He’s a reprobate; she’s my friend – I wish she’d come to her senses.
He is Vijay, a good-looking bounder, who, by the happenchance of birth, is my cousin. His modeling success, coupled with his claim that he’ll be cast in Bollywood’s Hindi films, has left many in my family star-struck, including my mum. They equate Vijay’s face on billboards across Bombay with being a quality person, which he isn’t. His self-selected screen moniker Varindra Kumar – “the Lord of all” – is even more cringe-worthy than Vinnie, his Americanized name. Vijay, Varindra, or Vinnie, none of his avatars is particularly admirable.
When we were children, my mother and her sisters fawned over his prettiness. I failed by comparison: the bump on my nose too prominent; my skin too tanned from being “sporty.”
“Your daughter is nearly black.” Vijay’s mother pronounced this when I was twelve. “No one will want their son to marry such a dark, boyish girl.” Her prediction rattled my mother.
Mum demanded that I stay out of the sun, especially at our club’s pool. My father, less bound by traditions of how a daughter should behave, told her to leave me be. He loved that I bested Vijay at swimming until the day Vijay and his friends cornered me in the pool’s deep end to pull down the top of my swimming suit. Although I’d done nothing wrong, my father forbade me from swimming when the boys were in the water. No repercussions fell upon Vijay. I hated him; he didn’t care.
My academic prowess also occasioned my aunts’ derisive commentary. No matter. My value wouldn’t be measured by their limited expectations of my marriageability. With my father’s blessing, I went to the United States for nearly five years and received my Ph.D. in political science from an Ivy League university.
She is Michelle – Vijay’s prestige-conferring diplomat girlfriend. We met in America just before I returned to India to take a faculty position at Bombay’s most respected university, and before she joined her country’s diplomatic service.
In the States, we were both friendly with Kokila, another Ph.D. candidate, who insisted that I couldn’t depart without a farewell “girls’ lunch” – even though I’d avoided socializing with the other South Asian women at our university. They reminded me of my aunties, clucking about problems – visas, marriages, nannies – some real but most imagined. Kokila invited Michelle because her academic focus on South Asia made her, by extension, part of the clique. Her speaking Hindi shocked me; she had been studying it for over a year. After I left Kokila’s, I never gave her another thought.
I miss the autonomy I had in the U.S. – particularly the ironclad excuse distance provided to escape family obligations. Since my return, I’ve accompanied my parents to dozens of parties at our club. Still, I seek refuge on the edges, trying not to draw the attention of my childhood tormenters. When Vijay is present, I watch his antics from afar, a touch smug, knowing his family members are our poorer relations. His father never had the resources for a membership – something that gnawed at my auntie until her death.
Another cousin’s wedding, again at the club, where I stand alone in the garden near the still empty buffet tables. The veranda is crowded with guests who don’t want to step on the lawn because it’s squishy; the monsoon has just ended. A mosquito repellant odor hovers, the gardeners must have sprayed it earlier. As soon as the waiters bring out the food, I’ll find my parents to press them to eat so we can leave.
The air, heavy with humidity, distorts the direction of all sounds. The American accent is familiar but out-of-place mingling with the din of wedding guests and loud music.
A western woman, wearing a low-cut lavender silk dress, waves. Her high heels sink into the grass, hobbling her glide. Rather than being annoyed, her stumbling amuses her.
“Do you remember me?” The sincerity of her smile signals pleasure at seeing me. “I’m Michelle, I sat next to you at Kokila’s lunch.” How did she recognize me?
“Of course, I remember you, Michelle. Are you living here?”
“Yes, I’ve been at the Consulate since January. I’ll be celebrating my first anniversary as a diplomat in October.” One of her feet sinks. She opens her purse, takes out a tissue, and wipes the muck off her shoes, steadying herself by holding my arm. “I’m always being sucked into the grass these days.” She calls tp a waiter in Hindi to take her tissue. How at ease she appears.
Her attention returns to me. “Do you like your teaching position? I remember you saying you were concerned that Indian students might be reluctant to challenge you because you are the professor. How is it?”
Flattered, I bask in her radiated joy of our renewed acquaintance, and in her sharp recollection of our brief encounter. “Everything is fine. My students may not debate ideas with me as we did in the U.S., but we have good discussions.”
The waiters place food on the tables. The dense aromas of curry and cumin mingle with the muddy odor rising from under our feet. We step onto the patio.
“But, Michelle, what are you doing at this wedding?” Neither the groom nor the bride would socialize in diplomatic circles.
“One of the groom’s cousins brought me – the tall guy there.”
My eyes follow her finger until they rest on Vijay, clowning around with other male members of the family. “Do you know him?”
My heart falls. Although rumors of Vijay’s foreign lady-friend have flitted from one aunt to another to my mother, it never occurred to me that Vijay would spend time with a woman who wasn’t, indelicately, trampy.
“Know him? Yes, he is my cousin.”
She must deduce my aversion because a bright flush blooms on her cheeks. Still watching Vijay, she asks, “Do you know what I remember most about you from Kokila’s lunch?” I shake my head.
“You wore a white sari with fuchsia polka dots the size of dinner plates. Your choli was almost invisible.”
A big laugh pushes out of my mouth, surprising both of us. “That choli was too loose, so I didn’t wear it.” I glance downward at my jade chiffon sari edged in deep gold with its accompanying tight-fitting under-blouse. “I’m so flat in the chest I decided to just wear my white sports bra that day. I didn’t think anyone would notice.”
“You looked stunning. I haven’t seen anything like that sari.”
No one, save my parents, has ever said anything complimentary about my appearance. It flusters me. Michelle pauses until I make eye contact. “Your hair was fantastic – the cut so cool and edgy compared to everyone else’s braids and buns. It suited you.”
My hand involuntarily touches my shoulder-length page-boy. My mother was so traumatized by my shorn hair that I succumbed to societal conventions and let it grow.
“When you said you were. . .”
From nowhere, Vijay pounces and wraps his arms around her waist. She shoves her elbow into his stomach. “When my cousin Meena said what?” Vijay’s eyes taunt me.
“Vinnie, let me go. I’m talking to Meena.” Michelle struggles to free herself. “Meena and I met in the States.” After another jab, he releases her. Her glare would’ve cut me to the ground, but it doesn’t faze Vijay.
“Honey,” he spins Michelle around. She faces him, hands on her hips. For a brief second, Vijay’s bravado evaporates. He moves next to me.
“Go ahead, then. Have fun with the brains in our family. Right, Meena? Aren’t you the smart one?” Vijay slaps the back of my head. “When you want to dance,” he says to Michelle ignoring me, “let me know.”
He feigns Hindi film dance moves as he disappears into the crowd. Perhaps I only imagine flickers of frustration in Michelle’s eyes.
“Come,” I grasp her arm, “let’s take some food. We can sit and catch up.” What are you doing with him?
Since my cousin’s wedding three months ago, Michelle and I have met, usually on the weekends. We shop, we go to restaurants. I’ve introduced her to my university colleagues to ensure she has some stimulating conversations because that is something Vijay – who can’t even memorize lines for casting calls – cannot possibly give her. In turn, she has introduced me to some film industry people who are hers and not Vijay’s friends. This has become an issue between them.
Most of the time, we talk over tea at her place or in the flat I share with another female professor. We have dissected a dozen times the moment I announced my sexual preference at Kokila’s lunch to the horror of the other guests.
“Did you see their faces?” I ask.
“No, I didn’t because after you dropped this, you mopped up yellow dal on your plate with a bit of chapati and popped it in your mouth. Then you licked your fingers in the most sensuous manner imaginable.” She shakes her head at the memory. “Your fierceness in front of them awed me.”
Where is that fierceness now? I had hoped my declaration would filter back to Bombay; somehow, it didn’t. I’ve asked Michelle if Vijay knows that I’m a lesbian, a part of me dreads the answer.
“There are issues that I would never discuss with him,” she says with conviction, “that includes my work and you.”
Christmas is coming. This will be Michelle’s first holiday away from her family. “I’m not homesick,” she says. “In my family, our celebrations turn into drunken brawls with lots of crying by the time the day is over.” Brawling or not, she misses her parents and siblings. I remember what it was like to be away from my family during our holidays. We decide to meet on Christmas afternoon if she isn’t doing something with Vijay.
Vijay, indeed, has plans for December 25. He has convoked our entire family along with his third-rung Bollywood film chamchas to his flat for a special wishing ceremony – a puja. A sadhu – holy man – renowned for making wishes come true is the attraction.
When Vijay phoned my mum to invite us, he extolled the sadhu’s reputation to the point that Mum wasn’t turning down this opportunity to wish for a “good match” – husband – for me. Vijay will wish to become a major film hero, and I’ll wish for Michelle to break up with him. As for Michelle, she told me in jest, “I’ll wish for world peace.”
When my parents and I arrive, over one hundred people are crowded into Vijay’s south Bombay flat with its view of the Arabian Sea. I’m on the balcony to escape the sweaty crush of people inside. Even though it’s cooler out here, the sea breeze pushes in-land a raw sewage odor that sends me back into the main room.
Vijay paces, anxious because Michelle hasn’t arrived.
“Bloody hell, why can’t she be on time?” Vijay’s ire is directed at me. I’m positive he never actually gave her a specific time to arrive by.
“She’ll be here.” I want to shout, but I stay collected. “She told you she had obligations this morning. Scheduling this on Christmas was rather odd.” Vijay’s deserves this dig. So many people in Bombay celebrate Christmas – leave it to him not to consider others’ desires before his own.
A commotion takes place at the flat’s entrance. The sadhu arrives with two attendants who carry him as he squats across their enjoined arms. Three parallel horizontal lines of ash slash across his forehead. He is a Shaivite – a devotee of Lord Shiva. All conversation ceases when Vijay directs the attendants to take him to Vijay’s bedroom. I move to get a better view. The sadhu’s gray jatta – dreadlocks – drag on the floor. The stench of a body uncleansed for ages floats over to me. Our eyes meet – I read malevolence in his red-rimmed eyes. I wish Michelle would arrive.
On cue, Michelle walks in. My wish? Vijay’s young niece and nephew grab her by the hands and lead her through the throng. She stops when she sees me.
“Merry Christmas!” She’s in good spirits; brunch must not have been too onerous. We hug. “On the ride over, when I tipped my head back and looked out the taxi’s window, the gray clouds almost made me forget I’m spending Christmas in the tropics.” She scans the room. “But, Meena, this is so strange.”
“Auntie,” Vijay’s nephew tugs her arm, “everybody is in the bedroom. Uncle wants you to come now.”
Michelle’s eyebrows raise; her eyes twinkle at the child’s innocent double entendre. “In the bedroom?”
“Apparently, only the select few allowed in will get their wishes granted.”
“I’m not going in without you.” She looks at the children. “Auntie Meena must come too, hai nah?” They agree and take my hand.
Vijay’s bedroom is a mix of black velvet upholstery, bedding, and drapes contrasted against white walls and furniture adorned with brass door handles and knobs – fool’s gold. I would typically be appalled, but the gaudy décor somehow fits with the naked fakir on Vijay’s bed and my relatives’ absurd excitement about this wishing nonsense.
The sadhu lies on his side – almost a fetal position – with his matted hair arranged to cover his nakedness. Only his feet poke out from those dreadlocks. That half dead odor of his congests my throat. If Michelle weren’t gripping my arm, I’d walk out and vomit.
Michelle and the nude man engage in a stare-off. Neither moves, neither speaks while Vijay and his older brother shove other relatives to the far side of the bedroom for photos. The sadhu’s eyes soften. His hand moves upward so slowly that it seems some higher force is trying to keep it trapped under his hair. Michelle’s torso leans forward. If she were about to enter a trance, no one would ever know because – true to form – Vijay breaks the moment by walking between the holy man and Michelle.
“You two sit on the bed.” The command comes from Vijay’s brother, who has two cameras around his neck and another in his hands. Michelle demurs.
“Come on, honey,” Vijay purrs. “Just one picture.” He pulls her down hard on the bed’s edge. The sadhu’s body bounces upwards. He shuts his eyes – most holy men eschew contact or physical closeness with women. Perhaps he finds this as bizarre as Michelle does.
One picture turns into five, then maybe ten. Michelle joins me at the door.
Once we’re out of the bedroom, I ask, “What did you wish for?” She doesn’t answer.
In the main living area, guests have formed a line to go into Vijay’s lair. When they exit, they leave the flat – no one lingers, including my parents. Vijay’s sister-in-law puts food on the dining room table for the chosen few who were invited to remain.
“Everything cooked while the sadhu is with us is holy.” She intones this with no irony – she buys into this bunk. Still, it’s Christmas. I won’t tease Michelle by asking whether she thought she had a religious experience.
We join others at the table. Michelle is now as comfortable as I when using chapati or other Indian bread as an eating utensil. She chats in Hindi with Vijay’s nieces and nephews, who tease her about her American accent. She is a comfortable presence within Vijay’s family, but for the first time, I sense some distance between herself and them.
The two attendants bring the holy man from the bedroom to the door. They pause. One calls for Michelle – he wishes to bless her. She goes to him and remains in the hallway for several minutes. Later she tells me that the attendants ignored the elevator and carried him down four flights of stairs.
Mum rings me the following week to gossip about the puja, and to be sure that I will be at the club for our regular New Year’s Day festivities.
“What did you wish for?” she asks, not really caring.
“World peace. What about you?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She changes the subject. “Did you hear what happened? Such a tragedy.”
I have no idea what drama Vijay may have concocted post-puja, but I doubt it’s tragic.
“None of the photographs with the sadhu turned out. All the film totally spoiled – totally spoiled – every picture blank. Can you imagine?” I snort. “Why are you laughing?” My mother’s incensed voice makes me laugh harder. Michelle’s wish? “This was an important day for your cousin.” A pause, then she laughs. “Meena, you mustn’t be so wicked when family is involved.”
“You’re right, Mum. See you soon.”
Nearly a year has passed since the puja. Michelle is leaving soon for her next posting to Bangkok. As for Vijay, she stopped seeing him months ago. She’s happier, spending her free hours with more cerebral scriptwriters and producers of “art films” – something Vijay has no chance of ever being cast in. We meet, but these days, I spend most of my free time with my love, Ainslie, a visiting professor from Scotland.
I insist that Michelle come to my place for a farewell dinner. Kokila is in town from New Delhi. I invite her too. Kokila asks about Vijay – she had seen pictures of Michelle with him in Bollywood film magazines.
“Not that I read them.” Everyone laughs at her lie. We all peruse them in this film-crazy country.
“What happened between the two of you? You seemed well-matched in those magazine photos. Such a handsome couple.”
Michelle’s and my eyes lock. I’m not sure how she will answer.
“Photos caused the break-up.” Michelle spoons brinjal –eggplant – curry onto her plate. “Last Christmas, Vijay held a wishing puja. Meena was there too.”
Kokila looks at me, seeking enlightenment why I would participate in something so intellectually unsound.
“A family affair.” She nods her acceptance of this explanation, but I add, “Vijay’s mother and mine were sisters.” Kokila smiles, she appreciates this detail.
Michelle draws a fibrous piece of mango pickle through her front teeth before continuing as if she needs its sour-bitterness to discuss Vijay.
“Vijay and his brother were pushing me, insisting that I sit on the bed with the sadhu. When Vijay sat, he tugged me alongside him. Before I could stand, his brother began to shoot photos. I felt trapped . . . violated. Perhaps because it was Christmas, I felt homesick . . . Maybe his nakedness unnerved me . . . I thought, I wish none of these pictures turns out.” She studies the food on her plate. “Not I hope, but I wish.”
Even though I’ve heard Michelle tell this story before, her attitude is different today. She mashes the curry with a bit of roti while she contemplates what she’ll say next.
“And?” Kokila’s impatience breaks the long pause.
“Vijay’s brother dropped off the rolls of film at the photo studio. When he picked up the pictures, they were all black – not just those from the bedroom, but all he shot before the sadhu arrived. Not one from three different cameras.”
“I don’t believe it.” Kokila looks to me for affirmation.
“It’s true, my mum told me the same.” I recount the rest of the story. “The sadhu was taken with Michelle. He raised his hand when she came into the bedroom and summoned her to the door when he left. She had a chance to wish for world peace, a million dollars, the end of poverty, a cure for cancer, but instead, she wished for no pictures.”
My guests laugh on cue. Michelle pushes away her plate and licks her fingers before she sips her fresh lime soda as if to moisten her voice.
“When I admitted this to Vijay, he exploded. He shouted that I should’ve wished for his success in the film industry. He carried on so much that I never told him what I wished for when I was alone with the sadhu.”
“And?” Kokila pinches Michelle’s arm.
Michelle surveys the group around my table – they wait for the punch-line. Her eyes linger on my face; she isn’t going to say.
Ainslie reaches across the table to take my hand. A Scottish brogue breaks the silence. “Meena and I have some grand news. Our applications to teach in Singapore have been accepted. We’ll leave next August.”
A burst of applause and congratulations ring throughout the room.
“My wish was granted.” Michelle mouths this. She hugs Ainslie before coming to my side of the table to embrace me.
Cheryl Sim is a retired diplomat who spent most of her thirty-year plus career in India and Africa. Her writing focuses on cross-cultural engagement, especially misperceptions and miscommunications. Nowadays, she lives with her husband, whom she met on assignment in Somalia, just outside of Washington, D.C. in the northern Virginia suburbs. She has two favorite potato dishes: tartiflette, a French dish of potatoes and cheese; and chatpate or wale aloo a northern Indian pan-fried potatoes with fresh cilantro.