An Extract from South Haven by Hirsh Sawhney
‘A Just War’
An extract from, South Haven, the first novel by Hirsh Sawhney
As they drove to Deer Run Elementary School on that chilly February evening, a light snow wet the windshield of their rust-coloured car. His stomach gurgled with dread, which mounted as they approached the town centre. Soon they were passing the Carter Family Horse Farm, which was adjacent to South Haven’s public library. Over the past few months, Mohan Lal occasionally picked him up from school and they would get doughnuts and eat them in the library parking lot. They parked as close to the horses as possible and Siddharth got out of the car and laced his fingers through the chain-link fence. One of the ponies, which had a blond mane, sometimes came over and licked his fingers, and they started referring to it as Buddy. Whenever they visited Buddy, Mohan Lal remained in the car, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup and listening to reports about the aftermath of the Gulf War. Siddharth stood outside alone, inhaling the musky air, staring at the desolate fields and graceful horses. He occasionally looked over his shoulder to check on his father, who responded by blowing him a kiss or just smiling. Siddharth felt good in those moments. He hadn’t said a word about them to anyone — not to Arjun, nor to Ms Farber, his school psychologist. He hadn’t even said anything to his only friend at Deer Run, Sharon Nagorski.
It was thanks to Arjun that he had enrolled in Deer Run Elementary back in September. Arjun had said he needed an after-school programme now that they were a single-parent family and Deer Run was the only South Haven school that had one. That term – single-parent family – made him feel like punching a wall. It was a term that should have applied to the people on television, not to real people who he knew and loved.
At first, Mohan Lal had been dismissive of Arjun. But he later said that Arjun had a point and instructed him to handle all of the arrangements. Siddharth looked on as his brother pretended to be their father and phoned the principal of Robert Treat Elementary, where he had attended first through fourth grades. Once all the arrangements were finalised, Mohan Lal told Arjun that he was proud of him for sorting everything out. He said that one day Arjun would make a good father.
‘Yeah, thanks,’ said Arjun. ‘One day you might make one too.’
Siddharth said, ‘Take it easy, Arjun. He was just trying to be nice.’
The rest of the summer, Siddharth had dreaded the prospect of beginning at a new school, but once the year actually started, he saw that transferring definitely had an upside. At Deer Run, he was no longer the little brother of the great Arjun Arora, straight-A student and flag bearer. At Deer Run, he was no longer the kid with the dead mom. The problem was that at his new school, he was the new kid, a nobody who people avoided. At his new school, he only had one friend, Sharon Nagorski. The other kids called Sharon a loser. Luca Peroti and Eddie Benson called her ‘Sharon, the Friendless Wonder’.
Mohan Lal pulled into Deer Run five minutes before the PTA meeting was supposed to start, parking beside the derelict tennis courts. For Siddharth, being at school for the second time in one day was a prison sentence. But accompanying his father had still seemed like the best option. Arjun was putting the school newspaper to bed and Siddharth wasn’t in the mood to be alone. More importantly, going with his father meant he could prevent him from doing something stupid.
As they navigated the slushy asphalt, he clutched his father’s woollen overcoat. That way, if Mohan Lal slipped, Siddharth could break his fall. When they reached the school’s entrance, they dried their winter boots on a large red mat inscribed with the word Owls. Owls were the Deer Run mascot.
Mohan Lal muttered, ‘Owls? This is a place of learning, and owls are the stupidest of birds.’
Siddharth rolled his eyes. He saw a sign that read, PTA Meeting in Cafeteria, and led his father in that direction. As they walked, he told himself to look on the bright side, just as Arjun was always telling him. His mother used to say the same thing. The bright side was that he would get to show his father where he stood in line for chocolate milk and foot-long hot dogs. The bright side was that he would get to show him where he ate lunch with Sharon Nagorski. To Siddharth’s surprise, the positive thinking did the trick, loosening him up.
The cafeteria had dizzyingly tall ceilings and twenty tables with attached orange benches. One of its walls contained a glass case displaying student artwork and class pictures. Another wall was made almost entirely of windows. It looked out onto a blue Luciani Carting garbage dumpster and two flagpoles, one for the blue state flag and the other for Old Glory. Mohan Lal dashed in front of him and headed to the back of the room, near the spot where you cleared your lunch tray. A little stand had been set up there, with two coffee urns and a tray full of pastries. He made himself a cup with cream and sugar, then picked up a glazed doughnut.
‘Eat something,’ he said. ‘We’ll have dinner later tonight.’
‘I had a big lunch,’ said Siddharth. He was waiting for his father to ask him a question about school — about where his classroom was or which was his lunch table. As soon as his father asked him a question, he would tell him everything.
Mohan Lal chose an empty table, far from the other people, far from the wooden podium that had been set up on the other side of room. Siddharth scanned the cafeteria. He felt stupid when he didn’t see any other students. Thankfully, his teacher Miss Kleinberg was also missing. He spotted Mr Grillo, the moustached school principal. He was wearing a three-piece suit, as usual. Larry, the old janitor, was hunched over a broom and chewing on one of his fat cigars. He always had a cigar in his mouth but never actually lit them. All the other parents were chatting. They seemed to know each other and they seemed to be having fun. Siddharth wished his father knew how to make small talk to the other parents. Most of them were women, but there were a few men, dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. Mohan Lal had on a cardigan sweater over a ribbed turtleneck. He looked like a dinosaur compared to these other guys.
Mohan Lal tapped him on the shoulder.
‘What?’ said Siddharth. His voice was harsh, but he was actually relieved. It was happening. His father was finally asking him about school.
‘Where is that woman?’ asked Mohan Lal.
‘That shrink lady — that psychologist.’
‘You mean Ms Farber? Why would Ms Farber be here, Dad? This is for parents — parents and teachers.’
Mohan Lal shrugged. ‘She should be here. She was the one who told me I should come.’
‘You talked to Ms Farber? When did you talk to Ms Farber?’
A woman with black hair went up to the podium and said, ‘Excuse me, everybody. I think it’s time we get started.’
He poked his father in the arm. ‘Dad, you talked to Ms Farber? When did you talk to Ms Farber?’
Mohan Lal widened his eyes and put a finger to his lips.
Siddharth shook his head and stared up at the pockmarks in the tiled ceiling. He felt like an asshole. He felt like his father had betrayed him.
‘Welcome, everybody,’ said the black-haired woman at the podium. She was wearing a denim jacket. Her curly hair rose upwards, not down. She tapped on the microphone, then started speaking. ‘Most of you know me already. I’m Joe Antonelli, David’s mom. And Joey’s. And Ricky’s. Mindy’s too.’ Everyone let out a snigger and Mohan Lal laughed as well. Siddharth was glad. At least his father could laugh when he was supposed to.
Mrs Antonelli thanked John Faruci for the coffee and doughnuts. ‘Let me tell you,’ she said. ‘Faruci’s is the only place in town where my mother would have bought her groceries.’ She asked everyone to hold off on refreshments until they adjourned and Mohan Lal took the remaining half of his donut in a single bite, using the collar of his turtleneck to wipe his mouth. Siddharth put a hand to his forehead and peered down. He hoped that no one had noticed his father scoffing his food. He hoped that nobody here knew about his visits to Ms Farber. He didn’t mind visiting her in the ‘retard room’, as Luca Peroti called it. He didn’t mind, as long as it was private.
Mrs Antonelli stared right in their direction. ‘I’m pleased to see we have a newcomer tonight. Welcome.’ She flashed a wide smile. ‘What’s your name, sir?’
‘Greetings, ma’am,’ said Mohan Lal. ‘My son is a new student here. I’m Dr Arora.’
“We’re so glad you could join us,” she said. “Ah, and I see you’ve brought your boy.”
Siddharth shrunk in his seat.
Mrs Antonelli thanked everyone for last week’s baked ziti dinner, then provided the results of December’s canned food drive. Everyone clapped and a man in a checked shirt and baseball cap stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Siddharth recognised him. He was Eddie Benson’s father. Siddharth turned to his own dad, who was sipping coffee and staring into space. Why did he bother coming if he wasn’t even going to pay attention?
Mrs Antonelli cleared her throat. She said that with so many positive things going on, it was easy to ignore the harsher side of life. ‘I’m sure you all know what I’m referring to. Our boys are making such big sacrifices out in the Persian Gulf. And here we are, living the good life in South Haven. I find myself sitting on the sofa, staring at the television, and wondering what I can do. How can I make a difference?’
Mohan Lal leaned forward. Crap, thought Siddharth.
Mrs Antonelli said she wanted to make a motion to use three hundred dollars of PTA funds to buy each Deer Run student a yellow ribbon. The students could fasten these ribbons to their mailboxes in order to show support for Desert Storm.
Mohan Lal’s eyes were now glued to the podium. Please don’t, thought Siddharth.
A woman with blonde bangs raised her hand. She said that Mrs Antonelli always had such wonderful ideas. The man with the checked shirt and baseball cap – Eddie Benson’s father – was in agreement.
‘We’re all watching it from the couch,’ he said, ‘but these kids — they’re actually putting their lives on the line for our freedom. Heck, I wish we could do something more — something bigger.’
Siddharth noticed his father begin to smile. He nudged Mohan Lal. He wanted to grab him and get out of there. A large woman with glasses stood up and said that the money could be better spent on an extra set of encyclopaedias or colour monitors for the computers.
Mrs Antonelli said, ‘We’re kinda short on time here, Laurie. Let’s table the encyclopaedias until next time.’
It was then that Mohan Lal raised his hand. ‘Excuse me, Miss Joe?’
A vein in Siddharth’s neck started pulsing.
Mrs Antonelli turned toward him, her eyebrows curved like the wings of a seagull. ‘Yes?’
‘I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to add my two cents.’
Siddharth bit the inside of his cheek.
Mrs Antonelli flashed her fake wide smile. ‘Absolutely. We would love it if you shared.’
Mohan Lal handed his empty coffee cup to Siddharth, then stood up. ‘Good evening, ladies and gentleman. I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to share a few small thoughts.’ He cleared his throat. “You all seem like such intelligent people. This is why it is all the more urgent for us to really think this through. Before taking action, we must think this through and ask difficult questions.” Mohan Lal grinned as he spoke, which infuriated Siddharth. His father was always moping, always fighting off tears. His voice would even crack when he said goodnight. And now he was smiling. Now? Here?
Mohan Lal kept on going: ‘Everyone here is an educated person, so you won’t mind if I ask you a hard question. Is this war in the Gulf truly just? Is this a war we should be actually be fighting? Because if we buy these ribbons, we are making a statement about this war.’
Siddharth dug his fingers into the back of his father’s brown trousers.
Mrs Antonelli interrupted Mohan Lal. ‘Dr … Arora, right? Dr Arora, I don’t think I know what you mean. We are making a statement.’ Her voice was now sharper.
Mohan Lal continued smiling and said, ‘Let’s review our history, ladies and gentleman. Who gave Saddam his weapons? Who gave him his money? We did. We did these things because it served our interests. Folks, I am a firm believer in the use of force. But if we support this war, what message are we sending to the world?
What message are we sending our children?’
The room was totally silent for a moment, one of the longest moments in Siddharth’s life. But soon other parents started whispering. Soon people were scowling and yelling, and a chaotic uproar swept over the cafeteria. Siddharth tapped his forehead against the table. When he looked up, his father’s eyes were gleaming in a way they hadn’t for months.
Mrs Antonelli banged a gavel.
Eddie Benson’s father stood up. He walked up to the podium and pointed at Mohan Lal. ‘With all due respect to him – Dr whatever-his-name-is – everything that guy said, it’s … it’s totally baloney.’ Mr Benson turned toward Mrs Antonelli. ‘Pardon my French, but that’s a bunch of crap.’ The entire audience started clapping, except for the large woman with the glasses who had wanted the encyclopaedias. Mr Benson removed his baseball cap and patted down his hair. ‘My cousin was in ’Nam, and when he got back, they spat all over him. That’s not gonna happen this time — not on my watch.’
After some more applause, the blonde with the bangs made a motion to spend six hundred dollars on the ribbons, not three hundred. That way they could buy two for every student.
Siddharth stood up and yanked his father’s arm.
Mohan Lal shrugged him off. ‘Let go of me,’ he said.
He released his father and fled the cafeteria. He ran towards the car and wanted to keep on running. He wanted to run all the way home — but to his old home, the one where his mother had lived. For a moment, he wished it were his father who had gone. If he could, he would trade in his father for his mother. But he immediately regretted this line of thinking. He told himself that if his father were to die now, it would be all his fault.
© 2016 by Hirsh Sawhney. This extract from South Haven is published by kind permission of Akashic Books.