Friday, March 23, 2007
Archana became a window at the age of twenty four when her daughter Rashmi was a year old. From the comfortable life of well placed civil servant's wife, with a fleet of domestic help at her beck and call , she and her child had to become a burden on her brother's family - or at least that is how she viewed her situation. The widow's pension was decent but not enough to afford independence. She had no education to speak of and could not hope to find any reasonable employment.
Rashmi grew up with her cousins in her uncle's household as her mother made herself indispensable in the kitchen. Archana got along very well with her sister-in-law and considered that a blessing. Her brother pushed the kids hard to study and make good grades. At twenty five Rashmi got married to Sameer, her sweetheart from the college years. It was the early 60s and recession in the job market had made it impossible for them to aspire for more than their low paying jobs at a nationalized bank. They decided to immigrate to America and take their chances.
Archana first came to America when Rashmi was pregnant with her first child. Within days of her arriving, a few of Rashmi and Sameer's friends came home for dinner. One of the women, drew Archana aside and said I hope you don't mind me asking, but is Rashmi your biological daughter ? I have never seen a mother and daughter look so dramatically unlike.
She had merely echoed the thoughts of almost everyone who saw Rashmi and Archana together. Archana at fifty was still classically beautiful - soft spoken, perfectly proportioned, light skinned, fine featured and fragile like a porcelain doll. There was an unmistakable stamp of aristocracy in everything about her. When she walked into a room, people noticed.
Rashmi was raucous to the point of being obnoxious. In her late twenties, her curves were all in the wrong places, with her outlandish hairstyle and clothes, double chin, uneven features and loud makeup she managed to look ugly effortlessly. Back in India, everyone pitied her and her widowed mother and wondered how she would ever find a husband - in addition to her many "flaws" she was many shades too dark to be suitable wife material. When Sameer came along, Archana had heaved a huge sigh of relief.
In the weeks that followed, more friends came to visit and the incredulity about how one like Archana could beget a child like Rashmi was palpable though it was never even verbalized by anyone else. Rashmi became surly after the guests left and snapped at her mother at the least provocation. When her grand-daughter was born Archana took over all the domestic chores. She decided it was best to stay busy and out of Rashmi's way for the rest of her stay but it proved impossible not to incur her wrath. Sameer tried to be civil.
Six months had passed before Archana talked about wanting to go home and Rashmi said, You think we went through all the trouble to get you a green card so you could up and leave any time you wanted ? You'll be staying here for a while. I have to get back to work and I won't leave the child at daycare. What are you going to do in India anyways ? Haven't you slaved in your brother's kitchen enough ?
So Archana stayed on. Another child was born. Sameer had decided it was easier to follow his wife's example and treated her like she was their servant. She had grown accustomed to having her daughter and son-in-law give her instructions on what to cook for dinner and what chores to complete before she went to bed. Her days started at five in the morning and ended past midnight. She tried to count her blessings. She had a room of her own in Parlin, NJ. The grandchildren loved her. She had warm clothes for winter and never went hungry.
She was forbidden to answer the phone or come into the living room when there were guests. Anything she said to an outsider could stir up a huge argument so over time Archana learnt to keep silent. If Rashmi ever caught her watching TV she would berate her What are you watching ? You don't understand English. Why don't you go to your room and read one of your books. She referred to the two books she had brought with her twenty years ago to read on the plane. Archana wrote letters to family in India that she suspected were never mailed. She was prisoner in her own child's home and there was no way to escape.
Every night before going to bed, she prayed to Lord Krishna to rescue her. Often she cried from sheer desperation and hopelessness. Years ago she had become an US citizen. She wondered about her rights as a citizen but there was no way for her to find out unless she talked to someone. The neighbors were nice people and Archana longed to reach out to them for help. But she was terrified of what Sameer and Rashmi might do if they found out.
One year when both kids were in college, Rashmi and Sameer needed to go to India for a couple of weeks quite unexpectedly. Archana could not be left alone in America with the kids so far away from home. They had to take her along. Archana had been warned not to cause trouble while in India and she knew that was a thinly veiled threat of the consequences of trying to get help. Her prayers of twenty five years were answered Rashmi's cousin Suchitra came to meet them at the airport. Archana was able to slip a letter for her brother into her hand just as she was getting ready to leave.
She knew she had managed to escape from Parlin at last when her brother and sister-in-law arrived at their hotel the following day. Her brother said to Sameer and Rashmi, I challenge you two to stop me from taking my sister back with me. Archana's American nightmare was over at last.