Gregory worries about his unprecedented nervousness.
He is almost sure he hadn’t been this nervous during his board exams or even at his job interview.
It is only a phase. It will depart on her arrival. He hopes.
At his wedding, a few months ago, he was enlightened that nowadays brides aren’t docile.
If you fail to please her, she won’t even bother to cheat as cheating is meant for cowards, she will just leave.
Iniya is unlike other girls, he thinks. If she had to leave, she would have left already.
Gone are the days when newly-wed brides dread to be the “other” woman in their spouse’s overseas life. Yes, Iniya agreed to come but that doesn’t mean she has no option. She can leave you anytime.
No she can’t. She won’t. He thinks.
He stands by the airport entrance with a red rose. Not because she likes red roses but because he has seen men do so in movies. His eyes oscillate from his wrist watch to the arriving passengers to the rose in his hand. Under the streetlight the rose looks attractive. At least to him it does. He then thinks the light must have created a halo on his head so he stands a little away from it without compromising the position of the rose.
First impression is the last impression. How will she recognize you in the dark, buffoon? You will be invisible. Remember those photos taken without a flash?
Better invisible than bald, he argues.
He shifts his weight from one foot to the other within short intervals. He looks down and evaluates the exterior of his shoes—polished, and visualises the interior—socks without holes, trimmed toenails.
He fidgets with the cellophane around the rose and cranes his neck for a better view of the arrivals gate. Sweat trickles down his chest, the nape of his neck, his spine and his butt crack. He pinches at his shirt as it sticks to his skin.
No, a t-shirt wouldn’t have made a difference. It’s not the heat. You are nervous.
He feels like scratching his crotch but the thought of her catching him red-handed, stops him.
Let her see you for who you are, an unsophisticated NRI.
Earlier at home, he had found a pair of complimentary ‘Heineken’ sunglasses alluring but he remembered it was dusk. If he chose to wear them he would look like a dark, blind man. A balding dark, blind man. He was unable to withstand the thought of appearing that way to Iniya so he had rolled up his shirt sleeves instead.
No it won’t make you look sophisticated. Nothing will.
Outside the airport, he brings his hands together to ensure that he has rolled both sleeves to the same height with the rose conveniently lodged under his armpit. Somewhat satisfied, he looks up. A woman, standing close, stares at him.
‘Yes?’ he murmurs and then looks over his shoulder before he looks at her again.
She smiles. ‘Hi.’
‘Oh my God, Iniya!’ he squeaks and the rose falls. He hurriedly lifts it and hands it to her. When she winces on holding the rose, he imagines the cellophane wet from contact with his armpit.
What a sweat welcome!
How long has she been staring at me? He wonders.
A hug or a kiss is out of the question. His right hand moves up to pat her shoulder but it takes charge of her trolley instead. ‘Have you kept your passport safely? Were the authorities intimidating?’ he asks in Konkani, shivering.
No, she ate her passport by mistake. No, the authorities treated her as royalty. Dukor (Pig)!
She unzips her ladies bag (a cheap imitation of crocodile leather) to confirm her passport’s whereabouts. On locating it, she flips the front cover with her thumb and displays the passport to him. She looks better in her passport photo, he thinks. It is evident that she has made no effort to look good for him. The quantity of gold she wears is not for his sake, it was to avoid unnecessary friction with the authorities during baggage scanning. The shawl gives her the appearance of an old woman eager to display her lifetime gold collection. He deduces that she had worn the shawl on the flight to shield herself from the air-conditioning and now, though she can feel the Middle Eastern heat, she is shy to take it off in public. Docile.
She is not interested. No matter what she’s wearing, she knows she looks better than you. Didn’t all your relatives repeatedly remind you to praise God for having found a wheatish girl accept your proposal? They had pegged you to get hitched to someone as dark as you especially because you fiercely denied their allegation of using Fair and Lovely.
He turns his head casually to his left and sniffs himself for any residue of the cologne ‘One Man Show’ he had so generously applied at home. His stench repulses him. His perspiration has doused every trace of even ‘Medimix’. He had shaved his underarms and vigorously scrubbed the bar of soap on them hoping the herbal aroma would last.
A free visa labourer has a better chance at impressing her than you do.
She slides the passport inside the zip and says, ‘One of the authorities stared at me.’
‘Oh....maybe it’s the gold you are wearing.’
That hadn’t occurred to her, dedh shaana (smart-ass)!
‘Maybe,’ she whispers, flustered.
If only he had added the words, ‘You look attractive.’ Or ‘they shouldn’t stare, it is impolite.’
They reach his emerald green ‘Nissan Sunny’ (second-hand). He puts the luggage in the dicky and on the back seat then asks her to get in through the front door.
Does she expect me to open the door for her? He wonders.
No, she wants you to run her over!
She inquires whether it is difficult to drive on account of the steering wheel being to the left of the car instead of the right.
‘Difficult? No baba.’ He replies in English. (He has the tendency to converse in English when nervous.) ‘Driving here. So easy. Strict rules. Nobody drive on footpath.’ he mock- laughs. ‘Ya they park on footpath for namaz, outside mosque, but soon namaz over they go. You know not much two-wheelers here. Only some bikes or pizza-delivery boys. But bicycles, too much.’
A donkey would be coherent in comparison.
She reacts with, ‘Hmmm’.
Iniya announces that she is hungry and that she could almost consume the rose he has given her. Greg knows that the economy flight did not provide an in-flight meal. He asks what food she has brought along from India. For a few seconds she stares at him but without further protest she narrates the contents of her luggage, ‘Some packets of chakli. Mama (her mother) made pickle, tender mango. Mummy (his mother) gave lime and mixed pickle. Then Dada (her father) bought Puran poli, Malpua, Laddus and other stuff.’ She adds, like a warning, ‘The food must last for months.’
He nods and stays quiet. ‘I thought you would bring dates for me. It is famous here, no?’ she says under her breath, playing with the rose petals after she has fastened her seatbelt.
He then opens the glove compartment and retrieves the newspaper cone of roasted peanuts.
‘For you. So how was your flight?’ He tries not to grin while giving her the peanuts.
‘I like peanuts. Who told you?’ She looks delighted.
Greg smiles his smile of pride, the same way he had on viewing the word ‘DISTINCTION’ on his digital report card and also when he was called back after the interview.
Not so soon, Mr. Premature Pride. Since when can peanuts substitute dates? Kanjoos (Miser).
‘A fat man was sitting beside me in the plane,’ she says in a low voice, like a child intending to arouse sympathy.
‘Oh’ he says. He looks ahead, grips the steering wheel with both hands. He had intended to show off by manoeuvring the wheel with one hand but his rehearsals in the previous months had failed.
She silently eats the peanuts then she says loudly, ‘A fat man was sitting beside me.’
‘Uh…didn’t you ask for a change of seat?’ He is distracted. This is no excuse. It had been her first time on a plane and he had forgotten to be sensitive.
He couldn’t be so fat as that ‘Lift Karadey’ (Hindi pop song) singer to cause discomfort, you want to say. Pathetic.
‘So flight not good haan,’ he says, hoping she will forgive his unintentional arrogance.
‘You won’t understand. You are not a woman,’ she says, turned toward the window.
Docile women do not retort. No. She wouldn’t have retorted, he thinks, now slightly afraid.
A fat man seated beside her implies her heightened fear of the breast nudge, you jerk!
He plays the audio cassette of Konkani gospel songs–only divine intervention could undo his wrongdoing. As he drives on the main road, he touches the rosary that hangs from the rear-view mirror; a habit he has cultivated as a safeguard when speeding.
Gospel songs. Rosary. False piety. Despicable.
The gospel song ends. He doesn’t dare flip its side, though the silence disturbs him a little. She is still looking out the window. To him she looks like a child in a fair.
A child LOST in a fair. Looking for her parents.
He wonders, is she listening to the quietness of the place? Is she noticing the expatriates on the road—Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos? Has she observed that the parks are almost full of local families enjoying their weekend barbecue dinners? Did she notice the Baklas, proudly portraying their sexuality through their appearance?
Greg wonders how many differences she has found between India and the Gulf.
She rolls down the window a bit and he reminds her of the car’s air-conditioning, she immediately rolls it back, still looking out.
Does she want fresh air? He asks her and she denies with a monosyllable, without turning her head towards him.
She misses home. The quietness suffocates. You suffocate. Yes she wants some air, jerk!
He thinks: I won’t let boredom get to her. I will show her how many Indians are here. I will take her to eat Makai (corn on the cob) at the beach. Every night after work I will take her out so that the next morning she will either reminisce the previous evening or look forward to the upcoming evening’s agenda. I will make sure she doesn’t find reason to fantasise about other men while I’m at work.
‘You said something?’ she turns to look at him.
‘Me? No.’ Did I think aloud? He wonders.
You have no control over your mind or body!
The car ahead is extremely slow but he can’t change lanes due to the traffic in the next lane. He wants to honk. He is unable to verify if the person driving is a local for the man has no guthra or even a thobe but Greg conveniently decides that he is indeed a local. He wouldn’t want Iniya to witness his cowardice in case of a confrontation.
He will never tell her of the time he was slapped for “unnecessarily” honking at a local’s car. As her husband he will only boast of his victories.
Your ultimate victory being manipulating her into leaving her home to be your slave here. Selfish bastard.
She looks at the green signboards on the road that display words in English and Arabic when she announces her wish to see a local currency note. His wallet being in the back pocket of his trousers discourages him but he slows down anyway and halts the car at an emergency zone to the right of the lane.
‘What happened?’ she looks worried. He unfastens his seatbelt and thrusts his pelvis in order to reach into his back pocket and pull out the wallet. He notices that she looks away as he struggles. Docile.
You are disgusting.
He hopes having obliged her request immediately his previous faults will disappear from her memory. She stares at the King’s face on the note. He smiles, imagining her happily bidding farewell to Gandhiji like he had on learning the exchange rate.
‘So how are the peanuts?’ he asks and manoeuvres the car onto the slow track again.
‘A little extra salty. Here, seat um.’ She laughs. ‘I mean eat some.’ He had almost forgotten her laugh. It causes his heart to flutter. She intends to put some peanuts into his mouth but as she bends towards him the seat belt tugs at her chest and they fall between his thighs. He trembles.
Don’t worry. She won’t retrieve the fallen peanuts. She would have, had it been another man.
Her hand hovers above his trousers for a few seconds before awkwardly picking more peanuts from the bottom of the cone and holding them in her cupped palm which gives him the impression of a pearl in its shell. ‘You know this country is called the Island of pearls?’ he wants to ask her but instead takes the peanuts and thanks her.
Can you afford a pearl?
‘A little salty,’ he affirms even though he doesn’t think so.
She hasn’t taken off her shawl yet and he doesn’t want her to suffer because of her shyness. ‘Is the AC cool enough?’ he asks, turning the louvers towards her.
Had he missed her? She had never asked. He was always the one to assure her in the letters that she would join him soon, so maybe it was evident. He wants her to be able to read his mind; they are sitting beside each other, how difficult could it be? He wants her to know that it almost makes him dizzy with happiness knowing that he will not have any more lonely nights at the park or at the mall watching other Indian couples sharing an ice-cream cone or a joke or a kid or all of the three together.
Sex. That’s the main reason.
Can you read her mind? She is thinking of the variety of Indian men here—wheatish, fair, younger, earning more than you.
He parks the car. The rose falls from Iniya’s lap as she gets out of the car and she steps on it. She apologises. He picks it and throws it in the dustbin nearby, feigning indifference. He carries the bags to the first floor of the apartment building. There is no elevator. The bags are heavier than he expected. Since only 40 kilos are allowed on international flights, he doesn’t blame her that the bags bulge like bellies of middle-aged men post-drinks and heavy meals. He thinks of seeking the help of the bachelors from the ground floor apartment but then he remembers the drunken confession of two of them about owning a slab of meat into which they have chiselled a hole.
Wheatish, fair, younger, earning more than you.
The barber from the shop beside the building offers help but Greg declines for he realises this is his chance to prove to Iniya his masculinity.
Once inside the apartment, Greg fastens the top latch of the double doors and turns the key in the lock. Iniya lets her shawl slip from her shoulders and flings it on the sofa. He doesn’t know whether to admire her appearance or to stare at the shawl which due to her careless aim lands on the floor instead of the sofa’s arm rest. Embarrassed, she heads over to the sofa, folds the shawl and carefully lays it on the sofa seat as if it were a baby.
He acknowledges her apologetic gesture with a smile and observes her in the sari. Without the protection of the shawl he expects her to be conscious but she isn’t.
She is faking confidence. It is not an invitation to stare you perv.
‘Shall we unpack?’ he asks, still recovering from lifting the luggage but he knows the food items would have to be unpacked immediately.
‘First the pickles, then the rest.’ she says authoritatively.
He wonders if someone had helped her in the airport to shift the luggage from the conveyor belt to the trolley.
Don’t ask her. She knows you don’t care.
He goes over to the fridge and takes out the 1 litre ‘Gulfa’ mineral water bottle (from months ago) in which he stores drinking water (from the water truck) every day. He almost lifts it to his lips when he remembers the glasses. He can feel her eyes on him so he rinses the glasses under the kitchen tap before he pours water into them (he plays safe for the time she would discover the cockroaches under the kitchen sink). He remembers not to hold the glasses from the top as if his fingers were talons but in the middle like a literate.
No Tang. No Tea. No Sprite. Water!
She finishes the water with large sips after which she gives the empty glass to him. Now she is on her knees taking out the plastic jars of home-made pickles wrapped in newspaper and polythene bags, from the opened suitcase and hands them to him. He places the jars in the kitchen; in the small steel sink and on the steel countertop. Iniya unwraps them carefully (her bangles slowly descending and ascending alternately) so as not to spread the oil from their oil-soaked covering. She instantly discards the wrapping into the dustbin placed beside the ‘Nada’ gas cylinder and justifies that if the polythene bags hadn’t been soaked in pickle oil she would have preserved them for future use. He knows she would have. Her upbringing wouldn’t spare her the guilt.
She asks him for an old cloth to remove residue oil off the exteriors of the jars. Out of habit he hands over an old banyan of his which hangs on a rusted nail by the fridge. She hesitates for a moment before using it.
Seriously Greg? Why not give her your old underwear? The one with holes? You preserve the new cloths in drawers with naphthalene balls. For special people. Tattered banyans for those whose opinions don’t matter. Message received.
He then remembers the kitchen rat and prays that it keeps hidden until Iniya is out of the kitchen.
After she wipes the oil off the jars, Greg keeps them lined up on the kitchen table to deposit them at once in the fridge as he had been advised not to open the fridge (second-hand) within short intervals for fear of rendering it useless. She holds the door of the fridge ajar while he places the jars inside. He had cleaned the fridge earlier and gotten rid of the leftovers. To his disappointment she does not comment on its appearance.
‘Oh the pork curry I made,’ she says, blushing a bit, hurrying to the suitcase. ‘How come pork is allowed here, being a Muslim country?’ she says while she checks if the curry has leaked.
‘This is a liberal Muslim country. You get every pork product, you name it. Bacon. Pork sausages. Salami.’
‘Oh. What is bacon? Salami?’ she asks, looking happy that the curry hadn’t spilled.
He silently congratulates himself on having aroused her curiosity. He puts the pork curry in the fridge and he says, ‘Our neighbour makes very good pork curry. They must be out now. At some park, maybe. The Mangy (mangalorean) couple I told you about? You will like the wife. She is a teacher.’
She will like the husband more.
She then unpacks the Tendli, Papaya, Lychees, boiled Jackfruit seeds and other edibles.
He sits on the sofa cracking his knuckles after speaking to his parents (and hers). Yes, he has clicked a photograph. He lies.
He would have to take her to the airport sometime later and recreate the moment.
How could you forget to document something as monumental as her arrival?
She is bathing; he can hear the splashes of water on the tiled bathroom floor. Why is she not using the shower? He thinks of accompanying her, the way Goras (Foreigners) did in movies, but before bathing when she had settled down on the commode to take a leak, she had turned the tap on simultaneously to camouflage her act. It offends him.
Maybe if her husband was someone else...
He goes to the kitchen for a peg of whisky as he does every Friday. But then he decides against it and pushes the bottle of Scotch behind other bottles and jars on the kitchen shelf. He decides to unpack the rest of her luggage. This will definitely make her happy. He thinks.
He opens the duffel bag first and out falls a pink lace nightie. He stares at it until he hears something behind him. He turns to see Iniya in a sleeveless sky blue maxi, her hair wrapped in a towel resembling an Ethiopian headscarf. He is reminded of the Ethiopian call-girl who had showed up at his doorstep a few months ago announcing that she offered sex on credit basis too. He had held his breath until he was sure of her disappearing footsteps.
‘I was…unpacking,’ he says quickly.
‘I’m hungry,’ Iniya says as she disappears into the living room.
He orders dinner from the Indian-Chinese restaurant (Malayali management) below the building. Iniya had mentioned long back that she liked Hakka noodles. He had wanted her to try Shawarma but that could wait.
The noodles keep slipping his spoon.
Who uses a spoon to eat noodles?
She leaves almost half of the noodles. She drums her fingers impatiently. He offers to wash the plates.
After he bathes, they lay down in the dark.
When she sees the cotton Indian bed sheet (elephant print) before he turns off the light, she smiles at its familiarity but he knows she is disappointed in him. He thinks of the house- the paint faded and peeling, the tiles creaking, the taps leaking, the rat, the roaches. Why did I want her to come here? What can I offer her?
He wants to apologize for his version of the Gulf.
She spreads her partially wet hair on the pillow. He closes his eyes and sniffs the fruity aroma that wafts from it.
Should he make up to her by apologising for the food, for discovering the pink nightie..?
She is still in the blue maxi.
He wonders if he should play music to set the mood when he hears from Iniya’s side of the bed what sounds like a balloon deflate. Did she hear it too?
Don’t even think about it. You clown.
After he comprehends what has happened, he lets out what has built in his stomach after dinner.
Her laughter pierces the night.
The bed creaks as she leans onto him. The snap of elastic as she removes her blue maxi, makes Greg smile...
After, Iniya snores softly.
She totally faked the orgasm and you know it.
What will happen when she hears you fart in your sleep? It won’t be funny then, will it?
He thinks, I do fart in my sleep but I can’t help it, it is a condition. She will understand.
An image from childhood flashes before his eyes—his uncle who’d visited every monsoon (summer in the Gulf) clutching his aunt’s waist, who’d always brought Kismis (raisins) for him, who tortured him with success stories from the Gulf.
Yes you will be able to show-off Iniya on vacations to gullible kids but only if she stays with you, right?
Greg closes his eyes, two hours have passed, he is still alert to the sounds of the house—the paint peeling...the rat nibbling at the leftover hakka noodles in the dustbin...the water dripping…the roaches scurrying in and out of the discarded polythene bags…