On Saturday, October 9th, only a few hours after Tom and I had feverishly defended her choices for boyfriends with her mother, Sirisha had tied a knot around her neck just a few yards away from us. To imagine her as desperate and lonely enough to end her life in her garage chokes me up. How had Siva, her ex-husband who still shared the house with her, not heard anything? How did I, her best friend and neighbor, never pick up on her heartbeat?

Why does America, the leader of the First world, still have deaths by suicide outnumber the deaths by car accident?




The envelope the officers had given me a few hours later had those two words that I had learnt via her texts.

To Bhanu, పెద్ద నవ్వు :————)

It is Telugu for LOL, she had told me. Inside was a note with her impeccable grammar and cursive writing. “When I die, can you cry?!”, it had said.

I had seen her body hanging from one of the metal beams in the garage when Siva came banging on our front door early Sunday morning. When Tom and I rushed to where he was directing us, I heard wailing sounds coming from Sirisha’s mother that woke up our entire neighborhood. The EMTs were there in 4 minutes.

It was getting colder and the pumpkin season was upon us in Johns Creek, Georgia. I was feeling dazed but brought Mrs. Nadella indoors and gave her some water and tried to calm her down at the breakfast table. While Siva attended the police, I was left to call Prarthana [Prayer] and Prema [Love] who were at universities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. I dodged difficult questions from them wondering if they had the courage to fly home after hearing the truth about their mother. Then I called Rohan, my son who is a senior at the University of Georgia in Athens, a couple of hours away, to come be with me.




In life, Sirisha signified a woman who was very much on the dating scene. Her jeans never once sagged off her thighs and she shopped exclusively at Victoria Secret. A couple of months ago, she had promptly driven to Goodwill to donate all her ballet style shoes because the D’Orsay flats were the new rage in the summer of 2014. She reminded me of the times I looked at myself in the mirror and thought of why marriages stick and how loyalty is so important.

At the police station the investigators had told us that a text, something to the effect of – “it’s over between us”, from a guy might have driven her to suicide. We later found out that it was from Vinesh, her current boyfriend.

Later that day, Rohan drove us, all women, from the hospital after we made arrangements for Sirisha’s body to be transported to the funeral home. Tom rode with Siva in his car. The two girls whom I have known since their childhood, the two girls whose combined promiscuity was far lesser than that of my son’s (well, what do I know?), were sitting in the back seats sobbing and tightly clutching their grandmother’s arms. As little girls they had been proud of their cool mom for not getting fat like the rest of us and for making Indian curries for their teachers. “You are pathetic. Stop talking about love, it makes you sound like a loser.”, was Prarthana’s last text to her mom. Indeed, what does a mother know about love if she cannot demand it when she needs it so desperately?

I made dinner for everyone and tried very hard to keep my mind off Rohan who was left alone with the two girls in our basement for the night. Chris, my book club buddy, had once told me how kids with some form of Indian parenting background did not do so well coping with drugs and sexual freedom that comes with high school and college.

Two evenings after we cremated Sirisha as per the Hindu tradition, and one day after her daughters left for their universities, Mrs. Nadella came knocking. She was holding a black dirty looking duffle bag in one hand. I took it into my hands and silently let her in trying not to think of what Tom’s reaction will be when he came home. She followed no pecking order, and the way she wrapped her saree around her showed no outward signs whatsoever of assimilation into the American ways, yet there was something about her that drew me towards her since the day I saw her for the first time.




One afternoon, a few months ago, as I sat in my car on the driveway waiting for the BBC newshour to finish on NPR, I saw her walking across our yard towards me. I knew Sirisha was back from India with her mother, but had not met her until then. She came up to the car and stood with her arms akimbo and eyebrows arched. I rolled down the window and looked at her questioningly and smilingly. She asked me why I hadn’t parked and walked into my house and that she had been observing me from her bedroom window. She spoke in Telugu, a language of my forefathers, which I have very little grasp of.

During my early days of scribing, I covered many community events around Johns Creek and wrote recipes for picnic staples like Beer Braised Bratwurst and Rosemary Pork Loin. When you have a name like Bhanu Chilukuri-Witt and you write about American fare, your friends eventually and politely convey it to you that you don’t sound authentic. And since I look like a true-bred Indian instead of the 1/4th that I really am, I must be an expert on all things Indian?! Needless to say, the web-based Indian Samachar[news] magazine that I run out my home office is thriving.

I also wanted to reason with her that in America we ate, listened to our radios and did a lot more in our cars with our windows rolled up. Heck, it is a part of our cultural DNA as Americans. Like that late afternoon in May, 1992 on our honeymoon in Ludington, Michigan, when Tom and I sat in the trunk of our Jeep Grand Cherokee and “warmed each other up” a little waiting for someone to pass by to jump start the old piece of junk.

As I walked back to my desk after setting her up in an empty bedroom, I thought of the old lady who did not have anyone she could call and cry. For a while that evening, we both remained untouchable. “You never gave Sirisha a chance to help you but I have a favor to ask you. There is one condition though. I will cook for you.” She had finally said in the kitchen as I started dinner ready. 

After Tom came home, he invited Siva for dinner and explained to him that Mrs. Nadella will be staying with us until she sorts out what she wants. Sirisha had an issue with her husband, that he did not have an opinion one way or another on anything. And, she had been right. Siva never said a word and just listened to Tom.




Unless she was high on too many fruity wine coolers, Sirisha would not discuss the men in her life. Vinesh was different, she told me, mid 30’s, extremely charismatic and handsome, and most importantly showered her with a lot of attention. They had met at the gym. When I tried to probe further about where they were meeting up, she told me it was none of my business. 

One evening, while Prema was still a senior at Johns Creek High, Sirisha had served divorce papers for Siva’s dinner. She called me with the news that night in an emotional phone call. “You know how hard it is to divorce Bhanu? You are an American, you put more importance on your personal freedom than your family. He is going through midlife crisis or whatever and it is driving me up the wall. I even got him that convertible he had been dreaming about. First, it was Prarthana leaving for college, then it was Snoopy’s cancer diagnosis. I am fed up. I can’t afford to move out and he can’t pay alimony. He needs one room on the main floor and I am keeping the rest of the house for myself and Prema. We have both agreed that our lifestyles are off limits for conversations.”

Wasn’t she an American too, living and naturalized in the US for over 20 years? My parents had brought me to the US when I was 12. Things haven’t been splendid since Tom and I got hitched in school while majoring in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. We respect each other for our cultural differences, that’s all. But I did not argue. 




Aunty, as she wanted me to call her, was very comfortable around Tom. He is not different than us Indians, she would say when we sat down for our afternoon tea sessions when Sirisha was still alive. Her observations might not be entirely baseless, Tom would secretly joke. He is an Information Technology project manager, had a wife who was of Indian origin – he would be out of his mind to think he was any different. 

Tom used Google Translate to talk to her most evenings when he got back home. I can tell you he got the idea from me, because I used it heavily to communicate with our house cleaner Bilma, who is from Mexico. Mrs. Nadella greeted Tom as he walked into the kitchen from the garage every evening. She talked to him in Telugu, which he politely acknowledged to but never replied to. She can only mean well-meaning inquiries about his day, wouldn’t she? 



Between the two of us, Aunty and I never spoke about Sirisha. On day 5, I indicated to her over chai that she could stay with us as long as she wanted to.  “It is not my place to stay at a daughter’s house. If anyone died, it should have been me, uprooted, broke and old. He was 34, and she was 51! Surely, it is not love she felt for this fellow. I am her mother, I cannot say this to you Bhanu, but he was after her body and money.” She would inevitably end the conversation with her thoughts on her daughter. 

Money? What money? I wanted to tell her that her daughter was practically an outcast in our food-coma inducing, over-the-top ostentatious Desi party circuit. She was scraping by to make ends meet compensating for lawyers’ fees, surgeries to repair her torn ACLs with her excessive running and biking, lost work wages in 2013 due to court hearings, school fees for the daughters – by working 7 days a week at the boyfriend’s Norcross Dental practice as a Hygienist. 

I felt sad for Mrs. Nadella whose life was in an awful dilemma at this point. Sirisha would have constant arguments with her to learn English get better at it, so she could act as a translator of Telugu for refugees and abuse victims. She knew a victims rights advocate who said he can set her up with some basic pay which would qualify her for medicare. She was looking at options to get a job for her mother at Walmart for health insurance. She was also going to apply for a green card.




One day, Aunty picked up the phone to call her son in India. Sirisha had separated all ties with him and brought their mother over here after he disputed their father’s will and did not give her mother’s share of property to their mother. She talked to her son and then her daughter-in-law back in her hometown of Tanuku and chatted with them as if nothing had ever soured between them.

After the phone calls she would tell me, “Gopala’s father fell down in the garage and fractured his hip. He is my neighbor, he lives in Nashville [sounding of the e at the end.] It cost them 5 lakhs, you know”. I never did the math to convert Rupees to Dollars, I just listened with faked curiosity and a chai in one hand. Sometimes we sat in the same room, and she would write her Rama Koti, the practice of writing the name of the Indian God Rama over and over again in a notebook.



When she was around me, I wasn’t able to stop the replays of our conversations from that night. Especially, from the last night of Sirisha’s life.

Indians have the most parties when they had their parents visiting or when their parents live with them. Atleast, that is what my observation has been. It is some form of purported entertainment I assume. It was our monthly LRC meet, and so I was eager to host for aunty’s sake. She had come by barely for half an hour that night. Siva never showed up. 

Siva and Sirisha had stopped hosting long ago, but dropped in once in a while making sure not to overlap each other’s presence. Since both of them didn’t host, I felt it was my responsibility to entertain aunty. And whenever I had a party, I would ask aunty to walk over to our house irrespective of whether Sirisha or Siva were coming or not. That night, as many other nights, she sat at one corner of the breakfast table where she had a good view of us playing round after round of LRC in the middle of the living room. 

The girls, Erin, Becky, Caroline, Sangeeta and Payal, my friends from the neighborhood never complained. She craved company like all of us and they were empathetic about it. In fact, I think everyone was just amused of the set up – an old Indian aunty observing a bunch of loud middle aged American women squabbling over a board game. 

We had talked about everything, monkey meat and Ebola, stray cats around the neighborhood, the 400 feet emergency response tower that was being proposed right in the middle of the city, the bill boards that were coming up along the side of the highway. How the music nights at 37 main were creating sleepless nights to all the homes that were right behind the strip mall that lined  our neighborhood. 

We talked about Roy who was moving out of the neighborhood after 33 years. Pickup trucks then and minivans now, we joked, our terms of endearments to talk about the differences between Caucasians and Asians. 

“He is one of the 25 million Evangelical conservatives that get brainwashed by (Rush) Limbaugh regularly. What else would he do, move to Gainsville? Hall county, I have heard is facing its first impact of the white flight from all our neighborhoods.” Someone joked. 

We all had laughed, and Jeff added, “All my Korean neighbors are disappearing, shutting down their dry cleaning stores and moving out of the neighborhood. I didn’t think I would say this, but boy oh boy, the Indians are coming!” And he winked at Tom. 

Tom never saw much fun in such words, he felt racism was a touchy subject as a white man. He is from Cumming, a town in north east of Atlanta, which until the late 1980’s had a controversial public ban on black people. In 1987, when The Oprah Show had been on the air for just six months, Oprah taped a show in Forsyth County, Georgia — which had gained a reputation for being a hotbed of racism. At the time, not a single black person had lived there for 75 years. 

“A lot of Hall county is down at the sticks, that part of the state where you hear birthday announcements on the radio, ‘Happy birthday Selma, saw you at the grocery store this morning. Hope you are having a lovely day!’” Erin had joked to diffuse the situation quickly. And Sirisha tapped on Erin’s shoulder and laughed her most gregarious laughter, “That’s funny!” The last words I would ever hear from her. 

“Isn’t that a little fitting, her blouse?” Aunty had asked me after the party while helping me with the dishes.

“Oh, you are talking about Erin?” I asked. 

“No, Sirisha.” She sounded a little disappointed while she picked up the leftover silver ware from the dinner table.

Erin was usually the one who wore the most provocative outfits not keeping her age in mind. And Tom took great pleasure hearing about aunty’s observations from me after such parties and whose lack of modesty had offended her the most. 




When I dropped Aunty at the airport last Saturday, I stopped at Dunkin Donuts for a half and half of Sweet & Un-Sweet Iced Tea, Sirisha’s favorite drink. I thought of the past two weeks of my life, where I ate the best Indian food after my mother had died and had the best company that I could ask for. In a lifetime, most of us spend years that we can pick out where we cannot account for a single accomplishment. And then there will be two weeks like this that can actually form the crux of your being. At the airport, I felt she had taken a piece of me with her and left. Being around her had made me more conscious of my ancestry, my life, my future, my son, my cultural significance in this vast ocean of changing demographics around the world. 

When I came home from the airport, Tom was reading his newspaper at the breakfast table. I didn’t stop in the kitchen and walked into the guest room that aunty had been using during her stay. 

I arranged the pillows and attempted to sit on the bed. I felt a sheet of paper, and looked for what it might be. Tightly wrapped inside was a new Guntur saree. Inside its folds, I found a sheet of Rama Koti paper wrapped around eight 24 karat gold bangles. Written on it were most likely the only two words aunty knew how to write in English. 

Be happy.

I sat there in my home which felt cold unlike when aunty had been staying with us. I felt Tom’s hand on my shoulder. I sat still but allowing my eyes to get watery. 





NOTE: SHORT STORY Originally Written On: Oct 27, 2014


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About The Article Author:

Our mission with FutureSTRONG Academy – to grow children who respect themselves, their time and their capabilities in a world where distractions are just a click or a swipe away.

I see myself as an advocate for bringing social, emotional and character development to families, schools and communities. I never want to let this idea out of my sight – Our children are not just GPAs. I’m a Writer and a Certified Master Coach in NLP and CBT. Until 2017, I was also a Big Data Scientist. In December of 2044, I hope to win the Nobel. Namasté.

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Rachana Nadella-Somayajula,
Program Director & Essential Life Skills Coach for Kids and Busy Parents

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