A Good Indian Wife: A Novel (24 page)

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
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and went straight to his study. The silent house, the desk with his things arranged exactly to his taste gave him the illusion that he was alone in the condo, that nothing had changed.

He picked up the new issue of
Stanford Magazine
and, ignoring the articles, searched the alumni section for news of Savannah. He’d been doing it for years, wondering where she was, who she was with. There was nothing about her and he closed the magazine, not entirely disappointed.

Was he thinking about her because of the wedding? He hadn’t wanted to go, but Al Aspromante was too nice a guy to refuse. Al was incredibly excited, acting as if he hadn’t been married before. As if the first set of wedding pictures, the best one framed, did not exist.

Al made forgetting look so easy. And here he was, sitting at a desk that still held all the letters Savannah had ever written him. He bent down to open the drawer, then shut it. Why bring up white wedding memories?

Thank God Al’s wedding was going to be in the backyard. Short and to the point, Al had said. Then he’d added, laughing, that it was a good thing his parents were dead. Not only was he divorced, his second wedding was not being held in a church.

Would he have told Leila about the wedding if the others hadn’t brought it up? Her sudden appearance yesterday had unnerved him, but then she had proceeded to surprise him by extricating herself nicely from the lie he had made up to account for her absence. He thought back to the chilly, smoke-swirled evening, how his anxiety had come up with a series of disastrous scenarios. She would not be able to keep up with the quick repartee. She would have nothing to say since she wasn’t a part of this—his—world. She would cling to him like a lizard on a wall. But she had only approached him the one time, to hold her shawl while she played volleyball. Every other time he had been the one seeking her out—to ensure she didn’t embarrass them both. It was only toward the end that he had begun to relax, breathing without fear that she was, after all, able to hold her own with the others. All in all, the evening hadn’t been too bad.

But no, he thought now, he wouldn’t be taking her today if Al hadn’t reminded everyone. There was no point acting like a couple when it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

He glanced at the clock. If she wasn’t up in five minutes, he’d have to get her. Too bad he’d insisted she take the aspirins last night. There was, however, a small chance that she would still be hungover, in which case he could keep to his previous plans and go by himself.

Leila felt the light glow a faint red beneath her eyelids. Her dreams were always at their thickest and most vibrant in the mornings and now the warmth on her face pulled her awake. The first thing she saw was Neel, standing at the foot of the bed. And from that tall point the room began to take shape. The half-open door. The small circle that blazed like a lesser sun on the wall. Neel must have opened the blinds, letting in the day. He didn’t move and she sat up in bed slowly, wondering what he wanted from her.

“How’re you feeling?” Neel asked.

Leila pushed the hair from her face. “Fine.” The word was more question than answer.

“You can thank those two aspirins,” he said, and turned toward the closet door.

The two round pills she had taken with a large glass of water were like keys that opened the many doors of last night. The sand in her shoes, the white faces that reddened near the fire, the beer. Neel had warned her that she might wake up with a bad headache. But her head wasn’t in pain; it just felt as if her brains weren’t working at their usual pace.

What was he doing here, in the bedroom? Why hadn’t he gone flying? And why was he holding out the blue T-shirt she knew was expensive because she had seen the same one in a store the other day?

“I let you sleep in, but we should leave in about forty-five minutes tops if we are to make it to the wedding on time,” Neel said, and went into the bathroom.

He was getting ready for the wedding. His disappearing back, the offhand words, tightened Leila’s heart with sadness and anger. Was he doing it again? Or was she
him to do it to her?

She remembered the time on the plane, when she looked away from his lying face and down at the rich, expansive beauty of this new country with its limitless possibilities. She had promised herself that she would wait to see how she would act. And today she had the chance to act in a way not possible in India. To be invited to a wedding the day before and to attend it. Even if her husband hadn’t told her about it.

Or was she being unfair to Neel? Her mind grappled with the bits of hope that fluttered outside Pandora’s chest. He
given her the pills last night and he
woken her up.

She would go. And she would enjoy herself, just like yesterday.

Wishing Neel had given her more time, she opened the suitcase that held her new sarees. The silks still smelled of India, a mixture of musk, incense, and a sharpness that recalled spices.

A wedding invitation generated so much excitement back home. Kila got to wear the one dress that was kept aside just for such occasions. Indy and she often exchanged sarees. Even Amma, who usually only cared that her clothes and face be clean, would get dolled up. The three girls would watch as Amma opened the Godrej almirah that held her good, going-out sarees. Then the chosen one, along with its matching blouse, was given over to one of them to iron. Kila especially loved the tin box that held Amma’s meager collection of jewels. She was too young to know that the four extra bangles Amma slipped onto her wrists were paltry compared to the dozens worn by other women who loved to make unnecessary movements just to hear the rich jingle of gold against gold. The ridged bottle of Tata’s eau de cologne, kept safely in the back of the almirah, was carefully opened and suddenly the whole room smelled of flowers. That scent was augmented by the short garland of star jasmine Amma wrapped around her bun. It was the sign that she was ready, pleased with the way her pallao lay across her chest, contented that the sindhoor was thick and red on her hair parting.

Leila’s fingers rifled through the shiny layers in the suitcase, looking for a morning saree. Most of the new ones were meant for evening receptions, their colors dark and rich. Midnight blue, violet, burnt orange; she was beginning to worry she wouldn’t find one when the bright colors of the Sunday-Monday saree peeked out from under the magenta one Smita had given her. It was perfect. Pink or yellow, it didn’t matter.

She spread the saree on the bed, relieved that because she hadn’t worn it, only the creases needed to be ironed. The blouse had been neatly pressed by the tailor and the petticoat, too, was in its original folds. Neel was still in the shower, so after ironing, she rushed to the other bathroom, anxious not to keep him waiting.

“You’re not going in that,” Neel pointed to the saree when she walked in, a little shy because the blouse and petticoat left her stomach completely exposed.

She picked up the saree quickly and held it against her torso.

“You don’t like the color? I can change it to yellow.” She turned the material over to the other side.

“This isn’t a saree type of wedding. It’s casual. I wouldn’t be surprised if Al got married in jeans. I’m only wearing a sports coat because it might be chilly out there.”

“So casual means you wear normal clothes?”

“It means the women will wear pants, not skirts or dresses.” Frustration sharpened his words. “You can wear what you did to Oona’s for dinner that night.” Oona would probably come in an elegant ensemble that would fit in by standing out in just the right way.

“It’s dirty,” she said. Was this his way of putting up an obstacle?

“Then wear another pair. Just keep it simple.”

“This saree
simple. It has a thin border with hardly any gold thread.”

“Look, I’m just trying to help, all right? The wedding’s in the backyard. No one’s going to come in their Sunday best.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m going in my Monday best,” Leila said, and turned away as she starting draping the saree around her waist. Why did his idea of help seem so mean-spirited? And was she refusing to listen out of hurt or ignorance? She didn’t know which other pair of pants to choose; she only understood Indian casual, which this saree represented. Back home she might wear it to see a new film, never to attend a wedding.

“You’ll be the only one dressed up,” Neel tried again. “Won’t you feel odd?”

“I’ll feel odder not being myself,” Leila said.

Neel watched the saree wrap her into an Egyptian mummy. The open doors of the closet just behind her contained rows of pants, tops, sweaters. Why was she insisting on being so Indian? If he were a typical old-fashioned husband, he could force her to listen to him. But his very modernness, his desire not to be her husband, left him dumb.

Leila’s fingers moved automatically as she arranged the pallao. She had lost any pleasure in the ritual of getting ready. Neel was picking out his jacket. He wasn’t the sort of husband who would kneel down and arrange the pleats so they fanned open with every step. Just as he wasn’t the type of husband whom she could ask to explain the term “American casual.”

It was only when she reached for the stick-on pottu that the excitement of going to her first American wedding returned. She had stopped wearing pottus at Neel’s suggestion, agreeing that they didn’t suit Western clothes.

The small dot nestled between her eyebrows. It was as if she were seeing it for the first time. No wonder Cynthia had been curious about it. In the past she hadn’t noticed it because it was as much a part of her face as her lips and nose. But now, after so long an absence, the tiny circle stole attention away from every other feature. She raised her hand to remove it, then paused. The red felt changed color as she moved her head, but its meaning remained the same. The symbol of womanhood. This wasn’t just her first wedding in America, it was her first wedding as a married woman.

They were in such a hurry and Neel’s face was so stern that she didn’t feel comfortable bringing up the issue of a present. It was only when he stopped the car that she asked, “This is where we are going to buy the present?”

“They don’t want gifts,” Neel said curtly. “And anyway, you wouldn’t find a store here. It’s a residential neighborhood. That’s the house where they’re getting married.” He started climbing the stairs up to the door.

Somehow, even though he had told her it was going to be a backyard wedding, she had thought it would be in a church. She had never attended a Catholic wedding in India and was looking forward to a Julie Andrews–Christopher Plummer setting.

The backyard was rocky. The only sign that a wedding was going to take place was an archway decorated with roses. Everything else was stark and ordinary. Exactly like the guests, who looked as though they might be shopping in Safeway, except that they were here, wearing the type of pants Neel had said would be perfect for a casual wedding.

Her embarrassment was so complete that she forgot to pay attention and tripped on a flagstone.

Neel caught her arm.

“All right?” he asked.

She knew what he meant, but could not stop herself from confessing, “You were right,” the words miserable and so softly spoken he had to bend to hear them.

“I did tell you…” He shrugged.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, though what she really wanted to say was,
Take me home. I’ll change. I’ll even wear the dirty pants that aren’t really dirty. I only wore them once

“Too late for that now,” Neel said crisply, increasing his stride, eager to distance himself from her billowing pink presence. The breeze that blew down the leaves also whipped up her saree and she was struggling to keep it in place. The only help he was willing to provide was to usher her to one of the cast-iron chairs Al and Julia must use on warm days.

Leila tried to keep up, aware that her bright saree and hurricane arms gave her the appearance and movements of a clown.

“Thanks,” she murmured as she sat down. Tears hovered in her voice, shimmered in the eyes that took in the unfussy, pastel clothes of the others.

Leila recognized many of the women from the previous night and wished with all her heart that she could be free like them. But the wind meant that she had to hold on to her pallao and her shawl, as well as her pleats, which kept opening and closing like an accordion gone mad. Her hair, too, was blowing all over her face and she marveled at the womens’ short cuts that didn’t get disheveled.

It was happening all over again. At home she was the outsider, the single girl who drew looks of “What, not yet?” and “Poor thing.” Here, too, she was sitting at the edge, watching the others negotiate the terrain with ease, balancing wineglasses on rocky outcrops. She was so dwarfed by her misery that it was only when Oona was within touching distance that she noticed her.

“I’m so jealous of you, Leila. How I wish I could wear a saree.”

Leila wished she could yank off the offending pink and hand it to Oona. Instead, she stilled the flyaway silk and said, “Not on a day like this, you don’t.”

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
3.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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