Authors: Anne Cherian
“Just one and he’s in the doghouse.”
“Doghouse?” Leila pictured a man in a tiny, red-roofed house with Snoopy sitting on top.
“I’m mad at him. We had a date last night and he cancelled on me. I’m just back from vacation and he can’t make the time to see me?”
“Oh.” Rekha seemed to expect her to say something, but this was beyond Leila’s limited experience.
“He told me it was to see his divorce lawyer. But I’ve heard that excuse before, and now I’m wondering if he is ever going to get divorced or if he’s just stringing me along.”
Leila was not used to people being so frank about their private lives. Her friends hid problems and pretended everything was wonderful. Bad news usually came from the mouths of servants. When Nalini returned unexpectedly from Malaysia, it was the servant girl who announced that the husband had sent her back. That was five years ago and still no one knew the real story. There was no talk of anything scandalous like a divorce, though some whispered the husband wanted one and Nalini, of course, did not. It was bad enough to be back home at her parents’ house, but getting a divorce would spoil any marriage prospects for her younger sisters. Boys were never affected. Even a mad mother or a drunk father would not stop a man from finding a bride.
“Do you believe in a woman’s intuition?” Rekha asked.
She had intuited that Neel didn’t want an arranged marriage that first meeting. Leila thought for a second before saying, “Yes. I don’t think intuitions lie.”
“Well, in that case I ought to break up with him. Mine tells me he’s never going to get that divorce.”
All the time they sipped their tea Leila had assumed that Rekha, so pretty and sure of herself, must naturally belong to the group of lucky women for whom things always work out. They buy a white metal bangle and it turns out to be silver. They lose something only to find it the next day. She had always wanted to be a Rekha. Now it was more than the tea that warmed her. Other people had problems, too.
“I’ve got to run,” Rekha exclaimed, looking at her watch. “I’d love to see you again. Would you like to exchange phone numbers?”
Rekha rushed off, Leila’s rounded handwriting tucked into her bag.
Leila walked home, bolstered by Rekha’s promise to meet next week. For the first time in her life, she had met someone entirely on her own. All her friends back home had been pre-selected—by her school, their background, or her parents. Amma would never permit Leila to befriend a woman who was going out with a married man.
Just a few months ago in Ooty, Leila had been shocked to learn that Cynthia was living in sin with Harold. But in America, Leila could see Rekha without the judgmental, codified glare of Indian eyes. She liked her. Rekha was honest and intelligent, and it would be nice to have someone to ring or invite over for tea.
Everything looked brighter—the sky, the vivid lobelias, even the black asphalt, and the cars that never seemed to wear it down.
NEEL SORTED THE MAIL
Advertisements, three bills, and a letter from his mother. He set it aside for Leila. She answered the letters, which now arrived every other week, no doubt still penned in minuscule handwriting to get maximum use of the aerogram. Leila had also taken over the housekeeping and he’d been happy to have the cleaning crew return the key. As far as he knew, they had not stolen or broken anything—unlike so many of Mummy’s servants, who were caught and immediately sacked—but he was never comfortable that they came and went while he was at the hospital.
Leila? He’d assumed she would be waiting for him, as usual. Irritated, he paid the bills and just as he finished, the door opened.
“Oh, you are home already.” The long walk had set Leila’s heart beating, but now her pulse raced for other reasons. He looked dignified and handsome in the dark blue suit, so different from Appa, who wore lungis at home. Rekha wasn’t able to meet with her Tim and here she was with Neel. He wasn’t another woman’s husband but her husband, come home early.
“Yes. I thought I’d take you shopping for some interview clothes, but now the stores will be packed and parking will be a nightmare.”
“I’m sorry,” Leila said, though her blood still surged. The day kept growing more wonderful. “I went to Clement Street today and met somebody.”
“Who?” Neel asked immediately, dreading that it might be someone she knew from India.
“A girl named Rekha. She’s very nice. An Indian who was born here.”
“What did you do? Just go up and say hello?”
“No, of course not. We met in a bookshop.”
“It’s bookstore in America,” he automatically corrected.
“I know. But it’s bookshop in India. She goes to school at Berkeley.”
“Hmm. I got accepted there for engineering.”
“She is studying journalism.”
“Oh, another of those people who will stay in school forever.”
“She used to teach in a school for some years,” Leila defended her new friend. Neel’s corrections and assumptions were spoiling her good mood. Who was he to say what Rekha should do?
“I don’t understand why people can’t decide what they want to do when they’re young. Everyone in America seems to be going back to school.” Except Caroline. He had asked her to take advantage of the hospital’s tuition remission program, but she maintained that work and their relationship kept her busy. It bothered him that she didn’t want to better herself, but wanted to get it secondhand, from a man.
“She’s my age and studying to be in television.”
Neel shrugged. What did he care about this unknown woman? “What’s for dinner?”
“Shall I prepare pasta primavera?”
“You know how to make that?”
“Yes, they showed it on a cooking program.”
“Actually, I’d prefer some Indian food tonight. Is that all right?”
“Of course it is,” Leila said, happy again. It was the first time he had asked her to do something for him. And it made her feel like a wife. Tonight, she would cook a meal fit for a king. A vegetarian king. She was getting used to the pulpy feel of chicken when cutting it, but invariably felt like Lady Macbeth afterwards, washing her hands again and again.
Dinner took hours to prepare in India, even with the help of Indy and their servant Heera. Indy must have taken over her job of cleaning the rice, sitting on the kitchen step, looking for black and white stones before whisking away the chaff. In America, Leila pressed a button on the blender and within a minute the blades whirled the masala into a fine paste. Poor Heera spent hours at the masala stone, her strong arms pushing the granite rolling pin back and forth, back and forth, until all the lumps disappeared. “See,” she’d slap the yellowish red spice paste on a plate. “And I used very little water.” She took such pride in her work.
Cooking had been an occasion for laughter and conversation, tasting and the stealing of tidbits. She wished Neel would keep her company, but he was watching the news.
She set the long grains of rice to soak for twenty minutes and began chopping the vegetables. The cauliflower and scallions were the simplest to prepare. As soon as the tiny black mustard seeds popped, she spooned in the cream-colored urad dal, scallions, turmeric, and salt. She fried them for a few seconds and then added the cauliflower and hot water.
She loved the knobbly fenugreek seeds that gave the potatoes and eggplant its punch, though their odor was very strong. The vegetables sizzled in the cast-iron pan, absorbing the coriander, cumin, chili, and turmeric. For the raita she used a trick Aunty Nandi claimed removed the bitterness from the cucumber. She sliced off the ends, and rubbed the cut part with the pieces until a white froth, the bitterness, seeped out. Only then did she grate it, squeezing out the water before spooning in a mixture of yogurt and sour cream. Just before serving it she sifted on some paprika for taste, color, and decoration.
In an hour, the kitchen only looked American. Spices suffused the air, almost masking the musky aroma of basmati rice. Leila remembered her Hindi teacher explaining that
meant “smell.” It was the rice of kings, and only the rich could afford it in India.
All the Mughal emperors had eaten basmati rice mixed with saffron and cashew nuts. But Leila served it plain. She didn’t keep any nuts in the house because of Neel, though cashews, expensive in India, were a luxury she would have enjoyed indulging in here.
Neel ate quickly, fork moving regularly from plate to mouth. Leila felt as invisible as Shakuntala, but she wasn’t a simple forest maiden who had married a king. She could not let him ignore her like this.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak
“Rekha invited me to visit her in Berkeley.” This was the wonderful nugget from today’s expedition. She wanted him to know that Rekha liked her enough to proffer an invitation. She was making friends.
“You should go. It’s a beautiful campus.”
“Is Mills College close to Berkeley?”
“Not too far. It’s in Oakland. Why?”
“Indy applied there and won a scholarship. But Amma would not allow her to take it, even though it’s a girl’s college.”
“Tough break. What was it in?”
“Math,” Neel again corrected her. “She must be pretty good to have been accepted.”
Leila ignored the correction. “I think she’s like a computer. That’s why I made her apply. I wrote for the application and even filled it out for her. If we had been married then, I’m sure Amma would have allowed her to come.” Leila had been the one to fight with Amma, while Indy just sat on the bed and cried. It had always been that way with them. They could fight for each other, but not for themselves.
Neel stared at Leila from across the table. In the lamplight her eyes glowed, the color and shape of almonds. Sanjay had told him Leila was beautiful. He wondered why she hadn’t married earlier. She was fair, pretty, and so well raised she never insisted on anything, never complained.
“Do you want to study here?” he asked her. An American degree would give her a better advantage in the job market.
“I never thought of it.”
“It will get you out of the house, you’ll meet people,” he urged her.
He was just like Amma, wanting her to do his bidding. “I saw some creative writing classes that looked interesting,” she said.
“Now that’s the one thing I definitely don’t understand about America. How can one possibly teach people to be creative? The British don’t offer such ridiculous courses. Shakespeare never went to college.”
“Shakespeare attended grammar school,” she pointed out. But Neel did have a point. She didn’t need to take a class in writing children’s stories. She just had to be more disciplined.
“Grammar school. That’s different. Here it’s all about making money. There are classes for everything. Just ask Oona. She’ll tell you about some strange classes. Flirting, for example.”
“When shall we invite Sanjay and Oona for dinner?” Amma had always reciprocated within a few weeks, making a meal that was better than the one served them.
Never, Neel wanted to say. Sanjay’s invitation was now the breeding ground of another which would lead to yet another. He had to put a stop to it before they became a cozy foursome. He was about to say so when the phone rang.
Caroline, Neel thought, hurriedly reaching for the receiver, thinking that she was so used to calling him on the phone she must have forgotten to use the pager.
But Leila had already turned, and he watched her answer it, wondering what she would say, what Caroline would do.
“Yes, he’s here.” She handed him the receiver.
Neel kept his face impassive, wondering how it would look if he took the call in the study.
“The hospital,” she continued, her voice resigned. Just when things were going so well.
“Nah, I wasn’t playing hard to get,” Neel joked, relieved to hear the male voice at the other end. “Forgot to change the battery in the pager. I’ll leave immediately.” He hung up.
Couldn’t the hospital do without him just this one evening? Leila wished as he put on his coat.
“Neel,” she began uncertainly.
“What?” He was already at the front door.
“Nothing. I hope it’s not too serious. At the hospital.”
Inexplicably, he was glad that he didn’t have to lie. He
going to the hospital, where a particularly vicious strain of flu had laid up so many doctors others did double shifts or came in at all hours of the night. Leila didn’t seem to mind his long absences and sudden returns. His mother didn’t like being alone at night. If Tattappa and Father had to be away, she stayed in Neel’s room till they returned. He turned to look at Leila. She looked so brave, so alone, so…lovely. His hand missed the doorknob and hit the wood.
“Ouch.” He shook it back and forth.
“It helps if you rub it.” Leila wondered that he didn’t know that simple, effective remedy.
His left hand massaged the spot clumsily.
“Faster,” Leila instructed.
“I’m right-handed, remember? Here, can you?” Neel held out his hand.
Their eyes met. Leila didn’t drop her gaze as she stepped forward and, using both sets of fingers, gently but firmly warmed the bruise.
She smelled fragrant, a scent he couldn’t place. Not of Indian food at all. Her skin was like milk chocolate, the long lashes fluttering against her cheeks. A swathe of hair swung free from behind one ear and brushed his wrist.
Immediately, Leila gathered the loose strands and moved away. “Better?”
“Much. Thanks.” Neel was still trying to figure out the scent, hoping she hadn’t seen the goose bumps from that quick flick of hair.
He opened the door. “Incidentally, dinner was very good. Thanks.”
She didn’t want his thanks. She needed him here, wanted him to tell the hospital to call another doctor. But she had been brought up on stories of women who had waited. Parvati had spent years worshipping at the feet of Shiva, the three-eyed God of Destruction, until he opened his eye and noticed her. Shakuntala, too, had waited, even raising her son on her own until the king returned to get her.
Leila stood at the window and looked down, watching his taillights glow smaller and smaller.
She had enjoyed the dinner and wished she hadn’t wasted those few minutes being annoyed at him. They spent little enough time together; but the more she saw him, the more she liked him—his sharp mind, the way he wore his clothes, his maleness so evident in the hairs on his arms, the cleft on his cheek that she longed to touch.
But Neel kept himself busy being a doctor and she didn’t know how to bring him to her side. All she knew was that she had to do something for herself while she waited for them to become a unit. Avoiding the sinkhole in the couch, she picked up the loose pages on which she brought a gray-haired cat called Annigma to life.
When her father loses his glasses, Annigma turns into a detective and asks other creatures to help her find them, including a bird called Margot. It was the last two lines that needed reworking.
Margot the Magpie cocked her head to one side, shook the well-groomed feathers, and replied:
“I look for shiny little things
Which afterwards I flaunt
Like silver pens or golden rings
That no one seems to want.
I saw those glasses once before
Upon your Father’s face.
I’d never take them, don’t you know
Stealing’s a disgrace.”