The following essay was published in the journal Sugar Mule
I faced the man in the blue uniform. From the other side of the row of booths, Bernard grinned at me. For a moment, my heart stopped. What if the blue uniform found some problem with my visa? What would I do then?
The man in the blue uniform said, “Welcome to America.”
I frowned. This was my crossing. I wanted no one else to co-opt it.
But Bernard rushed forward and grabbed my hand.
A wave of repulsion coursed through me.
We walked through endless terminals to the domestic side where our flight to San Francisco was waiting. Oblivious to the momentous transition I had just undergone, people were browsing in bookstores or sitting in diners eating mouthfuls of what I guessed were hamburgers. Even though I was wearing a sari and a wedding necklace of gold and black beads rested against my bosom, no one so much as glanced at me.
Americans cannot see me, I thought.
Suddenly, I was free; not a soul knew who I was; not a person cared what I thought. No man or woman registered my presence.
No one except Bernard.
The American was my pen pal, or rather my pen friend, which was the word we used in India. At least that was how our friendship had begun.
A few years before, when I was a Ph.D. student in Physics at Nagpur University in India, I had sent Bernard a postcard asking for a reprint of a research paper. The Internet, electronic publishing, or personal computers had not yet made their advent.
Bernard had written back, marveling that a young — “You are young, right?” – Indian woman was conducting research in X-Ray spectroscopy.
My response had been casual; I had not expected the American to continue our correspondence.
For a year, he had only mailed me used copies of Scientific American and Physics Today. But then he had written again, saying he had finished his assignment at the Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago and was driving across the country with his wife Alexa to California where he had a house.
I soon became attached to Bernard’s letters. My life, after all, was in doldrums then. I had recently left the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology – IIT – because of a man whom I was hopelessly in love with but who would not, could not, marry me. So I had transferred my research fellowship to my hometown of Nagpur to continue my Ph.D. But my heart was not in it. I craved the love I had left behind, and the ivory tower which would soon become known as India’s Millionaire U.
So I wrote to Bernard. He was safe; he was older even than my father. Even his children surpassed me in age. He was far away. We would never meet.
I began to see my dusty, drab town with American eyes. To impress Bernard, I began to invent new hobbies. I formed the first ever hiking club of Nagpur. On a Friday afternoon I would set off from the university campus with other researchers in tow, across the ridge, to a teak forest where peacocks danced. Or I would ride a scooter with one or two of my colleagues, to a village outside of Nagpur, climbing over rocks and frolicking in the river.
Then, sitting at my desk late at night, I would write to Bernard.
At Seattle’s domestic terminal, people were scrambling toward a gate. We followed. Inside the plane, Bernard directed me to a window seat. As the weight of his body settled against mine, my hips instinctively tightened. He nonchalantly buckled my belt, his arm brushing against mine.
“I chose the right side of the plane,” He said, “So you will get a view of Point Reyes.”
As the plane took off, he gripped my hand. I struggled to free myself from his grasp.
Once in the air, the airhostess asked, “Would your wife want something to drink, Sir?”
Did she think I was an illiterate native who spoke no English? “Can’t you see he’s an old man?” I wanted to ask her.
But Bernard was so ecstatic, a slow blush was spreading across his cheeks. So I said nothing at all.
I recalled how shocked I had been to see his blotchy red skin, his shiny bald head, his wrinkled neck, when he had first arrived in India. I had seen a picture of him before, of course, but the reality of him had been hard to absorb. As if, somehow, my mind had unwittingly metamorphosed him into a blonde, blue eyed young man.
The airhostess handed me a glass of champagne. I took a sip.
Bernard held my hand again as the plane descended on to San Francisco. We disembarked. His daughter Alexandra would pick us up and take us to his house, Bernard said.
But Alexandra was late. So we walked into a diner. Bernard ordered a tuna fish sandwich. I bit into its foreign texture. It was the most alien and yet the most scrumptious thing I had ever tasted.
“Mr Saunders, please answer the white courtesy telephone,” A loudspeaker blared. Bernard rushed to a phone stuck to a wall.
“I guess she is running late,” he said sheepishly afterwards.
An hour later, a snub-nosed blonde rushed toward us. Her breasts peeked out of her cream colored blouse. Her divided skirt clung to her thighs; her porcelain skin shone like a doll’s. She looked like Liv Ulman, I thought.
We sat at the counter again. The cashier took a bill from a man, opened the cash register. “Seven,” she said, handing him coins. “Eight, nine, and ten,” She gave him some dollar notes.
So that was how they counted money in America.
The cashier flashed a smile. Somewhere below her belly button she had turned a switch on, I thought, and a light had gone on in her face.
An incredibly heavy woman walked past, the folds of her t-shirted belly hanging over the elastic waist of her polyester pants.
Why had I never known there were so many fat people in America?
“Mother is nervous,” I heard Alexandra say.
Alexandra turned toward me and said, “You can imagine how anxious my mother is. After all, she has not seen my father in months.”
We walked down the corridor. A tall, lanky, gray-haired couple approached us. The woman wore a cream color cardigan, the man khaki pants. Their skins were so transparent, green veins stood taut underneath.
This was the host couple I was to stay with, Alexandra explained, until International House, my hostel, opened up.
Bernard began to mumble protests.
How had this couple found me? I had not even signed up for the host family program. Americans were miracle workers, I thought.
Still, I felt happy. I could not wait to get to know some other Americans besides Bernard.
Sitting in my hosts’ car, I tried to answer questions as the lights of the city passed us by.
But how could I explain to them my twisted relationship with Bernard?
Sitting in my lab at the University of Nagpur, I had written to Bernard only of what was before me, but not of what was inside. The idea of baring my soul, of revealing myself, was alien to me. So I did not tell Bernard of the boy I had left behind at the institute. I did not tell him that lying in bed every night, I dreamt of the boy; I saw the boy coming to Nagpur and declaring, “I love you,” like in a Hollywood movie. I saw myself dying of cancer in a hospital bed and the boy bending over me to kiss my hand.
I did not tell Bernard, when, one afternoon, my father discovered a letter the boy had written to me. It was a demeaning letter, sent in response to my letter, accusing him of breaking my heart. I did not tell Bernard that after reading the letter, my father castigated me for falling prey to a philanderer; that he called me a stupid, characterless girl. I did not tell Bernard that I had not had sex with the boy, but I could not explain this to my father; I possessed no vocabulary to talk of such things.
That day, my relationship with my father changed. Until then, my father had been my idol. He was the one who had named me after a freedom fighter. He was the one for whom I had excelled in my studies.
But that day, we became strangers.
I did not write any of this to Bernard. I did not write to him when my father began to search for a suitable boy in earnest. I did not write to him when endless streams of men came to “see” me and rejected me because I was not rich enough or housewifely enough.
I did not write to him when a man came looking for me one morning and declared that his younger brother wanted to marry a smart girl.
After seeing the man’s brother for about five minutes, I agreed to the marriage. I did not want to marry but I very much wanted to leave my parent’s house. Marriage, I thought, was the only way out. I had become damaged goods in my father’s eyes, I could tell, and he now saw me as a liability. So I decided to take the plunge.
Two weeks before the wedding, my husband demanded a dowry. I told my father I did not want to marry such a man. But my father said that if he canceled the wedding, people would think I was at fault. If word got out that I had had a liaison with my love, my reputation would be ruined.
So he purchased a Vespa scooter on the black market. My father, who had never so much as cheated on his ration card for an extra kilo of sugar, paid a premium for the vehicle my fiance had demanded. The wedding costs and the dowry would wipe out his life’s savings.
On my wedding day, I faced the idols in the canopy, hardly remembering my husband’s face. When he finally entered the pendal, I knew I did not love him. I wanted to run away, like Valmiki, the ancient poet, who had fled from the altar, and after taking refuge in a forest, written the Ramayana, the epic poem about Rama and Sita. But there were no ashrams I knew of, no forests I could take exile in.
So I faced my husband across the holy fire, noting his loveless demeanor. I knew then that my marriage was doomed.
On our wedding night, my husband turned the lights off. Then he inserted his penis into my mouth. I pushed him away. Our marriage was not consummated that night.
I could not fathom our loveless, drab encounters. My husband had taken me, not on a honeymoon, but to the house of his brother and sister-in-law after the wedding, and in that house, like two goldfish in a tank, we began to forge a new relationship.
I did not write any of this to Bernard. I did not write to him when my sister-in-law began to harass me. I did not write to him that I suspected that my husband and this woman had had a strange liaison, the exact nature of which I could not guess.
Instead, I hinted at a happy marriage. I suppose in a way I was telling him the truth. For, even though my marriage was fraught with misgivings and doubts, my life was vastly better than what it had been in my parents’ house. Once my husband and I had settled into our own flat, I enjoyed the kind of freedom I had not experienced before. I could cook and eat what I wanted. I could read books all day long. I was the boss of my house. I relished my quiet life.
After consulting a gynecologist, I had procured a tube of local anesthetic which had enabled my husband to at last penetrate me. Our lovemaking was very much a sterile, surgical procedure, but I did not mind it.
From the outset, my husband had announced that he did not want the financial burden of a wife and children. He had chosen me, he said, because of my earning potential. This was feminism turned on its head, I thought. I had always been a proponent of women’s lib; I had never wanted to be supported by a husband; but neither did I wish to be exploited by one.
Alas, I had left the Ph.D. program in order to move away to Bhopal with him. My earning potential at the moment, therefore, was zero.
I could take competitive exams, my husband said, and obtain a high position in the civil service.
So I began to sit in the garden on winter afternoons, poring over general knowledge quizzes and sample essays. I buried myself into literature and politics. If I did not obtain a good job, my husband would send me to my parents’ house. I would become a discarded wife, unwanted by society. So I studied day and night.
At first, I was afraid of telling my husband about Bernard. But I need not have worried. When my husband learned of my friendship with the American, his opinion of me went up a notch.
“You should keep writing to him,” he said, “Perhaps he will help us go to America.”
“You want to go to America or you want me to get a job?” I asked.
Sure enough, one day, Bernard sent me a clipping from the Daily Cal about a graduate program in Energy and Resources at the University of California. I did not want to apply but my husband persuaded me to do so. I filled out the application by hand, even though the university had warned that only typewritten materials were accepted. I did not own a typewriter; nor did I care to go to America. I simply wanted to survive my marriage.
Soon, my husband invited Bernard to India. I had misgivings about the visit. I had counted on never meeting my phantom correspondent. His anonymity and distance had been his main draw. Would our epistolary chemistry translate into a face to face connection?
Yet, a part of me was excited. In my mind’s eye, I still saw Bernard as a blonde, blue eyed young man. Late at night, when my husband was asleep, I dreamt of the American; Bernard had replaced my lover in my illicit fantasies.
One winter morning, I rode a train to Delhi. Out of thousands of candidates who had taken the written test, I had been selected for an interview with the Bank of India. If I succeeded, I would be appointed to a high post.
I stayed with my uncle in the capital that night. In the morning, he walked me to a bus stop, and after warning me not to ride an autorickshaw alone, left. Buses rolled along, came to a crawl, but never stopped. People ran, climbed on, and hung off the doors.
I waited. A man in a turban crept out of the shadows and asked me to share his rickshaw. It was a dangerous proposition, I knew, but I was late for my interview. So I got in. The vehicle soon sped past civilization and on to a deserted road.
“Where are you taking me?” I shouted.
In response, the turbaned man put his arm around my shoulder.
“Help, help,” I screamed, my voice lost to the wind. I clawed the man. I threatened that my uncle would track down my attackers. At last the rickshawwallah let me off. I walked the rest of the way to Connaught Circle to my interview, my hair disheveled, my silk sari in wrinkles.
Three men faced me across a gigantic table, asking mundane questions. Out of hundreds of candidates, how could I make my mark? But just as I was leaving, a tiny man in large spectacles asked me about my hobbies.
“Literature,” I said.
What authors, the man wanted to know.
“P.G. Wodehouse, James Hilton, Somerset Maugham?” I said, searching his eyes.
His eyes twinkled. “Which works by T.S. Eliot?”
“The Wasteland, of course. Love Song of Sir Alfred Prufock?”
Then it came to me. “The Confidential Clerk!” What could a banker admire but a play about a frustrated artist who becomes a clerk?
The man beamed.
I knew I had aced the interview. Literature had come to my rescue.
Who would have thought?
I soon started working. My husband got busy preparing for Bernard’s visit.
Out of the blue one day, I received an acceptance letter from Berkeley. Still, I had no plans to go to America. I had no money and besides I had a job. But my husband began to pressure me to quit my work. I said, “First, you wanted me to get a job, so I did. Now you want me to quit and go to America? There is no end to your ambition, is there?”
But why do you want to fulfill it through me? I wanted to ask. But I said nothing; divorce was still inconceivable to me; I was still hanging on to my marriage with dear life.
When Bernard stepped off the bus in Bhopal, I gasped. His pants were about to fall down his emaciated body; his fair complexion had withered in his road travels through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – in the nineteen seventies it was still possible to do so. When the American grabbed my palm, I felt the unmistakable twinge of lust. But my husband saw nothing. Perhaps he did not wish to. He was only too happy to have a rich foreigner in our house. He chose to ignore the advances Bernard made toward me. It was obvious that my husband lacked the feelings a normal husband had for his wife.
My husband installed Bernard in the guest bedroom. He instructed the servant to cook special foods. He went to the cantonment and purchased cheese and canned goods.
One night, when we were about to retire to our room, Bernard said, “I guess I will go to my lonesome bed now.”
My husband promptly spread three mattresses on to the floor and directed me to sleep between the two men even as I stared at him flabbergasted. In the middle of the night, I woke up to discover Bernard’s hand crawling all over my body. I pushed him away. In the morning, I told my husband about the episode. He simply laughed. When Bernard suggested taking me on travels across the country, my husband enthusiastically agreed.
But my husband said that I would need the American’s help once I got to Berkeley.
“Don’t thousands of Indians go abroad? Do all of them have a Sugar Daddy?” I asked. “Can’t you see the man is not himself? He is obsessed with me? You don’t exploit someone like that. You show him compassion and send him home to his family.”
My husband pooh-poohed my remarks.
Why did I not resist my husband? Because divorce was still an alien concept for me. If I left my husband, I would become an outcaste; I would be shunned by society. I never once considered telling my parents about the strange threesome we had become; I was sure no one would believe that my husband, with his meek exterior, would be capable of such perversity. Besides, what would my father do? He was the one who had pushed me into this unholy alliance; would he now come to my rescue and assume the burden of a fallen, stigmatized daughter?
So I traveled to Kashmir with Bernard. In the honeymoon suite of a houseboat on Dal Lake, Bernard climbed atop me. I fought off his advances with all my might. Never for a moment was I afraid though, as if the warrior Goddess Durga had possessed me. I did not let Bernard violate me.
When we returned to Bhopal, my husband said, “Did he do anything to you? I knew he had those vitamin E pills in his luggage, the ones Americans take for sexual prowess.”
“And you still let me go? What are you, a pimp?” I asked.
I said, “I don’t want to go to Berkeley. I don’t want to be hounded by Bernard there.”
But my husband was insistent.
When I received another letter from Berkeley, granting me a research assistantship at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the die was cast. It was decided that I would fly to Hong Kong where Bernard would meet me after his travels across Southeast Asia. I would then go with him to Berkeley via Seattle on a cheap charter flight he had arranged.
Why did I not protest my husband’s sordid designs? Did I subconsciously know that my marriage would not last once I was in America? Did I find the idea terrifying and yet exhilarating? Did I secretly wish that in America, I would once again fall in love? Did I hope that this time my love would be requited?
My parents encouraged me to go. It was a rare opportunity, they said. They suspected nothing unsavory about Bernard. And I dared not tell them. If word got out, people would think that I had somehow been complicit; shame would only befall me. My father had once berated me for my liaison with the boy. He was the one who had coerced me into this sick marriage. I could not trust him to save me from Bernard or my husband.
Which was why I was here now, crossing the Bay Bridge and mechanically answering the questions my host family was asking me. Yes, Bernard had once been my pen pal. Yes, I had learned of the graduate program in Energy and Resources from him. Yes, because of my top grades and physics degree, it had been easy for me to get in.
If there was an edge to my hosts’ questions, I failed to detect any. I did not think they could have an inkling of my twisted relationship with Bernard.
We arrived at a quaint two-story home on Hillegas Avenue. My hosts told me I could reside with them as long as I needed to. They expressed no pleasure at having me. They did not urge me to stay. I sensed that they really did not want me in their house. I did not know why they had shown up at the airport at the last moment if they did not want to welcome me?
The host mother handed me a quarter the next morning, and said, “College Avenue Bus. Goes to College.”
But I ambled on foot, keeping the clock tower in view. The air was so warm, the sun so bright, I thought I had traveled around the world and returned to India again. I was wearing a blue nylon sari, the wedding necklace of black beads resting against my chest. Men in blue jeans and ponytails passed me by, showing no curiosity whatsoever, as if a woman in a sari was the most natural thing in these parts. Which it was not.
The year was 1976.
A girl in a flowery skirt came down Telegraph Avenue, stopped me in my tracks, and pointing to a tiny book, said, “You are so beautiful.”
I looked down and saw a picture of myself in the pages of the I-House Directory.
In that moment I fell in love with Berkeley. Perfect strangers paid you compliments here. Vendors sold their wares chatting with customers. Students sat in cafes as if they had not a care in the world. Hippies browsed in shops with curious names like Shakespearewallah, Rather Ripped Records, and Orange Julius.
I had not felt so anonymous and so liberated in my entire life.
I walked to the Student Union. In the plaza, a black man was beating bongo drums. I descended into a room full of machines merrily beeping away. A man manipulated a white orb. The ball bounced, then hit the target. The machine burst into happy shrieks. I inserted the coin my hostess had given me into the slot of another machine. A ball jumped out so fast, I had to scramble to stop it from going down the hole. Frantically, I pushed the buttons, but after only a few minutes, I had lost the ball.
I approached the Giant Burger on Bancroft Avenue and ordered a hamburger with everything on it. Even though I had been raised a vegetarian, in that moment, I decided to break away from my past.
The juice of tomato, ketchup, and mayonnaise was dribbling down my elbows, when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Bernard. How long had he been following me? My skin crawled; I felt violated.
Crossing the street, he asked, “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.” I had noticed a sign at the Student Union, announcing a showing at four p.m.
“Can I join you?”
I really did not want him to encroach upon my privacy but Bernard looked so sad that I relented. Besides, I did not want to lose the only friend I had in America.
In the darkness of the movie theater, Bernard’s hand kept creeping toward me. I ruthlessly pushed him aside, but he kept trying, again and again.
When I bid him goodbye, he looked crestfallen.
Two days later, I kicked my broken suitcase down the I-House corridor, having paid extra to move in early; classes had not yet started.
Bernard appeared at my door with a portable black and white TV.
“Do you want me to fail?” I asked, “Don’t you realize I need to study?”
The next day, he showed up with a makeup kit, complete with a magnifying mirror, a set of curling irons, and a pair of lipsticks.
The day after, he brought me three overcoats out of a place named Goodwill.
My tiny room began to resemble a garbage dump.
On Sunday morning, he telephoned to ask if I wanted his old Physics textbooks.
It was the first sensible offer he had made.
Yes, I said, I would probably need them for my classes.
Just then, a voice came on the line. “This is Alexa, Bernard’s wife. Would you like to visit us this morning?”
“I would be delighted to,” I said, adopting an Americanism I had recently learned.
I put on the psychedelic nylon shirt I had purchased in Hong Kong and a pair of bell bottoms. I wove my knee length hair into a single braid. Thus I stood on the I-House steps, waiting for Alexa. If I became friends with his wife, then Bernard would surely abandon his crazy pursuit of me, I thought.
She drove up in a yellow Volkswagen. I got in. She sternly instructed me to put the seatbelt on.
“Oh, it’s OK, I trust you,” I said. Cars in India had no seat belts.
“I am responsible for you,” she said in a frozen voice, “You have to put it on.”
We climbed the hill up a curving road. I could see the blue bay in the distance, and from its waters, pyramids rising, as if contrived in a dream. Eucalyptus trees breathed their fragrance into the air. The cool breeze carried with it a hint of winter this morning.
At the top of the hill, Alexa pulled onto a shoulder. Stopping the engine, she said in a calm voice, “My husband has been with you and your husband.”
I wondered what she was getting at.
“Now you are going to be with him and his wife.”
“I don’t know what you did to get him to help you,” she said, “But whatever it was, it has to stop.”
“I didn’t want to come here,” I said feebly.
“Maybe it was your husband then.”
She had a point.
“Do you realize that my husband is madly in love with you?” She asked, “Do you know that he is going to leave me to marry you?”
“I don’t want your husband,” I said.
“He says he is going to give you a couple of kids; set you up in life.”
I thought she had gone mad. I tried to open the door of the car.
“Stay or I will drive off the cliff,” she said.
She careened down the road at full speed, the car’s tires hugging the dusty shoulder, as if at any moment, they might take a nosedive, straight into the ravine. I held on to the handlebar with all my might.
We rounded a bend, and under the thick shade of an oak tree, pulled into a graveled driveway.
Bernard opened the door of the house and said, “Hi.”
His face was flushed. He was still wearing his bathrobe. He had been eagerly awaiting my arrival, I could tell.
We entered the living room. There were mirrored pillars everywhere, and Persian rugs on the floor.
“So this is the sixteen year old girl you want to marry?” Alexa shouted.
“I am not sixteen,” I said lamely.
At my words, Alexa began to scream, her animal-like shrieks so penetrating, they seemed to slice the trees and the houses beyond.
She rushed into the kitchen and emerged with a shiny knife.
“I am going to kill you.” She lunged at me. With the instinct of a hunted animal, I ran into the adjoining room. On a table I spotted a telephone. A number flashed across my eyes. 847-2565, the digits Alexandra had scribbled in my address book at the airport.
I dialed them.
“Come here now,” I said, “Your mother is trying to kill me.
Then I ran out the house. I found a spot behind some shrubs in a yard across the street and hid behind them.
An old man came out of the house.
“She’s going to kill me,” I said, “She has gone crazy.”
He peered at Bernard’s house across the street. He did not seem to believe me. He squatted beside me; put his arm around my shoulders. He was a professor of geology at Cal, he said. I leaned into him. Until his fingers crept under my armpit and fondled my breast.
I pulled away. Were all old men in America dirty old men?
Just then I saw Alexandra’s car. I ran into the street. She stopped the car, ran into the house, and began to shout at her parents,
“You two, get yourselves together. Stop all this nonsense.”
Then she asked me to get in and drove off.
Her apartment was lined with brick and board bookcases. Dog hair and dirty underwear were strewn across the floor. I sat at the dining table watching her make tea.
“It was you who arranged for the host family, right?” I asked.
“No wonder they didn’t want me in their house. They probably thought I was a whore.”
She said nothing.
“You should have told me your mother was angry with me,” I said.
She said, “I tried to tell you. At the airport.”
“You didn’t try hard enough. Your mother hated me and you did nothing to warn me? She could have killed me today.”
I left her apartment; I wandered the streets all afternoon, tears streaming down my cheeks.
I was riding the bus back from the Lab the following week, after meeting with the head of my program, when Bernard got in.
“How are you?” He asked, sitting next to me.
“You and your wife are the stupidest people I have ever met,” I said. “Don’t ever contact me. Stop stalking me. If I ever so much as see you again, I will take the first plane back to India.”
At the next stop, I got off.
I walked down a shaded lane on campus, past the maple trees already turning yellow, past the fish swimming in a pond. I stood on a small wood bridge, watching my reflection in the water below. The matrimonial red dot no longer decorated my forehead. My necklace of black beads rested safely in a drawer in my dorm room. My knee-length hair was unbraided, flowing past my waist to my hips. I looked like a young lass in love, I thought, sensuous and sumptuous. Yes, I was in love. With Berkeley. I needed nothing else.
I would soon divorce my husband. I would not stay married to a man who had pimped me, who had compromised my very soul. But all that was in the future. All that would have to wait. Right now, all I wanted to do was be a student in Berkeley. All I wanted was some real friends. Already, I had met some of my classmates; white Americans with kind expressions. Already, they had embraced me, inviting me to study sessions and shopping expeditions. They felt awed by my exotic presence, I could tell, even as they felt moved by my aloneness. They would be my support in the coming months.
It would occur to me years later that standing on that wood bridge that afternoon, I crossed the border. I became American. I realized I would never return to India, except as a visitor. I would never trust my father. I would live on the kindness of strangers.