Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet

If Jaya had been paying closer attention, the tea wouldn’t have been necessary. It had seemed like an extreme measure to take, relevant only to those with severe anxiety instead of distracted suburban women like herself. Yet how mild were its effects now, just the amplification of these animal sounds through the windows Nilesh insisted on leaving open since the shutdowns, the chirrups strangely in sync with the forgotten CD playing on her computer, as if the squirrel flicking its tail on the grass was keeping time with Adam Clayton’s bass.  

“Did you try Jeff’s stuff yet?” asked Melanie, Jaya’s former supervisor, when she had popped by before the last in-person staff meeting held by their counseling practice that year.  

“He gave you some, too? Psilocybin?” Jaya clarified. Her colleague Jeff had wrapped it like a tiny Christmas present, which sat hidden in her top dresser drawer amidst old makeup and birthday cards. Jaya hadn’t wanted to admit then that even as a relatively hip woman in her forties who’d never voted Republican, she hadn’t planned on sampling it. 

Melanie had been studying the latest family photo Jaya had placed against her hutch—one of herself, Nilesh, Kareena, and Raj dressed up for Diwali and squinting in their front yard. “He claims it’s for research purposes,” Melanie finally said, lifting her eyebrows. “I’ll send everyone some articles about its success in treating PTSD. It’s making waves.” 

As a deeper awareness of the sound layers from the CD began infusing Jaya’s mind, what she held onto from that moment in February was how envious of Melanie she had been. Melanie, so poised in her worsted wool skirts, her full blonde hair with gray only visible in it from less than five feet away. Her toneless neutrality. Is that what had made Jaya finally take it—wanting to appear cooler? Was she no better than a peer-pressured teen? 

Jaya sat now on the bed in her guest room with the artifacts from the attic spread all around, the grind of a lawn mower and the calls of industrious birds outside forming a strange synesthetic web in which she was suspended and waiting for something more to happen. God, listen to that! she told herself. This song was so good. How could she have packed U2 up in the attic? What were those rising notes The Edge was playing? She had no idea. She hadn’t touched a violin since entering high school, which had saddened her mother just like her own teenaged children were doing today to Jaya. What was happening here? Wait.   

She felt like dancing. Not the kind of dancing Kareena knew about, or the viral trends Raj performed in the kitchen, his right elbow flapping as he chanted, “I got a new Glock and do a dance with it.” At which point Jaya would interject.

“Raj, what are you saying? A Glock!”

“Mother, chill.”

Jaya was trying to be lucid now, trying to follow her memories back even as the mushroom should have been kicking in. As if her real reason for indulging in this illicit experience wasn’t the very thing she needed to take a break from, her problem with Kareena, which was pinned to her mind like a hair accessory Jaya had been forced to wear against her will, as if she and not Kareena were the child. Kareena and her enormous wall of photos of herself standing in a line of blonde and dirty blonde girls making duck lips. Kareena and her requests to go early to and stay late at these blonde friends’ houses before and after football and basketball games. Kareena and her pouting responses whenever Jaya hollered up the stairs for her to wake up so she wouldn’t miss dance practice on the mornings after those late night gatherings at her friends’ houses. Kareena shirking the same extra bharatanatyam classes she’d begged for a year before, after talking her parents out of their reservations about the expense of an arangetram, a formal recital demonstrating mastery in Indian classical dance. Which was the last thing Kareena appeared to care about anymore. 

So that’s it? That’s the reason you took drugs? Nilesh’s voice accosted Jaya in her head now. He was Indian but born and raised in the States like Jaya, though his parents weren’t from the part of the motherland that thought classical dance was important. But her husband and the kids were out for the day, so she shouldn’t have been hearing any voices. He’d urged them to accompany him on a two-hour journey across the state line to pick up a gently used Peloton bike in Birmingham. 

“Why can’t Mom go with you?” Raj had asked.

“Because she’s going to clean out the attic,” Nilesh had answered, “and because I’d like some personal time with the two of you.”

“God!” Kareena had exclaimed.

Nilesh was too well-adjusted a person to understand how a fifteen-year-old girl’s behavior could trigger her mother’s experiment with hallucinogens. He still thought psychology and therapy were for people who took remedial math instead of advanced calculus. But he was also the type of husband who said, “Don’t worry if you don’t get much of the attic done. It’s fine if we come back and find you crashed in front of a Reese Witherspoon movie.” Jaya had hoped when her children grew up they would find someone like him to be with, someone who recognized them, even if that person wasn’t able to get them all of the time. Even if Kareena couldn’t yet see how important shared cultural backgrounds were.  

Jaya needed to go downstairs while she was still herself and retrieve the teacup before she forgot about it and it was discovered there on the counter. “Make a tea with it,” Jeff had suggested when he’d slipped the tiny box into her hand during their office holiday party. “High tea,” she had joked and immediately felt like a poseur when Jeff had roared. 

How bright it was downstairs, and how lovely was their home! They’d been shut up for so long that she’d not had a chance to appreciate its warmth, the windows in the front and back framing the maturing shrubs and trees. Without the soundtrack of pop music, the outdoor activity was somehow sharper. Footsteps near the house seemed to crash nearby, and yet upon examination, it was only a pack of blue jays scavenging in the backyard. Jaya found the vanilla-colored cup and held it carefully in her hand. Nothing had really happened yet; but all the literature Melanie had shared with the practice on the debate about using psilocybin in psycho-therapy had emphasized its mind-altering abilities. Jaya took an extra gulp and went and sat at the island, where in March, a week before everyone had been sent home, Kareena had asked her parents if she could dye six inches of her hair purple. 

“It seems reasonable, right?” Nilesh had said in their bedroom. “Maybe we can incentivize her somehow. If she does blank then she’ll get purple hair.”

“You don’t think it’s a little too…” Jaya couldn’t finish.  

“Too what?”

 But Jaya couldn’t say it. 

“Hey, Barney!” Raj sang out whenever he saw his older sister, alluding to the simple-minded friendly dinosaur of a simpler time. 

So Jaya had stalled until Kareena came and found her one morning perched on the front step watching the residents of their subdivision walk by in the cavalcades that had begun after the gyms had closed down.

“Don’t you have work?” Kareena had asked, sitting next to her with a bowl of cereal in her hands.

“I’m doing a video session upstairs in an hour.”

“Don’t people feel weird about that?”

Jaya had looked at her daughter. Sometimes Kareena’s questions were surprisingly canny.

“Yes,” Jaya admitted. “But we all have to make do, right?”

What was it about being a parent that made it so difficult to have a conversation without a moral attached?

Then Kareena had dropped the pretense of casualness and followed-up about wanting permission to dye her hair. And Jaya had cowardly asked her daughter what it would look like to have a girl with purple hair performing an arangetram. Kareena had stood up with her bowl and retreated through the front door, which had a way of slamming whether or not the person intended it. Jaya remembered this now in her kitchen and wondered if she went and sat on her front step whether her neighbors would be able to tell that she had consumed a magic mushroom. Something wailed distantly outside, and when Jaya scrambled for the doorknob to the back deck so she could take a look, she saw what appeared to be a mustache confidently circling the blue sky. What did the mustache remind her of? How could a mustache be in the sky?

Uh-oh.

The sunlight appeared to be following her, breaking and entering through the transom at the front door, creating an effect that looked a bit too much like Superman’s birthplace. I was just on these stairs, Jaya thought, climbing and climbing. That was just now. Was this really happening? Or was she reading about it? And, oh, the soft gray of the hallway upstairs and the music again, still going, nearing the end of the album, Jaya could tell, because some things you never forgot, even after three decades, like how Bono smoldered in the “With or Without You” video, which was released years before this disc playing now, and from The Joshua Tree, but still. Connections. Because Jaya, in a rare show of sharing with her mother, had once told her, “I want to marry someone like that someday,” meaning Bono, and her mother had responded so sincerely that it had stuck with Jaya: “I don’t know where I’m going to find you an Indian boy like that.” 

Had Jaya been serious back then? Probably not. Nilesh couldn’t sing. And he looked down on men with ponytails. 

Did that mean that Kareena hadn’t been serious when she’d said what she’d said?

How nice it was that Kareena left her bedroom door open before departing with her father, as if inviting her mother to come in and lie down on the floor. “Baby, baby, baby,” crooned Bono from the next room, and Jaya thought, yes, that’s who Kareena still was, even though most of the time her door remained closed, which felt like a slap in Jaya’s face. How many months now had it been since her daughter started behaving as if everyone was against her, that Jaya had been trying to control her, and the pandemic had been specifically generated to squash her attempts to see her friends?

“Can I ask,” Jaya had finally felt brave enough to try one day months ago, “what’s the significance of all these photos on the wall?”

Kareena’s nostrils had widened. “What do you mean? God!”

“Calm down, sweetheart. I just want to know what you’re trying to say.”

“I’m not trying to say anything! These are my friends. They make me happy.” 

And Jaya had wanted to ask, are you sure about that? She wanted to tell Kareena that for the best times of her own life, moments that had taught her who she was and who she wanted to be, she had no photos, just fragments of things stuffed in boxes that eventually got put in the attic. But like the therapist she was, Jaya said nothing and waited. Then she told Kareena that putting tape all over the walls risked pulling off the paint.  

 Now here were those walls, still perfectly mauve, the color of fashionable eyeshadow. They formed a soothing counterpoint to the neon flashing from Kareena’s laptop screensaver, the ribbons of yellow, green, blue, and pink zipping through the air like invisible gymnasts were practicing floor exercises across her desk. Point. Counterpoint. Mustache to acrobatic ribbons. The CD was starting over again on Jaya’s computer in the guest room because she had been clearheaded enough then to set it to repeat. Probably because it was the only CD she still owned. Her phone was better downstairs, where people couldn’t get to her. And who wanted YouTube ads to ruin this psychic experience? If it really turned out to be something.

Jeff had texted Jaya back with tips that morning when she’d texted that she was ready to have some tea: “Listen to some music! Look at a painting!” And she’d wanted to respond back, What do you think this is? Just getting my family out of the house is an adventure. The only “painting” she’d had a chance to look at was the old print of Lord Krishna and his admirers, the Gopis, which Jaya’s parents had foisted on her when they’d downsized. It was still sitting up there in the attic, next to where her old shoeboxes full of notebooks and one CD had been. Honestly, that’s what these screensaver colors looked like as she lay on her back on Kareena’s carpet. Forget acrobats. They were silk and chiffon dupattas trailing from the necks of all the women who danced and chased Lord Krishna around a field in that old print.

Oh, the greenness of that field, the same color of the leaves stirring outside Kareena’s open window. Bless Nilesh for doing this every morning, forcing his children to look outside, to notice the surprising tranquility there despite evidence to the contrary in the news, the red crowned microbes that were turning everything upside down, even without the aid of mushrooms. And, yes, there are a few yellow leaves already—it was August—and, no, there wouldn’t be a festival season this year, no dancing like the Gopis at Navratri in some indoor hall, thousands of Indian people together to remind Kareena and Raj of who they were. Which was one more thing gone this year besides what Nilesh had mentioned in July, when he asked Jaya if she had reached out to the proprietors of the hall where Kareena was slated to perform her arangetram in a few months, going as she still was to most weekend practices, standing masked at the far end of the studio away from her guru. 

“If things keep up like this, I don’t see anyone wanting to come to an indoor dance recital in October,” Nilesh had said before Jaya had broken down. 

But why did she need to go to that moment when she could release herself to this green field, the sunlight pulling itself up over the roof and punching its way through the open windows like a superhero, illuminating the strange mixing of birds, cardinals with robins with sparrows gathering in the dogwood trees to the right of Kareena’s other window, like they were all at a rest stop on the way to somewhere else, and it didn’t matter anymore which family they belonged to, which group? All they wanted was a necessary break from flight.

Jaya closed her eyes, stretched out her arms, and fell through the web of music, light, and memory. Without landing exactly, she saw the field of Gopis transformed to so many people, her parents, her children, Kareena in the expensive green performance outfit they’d ordered for her from Bombay, her eyes wide and head cocked to one side as if beginning a bharatanatyam dance, Raj next to her in a rap stance, the gelled peaks of his hair moving in time to the music guiding the circle, the Indian friends who usually attended the fall festivals with their family. There they all were, Nilesh in a gorgeous blue sherwani, and so many others from her life, her brother and his latest white girlfriend, and even her old Hindu temple camp friends, but it was like a dream, so she couldn’t be sure if she was seeing the teens they had all been, or the adults she might have known now if she had stayed in touch with them. And she could not believe how powerful the light was, and she could not be sure whether it was really filtering from the maples and dogwoods outside, or was something created in her mind, as the field transformed from day to night, turning to a bonfire—was this a reference to the spring festival of Hoi? Was Jaya really there? Then the bonfire seemed to fall to ash and back into a field, a different one this time, spread over with flowers that were impossibly varied, light purples and oranges, the petals and stems as defined as the fingers of dancers in motion. Jaya realized they were the wildflowers of fields in Pennsylvania, which she’d marveled at when she’d been there for that brief time at temple camp, pointing them out to the other girls, who’d thought she’d been making a big deal about nothing. 

“Why do you care about wildflowers when you live right next to a beach?” Jaya remembered her sophisticated roommate at camp, Anita, asking her. 

Because you guys don’t have to live down there with people who don’t know what a temple is, Jaya should have said. Screw the beach. I belong here with you. With these flowers in this field. 

But now something else was happening to the vision, and Jaya could tell it was happening, as if she were turning a page in a book, which meant that the tea couldn’t have been that strong, and yet she couldn’t stop herself from turning it. Heavy. She felt a heavy, dreamy languor come over her there in the patch of sunlit carpet, underneath the photo wall of blond and dirty blonde teenagers she was still too chicken to talk honestly about with her daughter. To tell her, sweetheart, you’ll never be one of them. You need to be with your own people.  

Yet Kareena had guessed anyway. During that painful conversation about the photos, she had snarled at Jaya: “I hope you don’t expect me to marry someone Indian!” How had her daughter got that from Jaya’s innocent question about whether Kareena had any Indian friends? But it was true. It was true. Had Jaya’s own mother ever felt this? Well, it was a moot point because Jaya had ultimately done everything right for herself. There were no regrets. No holes to fill.  

She was for some reason now away from the field and in a classroom. Strange. Was this supposed to be Kareena’s vision? Had the psilocybin initiated one of those Freaky Friday moments so that Jaya could go back and see what it was like to be fifteen?

But this wasn’t a school. The light was falling on smooth conference tables spread in a “U” shape, at the head of which an Indian man in a mustache—mustache!—was glowering at them. Oh, she was back here. Back at temple camp, inside the lecture room, sitting next to her old Indian friends and across from Arjun, all of whom she had no photos of. She’d fallen in love with them all, not just Arjun, Pallavi’s cute and crazy twin brother. All of them, the sense they had made together that first time in Jaya’s life when she had felt she belonged somewhere. Yes, they were all there, only their faces were the incongruous ones of dreams, as if the vision was telling Jaya more about her memory than about reality. Arjun was raising his hand so that the man with the mustache, a teacher or spiritual leader whose name Jaya couldn’t remember, would call on him. Which he did.

“Sometimes when I look at the trees… ” Arjun began.

“Yes?” The man with the mustache seemed impatient.

“It’s like there’s a white light coming off of them. Like I can see the white part of the light reflecting off the green leaves.”

“Ah,” the teacher said after a moment.

“What are you on, Arjun?” one of the other boys around him teased, and then there was so much laughter, and Jaya was pretty sure this had actually happened, that she had laughed too, but inside she had been thinking, I get it! I know what you mean.

Had she finally opened her eyes now? Were the maples and dogwoods through the window really bobbing in time to “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”? How could that song be playing again? How much time had passed? Oh, the sweet release of ambiguity. How wonderful it was to lie here and be taken to wherever her unconscious wanted to go. Why did she have to be swept away now, like she had turned into one of the scarves in the hands of the dancers around Krishna in the old print, back on the field but somehow rising above it, into the clouds, so that each gaseous molecule was visible? So that each particle of white pulled apart from the whole, destroying the sense that they were full clouds. She was up here with the birds looking down on the dancers. Only the birds were singing in English along with Bono, and from this height, Jaya saw how much blank space there was in between the field and the dancers, blank space between their faces and their limbs, as if in the patterns created by light passing overhead, she was suddenly compelled to focus on where it did not fall.

 More people were there on the field, too. People Jaya had gone to school with and forgotten about, people she saw at work, like Jeff and Melanie, people who lived on their street, so that she could no longer locate where her little foursome was, the one she had created with Nilesh, whose integrity she had hoped would stand the test of generations to come, after her children married Indian people like she and he had done, so that they would always have security, which was protection against the hollowness people like Jaya sometimes felt in their adult lives. Why should that be? a bird with a mustache seemed to be asking her. How can you be hollow if you’ve done everything to keep yourself whole?   

Now she floated downwards. She was in the dancers’ circle with them, everyone irradiating so that the hair and skin color of people like Jaya’s childhood friends, and the hair and skin color of Jaya’s extended family members was leached away into the dark amber color of evening on the field, until all the people it seemed who had ever been in her life took on a glow of the ages. Maybe it was that Jaya had missed dancing like this. Or maybe it was that she missed people. Either way, she found that it no longer mattered to her that she couldn’t figure out who she was or where she was in the circle. She didn’t know if she was the person she had once been, or the person she had wanted to be, or the person she actually was. She only knew that she was somewhere in between, whether reflected, or wholly seen, or imagined.

“Maya is illusion,” the teacher man from temple camp boomed in her head now. Jaya’s eyes were closed, only blankness there. She could see nothing, which was a gift. “And everything is maya.”

Jaya felt someone who might be her smile now. Maybe it was her getting up, or maybe it was someone in a dream, but it definitely wasn’t the person who had sobbed in bed with Nilesh weeks before, after he’d hinted that there could be no arangetram in this time of social distancing, that they needed to get their check back for the deposit on the hall. Testing the limits of his emotional intelligence, she’d stammered at him.

“What’s going to happen to everything?” 

“Jaya, they’re going to find a vaccine. We’re being as safe as we can,” he had reasoned.

“No. This! All of this!” She’d waved her hands around, wanting to indicate the photos on her dresser of herself and Nilesh at their wedding, wishing to include the traditional outfits embroidered in gold thread hanging at the back of her closet in dry-cleaning bags, all the brightly hued dupattas, circling her hand back between herself and him, until she had to admit that her gestures weren’t making sense. “What’s going to happen to everything we’ve known and taught them when they grow up and end up with white people?”

 “Come on, Jaya,” Nilesh had finally answered. “It’s not that simple.” Then, because there were no other conclusions to be found, they’d held each other in the light of the nightstand lamps.  

Whoever it was now speaking in her head was telling her to get back to the guest room, to get out of here before her daughter found her in an altered state of mind on her floor. Jaya found herself in the guest room reexamining those things from the past that had been spread out on the bed: an old autograph book, report cards, and the small legal pad of lecture notes on Hindu philosophy taken at temple camp. Hours ago, after she’d reasoned that if she pulled a few boxes from the attic she could take Nilesh up on his offer to let her just relax for the whole day, she’d found it in a shoebox. On the notepad’s first page were phrases scrawled in the script of teenage experimentation: “Happiness, Awareness, Love, Relax.” She’d found another sheet with faint addresses written across it, the names and towns for Anita and the others, girls whose parents had all held the same expectations, girls whose regular social worlds had been similarly dominated by blonde kids, girls whose identities had been decoupaged with American longings and imperfect engagements with whatever it meant to be Indian. 

None of them had ever attempted to contact Jaya after that first year of writing letters. No social media pokes or catch-up emails. It had made things worse, deep down, that she knew this even while she had been hoping her daughter would have a similar experience to make her fall in love with her own people.  

The legal pad held half sensible ideas written by a person whom Jaya did not exactly remember being. Like this nugget on the last page, which might have been the real reason she finally decided to open Jeff’s gift and make the tea: “Ego is the illusion of a separate self.” Under this, like a line of poetry had been annotated, was something else: “A can see the white light of trees.”  

 That palimpsest of discussions about the ego, written thirty years ago but oddly so connected to Jaya’s work now, and the mystery of what on earth “A” was. And, oh, the excitement that sparked from her phone when she’d texted Jeff that she was going to try it, so rare a thrill it was now to experience people in her life celebrating her potential, like the feeling she’d gotten when she’d emailed her college friends the weekend after she had first met Nilesh at that mixer, when she had written to them that she was going to call him like he’d asked her to. Do it, they’d written. Do it, Jeff had texted. 

It was a feeling greater and more powerful than the disappointments that life threw at a person, the chief of those being that the moments one held as precious couldn’t be seen that way to everybody. How a week that meant so much to her, starved of her own heritage as she had been as a Southern girl, might be nothing special for others who grew up near temples instead of beaches. How the attractions of traditional dance experienced by a young child might simply become boring to that same person as she grows and makes new friends. All of these insights seemed now like things a licensed practitioner should have been able to realize much earlier. 

Jaya hit pause on the CD playing on the computer so that her mind could retain some clarity. Then she ejected it and placed it in its case back into the tattered box in which it had been stored. She then walked to the master bedroom where the photo of the four of them in Diwali clothes, which she’d retrieved from her office when it shut down, had been set on her dresser. Working slowly, as if each step was miraculous, she took the photo and went back to grab the small notepad she had discovered. These she held and entered Kareena’s room again, the weight of the light still with and on her, the sensation of being moved by a force beyond her seeming like freedom. She placed the photo on Kareena’s still humming laptop. Then, she tore out a blank page in the old notepad and wrote with a pen from the desk, “For your photo wall, if you want it. You look beautiful in all the shots.”

Jaya resolved to go downstairs now and find a romantic comedy to put on in the background, while the effects of whatever this was slowly left her system. As she turned to go, her attention was caught by a hawk swooping over the trees in her neighbor’s backyard, angling and coasting, it seemed to her, like a conductor’s baton, causing notes from The Edge’s guitar to swell up in a disconcerting way. But the music had been turned off, which meant it must have just been a trick of the mind. ■

Reshmi Hebbar is a writer and professor of multicultural literature at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Her nonfiction has been published at Slate, and her fiction has been published at Funicular Magazine, The Account, Parhelion, West Trade Review, and is forthcoming at The Santa Fe Literary Review and The Chaffin Journal. In 2020, one of her stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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