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       Dollar Bahu, p.3

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Once they acquired the proper visa or green card, the holed-up ‘skippers’ boldly came out of their concealment, went home to India to marry pretty girls from rich, respectable families and returned in great style, to lead a happy and settled life. They became citizens of Dollar Country and their wives graduated and became ‘Dollar Bahus’.

  Chandru found himself thinking along these lines more often now. The more he thought, the more convinced he was that ‘skipping’ was the best thing to do. With the additional software skills that he had acquired, getting another job would not be difficult either. Of course, he could go back to India and take up a good software job there, but he wasn’t ready to depart from this wondrous land of money and opportunities.

  It did not take him long to make up his mind. He called his mother and explained that only with cooperation from his family members, by keeping things confidential, would he be successful in his plan, and that he would come to India only after he got a green card.

  ‘Of course, we will keep it under wraps! Don’t you worry about such things, just go ahead with your plans. Thanks to the dollars that you have been sending, we are living much better. I do not want to face the same old difficulties again,’ his mother told him quite frankly. More than helping her son in his plan, she was delighted that she could soon tell everyone that her elder son was an NRI.

  Chandru began to scour the employment announcements. Soon, he saw an advertisement for a job with a company based in Nashville, Tennessee, near the East Coast. It was a state with a low density of population and beautiful cattle-grazing pastures. But Nashville was not a place many people wanted to go to. Winter temperatures were bone chilling at 53 °F and hence, despite the fat salaries, hardly anyone applied for jobs there. The new company promised to help Chandru acquire a green card. It was thus the right job at the right place for his period of hiding!

  Without a word to anybody, Chandru sold his car, packed his bags and, leaving the lights on in the house allotted to him by his former employers, simply ‘disappeared’. When his Florida boss made enquiries a week later, he discovered that Chandru had vanished.

  EIGHT

  When the bus to Jayanagar arrived, overflowing with passengers, Vinuta became frantic. If she missed this bus, then she would be almost an hour late for her job at the school, and that was as good as half a day’s leave. Her job was temporary and she could not afford leave without pay. With great pushing and shoving, Vinuta managed to get into the bus. Actually, she disliked doing this, but in a place like Bangalore, she had no choice.

  She leaned on the metal pole flushed with the pride of a victor. The bus conductor asked her where she wanted to go. ‘Jayanagar,’ she said as she fumbled in her purse for change. But all she found was the hundred-rupee note that she had received from the private tuition she was giving. She held out the note. The conductor was most irritated. ‘I don’t have change even for five rupees, where will I get it for a hundred? Anyway tell your husband to buy the ticket.’ The old conductor had got her married in a fraction of a second, without spending a single rupee! Vinuta turned around and saw a tall young man just behind her, smiling and handing over the change to the conductor, saying, ‘Jayanagar, two please.’

  The conductor laughed knowingly. ‘Your husband has the change and you wanted to get change from me?’

  ‘What husband?’ Vinuta shot out, but her question was lost in the swirl of packed humanity. She spoke sternly to the tall man. ‘Listen, sir, I will pay you my fare the minute we disembark.’

  ‘Quite all right,’ the young man said. ‘No problem.’

  ‘For you it’s not a problem. But I cannot accept a free ticket from anybody,’ she said firmly. Vinuta got off at the bus stop to walk to the school where she worked. This had been her routine now for the past several months, commuting every day from her aunt’s house in Rajajinagar to the school in Jayanagar.

  The beautiful Dharwad days had come to an unexpected, abrupt end. Uncle Bheemanna had died suddenly of a heart attack. The family had dispersed, leaving only Seetakka, the grandmother, and Vinuta in Dharwad. Later, even Seetakka went away to stay with her other children but no one was prepared to take the responsibility of supporting Vinuta. She was of marriageable age, with no money of her own and no place to go to. Fortunately, her aunt, Indu, and her husband, Rama Rao, generously offered their support. Indu had said, ‘Bangalore is a big city. You will soon get a job. Once you have a job, it will be easy to get you married. When the marriage is fixed, you can sell the Dharwad house and cover the marriage expenses. For the time being, you can rent it out and keep your things in the upper-storey room.’

  Vinuta felt miserable. She implored, ‘Please let us not sell the house. That is the last remembrance of my parents. I love that garden. My life is in that . . .’

  ‘Vinuta, be practical, child. You cannot afford to be sentimental at this time,’ consoled Indu. ‘Of course, if you find a prince charming who will agree to marry you without any money, then you won’t need to give up the house.’

  Vinuta was distraught. Every tree, every corner, every fragrance, even in the deep dark night, held so many memories, so much happiness. But Indu was right. Vinuta caressed all the plants of her garden and tearfully bid them goodbye. With a heavy heart, she reached Bangalore.

  Though she had a BEd degree she knew she would not get a job right away. So she started giving music lessons at home until she got a temporary job in a school in Jayanagar . . .

  She had walked a few steps when Vinuta realized she had to pay the man for her ticket. She turned round and saw him right behind her.

  ‘My name is Girish. I work in the Jayanagar branch of Canara Bank,’ he said and smiled.

  ‘Just give me two minutes. I will get change,’ she told him.

  Where would she get the change, since none of the shops were open, he thought to himself. But he said nothing. He wanted to see what this self-willed girl would do.

  Vinuta returned after a while, crestfallen. ‘You said you work for a bank. Please, take this hundred-rupee note and get change for me. I will come and collect it later.’

  Girish was taken aback. ‘But . . . but . . . what is your name?’ he asked.

  ‘Vinuta Desai. I am a teacher in that school.’ She pointed towards the school nearby. ‘I must go now. I am getting late.’ She gave him the note and with a polite smile, walked away.

  Girish stared after her, wondering at her behaviour, as she walked out of sight.

  Only after she reached the school did Vinuta realize what she had done. How could she have trusted an unknown man with a hundred rupees, for which she had worked hard all month, merely on the basis of him saying he worked in a bank? Why had she assumed he was speaking the truth? How could she have been so impulsive?

  At the end of the day, she walked to the bank with her fingers crossed. She could not even remember whether his name was Girish or Ramesh.

  Girish was waiting for her outside the bank. ‘If you hadn’t come, I would have come to your school and returned the money,’ he said politely.

  Vinuta was greatly relieved. ‘Do you know someone in that school?’

  ‘I know Shamanna Master very well. I would have sent the money through him if you hadn’t come today. Here is your money.’

  ‘Thank you,’ she said, with a smile, noticing that he had put it in an envelope.

  In the bus, she opened the envelope and saw it contained change for a full hundred rupees. Girish had not deducted the bus fare!

  About a week later, while Vinuta was helping her aunt in the kitchen, her aunt said, ‘Vinu, this Sunday, take a holiday from your music class.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Some people are coming to see you. A marriage proposal. They are not rich people. From Bangalore only. The boy is a clerk in a bank. He has an elder brother in America who will come to India only after two years. That is why they are planning the second son’s marriage. They also have a daughter, yet to be married off. Are you particular that you
only want an engineer or a class I officer or something?’

  ‘No. I don’t have any such demands. Nor am I bothered about his family’s riches. If necessary, I will continue to work. All I ask for is to be contented.’ That was what Vinuta really felt and what she honestly believed.

  After seeing Vinuta in the bus and later discovering that she worked in the same school as his father, Girish had become quite interested in her. Though Gouramma had no plans of getting Girish married before Chandru, her elder son had clearly told her that he couldn’t say when he would get his green card, so they should not delay Girish’s marriage for his sake.

  That was when Gouramma had started inviting proposals from parents of marriageable girls.

  One evening, Girish casually asked his father, ‘How is that teacher Vinuta Desai, who works in your school?’

  ‘She is a very nice girl. And she has an excellent voice. She is from Dharwad, but of our own community. Why? How do you know her?’

  Girish told him about the incident on the bus.

  When Girish had gone out, Shamanna said to his wife, ‘Gouri, I think Girish is interested in that girl. It will be a good match. Should we make some enquiries?’

  ‘No, certainly not. We are the boy’s side, let her elders approach us,’ said the arrogant mother of an eligible boy.

  However, Shamanna had other ideas. And his secret plans worked.

  He and his family went to see the girl.

  Girish did not know who the girl was, and had gone along quite reluctantly.

  On their way, Surabhi teased him, ‘Girish, Appa says it is very hard to say no to this girl. All these days you had only one teacher. If you marry her, you will have two teachers at home.’

  ‘Who told you all this?’ Girish was impatient.

  ‘Appa. He said Vinuta Desai is working in the school where he is . . .’

  Girish’s face brightened noticeably. In fact, it was hard to hide his joy.

  Both Gouramma and Surabhi liked Vinuta in their very first meeting. She looked very pleasant, and the kind who would be willing to adjust. Shamanna had been in favour of this alliance right from the start and Girish was more than happy.

  Vinuta too felt she was fortunate and was willing to agree instantly.

  Before Shamanna and his family left, Rama Rao explained Vinuta’s financial constraints. ‘If you let me know your decision as soon as possible, it will help us. We will have enough time to make arrangements to sell the house.’

  At those words, Vinuta’s face fell, and Girish was sensitive enough to notice it at once.

  NINE

  Chandru took up the job in Nashville and settled down there quickly. His company sponsored him for a green card, but his lawyer told him that it was difficult to say exactly how long it would take—anything from a month to several years.

  Chandru’s life went on, each day bringing renewed hope of the much-awaited green card. Almost two years and a half had gone by and there was as yet no sign of the green card. Chandru missed India and his family. Some people he knew had managed to get their green cards. Immediately they had returned to India with the sole intent of getting married. They would see thirty potential brides in twenty days and then at the end of the whirlwind campaign get married in the matter of a week, with neither of the spouses knowing anything about the other. Some of the young men would take the pains to look at several proposals, shortlist them, meet a few and then decide. Many had even decided on a particular bride purely on the basis of a photo or video.

  Lately, Chandru’s fascination for the American lifestyle had waned. He had begun to take for granted the comforts and facilities that had earlier filled him with such awe. He had become increasingly lonely and wanted to get married as soon as possible. Besides, his ambition, the obsession to work in America, earn in dollars, attain a good standard of living and then get a green card, was almost achieved. His mind, so far filled only with that one thought, was free to consider other alternatives. Matrimony was an attractive, rather pleasant option.

  The thought of marriage reminded him of Vinuta. For some time, he had completely forgotten about her. He had really liked her, but marriage had been far from his mind then. Now that he wanted to get married, she occupied his thoughts once more. But he did not know whether his feelings were reciprocated. Besides, she may even have got married by this time!

  One night, he seriously considered expressing his feelings for her through a letter. He worried about what her response would be, but then, impulse won over caution and he wrote:

  Dear Vinuta,

  You will be surprised to receive this letter. Please do not misread my intentions. I have been in America for the last few years. I have always appreciated your good qualities. If you have similar feelings about me, kindly let me know. I can’t come back to India without a green card. If you are sure and can wait for me, I will talk to your uncle and to my parents. You will find my address on the cover.

  If you do not have any such feelings, then just destroy this letter and the chapter will be closed.

  With regards,

  Chandru

  Several days passed, and he heard nothing from Vinuta. His imagination started going haywire. Someone else may have opened the letter and the whole of Dharwad had heard about it, or she might be married and her husband may have opened the letter . . . He broke out in a sweat, feeling that he had probably put her in a difficult situation and cursed himself for his foolishness.

  Finally, a month and a half later, he got a response: His letter had come back stamped ‘Addressee not found’. Chandru just tore up the letter and killed the dream in his heart.

  Gouramma started the pre-marriage talks. ‘After all, this is the first wedding in our family and we have to invite all our relatives and friends . . . We do not want any dowry, but everybody will be keen to know what saris and jewellery Vinuta will wear . . . Our elder son is in America and we have to maintain our status, isn’t it? If the wedding is simple, like that of ten other people, we will be ridiculed . . . The wedding should be grand . . . If the house were in Bangalore, it would have been a different thing. What will we do with a house in Dharwad? It is better that she sells the house . . .’

  At this point, Shamanna had enough. He could no longer hold back his displeasure at his wife’s words. ‘Gouri, we should not interfere in this. Leave it to Girish and Vinuta. Selling a house just for the sake of a show-off wedding is foolish. You know as well as I do what a struggle it is to build a house. We have been able to build the first floor only because Chandru is in America and is sending us money in dollars. Till then we had been living in a small house.’

  Gouramma’s face reflected the anger she felt at her husband’s remarks. To prevent further argument, Girish intervened. ‘I will talk to Vinuta and we will decide. Leave it to us.’

  Girish and Vinuta met at a restaurant close to her house. Though Girish was normally outgoing and talkative, that evening he was tongue-tied, hunting for words to start a conversation. Vinuta, naturally shy, waited eagerly for him to speak.

  ‘How is your house in Dharwad? Is it big?’ Girish asked abruptly.

  ‘Oh! It is not just a house, my whole life, my heart is in it.’ Vinuta’s eyes sparkled. ‘I love it so much that at times I feel I cannot give it up. But I don’t have the money to arrange a grand marriage . . .’ Her eyes filled with tears.

  Girish smiled and affectionately took hold of her hands. ‘If it is so painful for you, we will not sell the house. Let’s have a simple wedding. Amma may get upset for some time and she might scold you or taunt us, but we will put up with it. We should not start our new life with tears. My mother is actually a very nice person, good at heart but sometimes she can act rather tough. She softens up later.’

  Vinuta was deeply touched by Girish’s words. She could not speak, but tears of gratitude flowed down her cheeks.

  A few days later Gouramma called Chandru and gave him the news.

  ‘Girish is engaged to be married. The g
irl is a teacher in Appa’s school. I really wish you could come for the wedding. We will postpone the date until you can come. Ideally, you should have got married before Girish. But since you told us about your green card problem, we have decided to go ahead with Girish’s wedding . . . Chandru, the first floor of the house is finally completed. We all are so grateful to you. Without your help, we would have never seen any of these comforts . . .’

  Chandru did not bother to ask for the details of his brother’s bride. He was almost certain that the girl had been chosen by his father. Though he liked his brother Girish and was happy that he was getting married, he felt it was not practical to fly down to India just to be present for the ceremony. He chose instead to send them a gift of five hundred dollars. Knowing his mother, he was quite sure that the money would matter more than his presence.

  Chandru was now more conversant with the language of the Dollar. He wrote out a cheque. This was the first rung of success. Chandru was mighty satisfied and contented that he had climbed that rung of American life. The thought of returning to India had receded to the back of his mind. Somehow, living in the same small house, sharing the toilet and bathroom with others, having to breathe polluted air, and finding dirt and dust all around seemed most disagreeable to him.

  TEN

  Vinuta was very happy in her new house. Shamanna reminded her of her uncle Bheemanna, only a better-educated version.

  Girish lavished love on her. She realized her mother-in-law was a domineering person and Surabhi a carefree, easygoing, rather self-centred person. All these years, she had been the only girl in the family but now with the arrival of Vinuta, Surabhi looked upon her as a rival, a competitor, for the family’s affections.

 
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