Unfurled, it looks like a cartographic chart: a navigator’s map to travel the salty oceans, from the Pacific to the Atlantic and back again. It’s horoscopic, rife with details about my future.
It is sweltering inside the tiny and cramped apartment in Mumbai. Outside the rusty barred windows, the thin bamboo trees sway gently in the scant breeze. The heat and humidity of the city are almost insufferable. My aunt K is carefully supervising dinner preparations in the tight galley kitchen. I savour the scent of cinnamon and cardamom as they hang in the air. Puris lie in wait in silver thalis, sweating under metal lids. My mouth waters.
The sounds of the city waft in. Cars honk, dogs bark. I hear the punctuated laughter of store owners, the guttural sounds of their accents that sound so much like my Father, voices I rarely hear back on the streets of Toronto.
It is 1978. I am seven years old.
The astrologer sits cross-legged on the worn Persian carpet, poring over the parchment paper, pointing out pertinent details to my parents. All Mahtani girls get their horoscope told at the age of six. As my parents and the astrologer murmur quietly, heads bent towards one another, I look out the window, hoping I can go out later to play with some of the stray dogs on the street. If my Dad will let me.
The astrologer says something but I can’t quite decipher his words. I’m curious and lean towards him. But my Dad hears him clearly, and bursts out: “Well, of course she has a great destiny. Look at her name! Her name is Minelle. It means Wish Come True in Arabic. Man-al,” he says, emphatically enunciating every syllable carefully for the man. “Wish Come True!”
The astrologer looks at my Dad quizzically. I can see what is about to happen next. My Dad is about to launch into the story. The story he loves to tell. We call it the integration success story. I steel myself, ready for the recitation.
“You see,” My Dad says, flopping back into a rattan chair that is puckered from years of freight, “We wanted our child to have a name that marked her as different, but also to have a name that gestured to our desire for integration in this beautiful new country called Canada.”
My mom grimaces, rolls her eyes at me, wipes her brow from a spot of sweat. We’ve both heard this story so many times that it’s burnished into our memories. We’ve memorized it, word for word.
“We considered many names, but nothing felt quite right. Then at the hospital, mere minutes after this little one came into this world, an Arabic-speaking friend visited us in the hospital. She said, ‘Why don’t you call her Manal? It means wish come true in Arabic!’”
My mom sighs, taps her long, tapered fingernails on the hardwood floor. Her nails are painted fire truck red, perfectly manicured as always. I would end up biting mine to the quick for years after, never able to get my hands to look anywhere near as elegant as hers.
My Dad triumphantly continues, ignoring mom’s obvious discomfort. “But it wasn’t enough to call her Manal! We knew Canadians would struggle with it. So we decided to gesture to Canada’s grand French-Canadian culture. You know the name Michelle?” He barks the question at the astrologer. “You know it?”
The astrologer is picking at the frayed edges of the parchment paper. Of course he doesn’t. And if he does, he just doesn’t care. He checked out ages ago and it’s clear that he’s just barely demonstrating a cursory commitment to the story. He raises his gaze slowly to my father, his eyelids stone-heavy.
“No, sir. Tell me,” he says, monotone.
Can I get paid now? I imagine him thinking. Bloody foreigners, I can hear him thinking. My Dad may be Indian, born and raised mere minutes from here, but he’s now a Westerner, coming back for some authentic Indian experience before heading back from the promised land. The astrologer has no time for this indulgent outburst.
My Dad is not swayed by the man’s lack of interest, though. He is not telling the story for him.
My Dad starts to gesture flamboyantly with his arms, knocking down an old cracked vase in the process as he says, “It’s a French name! You know, like the Beatles’ song! Michelle, ma belle,” he starts to croon, off-key. “Well that’s a French name! And we decided to make her name sound more like a French-Canadian name! So we spelled it like Michelle! So she would fit in more!”
The astrologer’s expression doesn’t shift.
“Arre, baba—you understand? So that the goras would get it! Treat her well! See her as one of theirs!”
The astrologer glances at my father, and realizes he has to say something now. “Can we continue, now, sir?”
My Dad nods vigorously, sits back down cross-legged on the floor, wrings his hands in anticipation. “Yes, yes. Tell us.”
I know what the astrologer is about to say holds great importance for me, for my future. I’m but one of three Mahtani girls in the family, and this is rite of passage for all of us. My cousins S and R were told last year that they would attend Harvard and Wellesley College. Years later, they go on to do just that. There’s a great solemnly held belief in the Mahtani household that what this man says will forever stand as gospel.
The fortune-teller makes his declaration: “She is going to go to this school—Harvard. And—she will become Prime Minister of Canada some day.”
Harvard? Prime Minister? My heart swells with pride, even though I’m more than a little scared. Thoughts race through me. How can I live up to these lofty expectations? I can’t even seem to master multiplication tables with ease. I only came in second in the science fair project competition, not first. And my last book report only got an A, not an A plus! How can I go to this fancy school? Plus, aren’t all Prime Ministers white men?
These expectations seem very unrealistic, but I promise myself then and there with great certainty that I will try and do anything to please my Father, to make him proud of me. I will go to Harvard; I will do whatever it takes.
My Dad leaps up, and does a little dance on the hardwood floor. “Bappre!” he says, jubilantly. “I knew it! I knew it!” He takes my hand, pulls me up, does a little jig. I awkwardly try to follow his lead. My mom looks at us both, shaking her head. You two, I know she is thinking. Always you two.
The astrologer rolls his eyes and looks at the papers again. His fingers slowly caress the parchment, tracing faded lines, lines running parallel to one another. He is careful, deliberative. His expression clouds over, and he frowns.
My Dad is now more alert, and concerned. “What? What do you see?”
The astrologer shakes his head. “Something will happen to her when she’s seventeen, sir. Something you don’t expect.”
My Dad beams. “Yes, that’s when she will graduate and go to Harvard. That will be the year she leaves us for Boston. Bwah-ston,” he pronounces, with a grin on his face. “You know. Like Havaaad Yaaad,” he sings out.
The astrologer shakes his head again.
“No, that’s not it. It’s something else, sir. Something much more sinister.”
My Dad stops, looks. “That’s the year she will become pregnant, sir, and have a child.”
My Dad shakes his head belligerently. No, that can’t be right, it must be a bad dream, I see this in his eyes. But the prophecy follows us back on the way to Toronto, where I will be watched carefully, prevented from going out unless clearly chaperoned up until the age of seventeen. They couldn’t have predicted that I would start an affair with my English teacher (actually, he started it; why did I just say that?) when I was seventeen.