Sarita Sarvate


A Short Story Published In India Currents


I saw Raj the other day, on a street in San Francisco. The instant of recognition was brutal. He looked flabby and worn out, as if time had played a dirty trick on him. Only his voice had the same resonance, and when he said, "Neeta, don't worry, I won't panhandle you," the old tingling sensation came over me.

I first met Raj walking across Berkeley campus many years ago. "You're Neeta, you live in International House, and you are a graduate student in Public Policy, right?" Raj said catching up to me with an air-light step. I looked at him with my wide-eyed-Indian-film-star look. "Where did you come from, New York, New Jersey?" he continued.

"No," I said triumphantly, "I came from India. Can't you see I am wearing a sari?" I had been in Berkeley only two days.

"Never," he said, "people who just got off the boat don't look like you. They act like they're walking through a field crawling with scorpions and snakes." I laughed. He was the first man in a turban that I had found good-looking.

I was still in my arm-pinching stage then. That autumn, I would walk down hill from the Lab, watching a sunset fluttering through dark eucalyptus leaves, and an incredible euphoria would come over me. Was I really in America? I would pinch myself and whisper, "God, I hope this is not a dream."

I was studying in my dorm room one night, when I heard two soft taps on the door. "Tea for two," Raj demanded. Looking back on those late night tea sessions, I would later marvel at the innocence of those early weeks when I did not know Raj was attracted to me. A man in a turban seemed like a man with antennas to me then, a strange asexual creature. Although I had grown up in India, I had never been close to a Sikh before.

Some nights, Raj and I rode through empty streets of Berkeley with the top of his car down, drops of mist and fog biting our faces. Other nights, we stumbled on the steps of the rose garden, picking flowers of unknown color, watching the distant lights of San Francisco. Bright pyramids of buildings rising from water evoked strange sensations in me then. Random phrases like City Lights, American Dream, Neon God rambled through my head. Back in I-House, Raj inhaled the fragrance from bud to bud, humming an old film song, I am the rose bud from Kashmir, don't get cross with me or I'll wilt away…

After midterms, Raj took me to see Truffault's Small Change. In the back row of the small theatre he whispered, "Don't you just love children?" I was surprised by the huskiness of his voice. Yet, when he brought his cheek closer to mine and put his arm around my shoulder, I felt a warm tingle in my chest.

I kept moving Raj's arm away from my shoulder and his cheek away from my cheek but I felt giddy with pleasure. When he finally succeeded in bringing his bearded face closer to mine and kissed my mouth in a long, deep kiss, I found his lips delicious.

Afterwards, we drove to Muir beach. Raj stopped the car at a curve in the road. We got out and stood against the railing of the high cliff. Moonlight bathed us in a white glow. The night, the ocean, the deserted road, seemed as if in another world. I put my arms around Raj's neck. We kissed each other furiously, listening to the waves beating against the white rocks.

"Have you ever slept on a beach?" Raj whispered. We both wanted to make love but something held us back. What would our parents think? I was a good Hindu girl and romance with a Sikh outside of marriage was alien and forbidden.

Back in I-House, my life acquired a feverish quality. I looked for signs of him in the hallways, I jumped at every knock on my door. He kept away from me for a while.

Then one night two or three weeks later, I heard two soft taps on my door. It was Raj. We went through the ritual of the tea. And then, while my back was turned, I felt his arms move around my waist.

Our nights became a familiar routine. He knocked on my door at midnight, we drank tea, then lay on the bed in a feverish embrace, groping at each other's bodies hungrily. And yet, we never actually made love

At Christmas Raj took me home to San Jose in his red convertible. It was a large suburban house with a heavy sofa upholstered in gold brocade and a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in glittering silver on black velvet. An inviting fragrance of Samosas hung in the air.

Raj's mother greeted me. Then, coming up to Raj, she put her arms around his neck, and kissed him vigorously on each cheek. She looked young enough to be a wife or a girlfriend. An overwhelming wave of jealousy swept over me. In that moment, I knew I was in love with Raj.

"Hot and cold water," that's what we all come here for, don’t we?" Raj's mother remarked while slicing bitter melons for dinner later.

"Actually, I came here to study," I said feebly.

"Color TV, stereos, and cars." she continued, ignoring my interjection. "Daughter, that's all we come here for. If I had this kitchen with hot plates and blenders and two freezers back home, do you think I would want to stay here? When we came here, my Miyaji was forty five years old," she continued. "He picked artichokes in the hot fields with his bare hands. Finally his brother took pity on him and gave him a green card."

At night, I was shown into the Puja room which also doubled as the guest bedroom.

I lay in the dark thinking of this close-knit family. Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a rustle and sat up with a start. "Shh! It's only me," Raj said, sitting on the bed. "I thought I'd never get the chance," he whispered, rubbing the palm of my hand with his long fingers.

In that tiny room with a picture of the Golden Temple flickering in the dim light of incense sticks, Raj's presence aroused a feeling of violation. "Go away," I said.

"Wait until you hear my father snore and then slip downstairs to my room," he said, squeezing my hand. Then he left.

For hours, I contemplated Raj's instructions but my body was immobile with fear. What if the parents woke up and found out I was missing? Eventually, when I fell asleep, I saw a nightmare about Raj's father being chased by immigration officials through fields of artichokes.

"What happened to my pretty girl last night?" Raj whispered the next morning. He displayed no signs of inner struggle but looked well-rested.

After breakfast, Raj's mother sat next to me in the family room and opened a brass jewelry box. Tattered letters and photographs fell out. "Here," she said, "What do you think of her?" It was a passport size photograph, in black and white, of a young girl in a sari. In the blandness of the pose, the unsmiling self-conscious expression of the subject, the deliberate lack of focus of the lens and the subsequent retouching of the features, it could have been the photo of any Indian girl.

"Who's that?" I enquired.

"It's a marriage proposal for Raj."

"Raj is going to marry this girl?"

"She is just one of the girls." We looked at letters from the in-laws. They spoke of the girls' looks and accomplishments in the minutest terms; wears glasses, nose long but straight, complexion wheat colored, height five feet one and a half inches; or, fair, long hair, buxom, no glasses, plays violin, ping pong champion, good cook

"I thought you might know what kind of a girl Raj likes," she said.

"When is he getting married?"

"As soon as he finishes his degree," she replied. "I will go to India to find the girl first. I always say to Raj, marry a Punjabi Sikh girl, then I'll be able to tell her what's right and what's wrong. But with the whites, what can you do?"

"But what about love?"

"Love, romance, these are Western ideas," she said, "we Indians don't believe in them. And what's love good for, anyway? These people get a divorce at the slightest excuse. If we find a good Punjabi girl, she will be cook for him and look after him," she argued.

"Not all Americans are like that, I know some perfectly decent ones."

"Daughter, I used to think that if an American girl loved my man, she would look after him," she sighed, "but I was wrong. Remember I told you about Jijaji, Raj's uncle?" She paused. "Jijaji went to America, got his degree, married a blue-eyed blonde woman. We accepted her with open arms. What's wrong, we thought, after all, they are in love. Soon, they had a daughter. And within two years, they were divorced. Do you know what happened to him in the end?" Her voice was reduced to hysterical sobs. "He had a heart attack and didn't live to see his fortieth birthday. I reckon he died of a broken heart." Her fragile body shook violently. "Do you think it was easy for us to move here? But we did it for Raj, for our children! And to squander it all after some white girl? Shame, shame!"

Just then Raj came into the room. "Here is your bride," I said laughing in false mirth and handing him the photograph.

He glanced at it, then screwed it up in the palm of his hand. "I don't like that one," he said.

"Which one do you like?" I asked in astonishment.

"I don't know, I have to meet the girl. Or a home-movie might help." He sat musing for a while. I laughed, believing that he was joking. But the set of his jaw was firm and determined.

The next quarter, I avoided Raj. He left me notes saying, "When do I see you? Love, Raj". Then he started going out with an American girl. I saw them in the dining room every now and then, she dressed in some colorful sari, he in T-shirt and sneakers.

Then one day, he caught up with me in the hallway and invited me to a party in San Jose. "I'm afraid I won't be able to come," I said sadly.

"But you must. Maji was just saying the other day what a good cook you are." he exclaimed.

"How can you ask me after what's happened? No doubt your American girlfriend is going?" The corners of my eyes were beginning to moisten. My throat was dry. At that moment, I loved him so much, my heart would explode if I thought about it.

"Oh, Mary? She's just a good friend."

"Just like I was, right?" I said. My voice shrieked with anger.

We went to my room and sat on my bed the way we used to in the early days when America was just a dream and all I cared about was getting an 'A' in Environmental Science.

"Look, I am going to marry a girl that my parents choose. I thought you understood that. I could never go against my mother's wishes," he said.

"But what about us?"

"Well, we are both young. A young man and woman get together, things happen. I wouldn't take it too seriously. Besides, you are a Maharashtrian. My parents want a simple Punjabi girl who will cook for them and read them scriptures."

"You don't really care a hoot about the consequences of your actions, do you?" My voice was hoarse. Tears streamed down my face. "And what about Mary, huh? Have you told her you are going to India next year to marry some stupid girl with the right dowry that your mother chooses?"

Raj's face slowly changed, from that of the carefree young man that had accosted me in a world full of turning leaves and dreamy autumn sunsets, to a man who was burdened with his future. Tears ran down his face. "I am sorry," he muttered.

Raj stopped seeing Mary and she quickly found a Hispanic boyfriend who gave her Mexican wedding dresses and sang her serenades. At the end of spring quarter I moved to a house with a group of American students. Raj graduated, got a lucrative job in Silicon Valley, and began to develop a respectable midriff with the aid of his mother's sumptuous cooking. Occasionally, he called me on a Friday evening to ask me if I'd like to go to the movies.

"No, I am going out," I always said.

"On a date?"

"Yes, on a date," I always replied. Then I watched an old movie on my little black and white TV while my American housemates left on their respective dates. Eventually, Raj stopped calling. A year or two later, someone told me Raj had married a pretty girl from Chandigarh and had thrown a disco party on her arrival in America. Then I didn't hear about Raj at all for many years.

Then one day, about two years ago, I ran into an old friend. "You know about Raj, I suppose?" he said.

"What about Raj?"

"Raj had open-heart surgery a few years back."

So when I ran into Raj the other day, I was not shocked to see him look so defeated. "You know about my illness, don't you?" he asked. I nodded. "They told me it was because of stress. So I took it easy for a while. I am looking for a job now," he said. "You won't believe how difficult it is to find a job when you've been out of circulation." He asked me if I was married. Yes, I said, to the same American I started dating after I left I-House. I told him I had two children before he had a chance to query. He asked me if I had a good job. I said yes.

"You have a good life." he remarked. I nodded, omitting to tell him that the two children were step-children, not my own. I also did not tell him that I did not get along with my step-children and sometimes contemplated divorce. After all, what's a childless, flailing marriage to a man looking death in the eye?

"How's your wife?" I asked.

"You know how Indian marriages are. Both parties are committed, that's why they work."

"Your parents must be a comfort in your trials and tribulations?" I enquired.

"Well, I don't see them much," he answered wearily, "when you have no money you can't really socialize either," he added.

We parted. And then the irony struck me. His mother wanted to protect him from a broken heart but she broke it herself in the end.