him when they spoke at the start of each month on the phone. "You need a wife to look after and love." Now he had one, a pretty one, from a suitably high caste, who would soon have a Master's degree. What was there not to love?
The menu for the party was fairly simple. There would be a case of champagne and samosas from an Indian restaurant in Hartford, and big trays of rice with chicken and almonds and orange peels, which Sanjeev had spent the greater part of the morning and afternoon preparing. He had never entertained on such a large scale before. And, worried that there would not be enough to drink, ran out at one point to buy another case of champagne just in case.
Twinkle swept the floors and volunteered to pick up the samosas. She had an appointment for a manicure and pedicure in that direction anyway. Sanjeev had planned to ask if she would consider cleaning the menagerie off the mantle, if only for the party. But she left while he was in the shower.
She was gone for a good three hours, and so it was Sanjeev who did the rest of the cleaning. By 5:30, the entire house sparkled, with scented candles that Twinkle had picked up in Hartford illuminating the items on the mantle, and slender stalks of burning incense planted into the soil of potted plants. Each time he passed the mantle, he winced, dreading the raised eyebrows of his guests as they viewed the flickering ceramic saints, the salt and pepper shakers designed to resemble Mary and Joseph.
Douglas, one of the new consultants at the firm, and his girlfriend Nora were the first to arrive. Both were tall and blond, wearing matching wire-rimmed glasses and long, black overcoats. Nora wore a black hat full of sharp, thin feathers that corresponded to the sharp, thin angles of her face. Her left hand was joined with Douglas's. In her right hand was a bottle of cognac with a red ribbon wrapped around its neck, which she gave to Twinkle.
"Great lawn, Sanjeev," Douglas remarked. "We've got to get that rake out ourselves, sweetie. And this must be?" "My wife, Tanima." "Call me Twinkle." "What an unusual name," Nora remarked. "Pleased to meet you, Twinkle." "Help yourself to champagne," Twinkle said. "There's gallons."
"I hope you don't mind my asking," Douglas said, "but I noticed the statue outside, and are you guys Christian? I thought you were Indian." "There are Christians in India," Sanjeev replied. "But we are not."
The bell rang again and again and again. Within minutes, it seemed, the house had filled with bodies and conversations and unfamiliar fragrances. The women wore heels and sheer stockings and short, black dresses made of crepe and chiffon. They handed their wraps and coats to Sanjeev, who draped them carefully on hangers in the spacious coat closet, though Twinkle told people to throw their things on the ottomans in the solarium.
It bewildered Sanjeev that it was for him and his house and his wife that they had all gone to so much care. Everyone congratulated him. Lester, another coworker, predicted that Sanjeev would be promoted to vice president in two months maximum.
People devoured the samosas and dutifully admired the freshly painted ceilings and walls, the hanging plants, the bay windows, the silk paintings from Jaipur. But most of all, they admired Twinkle. Over hectic jazz records, played under Twinkle's supervision, they laughed at her anecdotes and observations, forming a widening circle around her, while Sanjeev replenished the samosas that he kept warming evenly in the oven, and getting ice for people's drinks, and opening more bottles of champagne with some difficulty, and explaining for the 40th time that he wasn't Christian.
It was Twinkle who led them in separate groups up and down the winding stairs to gaze at the back lawn, to peer down the cellar steps. "Your friends adore the poster in my study," she mentioned to Sanjeev triumphantly, placing her hand on the small of his back as they, at one point, brushed past each other. Sanjeev went to the kitchen, which was empty, and ate a piece of chicken out of the tray on the counter with his fingers because he thought no one was looking. He ate a second piece, then washed it down with a gulp of gin, straight from the bottle.
Sunil, an anesthesiologist, walked in, spooning food from his paper plate into his mouth. "Great house. Great rice. Do you have any more champagne?"
"Your wife's wow," added Prabal, following behind. He was an unmarried professor of physics at Yale. For a moment, Sanjeev stared at him blankly, then blushed. Once, at a dinner party, Prabal had announced that Sophia Loren was wow, as was Audrey Hepburn.
Sunil picked a raisin out of the rice tray. "Twinkle, is her last name Little Star?" The two men laughed and started eating more rice from the tray, plowing through it with their plastic spoons. Sanjeev went down to the cellar for more liquor. For a few minutes, he paused on the steps in the damp, cool silence, hugging the second crate of champagne to his chest as the party drifted above the rafters. Then he set the reinforcements on the dining table.
"Yes, everything. We found them all in the house in the most unusual places," he heard Twinkle saying in the living room. "In fact, we keep finding them." "No." "Yes. Every day is like a treasure hunt. It's too good. God only knows what else we'll find, no pun intended."
That was what started it. As if by some unspoken pact, the whole party joined forces and began combing through each one of the rooms, opening closets on their own, peering under chairs and cushions, feeling behind curtains. Groups scampered, giggling and swaying, up and down the winding staircase. "We've never explored the attic," Twinkle announced suddenly, and so everybody followed. "How do we get up there?" "There's a ladder in the hallway, somewhere in the ceiling."
Wearily, Sanjeev followed at the back of the crowd to point out the location of the ladder. But Twinkle had already found it on her own. "Eureka!" she hollered.
Douglas pulled the chain that released the steps. His face was flushed, and he was wearing Nora's feather hat on his head. One by one, the guests disappeared, men helping women as they placed their strappy high heels on the narrow slats of the ladder, the Indian women wrapping the free ends of their expensive saris into their waistbands. The men followed behind, all quickly disappearing, until Sanjeev alone remained at the top of the winding staircase.
Footsteps thundered over his head. He had no desire to join them. He wondered if the ceiling would collapse, imagined for a split second the sight of all the tumbling, drunk, perfumed bodies crashing, tangled, around him.
He heard a shriek, and then rising, spreading waves of laughter in discordant tones. Something fell. Something else shattered. He could hear them babbling about a trunk. They seemed to be struggling to get it open, banging feverishly on its surface. He thought perhaps Twinkle would call for his assistance. But he was not summoned.
He looked about the hallway and to the landing below, at the champagne glasses and half-eaten samosas and napkins smeared with lipstick, abandoned in every corner, on every available surface. Then he noticed that Twinkle, in her haste, had discarded her shoes altogether, for they lay by the foot of the ladder, black patent leather mules with heels like golf tees, opened toes, and slightly soiled silk labels on the instep, where her soles had rested. He placed them in the doorway of the master bedroom, so that no one would trip when they descended.
The strident voices had subsided to an even murmur. It occurred to Sanjeev that he had the house all to himself. The music had ended, and he could hear, if he concentrated, the hum of the refrigerator and the rustle of the last leaves on the trees outside. With one flick of his hand, he could snap the ladder back on its spring into the ceiling, and they would have no way of getting down, unless he were to pull the chain and let them.
He thought of all the things he could do, undisturbed. He could sweep Twinkle's menagerie into a garbage bag and get in the car and drive it all to the dump, and tear down the poster of weeping Jesus, and take a hammer to the Virgin Mary while he was at it. Then he would return to the empty house. He could easily clear up the cups and plates in an hour's time, and pour himself a gin and tonic, and eat a plate of warmed rice, and listen to his new Bach CD, while reading the liner notes so as to understand it properly.
He nudged the ladder slightly, but it was sturdily planted against the door. Budging it would require some effort. "My God, I need a cigarette," Twinkle exclaimed from above.
Sanjeev felt knots forming at the back of his neck. He felt dizzy. He needed to lie down. He walked towards the bedroom, but stopped short when he saw Twinkle's shoes facing him in the doorway.
He thought of her slipping them on her feet. But instead of feeling irritated, as he had ever since they'd moved into the house together, he felt a pang of anticipation at the thought of her rushing unsteadily down the winding staircase in them, scratching the floor a bit in her path. The pang intensified as he thought of her rushing to the bathroom to brighten her lipstick, and eventually rushing to get people their coats, and finally rushing to the cherrywood table when the last guest had left to begin opening their housewarming presents.
It was the same pang that he used to feel before they were married, when he would hang up the phone after one of their conversations, or when he would drive back from the airport, wondering which ascending plane in the sky was hers. "Sanj, you won't believe this." She emerged with her back to him, her hands over her head, the tops of her bare shoulder blades perspiring, supporting something still hidden from view. "You got it, Twinkle?" someone asked. "Yes, you can let go."
Now he saw that her hands were wrapped around it, a solid silver bust of Christ, the head easily three times the size of his own. It had a patrician bump on its nose, magnificent, curly hair that rested atop a pronounced collarbone, and a broad forehead that reflected in miniature the walls and doors and lampshades around them. Its expression was confident, as if assured of its devotees, the unyielding lips sensuous and full. It was also sporting Nora's feather hat.
As Twinkle descended, Sanjeev put his hands around her waist to balance her. And he relieved her of the bust when she had reached the ground. It weighed a good 30 pounds. The others began lowering themselves slowly, exhausted from the hunt. Some trickled downstairs in search of a fresh drink.
She took a breath, raised her eyebrows, crossed her fingers. "Would you mind terribly if we displayed it on the mantle, just for tonight? I know you hate it." He did hate it. He hated its immensity, and its flawless, polished surface, and its undeniable value. He hated that it was in his house and that he owned it.
Unlike the other things they'd found, this contained dignity, solemnity, beauty even. But to his surprise, these qualities made him hate it all the more. Most of all, he hated it because he knew that Twinkle loved it.
"I'll keep it in my study from tomorrow," Twinkle added. "I promise." She would never put it in her study, he knew. For the rest of their days together, she would keep it on the center of the mantle, flanked on either side by the rest of the menagerie. Each time they had guests, Twinkle would explain how she had found it, and they would admire her as they listened. He gazed at the crushed rose petals in her hair, at the pearl and sapphire choker at her throat, at the sparkly crimson polish on her toes. He decided that these were among the things that made Prabal think she was wow.
His head ached from gin, and his arms ached from the weight of the statue. He said, "I put your shoes in the bedroom." Twinkle gave his elbow a little squeeze and headed for the living room. "Thanks, but my feet are killing me." Sanjeev pressed the massive silver face to his ribs, careful not to let the feather hat slip, and followed her.
Mira Nair, reading a slightly abridged version of Jhumpa Lahiri's story, "This Blessed House," from the book The Interpreter of Maladies, which is such a great book, also winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Mira Nair, who read, is the director of Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair, and other films.
[MUSIC - "HALLELUJAH" BY JOHN CALE]
Act Three: The Lie That Binds
Act Three, The Lie That Binds. You could argue that it is impossible to stay in any relationship for very long without sometimes traveling under fake papers, without sometimes concealing what you think. I say this, and I don't mean it cynically. I mean being in love sometimes means not saying what is going through your head. David Sedaris lives in Paris with his boyfriend, Hugh, and he provides this case example.
Last night, Hugh and I went around the corner to see The End of the Affair, a Neil Jordan adaptation of the Graham Greene novel. He sobbed from beginning to end. And by the time we left the theater, the poor thing was completely dehydrated.
I asked if he always cried during comedies, and he accused me of being grossly insensitive, a charge I'm trying to plea bargain down to a simple obnoxious. Looking back, I should've known better than to accompany Hugh to a love story. Such movies are always a danger as, unlike battling aliens or going undercover to track a serial killer, falling in love is something most adults have actually experienced at some point in their lives.
The theme is universal and encourages the viewer to make a number of unhealthy comparisons, leading to the question, "Why can't our lives be like that?" It's a box best left unopened. And its avoidance explains the continued popularity of vampire epics and martial arts extravaganzas.
The End of the Affair made me look like an absolute toad. The movie's voracious couple was played by Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, who did everything but eat one another. Their love was doomed and clandestine, and even when the bombs were falling, they looked radiant. Something about Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes put me on the defensive.
I'm not as unfeeling as Hugh accuses me of being, but things change once you've been together for 10 years. They rarely make movies about long-term couples and for good reason. Our lives are boring.
The courtship had its moments, but now we've become the predictable part two no one in his right mind would ever pay to see. Hugh and I have been together for so long that in order to arouse extraordinary passion, we need to engage in actual physical combat. Once, he hit me on the back of the head with a broken wine glass, and I fell to the floor, pretending to be unconscious. That was romantic, or would have been had he rushed to my side, rather than stepping over my body to fetch the dustpan.
Call me unimaginative, but I still can't think of anyone else I'd rather be with. On our worst days, I figure things will work themselves out. Otherwise, I really don't give it much thought.
Neither of us would ever publicly display affection. We're just not that type. We can't profess love without talking through hand puppets, and we'd never consciously sit down to discuss our relationship. These, to me, are good things. They were fine with Hugh as well until he saw that damn movie and was reminded that he has other options.
The picture ended at around 10:00. And afterwards, we went for coffees at a little place across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens. I was ready to wipe the movie out of my mind, but Hugh was still under its spell. He looked as though his life had not only passed him by, but paused along the way to spit in his face.
Our coffees arrived, and as he blew his nose into a napkin, I encouraged him to look on the bright side. "Listen," I said, "We maybe don't live in wartime London, but in terms of the occasional bomb scare, Paris is a pretty close second. We both love taxidermy. We take vacations to fun places like Croatia. What more could you possibly want?"
What more could he want? It was an incredibly stupid question. And when he failed to answer, I was reminded of just how lucky I truly am.
Movie characters might chase one another through the fog, or race down the stairs of burning buildings, but that's just for beginners. Real love amounts to withholding the truth, even when you're offered the perfect opportunity to hurt somebody's feelings. I wanted to say something to this effect, but my hand puppets were back home in their drawer. Instead, I pulled my chair a few inches closer, and we sat silently at our little table on the square, looking for all the world like two people in love.
David Sedaris is the author most recently of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. He also edited the collection Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, an anthology of outstanding stories.
Our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine. Senior producer Julie Snyder. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Seth Lind, Sam Hallgren, Chris Neary, and Thea Chaloner.
Our web site, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free, or buy CDs of them. Or you know you can download audio of our program and our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who never suspected, never, not for a second.
Oh my God, wow. Really? You're a Jew? Wow, that's so exciting.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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