Dollar Bahu, p.8Sudha Murty
Jamuna’s two months’ maternity leave was about to end and she decided to invite a few of her special friends for a naming ceremony on a Sunday. Gouramma was very enthusiastic since she loved cooking and feeding people. This was a great chance for her to show off her culinary skills. She started preparing three days in advance.
Since it was a Sunday most Indian men and women, irrespective of which part of the country they came from or what their mother tongue was, were able to attend. The common language in this crowd was English. Everyone brought gifts, things that were useful for the baby, which were displayed on the table. Gouramma also gave her gifts but no one seemed to appreciate them. The ceremony was not a religious one, as it would have been in Bangalore, and was over in no time. But the party went on till late in the evening.
All the guests left, except one, and Chandru hurried to clean up the basement, which was in quite a clutter after the lunch. Claiming she was tired Jamuna put the baby in its room, and settled down to chat with her friend Rekha. Gouramma, too, needed rest but no one told her to take it easy. So she went into the kitchen to clean up the mess.
Rekha was praising the food. ‘Today’s food was great. Jamuna, have one more baby while your mother-in-law is still here and complete the family.’
‘Are you kidding? We can’t afford a second baby. You know how expensive it is to bring up even one child! We are ordinary people and like everyone, we too have plenty of mortgages to clear. Besides, I prefer a small family.’
‘Why do you say that?’ said Rekha.
‘In my family we are just two siblings. My mother never liked big crowds encroaching on our privacy. The best way to meet relatives is at functions. Don’t invite anyone to come and stay in your house, she always says.’
‘You are right, Jamuna. Last month, my brother-in-law came from India for some work and stayed with us for one full month. I was really stressed. We have our own lifestyles. When an outsider comes, I feel we have to work extra. Freezing the food for a week and warming it up before eating is normal for us. But they find it odd. I do not know what my brother-in-law must have said back at home about me. He may have complained that I gave him stale food.’
‘You are absolutely right, Rekha. It is better to send some money for a gift than to have someone stay in your house.’ Jamuna looked around and said in a hushed voice, ‘In a way I am lucky. My brother-in-law and his wife will never be able to afford to come here, though my sister-in-law is greedy. But they cannot come here because her husband is only a lawyer. Even if they want to come, I can put them off on some pretext.’
Though Jamuna was whispering, Gouramma heard everything, and she could not sleep the whole night. She had always assumed that there would be a red carpet laid out for Surabhi. She noticed that Chandru always obeyed his wife, which was not the case with Girish. If Jamuna said no to something, there was no way Chandru could go against her wishes.
Gouramma could understand Chandru’s behaviour. In a far-off place, away from family, a husband and wife have only each other to depend on, they have nobody else to turn to. Hence they tended to stick together. In India, when sons fought with their wives, some mothers-in-law were happy, and added fuel to the fire by taking their sons’ side. Such mothers-in-law would never try to support the daughter-in-law. But in this country, such situations just would not arise.
Chandru had become immensely successful at work but his personality had changed. He had become subdued, always immersed in thought. Jamuna, on the other hand, had become more outgoing, perhaps because she had more freedom and because of her job which involved meeting people and exchanging ideas with them. She had an opinion on every matter and argued over every small thing and always won. She was the boss of the family.
One day Gouramma asked Chandru what he pondered over all the time, and he explained, ‘Amma, I have a friend called Venkat. He is from Karnataka and he has a thirteen-year-old daughter. She is going through the typical teenage problems. If her father asks where she goes and what she does, she throws tantrums.’
Gouramma said innocently, ‘He should keep her in control by punishing her.’
‘Amma, in this country you cannot “punish” children. They will call the police. Being Indians, we do not like our children to be like American children. When they are young, they mingle with other kids, talk in their accent and we feel very proud. But when they behave like American teenagers, we get upset. At times, I think about my daughter and get scared.’
‘Why worry about it right now? We shall see about it after fifteen years. Now let us get ready to go out.’ Jamuna hurriedly changed the topic, but for the first time, Gouramma understood what was bothering Chandru.
Jamuna prepared to resume work. She taught Gouramma how to feed the baby with the bottle. Gouramma pleaded, ‘Jamuna, such small babies need mother’s milk. Vinuta would come home every afternoon to feed Harsha.’
Jamuna shrugged it off. ‘I will pump my breast milk and keep it in the fridge. You can warm it and give it to the baby at the right time. And by the way, I do not want to follow Vinuta’s example in everything. This is America.’
When Jamuna and Chandru left for work, the house became really quiet. Gouramma was not a talkative person, but somehow she never liked being alone for long periods. Manasi was a good baby and she slept for long stretches. Gouramma did not know how to kill time.
Initially she enjoyed the outings to the supermarkets, picnics, drives. But soon they became monotonous. She started missing her life in Bangalore and her own home. In Bangalore she could go wherever she wanted and never needed to depend on anybody. Vinuta and Shamanna looked after the house. She was a member of a women’s club in the nearby temple and most evenings all her friends would meet up and start their gossip sessions. By the time Gouramma finished her stories and came home, dinner would be waiting for her. She did not have to worry about any particular responsibilities in the house.
Here, she did not have any friends at all. She knew only Kannada; she could not converse in English. And over the weekends, Chandru and Jamuna were always busy with housework—cleaning the car, cleaning the driveway, vacuuming the house and other household chores.
Gouramma enjoyed serving guests her special dishes, but nobody came visiting or dropped in here. In Bangalore, she could invite any number of people for meals, but here, she had to take Jamuna’s permission. She would often pray that someone should drop in on the weekends. But visiting someone meant travelling at least forty miles. Initially she had enjoyed going out, but now she didn’t enjoy the long drives.
One day, Chandru hesitantly asked, ‘Amma, my friend Radhakrishna, his wife Savitri and their daughter Savita would like to come and spend some time with us. Is it okay with you and Jamuna?’
Immediately Jamuna replied, ‘There will be so much of cooking to do. Amma will get tired. Anyway, they are so rich, why can’t they stay in a hotel?’
‘No, Jamuna. They want to stay with us. When I was a bachelor in Florida, I have stayed in their house many times, and they took good care of me. I cannot ask them to stay in a hotel.’
For the first time Gouramma opposed her daughter-in-law. ‘Let them come, Chandru. I will handle all the kitchen work, without bothering anybody. I hope they can speak Kannada.’ In her heart, she was outraged by Jamuna’s attitude. She felt that although this house was big, it had a small heart. If Vinuta had ever said such a thing, Gouramma would have scolded her until she was forced to apologize. But Gouramma did not dare speak her mind to Jamuna. She was, after all, the Dollar Bahu.
Gouramma was eagerly looking forward to the arrival of Radhakrishna and his family. Since vegetables, fruits and groceries are not too highly priced in America, she thought to herself, I will make lots of dishes for the guests, savouries and sweets. And since they speak Kannada, it will be a refreshing change to have a conversation with outsiders.
Jamuna was of course highly upset at this turn of events. Gouramma had
Radhakrishna was a very senior scientist in a reputed company and had earned a good name and fortune. His wife Savitri was a traditional lady, in her early fifties. As soon as they arrived, she bowed down and touched Gouramma’s feet. Gouramma was delighted with this gesture.
Chandru and Radhakrishna caught up as they sipped their filter coffee and munched on the Indian snacks that Gouramma had prepared. Jamuna made a great show of courtesy, and politely told Savitri, ‘I am going to my friend Rekha’s house to pick up some Kannada DVDs that she has got from India. You can all enjoy the movies.’
She left the baby at home and Savita played with Manasi. Gouramma began cooking and Savitri joined her to help. Gouramma felt uncomfortable having a guest working in the kitchen. But Savitri reassured her, ‘Amma, this is America where we do not have servants. When we go to somebody’s house, we cannot behave like guests and sit outside. Please don’t say no. It will be too much work for you.’ Efficiently, she cut the vegetables as she chatted with Gouramma. Gouramma noticed a slight pall of grief around the couple.
Jamuna returned home at lunchtime.
In the evening, Gouramma got ready to take Manasi for a stroll in her pram. This was her routine every day, and Savitri decided to join her. After a while, Gouramma casually asked, ‘Is Savita your only child?’ Savitri burst into tears. Gouramma hastily apologized, ‘Oh, I am so sorry! I do not know anything. Have I hurt you?’
Wiping her tears, Savitri said, ‘No. That is a perfectly normal question. But my mind is so full of grief that I burst into tears easily.’
‘What is the matter?’ Gouramma asked sympathetically.
‘Don’t even ask! What has not happened to us! We came to America eighteen years ago and now, this has become our country. When we came here, our first daughter Shama was five years old. We were very particular that Shama respect our traditions and culture, and not become like American girls. So we celebrated every festival at home and made it a point to attend most of the Indian community gatherings. We would also invite our Indian friends very often. We sent her every year to my mother’s place in India to absorb our culture. We would always tell her that though we were the citizens of America we were Indians.’
Gouramma could not see where all this was leading. Savitri continued, ‘We came from a small town in Karnataka and from an extremely orthodox family. When Shama turned twenty-one, while she was still a student, we decided to get her married.’
‘That’s very strange. When a girl is studying, even in India, we don’t get her married nowadays,’ said Gouramma.
‘We were afraid that she would get into wrong company and find a boyfriend or some such thing, so we decided to get her married. We advertised in the papers in India for a groom. The response was amazing. Most of them were very good, and at last Shama liked Surendra. He came from a middle-class family and was very intelligent. We never suspected anything amiss. We celebrated the wedding on a lavish scale, spending an enormous amount of money. We gave good gifts to all the guests from both sides. Surendra came to the US along with us and we gifted them an apartment. He wanted to study further, and we paid his tuition fee too. Life was smooth for some time.’
Once again, Savitri began to cry. Gouramma stopped walking and thinking something had happened to Surendra, tried to comfort Savitri, ‘It is all god’s will.’ Instantly Savitri stopped crying and snapped, ‘There was no god involved in this. Once Surendra got his scholarship, his whole attitude towards Shama changed completely. Every day they had massive fights. He would repeatedly tell her, “I just married you out of sympathy. Go and look at your face.” Actually, he had married her only because she was an American citizen. Eventually, they got a divorce.’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Surendra completed his studies, went back to India, and married again. In India, nobody bothered to find out why the divorce had taken place. And Surendra could fabricate stories about our daughter which nobody could verify. But the damage was more to Shama. After the divorce, she took out all her anger on us. “You have destroyed my life. I am sick of your Indian arranged marriage system. Without knowing anything about me, he married me only for the chance to come here. From now on I want to live the way I want. Don’t you dare interfere!’” she told us.’
‘So where is she now?’
‘She doesn’t communicate very regularly. She calls us up once in a while. She is pursuing her studies in California and lives with a Brazilian boyfriend. She rejected the money that we sent her. She works as a waitress in a restaurant in her free time.’
‘What will happen to her?’ Gouramma was worried.
‘God only knows. Sometimes I shudder to think of her future. I come from a family of Vedic scholars, highly respected for their knowledge of our religion, philosophy, traditions and customs. And now, look at the irony! Our daughter is living with a Brazilian boy. What a shame to us! Where did we go wrong?’
Gouramma was horrified and baffled. How could a young girl do such things? She had seen many instances in her life where men had been nasty to women but the women had adjusted to their husbands’ wishes. She could not understand this complex problem nor did she have the ability to analyse it. But she certainly had the sensitivity and compassion to wipe the tears of a hurt soul.
‘Are you worried about your younger daughter Savita too?’ she asked softly.
‘Of course, I am. The elder sister is always the role model in the family. Some nights I am unable to sleep thinking Savita could do the same. At times, I feel enough is enough. We should go back to Bangalore and settle there permanently. But Savita refuses to come. She says, if we want, we can go back, but she belongs to this country as she was born here.’
Gouramma felt a strange fear gnawing away at her mind. What if, after twenty years, Manasi behaved in the same way, causing great anguish to her son!
Some time ago, Chandru had gone to California on work and was having coffee at a downtown restaurant in San Francisco. To his surprise, he saw Shama there, serving at another table. Though he was shocked, he did not show it. Shama behaved most normally.
‘Hi Chandru uncle. What a surprise to see you here!’ she greeted him.
Chandru invited her for dinner and she readily agreed to come with her boyfriend. Chandru was thinking of the different stages of Shama’s life that he had been a witness to over the last ten years. He had seen her as a teenager, later as a young bride at her reception, radiant in a silk sari, and now she was a bold and confident young woman.
Chandru tactfully asked her in Kannada, ‘What are your future plans, Shama?’ but Shama replied in English. ‘Uncle, please don’t speak in Kannada, since Michael does not know the language. It is not polite. Though all of you are American citizens, your roots are in India, specifically in your home towns. You come to this country only to earn money but can never become a part of it. You want the best of both worlds, which is not possible. I know, in your mind you must be thinking that I don’t have a proper job. But Michael’s father will never think that. You people cheat yourself.’
Chandru did not ask any questions after that. The evening passed with Michael and Chandru having a pleasant and interesting conversation.
And now Radhakrishna was confiding in Chandru.
‘Chandru, I never came to America in search of wealth. I was in Delhi working as a scientist. I worked very hard and wrote some good research papers, which were later selected for an international conference. I could not afford to go on my own, and my boss always brought up one hurdle or the other to prevent my going officially because I did not belong to his community and did not speak his language. It was extremely frustrating, but I continued. When I was due for a promotion, they transfer
‘Are you happy here?’ Chandru asked.
‘As far as work is concerned, I am extremely happy. I don’t have any complaints. When the winter sets in and it snows, I feel extremely uncomfortable. I still miss the mild winters of my home town, but otherwise, America has been more than fair to me. But on the personal side, I am unhappy because Savitri is unhappy. She insists that we should return to India. But I am scared to face the same life again. Moreover, only America can fund my expensive research.’
‘America always attracts the best professionals,’ Chandru said proudly.
‘Come to think of it, Chandru, this is a funny country. Like a colourful web spun by a spider, an insect walks in and gets trapped. At first we are drawn by the best technology and the handsome remuneration. But once we stay here for some time, it is difficult to go back. We get used to the easy living conditions and the professional work atmosphere. The conditions in our country are far below what we expect. Sometimes I feel there are many good reasons to leave India, and it is much more difficult to go back and settle there after so many years.’
‘You may be right. Statistics show that the majority of students who come to this country on a student visa stay back. Most of them are brilliant. Of late, though, some percentage of people do plan to go back because of the IT and biotech boom in India.’
‘Our country is also so complex, you know. There is so much greed amongst our kith and kin. I built a bungalow in Bangalore. From buying the plot to the house-warming ceremony, everyone squeezed money out of us. Their attitude makes me sick.’
‘Yes. Everyone there thinks that it is very easy to earn in dollars,’ Chandru said. ‘What they don’t understand is that we also have to struggle, far away from home, family and culture. We worry about our children who are confused between the two value systems. Actually, the price you pay is very high. The Dollar is extremely expensive if you take into account all these points. All Indians back home only equate the dollar to forty-three or forty-five rupees.’
Dollar Bahu by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes