Miranda is a young, somewhat aimless, woman who works in fundraising for a public radio station in Boston. Her coworker Laxmi, already married and settled despite being only a few years older than Miranda, alerts Miranda to a personal disaster. Her cousin’s husband had a life-changing conversation on an airplane and has left his family. Laxmi doesn’t blame her cousin for taking to bed, but her grief has made her unable to care for her son. Usually, Laxmi doesn’t need to tell Miranda family gossip, as Miranda can hear Laxmi’s phone calls through her cubicle. Today, however, Miranda is engrossed in her own phone call. She talks with her married lover Dev.
Laxmi’s nephew is a genius and part Bengali, like Dev. At first Miranda thought it was a religion, but Dev pointed out the West Bengal state on a map of India. He brought the map, printed in an issue of the Economist, to show where his father had been born. When she asks about the article it appears in, he taps her playfully on the head with the magazine. He says it’s nothing she’ll ever need to worry about. But later, when he leaves, she pulls the article from the trash and looks for photos of where Dev was born.
They met a week before at a makeup counter in a department store in Boston. As she paused to smell a fragrance card, her eyes found Dev, an elegant man, purchasing toiletries for a woman. Miranda engages a saleswoman so she can stay near to Dev. He watches her as the woman applies cream to her face. She tries to place his accent, guessing he is Lebanese or Spanish. They meet at the exit and Miranda inquires about the creams. They are for his wife – who will be leaving for India for a few weeks.
Those few weeks, Miranda and Dev spend nearly every night together at her apartment. Dev races back to his home in the suburbs in the early mornings for a pre-arranged daily phone call with his traveling wife. He calls frequently, leaving his voice on her answering machine. He is charmed by her tiny apartment, and her bravery in moving to a city where she knows no one, and also by her long legs. Miranda and Dev both admit to their loneliness and Miranda thinks he understands her. Dev is the first man she has dated who is thoughtful, romantic, and chivalrous. Miranda keeps Dev a secret, only occasionally wanting to tell Laxmi.
Dev shows Miranda his favorite parts of Boston, including the Mapparium – a domed building with a room that looks like you are standing inside a globe, with glowing stained glass panels that look like the outside of a globe. Dev’s voice echoes alluringly as he shows her details of the world. The acoustics make each sound feel as if a whisper in her ear. He stands across the room from her and whispers into the corner of a wall. She feels his voice under her skin. She says “Hi,” and he responds, “You’re sexy.”
It was the first time she’d been told she was sexy. Hearing his voice in her head, Miranda goes back to the department store and buys clothes she thinks a mistress should have – seamed stockings, black heels, a black slip, and a silver cocktail dress. She imagines wearing the ensemble at dinner with Dev. But when his wife returns, he appears at Miranda’s in gym clothes, having told his wife he was out running. The lingerie remains unworn at the back of her drawer, and the silver dress often slips off its hanger and falls to the floor of her closet.
But the affair continues. Dev shares more about his life and asks Miranda about her own. He takes naps during their trysts, accustomed to taking them during hot summers as a boy. Miranda doesn’t sleep, but studies his body during, what Dev calls, “the best twelve minutes of the week.” After waking up, he goes home to his wife.
Miranda recalls the Dixits, an Indian family who moved into her neighborhood when she was a child. Her peers would make fun of their name and frown upon their differences. Miranda went over to their house once for the daughter’s birthday and was so frightened by a painting of the fierce goddess Kali, that she never returned. Now, Miranda is ashamed of her behavior. When not with Dev, she walks to an Indian restaurant and tries to remember Hindi phrases from the bottom of the menu. She even tries to learn how to write her name in Bengali.
Miranda’s boredom wanes during the week, but her guilt rears its head when Laxmi talks about her cousin. On Sundays, Dev would come. She asks him what his wife looks like and he responds that she looks like an actress, Madhuri Dixit. For a moment, Miranda’s heart stops. She knows she could not be the girl from her childhood, but it still spooks her. Miranda finds her way to an Indian grocery that rents videos, on the hunt to find out what Madhuri Dixit looks like. A Bollywood video plays in the deli, and she knows she must look like one of those women. Beautiful. Miranda notices a snack that Laxmi eats and the grocer tells her it’s too spicy for her.
Laxmi’s cousin comes to Boston to get away from her drama. Laxmi treats her to a spa day, asking Miranda to babysit the cousin's son for the day. Rohin comes to Miranda’s apartment with a backpack full of books and a sketchpad. For a boy of 7, he looks haggard and weary. Rohin demands Miranda quiz him on world capitals, as he is having a competition with another student to memorize them all. He announces he will win. He is precocious and makes more demands of Miranda throughout the afternoon. For coffee, to watch cartoons, to look through her toiletries and to draw a picture of their day together. He says, with a precision that startles Miranda, that they will never see each other again.
Rohin drags himself to her room and starts going through her closet, finding the silver dress on the floor. Rohin asks that she put it on. Miranda knows she will never wear it on a date with Dev. Now that his wife is back in town, she is nothing but a mistress. She makes Rohin wait outside, latching the door to make sure, while she changes. His eyes open wide when he sees her. Rohin tells her she’s sexy. After her heart skips a beat, Miranda asks him what it means. The boy blushes and finally admits that it means loving someone you don’t know. His father had sat down next to someone sexy on a plane and now loves her instead of his mother. Miranda goes numb. Rohin curls up for a nap and Miranda takes the dress off. Back in her jeans, she lies down next to the boy and imagines the arguments his parents must have had. Thinking about her own situation, she begins to cry.
When she wakes up, Rohin is holding the issue of the Economist. He asks who Devjit Mitra is. Miranda doesn’t know what to say. The next time Dev calls, she tells him not to come. She asks him what he said to her in the Mapparium, but he answers incorrectly. The following Sunday, it snows. The Sunday after that, Miranda makes plans with Laxmi and he doesn’t ask her to cancel. The third Sunday, she walks alone to the Mapparium and studies the city.
Sexy is a story that is centered on gender and race and the confusion they can inspire. Miranda, the main character, is having an affair with Dev, an older, married Indian man. She is attracted to Dev, it is suggested, for two primary reasons – his age and his race. Dev is the first adult man that Miranda has dated. He is mature, wealthy, and complementary to Miranda in a way that she has not known before. Dev is also exotic to her. When they first meet, Dev remarks that part of her name is Indian (“Mira”) and she is entranced by this. Dev can open up another world for Miranda.
But appearances fall flat. Miranda decides to purchase a silver dress, black stockings and slip and high heels, fantasizing about the restaurant Dev will take her to. In a way, Miranda is playing dressup. Since she talks about the high school and college boys she’s dated, we assume that she has recently graduated from college herself and is somewhat aimless. Dev represents an adult, masculine world that Miranda wants to understand. By buying clothes suitable for a mistress, she intends to play dressup as a woman. The clothes, and the fantasy surrounding them, represent the tropes of gender that Miranda believes in. Wearing the dress, like dating Dev, will make her an adult.
Dating Dev will also broaden her world. Her coworker Laxmi tacks a photo of herself and her husband at the Taj Mahal to her cubicle. Laxmi says it is the most romantic place on earth. Miranda fantasizes that she and Dev are in the photo and she secretly yearns to tell Laxmi about the affair. To Miranda, Dev is exotic and worldly. Dating him will transfer those experiences to her own life. She moved alone from the Midwest and her isolation is coupled with a feeling of inexperience. She tries to learn Bengali, write her name in Dev’s language, try more Indian cuisine and recalls with shame an incident of mild xenophobia from her childhood. She is ashamed that she was not more understanding with the Dixit family and dating Dev can absolve her of that shame. However, she loves Dev for what she knows about him – which is not much. In the end, she realizes that she has fallen for the surface and not the person. When the grocer tells Miranda that the Hot Mix that Laxmi eats is too spicy for her, she is dismissed with an appraisal of her race. Though she is attracted to Dev, she practices a version of exoticism that is equally damaging.
There is a balance to Sexy that is created by characters that are mirror images of one another. Laxmi’s cousin is on the receiving end of infidelity. It is through her stories that Miranda’s guilt first comes to pass. Through these two women, we see the opposite sides of an affair – the mistress and the wronged wife. In this way, we do not need exposition of Miranda’s guilt because the uncomfortable situation puts the reader in discomfort as well.
Children in Lahiri’s stories have definitive points of view and can affect the narrative in important ways. Lilia, the main character of When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, possesses a childlike innocence that expresses the theme of Partition and its indictment. Eliot in Mrs. Sen’s is a conduit for the loneliness of both his mother and Mrs. Sen. Rohin in Sexy is Miranda’s conscience. The simplicity of his definition of “sexy” is remarkably prescient. Loving someone you don’t know is precisely what Dev, Miranda, and his father are doing. In his phrase, Miranda understands both that she is drawn to Dev for his surface value and also that Dev does not love Miranda for who she is. Even without the dress, she is simply a mistress – not a woman. That Dev can’t remember what he told her at the Mapparium is the death knell for the affair.