Dollar Bahu, p.9Sudha Murty
Chandru remembered an incident from his last visit to India. He was wearing a very expensive watch which Jamuna had given him for his birthday. His brother-in-law Suresh had liked it very much and repeatedly said, ‘This is a very good watch. Next time, bring one for me and I will pay you the money.’ Initially he had ignored the request, but when Suresh brought it up again, Gouramma had called Chandru inside and admonished him, ‘Chandru, you earn in dollars. After all he is the son-in-law of the family. Give it to him.’
Chandru was unable to refuse his mother’s demand. He knew that she would create a scene if he did not do what she asked. He removed the watch and gave it to Suresh, without uttering a word.
Coyly Suresh protested, ‘Why are you gifting it to me? You can bring me one on your next visit. Anyway, Surabhi will give your mother the money.’ But he promptly took the watch and slid it on to his wrist.
Chandru was well aware that Suresh would never pay the money but Gouramma would go about saying that he had.
After Chandru returned to America Jamuna noticed his bare wrist and he had had to explain what had happened. She flared up. ‘Everyone in your family is greedy. They won’t hesitate to strip a person naked and just grab all they can get from the US. Last time, your mother took away my bag and Surabhi helped herself to my cosmetic kit. They always have one mantra—“Anyway you can get it cheaper there.” They don’t realize that dollars do not grow on trees.’
In a fit of anger, she had not talked to him for a few days.
Another time, his Dharwad friend Kitty had sent an email asking him to get a coral set for his wife and had promised that he would pay for it immediately. For old times’ sake and much against Jamuna’s wishes, Chandru had taken the set along. When he gave it, though, Kitty was very unhappy. ‘This coral is not so red. It is rather pink. We get this kind even in India. Anyway, since you have brought it I will take it. After all it must have cost you just a few dollars.’ Thus, he took it without paying for it.
Ugadi, Kannada New Year, arrived quietly in America. Gouramma had taken the precaution of carrying a Hindu calendar along with her so as to keep track of all the important fasts and pujas. She was really happy to be there with her son for the festival, so she told Jamuna, ‘New Year is on Thursday. Both of you take leave and let us celebrate it. Call your friends for lunch. We can go to the temple in the evening.’
Jamuna was completely untouched by her excitement. She replied, ‘It’s a working day, Amma. We get only a few days’ leave in a year. We have to save it for emergencies. We cannot take leave for a festival. If you are keen, we will celebrate it on Sunday.’
‘One can’t celebrate festivals according to one’s convenience . . . If it falls on a Thursday, we should observe it on that day. Vinuta always takes leave whenever we have a puja at home.’
Sarcastically Jamuna shot back, ‘She is a government schoolteacher, which I am not. In any case, in India, people hardly work.’
Gouramma was at a loss for words. She just stared at Jamuna in silence as Jamuna walked off to her room.
Gouramma had been observing the change in Jamuna’s personality. She was such a different person in India, carefree, talkative, a spendthrift. But in the US, she was quieter, calculating and very conscious of her diet. She would drive twenty miles if she could get something for five dollars less.
Gouramma was disturbed on another account. She had noticed that, unlike Girish, Chandru had to share in the housework, and washing the dishes and ironing the clothes were his responsibilities. Gouramma had been brought up with the view that the male members of the household did not work in the kitchen.
‘Chandru, please don’t work in the kitchen. Don’t you remember? Your father and Girish never come into the kitchen.’
Immediately Jamuna intervened. ‘Don’t pamper him, Amma. In India, you have servants. Even I had never stepped into a kitchen before I came here. Everybody has to share in the housework here.’
Gouramma was offended. ‘Jamuna, I feel bad. As long as I am here, I will do Chandru’s share of the work. When I leave, he can go back to sharing the workload.’
‘What’s the shame in doing work in your own house, Amma?’ Jamuna retorted. ‘Now because of Manasi, we have more work. Please do not give such advice.’
Gouramma’s face fell. She felt hurt and humiliated. Chandru comforted his mother. ‘Amma, you should not worry about such small things. Actually I enjoy helping out.’
‘Can’t you hire someone to iron your clothes?’ Gouramma persisted. She felt awkward, when she saw her son ironing Jamuna’s clothes.
‘If I were rich like Jaya, then I could hire someone who can do the housework for ten dollars an hour. We are ordinary people,’ said Jamuna.
Gouramma knew that there was no point in arguing. As it is, she was feeling miserable because this was the first Ugadi festival where there were no mango or neem leaves strung on the front door, no puja of the panchanga, the Hindu calendar, no aroma of sweets and mango rice. To change the topic, she asked, ‘Who is Jaya?’
‘Jaya is Kishore’s wife. They are one of the richest Indian families in the US. She celebrates Ugadi with a gala dinner. She invites all Indians and we too have an invitation for this weekend,’ said Chandru.
‘Does she invite people for all Hindu festivals?’ Gouramma asked.
‘No. The festivities are shared among different people. Some celebrate Deepavali and some others Sankranti, on the respective festival weekend. But all Indians meet.’
Everyone was looking forward to Jaya’s party. Jamuna wore a very expensive silk sari, lots of jewellery, almost like a bride. Though Gouramma always liked the traditional Indian way of dressing, she felt that Jamuna was overdressed for the occasion, but she did not comment because Chandru was quiet. Gouramma had prepared some sweets which she carried in a big silver bowl.
Jaya’s house was like a mansion, with a swimming pool, eight bedrooms and a huge lawn. Today the front hall was brightly decorated. There were many Indian children playing around, dressed in rich Indian costumes, speaking in an American accent. Most women were decked up like Jamuna. Gouramma felt that since these women never got an opportunity to wear Indian clothes they probably wanted to show off to each other. Most of the time, at work and at home, they wore practical Western outfits.
Feeling completely out of place in this crowd, Gouramma sat in a corner. A young woman with short hair, wearing a red Banarasi sari and sporting a bright red bindi on her forehead came up to her and spoke in Kannada. ‘Amma, you may not remember me. I am Chitra. I used to come to your house.’ Was this well-built, confident girl the same thin, scared Chitra? Gouramma thought.
Chitra continued, ‘I am Shankaranna’s daughter. He was a peon in the school where Shamanna Sir taught. You had come along with him for my wedding and blessed me.’
Gouramma vaguely remembered something about Chitra’s life and now she was a little confused. But Chitra continued talking, ‘Why hasn’t Sir come? Anyway, I am in a hurry now, but I will come and take you to my house tomorrow evening. Will you come? I will take the address from Jamuna.’
‘Yes,’ Gouramma agreed immediately. She desperately wanted a change.
It was a gala dinner; over a hundred people had been invited. Gouramma went up to Jaya and told her, ‘You should have called me to help you. It must have been heavy work for you.’
‘No, Aunty, I did not do any work. I called in caterers from New York.’
On the way home, Jamuna talked most enviously about Jaya. ‘Oh yes, she has so much money, she wanted to flaunt it, that’s why she called in caterers.’ For some reason, Gouramma did not quite like that comment, but she couldn’t put a finger on it. She felt they should appreciate Jaya for what she had done to get the Indian community together.
Just then she remembered her conversation with Chitra. Turning to Chandru she said, ‘Chitra wants to take me to her house tomorrow evening. I would like to go.’
Gouramma was puzzled. ‘Chandru, Chitra was married to Manappa. How come she is a Joseph now?’
‘Amma, I do not know anything about that lady except that she is from Bangalore. Anyway, don’t ask any personal questions. People here do not like it,’ said Chandru, familiar with his mother’s inquisitive nature.
The next evening, Chitra came to pick up Gouramma, dressed in a casual Western outfit. She told Jamuna, ‘I will take Amma with me now and drop her back after dinner.’ Gouramma walked out to the car with her.
As they drove away, Chitra said, ‘Amma, I feel as if my own mother is going to visit my house. We will stop at the Indian grocery store and pick up lots of Indian snacks. I’ll buy you whatever you want.’
‘No, Chitra. Food is not important to me. Milk and some fruit are fine. If you want to get a DVD you can stop there.’
‘No, Amma. I don’t need to watch DVDs. My life itself is a movie now. Don’t you know that?’
‘No,’ said Gouramma, feigning nonchalance, but she was all ears.
‘I was a very good student but you know what our circumstances were . . . Although I was very keen, I could not attend college. I got married when I was eighteen, to my second cousin Manappa who was ten years older than me. But my parents were happy that he had married me without any dowry.
‘Manappa was a bad person. He drank all the time and harassed me. A year after my marriage, a drunken Manappa was knocked down by a lorry and I was back at my father’s house.’
‘I remember that you were attending typing class and I used to send your fees through my husband,’ Gouramma recalled.
‘Yes, Amma. Sir would always advise me, “Stand on your own feet, Chitra. One day it will help.” You both gave my life a turn for the better. When I finished my course, I took up a job as a typist for a mere salary of three hundred rupees. By that time, my father had retired and we hardly met. I’m seeing you after such a long time.’
Gouramma remembered how Chitra had suffered in those days.
‘I met Govind in my office; he was also a typist. We liked each other but when I told him I was a widow, his attitude changed. He became stiff and calculating. He said, “I will compromise and marry you, but you should give all your salary to me.” Being the eldest in the family, I had to support my siblings, so I offered to give him half my salary but Govind did not agree. I felt so depressed and at times I felt like committing suicide. Around that time, I got a letter from Sowmya.’
‘Who is Sowmya?’
‘She was my boss’s daughter. She and her husband Keshav were doctors in Los Angeles. After ten years of marriage, they had had twins. She wanted a domestic help, someone who was intelligent and efficient and could speak English. That brought me here.’
‘How were they?’
‘They were very nice. They paid for my ticket and sent my salary to my father. The first time I was so scared of air travel, and for a long time I was very homesick and craved to go back, even though it would mean a return to poverty.
‘But Sowmya and her husband made me feel at home. And I loved the children and took care of them as if they were my own. I cannot express how indebted I am to Sowmya and Keshav.’ Tears of gratitude flowed down Chitra’s cheeks. She suddenly realized that while narrating her life story she had overshot her house. She stopped and turned around.
‘I attended evening courses and learnt driving. There I met Joseph. He is an American, an engineer by profession, and a year younger than me. His mother was a doctor. Both of us shared many common interests. So we decided to get married.’
‘Did you tell him that you were a widow?’ Gouramma asked.
‘On the very first day. But he’s not like Govind. He encourages me to work and send money to my parents. He is a large-hearted man.’
‘What about your American mother-in-law? Have you got used to her?’
‘We don’t live with her. Though I was prepared to stay with her, such a system does not exist in America. But she loves me very much. We visit her on weekends. She has also made a trip to India to get to know my country and my people.’
When they reached home Joseph was waiting in the hall. Chitra introduced Gouramma.
‘Hi, Gouramma,’ he said in an American accent greeting her with a warm handshake. Gouramma felt a little awkward.
The house was peaceful, simple and full of contentment.
Joseph went inside and brought out milk and bananas for Gouramma, and laid out dinner plates for his wife and himself. In a most cordial atmosphere they had their dinner.
‘Has your father ever visited you?’ Gouramma asked Chitra.
‘Not yet, but my parents are coming next year. Initially they were very upset that I was marrying Joseph. But now, they have accepted it. I send them five hundred dollars every month. My younger brother and sisters are all married and settled very well. So they have no worries now.’
Gouramma realized Chitra’s migration to the US had benefited the entire family. If she had married Govind, he would have tortured her with nasty comments. Manappa had of course been useless. This white man, knowing that she was a widow, was a real human being.
When it was time to leave, Gouramma said, ‘Chitra, bring some kumkum. I want to apply it on your forehead and bless you.’
With tears in her eyes Chitra brought a kumkum jar and Gouramma applied a nice red dot on her forehead. When Chitra bent down to touch her feet, Joseph joined her. ‘May you live a hundred years with children and grandchildren in America,’ Gouramma blessed the couple from the bottom of her heart.
Chitra gave Gouramma an ornament box and told her, ‘Amma, I am not rich enough to fill this box with jewellery. I only pray that god will fill it up for you. I will never forget Sir’s help in my time of need.’
For the first time, Gouramma felt proud of her husband. He may not have earned a lot of money, but his compassion and timely help had made such a big difference to the life of a person in trouble.
Six months had passed since Gouramma’s arrival in America, and winter had given way to spring.
Chandru wanted to take his mother to New York, to show her another American city. Chandru and Jamuna had several friends in New York; there was also a Kannada Sangha and several temples. He thought his mother could do with a change.
When told, Gouramma was very enthusiastic. She began preparing sweets and savouries to carry for their various hosts in New York. Jamuna was also keen on the trip, as she wanted to do a lot of shopping. This would be her first vacation after the baby.
From the day Gouramma had arrived, Jamuna had not stepped inside the kitchen. In fact Chandru had once said worriedly, ‘I think Amma is being overworked here.’ But Gouramma had politely refuted this. ‘No, I don’t have anything else to do, this keeps me busy. It’s fine.’ She was happy to hear Chandru express his concern for her, but secretly, she wanted Jamuna to say such things. Jamuna too expressed her concern, but although she would say, ‘Amma, tomorrow onwards you take rest. I will look after the kitchen. I will prepare Pongal,’ those were only charming words; they were not followed by action.
On the drive to New York, Gouramma noticed how different the scenery was from the time that she had first arrived in America. All of nature had spread out its bounty; flowers of a myriad colours were blooming. She thought how lucky she was that her son owned such a beautiful car. But when she heard Jamuna telling Chandru, ‘I am tired of this old car, next year, we should buy a new car,’ she realized that everyone had better cars and there was nothing special about Chandru’s car.
While driving Chandru said, ‘Amma, we are going to Shrikant’s house. He is out of town. We can stay as long as we want. Keeping his house as a base, we can visit Rajiv, Mohan and others.’
‘Who is Shrikant?’
‘Shrikant was my senior colleague. His wife Roopa was a paediatric doctor from Chennai. But now they are divorced. He has gone to
‘Why did he divorce?’ asked Gouramma.
‘I am not sure what the problem was exactly, but people say it was because Roopa was earning more than him and she used to boss over him. He didn’t like that and they used to fight. Finally they separated. Shrikant gave up his job and now has his own business. He has an office in India, so he shuttles between the two countries.’
‘Now he must be making more money than his wife, I suppose?’ said Jamuna.
‘Maybe he is. I don’t know.’
Chandru remembered something. ‘Amma, we are going to meet Tara in Rajiv’s house. Do not ask her anything personal like marriage or children.’ Gouramma felt insulted at this admonition in front of her daughter-in-law and though she was curious to know about Tara, she felt she couldn’t ask.
Jamuna said, ‘I really feel that it was a marriage in a hurry and Tara was the victim.’
‘Why?’ Chandru countered. ‘We also got married in a short time. It is just Tara’s bad luck.’
Seeing the look of curiosity on his mother’s face, Chandru continued, ‘Tara was married to Ramesh who was a family friend’s son. Tara’s parents had sold their property in order to give her a lavish wedding. After the wedding, Tara came to the US and she learnt that Ramesh was already married to a white girl and had a son. She decided to get a divorce but did not want to go back to India. After the divorce, though, she did not know what to do. She was trained to be a good homemaker, not a professional. So she now works part-time in a library. She’s related to Rajiv, which is why she’ll be there this weekend at Rajiv’s place.’
Dollar Bahu by Sudha Murty / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes