Kusum dipped her biscuit in the tea and watched the hardness of its outer shell soften. Just before the soggy mess dropped, she deftly pulled it out and caught it on her tongue. The sweet, moist, doughiness of it filled her mouth. She washed it down with a gulp of milky tea. The airline tea was lifeless, a bit like her life, tepid. It was going to change finally. A butterfly wound its way up inside her body. It traveled from her stomach to her heart, setting it aflutter. She was a bride again, seventy-year-old woman from Punjab going to America to meet her seventy-six year old husband.
Her brow furrowed. She hadn’t seen him for forty-six years. Forty-six years of waiting and watching in the mirror as her youthful body had slowing changed. A bulge here and another one there had attached around her waist and then melted away. Her belly had sagged, covering her privates like an overgrown vine that takes over a deserted house. Her breasts hung their heads hiding in the fleshy curtain. She had watched helplessly as the youthful flush of her smooth skin had slowly opened its pores. The toes had sprouted bunions and the ankles had thickened. She had wanted the clock to stop. Stop for her husband who had gone to make a fortune in the United States leaving behind her two children and her. Stop, so her children could play out their childish and then youthful indiscretions in front of both of them and they could hide their smiles behind frowning foreheads as indulgent and yet strict parents. Stop so that they could live their life together sharing daily confidences and small secrets that are whispered between husband and wife.
Their nine-year-old daughter had blossomed before her eyes into a beautiful mature woman with four sons of her own. Their four-year-old son had become a handsome man like her husband. A river of time had flowed past her carrying with it moments, memories and remembrances. The mirror reflected back a person she didn’t recognize. In her mind’s eyes she was still twenty-four waiting, waiting, waiting for a husband who had promised to return, to take her with him, but had never come.
“Biji the plane is landing,” Moti her nineteen-year-old grandson exclaimed excitedly. “We have reached San Francisco. Bauji will be here to receive us. Chalo. I’ll bring the bags.”
Pulling a black bobby pin from her hair, she opened it with her teeth and, quickly pushed it into the back of her head taking with it any stray hair that had wandered out over the three day journey from Jullundur, India. What would he think of her? Maybe she should have worn a brighter color. He was not used to seeing her in grey. She no longer had any pink suits, she mused as she patted her silver hair down.
He was waiting for them at the mouth of the airport. Atma Ram’s eyes scanned the arriving passengers. Would he recognize her after all these years? Years had passed like ages waiting for this moment and yet she was still twenty-four in his mind. He had not made the mental adjustment. She existed in his memory as an apparition, the mother of his children, the fantasy of his nights. He had forgotten the smell of her, the warm angularity of the way her body had molded to his when they had lain on the cot staring at stars. All he remembered was the excitement of moments stolen from the eagle eye of his parents, the furtive hugs and the stolen kisses. They had been married four years when he had left Punjab for America. He had lain alone nineteen thousand nights reliving the memories of nights spent together.
The year had been 1919, when he had left India. World War 1 had ended. Britain still ruled India and famine still ravaged the countryside. Soldiers of the British Indian army returned with stories of a land that had thrown off the British yoke, stories of a land where man was free. They had dreamed of this land.
He remembered Gandhi’s visit to Amritsar, the closest city to their village. Gandhi was teaching his countrymen to fight for freedom using non-violent, non-co-operation. His face broke into wrinkly smiles at the thought. Non-violent non-co-operation indeed! The time-honored ploy used by Indian housewives to get their way. Tongue-tied Kusum had never ever said no to any of his demands under the watchful eye of her parents-in-law. To get what she wanted, she had refused to serve him dinner or just disappeared when he needed her most. Atma Ram laughed out loud at the thought.
A vision clad in Indian trousers and a long shirt came before his cataract-clouded eyes. Wiping his silent tears he bustled towards them. His grandson bent to touch his feet. Atma Ram looked at Kusum who had her head down but was peeping at his face from beneath her lashes. He saw the shadow of the coy, diffident woman he had once known. She seemed nervous and yet surer of herself. Her firm directions to Moti, their grandson, showed her to be a capable person who had managed the family single-handed. She was no longer running away from the mother-in-law. She was the mother-in-law, he realized with shock.
With her head slightly bent down, as was customary, she had a view of his sneakers. She realized she had always seen him in sandals, his big toe waving at her as it had curled upwards, always a few inches above the rest of the toes. Now his pant bottoms stood stiffly in a straight line, above the alien Blue Ribbon sneakers hiding his feet.
She looked at him sideways as he blessed their grandson. His hair had become a river of snow. The once muscular body had given way to a lean one. The shoulders curved in slightly like they were permanently braced against a cold wind. She thought of the young husband of her memories, the furtive lover who had teased her as she rushed around doing the chores her mother-in-law had assigned to her.
Atma Ram yanked the cart towards the car park. Moti excitedly pushed another cart loaded with luggage right behind. The air is nippy but not cold, he thought as he looked over his shoulder at Kusum who was wrapping a shawl around her shoulders. They turned the corner and Atma Ram reached for the keys in his pocket. She had probably never ridden in a car, he thought. Though cars were common in 1969 America, they were few and far between in Punjab, India.
He looked at Kusum through the rear view mirror. She seemed engrossed in the view, taking in the country where he had lived for three quarters of her life.
He had come for the American dream. Three village buddies, who had walked from their village for three days to board a train for Calcutta, the port on the eastern coast of India. There they had bought their passage on a ship heading for Mexico.
It had been a new beginning, Atma Ram reminisced. The three lads had landed in Mexicali, a city just south of the United States border, after a voyage of three months. The blinking lights of the casinos, restaurants and brothels had shone like it was Diwali. The streets bustling with people from all parts of the world, and merry sounds had filled the air. A perpetual mela it was.
“But we did not rest for the night there,” he said to her in his head. “We did not want to waste a minute. I did not go into any of the boarding houses. What if I had? After three months of traveling by boat rested my head next to a blonde one? Huh? I could have called her Kusum? But no I didn’t. I was waiting to be with you.”
It would be a habit hard to break, talking to her in his head that is. He had done it for years. They had held long conversations, discussing his work, their children, and his buddies.
Now that she was here, a watery silence hung between them, shimmering in its awkwardness. Tongue-tied they looked away from each other in silence.
Kusum saw fields as far as the eye could see, green lushness wrapped in five blue ribbons of the Sacramento River. Fruit trees laden with peaches stood blushing in the sun. Large open vans groaning under the weight of the produce drove slowly along carrying the fruit of her husband’s labor. The first sight of her new home in Yuba City reminded her of her Punjab, a land watered by five rivers. This place looked very much like it, the soil, the water, the fields and the sun.
The car came to a stop in front of a white house surrounded by acres of land. He carried her bags to a room with a big bed.
“This is our room. Wash yourself in the bathroom,” he opened the door next to the nightstand. “The tap with the red dot has hot water,” he mumbled as he shuffled out.
She was dumbstruck. Hot water out of a tap! A bathroom next to the bedroom! Wouldn’t it cause the room to smell? Whoever would build a house like that? In the village, people left the house to do their business.
She opened her bag and took out the food snacks she had brought for him. A bottle of pickle had leaked its yellow mustard oil. A spicy pungent odor invaded her clothes. She shook out a brushed cotton shirt and salwar.
Did he expect her to sleep in the same bed as him? What will the children think? What was he thinking? Had they ever slept in the same room? Her mother-in-law had always slept by her side and he had slept on the terrace with the rest of the men. How could she now start sleeping with a man?
Atma Ram entered the living room. He sat down in a rocking chair next to the sofa lost in his thoughts. The monologue with his twenty-four-year old bride continued in his head. “I was very eager to get going. We were all here to change our luck. Make some money and go back to Punjab, to you my rani, my queen.”
“We started walking north towards El Centro on the United States Mexico border, hoping to reach there overnight. A bath, a hot meal, and a cot, that is all I wanted. Some families from Punjab had settled in the Imperial Valley. When we saw the twinkling lights of our manzil I was ever so glad. My feet were hurting, my stomach was churning, and sweat was pouring down my back in little rivulets.
Do you know Kusum, the valley lies between two registans, Colorado Desert and Mojave Desert? The amazing thing is when you pour water on the land it turns into rich velvet. Rainfall is scant but the soil is resham. Colorado river water flowed from a newly built canal. The white man did not like the desert heat. The Punjabi took one look at the soil and picked up their hoes and turned it into gold.”
Kusum came out of the bedroom. Her hair was wet from the shower and hung loose about her shoulders. Her trousers and shirt were firozi, the color of deep blue pools. Gold hoops that she had worn on their wedding night dangled from her ears. On her feet were the Punjabi ballet flats, a delicate color of blue and brown. Her eyes were drowsy with jet lag and yet alertness hid within them. She came to his side and he shuffled to his feet.
“Let me show you the rest of the house,” he said.
“Who cooks for you,” she asked softly. Her eyes ran around the kitchen taking in the large metal canisters and jars of beans.
“I cooked for myself. Who do you think would cook for me?” His smile reminded her of the young man who had teased her.
She opened the closets and peered inside. “Now, at least, you don’t have to worry about the food,” she said.
A car pulled into the driveway. Her grandson Moti jumped out. He whirlwinded into the kitchen and flopped down on the chair.
“Bauji is going to let me work on his fields and he is going to pay me. I am going to work with my brothers picking fruit off the trees.”
“Come eat lunch. You can earn money later.”
“Biji I don’t like this roti. It is too stretchy and chewy. “
“Chal chal. You are too picky.”
Kusum secretly agreed with Moti. She too missed the wholewheat flatbread that came out of the hot tandoor oven at home. She placed the bread in her open palms, placed a dollop of butter in the center of the flatbread, and squeezed her palms together, crushing the bread before placing it in Moti’s plate. The white flour yielded but did not fall apart as the bread in Punjab did.
“Biji, a new kind of truck has come, I just shake the tree with it and the fruit falls. I don’t have to pick each fruit with a bag and a ladder. I can fill a truckload in no time and get paid five dollars for it!”
“Panj dollar! Your bauji used to make one dollar in a whole day and then send half of it home.”
“Biji this a shaker. Maybe he filled a truck in one day. I can now do it in an hour.” He leaned forward swiveling his chair.
“Achha achha.” She put another flatbread on his plate.
Atma Ram’s tea was cold. He picked up the cup and cupped it between his two hands and saw the children of the 1960s dance to a different tune from their grandparents of the 1920s. The peach trees Moti wanted to shake were growing on soil thrown down to the valley by the golddiggers of the late 1800s. The Punjabi farmers had turned the rich soil into gold.
“Biji, with the money I will buy a mill and grind fresh wheat flour and corn flour like the one you had in India,” Moti continued. “Everyone in Yuba can have a taste of India.”
She looked indulgently at him and joined him in his American dream. “ We will open grocery stores which sell suji, besan, bajra flour……”
Atma Ram left the kitchen to the dreamers. He missed hanging out with his buddies. Being a bachelor had become second nature to him. He thought back to the time when he and his two buddies used to pick asparagus together in the Imperial Valley. Squatting on their haunches they had shuffled along in a steamy dance. The Mexican women had cooked them Indian roti-sabzi and hot tamales. “You know Kusum, hot tamales are makki ka atta wrapped around some meat. The hot tamales were sensuous, my mouth waters just thinking of them.” The wife of his dreams smiled back at him.
Out in the fields, Kusum was advising Moti on the fineness of the corn meal she needed to make makki rotis. “Not too fine,” she nodded. A brand new shaker stood in the parking area.
“From Imperial Valley we walked 600 miles north to the Stockton gurudwara, here near Yuba.” Atma Ram shook his head at his child bride. “Three years after our arrival the government passed a law forbidding any Indians from entering the United States or owning land. Satwinder, remember him from our village, he married Marie to keep the land safe. The Mexican girls could own land and save them for our children.” His bride turned her face away.
“Kusum, I was trapped here by the immigration rules. Decades passed and I could not visit you. By then I had built a nest for us here. A nest I had feathered with the sweat of my brow and callused hands. Every year we hoped the law would change and we could reunite with our loved ones. You could not come to visit me, and I was caged here.” His bride nodded understandingly. A tear welled up in her eyes and flowed down her cheek. His hand rose involuntarily to wipe it and the picture got blurred and static-ridden.
As Moti rode off in his new shaker, Kusum walked into the living room and saw Atma Ram sitting on his favorite rocking chair. She was finding it difficult to take the silent moods of her husband. His ways were alien to her. When they went to the gurudwara he had pulled up a chair and sat down. Hai Rabba! He has lost all sense of propriety. Mustn’t we always sit at the feet of the guru’s holy book? He walks step in step with the women. Why, she had seen him hug Marie, Satwinder’s wife, the one with the wavy hair who wore a dress.
She dutifully stood behind his chair. “Lunch?” she asked. He blinked away the tears and looked at her anew. When he grasped her hand she felt the stirring of an ardor buried under years of history. Streams of thoughts pushed against the banks of historical sand eroding them layer-by-layer. Life flowed around them making plans for a new future filled with freshly milled corn flour, just right for makki rotis.
Ritu Marwah is a resident of the Bay Area where she has pursued theater, writing, non-profit marketing, high-tech marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate and hiking. Ritu graduated from Delhi with masters in business, joined the Tata Administrative Service and worked in London for ten years before moving to the Bay Area.
The judges were Indu Sundaresan and A.X. Ahmad.
Indu Sundaresan: There’s a deep sense of history in Rivers of Time, and more importantly, it’s full of heart. Incredible to us today is the parting of a husband and wife for almost fifty years, not due to a lack of affection, but mere circumstance. How they meet again, reconnect with longing, is handled with nuance and finesse by the writer.
A.X. Ahmad: A story that deals with the complex re-union of an elderly couple separated by history, geography and decades of time. They have idealized each other, and their actual awkward meeting is written with compassion and skill. I wanted to read more, and see what happened to this couple.
Indu Sundaresan was born and brought up in India and came to the United States for graduate school. She’s the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. The Twentieth Wife (book #1 of the Taj trilogy) won the Washington State Book Award. Her latest novel, The Mountain of Light, is based on the Kohinoor diamond and its last Indian owners. More at:www.indusundaresan.com
A.X. Ahmad is the author of The Caretaker, the first in a trilogy featuring ex-Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh. His second book, The Last Taxi Ride, will be published in June 2014. A former international architect, he lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches writing. www.axahmad.com