Usha Alexander


Sita glanced around the kitchen as she sipped her tea, taking inventory of the work that awaited her. Babu's breakfast dishes remained in the sink; pages of the Mercury News lay spread across the brightly-tiled breakfast table. Mentally ticking through the other household chores, she smiled when she recalled that Meera would come home early this afternoon; they would visit the temple together to do a special puja for Meera's upcoming marriage.

Sita worked efficiently when she was alone. She found her tasks meditative and sometimes hours passed without her notice. Other times, she immersed herself consciously in her thoughts or, more often, turned on the several televisions in the house to dispel the silence. She watched snippets of daytime programming as she traveled from room to room, arranging, cleaning, and cooking.

Dragging a heavy basket of soiled laundry behind her, she paused several times as she descended the stairs, resting and catching her breath. The pain in her abdomen now occurred with greater frequency and severity than she had experienced before and by late afternoon she was exhausted. Halfway down, she pushed the basket ahead of her and sat, resting her elbows in her lap and steadying her breathing. When did I grow so weak?

She heard the garage door open and then the kitchen door. Meera was home. It was already four o'clock.

“Why are you sitting here, Atte?” Meera looked at her with concern, coming upon her abruptly in the stairwell. Though she was dressed in a dark pantsuit, her wavy hair swept back on one side and falling to her shoulders made her look more like a student than a serious professional.

Meera asked her the question in English but Sita responded in Kannada, her mother-tongue, the language that slid off her tongue delicately. “It's nothing, Meeru. I was just waiting for you. Take the laundry basket down for me. And bring me some water when you come back.”

Meera did as she was told, calling after her, “The place looks great, Atte. Looks like the painters are nearly finished with the outside. I hope Appaji can relax now.”
Fall colors were in full bloom on the trees that lined the sidewalks, bushes, and hedges of the neat front lawns and along the high, wooden fences. Bougainvilleas trimmed the entryways of stylish homes along their street, standing out startlingly orange, white, magenta among the austere tones of autumn. Sita admired the contrast; she felt especially attuned to this time of year. The sun fell sideways, beaming at its characteristic, late October slant. Its golden light comforted her. It transformed her spirit, illuminating brilliantly the moribund world of the living with a transcendent glow. She filled her lungs with the warm, fragrant air of mid-afternoon and tilted her head into the sunlight.

The drive to the temple felt long. But it helped that Meera chattered most of the way. She spoke mainly about people she knew at work. Several of her co-workers had taken her to lunch in celebration of her upcoming wedding. Sita listened with interest and pleasure, nodding and interjecting only syllables, “hunh” or “mmm,” pleased to hear anything that she could take as proof that Meera was destined for happiness.

Meera had not visited the temple with her aunt in months; in fact, she was quite happy to stay away. Among her friends, she was an insistent atheist, so it was only with a reluctant obedience that she accompanied her aunt and went through the motions of prayer alongside her.
As soon as they entered, Sita approached the shrine briskly. She rang the brass bell that hung over the center of the temple area and prostrated herself before the images of her deities.

The Sunnyvale Hindu Temple and Community Center was a peculiarly humble affair. To Meera it looked more like a gilded cafeteria than a sacred space. The temple proper occupied one corner of an enormous, open hall and was set apart only by its loud green and purple carpeting. Against the back wall stood the makeshift shrine, overloaded with flamboyantly colorful posters and opulently-dressed statuettes of goddesses and gods, who smiled benevolently with eyes of stone or plastic. A handful of people prayed silently on the carpet or milled about the hall reading community postings, as a man's solo drone chanted Sanskrit prayers from a small tape recorder placed near the shrine. The singer's voice echoed loudly through the chamber, competing with the thunderous footfalls of teenage girls practicing Bharata natyam dance in the adjacent hall. This isn't what I'd call a tranquil atmosphere, Meera snorted. They could at least get a decent sound system.

But despite Meera's silent dismissal of the rituals, the priests, the garish representations of a dizzying multitude of deities, these mythological characters and their lore had sunk into her subconscious and set up residence before she was old enough to protest. They held sway on her in ways she could not fully discern. They were familiar, an easy conduit into some unexplored, primal territory within herself; they were a link to her mother, her family, her ancestral past.

As Meera stepped onto the purple carpet, she reflexively clasped her hands before her face. Her mobile phone rang, the special tone indicating Rajan's call. Stepping back she flipped the slim phone to her ear. “Hey, Rajan,” she said.

“Bittu - hey, can you join me for dinner tonight? One of our drug reps is taking a group of us to La Cave. It'll be fun.”

“I don't think so, babe. I'm here at the temple with Atte for puja. I was planning to eat at home with the family tonight.”

“Oh, come on,” he cajoled. “It's still early. You should be out of there before six. That will give you plenty of time to get dressed. Vince will be there - remember I told you he's our new administrator? It will be a good chance for him to meet you.”

Meera inhaled audibly. A year ago the prospect of such an evening would have excited her, but lately she was rarely in the mood; between the wine and the soufflé, their banter about hospital politics did not much interest her. “Well, alright. I'll call you when I get home.”

“Great. Wear that black dress with the red roses down the front - you know, the one you wore to Richardson's garden party.”

Meera bit her lip. She thought of what Ravi would say when he saw her dash out the door arrayed in her finest evening wear - Oh look! Another night where you get to play the sidekick in the Great Rajan Show! “Okay. I'll call you later.” Hanging up the phone, she joined her aunt, cross-legged, on the carpet.

“Today we will do a special puja for your wedding,” Sita said, sitting up after a few moments, “for your future happiness and children.”

Meera pulled two twenty-dollar bills from her purse and handed them to Sita. “You talk to the pujari. I don't know how to ask for the right stuff,” she said.

Sita took the bills and made her way to speak to one of the dhoti-clad pujaris who stood chatting at the side of the temple area. Meera waited, surveying the people lost in their devotion. She felt like an intruder.

She watched Sita speak earnestly to a bare-chested, middle-aged pujari who nodded with interest. His white Brahmin-string stood out sharply against the dark, flaccid folds of his stomach. Someone like him would soon preside over her own marriage. She thought of that day, the invocations and incantations of the pujari for herself and Rajan, stepping around a small flame in a large hall resplendent with flowers. The perfume of incense. The scent of coconut. The smell of crackling ghee. Though theirs would be primarily an Indian wedding, Meera had insisted on finding someplace for her two best friends to stand as bridesmaids in shimmering saris.

Afterwards, she and Rajan would sit on golden thrones upon a raised dais covered in vermillion carpeting to greet their well-wishers. So much color, she thought. It will really be beautiful. The image of her and Rajan together upon the bridal thrones struck her as romantic: she in red silk spun with pure gold, he in a fine suit. But it was only an image, a frozen moment. She had a harder time imagining what lay beyond.

Then an alternate image invaded her mind: she pictured Michael seated next to her. It startled her, the thought of his slender frame and auburn skin swathed in saffron-colored silks, a peacock feather dancing atop his headdress. No, no it would not have worked. He would not have been able to fit with this side of my life. She remembered the coolness with which her aunt and father had always received him - the way they had pointedly excluded him from her graduation celebration - even though he had been in her circle of friends throughout her college years. Michael's family was from Mexico, and she knew that her elders had feared the idea of her romantic involvement with him. Though they certainly had suspected it, never did she have the heart to tell them openly that their fears were already realized.

Ironic, she mused running her fingers against the deep brown skin on the backs of her hands, that the same sorts of prejudice that Appaji held against Michael are what Rajan fears his parents will hold against me: wrong skin color, wrong background, wrong ancestry, not Indian enough... She felt a pang of guilt as she acknowledged that
Rajan was at least willing to stand up for her against his family, which she had never done for Michael.

Meera realized the chanting had stopped as her aunt approached, followed closely by the pujari. They sat beside her and the pujari commenced prayers in Sanskrit. Not pausing in his chant, he indicated that Meera should kneel and touch her forehead to the ground. Meera especially hated this part.

After her awkward genuflection, Meera sat cross-legged. Speaking quietly below the pujari's drone, Sita told her, “I'm so glad you were able to come today. It's been too long since we did a puja. And I thought we wouldn't get another chance before your wedding.”

Meera made herself smile. She wondered how her aunt would react if she confessed that she did not really believe in any of this mumbo-jumbo. She envied Ravi's courage at staying away from religion entirely, no matter how hard their elders pressed.

“I will also pray for Ravi's MCATs,” Sita whispered. “He should come and pray himself, but I know he never will.”

Obeying the pujari's directions, Meera rose and followed through the arcane motions of the puja. She glanced at Sita standing beside her, who wavered slightly, her eyes looking through the present moment to something far away. Meera closed her eyes and drifted into her own thoughts under the hypnotic drone of the pujari's voice.

Rajan had formally proposed to her in the spring, and the past six months had been a heady stream of celebrations, preparations, congratulations.

“He is such a good boy,” Sita so often intoned after hearing a story of his kindness or success. “You don't understand these things, but you'll come to learn that he will understand you better than any American boy can.” Though Sita never said it directly, Meera heard this as a warning to forget about Michael.

“Your mother would have liked him,” Meera's father concurred. “She would have been so proud for you to find such a fine Indian boy. You are becoming the woman she dreamed you would be, Meeru. Don't disappoint her memory.”

And so it happened that on the day that Rajan presented her with the ring and the choice, Meera's heart missed a beat. She caught her breath and looked steadily into the empty, crystalline depths of the impressive diamond, because she could not look into his eyes. She opened her mouth and heard her mother's voice answer, “Yes.”

The chanting stopped. Meera cupped her right hand to accept the drops of coconut water followed by a mound of lightly-spiced yoghurt rice offered as prasad. Trying to eat the rice in one gulp, she smeared it across her chin.

Sita scolded her. “Deepa! Not like that. Take bites.”

Meera paused in mid-swallow. Who is Deepa? This was not a name Sita had ever used with her.

With congenial amusement, the pujari indicated a stack of napkins, which Meera used to wipe her face and hands. She followed Sita through the hall, saying nothing. Sita stopped in front of the wedding dais and faltered unsteadily before dropping herself heavily onto it. She sat with her head slightly bent, breathing quickly.

“Atte, are you alright?” Meera asked with alarm.

“Yes, Deepu,” Sita's voice was light, lacking air. “Only I must sit.”

Meera sat beside her old aunt and looked carefully into her face. Tiny beads of sweat gathered along Sita's nose and across the translucent skin of her temples. Her face looked pallid, bloodless; her eyes were half closed. Instinctively, Meera encircled her aunt in her arm, drawing Sita close to lean against her.

“Deepulu. My darling Deepu. You are such a good girl. Such a good girl,” Sita whispered breathlessly. In a moment, she seemed to fall into a sound sleep. Her breathing grew deep and steady. Meera hesitated to wake her and looked around the hall helplessly. The few others in the place stood far away, occupied with their own discussions and prayers. Just as Meera wondered whether she should call for help, Sita opened her eyes.

“Did I sleep just now?” she asked. Her face looked tranquil, her color restored.

“Yes, Atte. Are you alright?”

“I am becoming such an old woman,” she shook her head. “Let's go home and I'll take a proper nap. Help me up, Meeru.”

It was a quiet Saturday morning at home. Babu sat across the table from his daughter, separated by coffee rings and bagel crumbs. She perused the arts section of the local paper while he flipped through the advertising supplements from home improvement stores. “The painters have done a great job, isn't it, Meeru?” his sonorous Indian-English tumbled across the table. “I'm thinking, shall we get a new front door?”

Meera looked at him. “A new door, Appaji? For the wedding? Don't you think that's going a little too far?”

Babu scratched his wiry, graying hair. “It's not looking nice, this door. We may as well replace it before all those people will come.”

“Appa, most of the people who are coming have been here before; they've seen our door. I'm sure they'd agree that the one we have is fine.”

“I don't know... I think as long as we're repainting, we should as well upgrade the door... and the front light fixture.”

Without a word, Meera turned back to the arts pages.

At first it had hurt him, her disinterest in these details, her dismissal of the care he put toward making her wedding a spectacular event. She is nervous about the wedding. It must be a frightening step in a woman's life, he reasoned. And he remained patient.

“Okay,” he cajoled, “just humor your Appaji. If he wants a door, just tell him he can have it.”

Meera looked up at him slowly, then a smile slid across her face. “If you're really determined to spend that much money, why don't you send us to Hawaii for a honeymoon?”

Babu chuckled. “Arre! The honeymoon is not my problem. You must ask your in-laws about that.”

Meera laughed and looked back at her paper, crinkling the pages as she turned them. “Appaji, who is Deepa? Is that the name of anyone you know?”

Babu started. Where has she heard that name? He himself had not thought of his niece in a long time, and he recalled her only vaguely. He did not want to remember her. She had been terribly thin; she had a pathetic aspect, and had tried too hard to please. When Meera glanced up at him, he looked down, flipping the pages of his paper.

“Was it the name of one of your sisters or something?” she persisted.

“No,” he shook off the memory. “My only other sister is Girijakka. We all went to India for her funeral - a long time ago, remember? When your Amma was alive.”

Meera nodded, studying him curiously, but she did not press further.

“What is Ravi doing this morning?”

“Don't know - probably sleeping, like usual on Saturday mornings.”

“Well, maybe we should get him up - and Sitakka, too. Let us have the family together for tea. We are not getting much chance to spend time like that anymore.”

As Meera roused the family, Babu hurried to his room. Reaching up to the top shelf of his cedar wardrobe, he pushed aside papers - expired passports, marriage license, birth certificates, naturalization papers, death certificates, diplomas in satin covers - and withdrew an ornate wooden box inlaid with scenes of bathing elephants in yellowed ivory.

From inside this box he withdrew another one covered in red velvet, on which was printed in golden lettering MR Kubendrappa Jewelers beneath a serenely-faced Shiva. The name and address of the humble business recalled to him another time and place. How far we've come... how far. Seating himself on his rumpled bed linen, he opened the box and carefully lifted three large pieces of fine, gold jewelry.

Babu listened to the sounds of his family stirring down the hallway: the sound of footfalls, knuckles rapping against a door, a light sneeze. He cherished moments like these, moments in which he felt wrapped in the fabric of his family life. It sustained him, energized him. But something in this moment pricked at him, too: the sound of his daughter's voice was too close to the voice of the wife he had lost.

Babu's wife and their youngest child were lost to him suddenly, stolen from him by the senseless cosmos, incarnate as a drunk driver on a two-lane stretch of country road one brittle autumn night. Rani drove with her baby girl cradled between her thighs. Struck head on, they were dead before they were found. Little he had left of her now, beyond his two grown children - so different from the little ones she had known - and such tiny remnants as this gold he cupped in his hand.

He lifted an earring and noticed that the flat screw on its back was still soiled from use. He held it up to the light, and her memory came into vivid focus. He remembered her laugh and her sharp wit, her hair oiled in a sleek bun. Unlike most others among their Indian friends, she wore jeans and knee-length skirts, even in those days, the late seventies. She had made dozens of friends at the community college where she was studying elementary education until Meera was born, and she frequently threw dinner parties. I certainly had a lot of fun in those days, he smiled. Without her I work too much. She had been so beautiful, so fresh. She gave him three miraculous children, and then she was taken away before he discovered - or had truly even begun to wonder - who she really was.

Then he thought of Kaye, his secret companion of the last six years. He would tell her of this moment, about the way Meera melted when he presented the gift of her mother's jewelry, and Kaye would sigh, carried away by the romance of the gesture. She would ask for all the intimate details before she grew quiet, a shadow darkening her face. She would stiffen, her mouth pulled to one side, as she always did when she felt left out. She would sulk for a while, and then charge him, “I am peripheral to your family life; I only live in it vicariously. They don't even know me.”

“But you are not peripheral,” he would remind her again, encircling her sturdy waist and drawing her to him. “You are my resurrection.”

Ravi sprawled across the orange cushions of the semi-circular breakfast booth, disheveled and lanky. From beneath his thick lashes, he watched his father puttering around the kitchen, clearing crumbs and stacking newspaper. Babu's portly figure looked especially jowly when he was relaxed and feeling content. Ravi was amused when his father carried on this way, strutting with this secure air of dominion and nurturance. Is this his yearning for grandchildren? he wondered.

“Meera, I have a gift for you,” Babu said when she and Sita appeared.

Dropping his head back with affected resignation, Ravi called out, “More of the wedding blitz, I guess? How do you stand it, Mee-e-ru-u-u?” he drew out the syllables of her name, the form elders used as an endearment.

Meera pursed her lips at him in an expression reminiscent of the days when they both knew that such teasing would have earned him a knuckle-punch in the shoulder.

He exaggerated his grin in response. “For all this pomp and circumstance, I hope you're prepared to live happily ever after.” He threw the back of his hand against his forehead in a gesture of high drama.

“Shut up, Ravi,” Meera carried the dripping tea strainer to the trash compactor and flung the sopping leaves against the side of the bin, where they landed with a helpless splat. Dark drops of tea splashed out onto her tee shirt, and she groaned. “Oh shi - shoot!”

“Ravi, why must you talk that way to your sister? This is her time to be happy. Don't you want her to be happy?” Sita asked, looking at him with maternal disapproval over her tea.

“Yes, I want her to be happy,” Ravi rubbed his face and sighed. “Of course I want her to be happy... whatever that means.” It variously amused and frustrated him that his elders spoke so frequently and casually about Meera's happiness and his own, yet, so far as he could tell, they had no clear idea what happiness might even look like. He often wondered whether this was just because their notions of happiness somehow did not translate from their old-world culture. Or were they just born devoid of the capacity for joy, for passion, and creativity? he mused cynically.

Babu waited until Meera seated herself at the breakfast table and then placed a small, red box before her. Its velvet was crushed and faded with the years, its gold-colored, tin clasp and hinges flecked with spots of corrosion. “I have a presentation to make,” he said with a flourish, “to Meera, for her wedding. I was thinking to wait a couple of weeks until the wedding was closer, but since we were all here now, I am thinking this is a good time.”

“We weren't all here now. Some of us were sleeping,” Ravi muttered.

Babu said to Meera, “I know your mother would have wanted me to give this to you at your wedding time.” He opened the box to reveal its historic treasure.
Meera flushed. Even Ravi gasped. He knew immediately that these were his mother's wedding jewels. She had shown them to him years ago, lounging on her bed, mother and children. She was telling them stories - at their insistence - about her childhood, her marriage to their father, her first days in America. They had begged her to put them on, and she indulged them, even wrapping her vermillion wedding sari about her. How she had awed him then. He could not actually recall her face, except as he saw it in old studio photographs, which, he was certain, was not as she appeared to them when she was their living mother.

“These were a wedding gift to your Amma,” Babu explained. “And now you will wear them in your own wedding.”

Meera lifted each item out of the box, one by one, laying it against her palm: a pair of flower-shaped earrings studded with small diamonds and a substantial chain of delicate paisleys pounded from gold. She said nothing, but stared with a faintly bewildered look at the glittering objects. Babu watched her expectantly.

“Come, try it on, Meeru,” Sita coaxed.

Meera placed the jewelry on the table and started to unscrew the simple gold earrings that she was already wearing. Then she stopped. “I really would rather do this later,” she said. “I need to get ready to meet Rajan. We've got some errands to run this morning.”

Carefully, she closed the jewelry back into its box. “Thanks, Appaji. Thanks, Atte,” she kissed them each, carried her teacup to the sink, and retired to her room with her gift.
Sita and Babu blinked at each other, perplexed. Then Babu's expression fell. He drew his arms into his chest like a young man spurned.

“She has so much on her mind these days...” Sita said.

“Yes, perhaps I misjudged. Maybe this gift makes her miss her mother too much,” Babu explained to himself as he sat, wrapping his hands around his teacup.
“I'm going back to bed,” Ravi said. Clueless, he thought as he ascended the stairs. Don't they understand anything about us?

Meera opened the door to her room when he knocked, standing back so he could come in and sit on her bed while she combed her hair. Both were silent for some moments.

“Kind'a freaky to see Amma's jewelry like that,” Ravi said at last.

“Yeah - I mean, it's wonderful to have it for my wedding... only...”

“It doesn't really feel like you.”

“Yeah, something like that.” Meera pulled her hair into a ponytail and faced her brother from her vanity bench. She looked up at the garlanded photograph of her mother that had hung above the doorway, untouched since her death before Meera was seven years old. “I do want to wear it, though,” she added.

“Why? If it makes you uncomfortable, why do it just because they want it?”

“It doesn't make me uncomfortable; it reminds me of Amma,” she cocked her head at him. “Besides, I'm not like you, Ravi. I can't just walk away from stuff, you know. I can't just decide that their happiness is not my problem.”

“Why not? You've got to be who you are, Meers. You've got to do what's good for you.” His eyes drifted across the profusion of paintings adorning her walls. “Like how long has it been since you took time to paint something?”

“I am totally who I am, Ravi. The difference between you and me is just that I take their feelings into account.”

“It doesn't help them in the long run.”

“Oh, I see, like you're helping them? Like your being 'who you are' is so good for them? Look what it does to them, Ravi - Appa's heart condition. Think about that.”

Ravi leaned back onto his elbows and squinted at his sister. “Are you saying that was my fault? It's bad enough to hear that from him.”
“He didn't know what to do with you when you started smoking pot. You know he tried his best, but it nearly killed him.”
Ravi laid back flat and looked up at the ceiling. “His best was yelling and screaming and sending us all to counseling, I guess. I guess talking to me would have been asking too much.”

“One of us has to hold things together around here while you're off playing with your band. One of us has to behave responsibly, don't you think?”
Ravi sat up again, looking his sister squarely in the face. “That's your whole problem, Meers,” he said. “You think that 'behaving responsibly' means twisting yourself up to be what someone else wants you to be. I just don't accept that.”

“Well then, I guess you just give everyone around you a heart attack,” she gave an exaggerated shrug.

Ravi stood up. “Whatever, Meers. I just came in to see how you were doing. Have fun with your fiancé today. And - oh yeah - we've got a gig Tuesday night at Castro Café. You haven't been to one of my gigs in ages. See if you can drag your 'sweetie' along with you.”

Meera stared at the floor as he shut the door behind him.

Alone, Meera turned back to her vanity table, opened the dry, red box, and studied the jewelry again.
She lifted an earring and held it against her ear, looking at her reflection in the mirror, loosening her hair again with her free hand. She enjoyed the way the gold augmented the luster of her mahogany skin. Curving her lips into a posed smile, she turned her head left then right to view the effect from different angles. She recalled her mother wearing these jewels, looking so like a queen, hair twisted and piled neatly above her neck, the way she went to the fanciest parties. Meera turned and looked up again at her picture.

Rani smiled proudly from the faded studio photograph, her figure heavily adorned with gold jewelry and a luminous silk sari. Her gaze fixed emptily into the room, she was constant, unchanging, youthful - younger even than Meera was now. On her mother, these ornaments had appeared so glamorous, so alive. Now they seemed lifeless and ancient. What drew Meera to them was not their antiquated beauty, but something less tangible: from their aged surfaces shone a trace of the quietly accomplished and abstemiously supportive woman that Rani was, the woman Meera felt compelled to become.

Yes, Meera thought, Amma would adore Rajan. But is it for the reasons that are important to me?

If they had known Michael, they would have adored him too, she believed. Countless nights she had lain awake agonizing over how to ease her father and aunt into the knowledge of her love for him. But she knew that they would not understand.

“Why is it that Indians who were put down for centuries by the prejudices of Whites are so ready to perpetrate the same racism on others?” she once blurted to her father during a discussion about a television movie that featured an interethnic couple.

“It's not racism, Meeru. I hire all kinds of people at my firm. But marriage is different. What have those people got to offer you? They won't really understand you,” her father countered.

Sita echoed his reasoning: “What do they understand about marriage and family? See how many divorces they have.”
These arguments always ended in yelling matches, the final pronouncement of which was her father's: “I am a fair and open-minded man, Meeru. But as my daughter you have no right to contradict my judgment in these matters.”

Studying Rani's face above her doorway, it struck Meera that she was about to take her mother's place in the roll of generations. Meera now stood poised to be the womanly center of the family, the one who is to be admired and respected; the one who could not falter. She understood that this enterprise of marriage was so much larger than she was. It was not a girl's whim to stride into, but a life event to which a woman succumbs. Fingering the earring her mother wore and gazing at her portrait, an awesome sensation arose in Meera, and she closed her eyes. Instinctively, she drew the earring toward her lips and kissed it reverently.

© Usha Sri Charyulu Alexander 2018