Authors: Anne Cherian
“We shall to buy a new saree,” Amma announced.
“Amma, I don’t think we can afford—” Leila started, but Amma cut her off. “It has been a few months since you bought one. We shall to go shopping tomorrow.”
Leila felt a future fight seed itself inside her. She refused to dress for certain failure. She didn’t want to spend her money to sit on a chair and be judged by strange eyes.
“You didn’t tell us his name, Amma,” Indy said.
“No? It is Suneel, Suneel Sarath.”
“Suneel Sarath,” Indy tested the name. “Akka, you can call him SS.”
“What is so funny?” Amma asked, her antennae going up immediately. Amma’s radar for detecting bad words in English had been alert ever since she intuited that Leila should not be teaching Indy the song:
Spell it with an F, a U, a C, and a K. What does it spell? Fuck!
She had reacted the same way when Leila brought home the phrases “Up yours” and “Balls” that were casually exchanged by anyone who was someone in college.
“You want for me to wash your mouth?” Amma used to threaten.
Leila didn’t. But she also didn’t want to be left out, so she simply switched to numbers, adding up the letters of the words she wasn’t allowed to say. Amma could only stand by in frustration as “Forty-six” and “One hundred and thirty-five” were bandied about by both sisters.
“SS,” like numbers, could stand for anything.
“Hmmph.” Amma knew she had missed something, but was too excited to care. As she left the room, she repeated, “We shall to buy a saree tomorrow.”
“Nazi,” Leila said softly, then fell to laughing again with Indy.
The laughter covered the hope that streaked through her like the bright tail of a comet. Maybe this time she would be lucky. A doctor from America. The last decent proposal had come five years ago. Leila now thought of the short, naturalized British citizen as just another sharp point in the ascetic bed of nails she was beginning to believe might be her destiny. Yet everything had started out so auspiciously. The two sets of parents shared numerous acquaintances and Leila had talked to him for a whole hour, during which a chance remark led to the discovery that they both enjoyed reading the Brontë sisters. He had visited the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth and raised her hopes by suggesting that she, too, would be charmed by the quaint town, with its cobbled streets. So Leila was not too worried when they didn’t hear from him the first day. She even convinced herself that he was too short to be accepted by anyone else. By the second day it was more difficult to hold on to the hope that he liked her. But, she consoled herself, he had confessed to jet lag, laughing about the dark circles under his eyes. When the third morning dawned, she woke with the certain knowledge that he had chosen elsewhere.
Still, when the rejection came, she cried for days. Indy, sweet, kind Indy, had declared her hatred for Mr. British. “Imagine living with a people we kicked out of our country. There will be others,” she whispered. But Leila knew that “good catches” had so many choices they never settled for a dowryless bride.
Mr. British was only an engineer. On credentials alone, this doctor was more impressive. And he lived in a country that was the number one destination for Indians. It was a proposal worth the long and despairing wait.
If it worked out.
NEEL GOT HIS FIRST TASTE OF
India in Frankfurt as he waited to board the plane for the final leg to Bombay. There were Indians everywhere. He had forgotten that brown came in so many hues and textures—fleshy, hirsute, pale, dark—that now surrounded him in the waiting area. His ear caught phrases of languages he had not heard in years. Malayalam—“
,” yelled at a little boy who was scampering down the corridor. Bengali—“
Jol khabo, na
,” as a young girl handed a bottle of water to an elderly woman. Only the announcer’s German told him where he was.
Wanting to make an unapproachable impression, Neel set out a stack of articles as soon as he took the window seat he had requested. He deliberately did not make eye contact with the man across the aisle. Neel had long practice—almost in one glance—at decoding travelers and recognized Mr. Rolex as a fellow Non-Resident Indian who would want to launch into a “clubby” conversation. The couple in front were an unlikely match made possible by America: The fat, balding man had parlayed his foreign status to acquire a pretty wife who would never have considered him had he held the same job in India. The old woman beside Neel would probably need help during the flight, something he found himself doing on every trip now that so many Indians lived in America and were visited by elderly parents who did not speak English.
“Oh, no,” he sighed when he heard a crying child—an Indian couple proudly taking their progeny home to be admired and doted upon. The parents were equally loud and Neel could hear every word of their conversation with Mr. Rolex. He had been mistaken, after all; they were an Indian-American couple, the dark-haired wife of Italian origin. And they were returning for good. “Harry has lived in my country, so now it’s my turn,” the woman said enthusiastically. “That’s just one reason,” husband Hari said. “It is difficult to be neither fish nor fowl in America, and I told Lisa our daughter will be more accepted back home. I mean, when the British came, our kings greeted them with open arms. America is not such a welcoming country.” Mr. Rolex agreed, but Neel thought the man was a simpleton. After that he concentrated on the articles, relieved that neither-fish-nor-fowl proved to be quiet, sleeping till touchdown in Bombay.
About twenty hours later, he stepped off the tiny Indian Airlines plane he had boarded at Bombay and was immediately embraced by the heat. It clung to him like the suit he wore to go deep-sea diving, both familiar and uncomfortable. Airport workers unloaded luggage on the grass-and-weed, dog-gambolled strip that served as the runway. The sun didn’t seem to affect them as they laughed and tossed the baggage: cardboard boxes tied with string, suitcases with oddly shaped bulges, each well plastered with the owner’s name and address.
Neel heard his name and turned to see Mummy, her high noon yellow saree blending in with the crowd of brightly dressed people. She was waving, shouting, “Suneel, Suneel!” He was so used to his one-syllable American name that for a moment he did not respond to the sing-song Indian word; then he waved and indicated the carousel.
There was only one ancient, creaking carousel in the airport whose grandiose, multi-syllable name (after a freedom fighter or politician, no one could agree) belied its small size. Until he went to America, Neel thought all airports were composed of one building equipped to handle two flights a day.
The slow-moving girders unloaded his bag last. At least it wasn’t lost.
He walked toward his mother, wanting to kiss her hello, but knowing that would embarrass her. Instead, he asked, “Have you been standing for a long time?” His plane had been delayed for two hours in Bombay because of the rains, and there were no chairs in the tiny waiting area.
“No problem, no problem.” Her face was all teeth from smiling.
He was chastened by her cheerfulness. Rested from having slept during the Indian Airlines flight, he was still peeved at the assortment of inconveniences that had hampered him from the moment he arrived in Bombay. Cafeteria closed. Just one window—with a long line—to exchange money. A taxi strike, which meant taking an open, jolting, smelly auto from the international to the national airport. Yet she, who had risen at dawn to make the five-hour trip to the airport, was too happy to care about simple annoyances like standing and waiting.
Crammed in the backseat of the car that couldn’t accommodate his legs, he half-listened to her excited words. Each was careful not to bring up the topic they were most concerned about: girls and Tattappa’s health.
His mother talked rapidly, making up for the time spent apart. The steel factory had built a large auditorium for his old school. His father was on the organizing committee for collecting money to enlarge the Temple. Neel rolled up the window, preferring the heat to the brown dust that already glazed his shoes and clothes. He wished the car was air-conditioned as sweat gathered behind his knees and puddled into his socks. They drove through small villages where thatched-roof huts were surrounded by a sea of red—chilies drying in the sun, his mother reminded him. “Nowadays some people are even putting paddy on the roadside. They want the cars to clean off the husk. Then they are getting angry if there is any problem,” his mother’s voice rose in outrage. Water buffaloes humped together in the muddy rivers. Monkeys screeched from trees. They had to stop for ten minutes until a peacock finally dragged its cumbersome tail across the road.
In a few hours the horizon changed from trees to rows of cement buildings. The driver slowed down as the car approached their town and Neel peered out his window as if it were a giant TV screen. Women coolies glided by, easily balancing precarious towers of bricks on their heads. Hawkers stood behind old wooden carts frying samosas, aloo chops, and vadas, and the smell of stale oil and flour wafted into the car. Big red buses rolled by, their color forever stained by the black fumes escaping from exhaust pipes. Neel could make out the agile conductor moving up and down the aisle. These men had amazing memories. Even in a packed bus, they knew who got on at what stop and always calculated the right amount for the ride. If only he could recall diseases and cures with as much accuracy and ease.
Male coolies, muscles popped out clearly, pushed carts heavy with wooden boxes. Four family members sprouted like fingers from one scooter. Gaunt rickshaw drivers made illegal shortcuts, almost causing accidents. He had forgotten that driving had few rules in India. It was first come, first go, with greater use of the horn than the brakes. When he was young, he used to beg his father to let him press the horn on their scooter.
As they made the once-familiar turns, Neel’s worries about Tattappa increased. He leaned forward with all the intensity and fear of his younger self when the red brick house came into view. He was Tattappa’s boy. Tattappa had raised him while Father spent long hours in the steel factory and Mummy supervised the kitchen work or visited friends.
The car stopped and Neel saw Tattappa stand up from his customary cane chair on the verandah, looking no closer to death than he had three years ago. After the last telephone conversation with Mummy, Neel thought he would find his grandfather in bed, able only to suck in soft rice and water. But there he was, chest bare as usual, a lungi tied around his teak brown waist. His gray hair was thinner and his shoulders more wrinkled and stooped, but the arms that embraced Neel were as strong as ever.
No one noticed Neel’s surprise. Tattappa, Father, Aunty Vimla clustered around him, excited and talking all at once. Mummy ordered the servant girl to bring coffee immediately and ushered Neel into the sitting room.
Neel had not felt this angry in years. He knew he should not have believed his mother. She would do anything—lie, exaggerate, even pretend that Tattappa was dying—to bring him back within marriage distance. But far away in America he couldn’t be sure that Tattappa wasn’t really sick, and he never imagined that she would go so far as to tempt the Gods with such a flagrant lie.
He was livid that he had been duped and that Tattappa had gone along with it. The old man was too humble to ask Neel to make the trip just to see him, but he had not hesitated to collaborate with Mummy. Such inconsistencies drove Neel crazy and were part of the reason he kept his San Francisco life so separate.
He knew it wasn’t the right time, but the words formed themselves inside his mouth. “Tattappa, I thought you were very sick?” Neel didn’t bother to keep the accusation out of his voice.
“Sick?” Tattappa blinked, eyes enlarged and a little watery behind his thick glasses.
“Yes, Mummy wrote that you were very sick. Practically dying.” He glanced over at his mother, but she was busy pouring coffee into cups that he remembered were only brought out on important occasions.
“Aaah yes, yes, that is also true. Every day I am getting closer to dying. So. So it is good that you are home.”
“Let us not talk of sad things.” Mummy handed Neel a cup, smiling, looking at her sister-in-law for confirmation.
“On your virry first day home we must only talk of happy happy things,” Aunty Vimla agreed, slurping her coffee loudly.
Neel winced at the sound of air rushing in to replace the words in her gossipy mouth. Her shrill voice had constantly ruined Neel’s youthful achievements by comparing everything he did to her son, Ashok, even though she never showed them any proof, like report cards. She merely “hmmphed” that Neel’s first place was good, but the marks were not up to Ashok’s standards. During his last visit, she had bragged about the nice wife she had found for Ashok, telling Neel that if he didn’t hurry up all the good girls would be taken. Now that Ashok and his sisters were all married, she had come here with her sanctimonious words to interfere in his life. She had always used her authoritative role as Father’s older sister to bully Mummy and belittle Neel. No one admonished her, not Father, who for some strange reason had always been intimidated by his sister, nor Grandfather, who doted on his only daughter because Aunty Vimla looked like her mother.
“What—happy things—do you want to talk about, Aunty?” He now knew what she was up to. It wasn’t just Mummy and Tattappa; Aunty Vimla had joined the campaign to get him married. But she had lost any power over him long before he got into Stanford’s medical school and Ashok, who had applied the year before to the MBA program, received a thin, polite rejection letter. “Stupid stupid school,” Aunty Vimla dismissed the California university. “It is better for Ashok to stay here. India is good enough for us, so why not for him?”
Aunty Vimla took another loud sip of coffee. “Oh, any happy thing is okay okay with me. You look virry handsome, virry good. But I am sure everyone in Ahmerica is telling you that also.”
“Right now I’m so jet-lagged I don’t know whether I’m standing or sitting.”
“You are definitely sitting.” Aunty Vimla laughed. “Just to keep on sitting. We will all take virry good care of you.”
“Yes, that is correct,” his mother agreed, nervously rearranging her saree pallao.
Aunty Vimla said, “Your grandfather”—she glanced at Tattappa and quickly added—“and your mummy and daddy, we would all like to see you married. So, with your mummy’s help, I have made some good arrangements for you. First-class girls. You have simply to sit and see them. Then if one is to your liking, you simply sit and get married. Simple.”
“Thanks for your concern, Aunty, but I came to see Tattappa, not a girl.” Even if he had wanted an arranged marriage, he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of ensuring he got a girl inferior to Ashok’s wife.
“You can see both, your grandfather and the girls, why not? Other boys, they are doing it all the time.”
“Suneel, it will make us virry happy to see you married,” Mummy said. “Don’t you agree?” She turned to Tattappa.
“Ah yes, that is true. But Suneel has also to be happy.” Tattappa patted Neel’s thigh.
“I’m happy as I am. I’m not getting married, and that’s final. Let’s not talk about this any longer. Please.” Yet he knew his polite American words would remain foreign to their ears and not change anything.
“But what shall I tell all those families?” Aunty Vimla lamented aloud. “I have already promised that you will see their daughters.”
“Frankly, Aunty, I don’t care what you tell them. Perhaps you should tell them the truth. That you made the promises without consulting me.”
“See, Appa, how badly he is talking to me,” Aunty Vimla complained to Tattappa. “And I am only trying to help him.”
“Suneel, don’t be so angry,” Tattappa said. “You know that we are only wanting the best for you. Your aunty and mummy have been working virry hard, arranging some virry good girls for you to see.”
“I told Mummy I didn’t want to see any girls. Or did she forget to tell you that?”
“She made that mention to me,” Aunty Vimla readily acknowledged before Tattappa could respond. “But we mummys always know what is best for our children.”
“I’ve got to get out of here.” Neel stood up, determined to put a stop to their haranguing. If only Tattappa would talk on the telephone. But he refused to, so everything had to go through Mummy, since Father, too, disliked the ringing instrument.
Even Tattappa looked surprised. But Neel was too angry to care. If he could change his ticket easily, he would take the next flight back to San Francisco. To a life that he controlled. Unfortunately, everything in India took a long time—except arrangements for marriages.