Authors: Anne Cherian
“BYE-BYE! DON’T FORGET TO BRING ME
some ice cream!” Kila shouted, jumping up and down on the white kolum, her new blue shoes destroying Aunty Latha’s careful pattern. But everyone was too excited to notice or scold her.
The guests rushed to the road to watch Leila and Neel drive off on their honeymoon. The reception was to be held the evening after the happy couple returned from Ooty. Grandmothers grumbled amongst themselves that it wasn’t proper; there wasn’t even a tasty lunch to gossip over. Gray heads shook their disapproval—couples were supposed to spend the first night in the bride’s house. Then they could go away. The younger generation, however, envied Leila. Anything Western was better than doing things the Indian way.
Awkwardness swaddled Leila. She wasn’t used to sitting so close to a man—or in a car. She looked down at the shiny red vinyl lining, pumped up with foam even at the edges, so different from the sagging seats in buses. Outside the window, life continued as always: a stray dog licked at some garbage, a bicyclist saved his strength by holding onto the side of an auto rickshaw, and a group of teenage boys raced between honking vehicles to get to the other side. A bus drew up alongside. The number 100, she noticed.
It was the bus she used to take to college. She had so enjoyed the freedom of doing something on her own. Indy still took the rickshaw to the convent school and Kila had not yet been born. Amma made Leila promise to sit on the women’s side only, and never even approach the back row, which stretched across the width of the bus and was unisex. But like the other girls she kept giving herself reasons—a fallen book, a slipping saree pallao—to look at the men sitting just across the aisle, so close and yet so forbidden.
Then one summer morning the bus was like the inside of a hot samosa, teeming, steaming with people. Leila could barely get on, and when she did, was pressed between two boys. She was stuck, like a piece of carbon paper, forced to bear their delighted imprints.
“Leila,” a male voice called from behind. She didn’t turn. Couldn’t, anyway. However did this man know her name?
“Leila, come take my seat.”
She still didn’t respond until a woman’s voice said, “
, you in the red saree. This nice boy is giving up his seat for you. Come sit with us in the back.”
“Thanks,” Leila mumbled, as she slid between two housewives and their bags of vegetables.
“It’s Janni.” He was standing in front of her now, swaying as the bus made a turn. “You don’t remember?”
She remembered him as a little boy who joined his sisters when they all played together. His family lived in a small brick house on the next road. A family of Muslims who ate goat meat. His mother always wore a black chador and hardly ever came outside. But all that didn’t matter when they were children. Every evening they played “Seven Sisters” and “Gulli Danda.” But then one day they just stopped playing together. Now here he was, his head almost touching the roof of the bus.
After that, she began looking for his wide smile and the black hair that bounced off his forehead. Started hoping there would be no empty seats on the women’s side. They never spoke, only smiled and looked away quickly. Within two weeks he was saving the space beside him. The first time she went straight to the back row without even looking for a seat, her mind couldn’t concentrate all day. She kept smelling his closeness. Thinking of the shirt he was wearing. Remembering again how the black hair peeped out from under the cuffs. Did the other people on the bus know what was going on? Would it get back to Amma? But the more she sat beside him, the less frightened she became of getting caught.
Sometimes they whispered.
“I have a test. Wish me good luck.”
The car went over a pothole and Leila slid across the seat, her arm touching Neel. Her husband. Why was she thinking of the old days when her new life was just beginning? Why couldn’t she simply enjoy her changed circumstances, the mangalsutra around her neck, his American T-shirt that she would soon be putting away in their shared almirah, this car, so luxuriantly empty with just the two of them. Their honeymoon car. Indy had wanted to write “Just Married” across the back but didn’t want to anger the rental company. Instead, she had tucked a small note into the bumper with those two words.
Leila glanced up at Neel, so close beside her, but he did not take his eyes off the road. Today she had a right to sit beside him, yet the permission seemed to create a distance. A little guilty that she had been thinking of Janni, she moved away, pressing herself against the door, the shiny metal of the curved handle cold against her ribs. They were husband and wife. This man, whose mahogany brown fingers were casually wrapped around the wheel, was bound to her forever. Everything, including her name, was different. He was responsible for the way people looked at her, with awe and jealousy. This morning Amma had placed a black dot on Leila’s scalp to ward off the evil eye. It was usually put on babies, but Amma wasn’t taking any chances. Good luck was finally visiting Leila and Amma wanted it to stay.
A few weeks ago, Neel had been sitting beside his mother in just such a car, jet-lagged, not listening to her chatter as he anxiously wondered about Tattappa’s health. Now Neel saw the laughing, salubrious face of his grandfather on every cyclist, rickshaw driver, and pedestrian he drove past—with an unwanted wife in the passenger seat.
Tattappa had kept Neel in India, within marriage distance of the girl Tattappa liked. He knew that Neel was fully prepared to jeopardize the Sarath name to get out of the marriage. So the Master Manipulator had staged a fall. Did Tattappa even
cancer? Or had he made up the story about his doctor going home to the village to keep Neel from learning the truth? He was naive, foolish, to have trusted his family. To them he was not Dr. Sarath, only the son who didn’t know what was good for him. He had put them first by coming home and the irony was that they had put him first by arranging this marriage. He had walked into it with his eyes open. But his eyes had been open too long in the West and by the time he adjusted his vision to India, it was too late.
Now he was driving on the wrong side of the street as he steered the car toward a honeymoon he didn’t want. All the rage and impotence of those first days of knowing he would have to get married had given way to obsessing over actual events. Which was the initial mistake? Had he missed an opportunity to get out of the marriage? He drove methodically, automatically, like one of those robots shown in safe car ads.
As the minutes ticked by, and large fields took the place of town buildings, Leila began to fret at Neel’s silence. She had wondered endlessly about this very moment when they would be alone, starting their life together.
“Are you all right?” Neel finally asked.
His question startled her. She had gotten used to smelling him, not hearing him.
“I’m okay, thank you,” she lied, not knowing how to tell her husband she needed to use the bathroom.
She said it like an Indian—“tank you”—and to Neel the mispronunciation made her even more alien. He had practiced saying “Thank you” for weeks when he first arrived at Stanford.
“Shall we make a restroom stop?” he asked.
“Darling, I need to take a leak,” he would have said to the wife he wanted. Now he had to be stilted, obtuse, almost formal. He hated it. Why had this happened to him? Ashok had told him that Prakash had upset his family by marrying a French girl. A blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, taller than Prakash, Ashok had given the details with amazement in his voice. Lucky, lucky Prakash. How had he done it?
Leila’s fears fell away at the solicitous question. It was magic, pure magic. In the Mills & Boon romances she had devoured since high school, the authors invariably portrayed a scene where the man reads his lover’s mind. Leila’s favorite stories were about young English au pairs who are forced into arranged marriages with handsome Greek men. The predictable plots began with the required reluctance of both parties to the marriage, though midway through, after fights and scenes of cultural misunderstanding, everything changes. By the end they are madly in love, often with a baby on the way. In her relief—and happiness—that life was following fiction, Leila said, “Yes, Suneel.”
“I’d rather you called me Neel,” he stated flatly.
His words made her shrink even more against the car door. They were just married and she had already irritated him.
They didn’t speak again. Even if she had wanted to say something, she didn’t want to risk disturbing him, especially as they drove up the steep mountainous road with its dangerous U-turns. This was the first time she was going somewhere other than Appa’s village, so she tried to enjoy the unfamiliar landscape. The trees grew taller and thinner, dark green mangoes giving way to light pines, and the air became so cool they rolled up the windows. They crossed a narrow river and she wanted to point out the wild elephant taking a bath, but didn’t say anything.
IT WAS NIGHT WHEN THEY
finally reached the hotel and she stood by in pride and bafflement as he handled everything. She had never stayed in a hotel before and Neel had booked them into a five-star one. The Mughaloid red stone structure had minarets and crescent balconies. The staff were courteous and stiff in gold braid uniforms, as though they were attending a maharajah. The doorman practically touched their feet as he ushered them inside.
The cock-eyed concierge grew even more obsequious when he heard Neel’s American accent. “On your honeymoon, sir?”
Leila smiled shyly at the man, pleased he had guessed correctly.
Neel took the proffered room key and snapped, “No, we’re not.” He couldn’t comprehend why Indians couldn’t mind their own business. Relatives, shopkeepers, brand-new acquaintances, everyone asked personal questions as if it was their right to know such things.
Neel waited impatiently for the elevator to arrive.
“Why did you lie to him?” Leila asked when they got in.
“I dislike people fussing,” Neel said, surprised by her question. “Don’t you?”
Not wanting to disagree, she kept silent.
Their suite was enormous, and Leila went to the window, trying to see the lake that the concierge said was visible from their room.
“Do you want to unpack while I stretch my legs?” Neel asked. He desperately wanted to get away from her, from the hotel, the bed.
Leila thought a stroll under the full moon would be romantic, but was grateful for his considerateness. She set about preparing herself for him, her mind a patchwork quilt of information stitched together from romantic films and novels. Love scenes were never shown in Indian films, and the foreign ones only had those bits not cut by the censor board. Now their suggestiveness seemed even more alluring. Men tugging at a saree. A bride shyly turning away only to have her husband pull her closer.
Leila bathed and rubbed perfume between her breasts. If she had married a man living in India, they would be at home, the room decorated with fresh garlands, the bed strewn with flower petals. She would be aware of the rest of the family, just a wall away. She shook the creases out of her nightie, relieved that they would have privacy for this very private act. The nightie was long and white, printed all over with little red hearts, an extravagance she had insisted upon, going against Amma, who thought Leila ought to sleep in a saree. But most of her friends had made nighties for their weddings. A conspiratorial Smita had shown her the almost transparent one she had bought in Singapore.
Leila lay under the covers, listening for footsteps outside the door. A giggle gurgled to the surface, breaking out into a smile. Here she was in Kila’s “sweet” and it
expensive—and huge. And it had a purpose. This morning a former schoolmate had whispered, “He could play Rhett Butler or Heathcliff. He’s so handsome!” Her skin tingled as she imagined Neel walking in the door, coming straight to the bed and taking her in his arms. She could not imagine what a lip-to-lip contact would feel like. Did one have to practice not to get the noses in the way? Was it possible to do something wrong? Science books explained the parts of the body, not their passionate actions. She remembered the size of his shoes and wondered how a penis looked.
When they were young, Indy and she had long discussions about the male physique.
Vasco da Gama/Went to the drama/Without his pajama/To show his banana
, they chanted behind Amma’s back. One day they even tried to sneak a look at the
. While Indy distracted the owner of the bookshop, Leila rushed to find the book of love. “What did you see? What did you see?” Indy couldn’t wait to ask as they left the shop. “Nothing. It was covered in plastic. We would have to buy one in order to look inside,” Leila said, knowing that the shopkeeper would never sell a sex book to unmarried women. Mills & Boon novels were seductive, not instructive, and her married friends hoarded their new knowledge like Brahmin priests who maintained the magic of ceremonies by refusing to share age-old Sutra secrets with lower-caste Hindus.
She hoped she would not disappoint him and tried to still her own disappointment. What was keeping him?