And here’s a special treat for all our affectionate readers: an unpublished short story by best selling author Bharati Mukherjee. This is a great exclusive for Lost in Fiction and we will never thank Ms Mukherjee enough. Enjoy!
THE GOING-BACK PARTY
A Short Story by Bharati Mukherjee
Throwing a farewell party for the Dasgupta family of Fremont, who were going back for good to India, had been her husband’s idea. Shefali had gone along with it, partly because she still felt grateful to Mrs. Dasgupta for having mothered her through her first homesick year as an immigrant bride, but mostly because she had discovered over the seven years she had been married to Amar that a happy home life depended on keeping him humored. Amar’s mood had been souring since Mr. Dasgupta announced at the last monthly meeting of the Calcutta Heritage Society of Northern California that he had accepted a job offer in Bangalore; when crossed, Amar was given to long spells of sudden withdrawal.
Shefali’s was a progressive version of the traditional “arranged” marriage, which meant that she and Amar Sinha had been allowed one unchaperoned meeting over coffee and pakoras in an under-lighted, over-air-conditioned Park Street restaurant in Calcutta, but their Internet-savvy parents had done the scouting and culling of spousal candidates. The two sets of parents had drawn up their shortlists after surreptitiously researching family histories and reputations, ferreting out hereditary illnesses, and checking out horoscopes for cosmic compatibility. Before the meeting with Amar—which Amar, crib sheet of non-negotiable demands in hand, had referred to as an “interview”—Shefali had drained three iced coffees with three potential husbands in the same Park Street restaurant. All four shortlisted bridegrooms were Calcutta-born ethnic Bengalis of the kayastha caste, working as engineers abroad. Of the four, however, only Amar, like Shefali’s brothers, was a graduate of St. Xavier’s College and the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur, but unlike her brothers, he had gone on to Stanford University for a MBA degree, had co-founded a social media start-up in Palo Alto, and had become a U.S. citizen. He had taken a twenty-day “wedding leave” from work to choose a bride from his parents’ shortlist of five and marry her before returning home to Palo Alto. Shefali had found each of the four contenders acceptable, but, when her parents announced Amar the winner, she’d been relieved that marriage would deposit her in California instead of Dubai or Saskatoon or Hamburg.
Pretty, almost to the point of being vain about her looks, a French Honors graduate of an elite women’s college run by an European order of nuns, and the great-granddaughter of a Calcutta High Court barrister who had been knighted when the subcontinent was part of the British Empire, Shefali was confident she more than met the Sinha family’s baseline requirement of pleasing looks, social poise, and respectable pedigree. But Mrs. Sinha wasted three precious days of Amar’s leave airing her doubts that the only daughter of a rich family was capable of the selfless devotion required of the wife of “a genius” and “a future Nobel Prize winner.” All tactics being fair in Calcutta’s competitive matrimonial market, Shefali’s mother had been ready to lie about the untested selflessness of her over-indulged daughter, but she hadn’t needed to because, to Mr. Sinha, Shefali’s father’s standing in the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce mattered more than imagined or real flaws in Shefali’s character. For Shefali’s relatives, Amar’s U.S. citizenship and dollar salary (staggering when converted into rupees) trumped his asthma and the suicide death of a maternal aunt. Amar and Shefali became husband and wife exactly two weeks after their formal betrothal, and Shefali kept to herself her romantic daydreams of the Dubai-based runner-up bridegroom.
It is a cool Sunday afternoon in late May in Palo Alto, and the Sinhas’ guests, who had gathered over a buffet lunch to say goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Dasgupta and their two daughters, have wandered off to the garden to admire Shefali’s tidy flowerbeds and jasmine-covered pergola, or settled into deck chairs by the heated pool. Shefali, exhausted from having cooked prawn cutlets; chicken chops; three different kinds of freshwater fish curries; mutton curry; egg curry; aloo gobi; vegetable daalna; crisp-fried slices of okra and bitter gourd; as well as Bengali banquet staples, such as pilau with cashews and raisins; steamed Govinda bhog rice; and dal with barhi, loochi and payesh; stays back in the emptied kitchen. Amar insists she cook Bengali delicacies when they have Bengali friends over, so she starts marinating and prepping three days before any party. In her social circle, for a home-maker wife to hire a catering service is to admit to laziness. Shefali’s secret vice is reading recipes for casserole dishes in American cookbooks she borrows from the library. A whole meal in one pot! It’s more a revenge fantasy than vice, she admits. Only an audacious Bengali, like Rupa Roy, the widow next door, would have the nerve to serve a simple casserole to guests. She could load the dishwasher. There are enough pots and skillets in the double sink and stacks of platters and bowls on the counters to warrant three loads. Her cleaning woman comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and this is Sunday. She should at least start rinsing the silverware. Amar had urged her to use paper plates and plastic glasses. What does she want to prove?
The older of the Dasgupta daughters saunters in on high heels to refill her water glass. She manages to make pre-stressed blue jeans and a crisp white shirt look expensively stylish. Her mother says she is thirteen, but because of her well-developed bosom and shapely hips, she looks older.
“Oh, Auntie,” the girl exclaims, sweeping blue bangs off her prominent forehead, “Mummy’s going to miss you! She was saying that to Daddy just last night…” but stops abruptly to dart into the dining room and clear the cluttered tops of the dining table and the sideboard.
Shefali is suddenly seeing her state-of-the art hospitality through the girl’s pitying eyes. “Oh, there isn’t that much cleaning up to do. Really.” But the girl ignores her, and carries a stack of dirty dishes into the kitchen. “Really!” This time it’s an admonition. Shefali has refused all offers of help from her guests. She plants herself in front of the dishwasher before the teenager can yank its door open.
“Are you sure, Auntie?” The teenager dries her hand on the monogrammed hand towel that Shefali holds out to her. “Looks like an awful lot to me. That’s one of the many things Daddy says Mummy should be pleased about. He says, ‘Consider yourself lucky. You’ll never have to wash another dish. In Bangalore, you’ll sit leg upon leg.’ Daddy’s job comes with a big company house in Dollar Colony, and servants, cook, chowkidar, driver, can you believe? Daddy tells Mummy all she has to do is choose the furniture.” The teenager can’t seem to contain her excitement. She, her mother, and her eleven-year-old sister will fly to Bangalore next week, a full month ahead of her father, to set up house.
Mr. Dasgupta had grown up despairingly poor in a Shyambazar tenement, his school-teacher father having been killed in his early thirties in a bus accident: this is common knowledge in the Bengali community. The girl with blue streaks in her hair was born in San Jose, when her father was a graduate student at San Jose State, and supporting his mother and unmarried sisters in Calcutta, as well as his wife and infant daughter, on a research assistantship. He has done well enough since those early years of hardship, but it is also common knowledge that he has not done as well as the majority of the Calcutta Heritage Society trustees, certainly not as well as Amar. Shefali understands that the Dasgupta girl boasting of her father’s new job perks has equated moving to Dollar Colony with moving into a gated class of glamour and wealth. What an absurd name for a housing complex! She has never visited Bangalore, or any town in South India. She visualizes Dollar Colony as a block of affluent mansions on a Bollywood lot. Bollywood delivers on its promises. Always. Romance, intrigue, swashbuckling adventure forever! She inserts herself in the Dasguptas’ Bangalore home even as she guides the gushing girl towards the kitchen’s French doors that open on the poolside patio. “I’ll join all of you in a minute. Oh, is it too nippy outdoors? Tell the ladies I’m making masala chai. That should hit the spot, don’t you think? And just holler for shawls if anyone’s chilly.” She is thankful for the Bollywood fantasy the thirteen-year-old has sown in the parched heart of a thirty-nine-year-old housewife. Happiness isn’t necessarily beyond reach.
Come to think of it, in the long cocktail hours that preceded his signaling her to lay the buffet table, Amar’s face had expressed contentment, though at the time, she had confused the placid slackness of contentment with the onset of drunkenness. In the dining room when the Treasurer of the Calcutta Heritage Society had raised a glass of single malt—the Treasurer’s third, or was it his fourth?—and made a flowery speech about “our cherished hostess’ cookery prowess,” Amar had shouted the loudest “Hear! Hear!” She’d covered her ears, embarrassed at his tipsy behavior. What if, in the clumsy ways of a “genius,” he had actually meant the praise? Guiltily, she hauls down the huge aluminum dekchi she reserves for boiling chai when she has thirty or more tea connoisseurs as guests. All Calcuttans, especially the expatriate ones, are tea snobs.
Shefali has worked hard at acquiring traditional Bengali wifely virtues. She is a perfectionist: she recognizes this as a serious character flaw, especially serious because she has allowed her goals in life to be set by people who have authority over her, but she is remorseless in her pursuit of those goals. Back in the Calcutta convent school, she had gratified Mauritius-born Mother Veronique, who had assigned her the role of Athalie in Racine’s Athalie with the Parisian precision of her French accent. Even Amar’s skeptical mother has had to admit that she has been a good daughter-in-law, except for—with Amar’s mother there’s always an “except for”—but Amar and she are trying, and the ob-gyn at the second fertility clinic offers hope.
The sweet, milky tea she has boiled in the dekchi is ready, but Shefali shrinks from having to pour the tea into bone china cups, line them in neat rows on the two lacquer trays that Amar brought back from his last business trip to Vietnam, and carry them outdoors to guests. Instead, from behind gauzy white curtains of a small back window in the kitchen, she spies on her silk kurta-pajama-clad husband, who sits barefoot and cross-legged on a wicker chaise in the shade of a young, red-leaf Japanese maple. Of all the trees and shrubs in the backyard, this struggling tree, which she has nurtured back from windburn, is her favorite. Amar is in deep conversation with Mr. Dasgupta, whom she can only see in profile as he smokes a cigarette, his back pressed hard into the scrawny trunk of the Japanese maple. No, more accurately, Amar is doing all the talking, and Mr. Dasgupta, a condescending smile on his fleshy face, careless fingers bruising vulnerable leaves, is pretending to listen. She stifles the impulse to rush outdoors and rescue her tree. And Amar. But Amar, deep into a monologue she can’t hear, seems oblivious to insults. He hasn’t looked this animated in weeks. To deflect pity for him, she reminds herself that Mr. Dasgupta, for all his show of indolent superiority, is a middle-aged professional who was pink-slipped five or more months ago by the San Jose construction company he worked for, and whose home has been foreclosed upon. Word of calamity and sex scandal spreads fast within this expatriate Bengali community. He has to know that the bulletins about his misfortunes have made the rounds. That explains why, all through the elaborate lunch, Mr. Dasgupta raved about India’s current economic boom. “Mark my words,” he had prophesied, “China’s the hare that’ll lose the race to India’s tortoise!”
Of the two men she is spying on, she feels sorrier for Amar. He is too ready to believe Mr. Dasgupta’s self-serving pronouncements about world economy. Pity for one’s spouse has no place in marriages like hers. She must distract herself with uplifting duties. The chai has been simmering too long, and a brown, silky film has already formed on its neglected surface. Is that a tiny smudge from her fingertip on the gold rim of a teacup? But the tableau of the two men, host and guest of honor, keep her rooted. Amar the actor in the tableau seems more physically real than Amar the husband of nine years. His ears stick out like large, stiffly spread wings, from either side of his head. The ruched long sleeves of his fancy silk kurta are too short to cover up the wiry pelt on his simian arms. Once upon a time, she had been a romantic young bride-in-waiting.
Pity for Amar loses itself in a brackish pool of self-pity, as she watches five teenagers in bright sweaters and skinny jeans approach Amar and Mr. Dasgupta with the purposefulness of young people going on to another party, a more fun party where they can drink, dance and flirt out of the censorious sight of their elders. Do they do drugs at these parties? Shefali pities them; wait, she envies them more than she pities them. They co-habit contiguous worlds: the permissive world of Silicon Valley high-schoolers and the repressive, reputation-obsessed world of their immigrant parents. They thrive on secrets. The parents know not to ask, and the children know not to share all they think and do.
Amar doesn’t hide his disappointment at being interrupted by the Indian-American teenagers, who have been brought up to recite effusive thank-yous to hosts, no matter how boring the social event. But Mr. Dasgupta is suddenly all charm and gallantry. He swivels sharply to face the smiling youngsters. Oh, the cruelty of his casual abandonment of a needy host! Shefali doesn’t miss Mr. Dasgupta’s roguish smile as he focuses on the oldest of the five. Nor the young woman’s shy pleasure at the flirtatious attention he is paying her. She recognizes the young woman as one of the crippled Mr. Chowdhury’s three orphaned nieces, though until this afternoon, Shefali had not noticed how pretty she is, especially when she stands, slim body tautly angled away from the middle-aged flatterer, and smoothes imaginary tangles out of her wavy, waist-long hair. In fact, until this moment, Shefali had dismissed this teenager and her sisters as dreary youngsters obsessed with winning spelling bees and science fair prizes. Is she the Chowdhurys’ niece that’s headed for Princeton on a scholarship in the fall? Oh dear, the young woman’s flushed acceptance of his compliment has emboldened Mr. Dasgupta. He glides closer to his prey. His outstretched hand accidentally touches her hip, but he doesn’t spring back, embarrassed. His fingers skim the shiny locks falling around the girl’s shoulders, and then, in a triumphant gesture, pluck something out of her hair—a dry leaf or wilted petal? No, it has to be a bug, because when he holds it out to her—a grotesque creature on a steady, heroic palm—he is rewarded with grateful shrieks of girlish fright. The teenagers, all five of them, relax only when Mr. Dasgupta flicks the bug off his palm into the dense groundcover. Amar, too, must have witnessed this charade of chivalry. Amar’s initial disappointment has deepened into sullen bitterness. Shefali should run to his side, she should comfort him, should tell him Mr. Dasgupta didn’t deserve his respect. Except that she is fascinated by the middle-aged Mr. Dasgupta’s next gesture, fascinated because she is shocked. He pulls the shy girl out of the comforting knot of her girlfriends, and presses her head and shoulders against his chest in a hug. It is simultaneously a congratulatory gesture and a fatherly farewell. After all, the Chowdhurys’ niece is headed for Princeton, he permanently for India, and this is a going-back-home party in his honor. To interpret the embrace less innocently is to confess to a capacity for lewd fantasy.
The teenagers move off as a group toward parked cars. Amar swings his legs off the chaise and looks for his leather chappals in the nearest flowerbed, where a guest’s child or pet dog may have hidden them. By now, his disappointment has deepened into bitterness. Mr. Dasgupta, too, ambles toward the house, probably to say goodbye to her before he herds his wife and daughters for the ride back to Fremont. There’s a spring in his walk—he wears smart, tasseled loafers, not sloppy chappals like the other men at the party—and a cocky lift to his chin. And suddenly she gets it: he is a die-hard optimist. He may have lost his job; he is certainly about to lose his house; but he hasn’t lost his belief in his right to romance. There’s a lesson to be learned from what she is witnessing. She must not confuse “romance” with “love.” Romance delivers flesh wounds; love kills, then self-destructs. She must become wise enough now to avoid love.
The tableau having dissolved outdoors, Shefali is free to turn away from the window, to skim the milky film off the chai and bring it back to a gentle boil; she is finally free to serve perfect tea she’d promised to her remaining guests.
Late that night, Amar surprises Shefali with a question. They are in bed, she watching an episode of “The Good Wife” On Demand, and he tracking his investments on his laptop, when he asks, “Are you jealous of Mrs. Dasgupta?” Shefali is so absorbed in the barely legal, sleuthing tactics her favorite character, Kalindi, the leather-booted, Indo-American investigator, has just employed to insinuate herself into a locked apartment, that she lets Amar repeat his question before turning on her side towards him, and asking, “What for?”
“I’m thinking of retiring.”
Kalindi scrapes powdery dust of crucial evidence off an ineptly vacuumed rug, and struts out the front door of the apartment she had no right to enter.
“No matter what, no money worries for you. Not like for the Dasgupta women.”
In their home, retirement is an unacknowledged synonym for repatriation to India. He is forty-four, but she guesses that he has already made up his mind. She wonders, though, what he means by “no matter what.” Quitting his job? Being crippled by a stroke like Mr. Chowdhury? Dropping dead on the golf course like Rupa’s husband, Dr. Roy, who had been their first fertility specialist? Unlike her, Amar has met all goals he set for himself as an IIT student; maybe that’s why now he is mysteriously, profoundly unhappy. No point in trying to argue him out of his decision. She is certain of this. What she can’t figure out is how, and for how long, she can delay his abandoning this life they have made together, just the two of them, in Palo Alto. If she were to provoke or soothe him into opening up, there would be no going back to the neutral space that is domestic tranquility.
A week after the going-back party for the Dasgupta family, Amar leaves on a business trip that will take him to Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. Every day he Skypes Shefali. He is tired of all his business travels, he says, bland hotel décor framing his face. He worries that she is too depressed to cook healthy meals, or any meal, just for herself. Is Rupa Roy stopping by regularly as she’d promised? If not, call Rupa, he pleads, she is such a live wire, she’s just the right person to drag a lonely neighbor to shopping malls and restaurants.
Rupa has certainly kept her promise, but in her own way. She has texted Shefali every day to ask if she needs anything. Rupa is big-hearted, and because she is eager to give of herself to the needy, always busy; she is also an attractive, sought-after widow in her early forties. Her gold Lexus is in her driveway only on rare evenings. To appease Amar, who has gone on from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, Shefali leaves a message on Rupa’s cell phone: Amar sends his regards. Let’s get together for coffee. How about early next week?
An hour after she has made the call, Rupa shows up at her front door. Rupa’s Lexus is in the Sinhas’ driveway, which must mean she is dropping in on her way to somewhere else.
“Hey, you sounded lonely. Are you doing okay? When does Amar get back?” Rupa strides into the over-furnished foyer. In her suede leggings, crisp white shirt, asymmetrical suede vest and bright orange booties, she looks efficient. Not quite a Kalinda, but definitely a woman ready to take on difficult “projects.” Oh dear, does Rupa consider her a “project?” She is about to invite the neighbor into her living room, and just to prove that she is doing more than okay, offer a glass of wine instead of the usual tea or coffee, when Rupa announces, “I’ve come to kidnap you for an hour or so. I’m delivering dinner to Mr. Dasgupta. That poor man is so lonely and helpless without his family. Feeding him is the least we can do. He’ll enjoy the company. The Heritage Society members don’t bother to visit him much anymore.”
And that’s how lust sneaks into the life of a woman like Shefali Sinha, who has been a gratifying daughter and attentive wife. One weekday afternoon you arrive in a do-good neighbor’s Lexus at an ugly house with a “foreclosure” sign in the front yard and, carrying a care package of four casserole dinners in a four-tier stainless steel tiffin-carrier, you walk up the weed-sprouting brick path to the porch, and the door opens wide even before you ring the bell, and oh dear oh dear you are standing on the edge of a precipice, thrilled and ready for take-off.
This time Mr. Dasgupta’s charm and gallantry are focused on her. She does not care if her face gives away the joy she feels as she hands over the heavy tiffin-carrier. Casserole cuisine by Rupa, special delivery by Shefali. Rupa’s boots make clicking noises on the brick path as she follows with a basket of flowers from her garden, store-bought snacks and a thermos. Shefali is glad that there is someone to bear witness. There’s no going back, even if she chooses not to go forward. She will learn Mr. Dasgupta’s first name; she will coo that first name, maybe only in her fantasies, into Mr. Dasgupta’s ear. Who would have thought that hairy ears could so excite her? To impress her, he will tell her about how good his life has been and how much better it’s about to become, and this time he’ll be a skilled storyteller and she a rapt listener.
Shefali sails into the kitchen ahead of Mr. Dasgupta and Rupa. The shelves are mostly empty, the appliances smudgy with grease marks. She pulls open the drawer under the stove for a pan in which she can heat up this night’s dinner. This is not like being a housewife. She is playing at keeping house. She will be turning on the oven for a handsome man she hardly knows, but who makes her feel special. There is a tender intimacy in this imagined relationship—of she and Mr. Dasgupta as lovers. The tenderness gathers and swells, enveloping the ugly house. There is no longer a need for evasive silences. No need for perfectionist striving, no need at all for repressive dutifulness. Her imaginary lover will—no, shall—usher her into that space within her, where all doubts are stilled and bliss reigns.
Info about the author:
Award-winning Indian-born American author Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) in 1940, the second of three daughters born to Bengali-speaking, Hindu Brahmin parents. She lived in a house crowded with 40 or 50 relatives until she was eight, when her father’s career brought the family to live in London for several years. Mukherjee is best known for her novels “The Tiger’s Daughter” (1971); “Wife” (1975); “Jasmine” (1989); “The Holder of the World” (1993); “Leave It to Me” (1997); “Desirable Daughters” (2002); “The Tree Bride” (2004); and “Miss New India” (2011). Her short story collections and memoirs include “Darkness” (1985) and “The Middleman and Other Stories” (1988). Non-fiction works include: “Days and Nights in Calcutta” and “The Sorrow and the Terror”. She was the winner of the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for “The Middleman and Other Stories”.