Lahiri likes precocious little kids. Case in point: this story's main character is Eliot, an 11-year-old who knows how to do everything himself. He just needs a babysitter to watch him "in case of an emergency" (MS 1).
Enter Mrs. Sen: a professor's wife who's willing to babysit in her home. Eliot's mother is a little desperate since Eliot's already gone through a couple of babysitters—one, a vegetarian who refused to cook meat for Eliot; another, an alcoholic. One problem: Mrs. Sen can't drive. (Foreshadowing alert here)
From Eliot's perspective, Mrs. Sen's house, which is actually a university apartment on campus, definitely doesn't come from the pages of some interior design magazine. Things are mismatched and kind of random: like why is the plastic covering still on the lampshades?
He also notices that Mrs. Sen doesn't dress in regular clothes; she wears a sari and she and Mr. Sen both wear flip-flops.
But Mrs. Sen, who's about 30, is beautiful. And, to Eliot, it's his mom, whose wardrobe seems to come from the Banana Republic or the Gap, who appears odd next to Mrs. Sen.
His mother also does things like refuse the biscuits offered her at Mrs. Sen's home. Instead, she peppers Mrs. Sen and Mr. Sen with interview questions (which, to be fair, seems appropriate given she's leaving her only child with them).
Her greatest concern is that Mrs. Sen can't drive since Eliot's mother is a single mom and works some distance away. Mr. Sen tells her though that he's teaching Mrs. Sen how to drive and she should be ready to go by December.
Why can't Mrs. Sen drive? Because in India, where the Sens have all of their stuff, they have a chauffeur.
As Eliot spends his days at Mrs. Sen's, he starts to like it there. His house is cold in September whereas Mrs. Sen's house is warm. He likes watching Mrs. Sen prepare food, which she does like a Top Chef.
In fact, Mrs. Sen is amazing with this huge blade she uses to chop food. She can chop without looking! But she's very careful with Eliot and doesn't let him walk anywhere near the blade, except once when she really needed an ingredient and couldn't get to it. And, even then, Eliot only got as far as the coffee table between them.
This blade comes from India and, according to Mrs. Sen, every home in India has one.
Every home in India is also much chattier and sociable, unlike this place that Mr. Sen has brought Mrs. Sen to. She can't even sleep because of the silence.
In India, which Mrs. Sen keeps referring to as "home," all she has to do is yell and the whole neighborhood will come rushing over to share the good or bad news.
Eliot compares that with his house and neighborhood, where everything seems really sedate and the only neighborly contact he has is with a pair of joggers who wave at him and his mother. In fact, his mother doesn't like neighbors; she's the type who calls her neighbors when they're having a party and tells them to lower their volume.
Eliot notices that Mrs. Sen brushes a streak of red powder down the center part of her hair every day. He thinks it's kind of like a wedding ring because Mrs. Sen tells him she needs to wear her hair like that now that she's married.
Okay, shifting scenes. We get a closer look at Eliot's mom when she comes to pick him up in the evenings. What's she like? Think the opposite of Mrs. Sen. Think single and stressed.
For example, Mrs. Sen cooks up a storm every day, chopping all sorts of spices and things, all for just her and Mr. Sen. And Eliot's mom? Let's just say she's more into take-out. And she's definitely not into the food Mrs. Sen offers her every night when she picks Eliot up.
When they get home, Eliot's mom drinks a glass of wine, eats bread and cheese, and orders pizza for Eliot. Then she goes out and smokes a cigarette. Clearly, Eliot and his mother aren't all that close.
On afternoons, Mrs. Sen picks up Eliot at the bus stop and immediately starts chatting with him. She shares snacks with him as they walk to her car, where she practices driving for 20 minutes every day.
Mrs. Sen's doesn't like driving at all. The traffic makes her nervous; she doesn't understand why no one slows down. She's easily distracted. Eliot has to explain to her how to drive, based on what he sees his mom do. (Eliot sure seems to be the adult in this story.)
Eliot then reports the two things that make Mrs. Sen happy. The first is getting mail from her family in India. In fact, the first time Mrs. Sen hugs Eliot is when she learns that she's just become an aunt. She's so excited that she calls Mr. Sen immediately and reads the letter to him while he's at work. She even takes Eliot out for the day; they walk around the university and a museum.
Mrs. Sen wonders aloud whether Eliot ever misses his mother since they're separated during the day. Mrs. Sen herself can hardly bear the idea that she won't be able to see her sister's baby for another few years.
But Eliot's already a little man. It hardly even occurs to him to miss his mother, to which Mrs. Sen replies that he's wiser than she is because he already knows the way of the world, that people are distant from each other. How sad, right?
The other thing that makes Mrs. Sen happy is getting fresh fish, which she sees as a necessity especially since they live near the coast. Usually she calls the fish market and they reserve a fish for her that Mr. Sen picks up on his way home from work.
But one day, Mr. Sen—the harried university professor that he is—tells Mrs. Sen to use chicken instead of fish because he doesn't have the time to drive out and pick up the fish.
Mrs. Sen does what he says for a little while, until the fish market calls one day and tells her that they're holding a particularly fresh fish for her.
Mrs. Sen calls Mr. Sen, but the conversation doesn't go well. Eliot can tell because Mrs. Sen is crying and has entered meltdown mode: she's throwing her saris around and talking about how people in India think she lives like a queen. Because obviously she's not—if they only knew!
Mrs. Sen doesn't take no for an answer and gets Mr. Sen to drive both her and Eliot to the fish market, where she buys the fish, brings it home, and then prepares it carefully for future meals.
One week, Eliot notices that Mrs. Sen's all of a sudden not Mrs. Sen. She's a shell of herself. She's not chopping. She's not cooking. She makes tea that she doesn't drink. She turns on the TV without watching it. She doesn't invite Eliot's mom in when she picks up Eliot. Basically, she's kind of zoned out. Except she will listen to some raga (not to be confused with reggae) and a tape her relatives made on the day she left India.
What's happened to Mrs. Sen? She just found out her grandfather died.
However, it only takes Mrs. Sen about a week before she's more or less back to normal again. The one difference? Mr. Sen. He's become Mr. Romance.
One afternoon, he takes Mrs. Sen and Eliot to the seaside where he buys her a ton of fresh fish. Then they do the whole New England thing: you know, walk along the cold beach, stop and eat clam cakes.
They take pictures too and Eliot notices that when he asks them to get closer for the photo, they don't. But it's not like they're not close, because Mr. Sen mentions to Mrs. Sen that they need to get her another coat for the colder weather; plus, Mrs. Sen is clearly having a good time, laughing and all that. She's even dressed up with red lipstick.
Then Mr. Sen more or less forces Mrs. Sen to practice driving. We probably don't need to tell you that it doesn't go well. Mrs. Sen doesn't get far before she decides to quit driving for good.
That day at the beach seems to change Mrs. Sen. The next time the fish market calls, Mrs. Sen doesn't call Mr. Sen. Instead, brave woman that she is, Mrs. Sen takes the bus with Eliot to the market.
On the bus, Mrs. Sen notices that there are a bunch of seniors because the bus stops at a nursing home. So that prompts her to ask Eliot whether or not he would place his mother in a nursing home.
Eliot, the honest little guy that he is, says maybe, but that he'd visit everyday.
On the way back from the fish market, an old woman on the bus complains to the driver about Mrs. Sen and her smell. Well, it's actually not her smell. It's the fish. But the way the whole thing happens, it seems like Mrs. Sen herself offends the old lady.
The bus incident seems to affect Mrs. Sen enough so that, the next time the fish market calls, she doesn't take the bus. And she doesn't call Mr. Sen. You know where this is going. She takes the car. Bad, bad idea.
All the foreshadowing leads to this part: Mrs. Sen gets Eliot and herself into a car accident.
Afterwards, Mrs. Sen just totally shuts down. She goes into her room, shuts the door and lets Mr. Sen explain to Eliot's mom what happened.
As any mother would do, Eliot's mom stops using Mrs. Sen as a babysitter. Instead, she gives Eliot a key and leaves him to fend for himself. The end of the story: Eliot becomes a latchkey kid.