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       Dollar Bahu, p.2

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Bheemanna was very fond of Vinuta and wanted her to complete her degree, work for two years in order to become financially independent and then marry. At present she was in the second year of the BA degree course in Karnatak College, majoring in Hindustani music. A bright and talented girl, she had won almost every prize in every event in the college.

  Every night, after dinner, Bheemanna would sit on the bamboo cot underneath the mango tree and relax for some time. That was the time when he also talked to Vinuta. ‘Vinu, come here. You have done enough work for the day. Let the others also do something. What did you learn in the college today? Come on. Sing me a nice song now.’

  When Chandru heard that, he would immediately come to the window and listen.

  The sun was shining brightly on that day when Vinuta walked on to the terrace with a big cane basket full of ripe tamarind pods which she was going to spread out to dry. Knocking on Chandru’s room door she asked timidly, ‘Do you mind if I spread the tamarind in front of your room?’ She was speaking to him for the first time since he had moved in.

  Chandru smiled. ‘Of course you can. The tamarind and the terrace are both yours,’ he said.

  He knew she would go away soon after her work was done, but he hoped she would linger on.

  ‘You sing so beautifully,’ he complimented her, eager to strike a conversation.

  ‘Thank you,’ Vinuta responded shyly.

  ‘Why don’t you sing on the radio?’

  ‘I do, I have been, for the last four years.’

  Chandru felt rather stupid. ‘Sorry, I did not know that. Please tell me when your next programme is going to be aired, I will definitely listen.’

  ‘I will. But now, will you please step aside so that I can go?’ Chandru drew back, abashed, and Vinuta left with a smile.

  As the days passed, Chandru became more familiar with Dharwad city and its surroundings, as also with the Desai family.

  Sometimes, Bheemanna would invite him to join them for dinner. Vinuta rarely spoke much but her friendly smile warmed his heart.

  Chandru went to play a friendly cricket match with his team . . . and returned with a dislocated elbow. The doctor put him in a plaster for three weeks and advised him rest for a week. Before he could think of going to Bangalore to recover, Bheemanna came to him and made an offer. ‘Don’t go to Bangalore. We will take care of you. Vinuta is here and she will serve you all your meals in your room.’ Without waiting for Chandru’s response, he called out to Vinuta and said, ‘Vinu, now you are in charge of Chandra Shekhar, until he is up and about. Don’t give him the hard rotis that we eat. Prepare rice for him. Serve him coffee, not tea . . .’

  Bheemanna wasn’t just being formal; his warm heart genuinely wanted to be of help. Chandru felt this was an additional responsibility for Vinuta. He felt sorry for the poor girl. Of course, he had never seen her unhappy, tearful or angry. Perhaps, he thought, she shed her tears while watering the garden and no one in the house knew of her sadness. Only when she got married and went away would they realize the value of her presence, thought Chandru bitterly.

  Just then Vinuta came with a cup of piping hot coffee. And her beautiful shy smile. Chandru could find nothing to say.

  One afternoon Chandru heard the excited chatter and uninhibited giggles of the young girls of the family sitting under the jackfruit tree and discussing saris for Diwali.

  ‘Good thing Kaka has gone to Bangalore for some work, we could give him our specific requests for saris. I have asked for an aquamarine sari with a pink border,’ said Vinuta, excitedly. Chandru was pleased to hear Vinu sounding so happy.

  The following night, after dinner, he heard Bheemanna telling Vinu, ‘Vinu, I could not get the exact colour you had asked for. Instead I have got this for you.’

  ‘Oh, that’s all right. This is also very pretty. I like this blue colour,’ said Vinu brightly.

  Vinuta’s answer came as a surprise to Chandru. So unlike his sister Surabhi’s reaction, he thought. Surabhi was the same age as Vinuta. The last time he had gone to Bangalore, he had had to trudge after her through all the shops in Chickpet just because she had wanted a particular ‘shocking pink’ sari. When she had been unable to find it, had she settled for the next best? Not a chance. She had dragged him to the market again the next day and finally bought a sari at twice the price he had budgeted for. Chandru had wanted to tell her that it looked awful on her dusky skin, but the thought of the possible consequences had made him keep his counsel. Vinuta, by contrast, seemed to be well aware of circumstances and adjusted to every situation. Of course, Surabhi’s case was different. She had doting brothers and parents who were ready to spend time and money on her. She could afford to be choosy and insistent.

  Chandru thought he was the only one who sensed and understood the hidden pain and helplessness behind Vinuta’s captivating smile. The next day he asked Vinuta, ‘How would you describe the colour aquamarine? Is it closer to blue?’

  ‘It is blue mixed with a little green. But why do you ask?’

  ‘Just curious, that’s all,’ he replied. It would have been very easy for him to buy a sari for someone who had taken such good care of him during his illness. But he was not sure how the gesture would be interpreted by the rest of the family, so he dropped the idea. As it is, Chandru’s behaviour and close involvement with the Desai household had caused Kitty to tease him one day. ‘Chandru, what’s cooking? You hardly ever visit us. All the time you are stuck at Desai’s house.’

  ‘Absolutely nothing,’ Chandru had retorted sharply. ‘I have begun to like Dharwad, the way you have.’

  ‘Is it Dharwad or the koel in Desai’s house?’

  ‘What do you mean?’ asked Chandru.

  ‘Well, most eligible bachelors have an eye on her.’

  ‘What about you?’

  ‘Oh no, my marriage has been fixed with a Bangalore girl. Are you . . .?’

  ‘No. Unless I settle down to my satisfaction, there is no question of marriage.’

  FOUR

  Suddenly, one day Chandru got instructions from his head office to report back to Bangalore immediately since he was being sent to America on deputation within a month’s time. Chandru was overjoyed. America, to him, was the promised land, the land of milk and honey.

  He had wanted to go there for higher studies but financial constraints at home had not allowed it. Then he had hoped to study computer science so that he could get a job abroad. Unfortunately, his average performance in the engineering entrance exam only got him a seat in the civil engineering department. His spirits hit rock bottom because it was the end of his American dream. But now, ironically, it was his civil engineering qualifications and his performance at work that had brought him the opportunity to go to the land he had been dreaming of for so long.

  He came home that evening and immediately told Bheemanna that he would be leaving. He explained the reason. Bheemanna, too, was happy that the young man whom he had come to like was going abroad. ‘Congratulations Chandra Shekhar Rao. You are going abroad. You must visit Dharwad sometime and stay with us.’

  ‘Certainly. And whenever you come to Bangalore, you must come to our house,’ Chandru extended a cordial invitation in return.

  ‘Yes. My sister Indu stays in Rajajinagar. She has called me over quite a few times. I will make a trip to Bangalore sometime.’

  Chandru went to the market to buy Dharwad pedas and then, thinking of Vinuta, he bought a book of poems.

  As he was leaving for the station, he gave Vinuta the book. ‘I am sorry I couldn’t hear you on the radio. I don’t get Dharwad radio station from Bangalore or anywhere else. Good luck.’

  Chandru looked at Vinuta and felt a sadness emanating from her. She would probably miss him. Though they did not talk to each other a lot, she knew he was a music lover and her ardent fan.

  She on her part felt this was probably their last meeting. Why would he come back to Dharwad or why would she go to Bangalore? Even if she did, what excuse would
she have to meet him?

  FIVE

  Shamanna, a Sanskrit teacher, was a calm, sensible and contented man. He had a reputation as a good teacher and a good human being. Gouramma, his wife, was a clever woman who knew how to run the family. She worked hard to keep the domestic expenses within the budget, but she was extremely ambitious. She always dreamed of diamonds, gold and silver jewellery, cars, a big house, servants . . .

  Shamanna had a modest salary but he had managed to build a small house in Jayanagar. His priorities were different from his wife’s. He wanted his children, Chandra Shekhar, Girish and Surabhi, to have a good education. So he did not think of extending his house or making any changes. Since her husband had been unable to fulfil her dreams, Gouramma had pinned her hopes on her children. Whenever she attended a marriage or a family function, she would look at the women wearing expensive silk saris and diamond earrings with envy and tell herself that they were so lucky.

  In most such gatherings, it was customary for women who had travelled abroad to form an exclusive circle. Most of their children were settled abroad, so their conversation was usually different from that of the others. ‘Oh, when I was in New York the last time, I bought a coral set,’ one would say and another would remark, ‘But you know jade is available only in San Francisco. I bought a beautiful jade set there.’ A third would say, ‘In Florida, you get the best quality green cardamom and Spanish saffron. I only use that to make sweets like kesari and all.’ And poor Gouramma would feel completely left out. She felt people ignored her and looked down upon her because none of her children were based abroad. Every day she would pray to god that her children should go abroad and earn lots of money so that she could join that circle and tell them, ‘See, I am equal to you.’

  Chandru was Gouramma’s favourite child. Like her, he was fair-complexioned, slightly built, with a pleasant, intelligent face. He shared her dream of going abroad. Girish, on the other hand, was tall and dark-complexioned, having taken after his father. A commerce graduate, Girish worked as a clerk in a bank. He was contented and happy with his lot. After office he would involve himself in all sorts of cultural activities such as compering programmes during the Dusherra festival, Ganesha Chaturthi, and Kannada Rajyotsava. If anyone required help at the bank, Girish would be the first to offer and muster help, be it a medical emergency, a funeral, or celebrations for a happy occasion.

  Gouramma had often tried to discourage him from such activities but Girish would shrug off her lecture with a laugh. ‘Amma, I don’t agree with you. What Appa says is right. As a human being it is our duty to help everyone.’

  Gouramma then usually directed her anger at her husband. ‘Bad enough that you are impractical, you have now spoilt him and given him wrong ideas. How will he ever be a successful man with this sort of approach to life and society?’

  Shamanna would pacify her. ‘Leave him alone. Chandru will be the successful man you want your sons to be. This one will grow up to be like me, and if god is kind, he will get a good wife, like you are. Who, otherwise, will take care of him, us, and the house?’

  Gouramma would shake her head but her anger would dissolve into the firmament.

  S I X

  Once news of Chandru’s posting to the US was out, marriage proposals began to flood in. However, neither Chandru nor his mother was in favour of marriage at this stage. Their plan was that he should first go to America, settle down, work hard, and send money to add an upper storey to the modest one-storey house, then finance Surabhi’s marriage.

  It would make things much easier for the family since Shamanna was due to retire within a year. After all, they could not expect much from Girish, with his clerical job and modest income, so Gouramma had set her sights entirely on Chandru’s earning potential. He was, in a way, the captain of the ship.

  D-day came, and Chandru was about to leave for Florida on a one-year deputation. Surabhi had already given him a list of cosmetics, perfumes and chiffon saris that she wanted. Gouramma, on her part, had only said, ‘Try to stay there as long as possible. If you stay long enough, I would like to join you.’ Then, after a pause, had added, ‘It seems you get nice cardamom and Spanish saffron.’

  Girish and Shamanna made no demands whatsoever.

  SEVEN

  The dream, held dear for so long, had finally come true.

  Chandru arrived in the land of opportunities and amazing wealth.

  Chandru was an intelligent, thinking man. He tended to compare the two countries, India and America. There were some things about the US that really appealed to him. America was rich, healthy and vibrant like a spirited youth, bursting with life. It was a nation forever on its toes. There were no words like powercuts or water shortages. Housing was easily available. He could find his way around anywhere with the help of a map—there was no need to thrust questions at strangers on the road. He could easily afford to buy a car and a house. The government was efficient and effective. All in all, this country was more than capable of fulfilling the basic needs of all its citizens and that is why it was the richest nation on earth and the most powerful.

  By contrast, in India everything was a hassle. It was, no doubt, a five-thousand-year-old civilization where great kings like Ashoka and Harshavardana had ruled. The land that had been praised by poets and writers in the days of yore had now become home to scarcity and superstition. It was a body weakened by prolonged and painful disease, with its vital organs decayed, its essences sapped. It was not fair to compare the two countries. If one was the sky, the other was the earth. One was dark, the other incandescent light.

  Chandru became enamoured of the comforts and charms of the American way of life very soon. How wonderful this country is! he would tell himself a thousand times. How happy the people living here are . . .

  Even his work was very satisfying, unlike the field visits he had had to make on the dusty roads of Dharwad. In order to improve his prospects, Chandru enrolled for computer classes in the evenings. His company agreed to pay for them. Chandru lived frugally and saved as much as he could. Because of the exchange rate even a hundred dollars meant at least four and a half thousand rupees. So, the hard working, ambitious, capable Chandru rapidly climbed the ladder of success. It filled him with ebullience, gave him a new zest for life.

  But he did miss his family, especially when he returned home in the evenings. He would call his mother every weekend and describe his new American life, particularly how he went grocery shopping. He would describe the variety of juices packed in different kinds of bottles and cartons, the huge range of ice creams in all sorts of flavours and containers available in the stores, all the fruits and vegetables neatly packed and ready to eat . . . Often he would talk about garbage trucks, K-mart sales and money changing machines.

  At first, when he did not have the heart to throw away empty bottles of juice or cans of milk, he would tell his mother, ‘Amma, if you were here, you would have filled all these lovely bottles with varieties of pickles.’

  Sometimes he would talk on different issues. ‘Food is so cheap in America and people are so trustworthy and honest. They pick up newspapers from unmanned roadside stalls and diligently leave the money. There is no need for bus conductors on the buses. Each one pays the fare without being asked or told. No cheating.’

  Then he would talk to Girish about the Dollar.

  ‘The Dollar is the most powerful financial instrument of modern times. It is magic money. One dollar is equal to forty-two Indian rupees. If you have Dollars in your pocket, you can travel to any corner of the world without worry. It is universally acceptable currency.’

  After a phone call from Chandru, Gouramma found it difficult to concentrate on the cooking. Often, the rice would be overcooked, the vegetables half-done, the dal would have too much salt and the coffee too much sugar. Gouramma was in India only in body at such times; her spirit would be flying across the length and breadth of America. She would dream about the Dollar, that magic green currency, which could change h
er house and fulfil her dreams. It was the Dollar, not Indian rupees, which could elevate her into the elite circle at social gatherings and marriage halls. The Dollar was like the Goddess Lakshmi, with a magic wand.

  Before they knew it, Chandru had spent a year and a half in America. It was time for him to return home. The thought distressed him. His thoughts began to wander in a whole new direction. He had noticed that some of his senior colleagues had ‘skipped’, that is, taken employment in an American company without informing their original employers. The new employer assured them they would get an extension on the existing H1 visa or a green card, depending on the situation. These ‘skippers’ had signed bonds in India before leaving for America, promising to return and work for a minimum of three years in the parent organization.

  Non-fulfilment of the bond invited penalties. But those who ‘skipped’ had scant regard for such ‘petty’ matters. The general attitude was, ‘Let them trace us first and then penalize us. At that time we will see what is to be done.’ Chandru had heard such stories ever since he had landed in America. It seemed to have become a fairly common trick. His colleagues Rajiv and Shrikant had signed bonds in India and had then gone underground in America. They were living in Colorado. The senior officers of Chandru’s company had asked Chandru for their addresses. But though Chandru knew where Rajiv and Shrikant were, he remained silent.

 
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