A Good Indian Wife: A Novel (29 page)

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
13.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Oona said brightly. “Back east it’s freezing this time of year and here all we need is a light sweater.”

Leila looked up at the blue sky. Americans followed the daily forecast with as much obsession as Indian farmers awaiting the monsoons. She had noticed that the temperature was making repeated appearances in her letters home, but she still couldn’t make it a topic of face-to-face conversation.

“You look different,” Oona said.

“Probably fatter because, unlike you, I feel the cold. Wool pants and a parka,” Leila pointed out.

“It’s not the clothes. It’s your face.”

Leila knew that some women glowed when they were pregnant. From an excess of blood in their faces, she remembered reading. Did making love have a similar effect? “I’m tired,” she said. How could Neel, up so late at night, function well at the hospital?

“Neel keeping you busy?” Oona laughed at the look on Leila’s face. “Don’t bother answering. That was a Sanjay question. You don’t mind going to Union Square?” she asked, her voice serious again.

Leila didn’t care where they went. She was still so new that everything was stimulating. She loved the sheer variety in America. It wasn’t just the cars that Sanjay had talked about at dinner. The skin colors, too, ranged from a dead white to a dark that could melt into midnight. The perfumes changed with every passerby; even the dogs could be waist-high or tiny enough to fit in a pocket. She was finally beginning to understand those books that spoke of America as the land where dreams come true. It felt like a country that took in everyone and allowed them to live a life of their own.

“Well, are you ready for my surprise?” Oona asked.

“If I were ready, it wouldn’t be a surprise.” Leila said logically. She had never seen Oona this happy.

“You make a good point, Mrs. Sarath.” Oona laughed. “We need to go into Macy’s.”

Leila took a deep breath as they walked in, taking in the racks of clothes, the decided steps of people who knew what they wanted and where they were going, their hair and tailored outfits just so. It still thrilled her that she could walk in wearing one outfit and leave in another. No long discussions with the tailor, no return for repeated fittings. Just a quick look in the mirror, and if the image was pleasing, a credit card followed by a signature.

Oona stopped in front of two female mannequins and whispered, “I know it’s way too early, but I thought I’d buy a few things today.”

Leila looked at the bright-colored pants and loose, striped sweaters. The outfits weren’t particularly nice, but then she was still learning about Western fashion.

“You don’t understand, do you? This is the maternity section. I’m pregnant.”

“Congratulations.” Leila smiled. She tried to stifle the pain of her own situation, tried to hold on to the fact she, too, had a husband and could become pregnant.

But there was the rub. Her marriage was filled with a roster of unanswered questions, the niggling feeling that things weren’t quite right. The Oonas of the world exuded a confidence that came from limited failures. Their cheerful smiles were the result of men who called them “the love of my life” and first-attempt pregnancies. Even though Leila had the longed-for “Mrs.” label, she still could not duck away when jealousy tapped her shoulder.

“That is such good news,” she continued now, wanting to feel nothing but happiness for Oona. Why was it that another’s good fortune only made her more aware of her own unstable life?

“I wanted to get something to prove that I’m pregnant until I begin to show.”

“When are you going to have the baby?”

“In about seven months. Sanjay says it’s unfair of me to hold our baby hostage for so long. He’s already begun talking to it. Though I think he’s a little shy about it, because he does it in Bengali.” Sanjay had also told her they would have to perform special poojas, and Oona had felt estranged and frustrated. No matter how hard she tried, inevitably there was some tradition that escaped her—a gesture, habit, that ineffable understanding that gives life to what it means to be an Indian.

At the café, Oona ordered milk without even looking at the menu. Pregnancy had filled her with both delight and conversation. Sanjay’s parents were thrilled and his mother wanted to come for the birth. “I really, really, hope she comes,” Oona wiped away a milky mustache. Her own mother had promised them a crib. Her sister was sending a stuffed bear, which Sanjay wanted to exchange for a cardinal because they were from Stanford, not UC Berkeley. Her godmother planned to begin knitting immediately…

Leila didn’t know she had fainted until she heard Oona’s voice, thin and faraway. “Should we get a doctor? Her husband is a doctor.”

She opened her eyes to see Oona and the waiter staring down at her, their faces at waist-level. For a second she was disoriented and then it all came flooding back: the café, Oona’s pregnancy, her own struggles against jealousy and sadness. That was why she had fainted. Her body could only take so much emotion before falling apart.

She sat back up on the chair and smiled at the concerned faces. Oona looked whiter than usual, as if aware she was responsible for Leila’s fainting spell.

“Would you like some tea?” the waiter asked.

She didn’t want tea. She felt cold and queasy, not sick, but not entirely well either. Once seated again, she could not move. Her legs were so heavy it was an effort just to bring them around in front.
Pair bhari ho gaya
—the phrase appeared in front of her like a wagging finger. Heera used to say that every time she got pregnant, “My legs have gone heavy.” As a young girl, Leila used to be amazed that a body part could get heavy one day, just like that, and would look curiously at Heera’s hairy legs. When she was older, she giggled at the hidden implication, but it wasn’t until now that she understood it. She was pregnant.

Was she going to be like Amma, who never suffered from morning sickness? Amma had fainted once with each pregnancy. She said the brief fainting spell confirmed the impending birth as surely as if a goddess had told her so.

“Leila, are you all right? Shall I take you to the hospital?” Oona thought Leila looked sicker by the minute.

“No, thank you. I’m all right, really. I just need to lie down.” Leila was wondering how she hadn’t noticed the skipped period.

Oona was doubtful the whole drive back.

“You should have let me call Neel. Your poor husband is going to be very, very upset.”

“I just fainted. It’s happened before in India,” Leila lied.

“Really? That makes me feel a little better, but I’m still going to call Neel.”

As soon as they entered the house, Oona picked up the phone, and Leila could do nothing but listen.

Oona smiled at Leila. “Your husband was remarkably calm. He asked me to make sure you stay in bed till he gets here. So let’s get you to the bedroom. He’s leaving right away, and I don’t think he’ll be too happy to find you standing up.”

Leila felt unexpectedly warmed by Neel’s reaction. It was nice to have people look after her. When she was sick, Amma used to let her eat rasam and rice in bed, while Indy and Kila hovered around, hushed and curious. ET never left her side, her tail curved around a body that fitted its furself against her. “Furrson and person purr-fectly content,” Leila used to say. Oona tucked her under the covers, and Leila even forgot to be ashamed of the meager furniture in the bedroom.

“Now, is there anything you’d like me to get for you? Tea? I’d offer chicken soup, except I know you’re a vegetarian.”

Tea had caffeine and was bad for the baby. She would have to stop drinking her daily cup. Thank God she had given up fasting once a week. “I’m fine, thank you. I’m really okay.”

She placed a hand on her middle and smiled at Oona. There was no need to be jealous.

“Do you want a girl or a boy?” she asked Oona.

“I just want a baby. Healthy and happy will do for me.”

“And Sanjay?”

“He surprised me. I thought all Indian men wanted boys. To carry on their names and all. But no, my husband wants a girl.”

Leila wondered if Neel would have a preference.

“I guess Sanjay wants a baby that looks like you.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. He wants a girl so he can name her ‘India.’ He’s getting a kick out of imagining introducing her as ‘My daughter, Miss India.’”

The talk of babies still swirled around the room when Leila heard the front door open. She felt her secret was spread across her face. Would Neel guess? She hadn’t thought of how she would tell him the good news. They were going to be a family. Under all that anger and hurt, that careless attitude, had hidden the hope first ignited when she put on the green saree.

“How are you?”

She had anticipated a furrowed face, but Neel’s voice was even, his eyes normal. “I’m fine. Oona was just worried. I told her it’s happened before. When I don’t eat. I didn’t eat anything this morning.” Another lie.

He adjusted the bedspread and then checked her pulse. “Can I get you something now?”

She shook her head. “I think I’ll just stay here for a while.”

“Okay. But I think you should take some fluids once you are up to it. A sandwich in a little while would be good.” Neel turned to Oona. “She’s going to be all right. Thanks for alerting me. I can’t have you all thinking I look after my wife so badly that she faints.”

Leila curled her toes and clenched her hands into fists. She hated it when Neel was American suave. As always, he had managed to transform a strained moment into one that showed him in a good light. Just like in Reno. Oona was smiling and telling him he was a wonderful husband.

Leila didn’t say anything. She listened as Neel went on smoothly, “All seems well, so I’ll head back to the hospital.” Oona’s call had interrupted a conversation with a French intern that Neel wanted to finish. Jacques Olivier had recently found out that Caroline spoke French and approached Neel. “You are seeing her, yes? A little excitement on the side?” When the intern saw the look on Neel’s face, he backpedaled, “Okay, sorry, my mistake. But perhaps you can tell me if she is available.” It made Neel feel more than a little paranoid that people were watching him. First the couple outside Caroline’s apartment and now Jacques at the hospital. He had to set him straight.

Leila watched them leave together. Was she imagining things, or did Neel seem impatient as Oona returned to collect the bag she had forgotten? What was so important at the hospital that he couldn’t stay for even half an hour with her?


to think about her decision. She didn’t want it to be spontaneous, emotional or vindictive. This was one of the most important phone calls she would make in her life and she had to be calm and sure of herself. She replayed the scene over and over again: sitting at the dining-room table, sipping a glass of Merlot; voice soft, no hint of a stammer, words that flowed easily; fingernails painted, every inch the lady, out to get her man.

She didn’t know how else to reach Neel. He refused to answer her pages and avoided her at the hospital. She hadn’t even been able to tell him she had kicked Dan out of her apartment.

She had never seen Dan so angry.

“Are you out of your mind? Going out with him!”

“He is a doctor—” Caroline started, only to have Dan continue, “I don’t care what he is. He isn’t one of us. If Pop knew…”

“Pop wants me to be happy.”

“Yes, but with one of our own. Not with that—that doctor.”

“That doctor is better educated and makes more money than any of you,” Caroline said.

“So? He’s colored.”

“He’s Indian, Dan. And I mean to marry him.”

“And when is that going to happen?”

“When—” Caroline stopped. Dan would be even more crazy if he found out that she had to wait for Neel to get a divorce.

“See, you can’t tell me because deep down, you know I’m right.”

Deep down Caroline knew she wasn’t getting younger, that finding a man, any man, was difficult, and that Neel had status and education. He treated her well and she would have a good life with him. But she didn’t say any of that to Dan. There was no point. She might as well agree with him, for now. Then, after they were married, she would take Neel home. As she kept telling Natalie, it would be too late for the family to interfere.

She allowed Dan to believe that he had made her see sense. Happier, he took her out to dinner and told her that he wouldn’t say a word to Pop.

She couldn’t tell Neel what had really transpired. He would definitely break up with her. No, she would tell Neel that she had chosen him over her family, that she had made Dan leave.

Neel hadn’t done that for her. He was still living with the wife his family had chosen. When Caroline chased him to Reno, begging him to take their relationship public, he had said it wasn’t the right time.

He was just avoiding her. As she sat at her desk, watching the “hold” button on the phone blink on and off, repeating in slow motion the beat of her heart, she realized that she might lose Neel. That was when she decided to phone the wife.

When the time came, her hands shook so much she had difficulty opening the bottle of wine. She drank a full glass. Only when she felt ready for anything did she reach for the phone. She knew that Neel wasn’t home.

The ringing filled the apartment and she pressed the receiver against her ear. Two, three rings. Her heart pounded, and she didn’t know whether she was afraid it would be picked up or disappointed if it wasn’t. Just when she was thinking of giving up, a brief silence replaced the ringing and a soft voice answered.


Caroline forgot her careful preparations. “Is this, is this Dr. Neel Sarath’s house?”


“Are you Mrs. Sarath?”


“You don’t know me, but I think you should know about me.”

There was no response at the other end of the line.

“My name is Caroline Kempner. I work at the hospital and I’ve known Dr. Sarath—Neel—for five years.” As she said “Neel,” she grew confident.

“I know your name. You are the secretary.”

“Yes.” Caroline was momentarily nonplussed. “I don’t just know Neel professionally. We have a personal relationship.” Was it the Merlot that was making her heart beat so loudly she could hardly hear the wife, or was it her own fear? She had never imagined she would be so frightened of his unwanted wife.

“I understand. I saw you at Reno.”

“Then you know.”

“About the slides. You brought them to my husband. He thought you were, how did he put it? Bucking for a raise.”

Damn that Neel. He had lied about her, about them. She remembered the humiliation of waiting for him, being sent back to San Francisco like a piece of baggage. The warm effects of the wine vanished, replaced by an angry cold that chilled her to the tips of her fingers. Once and for all she was going to fix the odds. Neel had been hers for years and would soon be hers forever.

“There were no slides. I went to Reno to see Neel because we had quarreled. We are lovers.”

“I see.”

“I hope you do see. That’s why I’m calling you. Neel and I have been lovers for over three years. It isn’t as if we are just having an affair,” Caroline explained. “He met me long before the trip to India last summer. In fact, he was all set to marry me when his grandfather got sick and he ended up marrying you.”

“I see.”

The monotonous, almost monosyllabic answers annoyed Caroline. She had anticipated anger, denial, tears, shouting. Not this patient, almost indifferent response.

“Did you hear what I just said? Neel never wanted to marry you. His grandfather wanted the marriage. Neel married you only because he doesn’t want someone’s death on his conscience. We kept in touch the whole time he was in India.”

Caroline paused, but again there was no sound from the other end.

“Are you still there?”


“Well, anyway, I just thought you should know. I mean, I would want to know if I were you. When Neel returned from India with you, I was furious with him. But he told me he was going to get a divorce as soon as his grandfather dies. We thought that would happen in a few months. Neel may be married to you, but he has been seeing me the whole time. We see each other at work and then he comes to my home in the evenings. Even the first day back from India, he came to see me. He loves me and we plan to get married.”

“Is Neel with you?”

“No.” Caroline hesitated before continuing. “But I thought you should know what’s going on.”

“I know now.”

Caroline replaced the phone in its cradle and looked at the lipstick marks on the wineglass. The conversation had been easier than she had imagined. No hysteria, just quiet acceptance. That was good. It would make things easier, especially when the divorce was in the works. The phone call proved that the wife was a meek little thing who would sign the papers exactly where she was told to by Neel.

She had thought the call would leave her relieved, lighter, give her the feeling of a woman in charge. She continued sitting in her chair, neither pleased nor displeased, waiting for the sound of Neel’s finger ringing the doorbell. She had left him a message asking him to come over tonight. He hadn’t said yes, but he hadn’t said no, either.

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
13.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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