A Good Indian Wife: A Novel (8 page)

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
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“Don’t be like this, Indira. I am only trying to help.”

Smita’s insinuations followed Leila to the gold shop. It didn’t help that Amma kept bringing up Smita’s name.

“It is a virry good idea to make your bangles look like new. Smita also did the same when she married,” Amma said as they entered the shop, which reeked of betel nut. The old man’s teeth were red from years of chewing and every few minutes he expertly aimed a stream of spittle into a stainless-steel glass.

“Ah, it is our virry own Leila. Keeping yourself bizzy before the wedding?” Mrs. Rajan’s wide girth appeared in the doorway, blocking all the light. “You must do a virry good job for her,” she ordered the goldsmith. “She is coming into my family.”

Smita smiled uncomfortably behind Mrs. Rajan. She didn’t say anything, swinging the half-full bags back and forth as she waited for her mother-in-law to move on. But Mrs. Rajan was in no hurry.

“My father is a little only improved. Suneel sits with him every morning. A good good boy. Ahmerica has not spoiled him in any way. I told him to come and see you,” she nodded at Leila, “but he is bizzy bizzy meeting all our many relatives. He is saying there is plenty of time to be with you in Ahmerica.” She laughed.

“We will miss Leila.” Amma enjoyed the luxury of saying those words.

“Such happiness she is going to. I should not even say this”—Mrs. Rajan motioned them closer—“but Suneel’s mother, she wanted for him to see another girl, many other girls. But he refused. You see, I had told him our Leila is a first-class girl. He saw her and was happy. So, no more girls. No Amita. But his mother, she made a fight. I had to stop it. Anyway, now all is settled. Soon you will be in our family.” She pinched Leila’s cheek.

“We heard about the fight.” Leila glanced at Smita.

“But how? How?”

“Servants,” Leila said. “You know how they like to gossip.”

“Stupid stupid servants. They always get everything mixed up. Never listen to them. Now you know the truth. You were his first-class first choice.”

Leila wanted to run after Mrs. Rajan and thank her. Her fears were being carted off by the figure that now waddled down the road.

She laughed more than was warranted when Indy whispered, “Too bad there’s no Talk Marathon at the Olympics. Mrs. Rajan would win the gold medal.”

Leila’s imagination was entering the happiness Mrs. Rajan said awaited her. She would be with Suneel, and they would eat at candlelit restaurants, spend the weekend painting a room, and walk in the park holding hands just like couples did in American films.

THE WEDDING INVITATIONS WERE
hurriedly printed on plain white squares. Every evening the three girls, along with cousins and friends, wrote addresses and licked stamps. But according to tradition, certain people had to be invited by a family member. Otherwise they would be insulted, would make a big fuss about not attending the wedding, and a relationship would be severed. So Appa set out early in the mornings and returned late at night. Sometimes he didn’t go to more than four houses because people insisted he stay for lunch, tea, dinner. They were being polite, but were also curious about this remarkable match.

Meanwhile, the Krishnan house was inundated with relatives come to witness the miracle wedding. Cousins four times removed arrived with their children, bearing all types of food. Bags of new rice, strings of coconuts, tins of chuklis; the kitchen began to look like a storeroom. Families slept in every possible space, body to body, and people ate meals in shifts. No one used plates, they just spread a banana leaf on the floor and ate whatever had been prepared.

Two days before the wedding, a woman came to decorate Leila’s hands and feet with henna. A bride without henna was like a wedding gown without a veil. Indy thought the red color was “bloody awful, I don’t know why brides have to look like Dracula.” She grinned, then made a scary face. “I vant to eat your blood.” She pretended to choke Leila, who screamed and collapsed on the bed laughing, as Kila, too, joined in the vampire game. But this time Leila didn’t agree with her sister.

“I shall bloody well look the part,” Leila faked a British accent. “You, my dear, might not like it, but I happen to think red is the color of life. Do you concur, Watson?” she asked Kila, who nodded vigorously.

Kila was fascinated by the henna woman, who was a walking advertisement of her handiwork. Designs of mangoes, flowers, almonds, took up every inch of her arms and she had clearly put henna on her hair, for the chignon curled atop her head looked like a dollop of ketchup. She was so fat that rolls of flesh jiggled between her blouse and saree. When she saw Kila staring at the large gap between her two front teeth, she laughed and said, “It means I am virry rich.”

Indy looked at Leila and mouthed, “In fat.”

As the woman mixed the green powder with oil and tea water, she told them of other brides she had painted.

“One time I remember, this poor bride was crying so much she could not stop shaking. Tell me, how could I do a good job? Poor thing didn’t want to marry the man.” She bent and whispered in Leila’s ear, “Secretly in love with the neighbor boy, you know. But he was an Iyer, so, nothing to do, she must to marry the Iyengar boy her parents chose.”

The woman outlined the soles of Leila’s feet, and when she saw the wedding saree, made small almond designs on her palms.

“You must to let it dry for minimum four hours, otherwise the color, it will not be nicely bright,” she ordered as she left.

Forced to sit still, Leila watched her mother’s sister decorate the floor of the verandah. Squatting on her haunches, saree bunched up between her legs, Aunty Latha put down a series of dots, carefully joining them in patterns that went back centuries. The art of housebound women, Indy had dismissed the kolum designs when she refused to learn how to draw them. Leila used to help Amma, usually during festivals, but their patterns were never this elaborate and intricate. Today, Aunty Latha etched the cobweblike design on every step as well as the mud pathway. White, for good luck, and also to let passersby know this was a wedding house. Would Suneel want her to do this in America? Leila hoped not, because in a week she would have exhausted her designs.

As the sun kept setting toward the wedding day, Leila felt a calm she had not expected. Even the nosy relatives didn’t bother her. She got used to people traipsing through her room, peeping into open suitcases that were quickly filling up.

“You are taking such a heavy tava to Ahmerica?” One aunty lifted the iron skillet.

Amma had bought household necessities she was sure America did not have, like dosa tavas, idli makers, and thin white cotton towels that were perfect to wrap around wet hair because they soaked up water and dried quickly.

On his daughter’s last night as Leila Krishnan, Appa limped into the room without saying a word and gently pressed her face into his chest. Standing in the circle of his arms, she breathed in the smell of Lifebuoy soap, familiar from her childhood. He had never used any aftershave. When she was Kila’s age, they used to read the newspaper together. But once she got her monthly he stopped any physical contact. It had been that long since he had touched her.

Trying not to cry, Leila continued packing until Amma beckoned her into the kitchen, ordering Indy and Kila to stay in the bedroom. The two younger girls were not used to being left out and Amma seemed a little anxious. Leila wondered if the reception was costing more than they had anticipated.

No one else was in the kitchen. A pile of banana leaves lay on the counter, and the yogurt pot was covered for the night. Three glasses stood near the kerosene stove, where milk rose to a boil. Amma kept her eyes on the foaming white liquid as she explained that the priest had chosen July 24 as the night Leila was to begin her wifely duties. Relieved her task was over, Amma lifted off the silky skin and poured the milk into the glasses.

Leila remembered that Amma had been just as peremptory—and oblique—when discussing her first period. The two of them had gone shopping, and in the short gap between the rice shop and the police station Amma explained that women bled every month, discreetly touching the box of sanitary towels they had just purchased. Still, that first period had been a shock and Leila had thought she was dying. But instead of asking Amma, she read books and talked to friends bold enough to give her information about their “chums,” as they called their menstruation.

Now, hearing about the night she was to lose her virginity made her so nervous she almost dropped the glasses of milk.

“Be careful, Leila,” Amma cautioned.

The thought of being close to Suneel excited her. She had waited thirty years for this. She had never even kissed anyone. She had sat beside Janni, and talked to him for hours, but that was all. No man had ever touched her hair, played with her earlobes, stroked the length of her body the way men did in the romance novels she and Indy still read. These boy-meets-girl-but-something-goes-wrong novels were the closest she and other girls came to knowing what happens in bedrooms, since neither mothers nor teachers divulged such information. Men cup breasts in their large hands. Kiss a girl all over her quivering face, deliberately avoiding her lips until she can’t stand it any longer and their lips lock. Most tantalizingly, they show desire by pressing their male hardness against her thighs. Leila trembled, recalling the way lovers looked at each other in the movies. Kila was of the age when she said “
chee!
” during every romantic scene, but Leila strained her eyes, trying to learn. An Anglo-Indian senior in school had taught some of the girls to recite
Donald Duck/Went to fuck/Got it stuck/Cried, “I’m out of luck.
” Leila had taught Indy in turn, though neither of them understood it.

What if by this time tomorrow night she knew what it meant?

SEVEN
 
 

THE WEDDING DAY FOUND ITS WAY
to dawn with no sign of rain. Leila woke to her mother’s hands gently pressing into her shoulder. It was time to bathe, and the auspicious hour was now, before sunrise, when only the naked road lights cast a dull, scratchy yellow over the uneven asphalt. The other houses were darkly quiet. No chirping of awakening birds, just a guard dog barking far away.

In high school, every exam day had begun with Amma waking her up very early in the morning. Amma would quickly make a cup of coffee, and Leila would study the last portions of chemistry, physics, history, between sips of the sweet brew that was meant to keep her awake.

Now Leila stood silently in the bathroom, uncomfortable about the upcoming ritual. She could barely remember the last time Amma had bathed her. For a moment she wanted to crawl back into Amma’s womb, wanted to forget that this was the last time they would do something so intimate together. Then Amma filled the bucket and motioned her to sit on the little wooden stool.

Leila shivered as Amma poured a mug of cold water over her. The long saree petticoat and sleeveless blouse, “the Indian nightie,” Indy called it, clung to her body. The paste of turmeric and sandalwood felt warm as Amma’s fingers kneaded her skin. Inch by inch, every part of her was covered. Amma lifted the petticoat discreetly to reach her thighs.

This was the bath of brides, destined to leave her skin a faint, glowing yellow, her body perfumed like burning incense. Only now was she ready to put on the special nine-yard wedding saree, and she walked into her bedroom, where Indy, Aunty Latha, and the others waited.

Most sarees are six yards long, and on warm evenings servants often walked back and forth in twos, drying the rectangular material between them so they would not need to spend money on the ironing man. Leila had worn sarees since her sixteenth birthday, and was used to wrapping them, shroudlike, as Indy liked to say.

But this one, three yards longer than ordinary sarees, kept going around and around, adding bulk to her slim hips.

“I look fat.” She stared in distress at her reflection as Amma draped the pallao over her left shoulder. She also felt she looked old. At another time she would have joked that since she was probably the oldest bride in their town, it was fitting that she wear a saree, the oldest national costume in the world. But it was too close to the truth, and so she concentrated on how the folds of silk fell from her waist to the floor.

“No, Akka, you look beautiful. The color really suits you.” Indy kneeled down to fan out the pleats. Usually Leila did the same for Indy, but today was different.

“Now you sit and we will to decorate your face,” Aunty Latha said, taking over from Amma.

Leila felt the cold touch of gold as delicate strands of the shining, 24-carat metal framed her hairline, falling in a gentle curve to her ears. A thick gold chain was pinned to the middle of her head, completely covering her parting. Earrings shaped like open umbrellas dangled, almost to her shoulders, their weight pulling at her lobes. Aunty Latha clipped on a diamond-studded nose ring “to bring your husband plenty of good luck,” and slipped gold bangles, interspersed with glass ones, over her wrists. Most of the jewels had been borrowed from relatives eager to help, with Aunty Latha contributing the nose ring.

“You must to be virry virry careful when he removes the bangles tonight,” Aunty Latha warned. “If the glass breaks, you may get hurt.” Everybody laughed, and briefly, Leila felt a thrill at the upcoming night.

Aunty Latha’s warm breath was sharp with the scent of cardamom as she bent over Leila’s face to paint the red dots. One by one, the same size and shape, they went on in a line above her eyebrows. Black kajal to outline her fish-shaped eyes. A finger dab of rouge on her cheeks, and finally, red lipstick. Her face was ready.

Amma took charge of her hair, weaving it tightly into one long plait that reached Leila’s waist. A rope of champa and jasmine flowers embraced the braid so that no black strands showed. When the last flower was in place, Kila proclaimed, “You look like a princess, Akka,” and Amma corrected her immediately. “She looks to me just like a queen.”

Leila felt sweat dampen the sleeves of her new silk blouse, and wished she didn’t have to dress so early. She perched on the couch in the sitting room, a painting in red and gold that the guests came to view and comment upon as if she were not present.

She tried to distract herself by reciting Eliot,
The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne
, but was too nervous to recollect the lines.

Indy stood beside her, trying to look happy on this, their last day together as sisters without husbands.

“She looks virry calm, don’t you think?” Leila didn’t know many of the faces peering into hers. Amma seemed to have invited anyone they had ever known.

“Look, she’s even wearing golden slippers!” a little girl exclaimed, her voice full of wonder.

“So lucky that it is not raining.”

“The white flowers look nice against her hair, no?” The woman who said that was fussing with the flowers in her own daughter’s hair. Leila recognized the dull slant to the girl’s body and felt the determination in the mother’s hands. How many times had Amma dressed her and taken her to weddings so people could see her? This poor girl, too, stood quietly as her mother rearranged her in the hope of attracting the eye of some prospective groom or mother-in-law. Leila wished she could whisper confidence and confidences in the girl’s ear, tell her, “It will all work out. Look at me.”

The men didn’t come inside the house. They paced outside, near the bright orange shamiana, filling the air with smoke and discussions of promotions and new hires.

“I heard some naughty, naughty children say they are going to hide the groom’s shoes,” a woman’s voice came from behind Leila.

Lelia wondered if Kila was one of the naughty ones. Kila had been excited at the prospect of this pre-wedding game. Someone—always a child—on the bride’s side would hide the shoes that the groom took off before entering the shamiana. Harmless fun, it was meant to bring the two families together. It was also a quest for money; the groom’s shoes remained hidden till a barter was agreed upon. She hoped Suneel would recompense Kila with at least a hundred rupees. It was cheap for him, just over three dollars. If she had a chance she’d tell Kila to ask Suneel for a mate, thus doubling the money.

Smita rushed in with the news that Suneel had arrived. He was in the marriage mandapam, directly in front of the priest, with Ashok seated behind to help.

Leila heard only that Suneel was outside. The rest of the words, the people heating the room with their curiosity, were lost to her. He had come! The wedding was actually going to take place. Suddenly she felt frail and faint, and didn’t think her legs would carry her into the garden where he sat waiting.

But when that long walk began, she had the support of her two aunties, and a druglike composure that gave her an even gait. She thought of Rajput queens who were drugged for the walk to their husband’s funeral bier. Leila had seen artists’ renderings of the tragic events. The queen sitting on a high pile of wood, her husband’s head on her lap, surrounded by flames that burned the dead body and turned the living one into a satee, a virtuous woman. A handprint on the palace wall, a lacy signature made by henna, was all that remained of these poor queens.

She shook these unlucky thoughts from her head. She had to think happy thoughts or no thoughts at all. When she entered the shamiana, a hush descended on the crowd.

ASHOK HAD INSISTED ON ACCOMPANYING NEEL
, who didn’t know how he could refuse without being rude. Tattappa had wanted to be the one escorting Neel, but he was still weak and in bed.

All the way in the car, Ashok fussed. Every time Neel shifted, Ashok gave a warning “Hey, hey!” Just to shut him up, Neel tried to keep still. He had never been comfortable about exposing his torso and now that feeling was compounded by the constant worry that the veshti tied around his waist would fall off. He had not been allowed the security of a belt. “Shameful,” Mummy had remonstrated. The sandalwood paste that striated his forehead, arms, chest, even his stomach, reminded him of patients being prepped for operations. But they always signed consent forms.

Even in the marriage mandapam, an area set apart at the front of the shamiana, Ashok kept up a running commentary. But now at least Neel was sitting in front of Ashok, and no longer had to hold his breath at the pungent blend of cigarette and coffee fumes. The priest, an old man with skin that looked like cracked eggshells, had a surprisingly loud voice. His nonstop chanting, the heat, the sickly sweet incense, the smoke from the sacred fire, suffocated Neel. He could barely breathe, and as he kept his face lowered, he watched how the beads of sweat fell off his forehead and onto the veshti, the damp circles growing larger.

Neel had not sat cross-legged even as a child and now his whole body hurt. He tried to get comfortable, but it was impossible. His spine curved into a C and he didn’t know what to do with his hands. Should he place them on his knees? Leave them hanging at his sides? He knew people were staring at him. He felt as if he were staring at himself. What was he doing here? His breathing quickened. His chest seemed to swell like a balloon. He was going to hyperventilate. That would stop the wedding. Or would it not?

The silence rolled into the mandapam like a tsunami wave, with Ashok and the priest being the last to relinquish speech. It was a sign that she was now approaching. He forgot about his lungs and sat stiffly, staring straight ahead at the tiny altar with the fire and the sticks of incense. He remembered how his friends had turned around for that first sight and proudly watched their frothy Aphrodites come closer. One had even blurted “I do” before the priest finished asking the question.

Encased in the red saree, Leila looked down at the orange-yellow garland of marigolds she was holding, past which she could see her toes. Amma had repeatedly told her to keep her eyes on her feet. Leila had planned to look up, not caring that people would gossip she was a bold bride, but now that earlier resolve didn’t even occur to her.

She knew she had arrived at the mandapam by the scent of Neel’s aftershave. Had she really thought aftershave was feminine? She was sitting so close to him their knees touched. Was she too close? Would the priest ask her to move? She had seen the slim, gray-haired man perform many pujas from a distance. Now he was just a few feet away, and she watched as he poured ghee into the fire. Immediately the air was filled with the sound of sibilants.
Shhhhh
, the fire whispered that this was a sacred occasion, and then the flames danced back to their normal rhythm.

Leila took a quick peek when she exchanged garlands with Suneel, looking down immediately when their eyes met. The garland he placed around her neck was so long it bunched up in her lap. She lifted it carefully when she stood up. She bent her head and Suneel tied the mangalsutra around her neck.

Then the priest motioned them forward. He took an edge of Leila’s saree and prepared to tie it to Neel’s veshti with a knot. But his old, trembling hands had difficulty doing this part that he had performed a thousand times, and people began snickering. Unknown hands threw rice, and when the knot was finally tied, everyone clapped their hands, as if the electricity in the theatre had come back and the movie was playing again. Leila followed Suneel around the fire, her eyes riveted on her henna-edged feet. “I’m married, I’m married,” she thought, the words almost lifting her feet off the ground.

Neel wanted to shout, “I refuse to marry this girl I don’t know.” But Hindu wedding ceremonies don’t have the out offered by Christian priests. Once he was in front of the fire, there was just one route—around it, on a slow walk that bound him to this unknown woman forever. The Hindu priests were clever. They tied the couple twice, once with the mangalsutra, and then by knotting their garments together.

Aunty Vimla bustled over, two bright orange laddoos in her hands.

Aunty Vimla forced one into Neel’s mouth. “For sweetness in your life together,” she said.

Leila ate her laddoo and prayed, “I hope my life with him will always be sweet.”

Neel took a bite and almost choked. Standing just out of touching distance, surrounded by relatives and friends, was a beaming Tattappa. He looked radiant, as if he was the bridegroom. Neel tried to catch his grandfather’s eyes, tried to figure out how Tattappa, who had complained of leg and chest pains just this morning, could suddenly become so well.

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
3.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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