A Good Indian Wife: A Novel (2 page)

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
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“Thought I’d check up on my grandfather.”

“He’s sick?”

“Tattappa’s been unwell for a while. I just thought it was time to see him.”

“But not time to get married?”

“I’m waiting for you to arrange that, remember?”

“As soon as you give me my fee, you stingy anesthesiologist,” Sanjay said.

“You pediatricians are pathetic,” Neel lobbed back, relieved to be on familiar terrain again.

He had barely replaced the receiver when it rang again.

“Hi, sweetie. Did you get the ticket?”

“Yes, it came today,” he replied, uncomfortably aware that he could not call Caroline “sweetie” with the same ease. He always underwent this strained moment of relinquishing the anesthesiologist—the man she called Dr. Sarath at work—and turning into her lover. At the hospital he kept his distance (his way of ensuring their relationship remained a secret), using “Caroline” when necessary. She, however, never seemed to have any difficulty with their dual lives.

He remembered that she had researched the airlines and booked his flight. “Thanks again for taking care of it for me.” He tried to sound sincere, but couldn’t help thinking that while a girlfriend might do this, many secretaries routinely booked tickets as part of their job. She had been equally helpful when he bought the condo, meeting with the real estate agent when he was in surgery.

“Of course I’d do it for you. Why don’t you come over?”

“I don’t know. I have to call India.” Annoyed at the thought of the long trip, he wasn’t in the mood to see her. He didn’t want to see a dying Tattappa either, but would regret not going. Tattappa, his parents, the whole town, expected it of him. In India it was always family above self, with no one considering his difficulties.

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss being here, too,” he said lightly, so she wouldn’t be upset that he hadn’t answered in kind.

There was a small pause, then Caroline asked, “You don’t remember what day it is, do you?”

“Your birthday,” he said immediately, and then, “No, we celebrated that last month.” She had casually mentioned her birthday for weeks beforehand, and he had ignored her hints about a diamond ring, giving her an angora sweater instead. What Hallmark-inspired holiday, Valentine’s Day or Secretary’s Day—American celebrations that continued to elude him—had he forgotten this time? “I give up. What day is it?”

“It’s our third anniversary. How about Chinese take-out from our usual place?”

Picasso wasn’t a good enough excuse, and she wouldn’t understand his anxieties about the upcoming trip. Most Americans had one fixed definition of India: they conjured up a mystical country rife with swamis or, like Caroline, a dirty Third World slum overpopulated with beggars and exotic diseases. Only another immigrant like Sanjay could understand the tug two countries made on the heart. “Okay. Why don’t you call in the order and I’ll pick it up.” As he said it, he realized he was hungry.

“I’ll be waiting with open arms.”

“What about your legs?” would have been his response back in their salad days. Now he wondered how soon he could leave after dinner. He still had to call Mummy and tell her this trip was specifically to see Grandfather, not girls. He didn’t want Father’s older sister, Aunty Vimla, running around town telling people he was coming back to get married. When he did marry, it would be to a woman he loved and respected. And he would choose her.

He took the long route to Caroline’s apartment, rolling down the windows to mitigate the aroma of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, that kept escaping from the cartons of food like little genies. Fog softened the glare of the street lights and the night air carried the scent of sea and gardens. The roses, terraces of hanging rosemary, lemon trees in full bloom, stirred his senses. He recalled the nights when he had raced over, desperate to see Caroline, smell her, touch her. Now he imagined her undressed, the soft pink of her soles, the deeper pink of her nipples, the blond hair that highlighted the dark. His foot pressed down on the accelerator, the needle swung to the right, houses rushed by in a blur, and in a few minutes he was in front of her apartment building.

He sprinted up the stairs, two at a time, trying not to tilt the stack of boxes. He noticed that some eggplant sauce had seeped out and had just dipped his finger into its oil-dark luster when she opened the door to his ring.


Akka’s getting married,” Kila lisped, spinning around her mother like a satellite moon and stealing glances at Leila.

“Kila, sit down,” Amma ordered, pushing her glasses back on her nose. “You are giving me a headache. And do not go bothering your big sister. It is virry bad luck to mention marriage.” Their mother was the most superstitious member of the family, with rules for almost everything. Hands could not be linked behind heads. Shoes had to face the same way. If you forgot something after leaving the house, you had to sit down on a chair before going out the door a second time. Her three daughters had given up trying to make her see logic and just did whatever it was she insisted would save them from bad karma.

“Akka says it’s ‘very,’ Amma, not ‘virry.’” Kila was at the age when she enjoyed correcting her mother. Mrs. Krishnan had not studied English, so her words and grammar were often twisted with the intonations of her birth language. But since her daughters had gone to an English medium school, and even dreamed in this new language, she was forced to use it more often than she liked. They usually hopped between their two languages, but Kila always called Leila “Akka,” older sister, and her parents “Amma” and “Appa,” no matter what they were speaking.

“Virry, very, it is all the same for me. Just to sit down, please.” Amma pointed to an empty cane chair. The sitting room had the best furniture in the house and was usually off limits to Kila.

She took advantage of this rare opportunity and, ignoring her mother, jumped straight onto the sofa with its square, starched cushions. Leila sat at one end in the Lotus position, the children’s story she was writing draped across her knees so the words were hidden from Amma. Leila let everyone assume that she needed the quiet of the sitting room to prepare for class. But instead of reading
(she was teaching the tragedies), she composed rhymed stories about cats.

Amma considered writing a waste of time. She would never understand that the stories helped Leila pass the months and years as she waited in vain for her parents to provide her with a husband.

Kila grinned and stuck out her tongue, turning away from her mother. Leila smiled and ruffled her baby sister’s hair. She adored Kila, the change-of-life baby no one had expected, and whose arrival eight years ago had thrilled Leila as much as it embarrassed their sister, Indira. Indy, all legs and no bra at sixteen, was mortified that Amma and Appa still “did it,” while Leila, at twenty-two, silently applauded her parents—though neither knew exactly what “it” entailed. Leila took over caring for the snappy-eyed Akila—promptly shortened to Kila—giving her oil massages, singing lullabies, teaching her the alphabet.

Kila squirmed out of her sister’s reach. “It’s hot, Akka,” she complained.

The summer heat, sticky, oppressive, unyielding, had settled into every corner of the house. The prickly haze hovered above the coffee table and the low display cabinet containing the few artifacts Appa had brought back from his one trip to London. Even the flies had given into slugdom, bodies plopped on the window ledge, easy targets for Kila’s killer aim. Amma had finished cooking by seven in the morning, but every room felt like the kitchen. The windows were shut tight and the fan turned to the highest speed. But the blades whirled ineffectively. Outside, the unrelenting sun cooked the discarded vegetable peels, softened yellow-ripe guavas into various stages of decomposition, and hardened the refuse, human and animal, that studded the sides of the road. All these odors, along with the trail left by the man who sold saltfish from a bicycle, tried to invade houses through the thin cracks that ants used so successfully. People sweated without moving a muscle, and tap water ran tepid. It was the sort of morning when everyone tried to stay indoors, hiding from the heat and praying for the monsoons to break. Only servants, vegetable vendors, and those on a mission, like Mrs. Vimla Rajan, braved the sun and the stinging asphalt.

“It’s ice cream weather,” Kila shouted, showing two missing front teeth. “Don’t you think so, Indy?” She jiggled Indy’s arm, then quickly moved away when she realized that she had irritated her sister. Indy had followed Amma into the sitting room, but brought along the newspaper, which she concentrated on while trying to ignore the conversation she knew would soon enough involve her.

“No one is to go out today,” Amma said firmly. “It is too-hot-to-go-out weather. And how many times must I tell you those ice cream wallahs use dirty water? Enough, Kila, you must to finish your homework. You have school tomorrow.”

“I want Akka to help me.” Kila clutched Leila’s hand and tried to pull her off the sofa.

Leila gently disengaged her fingers and felt her stomach tighten with anxiety. Amma was all set to discuss Mrs. Rajan’s visit. Mrs. Rajan had married her four children very well and was now preparing to do the same for her brother’s only son. Every family needed a go-between to arrange marriages, and Mrs. Rajan had the right credentials: tenacity, a long memory, and numerous connections. This morning she had surprised Amma, walking up the front steps like a Grand Duchess, orange-flowered umbrella clashing with her motai pink checked saree. She had accepted a cup of coffee from Leila and then shooed her away from the sitting room, announcing, “I have some virry virry important bizzness to tell to your mummy.”

Amma was the staunch optimist of the family, getting excited every time Leila received a marriage proposal, forgetting all the ones that had fallen through in the last ten years. But one by one the boys Amma had tried so hard to capture married into families that bought them what they wanted. And the boys of today—even the so-so ones—kept adding to their demands. Their brides had to come from a good family, be fair-skinned, educated, and most important, bring a large dowry. Leila’s qualifications fell very short on the last item since Appa’s accident in the steel factory had injured his leg, keeping him from working these past fifteen years. Her own salary as a college teacher was minimal, and barely increased the dowry Amma had begun saving for years ago. Three dowries for three girls was a challenge even without the problem of inflation. Leila had noticed that recently Amma was more anxious to buy sarees, as if new clothes offset a meager dowry. Prospective grooms were not stupid, however. They quickly looked past Leila’s silken finery and married women who brought them lakhs of rupees and luxury items such as scooters, cars, and refrigerators.

Leila didn’t know whether to be grateful or irritated that Amma persisted in the mad belief that she, a thirty-year-old with only six thin gold bangles when other girls had treasure chests filled with the precious 24-carat metal, could get a good husband. But Amma was no different from the other mothers who viewed their female issues as obligations from the moment they were born. Leila had seen mothers spend hours smoothing the noses of infant daughters into straight, aesthetically pleasing lines; others began keeping an eye out for a son-in-law as soon as their girls reached puberty.

Leila had no idea that as Amma tried to fulfill her duty, she moved back and forth between blaming herself and blaming Leila for her failure. For years Amma had quietly worried that Leila had grown too tall. She was five feet six when most girls had the delicacy to stop at five feet. Amma knew the height came from her side, for her father had been a giant at six feet two. How many men had not approached Leila because they were shorter than she? Amma would never know, and she carried their nameless bodies on her shoulders, never mentioning that she felt responsible for her daughter’s desperate situation.

Leila blamed only herself. She had grown too tall, and every proposal had been withdrawn because of her behavior. Daughters were not meant simply to desire marriage; they were supposed to do everything in their power to help their mothers bring it about. It was in the realm of the second expectation that Leila had failed Amma—and herself. That her brief lapse with the man-whose-name-was-never-mentioned had happened more than ten years ago was irrelevant, as far as Amma’s elephant memory was concerned. Though Leila often grumbled about her mother’s authoritarian ways, she could do nothing but succumb. She had gone behind Amma’s back one time, and that had given her mother the right to make sure that from then on, Leila did the right thing.
Have you been a
? It had been years since Leila stopped reading the A. A. Milne poem to Kila because it reminded her too much of Amma. “Leila, be good,” Amma said so often that sometimes Leila thought her name was Leila Begood.

“Kila, you will please to go now and do your homework by yourself. Leila, you must to pay attention,” Amma commanded as soon as Kila left the room. “Indira, put that paper away.” Amma used the ends of her pallao to wipe the sweat off her glasses.

Indy reluctantly gave up solving the chess problem and folded the newspaper. In the humidity, her hair stuck out like a halo and she constantly fought its waywardness, hands smoothing the serrated mess, trying to flatten it against her head. Now the two sisters grimaced at each other.

“Mrs. Rajan herself came this morning. Her nephew is coming from Ahmerica in two weeks and the family wants for him to see you,” Amma told Leila triumphantly. She emphasized that the request came directly from the boy’s family.

“What is he, a fourth-time-tried-but-failed PhD?” Indy inquired sarcastically. The last proposal was from a man living in Dallas who had failed to get his Physical Therapy license for the fourth time. He had kept Amma and Leila on tenterhooks for a week. Amma went to the Temple every day, making pujas so he would say yes. Leila prayed silently that he would not. Indy sided with Leila. She could not picture Leila, with her fish-shaped eyes, even pomegranate teeth, and soft, straight hair, married to a man with cratered skin who made smacking sounds when chewing his food. Leila
want to marry; she just didn’t want to be ashamed of her husband. She wasn’t like some girls who didn’t care who they married as long as they acquired the “Mrs.” label. But she knew that if the man agreed, Amma would force her into the marriage. Afterwards, the sisters had laughed in relief at his put-on American accent and cowboy hat that had got stuck in their low, narrow doorway.

“Indira, please, just because of only one man. No, no, Mrs. Rajan’s nephew is a doctor. He came first in his class from some virry good college. Sanford, Sunford, something like that. He owns his own house, a big one, in a virry good locality, and Mrs. Rajan says he works for some famous-famous hospital in San Frahncisco.”

“So what’s wrong with him?” Indy asked.

“Amma, do they know we can’t afford a dowry?” Leila asked at the same time.

Amma glared at Indira. “There is nothing at all wrong with him. You will to see for yourself. I saw him at Raju’s wedding. That was what, three years ago? He is tall and virry handsome.”

“Amma, you haven’t answered my question,” Leila said. She was tired of men who assumed that her family, once rich but now only “good,” could somehow still come up with the requisite rupees.

“Yes, yes, Leila, the family knows our situation. Mrs. Rajan came out herself and said they do not want a dowry. They want only a good girl. Her doctor nephew makes enough of money. Why does he need Indian rupees?”

“When is this to be?” Leila asked, resigned to yet another rejection. She wondered why the Saraths wanted their son to see her. Men from America were the ultimate sons-in-law, fought over by the mothers of every nubile girl. She had always assumed she would be part of that group of desirable girls, a logical progression for someone popular in school and college. She had been known as pretty and clever, admired because the Anglo-Indian girls asked her to help them write love letters to their boyfriends, imitated because she often wore her straight hair in fashions that were almost Western. But once even the ugly girls got married, she had become the object of whispered conversations. People cruelly—and correctly—deduced she taught English only because she wasn’t married. Everyone knew that colleges hired single women as cheap labor. Most girls’ colleges had a constellation of aging, anxious women who had been forced to make teaching their career because the “Mrs.” career, the one they really wanted, had bypassed them.

“He is to come next Sunday. Only two days after he arrives,” Amma said with great satisfaction.

Leila was surprised that she was one of the first girls lined up for his viewing pleasure. Some families showed their foreign-living sons more than a hundred girls, with the most important ones appearing early in the parade. She knew this doctor would see many girls before choosing a bride. One of Appa’s distant relatives—a PhD candidate in New York—had met eighty girls, and in the end was so confused that he married the last one he saw.

Leila thought she had been born in the wrong century. At one time—the good old days, she and Indy joked—women received dowries and even chose their husbands. Kings used to hold lavish Swayamvaras for their daughters, and on the appointed day, royal scions came from all over to win the hand of the princess. Occasionally there were prowess tests, but usually the princess walked down the row of hopeful princes, considering them one by one, finally indicating the husband of her choice by placing a garland around his neck. Leila often wished she were in that position. She would have been able to walk right past the man from Calcutta instead of being rejected immediately. “I like my wife to be more plummy,” he had said, ending both hope and conversation. “Plummy” had stumped Amma, until Indy explained the rude man had meant plump. For the next two weeks Leila was forced to hide all the food Amma tried to make her eat until things went back to normal.

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
5.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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