Grandmother was pretending to be lost in prayer, but her prayer-beads were spinning at top speed. That meant she was either excited or upset. Mother put the receiver down. "Some American girl in his office, she's coming to stay with us for a week." She sounded as if she had a deep foreboding. Father had no such doubt. He knew the worst was to come. He had been matching horoscopes for a year, but my brother Vivek had found a million excuses for not being able to visit India, call any of the chosen Iyer girls, or in any other way advance father's cause. Father always wore four parallel lines of sacred ash on his forehead. Now there were eight, so deep were the furrows of worry on his forehead. I sat in a corner, supposedly lost in a book, but furiously text-messaging my brother with a vivid description of the scene before me.
A few days later I stood outside the airport with father. He tried not to look directly at any American woman going past, and held up the card reading "Barbara". Finally a large woman stepped out, waved wildly and shouted "Hiiii! Mr. Aayyyezh, how ARE you?" Everyone turned and looked at us. Father shrank visibly before my eyes. Barbara took three long steps and covered father in a tight embrace. Father's jiggling out of it was too funny to watch. I could hear him whispering "Shiva shiva!". She shouted "you must be Vijaantee?" "Yes, Vyjayanthi" I said with a smile. I imagined little half-Indian children calling me "Vijaantee aunty!". Suddenly, my colorless existence in Madurai had perked up. For at least the next one week, life promised to be quite exciting.
Soon we were eating lunch at home. Barbara had changed into an even shorter skirt. The low neckline of her blouse was just in line with father's eyes. He was glaring at mother as if she had conjured up Barbara just to torture him. Barbara was asking "You only have vegetarian food? Always??" as if the idea was shocking to her. "You know what really goes well with Indian food, especially chicken? Indian beer!" she said with a pleasant smile, seemingly oblivious to the apoplexy of the gentleman in front of her, or the choking sounds coming from mother. I had to quickly duck under the table to hide my giggles.
Everyone tried to get the facts without asking the one question on all our minds: What was the exact nature of the relationship between Vivek and Barbara? She brought out a laptop computer. "I have some pictures of Vivek" she said. All of us crowded around her. The first picture was quite innocuous. Vivek was wearing shorts, and standing alone on the beach. In the next photo, he had Barbara draped all over him. She was wearing a skimpy bikini and leaning across, with her hand lovingly circling his neck. Father got up, and flicked the towel off his shoulder. It was a gesture we in the family had learned to fear. He literally ran to the door and went out. Barbara said "It must be hard for Mr. Aayyezh. He must be missing his son." We didn't have the heart to tell her that if said son had been within reach, father would have lovingly wrung his neck.
My parents and grandmother apparently had reached an unspoken agreement. They would deal with Vivek later. Right now Barbara was a foreigner, a lone woman, and needed to be treated as an honored guest. It must be said that Barbara didn't make that one bit easy. Soon mother wore a perpetual frown. Father looked as though he could use some of that
famous Indian beer.
Vivek had said he would be in a conference in Guatemala all week, and would be off both phone and email. But Barbara had long lovey-dovey conversations with two other men, one man named Steve and another named Keith. The rest of us strained to hear every interesting word. "I miss you!" she said to both. She also kept talking with us about Vivek, and about the places they'd visited together. She had pictures to prove it, too. It was all very confusing.
This was the best play I'd watched in a long time. It was even better than the day my cousin ran away with a Telugu Christian girl. My aunt had come howling through the door, though I noticed that she made it to the plushest sofa before falling in a faint. Father said that if it had been his child, the door would have been forever shut in his face. Aunt promptly revived and said "You'll know when it is your child!" How my aunt would rejoice if she knew of Barbara!
On day five of her visit, the family awoke to the awful sound of Barbara's retching. The bathroom door was shut, the water was running, but far louder was the sound of Barbara crying and throwing up at the same time. Mother and grandmother exchanged ominous glances. Barbara came out, and her face was red. "I don't know why", she said, "I feel queasy in the mornings now." If she had seen as many Indian movies as I'd seen, she'd know why. Mother was standing as if turned to stone. Was she supposed to react with the compassion reserved for pregnant women? With the criticism reserved for pregnant unmarried women? With the fear reserved for pregnant unmarried foreign women who could embroil one's son in a paternity suit? Mother, who navigated familiar flows of married life with the skill of a champion oarsman, now seemed completely taken off her moorings. She seemed to hope that if she didn't react it might all disappear like a bad dream.
I made a mental note to not leave home at all for the next week. Whatever my parents would say to Vivek when they finally got a-hold of him would be too interesting to miss. But they never got a chance. The day Barbara was to leave, we got a terse email from Vivek. "Sorry, still stuck in Guatemala. Just wanted to mention, another friend of mine, Sameera Sheikh, needs a place to stay. She'll fly in from Hyderabad tomorrow at 10am. Sorry for the trouble."
So there we were, father and I, with a board saying "Sameera". At last a pretty young woman in salwar-khameez saw the board, gave the smallest of smiles, and walked quietly towards us. When she did 'Namaste' to father, I thought I saw his eyes mist up. She took my hand in the friendliest way and said "Hello, Vyjayanthi, I've heard so much about you." I fell in love with her. In the car father was unusually friendly. She and Vivek had been in the same group of friends in Ohio University. She now worked as a Child Psychologist.
She didn't seem to be too bad at family psychology either. She took out a shawl for grandmother, a saree for mother and Hyderabadi bangles for me. "Just some small things. I have to meet a professor at Madurai university, and it's so nice of you to let me stay" she said. Everyone cheered up. Even grandmother smiled. At lunch she said "This is so nice. When I make sambar, it comes out like chole, and my chole tastes just like sambar". Mother was smiling. "Oh just watch for 2 days, you'll pick it up." Grandmother had never allowed a muslim to enter the kitchen. But mother seemed to have taken charge, and decided she would bring in who ever she felt was worthy. Sameera circumspectly stayed out of the puja room, but on the third day, I was stunned to see father inviting her in and telling her which idols had come to him from his father. "God is one" he said. Sameera nodded sagely.
By the fifth day, I could see the thought forming in the family's collective brains. If this fellow had to choose his own bride, why couldn't it be someone like Sameera? On the sixth day, when Vivek called from the airport saying he had cut short his Gautemala trip and was on his way home, all had a million things to discuss with him. He arrived by taxi at a time when Sameera had gone to the University. "So, how was Barbara's visit?" he asked blithely. "How do you know her?" mother asked sternly. "She's my secretary" he said. "She works very hard, and she'll do anything to help." He turned and winked at me. Oh, I got the plot now! By the time Sameera returned home that evening, it was almost as if her joining the family was the elders' idea. "Don't worry about anything", they said, "we'll talk with your parents."
On the wedding day a huge bouquet arrived from Barbara.
"Flight to India - $1500.
Indian kurta - $5.
Emetic to throw up - $1.
The look on your parents' faces - priceless" it said.