I am a modern guy- I go to rock and heavy metal concerts, I drink and party hard. I have a lot of female friends. I have one night stands. I drink and smoke. I am a software engineer working for Epicor Retail Software in Montreal, Canada.
Sure my story started in a small town back in India, but I am not your typical Indian man.
I hated being in my small village of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, and I worked hard enough to reach where I am. Ever since I moved to Montreal I had been home only once, and I wasn’t thrilled with all the heat and pollution. With my father in a critical condition, and the immigration paperwork still stuck in the pipeline, I rushed home to my village to move my father to a better location for proper treatment as soon as I got the news of his first heart attack.
It was the year 2010, around November. We were in Mumbai hospital: the walls had several marks on them from spits and foot prints and I even spotted a few betel leaf spits on the faded sky blue walls of the hospital; a few candy wrappers were seen on the corners, hidden behind potted plants that needed proper grooming. Doctors and nurses- male and female- in their ‘once upon a time white but now dirty in pollution’ outfits were running frantically. My mother, Aai, sat on a chair, with worn out leather and spring peeling through the covers, and covered her mouth with the anchal of her saree as she sobbed. I paced back and forth outside the Emergency unit while the doctors took care of my father. This is the best they have, I wish I could just take Baba to Canada with me right now! I thought as I walked back and forth in frustration.
After waiting outside the Emergency unit for what seemed like forever, Dr. Shetty walked up to Aai and I and informed us that everything was safe, and we didn’t have to worry about anything. Baba was safe. But little did I know that I wasn’t going to be safe following that incident! Here’s an important lesson from the book of Indian Children- Indian parents will emotionally blackmail you whenever they are unwell. Tried, tested and proven. As Aai and I walked in once Baba was conscious, both Aai and Baba cried in unison. I couldn’t help but tell them it was all my fault for not being able to take them with me to Montreal. I wished I could speed up the immigration process but I certainly couldn’t do much about it. That’s when it happened.
“Beta, we are both old, and it gets harder for us every outstanding day to take care of each other,” Baba said, with much difficulty, losing breath in almost every other word.
“I understand that Baba, but the immigration process isn’t in my control. I certainly can’t move back home, so tell me what else can I do?” I tried so hard to be a good son, and controlled myself from snapping, how could I snap at a person who just had the second myocardial infarction within the span of a month?
“Beta, we have been thinking…” Aai started the sentence, wiping away the tears and brining a soft smile to her face. Just the sound of it sounded like trouble.
And I was forced to hop on to the train to the crazy town called “vivah”- marriage.
“Beta, I understand you feel terrible about not being able to take care of us, and with my current health, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fly to Canada. My last wish before I die is to see you happily married,” Baba spoke laying in the hospital bed, when Aai started sobbing again, her anchal fixated on her mouth as she sobbed.
I looked all around me- the dirty floor, the fading walls, the hopeless ceiling with the plaster falling off in places- everywhere except looking at my parents straight in the eyes. I was being emotionally blackmailed into something I was not ready for. As a man, it was important that I protested for my freedom, “But Baba, I am not ready to get married, and I didn’t come prepared to get married. I just don’t want to do this!” I voiced my opinion, hoping that my voice was firm enough to deter Aai and Baba from their stand.
“Listen to this boy, Madhavi, this is the day we brought him up to be a man- to refuse his father’s dying wish! Do you hear this child?” my father spoke, still struggling to voice his words properly, grasping my mother’s fingers tightly. Aai had started crying loudly by then, and took all the blame on her for ‘spoiling’ me with all her love.
Because I was desperate to make my parents happy and the guilt in me for leaving them behind piled up to a mammoth size in my chest, I threw in the towel. And that is how I got stuck marrying Sandhiya. Of course I was a person of morals and called and broke up with my then girlfriend Isabella, the drop-dead-gorgeous Mexican co-worker, the beauty with brains, I was dating.
Sandhiya was the neighbor’s daughter who took care of my parents when I was away and that’s how my parents decided that she was going to be their daughter-in-law. In my absence, my mother explained, Sandhiya helped my mother clean the house, chopped vegetables, read books to my father and made, to quote Aai, “the world best Aam rass and poori” (tortilla chips with mango dip). I first saw Sandhiya the night of our engagement. It seemed like she needed major reconstruction- she was nothing like any of my ex-girlfriends. She walked in wearing a neon orange saree, a little to bright for her complexion. Sandhiya was very dark skinned- while I am a modern man with modern values, and I claim to not be a typical Indian man, but generational habits die hard. I am that typical Indian man in certain aspects- I incline towards women with lighter skin, and Sandhiya definitely wasn’t my cup of tea. Her hair was dripping of coconut oil and was tied back in a ponytail underneath her transparent head scarf. It looked like she had never been to a beauty parlor- her eye brows were all over the place, her hands were not waxed, and she had crimson lipstick on her teeth from the excessive use of it. Her face was almost plastered with white makeup- a little too uneven and light for her tone. I was almost embarrassed and angry that my parents thought she was eligible enough to be my wife.
I mean, I know I wasn’t expecting to see some Miss World at our small Maharashtran village, but I was expecting someone better than…well, her!
So I basically became the Lamb of God for my parents in an attempt to return their favor to this innocent neighbor girl, who was definitely doing somersaults in her heart getting to marry me- the 5-foot-9 tanned creation of God, complete with 6 pack abs, a goatee covering the chin dip, and intelligent hazel-brown eyes.
On our first night I made it very clear to her that I wasn’t going to touch her, ever. I told her I was flying away in a few days and may be come by once a year but I basically married her to take care of my parents. And that she shouldn’t expect a husband’s love or affection from me. Of course I had to spit the words out in Maharashtran because this girl didn’t know a word of English.
“Soonn (listen), you are going to sleep there tonight. And away from me, always, got it?” I commanded my new bride, wearing a bright red wedding saree, and her usual terrible makeup, staring at me with her bright brown eyes. I realized I was being a jerk, but I had to establish my territory for future references. The floor was at least clean, although would be slightly chilly at night for a local girl; “Here, take this,” and I handed Sandhiya only a pillow, and no blanket or comforter because there was only one in the room that I wanted for myself- just in case it rained and I got cold. “It’s okay. I am fine,” and I saw her walk slowly towards the corner of the room, still in her bridal wear, and lay down on her side using her henna painted palms as a pillow. She never complained.
I hadn’t talked to her once for almost up to three months since I moved back to Montreal. It wasn’t until my parents started coaxing me, and then emotionally blackmailing me with their “We are old and we want to see our grandchildren before we die” card. As a spouse, Sandhiya’s immigration was much more accelerated than my parents and I travelled back to India in a year to bring her back to Montreal with me.
As we travelled on the plane, Sandhiya looked at everything with amazement. What else could I expect from a girl who had never stepped out of the small village. I was very embarrassed to be seen in public with her, and I made sure she didn’t have that hideous make up on, or didn’t reek of coconut oil.
“Do you watch movies?” I asked her as I strapped on the seat belt for her in the plane, because I was not ready or willing to entertain that mess for 20 hours on air. “I like Ranbir Kapoor,” Sandhiya whispered in a quivery tone, as if speaking louder would have angered me- I was angry already. “Hmm,” I replied, and put on some cheesy romantic film of Ranbir Kapoor on her seatback television, and concentrated on my favorite Mila Kunis on Friends with Benefits playing on my screen.
It was a beautiful summer evening when we landed on Montreal. Once we got home, I had to establish my boundaries with Sandhiya, again.
“Listen, you will stay here, in this room. And that over there is my room. Don’t come and bother me. I am always busy, okay?” I made things very clear, in my male dominating voice, in a rather derogatory tone to her the moment we stepped inside my house and I took her luggage to the guest room. She nodded in agreement. That night I ordered in some sushi, ate and slept following my usual routine. I took a nice hot shower before I went to bed. She didn’t know how to work the shower. Sandhiya later told me that she showered in ice cold water and went to bed hungry, shivering in cold, but that night she didn’t complain.
I had given Sandhiya clear instruction on how she was supposed to always refer to me as Sir and with respect- but I certainly didn’t respect her enough, didn’t respect her at all– and she always followed those instructions. She cooked and cleaned for me and she never asked for anything in return. She always waited for me to get home, served dinner and ate only after I was done eating. She reminded me of the perfect Indian housewife on one of those cheesy Hindi daily soaps. She had curious eyes, but they trembled in fear once in a while- of doing something wrong and being yelled at by me. I didn’t thank her the night she made her “world best Aam rass and poori,” I didn’t thank her for packing my lunch every day, I didn’t thank her for the special dinner she made on my birthday. I didn’t even thank her the night she struggled to make the chicken I brought home, because she remained true to her vegetarian God unlike me, and it was equivalent to a murder for her, but she never complained.
My friends knew about this little accident of mine called marriage and that my wife had moved in with me from India. So they demanded a party from me as a celebration and as an excuse to meet my wife. I agreed to it and went home with a bunch of groceries, and some beauty products. I realized Sandhiya hadn’t asked for a thing from me since she moved in with me. I had never checked to see if she needed body wash, shampoo, soap, toothpaste or makeup. I hadn’t asked her how she was doing; once. As I returned home that night, Sandhiya smiled at me when I handed her the items I bought for her.
“Here, take these. I have some shampoo, soap, makeup stuff and a dress for you. Use them. For tomorrow. Don’t ruin them. And don’t do any crazy oily hair, or white makeup. Okay?” I said, as I handed her the Walmart bags.
She nodded her head and smiled at me for the first time since we got married. I had never noticed until that moment that Sandhiya had a beautiful smile. Her smile had the innocence of a child, and yet flaunted the beauty of a woman through her dimples. And she actually looked decent when she smiled.
“Thank you,” she said, in her soft, husky yet melodious voice, trying to suppress her joy, too afraid that I might take it away from her.
“Let me know if you need anything else, okay?” I offered, trying to be nice.
She almost walked away, but returned hesitantly.
“Is it okay if I do puja (pray) in the morning?” she asked, not looking at me straight in the eyes.
“Hmm…” I replied, that could have translated to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ had it not been my nodding in agreement, with my eyes glued to the sports section of the newspaper. If I had looked up from the newspaper at that moment, I would have noticed a victory smile on Sandhiya’s face, as she stood there for a minute appreciating my kindness that night, tracing my presumably perfect face. Sandhiya, months later, told me that she loved watching me read the newspaper from afar, “You seem to forget the whole world, all your tension and stress,” she said. She said she loved watching my thick dark eyebrows crinkle occasionally as I’d read a bad news, and she loved watching me smile at the sight of a good news.
The next day I instructed her to not call me Sir in front of my friends but call me by my name.
“Call me Taran, okay? In front of them. Okay?” I tried easing her into the situation and making sure she understood my words. “Okay,” she replied softly.
Later that night she referred to me as Taran for exactly three times, and never had my name sounded sweeter. Ever. And surprisingly she didn’t embarrass me in front of my friends. If anything, she surprised me, and looked presentable in the grey dress I bought her.
“So Sandy, what’s your favorite movie?” Alex, my co-worker and best friend, asked Sandhiya, completely butchering her name. She didn’t seem to mind. As I parted my lips to translate Alex’s question, I heard her reply, “Friends with Benefits” with a smile, “Hey that’s T’s favorite movie too!” the astonished Alex replied. I was surprised, and yet oddly satisfied by her response. We had never talked about any of our likeness, hobbies or anything in particular. I was surprised Sandhiya understood Alex’s question. I was surprised she remembered the movie I watched on the plane.
Later that night I gave her the permission to call me Taran at all times. I saw her smile again.
Months later during the winter, I got home late one night. It was David’s farewell party at work and then a bunch of us went out for a few drinks. I came home to find Sandhiya asleep on the couch, crunched up in cold. She didn’t know how to operate the heating system. I went straight to bed. At 29, I had been working hard to support my family for years, made sacrifices and chased money; I was mechanical and the human inside me was almost dead. Or so I thought. Laying in bed I couldn’t fall asleep. I knew she always ate after me, and I wasn’t sure if she ate that night. So walked up to the living room couch. Sandhiya looked beautiful sleeping. Her dark skin shined in the dim light from above, and she had a sense of peace and calm in her face as she slept. I woke her up and asked, “Did you eat?”
Puzzled, she looked up at me, with her hair flying in all directions. I repeated my question, “Did you eat, or nah?” “No,” she finally replied, “I was waiting for you,” her voice lingering in lumber. “Hmm,” was all I said before I went to the kitchen and started microwaving some food for her. With my gaze fixed at the rotational movement of the plate of rice, vegetables and rice inside the microwave, I recalled all the other nights when I had returned home and went straight to bed, without checking on her, without asking whether she had eaten or not. That night she finally got the permission to eat without having to wait for me. For a change, that night I served her the food and watched her eat with her tiny hands. She smiled hard as I stared at her while she ate. She later told me she went to bed the happiest that night, although she had a fever. I wasn’t aware of the fever because she never complained.
It was first day of snow of the season that I first took her out with me for a non-grocery reason. I wanted to show this little village girl her first snow. As it started to snow and the snow fell down on her head, it was as if a 110 kilowatts power energized her. She seemed the happiest I had ever seen her. I bought her jeans and boots and a bunch of ‘Western’ outfits. In her jacket, jeans and boots, she didn’t look like the Sandhiya I married a year and a half back. She looked like any modern day Indo-Canadian woman, playing in the snow. She couldn’t contain her excitement and she started running back and forth with her arms wide open. The pink-purple glow of the twilight sky tinted her face in a beautiful aura of red and pink- the kind you would only see when a light-skinned girl blushed. As a husband, I never made enough efforts to make Sandhiya blush, and may be that’s why I never knew how she’d look if she’d blushed. She was elated, and her body motions exaggerated. It reminded me of my first time seeing snow- I was jumping around like a baby too! I stood afar and looked lovingly at my wife; for the first time.
And then I saw her standing still, with her eyes closed, facing the sky. She held her arms wide open- welcoming the cold snow, that I only imagined was piercing through her cold intolerant dark skin. Her lips were slightly parted. I noticed she was wearing a light pink shade of lipstick. I was also able to trace the hint of kohl she had on her eyes; closed at the moment. She embraced mother nature, with her arms wide open. She didn’t hold grudge against mother nature for punishing her with the extreme Maharashtran heat and then the brutal Québec cold. She woke up every morning to pray and thank God. She never complained, to God, for putting her through so much; for making her leave home and getting stuck with me thousands of miles away from home, alone for the most part. As Sandhiya stood there, unaware of my aching heart- overwhelmed in guilt- I admired the dark-skinned beauty that’s my wife.
I realized she was beautiful; may be not in the most conventional way- she didn’t have the most perfect features, except her expressive big brown eyes; her nose was rather too small and rounded, and her forehead pushed forward like tulip petals, and her rounded face wasn’t the most feminine. But her eyes- still closed- said a lot. At the spur of the moment, I realized that I had never admired anyone’s eyes as much as I admired hers at that moment. I loved seeing her eyes as happiness and joy cascaded through her pupils occasionally. And her ample delicate lips contributed much to her beauty. As she stood there, her lips still slightly parted, I noticed the opaline snowflakes make their way towards my beautiful wife. For the first time ever, I felt the mechanical robot inside me transform to a human. I noticed the intricate shapes of the tiny snowflakes as they moved and admired this creation of the elephant-headed God, Ganesha, I had long forgotten but only remembered because the girl who stood in front of me believed in him whole-heartedly and prayed to him every single day. As I saw the snowflakes fall, one after another, on her face, I tip-toed towards my wife. Sandhiya, still absorbed in her first snow moment, didn’t feel how close I had gotten to her.
As my ice-kissed wife stood with her eyes closed, I held her by the waist and pulled her towards me. She stood frozen in astonishment. I tilted her face down towards me, holding her chin between the index finger and the thumb of my right hand and placed my lips on to hers. We kissed for the first time as the twilight changed into a dark night sky and the snow kept falling. Sandhiya, surprised in the moment, didn’t understand what was going on, until I paused, let go of her lips and cupped her beautiful face with my hands and looked straight into her beautiful brown eyes.
“You are beautiful, and I love you, and I am glad you are mine. Forever.”
And continued to kiss her until she finally kissed me back.
Sandhiya, or Sandy as I occasionally teased her, still continued to be the timid Maharashtran girl even though I encouraged her to be wild. However, following her first snow evening we embraced our relationship and continued to learn more about each other. She would often mention how much she loves my nose, “Your nose is like a koala bear’s. I like koala bears,” she would tell me, stroking the tip my nose with hers. The more I got to know Sandhiya, the more I respected her. She had to give up her university education because her father could only afford to send one child to school which was her younger brother following the heavy dowry he had to give at her sister Bindiya’s wedding. Sandhiya wanted to study Astronomy in university because she loved the stars, they mesmerized her.
“My Aai-Baba were always worried that I’d be a burden on them- I couldn’t finish my education for financial reasons, and I am not pretty,” she would often tell me over our morning coffee, “They never thought someone would marry me without a huge dowry. Thank you, Taran,” she would add, with a smile and a glint of tear in her eyes. And every time she thanked me, I apologized to her for being a jerk all along, “Honey I am so sorry. I never gave you a chance. I was a fool! I was a stupid!” I would growl in self-loathe, which she often took as her queue to hug me. The more I got to know her, the more she amazed me. She grew up being bullied for her complexion, for being ‘ugly’, and I was nothing but a bully to her the whole time.
“I am happy Mishu is getting the education. He is a very bright boy,” Sandhiya would smile thinking about his younger brother who was in 11th grade then. I admired her more and more as days went by. My wife was a strong woman- being bullied her whole life, being called names and always called ‘ugly’, she never complained; despite being a bright student she had to give up her education and her dreams for her siblings, but she never complained; she had to work odd jobs to support her family and had to live with the mental pressure of being a burden, yet she never complained; and finally, when she thought she found her way out of the misery, she was stuck being ill-treated by me for months and still she never complained. I was proud to have her in my life, and with every passing day her smile became the reason for my existence. I found myself loving her more and more every day, it was as if I woke up every day trying to make her happy and considered it a successful day if she went to bed with a smile.
I never said no to anything she wanted, because she never voiced her demands. She would giggle like a child if I would ever pick up some flowers for her on my way home. Unless she really needed something, my Sandhiya never asked for anything. She was 32 weeks pregnant, and I was too busy with work following my recent promotion to stay home and take care of her. Sandhiya wanted to be with her family in her crucial time of need. Although I was strongly opposed to having our first child born in India, I couldn’t say no. It was the first time she had ever asked for something.
“Taran, may I please go? I really want to be home. Your Aai Baba will be there too. I will feel better if I am there with everyone,” she pleaded, her beautiful eyes lined with kohl projecting how much she missed home.
“Fine,” I replied with a sigh, and grabbed her hands, pulling her close to me, “I’ll make arrangements for you to go home, but promise me you’ll take care of yourself, okay?” to which she nodded with a grin, “And I promise I’ll be there as soon as I can get my days off approved, but most likely closer to delivery,” and I kissed her on the forehead.
“I love you,” was all she said in return before she buried her head in my neck.
“Honey, I promise I’ll be by your side in a heartbeat whenever you need me,” I told her, implanting a kiss on her forehead as I dropped her off at the airport. Her decision still seemed crazy to me, going to India at such a crucial time for our first child’s birth, but everything was about her happiness then. Sandhiya, gradually and eventually, became the core of my being- the gravity that held my entire universe together. And in her words, “Soon we are going to have the Sun that will hold our solar system together,” referring to our unborn child.
As promised, I was there by her side when she went to labor. It was the same filthy hospital where Baba decided my future with Sandhiya, where I was blackmailed into marrying someone I didn’t love. And I was back there, holding the hands of the most beautiful girl in my life. Life had come to a full circle.
They say childbirth is the most painful experience in the world, and I hated putting her through this. I couldn’t bear to see Sandhiya go through the pain, but I held her hands as she screamed in excruciating pain. Sweat welled up, in her forehead and neck, and the lower half of her body was covered in a sheet, the same shade of white as the doctor’s nasty jacket. I hated the idea that she wanted to do this in that crappy hospital but I stood by her side. Despite the pain, and the screaming, she didn’t complain.
Breech birth. Complications. More screaming. More pain. I was asked to leave the operation theatre at one point. I sat outside with my parents and my in-laws praying to Lord Ganesh, for the safety and well being of the girl who believed in him the most. I saw the panic stricken faces of the doctors and nurses as they moved in and out of the operation theatre, and heard Sandhiya’s piercing screams in the split seconds that the doors opened and closed. Anxious, and angered, I demanded to be inside the operation theatre with my wife, but they wouldn’t let me in.
“This isn’t your Canada,” they said.
After what seemed like the longest two-and-a-half hours of my life Dr. Shetti walked out of the OT, with Sandhiya’s screams silenced in the background.
“Hey beautiful!” I made it a ritual to call her beautiful at least twice a day. I tried to keep my voice as steady as I possibly could, being careful to not express how shattered I was too from the inside. Sandhiya and I had spent weeks and months planning our lives around this child. Back in Montreal, in our home, was a nursery with lime-green walls and cartoon animals drawn on them, filled with toys, waiting to welcome someone. How could I take her back there knowing now that the mere sight of that room would kill us both over and over again?
She laid in the dirty looking hospital bed, almost lifeless. The pain and the screaming were all gone. Sandhiya’s face was blank, and her eyes wide and expressionless, staring up at the hospital ceiling. I noticed the ceiling- it must have been white initially- but now was a filthy shade of yellow-beige. I stood next to her motionless body, and stroked her hair and forehead. She often told me it calmed her down and made her feel safe.
The entire room was silent. The only audible sounds were the urgent voices of doctors from the outside and patients’ panicking relatives, dampened by the doors; and the sounds of the machines hooked to my wife’s stationary body. Beep Beep Beep.
With a blank look on her face, and her eyes fixated on the dirty hospital ceiling, Sandhiya spoke in a dead voice.
“Why me, Taran?”
I looked at her, not able to answer. She wanted an answer from me. I stared at the strongest girl I knew through the tears welling up in my eyes; her image, then, nothing but a blob refracting through the tears, she repeated the same question in the same dead voice. For the first time ever, I heard Sandhiya loud and clear; she complained.
White Joy- Ramisa Fariha 2017