Different Shades of Brown
The Guptas’ residence was a massive box-shaped four story building with a pastel green edifice, lemon-yellow colonnades along the balustrade that ran all the way around the house on each floor and brightly painted doors and windows. It stood in between two similar structures halfway down one of the winding, crowded lanes off Bangalore’s teeming Avenue Road. I never did find out how a name like Avenue Road, with its quaint redundancy, came to be, but there it was. I wedged my trusty old Bullet motorcycle into the narrow space between two scooters and discovered that I was jammed in, with no space for me to swing myself off. Holding position, I hooked the stand with my heel, heaved the vehicle on to it and slid backwards off the rear seat. Stepping back, I removed my helmet and glanced up. Vipin leaned out on the fourth floor and waved me towards the open staircase to the left.
“Hi, Chats,” he yelled over the din of the street, “you’re just in time for lunch, hurry up!”
I grinned and waved up at him, starting up the stairs indicated. They ran up the side of the building and overhung the low compound wall that separated the house from its neighbour. In this crowded bazaar district of Bangalore, buildings were set so close to each other that if I leaned over I could brush the wall of the next house with my fingers.
The house itself was like a giant beehive. Passages ran around and into the mansion in clean geometric lines. There were people of all sizes, shapes and ages milling about, on every floor. As in every Indian business community, families tended to stick together in this large household. Well, strictly speaking, each floor contained one household, but they all co-existed like one, with people from each family dipping in and out of various rooms with carefree abandon. Apart from Vipin’s parents, brother and bhabhi – sister-in-law, there must have been nearly fifty cousins, aunts, uncles and a few sundry great-uncles and great-aunts living in the house.
And then there were the dozen or so domestics. Today there must have been over a hundred guests all over the place to add to the hubbub.
It was all one great, warm family, presided over by a grisly old patriarch – Vipin’s septuagenarian grandfather, called Nanaji by everyone. He had migrated from Rajasthan some five decades ago and set up a flourishing trading business in Bangalore. Gradually pulling in one brother after another, he had expanded and diversified and now the second generation was running things. My friend Vipin must have been one of the older amongst the third generation and while he was not interested in any of the family businesses, his standing in academics, that too in a cutting-edge field like information technology, with a position in the Indian Institute of Management, one of the most prestigious business schools in India, made him highly regarded by all his relations. That was one reason he had been, unusually for someone in this community, able to hold off getting married away despite being well into his twenties. What was even more unusual, Vipin’s younger brother Manish had been married now for two years.
That staircase was one really busy place that morning. Two toddlers were playing a game of marbles on the first-floor landing. A steady stream of heavily decked and bejeweled young ladies carried countless trays of goodies up the stairs. I edged my way courteously past a trio of elderly uncles on the second floor. It was all one big family – and it mattered little which youngster was whose offspring – those who had grey hair wielded unquestioned authority over those who didn’t. It was that simple. Even I had my assigned place on this age-graded totem pole and had been spoken to summarily by various elder relatives of Vipin’s whenever I had visited this house in the past. The warmth of family spirit it conveyed had been so natural that it had never struck me as a transgression. I ducked my head and bade namaste to Vipin’s father who spotted me as soon as I stepped into the apartment on the third floor. He greeted me with a smile and an arm thrown over my shoulders.
“Arre, come in, come in, Chaturnayan beta”, he said. “How are your parents? Have you spoken to them recently?” More relatives of the family greeted me warmly and I chit-chatted for a while before threading my way slowly through the tide to the stairs and up towards where my friend was waiting for me.
The lunch was divine. Redolent, the daal-bhaati doused with plenty of desi ghee, was accompanied by a dozen varieties of pure vegetarian dishes and the whole meal rounded off by malpua and rabari. No man who had sacrificed his breakfast as I had (in anticipation of this splendid feast) could have asked for more. Replete and at peace with the world, I walked on to the terrace to grab a gap in the rain to enjoy a cigarette. The sun was peeking through the clouds, a cool afternoon breeze had picked up and there were little splashes of rainwater all over the roof. Vipin said he would join me as soon as he could. As I took in eager drags of the warming smoke I amused myself by watching the action on nearby rooftops. Across the road an old man watered his collection of cactuses – on another a couple were in heated argument. Far away was the silhouette of Tipu Sultan’s eighteenth century fort, now crumbling to ruin. On Vipin’s own roof not far from where I sat, two young things stole covert glances though very properly – they were amongst gangs of their own sex. I grinned – from the digs and giggles their friends were passing around I could make out that the sweethearts were the only two who believed that they were alone in the world with their secret.
I passed an idle half-hour before Vipin called me down for a game of bridge with his brother and bhabhi. Manish was our junior by two years and Sadhana, his wife, must have been twenty. She was a pretty little charmer with a coquettish nose, impish smile, creamy complexion and a soft, petite figure that sent most men’s hearts thumping. I had soon discovered though, that she was not the typical empty-headed belle. She had been educated in La Martiniere and The Presidency College at Calcutta, majoring in English literature. She had once told me that she had wanted to do a course in art history when marriage to Manish had cut that off. But the sharp intellect and driving ambition remained, of that I was sure when I saw the fire that burned in her coal-black eyes. She was dressed much like the other young wives in the large house in a soft-hued, flowing sari with the pallu drawn respectfully over her head. But that was just a façade to be put up here. When she visited the campus she was a completely different girl.
Her twinkling black eyes looked out mischievously from under this veil at me and she said, “Well, Chats-bhaiyya, how were your evenings in Bombay last week? I heard you were kept very busy after the seminar by some special participants from Colombo!”
The little whatnot had been told about the girls from Colombo by Vipin! I raised my hand in mock anger and she cried out in equally mock alarm before slapping a deck of cards into it. I glared at Vipin – “Can’t you keep a goddamn secret, at least from the ladies,” I muttered. He was smiling broadly, the bastard. When I glanced back at her impish black eyes, I lost my irritation. It was impossible to get angry at Sadhana – she could charm the bloody devil himself. Laughing, we sat down at a table by the window to start the first rubber. A tray with readymade paan and a pitcher of ice-cold shikanji stood close by. For a while there was no talk except for the bidding. Both Manish and Sadhana played a good game and understood each other well. They were obviously very much in love and in the six months since their wedding, seemed to have found many common interests which bode well for their marriage.
The brothers were as different from each other in appearance and temperament as the sun and the moon. Manish was slightly built, soft-spoken and very effeminate. His long dark hair fell in thick strands to his shoulders, framing a longish face with a soft, fair complexion. His hands were delicate, and his long fingers spoke of his artistic inclinations. He was talented too – he was a good painter – but his real talent lay in designing women’s clothes and accessories. This had displeased his grandfather greatly and old nanaji had tried his damnedest for years, but without success, to channelise Manish’s talents into something more becoming of a man. He was pretty much a blot on the family name. Vipin on the other hand was the apple of his grandfather’s eye and considered a worthy scion. He had a great future in computers and was already being called upon by global giants like Microsoft and IBM on tricky problems in systems design. He was his grandfather’s great hope for modernizing the family’s business interests some day in the future. For the present nanaji allowed Vipin free play so that he could establish his credentials as an internationally recognized expert in a high-tech field. In his eyes, Vipin could do no wrong.
The hours slipped by. I had recently been to UCLA, my alma mater, and Vipin had made a business trip to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. So we talked desultorily about America, its war in Afghanistan and how the Indian population out there was coping. Finally of course, cricket. The West Indies was coming to India in another two months and Sadhana was a big fan of Vernon Reynolds, the Jamaican fast bowler. I said I could get pavilion passes for the one day international in Bangalore and Sadhana squealed in excitement. It was all I could do to keep her from smothering me with frantic hugs and kisses.
Vipin smiled indulgently – but I did catch a harsh glint in his eye. He didn’t approve of her behaviour, I could tell. I shot a glance at Manish, but he seemed blissfully at peace.
A couple of months later, I got the first sign that trouble was brewing in their family. It was a cold, rainy Friday evening. Both Vipin and I had had long days at the Institute. I had an unopened bottle of Bacardi in my rooms and after a hot shower we sprawled out on cane chairs in the verandah with our heels hitched on the parapet wall to kill it. The rain, typical of Bangalore at this time of the year, came down in swirling gusts and it felt good and snug watching it from our sheltered spot, the rum making a warm trail down to our stomachs. Googol, Chokko and the rest had gone out on town so it was just the two of us. It was barely after eight so the evening stretched out before us.
I could tell that he was itching to unburden himself of some serious stuff so I bided my time. It came as I was pouring out the fourth drink. Our heads were buzzing, there was Louis Armstrong playing on my system in the room behind us and the rain sheeting down beyond the balustrade in front of us. He asked me what I thought of Manish and Sadhana making it out in the US.
I cocked my head at him. “The States? Why Vipin, is there something cooking, buddy?”
“Well yeah, Chats, as a matter of fact. There’s this uncle of mine in upstate Connecticut. He’s got a chain of stationery shops in a lot of the smaller cities on the eastern seaboard. Not the big metros, you know. Business is good. He’s carved out quite a niche, like you know, the biggies don’t want to open shop in smaller places because they can’t manage on the low overheads he can. So he’s kind of got it made. Now he’s ready to expand. There’s a store for sale in upcountry Colorado he wants to buy. He needs someone to run it, grow the business. From the moment she got to know Sadhana’s been trying to get Manish interested.”
That surprised me. I would have thought that she was very much the social type, gregarious, fun-loving, needing all the warmth that a large house filled with her people would give. The States did have a good sprinkling of Indian families but it wasn’t like in India and I knew lots of people who felt the loneliness out there oppressive. And upcountry Colorado? A little off the beaten track for Indians. I would have thought that Manish was more the type to think of splitting to way out places. He wasn’t at all happy with the set up at home but didn’t have the gumption to do anything about it. He was constantly coming up against it with his gruff old nanaji and I knew that life wasn’t too smooth for him. I knew too that he got his ass creamed often when being compared to his macho, successful elder brother. He didn’t have the space and privacy to pursue his passion for art. A move to the US would give him the room to fly. But he hadn’t shown any skill at business, nor did have a professional degree, which was why he hadn’t been able to move out on his own so far. So, stuck as he was in a catch-22, he ought to have jumped at any half-chance to get out. But the way Vipin had put it, it looked like his wife was the one pushing. I waited for more.
Vipin sensed my surprise and went on quickly, “You know, you’ll be surprised, man, she’s got a knack for business. I can feel it. Whenever she comes over to the campus she feels free enough to talk about it to me. I think the kid’s got spunk.”
“How much did you have to do with Sadhana getting to hear of this stationery business, Vipin?” I asked as I took a slug at my glass. I grinned at him and he dropped his gaze hurriedly. I changed tack. “What does Manish say about this? I mean, it’ll be kind of odd for him to take a back seat and let his wife run the show. That’s not your family’s style is, is it?”
“Oh, we haven’t really got around to asking him yet.” I looked up sharply at him. Something in his voice told me there was more to this than met the eye. He was staring out into the darkness beyond the verandah with a faraway look.
After a long silence in which we only moved to raise our glasses to our lips, he suddenly struck out on another trail. “It’s funny about people, Chats. So many times we’re the wrong souls for our bodies, don’t you think?” He looked sideways at me, gauging my reaction. I knew that he was trying to tell me something important but by now we had drunk huge quantities of rum.
“The human body is not perfect, old boy,” I said, playing along, fishing for the right thing to say. “It hasn’t evolved fast enough to keep pace with changes in man’s mental make-up. It’s a tenth century BC chassis for a twenty-first century AD engine.” I thought this profound statement needed celebration and reached out to pour another round.
“That’s hitting the nail bang on, man,” he exclaimed, taking his glass from my outstretched hand. He shook his head sadly. “Bang on. Take Sadhana and Manish. It’s like their roles as man and wife should have been reversed, man, reversed. I mean, he’s my own brother but that’s the truth, man, that’s nothing but the bloody truth.” He was going full steam ahead without any help from me now. “Look at her, man. She’s got enough energy and guts to match a room full of Birlas, man. A room full of Birlas,” he said, “and though he’s my own brother I’ve got to admit she’s more than he can handle, man, more than he can handle.”
We looked at each other through a drunken haze. I was losing the thread of the talk. Vipin’s look of maudlin sadness had become more intense – and there was something else too. He closed his eyes with a deep groan that rose from the very pit of his stomach. It was as if he were in some private hell. He was shaking his head slowly to and fro. Quite randomly, the image of a wounded bull in a Spanish ring, with hooves splayed and shoulders slowly drooping, floated into my mind’s eye.
He opened his eyes. “Sadhana is a lovely person, man. She’s a lovely person. She doesn’t deserve a bad deal in life, man, doesn’t deserve a bad deal.” He had his lower lip stuck out defiantly.
Suddenly, tears were streaming from his eyes. We had had way too much to drink. It was not yet ten pm but the bottle was nearly empty – we had drunk almost half a bottle of rum each. I staggered up from my chair and held steady until my head stopped swimming. The rain continued dancing down but it no longer held my interest. I brought out the packets of biryani we had picked up from a shop outside the campus and laid them out on the small table.
“Come on, buddy”, I said as he began to doze off. “Have something to eat now. Hey, Vipin, don’t go to sleep without something in your stomach.” I patted him on his shoulder and then shook him repeatedly but he was already out. Half wondering if he would remember too much of what he had told me, I shoveled the food into my mouth.
Not that I really believed he wouldn’t remember, but what the hell.
The next few weeks saw hectic activity at the Gupta’s. Vipin was here, there and everywhere, arranging everything. The family had at first not understood – how was Manish going to manage a start-up business in a strange country? How would the newly-weds manage their home? There were dozens of questions. And then, when Vipin threw his weight behind them by convincing nanaji, all opposition died out. The old man’s word was law but when Vipin talked, the old man listened with indulgent respect. The die was cast. The visa papers were cleared in just four weeks – the business in upcountry Colorado couldn’t wait. The family had enough resources to push things through at lightning speed when it wanted to.
On the day after they returned from the visa interview in Chennai, it was discovered that Sadhana was carrying. Happiness flooded the household, but when people started talking about delaying their departure until the child was born, all hell broke loose. To everyone’s consternation, the young couple was adamant about going immediately. Sadhana, who should have been the most apprehensive about being in a strange land when giving birth for the first time, showed a steely resolve nobody had suspected her of. The die was cast, she told everyone, and spurned the ‘practical’ advice of the elderly women to let Manish go on as scheduled with her following once the child was old enough to make the journey. The clincher came when she got Vipin to petition nanaji. He argued that if the couple were to set up business in the US, it would be to advantage for the child to be born there. The next generation to run the family business would have a firm root in the US. At any rate, that was the argument that swayed the old man. And they wanted to land up in the States before her condition became obvious, lest the immigration authorities stop them from entering that country. Since the visa application hadn’t said anything about a child on the way, it was best to keep things that way until the young couple landed in the US.
It was barely six weeks into Sadhana’s pregnancy when they were off.
Things kept me tied up so it was only a couple of months later that I caught up with Vipin on how his brother was doing Stateside.
“Hey, yeah, the store’s doing fine, just fine, Chats,” he said in reply to my question.
“And? What about the young sweethearts?”
“Oh yeah, they’re doing fine too, just fine.” Was it my imagination or didn’t Vipin want to talk about them? I ditched the topic. Until a few weeks later, it popped up again.
And once more, the evasive replies. When I pushed, he flared up at me. “Man, Chats, can’t you take a hint?” he almost shouted. “They want to be left alone, for crying out loud!”
“Hey, OK, Vipin,” I said. “No need to yell. If you don’t want to talk about it, just tell me. You’re my friend more than they are, buddy, so relax.”
He looked contrite and apologized. “Chats, I don’t know what’s come over them, man! It’s been three months since they wrote. They have stopped writing to me. They’ve even stopped writing home. The only news we get is from my uncle in Connecticut.”
“Hmm,” I mused, “Like it seems they want their own space, Vipin. It may be good to let them have it for a while. Then they’ll be fine again.”
“But there’s no time, dammit!” he blurted out. “Another couple of months and it’ll be time for Sadhana’s delivery. And they’re out there in Colorado. Why should they cut off communication now, when she needs the family’s support the most?”
I couldn’t figure that out either. But the store was doing well, there were other stores being planned and so they seemed to be managing alright. Vipin said he kind of understood how parents feel when their kids miss out writing home from hostel. I was like that when I was a boarder at Lawrence School, so I kept my trap shut.
What letters had come were blunt and factual. First it had been all about taking over the operations of the Colorado store and the uncle visited once to help them get oriented. Then the store got going, business started looking up and they said they were well settled, no need for anyone, even the uncle from Connecticut, to bother coming down. That was strange. But stranger still were the vibes Vipin had been getting. The tone had got unaccountably hostile and very soon he stopped getting any letters at all.
“Hey buddy, so how are the love-birds doing out in Colorado?” asked Googol one evening as we were all sitting around a bottle. “Haven’t heard you talk of them for a while now, eh?”
Vipin muttered a reply, “Yeah, okay, man. They’re doing fine.”
Something in his off-hand manner made me say it. “Come on, Vipin, the charming young lady had you eating out of her hand whenever they came to campus. Don’t give us these casual vibes, bugger. Tell us what they’re up to.”
“Yeah, bugger. Fuck, Chats, how they used to change out here, eh? All demure when she comes from Avenue Road and then suddenly a major fucking make-over happens and they hit the discs like there’s no tomorrow!” Googol winked and poked Vipin in the ribs with stubby fingers. “Vipin, old son, you’re one hell of a brother-in-law, buddy! Aren’t you jealous of young Manish, eh, eh?”
“Hey, shut up about her, okay?” Vipin’s voice was almost a shout. His face had gone purple with rage. “I don’t know how the fuck they are doing, I haven’t got any fucking letters from them for three months and I don’t give a shit, okay? So lay bloody off the fucking subject!”
We all drew back in our chairs at this outburst. We were just casually teasing the guy and he had flown off the handle. Of course we laid off the subject – we never spoke of it again, but I decided I had to get to the bottom of this. I knew, as did Vipin, that both Manish and Sadhana had wanted to escape the social bonds in India – each for a different reason. We knew that Manish would be happy to throw away the shackles at long last to follow his own artistic inclinations. Maybe change his entire life, and I had a suspicion that Manish had something drastic in mind. We knew that Sadhana would also welcome freedom to manage and grow a business on her own – after all, though she was a woman, business was in her blood. All that was alright. But this complete severing of relations struck me as mighty funny. Funnier still was Vipin’s acceptance of this and his strong reaction just now.
What had caused this great chasm to open up?
I needed to get to the source of the trouble because I had seen Vipin getting all torn up inside the last few weeks and I couldn’t stand silently by. The source of his unhappiness was out there in the US. I promised myself that the next time I visited UCLA, my alma mater, I would look them up myself. Then came a bolt from the blue – they sent the old family patriarch a letter saying that they were shifting to Cheyenne, Wyoming. They had saved enough money of their own to pay off the uncle, buy a controlling interest in a small art-book publishing business, upgrade its technology to make it completely web-based and shift its base to Wyoming. Now Cheyenne, from an Indian point of view was as remote a small town in the middle of nowhere as was possible anywhere within the United States. Wyoming, bleak and frigid, held very little attraction for our countrymen, used as we are to warmer climates. Maybe Yellowstone National Park was the only feature of that state that did hold any attraction for Indians – but that was in another corner of the state, hundreds of miles away. So the question was – why Wyoming?
The letter didn’t bother to explain. It was short, cold and matter-of-fact. There was no enquiry about people back home, not even Vipin. Most hard-hitting for a family eagerly seeking personal news, was that there was no forwarding address.
Ironically, Vipin got involved in a big collaborative project between IIM Bangalore and Microsoft and had to make a few trips to Redmond. In fact, so impressed were the guys at Microsoft with Vipin that they invited him to chuck his job in Bangalore and shift there. That would have put him within a thousand miles from Manish and Sadhana. But every time he went there he came back without going to Cheyenne – he couldn’t screw up enough courage. A permanent move to Redmond would have been too much to bear. Citing family compulsions he managed to stay on in Bangalore but had to make the occasional trip to Microsoft headquarters anyway. He would come back each time an emotional wreck and it even looked like a breakdown was imminent.
The metropolitan area of Cheyenne, the internet had informed me, boasted a population of 53,011 souls, with 561 Asians among them. That would make Cheyenne about half the size of sleepy little Gangtok, Sikkim, and far colder both physically and emotionally. I reckoned that most of those 561 Asians would be of Chinese or Far Eastern descent, not Indian. I found that there weren’t more than ten Indian families in the whole town. I had, with some digging around, got the young Gupta family’s address. I was sure Vipin must have got it too but we didn’t talk about it.
Then one April, nearly two years after Manish and Sadhana had left India behind, I got my chance. I was invited to conduct a series of lectures in the University of Wyoming. Some papers I had published had caught the eye of the dean of the business school there. Laramie, the town where the university is located, is a little more than an hour’s drive from Cheyenne. If that wasn’t fate taking a hand in things, I told myself, I’d like to know what was.
My lecture series wound up one Friday evening in May and six am the next day saw me at the wheel of a rented car heading into a clear sunrise on the road out from Laramie. The morning was beautiful and the countryside was alive with colourful blossoms cloaking every bush and tree in sight but I gripped the wheel with a tension I tried unsuccessfully to dismiss. I rolled into Cheyenne an hour later and stopped at a roadside diner for a cup of coffee and directions to their place. I hadn’t told them I was coming – I didn’t want to chance being declined an invite. Best was to spring a surprise, talk my way face to face. Maybe it was a dirty trick to play, but I was doing the Gupta family back in Bangalore a favour. They had been longing to know about the young couple and their child all these years. And they were good folks, been good to me too. The complete silence had them all agonizing about where they had gone wrong. His grandfather had, once or twice, expressed his remorse to Vipin in his own self-conscious way.
The network of tongue-waggers had been gleefully busy for months after they had left Colorado, sniffing around for signs of shame and scandal in the family. There hadn’t been much material for them to work on. In Bangalore, Sadhana and Manish had been the epitome of well-behaved children of the family, respectful of elders and mindful of their place. Manish’s yielding, submissive nature was the only thing that could be held against him and his wife’s flashes of spirit had not been the type to merit censure. Then there had been the unseemly haste with which Sadhana had pushed for the papers. That had been the only blot on their character – that was why the whole thing was so galling. And the steadfast refusal to change her plans once her condition was known made it worse. But there had been a ready explanation for every action, backed by the unimpeachable Vipin’s recommendation. Nanaji had sternly taken up their side, lauding the dedication of his grandson who, supported ably by his dutiful wife, was sparing no efforts to make amends on the business front, prove himself at long last. The financial results those first few months of the stationery business had been excellent – reason for him to be re-assured beyond any doubt. Now the gossipmongers had gathered again, and the frequent nasty asides and sniggers had to be faced up to. Ignorant as they were of the fate of the young couple and their child, the family had to take the barbs in shame and silence. I needed to do something to ease their pain.
I spotted the place. Sadhana and Manish stayed in a country house set amongst others just like it down a quiet, tree-lined avenue. On impulse, I decided to drive once more around the block. The area looked bright and cheerful in the spring – I wondered how it would have been on long, snow-bound evenings. I had a brief vision of the big, noise-filled house in Bangalore. Children tumbling all about, fat matrons in colourful saris chattering, food and snacks streaming endlessly from more than a dozen stoves under that big roof – warm, friendly, maddening chaos reigning practically twenty four hours a day. This neighbourhood in contrast, with its beautiful and sanitized quietude, looked as if it belonged on a different planet. On the second pass I pulled up alongside the curb in front of the house.
It was getting close to eight o’clock and people were stirring lazily to wakefulness on this bright and sunny Saturday morning. Theirs was the only house where the milk and the newspaper had already been taken in. Did they keep early hours? Did they still pray and sing bhajans? How much really had they discarded the Indian way of life? If at all.
I stepped out of the car and locked the door after picking up the toy I had bought for the child during the layover in New York. Turning, I saw the front door screen open and Manish came out. He was dressed in a brightly coloured shirt of floral design. An apron, pockets bulging with gardening tools, was tied around his waist and a wide-brimmed blue floppy hat sat on his head to protect him from the sun’s rays. He saw me only as he stepped off the porch and froze. Several emotions chased themselves across his face, but joyous welcome wasn’t one of them. First there was shock, then nervous alarm and finally resignation. After all, there I was, in the flesh, standing on the edge of his lawn. It took him only a moment to regain his poise, but he hadn’t fooled me.
“Chats,” he said, ever so quietly, “so good to see you.”
I walked quickly up to him and took his hand. I should have remembered how soft and delicate it was but it had been a long time. He winced at the grip I offered.
“Hi Manish, how’ve you been? I was in Laramie these last few days and so I decided to drop by – I couldn’t go back without seeing you after being so close. I wasn’t sure I’d have the time to come so I didn’t send word in advance. How’s Sadhana?”
Pouting his lips at me he said, “Have you come all the way to see her and not a care for me?” If he had seen through my little lie about coming unannounced he didn’t show it. I noticed that he didn’t bother asking how I had found their address.
Laughing out loud at my discomfiture he took me by the arm and drew me into the house. “Come in, come in, I was only pulling your leg. You must be tired after the long drive. Have you had breakfast? What can I get you?”
I looked the house over as we walked inside. It was beautifully kept. Paintings by Manet – reprints but framed well, hung about the drawing room, arranged to take every advantage of the light from the windows. Manet was a favourite of Manish’s and I could sense his touch in everything around. Even the curtains billowing in the breeze, the furniture and its disposition, the bric-a-brac on the pinewood mantelpiece, all had his unerring sense of colour-play. No one would have connected this house with the brightly decorated house in Bangalore.
He saw the admiration evident in my eyes and beamed. “I wish you had come just a week later, Chats. That Manet there,” he pointed at a scene hung by the doorway leading into the kitchen, “is going to be replaced. By the original!” he gushed after a dramatic pause, clasping his hands to his bosom in excitement. “Sadhana has allowed me to handle the house completely. Every last detail, even upstairs, in the bedrooms. But of course you would know that she would. Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s fabulous,” I managed. I was still taking the house in – and there was something there that I could not quite put my finger on. But I was impressed about the Manet. original. That must have taken some doing. We chatted about his conquest and then about his art and he went about the kitchen fixing breakfast.
Sadhana hadn’t surfaced yet. “She had a late night at the office yesterday, you know. We deal with a lot of Japanese and Hong Kong clients and she was up conferencing with them until midnight. She handles the business end and I do the designing. We are quite a hit team in the art book world, Chats,” he ended with a proud smile.
I decided that the mood was right to ask the question that had burned both Vipin and myself up for so long. And Sadhana had yet to make an appearance so maybe that was to the good as well.
“Manish, you’ve got it made out here. Looks like the move to Wyoming has been good to you both – I can see that. You’re so happy here, the house, the paintings, the furniture, your business – I mean, you guys have created a great little world for yourselves.
“Your brother – ,” I paused, searching for the right tone to continue with and when I couldn’t come up with one, I continued just anyhow, “well, he would be so happy to see you both like this. Why do you –––,” I broke off.
Manish had lowered his eyes at the mention of his brother. But had I spotted a sly look before he dropped his eyelids? He flashed a glance at me – I kept a set look on my face to see if a determined silence would force the truth out where words had failed.
Finally he opened his hands in a gesture to show his helplessness. “Chats, you have come so far to see us. How can I keep a secret from you? But please, please don’t breathe even one word of this to Vipin. I know he must be coming often to Redmond. If I want I can easily find out how to contact him. He knows that too. Everybody knows that. But still I don’t want him to come here, see for himself. You must think of some way of explaining to him without his even suspecting the truth. Promise?”
This speech had me absolutely and completely foxed. He sighed, took me by the arm again and led me to the living room. He took me to a cosy nook that had been created by partially screening a bay window with a bookshelf. There, I saw for the fist time, photographs of the family. Manish and Sadhana in different places with their little daughter.
And then, when I got up really close, I felt my heart give a lurch. She had her mother’s impish smile and thick lustrous hair. I could tell that she would grow to be a charmer to rival her mother. Both parents were obviously very proud of her. But the force with which my chest had been slammed was because, though both sides of her family had fair complexion and long, straight noses, this child was dark-skinned, with thick lips. And her nose had an unmistakable flatness. I was stunned.
How could this have happened? What had gone wrong? This explained the distance they had created from the family. Not just that, the severance of relationship. I stared at the photographs, aghast.
Manish brought me gently back to the present. “So now you know, Chats. The family won’t be able to bear the shame. Especially Vipin. She had confessed to me the moment she knew she was carrying, back in Bangalore. She was so devastated that she was ready to take her own life! It was I who persuaded her not to – I wasn’t angry with her at all, do you know, Chats? She knows I’m the only one who could feel that way, because of the way I’m made, and I think she understood that. Then she wanted to abort. I couldn’t let that happen. Who are we to take an innocent life? We must stand up to our responsibilities, come what may. Nanaji often said that.” I was startled to hear this from the boy who had always been treated with utter disdain by that same grandfather.
“We agreed that the only way was to make a fresh start far away from the eyes of the family. Here, we are so happy,” he said, waving his hand around. “She has her day full running the business. Gives her a sense of purpose. And it’s so good for her.
“I’m happy too. I hated India, really hated that house.” His nose was pinched and his eyes flashed with angry memories. He continued, “My work can be done from home so I stay here and look after Reema. And I love that. We have told her that she is an adopted child. When she grows up there won’t be any lies to un-tell. I love her, Chats. Do you think that’s strange? On paper I’m her father – foster-father actually, but in reality I love to mother her. That’s the way I am, Chats and here in the US I don’t have to hide that. You said the US has been good to us. That’s so true, Chats and I am so grateful. The people back there, they won’t understand, will they?”
There was a slight noise behind us and we turned to see mother and daughter standing at the door. Sadhana looked ravishing in a soft cream spun-cotton blouse with wide collars and a figure-hugging satin skirt with bold floral prints. Seeing her soft curves sent the blood rushing through my veins, like it always had. Her hair was cropped close in a charmingly elf-like blunt cut. Reema gave a little whoop when she saw her father and went dashing to him. He knelt down as she whirled into his arms. Sadhana stood transfixed, one hand on the door-frame.
“Hi Sadhana,” I mumbled, casting about for the right thing to say. Should I be apologetic for barging in or would that only make the mood heavier? Or should I be flip and nonchalant? The silence grew heavy.
Manish broke it. “Reema, say hello to this uncle from India, darling. You know, he’s brought a nice new toy for you.” He swung her up and held her hand out for me to shake. She looked at me solemnly.
“Good morning, young lady,” I said, bowing over the little girl’s hand as if she were a princess. That got a giggle from her and I gave her the gift. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sadhana step forward slowly. I looked enquiringly at Manish who flashed me a quick smile and went to the kitchen with Reema, saying he would get us some coffee.
All the while I could feel Sadhana’s eyes drilling into me. I turned to face her fully and she entered the room slowly. We sat down on a settee.
“It’s good to see you, Sadhana,” I said. “Aren’t you going to say hi?”
She gave a little shake and came out of the trance. “Hi Chats. We didn’t know you were coming. Otherwise ----,” she fingered her blouse’s collar nervously, “Otherwise we could have ----,” she left the sentence unfinished and Manish came back with the steaming mugs.
We sat ourselves, Sadhana next to me on the settee and Manish took a comfortable-looking armchair. But the atmosphere was quite strained. There were flames licking my insides, waiting to burst. I wondered what was going through Sadhana’s mind – she was all so quiet. Only the child’s presence kept us on an even keel. Reema toddled over up to me and, bending over with her bottom sticking up in the air, turned up the cuff of my trousers. She demanded to know if I was hurt. Manish was nodding his head vigorously, signaling me to say yes. I played along and Reema played doctor with a grave manner. But I gave her mother the full hard-look treatment. She had been thrown off-balance by my appearance and was looking forlornly at her daughter. I allowed the silence to build its pressure.
Finally the dam broke and she began to talk in a flat monotone.
“It was the evening after the West Indies match in Bangalore. You remember, we went to the party afterwards and you hadn’t come. It was a farm-house outside town. A big place all by itself down Mysore Road. I was thrilled to actually meet Vernon Reynolds face to face. There was champagne and – and some dope too. We danced a lot, Vernon and I. I barely came up to his chest and he said he found that charming. For me, I was in heaven. It was like a dream come true, having him all to myself for so long.”
She had a far away look and her voice had become a soft drone. “It was a big house with many rooms, everybody was doing their own thing; mostly dancing. Little groups were walking around the large grounds, it was dark outside, some couples were necking around. Vernon and I decided to explore the place together. We were both high. He made me laugh so much I had tears in my eyes. We found a small room on the first floor – I think it was a guest bedroom or something. And then we were on the bed, he had taken off my skirt and panties and he was – he was so – overpowering! He made love to me and I – he – he did it twice, and I was lost – he was so strong.” She buried her head in her hands and I felt my heart soften for her. I wanted to take her in my arms and comfort her.
Reema suddenly piped up, “Daddy, let’s play outside!” Sadhana looked at him and he got up, smiled at the child and offered her his forefinger. They went outside, leaving us sitting side by side.
“After he had took his pleasure he went off to dance some more, leaving me lying naked in the darkness. I must have passed out. When I awoke, I didn’t know what to do. I was so ashamed. What was I to do – I have never, you know,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “you know, never had normal – sex, with Manish. I know what you’re going to say – our wedding should never have happened. But you know Indian families – nobody ever asks the people who are actually getting married. And ours is a conservative business community, you know how it is. And then when Vernon ----,” she trailed away before resuming, “Oh god, that day I became a slut, just an ordinary slut.”
I pictured her in that room, awash with mortification, alone with her terrible shame.
“When I dressed and came downstairs, Vipin and Manish were looking all over for me. Vernon was freaking out with another girl – he had lost interest in me. I told Vipin I had a headache and we quickly ate and left.”
I was close to her and my expression must have shown her the deepest sympathy. She sidled towards me and looked up at me imploringly.
“Chats, don’t tell Vipin the truth, please? It will shatter him. Please, okay?”
She was playing with my shirt front as she made the plea, we were up close and I could smell her heady fragrance. I looked down – her blouse had fallen slightly open and the swell of her soft breasts was clearly visible. I felt my pulse race but made sure my face did not show what I was really thinking. I decided to push my luck. I slipped my hands around her waist and we moved closer to each other. The voices of Manish and Reema floated in through the open window – they were quite far away. And she had already told me that he had never had sex with her so that probably meant that he wouldn’t have minded.
Our lips were very close to kissing, her eyes were half-closed and I sensed that the passion had overtaken her too. She was quickly losing control when I slung my arrow.
“It’s really Vipin you want isn’t it, Sadhana?”
She sprang up like a stung cat. “You bastard! How dare you! Did you even think you came close to Vipin? I don’t know what came over me! And how could you take advantage of a helpless girl!”
“Not so fast, young lady. I’ve come all this way for answers and I think I’m getting them. Now you better tell me the whole story. Why haven’t you told Vipin all this? He would have protected you. Instead of that, he’s in a living hell and all because of you.”
At this she flew into a terrible rage, her face flushed and she grabbed whatever came handy to throw at me. A cut-glass ashtray that could have dented my skull if her aim had been true, a flimsy paper-cutter that bounced harmlessly on my chest and finally a magazine that came fluttering out, though its hard spine caught me sharply on one ear. “How dare you!” she yelled again and again, each time she threw something. But I noticed that she didn’t tell me to leave.
As suddenly as it had come, her anger vanished and she collapsed back on the settee next to me, sobbing. I waited for a moment and then took her in my arms, shushing her with soft whispers. As I sat there patting her on the head, she started talking again in a small, childlike voice.
“Two weeks later I missed my periods. My worst fears had come true. Nanaji would have thrown both me and Manish out of the house if we had a black-skinned baby in the family. Worse, the whole family would have drowned in shame and its name would get wiped out forever.” She whipped her head up and said, eyes narrow and glinting harshly, “But if it had been an Australian or an Englishman, the shame would have been less. That’s what I hate about India. Everybody has such double standards.”
Quickly the fire went out and she resumed her story. “I had to find a way out. I told Manish everything – I knew he would understand – he’s almost a woman, himself. I wanted to abort and he said no. He utterly refused to take my baby’s life – thank God for him, Chats! He said we should take responsibility for our actions, and that he would stand by me. I was so stunned – those were Nanaji’s words! And Manish hates him so much!
“We thought America was the only way out. So we decided to ask Vipin to help us. Because he had himself been telling us for a long time that in America we would find a better world. And because he – he knew about me and Manish. But we didn’t have much time. How could we do it so that he would move things fast without suspecting the truth?
“And that’s when I got the idea. Suddenly I knew it would solve all problems. Before we asked him about getting us some opening in the US, I – I seduced Vipin! We made love two or three times. In his rooms at the campus.” She hung her head when she said this.
Jesus Christ, I thought to myself, what a bloody mess! Was there more? I waited.
“I had to make it look like he was the one who created the situation for which we had to leave India. And I had to make it look like I hated him for it. That’s why we slowly cut off letters after settling down in Colorado.”
“Well, you’ve made Vipin miserable, alright,” I said, gripping her by the shoulders, angry as hell. “But what about Manish, dammit, he’s got a double punishment. First you have a child from someone else – a black man, imagine how he’ll be feeling. You yourself said how we Indians loathe black skin more than white. And now you’ve cut him off from a brother who loves him so much he went out of his way to convince your Nanaji to agree to your going. Even after everybody came to know that you were carrying – I know that part too.”
She smiled scornfully. “You don’t understand Manish, Chats. Nobody does – nobody can. He’s a woman in a man’s body. And he got so badly treated because of that. So he hates India, too. He wanted to get away more than I did. And so he did whatever was necessary.”
I heard the front door slam and quickly moved away from her. I had got what I had come here for and now I just wanted to leave, get out into the fresh air. She saw the look in my eye and turned away, indifferent now. That, I guess, had to happen so I quickly said goodbye.
I met Manish as I walked towards the front door. He saw at once that it was all over. He whispered to Reema to go to her mother and stepped out again with me.
“Manish,” I said, as we neared the car, “I hope one day you’ll be able to meet your brother again. I’ll do my best to break the news to him gently and – and repair the damage that Sadhana has created.”
“Don’t bother, Chats. It’s too complicated for you to understand. Did she ----,” here he paused to look at me with a twinkle in his eye, “did she tell you about her and Vipin?”
I gasped. “You know?”
He laughed softly. “It was my idea, not hers, Chats. The first day we were to talk to him about the fastest way to get out of India, I pretended a headache. So she went alone. I knew I could depend on her. Well,” he continued, shrugging his shoulders, “we both had our reasons. I knew they hadn’t been at it before – I just knew. That’s why the guilt hit at the right time. I get to have my cake and it eat it too!
“I hate that bastard, Chats. Always the greatest, most intelligent, most successful and oh yes, oh so macho! Everybody thought so eh, Chats? Nanaji thought he could do no wrong eh, Chats? Well, he’s a regular fallen angel isn’t he, Chats? You want to go back and tell him that? Try it out and see what happens.
“Well then, goodbye.”