Authors: Anne Cherian
TATTAPPA HAS BEEN ASKING
for you all the time,” Father said when Neel entered the house.
Neel smelled death as he approached his grandfather. Old people acquired an old age smell that changed when death drew near. Neel did not have to examine Tattappa to know that he had a few more days at most to live.
“Tattappa, you called?”
Tattappa squeezed Neel’s hand and a small smile appeared on his face. Neel had learned those words from Mark, and for a while always answered Tattappa with that phrase.
“The boy,” Tattappa said slowly.
“The boy,” Neel repeated gently, relieved that Tattappa’s mind was still alert. “What did you call me for?”
“Suneel, I was worried. You—Leila.” Tattappa paused, the words he wanted to say trapped inside his decaying body.
“Yes, Leila. Did you want her to come, too?” Leila’s accompanying him had not crossed his mind. She, too, hadn’t suggested it, Neel now realized. Was it because she was angry with him?
“No. You. You. I am sorry.” Again Tattappa stopped, his convex chest cavity heaving up and down, up and down, from the effort to talk.
“Tattappa, you are a wonderful grandfather. You have nothing to be sorry about.” Neel blinked away the beginnings of tears.
Tattappa squeezed Neel’s hand again and the dulling eyes, practically blind without the thick glasses, looked grateful.
“The marriage. I knew you did not want it.”
The confession came between them as nothing had before. Not Neel’s decision to study in the States, nor his announcement to live there.
“I did the best for you.” The last words were barely gasped out.
“I know, Tattappa.”
“Tell me”—the words urgent and hoarse—“did I do wrong?”
Neel wondered that a man so proud could now be so humble. He was trying to form an answer when he noticed that Tattappa’s eyes had closed, his breathing the regular one of sleep. Neel stayed beside the bed, tormented. Tattappa had wittingly forced the match, was admitting that he could have got Neel out of it. Neel had always known the motive: love. Even at his angriest, he had never doubted that. Could love be wrong?
What would Tattappa say to these past months? To the furtive meetings with Caroline, the cool treatment of Leila, the pregnancy Neel did not want?
“Suneel, come, eat something.” His mother hovered near the door, her body as hushed as her voice.
He didn’t want to leave Tattappa, had no desire to sit at the table, but if he didn’t go, Mummy would worry. She was upset enough already.
Staring into the sweet, milky tea, Neel heard Aunty Vimla and Ashok come into the house.
“I am sure Tattappa also wants to see my Ashok.” Aunty Vimla’s voice was clear and strident.
“He is sleeping just now,” Mummy said. “He just spoke with Suneel.”
Aunty Vimla and Suneel clashed eyes. Neel waited to hear her say that he had tired Tattappa. But even she did not dare.
“Ashok has something important to tell to Tattappa.” Aunty Vimla arranged herself in the chair and placed her hands on the table. “Ashok is going to have a baby.” She said it with such pride in her son’s ability, such surety that only Ashok could do this great deed. “You can to congratulate your cousin,” Aunty Vimla urged Neel.
Neel wanted to clap Ashok on the back and say, “
Guinness Book of Records
, man. The only male I know to have a baby.”
But no one would get it. Just as they had not understood the desire to choose his own wife.
What should he tell Tattappa? That he had done wrong to knowingly force Neel into an arrangement because he, Tattappa, thought he knew what was best? Neel could not imagine having that much certainty for another. He had always only been certain for himself. Especially when he was young and created the list to live by. Yet it had been challenged these past years. Savannah, Caroline, Leila—the women paraded in front of him. One was unattainable; one so needy; one his by law. But America had taught him that laws could be challenged and changed. Tattappa would never think that way. His was a simplicity that dictated a marriage lasted unto death. How could he tell Tattappa that even during the wedding ceremony he had been plotting a divorce? That he still wanted it?
For a brief moment he imagined never seeing Leila again. Having his old life back. And instead of relief, he felt—ambivalence. He remembered that Leila had packed his suitcase and because there was no time to shop, had looked around the house for small gifts. Mummy would like the soaps, Father the big nail clippers.
Leila. She was probably wondering how Tattappa was doing. He should call, tell her that he had arrived safely.
Without much hope of getting through, he was surprised to hear the phone ring. Fully expecting her voice at the other end, he hung up when the answering machine kicked on.
“Leila is okay?” Mummy asked.
“She wasn’t there,” Neel said, uncomfortably aware that Aunty Vimla was listening.
“Your Leila goes out at night?” Aunty Vimla’s voice was high with shock.
“It’s morning there,” Neel corrected.
“Oh yes, yes, in Ahmerica everything is upside down.” Aunty Vimla went back to slurping her tea.
Where could Leila be, Neel puzzled, as he put down the phone an hour later. After the second failed attempt, he was determined to reach her and decided to try every half hour.
Father came out of Tattappa’s room and Mummy immediately poured a cup of tea, asking, “Then?”
The question was as familiar as the mole on Mummy’s jaw, the curly black hairs on Father’s large Buddha ears. This was how they always greeted each other. When Father returned from work, Mummy from the Temple, it had always been that question. Not the “Darling” Neel used to long for, but a simple, open “Then?” He knew, too, that now the word meant, “How are you doing? How is Tattappa?”
“Okay. Tattappa is still sleeping,” Father sat down. “Ah, good, Ashok, you are here.”
“Ashok is going to have a baby,” Aunty Vimla preened. “We only got the confirmation this evening and hurried over.”
“Tattappa will be happy,” Father said. “Good, good.” He drained his tea and returned to his vigil.
Neel was walking toward the phone when Father’s voice urgently called him:
“Suneel, Tattappa is awake.”
Father had switched on the light and the naked bulb gave Tattappa the jaundiced veneer Neel had seen on newborn babies. He lay in the same position, but this time there was a question in his eyes. The nap had not made him forget their conversation. He wanted to know if Neel was okay. He had held on for that answer.
Neel looked down at the hollowed cheeks, the lips that had caved in because the dentures no longer fit. He could not let Tattappa die unhappy.
“Tattappa, you are going to become a great-grandfather.”
“Ashok’s Smita is in the family way,” Father said.
“Tattappa, it is your Leila. My Leila,” Neel corrected himself. “She is going to have a baby. That is why she did not come with me.”
“So”—with an effort, Tattappa clasped Neel’s hand in both of his—“so. It is as I hoped.” And with that he closed his eyes, his fingers lax around Neel’s hand.
Aunty Vimla’s bulky shadow grew into the room, Ashok following meekly behind.
“Appa, Ashok has some good news for you,” Aunty Vimla said loudly.
“He knows,” Father said when Tattappa didn’t open his eyes. “I already told him. Also our Suneel is going to become a father.”
“You?” Aunty Vimla shot Neel a glance. “You are going to have a baby?”
“No, I’m not,” Neel paused to better absorb her softening face. “Leila is.”
And with that he hurried to the phone. This time Leila picked it up on the second ring.
“Where were you?” He couldn’t stop the question. He had felt a bit of a fool calling so often.
She had been in the condo the whole time. Vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, having a bath. She had just been out of sound reach every time he phoned.
“I was wondering,” he said instead of the more personal “worried.”
She had said she would have the baby on her own, and for the past two hours Neel thought she had left to do just that. Anything was possible. He knew that.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, trying to find a way to tell her about the conversation with Tattappa. “Everyone is asking about you, but I told them you could not come because of the baby.” He pressed the phone closer to his ear, but couldn’t hear anything.
“Leila, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here.” She had always been there for him. Didn’t he know that?
“I’m glad. I thought we got cut off. Listen, if you are feeling better, why don’t you call up some real estate agents. See houses with gardens. Remember what Sanjay said,” he tried to inject some humor, knowing there was no turning back now, “babies are like dogs. They need gardens.”
The next day, Tattappa died, and hardly had Aunty Vimla started crying hysterically when relatives, friends, neighbors, flocked to the house. Neel went out to the verandah for a few moments’ respite from the copious tears and preparations.
A band of barefoot children ran past on the street, the oldest boy expertly rolling an old bicycle tire with a stick. Ashok’s child would do this one day. His own would have roller blades, intricate models, computer games, all the toys Neel himself never had.
He had taught his friend Mark how to play cricket in the empty field across from the house. Tattappa used to worry so about the American boy, thinking he looked sickly because he was too colorless or because he was too red from the sun.
Neel sat down on the cane chair that had been on the verandah ever since he could remember. Tattappa never wanted a new one, re-caning this one every few years. Old-made chairs were superior to the new ones, he always said.
As Neel rocked back and forth, he looked out at the scene Tattappa had watched daily. Morning and evening, Tattappa sat in his chair, nodding, greeting the passersby. He had loved this house, this land, this street. He never wanted to leave, except to visit his village. This was as far as he wished to travel. He never even wanted any of the gadgets other families requested from their sons living abroad. Tattappa had always been happy with local things.
They were the same flesh and blood, yet so different. Neel had felt fenced in by the railings on the verandah; Tattappa proudly called them a fine decoration. Neel couldn’t wait to escape; there were days when Tattappa never left the house.
Neel stood up, then sat down again. He tried to find Tattappa’s contentment. Tried to feel how it would be to live on one street for the rest of his life. To be content without asking for more. No, he didn’t have it.
A mosquito buzzed by. Without thinking, Neel crushed it in midair. Tattappa had taught him that and he still knew how to do it. He was Tattappa’s boy after all.
NEEL WAS GONE FOR A WEEK
, and after that first call, Leila spoke with him every day.
The day after he arrived, Tattappa had died, and as Neel said, suddenly he wasn’t a grandson anymore. Knowing that Neel would not be able to stay till the thirteenth day, the family had broken tradition and celebrated Tattappa’s long life by feeding the poor just two days after his death. Aunty Vimla had objected, but, Neel told Leila, everyone seemed to understand he had to return to San Francisco. A society had started building houses for beggars and Neel contributed money in his grandfather’s name.
Almost daily one or another of Neel’s colleagues called to offer their sympathies and she wrote down their names, occasionally having short conversations with them. She no longer feared that every ring meant Caroline. The new development in her own life had done away with the other woman’s significance.
Oona and Sanjay came over one evening, bringing a card and flowers. They didn’t stay long because Oona needed to rest.
For the first time, Leila felt she was a part of their life—and their love. She had planned to wait until Neel returned to tell them about the baby, but wanted to share the good news now. “I’m pregnant, too,” she said. “We can rest together.”
She waited for Oona to get excited, but instead the other woman looked down at her feet and Sanjay put his arm around her.
“We lost the baby,” Sanjay said.
“I’m so sorry.” Leila could hardly say the words. Had she willed it to happen? Could jealousy go so far? Regret brought tears to her eyes.
“I’m okay,” Oona insisted. “I’ve got this great guy here and we’ll try again. The doctor says one out of five pregnancies end in a miscarriage.”
“Let’s not dwell on all that,” Sanjay said. “I’m still waiting to eat those samosas you promised me,” he reminded Leila.
“I haven’t forgotten the invitation. Let’s make a date after Neel returns.”
Rekha was the only one who didn’t know the best of news and the worst of news. Leila wanted to forget that afternoon of confession when sadness had transformed her into a shameless talker. She phoned, hoping to get off easy and leave a message. But Rekha was home, and even before Leila could tell her about Tattappa and the baby, she began bemoaning her thesis. Or lack of thesis.
“It seems like Anu was the only Indian woman who’s come to the shelter. Will your friend talk to me?”
“No, like I told you, she won’t talk.” To change the subject, Leila told her Neel was in India and that she was just beginning to feel the first changes from pregnancy—she no longer tolerated the smell of garlic, and craved sour things.
Rekha was genuinely excited about the baby, but was soon back to her main concern.
Her insistence annoyed Leila and before she could think, she asked, “Why do you want to pry into people’s lives?”
“That’s what journalists do. That’s how we change things.”
“I thought you were going to write meaningful stories.”
“I do think my story will help others. It’s not a vapid Prince Charles piece.”
“But it will only help those who can read it. And most of the women who need to read it won’t be able to, right? So, instead of looking for sad stories, why don’t you do a thesis on arranged marriages?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Demythologize them. Most Americans think arranged marriages are exotic, bizarre. They forget that it’s part of their heritage as well. Mail-order brides came by the boatloads from England. And besides, arranged marriages aren’t so different from love marriages. Show their similarities.” Leila knew she sounded didactic, but Rekha was being so narrow-minded.
“Yes and no. Many men and women who make these supposed love marriages use the same methods Indian parents use. You were just talking about Prince Charles. I know the papers kept saying it was the love match of the century, but my friends and I thought it was an arranged marriage. He had to choose someone from his own background and get approval from his parents.”
“Hmmm. That puts the fairy tale in a whole different light.”
Leila was pleased to give Rekha a new perspective. She was just like Cynthia and Harold, seeing things as an outsider instead of as a participant. It was that thought that made her continue. “It wasn’t just Charles and Diana who had an arranged marriage. You have one too.”
“What do you mean?” Rekha was astonished.
“I know you aren’t married, but when anyone, you, the man on the street, is born into a family, it is like an arranged marriage. You didn’t choose your parents or siblings. And yet you have to get along with them. Just like an arranged marriage.”
“But in love marriages couples get to know each other before taking the plunge,” Rekha insisted.
“If they get to know each other so well, how come there are so many divorces?”
“Bad luck, I guess.” Rekha didn’t want to talk about it anymore and Leila dropped the subject. Besides, she felt a little hypocritical, since she too had thought of divorce.
Shanti also visited, bringing a packet of jalebis. “They’re sinful,” she said of the orange-colored sweet shaped like a pretzel. “But they’re syrup-dripping good. You’ve moved the sofa. It’s cozier. I like it,” she added approvingly.
“A little something to do while Neel is in India.” She was pleased Shanti liked the new arrangement and hoped Neel would, too. She had also ordered an armchair that was to be delivered the next day. Neel had mentioned he wanted one and she had gone to some open houses to see how Americans decorated their rooms. Somehow she knew he would like the deep maroon leather with brass studs that lined the arms like a marching band.
“How have you been managing? Need me to take you to the grocery store?”
“Thanks, but I drive these days.” Leila smiled. “See, I’m saying thanks correctly.”
“I knew you’d get it. Not to dwell on funerals and death, but how is Neel coping?”
“He’s okay, though he has a cold. They settled his grandfather’s affairs and he’s coming home the day after tomorrow.” Her response bore the timbre of sadness, but there was joy at its root. She was now the custodian of Neel’s answers. His colleagues called her to offer their condolences, they asked her for information about him. At such moments she felt guilty that the main effect of Tattappa’s death was to bring her happiness.
“Good,” Shanti said. “Then I’ll get to see him before I leave.”
“You are going somewhere?”
“New Zealand. A project came up and I jumped at the chance.”
In her India days, she would have been rife with jealousy at Shanti’s chance to see a new country. Then even Ceylon, the teardrop of India, was an exciting destination precisely because it was foreign. Now New Zealand held no magic for her whatsoever. Had she really looked longingly at the two islands when Ashok had suggested it for their honeymoon? Her life was here now, with Neel and the baby. “When did all this happen?”
“Very suddenly, actually. The editor who was going fell ill and they called me. I said yes before they could change their minds.”
“You didn’t consult with Bob?”
“You are so old-fashioned, Leila. I like it,” Shanti added quickly, “but it is very much of the old world. I didn’t ‘consult with Bob,’ as you put it, because he was in surgery and I’m capable of making up my own mind. It’s funny, isn’t it? In India we run around pleasing others and forget to make ourselves happy. Here everyone is a little too ‘me’ conscious.”
“I guess a mixture of the two would be best,” Leila said judiciously. “Shall we have some chai?”
“You read my mind. I’d love some. I’d better eat a jalebi now so it won’t take away from the taste of the tea.” Shanti nibbled and talked at the same time. “So, any thoughts on work, or are you still enjoying being a domestic goddess?”
“Still thinking about what to do.” Leila didn’t want to tell Shanti about the children’s books. Just yesterday an agent had written saying he liked the story, did she have any more? Since then her fantasies revolved around getting published. She imagined telling Neel, “I’m going to have two types of babies, one of the flesh, and another that is intellectual.” She’d dedicate the first book to her old and new family. She handed Shanti a mug of tea.
“What are you interested in doing?”
“Anything with words. Editing would be great. I’m going to be volunteering at the Y, starting next month. They have children who need extra tutoring in English and it will keep me busy a few evenings every week.”
“Good for you. If I see any editing opportunities, I’ll let you know. This tea is wonderful, Leila. It’s different. What did you put in it?”
“Almonds. It’s my short-cut version of
, the almond tea they make in Kashmir. Only mine isn’t authentic.” The almonds were on the counter as a reminder to be eaten daily—Amma used to say they helped to grow the baby’s bones—and she had crushed some into the brew almost as an afterthought.
“This is light-years away from the awful tea they serve at the cafeteria. Bob and I had lunch there today.”
Just a few weeks ago, Leila would immediately have imagined Neel having tea with Caroline in the same cafeteria, despairing that, unlike Bob, he never invited Leila to meet him at work. Now her eyes played out a different scenario: The secretary sat alone, while she, Leila, was the lucky Mrs. Sarath.
This morning she had sorted through Neel’s closet, wanting to rid the condo of Caroline. She had deliberately not asked Neel about his late nights, because part of her suspected that he hadn’t told her the whole truth. He had not broken up with Caroline years ago. He must have been seeing her those times he worked late because he had suddenly started coming home early after they first made love. She had to forgive him his past, even his recent past, if she was to stay with him. One by one she put her hand into suit pockets, expecting to see some remnant of his days and nights with Madam Fake, but always her fingers came up empty. At the last double-breasted gray suit she breathed easy, taking in the smell of her absent husband, who was present in the baby she carried.
“Why aren’t you having any chai? Don’t tell me you too are allergic to nuts?”
“As far as I know, I don’t have any allergies. I’m having this.” Leila raised her glass of orange juice.
“Since when does an Indian give up tea for juice? Are you pregnant? You do have a glow about you.”
“An orange-colored glow?”
“Very funny. Come on, tell me.”
Leila relented. “Yes, I am pregnant.”
“Aren’t you the sly one.” Shanti raised her cup of tea. “To your baby. Tell me, is Neel thrilled? Is he ready to be a father?” So, she thought, the secretary fling is over and Dr. Suneel is settling down to being the good Indian husband.
“I hope so,” Leila said.
She had spoken to him two hours ago. Indy’s proposal was proceeding well and he had promised Amma to bring Leila for the wedding, unless it was around the baby’s due date. Everyone knew she had not attended the funeral because it was too early in the pregnancy. The whole town, then, was aware of her good fortune. There would be no more talk of “poor Leila.” The next time she saw them, there would be a baby in her arms.
Shanti left, and the empty apartment made Leila wish that Neel were already home. She wondered if he had spoken with Indy and on the spur of the moment decided to call her sister. As the long-distance buzz was replaced by a steady ringing, Leila thought how far she had come to being this person who easily picks up a phone and dials a country halfway around the world.
Indy answered, and it was as if they had never been parted. Words raced between them—interrupting; completing each other’s sentences; changing topics quickly to make the most use of this expensive talking time. Amma and Appa had taken Kila to the Temple, so Indy didn’t have to share the phone.
Indy said she could hardly wait to become an aunty. “I hope it’s a girl. I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with a little boy.”
Leila asked when Srinivasan was coming to India. “Soon. I’m not sure when. Akka, I’m so nervous to meet him. How did you manage to keep so calm? I wish you were here to help me.”
Leila promised Indy everything was going to be all right. “I just sent you some frizz control in the mail. Use it when he comes to see you, okay?”
Leila asked after their friends, including the woman who had taken her place at the college. But nothing much had happened the last few months, no marriages or engagements.
“There is something,” Indy’s voice faltered. “Janni died.”
Leila was immediately transported to the crowded excitement of that first year in college. Sarees had replaced school uniforms. Some of the bolder girls wore lipstick. Classroom seats were not assigned and Leila always took the last row, eating, talking, sometimes even playing cat’s cradle. In the big lecture halls the one teacher sitting up front didn’t have the eyes or the energy to maintain discipline, and “bad” girls like Leila took advantage of that. There was no homework and hardly any tests. But what Leila liked best was the long bus ride to the college.
Liked it because she had met Janni in those aisles, sat beside him, squished, on the long seat at the back of the bus. And when he started passing her notes, she felt like a heroine in a Bollywood movie. On the big screen, couples took just one minute to fall in love. Now she had the same experience, writing his name a hundred times on paper that she threw away in case Amma’s eagle eyes spied it. For months she had been content with the sporadic encounters. Then that day when the note was a question:
Will you come see a film with me?
The words kept echoing in her mind, her stomach too excited to eat lunch. She could think of nothing else during class except the hope that he wouldn’t change his mind.