Authors: Anne Cherian
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
NEW YORK • LONDON
Copyright © 2008 by Anne Cherian
All rights reserved
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Production manager: Anna Oler
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A good Indian wife: a novel/Anne Cherian.—1st ed.
1. Anesthesiologists—Fiction. 2. San Francisco (Calif.)—Fiction. 3. India—Fiction. 4. Arranged marriage—Fiction. 5. Culture conflict—Fiction. I. Title.
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(There must be books in heaven)
(I must have done something right in my past life to deserve you in this one)
(Who taught me more than ABC)
(We should have been twins)
(Who gifted me that first year to write and encouraged me to pursue my dream)
COLE AND REID
(More important than any word, page, or book)
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender Which an age of prudence can never retract By this, and this only, we have existed
T. S. ELIOT
The Waste Land
, Part V
THE TICKET AND THE AEROGRAM
arrived on the same day. The cleaning crew had placed the mail in a neat pile on the kitchen counter. As always, the condo looked spotless and the lingering sharpness of Pine Sol reminded Neel of the hospital.
He checked the date and route of the ticket—June 16, San Francisco to Frankfurt to Bombay—and put it into his “Going to India” drawer. It held leftover hundred-rupee notes from the previous trip, a handful of light aluminum coins, and the Indian passport he kept meaning to throw away. He had an American one now, and for the first time needed a visa to enter India.
With no hesitation he crumpled his mother’s letter into a ball and shot it into the garbage. She would be furious that her hard work was going unread. But after receiving these weekly missiles for the past several months, he knew the contents by heart. She always began with the nagging, “When you are coming back?” Was he really, really going to let Grandfather die without seeing him? Then, after the usual fussing paragraph, “You are sure you are eating the correct foods? Do you get enough of sleep?” she devoted the rest of the thin paper to her real reason for writing. Marriage. Girls. Or, as she put it, “suitable wife material.”
On his last trip, three years ago, he had refused to see any of the prospective brides she arranged for him. After a week of shrill and rheumy words, of asking the Gods why they had given her such a difficult son, she was forced to suffer the embarrassment of cancelling visits to those eager families. “I’m so, so sorry, but my son, well, you know how they are changing once they are going to Ahmerica. He is saying he is too young to marry.” She would not be able to use that excuse now. He was thirty-five, and as she kept warning, almost out of the “most eligible” bracket.
Neel wanted to throw away the ticket, too, but knew he could not put off the trip. Grandfather had gotten sick last month, and though his mother was vague about the details, she kept repeating that Tattappa did not have long to live.
Did Tattappa know Mummy was up to her old tricks again? Neel was surprised that Tattappa wasn’t joining her in trying to maneuver him into an arranged marriage. After all, Neel was the only grandson to carry on the name of their old, well-respected family. According to Tattappa, who had heard the story from his grandfather, the Sarath family traced their beginnings to a tiny kingdom from the days when India, not forcibly yoked by the British, was a jigsaw, each piece the hereditary playground of a thousand kings. When Neel was young, he loved hearing about their first known ancestor, who married the king’s daughter and grew to prominence as an exceptionally gifted prime minister. For the past four hundred years the Saraths had added to the “good name” of the family by marrying their own kind, Iyengars, the best of all South Indian Hindus, coveted for their light skin and intelligence. The girls were matched with Indian Civil Service officers, captains in the army, men comfortably perched on the upper crust of Indian society, and climbing ever higher. And the men wed fair beauties like his mother.
Tattappa seemed to understand that Neel had made a new life for himself as Dr. Neel Sarath, anesthesiologist, and now, American citizen. Or perhaps he didn’t want to select another bride, having already chosen Mummy for his own son. Mummy, however, clearly wanted the privilege of picking her own daughter-in-law. That first envelope had taken him by surprise. He hadn’t expected the cascade of audition shots that slipped through his fingers and littered the floor. The smiling faces were perfectly aware that a set of strange male eyes would be judging them. This, he knew, was the best they could look. The iridescent colors of brand-new silk sarees framed the bottom of the photographs, though always the main focus was the face itself, lightened by whitening powder, lips flush with lipstick. All the eyes looked alike, large and dark. Neel did a double take at the final picture: a girl with two braids hanging down her ears. Was this one young or just unaware that girls of a certain age switched over to one braid? Then he recalled seeing a snapshot of a young Mummy, two fat braids that got cut off by the camera but which, she liked to brag, went all the way to her knees. Mummy had gone on to list the girls; each one fair (therefore pretty) and from an established family. She wanted him to marry someone like her.
Since change was slow in a small, out-of-the-way Indian town, she could easily find him such a wife. Neel had made light of the Freudian inversion with his friends. “I’m not like you guys,” he joked. “I don’t have a mother complex. My mom has a son complex and wants
” Even the names remained the same. Vijaylaxmi, Jayanti, Anusaya, predictable syllables that were unpronounceable jaw breakers in America. Like their grandmothers, the girls believed in the potency of coconut oil, which they dutifully smoothed on their hair every morning to lengthen already long strands. Nimble fingers used identical Mother-taught knots to weave thick jasmine ropes that they entwined into black braids. The sudden disappearance of the starry, perfumed flowers when they got their period, or “monthly,” as they called it, was a signal for Neel and his teenage friends to tease the girls. “Tomato chutney, tomato chutney,” they shouted. But the girls never responded, and only the bold ones looked back, irises glowing darker from the homemade kajal they carefully applied every day.
Raised for marriage, they learned the subtle differences between masala pastes, knew how to cut cabbage finer than a grater, and practiced decorating the front path of the house with kolum for the yearly ceremonies that marked the seasons. The one adjustment to modern life was college, where parents encouraged them to take easy courses, complacent that the purpose of a degree was to secure a husband, not a job.
Neel only knew them from afar, since “good” Indian girls never talked to boys after the magical—menstrual, he realized later on—age of twelve. He would be surprised if they had any ambition beyond that of luring the prescribed husband and bearing children, preferably sons. Like his mother, they would
ai ai yoo
in horror at bikinis, not admitting that sarees also showed skin. The “bad” girls were the ones who passed along dirty jokes, calling them “non-vegetarian” because of the flesh content. “Why did the ant climb up the king’s leg?” they whispered softly, but loud enough for those nearby to know that something vulgar was being voiced. “To attend the royal ball.” A trill of giggles greeted this, though, if pressed, no one would be able to say what—sexually or even physically—a ball was. But mostly these were simple girls, who looked forward to imitating their mothers: gossiping, grumbling about the servants, and spattering kitchen walls with the oil from dosas and sambar.
He didn’t want his life to be changed—or challenged—by them. He wasn’t a traditional Indian man, who sought out an I’ll-cook-the-meals-and-bear-the-children wife. His college friends back home were content to marry women who replicated their parents’ lives. But from a very young age Neel had wanted to get away, had yearned for a whole other way of being. As a teenager he had even made up a year-by-year plan with goals: Go to America for college, become a doctor by twenty-eight, marry the woman of his choice. He had always known that an arranged marriage with its parent-picked wife and life was not for him.
Caroline, with her sun-filled, silky hair, was nothing like those girls of his youth. She too wore kajal, but hers was a dark blue eye pencil that emphasized the sapphire color of her eyes. “Like Princess Diana,” she told him. Her white body, paler still in the torso, was a smorgasbord of fragrances—mint in her mouth, perfume between her breasts; even her stockings gave off the musky aroma of lavender. The one time she wore his T-shirt, he didn’t wash it for weeks, wanting to hold on to that enticing mixture of perfume and sex. She was as seductively mysterious as the various unguents, powders, and vials cluttering her makeup bag.
They had just started going out when he went to India the last time. She drove him to the airport and kissed him again and again, oblivious to the stares they were attracting. Neel saw the older Indian immigrants tighten their lips with disapproval, but thrilled to such an uninhibited, Western send-off. Yet he deliberately refrained from telling his family anything about her. Their relationship was uncertain, she was American, and, if that wasn’t enough to give his mother a heart attack, Caroline Kempner was a secretary.
His mother would fall to the floor from shock. “A secretary? Why for a secretary? I can get for you a nice doctor like yourself, an engineer, even a First-Class First Bachelor of Arts girl from a fine, fine family, and you want a secretary?”
Like many status-conscious Iyengars, she looked down on secretaries. He could hear her censure. “They are stupid men who like to sit on a chair all the time and Anglo-Indian girls like that one in your father’s office.” Mummy had never hidden her dislike for Miss Rosario, whose grandfather had been a train driver, making decent wages in this “grace and favor” position the British kept for the Anglo-Indian population they had created through intermarriage. All during the days of the Raj, the Anglos benefited from their tenuous “I’m half/quarter/eighth white” connection to the British. But any claim to superiority vanished with Independence, and, abandoned in India, the Anglos had only one advantage: the English language. Many Anglo girls, Miss Rosario among them, became secretaries and worked closely with men. Such proximity to the opposite sex gave women like his mother another reason to dislike them.
Whenever Mummy visited Father’s office, she treated Miss Rosario like a servant, seen but not acknowledged. Neel, however, was fascinated by the short-haired woman, who always wore frocks. Once he had stared at her middle, finally asking in confusion: “Do you have a stomach?” Miss Rosario laughed and said, “Yes, it is right here,” pointing to her belt. “I just don’t expose it like your mama, who wears a saree.”
The regard—and money—given to American secretaries had nudged Neel into respecting them. The department secretary at Stanford had been a premed student who got married and put off going back to school. Still, there were many moments when he wished Caroline was a fellow doctor, or at least a college graduate. He was well aware that their relationship was Indian-inappropriate. But most days he was too busy to think or do anything about it. It was like the annoying hum of a hovering mosquito, landing with a sharp sting only when he wondered why he hadn’t met the right woman, or like now, when his mother showed herself, stern-faced with ancient traditions and expectations.
But there was no need to think of Mummy right now. There was still time to enjoy his life. To stock the fridge with steaks and burgers, to drink ice-cold beer by the six-pack, to sleep in the nude. In India there would be no meat, no closed doors, no time to relax in front of the TV. Tattappa refused to buy a set, saying the box contained too many wires and would anyway stop working with the first monsoons. When Neel went home, everything would be crowded, the house from visitors come to see him, and his stomach from the oily snacks—murku, vada—and elaborate meals his mother insisted on preparing, because that was how she showed him love.
Just envisioning the small brick house he had grown up in made him appreciate his sparsely furnished condo. His mother would be upset at the secondhand pieces. “You are poor?” she would worry, not understanding that in America it was possible to find the very rich stooped over at yard sales. When he bought the condo two years ago, he decided to let the furnishings wait till he could afford the best, like the wraparound Bose stereo system and his car. That’s what he told everyone. In truth he was waiting for the day when a wife, with her knowledge of French and Italian antiques, could use her eye to find just the right pieces at auctions and estate sales. He wanted a partner who would fill in the gaps that someone not born and raised in America inevitably encountered. He could study magazines and take classes, but remained confounded by the difference between kitsch and classy, and knew only that he didn’t want a home filled with the large wooden elephants and badly made inlay tables that so many stores claimed were authentic Indian items.
He put on some Mozart and opened the biography of Picasso. The phone rang.
“How come I have to hear important things from the hospital grape cluster?”
Neel tilted the phone so the voice booming through it wouldn’t hurt his ears. Sanjay always assumed that his Indian accent meant he didn’t have to introduce himself. And the fact that they had known each other since Stanford days made him feel he could ask Neel almost anything.
“And just what has the grapevine been distilling?”
“You take two weeks’ notice, you tell everyone you are going to India, and you don’t inform me? Is it because I am the only one brave enough to ask if you are going to get married?”
Neel felt his irritation turn to anger. Sanjay Bannerji had gotten engaged to tall, beautiful Oona the same time that Savannah had rejected him, breaking up their cozy foursome in college. Now, living with a wife who called him “darling,” and enjoying Decembers wreathed with Christmas spirit, Sanjay was assuming that Neel was headed to India, tail between his legs, for an arranged marriage.
Neel tried to dispel his resentment with a joke. “You mean to say you didn’t receive the wedding invitation? Looks like the famous American postal system is becoming like the Indian one.”
“The Indian Pinching System, you mean.” Sanjay laughed. “But seriously, why the sudden trip? Everything thik-thak at home?”