Many-Splendoured Love/Cold Coffee and Chutney Sandwiches

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Cold Coffee and Chutney Sandwiches

The news had reached many Indian households in the Westchester suburb of New York City - Maya is getting married. Shoma came to know about it somewhat later, so she started saying excitedly, “Oh, lets call Nila right away. She must be totally happy. The daughter is getting married. She will not have any time for anything else now. Come, lets call Nila. We will convey our wishes.”

Manju stopped Shoma, “ Arre, wait a minute. This is a matter not to offer wishes, but to extend regrets.”

“What do you mean? You just said that Maya is to be married. So where is the reason for regrets?”

Both of them sat down with glasses of cold coffee. Knowing that once the wintry weather starts it wouldn’t be fun to have it, both of them had wanted to have cold coffee today, instead of hot tea. “Make exactly as we used to have it in India”, was Manju’s condition.

Along with cold coffee, Shoma had prepared lilva kachori- which really meant that she had taken them out of the freezer and had warmed them up in the oven. “It is such a relief to get all these snacks in the freezer section, isn’t it?”, all the Indian housewives would say to each-other.

“Coffee is good. So you do know how to make it”, Manju teased Shoma.

“Well, certainly. How many times one has had it in India. I haven’t forgotten the taste. But tell me now, what is it about Maya’s wedding?”

Manju lowered her voice, even though there was no one else around, “Arre, last year Maya had gone to India with the family, and then she had stayed behind to work at an NGO in Karnataka, or Kerala, whatever. She met someone there, and liked him so much, that now she wants to marry only him. Nila and Dr. Ragade tried hard to make her understand, that “You are born in America, were raised here, you studied and grew up here; you wouldn’t find it easy to be with an Indian.”

“But Nila has always been saying that she will have Maya marry only an Indian. So this one from Karnataka, or Kerala, surely is an Indian, then what is the objection? About caste, status etc? Oh come on, someone highly educated like Dr. Ragade can’t be believing in caste, and status, and all that.”

“Oh Shoma, Shoma, You rattled off whatever that came in your head. Now can I say something?” Then Manju explained to her, that “Yes, it is true that Nila wants an Indian husband only, for Maya; but Indian meaning an Indian from here, not an Indian from India.”

Shoma had never heard nor imagined such a thing. She was somewhat taken aback. “Not an Indian from India. That would not work for Maya.” Lost in thoughts, she went on murmering.

Then she said, “But why would that not work? Nila and her husband have been boasting all their lives that they have instilled Indian values in Maya very well. She is a Vegetarian, she speaks the language a little also, and she comes to temple regularly with us, and all that.”

Shoma contiued, “So in America, you raise the girl as an Indian, and feel proud about it. And now when that girl wants to marry a local Indian, they should feel even more proud.”

“They should at least feel relieved. I do not know if you remember or not, that once before Maya had very close friendship with a white American. They were in college together. At that time, Maya wanted to marry him, David. She had created quite a ruccus. Then as it happened, he went into the Army, and in this day and age, no one is expected to wait any length of time for anyone.”

“Yes, I did hear about something like that”, Shoma said. “The parents must have felt such peace then, when that obsession passed. Again there is this agitation now. May be this problem will also get solved by itself, what do you think?”

“Ohho, I do not want to think about this any more. Gives me a headache.” Manju finished her coffee, and changed the subject. “Listen, instead of a tea party, give a cold coffee party next.”

“Yes, cold coffee and chutney sandwiches. Exactly like Havmor menu, right?”

But Manju had not even heard Havmor Restaurant’s name. She said, “Look, I am from Nagpur. There girls did not go out much. Whatever one wanted to eat, it would be made at home. Once in a while my younger brother would sneak out and bring some tempting snacks, like Samosa and Gulabjamun, from the bazaar, but only when Papa was not home.”

Once again lowering her voice she said, “My Luck changed completely after marriage. Ketan brought me out from Nagpur directly to this lovely suburb, and bought so many new things, like a whole bazaar at home. In the beginning, every day we went out to eat. What was Mexican, and what was Italian, I had no idea then. But hey, look at me now.”

Shoma also said softly, as if she had other thoughts on her mind, “So we all remained Indians, and still, changed so much; in such ways that we started considering India’s Indians as different.”

Once again she went on repeating the same thing, “We do want to remain Indians, and want to go on singing about our culture, but just the way we are different from Americans and people of other races, are we now different from our forefathers also?”

Now Manju was in a hurry to leave. She was bored by Shoma’s distracted mutterings. She left, saying, “ Listen, Don’t call Nila and put your foot in your mouth. Express your pleasure if she calls you. And if you want to know more, talk to Kanta some time. She always knows all the gossip.”

Even after being alone Shoma remained preoccupied by thoughts. She was in Amreica for last twenty six years or so, and went back to India often. There was closeness among the members in her family as well as among the in-laws, still.

One or two friends would always tell her that she was lucky to have such good relations in both her families. “Jyoti was cheated by her own brother, out of the land their father left them both. That was such an emotional shock to Jyoti that she suffers from high blood pressure even now”, they had told Shoma.

It is true that when such a drastic thing happens it is very painful, and it raises some questions also. But that apart, the reality of life is such where every person is bound to be different from one another. Reasons like a place, brought-up, vernacular, food etc. will certainly make one person different from another. Still, how can anyone believe someone else inferior?, the question baffled Shoma.

The fact was that, by living abroad, she herself had changed in some ways, but when she went to India on visits, and was with relatives, nobody would even feel any change in her. Suddenly she remembered Bholi, her young friend. Bholi had come to America just two years ago from India, after getting married. Her husband Jasbir Singh had gone back home, to Amritser, to find a bride. Both families were traditional Sikh, knew one-another for generations, and there was no need to find out anything more about Jasbir.

But as soon as he returned to New York with his bride, Jasbir got his beard shaved, and also got a modern hair cut. To the stunned Bholi he simply said, “Oh, I grow them back before I go home to visit in three-four years.”

Then he told Bholi, “Nobody wears a salvar-kurta outfit here every day. Learn to get dressed like everybody else here.” And then, not just jeans, Bholi had to start wearing short dresses also.

One day Jasbir said, “Look Darling, in America nobody is saying your name right. Instead of ‘Bholi’, they always say ‘Boli’, have you noticed that? Here nobody can say the ‘bha’ sound clearly. So from now on your name is ‘Poli’. They are used to names like Paula, Paul, Poli, you see.”

When they were alone together, Bholi had told Shoma once, “Didi, I have not changed from inside as much as I seem to have from outside, yet; but I am going in that direction, I feel.”

As she accompanied her husband to clubs and bars, Bholi had to start drinking wine. Sometimes Jasbir will give her a cigarette from his hand. Jasbir himself wanted a Sikh girl, not just his parents; but as a wife, he desired a modern-style wife. Bholi had opened her heart to Shoma another time, “To what extent should I be a modern-style wife that he would like, and keep liking? Thinking about future scares me.”

Two-three days passed, but Shoma did not call anyone. Nila may be sad, and may want to talk to a friend. Still, Shoma waited for her to call. Shoma did not call Kanta either. She did not feel like gossiping.

The call that she received was from Katherine. She also had heard about Maya wanting to marry and about the parents’ opposition. Katherine was Kanta’s brother’s wife. She was the only non-Indian in this group. Even though she had mixed very well, the Indian housewives considered her just a foreigner. Some of them even thought, “What would Katherine understand?”

“I do not understand this reference between India’s Indian and an Indian from here”, Katherine told Shoma. Shoma herself did not understand it, really.

Katherine was a lawyer in New York City. She always talked intelligently. “But aren’t such distinctions illegal?”, she had asked. Then right away she had given a sombre chuckle that, “If you consider personal prejudices illegal, then the jails of the whole world would overflow.”

It was nearly eight days. Nila did not seem to have called anyone. Shoma had certainly not received a call. But she did not mind it. The contrary, she felt sorry for Nila, thinking how upset she must be.

One day she got Amita’s call. After hearing about it from Manju, Amita also wanted to arrange a cold coffee and chutney sandwich afternoon party at her home, and wanted Shoma’s help. Shoma had laughed that if nothing else, at least for cold coffee she was going to be famous now!

Amita’s daughter had married an Ameircan. Both were doctors. Once Katherine had explained to Shoma that Amita’s son-in-law was what is called “Boston Brahmin” here, which meant that he was from a class that is considered the best in America, in terms of lineage and sophistication. These people are rich, and highly educated, but do not believe in showing off, Katherine had said.

After learning this Shoma could see that Amita had gained a lot from her son-in-law and his family. She was not snobbish about her daughter now. Besides, she had started taking genuine interest in and showing real feelings for friends’ children. Katherine also must have noticed this change, because she had told Shoma, “We have to hear a lot of boasting from most people, but Amita is very sweet, she hardly boasts about her famous son-in-law.”

Katherine was also very sweet, Shoma thought. She never said, “You Indians”. She would always say “Everybody” or “All of us”. She always made sure that she did not come out different or more accomplished than anyone else. Shoma felt that so many others should learn natural generosity from Katherine.

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Shoma reached Amita’s house a little earlier. Katherine had also come over to help. Amita was serving some other snacks also, besides cold coffee and chutney sandwiches. While arranging all items nicely, again the talk had turned to Maya.

The three of them sympathized with Nila. Amita said, “When the daughter is born here, she herslef is an American. So even if she wants to marry an American boy, the parents should not object to it.”

Katherine said, “And suppose it is an Indian - India’s Indian. So what? Whatever the daughter wishes. Isn’t that right?”

Amita replied, “Well, who is that Indian boy, how educated he is - matters like these should certainly be looked into, but at the end, for a mature daughter the parents need not worry too much.”

Shoma said, “After all, this is a modern world. Even if marriages have taken place after the parents have looked into every thing, many times mistakes would seem to have been made.” The reference to Bholi’s life had entered her mind, but she did not say anything about it.

Something must have occured to Katherine, because again she started saying, “I have observed that almost all families prefer to have an Indian bride for the sons. If a nice, good, clever, pretty Indian girl is not found here then such a one is selected in India.” She stopped for a moment and asked, “If an Indian girl from India is considered very desirable as a daughter-in-law, then why is an Indian boy from India not desirable as a son-in-law?”

Shoma and Amita looked at each other, but none could say anything. How deeply did Katherine understand the Indian mentality; and her question was so logical, but it was not easy in any way to answer it.

Just then the bell rang. Katherine went and opened the door. It was Manju. It was her nature to arrive earlier than the given time. Today her attention was not on Shoma, Katherine or even the hostess Amita. She held a bunch of flowers, plucked from her garden, in one hand, and she was talking into the cell phone held in the other hand.

“No... Come on... What are you saying?... Oh really?...” She went on saying, and laughing uncontrolably. “Can’t believe... Oh really...?” The other hand was going to her mouth, her stomach. She was not even aware when the flowers had fallen off, dispersed, to the floor from that hand.

She hung up, and started saying, “You know what is the whole story about Maya? Just now Kanta told me everything.”

Those three did not show any interest in the gossip, but Manju continued talking. “Do you know why Maya wants to - or wanted to - marry that local boy from Karnataka, or Kerala? It was because she wanted to help that fellow. She is an American, so after getting married he can get American citizenship, and that will give him a much better life here. Then both of them will divorce. This is what Maya wanted to do.”

Katherine raised an argument, “In legal terms, getting married like this, and getting divorced is not ---”

Manju stopped her mid-sentence, “ Arre, keep your law aside just now. Listen to the whole thing first.”

Shoma could see that Katherine had become serious. Perhaps sad also. She could never take interest in gossip, and she thought it crude to laugh and joke like this about other people’s lives.

Manju’s attention was not on any of this. She was saying, “The crux is that Maya has quietly and secretly got married already. That too, quite some time ago.”

Now even Amita was shocked.

Manu went on saying, “Maya has already got married to her second boyfriend Michael. She has been in love with him for a while, but working in the NGO, she had thought about helping somebody, about changing somebody’s future. That’s all.”

Again Manju started laughing loudly. She said, “That Nila deserves this. This serves her right. She behaved like her daughter was a princess. Now she has lost face in the community. What is she going to do now?”

Without a word Katherine had been collecting the flowers from the floor. She gave the bunch in Shoma’s hand, and started going towards the door. Shoma tried to stop her, but she gave a pale smile, opened the door, and left.

Just then the other ladies started coming in. Again Manju started recounting the story of Maya and Nila in details to them. None of them was laughing as hard as her.

Shoma also wanted to leave. Once she looked towards Katherine going out, and then towards all the women that had gathered. Amita was looking at her from a distance, as if she understood what Shoma was thinking. Just through her eyes, she requested Shoma not to leave. “ For my sake. Please stay”, Amita was conveying.

Shoma found a vase from a nearby table, put the flowers in it, and went towards the kitchen to fill it with some water. She saw that on the dining table, in the neatly arranged glasses the cold coffee was getting warm, and on decorative plates, all the chutney sandwiches were drying up.