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       Dollar Bahu, p.5

           Sudha Murty
 
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  When he saw the sari, he told his mother to buy it for Girish’s wife and not for Jamuna. Gouramma took a look at the price tag: it was seven thousand rupees.

  ‘Chandru, she doesn’t were such expensive saris. It would be wiser to buy two printed silk saris for the same amount.’ But Chandru insisted on the sari he had selected, and Gouramma backed down. He was paying the bill after all.

  Chandru reasoned that when Vinuta had taken such good care of him when he was not so well off, social restrictions had held him back from gifting her a sari of her choice. But now, when an appropriate occasion was coming up, he could repay what he felt was a long-held personal debt.

  Vinuta took one look at the sari and her face lit up like a flower in full bloom. She murmured, ‘Oh! I love this colour. I have been planning to buy one for a long time. Thank you very much, Chandru.’

  Gouramma felt she had to give Jamuna something from the family. Shamanna was not a wealthy man. So Gouramma took two of her own bangles to a jeweller and got them redesigned into new ones. Vinuta’s sharp eyes noticed this.

  As the wedding date drew near, a whole lot of relatives and friends started visiting their house. Gouramma enjoyed herself, boosting her own self-esteem, showing off Jamuna’s jewels and saris, humiliating them, destroying their peace of mind, paying them back for every insult she believed she had suffered for so many years. Her son lived in America and her future daughter-in-law was the only daughter of a rich man. Such charming scenarios, mere dreams for so long, were gloriously coming true. In her mind she thanked the blessed power of the Dollar.

  Krishnappa was a wealthy man. He wanted to use the wedding ceremony to display his wealth and exploit this occasion as a business party. So, the most expensive hall was selected as the venue for three days of grand celebrations. The hall was decorated with the choicest flowers, live music was played throughout the ceremony and the affluent guests, especially the ladies, flaunted their silks and jewels. Of course, the wide spread of rich food was the gravitation point for all appetites.

  From behind the scenes, Girish and Vinuta ensured that everything went off without a hitch. But it was Gouramma who handled all money-related matters.

  After the wedding, Jamuna’s mother made a dramatic appeal to Gouramma. ‘Please consider Jamuna as your daughter. She has been brought up in luxury. If she makes any mistake, kindly forgive her. If there has been any lapse in the marriage arrangements from our side, please pardon us.’ With that, she handed over an expensive gift to Gouramma. Gouramma was overcome with emotion and hugged Jamuna’s mother fondly.

  Chandru and Jamuna went off for their honeymoon and returned just one day before Chandru’s departure for the US. That evening, Chandru said to his mother, ‘Amma, Jamuna will stay with you until she gets her visa, and I shall only be back here for Surabhi’s wedding. Till then, take care.’

  ‘Jamuna is my eldest daughter-in-law. It is, after all, her own house now. Let her get used to us. You needn’t worry about her,’ Gouramma reassured Chandru.

  The day Chandru left, Jamuna politely told her mother-in-law, ‘My cousins are all at my parents’ place. I want to spend some time with them before flying off. I will be back next week.’ From the airport Jamuna went straight to her father’s house.

  Gouramma realized that she could not boss over Jamuna the way she did over Vinuta. She told herself it was all right. Her rich relatives had come from all over and there was nothing wrong in Jamuna’s decision to go to her parents’ home.

  ‘Come back any time. This is your home too after all,’ she said cordially.

  But Jamuna simply vanished from their lives for a long time.

  When she eventually did show up it was to tell the family, ‘I am leaving for America tomorrow. I really feel very sorry that I could not spend time with you and Surabhi. I knew that the visa would take a long time, and so I went to meet all my uncles and aunts in Chennai, Delhi and Ahmedabad. The next time I come, I shall stay for a good three months with you.’

  Shamanna had seen through Jamuna’s pretence, but Gouramma, blinded by the dollars that her daughter-in-law now represented, reassured her. ‘It is all right, my dear. I know that you are very fond of all of us. When Surabhi gets married, it will be your responsibility to see to everything. You are the “Mahalakshmi” of our house. You should not leave in sorrow. Go and join your husband in happiness. Our blessings shall be with you always.’

  Jamuna did not even bother to talk to Vinuta. For that matter, nobody in the house seemed to even acknowledge her presence these days.

  FOURTEEN

  After Chandru’s wedding, things took a different turn in the Shamanna household. Gouramma’s conversations usually began with, ‘Our Jamuna, in America . . .’ Every day, she would repeat that they were very lucky to have such a daughter-in-law. Paeans of praise were constantly chanted for the unknown and absent Jamuna, and the two daughters-in-law were constantly compared.

  Before Jamuna’s advent into their lives Gouramma used to say, ‘Now that Vinuta is here, I am totally relaxed, like a retired person. She takes care of everything.’ But now, there was no such talk. The proverb, ‘If you have money, like the sun you will shine; if you don’t have money, like a dog you will whine’, was quite apt in this case. Jamuna’s sun shone brighter each day while Vinuta’s life became more like that of a dog.

  Whenever a guest or a relative came visiting, Jamuna was praised to the sky and the lavish wedding described in great detail. Photo albums and videos were forced upon the visitors. The entire list of presents given by Jamuna’s family was recited. Her ‘simplicity’ and other assorted virtues were extolled. Gouramma even justified Jamuna having kept all the wedding gifts in her parents’ house. ‘Our house is so small. There is no space to keep all the gifts.’

  Shamanna would walk away from such talk but where could poor Vinuta go?

  Things became worse with the arrival of pictures from America sent by Jamuna. Jamuna’s letters were a treatise on the American lifestyle, what she wore, where she went, the décor of the house, the car they drove and the places they visited. The day Jamuna called, Gouramma’s mind sprouted wings. Surabhi was entranced. Vinuta however would get upset for she knew that the ill winds would blow harder.

  It was a Saturday and all Vinuta’s colleagues had decided to go for the noon show of Veer Zara. As Vinuta sat in the darkened cinema hall, a wave of nostalgia swept over her. She remembered the last time she had seen a movie at Dharwad’s Regal theatre. Her entire college group had cut classes and gone for the morning show of Mughal-e-Azam. After the movie, Vinuta had practised singing the famous song ‘Mohabbat ki jhoothi kahani pe roye’ in the ladies’ room. The next day, someone had written on the blackboard in their classroom, ‘We do not want class today. We want to hear and see our own Madhubala singing “Mohabbat ki jhoothi kahani pe roye”.’

  Where were all those friends now and where had those magical times gone?

  The bell rang signalling intermission, bringing Vinuta back to the present. She went out to buy popcorn for everybody. Suddenly her eyes caught sight of a pair of youngsters sipping a soft drink in a far corner of the balcony. Vinuta felt as if a hammer had hit her head. It was Surabhi and Gopinath.

  Vinuta blinked to confirm that she was not dreaming.

  Gopinath, a young, handsome neighbourhood boy was an old student of Shamanna’s and now worked as a medical representative. His father was a postmaster and they lived in a small house nearby. Gopinath was an outgoing, friendly sort of person who was actively involved in all neighbourhood functions and festivities. So he had come to the house a few times with Girish. But Vinuta could not imagine that Surabhi and Gopinath were seeing each other.

  She knew that Gouramma was looking for a suitable boy for Surabhi but she had too many conditions: He had to be handsome, rich, but should not be the only son, because then the in-laws would permanently live with their son. Neither should he have sisters because they would frequently visit their parents along with t
heir families. It was better if he was one of two sons, preferably the younger. If there was no mother-in-law, it would be a bonus. They must own a car and a house. Preference would be given if the boy was living abroad.

  But Surabhi was quite plain looking and not from a rich family. She was not a software engineer and hence many potential grooms who came from abroad rejected her.

  Vinuta and Girish had even registered Surabhi’s name with a marriage bureau and continuously scanned the matrimonial ads. Though Shamanna tried to tell his wife that one couldn’t get a made-to-order husband, it was in vain.

  Vinuta could not concentrate on the movie any more. What should she do? Tell the people at home or talk to Surabhi in private? But knowing Surabhi’s and Gouramma’s nature, she was scared.

  She felt it was better to tell Shamanna, who was more mature in such matters. During the movie, she kept an eye on them and after that, she went straight home, but Surabhi had not yet reached.

  She asked Shamanna, ‘Where is Surabhi?’

  ‘She has gone for ikebana class,’ Shamanna answered in all innocence.

  Gouramma was away at the temple and Girish was at work. Vinuta lowered her voice and said, ‘I saw Surabhi with Gopinath at the cinema. I saw them with my own eyes and I felt they are more than friends. You should talk to Surabhi and find out. Anyway, we are looking for a boy for her, but if she is interested in this boy, then we should stop searching . . .’

  Vinuta stopped abruptly when she saw Gouramma who had come in and had been quietly listening to her. Gouramma’s face was pale.

  Gouramma could not sleep that night. First, she was unhappy that her daughter had betrayed her and, second, that Vinuta had found out. She wanted Surabhi to settle down in the US and lead a life of luxury so that she could boast in front of everybody that two of her children were living abroad. Gopi was nowhere in her scheme of things.

  Shamanna’s views were different. Gopi was a well-behaved boy from a respectable middle-class family and it would be a good match. Surabhi would stay nearby.

  Surabhi was unaware of all this. Gopi was her senior at college and she was attracted to his charming personality and easy manner. She knew that her mother would certainly object and so they would meet outside once in a while. But she had never thought of marrying him.

  The following day Gouramma called her daughter and admonished her. ‘Surabhi, you do not know how hard life is. Yesterday I came to know that you had gone for a movie with Gopi. What does he have? An ordinary job and a small house! If you marry him, your life will be like Vinuta’s. You will have to count every penny and try to save all the time. Look at Jamuna! She has two cars; she can spend money in lakhs because she has money in dollars. The Dollar is all-powerful. You know it is the Dollar that has changed our lives! Have you not seen the photos of your brother’s house? You can lead that kind of life if you marry someone who is in the US or someone very rich in India.’

  Vinuta was in the kitchen. She heard this conversation and was utterly flabbergasted. Should a marriage be arranged on the basis of love and understanding or on the love for the Dollar, she wondered.

  Alarmed by the Gopi incident, Gouramma expedited the search for a son-in-law. She would tell the matrimonial agent, ‘We are ready to give a lavish wedding but we want a very good boy.’ People would laugh behind her back and say, ‘Gouramma is crazy. Five years ago she was nobody. Today she talks about a lavish wedding. She is searching for a groom only from the upper strata. As if people in America are the only possible match for her daughter!’

  Vinuta noticed that after the incident Gouramma and Surabhi were very aloof and offhand with her.

  One day Lakshman Rao, the matchmaker, informed the family, ‘Shekhar has come down from the US. His father is looking for a suitable bride for him. But their demands are very high. If you are interested, I can try.’

  ‘Please go ahead,’ Gouramma responded promptly.

  ‘No. We want to know what their expectations are. If we can afford it, only then will we want to go ahead,’ intervened Shamanna.

  ‘They want a good wedding along with a fully furnished apartment in Bangalore. It is not for the parents, but for the couple to stay in whenever they come from the US,’ said the agent.

  ‘That is beyond our capacity,’ said Shamanna immediately, but Gouramma chose to overrule his objection.

  ‘She is our only daughter. We will meet all their demands. Haven’t we spent money on our sons’ education? Just because Chandru and Jamuna are nice to us, we cannot rely on them entirely. It is Girish’s duty also. Let him take a loan for his sister’s marriage. If need be, we will also sell the house. I am not bothered.’

  ‘Gouri, are we going to sell this, our own house, at this age, and live in a rented house? We should spend money only on what we can afford. Let us not get into any costly hassle.’

  ‘I don’t mind living in a rented house,’ retorted Gouramma. ‘But I want Surabhi to live in luxury in America.’

  The argument went on. In the end, it was decided that Shekhar would come and meet Surabhi. Gouramma was a doting mother. In her eyes, Surabhi was a beauty, well read and accomplished. In actual fact, Surabhi was rather ordinary looking, read mostly stories in magazines and romantic novels and spent her time listening to film songs.

  On the day Shekhar was to come and see Surabhi, Gouramma wanted elaborate snacks prepared for the evening visit. Vinuta was pregnant and had had a tiring day at school. Nevertheless, she did everything as per her mother-in-law’s wishes, as the word ‘no’ did not exist in her dictionary.

  The appointed time passed and Shekhar did not turn up.

  ‘Perhaps he has to see three or four girls in a day and that is why they are late,’ Girish commented.

  Shekhar came, late in the evening, with his friends, glanced about the house and his expression changed. Girish noticed the look of disdain on his face. When he saw Surabhi, he was openly disappointed. His discomfort showed.

  Girish broke the uncomfortable silence. ‘My brother Chandru is in Nashville. Where do you work?’

  In a heavy American accent, Shekhar replied, ‘Chicago.’

  ‘How long have you been there?’

  ‘Oh! Many years.’

  ‘Where do you work?’

  ‘Westinghouse. Any more questions?’ he asked, rudely.

  Girish was annoyed. He had only been trying to have a conversation. When Shekhar was ready to leave, Gouramma told him, ‘If you could inform us of your decision early, it will be a great favour. My daughter-in-law Jamuna wants to come for the wedding. Her father is Hosur Krishnappa.’

  Shekhar just said, ‘Yeah,’ and went away.

  Barely had Shekhar left when Gouramma stormed at Girish. ‘Why did you have to ask him so many questions and make him uncomfortable? They might say no because of your rude behaviour.’

  ‘Amma, my sister may get married to this man. Shouldn’t we at least know this much about him, that too when he is staying in a far and unknown land?’

  ‘Girish is absolutely right,’ Shamanna opined.

  ‘I am sure they will say yes. What did you think of that boy, Surabhi?’

  ‘He looked a little old.’ Surabhi grinned.

  ‘Nothing of that sort! The difference is only eight years and that is okay. The other factors are very good. I must ask Jamuna and take her opinion. She will know everything.’

  Vinuta remained silent. As usual, nobody had asked for her opinion. If there is no respect for the opinion of a particular member in a family, she thought bitterly, that person is an outsider.

  Girish called out to her, ‘Come, Vinu. Let’s go for a stroll and get some vegetables. I am tired of sitting at home.’

  ‘Vinu, you may be tired, particularly waiting on these people. Go and rest for a while,’ said Shamanna. Vinu said she was all right, and went out with her husband.

  ‘Vinu, I am really uncomfortable about Shekhar. I feel quite worried. I wish we knew someone in Chicago who could help us get some det
ails.’

  ‘The other day Madan came to visit your father. He said that he was based in Chicago. Why don’t we ask him?’

  Girish dropped the idea of buying vegetables and both of them walked to Madan’s house. Fortunately, Madan and his old father were sitting and chatting in the veranda. There was no one else at home. Girish explained about Shekhar.

  ‘Madan, please give us your frank opinion. How is the boy?’

  His father responded immediately. ‘The boy is very good. My niece was seen by him but there was some bad omen at our house so we did not pursue the matter.’

  Madan did not say anything then. Only when he came up to the gate to see them off, did he hesitantly say, ‘Girish, my father is old fashioned. He believes that one should not speak anything negative about others and that too particularly when discussing marriage. I don’t believe in such things. I will tell you the facts and you can decide. But don’t drag me into anything.’

  ‘Of course not. Please tell us what you know.’

  ‘I live in Chicago and so does Shekhar. Both of us are from Bangalore. Yet we never visited each other; we live fifty miles apart. One Sunday I suddenly decided to visit him as I was going to pass by that way. I did not call before dropping in. Shekhar was not at home. But I saw a white woman and I learnt that they were living-in. That is the reason we called off my cousin’s proposal with him.’

  Girish and Vinuta felt as if a very heavy weight had been taken off their shoulders.

  ‘We are very grateful to you. You have saved my sister’s life,’ said Girish. They thanked their stars and silently walked back home.

  That night, while having dinner, Gouramma started on her favourite topic. ‘If Shekhar says yes, then which marriage hall shall we book? How many saris do we buy? How much gold and silver has to be given?’ Nobody answered her, but she continued in the same vein. Finally Girish got fed up and said bluntly, ‘Even if Shekhar agrees, we must turn it down.’

 
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