Authors: Anne Cherian
TWO DAYS AFTER RETURNING FROM RENO
, Leila received an aerogram from Indy:
I’m sorry I haven’t written for so long. It’s simply that whenever I get a chance I seem to be writing to Srinivasan. Amma is so excited it makes me nervous just thinking that something may go wrong. I know that everyone is hoping I will have the same luck as you. So far the only similarity is that both men have names beginning with the letter S. Srinivasan Thiruvengaram, ST, and of course Amma got extremely angry when I jokingly referred to him as Sanitary Towel.
It is amazing how much I already know about Sam. That’s what his friends in Cambridge call him. He is studying economics and loves to play chess. We send each other chess problems in every letter. He is coming to India in four months especially to see me!!! I am
worried. I know he has already seen my photo, but what if he thinks I’m old when he sees my gray hair? You know how frizzy and awful my hair can look. You were so lucky with your husband. He fell in love with you and didn’t want anyone else….
Leila caved into the sofa, her body weightless from fear. Was Sam going to be another Neel? Men who changed their names and their countries were not to be trusted.
She read the letter again. There was some hope that Indy’s situation would be different. Amma was allowing her to correspond with Sam. If only Neel and she had corresponded. She may not have found out about Caroline, but she may have been able to read between the lines.
She had merely wondered if he already had someone in his life when they met. Now she knew that someone to be a slim white woman in short shorts. In the last forty-eight hours, Leila had alternated between wanting to kill Neel and wanting to run back to India. She pictured him on the evening news, dead in a car accident; envisioned an earthquake, a large crack on the street that closed over his lying face. Once she even began packing her suitcase, throwing in sarees any which way until in their perfect folds she saw Amma’s face. Amma would never want her back, especially now that Indy was almost engaged to Sam.
Had Leila defeated upper-class, educated women like the beautiful Amita only to be supplanted by an American secretary? That brief sighting in the sun tormented her. Where once all blondes looked alike, now a tall one was singular. She wished she had the guts to call the hospital and tell off the French accent. “Leave my husband alone,” or, “Don’t you know Neel is married?” But it wasn’t right to put all the blame on Madam Fake. Neel wasn’t behaving as if he was married. Never had, certainly not with her.
Neel didn’t mention Caroline’s name again, but it was the main refrain in Leila’s mind. Caroline was there in the mornings when Neel hurried off to work. She was there when Leila took a walk, averting her face from the flowers she used to admire. Caroline had sent the bouquet. Offices don’t send flowers when someone returns from vacation. Caroline was there in the evenings, when Neel phoned, his disembodied voice announcing what she already knew. Alone in the blackness, Leila walked back into that morning by the pool.
Suddenly determined, she picked up the phone and began dialing. Then stopped. She had barely replaced the receiver when it rang from under her fingers. Caroline?
It was Rekha, nervous and quick-voiced over the phone.
“Remember I told you I’ve begun volunteering at a shelter? Well, I’m here now and there’s an Indian woman who doesn’t speak English. Looks like her husband has been beating her. Do you think you can come and translate for her?”
“What language does she speak?”
“Indian, I guess.”
“We have more than one hundred and sixty languages and none are called Indian.”
“Oops! I’d better find out. Be right back.”
Leila glanced around the gleaming magazine kitchen with its fancy gadgets, hoping it would be a language she didn’t know. She didn’t want to listen to another woman’s problems.
“It’s Hindi,” Rekha said.
“I don’t know it very well. It was my second language in school.”
“You know more than any of us. Can you come right away?”
As she walked toward the shelter, emotions jumbled together in Leila’s stomach like aviyal, the curry Amma made with the end-of-the-week vegetables. Her mind constantly analyzed past scenes, which now took on new meanings. Why had she not been alarmed when Oona said Sanjay did not work late? No, puffed up with uxorial pride, she thought Neel was more important than Sanjay. She had made excuse after excuse for him.
Over the last two days she was slowly acknowledging that everything was very wrong. She was like Indy, who had refused to see any white hairs in the mirror though she had begun graying at twenty-one. Only when Indy found one in her comb did she admit her too early maturity. Leila felt as if she were looking at a gray strand that, visible now, was rapidly multiplying. It wasn’t right for a husband to leave his wife alone every weekend. It wasn’t normal that he didn’t want to touch her.
She knew that Neel had followed tradition in allowing his family to choose her. She was so entranced with her changed status she had refused to admit he never wanted the marriage.
She considered her two options: Keep quiet or question him. Indian women were adept at keeping quiet. Maybe that’s why there were so few divorces. We absorb, pretend, and soldier on, Leila thought.
Although she was raised to be submissive, she wasn’t frightened to confront him. But it would also mean going against Amma’s wishes. Amma had arranged a good match and expected Leila to make the best of it, for her own sake and for her sisters as well. Amma always said that the first years of marriage were difficult. She had compared them to the exile Prince Rama endured in the
. Rama had to suffer for fourteen years before returning to his kingdom and throne. Amma herself had begun married life in a joint family, under the control of her mother-in-law. The old lady was a typical product of her time, taunting Amma that she was incapable of bearing sons, even though Appa kept saying that a child’s sex was determined by the man. Leila vaguely remembered her grandmother. A shrimp-shaped figure slurping rice and water from twiggy, withered hands. She had died when Leila was seven years old. That was when Amma became happy. Perhaps the same would be true for Leila. Caroline would vanish and she and Neel could begin their life together.
She was so absorbed in her thoughts she almost walked past the shop Rekha had told her to look for. The shelter was somewhere around here.
“Can I help you?”
For a moment she didn’t know the man was speaking to her. He looked like a TV star, blond hair lifting in the wind, blue eyes smiling.
“It’s okay,” Leila stammered, not sure she should be talking to him. In India only low-class men approached women and it was usually with bad intentions.
“You look lost,” he insisted, not moving away.
Leila didn’t want to ask for directions to the shelter. What if he thought she was going there for herself? But he was waiting, and she said, “I’m looking for the Women’s Shelter,” adding quickly, “I’m a translator.”
“It’s across the street from us,” he pointed to a yellow building. “The small lettering is difficult to read.”
“Thank you.” She turned to leave.
“Where are you from?”
Should she answer? “India,” she said softly.
“You have a lovely accent and…you’re very beautiful.”
“Nice talking to you.” He held out his hand.
“Thank you.” She flushed and bit her lips. She had forgotten to place her tongue between her teeth. She took her hand back and stepped onto the asphalt without checking to see if it was safe.
Rekha was waiting for her in the entrance. “Did you find it okay?”
“Yes.” Leila could still hear his voice: “You’re very beautiful.” Neel had never even told her she was pretty. She had forgotten that she
pretty. Amma still had the blue “La Belle” sash she had brought home after being crowned Most Beautiful Freshman.
“Anu’s waiting down the hall. But first let me introduce you to our director.”
Leila followed Rekha into a large office that was green with plants, one corner filled with toys.
“Leila, this is Amy Wong, the director of the shelter. Amy, Leila Sarath.”
“Thank you for coming on such short notice.”
Amy had the yellow skin and waterfall-straight hair of women who belong to the Scheduled Tribes in Northeast India, except that she sounded just like an American.
“You’re welcome,” Leila said, though she wasn’t sure what they expected of her. She regretted saying yes over the phone. What type of person was this Anu that she took her problems to strangers? Indians hid things, even from other family members.
“Rekha, did you fill Leila in on Anu?”
“I’m just about to.” Rekha ushered Leila into the corridor. “Anu came in this morning. The poor thing is terrified and so far we have only been able to give her some tea. It must have taken so much courage to come to us, but we still don’t know why she is here. All we’ve been able to understand is something about her husband and a green card. But as I said over the phone, I suspect her husband has been beating her.”
Anu was sitting alone in the room, head bent as if from the weight of her bun, her tiny frame overwhelmed by the chair. One glance at the bright purple salwar kameez told Leila the woman was from North India. She looked tired, but exhibited the watchfulness of an attentive, unsure ET as Leila approached.
“My name is Leila. I’m here to help you,” Leila said in Hindi.
Then the woman smiled, showing overlapping front teeth stained with paan.
“It’s good you can speak Hindi. I only know a very little English. My good name is Anu.”
Leila glanced over at Rekha.
“Ask her why she came here,” Rekha prompted.
“Can you tell me why you came here?”
“The policeman gave me this some months ago. So today I showed it to a taxi driver and he brought me here.” She handed Leila a white business card folded so many times the address of the shelter was difficult to read.
Anu’s lips twitched and she didn’t answer immediately. She kept her eyes on the cup of tea, which was still full. Leila guessed she was probably too shy to ask for sugar. “My husband was beating me one night and the neighbors called the police. Two very big black men came and they made my husband stop.”
“Did you come today because your husband is beating you?”
“No. He has not beaten me for a few weeks. But yesterday he got angry and said he was going to throw me out of the house. It’s because we got a letter that his younger brother just had a boy. My husband really wants a son and we only have two daughters. He says I don’t have a green card and when he throws me out, they will send me back to India.”
Leila remembered when Premila, who lived down the road, had a daughter. Her husband would not even look at the baby. He just told Premila that the next one better be a boy. Premila was lucky. Ten months later she had a son.
“How did you come to America?”
“On the airplane.”
“What I mean is, did you come on your husband’s green card?”
“I don’t know. But my husband is an American,” she said with pride.
“How long have you been here?”
“After five years you too can become a citizen. And your daughters are citizens. You don’t have to worry about being sent back to India.”
“Are you sure? How do you know?”
“Because my husband is a citizen and I came the same way you did.” Anu and she came from opposite ends of India and from entirely different social classes. But in America they were more alike than different.
“If you are sure, then I can go now.” Anu stood up.
“She’s leaving already?” Rekha asked. “Ask her about the beatings.”
Not wanting to delve into another’s private misery, but knowing that Rekha expected it of her, Leila asked the nosy American question, “What if he beats you again?”
“I was only afraid they would send me back to India. My parents are very poor and they do not have the money to take me and my two daughters. So if you say that I’m an American, then they can’t deport me.”
“Do you want to report your husband to the police?”
“No, it will only be worse for me. And for our baby.”
“You are pregnant?”
“Yes, and I pray this one is a son.”
“Do you know that the sex of your baby is determined by your husband?”
“No. He always tells me it is my fault we have girls. My mother said the same thing. We give birth to the baby, so we must also be responsible for the sex, don’t you agree?”
Leila didn’t argue. She looked closely at Anu and noticed the red and blue marks on her throat. It looked as if her husband had tried to strangle her last night.