Every Saturday in August, Globe Books will preview some of the fall's most anticipated novels. Our summer fiction series concludes with an excerpt from Shilpi Somaya Gowda's forthcoming novel, The Golden Son.
After thirty-six hours straight at the hospital, Anil was relieved to find no one home when he returned, but the phone began ringing soon after he entered the apartment.
"Oh, Anil, thank God. I've been calling for half an hour," Ma said when he answered. "We chose this time, no? Are you ready, son? Everyone is gathered here, waiting for you."
Anil sank onto his bed. Before leaving India, he'd agreed to hold an arbitration session by phone every month or so, to be scheduled on his days off and to last no more than an hour. He'd have preferred to hand off the role to someone else, but Papa's death and his own disappointment had left him on the shores of the Ganges feeling he owed something to his father's memory and his family. Now, after his reprimand from Casper O'Brien and the looming specter of Jason Calhoun, he didn't have much confidence in his own judgment. "Ma, is it important or can it wait?" he said, summoning the triage skills that now defined his daily routine.
"Just talk to Manoj Uncle," Ma whispered. "He and your cousin have been fighting over that mango tree on their property line. Manoj Uncle's dog left his pile outside your cousin's house, and he's threatening to retaliate. You know your cousin has a temper. I'm worried he'll do something violent."
The mango tree had been there for years, decades even, without causing any problems between the neighbors. Manoj Uncle, not technically an uncle but a family friend, had lived on the same plot of land for as long as Anil could remember. He and his brothers had played there, along with their cousins, who lived in the neighboring house. As boys, they would climb up to pick the unripe mangos, still green and hard as rocks, using them as balls in their cricket games. In the summer, when the golden fruit ripened on the tree, they shook the branches and enjoyed the spoils. They tore off the stems and squeezed the fruit pulp from the skin right into their mouths, competing to see who could consume the most. When they'd had their fill, the boys gathered up the remaining mangos from the ground and pelted them at each other until they were covered in sticky sweetness and flies began to swarm. They were wasteful, Anil was ashamed to remember, the way children can be with things they have in abundance. Only when something was precious did it become valuable. Mangos. Sleep. Approval.
The mango tree had grown mature in recent years and now produced two or three crates of fruit every week. Since its roots were on one property and its branches on the other, both parties claimed ownership, and tempers rose along with the price of mangos during the last drought. Anil listened to Manoj Uncle describe how his neighbor snuck outside early in the morning to collect the fruit and squirrel it away inside his home. "Like a thief, he creeps out there, I tell you – very careful not to make a sound. He knows he's stealing from me."
Anil's cousin complained that Manoj Uncle had neglected the tree for years, never taking any responsibility for pruning or watering it, but now acted as if he were its sole and rightful owner. "I'm the one who groomed that tree, Anil," his cousin said. "I nursed it back to health. Last month, I even removed a wasp nest from its branches, and got so many stings for my trouble. Why shouldn't that fruit belong to me? Without me, that tree would still be small and weak, producing nothing."
Anil's eyelids threatened to close. He imagined the fragrance of the mangos, the tangy-sweet flesh smooth on his tongue. What he would give for one of those mangos now, just one small bit of pleasure. He rolled over and glanced at the clock radio, glaring at him with its red eyes, and mentally calculated the REM cycles left before the alarm would sound. Were they really fighting over a fruit tree?
"You both deserve praise for nurturing such a productive tree," Anil said. "But two or three crates of mangos are too much for either of your families, no? They will spoil if either of you keeps them, and it would be a shame to waste such delicious fruit. So here is my advice: every morning you meet at the tree at ten o'clock to collect and divide the mangos equally. Manoj Uncle, as I remember correctly, Auntie makes wonderful kulfi, does she not? Cousin, perhaps you can have your mother make her spicy mango pickle, and the two of you can exchange your gifts."
There was silence on the other end of the line, which Anil took for agreement. Then his mother came back on. "Thank you, son. I'll handle the rest; we'll do it another time. And, Anil?"
"Hmm?" he murmured as he turned off the light and pulled the covers over him.
"Please don't forget your prayers."
Anil had not uttered a word of prayer since Papa's death. Ma would be disturbed to know how infrequently religion entered his thoughts. In the ICU, when he'd taken Mrs. Calhoun to see her husband's body, draped with a white sheet, he'd stood to the side with the social worker as the new widow stepped tentatively toward the table and stroked her husband's head. She kissed him gently on the forehead and smiled before her face crumpled and she fell onto his chest with a heart-piercing wail that Anil could hear echoing even after he left the room to pace the corridor outside. When he returned, a priest was holding a rosary and blessing the body. The wife's expression was pained, her eyes searching every inch of her husband's corpse for an explanation.
Anil was grateful for the presence of the priest and social worker to help shoulder the woman's grief. But was God there in that cold room filled with metal machines and halogen lights? It seemed unlikely. Anil was used to the idea of a capricious God, a spiritual order in which death often came to the undeserving. He'd seen the destructive hand of Shiva in the earthquake devastation of Gujarat, and in the slow death of a disease-ridden body. It wasn't that Anil thought God merciless for taking Calhoun at fifty-seven, leaving behind a widow and three fatherless children. He simply didn't sense God's presence there at all. The man had suffered a ruptured aneurysm because of Anil's oversight. His death was caused by a catheter tip and human error. The whole concept of God had been irrelevant.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda's debut novel, Secret Daughter, was an international bestseller. Her new novel, The Golden Son, will be published by Harper Avenue on October 20. Born and raised in Toronto, she now lives in California.