Extract

Next morning. Her shoulder was being shaken. ‘I’m going now, I’ll call you,’ said a voice. An enormous effort and she managed to unglue her eyelashes a fraction. Who was this man? Into her blankness he repeated, ‘I’ll call you.’
Her husband. ‘But— but what about breakfast?’ she asked, heaving under the bedclothes.

 

‘I’ve already had it. If you need anything, here is my work number, here, see, under the clock.’

 

The front door banged, and she was left in silence. Alone, she was alone. Luxuriously she welcomed the exhaustion that forced her eyes shut. When she next opened them it was noon. She lay in bed a long time, looking at the grey sky hovering over her through the large window, gazing at the blue and white stripes of the quilt, noticing the jumping green digital numbers of the clock radio. She snuggled deeper into the bedding, it was so cosy and she was so comfortable. There was no one to shout, get up, get up, it’s getting late, no task that would suffer by her staying in bed, no person whose loneliness she had to assuage.

 

Only Ananda, who was at this very moment filling the teeth of Canadian children. (She brought to mind he had a family practice.) Eventually lying in bed became boring. She must explore, she must examine her territory in private. Boldly she strode about in her nightie, the shape of her breasts visible, as was the shadow of her pubic hair. No servant, landlord, landlady, neighbour or mother was there to see. After years of night and day protection against the eyes of the world, it felt strange to abandon the shield that had defended her modesty.

 

Eat, she must eat. She stares at the pink meat slices, milk, eggs, bread, butter in the fridge. She holds the cold bottle of grape juice in her hands, 1.99 dollars—just 1.99. Welcome to the land of plenty, Nina. Remember how impossible it was to drink grape juice in Delhi? The last time you had it was courtesy Zenobia’s birthday at Dasaprakash, and it cost sixty rupees. Now it seems practically free.

 

She found a long stemmed glass, and poured the juice. It wasn’t quite the fresh, thick, pulpy taste she remembered from the south Indian restaurant at the Ambassador Hotel, but it was grape juice, and caused a similar puckering in her mouth. She poured herself another glass and continued to drink slowly. If nostalgia came she would fight it. The phone rang. It was her husband.
‘Hi.’
‘Hi.’
‘How are you doing? Everything all right?’
‘I have just gotten up.’
‘Jet lag, sleep it off.’
Sleep some more? Oh all right.
‘Have you had lunch?’
‘No.’
‘Make yourself a sandwich.’
‘There is only meat.’
‘Eggs? Boil some eggs. Or try the peanut butter in the cupboard. We’ll go shopping in the evening. I would have come home, but I have to catch up on patients here. Sorry about your lunch.’
‘That’s all right.’
‘See you, bye. Have to run.’ He put the phone down, and silence caught up from where it had left off. Eggs. He had told her to boil eggs. She attempted to light the stove but it resisted stubbornly. She rummaged some more in the cupboard and came up with milk and cereal, easier than putting peanut butter down her throat, which seemed a very viscous, unsubtle, peculiar smelling mass.

 

It was strange to have no sign of any living thing around her. When was Ananda coming home? She resumed her roaming, opening every drawer, peering into every cupboard. On close scrutiny there did seem to be a thin film of dust in the apartment. She found a damp blue and white cloth lying bunched up next to the sink and started. For an hour she cleaned, with much examining of each object her duster wiped. There was nothing to disturb her. No landlord, no sound of traffic, no vendors, no part-time help to clean and swab, no mother who chatted while she worked.

 

Chores finished, nightie clad, she stretched on the sofa and flung her legs over the cushions. She closed her eyes, she was tired, so tired. She would get up just before Ananda came home she told herself as she drifted off. Five o’clock. There he was, bending over her, shaking her.
‘Are you all right?’
She looked at him. Again the slight shock.
‘Did you eat?’
‘Cereal.’
‘You must be starving. Come on, we better rush, the grocery store closes at six.’
‘I haven’t had a bath.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Just put on your clothes.’
‘Aren’t you going to have tea first?’
‘Tea? I don’t have tea in the evenings. Do you want some?’
‘No, it’s all right.’
‘Hurry then, the supermarket will close.’
After some hesitation Nina put on her plainest salwar kameez. It was silk with embroidery at the neck, sleeves, and borders. She wished she had some ordinary clothes, but what with getting married and travelling to the West, ordinary was out of the question
‘Don’t you have anything else?’ asked Ananda, eyeing her splendour dubiously.

 

‘I have my saris,’ offered his wife.
‘Oh, never mind, let’s go. We’ll have to see about some clothes for you this weekend.’
In the hallway Ananda took her hand. ‘Are you tired?’ he asked tenderly.
She laughed, ‘After sleeping the whole day? It’s you who must be tired.’
‘Naah. I’m used to coming home and shopping.’
‘Do you have a lot of patients?’
He gave a modest smile, ‘Oh, I’ve been here a long time,’ He hummed and swung her hand down the long corridor to the elevator.
‘What name did you say the car was?’ said Nina, making up for yesterday’s neglect in this area.
‘It’s a Saab.’
‘What’s that?’
‘A Swedish car. Gary thinks European cars are a waste of money, but man, Swedish design makes this one classy car.’

 

Her husband had a car so exclusive she had never heard of it. In a single stroke she had outpaced the status symbols of home. Down, down the building, down into the dank, dark, neonlit basement. Rows of cars. She should get acquainted with them, they were more plentiful than people.

 

‘One of the reasons I chose this building was that it has underground parking,’ explained Ananda. ‘Otherwise in winter it’s a real hassle plugging in the car to keep it warm, scraping off the snow, takes much longer to warm the engine too. The people in older apartments are not so lucky.’

 

Ananda had the air of Santa Claus as he took out the keys and the central locking system clicked open. ‘I thought this was a sophisticated colour. Indians come here and buy such showy things. Red, blue, black. No taste.’
Nina could see before her a car, pale grey, long, sleek, handsome, capable of gliding, smooth and slick over bumpfree spacious roads. Her admiration was warm. They drove around the apartment blocks of Hollin Court, across the road into a shopping complex. The trip had taken thirty seconds.

 

‘It’s so close!’ Nina exclaimed.
‘Yes, we only drive when we need to stock up— otherwise you can walk to the market.’
Nina stepped out of the car. The morning clouds had abated to reveal patches of clear sky. The slanting mellow light seemed to prolong evening into the hours that belonged to night. Even in a parking lot there was something wondrous about it.
‘Is it always so beautiful?’ she asked.
‘When it’s not raining. This is one of the wettest places in Canada.’
‘Rain? Oh how lovely.’ Rain, always welcome, always a respite from heat, heavy, pounding, lovely, beautiful, grey and white rain.
‘Wait till it rains. It’s not like India.’
‘I know,’ said Nina, neatly jumping over the last sixteen years and landing under the leaden, drizzly skies of Brussels. They walked into the Dominion Supermarket. The slight chill outside was replaced by warmth. The silk salwar kameez was doing nicely, thank you very much, thought Nina as she folded her pashmina shawl and tucked it inside her handbag.
The couple wheeled a cart down the aisles, past such colour and promise that Nina felt she would go mad with the bounties of infinite choice. Like the airport, only a thousand times better, because here she was not a deprived onlooker but a consumer ready to be consumed. It would take her days to digest the delights of one supermarket, a lifetime before she could be indifferent to its charms.
The adult pleasure of wallowing in a sea of material goods was entirely new to her. Eventually she would experience exhaustion at the claims made on her senses, but for now she was all ardent response and eager reaction. Ananda was indulgent of Nina’s indiscriminate urges. No, no, not so much grape juice, or so many chips or biscuits, that’s a dip, we don’t want so much dip, only sugarless candy and gum, I am a dentist, no, put them back. Amused he led her firmly to the meat, fruit and vegetable section. Where there was no dirt on anything, and a certain quality guaranteed in the purchase. Gratified by the success of their first grocery shopping, Ananda wheeled the laden grocery cart towards the car.
On the way home he elaborated on his sagacity, ‘You run out of something, you just whip down and out—of course in winter you have to wear warm clothes, the wind is a little strong sometimes, but living so nearby, what does it matter?’
Back in the apartment building basement, Ananda took out a small trolley from the trunk. For taking groceries up, no servants.
‘We never had full time servants at home either, and I wish we had trolleys,’ said Nina.
They unpacked together. ‘I’ve never bought so much junk in my life,’ joked Ananda as he flipped open a can of beer. Nina felt the delectation of a pampered child.
Then they cooked in the small kitchen, rice, dal and raita for Nina, with an additional grilled fish for Ananda.
‘Is this how you eat every day?’ asked Nina.
‘Hell, no. I just fry some hamburger patties, whole wheat bun, salad on the side, or I grill some fish with a bit of lemon and butter. On the weekends I may make a steak, sirloin or T bone, with some mashed potatoes and peas.’
‘So you never eat Indian?’
‘Too much trouble, too much time. I only cook Indian when I have guests, they seem to expect it,’ he added gloomily.
‘So, you are doing this for me?’
‘Until you get used to something different. I’ve made enough dal for a week.’
Could his care and consideration be equalled, could she have married a better man— no, thought Nina, no. The institution of the arranged marriage was alive and well so far as she was concerned. Mentally, she sent a message to Zenobia and her mother, I am all right, don’t worry, he cooks most of the food and freezes tons of dal for me, stay well, love Nina.
That night, in bed, Nina was more prepared for the brevity of their sexual encounter. It was easier to not compare Ananda with his predecessor in a different country. ‘Welcome home, darling,’ said Ananda, putting his arm around his wife afterwards. And that was the main point, wasn’t it? Not her orgasms, but the fact that she was home.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured to a husband who was already asleep.
She put in some tossing and turning before drifting restlessly to the other room, over to the unit on which rested the TV, and quickly unearthed its single literary treasure. The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler, inscribed with love from Sue, was evidently unread from the stiffness of its pages. Well, might as well get to know this country. As she read on, the book gripped her. She had not realised rural Nova Scotia was so interesting.
She would like to meet Sue, perhaps borrow other books. And now she remembered, Ananda had said no point shipping, with the same money you could buy a new library. This remark drew the days ahead into some shape. To read as much as she liked with no disturbance! 612 Hollin Court began to seem like paradise. Or so she thought at night. In the day it was sleep, sleep, sleep. ‘It’s just jet lag,’ said her husband, as he woke her up for dinner the next day. ‘Some people get it very badly.’
‘You didn’t?’
‘I can’t afford to. Not with my patients waiting. It’s all right for you, take your time.’
Did he not suffer, crossing nine different time zones? Or was Canada so deeply embedded in his body that waking, sleeping, he moved to its rhythms? One day her system too would move to a different beat.
For now, after a restless, wakeful night, sleep came upon her like the most artful lover in the day, and despite her determined efforts to resist, claimed her for his own. The tiredness of her life, the hardships, the journeys in buses, the baking summer sleeplessness on a calefacient bed, the nagging discomfort of two miniscule rooms, all melted into soft pillows, sweet smelling sheets and a springy mattress.
Two nights later she finished The Mountain and the Valley. She had a greater sense of Canada with this one book, than after all her husband’s conversation. At dinner she demanded more reading material.
‘I’ll ask Gary.’
‘What’ll I do in the meantime?’
‘Watch TV.’
‘TV?’
‘There is the remote. And there, the guide.’
Nina had never watched TV in her life. She required the printed word to fill the spaces in her mind, the leisured turning of pages, the slow absorption of words, the occasional rereading. She wondered whether this suggested some rigidity of outlook.
iii
Certain Indians become immigrants slowly. They are not among those who have fled persecution, destitution, famine, slavery and death threats, nor among those for whom the doors of their country slam shut the minute they leave its borders. These immigrants are always in two minds. Outwardly they adjust well. Educated and English speaking, they allow misleading assumptions about a heart that is divided. In the new country they work lengthy hours to gain entrance into the system, into society, into establishing a healthy bank account. Years pass like this, ungrudged years because they can see their all sustaining dream of a better life coming true.
As far as citizenship is concerned, a divided heart means that the immigrant clings to his status, feeling that to give up his passport is the final break in the weakened chain that binds him to his motherland. That day does come however. The steps towards it are varied and not necessarily slow. Sometimes trips to the home country bring a disillusion and bitterness that the immigrant has forgotten how to cope with. Is this how it is here? So corrupt, merit stifled, such malfunctioning of every civic amenity, where your last ounce of energy is spent in merely keeping the wheels of daily life oiled and running. For men this logic works particularly well. Ok, let’s be loyal to the country that has done so much for us.
In fact the years it takes to qualify for citizenship are needed to adapt, bit by bit, day by day. To stop finding little things strange and confusing, laughable and inappropriate. Wear the shoe on the other foot, sister, brother. They think the same of you. Get rid of the schism, become enough like them to be comfortable, merge and mingle. From East to West, over and over. Forget the smells, sights, sounds you were used to, forget them or you will not survive. There is new stuff around, make it your own, you have to.
When it comes to buying, yes in North America clothes are mass produced and wonderful, food is plentiful, pre-packaged and cheap. For a long time the immigrant looks upon these things with joy. This is what he has come for. The price he pays for leaving the uneven artistry of home is not very high.
Work is an easy way to integrate. Work engages the mind and prevents it from brooding over the respective merits of what has been lost and gained. Colleagues are potential friends. The immigrant who comes as a wife has a more difficult time. If work exists for her, it is in the future and after much finding of feet. At present all she is, is a wife, and a wife is alone for many, many hours. There will come a day when even books are powerless to distract. When the house and its conveniences can no longer completely charm or compensate.
Then she realises she is an immigrant for life. Nina cries, feels homesick, sometimes adventurous, often forlorn. The minute she gets up she is at a loose end. Languidly she approaches her housework: dishwashing, bed making, cleaning, stretching every task out, slow, slow. She keeps the radio on, listening to music, advertisements, the CBC and its take on Quebec separatism and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It seems a big issue here.
This done, she puts on her silk salwar kameez, fast becoming her uniform, goes out to wander around. She admires the Nova Scotian summer, so cool. She buys junk and nibbles it on the way: chips, chocolate, candy. She ruins her appetite, but she doesn’t need much of an appetite to do justice to the canned soup and toasted sandwich that will be her lunch. Once home she takes off her shoes, which had been deceptively comfortable in the store, but now pinch like her old ones did.
Books bought from the grocery store fill her time. They are as cheap and trashy as the food she indulges in. Basically she waits for Ananda to come home, then she will talk, often the first words of the day. She writes frequently to her mother and Zenobia. Her letters are very cheerful. Ananda knows she is lonely, but hopes she will settle down quickly. A teaching career would be ideal, but in the West the road to a teaching job is long and arduous. She has to have a PhD, she has to have published.
Nina insists that not doing anything for a while will be pleasant, however the statement lacks its earlier buoyancy. Ananda tries to come home early so they can do things together. Women in Love is her first film in Halifax. How strange the halls in the West are, thought Nina, holding on to a bag of buttered popcorn and surveying the miniscule number of people that made up the audience. Did they even make a profit? At home crowds milled around film halls, the black market in tickets was brisk. Here, come here, plenty of room for all. The film credits started, Ananda took her hand and they became a regular couple, for all to see. Nina directed these visuals towards her mother and colleagues. Ananda directed them towards his uncle, aunt, Alka, Ramesh, Gary, Sue and the students at the school of dentistry. Look, look at the clasped hands, at her head resting against my shoulder.
Nina soon became distracted from the drama on the screen by the couple sitting directly in front of them. The man had his arm around the girl’s shoulders. Every so often their faces merged, their lips locked in kisses. Why couldn’t they wait till they got home? How long had they known each other, was this a new love or an old one, clandestine or legitimate? She marvelled at such passion in a public place, while her hand lay in Ananda’s, so coy and shy compared to the fecund model in front.
Those two lived on in her imagination long after she had forgotten the details of Women in Love. Later as they were driving home, ‘Did you like the movie?’
‘It was lovely,’ though actually Women in Love had too much sex for Nina’s taste. She did not like direct evidence of how different her own experience was.
Ananda looked pleased.
‘But it was very different from the book. In fact,’ she said, warming to her theme, ‘I much prefer The Rainbow.’
‘Do you?’
‘Oh yes. I read everything Lawrence wrote, but his blood thing is overrated. What do you think?’
‘As a medical student, I did not get much time to read.’
Perhaps that was just as well. Only a fool would be influenced by the whole Lawrentian sexual mystique. If one applied books to life one had to distinguish between the prescriptive, descriptive, metaphoric and realistic. She grabbed her husband’s hand. He pressed it momentarily before releasing it. He did not encourage affection on the road; too unsafe, too reckless, one should focus on what one was doing.
‘Did you know insurance rates are the highest for young unmarried men below twenty five?’
‘Really?’ How much the man knew!
‘They are considered very reckless.’
Nina twiddled with the knobs of the car radio, and was rewarded by a Beatles song: Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, it’s all right. She hummed and tapped her feet while her husband drove in silence. That night Ananda couldn’t wait to get inside her. No foreplay, no kissing, just jam it in. Nina tried to take his head in her hands to suggest some preparation, but he was too impatient. The green glow of the digital clock cum radio sitting on the bedside table illuminated the seconds for one minute, and it was over. She didn’t even have time to speculate on the whiff of hospital odour, similar to the one she had smelt at the Oberoi. As she reached for his hand, he sighed,
‘That was better, wasn’t it?’
She murmured an assent. What this said about his standards, she did not care to consider. Besides, her body had decided to object to his emissions again. She rose to pee in the pink bathroom. Washing herself liberally, she wondered how long it would take her to conceive.

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