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       Dollar Bahu, p.4

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Unlike Vinuta, Surabhi was quite immature and looked upon life as a series of shopping expeditions for jewels and clothes, and outings for movies with friends. These represented to her the essence of a good life. She was not interested in studying for a postgraduate degree, nor was she concerned about staying at home all day without taking responsibility for any housework. If she chose to stay at home, her time was spent gossiping with her mother and watching TV serials in the afternoons.

  Gouramma indulged her fully, treating her like a princess. ‘Leave the poor girl alone. After all, she will marry one of these days and the responsibilities will begin. At least until then let her enjoy life,’ she would say if Shamanna or Girish asked Surabhi to do something.

  Vinuta, however, took on many of the household chores soon after she joined the family. She would wake up early and help her mother-in-law in the morning before going to school. She now had a permanent job in the same government school. Sometimes, she felt a little sad that Girish did not have an ear for music, like Shamanna did. But he certainly did not object to her singing.

  Shamanna would often say, ‘Vinu, you have a good voice. You should pursue music as an alternative career.’

  Shashikala was one of the temporary teachers in Vinuta’s school. Over the months she and Vinuta had become really close friends. One day, Shashi came to school, beaming. ‘Vinuta,’ she said in a low voice, ‘I have some news to give you. Let us go out for lunch.’

  During the lunch break she said with a blush, ‘My marriage has been fixed. With Shankar. His father and mine are great friends.’

  ‘Oh, that’s very good news! Congratulations! So, what does he do? Where is he from?’

  ‘Shankar is an MA in English and works as a part-time lecturer in a college in Mysore. He is also doing his PhD. After marriage, we plan to open tutorials. We will surely get on very well because we have known each other since childhood.’

  ‘Oh, that is good. When are you resigning?’

  ‘I am giving my letter next week because I have to give two months’ notice to the school. Shankar’s family do not have the custom of engagement in their family. So it will be the wedding, direct, in three months. It’s going to be in Mysore.’

  ‘Wish you all the best,’ Vinuta said again as she shook Shashi’s hands warmly.

  Vinuta missed Shashikala a great deal when she left the school, but involved herself totally in her work; it made her less lonely. Vinuta was really looking forward to Shashikala’s wedding. Since she and Girish had started life together, the two of them had never gone out anywhere except to a temple or the vegetable market. Now for the first time she would be going out of town with her husband.

  One day, out of the blue, the headmistress, Sushila Rao, called Vinuta to her office. ‘It seems Shashi’s marriage has been cancelled. Do you have any idea why? You ought to know because you two are great friends.’

  Vinuta was shocked. ‘I didn’t know this,’ she replied. Sushila continued to talk about Shashi, but Vinuta did not hear anything. Her mind was in a tortured spin. What could have happened? Had there been an accident? This was a marriage fixed with the approval of both sets of parents, so what could possibly have gone wrong?

  Somehow Vinuta managed to finish her work for the day and hurried to Shashi’s house. Shashi opened the door. When she saw Vinuta, she simply broke down.

  Vinuta looked around and noticed that the marriage preparations, which had been going on in full swing, had been stopped midway.

  Shashi’s mother came into the room. ‘Vinuta,’ she said, ‘you are Shashi’s friend, tell her not to act like this. She hasn’t eaten for two days. It’s destiny. She was not meant to marry Shankar. What to do!’

  Shashi took Vinuta’s hand and walked up to the terrace. It was pleasantly cool, all the lights in the city were gradually coming on. Vinuta marvelled at the beautiful sight, but to Shashi, nothing mattered. Vinuta put her arm around Shashi’s shoulders and gently asked, ‘What happened? Is Shankar all right? Has he met with an accident or something?’

  In an instant, grief vanished from Shashi’s face. A seething fury replaced it.

  ‘What can possibly happen to him? That devil is rock solid. He has humiliated all of us. I am just sick of life. I gave my heart to an unworthy man.’

  ‘Don’t talk in riddles. Tell me straight, what happened?’

  ‘He sold himself,’ Shashi said savagely. ‘One Indian family settled in the US came to India in search of a groom for their daughter. They put an ad in the papers saying that the girl had a green card and wanted a groom with certain qualifications.’

  ‘And Shankar fell for the proposal?’ Vinuta asked in disbelief.

  ‘He was not alone. Many others, doctors, CAs and other professionals, also applied, and went, just as if for a job interview. But Shankar was selected because the girl was also an MA in Literature. They offered him a green card through marriage and to support his PhD studies at any university in the US.’

  ‘But what about you?’

  ‘Who cares for me? His parents feel it is a great opportunity for him. He now feels that there is no future in tutorials. He has two sisters to be married off and his father is a retired man. If he had stayed back in India and married me, we would both have had to slog all our lives to repay the loans.’ After a pause, Shashi added, ‘Shankar told me that he would cover half my marriage expenses once he went to America. How generous of him, don’t you think?’

  ‘But Shashi, you have resigned your job and everyone knows about your marriage. Is nobody worried about that?’

  ‘What’s a teacher’s job, a simple girl’s life, in front of the Dollar?’

  Vinuta was speechless.

  ELEVEN

  Chandru’s dream had come true. He had finally got the magic ticket to the gates of heaven, the glorious green card. He was settled for life now. The son of an ordinary schoolmaster, who had never dreamed of riches, had not just become rich, he was now also an official resident of America.

  He was on top of the world.

  When he came home that evening he found a letter from Bangalore. Normally, he talked to his parents over the phone and rarely exchanged letters, so he guessed it was a long list of Surabhi’s demands or some such thing. He freshened up, brewed himself a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa to open the envelope.

  It was a letter from Girish with a few pictures enclosed.

  Dear Chandru,

  It would have been great if you could have attended our simple wedding. Anyway, I have sent some photos. Vinu says she knows you and has conveyed her regards to you.

  With affection,

  Girish

  Chandru looked at the photos. HIS Vinu, the same girl with the golden voice, had become his brother’s wife!

  Something that he had never imagined was now a harsh reality. The spring goddess of Dharwad, the girl who had stolen his heart, the Jayanagar schoolteacher were all the same girl. What a coincidence! What irony!

  The joy and excitement of that evening evaporated. For a minute, he was upset with himself: if he had not waited for the green card and had returned to India earlier, he could have married Vinuta. Then, he was jealous. Girish was neither handsome nor as well placed as he was, but had won a wife who was far superior to him in everything.

  He looked at the photos once again. Vinuta looked radiant.

  It took a few days for Chandru to accept what had happened and digest the reality of life.

  TWELVE

  The house was bustling with activity and anticipation.

  Chandru was due to come home after almost six years. Vinuta too shared the excitement. When she had set foot in Girish’s house after the wedding, she had learnt that Girish’s brother, who lived in the US, had been their tenant in Dharwad. That was when she had seen Chandru’s photos in her new home and recognized him. She then remembered his love for music and his diffidence in praising her openly. Providence had made him her brother-in-law, who deserved her respect and regard.

/>   Now, as she decorated the house for his welcome, she wondered, would Chandru remember her as the girl from Dharwad, whose singing he had praised? Would he ask her to sing again? Gouramma, Girish and Surabhi got ready to go to the airport to receive Chandru. Shamanna was happy that his son was coming home after so long, but was not very keen on going to the airport. ‘Let me stay home and prepare to welcome him. Anyway, there will be no space for me on the way back. His luggage will need all the space,’ he joked.

  Vinuta had told her mother-in-law earlier, ‘Amma, you go to the airport. Tell me what Chandru likes and I will get everything ready.’ Gouramma really liked Vinuta’s attitude: totally unselfish and willing to adjust to any situation. She went to the airport confident that Vinuta would take care of everything at home to welcome Chandru.

  Gouramma’s eyes filled with tears, at the first sight of her son after six long years. Her heart swelled with pride, to see him healthier and altogether more handsome. Chandru walked up to his mother, dragging two huge suitcases, and bent down to touch her feet. It was a touching moment.

  When they reached home, Chandru went straight to his father and bowed down to touch his father’s feet. He then saw Vinuta standing near the door.

  ‘How are you? Do you remember me?’ His voice had mellowed.

  ‘I am fine. How was your journey?’ Vinuta smiled amiably.

  He saw that the teenage Vinu of Dharwad had now matured into a young woman. Her face glowed with the happiness and contentment in her soul. She probably got everything here that she had missed in Dharwad.

  Even before he had a wash and could sit down, he saw his mother and sister struggling to open his suitcases. With a sigh, he opened it for them and unpacked everything: the digital camera and video, cosmetics, perfumes, walnuts, saffron, chocolates, handbags, chiffon saris . . . the whole lot of goodies that they had been hankering for.

  Surabhi was engrossed in checking out her list. Handing over a bunch of hundred-dollar notes to Gouramma, Chandru said, ‘Amma, I could not do much shopping for everyone. Please buy whatever you feel is right.’ Gouramma took the money, speechless.

  ‘I have already eaten on the plane. I just want to rest for a while. Didn’t sleep at all on the flight,’ Chandru said, moving towards the stairs to the first floor.

  Gouramma was in seventh heaven. A woman who had never been able to indulge herself and had struggled all her life to make ends meet, was now swimming in a sea of opulence. A thousand dollars, when converted into rupees, was a lot of money. But sharing had never been part of her nature. She was mentally listing all the things that she could buy . . .

  After Chandru’s arrival, Gouramma seemed to forget the kitchen. She wanted to spend every possible minute with her son. Vinuta cheerfully took over all the responsibilities. She understood the feelings of a mother who was meeting her son after such a long time. She also made sure she served snacks and coffee to the numerous guests who dropped in to meet Chandru. She had, in fact, taken leave from her work for that period. Surabhi, on the other hand, when she was at home, was completely preoccupied with the mirror, trying on all the new American cosmetics, or she accompanied Chandru almost everywhere he went.

  Chandru had come home for just three weeks. He wanted to meet his old friends and colleagues. He would have liked to meet his former employer, but he was too embarrassed. His conscience still pricked him for ‘skipping’. He had cheated on a company that had financed his trip and paid for his computer training. But he quickly scotched his inner voice. He rationalized that he was not the only one: several brilliant young men from his poor country had done the same thing to settle in the land of opportunity.

  As soon as word got round that Shamanna’s son was in India, marriage proposals began to pour in. He was a prize catch. Gouramma had shortlisted four girls for Chandru to choose from. One shrewd father, Krishnappa, was a property developer. He had a daughter and a son. He owned a palatial house and three cars. His eye fell on Chandru. When he came to visit Gouramma, he quickly gauged the situation. If the greedy Gouramma was lured, then there would be no problem in finalizing the match. He invited them to his farmhouse.

  Gouramma was thrilled. She went eagerly to see them. Krishnappa and his wife Parvati flaunted their silverware and gold and diamond jewellery, calculated to impress. Their daughter, Jamuna, was an ordinary graduate and spent her time going for painting, ikebana or batik classes. Had it not been for her dusky complexion she would have got even more eligible, good-looking and well-settled grooms. Her visits to beauty clinics had been fruitless. But in an expensive sari, bedecked with jewels, she looked very appealing to Gouramma that day.

  Jamuna was effusively friendly with Surabhi and that made Gouramma very comfortable. When they were leaving, Parvati handed over baskets of vegetables and fruits, saying, ‘The match is not in our hands. But let us at least continue with the cordial relationship.’ Gouramma left with tears in her eyes.

  On the way home, Gouramma silently prayed that her son would choose Jamuna as his bride, and began enumerating her virtues. In the end Shamanna was forced to say, ‘Let Chandru decide.’

  In his heart, Shamanna felt that a bride coming from such a family, used to a wealthy lifestyle, would normally have a large ego. He doubted if she would fit into his middle-class family.

  A few days later, Krishnappa sent his car to pick up Chandru. Chandru went alone. In the light of the chandelier, Jamuna’s diamond studs sparkled. After some initial small talk, Chandru came to the point. ‘I want to be clear about some things. We are from a middle-class family, and as the eldest of the family, I have responsibilities.’

  Jamuna was equally forthright. Bluntly she asked him, ‘Do you plan to settle down in America or do you mean to return sometime?’

  ‘Well, I plan to settle there. But one should be aware that life in America is lonely, as against life in India.’

  ‘One can always make friends.’

  ‘You are the only daughter. If you want to come to visit your parents, it may be very expensive.’

  ‘Oh, that should not be a problem. If I can’t come, they will visit us.’

  Chandru had seen some of his friends’ wives going into depression due to loneliness, particularly in the smaller towns in the US. He wanted a bold girl who could face life and enjoy it there. He was not particularly keen on marrying a working girl, although it would be the girl’s decision whether to work there or not. He was aware that he had no family support there, as he had in India. So he wanted to be absolutely sure and he wanted the girl he married to know exactly what the situation was.

  As far as Jamuna was concerned, his mother had done the preliminary enquiries. She looked satisfactory and was quite clear-headed and outgoing. Chandru gave the green signal after some thought.

  It had been almost ten days since Chandru’s return to India. The long stay away from India made him feel quite disoriented. The country had changed so much, he thought. Swelling crowds, dustier, dirtier streets, hectic construction activity all round, there was hardly a vacant site in the neighbourhood. Pollution in the air, in the water, in the food was taking its toll on him. As a result, he suffered from an upset stomach and constant pain. A college friend, Ravichandra, had become a doctor and had a clinic near his house. Chandru went to consult him. Ravi was very happy to see him. While examining Chandru he casually asked him what he was doing.

  ‘Chandru, your stomach has become very sensitive. You must have eaten enough home food to make up the deficit of all these years in just one visit. Your stomach cannot handle all that spicy and rich stuff your mother is serving you.’

  Ravi wrote out a prescription and jokingly said, ‘Chandru, a software engineer’s life is any day better than a doctor’s. To finally become specialists we spend ten years or more after pre-university. Whereas software engineers spend four years studying and earn more than a doctor earns. And that is particularly true since you are in America. Your dollar salary, when multiplied forty-three times in India, is a hu
ge amount of money.’

  ‘I agree. The market is like that. But it is not easy in America either. Anyway, what is your fee?’ Chandru cut short the conversation.

  ‘How can I take money from you? You are a friend.’

  But Chandru insisted, and reluctantly Ravi said, ‘Three hundred rupees.’

  Chandru paid it and came home. The next day, when asking Girish to encash some traveller’s cheques, Chandru casually said, ‘It seems India has become very expensive. I didn’t know doctors charge so much these days. I feel like Rip Van Winkle.’

  Girish was surprised. ‘Why, what happened?’

  ‘Ravi took three hundred rupees from me as consultation fees.’

  ‘What! Ravi normally charges hundred and fifty rupees. Two days ago I had taken a colleague of mine to him.’

  Without waiting for Chandru’s reaction, Girish rushed off to his bank.

  It was Chandru’s first taste of the double-fare formula.

  THIRTEEN

  Chandru’s wedding with Jamuna was set for the following week. The house was bursting with a new energy. Chandru hired a taxi for easy mobility in the days leading up to the wedding.

  He gave his mother four thousand dollars for wedding expenses. Gouramma had never seen that kind of money in all her life. She was effervescent with joy. She explained her plans to Chandru. ‘Jamuna is from a rich family. We should give her nice saris and jewels for the wedding. Otherwise they will look down upon us.’

  ‘Amma, don’t buy too many saris for Jamuna. In America, she will rarely get a chance to wear them. I would suggest that the three of you buy yourselves expensive saris that will be done due justice during festivals and functions.’

  Gouramma, Surabhi and Chandru went sari shopping. As usual, Vinuta was left to take care of the preparations at home. In the sari shop, Surabhi was enjoying herself, asking the salesman to pull out saris of unusual combinations and varieties. Greedy Gouramma was at another counter making her choices. Chandru quietly asked the salesman to show him an aquamarine sari with a pink border.

 
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