Chabot Review, October 1992
By Sarita Sarvate
Meenu lies awake in the stuffy darkness of the hotel room, waiting, listening for the first sounds of a Bombay morning. Finally, just as the light breaks through the windows, she falls asleep.
When she wakes up, the morning is a misty blue. Through the hotel window, she can see a row of taxis and autorikshaws being washed in the narrow lane outside. Vendors of cocoanut milk and ‘chat’ are setting up their stalls on the beach further away. Beyond the hotel strip, in the hutment colony, children are being bathed at street taps and ‘chai’ is being made on kerosene stoves set up on sidewalks. In the distance, the ocean roars away, unrelenting, gray, turbid, lukewarm.
Meenu showers in the almost salty water of the hotel. She stands in front of the mirror trying on different outfits until she decides on a light beige dress with a chocolate color pattern. Then she rushes around the room, arranging her books, her briefcase, just so. On the coffee table, she puts the latest literary novel, then changes her mind and replaces that with the ‘Managerial Woman’. When everything is arranged to her satisfaction, she stands at the window again, waiting, watching Bombay’s millionaires taking their dogs and children for walks on the beach.
There is a knock on the door. With a tightening feeling in her chest, she walks to it and opens it.
At first, she thinks ‘there’s been a mistake’ and wants to shut the door again, for the man standing there does not remind her of Shankar. He is darker than she remembers, his face is thinner, and alas, he has gray hair. But then he smiles and something stirs in her memory, something rekindles. She still thinks this was a mistake.
"Meenu," he says, opening his mouth with a big grin, "So good to see you again." He takes her hand in his and presses it slightly. She immediately recoils and steps back until they are both standing at the window looking out. "I just got your telegram this morning," he says, "luckily, I was in town."
For years , she has rehearsed this scene, with versions in which she slaps his face and throws him out of the room and versions in which she throws her arms around him and sobs. But now, she is speechless. ‘His hair used to be such a lush, thick, wavy, black; when you moved your fingers through it, you felt a sensuous pleasure,’ is all she can think.
They sit at the beach pavilion of the ‘Sun’n Sand’ hotel, waiting for lunch. The pool, designed in the shape of a modern sculpture, glitters in the noon sun. She remembers years ago seeing a picture postcard of it in a shop in Nagpur. The amoeba shaped pool at the Sun’n Sand and its white, Spanish style building will forever remain in her memory as the symbol of the rich Bombay world. She cannot believe she is actually dining in this place with Shankar. A group of dark men on the beach watch white women in skimpy bikinis lounging around the pool. She remembers years ago, when she was in college, this pool and the women in bikinis made an appearance in every Hindi film.
"Do you wear a bikini in America?" Shankar asks.
"Yea, sometimes," she laughs. She feels she is talking to a child.
"You would look fantastic in a bikini. I always thought you were the sexiest girl I ever knew."
She blushes. "Well, thank you."
"You don’t mind?"
"Being called sexy? You once told me you didn’t like the word sexy, you were embarrassed to be called sexy, you said."
"Well, what did you expect? I was only twenty-one then, I knew nothing about sex or men."
"Do all women in America wear wigs?" he asks.
She laughs again. "No, are you kidding? Nobody wears a wig! Whatever gave you that idea? I wouldn’t wear a wig in a million years!"
"I thought maybe you’d come wearing a blonde wig and I wouldn’t recognize you. But, actually, I’d have recognized you anywhere in the world."
From her seat, she can see the faint outline of the ocean beyond the white awning of the pavilion and the railing further away that separates the rich from the poor. It is high noon and the sea is almost white. From here, the water looks inviting, ready for a swim. But then she remembers, years ago, walking down the stretch of beach beyond the hotel strip and coming across whole colonies of hutment dwellers, washing, bathing in the ocean, even using it as a lavatory. And yet, their contribution to the pollution of the ocean is perhaps nothing compared to Bombay’s chemical industries, she thinks, the Sandoze and the Ciba Geigys, pouring tons of crud into the ocean every day.
Everything here is an illusion. The sanctuary of a hotel is an illusion, the palms and the ocean breeze hide an ugly reality and, right now, Shankar appears to be a larger-than-life illusion.
She has been back to India many times before, to visit her parents or on visits for the university, but, in all these years , she has made no effort to find Shankar. He has always seemed like a part of another India, another illusion she has maintained for fifteen years. Sometimes, she has even wondered if he was real or just a figment of her fantasy. Did she actually fall in love with him by the side of a canal outside of the Indian Institute of Technology all those years ago? She can barely remember the r; was it nineteen-seventy one or seventy-two? Did he actually tell her she was beautiful? Did he hold her hand and ask her to look at the squirrels running up and down the trees against the backdrop of an enormous tropical sun going down into the earth? Here he is now, after all these years, sitting across from her. It is nineteen eighty-seven and it is a relief to know he is not just a dream.
The waiter comes to the table to take their order. He has dark brown eyes and a sensuous beard. He is wearing a brown salwar kurta and a red cummerbund. He looks like a chieftain in an ancient epic, she thinks. She asks the waiter about mineral water.
"Memsahb from America?" he asks.
"Yes," she says in Marathi, "I went to America ten years ago."
"Do you enjoy it there? Is life good there?" he asks.
"Yes, it’s Ok. But not as good as here. I miss the people here."
With that, his face lightens up. "They say people in America are not really happy, they have divorces, murders, many suicides, no?"
"Yes, we are having mineral water, Himalayan Spring Water it is called. All European tourists drink it. After living in America your stomach must have become American, no?"
The waiter probably has a wife and four kids in a chawl in Andheri, she thinks. He looks very debonair though.
This is what America has really done to her. It has made her look at Indians, Indian men, the way Americans do. In her class at the university, there were dozens of men who looked like the waiter. She never thought of them as debonair, only as ‘simpletons’. She and her girlfriends would sit in a circle under the tamarind tree in the college compound in the afternoons, eating ‘chocobars’ from the Bluebell ice-cream vendor and talking about which boy was more simpleton than the next. And the professors? They were all a scream, looking perfectly idiotic with their potbellies, balancing baskets full of books on the handlebars of their bicycles. Once, she and her girlfriends had been standing in the hallway laughing uncontrollably at the statistics lecturer when he had walked out of the men’s room looking red in the face. ‘Oh, the callousness of youth,’ she thinks.
"How is your father?" Shankar suddenly asks. She is taken aback.
"My father? Fine, I guess. What do you mean?"
"And your mother? Is she still sick or is she better?" She looks at him in puzzlement; she wants to point out to him that he has never met her parents.
"Hey, I went to your place, you know," he says, as if explaining his questions.
"Yea! I happened to be in Nagpur for my grandmother’s funeral, and on an impulse I decided to go to your house. Your father was such a sweet old man, he was so proud of you! You made me think he was a ferocious tyrant."
"Did he know who you were?"
Shankar shakes his head, "Just some old friend from the institute."
"So that’s how you got my address, through my father." During the last r, since she received his letter, she has often wondered how he could possibly have found out where she was.
She had deliberately lost contact with him ever since that autumn day at the Nagpur railway station fifteen years ago when he had said, "Study hard for your exams, I want you to do well." She had nodded her head, as if to say, ‘I don’t need such advice from you.’ If he was to get out of her life, she wanted him gone quickly, without lingering shadows. She had had no parting words for him, just an ominous silence. He had been surprised by her composure, her ability to release him from the bond. But she had known that was what he wanted, to be free to pursue his ambitions, to go to America, to make money for his sick mother and the dowries of his two sisters. Meenu, a clerk’s daughter, and a Physics student to boot, could not provide him with the ropes into other worlds, the worlds of five star hotels, cars, stereo sets, posh flats in Bombay overlooking the sea, and, most of all, foreign trips. It was he who had cried when the train had left the station. The steam engine had roared and blasted a piercing whistle and the train had slowly heaved and moved towards the steel mills of Jamshedpur where he had found a job as an engineer. She had sat on a bench on the platform for a long time afterward, imagining those other worlds he was headed for, the worlds of MIT, Princeton, Berkeley, the worlds of blonde, blue-eyed women with no inhibitions. Sitting on that bench that afternoon in her chocolate color sari, she could see him riding a Cadillac convertible with a tall, freckled white girl as clearly as she could see the peasants sleeping on the railway platform, on way to holy pilgrimage to the Ganges. How bleak her own future had seemed that silvery afternoon! An arranged marriage with minimal dowry if she was lucky, a couple of kids perhaps, a job as a lecturer in a college! Shankar had been her ticket to the other worlds, and he was headed on that train for his own fresh start somewhere else.
"How much does it cost to fly to India?" he asks, as if to echo her thoughts.
"Oh, depends on what airfare you get, a thousand, fifteen hundred dollars, something like that." His eyes widen again, as they always do whenever he feels out of control.
"That’s fifteen, twenty thousand rupees, that’s my three month’s salary," he says.
"Well, that’s why I can’t afford to go abroad. How much is it for you? Less than a month’s paycheck, right?" She only nods. She has learned not to reveal her income to Indian men.
"See, one can’t afford to pay three months’ salary for airfare, one can only afford it if it costs less than a month’s paycheck," he adds.
She has not thought of it in those terms, she has become too inextricably American. When she decides to take a trip abroad now, the only worry she has is vacation time. But Shankar’s worries about money give her no sense of vindication. He is still her hero, her dream. His vulnerability makes her feel sad, as if he is still a part of her.
She frames questions in her mind too, questions like, "Is your wife pretty?" or "Do you love her?" but realizes she may not like the answers.
"In America they have a game show called ‘jeopardy’. Have you heard of it? Anyway, it’s a general knowledge quiz show. They give you the answers and you’re supposed to provide the questions. That’s what I feel like doing right now. Give me some answers and I’ll see if I want to ask the questions."
His eyes have become larger, his mischievous look has vanished. "You think too much," he says, "have you thought of doing yoga or meditation?"
"Oh, come on. Don’t be ridiculous. No one in India does that anymore except the trendy set in Bombay who learned it from the Beatles. First we export our culture, and see if it catches on. Then if it becomes chic, we import it back and rave about it, otherwise, trash it."
He smiles a wan smile. "That’s not true. I always did yoga, even when I was a kid. My grandfather taught me."
This is the quality she finds exasperating in India, the quality of peace. Everyone is at peace. The waiter arranging the plates on the table is at peace, his gorgeously handsome face displaying a quiet smile of contentment. Even the shoeshine boys in the hotel lobby, boys of eleven and twelve living in the hutments, are at peace. ‘What is it about me? Why does peace elude me?’ she thinks.
"You were born in the wrong country," her American professor had once told her while patting her suggestively on the hips. At graduate school in America, all her classmates said the same thing. "You don’t behave as if you arrived here yesterday," they would say. We just think of you as American." Could it be that after the pain of loosing Shankar, she was so glad to leave India, she made a concerted effort to become American? And now even she does not know who the real Meenu is.
Shankar is smiling that mischievous smile she is so familiar with.
"What are you laughing at?" she asks.
"Oh, nothing, just the food you eat," he says looking at the green salad on her plate, "you have become American, you have changed." His eyes are saying something else though, they are saying what a wonderful person you are; every thing about you is worth observing.
"As if you didn’t change! You know what was the biggest surprise to me? You, the man who used to say ‘Indian girls are so marriage-minded’ got married before me." A long-lost image stirs in her memory. Her father waving Shankar’s letters in front of her, asking her who the scoundrel was. Her father had banned her from any social contact for a whole year after that. She was only allowed to go to the institute every day. Fathers had absolute power in India. Shankar had gone away and she had been left behind to pick up the pieces.
"You never did realize what you did to me, did you?"
"Did what to you? Hey! Look at it this way! What would you have been today if you had married me? Just my wife, that’s all. Nothing! Now, you are somebody. You have gone far beyond me. I am nothing, nobody, an insignificant Indian man. And you have a life over there. You have David."
In his letters during the last r, he has alluded to his wife and children. He has shown pride in her success. "I always knew you had it in you," he has said, "I am happy for you. I would love to see you when you come to India," he has written, "we have a lot of old times to talk about, a lot of catching up to do, a lot of ghosts to lay to rest. " He has signed his letters ‘Love, Shankar,’ the way he always did.
How ironic that it was she who had eventually gone to America, she who had traveled the world, she who now went to India on unlimited expense accounts, she who was married to a blonde man with blue eyes, Meenu thinks. Shankar had stayed in India, working for the steel mills, had got married early and started a family, had got tied down. The girl he had married had a degree in business. She also happened to be the daughter of the Chairman of the mills. With that rope, he had climbed to the top of the company, had been made the managing director of a smaller mill. But he had not gone to MIT, seen the world, or dated promiscuous women in hippie clothes. Instead, Meenu has done the things he wanted to do. She has succeeded far beyond his expectations, far beyond himself. This should be Meenu’s triumph, but she still feels less than him, as if she has irretrievably lost some innocence, some charm that would never be hers.
"Look who’s here, your favorite film star," Shankar gestures. Meenu turns around to look at a group of middle-aged Indian men with potbellies and graying hair in snow-white salwar kurtas. One of them is very fair, almost European. His face looks familiar but she cannot imagine who it might be.
"Don’t you recognize him? He was in ‘Heat and Dust’."
" Oh, it’s Shashi Kapoor," she gasps, "He’s so old! I can’t believe it!"
"We’re all getting old."
"But he looks ancient. Look at his face; it’s so flabby. And look at that huge stomach. Must be all that alcohol," she says, eyeing the pitchers of beer on that table. "Who are those other men, I wonder?"
"Must be directors, song-writers, musicians, who knows? ‘Chamchas’, all of them, leeches, I’m sure."
"I never liked Shashi Kapoor. My heartthrob was his older brother, Shammi Kapoor. Remember him in ‘Junglee’? Rolling around in Kashmiri snow with Saira Bano? He was so macho, so cute."
"His sister lives in my building," Shankar says. Meenu remembers this is a status-symbol in Bombay. To really belong, one must live in an apartment building occupied by film stars. Shankar has made it then, arrived in Bombay society.
"What’s Shammi Kapoor doing these days?" she asks.
Shankar has an amused, patronizing smile on his face. He has lost interest in the subject of film stars. He never answers her questions, she notices. And her answers to his questions hang suspended, in the air around the table, it seems, waiting for resolution.
Resolution is what she wants, but she wants it through a sharp, brief moment of truth. She does not want it through protracted arguments, recriminations, tears, apologies. She believes she ought to see the memory of her love for him like one sees a refraction pattern through a prism, clear, precise, so she could say, ‘he really loved me,’ or, ‘he never did care about me’. She wants him to perform this miracle because he was the one who walked away from the dream. This is what he owes her, she thinks.
"I guess David and you are too busy to have kids," Shankar says. She is so aghast at the enormity of his misconception, she does not know how to respond. She imagines his two very Indian children, thin, wiry, with dark brown eyes and perfect white teeth. She imagines the older girl, her long thin face and narrow chin an image of Shankar, her large liquid brown scholarly eyes peering behind enormous spectacles. She imagines the boy, chubbier, unruly, mischievous, a replica of his mother’s playful personality. These visions send shivers down Meenu’s spine. If she asked questions about his children, they would assume an everlasting reality. She remains silent, and his children remain fantasies; they may or may not exist. A memory flits by. He is holding her in his arms and she is saying, "I feel like having a child with you."
Her memories of India are filled with babies, crying babies, hungry babies, sick babies. Babies making messes, babies spilling food, babies with leaky diapers. Her aunts, maidservants, women in the neighborhood, all delivered healthy, beautiful babies year after year. The babies would cry at wedding receptions, they would cry in buses, they would cry in movie-theatres. Her parents were the only people she knew who had two children. Everyone else had at least six. She remembers a small, fragile woman next door who had four babies in a row. When the babies started to cry, the woman would cry too. Meenu’s father, the neighborhood altruist, would say, "Go on Meenu, help her with the kids." Meenu would pace the babies in the garden, one at a time, back and fourth, back and fourth. No one ever paid her for her labor, she recalls. The concept of babysitting for payment was unknown in India. She grew up thinking babies were unwanted, unwelcome things. If she did not see another baby for the rest of her life she would be happy, she thought. But now there is nothing she wants more than a baby. She had never realized what a miracle it was to produce a baby.
"I want to take you to the animal park near here, it’s new, you will really like it. There is a lake too," Shankar says after lunch. They walk back to her hotel so she can change into jeans.
At the door of her room, she struggles with the lock. Somehow, the key does not turn. He takes the key from her. Their hands brush.
During lunch, she has found him an alien being, only a shadow of his former self. She has failed to detect the old spark. She has even wondered, ‘what did I see in this man?’
But now, his hand on hers feels the same as it did fifteen years ago. Meenu had always thought she had fallen in love with Shankar because of his good looks, but, now, she realizes it was not his looks. It was something else, some indefinable quality that makes two people perfectly harmonious with one another. She feels solace and peace in the touch of his hand. Someone had once told her that being separated from the womb at birth is such a traumatic experience for us that we spend the rest of our lives in search of the comfort and safety of the womb. We try to get back to the womb through love relationships, and, because what we seek is unattainable, we fail. With Shankar, she always felt as if she was back in the womb, she realizes.
He is holding her hand and the next instant they are standing face to face. She wants to stop herself but she cannot find the will to stop. What has she to loose after all? If love is a journey back to the womb, how could one achieve it with a person from another race, another country, another culture?
When she first met David, she fell in love with his intelligence, his liberal views. But at this moment, she wants India, she wants to go home, to belong, to be in the mainstream. Every time she comes to India, she realizes how arduous it is for her to live in America, to live in a world where one is always set apart, where one is always a cultural curiosity. And there is something so gentle about Indian men, something so exquisitely sensuous. They give in to love, they surrender, they don’t possess but are possessed. David says Christians feel guilty about sex. In India, even Gods engage in lovemaking; they frolic with beautiful maidens at the heights of mystical experience.
They kiss, then fall into each other’s arms on the bed. "I always liked chocolate," he says looking at her dress. She remembers that was what he had said fifteen years ago at the railway platform watching her in her chocolate sari, with misty, languorous eyes. She realizes why she wore this dress today.
"I think you are the most beautiful woman," he is saying, kissing her ears, her nose, her neck, her hands, her feet. He is the only man who always massaged her feet and kissed her toes very, very tenderly. He is moving his fingers through her hair, massaging her head. The tension inside her is slowly releasing, the tension of having been away from home, the tension of waking up at night in the middle of a nightmare speaking up in Marathi and realizing she is in bed with a foreigner. Once or twice, half asleep, half awake in the morning, she has said ‘Ooth, Ooth,’ (Wake up, Wake up) to David and he has woken up, startled at the strange sounds.
David does not know what it is like to live in another culture. He has always lived in places where English is the only language, where Christianity is the major religion, where Anglo Saxon culture is the dominant culture.
Shankar unbuttons her blouse. "You still have the same figure," he says. His touch on her body feels very natural. "Do you remember that first day when we went to the canal? Remember the fishermen singing folk songs on the other bank?" he says.
"You remember all that?"
"Oh, Yea, how could I forget? You were such a sweet girl, real lively too. Remember how we used to sneak out of campus in the afternoons and wander around the park?"
If he can remember all these details, details even I have forgotten, he must have really cared for me, she thinks.
"You know I wasn’t just infatuated with you, it wasn’t just an adolescent crush. It was very serious. What you did to me affected my whole life," she says. She wants to tell him that, for years , she could not look at another Indian man without thinking of him. She could not help comparing and fantasizing. Every time her father had produced an eligible bachelor, she had looked at the young man’s face and thought of Shankar, until she had given up. Then, after her arrival in America, she found it easier to become friends with American men; she did not associate them with Shankar or India.
Shankar looks into her eyes. She sees fear in his eyes, fear of revelation, fear of vulnerability, fear and mistrust of women.
"Why didn’t you understand what you did to me?" She asks.
"When I met you, you were a woman," he answers after a long pause. "But I wasn’t quite a man, do you understand?" He rests his chin on her chest. "I was a fool, I didn’t realize what a wonderful person you were..." He stops. He is revealing too much. "Oh well," his expression is changed. He looks more like an executive, less like the romantic Shankar she knows. "You are doing well, you are fine without me." The topic is over. Revelations are finished, done with.
She has read somewhere that Indian men, raised in a male centered society, are unable to think of the world beyond their own. In them, the adult ego is not fully developed. Indian boys, cosseted and coddled by their mothers, never learn to view the world with the objectivity of western men. They remain like Freud’s children forever, viewing the world from a completely subjective perspective.
His abrupt breakup with her fifteen years ago meant little to him, she realizes. It meant the end of an episode, a rite of passage. He never tried to understand what it meant to her because it was of no concern to his worldview. Other women would come along in the future, other rites of passage would take place.
And, yet, he is the most affectionate, the most loving man she has ever known. His body speaks to her a language of love no one else knows. The way he moves his fingers through the strands of her hair is utterly loving, utterly lovable. She remembers the way he used to braid her long, black hair with his sensuous fingers. Could it be that the love he expresses has nothing to do with her? She is merely the object. The fact that she also has a mind adds to his mystique, his conquest of her as a woman? But she has no power over him. He holds all the power. She is simply an instrument, a participant in his rite of passage.
She thinks of David. How remote he seems to her at this moment! David, who hates watching Indian women in colorful saris walk on cold, gray streets of Manchester or New York. David who finds it incongruous that people living in one culture would attempt to preserve another! "If one is to live in a foreign country one must adapt," he says. "But what about the English, when they went to colonize India?" she often asks, "They didn’t adapt. They ate heavy meats and other English food; they dressed in wool clothing in the extreme heat of Bombay and died of cholera and dysentery. And they created little idyllic English towns in the hills of Simla and Missouri rather than adapt to the plains of India." But she knows these arguments are vacuous. The English were the rulers, not the ruled. They did not have to adapt. At Christmas, David makes Christmas pudding just the way his mother made it in England. One r, at Christmas, he said, "It means so much to so many people around the world, you know." But Christmas means nothing to her, evokes no memories except those of strange sounding Christmas carols in Marathi being broadcast once a year on the All India Radio.
"Tell me, if there was a holocaust or an apocalypse, what is the one thing you would want to save?" Shankar asks.
The question stabs at her. She remains silent.
"I know the one thing that I’d want to save. My children. I’d say, take everything else from me, my job, my money, my education, everything. Just give me my two children. That’s all I want."
She knows her answer to his question, "nothing." She has nothing worth saving. What is a person without children after all? But she does not say this. To answer truthfully would be to admit that he has won and she has lost.
Instead, she says, "Well, I never think of life this way." But the truth is, she thinks exactly this way, all the time, knows her life is meaningless.
"You’ve become quite a philosopher," she says instead.
"Everyday, my driver drives me to work for one and a half, two hours. I sit in the car and think about life. I can’t read, the roads are too bumpy."
"Do you ever notice the poverty around you or think of how you could make a difference? Society could never make itself better if everyone just thought of themselves or their children." She does mean this.
"You don’t know Bombay," he replies, "Bombay is the greatest city in the world. You can get everything here. The people you think as poor aren’t doing so bad. They have jobs even though they live on the streets. Some of them have more money than our parents had. They have a good life here."
"You can’t be serious. You can’t claim with a straight face that people who live in a shack made of flour sacks and wash at the municipal tap on the street have a good life!"
But Shankar shakes his head. He is doing well in Bombay, therefore, everyone else is doing well.
"Did you ever wonder what it would be like to make love to me?" Shankar asks.
"Oh, of course, all the time. I was obsessed about it for a long time," she answers, color rising to her cheeks. For, the embarrassing truth is that they have not made love to one another before.
Young women in India were supposed to be virgins until they got married; young men too. At the institute, during lunch break, the girls would sit around the Ladies’ Common Room reading out passages from the Kama Sutra. Everyone would giggle. One mischievous girl would try to assume some of the postures. But for all that, Meenu’s knowledge of sex was purely theoretical. During those romantic years of first love, Shankar was so afraid she would get in trouble! When all the time they need not have worried at all!
But Shankar is still worried. "What about birth control?" he asks.
"Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter," she says. He seems suspicious. She thinks of the wasted years, years spent agonizing, fantasizing. years wasted worrying about getting in trouble; years wasted engaging in nightmarish visions of having an abortion or an illegitimate baby!
When her father had discovered Shankar’s love letters, he had assumed she had slept with him. Her father had accused her of being immoral. Her father was not worried about her broken heart; he only cared about the loss of her virginity, the horror of an unwanted baby. When all the time, she could have slept with Shankar, found fulfillment in him! Suddenly, a hope dawns. What if a miracle happens? What if she gets pregnant now? "I wouldn’t mind having your child," she says. She would not mind having any baby, as long as it was born out of her body, even if it did not look like David. And Shankar’s baby would be a lovechild.
She notices Shankar has become tense. He continues to make love to her but his intensity is gone.
Afterwards, he is withdrawn. He looks at his watch. "I’ve got to get home by seven," he says. But he asks her to turn over and massages her back. His fingers on her body feel gentle and yet firm. He rubs her neck with careful strokes. He kisses her back, again and again and again.
Slowly, she falls asleep.
When she wakes up, the room is almost dark. The windows are full of a golden light. Shankar is fully dressed. He is sitting beside her on the bed and is leaning over her very, very tenderly. He is moving her fingers down her cheek.
"You were so peaceful, I could have sat here watching you all night," he says, then as she stirs, he says, "come on, I want to buy you something, let’s go, quick."
"I never asked you the things I wanted to ask you," she says. But she throws some clothes on and they walk down to his car.
The streets of Andheri are bright and alive with people. Young girls in colorful clothes walk down the streets, talking of lectures, homework, movies. Children play in parks. Young men stand at street vendors buying cigarettes and ice cream, listening to movie songs being played on little transistor radios. In America, at this time of the evening, people would be locked up inside their houses watching television.
They stop outside a little arcade of shops. Colorful saris, scarves, children’s dresses hang in the doorways. Yards of fabric is spread on counters. Ceiling fans buzz. Radios, televisions are playing songs inside the bright interiors of shops.
"I want to buy you some comfortable cotton clothes for India," Shankar says, touching the sleeve of her blouse, "I don’t know how you walk around in these, you must be very hot. Why don’t you buy a skirt and a blouse? They have some wonderful India cotton designs."
"No," she says firmly, "I want to wear Indian clothes in India," she wants to blend in, to be unnoticed, to look like millions of others. She remembers her one year in Sacramento, where, even in shopping malls, people stared at her long black hair as if she were a strange animal.
"What about the starving poor of India?" people would ask her, even strangers.
"What about them? " she wanted to say. Sacramento had its poor too, they were not starving but they sat drunk in the Greyhound bus depot panhandling people.
She selects a Saiwar kameez made of soft, cotton sari material. It is gray with a red and purple tie die pattern, not the mishmash of tie die patterns that aging hippies sell on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, but the real tie die, intricate, precise, with each diamond of red and purple vividly marked. The kurta and the pants have a broad red and purple tie die border.
"I wish there was a fitting room here," she sighs.
"But we do have a fitting room Memsaab," the shopkeeper remarks. He is a slight man wearing white trousers and a loose short-sleeve shirt not tucked in. He shows her to a wall with a curtain. Behind the curtain, there is a cubbyhole about a square foot in area but with a full-length mirror. She puts the clothes on, then steps out, still watching herself in the mirror. Shankar steps beside her and holds her hand.
"You look so nice, so fresh," Shankar says. His eyes have a misty look. He presses her hand. ‘Holding hands must be the best part of sex,’ he had once told her. The shopkeeper joins them. "Yes, Memsaab, the colors suit your complexion."
The expedition is over. He drops her off at the hotel, steals a quick kiss.
"How about tomorrow? Are you free for lunch tomorrow?" he asks, "I have to come this way for a meeting."
"I have to be somewhere at ten but I guess if I hurry, I could be back by twelve thirty or one. How long does it take to get back here from town?"
"Ok, one O’clock then," he says, expressing no curiosity about her visit to town, giving no information regarding transportation.
"You want to go to Fort? You can take the hotel tour bus," the man at the front desk tells her the next morning.
"The director, Mrs. Patankar, will see you at 10:30 on the twenty-fourth," the letter from the adoption agency has said. The letter is handwritten, on a letterhead printed on an aerogramme. "You and your husband will have to do a home study through an American agency first," the letter has also said. Meenu has heard it might take years to complete the home study, the immigration procedures, the court case in India.
She is the only passenger in the bus and they set off, past the hotels and their palms, on to the sea face, past the temple at Mahalaxmi pier, past posh ‘apartments’ at Worli. Occasionally, at traffic lights, two or three boys of ten or eleven approach the cars and buses, their palms outstretched, begging for coins. Years ago, in OPEC heyday, an Arab oilman had arrived in Bombay, gone to the Hanging Gardens at Nariman Point with a large stash of rupee bills, and handed them out to people. She can see the Arab now, in his full white robes and headdress handing out bills to a throng of five hundred beggars, earning so many credits with Allah that maybe he would not have to make the trek to Mecca! She feels as rich as an Arab Sheikh compared to the boys beckoning "Please, Memsahb, please," touching their foreheads with their fingers in a gesture of desperation. In their faces, she sees her child, the baby that would be destined for her, a baby from the hutments perhaps, or worse still, just from the streets. But her child would be a girl, she realizes. The adoption agencies from India always ask, "Are you interested in a boy or a girl?" It is a meaningless question really, because only girl-babies are available for adoption, abandoned on the streets, or, if the mothers are rich, dropped off at the doorsteps of social agencies or hospitals. Decades ago, a rich private hospital in Bombay had to install a permanent bassinet at its entrance so rich women could drive up in their Mercedes Benzes and put babies in the basket.
Meenu spots a girl or two in the groups of children rushing to the cars. The girls have large brown eyes, dark oval faces, long black hair swept back into tight braids. Some of them are very pretty. She envisions them in jeans and T-shirts and finds the results satisfying.
Shankar’s India could well be a different country than this one. His India has the ‘Cricket Club of India’ on the sea face where men play table tennis and ladies in chiffon saris sip Coca Cola and dance to the music of Michael Jackson. Meenu’s baby would come from this India, the real India. Years ago, she wanted to belong to Shankar’s India, the India in which men and women sang ‘He’s a jolly good fellow’ at birthday parties and cooked cakes with cherries from a can rather than eat mango ‘barfi’ Indian style; the India whose citizens owned hotels in New Jersey or taught astrophysics at Princeton, and talked about servant- problems in Bombay at cocktail parties in New York or Rochester. In the end, Meenu had realized she would never belong to Shankar’s India, not even after going to America; she was simply too cynical.
The heat is oppressive today. The air does not stir. The city looks a grayish white color. The air is so opaque one cannot breathe. She has left the windows open to escape the tinted glass isolation of the bus. Clouds of dust and exhaust are rising up in the air continuously and a reddish brown film has settled on her clothes and her arms. Occasionally, she sees a bright red hibiscus or a scarlet bougainvillea in a small garden of a ground floor flat. Otherwise, the city looks a grayish white concrete monolith and blends in with the grayish white sea and air.
After the interminable din of horns from trucks, buses, cars, scooters, bicycles, the bus stops in front of the museum.
"What time will you be back?" she asks the driver.
"Eleven thirty, same place," he replies. That would give her just enough time to get back to lunch with Shankar.
She walks uncertainly towards Regal Cinema. She notices the red stone buildings and archways of the British Raj. Once, this was a grand place. She can visualize English ladies in chintz dresses walking into shops in the arcades, she can almost hear the music of the fountains; she can see the statue of Queen Victoria at the center of the traffic island. There is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in its place now a banner atop it saying, ‘Keep Bombay Looking Beautiful.’ The sign brings a smile to her lips, for, all the buildings are covered with layers of dust and soot. She wonders when anyone might have cleaned these stone facades. No one knows. The place has the appearance of an unnatural edifice being reclaimed by the earth.
She crosses the road and moves towards the bustling lanes. Each narrow alley specializes in some kind of business. There is the gold (jewelry) lane, the silver lane, the tailors’ and the kitchenware lanes. Among the narrow shops, there are narrower stairways leading up to small offices of lawyers, dentists, social agencies, banks. On the sidewalks sit shoe-repairmen, palmists, fruit vendors. This is the heart of Bombay, the world of middle class business. Within its apparent chaos, there is complete order. This is what keeps the city going.
The lane she is looking for, Naoroji Lane, is nowhere to be seen. Walking through the maze of cobbled alleyways, she feels an unease about Shankar rising inside her. What is it about him that is a little off-center, a little alarming? She is starting to get angry with him for not offering to help her with her mission today. Any one of her other friends would have enquired about her appointment, taken her there personally, helped her navigate her way around Bombay, but not Shankar. He has never extended such common courtesies to her.
There are no street signs. She asks in various shops until someone directs her to a narrow doorway.
The agency office is a narrow room, perhaps five feet by ten feet. But the agency has managed to cram a series of small desks inside it. A young girl dressed in a cotton salwar kameez greets her ‘Namaste’, with joined palms. Meenu feels instant camaraderie with the girl, a social worker. She is someone who could have been Meenu’s friend had they been of a similar age.
"Was it hard to find the office?" the girl asks.
They talk about David, California, Berkeley. In the hallway outside the office, a line of women is forming. In this milieu, it is hard to guess their ages. Perhaps they are all less than thirty years of age, but some of them look aged. The women wear the ends of their saris over their heads, like village-women or women of the working class. There is talk of blankets, clothes, food in hushed tones. They observe Meenu’s short hair, cowboy shirt, jeans, unobtrusively. Meenu wonders if one of these women would be the mother of her baby. Or perhaps the women are simply here to receive food, money, clothing.
The office of the director, Mrs. Patankar, is an identical teak desk behind a curtain in a corner of the room. Mrs. Patankar asks Meenu questions about infertility checkups, her income, David’s job, their religion. Meenu has not talked about her biological inability to have children before, but she feels no pain. The pain in the faces of the women in the hallway is so large, her own pain seems insignificant in comparison. In India, individual pain is dissipated so very easily. No grief is too large here, no sorrow too overwhelming. One can always find ten other people within one’s immediate reach who are suffering more.
Meenu waits for Mrs. Patankar’s reaction to her inter-racial marriage. "I don’t know how you can live with a foreigner," Meenu’s relatives say, "is he going to learn to speak Marathi? Does he like Indian food, Indian music? Don’t you feel he might leave you? Americans find any excuse to get divorced, you know."
But Mrs. Patankar is clearly one of those women who keep India going. Nothing would shock Mrs. Patankar, not even the fact that Meenu was in bed with a man other than her husband less than twenty-four hours ago, were she to find out about it.
"Do you have any preferences for caste or religion of the baby?" Mrs. Patankar asks. Meenu thinks of her parents who do not know that she is making a stopover in Bombay before going to see them in Nagpur. She thinks of her dead grandmother, who did not want her to play with her best friend because the girl was of a caste slightly lower than Brahmin.
"Any caste will do," Meenu replies, "even untouchable."
"Your husband is a Christian and you are a Hindu, right?" Mrs. Patankar says, "That’s fine. Since you are a Hindu, you will have to do a Hindu adoption here and then when you go to California, you can legally adopt the child there. Everything looks fine. I don’t think we are going to have any trouble working with you and your husband. But we do have to check with our committee. So why don’t you go to Nagpur, see your parents, enjoy your visit with them, and we will send you a letter there telling you our final decision?"
Outside, heat rises from the pavement and hits her in a gust. The sky is white like a sheet. There is still half an hour for the bus. Meenu decides to take a longer walk back to the bus stop along the sea face. She has fond memories of Marine Drive with its glass fronted Victorian apartments reflecting golden sunsets over a blue Arabian sea. Now, there is a pall of heavy smog over the sea face; she cannot even see apartments a hundred yards away. The air is suffocating. In Bombay, money can buy everything except clean air. Shankar and his family live in one of these buildings facing the ocean.
Back at the museum, there is no sign of the bus. She waits, eleven thirty, twelve. She is beginning to feel a little uneasy. The museum looks dead; its high steel fence unapproachable. Across the street, on the grassy area of the university, a group of young men recline on the ground. She is afraid to leave her post in case the bus happens to come by. She has a feeling the driver would not stop unless she was right here, waving at him. There are no taxi stands, or bus stops on this street.
A man walks along the footpath eating a banana. She walks up to him and shouts "Excuse me," in his ear. "Do you know if the tour bus has been by here yet?" The man looks up and down her grimy, sweaty figure. She wants to eat his banana.
"No bus," he says, "what are you waiting for here? There is no bus. I come here every day, I never saw any bus!" He looks at her handbag. "You better close that properly and hold on to it tight. Or someone will snatch it right out of your hands. They cut purses here, too, with pliers. They’ll just cut it right off your shoulder." He walks off.
She looks at his receding figure with alarm. She is beginning to feel afraid. She looks around, trying to reassure herself with the familiar sights of Bombay. The white microwave tower of Telecom India looms larger than the other buildings. She stayed in a flat at the bottom of that tower with her father who was on an audit there in nineteen seventy. There is the road to the Jahangir Art Gallery, on the top floor of which she once spent many hours admiring Indian landscapes. She would stand in front of a painting, move this way or that, and, amazingly, the perspective would shift; she would see a different scene.
The double-decker red buses of Bombay Transport fly past her. While her head is turned, she feels something stir in front of her. It is a heavyset man in gabardine pants and a colorful silk shirt. He wears a gold watch and many gold chains. "What do you want?" he says with a frown.
"The bus, the tour bus. Do you know what happened to it? Maybe I got the bus stop wrong. Does it stop in another place on the way back?"
"There is no bus." The man emphatically says, "Where do you want to go?"
"Juhu Beach," she says vaguely. She does not wish to disclose her exact destination.
"I’ll take you there, come with me, I have a car."
A wave of panic hits her. Until this moment, she has assumed that if all else fails, she would simply find a taxi stand and tell the driver to go to her hotel. But now, she is not sure if taxis are safe here. Didn’t her brother tell her a lone woman was killed in a taxi? Or was that in Delhi? Her mind is racing. ‘Let’s see, I could walk to Churchgate station, take the Western Line to Andheri and hire a taxi from there? The suburban taxis ought to be safer. Or is it the Central Line that stops at Andheri? And, which station is the one near here? Victoria Terminus or Churchgate? She no longer remembers.
"Oh, no," she says to the man, "my husband is just buying cigarettes over there," she gestures randomly, "when he comes back we’ll decide if we want to wait for the bus or catch the train."
The man looks suspiciously at her. He does not believe her story. He has been watching her for some time. She looks him in the eye. He finally walks away.
She wonders what Shankar will feel when he finds out she is not back at the hotel. She sees him, hungry, waiting, frustrated. She longs to be with him at this moment. The faces of the street children, the babies from the hutments, loom oppressively large in her mind. She wants to escape them today. Tomorrow, perhaps, she will be able to think about what she is about to undertake. For today, she wants the sanctuary of a friend. ‘Why did he have to make love to me?’ she thinks in irritation. ‘Why couldn’t we just be friends?’ She wonders if Shankar has ever been just friends with a woman. The pain that she did not feel at the agency gushes at her. She needs Shankar, someone, to comfort her, to help her with the adoption. David is of no use, the last time he came to Bombay he got violently ill and refused to go to India again.
In the midst of her despair, she sees the bus. She waves furiously, and it comes to a screeching halt. The driver opens the door with a resigned expression that says, ‘I tried my best to get rid of you.’ She smiles at him triumphantly and hops in. She is so happy she does not even ask him why he is late. He has the demeanor of a man who has had a satisfying lunch and perhaps a siesta. She only thinks of Shankar. She longs to tell him her adventure of this morning, about the children’s faces, the women with the tragic postures. The driver takes the shorter route back; there are no tourists in the bus, there is no need to go the tourist way, and they are back, miraculously, only half an hour late! She rushes into the hotel lobby, looking at the sofas to see if Shankar is in one of them. She cannot see him. A pageboy beckons her to the front desk and the man there hands her a note. "That Sahb who was here yesterday, his driver brought this."
"What time?" She wonders if Shankar tried to call her, got no answer and concluded she was late.
"Oh, ten 0’ clock," the man replies. She looks at the note. Her knees go weak as she reads it. "When I got home last night, I found out I had to go to a PTA meeting at my son’s school today," (They have PTA meetings in India? One part of her brain is saying. The other part feels dead.) "I am sorry I won’t be able to see you today," the note says, "also, considering everything, it would be best if you did not contact me again."
She looks up. The man at the desk looks at her quizzically. She wonders if he has read the message. She is incredulous, even desperate. She takes the elevator to her room, dials Shankar’s office.
His secretary answers in an Anglo-Indian accent. (Are there still Anglo-Indians in India? Didn’t they leave for England decades ago? Or is this just a fake accent? The part of her brain that is functioning is thinking like a Physicist, the other half is still dead.)
"Just a minute," the secretary says and then Shankar’s voice is on the line. It sounds a million miles away.
"What happened? You said you were having lunch with me," she is angry, desperate. "I rushed back here instead of going to the art gallery or the bookshops. You knew this yesterday, why didn’t you call me last night?" Waiting at the bus stop, she had longed to take a look at the landscapes, to check if they still changed perspectives or if it had just been a child’s fancy! "I need to talk to you. Do you know where I went today? To an adoption agency! You can’t believe what I feel right now!"
His voice is fading, as if he is holding the phone further away.
"Look I have to leave the office now, I am going to put the phone down, all right?" She hears a click and the phone is dead.
Her humiliation is so complete, in it she finds death. She is dying, crumbling, collapsing. And then, in that state of complete devastation, she senses the seeds of complete liberation. Not today, not next week, not while she is in India, but eventually, when she is back in California, years from now, she will be able to look upon this moment and discover in it her liberation from the Shankar fantasy.
Her throat is dry, her shirt is sticking to her back. She walks to the Sun’n Sand to get a drink. Automatically, she sits in the same chair as yesterday and stares at the sea.
"Namaste," she hears someone say. It is the handsome waiter from yesterday. "You look tired," he says in Marathi, "what happened?"
She orders a cold lassi.
"Where’s Sahb?" he asks upon his return.
She waves her hand.
"Who was he, that man with you yesterday? The other waiters were talking about you."
"Oh, nobody, just an old friend."
"He didn’t look like anyone’s friend to me," he says and wanders off.
Something in the waiter’s voice stirs an uneasy thought at the back of her mind. ‘I’ve been an utter fool,’ she thinks, ‘I forgot I am in India.’ She recalls obtuse references in Shankar’s letters to the fact that she has had intimate relationships with several men. Shankar has probably never known anyone except his wife. And Meenu! Was that why he wanted to see her? To see what it would be like to make love to someone other than his wife? And the shopping expedition, the clothes? Could those be payment for services rendered?’ The thought sends a wave of revulsion through her body. She remembers his unease yesterday, when she had said "I wouldn’t mind having your child." A man like Shankar would perhaps think she was deliberately trying to trap him. Life with David has made her forget what men like Shankar might think.
The waiter is back. "What’s your name?" she asks him.
"Ah! Ashok! That’s my brother’s name. You do remind me of him a little."
"Younger brother or older brother?"
"Don’t worry. It’s my younger brother, five years younger than me." They both laugh.
"I have to catch a flight to Nagpur today. Would it be safe to take a taxi to the airport? I somehow don’t trust the hotel bus." She says.
"You are going to Santa Cruz airport? I will come with you. It’s on my way. I am getting off duty here anyway."
She recognizes in him a kindred spirit; the spirit of middle class India, the only India she really knows and likes. She remembers traveling to summer school in Physics every r, and how strangers would help her make train connections, carry her luggage, buy her food, even talk to the conductor on her behalf. Her panic is now gone.
They walk back to her room. "Does your wife wear Punjabi dresses?" she asks him.
"Sometimes, when we go out." The way he smiles she knows he is newly married and is enchanted with his wife.
"Here, why don’t you give her these from me?" She hands him the tiedie outfit that Shankar had bought her yesterday, "I got them yesterday but now I don’t like them."
"Oh, no, Didi, don’t! These look expensive!" He is addressing her as ‘Didi’, ‘Older sister’! Nothing unusual in that. Men often refer to strange women as ‘Didi’ in India, or if they are much older ‘Mataji’ or mother. But she feels happy.
"Please, take these. I am sure she will look prettier in these than me."
Then she sits on the bed and calls David.