Thursday, August 18, 2011

Home Country

by Ruth Madison

Priyanka spent most of the flight from Bangalore to Boston, stopover in Germany, silently observing the people around her. She had never been on a plane before and she didn't know anyone, but she had learned that if she stayed quiet she could figure out what to do. There were plenty of movies in Hindi and she brought a book, but she found the people much more interesting.

The man on her right was taking notes while reading a Bible. In the row ahead was a couple with a small boy. The girl she presumed to be the mother was very young, probably younger than Priyanka herself, and she wore western style clothes, but with a small red tikka mark between her eyebrows. The stewardesses spoke German to one another and Priyanka tried to guess at what they were saying. The German language was more clipped with hardened sounds, unlike the rush of jumbled sounds of Indian languages like water rushing over stones.

After the stopover, different people joined them. The Indians became fewer, now most of the plane seemed to be Americans. For that flight Priyanka slept with her head in her arms on the open tray table. She woke as they started down toward Boston.

Suddenly she was nervous about how she looked after sleeping. She made her way to the bathroom and finger combed her hair for a few minutes and re-plaited it. She smoothed the pleats in her sari. Her aunt had insisted that she wear a sari on the flight, to look her best when she arrived. What she meant was to look traditional, like a good girl who wouldn't cause any trouble and that's exactly what Priyanka had always been.

There was nothing Priyanka could do in the bathroom to quiet the fury of nerves in her stomach. In just a few minutes she would meet the man she would spend the rest of her life with and all she knew of him was printed on the back of his photograph that was in her bag. She had spent the nights since she found out looking at that picture and trying to imagine what kind of person he was. He was older than her, but younger than she expected and he looked a bit shy in front of the camera. She was surprised by how handsome he was and she hoped it was an up to date photograph. In situations like these, you never knew what people might do. It was not the usual way, to go sight unseen to a new place.
Ever since her parents had been killed in an accident, Priyanka had lived with a distant aunt. She brought with her a bad horoscope, additional expense, and the taint of tragedy. Daksha Auntie worried how she would marry Priyanka off from the time the girl arrived at eleven years old. Daksha Auntie wanted people to believe that she loved and cared for Priyanka, but in reality she wanted nothing more than to be rid of her and she resented any expense that Priyanka took as coming from her own children. Daksha Auntie and Babu Uncle started looking for matches when Priyanka turned eighteen, but found nothing until she was twenty.

Daksha Auntie had not told her much about her groom. He was an NRI, living in America. He was a doctor. It all sounded like a very eligible man. There had to be some catch, something Daksha Auntie wasn't telling her for him to agree to her horoscope.
“You will go to America and meet him there,” Daksha Auntie told her, “This is the best offer we will get for you.”
“What's wrong with him?”
“What makes you say something is wrong? You are an ungrateful girl for all the work that we do for you. You will go there and you won't make a fuss. Lucky girl that you should go to America and marry a doctor. Everyone we know will be jealous.”
But Priyanka knew something wasn't right. A man as good as Auntie described would have no need to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find her, poor and with tragedy in her horoscope. Most NRIs returned to India to find their brides, married while there, then brought them back. Why had her groom insisted she come alone to the other side of the world with only his picture? This was not how things were done. Daksha Auntie didn't care, she would take whatever offer she could get for Priyanka.

Daksha Auntie gave Priyanka only one gold necklace set. She was surprised to receive even that. If things went badly, this necklace set could be sold to get Priyanka out of difficulty. Girls with mothers went to their husband's homes with as much jewelry as the family could afford, for protection and also for show. No one cared enough about Priyanka for that. She packed the necklace set in her traveling bag. She had seen enough American movies that she didn't want to wear the jewelry, for fear it might be ripped from her body in a dramatic mugging.

Priyanka filed out of the airplane with the others. She was a small woman, short and diminutive in every regard and easily overlooked. She often went unnoticed in the crowds of Bangalore. She looked like hundreds of women on the street, a bright sari wrapped around her and her hair plaited to her mid-back with a string of jasmine in it. She was thin and willowy and her complexion was dark enough that Daksha Auntie rubbed lightening creams on her face every night. Nothing about her stood out.

Until she walked into Logan airport and quickly lost sight of any other Indians. There were no saris here, not even any salwar suits. The crowd of people around her were dressed drably and all she could see around her was white and grey. She tried to keep sight of one person from her flight, to figure out where to go.

They walked through a wide glass doorway and all of a sudden there was a crowd of people holding signs. She quickly spotted the one with her name written in Hindi script, but it was lower than the others. She widened her gaze and realized the man holding the sign was sitting in a wheelchair. Her first thought was that he must be a servant or a driver, though who would use a crippled driver?

She pulled out the photograph of her groom and compared them. Same strong jaw line, same hooked nose, same shock of curly black hair, and same kind twinkle in the eye. It was him. Strange for the groom to be the one to pick her up, she had expected a sister or just a driver. The picture she held was only of his face. Now she looked over the rest of him. He was dressed neatly in a button shirt and slacks. He was small all around, but his legs seemed frail even for his thin frame. He wore brown lace shoes and his feet rested inches above the ground. Priyanka had never seen a wheelchair like this one before, it was almost artistic in its fluid lines.

She had an urge suddenly to bolt, but she squashed it. There was nowhere to go. She looked back up to his face and saw that he was looking at her with an apologetic smile. She walked towards him, no expression on her face.
“Priyanka?” he said.
She nodded.
“I'm Deepak. I'm sorry to surprise you like this. I know you weren't expecting the wheelchair.”
“No,” she said. She would usually keep her next thought to herself, but it seemed fair to shock him in return, “I knew there must be a reason you petitioned to marry a loser like me.”
She was rewarded with his startled stare. “You don't look like a loser,” he said eventually.
“I guess you haven't looked at my horoscope.”
He laughed. “No, it's true, I don't put much stock in those things.”
“It spells tragedy for my husband.”
“Ah, in that case, I guess my parents figured I'd already had mine.”
He laughed so freely that she found herself joining in, though she hadn't meant to laugh about his situation.
“Anyway,” he said, “I know it's a shock, but it's sort-of like Gandhari finding out that Driterastra was blind, right?”
Priyanka smiled again, she had always found that story very romantic. “Are you secretly a king?” she teased.
“Better.”
“Acha?”
“Heart specialist with my own house.”
“My aunt thought all her prayers paid off.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Did it excite you to think of moving to America to marry a doctor?”
“Little, little bit.”
“I wish I could have been who you were expecting.” He was quiet a moment, then said, “Shall we go get your bag?”
She walked slightly behind him and could see the top of his head. As a short woman she had never expected to be able to see the top of her husband's head. From this angle she observed him more closely. The skin on the back of his neck was smooth and the color of milked coffee. His ears were almost entirely covered by thick black waves of hair. His shoulders rose as he moved and his hands seemed to barely graze the rims on the wheels with each stroke. She had never seen anyone with such precise control over a wheelchair, he wasn't like the cripples she had seen occasionally in the city, most of them beggars.

Next to the baggage claim, he put brakes on his wheels. When she pointed out her small blue suitcase, he leaned forward in the wheelchair, twisting and keeping one hand on the back of the chair while he grabbed the suitcase with the other and yanked it onto the ground. Priyanka felt a tickle of admiration. She expected someone like him to have others do things for him. In fact, she imagined that's why he had decided he wanted a wife.

“Can I help you out, mate?” A strong looking, tan young man said, but Deepak smiled and said no. He picked up the suitcase and positioned it on his lap. “The car's this way,” he said.
As he got in, Priyanka watched him. When the wheelchair was stored in the backseat she said, “Can I ask what it is for?”
“The wheelchair? I had an accident when I was a kid, in India. My parents brought me here hoping for better treatment, but even American doctors couldn't make me walk.”
“Acha,” she said solemnly.
“I didn't want to do this whole arranged marriage thing, but American dating is brutal and my parents finally talked me into this.”
Priyanka didn't say anything. She had never expected anything else, although she thought she would be married to a low-level shop worker.
They drove through Boston, just the two of them. Priyanka looked out the window. The city seemed empty and cold. The streets were thick with cars, but all proceeding in a solid, polite line, only a honk occasionally.

As they headed out of the city and the landscape became manicured lawns and wide houses, Deepak said, “You don't have to go through with this, you know. My family lied and it won't hurt my feelings if you turn me down now. Well, it will hurt my feelings, but I'll understand. They wanted me to wait until the wedding to see you, or rather for you to see me. I didn't want you to be trapped.”
She felt a little ill as she looked again at his motionless legs. She almost couldn't tell when they were in the car, the only thing that gave it away was the machinery that allowed his hands to control the gas and brake. But remembering how he looked in the wheelchair it was hard to imagine him touching her in an intimate way, even if he was handsome. It was as though the two halves of his body were fighting each other. The handsome face canceled out by the tragedy of the lower part.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said.
“Right.” He sighed. “Well, let's get you introduced to the family.”
He pulled into a driveway and people came rushing out of the house. The women wore salwar suits and the men were in western dress. They stood so close to the car that Deepak seemed to have trouble getting his wheelchair out. Everyone was peering in and trying to get a look at her. She waited until Deepak was out and settled before she got out of the car and allowed herself to be enveloped in strangers.

Inside, the kitchen table was covered in food, like a buffet, and people swarmed all over the house. Priyanka looked around, assuming that Deepak lived here and that she would be moving in after the marriage had taken place.
“A small wedding. Hundred people only.” His mother darted her head to the side as she said this. “We will provide the sari and the jewels and we'll have some relatives to stand in for yours.” Priyanka nodded, saying nothing. The wedding would be something done to her, not something she felt a part of. She looked over at Deepak, who was filling a plate with rice and daal and vegetables. He put it on his lap and stuck a glass of water between his knees. Once she was a daughter-in-law, it would be her job to serve him and the rest of the family. He was an only child, there was no other daughter-in-law.
His mother grabbed Priyanka's chin and turned her face back and forth. “Very nice,” she said, “Now, you will stay here with us until the wedding.”
Deepak got back in his car and left. Priyanka spent the next week living with his parents and trying to figure out what was expected of her. Actually, it seemed that they were so grateful she had agreed to marry Deepak, that nothing else mattered. His mother quizzed her about friends and family from the Bangalore area and reminisced about her school days in a nearby town. His father never said much, but did tell her to sit and eat when she tried to serve dinner. She didn't see Deepak at all, it seemed he did have a separate home.
The morning of the wedding, the priest took her over to a tree behind the house and performed a ceremony. Some sort of diversion for her bad horoscope. The priest assured her the tragedy would now befall the tree.

The wedding itself went by in a series of moments whenever Priyanka wasn't too overwhelmed to tune in. The room was full of people she had never seen before and she was grateful for the few minutes of alone time she had already had with Deepak. It made the entire thing less frightening.

She draped the flower garland over his head and bent forward so that he could place his over her head. She entered the mandap first, kicking off her shoes in a practiced motion, then sat on a bench that was at wheelchair height. Deepak approached and lifted each leg by its ankle to pull his shoes off one at a time. He pushed up the sloped edge of the mandap platform and maneuvered in beside Priyanka, his feet bare. She was fascinated by the feet. They looked so normal. She was completely distracted from what the priest was chanting as she cast her eyes down to his still feet.

There was an unusual amount of space between them and the fire. Deepak rolled forward each time they threw something in. When it was time to walk around the fire, Priyanka realized the reason for the space, so that Deepak's wheelchair could fit. Deepak tied the end of her shawl around one of his knees and followed her in seven circles around the fire.

She knelt on the ground with her back to him so that he could tie the mangal sutra around her neck. Everyone in the room then pelted them with flower blossoms and rice. Outside the mandap, they both leaned down to touch his parents' feet. He stayed down while touching his eyes and doing namaskar and pulled himself back to sitting upright by grabbing the edges of his chair.

The party lasted well into the night and they watched many people perform dances and eat and laugh and play games. Most people didn't seem to care that it was Deepak's wedding, it was just an excuse to be merry. Finally as Priyanka could feel her head dipping in exhaustion, they were able to make an exit. They got into Deepak's car and Priyanka began pulling jewelry off as he drove.
“So, that's that,” he said eventually.
“Yes,” she said. She didn't know what came next. She didn't know how husbands and wives became comfortable with each other. All the spouses she knew were very familiar with each other and she still felt nervous and uncertain around her husband.
He didn't really want a wife, she was sure she must be here to help care for him. She wondered at first if she would even sleep in the same room. They would look like a couple to the outside world, but in reality she would be little more than a maid and a nurse. Things could be worse.
Though she expected a separate room, there was only one bed. She changed in the bathroom into a long, thick nightgown and lay down on one edge of the bed. Deepak moved his wheelchair up next to the other side. He put his hands on the bed and pulled himself over.
“Would you like help?” Priyanka asked.
“I'm fine,” he said, lifting his legs onto the bed.
She had expected that he must live with his parents when she first saw him. How was he getting by on his own without a wife or parents to help him? How did he dress? How did he bathe? Her mind swirled with questions, but she decided to just observe and step in if he asked. They slept on opposite sides of the bed all night.

In the morning, while Deepak was in the bathroom, Priyanka stood in front of her little suitcase and had no idea what to wear. She didn't have many clothes, her aunt either couldn't afford to buy her a trousseau or didn't want to waste the money on it. She didn't know what was expected of her here. Did Deepak want a traditional wife? He didn't live with his parents. Would they be coming by to check that she was wearing sari and cooking roti? They didn't seem to be too concerned with that. They must be progressive people to have come to America, to have pushed a crippled son to achieve the same goals expected of normal boys.
She had bought a skirt and two short kurtas that looked like something she could imagine Julia Roberts wearing in America. But today, just in case, she selected a sari and expertly wrapped it around her body, tucking the pallu end into the waist. When Deepak emerged, she followed him to the kitchen.
“I will make you breakfast,” she said. She opened his cabinets, but found very little. A few boxes in the cabinet below the sink. Nothing in the cabinets above, which she quickly realized he couldn't reach.
“You don't need to do that.”
“Do you have a steamer?”
“For idli? No. Listen, I have to get to work, but I'll take you to the grocery store when I get back. There's an Indian one too. I'm sorry to disappear on you, but there are books and the TV and I'm going to have a friend stop by to check on you at noon. She'll take you for lunch, okay?”
“Sure, sure,” Priyanka said. She watched out the kitchen window as he rolled down the ramp on the side stairs and into the garage. After he drove away, loneliness settled into the pit of her stomach.
She busied herself doing the things she had been told were wifely things. She wet a towel and scrubbed the floors, finding tire marks throughout the house. She dusted the bookshelves and entertainment center. Her eye caught on a book about language acquisition in adults and she sat on the sofa to read it, a dust rag forgotten on her lap.
At noon the doorbell rang. Priyanka peered through the kitchen window again and saw a young woman who must be the friend Deepak spoke of. She unlocked the door.
“You're Deepak's wife?”
She bobbed her head side to side.
“You speak English?”
“Sure, sure, no problem.”
The woman came in and sat down on the one chair at the kitchen table. “He's a great guy. God, I can't believe he's married. You've known him how long?”
“From two weeks.”
“Wow, I can't even imagine marrying someone I've known two weeks.”
“It is a different way,” Priyanka said, shrugging.
“I'm Rachel, by the way.”
“I'm Priya.”
“Let's get some lunch, then. Do you want to change?”
“It is not okay? This?”
“Just looks kind of uncomfortable.”
“No, no, it is fine.”
As they drove to a restaurant, Priyanka missed the chaos of home. Everything here was too orderly. Rachel was good company, telling Priyanka stories about what Deepak was like in college.

Over the next several days, Rachel came over each afternoon. On the second day Deepak left some money and told them to buy Priyanka some western clothes. Feeling that was some kind of permission, she started wearing jeans and short kurtas and even leaving her hair down.
Priyanka learned how to find the grocery store and the Indian food store. She cooked a dinner for Deepak each night. Sometimes he arrived home when it was ready, more often she reheated it late at night when he got back from the hospital. She quickly discovered that he would eat anything and she enjoyed trying to find exotic dishes and unusual ingredients to shock him. She was unable to find anything he wouldn't eat.
Each evening he told her about his day while she oiled her hair and they went to sleep on opposite sides of the bed.
One night Deepak told her, “We need to go to this fancy function at the hospital where I work. I'll take you shopping for a dress tomorrow. We'll take the subway, you'll like it.”

He was right, she loved the subway. The mass of people pushing against each other felt like home. When they got on the train, someone moved out of a seat marked with a wheelchair symbol. Deepak folded the seat out of the way and rolled into its place. There was no where to sit and Priyanka was preparing to hold onto the pole next to the door when Deepak grazed the back of her arm with his fingers, then patted his lap. Gingerly she climbed on and he wrapped his arms around her waist. It felt surprisingly nice, like they fit together as puzzle pieces.
At the store, the sale's girl tried to ignore Deepak's input, but he knew the event and Priyanka did not, so he selected the dresses for her to try on. The sale's girl absolutely refused to allow him in the changing area, so he sat in the store and waited for her to come out in each dress. Priyanka modeled dresses and twirled in front of him and he told her she was beautiful. She couldn't remember the last time she had so much fun.

Then she came out of the changing room and a couple of girls were standing behind Deepak and speaking in French. He was oblivious to them, since he didn't understand what they were saying, but Priyanka did and she frowned. She walked past her husband and said to the girls, “Je peux vous comprendre.”
Deepak pushed his chair around and stared at her as the girls rolled their eyes and walked away.
Priyanka looked down at her shoes and said, “They were speaking about you.”
“You can speak French?”
“A little. I've been studying.”
“You already speak Tamil, Hindi, Kanada and English and you're learning French too. I'm impressed, I can only speak English and bad Hindi. Why didn't you say you were fluent in so many languages?”
Priyanka looked at him and he was gazing at her with such pride that she blushed. “Daksha Auntie didn't think it sounded right, I have the wrong kind of skills. I do cook, though, I like cooking.”
“Yes, and you're very good at it. I like to cook too.”
“You?”
“I'll make you a lasagna tomorrow, you'll love it.”
She smiled. She never thought she'd have so much fun with her husband, it almost made up for the lack of touch. Her skin sometimes seemed to ache from the desire to be touched and there were times she longed to just be held. She always pushed those thoughts aside.

That night on the drive over to convention center where the event was happening, Deepak said, “Some of my colleagues are real pigs, just be prepared.”
He was looking exceptionally handsome in a suit and tie and Priyanka herself had never felt more lovely, not even on their wedding day. There were many people in the hall, but it didn't feel crowded because it was such a huge space. Deepak found their table with place cards that said Dr. and Mrs. Rao. He rolled his eyes when he saw there was a chair at his place setting. “Every single time,” he muttered. Priyanka stayed at the table while he went to find someone to remove the chair. No one else from their table had arrived yet.

When Deepak got back and the mix-up with the extra chair had been settled, they wandered around the room mingling. Deepak approached a couple of men standing near the bar area and Priyanka followed a little behind, distracted by staring at all the beautiful dresses. When she arrived, Deepak said to the men, “This is my wife, Priyanka. Priya, this is George and Eddie.”
“You lucky dog, since when do you have a wife?” one said.
“Got her from the old country where they can't say 'no', eh?” the other said, and both laughed heartily.
Priyanka looked down at Deepak and he was staring at his knees. He seemed embarrassed. What the man said was mostly true. Priyanka herself hadn't had as much choice as most girls in these situations did, but there was always a choice. She could have sold her gold necklace and taken her chances.
“I'm a woman, not a slave,” she said, “I can always say 'no.'”
Deepak looked at her sharply, awe on his face and the trace of a smile.
“Got a feisty one, did you? Good luck with that, Dee.” They laughed again as they walked away.
“Sorry,” Priyanka said.
She was startled when, instead of speaking, he took her hand and wove his fingers through hers. Affection surged through her as she realized they were a team, close to each other in a way that no one could touch.

That night, same as the others, she put on her long night gown and lay on one edge of the bed. Deepak pulled his wheelchair along the other side and looked at her. She sat up, suddenly self-conscious. She covered her chest with her arms and waited for him to speak.
“Do you find me grotesque?” he asked.
“No,” she answered truthfully, “Not anymore.”
“Could I kiss you?” He looked hopeful and scared, not like a husband exercising his rights.
She nodded and he moved to the bed, his legs shaking slightly.
“Come closer,” he said and she slid up next to him. She touched his arm and enjoyed the feel of his skin. She grasped his upper arm and it was thick and muscular.

Her first kiss was warm and gentle. His lips were soft against hers. He opened her lips with his tongue and seemed to drink her in. He ran a hand over her body, lifting up her nightgown and touching her legs, the outside of her thighs, her stomach, her breasts. She could almost read his delight through his touch. The surface of his fingers was like sandpaper against her skin, and yet she warmed as he touched her.
The room seemed suddenly much too hot and her nightgown was unbearably thick. She sat up and pulled it over her head, abandoning it on the floor. Deepak took a sharp breath at her naked body. She watched as he wiggled out of his pajama bottoms, rocking his body side to side to maneuver them down his legs.

When she lay back down, he slid a finger into her and she gasped at the new sensation.
He pressed his thumb against the outside, while moving his finger around inside. While doing that, he was touching himself, rubbing his genitals until they became hard. “I want you to straddle me and put that in where my finger was, okay?”

More than okay, she was surprised to find that part of her body actually craving to be filled. She had an urge to get something inside her quickly and his body was perfect. She pressed up and down against him while he held her hips. The sensation was like a million butterflies tickling the inside of her skin throughout her body. She had never felt anything so wonderful.

She leaned forward, her nipples grazing over his chest, and nibbled on his neck. He dug his fingers into her arms and cried out in pleasure. The sound caused another surge of excitement like warm honey rushing through her.  She shivered and grabbed handfuls of his hair as spasms shot through her lower body and she released a moan.

Moments later Priyanka lay against him in the crook of his arm and he said, “I know you must have wondered what bad fate led you here, but I think we can be happy.”
“Sometimes good fate is disguised as bad.”
“Yes,” he said, sighing contentedly, “Sometimes it is.”

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