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Dollar bahu, p.10
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       Dollar Bahu, p.10

           Sudha Murty
 
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‘What did Tara’s father-in-law say?’ asked Gouramma.

  ‘He asked for forgiveness and scolded his son but what was the point? He too was innocent and knew nothing of his son’s deceitfulness. Ramesh puts the blame on his father, saying that he married because of family pressure. It is better to verify the details before the marriage than suffering later.’

  ‘Yes, I agree. My father had enquired discreetly about you too, before putting forth the proposal,’ Jamuna proudly spoke of her father.

  Gouramma thought of the time she had been so angry with Vinuta for having made enquiries about Shekhar, and how she and Surabhi had abused her. Surabhi’s life could have been like Tara’s, and thank god she had been saved this kind of humiliation.

  ‘Chandru, why shouldn’t Tara marry Shrikant? Both are divorcees anyway.’ Gouramma made a quick proposal.

  Keeping his eyes on the traffic, Chandru mused, ‘Amma, after staying here for so many years, we absorb this culture without realizing it. Though Shrikant is my close friend, I do not interfere in his life. In this country, everyone loves the complete freedom of their private life. Even parents do not ask personal questions of their children. There is an invisible line in any relationship. And no one wants to cross it. They don’t mind sacrificing anything for their privacy. Sometimes it ends up in divorce.’

  ‘Tara knows Shrikant and if they find each other compatible, they will decide about marriage. They are grown up and we should not even suggest it,’ said Jamuna.

  It still did not make sense to Gouramma.

  They reached Shrikant’s house in the early afternoon. To their surprise, a young woman was waiting for them. Lunch was served on the table—fresh, hot food in beautiful casseroles and neatly arranged cutlery.

  She introduced herself. ‘Please come in. I am Malati. My husband works for Shrikant. He has gone out. We received an e-mail about your arrival. So I thought I would prepare some food for you while you are here. I have to cook for the two of us anyway, so I can easily cook for three more.’

  Malati had kept the house very neat and tidy. After lunch, everyone retired to their rooms. Gouramma never slept in the afternoons. She went in search of Malati, to chat with her, and found her in the kitchen preparing snacks for teatime. There was another woman helping her in the kitchen. Gouramma immediately said, ‘Don’t exert yourself, Malati. I have brought lots of eatables from home.’

  ‘Don’t worry, Aunty. Martha is my helper in my shop. When the shop is closed, she helps me in the kitchen. Though she is a Colombian immigrant, I have trained her in all south Indian cooking,’ Malati said proudly, smiling at Martha in appreciation.

  ‘Then you are a businesswoman!’

  ‘Yes, but not a very big one. I run the shop from my house. I buy fancy stuff from India, like beaded handbags, embroidered chappals, silk scarves, Banarasi cushion covers, dhurries, brass lamps, small idols of different gods, etc., and sell them here.’

  ‘Who are your customers?

  ‘Mostly Indians. Not everyone can afford to go to India every year. So my shop is convenient for them. Similarly, I have one more shop in India. There I sell corals, jade, Spanish saffron, cinnamon, etc.’

  ‘So you keep shuttling between India and the US?’

  ‘Yes. Whenever Shrikant is in India, my husband and I are here and when he is here, we are generally in India. In my absence, Martha looks after the shop. In India, my brother looks after that shop. Normally we commute three times a year.’

  ‘What does your husband do?’

  ‘My husband is an ordinary graduate like me. He was a medical rep before coming here. We are honest and work very hard. In three years, we have made good money. Now we are building a shopping complex in Jayanagar. This country rewards those who work hard. We are both extremely happy and admire and appreciate this country. It has changed our life. No wonder people call this a land of nectar and honey. That’s why when people criticize the US, we get mad.’

  ‘We too are from Jayanagar. Who are your in-laws?’

  ‘My father-in-law is a retired postmaster. My husband Gopinath is well known in his area, because of his involvement in all extra-curricular activities.’

  Just then, the telephone rang and Malati went to attend to it. Gouramma was shaken. This was the very same boy whom Gouramma had forced Surabhi to stop associating with. She had always felt that her daughter should have plenty of money. Today, Malati was enjoying all that. She remembered how Girish had been positive about Gopinath but she had been blind. She sighed deeply.

  The next day Chandru took them to see the Statue of Liberty, the Rockefeller Center, some temples and then they went to Padma’s house.

  Gouramma was amazed at the temples in America. There were temples of all the gods in one complex, unlike India. Chandru explained, ‘Earlier there was only the Venkateshwara temple in Pittsburgh. Now, due to the software boom, lots of professionals come here from different parts of India. It is difficult to build a separate temple for each deity. That’s why you find Hanuman, Ganesha, Kumaraswamy, Rama and Sita, Shiva-Parvati, Lakshmi, all in one temple.’

  ‘But what about the priests?’

  ‘They are normally imported from India. They get a special visa for five years. In their free time, they also help perform functions like naming ceremonies, marriages, etc., in some houses.’

  As it was a holiday, there were streams of devotees, but still the temple premises were absolutely clean and orderly. The floors were shining. There was a reserved car park for the handicapped, and waste paper baskets were neatly lined up. Gouramma felt Indian gods looked brighter under the sparkle of American cleanliness.

  The prasad was distributed in the temple office. Though there were devotees of different colours, features and languages, all Indians were connected by the same string of devotion. In one corner of the temple, there was a wedding ceremony being performed. A Hindu boy was getting married to an American girl. In another corner, the thread ceremony of a Tamil boy was being conducted. The American-born and brought up child was finding it hard to recite and repeat the Sanskrit slokas. For Gouramma, this was all a very new experience.

  When they reached Padma’s home, Gouramma felt more at home. Padma was a warm and hospitable person and had wholeheartedly agreed to host them though she was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. She already had a three-year-old son, Vivek.

  The following day Padma told Jamuna and Chandru, ‘Please leave Amma for three or four days with me. We are going to have a get-together of Kannadigas. Rajiv will be visiting Nashville this weekend and he can drop her back.’ Rajiv joined his wife in the persuasive invitation. ‘Chandru, I am going to Paris on some work for the next three days and Padma will be alone.They will be good company for each other. I take personal responsibility to see that your mother reaches home safely.’

  Jamuna did not like this idea. She said, ‘Amma may get bored here. She does not know anybody, and Manasi will miss her.’

  I can’t be with you forever. Let me have my freedom, Gouramma felt like shouting at the top of her voice, but restrained herself.

  In spite of Jamuna’s protest, Chandru agreed to leave Gouramma with Rajiv and Padma.

  Jamuna left in a bad mood.

  TWENTY-THREE

  Vatsala, one of Padma’s friends, came to visit and brought along a box of sweets. She said, ‘Padma, I thought you were alone so I came to enquire about you.’

  Introducing Gouramma, Padma said, ‘Thanks, but Aunty is with me. If I need anything, I will surely let you know.’

  Vatsala left immediately.

  ‘Vatsala could have stayed back for dinner. What was the hurry? Padma, when I am here you can call any guests over for lunch or dinner. I will help you.’

  ‘Normally Vatsala does not visit many people. She is a top executive and extremely busy.’

  ‘She must be highly educated. Is she from Bangalore?’

  ‘Actually she only studied till the tenth standard when in India. Her father was a rich merchant in Bidar. Th
ey were very orthodox. So she was married off when she was sixteen years old. Her husband was working in the US. When she came here, she had a baby very soon, but she also worked very hard. She went on to complete her graduation and later finished an MBA. Today, she is one of the top women achievers. She is one of the very few women who have succeeded so well in a faraway land, and that too, after marriage.’

  ‘What is so great about that? Even in India, many women study after marriage.’

  ‘But here, there is no family support system. Vatsala single-handedly did all the work. Since here you can study whatever you want, at any age, she took advantage of the system. Also, in the US there are very few unannounced visitors dropping in to chat, so she could pursue her studies diligently. She not only worked at home and took care of her son, she did very well in her course. Her son, Ashok, is a very well-behaved boy. Largely, there is a fair system of appreciation. Because it is a country of immigrants, you see people from all over the world. There is practically no discrimination at work.’

  ‘Is Ashok staying with his parents?’

  ‘No. He stays separately, but in the neighbourhood.’

  ‘Why? Has he fought with his parents?’

  ‘No, no. But here, when the children grow up, parents feel they should be independent and learn the ways of life by themselves. Children also prefer it. Children visit their parents during the weekends.’

  ‘What happens when parents grow old?’

  ‘As long as they are healthy and independent, they stay independently. If they are unable to, then they go to some old age home. There they have the advantage of mixing with people of their own age. People here don’t think of living in an old age home as punishment.’

  Gouramma clicked her tongue. She could not understand this very different world.

  That night, Padma felt uneasy, although there were still a couple of weeks till her due date. First, she got up and called the hospital. Gouramma heard a sound and got up too. Padma was preparing her bag to go to the hospital. Gouramma asked, ‘Should I pack it for you?’

  ‘No, thanks Aunty. It’s easier for me to do it since I know where everything is kept.’

  ‘Should I call Vatsala to drop you to the hospital?’

  ‘No. I have already called the ambulance.’

  ‘Can I massage some oil on your stomach?’

  ‘No, that is not required.’

  ‘Can I get you some coffee or tea?’

  ‘No. It is better to be on an empty stomach.’

  Gouramma felt helpless. None of her advice or help seemed to be of any use.

  ‘Shall I light the oil lamp in front of the god?’

  ‘No, Aunty. It is a wooden case. You can switch on the electric lamp.’

  ‘Please inform Rajiv.’

  ‘I have already done that.’

  The ambulance arrived and Padma walked to it with a small bag. Even in a moment like this she remembered to say, ‘Aunty, don’t worry about me. I had registered my name in the hospital long back. They will take care of everything. You stay with Vivek. Don’t send him to school tomorrow. Write down each call. This is unexpected labour. I am very happy that it came while you are here. It is a great comfort to me. I am sorry if you are finding it inconvenient.’ Waving, Padma went away to hospital.

  Such a wealthy country, and a pregnant woman had to go to the hospital all alone! No one had the time to accompany her. Everyone was just too busy with their own lives. Their dedication to their jobs was amazing. But, the flip side was that loneliness was growing, human bonds were weakening. Gouramma was unable to sleep. She prayed for a safe delivery.

  Early in the morning, Padma called and told Gouramma that she had delivered a baby boy. Rajiv and Chandru had already spoken to her in the meantime.

  Rajiv cut his trip short and returned the very next day. As Padma had delivered on a working day, there were hardly any visitors at the hospital.

  Gouramma stayed on for another week and looked after Padma when she came home from the hospital. Padma was deeply touched by the affection with which Gouramma took care of her.

  Jamuna kept calling her mother-in-law, asking her to return. When Rajiv was due to take her back, Padma handed over an envelope to Gouramma. ‘I wanted to buy a sari for you. I will never forget the way you looked after me, just like my mother. Please buy a sari in India and think of me as your daughter.’

  Gouramma was moved to tears.

  TWENTY-FOUR

  By the time she returned from New York, Gouramma’s perception of America had changed a lot. She was missing her country. That month, she wrote out a list and gave it to Chandru. She had lost all interest in going to the grocery store or to any other store.

  A few days after her return from New York, Chandru told his mother, ‘Amma, every Thursday I have a meeting at an office which is close to Bombay Grocery Store, the Indian store. Why don’t you come with me and buy whatever you want?’

  ‘Can I leave Manasi at home while she is sleeping and lock the house? Will we be back soon?’

  ‘That is not allowed in this country. Even if she is sleeping, bring her to the shop with you.’

  Reluctantly Gouramma went to the Indian store.

  Bombay Grocery Store was like any other Indian grocery store, packed with DVDs, vegetables, ready-to-eat food packets, different types of masalas, pickles, etc. The freezer was stuffed with palak paneer, samosas and batata vada. Gouramma realized one didn’t need to bring anything from India; everything was available in the US. She wondered why Jamuna always insisted that Gouramma send masala powders from India.

  When Chandru dropped her at the store, Gouramma panicked. How would she translate Kannada words into English? While she was struggling, the lady across the counter spoke. ‘I can understand Kannada. Don’t worry.’

  The woman was in her mid-thirties, and extremely active. She talked on a phone while she juggled some items. Gouramma realized that she was making tea.

  ‘Would you like some tea, Aunty?’ she asked pleasantly.

  Gouramma declined politely, then added, ‘What is your name?’

  ‘Asha Patil.’

  ‘How do you manage all the work?’ Gouramma asked, impressed by her efficiency.

  ‘I work in the store from 11.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. My husband is here from 3.00 to 7.00. We alternate our duties.’

  ‘What do you do at home?’

  ‘I have two Gujarati women helpers. I get chapattis made. I also prepare samosas and other eatables.’

  ‘You must be busy all day.’

  ‘Yes. But then, money doesn’t come easily, does it?’

  Though Gouramma wanted to know more about her, by this time she had learned that asking too many questions was considered bad manners.

  Thus it became her routine every Thursday—Gouramma would bring Manasi and spend an hour with Asha Patil at Bombay Grocery Store. Gouramma liked Asha’s straightforward manner and affectionate behaviour.

  During one such visit, Gouramma casually asked, ‘How long have you been here?’

  ‘Ten years.’

  ‘Don’t you feel homesick?’ asked Gouramma, a manifestation of her own feelings.

  There was no answer forthcoming at once.

  Asha went inside, brought two cups of coffee for them, and sat down. There were no customers in the shop.

  ‘I hail from a village near Akkalkot, near the border between Maharashtra and Karnataka. We speak Kannada at home and Marathi outside. We are a middle-class family and we own some land. I have two younger brothers. I was a strong young girl, so soon after I finished my matriculation exams, somebody in our village brought an alliance for me. They told us that the boy, Satish Patil, was in Bombay and was making good money in his business. My parents were gullible, and without any verification, they got me married off. After I came to Mumbai, I realized that my husband’s family lived in one room in a chawl. I had an extraordinarily bad mother-in-law and three even worse sisters-in-law. My husband owned a bhel-puri cart. The fami
ly got a free servant in marriage. I would work like a donkey all day long. My husband did not have a backbone and I suffered a lot.’

  Her face saddened, as she recalled the past. Yet when one or two customers walked in, she attended to them very pleasantly.

  ‘Our daughter Vinaya was born. I always used to dream that I would live in a house with an affectionate mother-in-law and sisters-in-law and a loving husband. I would own a small house with a small garden in which my child would play . . . there would be peace and happiness around me.

  ‘But there was a vast difference between reality and imagination. The house was always noisy—fighting and shouting. I went into a depression. My in-laws thought I was acting, that I was being lazy. But one day my father came to visit me, realized my state, and took me back to my village. He had me treated at a good hospital in Miraj. Slowly I started recovering. It took almost two years. After that I refused to go back to my in-laws’ house. My father had a Gujarati friend whose relative wanted to open a hotel along with a grocery shop in New York. He told my father that they were looking for a hard-working couple, and my father felt it was a good opportunity for us.’

  ‘Did your husband agree to come with you?’

  ‘Of course. Once I said America, he agreed immediately. We became illegal immigrants and worked in New York for some time. Afterwards, we regularized our immigrant status. We worked from morning to evening in the kitchen. Still, life was better than in Mumbai. I gradually understood how the business ran. So one day I took the lead and requested our employer Arunbhai to allow us to start out on our own. He was upset at first, but later, he agreed. Thus, we started Bombay Store here. However, I still buy all the groceries wholesale from Arunbhai.’

  ‘How do you feel now?’

  ‘I feel great. This county has changed my life forever. There are no signs of depression at all. What I used to dream about has come true. My husband was listening to his mother before but now he is devoted to me. We helped financially for all my sisters-in-law’s weddings but I never visit them. My father had taken a loan for my treatment. I have returned that loan. I have also helped my brothers to start businesses. It is only because of this country that all this has been possible. There are many women like me in India, tortured by their mothers-in-law. But they do not have any option. Sometimes, they commit suicide, sometimes they run away and some get into depression. For me, god helped in the form of America. I am extremely happy here and I don’t feel like going back.’

 
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