Dollar Bahu, p.7Sudha Murty
There was no communication any more between Gouramma and Vinuta, other than instructions concerning household chores. The initial bridge of affection and trust seemed to have rusted.
Chandru had brought a lot of toys for Harsha but Vinuta pointed out, ‘You should not be spending so much money on Harsha. We cannot afford such expensive gifts in return.’ Chandru was stunned that Vinuta would make a comment like this. She was the one person he knew who had never bothered about status or money.
‘Vinuta, Harsha is the first grandchild of our family and he will always get the best,’ said Chandru, hoping that would put the matter to rest.
Gouramma’s long-standing dream was about to come true. She had been expressing, for some time now, her wish to visit America in order to take care of her Dollar Bahu during her pregnancy and after the delivery. But Shamanna was equally insistent on not going. ‘I can’t stay away from Harsha for such a long time. You can go, and take your time to come back.’
So it was decided that Gouramma would go to America on her own. She began her preparations. She would call Jamuna regularly to ask what she could bring. The atmosphere in the house became even more America centric. Everyone secretly awaited Gouramma’s departure.
Gouramma prayed in different temples for the well-being and safe delivery of her Dollar Bahu’s baby. Surabhi bought an expensive sari for her dear sister-in-law. Gouramma also prepared lots of delicious eatables, masala powders, chutneys and pickles, which she packed in a separate bag.
‘Amma, please remember that you also have a son here. You can probably open a shop with the quantity and varieties you have prepared. How about leaving some for us?’ the normally docile Girish joked.
‘Girish, you are in India. You can go out and eat in any restaurant. Poor Jamuna, where can she go?’
Vinuta watched in silence. She remembered how they had treated her when she was pregnant: no gifts, no sweets, not even a tender word. ‘If you want to buy anything or eat anything, you can go and eat outside with Girish,’ was what she had been told. When Harsha was born, Gouramma had sent one hundred rupees on the occasion of his naming ceremony. Vinuta felt all this was so unfair, especially when she had always done whatever Gouramma expected of her. But she said nothing.
Jamuna’s mother too sent plenty of gifts for her daughter. Immediately, Gouramma was worried. ‘I have bought a gold chain for the baby and a silk sari for Jamuna. Do you think it is enough? Our gifts should not look small in front of what her parents have given.’
The normally calm Shamanna lost his temper. ‘Go and stay with your son for a good five years. Thousands of people go abroad to help with their children’s deliveries. You behave as if your daughter-in-law is the only one in the world who is pregnant . . . The day you board the flight, I shall have my first night of peaceful sleep in years!’
‘You have never taken me anywhere,’ Gouramma shot back. ‘It is my good fortune that I have a son and a daughter-in-law like Chandru and Jamuna. They have called me to the US with such affection. You people are just jealous.’
That night, Surabhi and Gouramma had a whispered conference. ‘Amma, I have convinced Suresh that he must go abroad and take up a job. I don’t want to stay home and look after my father-in-law. It will be fun to live abroad. But Suresh says he has to take up the bar exam there.’
‘It is an excellent idea,’ Gouramma said enthusiastically. ‘Anyway, I will be there for a year. You can both come and stay with Jamuna. Suresh can prepare for his exams and I am sure he will get through.’
‘It is not just that, Amma. Travel will cost a lot of money, and we will need to live in their house for a year.’
With complete confidence Gouramma said, ‘Of course Jamuna will take care of that. She is very generous. She loves you and she will obey me. Start your preparations.’
Surabhi returned to Hyderabad, duly reassured.
The following day, when Shamanna heard of this plan, he was most upset. ‘Once the children are married, we should not interfere in their lives. They are all grown up. Staying in somebody’s house for a year! Chandru may not like it, and we do not know the situation there.’
‘I know my son and daughter-in-law very well. They will definitely do it for Surabhi,’ Gouramma retorted.
Chandru’s friend Ashwat and his wife, a Kannada-speaking couple from Bangalore, were to fly to Nashville and Chandru arranged for his mother to fly with them. He also sent the plane ticket, along with a letter about the things that she could or couldn’t carry on the plane and other bits of advice.
Gouramma did not enjoy the flight. She felt uncomfortable with the seat belt on. She found it difficult to use the toilet. She was a vegetarian and did not like the food she was served. Besides, she could not eat unless she had had a bath. And she was nervous. But all those troubles vanished when the plane touched down at Nashville airport, and when she walked out and saw Chandru waiting for her. Emotion choked her as soon as she saw her beloved son in this wonderful country. She was unable to speak.
It was a small airport and Chandru collected the luggage and put it in the boot of the car. Gouramma took one look at the splendid car and puffed with pride. ‘Jamuna had sent a picture of the car to us. Is it the same one?’
‘Why did she not come to receive me?’
‘She had to go to office. She will be back before we reach home.’
‘How can she be working in this advanced stage of pregnancy?’
‘Here women work till the last day . . .’
Gouramma happily sat back in the comfortable car to enjoy the drive. Chandru leaned over to fasten her seat belt, but she protested, ‘I am not a small child that I am going to fall off my seat. Remove this belt.’
‘No, Amma. It is the law in this country.’
As a matter of routine, Gouramma had expected Jamuna to come to the airport and welcome her respectfully. Hadn’t she herself gone to drop and pick up Jamuna at Bangalore airport, every time? Even Jamuna’s mother had not bothered on a few occasions.
This was the first shock, but in the excitement of seeing America for the first time, Gouramma mentally pardoned Jamuna. She caught glimpses of the scenery, the wide roads, the high-speed cars, and was amazed. Though it was cold outside, it was quite warm in the car. There was a fascinating variety of trees on both sides of the road. There was hardly anyone walking on the road though. She sighed and thought to herself, this is America. What a difference between this land and India. No teeming crowds or cyclists pushing their way through, no rickshaws, cows, bulls, donkeys, horses, hand-carts; just zooming cars and more cars. The Hindu epics describe different kinds of worlds like nagaloka, yakshaloka, kinnaraloka. What kind of loka is this?
Chandru spoke, and she switched off thoughts of the unnamed loka. ‘How is everyone at home? How is Harsha?’
‘Oh, he has grown up to be very naughty. When I was about to leave, he held on to my pallu and insisted that he wanted to come along. But when he was told that his grandfather was not going, he promptly let go. They are very attached to each other.’
‘Harsha is so lucky. He is enjoying the love of both grandparents. I wish Appa had come. It would have been wonderful.’
‘You know your father. He is not interested in anything. He could have seen this great country with his own eyes. Instead, he has chosen to stay back. Thank God he allowed me to come! Never mind that now. Tell me, how is Jamuna? When is she due?’
‘She is due in another fifteen days. We are going to have a baby girl. We have decided to name her Manasi.’
Gouramma was surprised. Everything had been decided before the delivery. Back in India, no preparations were made before the birth of the child.
Soon Chandru stopped the car in front of a large bungalow with a huge front lawn. A cement road ran through it, apparently for cars. What sort of office is this? wondered Gouramma.
Chandru said, ‘Come on, Amma. We are home.’
When Gouramma walked up to the front door, she could not believe that the woman who opened the door was indeed her darling Jamuna. Where was the Jamuna whom she had last seen at Surabhi’s wedding, in a silk sari, decked in gold and gem-studded ornaments? This Jamuna looked so bare. She looked so strange with her short hair, a loose gown, and neither a bindi nor her mangalsutra! The only improvement was that her complexion had brightened.
Jamuna smiled. ‘How are you, Amma? How was the journey?’
‘It was fine,’ Gouramma replied crisply and stepped into the house. She had expected that Jamuna would welcome her by touching her feet, neatly dressed in a sari, wearing gold and diamond jewellery. She had carefully composed and rehearsed her blessing. But she was disappointed.
Gouramma stood for a minute in confusion. Jamuna guessed what was going on in Gouramma’s mind and just walked into the house without letting on. Gouramma silently followed her to the formal drawing room and in sheer relief of reaching home, sat on the sofa, relaxing a bit, observing the opulence around her.
It was a rich man’s house, with plush carpets, beautiful curtains, a big television, a lovely rosewood dining table with silverware on it, sandalwood artefacts. There was a fabulous chandelier too. This house was even more spectacular than Krishnappa’s farmhouse.
‘Amma, will you have coffee now?’ asked Jamuna.
‘I don’t eat or drink until I have had a bath. Show me the bathroom.’
Jamuna took her to the bathroom. Gouramma was shocked to see the commode and the bathtub in the same room.
‘There is a toilet in the bathroom. How can I have bath here and perform the puja? Show me a separate bath.’
Jamuna looked at Chandru, leaving it to him to explain to his mother. ‘Amma, this is not like India. You should not expect everything to be as it is there. In our house, all the bedrooms have an attached bath-cum-toilet like this. While you have a bath, pull the curtain so that you do not have to see the toilet.’
‘Chandru, I am scared of using the tub. Get me a bucket. I will put it in the tub and have a bath. I am not used to these hand showers.’
Chandru sighed. ‘Amma, next time I go to an Indian store, I will get you a bucket. But for now, I shall bring you a big vessel.’
After an unsatisfactory bath, Gouramma dressed and came out. The room appears a little dark, she thought, and it was indeed pitch dark outside, but the clock showed it was just four in the afternoon.
Gouramma was mystified. ‘Chandru, how come it is already dark? It’s not even five o’clock.’
‘It’s winter, Amma. It gets dark here quite early.’
After she had finished her coffee, Chandru took her on a tour of the house. ‘Our house is a little ordinary compared to other houses here. There are houses with seven bedrooms and four car parks.’ Gouramma’s room, like all the others, had a fluffy carpet. Even the mattress was soft. All the curtains were pretty and everything matched . . . and Chandru called this an ordinary house! Gouramma was confused.
‘Chandru, don’t be so modest. Your house is like a palace.’
‘No, Amma. You have not seen other houses. I remember Appa telling me of a fable in Sanskrit. It seems in the Malaya mountains the women burnt precious sandalwood as kindling. Similarly in this country, these are all very ordinary things.’
Jamuna took her to the kitchen. It was so clean that Gouramma felt that nobody had ever cooked there. It was a modern kitchen with all the latest hi-tech electrical gadgets.
‘How long are you still going to work, Jamuna?’
‘Only this week. Then I want to stay home and relish the taste of your cooking. When the baby is two months old, I shall go back to work.’
‘Jamuna, do you need to work when the baby is still so small? I understand that Vinuta has to work because Girish has an ordinary job. You are like a queen here. You have two cars.’
Jamuna did not reply. ‘Amma, everyone has to carry his own weight here. We buy the house, car and furniture on instalments and so every month we have to pay back some of that loan. That’s why Jamuna has to work. Anyway, she would get bored at home.’ Chandru effectively closed the conversation.
Gouramma was amazed to hear that even here it was a matter of loans and instalments. She liked the idea, but only the first part—that anybody could buy anything.
The next day, Chandru and Jamuna went to work and Gouramma stayed alone in that spacious house. She was still feeling jet-lagged. While she was lying on the bed, she remembered her promise to Surabhi. She reasoned, Chandru has such a big house. A couple staying in one room in a corner will not affect anyone. Surabhi will look after the baby and Jamuna can work as usual.
She remembered how she had stayed with her brother’s family for two years when Shamanna had been transferred to some godforsaken village. She had always felt that it was the right of a sister to stay in her brother’s house. She applied the same logic for Surabhi. If Surabhi comes here, she too will settle down here and then two of my children will be NRIs over a period of time. I can visit them any time, she thought to herself dreamily. How could a woman, educated only up to the fourth standard, understand the complexity of the modern world?
A week after her arrival Chandru took Gouramma to the department store. It was so huge and clean, everything arranged neatly on shelves. Gouramma was fascinated with the varieties of fresh fruit juices stored in cans, in boxes, in so many different sizes. And the flavours of ice creams! Everything was available under one roof. Even though Gouramma had seen departmental stores in Bangalore, they were nothing in comparison to this one.
In a short time Gouramma learnt to use the microwave, the toaster, the electric kettle and the cooking range. The only chore she hated was cleaning the dishes, something she had never done even in her own house. They had always had a maid for that job. But in America, one did not get domestic help, she realized, so she had to learn to handle the dishwasher and washing machine.
As was the custom in India, Gouramma wanted to perform the ritual of giving the mother-to-be all her favourite food and special gifts, to keep her happy and cheerful during the last few days of her pregnancy. So Gouramma had brought with her the traditional green sari and specially prepared sweetmeats for the occasion.
She told Jamuna, ‘This Friday is an auspicious day. Invite a few women, whomever you want. We can have the ceremony and “aarti”. I will cook a great meal. We will lay all the eatables, gifts, flowers and things on a side table. We can have a special table to display the gifts given by the guests.’
Jamuna at once dismissed her suggestion. ‘Amma, nobody will come for such programmes on a working day. We will invite everyone after the delivery.’
Gouramma wanted to show off how good a mother-in-law she was, but Jamuna did not give her the chance. Helpless, she was forced to give her gift without performing the ceremony. She noticed that Jamuna did not even bother to open the gift. A couple of days later, when Jamuna went into labour, Gouramma immediately offered to go with her to the hospital. Chandru said, ‘Amma, you stay at home. That’s more practical. I will go with her into the delivery room. I have taken lessons. I will inform you once the baby is delivered.’ He did not give her a chance to talk, and left with Jamuna, who was by then groaning in pain.
Gouramma sat down, anxiously, near the telephone and started praying for a safe delivery. She did not understand why a man was allowed in the delivery room when there was a woman around to help. After what seemed a very long time, Chandru called up to say, ‘Jamuna has safely delivered a baby girl and she will be back tomorrow. You need not come to the hospital.’
Gouramma was happy, but horrified that the mother was coming back within a day. But there was nobody to whom she could voice her concerns.
When Jamuna came home, Gouramma saw the baby was thin and rather plain-looking, like her
‘No. Please don’t do that. Manasi should get used to sleeping alone in her room. That’s how it is here.’ Without giving her mother-in-law a chance to say anything more, Jamuna sailed away to her bedroom and shut the door.
Gouramma was stunned by her rudeness!
She remembered Harsha. He slept with his grandparents. That could be the reason why he was inseparable from his grandfather. How could these people expect a bond to develop between parents and children when they brought up their children amidst loneliness? Gouramma was worried.
The next day Jamuna was bathing the baby in a tub and Gouramma pleaded, ‘Let me massage and bathe the baby. Get me some baby oil. I will do it. Infants should get plenty of sleep and a good bath for proper growth.’
‘No. I don’t like that sort of thing. It’s all right in India. Here the bathing tub will become oily. Everyone will laugh at us. I shall follow the childcare book to raise my baby.’
Gouramma had never studied any book to learn how to raise a child. And in her neighbourhood she was famous for the wonderful baths she gave newborn babies. Many new mothers would request her to bathe their babies and Gouramma willingly helped. She did it out of love and not as a profession. When those children grew up and passed their examinations, they would come and take her blessings. Their proud mothers would say, ‘You had bathed him in his infancy. He is an officer now.’ Gouramma would beam with pride and joy on such occasions.
She suddenly remembered Harsha and Vinuta. Vinuta was good at all the household work but when it came to bathing the baby, she always wanted Gouramma to do it. Who is giving Harsha a bath now that she was not there, she worried.
Dollar Bahu by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes