Sunita turns around to stick her tongue out to her brother. The front door slams—he just left. Sunita looks back at the mirror.
“Nope. This will not do,” she murmured to herself taking off the glass bangles from her hands. The jaipuri embroidered mirrors on her scarlet dress glisten. Tiny circles of reflected light dance around her, on the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling. Sunita takes off the chiffon lehenga-choli and searches for an appropriate Western outfit in the closet.
She was looking desperately for an occasion to wear this beautiful outfit, which she had bought from a boutique in Berkeley, but she realizes that no matter how beautiful or expensive it may look, tonight’s school dance is not the right place for it. She does not want to look like a Hindi film star. She would much rather merge in the crowd and wear what the “in” people usually do. Her reflection on the mirror, now in boot-cut jeans and silk spaghetti strap camisole, agreed.
Sunita wondered, what if she had gone in her scarlet chiffon lahenga and glass bangles tonight? It would have taken a lot of guts on her part, which she is not ready for, she admitted to herself. Or she would have to be like her mother, who has no problem going anywhere in her saris. Her mother is so traditional.
Mom can attend a P.T.A. meeting or sit in the bake-sale booth in her native costume and very enthusiastically explain the significance of the red dot on her forehead or the red powder mark in the parting of her hair to any interested listening ears.
“It is sindoor, the vermilion powder, you see. The husband puts it on you on the wedding day and from that day you will put it praying for your husband until his last day. It’s like your wedding band.”
Sunita feels so embarrassed when mom starts her lecture. “Stop it, Mommy!” she would silently scream. Even in India modern women do not do that. Those dots are just cosmetic, like the eye shadow or lipstick to match. Sunita argues silently leaning closer to the mirror to take off the tiny red glass bindi between her shapely eyebrows. She carefully puts it back on the packet making sure the glue does not dry out.
Oh no! Mommy has stunk up the whole house again with her spices—onion, ginger, garlic, cumin, and fenugreek, who knows what else. She must be cooking fish.
“Make sure to eat your dinner before you leave, Suni. The fish curry is almost done,” Mrs. Sen hollers from the kitchen.
“I got to go now, Ma. I’ll be back tomorrow morning. I’ll call. Jessie’s mom is our chaperon. She is going to feed us. She’ll be very hurt if I do not eat, you know.”
Mrs. Sen understood. She nodded her head. Sunita gave herself an invisible pat on the back. She knows her mom well enough to click the right buttons. She hurries out. She does not want Jessie to smell the fish curry. She sticks in an extra $20 in her pocket. She’d treat her friends to Pizza Hut tonight.
Screech. Sunita runs to Jessie’s car as she pulls on the driveway.
“Where are you from?” asked the man at the cafeteria.
“What d’ya mean? From Walnut Creek, California,” Sunita answered, dumping some macaroni salad on her plate.
“I mean—your nationality … Which country, originally?”
“Well, my parents are from India. They came here some 32 years ago. My brothers and I were born here. So I think I am American.”
“I thought so. You look Indian. I was not sure. I thought you could be Iranian too.”
Sunita tactfully moved away from the line and looked around for her friends. Jessie came running, “Hey Su, I got a surprise for you.” She pulled Sunita by her arm to a crowd of people, “I found you a prom date. Just the right guy. It’s John. A senior from … ” her voice faded in the busy, noisy hall.
At the end of the weekend when things got settled and Sunita was back in her own room, under her own comforter, she had a dream.
She was in the sea. She was bathing, playing, running, laughing, chasing the surf, and sometimes being carried away by the wild waves into the deep blue ocean. The ocean is so blue. So beautifully blue! Then there was John. His face was very close and she was looking intensely at his eyes. They were true blue—just like the fathomless blue ocean. Sunita was lost. Then she saw herself wearing a bare shoulder blue prom dress, the same shade of blue, walking hand-in-hand with John. Suddenly Jessie appears and she screams out “Su, that’s not the right color for you.” Sunita sat up puzzled, angry, and sad.
Sometimes she wishes that she were like her mom, who has no conflict with her identity. She is so sure about herself and her roots. An image stirred in Sunita’s mind. It was the banyan tree that she had seen in front of her grandfather’s house in India. The ageless tree had its aerial roots hanging all the way to the ground like an old man’s beard. Its strong, gnarly roots, partly protruded on the ground went down under the ground to extract the vitality for life, which it gives back to the earth.
A sadhoo used to make his livelihood under this tree. The old man would arrange his altars of Ganesh and other deities early in the morning before the worshippers came with their flowers, fruits, sweets, and coins. At lunchtime the other inhabitants of this tree—the monkeys and the squirrels would come out of their respective homes for their share. The sadhoo did not mind. When the neighborhood boys climbed the tree and jumped from its branches on their way back from school, the monkeys understood and disappeared somewhere else. When the snake charmer came and the neighbors watched around in a circle, the sadhoo let the snake charmer take the stage for his show and business. This is how it worked here. How simple, how tolerant. It’s so cool, thought Sunita. She would like to belong here, she thought.
But she could not. Not because she could not stand the heat and the humidity or had to have boiled water whenever she felt thirsty, but because people knew that she did not belong there. She was an outsider. They looked at her funny when she wore her California shorts and tank top on a hot muggy day.
“They are not used to see it on us, on our native dark skin Didi,” the maidservant had remarked. Sunita realized that people in India would also not accept her just the way she was.
Further down memory lane a picture of the bazaar came vividly to her mind—how quickly she had learned to bargain like a shrewd native bargain hunter. How an old vendor handed her a box of glass bangles as a gift, “My gift to you. Take it beti, take it to your home, give it to your friends. All young girls love glass bangles. They bring good luck. Give them away!” he said waving his hands in the air.
All dark nights finally give way to the morning sun. Did the alarm clock screech so loudly just to remind her of that? Sunita slammed her hand on the clock. It stopped. She has to get ready to face another day.
In the first period English class Ms. Giles brought forth a problem. “Class, we have a crisis and I need your help. We have a foreign exchange student from Russia who needs a home desperately, a loving American home for the rest of the year.”
At this time Sunita was opening a small note, folded many times and passed on by several hands, on her lap. It read: Su, I saw a great prom dress for you at Macys, downstairs at the clearance rack, only $39. Can’t beat.—Jessie.
Sunita wrote back: I don’t think my family will understand this prom business at all, so I decided to stay away from it altogether.
The teacher went on, “Realize boys and girls, what a disgrace it will be if this student has to go back. Her foster family suddenly declined and no one will take her … Out of several thousand applicants only a handful of Russian students get this opportunity. Think about this girl, about her dream … ”
Sunita now was reading another folded response from Jessie: You have to make your parents understand this prom thing. This is an all-American dream for every junior girl. You must try. Leave no stone unturned.
Ms. Giles stopped abruptly in the middle of her sentence, “Sunita, what are you doing? Are you paying attention?”
“Can you tell me what I was talking about?”
“Mm … Mmm … about the dream … we must try … make our family understand … leave no stone unturned.”
“Yes, very good. Sit down, my dear.”
At dinner when Mr. Sen asked, “What happened today? What are the headline news at school?” Sunita was actually thinking how could she persuade her parents about the prom, but she said, “Oh, there is a homeless Russian exchange student … her foster family is having problem, so she may have to go back to Russia.”
“Chhi, chhi … What a shame! After all, she is a guest to this country,” responded Mrs. Sen.
“Well, what can you do?” Sunita squeezed some extra ketchup on her keema curry to tame down the spices.
“Well, they say that the guest is like Narayan, the lord. You have to try your best.”
“Me?” Sunita’s eyes opened wide.
“Yes, why not?” Mr. Sen said taking a bite on a tiny, flame-hot green chili.
“But, we are not an American family!’ Sunita protested.
Mr. Sen does not talk too much. Between his crunches of chili peppers he made it clear that if by tomorrow the foreign student does not find a place to stay, she may come and live with them.
“You go and talk to your teacher and let me know by tomorrow, understand?” he left the table.
Sunita did not have the nerve to disobey her father. Next morning when she brought this up to Ms. Giles, everybody cheered and clapped.
“But we are not a typical American family, Ms. Giles,” Sunita said with downcast eyes.
“This is America my dear,” a spectacled robust lady came forward. She is the foreign students’ coordinator.
“This is the experience we want our foreign students to have … to see how diverse and versatile our culture is … how multicultural … ” She was explaining all these to Sunita’s parents while they were signing the papers quietly on the dining table.
In Sunita’s room the girls were arranging the Russian girl’s belongings. The Russian girl said in her best English, “I thought America was black and white.” But nobody heard her. They have found the box of glass bangles. Colorful glass circles dazzled and jingled on each of the girls’ forearms. The girls giggled and waves of laughter and joy bounced back and forth in the little room.
The old man was right. It is true that all young girls do love glass bangles no matter what shades of color their skins are.
Anindita Basu teaches education classes at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. She has also written short stories in Bengali.