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Dollar bahu, p.11
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       Dollar Bahu, p.11

           Sudha Murty
 
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  ‘Are you not worried about your daughter, when she comes to marriageable age?” Gouramma asked.

  ‘No. What is going to happen with other girls here will happen to my daughter too. I know many Indian girls who have far more loose morals than American girls. Here, everything is in the open, but in India, since society does not accept such things, they do them anyway without the knowledge of their parents.’

  Gouramma’s mind was reeling. She felt she was seeing the world from a new perspective.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  One day Chandru said, ‘Amma, the button on my shirt has come off. Could you please stitch it on today?’ Gouramma usually did all such minor work during the afternoons. She hunted around for a sewing kit, and was surprised when she could not find one. She thought it may be in Jamuna’s wardrobe. Gouramma had never opened Jamuna’s wardrobe. She respected Jamuna’s privacy. When she opened the wardrobe in her hunt for the sewing kit, she saw a lot of saris in one corner and a pile of photo albums in the other. She located the kit underneath the photo albums, and just as she pulled out the small kit, the albums tumbled and fell.

  As she busily gathered them up, some pictures which had falled out of the albums caught her eye. There was a picture of Jamuna and Chandru at Niagara Falls. What caught Gouramma’s eyes was not the spectacular beauty of the Falls but what Jamuna was wearing. Gouramma immediately recognized it as the same chiffon sari which Jamuna had gifted Surabhi for her birthday during one of her visits. Curious, Gouramma looked through all the photographs very carefully. She recognized several of the saris Jamuna was wearing in the pictures.

  Gouramma was shocked. When Jamuna had said, ‘I specially brought these saris for you since they will suit your colour,’ Gouramma had praised her to the skies for her generosity. Gouramma preferred American saris as they did not fade even after frequent washing: they remained fresh. She now realized Jamuna had cleverly got rid of many of her old saris and had received so much appreciation and gratitude for that.

  How could Jamuna have behaved like this? There was nothing inherently wrong in passing on a used sari but, Gouramma felt, one should not lie about it. Jamuna had done it all so cleverly that even if Gouramma accused her of giving away old saris, she could always say, ‘Oh, I bought you an identical sari’ or ‘Where is the proof?’ and create a scene. But worse was to follow. Gouramma found a photograph taken at Jamuna’s cousin’s wedding. Jamuna and her mother had posed along with the bride, both in expensive silk saris. The same saris had been ironed and professionally folded and gifted to Surabhi at her wedding. Gouramma was furious. She thought to herself, I was crazy about all American things and expensive silks, but it does not mean that I will accept a used sari as a gift.

  She was deeply hurt and decided that never again would she ask Jamuna for anything from America.

  Normally, Jamuna and her friends got together every Saturday. The idea was to have fun for four or five hours, play games, discuss an interesting novel or poetry, exchange news and gossip and go home after a sumptuous lunch. It was usually a potluck party, with everyone bringing a dish.

  Chandru was away at New York that Saturday, and Jamuna organized the get-together at her home. Jamuna told her mother-in-law, ‘Let us make idli-sambar. I will help you.’ By this time, Gouramma knew what that meant. She felt she was only a servant in her son’s house and everything had to be decided by her Dollar Bahu.

  After she finished the cooking, Gouramma put everything on the table and decided to take Manasi for a stroll. Manasi was nearly ten months old.

  Gouramma was still very upset by what she had found out about Jamuna. She had always praised her Dollar Bahu to high heaven but now realized how undeserving Jamuna was of that praise. After a long walk, Gouramma returned home. Manasi was asleep in her stroller. When she reached the door, Gouramma heard her name and stopped for a minute. She was curious to know what Jamuna and her friends were saying about her. Foolishly she thought, maybe Jamuna is praising my services.

  She listened in on the conversation. Girija said, ‘Jamuna, you are the smartest of all. I can trade my PhD to possess your talent on how to handle a mother-in-law and win her heart.’

  ‘It seems her mother-in-law always treats her like her own daughter! Is it not surprising?’ said Veda.

  ‘Nothing so surprising. My mother-in-law is greedy and stupid. My co-sister-in-law Vinuta is from a poor family and innocent about the ways of the world. My sis-in-law Surabhi does not have any brains. It is easy to manage such women.’

  Gouramma began sweating. Her Dollar Bahu continued spewing out her real feelings. ‘I give them what I don’t like and they don’t suspect anything. For example, I pass on all my old saris to Surabhi and I tell her, due to customs restrictions, I rewrapped them. They believe me. My mother-in-law cannot understand that she should get along with Vinuta who slogs day and night for these people but instead, she praises me. I always believe in divide and rule.’

  ‘Jamuna, I don’t know why we should take anything from here. Nowadays we get everything in India. Last time, I played a trick. I went to Burma Bazaar where we get all imported stuff, much cheaper than in the US, without warranty. I purchased some things for a few thousand rupees and told everyone at home that I had brought them from America. Everybody was very happy,’ said Girija.

  ‘No wonder you go with an empty suitcase from here. You are also quite smart,’ Jamuna complimented her.

  ‘Jamuna, are you planning to go back to India sometime?’

  ‘No way! Here our husbands listen to us; we can eat, drink, dress and roam around the way we want. It is better to send some dollars as gifts than to settle in India. My father had clearly told me that he agreed to the proposal only because Chandru was in America, otherwise he would not have bothered. My parents had already judged these people before they accepted the proposal. My mother advised me to be nice, speak to them well, but keep them at a distance. That advice has helped.’

  Rohini said, ‘If you really calculate and get someone from India at the time of delivery, it is so advantageous.’

  Jamuna immediately replied, ‘That is why I wanted my mother-in-law for one year. She was dying to come to the US anyway, and my husband wanted his mother to come. It was at the right time that I called for her. In this one year, she has looked after us, the house and baby sat Manasi.’

  ‘And one doesn’t need to worry about anyone stealing either. The cost of the ticket is nothing, once you add up all these benefits,’ added Rekha.

  Gouramma couldn’t bear it any more. She collapsed on the steps with her head in her hands. Oh god! Why was I so stupid? she cursed herself. Her head began to throb. For the first time she felt that her husband was a clever man for not coming here. She felt like running away to India immediately. She also realized that she had married her son off to an evil-minded person, falling prey to her wealth and sweet talk.

  Just then Manasi woke up and began to demand attention. Gouramma picked up the child and went into the living room. Jamuna got up with a sweet smile and told her, ‘Everyone says you have a magic line in your hand and no five-star hotel can compete with your sambar.’ Gouramma did not even smile. She quietly went to her room.

  That entire night Gouramma cried, and her wet pillow was testimony to her uncontrollable grief. She missed Vinuta. Now she could finally appreciate that poor girl. She regretted her own attitude towards Vinuta. She felt awful when she remembered that she had never even given Vinu any gift, be it for her pregnancy or on any other occasion, and how badly she had treated her in the run-up to Surabhi’s wedding.

  How blind I was! Why did I behave so stupidly? she kept asking herself through that wretched night. And the answer became clear. It was the Dollar. The Dollar had blinded her, making her unable to see the reality.

  The next morning she spoke to Chandru. ‘Manasi is old enough to go to a day-care centre. It is almost a year since I have been away from home. Your father must be lonely. It is better that I go back.’

 
‘Please do not go now. It seems there is acute water shortage in Bangalore and the power supply is very irregular. After a few months, I will take you to California and Disneyland. You will enjoy that,’ Jamuna tried to coax her mother-in-law to stay on, not aware that she had seen through her ways.

  ‘No. I want to go back. I am getting bored here. How long can anyone stay away from home? My place is in India and I feel comfortable there, in spite of all the difficulties.’

  ‘Yes, Jamuna, let her go. She has helped us so much; we should not hold her back any more. I will ask around for someone who is going to Bangalore soon.’

  That evening, when Chandru returned from office he said, ‘Amma, do you know Shanta, daughter of Alamelu? It seems Alamelu was your friend.’

  ‘Of course I know Alamelu. We were neighbours when we were children. Shanta is Girish’s age. Don’t you remember her? She used to play with you when we went to Ajji’s house during the holidays. Where is Alamelu now?’

  ‘I don’t remember. But today I met Shanta and while talking, I spoke about you and she remembered you at once. She wants to talk to you.’

  Just then, Shanta called. ‘Chandru, I am leaving the gym now. I can pick up your mom. She can stay the night with me, and I’ll drop her back tomorrow evening. Ask her whether she is okay with it?’

  Gouramma agreed immediately, and started packing an overnight bag. ‘Why does Shanta go to a gym?’

  ‘To exercise, to keep her body in good shape. I am planning to join,’ said Jamuna.

  ‘There’s no need to go to a gym to get into shape. Doing housework will keep you fit. Vinuta never backs out from doing any housework and she has never put on an extra kilo, even after delivery. She is slim, without going to any gym.’

  Jamuna was surprised to hear something positive about Vinuta from Gouramma for the first time.

  When Shanta arrived, the first question Gouramma asked was, ‘What happened? You had such lovely long hair!’

  ‘Aunty, with so much to do, it is difficult to maintain such long hair. So I have cut it short.’

  ‘Vinuta has thick long hair. She manages to maintain it with regular oiling and washing, though she is also a working lady.’

  This came as another shock to Jamuna.

  Without a word to Jamuna, Gouramma got into the car. During the drive she sat silently having learnt not to ask personal questions.

  Shanta’s house was not a bungalow. It was a two-bedroom house in a residential complex. It was a simple, ordinary house with the bare minimum of everything. On a stand, there was a picture of Shanta and her daughter. Shanta warmed the food in the microwave and put it on the dining table for the two of them.

  Gouramma asked, ‘Where is your daughter?’

  ‘She is in school in India.’

  ‘How is your husband?’

  ‘Oh, that is a long story. I was married to Mukund after my graduation. You know that we were five sisters and Appa was quite worried about our marriage. Mukund was working in a software company, in a small job. After marriage, I started working in the same company and I was smarter than Mukund. So I got promotions faster than he did. My daughter Lata was born then.

  ‘My company sent me here on an assignment. I brought in Mukund and Lata. Mukund expected that I should be a dutiful wife and also developed a complex because he had to report to me. We had constant fights. As he earned less than me, he would draw money from my account without my knowledge and make merry. The day I came to know, we fought and separated. He was unable to stand the fact that his wife earned more than he did. He always compared me with some other women and taunted me that they were good women because they served their husbands well. He had too much of a male ego and it was difficult to stay with him. Now, Lata is in Ooty and I visit her once a year. I will bring her here for her college education. I am saving every penny for that. That is the reason I live so frugally.’

  Gouramma felt saddened, but Shanta continued brightly, ‘I am happy in this country. This society does not look down upon single women—unmarried, divorced or widowed. They don’t gossip behind your back. Nobody asks personal questions. If I do well, I will earn more money. I am contented. These difficulties have made me face the realities and I no longer need a protective shelter.’

  The next morning, Shanta dressed in a typical south Indian sari and escorted Gouramma around the temples nearby.

  Later in the evening she dropped her back at Chandru’s place.

  TWENTY-SIX

  ‘Amma, my friend Vinod Shah’s parents would like to meet you.’

  ‘I do not know their language and they are not native to our place. What will I do meeting them?’ Gouramma frowned.

  ‘I am going to Rekha’s house for a party. We will drop you off at Vinod’s place and Chandru will go to the library. All of us can then return together.’ Jamuna had given her verdict.

  Gouramma had no choice but to agree. She did not want to hurt her son during the last few days of her stay. When they reached Vinod’s house, his wife Meera was feeding her pet cat with some fishbones in the garden. She smiled at them and said, ‘Vinod has gone to his mother’s house.’

  Chandru turned the car around, and while driving, he said, ‘Vinod’s parents stay separately because Madhuriben and Meera cannot get along. There is no point in staying together if you are going to fight.’

  ‘In that case, why do they have to stay here? They can pretty well go back to India!’ exclaimed Gouramma.

  ‘He is the only son and they do not have any other option,’ said Chandru. Gouramma mentally thanked god that she had another son back in India.

  Madhuriben and her husband were waiting for Gouramma. She had prepared a lot of Gujarati sweets for the guest. Vinod left with Chandru for the library.

  Madhuriben began to speak in Hindi, which fortunately Gouramma could follow. She said, ‘How lucky you are that you are going back to India. My mind always thinks of Gujarat, our festivals, our old house, the children around, our garba festivals. But we do not have much option and have to stay here.

  ‘This country is meant for youngsters and not for people like us. We have spent our best years in India. We feel uprooted at this age. But then, if we stay in India and one of us falls ill, Vinod has to come all the way and it is such an expense. The only way is to stay with him and make it easier for him and for us.’

  Vinod told Chandru that he was going to Bangalore and Gouramma decided to fly back with him.

  Jamuna told Gouramma, ‘We are sad to see you go, Amma. If you want to buy anything for Surabhi, please let me know.’

  Gouramma said firmly, ‘We get everything in India now. In fact, we can get a Mysore silk for the same price you pay for a chiffon sari.’ She refused to take any gifts from Jamuna. She had the money Padma had given her, two hundred dollars, so she bought purses for Vinuta and Surabhi and some toys for Harsha. She would miss Manasi terribly—but then, life had to go on. As the day of her departure approached, Gouramma became more enthusiastic about her return. She was aware that she would never visit America again and she felt sorry for Chandru, who had to put up with such a wife, so far from home. But that again was each person’s fate, she consoled herself.

  When the flight landed in Bangalore, for the first time in a year Gouramma felt at home. She realized that the grass was always greener on the other side. America was no longer a fantasy land for her. There was pain, misery and happiness there, as in any other country. It was no longer the land of the mighty Dollar, which made magic. It was not paradise.

  Shamanna had come to receive her at the airport. He had hired a taxi. She wondered why Girish had not come to receive her, which she had fully expected. Shamanna gently explained, ‘I shall tell you everything once we get home. How was America?’

  ‘It was fine. We shall talk about it at home.’

  Gouramma was delighted to see the familiar scenes: cycles, rickshaws, street hawkers, the dust and heat.

  Shamanna said, ‘I thought America would never let yo
u go. How come you are back in a year?’

  ‘America is great but our country is no less. Tell me, how are Vinuta and Harsha? Did they miss me?’

  Shamanna turned around and stared at Gouramma. He could not believe his ears.

  Presently, they reached home.

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  Vinuta always worried that she had never been a good daughter-in-law in Gouramma’s eyes, her best efforts notwithstanding. Now, she was more worried that after a year-long stay in America, Gouramma would treat her more like dirt. She knew that Girish would never back her; he always had a standard answer: ‘Amma is like that. You cannot change her at this age. She respects Chandru more than she does me, but I don’t mind. After all he is my brother.’ Vinuta knew from past experience that any discussion on this matter with Girish was a waste of time. So she had to be prepared to listen to Gouramma singing Jamuna’s praises every day. She sank into a depression as Gouramma’s arrival drew nearer.

  Vinuta also felt that there would now arise a new complication—constant comparisons between Manasi and Harsha. Harsha would grow up with a complex because Manasi was a Dollar granddaughter. She began to hate the word ‘dollar’. She felt that if she were in America, she could also have come home once in three years and everybody would have praised her to high heaven. She prayed to god, Let a day come when forty-five dollars are equal to one rupee. If that did happen, what would this Dollar Bahu do!

  Vinuta wanted to escape this atmosphere of constant comparison and unfair judgement. She kept brooding about America and its strange effects on people. Shankar had loved Shashi, and their marriage had been fixed. For a green card he had broken the alliance. Surabhi had ditched Gopi because he did not have prospects of going to America. What kind of power was this? she wondered.

 
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