A modest front yard featured three young, bitten trees, barely visible at this hour. The place had been recently painted, a subtle green Sunil liked. It was Sunday, and the neighborhood of well-kept houses and straight yards was quietly active with push mowers and runners stretching in driveways. Kids on bikes grabbed the last rays of light.
The Chandaria family—emigrants from the Indian-enclave of Nairobi—have managed to flourish in America. Premchand, the father, is a doctor who has worked doggedly to grow his practice and give his family security; his wife, Urmila, runs a business importing artisanal Kenyan crafts; and their son, Sunil, after quitting the pre-med track, has gotten accepted to a PhD program in philosophy at Harvard. But the parents have kept a very important secret from Sunil: his cousin, Bimal, is actually his older brother. And when this previously hidden history is revealed by an unforeseen accident, and the entire family is forced to return to Nairobi, Sunil reveals his own well-kept, explosive secret: his Jewish-American girlfriend, who has accompanied him to Kenya, is, in fact, already his wife. Spanning four generations and three continents, The Limits of the World illuminates the vast mosaic of cultural divisions and ethical considerations that shape the ways in which we judge one another’s actions. A dazzling debut novel—written with rare empathy and insight—it is a powerful depiction of how we prevent ourselves, unwittingly and otherwise, from understanding the people we are closest to.
The landlady was much older than Sunil expected. Unusually tall. “I was tidying up,” she said and smiled, wide and toothy.
He wanted to trust the woman. He chose to ignore that he and Amy were just two prospective renters among legions, that there could be a garbage mound on the floor crowned by a giant rat and still rivals would draw blood over a well-located one-bedroom.
The woman opened the second-floor apartment and swept her arms open, as if to say, All this could be yours. “It was my son’s place. Him and his ex-wife.”
Sunil held Amy’s arm. She reached a hand behind his back and covertly pinched the top of his thigh.
The kitchen offered a scuffed linoleum floor, an avocado table, and a beige refrigerator. Beyond was a larger room with gangly potted plants. Windows faced the street, but fortunately little noise floated up. The furniture was floral, the walls hung with drawings of trees with human arms and smiling sunflowers. But the bedroom was painted a cheerful white, and the office had a large window with what seemed to be a view of a backyard. A layer of spring snow flecked the brown earth.
“No laundry?” Amy asked, looking herself like she could use a bath. Amy believed that her sweat was inoffensive, clean, and she often resented showering as a waste of time. Today, she showed up straight from a run, her clothes dry but neck still damp around the collar. It was true, she didn’t smell ripe—he happened to like her undertone of old lemon—but her disregard for impressing the landlady embarrassed Sunil.
The woman said there was a laundromat around the corner. Sunil took note. Laundry was his job. Amy paid the bills and fought the credit card and utility companies.
It was a quiet block, academics and families, the landlady said. There’d be a slight reduction in rent if they mowed the lawn. “If it ever gets to be spring.”
He would mow the lawn. He loved spring, the pulsing, daily greening of the world. The give in the ground, the strengthening sun on his face. Amy slipped from sweaters into fitted tee shirts, like the orange scoop neck she was wearing the day they met. Yet spring signaled summer, the dead months; he had a hard time getting work done during the limp, boneless season. This summer, Amy would need a job. And Sunil would finish his dissertation. He had to.
Sunil looked around again excitedly. They’d take down the floral art and put up pictures of Boston, artful shots of places they’d seen and been together: the courtyard of the Gardner Museum; an Old World streetcorner in the North End. Buy real flowers from the corner store and set them in jelly jars. The books on shelves instead of the milk crates they used now.
The old woman slid heavily into a chair at the kitchen table. Surely questions about their finances were forthcoming.
Instead she asked Amy to bring her a glass of cold water—“You have to run the tap 30 seconds, dear”—and instructed Sunil to pull the chain on the light fixture. “Now I can get a good look at you.”
Amy delivered the water, then peered intently into the cabinets; she had already opened closets and inspected shelves. She was registering potential improvements—wedges under rickety table legs, hooks on the back of doors. Her silent inquisition made Sunil nervous that they appeared ungrateful, but she would say such inspection was their right. She was also a snoop, though she wouldn’t admit it. Such eagle eyes had discovered, the first night she spent in Sunil’s apartment, a birthday card from two girlfriends ago. She’d brought it to him with sly pride, like a cat delivering a bird.
As the woman looked Sunil full in the face, his hopes began to sink. He prepared himself for some good old Boston Brahmin racism. And sure enough, she said, “What are you?”
Here it was. The white person’s arrogant insistence on knowing not who or where but simply what, as if he were a mineral or some other piece of ground.
“Indian,” he said flatly. He did not add by way of Nairobi; his family’s three-continent migration story just confused people. Nor did Sunil bother saying he was born and grew up in Ohio and didn’t know his parents’ language well enough to understand it, much less speak it. No one ever cared about that.
But the woman surprised him by nodding approvingly. “Some day all the babies will be brown, long after I’m gone. Café au lait.”
Standing near the table, girlfriend at his side, Sunil was overcome with longing to sit in this room together in the mornings: reading, typing, drafting their joint lives. He held his breath as Amy slipped off the cap that made her look like a boy and gripped it in her hands behind her back.
“We love it,” Amy said. “When can we move in?”
Sunil exhaled. He had worried Amy would shy away from saying what she felt. She was not timid, and if she was feeling scrutinized or defensive, she’d order enough food for an elephant, or shout at a stranger who’d jostled her. She’d told him this came from being small all her life; when threatened, she felt that she had to prove she could eat, kick, rage as hard as anyone. Yet sometimes, with him, if she sensed that he felt strongly, she pretended her own desires didn’t matter in order to placate or relieve him. Sometimes her yielding did make things easier for Sunil, but more often he was frustrated by her withholding. He felt locked out. Now Amy moved closer to him. They waited for the verdict. He wondered if Amy had suspected, as he had, that his brownness might interfere. Unlike a lot of white girls in the Midwest, Amy had known him to be Indian right away, having grown up in a D.C. enclave packed with foreigners and immigrants. What she never fully fathomed was his distance from his family, and their so-called culture. She’d been saying for more than a year that she wanted to meet his parents. But he hadn’t seen his parents in longer than that.
“A week should give us all enough time,” the woman said.
Sunil swallowed his astonishment and smiled widely. “Thank you.”
“This is such good news!” Amy bounced on her toes and gave the woman a quick squeeze. Hugging strangers was a behavior he would never understand.
Then their new landlady said, “Of course, you’re married? Stability, that’s the main thing in life.”
As she said this, Sunil realized he’d been thinking it.
But what could they reasonably say? He threaded his hand behind Amy’s back and felt her fingers—lively, anticipating—respond. Then she surprised him. She slipped her small opal ring, a college graduation gift from her parents, from her right ring finger to her left.
“Engaged,” she said, bringing her hand—thin, bright, trembling—into the light to be inspected.
Here was action, here was progress. They tumbled to their seats inside the Nepalese restaurant, one of their favorite places. Sunil sucked on ice cubes from his water glass, and Amy crunched happily on papadum. “What do you think?” she said.
“Don’t you want to?” he said.
“Of course. It makes sense. I love you. We’ve been together three years. But I wasn’t sure. Do you think she would have rented to us anyway? As we were?”
He shook his head. “No one asks about marriage if they don’t want the answer to be yes.”
Amy looked at him closely. “What’s wrong?”
“Marriage is scary, isn’t it?”
“I’m just thinking about my parents. When one of them is strong, the other becomes weak. It’s an awful way to be.” How did couples keep their individual dignity? “We can’t let our marriage be about power.”
The waiter brought clean white bowls of soupy yellow dal. Sunil lifted the bowl straight to his lips while Amy blew on a spoonful.
“No, we’ll be equally committed,” she said. “Like inmates.” Her hair mussed, her cheeks wide and lit from within. A light scrim of salt lined her temple; he leaned in and lightly licked it off.
He said, “You know, a real wedding, a big one, would be impossible given our families. Your parents wanting kosher, mine wanting their 500 closest friends from Nairobi, London, Columbus . . .”
“Maybe a five-year anniversary party,” she said. Then, after a long pause, “Actually, I think I don’t want my parents at our wedding.”
“Really?” He was shocked.
“They’re too crazy right now.” A few years ago, Amy’s parents had undergone a radical and confusing conversion to Orthodoxy. Her father had been a business journalist at the Post, but started to crave a more consequential life. Her mother had been a freelance architecture critic, which she decided was a vacuous profession. So they secured jobs at Elie Weisel’s Moment, where the people around them were living the kind of exceptional, purposeful, selfless lives the Kauffmans sought to emulate. The path to such worthy lives, they came to believe, was the Torah.
Their conversion had happened quickly, during Amy’s last few months of college. “I broke out into hives,” she’d admitted to Sunil early in their relationship. “I was afraid of losing them to a relentless fundamentalism. So I treated them like 15-year-old anarchists who were going through a phase.”
Sunil always had admired Amy’s toughness, even though he suspected that bottling up her confusion and frustration wasn’t good for her in the long run.
“Are you sure?” He hated how even low-level arguments with her parents knocked Amy off her even keel for a day or two, but he had also seen that there was long-standing love between all of them. A resilient, enduring love that Sunil envied.
“Yes. They’re in Israel now anyway, and I don’t want to wait.”
Together, silently, he and Amy watched the young sons of the restaurant owners slide into the back booth. The boys’ father sat down heavily next to his children and gestured to the worn schoolbooks on the table. For years, when he was a child, Sunil had wanted a brother badly.
“Still, I do need to finally meet your parents,” Amy said. “It’s time, and it’s only fair.”
“Fair to whom?”
Amy raised her eyebrows, which lifted the boyish cap off her ears. “Don’t you think I need to know what I’m getting myself into? I’ve given you a full disclosure.”
Sunil groaned. “That’s exactly what I don’t want.”
He believed that Amy could handle his mother’s abrasiveness and his father’s unsettling quiet. What worried him was what dark behavior Amy would suddenly see in him when they were all in the same room.
Sunil tried to push these thoughts away. He looked at Amy across the shiny Formica table, and saw the future. Of course she would meet his parents, but they would marry without either the Kauffmans or the Chandarias present. He ripped a naan in two and gave her the larger half. She ate greedily, and demanded another from his hand.
Jennifer Acker is founder and editor-in-chief of The Common. Her short stories, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in the The Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1, Guernica, The Yale Review,and Ploughshares, among other places.Acker has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches writing and editing at Amherst College, where she directs the Literary Publishing Internship and organizes LitFest. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband. The Limits of the Worldis her debut novel.
Header photo by PowerUp, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Jennifer Acker by Zoe Fisher.