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The day Sudha stepped off the plane from India into Anju's arms, leaving a ruined marriage behind, their lives changed forever. And not just Sudha's and Anju's. Sunil's life changed, too. And baby Dayita's. Like invisible sound waves that ripple out and out, the changes reached all the way to India, to Ashok waiting on his balcony for the wind to turn. To their mothers in the neat squareness of their flat, upsetting the balance of their household, causing the mango pickles to turn too-sour and the guava tree in the backyard to grow extra-large pink guavas. The changes multiplied the way vines might in a magical tale, their tendrils reaching for people whose names Sudha and Anju did not even know yet.
Were the changes good or bad?
Can we use such simple, childish terms in asking this question? Neither of the cousins were simple women, though there was much that was childlike about them when they were together alone, or with Dayita. When Sunil was away.
Sunil. Anju's husband. Sudha's cousin-in-law. A young executive with a bright future in a prestigious computer company. But no. None of this tells us who he really is. Because he wasn't a simple man either.
It is not clear when Anju first sensed this. At their double wedding, when she stood beside Sunil, their bridal garments knotted, and watched him watch Sudha's forehead being marked with the red powder of wifehood? Months back, when he told Anju that it was a bad idea to bring her cousin to America? The night before Sudha's arrival, by which time it was too late? When did she first sense that though she loved him, she didn't always trust him?
But lately Anju doesn't trust the runaway roller-coaster of her own emotions either. The wild mood-swings after the miscarriage that would leave her weeping or laughing hysterically. The long bouts of depression, later, that immobilized her in bed, incapable of even answering the phone.
Guilt ate at her, a slow, pernicious rust. No matter how often Sunil assured her that the miscarriage could have been caused by any number of things, she didn't believe him. When the blackness came upon her, her mind turned heavy and stubborn, like one of those cement mixing trucks you pass sometimes on the road. A sentence would catch in it and begin to rotate, If only I'd listened to the doctor and not overworked myself, until it broke down into a phrase, If only I hadn't, If only I hadn't. It ended, always, in the same anguished chant. Prem Prem Prem.
She would rock her body from side to side, her neglected, will-o-the-wisp hair spreading its static on the sofa, fingers digging rigidly into her arms until they left bruises shaped like tiny petals.
"I don't know how to help you when you're like this," Sunil would say.
Afterwards, when the depression lifted, she would sometimes say, "You don't need to do anything."
Inside her head she added, Except love me.
Inside her head he replied, I do love you.
Inside her head she said, But not enough.
The night before Sudha arrives, Anju cannot sit still. Some of it is excitement, but mostly she is nervous. Why? Isn't this her dear, dear cousin, sister of her heart? They've protected, advised, cajoled, bullied, and stood up for each other all their lives. Each has been madly jealous of the other at some point. Each has enraged the other, or made her weep. Each has been willing to give up her happiness for her cousin. In short: they've loved each other the way they've never loved anyone else. Why then does Sudha's coming fill Anju with this unexpected dread?
If there are answers, she will not allow herself to think of them.
At dinner she is unable to eat. "But what if Sudha doesn't like it here?" she keeps saying.
It is the year of dangerous movements. Two weeks back, a major earthquake hit Los Angeles, causing $7 billion in damage and leaving over 10,000 people homeless. Will Anju and Sunil read this as an omen? Or will they discount it in the belief that every year has its own disasters?
Anju, who is a terrible cook, has spent the day making lasagna because, she says, Sudha has never tasted any in India. The sink and their few dishtowels are all dyed the same stunning orange, a color which looks fearfully permanent.
Sunil doesn't comment on this. He focuses instead on the gluey orange mass on his plate, at which he jabs half-heartedly from time to time. He is a meticulous man, a man who detests chaos. Who takes satisfaction each evening in shining his shoes with a clean rag and a tin of Esquire Boot Polish before putting them away on the closet shelf. But he makes an effort today and says nothing--both about the lasagna and about Anju's question, which is not so much a question as a lament for something she fears has happened already. He is thinking of what she said a few weeks back, unthinkingly. The happiest memories of my life are of growing up with Sudha. He is thinking of what he didn't say to her.
What about me, then? What about you and me?
"Let me tell you," Sudha was fond of saying in the last months of her pregnancy, "who I used to be before the accident of America happened to me."
She would be lounging in bed with a cup of hot milk and honey and a novel, one of those rare days when she didn't have to go to class. She would knock on the curve of her stomach. "You, sir," she would say. "I hope you're paying attention."
She loved speaking to Prem. In an illogical way, it was more satisfying than speaking to Sunil, even though Sunil was a careful listener and made the right comments at the right times. But Prem--the way he grew still at the sound of her voice, the way he butted her ribs with his head if she paused too long in the middle of a story--
She told Prem about the old house, that white elephant of a mansion that had been in the Chatterjee family for generations: its crumbling marble facade, its peeling walls, the dark knots of its corridors, the brick terrace where she and Sudha went secretly at night to watch for falling stars to wish on.
"It's gone now. Demolished to make space for a high-rise apartment building. And I'm the one who kept at your grandmothers--do you know you have three grandmothers: my mom, Sudha's mom, and Pishi, who's my dad's sister?--to sell it. I used to hate that house, how ancient it was, how it stood for everything ancient. I hated being cooped up in it and not allowed to go anywhere except school. But now I miss it! I think of my room with its cool, high ceilings, and my bedsheets which always smelled clean, like neem leaves--and which I never had to wash myself!--and the hundred year old peepal trees that grew outside my windows. Sometimes I wish I hadn't been in such a hurry to come to America. Sudha used to sneak into my room at night sometimes. We'd sit on the wide windowsill, telling each other stories. I'd tell her about characters in books I'd read that I liked, such as Jo in Little Women--and she'd tell me the folk-tales she'd heard from Pishi about women who would turn into demonesses at night and the monkey who was actually a bewitched prince. She was great at doing voices! You'll see it for yourself when she gets here."
Some days, after the doctor had scolded her for not getting enough exercise, Anju went to the park. She would make a desultory round of the play area, watching the children, whispering to Prem that he'd be better than them all--more handsome, more active, and of course more intelligent. She would tell him how prettily the maples were changing color and then, choosing one to sit under, she would go back to her childhood.
"My favorite place of all was the family bookstore. For the longest time all I wanted was to be allowed to run it when I grew up. Every weekend I'd beg mother to take me there. I loved its smell of new paper and printing ink, its rows and rows of books all the way to the ceiling, its little ladders that the clerks would scramble up when a customer wanted something that was stored on a high shelf. There was a special corner with an armchair, just for me, so I could sit and read all I wanted. It was funny, Gouri-Ma--that's my mom--was strict about a lot of things, but she never stopped me from reading anything I wanted.
"So in my teenage years, I read things like Anna Karennina and Sons and Lovers and The Great Gatsby and A Room of One's Own. I'm glad I did, but maybe Aunt Nalini--that's Sudha's mom--was right. They were no good for me. They filled me with a dissatisfaction with my own life, and a longing for distant places. I believed that, if I could only get out of Calcutta to one of those exotic countries I read about, it would transform me. But transformation isn't so easy, is it?"
What about the other places of her growing-up years? The ones she never spoke of, the ones you'd have to eavesdrop among her dreams to find? Such as: the banquet hall where she saw her new husband stoop to pick up a woman's handkerchief that was not hers? But the rest of that scene is brittle and brown and unreadable, like the edge of a paper held to a flame, another of those memories Anju keeps hostage in the darkest cells of her mind.
"The bookstore was where I met your father. He had come dressed in an old-fashioned kurta and gold-rimmed glasses--a kind of disguise so that I wouldn't guess that he was the computer whiz from America with whom Gouri Ma was trying to arrange my marriage."
"He'd come to check me out! Can you imagine! People just didn't do such things in Calcutta, at least not in traditional families like mine. When he confessed who he was, I was terribly impressed. But what made me fall in crazy love with him was that he bought a whole set of the novels of Virginia Woolf. She used to be my favorite author, you know. But he'd done it only to win me over." She sighed. "Later I couldn't get him to read even one of them!"
"Still--he's going to be a wonderful father to you. I'm sure of that. He'll love you more than anyone else does--except of course me and your Sudha-aunty!"
This evening, her dinner uneaten, Anju pushes back her chair and walks over to the old, discolored mirror that hangs in the small bathroom in the passage. She runs an uncertain hand through her hair and touches the dark circles under her eyes. She presses down on her jagged cheekbones--she's lost a lot of weight since the miscarriage--as though she could push them in and hide them. "God, I look like such a witch!" she groans.
Last week she opened her India suitcase and took out a framed picture of herself and Sudha at their school graduation dinner. She examined it for a long moment before setting it on her dresser with a dissatisfied thunk. Even at that heedlessly happy time in her life, she hadn't been pretty in the traditional way. She didn't have her cousin's rush of curly hair, or those wide, sooty eyes which always looked a little mysterious, a little tragic. But anyone could see (anyone except herself, that is) that she had spirit. In the photo, she stares out, a challenge in her eyes. She crooks her lean, stubborn mouth in a half-smile. There's an irrepressible intelligence to her nose. Maybe that was what made Sunil choose her from among all the girls he could have had as an eminently eligible, foreign-returned, computer-whiz groom in Calcutta.
But somewhere along the way Anju's eyes grew dull and muddy. Her mouth learned to twitch. And the expression on Sunil's face when he watches her nowadays--he does this in bed, sometimes, after she has fallen asleep--is complicated. At times it is pity. At times, regret.
All through the fall of her pregnancy, while the leaves of the maple turned a crisper, brittler red until they were suddenly gone, Anju told Prem stories of Sudha. Beautiful Sudha, the dreamer, the best cook of them all, the magic-fingered girl who could embroider clothes fit for a queen. Luckless Sudha who worked so hard at being the perfect wife to Ramesh even though she didn't love him. Until the day she walked out of the marriage.
"It was because of her witch of a mother-in-law. For years she'd been harassing Sudha because she couldn't get pregnant. You'd think she'd be delighted when she found out that Sudha was having a baby. But no. She had to have an ultrasound done, and when she discovered that her first grandchild was going to be a girl, she insisted that Sudha should have an abortion. So Sudha ran away--how else could she save her daughter--though she knew they'd make her life hell afterwards.
"Oh, that old crocodile! How I wish I could have seen her when she woke up to find Sudha gone!"
For weeks afterwards, Anju would describe that afternoon for Prem, over and over, in the hushed tone one saves for legends.
The entire household has fallen into a stunned sleep, even the servants. The heavy front door, which is carved with fierce yakshas wielding swords, opens without a sound. Sudha slips out, carrying only a small handbag. She wears her cotton house-sari and forces herself not to hurry so passers-by will not be suspicious. The air inside her chest is viscous with fear. Her slippers slide on the gravelly road. Mango leaves hang dispiritedly in the heat, like small, tired hands. She walks carefully, she mustn't fall, she presses her hand against a belly that will start to show in a few weeks. At the crossroads she pulls the end of her sari over her head in a veil, a princess disguised as a servant-maid, so no one on the street will recognize her.
"What about Ramesh?" Sunil asked when Anju told him Sudha had gone back to her mother.
"What about him?" Anju said, her voice dangerously tight.
"Didn't he try to bring her back?"
"Him! That spineless jellyfish! That Momma's boy!" Anju's breath came in outraged puffs. "He did nothing--nothing he should have done, that is."
From the Hardcover edition.