The Faces of Strangers
The highly acclaimed author of Where Earth Meets Water returns with an arresting exploration of family and culture
When native New Yorker Nicholas Grand applies for an international student exchange program, he thinks it’s an opportunity to broaden his horizons and meet some interesting people. He never imagines that a single year would have repercussions that would follow him throughout his lifetime.
Nicholas is sent to Estonia, where he meets shy, sensitive Paavo, his beautiful sister, Mari, and their gruff father, Leo—a family grappling with the challenges of life in a small country struggling to assert its post-Soviet identity. Nicholas sets off on an unforgettable journey through a foreign landscape that ultimately teaches him that some bonds can never be broken.
Bridging two uniquely captivating cities, The Faces of Strangers traces the intertwined lives of two seemingly symmetrical families from extraordinarily different worlds. This compelling odyssey through friendship and self-discovery illuminates the universality of how deeply we are defined by our connections with others.
Where Earth Meets Water
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In this poignant and breathtaking debut, one man searches for meaning in the wake of incomparable tragedy…
Karom Seth should have been in the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11, and on the Indian shores in 2004, when the tsunami swept his entire family into the ocean. Whether it’s a curse or a blessing, Karom can’t be sure, but his absence from these disasters has left him with crushing guilt—and a belief that fate has singled him out for invincibility.
From the first morning that Karom awakes in Gita’s grandmother’s house, he can tell that their time in Delhi is going to be different from the rest of their trip. They arrive late at night from Agra, and as they drag their suitcases up to the second floor, Gita caresses the nameplate outside Ammama’s apartment lightly, leaving a small wake in the dust with her fingers. “Huh,” she says. “That’s new.” Kamini Pai, it reads. Before Karom has a chance to ask what she means, they are tumbling into the small flat, sandy from road silt and Indian rail travel, blinking under the fat fluorescent tube lights like a pair of bears emerging from a long winter’s hibernation. After formal introductions and sleepy smiles, they fall into bed, Karom in the living room, Gita in her grandmother’s room, surrendering to sleep miles away from any nettlesome insect buzzing or monotonous calls to prayer that echo through the compound. The night passes swiftly, gathering snatches of reality and combining them with fancy, translating and then siphoning them into their ears so that they dream vividly, solidly.
But then, in the early morning, in fact for each of the mornings for the six days they stay with Ammama in her small flat, a gong rings somewhere outside that sounds like a frying pan being hit with a metal spoon. Karom cautiously opens one eye to peer at his vintage Rolex, perched carefully on the chair he is using as a bedside table. Five forty-five. This is when Ammama pads into the sitting room, where Karom sleeps on the hard wooden pallet, his legs tangled in the threadbare sheets, his skin cool and clammy from nightly sweats. She presses a damp cloth on his forehead and he feigns sleep, unsure of how to react, rigidly aware of Gita asleep in the next room. She lowers herself onto the slate floor beside him with a towel under her knees. She swipes a line of vermilion across the hollow in her throat, directly in the center of her clavicle and, depending on how Karom is situated, mirrors the gesture on him. She closes her eyes, reopens them immediately to ensure that Karom is still sleeping, sucks in her breath and lets out a slew of Sanskrit. Karom yearns for the sweet, strong cold coffee that she places inches away from him—he can smell the chicory as the fan gathers the scent into the air—but is afraid that Ammama will see him awake and either make him participate in her ritual or scurry away in embarrassment.
He is touched that she has remembered his love for cold coffee, that it is a sacred thing in India. Back home in New York City, there is only iced coffee: simply ice dumped on top of coffee that becomes immediately diluted and insipid. Cold coffee is creamy, strong and pure. He waits until she finishes mumbling her indecipherable words, heaves herself to her feet and leaves the room. It is only once he hears the crescendo of the bucket being filled for her bath that he dares to reach for the drink, beads of sweat gathered around the base of the brass tumbler.
On their third day in Delhi, he tells Gita as they step out into the street and the blinding light of the premonsoon summer.
“She comes into my room in the mornings,” he says. “With a tray of perfectly ripe bananas, a glass of cold coffee and a cold compress that she puts on my forehead. She kneels down next to my bed and mutters under her voice. It’s hard to tell with the whirring of the fan, but I’m pretty sure she’s praying.”
“Get out,” Gita says, hitting him playfully on the chest, smiling broadly. “What do you do?”
“Nothing,” Karom says, stepping over an open sewage grate. “I pretend to sleep. What else am I supposed to do?” Gita chuckles.
“It’s not funny,” he says. “She’s so sweet, but the whole thing is incredibly awkward.”
“It’s only for three more days,” Gita says. “Hang in there. She’s a sweet old lady who’s attached to her rituals. I’m sure she’s only doing it out of love.”
The perfectly ripe bananas don’t escape Gita. She won’t eat a banana with even a spot of brown on it, and Ammama presumes this condition extends to Karom. But it irks Gita that each day, the only bananas that remain on the breakfast table are either the ones from the day before, which Ammama will eventually turn into halwa, or those that are still green and will leave a film on Gita’s tongue and a waxy taste in her mouth long after she’s eaten one.
“You’re not going to say anything to her?” Karom asks.
“What could I possibly say to her, Karom?” Gita responds. She is still thinking about the new nameplate outside the door. It’s the first time during all her years of traveling to India that she has seen her grandmother’s name proudly proclaiming her ownership of the apartment; previously it held her grandfather’s name, a grandfather she’s never met.
Karom knows there are some skeletons in Ammama’s dusty closet, unopened for years. Gita has danced around the details of Ammama’s past, but Karom understands that there is more to the old lady than even Gita is aware of. This became apparent when they originally discussed visiting India months before their trip.
“Visiting India,” Gita had said at brunch in New York, “involves seeing my family. There’s no way I could avoid it.”
“And I’m thrilled about it,” Karom had replied. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“It’s not that easy. Visiting together, like this, for the first time…” Gita struggled for words as her eyes flitted over Karom’s plate. “You know how people think over there.”
“Let them think,” Karom said, spearing a large bite of stuffed French toast onto his fork and holding it out to Gita. He knew that she would take it without a fight, that it was a naughty departure from the egg-white omelet that sat in front of her. He knew it would keep her quiet while she chewed, giving him time to take control of the conversation. But it was she who managed to reveal a new side of her family.
Karom cut up another square of his French toast as Gita was chewing, layering it onto his fork into levels until he could no longer see the tines. He held it dangerously close to Gita’s mouth, the cream cheese touching her lip. She looked at him and then the food, back and forth like a cross-eyed little girl.
“You’re such a tease,” she said, before taking the bread in one bite. “Ammama won’t judge us, though. She’s safe.”
“Life was hard in India over there back then,” Gita proclaimed matter-of-factly, forking the remainder of his French toast onto her own plate, cutting and chewing between sentences.
“How do you mean?”
“Ammama is living proof of a marriage gone wrong. She’s lived alone most of her adult life. She’s what the rest of my family calls a freethinker.”
En route to Ammama’s house, they’d stopped at the Taj Mahal. Karom had wanted to spend the whole day at the mausoleum, watching the arc of the sun travel over the domed eggshell marble. He’d read a National Geographic article about how the sun changes the color of the marble depending on its angle throughout the day. The photos displayed the dome over twenty-four hours: pink, prenatal and shy in the dawn hours, citrine yellow at midmorning, blinding white at high noon. It appeared as a completely different structure each moment, and Karom loved the unpredictability of it. The same ubiquitous structure that the world knew so intimately displayed so many different personalities. Had Shah Jahan meant to capture his beloved wife’s multifaceted character? Her casual morning softness, her dour depression at having lost seven of her children, while constantly displaying the fierce, unfailing love she had for her husband? What made the Taj so emotional, changing over the course of the day depending on its mood? How had this feat been accomplished so many hundreds of years ago, when just the building of an edifice of this size had seemed impossible? Karom couldn’t wait to watch its metamorphosis right before his very eyes.
But the train to Agra hadn’t shown, and the Jaipur station from which they were departing had been overflowing with passengers, occupying all the benches or peering uselessly into the distance over the tracks. Karom watched Gita approach a tour guide who was playing games on his cell phone. She smoothed her hair behind her ears and spoke to him for a few minutes before she returned to Karom and told him about the strike.
“I saw an STD booth over there,” he said. “I’m going to call Lloyd. I’d forgotten that he’s leaving for his bachelor party one of these days. I hope I can catch him.” She watched him lope off toward the dusty shack set back from the railroad platform, where he opened a glass door and slid inside.
When he returned, the two of them sat on the platform, leaning their backs against one another for support, summoning the strength for the wait that loomed ahead. Karom unhooked his watch and reread the inscription on the underside of the face. It felt like a brand-new gift each time.
Together we learn there’s nothing like time.
The strength he drew from this little mantra had made it possible to get through grueling days of struggling with the right word for a headline at the advertising agency where he worked, made it a little easier to stomach shelling out three figures for underwhelming plays and frustrating tiffs that he and Gita always managed to spark just before bedtime. The words rolled over in his mind and across his tongue when he needed something to concentrate on, while he was training for his first road race, and then a 10K, and then a full marathon. And during those moments, when he had to stop and check his patience pulse, when he could feel it bleating slowly but capably under the thin skin of his under-wrist, he repeated these words to himself.
Karom looked down at the platform beneath him, spackled red with paan spit. He traced one of the spatters with the toe of his sandal. Animals on safari, he thought. There’s the elephant trunk, holding on to a hippo’s tail, an alligator? No, a gecko, one of the household varieties that Gita screamed at until I chased it out of our tent in Jaisalmer.
Back home, in the subways of New York City, Karom liked to peer over the edge of the platform into the depths of the tunnels, waiting diligently for that crescent of light to appear reflected on the sheen of the tracks, holding until the headlights finally appeared and the silver cars careened into the station. At times, when the tunnel was long without any hidden curves, he could see the train’s headlights a full station away. He could watch it amble down the stretch toward him, teasing him with its proximity. But most of the time, the delightful snatch of light wouldn’t give itself away until the last minute, when it came peeking around the bend. Karom loved this dance with the train but simultaneously worried himself over how long it would take to appear. Most nights, when service was delayed or curtailed, he paced back and forth, his ears perking up at the faintest of rumblings, which sent him scurrying to perch his toes over the perimeter of yellow paint that warned passengers not to cross this line.
Once, the transit police who were loitering up and down the platform had approached him as he peered down the tunnel. “Sir,” the officer had said. “I’m going to have to ask you to step away from the platform edge. It’s for your own safety.”
When they’d first taken the subway together years before, Karom’s platform behavior had made Gita nervous.
“You stand so close to the edge,” she’d said, tugging at his hand. “Please come back.”
“It’s just a game,” Karom had said. “I lean over until I have to lean back.”
“Well, I don’t like it.”
People lived in those tunnels, in the dank recesses, venturing out only to forage for food. Mole people, as he had heard them referred to, though he thought this term disrespectful and embarrassing. He couldn’t imagine living that far underground, though he’d read that the tunnels spread so far below the surface of pavement that it was possible to venture seven or eight stories deep. He had joked to Gita that one day real estate would be at such a premium that well-appointed condos with marble countertops and bamboo floors would have no choice but to spread to the netherworld that lay beneath them. Doormen would stand at attention at the mouths of stairwells that meandered far below the sidewalk, and the former valuable measurement of natural light would be replaced by mold-repellant abilities.
“Just wait,” Karom had said, “until the most sought-after apartments are those that are farther below the surface. Humans always need one-upmanship.”
After two hours of waiting on the Jaipur station platform, Karom stood up suddenly. Gita turned the page of her guidebook and shifted her position without looking up. Karom walked gingerly over the bodies sprawled across the platform napping, through a group of children playing a hand-clapping game and knelt at the platform edge. He sat down, his legs dangling over. A group of men playing cards and puffing on strong clove-scented cigarettes eyed him from the shadows of a snack cart’s canopy. Dust motes swirled in the early-afternoon sun and the slightest breeze lifted a piece of hair off Karom’s forehead and swung it over his eye.
In an instant he had jumped down to the tracks. He glanced around, the walls of the platform looming up around him like a cave. He couldn’t see the passengers from here, only sky and the great expanse of the tracks in the distance, far away, leading to Agra. Karom stood with both feet on one of the rails, the cool metal cutting through the inadequate rubber of his sandals and massaging the sore arches of his feet. He walked, holding his arms out balancing himself, pretending there was a book upon his head. On the seventeen-hour flight from New York to Bombay, Karom had watched a documentary on Philippe Petit, the daredevil tightrope walker who’d walked between the World Trade Towers and lived to tell the tale. Karom bent his feet to span across the track like Petit, a make-believe balancing pole in his hands as he walked forward.
He’d walked to the outskirts of the train station on the tracks like this when he heard Gita’s scream. Swiveling around, he tipped off the tracks. As he righted his balance, he saw the card-playing men in the distance watching him, squatting at the edge of the platform. He saw the children hovering on the edge, holding hands tightly. And he saw Gita, looking as though she was about to launch herself over the edge but being restrained by three hefty women in Punjabi suits.
“Karom! Get off the tracks! Come back!” she shouted. Karom put his hand up in acknowledgment, but just as he did so, he felt a faint rumbling underneath the balls of his feet. He turned around and began a slow march back toward the station, putting one foot in front of the other on the metal track.
“Come back to the platform. Please!” Gita shouted. He could see her face was stained by tears, her voice strained with panic. His rubber sandals slipped against the shiny metal, and the approaching vibration tickled his feet. He was at the station and had hoisted himself up onto the platform on his own before the Punjabi women released a sobbing Gita into his arms. He held her tightly and buried his nose in her hair.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, baby. I’m okay. See? It was just a walk. Nothing happened. It was just the game.” He let her cry in his arms until she quieted and spread out across their backpacks to nap.
They didn’t say anything further to one another until they boarded a train two more hours later. As she climbed the stairs into their car, Gita put her hand up and smiled at the tour guide.
“This wait is nothing,” he called back. “Very short. Very lucky.”
They reached the Taj just moments before sunset, to the sights and sounds of children screeching, parents strolling across the manicured lawn, tourists adjusting one another’s hands for the perfect pose in front of the reflecting pool, others showing security guards how to operate elaborate cameras. The Taj was a deep aubergine, the setting sun glancing off the Yamuna River at a distance and cloaking the grounds and the shrine in darkness. They took a quick round, wandering through the arched doorways in their bare feet, marveling at the intricate inlaid stonework, tracing their toes over the perfectly symmetrical marble, and stood solemnly before the mausoleum before they realized they’d forgotten to take any pictures. The Taj was dark by then, lit only by eight floodlights where moths savagely attacked the bulbs.
“No pictures,” Gita said sadly. “How will we ever remember that we were here?” They were stationed directly in front of the Taj, in front of the bench that thousands upon thousands of tourists sat on every day, with a perfectly cruel vantage point of the structure in front of them. Karom slipped his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder. With his other hand, he pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. He read:
“Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs,
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made,
To display thereby the creator’s glory!”
“It’s what Shah Jahan said about the Taj,” Karom said, folding the paper back into his pocket. Gita closed her eyes and leaned against him. He wanted to comfort her, but he too felt let down. Nothing had happened. There had been no revelations.
Karom had been sure that he would leave the Taj Mahal with a deeper understanding of the world, of colors, of light, of love. He was sure that something magical would transform them, would transform him, the way he saw the world. He had placed too high an expectation on the Taj Mahal. After all, it was just a building. But it was a building that was homage to love, homage to the departed. He’d wondered if he would catch a glimpse of the past here, if he might tap into the spirit of the palace, the serenity of the courtyards. He’d wondered if, like a sinner, he too might be absolved, washed pure and clean, and set into the streets refreshed. He’d wondered if he might put lingering ghosts to bed and feel, for the first time, at ease with himself and finally, finally have the strength to put the game to rest.
Finally, Karom took her hand, pulling her back outside the gates into a world of hawkers offering prayer beads, postcards and miniature hand-carved wooden replicas of the great shrine.
On the rickshaw ride back to the train station, they quietly held one another’s hands. When their eyes met at a traffic light, Gita looked at Karom for a beat too long, causing him to snap, “I’m fine. I told you I’m fine,” and pull his hand away from hers. Gita felt suddenly vulnerable sitting in the rickshaw as it inched along the crowded streets. On either side, beggars and street vendors thrust their hands into the open sides of the vehicle, offering open empty palms or rickety plastic toys for sale. At that moment she couldn’t find solace even in the man who sat next to her; it was how she’d felt the first time she’d experienced one of his close shaves firsthand.