‘Let’s meet at Mainland China, the one on SB road at 8 tonight. My Aai and Baba are coming and I would like to invite your parents as well. Is that alright? Please ask them to come.’
Rekha saw the text from Lakshman in office just after lunch and wondered why he had called both of their parents for dinner. They had decided to go to her favorite restaurant tonight but it was going to be just them.
Maybe something good had happened in Lakshman’s meeting with his manager. He was going to meet him today for his annual appraisal. Perhaps he had got the pay hike that he had talked about. She really hoped he had. Although Lakshman downplayed it in public, she had sensed there was a slight hint of anger and jealousy in him when their friends pointed out how Rekha was in a more senior position in her company than Lakshman. He never said anything directly, but she found him patronizing when he used clichés like “big fish in a small pond” to describe her company. They had not discussed their salaries; which was good for her. She did not want more awkwardness since she probably made more money than him. And yet, he was good at his job and it would be good for him to get a pay rise. But that did not sound like the kind of news that one announces to both sets of parents. No, there must be something else.
Rekha was still pondering over the text message while having lunch at her desk. Her team had gone to the canteen to have lunch and they would probably go for a walk or for some ice cream after that. She joined them once a week, on Fridays, to be a part of the team but on other days she enjoyed thirty minutes of solitude with her food at her desk. After lunch she started working again so that she could leave office in the evening around 6. She preferred this way of working than that of some of her male colleagues who spent a lot of time at lunch, tea breaks, smoke breaks, playing carrom and then stayed up till 10 in the night to cover up for lost time. She and her colleague, Fatima, were generally the first ones to reach the office. Fatima worked extremely hard and left at 5.30 to pick up her kids from daycare after which she went home and made dinner for her family. The same male colleagues were the ones who made snide jokes on Fatima taking a half day when she left in the evening. Rekha knew very well that Fatima worked more than others and managed her time extremely well in office. Luckily, being a team leader, she was able to highlight this to her boss. In most cases, the boss would have been impressed by employees who sent emails late at night to paint a picture of “hard work.” Of course, without knowing the whole story.
Rekha reached home shortly after 6. A big advantage of working in a smaller company was that they could have an office in the city and not in the far away Special Economic Zone. She was glad she didn’t have a 1–2hour commute like Lakshman every day. She entered the living room to find her parents fully dressed. “Get ready soon so we can leave,” said her mother.
“Aai! We need to reach the restaurant at 8. It is not even 6.30 yet. Why are you both dressed already?”
“We like to be prepared and punctual,” said her father.
“More like paranoid if you ask me. Anyway we will leave at 7.30. We will avoid traffic and the restaurant has valet parking”.
Rekha and Lakshman were getting married in December. They had met on an online marriage portal, a couple of months ago and had connected instantly. After meeting thrice and exchanging many text messages, and phone calls, they were pretty sure that they wanted to get married. They even had similar professions, and interests. However, Rekha was convinced by Savi, a friend, to take more time and get to know him more. Her mother was not pleased about this at all. She did not like Savi and thought the woman was a bad influence on Rekha.
But the two friends had been inseparable, since a few years now. Rekha could always count on Savi to be completely honest with her.
In the car, on the way to the restaurant, Rekha’s parents were speculating why Lakshman had invited everyone for dinner on such short notice. They usually met once a month for lunch or dinner, but these meetings were planned by either of their mothers.
Lakshman’s parents were there already. The five of them waited for him to reach. Both the mothers were talking about the wedding shopping. Their fathers were discussing politics. Rekha was more interested in politics than the shopping conversation, but she was a bit afraid of the argument which was slowly heating up. It was inevitable, always happened. Lakshman’s father was a staunch supporter of the ruling right-wing government while her father tilted towards the left, and hated the right’s divisive ideology.
In their initial meetings her father just nodded along and was silent, but as they got more acquainted, he then argued, sometimes vehemently. Rekha tried to play peacemaker. She hated this divisive ideology too but knew from experience that Lakshman’s father was not going to back down on anything. She was just about to interject when she saw Lakshman entering the restaurant. Great timing, she thought as everyone stopped talking and greeted him.
“Sorry sorry, the traffic was horrible,” said Lakshman, taking off his laptop bag and sitting down next to Rekha.
“That’s always the case on Fridays. Many people who have come to Pune for jobs go to their hometown for the weekend. So Nagar road is always packed on Friday evenings” explained Rekha.
“They should just stay in their hometowns. Why do they have to come to Pune to steal jobs and add to the traffic,” Lakshman’s father said, clearly still angry about their discussion earlier.
“Didn’t Lakshman do the same thing when he was in Mumbai for his first job? In fact, you shifted from Nasik to Pune, yourself. What if someone tells you to go back to Nasik?” Rekha asked with an exasperated sigh.
“All this Nasik talk makes me thirsty for Sula Wine. Why don’t we order a bottle for the table?” said Lakshman.
“That’s a good idea. Then we can toast to whatever good news you’re going to give us,” Rekha smiled.
“How do you know it’s good news,?” Lakshman asked, looking up.
“Why else would you call everyone for dinner?”
“Okay, okay, since you are all so impatient, let me spill the beans. I had the annual performance review with my boss today. He was very happy with my work this year. In fact, he is so happy that he has selected me for an on-site project in the States! And the timing is perfect. The project starts in three months so Rekha and I can move there immediately after the wedding!”
“Wow, that’s such wonderful news. Congratulations beta!” roared Lakshman’s father.
“I’m so proud of you. All your hard work has paid off,” his mother said gushingly.
“How long will the project be on for Lakshman?” asked Rekha’s father.
“Can’t say Uncle. It should be three years at least but it can get extended to four depending on other factors. Maybe it will extend a lot and I can get my Green Card too!”
The rest of the evening passed in a daze for Rekha. She spoke very little and tried to focus on the food. But her usually favorite dishes seemed to have lost their taste today. She listened to everyone around the table bombard Lakshman with different questions about the USA interspersed with high praises. Her mother began discussing the shopping again with Lakshman’s mother; only this time the conversation had moved towards things which the couple would need in the USA.
Lakshman’s father started discussing American politics. At least this time both fathers seemed to be on the same page. Later, they planned a trip to the USA to see the Fall next year. Lakshman clearly enjoyed being the highlight of the evening, while everyone, unknowingly, ignored Rekha.
Rekha hardly spoke in the car on the way home. Her mother was on a high, discussing the news and the great adventure that awaited Lakshman and Rekha. Her father was listening, but soon enough he noticed that Rekha was unusually quiet since a long time.
“Everything okay Rekha? You’ve been very quiet all evening.”
“Yes, Baba. I’m just processing all of this.”
“What’s there to process? It is great news. Didn’t you always want to visit America? After seeing so many of their movies, sitcoms, and reading their spy novels?” her mother asked.
“Aai, there’s a big difference between visiting for a month and moving for three or four years. Sure, I like to travel but this is different.”
“A lot of things change after marriage. But this is a good change. Anyway, you were going to move to Lakshman’s house right. Now you both get to live in a new house and a new country.”
“Rekha, I understand this is a lot to process right now. As with all big decisions and events, I find it best to sleep on it and think about it the next day,” said her father.
“I agree Baba. I am also tired. It has been a long week at work. I will be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I’m also meeting Savi after a long time and I always feel better after meeting her.”
“Don’t let her rebellious ideas get in your head. She’s the reason for this huge delay in the wedding. I don’t want her spoiling this too,” her mother retorted immediately.
“Savi’s my best friend and she’s an extremely smart and kind person. I wish you will see that someday Aai.”
“I’m sure your mother didn’t mean it like that, though Savi’s ideas are rebellious indeed,” said her father.
They reached home; Rekha wished her parents a good night and went into her room. She was tired but sleep eluded her. Her mind just would not shut off.
Her phone chimed and she saw a text from Lakshman: ‘Good night my dear… Sweet (American) dreams!’. Rekha did not reply. She knew Lakshman was on a high and didn’t feel like deflating his enthusiasm with feelings which she was unsure about. Plus, looking at the blue screen late at night was guaranteed to make falling asleep even more difficult. She switched off her phone and wished that she could do the same with her thoughts.
Next morning, Rekha reached Savi’s apartment earlier than planned. As she was about to ring the bell, she saw a text message from Savi – ‘Rekki! I’m having a session with my therapist on Zoom. I’ll be out in 15 minutes. Let yourself in with your key. Sorry!’
Rekha entered Savi’s cozy apartment with the duplicate key which Savi had given her with an open invitation to crash there anytime she wanted. Rekha loved Savi’s apartment. It had a wonderful vibe to it and was tastefully decorated. She always felt at home there. Savi’s ever increasing book collection was lovely to browse. There were so many books there that she had never even heard of in her circle of friends, family, and colleagues. She was browsing through “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson when Savi came into the living room.
“Hey Rekki! It is great to see you after so long. How have you been?” said Savi, giving her a warm hug.
“I’m okay. How’s it going with you?.
“I am well. We are a bit short staffed currently at Beans & Books so it is a bit hectic. A bookstore cafe means double the work. On weekends, the counselling sessions keep me busy.”
“That sounds like a packed week indeed! Hope you can hire someone soon. So, that was your therapist on the call now, right? I am surprised that you continue meeting her even though you counsel so many others yourself.”
“Well, my problems are different from others. And it is hard to work on your own problems yourself. One needs a different perspective, and it helps a lot when it comes from professionals. I have seen so many people avoid seeking help for their mental health. They will go to the doctor for a simple cold but refuse to seek help or even acknowledge minor mental health problems. Anyway, I can understand from your tone that something is troubling you. What’s up?”
Rekha gave a wry smile to her perceptive friend. “Can we make some coffee first?”
Over a cup of strong, steaming hot filter coffee Rekha explained the previous day’s events to Savi. It had been a difficult evening and night for her, but she felt better after talking about it.
Savi waited for Rekha to finish and said, “I hope you’ve talked to Lakshman?”
“Not yet, I am going to meet him later.”
“How do you feel about moving to the States?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I know I will like some aspects of it and my mother is right. I have always dreamt of going there having grown up on American pop culture. But Lakshman’s project is not a short one. It will go on for 3-4 years at least. Plus I am really enjoying my work right now. This was my first job after 4 years of Engineering and today I am leading a very talented team. It is hard work sure but I love it. It will be tough to leave all of this.”
“Those are very valid concerns Rekki and you should discuss them with Lakshman. You have studied and worked very hard to reach this point in your career. So I understand why you wouldn’t want to quit your job right now. Can you search for a similar job in the USA?”
“No, not in the near term. I will be going on a dependent visa so I am not allowed to work till Lakshman’s visa category changes.”
“In that case, you really need to give this a lot of thought and consider some other options too. Can you postpone the marriage? You can continue working and get married after he comes back to India. That way you get more time to know each other.”
“Impossible Savi. I have somehow managed to convince my mom to postpone the marriage by 6 months. More postponement is out of the question. They’ve already finished most of the shopping, the venue is booked, even the invitation cards are printed. Plus, I know Lakshman really wants us to move there. You should have seen how happy he was yesterday. And his parents too!”
“But why do you care that much about his parents? I mean, this should be about you and Lakshman firstly. Everyone else is not a party to this.” Savi said, her voice shaking. “I’m sorry, Rekki. I didn’t mean it that way. But I’m really worried for you and the fact that you and your career seem to be the last priority for everyone else right now. At least, you should not do that maybe?”
“It’s not that easy Savi.”
They talked for a long time over multiple refills of filter coffee. Rekha felt better after discussing with Savi but was tired as well. She knew that Savi was probably right, and had sound arguments, theoretically. But there was no question of postponing the marriage. It was now written in stone.
“Oh my! Look at the time. I must leave now, have to meet Lakshman” said Rekha, thanking her friend for the coffee and the conversation.
“Anytime! Please be blunt with him and discuss the option of postponing the marriage. You never know, he might surprise you.”
“Impossible. Let us see how it goes. But I must go now,” she said and hugged Savi goodbye.
When she was at the door, Savi asked her “Hey! What’s the visa category that you will be applying to?”
It had been 8 months since then. Rekha often thought of that day and wondered how different her life would be, had she done what Savi suggested. She had met an elated Lakshman that day who could not stop talking about how this opportunity was a dream come true for him. He had talked about all the places they could visit in the USA, meeting friends, and how this project would be a great addition to his resume.
Rekha did not get a chance to talk much but did broach the subject of postponing the marriage which was shot down by Lakshman with the explanation that the wedding juggernaut was already in motion. It really felt that way as the next couple of months passed by in a blur. The wedding shopping, pre-wedding rituals, relatives, lunches, dinners took up all her time and space. She could find neither the mental energy nor time to speak plainly with her parents. As the days passed and the wedding date loomed closer, she convinced herself that this was what destiny had in store and rationalized that it was better to look at this move as an adventure. No one apart from Savi had talked about her work situation with her. She had quit her job and was given a grand farewell by her colleagues. Her manager told her that she could return to her current position whenever she came back to India. She missed Fatima the most.
The first few months in America had been fun and eventful. Lakshman had come earlier and had found a house in the suburbs, but it was barely furnished. He just slept there and spent most of his time in the office and had take-out for dinner. It took some time to find the right furniture, kitchen equipment, and so on but at least it kept her busy and engaged. She was happy with the way the house looked and felt. She would have liked some more artistic touches but Lakshman kept complaining about how expensive everything was on a single income. The initial months also coincided with the best weather. She enjoyed summer and loved Fall even more.
Now however, things were different. The cold gray winter was a different beast altogether. The days were shorter, and trees bare. She tried to go out during the few hours of sunlight, but it was not easy. All she could do was stroll past silent empty houses. They had only one car and that was used by Lakshman for his daily commute. Public transport was non-existent. Lakshman left for work early to beat traffic and worked till late.
She tried to use the few overlapping hours with India to speak with parents or friends. But the distance was taking a toll on her relationships. Her friends in the States lived far away and as much as she tried, they couldn’t plan a trip to meet, not yet at least. She spent a lot of time planning, preparing, and cooking meals. Initially she had fun cooking different cuisines but now the daily minutia of cooking was getting to her. It did not help that Lakshman had zero involvement in cooking apart from going grocery shopping with her on weekends.
No one had explicitly defined it, but the arrangement was that Rekha would do the cooking, cleaning, washing and all household tasks. Lakshman worked long hours during the week and played cricket with his colleagues on Saturday. Sunday was his day of rest. He rarely cooked and when he did, he treated it as a monumental achievement and left the kitchen in a big mess. While Rekha understood that due to his hectic work schedule she would be the one doing more work in the house, the lack of acknowledgement and involvement left her irritated and resentful. She had not made any new friends, and it was not for lack of trying. She had been to many get-togethers hosted by Lakshman’s colleagues (all Indian men) but she got thoroughly bored. The colleagues grouped together to discuss either cricket or politics while the women gathered in the kitchen organizing and cooking food. Mostly discussing their kids or recipes. Rekha just did not connect with them. They all had one thing in common though. Almost all of them were working in India and had moved to America after marriage.
Rekha was in a very contemplative mood today. She had spoken with Fatima in the morning and had been brought up to date on how things were progressing in her previous company. Fatima was doing very well and had been promoted. She was happy though some of her male colleagues kept sniggering whenever she left home every day at 5.30. But luckily the decision-makers knew better. Rekha was feeling very happy that Fatima was getting her due and that the company was doing well. But that mood did not last for long. It dawned on to her again how much she missed her work, handling responsibilities, contributing to the organization’s success and being financially independent. She had good savings in India, but it didn’t make sense converting them to dollars. It was better to keep investing in India but that meant that she was dependent on Lakshman for all her expenses in the USA. She used to joke about how Lakshman gave her ‘pocket money’ every month but it really felt like that. Lakshman had not mentioned this at all but it was a huge change for Rekha, for someone who was as financially independent as her for many years.
Rekha kept replaying the last eight months in her mind. She did not realize how the hours ticked by. It was already late evening when Lakshman came home. He immediately walked into the kitchen and paused as he realized there was no dinner prepared.
“Haven’t you made anything for tonight? I didn’t know we were going to have take-out today.”
“Order something,” said Rekha in a deadpan voice.
Lakshman seemed quite hungry, but he realized something was amiss and did not want to stoke the fire by complaining.
“What should we order? Pizza? or Thai? or Sushi?”
Lakshman ordered 2 pizzas and wondered about Rekha’s mood, and what he could do to change that.
“Oh, guess what! We reached a major milestone in our project and the client was extremely happy. I have invited my colleagues and their family to our place on Friday evening to celebrate. Let’s plan the menu now?”
“Are you serious? Friday evening is just 2 days away and you want to call 10 adults and 5 kids home on such short notice? Also, you choose Friday evening which means that you will have no part to play in the preparation since you will be at work the whole day. Couldn’t you discuss with me before inviting them over?”
“But there was no option. We have the cricket tournament on Saturday till late evening and no one wants to party on a Sunday evening, because, well, Monday,” said Lakshman defensively.
“Wow. So basically, your work and sports take priority over everything? Do you realize the amount of work needed to get the house ready for so many people and cleaning it the next day?”
“Let us not cook much at home. We can order Biryani from Royal Indian Kitchen. So we just need to worry about the starters. I can mix the drinks. And I will help in clearing up afterwards,” said Lakshman.
“That’s not the point!”
“Then tell me what the point is. You were in a bad mood even before I brought up this topic. What happened?” Lakshman asked, resigned.
“Do you know that I have not been able to work for the past 8 months and what that means to me? And that will most probably continue for at least 2 or even 3 more years?”
“I know that but what choice do we have? You want to work? Maybe you can volunteer at an NGO? Many of my colleagues’ wives do that.”
“That’s not the point. I can do volunteer work. I was doing that in India too, but that is not a replacement for the work that I used to love and was really good at. The work that I have degrees for, the work I was a professional in.”
“Maybe you can do an MS at the State University? A post-graduation degree from the USA will be great for your resume.” said Lakshman.
“We have talked about this before. I do not want to do a MS or MBA right now. I might think of it in the future but doing post-graduation just because I cannot work makes no sense whatsoever” said Rekha, throwing her hands in the air.
“Then what do you want to do? We must think practically. I have told you before that I couldn’t let go of this opportunity. You knew that before we moved here. Some sacrifices have to be made in marriage.”
Rekha lost it at this point.
“Sacrifices? What sacrifices have you made Lakshman? I am the one who had to give up her job. I am the one who goes days without meeting people. I am the one who is cooking, cleaning, washing the whole day and trying my best to keep myself occupied because there is nothing else that I can do at home. You went from your parents’ house to this house. You still get home cooked meals, go to work every day, meet colleagues, play whatever you play, get money and appreciation for your work. You talk about opportunities. What about those that I have lost?”
Lakshman was at a loss for words. Everything Rekha said was true.
“But do you know what hurts the most Lakshman? I knew all this before. I knew I would not be able to work. I knew it would be really hard. What hurts is that no one apart from Savi thought about this. Not even my parents and especially not you. Not once did you ask me if I would be okay with giving up my job in India and not being able to work here. You, my parents, your parents, and everyone else just assumed that I would make these sacrifices for our marriage. No one thought that maybe you need to make a sacrifice instead of me.”
“So, what do we do now? We can’t change the past,” said Lakshman quietly.
“I will figure something out,” muttered Rekha.
The doorbell rang. It was the pizza delivery guy.
Rekha woke up late and enjoyed her coffee leisurely. She was thinking about what to cook for lunch and narrowed down on fried rice since they both loved it.
The doorbell rang. It was a lovely bouquet of flowers.
“Delivery for Rekha, care of Savitri” said the delivery person.
“That’s me. Thank you very much!” she said closing the door.
Rekha sat admiring the bouquet for a while and then hunted for a vase in Savi’s apartment. She had moved to Savi’s apartment 3 months earlier. She had spoken to Lakshman extremely calmly about her decision to leave the USA.
It was unfair that she had to give up working, her blossoming career, financial independence, and her happiness just because he did not want to let go of his opportunity. She was not walking out of their marriage, but just out of that country. She hoped that he would understand. Lakshman hardly spoke that day. He asked her if she was sure.
“A 100 percent.”
It had been a tough couple of months for them, but things were improving now. She found an ornate vase for the bouquet sent by him and continued preparing the fried rice.
Rekha’s return had not been taken kindly by either Lakshman’s parents or her’s. She had anticipated that and was glad that she could stay with Savi instead of at home.
Different tactics had been deployed to make her go back to the USA or at least start considering it. But all their guilt, drama and emotional blackmail had been in vain. Recently though she had noticed progress on part of her parents as they could clearly see how happy she was, working again at her previous company. They would have still preferred her going back but did not dwell on that for long when they met. Lakshman had changed in the past few months too. After realizing that he could not convince Rekha to come back, he decided to accept her decision and tried his best to make their long-distance relationship work. He started cooking a lot and called Rekha for advice. That made him realise how difficult it is to cook for more people alone, and apologized for that fateful day when things had changed. They talked about their stalemate situation, and both secretly wondered about sustaining this long-distance relationship for 2 or 3 years more.
Rekha was just thinking about how her life had changed for the better in the past three months despite all these difficult circumstances when suddenly her phone pinged. It was a WhatsApp message from Lakshman.
‘Hope you liked the flowers? 🙂 Can we talk about how our future will bloom, tonight at 8 India time?’
‘Wow, cheesy! But yes, the flowers are lovely, and we can talk tonight. Skype?’ replied Rekha.
“Nope. There is this wonderful restaurant – Mainland China, it’s close to you. I will meet you there 🙂“
Vineet Deshpande is an aspiring writer and software professional currently living in Vienna, Austria. He has done his Bachelors in Computer Engineering from the University of Pune in India. After 32 years of living in the most livable city in India, he moved to the most livable city in the world to support his wife’s PhD in Austria. He maintains a blog where he writes about issues which he feels strongly about.