A Good Indian Wife: A Novel (23 page)

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
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“Where are your children?”

“I kept them at my neighbor’s house. My husband is at work and will return only at night.”

“Where does he work?”

“At a factory. He doesn’t tell me what he does, but it must be important because he works very late.”

“Maybe you should try to learn some English,” Leila suggested. She wished there was something more she could offer, but didn’t want to impose her opinions on Anu. English, however, was the first step to staying in America and ultimately becoming an American. If Anu knew some English, she could have talked to the policemen, and just that small way of standing up to the husband might have improved her life. “There are free classes for that in America.” Leila realized that people like Anu needed her more than schoolchildren who had their own class teachers.

“My husband does not like me to go out. He thinks a wife’s place is in the house. He also says he knows English, so why do I need to learn?”

“You will need to talk to your children. They will go to English school.”

“They already know English. But I talk to them in Hindi.”

“I can teach you,” Leila offered.

“No, I must not make my husband angry. I have to go now. My children are waiting for me. Thank you. You have given me great peace of mind.”

Leila made a brief report to Amy and Rekha.

“So she is going back to her abusive husband?” Rekha was outraged.

“She says it is her duty to stay with him. Her parents married her to him and that’s that.”

“Why stay with a husband who beats you and says your only worth is to bear sons?”

“We Indians belong to a culture that does not respect a woman without a husband. This way she can hold her head high outside the house, even though she can’t do that inside the house. It is better to have a husband, even a bad one, especially if you have children.”

“A number of Asian women are raised to feel that way,” Amy agreed. “It’s going to take time and work to make them realize that they, too, deserve a good life. Divorce is ultimately better for the children because otherwise they repeat the pattern of abuse. Thanks for helping us, Leila, and I insist Rekha treat you to some tea. It’s the least we can do. Listening to these stories isn’t easy.”

“Maybe I can help again,” Leila said.

“That would be great! We always need volunteers.” Amy gave her a form, asking her to fill it out and return it at her convenience.

At the café Leila wanted to talk about her short story, but Rekha’s mind was on Anu.

“This is so depressing. I can’t bear to think what that poor woman is going through.”

“She probably thinks it’s her fate, and as long as she does not trouble her parents she will have some solace.” Leila, too, had believed that at one time. It seemed to her that most Indian girls were taught an alphabet that began “A is for Abnegation.”

“It really kills me to think that so many Asian—Indian—women, are living versions of Anu’s life. I want my thesis to bring attention to the problem and help a few of them at least. First off, Amy says they hardly get any Indian women walking in or calling, and when one does come in, she refuses to talk.”

“Anu is so ashamed of her situation she would never divulge more than she has to.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I would feel the same way.” It was the closest she had come to telling Rekha the truth about her non-marriage.

“How am I going to collect data? If a walk-in like Anu won’t tell me her problems, who will?”

“Maybe there is no story.”

“How can you say that? You just spoke to this woman.”

“Our culture makes it very difficult for people to open up.”

“And here in America we spill our guts on national TV. Speaking of which, I’m leaving Tim. I finally realized that he is never going to leave his wife.”

Hope, seductive and tantalizing, serenaded Leila. If beautiful, educated Rekha didn’t think Tim would leave his wife for her, then Neel would never go to Caroline.

“Why do you say that?”

“For one thing, he still goes back to his wife every night. We sleep together, but he always has to hurry home so she won’t suspect anything. I’m such a fool. I initially fell for Tim because I was tired of dating men who were terrified of commitments. I figured he’s married, he’s not afraid. I never thought he’d want to
stay
married.”

Leila assimilated this new information. Neel, too, came home every night.

“But doesn’t Tim love you?” Leila worried that Neel’s love for Caroline would wipe out any obligation he might feel toward his parents or her.

“He says he does. But I think he loves his assets more. In California, wives get half of everything.”

“Even if they divorce within a year of marriage?”

“Yes, I’m pretty sure. But Tim’s been married for five years. Yesterday I told him to go back to his wife. I never want to see his married face again.” Rekha grimaced. “Pretty pathetic, huh?”

Leila wanted to assuage Rekha’s sadness.

“Do you know what your name means?” she asked, for the first time feeling really close to her new friend. They both yearned for out-of-reach men.

“No,” Rekha replied. She was grateful she hadn’t been saddled with Rashmi. Her younger sister had been forced to make a joke out of her name. “Don’t rush me,” she’d say. In her teens, Rekha had considered changing her name officially to Rebecca, but had abandoned the idea when her parents said they would not give her any money for college.

“Your name means ‘line,’” Leila said. She pointed to Rekha’s hands and continued, “Like the fate lines on your palms. Did you know that the lines on your two hands are different? The ones on your left palm are what you are born with, while the ones on the right are what you are going to make of your life.”

“Can you read my palm? Now would be a good time to get a glimpse of the future.”

“No, I can’t do that. But you can do something no one else can. You can change the lines.”

“Really, how?” Rekha sounded bemused.

“My father always says that when you can’t stop bad or sad things from happening, that is the time to remember you are still in charge of your life.
You
can make it different. Like you did yesterday.”

TWENTY-THREE
 
 

SANJAY LEFT TWO MESSAGES REMINDING
Neel about the annual doctors’ get-together on Friday. This year he was in charge of organizing it.

He brought it up again when they ran into each other in the cafeteria.

Neel was avoiding him because he didn’t want a lecture about Caroline coming to Reno, but Sanjay only said, “You told Leila, right?”

“Yes,” Neel mumbled. “We may not be able to come. I’m on call that night.”

“Arre, see this. BYO Pager.” Sanjay held up the invitation. “I thought of everything. I even ordered some Indian food. Took good advantage of being in charge. You have to come and help me eat up the tandoori chicken in case these bozos think it’s too spicy. It won’t look good if there’s a lot left over.”

The party had been started decades ago by doctors to promote camaraderie amongst themselves. Neel enjoyed going to them, meeting the new doctors and reconnecting with ones he saw only once a year.

This year, however, he was glad to be on call. Reno had made him want to retire from social life permanently. He kept remembering how Oona, Shanti, and Leila had seen him with Caroline. Thank God she had left. But the encounter shook him so much he had kept checking every room he entered to see if she was there.

At least she would not be at the barbecue. He only had to worry about Leila.

“Remember the barbecue I told you about? It’s tomorrow,” Neel told Leila when he returned home.

“Barbecue?” Leila envisaged a deep pit billowing with smoke.

“I thought I left the invitation on the table.”

Leila considered his face and the lips that formed those words—lies again. “You told me nothing about any party,” she said flatly. She went to the table and quickly sorted through the inch-thick pile of mail yet to be recycled. Catalogs, advertisements, old magazines fell in a colorful cascade from her fingers. “No invitation.”

“That’s odd,” Neel said. “Ah, here it is. It got stuck in this Safeway advertisement. I can pick you up after work if you like. It will be freezing, so remember to wear gloves and a hat.”

Leila stared at the bright red 8 by 10 invitation. Had he really left it on the table or had he slipped it in just now? She remembered that first night in the condo, when Caroline’s picture fell out and she put it back, worrying that he would know she had gone through his things and so not respect her.

“You don’t have to come, you know,” Neel said into the quiet.

“I won’t, then. It will probably be too cold for me anyway,” she said, and left the room, angry at herself for feeling hurt.

Caroline, of course, would be there.

THE NEXT NIGHT
, Leila wrestled with her decision. Any moment now the barbecue pit was going to be dug and the coals fired for an evening of fun. She was being ridiculous. Neel clearly didn’t want her there; Caroline would be present; so why was she so full of regret?

She turned on the TV and there was Julie Andrews singing
The hills are alive…
Even Amma had gone to see Julie Andrews dance on the Alps. The movie felt like an old friend, and every song pushed the barbecue further back—until the blond head of the Baroness appeared. The woman wanted the Captain for all the wrong reasons. Poor Julie Andrews. Forced to watch the ball from the terrace. She loved the Captain, but did she tell him? No, she just let the Baroness lead him away. In Reno, Leila too had done nothing. The glass door had been like a movie screen through which she witnessed her humiliation.

But what if Neel
had
been telling the truth about the slides? What if he
had
brought home the invitation? And if he was an out-and-out liar, she could at the very least force herself between him and Caroline.

It was almost sunset. She hurriedly layered herself in her warmest clothes and rushed outside, ready to flag a taxi the way people did in the movies. None appeared. Just long streams of cars that huffed and puffed at the stop sign like snorting animals.

“Trying for a taxi?” a voice spoke from behind her.

It was an old man she had seen in the lobby of their building.

“You’ll have better luck on Broadway. Thattaway,” he pointed.

“Thank you.” She ran in the direction indicated. Just as she reached the corner, she saw an empty taxi approaching. Feeling like a real American, she hailed it and was pleased when it snaked over beside her.

“Baker Beach,” she said, settling into the cushioned seat.

The taxi driver was a young Russian who immediately placed her as Indian. He loved Hindi movies and Leila was amused that he knew so much about Bollywood. She decided it was a good sign for the evening ahead.

The traffic was light and they were there in no time at all. But as the taxi sped off, she was overcome with regret. Now that she was here, she wanted to go home and forget the whole idea. She stood in the dark, surveying the scene on the sand.

People were everywhere—standing, sitting, stretched out on towels, many encircling the four fires. No pit filled with coals, but smoke streaming out of black metal boxes that must be the barbecues. She saw a number of blond heads, but they were too far away for her to make out if Caroline was there. She couldn’t see Neel. Had he changed his mind because she had said she wouldn’t go?

“Arre, Leila Didi, Neel said you were under the weather.” Sanjay came over, a big smile on his face, fingers red from the tandoori chicken he was eating.

“Under the impression that the weather was going to be cold, not freezing.” Leila smiled, drawing the shawl closer around her.

“That’s why I call it the brr-brr-cue. These crazy Americans like the beach in any weather. Thank God there’s no fog this evening. Come stand near the fire. Look, Neel is hogging the one over there. Let’s get him to share.”

Neel was amongst a group of people. Leila scrutinized them and exhaled with relief when she saw no Caroline. A yellow tint caught her eye and she turned immediately. But it was only Oona, walking quickly toward them.

“I’m so glad you came, Leila. Come, let me introduce you around.”

“Arre, why are you doing Neel’s job? You stay here and keep me warm. Neel, look who crawled out from under the bad weather.”

But before Neel could break away and come to her, Patrick waved his hands and called her. “Come see the twins before they fall asleep.”

The welcome, coupled with no sighting of Caroline, loosened any earlier regret. And all her fear vanished with Patrick’s next words.

“This is our once-a-year elitism,” he explained. “It’s only doctors and their spouses, so it’s like a big medical family.”

NEEL STOPPED IN MIDSENTENCE
when Sanjay called to him. What was she doing here?

He joined her, squatting in front of Patrick’s twins.

“Your wife’s the smart one here,” Patrick claimed. “She’s the only one so far who can sort out the twins.”

“But it’s easy,” Leila protested. “This one has a very serious, I’m-going-to-be-a-doctor-when-I-grow-up expression and this fellow here is definitely going to join the circus.”

“Perish the thought of another doctor in the family.” Patrick laughed, while a woman named Arlene said, “I still don’t see the difference. You must have a knack for these things.”

“They know all sorts of things in India,” Patrick’s wife announced.

“Yes, like when to quit while ahead.” Leila uncurled the baby fingers from her hair and stood up.

“Neel,” she finally acknowledged him. “I felt better so I decided to join you.”

“Glad to hear that. Something to drink?”

“I’m fine, or how do you say it here in America? I’m good, thanks.” Leila smiled and picked up the drink she had placed on the sand.

“Don’t believe her,” Sanjay joined them. “She’s not good.” He paused. “She’s better than good. To have taken on this joker? She’s a real saint.”

“There he goes again,” Neel sighed. “Putting me down. Come on, I’m a pretty good catch, aren’t I?” he questioned the group.

Leila smiled and took another sip of the frothy, bitter drink. She didn’t like it, but didn’t know how to get rid of it tactfully.

“No one going to stand up for me?” Neel looked chagrined. “You,” he pointed at Leila, “have to be on my side.”

As he came toward her, Leila asked, “Why? I only married you. I don’t have to side with you.”

Everyone laughed. She couldn’t stop smiling. This was the evening she had hoped for during that dinner at Sanjay and Oona’s. She felt liberated—no Caroline to worry about, just these nice people.

“Arre, Leila Didi, Neel is right. You married him. So you’re stuck with him.”

“Sanjay, you change your mind so quickly, you must have been a chameleon in your past life.”

“But in this one I never change color. See? Brown today, brown tomorrow.”

“How about brown on the court? They’re calling for a game of Husbands versus Wives,” Oona said.

“Now
you
get to play against
my
side,” Leila teased Neel.

But Neel and Sanjay both decided not to join in, each claiming they had to save their hands for real work.

Standing in one corner of the makeshift volleyball court, she was aware that Neel was watching her. She joined in the laughter and the quest to keep the ball alive, darting here and there, getting balls that others had missed. She could hear Sanjay shout, and once thought she heard Neel yell, “Way to go, Leila!”

The Wives lost, but, as Sanjay said, they had won over everyone at the barbecue.

The evening was coming to an end, and some groups drifted together as others took off.

“The last of the lot.” A figure came out of the dark carrying a tray of drinks and Leila followed the others in taking a bottle. It tasted very similar to the previous drink, but was lighter and not as bitter. With every sip the taste got better till she began taking large swigs, like the men were doing.

“Hey, take it easy,” Neel said softly.

“I’m doing something wrong?” Leila wondered if she had unwittingly committed a gaffe.

“You’re fine. I just think you may want to stay that way. That’s beer you’re chugging down so rapidly.”

“Beer!” Leila was so surprised that the word burst out loudly.

Sanjay overheard and said, “First time with beer, huh? Oona says it’s like opera—you either hate it or like it.”

“Actually, I don’t like it or hate it. I think I may, one day in the far future, like it. As for opera, I’ll let you know—if Neel ever takes me to one.” Was it the beer that was making her open up with such impudence? Or was it the hurt that an opera was just another event, like Al’s wedding tomorrow, to which he clearly never planned on taking her? She hadn’t even known about the invitation until Al reminded them of the celebration slated for eleven o’clock the next morning.

“We can give you a ride,” Sanjay had offered. “It’s on our way.”

“Not unless you exchanged your Mercedes for a minivan. Aren’t you picking up Shanti and Bob?” Neel reminded him.

“Arre, see what happens when people forget to turn up for my barbecue? The wedding should be fun,” Sanjay turned toward Leila. “Italians are like Indians. They believe in big spreads.”

Now Neel said, “If it’s opera you want, say the word and you’re there.” He clicked his fingers as if he were a magician.

She couldn’t goad Neel about the wedding, but she could about the opera. Deep down she didn’t really want to go to an opera, so his answer couldn’t hurt her.

“You make promises you can’t keep,” Leila said, aware that she was talking more slowly than normal. “I can say
Aida
all I want just now, we’ll still be standing here.”

“You better watch out for her,” Sanjay warned, “or you’ll end up like me. Opera, ballet, symphony. I didn’t know Oona liked all that painful standing-on-toes business. Not to mention the neckache from playing the violin.”

“We can get season tickets together,” Oona said, ignoring Sanjay.

“Thanks, but I think we’ll do this on our own.” Neel smiled at Leila.

Leila shook her head. It felt a little heavy and her right temple was beginning to throb. She wanted to go to bed, but she also wanted to make her point. “No, season tickets. So in case you can’t go, I’ll still have company.”

“A few months of marriage and you have him down pat,” a voice behind them marveled.

“As Patrick said, she’s the smart one here,” Neel said. “You’ve also had enough beer for one night,” he whispered to Leila. “Let’s go, shall we?”

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
3.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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