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       Dollar Bahu, p.6

           Sudha Murty
 
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  ‘What?’ snapped Gouramma.

  ‘I made some enquiries and learned that he has a live-in white girlfriend.’

  ‘What rubbish! This is just a story made up by the people who can’t bear our happiness and are jealous of us.’

  ‘No. This was told to me by a well-wisher.’ Then he explained what had happened.

  Just then Girish heard a friend calling him from outside. He stood up and said sharply, ‘Look, I have given my opinion. Despite that if you want to go ahead, you can,’ and walked away.

  Surabhi burst out crying as though the wedding had already been fixed and then called off.

  Vinuta tried to comfort Surabhi. ‘Surabhi, control yourself. It is good that I took your brother to Madan’s house, otherwise we would not have known anything. You will definitely get a better husband. Shekhar is not worth crying for.’

  Vinuta’s wise words boomeranged on her. Tormented by feelings of defeat, despair and indignity, with the Gopi incident in the back of her mind, Gouramma burst out at poor Vinuta, pouring all the anger she felt towards Girish on her daughter-in-law. She blatantly disregarded the fact that she should be gentle since Vinu was pregnant. ‘You are the one who incites Girish in this way. Otherwise, that stupid boy would not have behaved in this manner. Ever since you have come to this house, you are trying to keep him under your thumb. You saved the money in your marriage by not selling your house and made us hang our heads in shame. You are the siren who bewitches my son in a wrong direction.’

  Stunned, Vinuta whispered, ‘What are you saying?’

  ‘What Amma is saying is nothing but the truth,’ screeched Surabhi. ‘You are jealous of me. Ever since you have come, I have noticed that you create a fight between Amma and Girish. You are doing everything possible to stop me from going to America. You want that I should live like you, earn my living by hard work and count every paisa. Learn from Jamuna. She is so generous and caring. You think if I become richer than you, then what will happen to you. You are also afraid that if this house has to be sold for my marriage, then you will become homeless and face difficulties. You are selfish to the core. Those are your real intentions and to hide them you play this stupid drama thinking you can fool everybody with your innocent smile. But you can’t fool me. I understand everything.’

  Shamanna, who had been listening to this tirade, lost his temper. ‘Surabhi, hold your tongue!’ he shouted.

  ‘Appa, you are too gullible. Not all that glitters is gold. She is a very cunning woman. That is the reason people say you should bring brides from good families. Look at Jamuna! It reflects on her family. She is so unselfish and kind.’

  ‘Surabhi! Your tongue is wagging too much. Let me pull it out before you say the next ugly word!’ In a towering rage, Shamanna got up and even raised his hand to slap his daughter.

  Shamanna had always been a kind teacher and had never used a stick at home or at school. He normally disliked harsh words and confrontations. Vinuta, who was standing next to him, caught hold of his hand just in time.

  Vinuta realized that a particularly nasty storm was brewing in their house and that it could easily spiral into something worse. Surabhi had said something awful and she found it difficult to accept. Even in her worst nightmares, she had never thought that such terrible aspersions would be cast on her. Shocked, and badly hurt by the virulent attack, she knew that she had to try to control this fire. Tears poured down her cheeks and she did not try to wipe them. Letting her torment mix with the rice on her plate on the table, she told Surabhi, ‘I have always thought of you as my sister and have wished for your happiness. That was why I took an interest in your marriage and tried my best to ensure your welfare. Now, I know my position, where I stand in your eyes. I will not meddle with anything concerning this family hereafter. Please forgive me.’

  Leaving her meal unfinished, she rose from the table. Helpless, Shamanna just stood, dismayed at the terrible turn of events. Gouramma and Surabhi stayed immersed in their thoughts, avoiding Vinuta’s pinched, wet face and continued to eat.

  This was the first major conflict in their house, and the Dollar had played its insidious, evil part.

  FIFTEEN

  Ultimately, Surabhi got engaged to Suresh, a lawyer from Hyderabad. He satisfied most of Gouramma’s conditions, particularly the no-mother-in-law clause. Suresh owned farmland, a big house and a fancy car. The only flaw was that he did not live in America but otherwise everything was perfect.

  Vinuta was only a silent onlooker through all the negotiations. The differences in the attitudes of her family and her in-laws had struck her all of a sudden. She had woken up to Gouramma’s and Surabhi’s selfish and mean nature, and had resigned herself to the inevitable.

  Girish wasn’t very communicative. And Gouramma was after all his mother. So he could not feel the intensity of the pain that Vinu was going through. As the days went by, Vinuta shrivelled up, like a flower closing its petals to protect its soft vulnerable core. But then, life had trained her to live in pain. She did not take long to adjust to the new atmosphere of oppression she felt in the house.

  The other person who had really been hurt was Shamanna. The home that had been a cosy haven so far had suddenly erupted like an inferno, the flames of which were blistering its very soul. The demon Dollar had devoured its peace and harmony.

  Surabhi’s engagement was celebrated with great pomp. Jamuna sent two hundred dollars as a gift.

  Shamanna’s house now had a computer, and e-mail and chatting had brought down the phone bills. Chandru had sent an e-mail. ‘This year, we are going to be short of holidays. Jamuna too is working in a bank now. Work out a convenient date for everybody and inform us early, so that we can plan for a two-week break to attend the wedding.’

  Vinuta’s baby was due in August. December was unacceptable to the groom’s family.

  Uncomfortable in the house now, Vinuta decided to go to Dharwad for her baby’s delivery. ‘That is my home town. I have a house there. My grandmother, Seetakka, will come over. There are good hospitals. I have decided that that is the best place for me to deliver my child.’ It was probably the first time she had spoken her mind and put her foot down.

  It was decided that July was convenient for all but Jamuna sent an e-mail. ‘It is summer in Europe and we have planned a trip. We cannot cancel it. If I have to attend the wedding, then it has to be on a date convenient to me. I will also give some dollars. But if you want that Vinuta should attend the wedding, decide on a date suitable to her. I might not be able to come.’ Things had come to a flashpoint: this was going to be a fight for power, to be decided by money. It was a tussle between the Dollar and the Rupee. Jamuna had bluntly made that clear.

  Shamanna said, ‘Gouri, Vinuta’s delivery date cannot be changed. The best thing would be to fix a date in July so that Vinuta can attend the wedding and then go to Dharwad for her delivery. Jamuna can postpone her Europe trip to next year, or they can come for just one week to attend the wedding. Actually I would prefer their visit to be brief.’

  But Gouramma had an entirely different viewpoint. She shook her head. ‘No, that won’t be right. How can we afford to upset Jamuna? We have to fix a date convenient to her. You should not meddle in such matters.’

  Vinuta understood perfectly the hidden meaning of these statements. Chandru and Jamuna had contributed two and a half lakh for the wedding; Girish and Vinuta had managed just one lakh. So Gouramma’s reasoning was: they who put in more, get to dictate terms. Gouramma was dancing to the tune of the Dollar Bahu.

  So the wedding was fixed for a date in August. Vinuta had to move to Dharwad much before the wedding. Gouramma, swelling with ‘status’, told everyone, ‘Jamuna, my elder daughter-in-law, is coming specifically for this wedding from America.’

  Shamanna was concerned about Vinuta and her delivery. Gouramma too made a great show of concern. She told everyone that she had advised Vinuta to deliver the baby in Bangalore, but Vinuta had insisted on going to Dharwad. So, Gour
amma said, she had decided to respect her feelings. Vinuta delivered a baby boy two weeks before Surabhi’s wedding.

  The wedding went off very well. Gouramma felt a renewed vigour and verve now that her precious son and Dollar Bahu were there. Jamuna, on her part, did not contribute in any way to the proceedings. She spent most of her time shopping, visiting her family, changing into different clothes for every occasion and posing in front of the cameras.

  She had brought plenty of chiffon and georgette saris for Surabhi. That pleased Gouramma and she in turn showered gifts on her darling Dollar Bahu. Although Jamuna smiled for the cameras, in her heart of hearts she resented Gouramma lavishing needless expensive gifts on Surabhi. She had worked hard for the money, away from her homeland and under tough conditions, which was being so carelessly spent on the ceremonies and on gifts. She fumed at the way their money was being misused. Of course, she never showed it.

  Why should I feel bitter? I shall just reduce the monthly allowance that we send. Then they will control their expenses on their own. It would be easy to justify, thought Jamuna.

  To please Jamuna, Gouramma would say, ‘But for Jamuna, we would not have hosted the wedding with such grandeur.’ Never once did she even mention Girish; any mention of Vinuta was of course not to be expected.

  Girish went to Dharwad to see his newborn son. Shamanna named him Harsha. Surabhi left with her husband. She did not even bother to call Vinuta and say goodbye. She was engrossed in her new life with her rich husband. Chandru planned to visit Dharwad, and Jamuna promptly went to her parents’ house.

  Chandru was in Dharwad after eight long years. The last time he had been there, there had been much uncertainty in his life. How things had changed since then. His fellow passenger had become his sister-in-law. At that time he had dreamt of going to America, heaven on earth. Today, he acknowledged that it was a great country, and his geographical knowledge had increased. But more than anything else, he now understood one major truth: Ever since he had started earning in dollars, people respected him, envied him and showed him that extra bit of warmth. In the process, however, he had also lost real love and mutual trust. It was an unalterable fact that no amount of dollars could buy the warmth of genuine affection.

  Chandru stayed in Hotel Dharwad. Dharwad had changed a lot. The population had increased and horse-drawn tongas on the roads had become rare: rickshaws had replaced them. Apartment blocks had replaced the vast lush green stretches of open space. Youngsters had migrated to bigger cities and Dharwad had become a city for the older generation.

  Chandru went to Vinuta’s house. The garden was the same but not quite as green and colourful as it had been when he had last seen it. That was natural, perhaps, since it did not have Vinu around to lavish care on it.

  Vinuta was pleased to see Chandru. It was a pleasant surprise that he had come to see the baby. After the preliminary niceties, Vinuta asked about the wedding and enquired after Jamuna.

  ‘The marriage went off very well. Jamuna is fine too. Can I take Harsha on my lap?’

  The proud mother handed over her doll-like baby.

  Chandru kept up a happy chatter, but suddenly thought of something. ‘Vinuta, do you remember you often sang a song whose lyrics were something like, In the lush green forest, the koel proves to sing/ Shunning in contempt all the powers of the king.

  Vinuta smiled nostalgically, ‘Yes, of course I remember.’

  ‘Do you still sing?’

  ‘Chandru, the koel has understood her position. She has stopped singing,’ Vinuta said in a sad tone.

  ‘Why? Is she afraid of the powers of the king?’

  ‘Where is the king? Where is the mango tree? The greed for money has killed the spirit of the koel.’

  ‘No. Don’t call it the greed for money,’ said Chandru coolly. ‘Greed for the Dollar would be more accurate.’

  Vinuta stayed silent and Chandru understood her pain. He sighed. ‘Vinuta, I am unhappy.’

  ‘I can’t believe that. You have everything in life. You are rich. You are in America. You have a wife like Jamuna. Your mother and sister dote on you . . .’

  ‘You, Vinuta, are living among your own people, speaking the same language, sharing the same culture. Your child will grow up with his grandparents, with the same set of values. You are not compelled to live in another country with a different language and alien climatic conditions.’

  ‘Chandru, the grass always looks greener on the other side.’

  ‘Doesn’t this hold true for you too?’

  Vinuta still did not understand why Chandru was unhappy in the nirvana that was America.

  ‘Vinuta, you have no idea of the life there. Just buying things, counting dollars, living in a big house, does not make everyone happy. They also have their own set of problems.’

  ‘Jamuna does not say that. She always praises America!’

  ‘Vinuta, we are in two different worlds, two different cultures. We are lonely.’

  ‘Then why don’t you come back?’

  ‘I have grown used to that life. I know, if I come back I have to forgo many things, something that I am not ready to do just yet . . . Forget about me for the moment, tell me about you.’

  ‘To be honest with you, I am not at all that happy either. All the time, there is comparison between Jamuna and me. I don’t want and can’t compete with anybody. But it is evident that the family does not need me any more. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth,’ Vinuta confided in Chandru, finding him more a friend than a brother-in-law, in Dharwad.

  Chandru had to leave soon after. He went away with a heavy heart.

  SIXTEEN

  Vinuta returned to Bangalore with her six-month-old son and he became Shamanna’s darling. When Vinuta was at school, Shamanna would gladly babysit, showering the child with care and affection.

  Surabhi was very happy in Hyderabad. Vinuta noticed that, of late, Jamuna’s parents never visited them at all.

  One day, Gouramma was grinding batter for dosas when she felt a sharp pain in her chest. She ignored the pain but the next day, while having her bath, she felt a lump in her breast. She thought if she just washed it with warm water, it would break, and she shrugged it off. When the lump did not go away after a week, she began to worry.

  She called Vinuta who was getting ready to go to school and showed her the lump. Vinuta promptly applied for leave and took Gouramma to the doctor. She did not talk of this either with Shamanna or with Girish. She was scared, but kept calm. She behaved as if everything was normal.

  After examining the patient, the doctor called Vinuta aside and asked what her relationship was with the patient. ‘She is my mother-in-law. Is there any problem?’

  ‘There is a lump-like growth in her breast. We will have to do a biopsy and only after that can we reach any diagnosis.’

  ‘What does that mean? Is it dangerous in any way?’

  ‘I really cannot say anything at this point. Let us carry out the biopsy first.’

  Vinuta came out and Gouramma asked her, ‘What cream has he given? How soon will it clear?’

  ‘You will soon be all right it seems.’

  Back home, Vinuta sat in quiet thought.

  Chandru was far away and there was no point in worrying him. If Surabhi was informed, she would surely blow it all out of proportion. Shamanna was already old and should not be burdened with fresh worries. She decided to tell Girish everything that night.

  With tears in his eyes, Girish asked the question which had been uppermost in Vinuta’s mind all day. ‘Do you think Amma has cancer?’

  ‘Why should we assume the worst? Let’s wait for the biopsy report.’

  The next day Vinuta took another day’s leave from school and took Gouramma to the hospital for the exploratory operation. Gouramma was scared at the very word ‘operation’ and kept saying, ‘Don’t inform Surabhi or Jamuna. They will be worried. They may drop all their work and rush here.’ Vinuta never responded.

  After the operation, Gou
ramma had to stay in hospital for a day. As she was in the women’s ward, Vinuta stayed with her.

  The patient in the neighbouring bed asked Gouramma, ‘Is she your daughter?’ Gouramma answered, in all her arrogance, ‘My daughter stays in Hyderabad and my elder daughter-in-law is in America. This is my younger daughter-in-law.’

  The reports showed that the growth in Gouramma’s breast was benign. Girish was relieved. He sent an e-mail to his brother.

  That week, Girish’s bank colleagues had planned a family holiday to Karwar and Gokarna. Vinuta said, ‘Amma is alone and scared. She requires company. I shall stay back.’

  ‘Jamuna is coming next month for her brother’s wedding. If you inform her of my condition, she will come immediately and look after me. You can go on the tour,’ said Gouramma shamelessly.

  Shamanna was embarrassed by his wife’s behaviour. In spite of Vinuta’s dutiful caring, Gouramma never acknowledged Vinuta.

  On learning the news, Surabhi phoned and talked to her mother. She did not bother to visit though.

  Chandru sent a cheque for three hundred dollars to cover the expenses and replied to Girish’s mail: ‘Anyone can help in the form of money. But one should not forget the presence and care of people around you. Amma, you are very lucky that you have someone who looks after you so well.’

  For Gouramma, these comments were like water off a duck’s back. The cheque meant more; it was, in fact, everything.

  SEVENTEEN

  Chandru came to Bangalore on a business visit. Surabhi and Suresh came from Hyderabad to meet him. Jamuna was pregnant. Gouramma was more concerned about the unborn baby than the grandchild growing up in front of her eyes.

  ‘How is Jamuna? What is the due date? Does she like pickles or sweets? Does she have nausea? Has she put on weight?’ She harried Chandru with a string of queries.

  Harsha had begun to walk and would run around the house. He was healthy and as sweet as his mother. Shamanna spent all his time looking after his grandson. Vinuta, on her part, had become thin and frail like a drooping flower. She looked depressed and went about the housework in a listless, machine-like manner.

 
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