Paromita sat at the dressing table, going over the telephone conversation in her mind. Something had not sounded right, but she could not make out what it was. Just then, Surojit walked in.
“Not ready yet, Paro!” he said. “What are you wearing today?”
“Haven’t really thought about it.”
“Wear your red and white Jamdani sari.”
“Oh no! That’s too grand.”
“What about that chiffon you bought the other day …Satya Paul, wasn’t it?
“To the airport, to receive my son?”
“And Clara, don’t forget.”
“Surojit, after twenty gruelling hours of flying from Atlanta, do you think Clara would notice what I’m wearing?” Paromita said.
Surojit smiled as though humouring a child. “You must make a good first-impression on your American daughter-in-law, Paro. Remember, it’s important for your son too.”
“Excuse me! My son?”
Surojit did not reply immediately. He walked up to the wardrobe, opened it and took out yet another jacket to try on. He studied himself in the full length mirror. Tweed? No, not quite the right thing. He took it off. Without looking at Paromita he said, “Yes, Paro, your son. With Gautam, it has always been you. Only you.”
Paromita did not argue. Her mind went back to the phone call. It had come three days ago on her mobile, but she could still recall every word, every inflection.
“Ma, it’s Gautam.”
“How’re you, re?”
“Ma…I’ve to tell you something.”
“I’ve gotten married.”
“What? To whom?”
“Her name is Clara.”
“No, Ma… American.”
“When? When did this happen?”
“We’re coming home… Just for a week. Our flight will reach at nine thirty-five Monday morning. Will message you the flight details.”
“You mean… you and your wife? Oh God, what day is it today?”
“Friday, ten- twenty in the morning at your place,” said Gautam, with a laugh. He added, “I’ll explain everything when I’m there. It’s past midnight here… See you, Ma.”
Paromita could hear Surojit still poking around the wardrobe. Mechanically, she picked a jar of anti-wrinkle cream from the dressing-table. She opened it and began to apply the cream on her face. Its delicate rose fragrance calmed her. Surojit had taken it very well. Others in the family had been surprised by the news of Gautam marrying so suddenly, and that too, an American. Was it really out of the blue, Paromita wondered. She’d been hurt and upset at being informed after the event, and that too, so casually, but somehow she’d not been surprised. Gautam had always been unpredictable. She remembered the time he had refused award for the Best All-rounder in middle school. He had suspected that the headmaster’s son getting a job in his father’s office had tilted the decision in his favour. Surojit had been livid, but Paromita had understood. She had always understood her son.
Surojit’s voice startled her out of her reverie.
“How do I look, Paro?”
He had changed his clothes again. A blue -and -white check shirt, navy blue blazer with the golf club’s insignia embossed in golden thread on the pocket. He usually wore that blazer to the management committee meetings at the club. But to the airport on a summer morning?
Paromita, however, stuck to her standard response. “Perfect.”
On the way to the airport Surojit was in a good mood. He did most of the talking, with Paromita responding with a ‘hmm’ and a ‘yes’ in between. She looked out of the window, her mind travelling over the past years. The last time she’d seen Gautam, he had waved at her before disappearing behind the immigration enclosure at the airport. That was four years and nine months ago. She told herself that she should be prepared for changes in him. Yet she could not help that tiny flutter of trepidation.
The car stopped at a traffic light.
“So what do you think, Paro? Is it okay? ” asked Surojit.
Paromita had no idea what it was that he was seeking her opinion on, but before she could think of anything to say, Surojit answered his own question. “I don’t mind Clara calling me by my name, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either…Better than being called Mr. and Mrs. Mukherjee. That’s the way some American daughters-in-law would have it.”
Paromita merely smiled. Surojit continued, “All these years I never could figure out Gautam, but I think he has finally made a smart choice.”
His mobile phone rang. He spoke briefly, then turned to Paromita with a smug look.
“Everything’s fixed;’ he said ‘Tomorrow, we’re having lunch at the club. I have booked the Chamber Room. This lunch is only for a select crowd and the top brass of the chamber of commerce. Dinner’s going to be at The Oberoi. A hundred and thirty guests have confirmed as of now. Mostly friends and business associates. And for the family, we’ll have a do at home, the day after tomorrow. We can keep it traditional for them, but don’t go overboard.”
Paromita frowned. “Are so many lunches and dinners necessary? Gautam and his bride are here just for a week. When will we spend time with them?”
“Don’t you want to introduce them to our friends?” asked Surojit impatiently.
“Gautam doesn’t like parties, you know that.”
“What about Clara?” Surojit raised his eyebrows. “Clara is an American, Paro. Americans are gregarious. You can’t expect her to spend the whole week just chatting with us. She must get to know our friends….Wait till the Dasguptas meet her. Mrs. Dasgupta will stop bragging about their Italian daughter-in-law once and for all.”
Paromita remained silent for the rest of the journey.
At the airport the visitors’ enclosure was crowded. From where she stood Paromita could not see the glass sliding-door through which the passengers were walking out. She made her way to the front of the waiting crowd. Time just crawled. Then, suddenly, she caught a fleeting glance of a silhouette in the hallway beyond the glass-door. Gautam.
As he came out, she saw him more clearly. He was wearing a maroon tee-shirt and a beige jacket over a pair of blue denims. He looked a little tired, she thought. But otherwise he looked the same. No change. Gautam scanned the crowd, spotted her and smiled. She stepped forward to hug him.
“Where’s Clara?” asked Surojit, standing right behind her.
Paromita felt Gautam stiffen. He straightened and looked back. Paromita followed his gaze. At some distance stood an Indian family with two kids, a middle-aged Caucasian couple, a woman of African origin and a cluster of four or five young men and women.
Paromita’s eyes skimmed over the gathering and looked beyond it, but could not see a white woman young enough to be Gautam’s wife.
“Clara,” Gautam called out. The black woman stepped forward and walked towards them, smiling politely.
Paromita paled with shock.
The woman stopped beside Gautam who drew her forward and announced, “This is Clara.”
Her mouth too dry for her to speak, Paromita forced a smile. She did not glance at Surojit, but she sensed his outrage and disbelief. She had to do something – right away.
Stepping forward, she offered her hand and said, “Hello Clara. Welcome to India.”
During the journey home, there was a nerve-wracking silence in the car. Paromita made a few half-hearted attempts at conversation, but getting no real response, gave up. Only Gautam spoke as he occasionally pointed out a prominent landmark to Clara. Clara, herself, said very little.
Reaching home, Paromita showed the newly-weds their room and advised them to sleep it off till lunch time. “You’ve had a long journey,” she said. Then, she went upstairs to her bedroom.
Surojit was sitting on the edge of the bed taking off his shoes. One by one, he threw them to a corner, then walked up to the cabinet, took out a bottle of whisky and took a swig.
Paromita had never seen Surojit doing that – drinking straight from the bottle. He was always ‘proper’ with his drinks.
He looked at her, his face inflamed with pent up fury, as if all the blood had rushed up and was screaming to burst out through the skin. “How could Gautam do this to me? To his family?” he said.
When she did not reply, his tone grew louder. “It’s all because of you. You have spoilt him.”
Paromita said nothing.
“You encouraged him to study some damn liberal arts when he should have done Engineering and Management… And now your son has brought home some bloody nigger.”
“What? What do you have to say now, Mrs. Paromita Mukherjee? That in the entire United States of America, your son could only find a black woman to marry? Charcoal-black.”
Paromita shut her eyes briefly. She listened outwardly unperturbed, as she had always tried to be when Surojit had spoken disapprovingly of Gautam. But this time, even she felt drained. She sat at a corner of the bed, held the headboard with one hand, cupped her mouth with the other and let the hot tears flow. She heard the bedroom door slam as Surojit walked out. She cried for a long time.
When she came down at lunch time, the maid informed her that Gautam and Clara were still asleep. Paromita asked her to find Surojit and inform him that lunch was about to be served. The maid returned to say that Surojit was on the terrace and had said that he was not hungry. Paromita went back to her bedroom and lay down.
She woke up to the voice of Surojit talking on the phone. “Call up the steward at the club and cancel the party. You have the guest-list, right? Call each one and inform … What? …The reason? …Tell them, tell them… Mrs. Mukherjee has suddenly fallen ill. No, no, she isn’t in hospital… Just do as I say, dammit.”
Paromita sat up and looked at Surojit questioningly. He paid no attention to her and began to dial another number. This time, he went about calling off the party arrangements at the hotel. Why is he doing this? Paromita wanted to confront him, but she felt too exhausted. She had a splitting headache and remembered she had not eaten anything since morning. Neither had Surojit. What about Gautam and Clara? Would they be up by now? She hurried out of the room.
At the door of the dining-room she stopped. Gautam and Clara were sitting side by side at the table, snuggling, like two happy pigeons. Paromita watched them for a moment.
She cleared her throat.
“We overslept, Ma,” said Gautam smilingly. “We’re having sandwiches and coffee instead of lunch. We will have the lunch fare for dinner. I’ve already told the maid.”
Paromita laughed. The sound, tripping so easily off her throat, surprised her. She took the chair opposite Clara.
“Make me a sandwich,” she told the maid. “Seeing these two, I feel like having one myself.” As the maid left, she added, “And take a plate of the same to sahib in his room.”
“Is Baba not well?” asked Gautam.
“He’s a bit tired.”
“I see you have kept that old thing,” Gautam said, pointing to the clock standing on the mantelpiece. He had won it in a school essay writing competition. Paromita smiled. Gautam said, “But Ma, the clock had stopped years ago.”
It stopped from when you left me, Gautam, Paromita said to herself. She made a mental note to change the battery by the evening.
She turned her attention to Clara, observing her quietly. The first impression she’d got had been of poise and maturity; now, she was surprised to see how young the woman was. Her hair was thick, black and straight, framing her calm, chiselled face. Her bones were good. Her eyes were large, shining and expressive. There was a mixture of wonder and caution in them. She can talk with her eyes, this girl, Paromita thought. There is a glow in her face. A quiet charm.
“I was thinking of taking Clara around the city tomorrow,” said Gautam, “Unless you have any program fixed for us?”
Paromita thought for a moment and said, “Not that I know of. I’ll check with your father.”
As Gautam planned the itinerary with Clara, Paromita continued with her quiet screening.
Behind the round-necked grey tee-shirt was a pair of full breasts. Paromita noticed her posture, straight and firm. It reminded her of – the day thirty years ago when Surojit and his parents had come to her house to see the would-be bride.
‘You sit so straight, Paromita, unlike most girls,’ Surojit’s mother had said.
Paromita looked at the dark slender arms of Clara resting on the marble table-top. She got up abruptly.
“Anything wrong, Ma?” asked Gautam.
“Nothing,” said Paromita, adding quickly, “I have forgotten something that I need to do.”
She fled from the room to the small study half way down the hallway, closing the door firmly behind her. Images from thirty years ago came back in a flood. Paromita shivered, then sank into a chair and buried her face in her hands. She sat like that for a long time, wrestling with her emotions.
Next day, after breakfast, Gautam and Clara went out on city tour. They would not be home for several hours. Paromita found Surojit pacing the length of their bedroom.
“No way am I going to accept this marriage,” he said.
Paromita smiled faintly. Surojit went on, “Our family has a name, a standing. I will not let it be tainted by …by -”
“Dark skin?” completed Paromita.
He stopped short and challenged her. “Well, would you?”
Paromita studied his face in silence. Finally, she said, “This is not the first time, is it?” Her voice was very quiet.
Surojit stared at her. “What on earth do you mean by that?”
Paromita did not reply at once. Of course, Surojit would not remember that far back. Nobody had ever spoken about it in his family. Hadn’t she too wiped her own memory clean? If she had ever felt a speck of guilt, it had been buried under the triumph of a fairy-tale marriage – between an exquisitely beautiful daughter of a retired government officer, and a bright US- returned engineer from an upper-crust family. They were not equals, the two families, but Paromita’s stunning looks drew level.
Thirty long years had passed. In all that time Paromita had never had the faintest reminder of that uncomfortable incident, yet the memory had lain hidden, biding its time, waiting to raise its head and be known. And now, with Clara’s arrival, it was out in the open.
Paromita felt her stomach churn. She felt as though she was on a giant wave. Would she be able to ride it or would she drown?
After a while she drew a deep breath. She knew what she had to do.
Two more days straggled by. Gautam and Clara would leave for Atlanta the day after next.
“Return home early today,” Paromita told Surojit as he was leaving for office.
“Why?” he snapped. “What do I have to look forward to? Is your son going to have a change of heart?”
Paromita’s lips twitched in a smile. “Change of heart?” she said. “Well there is a possibility.”
“Really?” Surojit looked surprised and suddenly hopeful. He came closer and laid his hand on her arm, “I didn’t tell you Paro, I have had a chat with our attorney, Mr. Bansal. His firm has an affiliate in Atlanta. I can have a long-distance conference, but first Gautam has to agree…”
“I don’t think the conference will be necessary,” said Paromita calmly.
“You think so?” Surojit looked at her, “If you can pull this one off, Paro, I’ll be grateful to you forever.” He planted a kiss on her cheek and left for office.
Paromita heard the familiar screech of tires followed by the slam of the car’s doors. She looked at the clock. 6.15 pm. Surojit had arrived earlier than she expected. She had not completed her tasks yet.
Long chains of red and yellow light bulbs hung all over the outer walls of their house. The foyer at the entrance had been decorated with garlands of marigolds and red roses. There was a red carpet running up to the entrance.
Paromita watched Surojit as he entered the hall way, looking bewilderedly at the hustle-bustle. People known, some who looked familiar, dressed up in rich colours, were moving around. Was this the same house he had left from in the morning?
Then he spotted Paromita at a distance and went towards her.
“What’s all this about?” he demanded. “What’s going on?”
“Preparations for a party,” she said. “A wedding reception.”
His face darkened. “Dammit, I –
She held up her hand to stop him. Her eyes were on his face.
“Do you remember, Surojit, why you married me?”
He frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Try to remember.”
“Stop your riddles!”
“Why did you choose me?”
Surojit sighed. “I don’t understand this,” he said with exaggerated patience. “Why did I marry you? Why else? Because my parents approved of you and I did not have a problem with their choice.”
“No, Surojit,” Paromita’s voice was quiet and emphatic. “You married me because I was the fairer girl. Remember? You liked Paromita whose skin was lighter and who was considered better looking than her elder sister Madhumita – the girl whom you and your parents had been invited to see.”
Paromita trembled. She felt as though a part of her being was crumbling, giving way to a new self, rising like a resolute stem out of a crack in the rock.
“Please move aside,” she said.
Surojit stepped aside in silence. Paromita walked past him and straight to Gautam’s room. She found Clara standing in front of a full-length mirror, wearing a red petticoat and a gold embroidered blouse, trying to grapple with yards of a Banarasi silk sari, the one Paromita had worn at her own wedding.
Paromita laughed. “I told you to wait for me,” she said. “You can’t wear this on your own, my dear, not for the first time. Now, let me do it for you … This way … now tuck in … right … yes … now across …like this … and here goes the pallu, over your shoulder…”
About The Author
Ashis Dutta is a Bangalore based software entrepreneur. He writes and photographs as a freelancer – on travel, music and culture. His features have been published in newspapers, in-flight and travel magazines, and guidebooks, in India, USA and Canada. An avid traveller, Ashis has been to 26 countries. His all-time favourite? Closer home, the Himalayas. Ashis can be reached at email@example.com