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96 Words for Love
By Rachel Roy
By Ava Dash
Foreword by James Patterson
Read by Soneela Nankani
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Ever since her acceptance to UCLA, 17-year-old Raya Liston has been quietly freaking out. She feels simultaneously lost and trapped by a future already mapped out for her.
Then her beloved grandmother dies, and Raya jumps at the chance to spend her last free summer at the ashram in India where her grandmother met and fell in love with her grandfather. Raya hopes to find her center and her true path. But she didn’t expect to fall in love… with a country of beautiful contradictions, her fiercely loyal cousin, a local girl with a passion for reading, and a boy who teaches her that in Sanskrit, there are 96 different ways to say the word “love.”
A modern retelling of the classic Indian legend of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, 96 Words for Love is a coming-of-age story about finding yourself in unexpected places.
DYING GRANDMOTHERS AND DECISIONS
My acceptance to UCLA was giving me insomnia.
Talk about first-world problems. I sighed out an annoyed breath and rolled onto my side, wondering if maybe it was time for a new pillow. “Siri, play rain forest noises,” I pleaded.
Instantly the sounds of dripping water and cawing birds filled my bedroom. They basically helped not at all, and I was still wide awake twenty minutes later.
It was the third night in a row I hadn’t gotten any sleep. Usually I’m the girl who can pass out standing up and sleep for ten hours without even waking up for a bathroom break. But not anymore. I punched my pillow for, like, the thirty-fourth time that night while I decided this was all my best friend’s fault. Lexi had definitely kicked off this bout of nonsleeping the moment I’d gotten the e-mail from the UCLA College of Letters and Science.
“Ahhh!” she’d screamed, as she read over my shoulder. “Raya, you got in, you got in, you got in!” We’d been standing in the middle of our school’s courtyard area, where most of the seniors hang out between classes. Some rando in the corner gave us a weird look, but no one else seemed to even notice. College acceptance celebrations and crying fits had become the new normal for us in recent months.
“I got in! Yes!” Lexi and I hugged and danced while I mentally planned my newest status update. GOT INTO UCLA! BRUINS 4 LIFE!
Or maybe I’d try to come up with something more original. I’d never beat Lexi’s college acceptance status update. When she’d gotten into Berkeley, she posted a picture of herself surrounded by about fifty teddy bears (the Berkeley mascot is also a bear), a life-size cardboard cutout of Olympic swimmer Daria Eldridge (she goes to Berkeley), and the caption GUESS WHO I’M GONNA BE HITTING ON AT MY NEW SCHOOL?!
Lexi totally admitted that half the reason she’d applied to Berkeley was her crush on Daria. She’d had a thing for swimmers ever since second grade, when she decided she wanted to be just like our swim instructor, Coach Morales. Unfortunately, Lexi had the worst backstroke the school had ever seen, and the poor woman cringed every time Lexi jumped into the pool.
“You applied to be an English major?” Lexi was still reading my acceptance e-mail over my shoulder. She sounded surprised.
“You knew that,” I told her. Lexi is the only person in the world who knows everything about me. When we were six, she was the only one I told that I accidentally broke our classroom hamster cage and let Little Midgie escape. I’ve never kept anything from her since.
“Nuh-uh. I thought you were going for prelaw.”
Where had she gotten that idea? “Why?”
She shrugged. “Because your mom is a lawyer, I guess. And you never said what you were going to study, so I just thought… Why would you study English, anyway?”
“Because I like writing.” And I did. My Tumblr blog, where I reviewed new indie rock albums and concerts Lexi and I went to see, had a few hundred followers. Not great, but not bad, either.
“Oh, okay.” Lexi perked up again. “I mean, of course you do. I just didn’t realize that’s what you were going to do do, you know. Like forever. C’mon, let’s go celebrate! We’ll grab lattes before sixth period.”
Just like that, she was off and running. As Lexi usually was. But all I could do was stand there and think of the two words she’d said: Like forever.
It hadn’t really occurred to me that whatever I studied in college would be my life. College had always been the long-term goal. UCLA had always been my first choice. Both my parents had gone there, and I knew it was my dad’s dream that I did, too. I liked school and getting good grades and learning new stuff, so it wasn’t difficult for me to work toward that kind of dream for thirteen years of school.
Only now the thirteen years were over, and I was signing up for a life path. Did I actually want to study books and writing theory for four years? And what was I even going to write after that?
I went to get the latte—mocha, skim, half whip, decaf—with Lexi, but already a new kind of anxiety was filling a corner of my head. And I hadn’t slept through the night since.
So there I was, not sleeping and contemplating whether my subpar piano talent meant I should major in music, when Mom showed up in my doorway.
“Raya,” she whispered. “Cousin Prisha is on the phone. She doesn’t think Daadee will last the night…. She’s saying good-bye to us.”
Bile rose in my throat. No. I wasn’t ready for this.
My grandparents both lived with us when I was little, until Daada died and Daadee went back to India because she missed it. I was only twelve when she announced she was moving there, and at first I was so mad at her for leaving. I even refused to speak to her for a week. I might have held out longer, but she made kachoris and refused to give me one until I caved.
I didn’t stand a chance. Kachoris are this Indian snack that’s almost like a samosa—dough that’s stuffed and fried, basically. Daadee’s kachoris are this perfect combination of sweetness and spiciness that takes over your whole mouth and makes you want to eat forever. Once, I managed to eat eight in one sitting.
“Daadee?” I said into the phone. My voice sounded weird and breathy, like I’d just run a marathon. Daadee had only gotten sick a week ago, and Mom had thought we’d make it back to India before she passed. I’d been so certain that Daadee would never die without saying good-bye to me in person that I hadn’t seen this moment coming at all. Hadn’t even imagined the possibility that I might have to say good-bye to one of the most beloved people in my life through cell phone towers.
“Nini baba nini…” a voice was singing on the other end of the line.
Tears immediately started falling down my cheeks. “Nini Baba Nini” is an old Indian lullaby. When I was little, Daadee used to sing it to me. I hadn’t heard it since I was eight or nine years old.
“I wish I was there with you,” I told her. “I wish I was there with you so much, Daadee.” Mom cuddled up next to me on the bed and put her arm around my shoulders, and I curled into her like I was still five years old and she and Daadee were tucking me into bed together, just like they always used to do.
“There are so many things I wish, my Raya,” Daadee answered. “So many plans I had for us. So many things I wished to show you and Anandi.”
I might not be ashamed to cuddle with my mother, but I was ashamed to say that jealousy churned in my stomach just then. Anandi was my age, my second cousin, and Daadee’s great-niece. Daadee lived with Anandi’s family in India, and I knew they’d gotten close since Daadee moved in with them.
Which was cool with me, usually. I liked Anandi. We’d spent time together when my family visited India to take Daadee back over there, and we were friends on Snapchat and WhatsApp. But I sort of didn’t need my dying grandmother telling me that she wished she could spend more time with me and Anandi.
I know—jealousy only hurt the person holding it. Whatever. It was what I felt.
“What I wish the most,” Daadee went on, “is that I had time to show you both my ashram.”
Really? I thought. Daadee used to tell me stories about her childhood in India all the time, but she never said much about the few months she’d spent living in an ashram, which was like a Hindu monastery. The ashram of Rishi Kanva was in the Himalaya Mountains somewhere, high in a part of India no one in my family had visited since. Daadee had lived there before she eventually came to America, but she never talked about going back.
“Uh… I’ll see it someday,” I told Daadee. If my grandmother asked me to, I’d climb the Himalayas myself. Barefoot. In the snow. “I promise. For you.”
“You will,” she answered. “That I am sure of. When you need the ashram, it will call to you. I have left things there, Raya. Things you and Anandi should have. Things you need. I am sorry I did not tell you sooner. I realized much too late why I was leaving these items behind….” She trailed off.
“What are you talking about?” Daadee hadn’t been in that ashram since before my mother was born. What could she possibly have left behind that would still be there?
“I’m sorry I can’t tell you where to look, my Raya. My memory right now… it isn’t what it was, my baba. I have forgotten….” Daadee trailed off again. “You will know where to find them—you and Anandi. When the ashram calls you, do not ignore it. If you wish to find what I have left, simply search what you know.” She began coughing then, and it was several minutes before she stopped.
I couldn’t worry about ashrams and left-behind objects just then. It was becoming clearer that Daadee didn’t have much time left.
“I love you, Daadee,” I said. The words felt thin and painful in my throat. “Thank you for always loving me as much as you did. Thank you for everything you taught me. For everything you did for me. Good…” I stopped, unable to finish. For so many years, Daadee had been one of the most important people in my life. When my parents were first moving up in their careers, she was the one I came home to every day after school. She was the one who had listened to stories from my day, cleaned scrapes off my knees, and laid cool cloths on my forehead when I was sick. Nothing in our house had been quite the same since she went back to India.
Now she was leaving me. I couldn’t bring myself to say the word good-bye.
“I love you, my Raya. I will never forget you.” Her voice was soft, and it sounded like it was getting harder for her to talk.
My sobs got fairly hysterical at that point, and eventually Mom took the phone out of my hand.
And then, for the first time in three days, I slept.
I woke up with my eyes stuck shut, a crick in my neck from where I’d fallen asleep on Uni, my old stuffed unicorn, and the horrible sensation that there was a hole in my world.
There’s this band I like called Nature vs. Nurture. They’re amazing, and I think it’s crazy that almost nobody knows about them. Lexi and I got to see them at a small club in San Jose last year, and they played a song called “Party No More” that I completely fell in love with. I made Lexi listen to it about a hundred times on the ride home.
There’s a line in that song that goes, The world keeps making all its spins, but every spin’s been tilted since you left.
Which was exactly what that morning felt like. The world was still spinning. Only without Daadee in it, it was off-balance. Wrong. Sure, she’d been in India for the last five years of my life, but she’d still always been there. There to listen when I called or hear me play the piano over the phone.
Everything in my life was changing, and it didn’t feel like anything was changing the way it was supposed to.
I started crying again.
I wondered if Taj, my little brother, was crying in the next room over. Maybe not. He’d only been seven when Daadee left, and he wasn’t as close to her as I was. Then I wondered why American culture doesn’t allow boys to cry as freely and openly as girls. Which led me to wonder if maybe I should major in sociology at UCLA to figure that out. And then that brought me to UCLA and all the not-sleeping I’d been doing lately.
Yes, this is how my mind works.
My phone buzzed. I picked it up, fully intending to ignore whoever was texting me on WhatsApp at the butt crack of dawn. Until I saw who it was: Anandi.
I want to go to the ashram, her text said. Will you go with me? I want to find what she left us.
What was she talking about? Go visit the ashram? Now? I started typing as fast as I could.
Do you know what Daadee was talking about? She hasn’t been to that ashram in like over forty years.
It was a few minutes before Anandi’s answer came back.
She went back a year or so ago with a group of other people, just to visit. She told me she left behind some things that “belonged” there, but she never said anything about us finding them. Until last night. Then she kept talking about how she’d realized you and I needed what she’d left there, only she couldn’t remember exactly what she left or where it was. So weird. She didn’t say anything to you about this stuff before last night either?
No way, I texted back.
Yeah, I figured. I don’t know if she changed her mind about the stuff staying there or the meds were just messing with her or what.
So do you think there’s even anything there? I asked.
I do, Anandi answered a few moments later. And I want to go. This summer. I want to find what she left there. Even if she was out of it last night, I think she meant what she said. And before she got sick, she always talked about how you and I should go to the ashram someday. She’d want us to visit the ashram together. I know she would.
I studied the text and sighed. Of course a part of me wanted to visit the ashram that had clearly meant so much to my grandmother. Of course a part of me wanted to find whatever objects she had left behind for me and my cousin—assuming there was still anything at the ashram for us to find. And maybe that was the case, if she’d only left those things behind a year ago.
But visiting an ashram wasn’t exactly part of my life plan. I had graduation to get through, summer jobs to apply for. A college to start attending in the fall.
Even if I couldn’t figure out exactly where my life plan was taking me, it was a plan. And I always followed my plans—no matter what. I liked plans. They kept my mind from going in too many directions at the same time. They’d gotten me one of the highest GPAs in my class year after year. They’d get me through UCLA.
Plans were good. I needed to follow my plan.
Of course I want to go, I texted back. But no way I can right now.
The phone was silent for a long time, so I found my bathrobe and slippers and pulled my long, thick brown curls into a ponytail. I was about to head downstairs for breakfast when my eyes stopped on something sitting on my dresser.
It was a necklace. Not one I wore very often, because I liked to save it for special occasions. It was just a thin gold chain, and people never even noticed when I wore it. Still, it was my favorite necklace, because Daadee had given it to me right before she left for India. It had been a gift from Daada, my grandfather.
I walked across the room and picked up the necklace, clutching it in my hand. I was staring at it when the phone buzzed again.
The important things can always be done, my phone read.
My eyes filled with tears. That was something Daadee always used to tell me and Taj when we were young. When we claimed we didn’t have time to do our homework or help her with dinner or spend time with our parents, she would smile and put her hands on her hips and then tell us that. It worked every time. Somehow it always made sense when she said it.
Anandi definitely fought dirty—not that I cared right then. Because she was right.
I raced down the stairs still clutching the necklace in one hand, freaking out the dog and almost going ass-up over a soccer ball Taj had left on the stairs. Still, when I got to the kitchen, I was filled with determination.
“I’m going to India!” I announced to the room.
Dad looked up from his phone, where I was sure he was already e-mailing relatives about things like funeral plans. “In your bathrobe?” he asked.
“No.” I pulled the robe closed and tied it, sliding the necklace into my pocket so I could grab onto it again if I needed to during this conversation. “Daadee wants me to go to the ashram she visited when she was young. So Anandi and I want to go. This summer.”
Maybe demanding that I go to India so quickly was a bit much. But as I clutched the necklace briefly again, I was sure of one thing: if Anandi and I didn’t visit the ashram as soon as we graduated, we’d never go. College would start and life would get busy and Daadee’s words would fade away until we’d all but forgotten them. And then whatever she’d left behind would be forgotten, too.
I couldn’t let that happen.
Dad set the phone down just as the refrigerator door closed to reveal Mom standing behind it. “Excuse me?” she said.
Her eyes were red-rimmed, and I felt sort of bad for springing this all on them so quickly after Mom had just lost her mother. But I was doing this for Daadee, right? Aren’t you allowed to mess with your parents’ peace of mind if it’s for the sake of your grandmother’s final wishes?
“Last night,” I told them, “Daadee told me she wants me and Anandi to go to the ashram where she went all those years ago. She left something for us there.”
“You want to go live in an ashram?” Dad glanced across the room at Mom. “Ray-Ray, you get mad when you have to spend an hour in a waiting room that doesn’t have free Wi-Fi.”
Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten that you weren’t supposed to use technology in most ashrams.
Mom cleared her throat. “Raya, hon,” she said. “I love that you want to honor my mother’s last requests. But Daadee was very ill last night when you talked to her. I doubt she meant much of what she was saying. And asking you and Anandi to go to India and live like hermits… well, even for a few weeks, that’s a tall order. Plus, I’m sure she didn’t mean right away. She probably meant she’d like you to go after college, or something. You have plenty of time.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head back and forth like I was in first grade. “We need to go now—I’m sure of it. Otherwise we never will. I know it. Anandi wants to go right away, too. It makes sense! We have to find what she left us, and I don’t want to go to UCLA anyway, and—”
I thought Dad was going to do a flying leap out of his chair. “You’re not going to UCLA?” He said it like I’d just told him I was considering joining a band and tattooing the guitarist’s name across my face.
“It’s not that I don’t want to go. Well, maybe it is. I don’t know.” I shuffled over to the table and tied my robe tighter before sitting down. Mom came over and placed a glass of orange juice in front of me. “I haven’t slept, like, more than two hours since I got my acceptance letter. I can’t even explain why. I know this was always what I said I wanted. I think I still do. I just…”
I didn’t know how to explain it.
I finally settled for, “I just don’t know what I want to do, you know? With my life. What if I pick the wrong thing? What if I end up disappointing everyone?”
Mom laid her hand over mine. “Raya,” she said softly, “as long as you do your best, you could never disappoint us.”
I frowned. I knew that in theory, but there were so many days when it was hard to believe it. My parents had worked so hard for everything they had—all to give me and Taj the best lives possible. How could they not want to see us live out that potential? “It isn’t like I don’t want to go,” I told my mother. “It’s a great school. But ever since I got my acceptance letter, something’s felt off. It’s all Lexi’s fault,” I added, trying to lighten the mood. “She asked me why I was studying English. And I kind of couldn’t answer her.”
“This would be Lexi’s fault,” Dad grumbled. We both knew he didn’t mean it. Lexi spent more time at our house than she did at her own.
“So just change to prelaw or business,” Dad said, aiming his pointer finger at me the way he loves to do. “Major in one of those and you can do anything with it. I’m telling you.”
He was probably right. But at the same time, I was 100 percent sure he was wrong.
They just didn’t get it, and they probably never would. Neither of them had ever felt this way—I was sure of it. Dad went from growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles to being a super successful hedge fund manager. Mom went from being the only brown kid in her elementary school to running the legal department for a big nonprofit. They were two of the most driven and focused people I knew, and I doubted either of them had ever wasted a second lying awake at night wondering what to study in college. Finally I said, “It feels like going to the ashram is what I’m supposed to do. Just give me a month, okay? One month. Thirty days to see why this place meant so much to Daadee. That’s all I’m asking.”
They were both quiet for a while after that. Mom kept wiping the corners of her eyes, and Dad was frowning and studying me like we’d never seen each other or something. I clenched my fists underneath the table, slightly terrified that they were going to say no. What if Anandi went to the ashram without me? I couldn’t imagine getting a text with the pictures of whatever she found there, knowing she’d walked the same paths Daadee had walked and touched things Daadee had left behind for us, all while I sat in the comfort of my bedroom half a world away.
“I never thought you should major in English anyway,” Dad finally mumbled.
I let out a nervous laugh as my heart began to race. “Does that mean I can go?” I asked cautiously.
Dad sighed. “Couldn’t you have waited until your midthirties to have an existential crisis? At least then you’d be out of the house.”
I didn’t know what an existential crisis was, but I sure wasn’t going to admit it.
“We’ll talk to your cousins.” Mom stood up and kissed me on the top of the head, quickly, like she was already getting ready to say good-bye. She tilted up my chin so she could look me in the eye. “I always wanted to take a pilgrimage to an ashram like my mother, but I never got the chance. To be honest, I’m tempted to go with you, but with the cases I have coming up…” She just frowned and shook her head. “Between taking time off for the funeral and everything else, there’s just no way. But if you want to do this, love, we’ll support you. Just as I know Daadee would have.” Her eyes grew watery again.
Dad did groan then. “You know I can’t say no to anything when your mom gets teary like that. You sure you want to do this?” I nodded again. “Okay, we’ll look into it. But,” he added, “no more than a month! You will be back in this house in time to pack for orientation, whether you’ve ‘found yourself’ by then or not. And only if your cousin is going. I’m not sending you to some remote religious monastery by yourself. You’ll end up in a cult eating nothing but kale.”
I darted around the table to hug him. “Thank you, thank you! And don’t worry so much—this is what Daadee wants me to do. It’s the best way to honor her memory—I’m sure of it. Plus, kale’s gross.”
“What’s going on?” Taj came into the kitchen, looking puffy-eyed and tired.
I should have known that even preteen dorkiness wouldn’t outweigh Daadee’s loss. Poor Taj. I ran over and hugged him.
“I’m going to live in India!” I told him.
“Oh.” He frowned. “Really? But it’s so hot there, and the food sucks. Hey, can I have your room?”
Typical Taj. I was pretty sure Mom couldn’t decide whether to cry or strangle him. In the end, she cried and hugged us both.
Then Dad joined in, and soon the only things missing were our matching UCLA sweatshirts.
“I’ll have to find us all some Rishi Kanva ashram shirts,” I muttered into my mother’s bathrobe as she smothered me. Mom squeezed me tighter and laughed. “I think Daadee would love that,” she whispered in my ear.
I reached into my pocket and squeezed the necklace one more time. I hope so, I thought.
Later that night I lay in bed, waiting for the usual insomnia to hold me hostage. Only it didn’t. Within minutes of shutting off my light, I could feel myself drifting off, and I knew right away I wasn’t going to be able to keep my eyes open.
The thought of visiting the ashram didn’t leave me feeling terrified and unsettled the way thinking about college had. The exact opposite, in fact. The idea of going to visit Daadee’s ashram left me feeling more relaxed and sure of myself than I ever had before. I was more afraid to go to UCLA than I was to travel to a strange ashram in a country I had only visited once.
Because no one expected anything from me there.
HOMESICKNESS AND HELLISH PLANE RIDES
I’d been to India five years earlier, so I knew my trip to the ashram was going to be exhausting, confusing, and lots of other adjectives that made me so anxious I almost stopped sleeping again in the weeks leading up to the trip. Luckily my planning side kicked in hard-core, and a month before my trip Lexi was complaining about the “learn Hindi in the car” app I made her listen to on the way to school.
Whatever. I believe it’s important to always know how to ask someone where a bathroom is. Even if lots of Indians also speak English.
Still, despite my Hindi phrase practice and my hours spent researching on TripAdvisor, I had a hard time letting go of my parents when they finally dropped me off at the airport.
“I’ll be fine,” I told my father as he squeezed basically all the air out of my lungs. Because I would be, right?
“I’ll call you when I get there,” I told my mother. Because the international plan that I had upgraded to had to work. If not, I was possibly going to flip out upon landing in Delhi.
“We love you,” Mom told me, and she didn’t even bother to try wiping away all the tears streaming down her face.
Praise for 96 Words for Love:A Junior Library Guild pickA Girls Life Chloe's Book Club pick
"A universal love story as fresh, vibrant and stunning as the back drop of India it is set in. I loved the message, the journey and the self discovery at the root of this epic love story."—Kim Kardashian West
*"Raya's candor and self-reflection infuse the narration with the perfect balance of insight and momentum. A beautifully crafted, truly feminist coming-of-age story featuring nuanced characters in a unique setting."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"This book is a feast for your soul. How our inner lives and yearnings govern the adventure we call life is part of every lore in every tradition. This story by Rachel and Ava will energize you and fill you with the longing of a love that stirs within us as a spark that can turn into a raging fire and without which life stays barren and dry."—Deepak Chopra MD
"A witty, warm, compelling coming of age story from my friend, fashion superstar Rachel Roy and her daughter Ava. 96 Words for Love is a story that will capture your heart and leave you feeling empowered to go after your dreams."—Brian Grazer, Oscar-winning producer of Empire, Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development
"With heart and hope, 96 Words for Love is a vivid story of one girl's mission to unravel the forty-year-old mystery of her grandmother's past at an ashram. Roy and Dash have written a beautifully crafted homage to Bharat (India) and expertly explore the meaning of cultural identity, love and the lengths we'll go to find truth in our lives. A must-read!" -—Nisha Sharma, author of My So-Called Bollywood Life
"A majestic coming of age story about family, first love, and self-discovery....From the moment Raya boards a train into the Himalayas, 96 Words for Love will completely sweep you away."—Sara Saedi, author of Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card and The Never Ever series
"Appealing, funny, and authentic."—Donna Scanlon
- On Sale
- Jan 15, 2019
- Hachette Audio