BY SUSMITA BHATTACHARYA
Plymouth, U.K.-based Susmita Bhattacharya grew up in India, which inspires and informs most of her short stories and poetry. Copyright is held by the author.
“IT’S SUCH A DULL DAY. Let’s do something exciting,” Lata switched off the television and looked at Anuj. He was lying on the carpet, solving the Times crossword.
“What do you want to do?” he asked absently. “Twenty – one across… Strong and wiry copper arresting teacher in retirement.”
“I don’t know… let’s go out for dinner or something.” Lata’s eyes brightened. A new Indian restaurant had opened in Mermaid’s Quay. She had read the review in the Western Mail and it was not the usual chicken tikka and curry, but authentic recipes from the Malabar Coast.
“Only if we don’t eat Balti,” Anuj chewed on his pencil. “Want to try Welsh? The Armless Dragon is good. Had a meal there once with the department.”
“No. There’s food in the fridge.” She walked to the window. The sky loomed large and grey over the chimney tops and television aerials. Lata missed the drama of colours played out in the sky. She observed it had been the same dull grey throughout the day. Just like those bed sheets back home — after they came back from the dhobi. Ma had been livid. She had screamed at the poor man, threatening never to give him linen to be washed again. Afraid of losing this job, the dhobi had promised to wash Ma’s linen free of cost for a whole month.
Lata smiled at the memory, and gazed out. She scanned the street, hoping to find some movement. Maybe catch a glimpse of the people who lived on her street. The narrow terraced houses, huddled together, and looked at her with lacy eyes. They seemed to be observing her and whispering amongst themselves. These houses, with their translucent curtains, showed a promise of friendship, but not enough to let you see through them. Filled with strangers, not neighbours. She was too afraid to befriend them, not knowing if she would be welcomed, and not bothering to find out.
Hindu Colony, Lane One. She knew everyone who lived in her building, and many more that lived around. Evenings meant strolling down the shady lanes with friends, munching on hot, roasted peanuts, laughing and chatting. Not self-conscious, not out of place.
She looked at her husband still attacking the crossword; his forehead creased and pencil well chewed. She could finish it in 40 minutes, but of course she wouldn’t tell him that. He had been in Cardiff for six years before they got married, five years and eight months more than her. And he thought he was as British as the white people. Well, of course he was. He had the red passport, hadn’t he? Wasn’t that the reason Baba got her married to him? Good future for you, beti, he had said. How did Baba know? He had never stepped out of India ever. So did he not give Ma a good future? This poky little house on this draughty street, cold seeping into the bones. Cooking and cleaning, hoovering and washing… cleaning the toilet. Lata had never done any of this before. There was hired help who did these things back home. Yet, her father believed he had made the right choice for her. Good future for you, beti, his voice echoed and she gulped back a sob.
Anuj looked up finally. “Finished it.”
She gave him a quavering smile. “I like doing crosswords as well.”
“Oh, then I must get another copy of the Times… or I’ll Xerox it in office. Save money that way and paper too. You know, you shouldn’t waste paper, should recycle and all that… did you do that in India?”
She did not reply.
“Now, you want to do something exciting,” Anuj looked at her, concerned. “My bride is already bored? Look, the mehendi has not yet faded from your palms.”
“Liar! Look, it’s faded,” Lata said with a laugh. “I’m not a bride anymore!” She waved her hands about and did a mock pirouette in front of him.
Anuj burst out laughing. “You are quite funny, you know…”
“Yes, Mina used to say, you know Mina, my best friend back home, said I was the joker in the group. Stand up comedian.”
Anuj looked at her steadily, not smiling. He took her hands in his. “This is your home now. Cardiff is home. That is India, your parents’ home. You must adjust as soon as you can, my dear. Otherwise things will be more difficult for you, won’t they?”
Lata stared at Anuj, and then at her hennaed hands. It was true, she was his bride and wanted to love him desperately, but he made it so difficult for her at times.
“Let’s go to the Bay, and watch a movie,” he said, pulling her close to him. Lata closed her eyes and held on to him, breathing in his scent. He smelled so clean, of that lovely shower gel she’d bought in Boots. She took a deep breath. She would learn to love him. Yes, Ma had said so; she would learn to love him.
“Let’s go watch a movie,” she whispered.
* * *
They were lucky to find a parking space. Atlantic Wharf was packed with Saturday night revelers. Lata looked out of the window, while Anuj tried to squeeze their Ford between two king-size family cars. A gaggle of teenaged girls stood outside the nightclub, talking in high-pitched voices. They wore tiny leather skirts and tank tops, and braced themselves against the biting cold by smoking and hugging themselves. They tottered on high heels that click clacked as they walked. Lata looked down at her blue silk sari and black overcoat. She felt like an old woman, even though this sari was what she had worn at her engagement party back home. As she watched the pony-tailed mascara blinded girls striding up and down the pavement, her clothes weighed her down. She looked at Anuj from the corner of her eye. He was busy locking the car, taking her hand, crossing the road. She sighed. Good, so these memsahibs had no effect on him.
She remembered her bother Bhushan, and his obsession with Jennifer Lopez. She could never enter his bedroom without feeling smothered by the posters on the wall. These pictures of half naked women made her feel very embarrassed. She would argue with him that if he admired these sorts of pictures, then he surely did not respect women. Bhushan would shrug and tell her that if Jennifer dressed the way she did, he’d lose respect for Jennifer.
Anuj guided her through the door into the leisure centre. Immediately they were enveloped in an inviting, warm blanket of aromas. Coffee and spices smelled so good together, Lata inhaled deeply and smiled. The bars were packed, and long queues snaked in front of the restaurants.
“You wait here, I’ll get the tickets.” Anuj deposited her in a corner and left.
There were people everywhere. Lata watched the crowd in delight. Families were out, holding hands, their faces shining. Lovers, oblivious to their surrounding were laughing, touching and kissing. Children ran about, screaming, chasing each other. They are lovely, she thought, soaking in their happiness. Those girls there, just like Mina and me, skipping college to watch a film. What a day that was! Slinking out of class and running at top speed towards the bus stop, laughing all the way. Mina got hiccups and she had them all the way to the theatre. And that day, we caught Bhushan, out with his girlfriend. I blackmailed him into taking those disgusting posters off the wall. She laughed out loud at the memory and a man standing next to her exclaimed, “You all right, love?”
His breath smelled sharp. He leaned towards her until she could see the sparkle in his eyes. Lata shrank back. Words jumbled in her mouth. He winked at her and disappeared in the crowd. Lata trembled. Was that man trying to flirt with her? She couldn’t even answer him. Her English was good, but she couldn’t follow his accent very well, and it made her conscious of her own.
“You all right, my dear?”
Lata jumped. It was Anuj. “What is the answer to that?” she asked.
“Answer to what?”
“Why do people here ask, ‘you all right?’ Nothing is visibly wrong with me, is there?”
“What are you talking about? Come on now, I have a treat for you.” His eyebrows were furrowed and his lips were set to a thin line.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He looked baffled. Then he smiled and pinched her cheek. “We’re watching a Bollywood film.” He said and handed her the tickets with a flourish. “Happy, darling?”
Lata hugged his arm and laughed. “That’s a great movie. It’s a hit back… in India.”
“Let me buy some popcorn. You wait here.” Lata stood behind the ticket counter and looked up at the monitor displaying the movies being showed that night. All the English films were sold out. Could that be the reason why he bought the Hindi film tickets? Lata looked at Anuj in the distance, paying for the popcorn. He was smiling at the man behind the counter. No, he really did want to watch this film with me, she decided.
“Lata, you… are you okay? Your cheeks are flushed.” Anuj was back, balancing two jumbo popcorns and a Coke.
“No, no, I’m fine. I’m all excited. I’m all right.” They looked at each other and laughed nervously.
In the darkened theatre, Anuj finished most of the popcorn. He thought the music was too loud, but the action was up to Hollywood standard. Lata stared greedily at the screen, her eyes devouring the background images of her hometown, where the film had been shot.
“There’s Marine Drive, oh look, my college. See the beach? That’s where we used to go after class. You get amazing ice-cream there. That’s Shivaji Park. It’s very close to our house. I’ll take you there when we go back to visit. Only a 20 minute walk, but we can take a cab… Bhushan jogs there, you know. That’s his girlfriend’s house…”
“Shhh, watch the movie. Don’t give running commentary to the other people. It’s bad manners.” Anuj sank deeper into his seat. He took her hand in his, but she was too engrossed to take notice. If only the actor would move aside, she would see Churchgate station in the distance. Lata savoured every moment of the film. She didn’t pay attention to the storyline, she but relived her own life as it used to be in those places that flashed across the screen.
“Aaah, look! Jogger’s Park. Look at the sea, Anuj, isn’t it amazing? The sunset looks awesome.”
“Yeah, it’s beautiful,” he whispered back, squeezing her hand. “Now watch the film, not the background.”
* * *
They walked out of the theatre, bright eyed and tired. Lata was happy, having spent three hours in sunny Mumbai, reliving her past.
“We must buy a DVD player,” she told Anuj. “I can watch all my favourite films at home. Anytime I want to.”
As they stepped out into the parking lot, the bitter wind struck her face with a resounding slap. She was brought back to the present: to the clickety-clack of stilettos scratching marks on the pavement and goose-fleshed girls parading under the neon lights; to drunken boys swearing and swaggering in leather jackets; to a life thousands of miles away from home.
Lata sat in the car and burst into tears. Soon black rivers streamed down her cheeks. She shook as she wept, and Anuj sat there, fiddling with the car keys. He looked away into the distance, to the steady flicker of neon lights coming from the Bay. He waited until she dried her eyes and then started the car.
“You all right?” he asked quietly.
She patted his hand and replied, “Yeah, I’m all right. Let’s go home.”