Anamika’s in-laws’ last visit made for a great deal of preparation and smoke-screen arrangement. They stowed the bottles away. Even the ones lining the top of the kitchen cabinets that started off as a collection of mementos from early consumption. Those had to be removed with care and kept in box in the basement. They also hid the ashtrays and cigarettes, completely transforming their space. They bought a new TV for the family room and subscribed to Indian channels to make the guests feel at home. They added a study table with lamp and chair, and a plush recliner for the comfort of the visitors in the guestroom too.
The three months seemed like a brief period of vacation in their dreary life. Anamika was astounded to see Bipul becoming a different man. He played scrabble or chess with Ina or his dad while the family lounged together. It surprised Ina, besides Anamika, and it showed on her happy face. She spent more time at home talking to her grandparents and Anamika got busier in the kitchen, cooking meals for them from scratch as they didn’t eat food with preservatives. A surge of hope engulfed her like a warm pashmina shawl as if things would really change forever.
But after a month Bipul became restless. Anamika noticed that he came home late and always gave excuses of having caught up at work even though residue of the rum still lingered in his breath. He avoided standing near his parents on these occasions. He called his father from the office. He said, “Our project is running on a very strict deadline. Please don’t wait for me, okay? Eat dinner without me.”
After their afternoon siesta Anamika’s in-laws tended to lie down in bed and engage in a kind of pillow talk. She noticed this routine when she came in to ask if they were ready for afternoon tea. Sometimes she ended up having conversations with them and bringing tea to the room and chatting and drinking together. She tried hard in one such occasion, to avert her eyes, when her mother-in-law, Purnima engaged in mining her nose with her finger, lost in deep thought, and pasting each of the rolled mucus on the sage-colored emulsion-painted wall. She invariably lost track of the thread of their conversation at that time and searched frantically in her mind for the best cleaning agent that would erase the thoughtful lady’s nosily waste like a swish of white-washing during Diwali in the back country, or a gentle mud-plastering of cow-dung in the wall.
One day Purnima asked her, “Does Bipul drink?”
“Yes, every day,” said, Anamika.
“But he never did at home.”
“Maybe not in front of you,” said Anamika.
“You think he’ll drink in front of you? He’s not stupid not to know what will transpire if he does such a thing,” said Bipul’s father.
Alcoholism had ruined many families in the old country. Purnima had to know its impact first hand. Her father died from it and her two brothers suffered from it endlessly.
“But I would have some notion,” she said. “He must be unhappy about something, how are you two, happy?”
“What do you mean?”
“She means how is your marital life, good?” said Bipul’s father.
“Oh, that, I suppose so,” said Anamika, a raw incumbent in the art of family façade.
“Why does he drink, then?” said Purnima.
“I think you should know better. Because he has been drinking since the day one of our marriage,” said Anamika not caring, letting the ball roll back into their court.
She witnessed an exchange of glances between the two. Purnima was not immune to addiction either. Her vice of choice was the betel-nut wrapped in paan leaves with a touch of lime and tobacco that was chewed and relished in the cavity of the mouth. It made her face red and ripe like an elephant fruit, scorching heat oozing off the round vermillion sun on the forehead. Her supply of betel-nuts grew in tall trees in her own backyard, the vines of paan wrapped to it, clinging and mounting. For her trip to the States she substituted them with the dry kinds that didn’t satisfy her as well as the raw, fresh variety she got plucked from her own kitchen garden.
The night of their marriage, Bipul whom she met only once, a week prior, entered their room with a bottle of Vat 69 and two glasses. “At last I see my beautiful bride,” he said. “See this?” he said raising the bottle with a boisterous guffaw. “This is Pope’s phone number in the Vatican. You may dial directly to him.” This was the first time they were alone in the intimacy of their bedroom. Since the length of their three-day marriage, they belonged to the public as objects of abject tamasha or ridicule, for others to enjoy.
They came together in life like meat sold in the market. He divorced from an American woman with a son, yet, still a prospective catch from the United States; she, not good-looking, but fair-complexioned and healthy, not wealthy, but with upper-class pedigree. Anamika did not know the consequence of this until after the marriage when Purnima scrutinized her body parts as if she were a mule. “Her nose is ugly, but teeth are good,” she professed. She looked for the parts that would offset her son’s fragile health which was a result of not so immaculate ancestry and social rank that grew only in increment with relations formed through marriage. They would not take dowry, unfashionable in that part of the country, also, to establish good reputation. Yet, they would subjugate and humiliate by deriding one’s standing and what they were after themselves, which was a place in the upper echelon of society still defined by the established aristocracy. They constituted the up-start, the upward mobile, the kind of people known as the new money.
Their marriage was arranged by a woman who knew both the families. She told her parents, “Your daughter Anamika will have a good life in America. The boy is bright and has an excellent job. There is no demand for material things. Thank the stars. He’s off the hook from the clutches of an older woman. Other than that, it’s a perfect match.”
At twenty-five, a peak marriageable age, Anamika was her parents’ burden and object of worry. When they told her about the match, she agreed to meet Bipul and didn’t mind that he was divorced because who knew if the single ones were any better.
When a certain man went to his native country to acquire a wife, he had special specifications in mind. She would be healthy to bear children. She would be a maid glorified into a wife who would do all the domestic work without any help from her spouse/master, unlike his American counterpart. If one wanted to test such macho husbands all one had to do was shake their soft hands that never ever wetted to wash dishes that piled up at a busy ethnic kitchen.
A few days after their marriage Purnima and her daughters instructed Anamika as if she were a nurse for hire. “Always cut his nails and toe-nails short. He likes to keep them trimmed. Look how long and beautiful fingers and toes he has?” They fussed around his hands and feet and the thirty-two-year-old prince melted languorously in their attention. They gave Anamika lessons on cooking and taught her to make bread pakoras in hydrogenated Dalda ghee which they served dotingly to Bipul who sat guzzling chilled beer, one after another, broadening the girth of his raunchy paunch.
Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was filled to capacity on her arrival with passengers landing and departing to various parts of the world. It was no different than New Delhi’s busy Indira Gandhi airport. Her husband was waiting to receive her as she followed him after a month, his protruding belly before his self, reminding her who needed her the most.
Her sordid, humdrum life began in a claustrophobic apartment building in the northern suburbs. The alimony to his ex-wife gave her the house and they lived in the apartment. The two-bedroom flat was stark. A sofa, a coffee table, a chair and the TV stand completed the living room. The dining area comprised of a rectangular table and four chairs and one bedroom had a king size bed and a chest of drawers and the other bedroom a desk, a bookshelf, a chair and a futon bed against the opposite wall. Anamika decorated the rooms with the things she brought with her: cotton cushion covers in batik design, bamboo table mats, and woven Manipuri bedspread.
Bipul would leave for work in the morning and would return home in the evening. He worked at a small firm in the city. She settled down to make the house a home. She put the small Hawkins pressure-cooker to use straight-away. She made for herself a khisiri of lentils, rice and vegetables in the cooker that she ate with a boiled egg, and started adorning the house. She borrowed a sewing machine from the neighbor and made curtains for the rooms from the fabrics she bought with her husband in the weekend. Plastic blinds did come with the apartment but she was used to curtains like Muslim women were to burkha. It threw a sense of security and modesty and gave personality to the rooms. She bought cushions, covered them with hand-woven covers and tossed them over the sofa, chair and the extra futon bed in the study room. She bought plants for each room and a few carpets to define and anchor the coffee table, the beds, and the entrance.
Before Bipul returned from work she would cook rice, vegetables and a dish of chicken curry or fish for him and attempt to make his eating habits healthy by using less oil and variety of vegetables. He would tell her that before she came he ate at the restaurants or grabbed food hurriedly from the fast food places.
He would also arrive from work with a bottle of Johnny Walker, change into his pajamas and house slippers, pour himself a glass on the rocks, and go out into the balcony to smoke. She would say, “Dinner is ready.”
“Dinner now? This early? Make some spinach pakoras, the night is young,” he would say, and then proceed to put on the CD of old Jagjeet Singh songs and eye through the Time magazine. She would make the batter with chickpeas flour, sliced onions, spinach leaves, ginger slits and a can of beer from his stock in the refrigerator, and then sprinkle salt and paprika and serve it with cilantro and mint chutney made earlier. He would shower her with praise on such occasions and encourage her to try out more new recipes and serve him to his heart’s and stomach’s content in the ensuing days.
One day she said, “I could work part-time. I have a commerce degree, and it could be worth something.”
“Got your wings already, eh? Sure, you can. You can use your training, socialize a bit and bring in some money too,”he said.
Soon she found bookkeeping work at a Montessori school owned by a woman from Calcutta. She got to know people from other walks of life. She marveled at how much this country had to offer and failed to understand why some people squandered it. She delighted in being with young children and soon she had daughter Ina who brought pure joy to her life. She quit working till her daughter was nine months old and when she was four she accompanied her mother to the school. Bipul’s nightly rituals before dinner continued and grew longer. She didn’t eat with him anymore. She and Ina followed the American supper time at six and Bipul started eating late, first at nine, and then, at 9:30 or ten or even later in the night. His persona also changed as he increased his alcohol intake. He yelled, “You women, you think you rule the world? You put on feathers and you think you can fly? You think it’s that easy?”
Bipul resented his supervisor, Kim. It crushed his macho ego to have a woman boss. So, he lashed out on Anamika at home, she taking in Kim’s quota as well, even though Kim would never tolerate such things. Liz didn’t either. She married him briefly after breaking up with her boyfriend with whom she had a two years old son. She sold the house that she got as alimony from Bipul and moved to California with her boy. Instead of feeling jealous, Anamika was envious of the women for their influence on her husband, for she was suffocated by the weight of his taunting remarks, paralyzed from the inside out.
By now they bought a house in Downers Grove and Ina started going to a public school. She would bring in flyers of smoking risks and hazards, slap it on to the refrigerator and say, “Dad, you need to quit smoking or else you’ll die,” or “Dad, please don’t drink tonight.You’re so much nicer when you don’t drink!” But Bipul would just laugh it off or deny that he ever crossed the limits. On his own, afterwards, he would try gums and nicotine patches but nothing seemed to work.
Gradually, Anamika and Ina stopped staying at home in the evenings. They kept themselves busy with activities. Ina took violin, tae kwon do and swimming lessons, and Anamika drove her to these places and waited with her. Still they had to return to their home and Ina took to shutting herself in her room. Bipul sat for hours in the patio drinking and smoking. He developed diabetes and hypertension and still he didn’t quit. If Anamika told him to cut down, he yelled, “Don’t nag woman, take care of yourself.”
Many times, she wanted to call her parents and pour her misery into them as a punishment for arranging a wretched match even though the actual risk-taker was herself. They had some inkling too but she didn’t push it as their life seemed full and happy with her brothers and their families.
They had only a few friends whom they saw in the weekends for dinners or other occasions. Anamika became closer to Veena who always told her not to hesitate if she ever needed any help. Of course, many women talked that way but Veena’s words seemed sincere and coming from some depth of understanding. There had been many times when Anamika felt like running to Veena and talking to her about her frustrations. But she kept things to herself and said nothing. Yet, Veena and others noticed in the parties that Bipul drank a little bit more than others, and his tell-tale behavior didn’t go unnoticed.
The day before the in-laws left, as Anamika brought the tea tray to their bed, her father-in-law invited her to sit down with them and talk.
“We feel sorry we are leaving you with such responsibility of our son. We apologize that this couldn’t be taken care of at its bud. But how could we, we didn’t even know,” said her father-in-law.
Purnima just sat there with a grouchy face either because of her husband’s show of humility to the daughter-in-law or because of the matter’s direct connection to her side of the genes.
“It’s too late to do anything, unless he owns it,” was all Anamika said.
Later when she busied herself in the kitchen cooking their last meal, Purnima walked in, in the pretext of providing unsolicited help. She lingered, admiring the walnut bowl in the upper shelf of the see-through cabinet. “That’s a beautiful bowl,” she said tip-toeing to get it off the shelf for close examination when the collection of wine corks it contained spilled out helter-skelter on the floor.
“And these are Bipul’s cork souvenirs from all the wines he consumed,” said Anamika putting the keepsakes back into its place.
Purnima scurried away to her room to pack without another word.
Once the parents were gone her husband returned to the habit of drinking in the evening and late into the night. In the morning, along shower and a quick breakfast fixed him somewhat for the day and come evening, the routine continued.
Mother and daughter too carried on their various evening activities and shut themselves in their rooms the moment they were back in the house. Their situation forced Anamika to give herself a separate bedroom. Ina turned eighteen by this time and had her own growing pains to deal with. But he didn’t leave them alone. He screamed at them. He demeaned them. He picked fights with them. And that made them ever determined to avoid him even more.
Veena and Anamika stopped for coffee one day. Veena told Anamika about Nina. How she couldn’t take it anymore and left her husband of twenty-five years. She told her about the organization Sakhi that helped women of Southeast Asia.
“We make donations to them,” said Anamika. “How can I go ask for help for myself?”
“Have you tried AA?”
“Who can drag him to the meeting?”
“You know Renu, don’t you, Anamika?
“She has had enough of it and separated from her husband. He has come to a state when he cannot keep up with his jobs any longer. Didn’t he study at MIT or Harvard?”
Later Anamika came to know how Renu’s husband was found unconscious on the floor and taken to the hospital. The news spread soon after about his death. Renu came back, stoic and dutiful, to conduct the funeral ceremony. She put the lavish house in the market, then left.
But the news of Renu’s husband’s death turned their house into a live stage of angry opera. Bipul was in his baritone best. He could be Rigoletto rendering Verdi’s aria, Cortigiani, vil’ razza dannata! He paced back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. He fumed, slammed doors, pushed the bills tray so hard it landed on the floor.
“I know how it’s going to get analyzed. He drank too much. He started his day with the drink first thing in the morning. And that is going to come from the old matrons back in the old country who have nothing else to do but dissect people’s lives,” he said.
Ina was in her room. Anamika hurried up the stairs to see that she had her music plugged to her ears.
Ina smiled, “See? Already tuned out.”
Then unplugging the earphones, she said, “He is treating you like a doormat, Mom, you have to do something. You know he doesn’t behave this way with his parents.”
Anamika said, “You wouldn’t understand. He needs help. You go to bed.”
Before she closed the door, Ina yelled, “He manipulates you, Mom, this is called Stockholm syndrome, don’t you know?”
“The old ladies are going to have a field day now. They’ll find another dead cock to peck on,” said Bipul from downstairs.
Walking down the stairs Anamika imagined one of those pecking ladies would be Purnima. She would be presiding over her circle of gossip-mongers like a queen, or not, if she had the sense to know that her son’s turn might come next. Anamika saw an enactment of a scene where her mother-in-law reigned as the Goddess of kitchen politics. A feast was being prepared to bless the women with fertility. A big cauldron of rice pudding was being cooked. Women passing or hovering gave it a stir in the spirit of camaraderie. When a young woman did her stirring round, Purnima descended upon her with the red betel-chewed mouth, “Oh no, our paayox is going to curdle now.” Swallowing the juicy chew that trickled a tiny tributary down the corner of her mouth, she said, “This is contaminated. Start a pure batch without any trace of her ominous shadow.” The women exchanged glances and smiled with incredulity. Apparently, the young wife had risen to her rights and had spoken against the ills in the household and this was Purnima’s way of ostracizing the guilty one in full view of her kitchen constituency.
“What are you looking at?” Bipul directed his tirade at her. “I bet when I die the same kind of gossip will go around. You’re going to add to it. I don’t care, I’ll be gone.”
“Of course, if you keep drinking like this you will be gone too,” She said.
“You are waiting. I know it, you’re waiting. Why don’t you leave, now? Do you have the guts? Nincompoop, Parasite, a good for nothing free-loader!”
He rushed to her closet, snatched her clothes and dumped them on the stairs. He pulled out wires from the phone jacks.
Writhing and shaking she said, “You, drunken fool, I am leaving you right now!”
She stepped out of the house and took a long walk in the cold without knowing where she was going. A gusty wind swept by but she didn’t care. Her cheeks became icy but she kept walking in the neighborhood, and then slowly jogging, to keep warm. Several voices percolated in her mind vying to get her attention. The first one said, dump him, he deserves it, let him run to his mama, Mother Fucker! You can make a living, you have your daughter, and you both deserve a better life, without the daily abuse and condescension. Another teased, your daughter will go to college soon and you can be anything you want, have anyone you want. One crept up pushing every other one out of the way. You love him, admit it you love him and love means you never let it go! The practical one said, come on, good or bad this is twenty years of your life, you’re not going to let it go this way, you have to salvage the loss and make the best of it.
But the other, the domineering one kept coaxing at the loving husband and father that Bipul was, when not drinking, sober, in the brilliance of daylight. This Bipul made his daughter laugh, and wonder without reservation, and put her to sleep with the confidence and security that came with the knowledge of the unconditional love of a father. This same Bipul also showed his wife the only love she knew from a man even if it was just the saved office cookie sometimes he brought home to her because he knew about her sugar cravings.
When the cold became intolerable and she came back inside, she saw Bipul in a pathetic posture, ruminating with droopy eyes and a sunken face, leaning against the kitchen counter. Despite everything, it broke her heart to see him lining up his portioned booze in little sample bottles. It was his way of controlling and managing his addiction. It did not matter that the contents of all those tiny bottles and more from the big booze reservoir routinely got deposited into his system. But this time she knew that something drastic was in the offing as it became clear during her in-laws’ last visit that the baton had indeed been placed on her hand and there was no illusion of intervention from the immediate family.
She grabbed his shoulder and looked hard into the depth of his eyes and said, “You are at my mercy, mister. You have nobody but me. Your parents have long before handed you over to me. You are not going to pull us down like this. You are my liability and you’re going to listen to me. Now!”
She pulled him to the stairs. They walked up the flights leaning on each other, trampling on the strewn clothes in the landing, and along the way. Tucking him into his bed she whispered into his ears, “tomorrow is a new day.”
Mita Bordoloi writes stories for both adults and children. She has a BS from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. She has worked and taught in India, China and the U.S. Born in NE India, she is a resident of the U.S. most of her life and now lives in southern Illinois. Her website is mitabordoloi.com.