GRANDFATHER'S PORTRAIT: BARBARA SOUTHARD
Barbara Southard teaches Asian History at the University of Puerto Rico and has published a book on the women’s movement in Bengal in the nineteen twenties and thirties. In recent years she has been concentrating on fiction, especially historical fiction. Her short stories about Puerto Rico have been published in Calabash (NYU 2008) and Poui (Barbados 2009). At present, she is revising a novel about women’s lives in Puerto Rico in the nineteen nineties, exploring themes of identity, machismo and the price of political dissidence on the island. This is her first short story set in India.
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Priya’s suitcase was the last to appear on the moving belt of the baggage gondola at Dum Dum airport in Kolkata. The wait was unbearable after a twenty hour journey from Newark. Her father remarked cheerfully that the airport looked much better after renovation. Her mother nodded, stifling a yawn. Priya frowned. She couldn’t remember how it was before, but the airport looked pretty shabby now, not at all like the futuristic architecture of the terminal at Heathrow where they had switched planes.
The lines for immigration and customs had dwindled by the time they emerged with their baggage. Before she knew it, Priya was guiding a cart piled high with suitcases into the cool air of a late afternoon in December. She looked at the people milling at the exit, but recognized no one. Her gaze drifted over the heads of the crowd to the parking lot beyond, where cars, trees and people were indistinct, blurred in what was either a light evening mist, or permanent smog. The sky was gray, shading to a brownish haze tinged with orange on the horizon.
“Priya, welcome home, surely you haven’t forgotten me.”
The loud booming voice startled her. The tall, dark big-boned man with salt and pepper hair reaching for her hand appeared a complete stranger until she saw Sharmila Pishi, her father’s sister, just behind him. It was Uncle Binoy, the doctor. Priya shook his hand shyly and ran to embrace her pishi.
“Well, now we know who’s the favorite, don’t we?” said her uncle.
The next few moments were filled with the confusion of greetings all round, remarks on how the plane had arrived on time, but the baggage took forever, how long it had been since their last visit, and how good everyone looked in spite of the long journey.
The doctor’s driver carried the suitcases to the car, and started loading the trunk. Uncle Binoy and Baba, Priya’s father, were standing apart, deep in conversation about the doctor’s plans to build a new clinic. The doctor maintained that Indian medicine was on the verge of becoming more advanced than in the West. Baba nodded in agreement, and said the medical system in New Jersey would collapse without a steady supply of practitioners from India. When the driver finished loading the trunk of the doctor’s new Honda, two bags were left outside. Sharmila Pishi intervened to redistribute, directing him to accommodate the largest suitcases on the bottom, but everything wouldn’t fit.
Binoy went over and said to his wife in Bengali, “You’re not doing it right.” He then commented to Priya’s father in English, “The Honda has superior trunk capacity.”
“We’ve tried twice,” Sharmila said.
“Stand aside. This is a man’s job,” said Binoy.
“We’ll see,” said Sharmila Pishi, stepping aside with a shrug. Then she began asking Priya about her school. Priya answered in short sentences, feeling a bit uncomfortable speaking Bengali her first day in Kolkata. Besides, her mind was on what was going on toward the back of the car. The doctor had ordered the driver to remove all the suitcases, and his voice clearly indicated rising frustration as he tried in vain to accommodate them all. Priya glanced at her aunt, expecting her to say something to smooth over the troubled waters before things got unpleasant, but Pishi was looking the other way.
“We always bring too much luggage,” said Priya’s mother in an appeasing voice.
“I told Sharmila we should bring two cars, but she never listens.” said Binoy.
Sharmila said nothing.
An elderly beggar woman, frail and stooped, came over and began asking Priya for alms, “Didi, ami sara din khai ni.” Priya suddenly wanted to go home to New Jersey, far from her uncle’s bad humor and the beggar’s pleading eyes. Her aunt handed the woman a rupee note. “Jao.”
“Stop encouraging them,” said Uncle Binoy. “I’ve told you a thousand times, we’ll be stuck with beggars forever if people keep on giving alms.”
“She was bothering Priya,” said Pishi.
“Then you should have called me. I know how to get rid of them.”
Baba laid a hand on his brother-in-law’s shoulder, “I’ll go find a taxi.”
“No, you stay here, Dada, Ill go,” Binoy replied, and swung into action, hailing a taxi.
In a few minutes, they were on their way. Priya was obliged to go in the Honda with the two men. She had asked to go in the taxi with Pishi, but her mother hastily said, “Your uncle’s right. You’ll be more comfortable in the Honda. And there is plenty of time to be with your auntie.”
The road from the airport was bordered by hyacinth-clogged canals lined with palm trees. Beyond the canals were wealthy homes and apartment buildings mixed with thatched huts of the poor. As they neared Kolkata proper the road became congested, filled with incessantly honking cars pushing aside pedestrians, each vehicle trying to outmaneuver the others. Their driver pressed forward past buses with men hanging from the doors, taxis, cars, trams, scooter rickshaws, and even an old-fashioned rickshaw pulled by a thin man with hard muscles in his legs.
The women on the overflowing sidewalks wore brilliant colored saris, reds, blues, orange, pink and deep violet, not the muted magenta worn by the popular girls in her New Jersey high school. The vivid colors struck Priya as alien and different, until she remembered how much she had loved the colors the women wore at Sharmila Pishi’s wedding, just five years back.
She had been only ten then and she loved every minute of the ceremony, the incense, the flowers, the chanting voice of the Brahmin priest. Pishi, dressed in a red sari with a golden border, her hair done up in white flowers, her gold jewelry glinting in the sun, appeared a true princess. Her uncle had made his appearance on a magnificent white horse, and the many cousins had sighed, saying how tall and handsome he was, and how beautiful a couple they made. Her aunt, the choli of her sari draped modestly over her head, looked over at him, her eyes sparkling. Then, catching Priya watching her, she lowered her eyes demurely, once again the picture-perfect modest Bengali bride.
Suddenly, Priya felt very sad, because she couldn’t go back to that day. Had the streets really been so congested then? Maybe it was she who had changed. Her father was always saying that she had become an American teenager, in a tone of regret mixed with admiration that his daughter had adjusted so well in the new country.
Her father and uncle were deep in conversation, oblivious to her presence, lamenting that Kolkata was missing out on the wave of prosperity in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai, because of the Communist administration. Priya fell asleep.
She was awakened by Baba’s voice, saying that they were almost home. She recognized the tram on Rashbehari Avenue and the myriad dress shops she had visited with her aunt before the marriage. The twilight had almost turned to night when they turned into Sarat Bose Road, heading toward the lake. There were wisps of fog floating in the streets and the buildings loomed out at her, the light in their windows looking mysterious and lonely.
When they took a left into a dead end street, Priya’s pulse quickened and she forgot how tired she was. The car came to a sudden stop in the dense fog, and a red brick house emerged out of the shadowy gloom. Most of the dark green shutters were closed tight but two windows on the right side were open. The curtains spread over the lower half of each window fluttered in the breeze, so that Priya could catch glimpses of the lamps lit within. Now she remembered that this, too, was home.
Her uncle took out an enormous ring of keys of all sizes, opened the padlocks, and then stepped aside so that her father could enter first. Baba strode into the living room straight to the opposite wall where a picture of her grandfather and grandmother hung from the wall, draped with a red flower garland. Baba stood still, his head bowed. Priya was dimly aware that her mother and aunt had also arrived and were bustling about, lighting the incense sticks in the brass holders on the chest below the ancestral portrait, closing the shutters so that mosquitoes would not enter with the night air, and telling the driver where to put the suitcases. Priya stayed next to her father who stood transfixed in front of the portrait, his lips moving in silent prayer.
Her grandfather, Mr. Subhash Lal Ghosh, counselor at law, was standing tall, a walking cane with a carved ivory top in his hand. His wore suit and tie, and his sharp features were stern, the mouth firmly set, the eyes watching some unknown point in the distance. The woman seated beside him looked small, her face indistinct.
Her grandmother had died before Priya was born. She had only vague memories of Thakurda, her grandfather. One time, her mother had shushed her, because the old man needed quiet to read his newspaper. Priya kept on babbling, and her mother grabbed her roughly, carrying her screaming from the room. Another time, Priya had climbed on to her grandfather’s lap while he fed her rosgullahs from his plate. Her mother said that Thakurda always saved his dessert for Priya, because sweets should go to the sweet, not to a cantankerous old man. Priya couldn’t actually remember him saying those words, but it was part of family lore.
Baba had to go alone to his father’s funeral, because Priya had just had her appendix removed, and it was too soon to travel. Her mother stayed with her. Priya was conscious that their absence marred the ceremony. Her parents didn’t think she had fallen ill on purpose, but there was no denying that she had not been able to fulfill her obligations to the old man. No one could think it was her fault if they knew what the pain was like on the way to the hospital, how her nails dug into her palms until they bled. She remembered a kid in high school who gave a report on hara kiri, ritual suicide by self-disembowelment. Only a samurai who committed hara kiri could comprehend the pain of appendicitis, but, of course, he would be dead.
Missing her grandfather’s funeral was a big deal, because he was the savior of the Ghosh family, the one who put them on the path to prosperity. The family had large landholdings in what is now Bangla Desh, and trusted that the land would always maintain them. Thakurda was the only one of three brothers who finished a law degree. He was also sufficiently farsighted to swap his portion of the land for a small holding in Kolkata a decade before the Pakistani army marched into Bangla Desh, and the situation deteriorated to the point where all Hindus were in danger, particularly those with land. Thakurda had found his brothers jobs in West Bengal, given them shelter, helped to educate their children. His own three children, Priya’s father and her aunts Sharmila and Bina had received the best education India could offer.
Priya’s father’s eyes were closed as he prayed in front of the image of her grandfather. Finally, he turned round, hugged Priya close, and said: “We are blessed to be in this house consecrated by the puja offerings of your grandfather. Never forget that you are descended from a man of great soul.”
The words “Great Soul” reminded Priya of the man hailed by the whole nation as Great Soul, Mahatma Gandhi, but her grandfather was tall and his expression uncompromising, quite different from the frail man of humble mien.
Priya answered her mother’s call and took her suitcase to her room. She had been taught not to delay unpacking, but the huge four-poster bed looked very inviting. She lay down. Her aunt came in and draped a mosquito net over her bed, just before Priya fell into a deep slumber. Sharmila and her husband were to spend the night. Since Binoy had to make an early flight to go to a medical conference in the Punjab, it would have been inconvenient to return home to Jadavpur.
When Priya awoke and switched on the table light next to her bed, not sure where she was, or whether it was the same night, the bedside clock said 10:15. She lay there quietly, listening to the howl of a dog, and then got up and walked to the window, peering out at the darkness. The dog had quieted. All she could hear was the distant honking of cars, and from inside the house, the murmur of conversation. Her parents must still be awake.
Priya went down the hall toward the front room. Her uncle Binoy was thanking her father for the gift of two Black Label Scotch whisky bottles.
“Let’s open one now in honor of your arrival. The night is still young.”
“Dada, you must be exhausted,” said Sharmila, addressing her brother.
“Dead tired,” said Baba, “but wide awake. It’s exciting to be home. A drink would be just the thing to calm me down.”
Priya stood still, wondering whether she should enter. The clinking sounds told her that her mother must have brought out glasses and placed them on the glass-topped coffee table.
“This is something new,” said Baba in a disapproving tone, “Sharmila, when did you start drinking Scotch?”
“Amar dosh. Blame me,” said Binoy. “A good wife should accompany her husband in everything.”
“I’m not that westernized,” said Priya’s mother.
“Nothing to do with westernization. I want a modern wife who can entertain my friends, not a village girl.’
Priya parted the curtain that separated the front room from the hall, just enough to see without being seen.
“I understand,” said Baba in a carefully neutral tone, his brow furrowed.
Priya knew her father couldn’t approve of his younger sister drinking, but it was not his place to interfere between husband and wife.
“My husband has redefined the concept of wifely duties,” said Sharmila, her tone ironic. “But one thing stays the same. He decides.”
Priya hung back, made uncomfortable by the barbed undercurrents of the adult conversation. Only when Binoy laughed and toasted their homecoming did she enter the living room.
“Look who’s awake,” said Binoy.
Priya caught her parents exchanging a quick glance, no doubt worried their conversation had been overheard. She accepted a cola from her aunt, smiling to herself as she remembered the night she tried a rum and coke at a party with her friend Gina.
“What’s the secret smile all about?” said her Uncle, and then added in English, “A penny for your thoughts.”
Priya was startled. Her thoughts belonged to that other world thousands of miles away.
“I’m just happy to be here,” she said, sipping her cola.
“And what do you want to do tomorrow?” said her aunt. “Sleep, I suppose.”
“What I really want,” said Priya, “is to walk to the lake early in the morning.”
“You haven’t forgotten how we used to go every day,” said Sharmila.
Priya’s mother said proudly. “The lake made quite an impression on Priya. She painted a watercolor of it, with a flock of birds and the mist rising from the water. Got first prize at her school art show.”
“I’m proud,” said her aunt, addressing Priya. “Not only did you get the Science Fair Prize, but an art prize, too.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you two girls to go to the lake early in the morning,” said Binoy.
“Kolkata is not as safe as it used to be.”
“We used to go regularly and never had an unpleasant experience,” said Sharmila, her mouth set in a stubborn line.
Priya remembered her mother saying that Kolkata is still a safe city for women, not at all like Delhi where Eve-teasing is rampant.
“That was several years ago. Things have changed,” Binoy told his wife, his deep voice loud and firm.
Priya’s mother intervened. “Priya should sleep late tomorrow.”
Priya controlled the impulse to say she didn’t want to sleep late, because it would only retard her adjustment to the time change. She felt annoyed at her uncle’s interference, and the way her parents were so anxious to accommodate him.
Her feelings must have registered on her face because Binoy, giving her the uncomfortable sensation that he could read her thoughts, said, “Don’t worry, once I’m gone to the Punjab, your aunt will take you.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Priya saw her mother glance at her father.
“If you think it’s dangerous in the morning,” Priya told her uncle, “we’ll go in the afternoons, won’t we Pishi?”
Sharmila didn’t reply. Finally she said, “Of course, your mother is right. You need your sleep tomorrow.”
“That’s my good girl,” said Binoy to Priya. “Your stay in America hasn’t hurt you one bit. You still respect the opinion of your elders.”
Sharmila reached for her glass of scotch, still half full, and drained it.
“Hey, easy does it,” said her uncle.
Her aunt put the glass back down on the table without looking at him.
Priya didn’t wake up until noon the next day. Her uncle Binoy had left hours ago to catch his flight to the medical conference. She refused when her mother offered to make an omelet, saying she wasn’t hungry yet, but she accepted the sweet puffed rice balls served with her tea. After breakfast, she showered and dressed in jeans and an Indian style blue sequin blouse, bought in Target. Her mother explained to Sharmila that Priya had outgrown all her Indian clothes.
“Everybody’s wearing jeans nowadays. I mean girls her age,” said Sharmila. “But I can take her to Gariahat to get a couple of salwar kameezes. That way you can go Western or Eastern,” she added, addressing Priya.
They walked out to Sarat Bose Road, past the corner snack shop, where people were eating fried snacks. Priya suddenly felt hungry. The delicious smell of all those fritters, spicy hot pakhoras and samosas, and sweet jalopies, chased her down the street, calling her to come back. It sucked that returned Indians lose immunity and can’t eat food off the streets.
As they turned on to Rashbehari Avenue, walking toward the Gariahat crossing, she forgot about food. The shopping area was swarming with the afternoon crowds, squeezing through the narrow passageway on the sidewalk between the line of vendors next to the curb and the regular stores set back from the street. They passed electronics and music stores, and then arrived at the myriad clothing stores. Saris and salwar khameezes of incredible hues and textures were hanging on all sides, dazzling the eyes.
Her aunt pointed to a bright khameez of rose and lavender with matching salwar pants. Priya, dismayed by the loud colors, was about to politely decline, but the nimble salesman held it up to her face and produced a mirror, chanting, “Just perfect for you, Miss. Khub shundor, khub shundor.” She gazed at her reflected image and realized that in truth she looked lovely. They bought three or four outfits for Priya before she remembered her manners and insisted they should look for something for Pishi as well.
“I don’t wear salwar khameezes very much,” said Sharmila.
“But you should,” said Priya. To her mind, saris were the most beautiful, but they really weren’t suitable for an active life.
“He doesn’t like them on me,” said Sharmila with a frown. “Your uncle thinks Bengali women don’t look good in them. We’re too short to carry them off with style. They look best on tall Punjabi women. Of course, that doesn’t apply to you, Priya.” she said with an admiring look at her niece’s slender five foot five figure.
“That’s silly,” said Priya, wondering how anyone could criticize her aunt’s appearance. Sharmila’s figure was shapely, her skin golden, and her brown eyes were large with long, dark lashes. “You’d look good in anything.”
Sharmila laughed and asked to see a simple cotton one with a batik print.
“Beautiful. You must buy it,” said Priya.
Her aunt made the purchase and they headed toward home. As they turned from Rashbehari Avenue into Sarat Chandra Bose Road, Priya asked, “Pishi, was your marriage arranged or a love match?”
“My own choice. Your father was opposed, at first, you know, because your Uncle Binoy is not the same caste.”
“Caste shouldn’t matter,” said Priya stoutly.
“Your father takes his position as older brother very seriously. Now that your Thakurda is dead, he is the family head. But he finally came round. In modern India, education trumps caste. Besides, I was twenty-nine and he was getting worried. It was your mother who persuaded him that having a doctor in the family is more important than caste considerations.”
Priya viewed her mother as old-fashioned in comparison to the mothers of her American friends. It was good to hear that Ma had stood up for a woman’s right to choose a husband.
“It’s pretty,” said Sharmila, glancing into the bag with her new salwar khameez. “But I shouldn’t have bought it. I’ll probably never wear it.”
“Come on,” said Priya, “Wear it tomorrow. We’ll be matching.” She didn’t add that Binoy wouldn’t be around to spoil things. Her parents had obviously gotten over their initial reservations, and now considered the doctor a valuable addition to the family, but Priya had her doubts.
Sharmila laughed. “I will. It’s perfect for our morning walk tomorrow. I’m a bit old to go in jeans, and I’m certainly not going in a sari. This will be perfect.”
That was how Priya learned that they were to go walking in the early morning. She wouldn’t mention the plan to her parents. This was between her and Pishi. That special bond they had always shared had been renewed. Although Pishi was more than fifteen years older, it was as though both of them were teenagers, plotting a secret outing. Her aunt’s eyes now had a bit of their old sparkle. It was very selfish of her, Priya knew, but it would be fun to have her aunt to herself for a few days.
Priya awoke at six and found her aunt already dressed. “Why didn’t you wake me?” she asked.
“You must be tired from the long journey.”
“Not at all. Jet lag never affects me,” said Priya.
They left the house quietly, and walked quickly to the corner with the snack shop. Although the sun was barely up, dozens of people were eating breakfast and drinking hot tea. A black and white dog, her nipples swollen, was standing expectantly waiting for scraps, tail wagging slightly. The animal moved aside to let Priya and her aunt pass, brushing against an old man seated on a bench drinking tea. He kicked threateningly, and the dog swiftly retreated under a table where two scrawny puppies waited.
Sharmila took her niece by the hand to cross the wide avenue on the edge of the lakeside park as though she were a small child, but the way the cars were honking and coming at them from all directions, Priya didn’t mind. The lake was as beautiful as she remembered. Wisps of morning mist were rising from the water around a small island where a flock of cormorants sat on the limbs of a giant tree. Perhaps they had wakened at dawn and eaten their fill of fish. Out from behind the island came a team of men rowing a long sleek racing boat with evenly synchronized strokes, and then another smaller boat behind them.
As the second boat drew close enough to see the rowers clearly, Priya stopped walking, “Look, those are women.”
“Sure, there are lots of women, nowadays. India is no longer a backward country,” said Sharmila, stopping to watch.
“I never saw women rowing on the lake before. They aren’t wearing shorts like the men,” said Priya.
“They’re Indian women, following our customs. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t liberated,” said Sharmila.
Priya nodded and they resumed walking at a fast pace, completing a circle around the entire lake. The path had been repaved with cobblestones and new shrubs had been planted. At the very end of their round, Priya broke into a run. Her aunt followed, striving to keep up, until she sank down exhausted on a bench overlooking the path and the lake beyond. Priya joined her and they watched people going by, some jogging, others walking and talking leisurely in groups. A middle-aged man in tennis shoes was walking his Golden Retriever, a beautiful animal with long silky hair partially covered by a blue sweater. Priya giggled.
“It’s not even cold. Why is he putting a sweater on a dog with a warm fur coat?”
“He must love that dog,” said her aunt, smiling.
“Yeah, but there are lots of starving dogs around that no one cares about.”
“It’s hard to fix the whole world,” said Sharmila. “Some people just try to do the best with those that fate gives into their care.”
Priya thought for a while. “That’s what Ma says. Her happiness is in caring for Baba and me.” She frowned. “I don’t understand that. I want to do something important in my life, make a contribution.”
“I might feel the same as your mother if I had a child, but I don’t.”
Priya hesitated before asking shyly. “Do you want a baby?”
“We tried and tried, but no luck. It’s my entire fault, of course.”
Her aunt paused. Her eyes were focused on some distant point in the lake. Priya knew she shouldn’t pry, but Sharmila Pishi had parted a closed curtain, providing a fleeting glimpse of the confusing adult world. Her aunt had said her marriage was a love match, and yet she didn’t seem happy.
“What do you mean, Pishi?”
“His mother is always needling me, saying that women who read too many books have trouble bearing a child, while your uncle sits there, and says nothing. You would think that a doctor would know that it could be the problem of either the man or the woman, but he refuses to be tested.”
“That’s not fair.”
“All those years studying the scientific method mean nothing to him. But then maybe the intellect has nothing to do with it. It’s whether you have a big heart or a small one.”
Priya was surprised, not only by the words, but the vehemence with which they were spoken. The light in Sharmila’s eyes at the wedding had gone out. But it wasn’t her place to question her aunt. Besides, she now wished that she had never pulled aside the curtain that protected her from adult problems. She just wanted her jolly, fun-loving Pishi back.
As though sensing her niece’s discomfort, Sharmila smiled and said, “It’s too beautiful a day for gloomy thoughts.”
They rose and started to walk away from the lake toward home.
“You said you want to do big things in the world,” said Sharmila. “Have you thought what kind of things?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Your mother said you get good grades in everything.”
“I’m in the advanced track in science. They let me take chemistry early and I’m at the top of the class. Baba wants me to be a scientist or a doctor.”
The words scientist and doctor seemed to hover in the air between them. People whose hearts might not match the size of their intellects.
“Science and medicine are excellent fields. More women should go into them,” said Sharmila, her tone serious and thoughtful.
“I’m good at chemistry, but it’s not what I really love. I want to be an actress, but not the kind in Hollywood or Bollywood.
“You mean an actress in the theater playing to live audiences?”
“Yeah. I was chosen for the lead in ‘Our Town’.”
“You haven’t forgotten your roots. There’s an artist hidden in every Bengali. But your Baba probably thinks the life of an artist is difficult and uncertain. And he’s right. It requires special dedication. I’ll take you to a Bengali dance drama while you’re here.”
As they turned into the dead end street where Priya’s house was located, the conversation turned to the making of omelets, the Indian way with onions and hot peppers. They were both hungry, their cheeks flushed with exercise in the cool air. They almost ran the last half block, their spirits high.
The front door was open. Priya went in first. Her father was seated on the couch, dialing his cell phone, his expression grim. Her mother stood at the window.
“Where on earth have you been?” said Baba.
Sharmila who had entered behind Priya said, “We got up early and decided to take a walk.”
“I was worried sick,” said Priya’s mother.
“Boudi,” said Sharmila, addressing her sister-in-law, “Binoy is always alarming people. Believe me, Kolkata is a very safe city.”
“The lake park was filled with people,” said Priya.
“Binoy called,” said Baba. “First your cell phone rang,” he said to Sharmila, pointing to the coffee table where she had left it. “Then mine.”
“Oh,” replied Sharmila in a light neutral tone. “What did he say? Anything important?”
“Shono, Sharmila,” said Baba, “you’ve put me in an impossible position. It’s not right, bujte parcho?
“He was checking up on me, wasn’t he?”
Baba waved his hand. “That’s not the point. Why shouldn’t a husband call his wife? What explanation was I to give for your not being here?”
“Why did you have to explain? Just take a message for me.”
“I had to tell him I just woke up, and didn’t know where you were. Then he said, don’t worry Dada, you don’t have to cover for her. He accused me of lying.”
Baba drew himself up to his full height and glanced at the portrait of Priya’s grandfather. “Do you understand? My honor, the honor of this house, was questioned.”
No one said anything. Priya wondered how an innocent morning walk had morphed into a major family crisis.
“You told Binoy you wouldn’t go in the morning,” said Baba, looking at his sister.
“I never said that.”
“It’s true, Baba. I was the one who said we would go in the afternoon,” Priya said.
Her mother looked at her, as though noticing her presence for the first time.
“Priya, go take your shower. This is adult talk.”
Priya wanted to tell her mother to stop treating her like a baby when she was already fifteen. That’s what Gina would have done.
Her father countermanded her mother’s order. “Wait,” he said to Priya. “You’re involved in this. Whose idea was it to go in the early morning? Yours? Or your Pishi’s?”
“You can only see the mist on the lake in the morning, Baba,” said Priya, avoiding a direct answer.
“Shono, Priya, you’re not a child anymore. You can’t just go around doing whatever you want. This isn’t America. Your actions have consequences for other people. Binoy is blaming me for his wife’s disappearance.”
Priya was near tears. “Baba, let me call Uncle to let him know we’re all right.” Even as she uttered the words she knew the issue wasn’t whether they had come home safe and sound.
“It’s not that simple,” said her father.
“Please don’t blame Priya. I made the decision, and it’s my marriage,” said Sharmila.
“As your older brother, I must advise you to have a little more respect for your marriage.”
“My husband has no respect for me. His greatest pleasure is blaming me and stopping me from doing what I want to do.”
“But you’re looking at things from a wrong perspective. You should be happy that he is concerned for your safety. And Binoy is probably right. It’s dangerous for two young women to go so early. There’s no respect for women in India these days.”
“It’s not dangerous at all,” said Priya. “The lake park was filled with families, husbands and wives and children.”
Her father glared at her. “Sharmila should respect her husband’s judgment. Your mother wouldn’t go walking if I told her it was dangerous.”
Priya knew that was true, but, on the other hand, her father wouldn’t say no to her mother just to show her who’s boss. Her parents were united in a conventional arranged marriage, but she had no doubt of their affection and consideration for each other.
“Look,” said Baba to her Aunt Sharmila, “you can’t have a good marriage if you don’t work at it. And it’s up to the wife to create a harmonious relationship.”
“Dada, you don’t know how hard I tried,” Sharmila said, her head down. The defiance in her voice was gone. Priya’s mother gently led her sister-in-law to the sofa. Priya sat down next to them.
When Sharmila had recovered enough to be able to speak, she told the story of her marriage. About a year after the wedding ceremony, her husband decided to move to Delhi to work in a new and very prestigious clinic. His appointment was for a year. Sharmila wanted to keep her job teaching English and Drama at Calcutta University, but Binoy wouldn’t hear of it. When his appointment wasn’t renewed after a year, they returned to Calcutta. Her job was gone, but she kept busy tutoring and working with a community drama group. Binoy discouraged her from getting another full time job, because they would of course have a baby.
Her mother-in-law had moved in with them. The woman was only sixty and in good health, but she was a hypochondriac who went from doctor to doctor and finally settled on a quack, who believed in the curative powers of special diets. Sharmila had to cook all these special meals and wait on her mother-in-law hand and foot. The old woman found fault with everything. When two years went by and Sharmila didn’t get pregnant, her husband and mother-in-law blamed her. The old woman’s theory was that too much reading and intellectual labor interferes with a woman’s reproductive system. Sharmila was astonished her husband agreed with his mother. He wanted her to give up all her outside activities and concentrate on running her household. He was constantly criticizing her, always supported by his mother. If she couldn’t produce a baby, at least she could produce good meals.
“They want me to give up my drama group. But I won’t. I don’t care what that old witch says. She just wants me to be a full time slave at home,”
“Sharmila, you’re not thinking right. Isn’t making your marriage a happy one more important than your drama group?”
“You don’t understand, Dada. Once I give one thing up, they start in on something else. I gave up tutoring, because he said I had too many male students. For God’s sake my students were Priya’s age, but he accused me of all sorts of things. Now it’s the drama group, never mind that it’s all female. I won’t give it up,” said Sharmila.
“But you’re making a unilateral decision. That’s not what marriage is about,” said Priya’s father.
“What are you talking about, Dada? He’s making unilateral decisions, not me.”
“Sharmila,” said Priya’s mother, “have you tried sitting down with him, waiting for the right moment when he’s rested and in a good mood, not blaming him, you know, just explaining how you feel?”
“I can’t talk to him. He just yells. He’s perfect. His mother is perfect. I’m a stubborn bitch. He’s always angry at me.”
“He hasn’t hit you, has he?” asked Priya’s mother.
“Why did you ask that, Sunita?” Baba looked disapproving at Priya’s mother. “Binoy is a decent man, a highly respected doctor.”
Sharmila shook her head. “No, Boudi, he never hit me. But he has a bad temper. I never know when he’s going into one of his rages.”
“Sharmila, listen to me,” Priya’s father said, “I have a bad temper, too. But your Boudi knows how to manage me. I can’t stay angry at her for more than thirty seconds.”
“I’ve tried everything. But nothing works with him. Dada, he hates me. Why can’t you understand that he wants to crush me under his foot?”
“What I do understand is that you chose this man yourself.” Baba glanced at the portrait of his parents on the wall. “Our family has never been disgraced by a divorce,” he said.
Priya followed her father’s eyes, and gazed at the poker faces of her grandparents. They were posed together but neither seemed to acknowledge the other’s presence. It was impossible to tell whether they had been happy together.
“I can’t go on. It’s not just a matter of disagreements. He hates me.”
Sharmila was crying uncontrollably now. Priya was told to go ahead and take her shower. There would be plenty of hot water, because the geyser had been on for more than an hour. Reluctantly, she left the room, but her aunt’s distressed cries followed her as she walked down the hall.
“He hates me. I’m afraid of him. Dada, help me.”
Priya’s father was saying in a soothing, reasonable tone, “Please little sister, get hold of yourself. Promise me you’ll try for one more year. You will be glad you did. All marriages have difficulties. Believe me, one day you’ll realize these were just lover’s quarrels and you’ll thank me for keeping your marriage together.”
Sharmila was still sobbing piteously when Priya entered the bathroom. Priya closed the door, tore off her clothes and got under the water without waiting for it to get hot. The cold shock was welcome. She turned the faucet on all the way, hoping the water would drown out the cries.
When Priya emerged from the shower, Sharmila was waiting for her turn. Her eyes and nose were red, but she was no longer sobbing. Once she came out attired in a sari, Chandra the cook served a big meal of rice, dal, mutton and fish, but no one ate much. Conversation was restricted to polite refusals to have second servings. The cook, who was used to appreciation for her efforts, looked quite put out.
In the afternoon, Sharmila went to see her older sister, Priya’s Aunt Bina, a large handsome woman with three grown children. Priya had expected to go along, but Sharmila disappeared without a word. Priya felt hurt, but figured that what her aunt really wanted was a break. If she requested Priya to accompany her, courtesy would have demanded she invite Priya’s mother as well.
Priya retired to her room with a book to rest after the heavy noon meal. The house was very quiet. Priya felt lonely, and wanted to be in her own room in New Jersey, on her cell phone with her friend Gina plotting how to skillfully avoid parental questions about whether a party would be chaperoned.
After reading a few pages, she fell asleep. She awoke to the sound of cawing crows, and went to look out the window to see the cause of the commotion. It was already dusk but she dimly made out the form of a black cat slinking across the courtyard at the back of their house. Dusk comes early during the Kolkata winter.
Priya found her mother in the living room knitting in the dimming light. She switched on the table light and sat down with her arm around her.
“Had a good nap?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m still jet lagged a little bit. Where’s Baba?”
“He went to get tea. That’s what he said. Probably to get cigarettes.”
“We have to get him to stop smoking.”
“I’ve tried for years. He cut down, but just can’t seem to stop.”
After a pause, Priya said, “Ma, do you believe in divorce?”
Her mother smiled, “You mean, if the husband refuses to quit smoking?”
Priya laughed. “No, I mean in general.”
“It’s not the Indian way. Marriage is the most sacred human bond.”
“But what about wife abuse?”
“Of course, there are exceptions. That’s why I asked your Pishi.”
Priya was about to point out that abuse is not limited to physical violence, but her mother said, “Don’t worry, all marriages have problems. Your Pishi and Binoy will work it out.”
Then she resumed knitting, completely concentrated, counting the stitches to herself. Priya knew the conversation was over.
Sharmila came back the next day in a more cheerful mood. There was no further mention of her marital troubles. Priya would have liked to go back to the lake, but she never mentioned it, and neither did her aunt. Instead, Sharmila took it upon herself to give her niece an appreciation of the art world in Calcutta. They went to a classical raga concert with a famous sitar player, a kathak dance performance, and Hindi and Bengali song festivals. The performance that Priya liked the best was the Tagore dance drama, Chitrangada, the story of a warrior princess who persuades the God of Love to transform her plain face and figure into that of a great beauty to attract the love of Lord Arjuna, but finally decides to abandon this deceit.
The whole family went to see Chitrangada, which had always been a great favorite of Priya’s father. Priya wore a silk salwar khameez, and her aunt helped her put her hair up. Priya was pleased with the total effect. Her figure had filled out in the last year and the hairdo was the last touch need to make her look a fully grown woman. Her mother and Sharmila were beautiful in their colorful saris, and her father abandoned western dress to don a Nehru shirt of raw silk.
After the performance, they went to a restaurant on Park Street that served Mughlai cuisine to have a change from the typical West Bengal food served at home. Everyone spoke enthusiastically of the performance. Priya was explaining to Sharmila how it had changed her thinking about drama. She had developed a preference for realistic drama along the lines of Long Day’s Journey into Night in which she had played the character of the mother. But now she saw that realism was not the only way to go, because human emotion could also be very well expressed through the stylized movements of dance and song.
Their conversation was interrupted by Priya’s father who wanted to know whether Priya had understood the meaning of the piece. Although Priya’s literature teacher always called on her when no one else in the class could come up with a good interpretation, now she hesitated just long enough for Baba to answer his own question.
“The great Rabindranath had a very important message for the modern world. Beauty is not outside appearance, but inner character. That’s something you should remember, Priya.”
He turned toward Sharmila to explain. “In America, all they think about is physical beauty. Especially the women.”
Priya’s mother chimed in. “Young women get all the wrong messages from the media. You have no idea how much money they spend on plastic surgery in America.”
“Yeah,” said Priya. “That’s one message. But I don’t think that’s all Tagore had in mind.”
“I agree. There are other levels of meaning,” said Sharmila softly.
“Like what?” asked Priya’s mother, wrinkling her brow.
“It’s kind of difficult to put into words,” said Priya. “It’s something to do with the right to be your self. A woman shouldn’t have to suppress her real self to be loved.”
“I don’t know,” said Baba, shaking his head. “Everyone in the States is always talking about ‘the right to be me’. It sounds pretty selfish.”
“But Priya’s not talking about selfishness but being true to your self,” said Sharmila. “Tagore had his feminist side.”
Priya’s father shrugged. Her mother turned the conversation toward the beauty of the hand movements of the dancers.
Toward the end of their two weeks in Kolkata, Sharmila went back to her own house in Jadavpur for a couple of nights. Her mother-in-law had called and complained of pain in her chest.
“I know her. She’s fine. It’s just killing her that I’m enjoying two weeks with my brother and his family. But I’ll have to take her for a thorough checkup just in case,” she explained.
While Sharmila was gone, Aunt Bina came over, unaccompanied by any of her sons or daughters-in-law. She politely refused the sandesh and rosgullahs that Priya’s mother hurried to serve, saying that her figure had become quite round in the last two years. While sipping her tea, Bina Pishi addressed Priya’s father.
“Ashok, I’ve got to talk to you about Sharmila.”
Priya’s mother sent her to the kitchen to get tea biscuits. Priya knew this was a hint. Her mother expected her to serve the biscuits and politely withdraw, but she sat down again, and sipped her tea, ignoring her mother’s looks.
Baba was telling his older sister that he, too, was worried, because Sharmila looked tired, and she had aged in the last couple of years. “It’s all because she can’t get pregnant,” he said. “She needs a baby.”
Bina Pishi inclined her head in agreement, and then replied. “But that’s not all. There is something seriously wrong in her marriage.”
“I wouldn’t use those words. Look they’ve only been married five years. There’s always an initial period of adjustment when two people get married. They are both strong personalities. Our sister has always had a mind of her own. Now she’s frustrated about not having a baby, so it’s affecting her whole perspective.”
Priya heard her father’s interpretation with astonishment. She wanted to intervene and say that Sharmila Pishi wasn’t frustrated at not getting pregnant. She was bitter because her husband and mother-in-law were unfairly putting the blame on her. But she kept quiet, afraid she would be told that this was an adult problem beyond her understanding, and ordered to retire to her room.
“I’m not sure that’s the problem, Ashok,” said Bina Pishi.
“What do you think is the problem, Didi?” asked Priya’s father, his voice expressing impatience, although his words were properly respectful of the opinion of an elder sister.
“Binoy lets his mother treat Sharmila like a slave. This isn’t the nineteenth century. And that’s not all. She can’t work, can’t even go out of the house without their permission. What good is her M.A. degree, and all the sacrifices our father made to educate us?”
“But she’s adopting a hostile attitude that won’t get her anywhere,” said Priya’s mother. “She has to talk with him calmly and lovingly about how she feels.”
“But what if he just yells at her, or worse?”
“Sharmila told us he never hit her.”
“Maybe not, but he has threatened her,” said Bina.
“People say things they regret in the heat of anger,” said Baba. “But I’ve come to appreciate Binoy as a fine human being. His patients love him. He’s a decent man who would never hit a woman.
“I only hope you’re right,” said Bina Pishi uncertainly, her brow furrowed. After a moment she touched Priya’s father’s arm and said, “Shono, Sharmila wants to come live in this house. Just for a few months to let things cool down. I told her to come and stay with me, but she refused, saying there are already too many people in my house.”
Priya knew this was true. Aunt Bina’s daughter and two married sons lived with her and her husband in a five room flat. The oldest son had just had his second child.
Priya’s father didn’t answer right away. Finally, he said, “Didi, I know you’re making this suggestion from the goodness of your heart. But I’m not sure what you are suggesting is right.”
He glanced at the portrait of his father on the wall. “As head of the family, I have to protect the honor of this house. My father’s dharma. There has never been a divorce in this family. I don’t want to encourage Sharmila to do something she will later regret bitterly.
“Promise me you’ll think it over, said Bina.
“Sunita and I will talk it over carefully,” said Priya’s father.
The conversation turned to other things. They were all to go over to Bina Pishi’s house the next day for a big meal. Priya asked her aunt whether she could go early to help. Her mother looked pleased at Priya’s good manners.
Bina didn’t leave until about eight o’clock. After she had gone, Priya and her parents sat down to eat a light evening meal. Priya wanted to talk about Sharmila, but it was hard to bring up a conversation at which her presence had been unauthorized.
Priya retired early to her room to read a book. She could vaguely hear her parent’s chatter in the living room, normal talk about arrangements to close down the house before they left for America and the email her father had received about problems with the project he was working on at his engineering firm.
At about eleven o’clock, she rose, draped the mosquito net over the four posts of her bed, turned off the light and crawled into bed. Priya liked sleeping inside a mosquito net, it was like a safe cocoon, and usually induced quick slumber, but on this particular night she lay awake, listening to the sound of her parents talking, much louder than usual, over the ticking of the alarm clock. Priya couldn’t quite make out the words. Footfalls told her someone was approaching. Her mother poked her head in. Priya kept her eyes closed and her breathing even until the door was softly closed.
She waited a couple of minutes, and then got up and quietly reopened the door just enough so that she could hear the conversation from the living room. Her father was talking in a loud and agitated voice.
“I knew that Sharmila would get Didi to back her up.”
“Bina Didi has a soft heart,” said Priya’s mother.
“But she has to think with her head,” said her father. “If Sharmila gets a divorce, she will never be able to remarry, never have a child.”
“To tell the truth,” said Priya’s mother, “the marriage doesn’t seem happy to me. I could feel the tension between them from the first moment.”
“Marriage isn’t easy. That’s what I’m going to tell her. Give it a year or two more. I have to be firm. Otherwise, she won’t really try.”
“But what if things get worse? She has no income of her own. Binoy made her give up her job.”
“Look, she chose this marriage herself. What’s that saying in English? She made her bed, now she must sleep in it. I can’t invite her to stay here. Then I would have a hand in destroying the marriage. I couldn’t sleep at night, or look my father in the eye.”
Priya could imagine the strong chin and firm mouth of her grandfather looking down disapprovingly at them all. Her mother was speaking again.
“You’re right. She should give the marriage more time. But, you know, it would actually be convenient for us to have Sharmila living in the house. With this Communist government in power, squatters could just move in while we’re gone and take over. We’d never be able to get them out.”
“Don’t worry. Bina Didi’s son said he would check on the house every few days. What does Sharmila know about taking care of a house? She’s impractical, an idealist, the typical Bengali artistic temperament. That’s probably one thing that drives Binoy crazy. If something went wrong, the plumbers would take advantage and charge her three times as much. Forget about her taking care of the house.”
There was a pause. Priya, thinking the conversation was over, was on the point of shutting the door, when she heard her mother say, “You don’t think Sharmila would stay forever, establish her rights?”
“No, of course not, I gave her a marriage settlement. She wouldn’t dare claim a share of the house.”
“You’re right,” said Priya’s mother. “She never struck me as the calculating sort.”
“That’s beside the point. The reason I don’t want her moving in is to save her marriage. One day, she’ll be grateful that her older brother took a stand to prevent her from taking the cowardly way out.”
The next day Sharmila returned home. There was nothing wrong with her mother-in-law, she told Priya, but she had done her duty in Binoy’s absence. There were only two days left before the Ghosh family was to go back to New Jersey. Sharmila told her niece to ask if they could stay one more week. But, of course, the answer was no. Priya shouldn’t miss the first few days of school. After all, she was in high school and grades were crucial to get admitted to a good college. And her father had to get back as soon as possible to deal with the setbacks in the tunnel-building project.
Priya felt sad to part from Sharmila Pishi, but as she was being driven to the airport in the back of Binoys’ car, her aunt’s arm around her, she couldn’t help but feel the anticipation of going back to school, rejoining her friends, and starting rehearsals for the play. If only she could take Pishi with her.
The traffic going to Dum Dum was heavy and there was scarcely any time left for leave taking at the airport. Pishi touched the feet of her elder brother and sister-in-law and hugged Priya close, weeping uncontrollably. Baba had to stop loading the cart with their luggage to calm his sister down, promising that they would come back next year during winter break.
“Dada, you promise?” She was crying piteously.
He reassured her, stroking her hair, and kissing her forehead. They all gave her one last embrace and raced toward the security line, turning to wave for a last time at the small figure that had pushed to the front of the crowd for one last glimpse of them.
“Baba, let’s invite Pishi to visit us in America this summer.”
“Good idea. I’ll write to Binoy. They should both come.”
Priya choked back tears. If it were up to Binoy they probably wouldn’t come.
The months passed faster than Priya had anticipated. She wrote to her aunt by email, but the infrequent replies were very brief and often ended abruptly, as though the writer had been interrupted. The only long letter Sharmila wrote congratulated Priya for her successful performance in ‘Our Town’. Thinking to engage Pishi in their shared love of the theater, Priya asked what her drama club was planning to perform, but Sharmila’s next letter spoke only of the baby that Binoy’s brother’s wife was expecting. Priya wrote back asking outright whether Sharmila was still active in the drama club, and received the answer that it was hard to find the time. Priya would have liked to ask whether the diet guru had suggested an even more exotic and labor-intensive meal plan to keep her busy preparing her mother-in-law’s food, but it occurred to her that their online correspondence might not be private.
In October, when Priya was feeling overwhelmed with two advanced placement courses in addition to regular classes, she received several one line messages from Sharmila, asking when they would be coming to Kolkata. Baba said that he still wasn’t sure he could get away from his job this year, but promised to come to a decision by the end of the month. When Priya relayed this information, Sharmila wrote back pointing out that plane tickets would no longer be available. The message was repeated the next day. Priya’s mother said she would telephone and explain the situation. The old lady answered and said Sharmila wasn’t there. Priya’s mother suspected she was lying. Sharmila answered a call the next day, but she could hardly talk for weeping.
The following week, Priya decided to call on her own. When the mother-in-law answered, she humored the old lady by asking about her health. After Priya had listened to a detailed description of various ailments, Sharmila’s voice came over the phone. To Priya’s relief her aunt no longer sounded distressed, but admitted to feeling depressed. One of Binoy’s colleagues had given her a prescription. She was feeling better now. Then she asked Priya about her advanced placement calculus and English classes. Priya was disconcerted by the evenness of her aunt’s voice, the lack of spark, but she told her mother that Sharmila was feeling better.
They didn’t make it to Kolkata during winter break. Indeed, they didn’t even go away for a long weekend, because Priya’s father was working late every day and through the weekends.
In late January, Priya got off the bus to walk the two blocks home. Her father’s car was parked in the driveway outside the garage, which struck her as odd. He was never home that early and he always put his new BMW in the garage. He must have forgotten something he needed at work.
She walked into the living room, calling out gaily, “I’m home.” Her parents were seated on the sofa, her father immobile, hunched over, his face ashen. Her mother was sobbing. Her father kept saying, “Oh, my God it’s my fault, it’s my fault.”
Priya knew immediately. Something had happened to Sharmila Pishi.
Her book bag slipped from her hands onto the floor. “Tell me, Baba, what happened.”
Her father kept muttering about how it was all his fault, if only he had known, he would have done things differently.
Priya screamed, “Will someone please tell me. For God’s sake what happened to her?”
It was her mother who got up, held Priya in her arms and explained that her aunt was dead of appendicitis. They got to the hospital too late.
Her father looked up and said through tears, “We should have brought her to America. The hospitals here would have been able to save her.”
There was a huge lump in Priya’s throat. Only with great effort did she manage to ask, “Where was her husband? Traveling?”
“No,” said her mother. “It’s horrible. The poor man must be blaming himself. They thought it was just severe stomach trouble.”
“What do you mean?” screamed Priya. “He’s a doctor for God’s sake.”
“Doctors can make mistakes.”
“NO. I know what the pain is like. Don’t make me laugh. No one, but no one, not even a complete idiot would mistake it for a stomach ache. They let her die. Uncle Binoy and the old woman let her die.”
Priya’s mother tried desperately to calm her, make her see that it was all a terrible mistake, an accidental death.
“They didn’t give her pain killers,” Priya cried, her face contorted with horror, wondering how many hours her aunt had suffered. “Ma, you don’t know what kind of pain it is! He’s a monster.”
Her mother held her again, trying to soothe her, but Priya pushed her mother away and screamed, “Baba wouldn’t let Pishi stay in our house.”
Her father got up. “Priya, my darling, listen to me. I made a mistake, but my intentions were good. I love Sharmila, she will always be my precious baby sister, and believe me I was trying to do what’s best for her happiness. I swear in the name of my father.”
He looked at the portrait, which had been transported from the wall of their Kolkata living room to the mantelpiece of the fireplace of their New Jersey home, so that his blessings would be on their new life in America.
“Thakurda must be happy now.” Priya yelled.
Her parents both looked at her with uncomprehending eyes, which only fed her rising hysteria
“Pishi can’t dishonor the family name now.” Priya howled with laughter. She dashed to the mantelpiece, grabbed the portrait and threw it against the wall. The shattered glass tinkled against the newly installed parquet floor.
Her father knelt, sobbing, to gather the pieces of glass, muttering, “Bhagavan, Bhagavan, spare us. There is a curse on this family.”
Her mother strode to where Priya stood yelling that she hated her grandfather, and slapped her hard on the cheek. Priya staggered back
“Your grandfather was a good man and so is your father,” said her mother. “Your Baba has taken care of you and me and his sisters. You’re making him feel responsible for the death of his favorite sister. It was an accident. Do you hear me? NO ONE’S FAULT. I know you’re half crazy with grief. But you have to control yourself. Do you want your Baba to commit suicide?”
Priya collapsed sobbing on the sofa. Baba let the glass pieces he had collected fall from his hand and came over to reassure her that it wasn’t really a slap. Her mother was just trying to shock her out of an attack of hysteria. Priya allowed her mother cradle in her arms, but she couldn’t stop crying, violent sobs punctuated by quick intakes of breath.
The sobbing and labored breathing went on and on. A doctor friend was called to administer a mild sedative. Priya’s father explained to Dr. Prasad that the sudden death of her beloved aunt was too much for his sensitive daughter.
“It was an accident,” Baba said. “A tragic accident.”
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