Authors: Anne Cherian
He wished there
someone whose picture he could show to Tattappa and say, “I’m going to marry her. Period.” He was fed up with his married colleagues asking him how he had “escaped.” He was tired of laughing and giving the same trite answer.
The relationship with Savannah had been his only serious one at Stanford, and when he started at the hospital he kept away from the smiles and interested eyes of the nurses.
Caroline pursued him, and in a weak moment, he permitted himself to succumb to her brazenness and beauty. Sure it would never last, given their differences, he had gone out with her. Weeks went by, years accumulated, and somehow he never took a step to end it. He told Caroline they should keep their private life a secret because it could have professional repercussions. But in truth he was ashamed of being seen with her, a mere secretary with a high school education. He did enjoy her California chic and felt proud of the way other men looked at her. No one could accuse them of fitting the profile of one typical mixed couple: handsome Indian man, blowzy and ill-kempt white woman. He just wished she were more like the women his friends had married. He wanted to marry up, not sideways, and certainly not down.
Now he was cornered by his own inability to produce a girl and by Mummy’s scheming. He had the oppressive sense that India was stalking him with its customs and expectations. Even the bathroom walls felt like they were enveloping him, repackaging him into the young boy who had been trained to listen to his elders. But he wasn’t that boy anymore. He was a successful anesthesiologist who managed his own career and life.
It was as if he had never left India. The sinuous crack in the tile had always looked like a dead snake. Ubiquitous spiders embroidered the corner of the ceiling in a variety of patterns. The paint on the doorway was still peeling in a steady, diagonal slant. He had always disliked the sweet, feminine aroma of the sandalwood soap on his skin, and recoiled from the dark ring of mud and God knows what else around the edges of the floor. He wished India were more like America. Even if the cleaning crew did not come every week, his condo never got this dirty.
Last trip he had brought back some Comet and asked the servant to scrub the bathroom. But within half a day the floor had acquired its regular patina of dirt. It was always like that.
No matter how hard he tried to bring America here, India inevitably asserted itself.
BOTH LEILA AND NEEL WON
a victory the Sunday they unwillingly met each other.
On Saturday, Neel’s mother said she couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to meet a twenty-year-old girl, a recent graduate in English. When he heard the girl’s age, he exploded. “For God’s sake, I’m thirty-five.” His mother quickly said, “Amita’s parents, they do not mind.”
“I don’t care about them. I mind. I told you, I’m only going to see one girl. And I refuse to see someone who is so young. I’ll see the older one.”
Muttering under her breath that America had made him “virry difficult,” Mummy asked Aunty Vimla to phone Amita’s parents. And grumbling under his breath, Neel deliberately put on a suit the next day. Tattappa suggested he wear a kurta pajama, but in spite of the heat, Neel opted for a light gray pinstripe. He had to assert his independence, show that he wasn’t giving in entirely.
Leila regretted the thinning silk of the saree. Should she have allowed Amma to buy her a new one? For a week they had battled, high-pitched words giving way to sullen silences that made meals awkward for the whole family.
But Leila did not care. She knew this America-returned doctor was going to marry elsewhere. Right after Mrs. Rajan’s visit, they had heard through the servant grapevine that Suneel was also going to see Amita. Petite Amita with hair that flowed down to her knees. Even Indy, who generally did not envy people, was jealous of Amita’s straight, silky hair. Leila had taught Amita the previous year and knew that her parents were rich enough to own two cars and employ four servants. Most families, even relatively poor ones like theirs, had one servant, but four was a mark of great wealth. Then there was Amita’s beauty, which had achieved a legendary status ever since a talent scout suggested she try for the Miss India pageant. Amita had refused. Naturally. No good girl from a good family would compromise herself by taking part in something so public. Instead, the story became her crowning glory. Leila knew who was going to win this doctor pageant and wished that Amma could, for once, see the situation for what it was.
“Why have you to be so stubborn, Leila?” Amma shouted.
“Amma, why do you insist I always do everything your way?”
Leila’s words immediately conjured up Janni. Tousle-haired, joking Janni. He was the uninvited guest, never seen, never spoken of, but whose absence was the stick used to “straighten” Leila out. Amma would never forget or forgive her daughter for shaming the family.
“I have a saree,” Leila said quickly, wanting to purge the specter from the room.
“An old saree,” Amma countered. “For seeing such a good man you want to be wearing an old saree?”
Leila was relieved Amma was talking instead of shouting. “The green one is not that old, Amma.”
“Old is old,” Amma said, her face set.
“It’s good enough.” Leila decided to be blunt. “You know he is going to say yes to Amita.”
“You know, you know.” Amma shook her fist. “You know how I have suffered all these years? So many people asking why for you are not married? And now I bring you a good man and you, you…”
Leila, too, had heard women ask, “So, Mrs. Krishnan, when is your fair and beautiful Leila going to make you a mother-in-law?”
In the silence Leila could hear Kila playing house with her one doll. “You have to make coffee every morning for your husband…” Indy was ironing their saree blouses for tomorrow, body tense from the fight she could clearly hear.
“I shall to go out and buy the saree by myself,” Amma threatened.
“Go,” Leila challenged her mother. “See if I care. See if I wear it.”
She didn’t want to add a Suneel saree to her collection. All her silk sarees, the good, going-out ones, bore the memory of rejection; she knew her wardrobe by the men who had not wanted to marry her. She had to put a stop to it, even if Amma persisted in the mad belief that every new proposal was a real possibility.
In the end Kila needed a new school uniform and Amma dropped the talk of a saree, though the disapproving look never left her face.
So Leila had dressed for this morning’s sit-and-be-seen in a peacock green saree almost a year old.
The doorbell chimed. He had arrived.
Soon Leila would take out the coffee tray. To meet him, and also to show that her legs were in walking condition. In the old days, girls suffering from polio waited decorously in the sitting room to avoid walking, and thus married unsuspecting men. No one took chances like that anymore. Girls were like cows, their pedigrees discussed openly and parts checked out.
Kila rushed into their bedroom, face alive with what she had just seen.
“They are all of them here. Are you ready, Akka?”
“She’s ready,” Indy replied for Leila. “Did you see him?”
“Yes.” Kila turned her attention to what really mattered. “Akka, can you save some samosas for me?” Kila loved the fried snacks, but today Amma had not allowed her to have any. She wasn’t sure how many members of the Sarath family were coming, and didn’t want to run short.
The samosas reminded Leila she was hungry and she hoped her stomach would not disgrace her by singing loudly. But she had been unable to eat any breakfast and had surreptitiously fed the cat her dosa under the table.
“Kila, don’t be such a pig.” Indy yanked one of her sister’s braids. “What does he look like?”
“Handsome. He’s all dressed up.”
“Dressed up?” Leila immediately felt drab. The green color was still vibrant, making a nice contrast with the pink border, but the sheen and crispness that give a brand-new saree its fullness were long gone. For a moment she regretted fighting Amma.
But it wasn’t just pride that had made her oppose even Appa, who ordered her to “Stop back-answering your mother, and go buy a saree so we can finally get some peace in the house.” It was hope, the feeling that emerged only in the dark of night when everything seemed both possible and impossible. And with hope had appeared the absurd notion that if this time the answer was going to be different, then she had to make certain the occasion itself was different. A whole procession of new sarees had brought her rejections, so an old one might change her luck. This was probably the last best proposal she would ever have and behind her unconcern she desperately wanted it to work. It was only a matter of time before she was set aside, “not even dusted while I sit on the shelf,” she said self-deprecatingly, and Indy the one brought out for potential grooms.
Kila turned to Leila. “Yes, he’s wearing a suit. And I could smell him from where I was peeping behind the window. What do you call it when men wear perfume, Akka?”
“Fe-men-ine.” Indy wrinkled her nose at Leila. They both thought men who wore aftershave were a little affected. After encountering numerous men whose artificial body scent reflected a changed mind-set, the sisters had decided that clean smelling equals clean thinking.
“Cologne, Kila,” Leila answered, trying to gain composure by thinking of something other than Suneel. His name had reverberated in her mind all night. Suneel. Suneel. She had even tried out Leila Sarath, until she realized it was bad luck to do that. “It’s not perfume. They put it on after they shave.”
“Then how come you and Indy don’t put it on?”
“Because we shave our legs, not our faces, you stupid.” Indy gave Kila a little push.
Amma appeared at the door and wagged her index finger. Leila rose to follow. Their earlier anger had evaporated, replaced by uncertainty and a hope that momentarily united them. They both wanted the same thing.
“Akka, don’t forget about the samosas,” Kila whispered, as Leila walked past her.
“Remember he is nervous, too,” Indy rushed her words. “If he makes you uncomfortable, just picture him with a lota.”
Men crouching beside water-filled lotas had amused them since their first train ride to Appa’s village. It helped alleviate the boredom of the trip, and broke up the monotony of the endless graph of emerald rice shoots spiked by the hairpin silhouette of workers. They would peer through the bars of the bogey window, searching for the village men and their telltale brass pots that glinted in the early morning sunshine. The train never bothered the line of villagers, who kept talking amongst themselves, sometimes waving, as if going to the bathroom was a social occasion.
But this time Leila couldn’t giggle at the memory of the “scatological society.”
Even before she entered the sitting room, Leila heard Mrs. Rajan: “The new-style sofas are not at all comfortable. I like these old kind. Virry clever of Mrs. Krishnan not to make the change.”
It was impossible to make a rich impression at the exact moment their poverty was being touted as good judgment. Why had Mrs. Rajan brought the proposal if she meant to tarnish it even before it had a chance?
Leila and Neel didn’t look at each other for the first five minutes.
Leila served coffee to his parents. She concentrated on the milky brew. As she poured the hot liquid, she smelled the faraway, sweet aroma of America, and heard the “r” sounds in his accented words.
Neel focused on the father. He had visited Britain and surprised Neel by really knowing his way around London. As they spoke of Cleopatra’s Needle and the mummy in the British Museum, he saw the bright green material that swayed this way and that, occasionally leaving his range of vision.
“So, Suneel, you have anything to say for yourself?” Aunty Vimla’s voice broke the fence Neel had erected. Now he had to look at the girl. Acknowledge her presence. Say something.
He took refuge in being American.
“Hello,” he said, as he stood and extended his hand. “I’m Neel. How do you do?” His words came out with the full roundness of a California accent, not the clipped speech that many Americans assumed came from a British education. This was the first time he heard himself sounding like an American. People in India said he did, but he always thought his accent had an English polish to it. When he first got to Stanford, he enjoyed telling his classmates that the British had stolen their accents from India.
Her grasp was surprisingly strong and she looked him straight in the eyes.
“I’m Leila.” She let go of his hand, but still felt embraced by his aftershave. Leila wanted to add something, but her mind refused to cooperate. Disconcerted, she looked down and saw the shining curves of his shoes. All she could think of was telling Indy that a man’s foot indicated the size of his penis. Sitting on the bed they had laughed, but now she felt tongue-tied. Everyone was looking at her and she could not even raise her eyes from the spot that had brought on that humiliating thought.
Her bent head annoyed Neel. What sort of girl had Tattappa suggested he see? He didn’t find shyness an endearing quality and now it only made a strained situation worse. Was this all he was worth? An aging thirty-year-old in an old saree? Living in a small house, a father without a job, a mother so eager to please she kept offering him samosa after samosa?
Aunty Vimla had gone on and on about how Mrs. Krishnan made the tastiest samosas in town. They smelled delicious, but God knows how many grams of fat were in the deep-fried triangles. Yet there were only so many times he could refuse and be considered polite. As he bit into the spicy potato mixture, he glanced at the girl and tried to figure out how he could make this painless for both of them. If only he could leave right now.
But he was trapped. Trapped in their best room with its best furniture, including the glass-fronted cabinet filled with the requisite Walkie-Talkie doll. Mr. Krishnan had doubtless brought it back from England and everyone had probably seen the foreign marvel walk and talk just once before it was put away.
And he was trapped by the best intentions of his family.
He couldn’t blame them entirely. He had walked into this house of his own volition. His precise, anesthesiologist’s mind, adept at making correct decisions, had gone over every detail last night. He hadn’t chosen his field at random. He was the doctor of exactitude, the one who researched the situation thoroughly, knowing that even a fraction too much or too little could cause complications. He had lived his life this way, so this new episode didn’t pose too great a challenge. The plan was simple: Get ready in the morning, be polite but uninterested in the girl, then return home and reread one of the many letters Caroline had written him. Clever of old Tattappa to recommend he see this girl because she had been rejected before. Her family would not, could not, expect otherwise from him. His pride would have preferred the young English graduate his mother kept saying was beautiful, but wealthy parents invariably had great expectations. Once he stepped into their large house they would own him, demand explanations why he didn’t want to marry their precious daughter. The Krishnans could only ply him with food, not questions.
As he looked down at the girl’s glossy hair, last night’s well-thought-out strategy lost its clarity. He hadn’t once considered the possibility that he might be nervous. Sweat rolled down his underarms and his neck itched. The suit was hot. He should have worn a kurta. He was reacting like his college friends, who told of suddenly uncoordinated fingers, legs bolted to the ground, coffee cups falling in a febrile dance of “Will she, won’t she?” But those men had
to marry the girls they were seeing. Had he really imagined this would be easy twelve hours ago? That he could saunter in and out like this was a restaurant? Was he crazy? Indian crazy. The phrase was reverberating in his head when he heard Tattappa’s voice. “Suneel, why do not the two of you go outside? These are mahdern times. Go, go, walk, talk.”