Indian Maidens Bust Loose
By Vidya Samson
Copyright (c) 2012 by Vidya Samson
All rights reserved. With the exception of excerpts for review purposes, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission of the copyright holder.
This ebook is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Winning By A Nose
Possibly, somewhere in India, there was a girl who got excited at the prospect of a “bride-seeing” meeting, but it was hard to imagine. For years my sister Vinita and I had been subjected to meetings with boys neither of us would bother to kick. All arranged by Papa, who apparently resented the food we ate. We had long since given up hope.
So, on this hot June evening, we headed downstairs to prepare for Papa’s latest suitor pick. Since I was the target this time, Vinita should have gloated, given her nature. But we took turns at being victims, so there was some solidarity when it came to the suitor problem.
At the bottom of the stairs we encountered a newly hung portrait of Hanuman, the monkey god.
“Papa’s at it again,” said Vinita.
Apparently so. From time to time, Papa would hang extra portraits of gods around the house to impress visitors, usually members of the ultraconservative Bharatiya Sanskruti Ke Rakshak, or BSR. This was a local, relatively powerless version of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which had passed on Papa as a member. That, in itself, spoke volumes about his desirability when it came to rabid organizations. I had always thought of him as being perfectly rabid. On occasion, anyway.
Ma, knowing he was putting up the portraits for the wrong reasons, took them down after they had served their purpose. Like temporary help, I supposed. There remained permanent portraits of Ganesh in the living room, Krishna in the dining area, and Shiva in my parents’ bedroom. On the walls of Vinita’s room were hung portraits of famous mathematicians. I had nothing on my walls, which either meant I had no heroes or that I had saved some money.
Along with Papa’s extra deity portraits would come BSR pamphlets, strewn on tables here and there. We found some of those on the dining table.
“I wonder if he put the pamphlets out to impress the suitor’s family?” I hoped not, for the ultra-conservative suitors were the most unpleasant to deal with.
Vinita stepped into the living room and checked. “I don’t see any on the side table, so the pamphlets must be for us.”
“Could be worse. He could read them to us.”
A chilling thought. “Don’t even joke about that.”
“So, what are you wearing for this meeting?”
“Something new. Come see.”
We went upstairs to my room, where I laid out two cheap outfits, purchased expressly for the suitor business. Vinita glanced at them and grimaced. “Ugh.”
“Splendid.” Vinita’s taste in clothing was abysmal. If she saw the outfits as ugly, they really, truly were, by any standard. That was the whole idea. It made my goal of suitor repulsification easier to achieve.
“What if the suitor turns out to be…adequate?”
I knew she had almost said desirable, then reality had checked her. “I don’t think we have to worry. Papa may be less than competent in some ways, but he can really pick the losers.”
“True. What was I thinking?” She pointed at one of the outfits. “The orange and yellow one is hideous.”
I snatched it up. A two-piece suitor repellent.
Once both of us were dressed, we joined Papa and Ma in the living room. Ma yawned, and the rest of us followed suit. We had done this so many times, we had it down to a polished routine. There would be polite greetings and some false compliments, along with some offered snacks. Then would come the sales pitches, stuffed with lies, and finally the jockeying for best advantage. In the case of Papa’s picks, said jockeying was just a way of pretending the lies went unnoticed. I would reject the boy afterward, provided he didn’t beat me to the punch. That part was always easy. For me, if not for Papa.
The doorbell rang. Papa grinned and bustled away to let the enemy in. Ma stood by with a platter of bhajiyas.
“Battle stations,” whispered Vinita, in a rare display of humor.
The boy hove into sight, flanked by his parents. He looked athletic and he wasn’t short. But neither was his nose, which was the same spectacular feature worn by both parents, only much more so. The Great Indian Hornbill faced stiff competition.
Papa moved into position to make introductions. “My wife, Meena, and my daughters Nisha and Vinita.”
The boy cringed, misled by Papa’s reversing of our seating positions in his introduction. I could tell he thought Vinita was me. Considering my outfit, this was even less of a compliment to Vinita.
His father introduced the players on his team. The boy’s name was Arjun. We were informed that Arjun was outstanding at cricket and had a degree in waste management. I thought that was an effective antidote to romance — not that romance was much of a factor.
“Cricket is my passion,” said Arjun. “I am looking for a wife who shares my interest and who will remain fit.”
A flicker of alarm showed in his parents’ eyes. It wasn’t wise to make demands so soon. It restricted the scope of the lying and forced one to backpedal should previously unmentioned finances come to light. Not that any would in our case. Naani had bequeathed her house to Vinita and me, but it wasn’t collectable until she passed on, so it didn’t have nearly the appeal of cash or gold—of which there was none worth mentioning.
Regardless, it was a major tactical error. Were the parents amateurs at the game? Surely not, for the boy would be a hard sell, having such a dangerous-looking nose and lacking significant wealth. The parents would have started early and played the numbers game, counting on some desperate girl to say yes before he approached thirty and came across as stale. Then it hit me. The parents apparently thought his nose—being like theirs, only amplified—was within the normal range for humans. This entitled him to be picky. They deserved a quick kill.
“I don’t understand the game of cricket,” I said. “My passion is reading. Quality romances, mainly.”
Ma gnashed her teeth. Audibly.
Vinita took her cue. “Being mathematically inclined, I find it interesting. The scoring, I mean. The game itself seems pointless.”
“Well,” said Arjun, slapping his thighs in dismissal and rising. But the parents weren’t through yet.
“There is more to the marriage than the sports and the books,” said Papa. “One can be playing the cricket while the other be reading.”
The suitor’s father looked down his considerable nose. “If one will support the family in fine style, as MBA holder would be doing, there must be the balance, the compensation.”
Cash in addition to the future share in the house was what he meant, not shared interests. He might as well have suggested that his son marry one sister while the other would be cooked for the wedding feast. Papa remained silent, as if “compensation” was Hungarian for gall bladder.
“Perhaps there is not a match,” suggested Arjun’s mother, palming a couple of bhajiyas in preparation for departure.
The father grunted and they left.
“Greedy!” said Papa, after the visitors had left, placing the blame on the suitor family, as usual. I could imagine the other father saying, “Stingy!”
Then Papa went upstairs and Ma turned on me. “Romance novels! What is wrong with you?”
“He was honest, so I was honest. Besides, I said ‘quality romance novels.’”
“No such thing! And no such thing as honest when choosing a boy. Put on the face that is best.”
A nation of politicians. “But if I’m going to reject the boy anyway, what difference does it make?”
“Practice, Nisha. Someday you meet someone nice. Then you know how to act.”
I supposed she meant phony. The thrill of romance over for the time being, Vinita and I headed upstairs to our rooms. In the hallway we pumped our fists in the air and whispered, “Yes!” A rare moment of togetherness.
Even so, there was a letdown lurking behind the feeling of accomplishment. I really wanted Mr. Right to walk through the door, unlikely as that was. I didn’t know if Vinita felt the same way. She might not even hope for that anymore. It wasn’t something she ever talked about.
I went into my room and took stock of the shelves full of novels. Novels that contained legions of virile, confident, action-oriented males, the stuff of secret female dreams. None of them were Indians, I realized. I tried to imagine that. Let me be taking you to Bangalore, my dear, where I will make the computer programs and you will be caring for my sickly parents. At least no underdressed babe would snatch him away. He would be mine forever. I grabbed a bodice-ripper off my bookshelf and frantically searched for a “He crushed her in his powerful arms” passage.
The Vulture and the Cash Cow
In comparison with the suitor meeting the evening before, my day had begun with a sense of excitement, the kind of anticipation a child might experience when some event—small in the scope of the world but big in her eyes—was drawing near. Tomorrow my aunt Damini and her two daughters would arrive from America. I had never met them, which made my imagination run wild.
Papa, Ma, and my sister Vinita were of the opinion that while East and West might meet, sometimes they shouldn’t. Since Damini had run off with an American musician without benefit of marriage and had been banished forever by Pravin, my recently deceased maternal grandfather, this was one of those times. But the house belonged to Naani, my grandmother, so they had little say in the matter. Her daughter was returning, and that was that.
This situation heightened the quality of unpleasantness that normally permeated the household. So, on this particular morning, I decided to put some distance between myself and my family by going for a walk around Mahatma Society, as the compound that housed Naani’s bungalow was called. I opened the front door and stood in the entrance, inhaling deeply and admiring a dawn complete with a lingering pale moon. And minus at least some of the ghastly pollution I suspected the government was using as a means of population control.
“The door!” shrieked my sister, Vinita, from inside.
I hastily stepped out and closed the door behind me. Vinita was paranoid about the door being left open, fearful that a lizard would sneak in. I never understood how I came to have such a delicate sister. Both of us had attended Gujarat University, where snakes sometimes invaded the library and lizards sought to better themselves in the classrooms. Vinita never learned that we have to share the planet with God’s lesser creatures, possibly because she was the most recent addition to the family. I realized early on that younger siblings are given to us for practice.
Pushing both lizards and sister from my mind, I set out on my walk. I didn’t get far before I heard my name called. Gita, a middle-aged woman with hard-edged features, came out of her house.
“Aunty,” I responded. Custom dictated I address her that way, although there were other things I would rather have called her.
“I heard your aunt from America is coming to visit.”
“Yes, that’s true.” Gita was always the first to know what was happening in her neighbors’ lives. Vinita suspected she paid the neighborhood maids to keep her updated on what was going on in every home.
“After so long. She left the year before you were born. Twenty-five years, no?”
“What a good memory you have.”
“It’s like yesterday to me.”
I didn’t doubt that. Gita had chosen gossip as her life’s work at an early age. Damini’s shameful departure and my now deceased grandfather’s ban on further contact with her had been grist for Gita’s gossip mill. Now that the scandal had been resurrected, Gita was no doubt eager to roll in it once more.
“Your grandfather would be shocked your family allows her to visit,” continued Gita.
“He’s hardly in a position to object.”
“But in the memory of his wishes…”
“No point in bearing grudges.”
Gita’s eyes widened in pretended shock, then she continued. “She now has two daughters, no?”
“So I’ve heard. I get the news later than you.”
Gita ticked off points on her fingers. “A runaway mother, an American musician father, plus growing up in a morally bankrupt country”
“They may be perfectly decent girls.”
Gita grinned evilly. “A slim chance, maybe. But be careful, Nisha. Your reputation can be destroyed by association.”
I had to admit Gita was the expert in the field of interpersonal demolition. She started to say something else, then stopped, looking alarmed. Something behind me had struck fear into her.
“Rundhi! Gadhedi!” screamed a female voice. “Trying to ruin my marriage!”
I turned to see one of our neighbors, a Mrs. Varma, crossing the street, a plastic bag in her hand.
“I don’t know what you’re speaking about,” said Gita, slowly backing away.
“Liar!” shouted Mrs. Varma. “You are filled with poison lies!” She reached into the bag and withdrew a ripe chiku.
“You are mistaken,” said Gita, dodging as the fruit whistled past her head. She turned and ran to her door. A second fruit splattered next to the door, causing her to cry out. She yanked the door open, allowing another missile to sail into her house. Something crashed inside. The door slammed, and the next three chikus made a mess on the front of the house.
Mrs. Varma turned to me. “Your friend?”
“No one’s friend, I don’t think.”
She laughed, sounding somewhat demented. I was glad my fellow citizens didn’t have ready access to firearms. “I have something on the stove,” I said, grinning as I backed away. I turned and headed for my house, wondering what pain Gita would inflict upon us for allowing Damini to return.
“Should have a wall around this place,” said a male voice.
I turned to see a man in my next door neighbor’s front yard. His hair was too long, he had a full beard, and he wore sunglasses, so I really wasn’t sure what I was looking at. He was crouched next to a very large, evil-looking motorcycle. Unlike those that normally plied the streets, this one looked dangerous not only to the rider, but to others as well. Perhaps to entire neighborhoods. He was cleaning or polishing something. “Actually, there is a wall.”
“I meant a high wall. Something to keep the inmates in.”
Did he mean me? What nerve. “I’m not sure we’re worse than the rest of Ahmedabad.”
He stood up. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but his jeans were almost worn out, and the loose tunic he wore had seen better days.
“Good point,” he said.
I cleared my throat and continued on my way.
I met Naani, my diminutive but peppery grandmother, as I entered. She smiled a greeting, lively eyes shining beneath gray hair.
“Do we have a visitor next door?” I asked. “A man with a big motorcycle?”
“I heard it last night. I was thinking we are at war, but no. Mr. Ambani becomes sick, so maybe there is something to do with that.”
“A short term visitor, I hope. By the way, Mrs. Varma just attacked Gita.”
Naani looked hopeful. “Much injury?”
“None. She just threw ripe chikus at her, and missed.”
Naani clucked her tongue.
“Gita already knows about Damini coming,” I continued.
“Of course. Gita knows all everything. Gita knows what color chuddis the prime minister is wearing, I think.”
“She missed her calling as a government spy.”
“We can’t be sure.” Naani looked around as if Gita might be lurking behind a settee, then motioned for me to follow her out the front entrance. She closed the door behind us, adjusted her sari, and sat down next to me on the step. I saw that the motorcycle polisher had gone inside. We had privacy.
“You are excited about Damini’s visit, no?” she said.
I almost asked what else there was to be excited about. “I didn’t sleep well, thinking about it.”
“So this is some jadoo-mantar, some magic, her coming?”
Of course it was. My life had been bone dry in terms of magic. “I don’t see what’s wrong with being excited about meeting Damini. Is she some horrible person? To hear Ma talk…”
“No, Damini is the nice person.”
“You’ve talked to her? Other than when she called?”
“I called her, not so long ago. I couldn’t be speaking with her while your grandfather is alive. But Tara Aunty’s husband has the relatives there and they were making the inquiries afterward, so I get her number. I thought why to tell you and give you high-high hopes unless she is surely coming.”
I saw why she wanted our conversation to be private. It wasn’t Gita she was worried about. “Tell me all she said.”
“We talk about many-many things. What you want to know?”
I thought of Ma’s dire predictions for Damini’s life. “Is she married? Is she happy?”
“Of course married, and she’s sounding happy. Her life is busy-busy, with many friends.”
My reply must have rung hollow, for Naani eyed me with suspicion. “You’re expecting something from her?”
“Well, since Papa won’t let me pursue my goal of working as a journalist, I thought perhaps Damini could help me.”
“How she can help?”
“I could study further in the US, where Papa isn’t.”
“A good plan, even if you aren’t studying.”
We were on the same page. “Then I would qualify for a better job. She could give me the money for the school.”
Naani gave me a “when cows can play sitars” look.
“Tuition to study in California isn’t all that much, Naani. Not in public schools. Perhaps five lakhs or so, and I could pay her back when I got a job. Otherwise, the best I can hope for is an ordinary job with no future.”
“Five lakhs? A high-sounding amount.”
I did a quick and sloppy calculation. “It’s only ten thousand dollars or so.”
“Only? This is nothing for Americans?”
“Well, some Americans are poor, but I’m sure Damini isn’t.”
“Her husband is owning the sound studio.”
“You see? So they’re rich. A few lakhs is nothing to such people. They spend money quite recklessly.”
Naani nodded. “Coming such a long distance to meet this family…”
She had a point. “I meant other things. Did you know that Americans bury their pets in cemeteries? With big funerals?”
Naani was speechless.
“They also give their dogs fancy weddings.”
“Yes? Divorces also?”
“Well, it is America.”
“Better to be coming back in next life as the dog,” said Naani, “and not the poor Indian.”
I thought of the skinny stray dogs that populated Ahmedabad’s streets. I wasn’t sure the majority of the poor were worse off. “Perhaps, but only if it’s an American dog.”
“Of course American dog.” Naani sighed, as if the missed opportunity to be a pampered pooch upset her greatly. “So, if Damini is paying the fees, you’ll be living by yourself in the hostel or flat?”
“Of course not. I’d live with Damini.”
“Yes? Don’t be counting on it. Damini was sounding very American. A little stranger than before, but that’s the same thing, maybe. Could be now she has more family feeling for the dog than the niece. Besides, not good you should be thinking like those Indians who are all grab-grab, who see the abroad relatives as the cow to be milked.”
I wanted to assure Naani I wasn’t thinking that way, but I knew I was.
“She never meets you, also,” continued Naani, “so you are like the stranger.”
“I know I can’t even hint at assistance until she gets to know me. I only have the one chance, so I’ll have to make her like me so much that she’ll want to help me.”
Naani didn’t have a chance to express an opinion on that, for her friend Bharti came down the street just then, out for her morning stroll. Bharti was a nice, honest person. I thought of her as an antidote to Gita, but realistically it would take dozens of Bhartis to balance things out.
Bharti made her way up our pathway. “I heard you’ll be having guests coming soon.”
Gita was wasting no time. I suspected she had a switchboard in her bedroom.
“My daughter and her two girls,” confirmed Naani. “From California.”
“Ah, what part?”
“South. A place named Santa Monica, near to Los Angeles.”
“A coincidence,” said Bharti. “My sister Adrika lives in Ventura, and I think that’s not so far.”
“You’re never talking of her.”
“Since she moves away, her head gets bigger. The family has the importing business. Things they buy for cheap in poor countries and sell for the high-high price. So they’re rich now. You know how it is with too much money.”
I certainly didn’t, but I wanted to learn.
The door opened behind us. It was Vinita, and that brought the conversation to an end. Bharti was not one of her fans. Not that Vinita had any fans outside of university faculty. She would eventually need some, in the form of a suitor family, but her bust-free figure, thick glasses, and hair in child-like twin plaits would make her a difficult sell. Even if she was nice.
“One day soon I bring some of my shrikhand,” said Bharti as she left.
Naani and I smiled at the thought. Bharti made excellent mango shrikhand.
“This morning we finish cleaning of the basement,” said Naani. “You two get the supplies. I join you quick.”
“They won’t like the basement, no matter how clean we make it,” said Vinita. “It’s dank and dreary. And infested with all manner of crawling things.”
“The basement is for two of you, not the visitors. So maybe you want to do the good job. Then you can be moving your things from your rooms.” Naani left, chuckling softly.
Vinita was stunned into momentary silence. Naani had cleverly forestalled my sister’s outrage over losing her room to the visitors until it was too late. Well, it was never too late for Vinita to complain, but this way Naani had spared herself much of it.
“I hate the visitors, in advance,” said Vinita, upon regaining her voice.
I felt sorry for the visitors, in advance.
Down to the Dungeon
“I can’t believe we’re being stuck down there,” said Vinita. She and I stood at the top of the stairs to the basement, cleaning supplies in hand, waiting for Naani. Earlier Vinita had said we were being treated like slum dwellers caught in a government demolition, our home ripped asunder, our belongings scattered to the winds. I had almost heard the roaring and clanking of the bulldozers.
Naani arrived and we descended the stairs. She opened the door to what would soon be our quarters, and the hinges screeched like the ones in a horror movie I had seen as a child. We entered. The room seemed dimmer and mustier than it had the day before. Probably because I would be living in it.
“Right down to the bowels of the earth,” grumbled Vinita. “It’s like being a rabbit and having to live underground.”
The atmosphere drained some of my enthusiasm as well, but I tried to see the bright side. “It makes for a change of scene.”
“Yes. From our habitable bedrooms to a veritable dungeon. Honestly, if we’re truly members of the family—” Vinita jumped back and squealed as a large cockroach dashed past her toes.
I watched it scurry to hide under a dusty cardboard box. “Another family member.”
I took up where I had left off the day before, sorting what remained of the family dump and placing the best of it in boxes.
Vinita continued doing what Vinita did best, aside from scholastic endeavors. “There’s no light reaching this place. It’s like the black hole of Calcutta, only smaller. And infested with cockroaches. Why do we have to share our house with them?”
“I think the constitution guarantees the cockroaches housing,” I said. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many, and they wouldn’t be so pushy.”
“I meant Damini and the girls!”
“Arre, bas,” said Naani, coming down the stairs. “Enough of your buck-buck. Stop grumbling and start cleaning.”
Vinita grudgingly swept a few remaining cobwebs away. “Good thing Ma was married when Damini ran away. She’d have had a terrible time getting a match after Damini ruined the family’s reputation.”
In spite of my reservations about Western men as husbands, I could understand why Damini had chosen to run away with an American. America was synonymous with wealth, adventure, and excitement. Everything happened in America. Ordinary people became movie stars and millionaires, and some were even abducted by aliens. Aliens didn’t bother to land in India and abduct Indians. That had to say something.
Now it seemed as if I might follow in her footsteps, even if I took a somewhat different path.
“I hope they don’t stay long,” said Vinita, making me realize I wasn’t the only one who would make an impression.
“Think what exciting stories they’ll have to tell us about their life in America,” I countered.
“Huh! Muggings, molestations, murders?”
“I doubt they’ve been involved in any of that.”
“Those are just the M’s. How old are they?”
“One has started college,” said Naani. “The other is in high school.”
“By fourteen they must have used drugs and had sex. If they were late bloomers.”
Naani threw up her hands and headed for the stairs, leaving us to our own devices. I couldn’t blame her. I returned my attention to the junk at hand, which had to be more interesting than Vinita, no matter what it was. I opened a small cardboard box and found a collection of loose photos. Naani had mentioned putting the family photos in albums, but Ma didn’t see the point. Why stir up unpleasant memories? Having lived through some of the original events, I could understand her reasoning.
The first photo was of Papa. I held it up. “Look, Vinita. Papa as a young man.”
“I think he was born frowning.”
“Actually, all babies are born frowning.”
That made sense. I selected another photo. It was of a young woman holding a baby on her lap while a toddler stood next to her. I handed it to Vinita. “Do you recognize this woman? She must be a relative.”
Vinita examined it. “She doesn’t look like family. Besides, she appears to be wearing a uniform. Perhaps she’s a nurse. But doesn’t the younger infant look very like me in my early photos?”
I studied the photo again. The smallest one was scowling and looked mean, so there was a good chance it was Vinita. That had more appeal than the possibility of having another like her in the extended family. “Could be it’s you.”
I turned the photo over and read the brief inscription. MUMBAI, 1990. It was Ma’s handwriting. “Did Ma and Papa ever live in Mumbai?”
“They never mentioned it. Just Delhi and Ahmedabad.”
“Maybe they were visiting someone.” My thoughts returned to our soon-to-arrive relatives. “We’ll have to plan some nice things to do while Damini Aunty and the girls are here.”
Vinita sneered. “I don’t think Americans would be impressed by Ahmedabad. They’re obsessed with size.”
“Ahmedabad has millions of people, even if most of them aren’t very big.”
“I meant skyscrapers, three-car garages, and Big Macs. That’s the standard.”
“True. Big bathrooms, giant TV sets, huge beds.”
Vinita looked surprised. “Huge beds?”
“Judging by pictures I’ve seen, you could easily get four people in one.”
“We have jumbo jets.”
“They built them. Big breasts, too.”
Vinita pouted. That was a sore point with her.
“Perhaps not,” I consoled. “We’ll have to wait until the cousins arrive and see. After all, they’re half Indian.”
“Brown on the outside, white on the inside,” said Vinita.
This from the girl who made every attempt to look white on the outside. As for the inside, I didn’t know. Possibly bile colored. I went back to the photos, finding one that showed two young couples at what appeared to be a social gathering. One of the couples was Papa and Ma. I turned it over. RASIK AND ME, MILIND AND RUCHI was written on the back. I held it up to Vinita. “Look, Papa and Ma actually had friends when they were young.”
“Really?” Vinita took the photo and studied it. “Ma is quite pretty in the photo. And she looks happy.”
I took a closer look. Ma was smiling, which surprised me.
“The other man is handsome and smiling,” continued Vinita, “but the other woman is repellent. In terms of looks, Papa would have made a better match with her than with Ma.”
“Yes, but if that had been the case, we wouldn’t be here.”
Vinita looked around, probably thinking here wasn’t a great place to be.
“We’d better get to work on the cleaning,” I said. “We can look at the photos some other time.”
Vinita sighed. “I have a bad feeling about all this.”
Madness and Therapy
Vinita and I dragged the cleanup and moving of personal effects out until after four, not because we wanted to stay in the place any longer than necessary, but because I was determined not to get stuck with the lion’s share of the work.
“I think I can bear to live here,” Vinita finally said. “For a short period of time.”
“We all have to make sacrifices in the name of hospitality,” I said, realizing I sounded like a government official.
“I want to see what sacrifice Papa is making.”
I couldn’t imagine. There was no precedent. I went upstairs and looked at the wall clock. Still plenty of time to get to Rathod’s Bookstore before it closed. While I was optimistic about Damini’s visit, I knew my family, and suspected I might have to fall back on romance novels for fantasy comfort. Wise to lay in a supply ahead of time.
No sooner had I stepped out the door than my friend Rini arrived on her moped. Her workload had kept her busy during the past week, so there were lots of things to catch up on. I waited while she removed her cap and goggles, then shook out her curly hair.
“Not working today?” I asked.
“Moved to the night shift.”
That got right to the heart of my problem. Papa wouldn’t let me work at a television station because of the hours I might be required to work. So I was jealous of Rini’s freedom, even if her job wasn’t as glamorous as that of reporter. I was also jealous of her moped—which I would never actually use in traffic, but still—and her light brown eyes, which I would definitely use if they were mine. We sat on the step, in the shade.
Thunder sounded nearby, or so it seemed, then I realized our neighbor’s visitor had started his motorcycle. He rolled out into the street, touched a hand to his leather cap in salute to us, then roared off down the street.
“I think I heard my moped whimper,” said Rini.
“Just visiting the Ambanis, fortunately.”
“Of course. Would you want a neighborhood full of those types?”
Rini watched the motorcycle go out the gate. “I don’t know. Anyway, what’s new with you?”
“American relatives are arriving tomorrow.”
“That’s right, you told me. That should be interesting.”
“So is war, I imagine.”
Rini laughed. “Are your father’s anti-West sentiments likely to get in the way of familial love?”
I gave Rini a condensed version of my family’s feelings toward our guests-to-be.
Rini groaned. “There must be a bright side to the visit. Maybe it will put a moratorium on suitor visits.”
I certainly hoped so. Papa regularly inflicted the most unsuitable suitors on Vinita and me, all provided by a cut-rate marriage bureau. Given Papa’s stinginess, probably the cheapest one in all of India. “I can’t think of anything more embarrassing than having to confront a disgusting suitor with my aunt and cousins looking on. Unless it was having to admit I was working for the BSR.”
“Not yet, but Papa took Vinita and me down to their new school for interviews. Since our English is excellent, and since Vinita is brilliant, if strange, they found us acceptable. In a couple of weeks they’ll be starting classes.”
Rini looked disgusted. “Your father treats you like a child.”
I didn’t need to be reminded of that. “He has lots of company, doesn’t he?”
“Unfortunately, yes. So what would you be teaching? Religious intolerance? Admiration of Hitler? The art of burning people alive?”
“Hopefully nothing. I just have to find another job before then.” In truth, without that threat, my motivation was weak. Papa would take my paycheck, just as did Ma’s, and then he would dole out a small allowance.
We chatted for a while, then Rini left. I hurried down to the society’s gate in time to catch the 52 by 2 bus.
I found an empty seat, which I took to be a favorable omen. I wasn’t fond of riding the bus—the chances of being groped by some man were high and the comfort level was low—but having a seat was infinitely better than not.
I spent my time thinking of ways to entertain the visitors. My family rarely entertained itself, let alone others, so I wasn’t sure where to start. It would depend on what Damini and the girls found interesting. I could put temples on the list, for Ahmedabad had some nice temples. The Shaking Minarets and Three Gates, as well.
There my short list ended. So did the bus ride, at least temporarily, for we came to an unscheduled stop. We were at Mithakali Crossroads, where traffic routinely became snarled, so I wasn’t too surprised. But this was something different. From outside came the sounds of angry voices.
There were too many people on the bus by this time for me to see ahead. The woman seated next to me stuck her head out the window, so I asked her what was going on.
“A protest,” she replied. “A group of men with sticks … hah! It’s the BSR. Something about a store they don’t like. Probably something they are considering blasphemous.”
“I think so.”
The smell of smoke came into the bus.
“They are burning something … looks like books.”
The BSR liked to burn books and magazines that, in their eyes, were offensive to Hindus.
The woman pulled her head in, scanned the nearby passengers, then whispered to me. “Crazy bastards.”
I nodded. I didn’t tell her my father was a member of the BSR. I didn’t tell anyone that. Papa told everyone he belonged to the BSR, for in Ahmedabad, that was a sure way to make friends and influence people. Just not people I would respect.
After what seemed like a long time, the bus moved ahead. I looked out the window at the men who were now lined up in front of a bookstore. Angry faces, hating something, probably just about everything. A few passengers shouted support to them. The woman next to me looked nervous.
“No one heard you,” I whispered.
She nodded, looking relieved.
I got off near the Rathod Bookstore and hurried inside. I saw that I had less than fifteen minutes to find my novels, not the forty I had originally planned on.
Ashni, the owner’s daughter, looked up and smiled at me. “Hi, Nisha. How’s it going?”
“Fine.” Ashni was enamored of things Western, including expressions. She was constantly trying to improve her English pronunciation, and had made great progress. I had asked her if she was planning to work at a call center. She said no, but hadn’t volunteered any alternative explanations. She had just received her masters, so I doubted she would continue working at her father’s store. I suspected she harbored dreams of going to America, as did many Indians, even with the economy slumping.
I liked Ashni. I felt very comfortable around her, as if I had known her for much longer than the two years I had been a customer. We shared some interests, and had very similar noses. Both of us considered our noses to be our weakest points, looks-wise, and had joked about it. Hers had clearly come from her father. I had no idea where I got mine, so I could only blame the nose itself.
“I would have arrived earlier,” I said, “but the BSR blocked Mithakali Crossroads with one of their protests.”
“India’s own little Taliban.” Ashni took a dupatta from under the counter and draped it over and around her head so it covered her face. “I will leave the house only to buy food for my husband and twelve children.”
We both laughed.
“But I’m worried about your store,” I said. “They were burning books from a bookstore. Something that offended them.”
Ashni looked surprised. “I didn’t think they read.”
Mr. Rathod, a jovial, slightly overweight man, came out of a back room. “Did I hear happy customers?”
“Nisha and I were talking about the BSR,” said Ashni.
“Surely not thinking of joining?”
“There are advantages, you know.” Ashni managed to keep a straight face.
“Please do something less extreme, like running off to Pakistan with a seventy-year-old Muslim. Woman.”
So much for straight faces. When we stopped laughing, I found myself studying Mr. Rathod. I’d met him many times since the bookstore opened but now there seemed to be more depth to the familiarity. Odd.
Father and daughter began bustling about, getting ready to close up shop. I now had only a few minutes to make my selections. “I’d better pick out some novels before you close.”
“Don’t worry. You can stay after we close,” said Mr. Rathod. “It takes some time to get things in order before we leave.”
“Papa,” said Ashni, “since we’re going to Vishramnagar before we go home, couldn’t we give Nisha a ride home? She lives in Gurukul, and that’s on the way.”
“Of course we can. It would be our pleasure.”
I accepted, and made my way to the secondhand section to select my therapy. Handsome, excitingly dangerous men lurked between the covers of the novels, men who were the perfect antidote to the unattractive suitors Papa regularly thrust upon Vinita and me. Of course Vinita never touched a romance novel. She relied on math texts, and thick tomes on ancient history and mythology. Whatever worked, as Ashni would say.
“This is an interesting read,” said Ashni, picking a book off a shelf. “A woman rode a bicycle from one end of Africa to the other.”
“An Indian woman?”
Ashni threw her head back and laughed. It occurred to me that I had never heard of an Indian adventurer. Surely there were some.
I managed to find four historical romances by the time Mr. Rathod and Ashni were ready to go. That seemed like more than enough to tide me over until I could return to the bookstore.
Mr. Rathod drove an Ambassador sedan. Not new, but much newer than my family’s poor Maruti. Ragas played softly on the radio as we motored along.
“You grew up in Ahmedabad, Nisha?” asked Mr. Rathod.
“I lived in Delhi until I was five, then my family moved here. Just recently we moved in with my widowed grandmother.”
“I also spent my early years in Delhi. Then I married, and a year later moved to Mumbai. I think Ashni still prefers Mumbai.”
“I like being near the ocean,” said Ashni. “But Mumbai was getting congested and very expensive. It’s even worse now.”
Mr. Rathod shook his head. “More violence, too. The recent bombings. Not as bad as the ones three years earlier, but bad enough.”
“We had bombs, too, but smaller ones,” I said. “For real violence, we have to resort to riots.”
Mr. Rathod chuckled. “What is the world coming to when we are remembering bad things more than good?”
“Tsunamis, floods,” said Ashni.
“Nothing like a good flood,” agreed Mr. Rathod.
“Earthquakes,” I added.
“Nice disaster, earthquakes,” said Mr. Rathod. “On the personal level, starvation and malnutrition.”
Ashni giggled. “TB, malaria, AIDS.”
“Lynchings,” I said. “And…”
“And what?” asked father and daughter.
We all laughed. The car swerved, narrowly missing an rickshaw and causing all of us to shout in alarm.
“Vehicle accidents!” said Ashni, and we laughed anew.
By the time we arrived at the society gate, I was wishing my family was more like Ashni and her father. Papa and Ma never laughed about anything, let alone things one shouldn’t laugh about. I thanked Mr. Rathod for the ride and headed for my house. Soon Damini would arrive, and I would know if I had to be envious of yet another family.
Host is a Four-letter Word
Ma and Naani were setting the dining table when I entered. “It will be a big hullagulla if Damini comes here,” Ma was saying. “She and her girls will be thinking the Western way.”
This struck me as being perfectly natural, but I stayed blank and said nothing. I was adhering to Naani’s advice, which was that in times of conflict, one should be gone or be paint on the wall. Barring an escape route, neutrality was salvation. I was the Switzerland of the Desai family. Minus the money.
“Damini will cause much lafda with Rasik,” continued Ma.
Naani snorted. “Anyone who defies Pravin can handle Rasik also, no?”
“Damini didn’t defy! She ran away.” Ma focused on me. “No bothering to be married. Like a…” She stalled, apparently remembering that Damini was Naani’s other daughter. “I’m just saying she leaves making lot of jhanjhat and now she comes back making lot of jhanjhat.”
“Who can say?” said Naani. “She is not yet here.”
“Makes no difference,” replied Ma, setting the table aggressively. “I know how this will be going. Damini is now the rich firangi. Our family will look poor and beyond the times. My daughters will want to be like hers.”
“Perhaps they’ll all be fat,” I said.
“With the bad skin,” added Naani.
Ma slapped a metal plate down on the table. “Yes, make the joke. Whichever way they look, fat or no, they come with no family values. Then they cause the Desai family values to become weak.”
“Maybe not,” said Naani. “Maybe strong Desai family values will be showing them path to follow.”
I had trouble imagining two American girls wanting to give up dating, wearing sexy clothes, and staying up past ten at night.
“You see this happen, ever?” asked Ma. “American this, American that, American anything comes to a country, and family values are no more.”
I could see the headlines. Wal-Mart invasion causes rise in illegitimate births. Electric guitars create spike in wife beatings.
“Why you’re smiling, Nisha?” said Ma.
“I’m just happy.”
Ma gave me a suspicious look, which had to be a comment on family values in itself. Then she returned her attention to setting the table and we had peace for perhaps six seconds.
“Why she’s coming here?” asked Ma, as if speaking to herself. “What she can want?”
“It could be she missed her family,” I suggested.
“Hah! After twenty-five years? Don’t tell me. You’re young, Nisha, you don’t know how the world is. Everyone has the interior motive. If you go to trust everyone, you don’t survive. People will sit on your head, take from you.”
“What there is to take?” said Naani.
“There are other things also besides money that people can take from you.”
“She could leave with a lorry full of suitors,” I muttered.
“You know what Damini is bringing?”
“Her daughters, some suitcases,” said Naani.
“Trouble! It will be the disaster!” said Ma. “She and her daughters will make Nisha and Vinita to think the Western way, free to do this, do that, do everything, is best.”
“Now, baba, don’t be making a big nakhra about it,” said Naani. “Everything is the big-big problem with you.”
Ma ignored Naani and addressed me. “Get married to a well-placed boy with the high qualifications, Nisha. If the gods smile on you, he will be earning well and you don’t have to work.”
I had nothing against that plan, if it was more than a business deal, but there was a definite scarcity of candidates. Not of suitors, for Papa lined up a steady supply of losers, but of men I could consider marrying without bursting into tears.
Dinner had the feel of a condemned man’s last meal. The pending arrival of the Americans was obviously weighing heavily on my immediate family’s collective mind.
Papa was controlling the conversation, his bushy brows dancing beneath his poorly cut hair as he waxed loud on his favorite subject—the evils of the West. “Is any good thing come from Western thinking? The reporters who does the news in English, they has studied in the convent schools. How they are the voices for the Hindu peoples?”
I didn’t know if they were or not, but I did know their English was much better than Papa’s. I rued the day when he had announced that his poor English was holding him back at work, and that from then on, only English would be spoken in the house.
“They speaks the Western thoughts,” he continued. “They gets brain-watered by the missionaries.”
“Brainwashed,” said Vinita, without looking up from her plate.
Papa went on as if Vinita had not spoken. “The missionaries wants to colonize India again, to brings religion of Western invaders on the country. But who is the voices of Indian peoples? Who is speak for India? RSS, yes. BSR, yes.”
Papa’s championing of the Bharatiya Sanskruti Ke Rakshak, or BSR, was the one topic that made even the pathetic suitors seem interesting by comparison. He was desperate to rise within the ranks of the organization, but had remained stuck near the bottom, one step above the rabble who defended Hinduism by setting fire to mosques, churches, and assorted Muslims and missionaries.
“Only BSR is saving the Hinduism and the India from West,” said Papa.
Naani rolled her eyes. Ma hummed a brief content-free response, her tired face expressionless. I knew she wasn’t listening. The summer vacation was giving her a break from her job as a primary school teacher, but any joy she experienced from that was well concealed. Probably because it didn’t give her a break from Papa.
“How long you say visitors stays?” asked Papa, establishing a link between evil Western culture and our visitors.
“I didn’t say,” replied Naani. “Three weeks.”
“Three weeks!” roared Papa. “What if we was going to hill station as I was planning?”
“That you’re planning for five-six years. Now you can be planning for five-six more, no?”
“I was thinking maybe three days.”
“To come from America, long way, and stay only three days?”
“Not worth troubles. Best to stay in California.”
Naani fixed Papa with an icy stare. “They come here at nine in the morning, to stay three weeks, whether you are liking it or not.”
“Maybe I go to hill station by myself only.”
There was an almost palpable lifting of spirits around the table. Papa looked up from his meal. “Pah!”
And so we prepared for our honored guests.
Nine Thousand Miles for This?
Following the next morning’s breakfast, the family declared itself ready for the new arrivals. I had practiced my greeting and Papa had practiced his snarl. Not that he would be home when they arrived. He would be at work, giving me time to make a good impression on the guests before he made a bad one.
It was decided that Ma, Vinita, and I would meet them at the airport. Naani chose to stay behind and welcome them to her home. She often opted out of trips and outings. I suspected she factored in the survival rate on Ahmedabad’s streets and chose to extend her life.
For the trip to the airport, I changed into my number two salwar kameez, subordinate only to the gold-embroidered one I reserved for parties that never happened. Vinita put on something ugly, not that her wardrobe offered a choice. We really should have chosen to wear American product logo T-shirts, the way countries fly the flag of a visiting dignitary’s country. I could imagine what Papa would say if he caught wind of that. Besides, I had no jeans to go with a T-shirt. Another of Papa’s restrictions. No woman in his family would wear trousers as long as he lived. In reality, the salwar half of a salwar kameez could be called trousers, but not the kind that would arouse lust, which was Papa’s real concern.
Once dressed, I picked up a mirror and studied my face. Lipstick and eye shadow would make a significant difference. “If only I had some makeup.”
“Cosmetics are poisons,” lectured Vinita. “They contain chemicals that penetrate the skin and make you a hag before your time. And they make a girl look wanton.”
Wanton? This was what I had to contend with, day in and day out. In my darker moments, I wondered what terrible crimes I had committed in previous lives to deserve such a sister. “Wanton isn’t what stops clocks,” I replied, as I left the room.
I found Ma bustling about, making sure everything was clean and in place. The nose ring she hadn’t worn for years reappeared, along with a bindi on her forehead. Even red sindoor in the parting of her hair. I suspected this represented our side as opposed to their side, a way of drawing a line. Hopefully not a battle line.
Fifteen minutes later we were on our way, chugging along in our ancient and battered Maruti 800. My mind was filled with speculative images of Damini and the girls.
Once at the airport, I was the first one out of the car, urging Ma and Vinita to hurry. We had to pay for three visitor tickets to gain entrance, something the hordes of beggars and homeless people couldn’t do, which was the whole idea. A small price to pay for freedom from outstretched palms and bodies asleep on the terminal’s floor. It also bought air-conditioned comfort, a relief from the oven that was baking away outside.
The flight was on time. We waited at the gate, craning our necks as passengers filed in. Ma wasn’t sure she would be able to recognize Damini after all the years that had passed. But since Ahmedabad attracted relatively few visitors from the West, let alone three women traveling by themselves, it wasn’t difficult.
The possibility of an obese or decrepit Damini evaporated. She was an older, more elegant version of the pretty girl in the photographs Naani had hidden from Pravin. Time had caused less wear on her than it had on Ma, and she had picked up some fashion tips Ma had overlooked. In comparison with Damini, Ma was a hair-in-a-bun lump, a bland creature wrapped in several meters of dirt-colored cloth.
Damini’s daughters didn’t look Indian at all. The girl I judged to be Lauren was tall, even by Western standards, and had obviously put some effort into keeping herself in top athletic condition. She possessed the kind of looks that didn’t require much makeup or a fancy hairdo.
Her younger sister, Amber, apparently thought hers did, for she could have stepped right out of some Western spend-hours-fixing-yourself-up magazine. Long, spiral curls of coppery hue fell below her shoulders and framed hairline-to-chin glamour makeup. I could imagine her in a cosmetics ad, while I had to flog my imagination to see myself in an ad for a toilet cleaning product. Amber looked better after twenty-four hours on a plane than I would after twenty-four hours at the beauty salon. In intensive care.
To make matters worse, both girls had figures that were rarely seen on Indian girls. I would have to be quadruplets to equal Amber’s assets, and Vinita would have to be an army.
“It’s so great to see you again, Meena!” exclaimed Damini. She hugged Ma, who seemed inert, then turned to Vinita and me. “And to finally meet Vinita and Nisha.”
“Welcome to India, Damini Aunty,” I said.
“Just Damini will do,” said Damini. “I’d rather you thought of me as a person, not a relative.”
I wouldn’t want to be one of my relatives, either, so I smiled and nodded.
Vinita then welcomed our relatives to India, but in Sanskrit. At least I assumed it was a welcome. It might well have been wholesale condemnation. The cousins looked at her oddly.
An awkward silence fell over the group, part Vinita’s doing, part Ma’s lack of warmth. I had hoped that the sight of her long-lost sibling would make Ma experience a little upsurge of sisterly love, or to at least motivate her to give an acceptable imitation of it. But her smile was forced, and I knew she would rather be someplace else. Everyone seemed relieved when I suggested collecting the suitcases.
We should have known Americans didn’t travel with one modest suitcase apiece. Once the lot was all stacked next to the car, it was apparent we were short at least one Maruti, perhaps two. While we thought nothing of putting six people in a little car designed for five smallish types at the most, suitcase space was another matter.
“Is that man spitting up blood?” asked Amber, taking my mind off the engineering task at hand.
I turned to see a man walking away, and there on the concrete was a bright red spattering. “He’s not spitting blood. He chews betel nut.”
She examined the ground around her. “And spits.”
“Is this, like, a popular thing?”
“I’m afraid it is.”
“Okies wherever you go,” said Lauren.
I had no idea what that meant. I joined Ma in the task of loading the suitcases. They didn’t begin to fit, even with the dickey yawning open and secured with twine, and a large piece lashed to the roof. So everyone but Ma wound up with smaller pieces piled on their laps. Problem solved, if not happily. With four of us packed in the back, the faithful Maruti—diluted as it was with Suzuki genes—finally looked truly Indian.
Ma tried to start the car, which sputtered, coughed, and died. Subsequent attempts and coaxing failed to win the machine over.
“At least it isn’t stopped in traffic,” said Vinita.
Amber looked anxious. “Does that, like, happen often?”
“Now and then. It’s a well-used car. As old as I am. About time for a decent burial, but we can’t afford anything better.”
The engine then started with a roar, as if protesting Vinita’s insults. She brought that out in machines. On the rare occasions when she attempted cooking, the mixer tended to spit at her.
“It’s not so bad a car,” said Ma, as touchy as Papa about having negative attention called to our sole status symbol. “Many can’t even afford car here.”
“If it’s destined to stop, it will,” said Damini. “If not, it won’t.”
I had never thought of the Maruti being connected to destiny. Evidently Damini thought differently. We motored away, tail dragging, leaving the well-kept airport grounds behind.
My cousins watched with grim interest as the outskirts of Ahmedabad scrolled past. Lauren had a video camera she used to record what could be seen from her side, which wasn’t much. The roadside vista went from overgrown grass and weeds to nothing vegetative at all—unless one counted the moss growing on old buildings.
We entered an area populated by drab concrete buildings with stains and peeling paint-–on those possessing paint to peel. What I had long taken for granted, what had become all but invisible to me, now loomed large and embarrassing, like sauce on my chin. To make matters worse, at regular intervals appeared impressive piles of garbage where cows, pigs, and stray dogs dined. Keeping them company were their human counterparts, the rag-pickers.
“Are they really, like, picking through the garbage?” asked Amber.
“Well…yes.” What else could I say? That it was a contest to find a hidden Rolex?
“Unequal distribution of wealth,” declared Lauren.
“True,” said Vinita. “America has too much, India too little.”
To my relief, the traffic soon took the cousins’ attention away from poverty, inequality, and Vinita. They held onto the backs of the front seats as the car swerved this way and that. I could see Damini clutching the dashboard, her knuckles white. Clearly she had forgotten a lot about India.
Ahead, a slender girl of ten or so was making her way across the street, seemingly oblivious to the manic traffic. Lauren and Amber made anguished sounds.
“She’s gonna get hit!” said Amber.
But the vehicles and the girl engaged in a little dance, and she had crossed the right lane by the time we passed her.
Amber twisted around to look back and make sure the girl survived. “Don’t you have crosswalks?”
“What are those?” asked Vinita.
“If a child lives to that age, means they learned to cross roads,” explained Ma. “Damini, you told them nothing about India?”
“When they were young I tried, but they weren’t interested. They preferred to experience fully the world they could see and touch. Just as they are doing now.”
“And smell,” said Amber.
“What about your heritage?” asked Vinita. Heritage—or at least cold facts pertaining to it—was important to her. As long as it wasn’t Western heritage.
“Well, we’ve got some heritage of our own, y’know.”
“A lot of wars and invasions,” said Vinita.
I knew my sister was leaving herself wide open on this, for Indians didn’t take a back seat to anyone when it came to violence. We could boast of some wars, too, although as of late we tended to put the emphasis on broiling each other within our borders. But Vinita was safe, for Amber apparently possessed ignorance in depth. At any rate, the spat was nipped in the bud when Ma growled at Vinita.
“We did do some last minute checking on the web,” said Lauren, establishing a more civil tone. “Found mostly tourist stuff, like ornate buildings. And food. The food sounded really good.”
“There are those things,” said Damini. “But more than that. Each place has a certain component beyond appearances, beyond the reach of our five senses. An aura, an ambiance. If you are attuned, you can feel this. Places back home are different, too.”
Amber eyed the urban decay that was sliding past. “Not this different.”
“We’re not in the right place now,” I explained. “There are lots of nice things we can show you. Ahmedabad has some beautiful temples.”
This was met with silence. Perhaps the cousins weren’t interested in anything that just sat there, no matter how long it had been sitting there.
Then traffic came to a stop and a girl with a naked baby on her hip approached the car. The girl sported the tattered clothes and the straggly dull hair characteristic of the poor. She thrust her hand in front of Ma and made a whiny appeal. Ma dismissed her in Gujarati, telling her to go away.
Undeterred, the girl moved to the rear door and plucked at Amber’s T-shirt. Vinita served up some real malice and the girl beat a hasty retreat.
Lauren trained her camera on the departing girl. “This is good stuff.”
“Lauren’s gonna make a movie,” said Amber.
“Just a little visual commentary on India, or at least Ahmedabad. I’m taking a filmmaking course next semester, and this will be great experience, something to put me ahead of the game. Documentaries are big now, you know.”
I didn’t, but it occurred to me that helping Lauren with her project, in addition to bonding with Damini, couldn’t help but better my chances. “We’ll be glad to help you in any way we can.”
“Perhaps we’ll see an accident,” said Vinita.
Different family members would help in different ways, I was sure. We started moving again, but slowly, so that pedestrians made about as much headway. To our left, two middle aged, sari-clad women were walking along. Following them were a couple of youths who pranced around, distorting their faces and making gestures. I could hear them hoot and whistle. The women ignored them, but the procession caught Lauren’s eye.
“What’s going on?” she asked, aiming her camera at them.
“Just silly boys,” I replied, hoping her attention would shift. Enough unpleasantness surrounded us already.
“Eve teasers,” said Vinita.
“Eve what?” said Lauren.
“Eve teasers. Boys and men who get enjoyment out of harassing women.”
“You’d think they’d pick some younger chicks,” said Amber.
Lauren snorted in disgust. “You’d think there’d be a law against it.”
“There is,” said Vinita. “There are laws against almost everything in Ahmedabad. Even holding hands in public.”
“You’re kidding,” said Lauren.
“No. Well, only when a man and woman are involved.”
Traffic moved forward at a faster crawl, and we left the women and their tormentors behind.
Minutes later I was wishing jet lag would overcome our visitors and make them fall asleep. An accident ahead had forced Ma to take an alternate route, and so we were wending our way down a narrow, tortuous, and potholed road, passing groups of slum shanties, along with more and stinkier garbage dumps. I could almost hear Amber’s lip curl. Lauren and her camera loved it.
We rounded a bend to see a school rickshaw approaching, swaying with a packed load of more than a dozen children, plus the schoolbags and water bottles that hung from the roof. Passing looked uncertain, even to me. I could only imagine what the new arrivals thought.
A large white cow, coming out of nowhere, lumbered into the roadway. The school vehicle braked and swerved to our side of the road. Ma wrenched the wheel and caused the car to careen half off the road, sending a stack of woven baskets flying.
The cow, going for two in a row, trotted into our path. Ma braked, but the poor overloaded Maruti, never very good at stopping, slid on the dirt.
The cow staggered and mooed loudly, sounding anything but content. It stood in a daze, blocking our way. People appeared, and soon twenty or so had gathered around the car. None were happy to see us. Between the people and the cow, the Maruti was trapped.
A fierce-looking bearded man thrust a bony finger at us and shouted in Gujarati, “You injured a sacred cow!”
The spectators grumbled, seconding the sentiment. They pressed closer.
I could see Ma’s shoulders tense, but she said nothing. Vinita, who never knew when to keep her mouth shut, pointed an accusing finger at the unfortunate animal. “The sacred cow injured our car!”
This further angered those surrounding the car. I knew the cow was more important in their eyes than a car. And definitely more important than people. I leaned over Lauren and stuck my head out the window. “We’re Hindus!” I shouted. “Vegetarians! We respect all forms of life!”
Someone beat on the Maruti’s roof.
Amber shrunk away from the window, as much as space allowed. “These people are nuts!”
“One has to take into account deep-seated feelings for the sacred,” said Damini.
“No, I don’t!”
The locals began shouting, their faces distorted with anger. Someone hit or kicked a fender. Hands grabbed the roof and rocked the Maruti. This was how bad things got worse, and my only thought was that I was too young and innocent to die.
“Aunt Meena,” said Amber, “can’t you just, like, drive forward and bluff them out?”
Like, no, for one man opened the passenger-side door and grabbed Damini. She yelled and latched onto the steering wheel. The Maruti listed to port.
Lauren handed the video camera to me and started to open her door, but I grabbed her arm. “Don’t do that.”
“You have a better plan?”
I didn’t, but I knew leaving the shelter of the Maruti would only hasten her demise.
“Sexy hair!” cried Amber, unzipping her topmost bag.
“Gotcha,” said Lauren, following suit.
I realized the American relatives were crazier than we were. Only the Maruti’s maltreated carcass stood between the mob and our tender bodies, and what came to their minds? Hair.
But I was wrong. Both girls pulled out bright pink aerosol containers that bore the label SEXY HAIR. Damini’s tormentor and the men next to the car got faces full of hair spray. It didn’t do anything for their hair that I could see—in their case sexiness was beyond the ability of any product—but it caused them to fall back, gasping and choking.
In the meantime, the cow had staggered a couple of meters to the right, so there was now an escape route.
“Pedal to the metal, Aunt Meena!” said Lauren, retrieving her camera.
Ma complied, but in her haste, put the car in reverse. We rushed backward, scattering the antagonists who hadn’t yet figured out what was going on.
“Wrong way, Ma!” said Vinita, stating the obvious.
The Maruti slewed to a stop, at an angle in the roadway. The mob began to regroup. Ma gave it full throttle again, this time in the right gear. The extra weight in the rear did little for the accelerating Maruti’s steering. In spite of Ma’s best efforts, the car became confused, heading first for one side of the road, then the other. People screamed and ran for safety. Goats and pigs scattered wildly.
The Maruti’s farewell act was to shoot between the addled but still sacred cow and a hut. The cow went untouched, but the hut wasn’t so lucky. A brief crash added another dent to the Maruti, then we were on our way. I glanced back and saw the hut tilt and collapse into the roadway. A few people were looking after us, shaking their fists and shouting. I waved, not wanting them to think we harbored ill will.
Amber stuck her head out the window and proceeded to undo my gesture. “Kiss my ass, ragheads!” she shouted.
“Wrong country,” said Lauren.
“You’re telling me.” Amber settled back into her seat and smiled. “Was that cool, or what?”
“Life bestows many experiences on us,” said Damini. “We don’t always have to participate so enthusiastically.”
“It could have ended badly for us,” I said.
Amber shrugged. “Life isn’t a bowl of berries, y’know.”
“Bowl of cherries,” corrected Vinita.
“Whatever. You gotta live close to the edge once in a while.”
“It wasn’t that close,” said Vinita. “No kerosene.”
“Kerosene? What’s kerosene got to do with it?”
“When you smell kerosene, that’s the end.”
Amber registered horror. “They burn people up?”
“Every culture has its own brand of violence,” I explained. “You have guns, we have flammables.”
“Don’t scare the cousins,” said Ma.
“Five thousand a year,” said Vinita, “and that’s just the official count for bride burnings.”
“Bride burnings?” said Lauren and Amber in unison.
Ma’s eyes burned in the rear view mirror. “Vinita-a-a-a.”
Vinita sank down in the seat, her fun spoiled.
I considered explaining that bride burnings weren’t about hatred of women so much as finances—usually involving a dowry—but I wasn’t sure the cousins would appreciate the distinction.
“Welcome to Incredible India,” said Amber.
“It’s like any place,” said Damini. “The undesirable and the desirable. Yin and Yang. Chaos and Harmony.”
Amber craned her neck to see out the windscreen. “How far to harmony?”
I couldn’t answer that, for I had never been there. But I was counting on Ahmedabad’s good points outweighing the bad ones, at least for the duration of the visit. We weren’t exactly off to a kind and gentle start. I suspected the long-suffering Maruti would agree, if it could speak.
A Paperless Society
The society’s gated entrance came into view. “Here we are,” I announced. “Mahatma Society.”
Shortly thereafter, our new neighbor came into view. He was wearing one of those undershirts that men with muscles wear. He had muscles.
“I love your neighborhood,” said Amber.
“Mm, hunk with Harley,” added Lauren.
Both waved. The man waved back. Vinita was right about American taste.
Ma drove turned the car into our driveway. A collective sigh of relief as everyone got out. We began toting the suitcases to the doorstep, and it became apparent the visitors were not coping well with the Indian climate.
“Jesus, it’s hot,” said Amber.
I opened the front door. Some cooler air spilled out, and our visitors rushed in.
Naani appeared and cried, “Damini!”
Damini rushed to her and the pair embraced. I had never seen Naani so emotional. Ma observed this tight-lipped.
Damini finally pulled away and introduced her daughters. Naani hugged both girls, then stepped back to admire them. “I wasn’t knowing how beautiful you both are.”
The girls smiled and tried to appear modest, but I could tell it wasn’t the first time they had heard that. Vinita and I had never heard it.
“We have so many-many things to chat,” said Naani. “But I know first you’ll be wanting to fresh up yourselves.”
“Or sleep for twelve hours,” said Lauren.
“Or die,” said Amber.
Vinita’s eyebrows rose hopefully.
We struggled up the stairs with the suitcases. I opened the door to the room that had been mine, hoping the girls would appreciate my efforts. After we entered and set our burdens down, Lauren and Amber looked around, as one might assess a hotel room. A cheap one. I saw Papa had placed BSR literature on one of the beds. I snatched it up and held it behind my back.
I had taken great pains to make my room appear as attractive as possible, with nice bedspreads and fresh flowers, but there wasn’t much I could do about the scarred walls and flaking paint. I had made an effort by covering the worst spots with a bright ethnic wall hanging, but that was like having the Maruti painted red. Colorful, but still pretty ugly.
Amber looked as if a jailer was about to slam a big metal door shut behind her.
“I’m sorry the room isn’t more appealing,” I said.
“It’s fine,” said Lauren. “Just so I have enough room to work out.”
I had seen pictures of strange machines for making muscles bigger. They looked suitable for torture. “I’m afraid we’re not equipped for exercising.”
Lauren unzipped a pouch on her largest bag and pulled out a device consisting of several elastic cords with handles on each end. She held it in front of her and stretched it until her arms were extended to either side. “Handy when you don’t have access to the home gym.”
She handed it to me. I managed to stretch it perhaps a centimeter. My arms shook with the effort.
“Best to start with the light duty model,” said Lauren.
Best to start by just contemplating the notion of exercise.
“Can I use the bathroom?” asked Amber.
“Certainly.” I felt I should prepare her. “It’s a little different from what you’re accustomed to.” I led her down the hall. Lauren followed, her curiosity apparently aroused, as did Vinita, who clearly anticipated her sort of entertainment.
As I stopped at the lavatory door, I realized Amber couldn’t help but notice the door’s chipped white paint, splintering wood, and a door handle that was blackened with age. With some misgivings, I pulled the handle. Nothing happened.
“Sticks every so often,” I said, grinning as I gave the handle a good yank. The door yielded and I staggered backward, almost falling.
The cousins stared into a tiny lavatory. The star attraction was a porcelain trough set in the floor. Next to it sat a filled bucket, with a jug floating in the water. Above the bucket was a tap. White tiles covered the floor and extended halfway up the walls. Those tiles were unusually white, having been scrubbed with acid in honor of our guests.
But the guests didn’t seem very honored. Amber looked down at the fixture, an odd expression on her face. “That’s it?”
Vinita smirked. “That’s it.”
“Where does one, like, sit?”
Lauren peered over Amber’s shoulder. “I think it’s like going in the woods.”
Amber wrinkled her nose. “Jeez, how primitive. Like, where’s the paper?”
“We don’t use toilet paper,” said Vinita.
“What do you use?”
“There’s a bucket full of water, and a jug,” I explained. “You wash yourself.”
I thought I had explained that. “With the water.”
Vinita, who had always been quicker than me, understood the problem. “And your left hand.”
“Ew-w-w,” said Amber.
“Can’t we buy paper somewhere?” asked Lauren.
“Yes,” replied Vinita, “but most Indian plumbing won’t accommodate paper, so…”
“Shit!” said Amber.
“Looks like it,” said Lauren.
I felt embarrassed, but not exactly surprised. I had read once that a group of Americans were asked what they would choose to take with them to a desert island, if they could have only one thing. Did they choose books to entertain and instruct? Or music to sweeten the solitude? No. Of course it had to be toilet paper. Lauren inspected the toilet. I had the feeling something besides the paper was missing.
“How do you flush?” she asked.
“There’s no flush,” said Vinita.
“No flush?” echoed Amber.
“No, there isn’t,” I admitted. “We pour water into the toilet from a bucket whenever we want to flush.”
Amber and Lauren looked at each other.
“We’ll just have to rough it,” said Lauren. “When in Ahmedabad…”
I indicated the sink situated just outside the lavatory door. “A jug of water to wash your hands. We have running water for a couple of hours in the morning, but not right now.”
“Figures,” said Amber, who entered and carefully closed the door.
The rest of us retired to the living room, where the air conditioner was valiantly groaning away. Lauren had a faraway look on her face. I suspected she was dreaming of a big, fancy American bathroom, the kind one could entertain in.
Amber entered the living room, holding her left hand away from her body. “That door’s a bitch. And there wasn’t any soap.”
I was certain there had been a bar on the sink. I frowned at Vinita, who wore an angelic expression. “I’ll get a bar.”
“We brought some hand sanitizer,” said Amber. “Shoulda brought five gallons.” She left the room, muttering something about technical assistance from Afghanistan.
I turned to Lauren in an attempt to repair the damage. “I expect you’d like to take baths after your journey.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And a bucket.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. If India was just like the US, what exciting stories would I have to tell my friends?”
I could picture Lauren telling a bunch of her friends about the toilet situation. I could picture them rolling around on the floor, laughing. “I’m sorry,” I repeated. “All this on top of the heat and the ride home.”
“It’s an adventure.”
“Amber doesn’t seem to think so. She isn’t very happy.”
Lauren laughed. “Amber’s not very happy most of the time. Except when she’s talking about clothes with her friends, or listening to her music. It’s always tough homework, or having to come home too early, stuff like that. Or having the wrong parents. That’s a constant.”
Vinita perked up. “She has a choice of parents?”
“Only in her dreams. Actually, a few years back she became convinced she was adopted. She believed her real parents were beautiful celebrity types who lived in Malibu and vacationed in Tahiti and the French Riviera.”
“Rich,” said Vinita, sounding uncharacteristically dreamy.
“Of course. Then a girl at her school discovered she was adopted. Her real mother turned out to be a druggie, in and out of jail. Took the glitter off the fantasy for Amber.”
“Not much chance of that being the case here,” said Vinita.
The chances were excellent that the real parents would be living in a tiny one-room shack plastered with cow dung, supporting themselves by picking through dumps. Given the statistics Vinita adored, that is. But why should I deny her a harmless fantasy?