The last straw, according to Sarbani, was her passing gas in the car. Uttam was driving, with Sarbani in the passenger seat next to him and Ritu in the back seat. Sarbani wrinkled her nose and spoke loudly to make it obvious. She exchanged glances with Uttam and rolled down the window. Ritu had a beatific smile, her eyes staring at the darkness outside. This was not the first time. Sarbani concluded she didn’t respect them. Didn’t care what they thought.
“I can’t believe this!” she fumed. “How dare she?!”
“She’s an Indian born American rustic,” said Uttam. “Doesn’t she remind you of a ding?”
Ritu or Rits as Sarbani had been affectionately calling her had bright burgundy hair. She noted that the hair could have matched Ritu’s light green-brown eyes if she weren’t so swarthy, and Sarbani had involuntarily glanced at her own nearly yellow complexion. Yes, she did have that Anglo look about her. Nevertheless she had an air about her, as if the color of her eyes gave her American passport greater legitimacy. She had talked about how the chap at the immigration counter at New York had remarked on her eyes.
“There I was Bani, with just $20 in my pocket. Just back from Kolkata. I didn’t know if my citizenship had been approved or not. But no choice. How long can a married daughter stay with her parents? I mean, I had responsibilities. I told myself, heck I’ve got my return ticket. Something will turn up.”
Ritu was proud of her struggles, and eager to talk. By the second evening and third bottle of wine (expensive wine, as Uttam whispered later when they were alone, referring to the $30 bottles of Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinot Noir he had picked up on his return trip from the United Kingdom a few months back), they knew about her drunken encounter with an equally drunk American guy in college.
“Nothing happened,” she had quickly clarified. “He took me to his place in his car. Both of us were so … I could barely walk! I saw a picture of this woman at his bedside table. And asked who she was? He kind of straightened up then. And I said, ‘can you please take me back.’ Must have been an angel looking after me that day. He drove me back to my dorm, you know.”
“No angel. He was a good guy,” said Sarbani.
Ritu told them that before she had been married to her Polish American ex-husband and father of her two girls, she’d been married off to a psycho Indian guy by her cousin who lived there, the same cousin who had sponsored her visa to America. She related her great escape story. And how she’d worked as a live-in nanny for a couple of years. Her first real job.
“They were so good to me. Young couple with three kids. They helped me. Gave me their old car. Put me on to a good divorce lawyer, cheap. You know, Bani,” she said confidentially, “the whites have helped me much more. I’m proud to be a Bengali, but I don’t know … Can’t relate to the Bong community. Went to a Durga Puja one time with my cousin. Didn’t know who to talk to there.”
She had trouble with Douglas too. He was a professor of philosophy and an Indophile, her words. They had met at a commune she had landed up in after taking a wrong turn. This was after she’d finished her masters in physiotherapy or psychotherapy or geriatric therapy—Sarbani never got the hang of Ritu’s degrees —and begun her first full time job.
“Was it love at first sight?”
Ritu shrugged. “Not for me. I mean I wasn’t so much into white guys you know. But he kind of grew on me. Anyway he was very persuasive. I think he wanted to fall in love with an Indian woman. He knew so much about Kali! Then I guess the exotic appeal waned. He didn’t like the food I cooked. And I hate blue cheese. Yuck!”
Most of Ritu’s friends on Facebook were white or black. The Indian ones were all old school mates, like Sarbani. But unlike the others they were not old “old” school mates. Sarbani had met Ritu at a Protestant school in Kolkata which they both had attended for the West Bengal board XI and XII course. It was a frumpy institution, nearly as old as Kolkata. Sarbani didn’t have a clear memory about her own reason for going there after her white-nun-run convent school, where she’d been a boarder. Perhaps it was because there were fewer choices for those who needed hostel accommodation. Ritu used to be a day-scholar. She was also from a convent, but had lived with her maternal aunt and uncle throughout her school years. She had stories to share about her abuse by her cousin brother and uncle too. She told Sarbani how the whole thing had come out at a shrink’s clinic, literally burst out of her. Douglas had insisted she see one. He had hugged her later, really tight, and said he understood why she was so fucked up.
“The whole world seems to have molested your friend,” Uttam observed afterwards.
Sarbani was more inclined to be sympathetic. But that was before the scene Ritu created at the crafts fair, and her wind pass marathon on the way back from Mahabalipuram. Afterwards, she wondered how they had become friends. She didn’t know anything about Ritu. And Ritu had assumed that she came from the same kind of backward and therefore equally ambitious family like her own.
It annoyed Sarbani that Ritu didn’t know she was familiar with all the British rock groups; had been listening to them since her school days. That she had played squash and gone swimming at the club in her town. And they had jam sessions and disco nights there. That she had grown up in an environment where many white people lived, were their neighbors, in fact. That her mom played Canasta and Whist with them along with other Indian ladies. That ham and eggs were staple breakfast fare, and they’d had turkey during Christmas. While Ritu had returned every day to her provincial Kolkata suburb, narrow streets with open drains, power cuts and hard smelly water. They must have eaten from steel plates on the floor, Sarbani told Uttam, right after Ritu left for the airport, creating a small sentimental scene at the car park in front of a bemused taxi driver.
In retrospect, Ritu had been annoying right from the start. From the excess of gifts, and that huge bottle of Jim Beam —did she think they couldn’t afford good whisky? She expected them to be impressed with Jim Beam?! Uttam had shown her their little bar, chock-a-block with Glenmorangie, Glenfidil and Glenfidich and Jameson and Johnny Walker Blue label. They kept Teachers’ and Black Dog for every day drinking. Then there was their stash of Hennessey and Martel, Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater. And of course Absolut Vodka jostling for space against a bottle of Old Monk rum. Their bar was good by any international standards. Her 600 litre (about 158 gallons) double-door fridge had a whole shelf on its door filled with wine bottles. They planned to buy an electric cooler for their wine collection soon. The kind that shops kept for storing cold drinks.
Ritu didn’t seem to notice any of it. Not the air conditioned rooms and hall, the fans and geysers in the bathrooms, the porcelain soap dishes and shampoo dispensers. She didn’t comment on Sarbani’s crystal collection, the nearly four feet wide almost wafer thin television. She noticed nothing except for the dishwasher, and that too obliquely. She said that it was more hygienic to wash dishes by machine than by hand on account of the steaming hot water. Sarbani agreed, even though she used the dishwasher only when the maid didn’t turn up or after using her fine china and glassware.
Ritu had emptied a bag full of goodies on the first evening itself. Then onwards she kept thrusting something or the other into Sarbani’s reluctant hands. She even clasped a white metal and plastic charm bracelet around Sarbani’s wrist, a thing the latter would never wear. Hadn’t she noticed her diamond earrings and pendant? The large Star Ruby ring she wore and of course her solitaire? She wished she’d told her flat on her face that she didn’t wear artificial jewellery. Ritu had refused her without hesitation when Sarbani had tried to give her the top she’d lent her to wear. And this was another annoying thing; another rustic quality. Why did she need to borrow clothes? It was not as if she hadn’t brought enough. Two suitcases full for less than a week. But that typical suburban Bengali habit of putting on other people’s clothes hadn’t left her despite her three decades overseas. And then she had the nerve to say that she wouldn’t ever wear the top in California.
Ritu had retained other tell-tale signs of her origins. She wore an oval shaped coral on a silver ring for some astrological reason. She said she was a manglik, (a person born under an unlucky star) which was why men felt intimidated, and left her. Uttam guffawed when they were alone.
“I thought manglik was a Hindi-belt thing? Where did a fish-curry-and-rice Bong like her start to believe in these things?”
Sarbani wondered how Ritu had been able to intimidate her white husband. Ritu confided one morning that during one of their quarrels, when her mother was visiting, Douglas had told Ritu to return to India. Her mother had walked up to him then, and said, “Doglaaas, why you say haar go back? You not breeng haar here.” Ritu, mimicking her mother’s broken English had sounded indulgent, not ashamed. She was proud of her mom. Proud that she had helped her family financially, and even settled her younger brother in the United States.
“Does he visit you often?”
“Him? No. He wants to be independent. He’s being kept by an older white woman, literally. She knows what he’s up to. Him, and his used car business.”
Her Mercedes was a deal he had worked out for her. Sarbani gathered that they were in touch, but the brother didn’t want his big sister’s help anymore. Her daughters were grown and were living with their respective boyfriends. They didn’t speak Bengali, and hadn’t hooked up with Indian boys. When she got a craving for Bengali food, she cooked rice and potatoes, mixed it with salt and butter and sometimes a hard-boiled egg. Cooking a Bengali meal for one person was too much hassle and the leftovers seemed to last an age. There was nowhere she could get real and proper Bengali food even though there were many Indian restaurants.
She didn’t pray she said, but wore a cross on a thin silver chain, and kept a framed picture of Saradama and Ramkrishnadeb and another of Kalima on an alcove tucked away in an unobtrusive corner of her large house with a swimming pool, inherited from Douglas as part of her divorce settlement. She had girlfriends who helped her “do the divorce.” Ritu didn’t know how to swim. Her horoscope said she would die in water.
Sarbani dutifully took her sightseeing to Kapaleeshwarar Temple, one of the few that allowed foreigners, not that anyone would be the wiser as far as Ritu was concerned. After that they went to the craft exhibition at Valuvar Kottam, and that was where Ritu misbehaved.
One minute they were admiring terracotta planters and pots. Next thing she knew, Ritu was furiously rummaging in her large bag, looking sterner by the second.
“I’ve been robbed,” she announced.
Sarbani flushed. “Oh God! How? When? What … what happened?”
“My long purse,” Ritu hissed. “It had my travelers’ cheques. My dollars. Credit card. All gone!”
The travelers’ cheque part had Sarbani flummoxed for a minute. That was so last century. Didn’t she have an international debit card? But her announcement had caused a stir. A few people now surrounded them. Sympathetic, ashamed, curious. Sarbani was mortified. Ritu with her foreign speak was a curiosity. Some kind people directed them to a police station nearby.
Before they left Ritu muttered loud enough for all to hear and Sarbani to cringe: “Anything can happen in this country. Den of thieves!”
Sarbani harried her driver to be quick; he drove on the wrong side of the road in his haste. Ritu didn’t notice, but Sarbani wanted to duck her head. Worse was to follow. The police station was almost vacant. It was their lunch hour. Ritu made a face.
“Nobody works in this country! How does it run?”
A constable looked at Ritu, pondered something and ushered them upstairs. They were in luck. A deputy commissioner of police was visiting the station that day. Sarbani explained that her American friend’s purse had been stolen. The officer looked grave.
“Madam, please describe,” he said gently.
“What is there to describe? I didn’t see the thief. Does anyone speak English here?!”
The officer glanced at Sarbani. Embarrassed and flustered she apologized.
“My friend is a guest in this country …My guest. Sir sorry to trouble you. As her host I am ashamed she got robbed.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied kindly. “Her English is also very different from ours.”
“Yes, yes sir. You are right.” Sarbani gave a vigorous Indian head nod, which she had picked up during her five-year stay in Chennai. Uttam told her often enough that this head nod thing was unheard of in Bengal.
“Please ask her to fill out a form.” He waved a hand and the constable rushed forward with one. “Don’t worry. We will do our best,” he paused, before adding, “I know how you feel.”
Sarbani thanked him and the constable profusely. Ritu remained stony faced. She jabbed at the form, a deep frown ridging her brow. They returned home in silence. Ritu filled the car with silent stink bombs from time to time.
The first thing she did was to throw open the cupboard Sarbani had half emptied for her, and pull out her things. After ten minutes of rummaging she emerged victorious.
“It was here all the time. I’d taken the other one by mistake. That one has my small cash.”
Sarbani itched to slap her then and there.
“Congrats!” She punched in the number the constable had given her on her cell phone.
“Hello? Egmore Police station? Uh, I was there this afternoon with my American friend? Uh yes, yes. No, no trouble. You all have been so kind. Sorry to trouble all of you. Very sorry. No. No. I mean my friend made a mistake. Yes. Big mistake. She found her purse. Thank you, thank you. So sorry.”
“It’s too late to go back, right?” said Ritu.
“Yes. Would you like some tea?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
It didn’t take long for Ritu to start again—how she loved the smell of coffee in the mornings, how she just had to have her blah blah blah latte.
They ate dinner outside, at an expensive Thai restaurant, which Sarbani insisted on paying for. Ritu discovered how pricey India was only when she took them out for a treat at a five star restaurant near Mahabalipuram the next day. Uttam wanted to pay, but she would have none of it. Afterwards she proclaimed that she’d never spent a hundred dollars on ordinary food in California. Perhaps that was why she had gas all the way back.
Ritu accused Sarbani of being testy the day before she left. Sarbani hadn’t realized that she had been responding curtly. She wasn’t aware that she’d been given a chance to speak at all. But Ritu was probably right. Sarbani was finding her intolerable and it was showing. Everything Ritu said or did or wore got on her nerves.
She complimented her cooking and said Sarbani cooked just the way she herself did. She praised Uttam, then told Sarbani to hold on to her good man, for she had got herself a great find! She yawned when Uttam and Sarbani sat down to watch ET during a random channel surf, and said that she had watched it when she was oh so young.
Uttam said, “So were we,” and drew Sarbani close. He then got up to insert a hard drive into the TV and put on Pink Floyd.
Ritu looked surprised.
“Takes us straight back to our college days,” said Uttam.
“Yeah, because school days was for ABBA,” Sarbani giggled.
“Oh I still enjoy ABBA,” said Ritu sipping on her Bloody Mary.
“So do we,” Sarbani replied.
Uttam handed her a glass with two fingers of Jameson in it. He raised his own glass. “To the seventies! When we were young and romantic.”
But before Sarbani could respond, Ritu launched into a long story about how naïve she was when they had met.
“Do you remember?” she said turning eagerly towards Sarbani. “That day when we thought we’d bunk class and took a bus to Esplanade?”
Sarbani thought she should tell her that she wasn’t part of that escapade as she was a boarder then, but changed her mind.
After she left, Sarbani called her once to find out if she’d had a safe flight, and Ritu kept saying that both of them had gone out of their way, beyond the call of duty for her.
Then, almost six months later she emailed her complaining that she had never understood why Sarbani had turned cold etc. etc. etc. Two months later Sarbani feeling suddenly sentimental called her on Skype. But Ritu cut her short saying she was busy. The next time she visited India, she emailed Sarbani about her impending journey, but didn’t contact her after landing. And the year after that Sarbani didn’t tell her she was relocating to the United States since Uttam was being “kicked upstairs” as he liked to put it.
RK Biswas is the author of two books—Culling Mynahs and Crows and Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women. Her third book Immoderate Men is forthcoming in June 2016. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Per Contra, Eclectica, Nth Position, Etchings, The Little Magazine (India), Cha; An Asian Literary Journal, Markings, Asia Literary Review, Flash: An International Journal of Short Short Fiction, among others. She was long listed in the 2006 Bridport poetry prize and also short listed in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Works Contest. Her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s Notable stories of the net in 2007. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://biswasrk.wordpress.com.
Comments from the judges:
Prajwal: I laughed my way through this. The writer is fantastic at humor writing.
Amulya: School friend turns houseguest in this comic and well-written short story about uncomfortable friendships and awkward friends—you find plenty to connect with because it has happened to you.
About the judges:
Prajwal Parajuly is the son of an Indian father and a Nepalese mother. The Gurkha’s Daughter, his widely acclaimed debut collection of short stories, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Land Where I Flee, his first novel, was an Independent (London) book of the year and a Kansas City Star best book of 2015. He is the Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He has been homeless for three years now.
Amulya Malladi is the author of six novels, including The Sound of Language and The Mango Season. Her books have been translated into several languages, including Dutch, German, Spanish, Danish, Romanian, Serbian, and Tamil. She has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in journalism. When she’s not writing, she works as a marketing executive for a global medical device company. She lives in Copenhagen with her husband and two children. Connect with Amulya at www.amulyamalladi.com. Her latest book, A House for Happy Mothers, will be released in June 2016.