"Kumar hates all business" declares the beautiful Jaya. We are in my kitchen, heads bowed over a bowl of okra. It's the second day of my sister-in-law's first visit. She and her husband have come so far after so long to see me for themselves: the blonde American who waylaid their favorite son on his way back to India. Oh, what plans they'd all made for him and his shiny new credentials! Now, like a cheated-on spouse, they want to know what went wrong. They need details.
Hope your work at the college goes well. What new results you have got from your theorems? Please send $750 by bank draft made over to Hubby for a new scooter only. Waiting list is 5 years. What is your programme this side? When you come bring at your convenience only: dozen pair of socks, shirts and trousers for your nephews and Hubby, electric mixer for baking cakes occasionally, slippers for mother's cold feet, perfume bottles, cassettes of music (western is ok), also empty cassettes. Also remember to send congrats to our junior brother and bride. They will explain their wedding gift requirements. Marriage is important step for all Indians!
"Of course Kumar doesn't hate all business-that would be absurd!" I argue delicately. "Business is not his field, however, science is. You've seen how it takes up all his time. But I know how proud you must be of him-- to have made such a success of himself, all by himself in a strange land!" Jaya's lip stretches out flat, straight and stoic, just like her brother's when he doesn't want to concede a point. I check off all that's familiar in her face, and for a moment I wonder what it might be like to touch her.
My daughter has married with Krishna. We have no news from you regarding same, so must assume your invitation became lost in transit. I have enclosed the boy's CV, and I charge you to cooperate in his business plan that side. This is of grave importance! It is a matter of prestige!
"All Kumar does is work, work, work, it seems'' says my sister-in- law's husband, startling me. "What about retirement? It's not too soon to think!" Of course he would say that. He's a strong, healthy 58 year old, who is spending his own ridiculously early retirement going from one religious festival to another; he wants the whole world to join him, I guess, except whoever he's secretly chosen to take care of him. I suspect he'll have to change his plans about all that, now that his son will be taking on a wife who has no family wealth to spread around. Maybe that's why the first words out of his mouth to Kumar were, "Got any American dollars?" Bet he was a pickpocket in a previous life.
Well, I can't just ignore the old boy. I'll have to respond to whatever drops out of his mouth as if it's a real conversation: "My husband certainly does work hard," I say, "but we manage to have our fun--one of the perks of a love match." Four black eyes quiz me. I think they're waiting for me to make a cultural faux-pas, something they can gossip about later. I plow ahead: "Our last dinner party was given to honor the science counselor of India. I prepared about a dozen south Indian dishes; later, I played the piano for them." For a long moment there is no sound but the methodical chopping of the doomed okra. Then Jaya sighs tragically and says, "These are the things we never hear about."
Silence thickens the air, makes it electric as if we were expecting a storm. But the moment passes; the okra gets slammed into the fridge, and Jaya speaks, all business now: ''I will make for my son masala dosa tonight. Kumar will come early? We need supplies from the Indian grocery.'' She tries a tone she hasn't tried before, part schoolmarm, part insinuation. I wonder how many times she has been refused anything in her life, anything at all. She probably keeps a record.
''Kumar is at work, you realize. I never interrupt him there. In fifteen years, there's never been an emergency serious enough for me to call him away early. You wouldn't want me to break my record now, would you?'' I know I'm smiling; I can feel my mouth turn up at each corner. Jaya stares at me blackly; we wait to see who will blink first. "We could take a cab to the store this afternoon,'' I finally offer in as nonchalant a way as I can.
"As you wish," Jaya replies. She gathers up her sari and regally ascends the stairs. She'll dress her husband and together they'll whisper their new crop of complaints against me in relative privacy.
Our cabbie, as luck will have it, is Indian. He and his two countrymen talk past me in a language that sounds like gravel in their mouths. When we reach our destination, there is an awkward moment before I realize I'm holding things up; they're waiting for me to pay the fare.
''That driver claims to have a brother who is medical doctor in this country!'' Jaya informs me in a stage-whisper, after we've shut the door.
She looks at me incredulously and explains it all: "He is lying! No brother who is so well-settled would allow his own blood to do such lowly work! I cannot believe! Correct?"
My son arrived last month. Mother and child are both fine. Recent events have no bearing on my plans to come to USA. Be advised keep up all effort on my behalf full strength! If you still love your brother you will pull necessary string for admission to your university. Since already you have tenure and promotion, it will be easy to make a place for me. Please pay all application fees as conversion rates rupees to dollars is unfavorable. Also, now is time to think about marriage, or else you will be a bald, lonely professor emeritus without family ties. You are well-qualified for finding a suitable bride. Send me your requirements and leave all details to us.
The grocer has small cruel eyes and an avid mouth. He has a decision to make: which of us is the customer, which of us will best respond to his oily brand of subservience? Jaya tilts her perfect nose in the air, sniffs in an ambiguous way. Yes, my good man, I think, she's the logical choice. I loiter at the counter looking over the Hindi-movie music tapes and batting flies away from the trays of sweets. Nothing more is required of me until it's time to pay the piper.
As I hand over the crisp American bills, the grocer's attention is suddenly all mine. He bends toward me, close enough for me to catch his aroma of leftover curry, sweat, and bay-rum toilet water. "When you return home today, your sister-in-law will instruct you to make proper dosa for your husband!" he whispers as he fondles my money.
"Too bad he'd rather have a pizza!" I stage- whisper back.
Hope this finds you in good health. Mother had asthma last month, but is a little stronger now. Bangalore is too cold for her still. Please send leg tights of the same type as before, but try another color, just for change. Your nephew passed recent exams with 85 in arithmetic and 80 in language. Not so good marks for us. He will have to do better. You have given no further news of your marriage. Surely there is a child by now? I hope you will not use this marriage as excuse to postpone your trip this side. You owe it to Mother and your real family to visit at least a few weeks every year at least. Do not forget we are your blood, and you will always be Indian!
When we arrive back home, Jaya’s husband resumes his perch at the kitchen table, armed with today's catalogues. "Watch me carefully" orders my sister-in-law. She begins the ritual of love and nurturing, the all-important task of bringing these simple sourdough pancakes before her family with exquisite concentration. Of all her abilities and talents, this is what she's taught her relatives to value most in her. I watch her soak and grind and stir, completely absorbed in a task she's repeated hundreds of times. I watch helplessly, as a single dark strand of hair escapes her braid and a bead of perspiration forms on her upper lip. I could help her here, let her in on some shortcuts I learned by myself, by trial and error, but nobody here believes I can cook in the Indian idiom. I am an extra in my own kitchen.
Dear Mama and Mami,
Hope this finds you both well. I am sorry to have not written sooner to thank Uncle for all his help in making my U.S. study possible. Please ignore requests for further application fees, references etc. as I am coming August 10 to your house only. I will stay one week then I will travel to my friend's apartment in Amherst. I can stay with him until I have secured my own apartment. Uncle, you will be my only blood-tie in U.S. and Mother requires me to think of you as I would a Father. I will take notice of all advice.
p.s.: I need you to advance me the price of an auto, second-hand is O.K.
"I bet you are looking forward to visiting with Ram tonight," I say to Jaya, as we mix the dhal with rice flour.
"Correct, correct," she responds absently. She's worried that time is running out both for tonight's dinner and her tenure as the most important woman in her son's life. She sighs and says, "This visit is the final one we share with Ram only, marriage will change --" She waves the spatula around in an enormous and aimless gesture. Suddenly she looks every hour of her age.
"But you approve of this bride, don't you?" I ask ingenuously.
"Her family is good," Jaya says slowly. Her voice is lukewarm, one big shrug. "Also the important thing is horoscopes match. One cannot discount astrology!”
I can, I think, but now there is no more time for our pointless arguments. The doorbell's rung and Ram the virgin bridegroom falls into our three pairs of waiting arms.
This kid likes me; he calls me Aunty and touches me at the slightest provocation. I notice his parents hate our easy familiarity. Jaya shuttles between kitchen and couch like a nervous cat. "Where's Kumar?" she keeps asking me. "We are almost ready for Dosa!" She yanks her head in the direction of the phone; I allow a vaguely puzzled expression to settle over my features.
"So, talked to your fiancee lately?"
"Oh yes Aunty, every week I talk. I am on Cloud Nine!"
"So what can you tell me about the girl? So far all you have said is her nose is too big, and she is not allowed to wear high heels when she is with you in public."
"Hmm, well she meets most of my requirements for marriage," he says, a wariness creeping into his voice.
"Almost?" I pounce on him. I recall a long-ago sorority house now: the little girls clasping their bridal magazines, fantasizing their perfect mates out loud to each other, as if that could materialize them.
"Well, I insist she learn to speak Kannada," the boy tries for a strict tone. "And I don't like her accent when she speaks Telugu, but I will soon put a stop to that!" He throws back his head and laughs. His teeth are very white.
Trust this finds you in good health. There is no point asking after your work and your program for next visit as your answers always the same. I am advised that it is best to own a fire-arm in Hyderabad. I have hence obtained a license for a revolver. I will be happy if you will gift me a 0.32 bore Smith & Wesson from USA. The cost is about $200 and also include an affidavit saying you are staying abroad for more than ten years. Reply to all parts immediately.
In the morning we say an elaborate good-bye. I give Jaya gold earrings in the shape of the Pyramids ("American gold, only 14 carats," I overhear her mutter). I make ritual false promises-- to buy a pressure cooker (“for Kumar's sake”) and to write ("A few lines to everyone once month is good. Let Kumar add greetings to everyone at the end").
We divide the photos from last night. I notice the boy remembered to suck in his stomach in all but one of them.
Now, finally, Jaya steps off the porch flanked by her men. The wind carries her voice back to me as she moves away, "Even as a child, Kumar held a book in his hands." Her sari, embroidered with gold thread by her blue-eyed grandmother, glints in the sun.
She could have told me more, that time when we had the chance.