Chataka Birds Part 2

(Part 1) here

Part 2

Geetha opened her eyes and saw Hari sitting on the edge of her bed with a big smile.
She felt relieved for the first time since she had set foot in New York.
Hari took her hand and stroked gently, “How was the trip? Who put you on the plane in Mumbai airport? No problems anywhere? Did you get through Customs without hassle?”
Geetha laughed. “You have so many questions. If I keep answering all your questions, I won’t be getting any sleep for a week, at least.”
“Well, did I get you here in such a hurry so you can sleep endlessly?” he squinted his eyes and pouted.
“Hee hee,” Geetha giggled.
Then she went into the bathroom, freshened up and returned to the living room. Hari set the breakfast and coffee on the dining table. He said Peter and Susan had left for work.
“Oh, I am sorry. I should have woken early to take leave of them.”
“Ah, don’t you worry about it. That is the way it is around here. Everybody has to go about their business, or else, nothing gets done.”
In the airport, Hari led her to a lounge, told her to wait there, and went to check in. She was watching people rush every which way. Suddenly, a huge wave of loneliness overcame her amid this crowd of strangers; she felt exhausted and clueless.
Hari returned with two cups of coffee. She looked at him tenderly. In this whole wide world, Hari was the only friend she had, and that thought was comforting.
Hari settled next to her, and handed her the coffee. He put his arm around her shoulder, and stroked her gently. He understood her at that moment. “I am here for you,” his eyes told her.
Geetha reached her final destination. As she got out of the car, Hari pointed to one of the doors of a 2-storey building and said, “There, that is our heavenly abode.”
She could not figure out which door he was pointing to. She nodded and followed him. A cardboard sign of “welcome” on the door welcomed her. She stood behind him nervously.
Hari opened the door to their apartment and let her in. He showed her the rooms–the living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and dining room–all in one sweep, standing right where he was.
Geetha nodded, “Okay, got it.”
Everything was beautiful–a flower vase on the dining table, curtains matching the sofa set, kitchen looking like a showroom, everything in its place, a place for everything.
“What do you think?” Hari asked.
“Nice,” she replied.
Something was missing. There was no feeling of joining the in-law’s family to spend the rest of her life with them. It was more like vacationing in some unknown city for a few days!
That building had been the home of one huge family for two previous generations. The current owner converted it into a 4-unit complex by making a few changes like installing stoves in the bathrooms, and toilet seats in the bedrooms.
“Like it?” asked Hari.
She nodded quietly. She was still in a daze. Her brain was still in a silent mode. Nothing was penetrating her head. The tiny cells, where thoughts are generated, were filled with vague shades. How else anybody, thrown from one end of the globe to the other end in 36 hours would feel? There were two oceans and 10,000 miles of distance between the bed she had slept in yesterday and the bed she was going to sleep in today! Faces she had never seen, things she had never seen, and the language never heard anywhere! Her head reeled.
The phone rang.
Hari picked up the phone. It was from an old friend, Bhagyam. She had been in town for over ten years. She was the best friend and mentor for local Telugu families. She called to ask if the new bride, Geetha, had arrived safely, was the journey comfortable, and was there anything she could do for them.
Geetha lay back in the sofa, trying to listen to the conversation and wondering what was that about.
Hari was on the phone for the next hour and a half. As far as she could understand, most of the calls were to inquire about her and her journey. Rest of them seemed to be talking about politics; Nixon resigned, and then what? What would Ford do? Geetha dozed off.
Hari got off the phone at last, and said to her, “You are tired. Come on, have a bite and go to bed.”
Geetha got up, walked to the dining table, “You cooked?”
“Why? You think I can’t cook?”
“I don’t know. My friend Satyam used to say that Indian men, after a year or so in America, would rush back to India and get married to solve the cooking problem only.”
Hari burst into a big laugh. “Not bad, not bad at all. You are not as naive as I thought.”
Geetha too smiled, squinting playfully, and sticking out her tongue.
Hari kept asking, “how is this item?”, “how is that item,” as she ate.
Geetha kept saying, “good”, “nice”, tasty”, “what’s this? Spinach? Looks like Poi.”
Hari was excited; he was delighted beyond words. Just in a few hours, Geetha had changed tremendously. The future would be pure gold!
“It’s okay. Everything will be fine. You’ll get used to these things,” his eyes assured her.
It was nice for her too. She felt good. In that moment, he did not look like the NRI, who had appeared from nowhere, married her, and left in a hurry, but like a boon companion from previous life. It was gratifying.
He left for work.
She sat in the sofa, pondering over the day’s events. Hari said something about jet lag; the body reached America, but the heart was still in the Telugu land.
Next morning by the time she woke up, Hari made coffee.
“I didn’t think that life in America would be this charming,” she said, teasingly.
“You’ve seen nothing yet,” he said, smiling. The phone rang.
“Phone calls this early? I thought people in America don’t call this early.”
“Americans don’t, but for our people, there is no such thing as no good time. Phone calls start with the cock’s crowing,” he said, picking up the phone.
That was true. One of his friends, Madhav, called to ask if he and his wife, Radha, could stop by to say hello to Geetha briefly.
Hari told them to come, that’s fine, hung up, and conveyed the message to Geetha.
“Guests already? I still feel like I have not reached America yet,” Geetha said.
“What guests? Madhav is no guest. We two went to the same school and got a taste of the same rods from the same teachers. We are like brothers. Don’t worry. You don’t have to change sari or anything. They want to see you, that’s all. Here we all feel lost, ache for a Telugu face. Any new person is quite refreshing to us. You will understand soon enough. How can I say no, when he and his wife are so anxious to meet you?”
Geetha went into the other room, pulled out a sari and a blouse, and went into the bathroom to take a shower.
She returned to the living room and greeted Radha and Madhav.
“Where are the kids?” Hari asked. The couple had two kids, eight and ten.
“Our neighbors took them to the County Fair along with their kids. They will be back by noon. We thought of making the best of the free time this way,” Madhav said, explaining away their early morning visit.
Hari asked if they had breakfast.
Yes, they had breakfast, they just stopped by to greet Geetha briefly. “We will come some other time,” he added.
That some other time happened soon. The following Sunday Hari received a phone call from an old friend, Sumati. She and another friend, Tesh came. Tesh had no car and so he tagged along with Sumati. Within the next one hour, a few other friends, Pani, Vishu and Gnanesh came. All of them were bachelors.
This get together was unplanned and unexpected, and totally different from what Geetha had learned from her friends in India. For Hari, it was an ordinary event, nothing unusual, she understood.
Geetha made coffee. Hari went into the kitchen and returned with a plate full o f the sweets and savories, Geetha brought from India. He also brought cookies and crackers on another plate.
Pani took a cookie, that was his favorite, he said.
“Hey! How can you, with these authentic Pullareddy sweets from hometown? ” Gnanesh said.
“Come on, It is not a contest. I like them all. Each has its own taste. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. That’s all,” Viswam tried to appease him.
They all got into heated discussions on several topics. Excitement was in the air.
The clock chimed 12:30. “Okay, let’s go. I am sure Geetha garu likes to rest,” Sumati said.
“No, no. It’s lunchtime. Eat something and leave,” Hari said.
His friends protested, as is usual.
“Geetha garu needs rest.”
“We will come some other time.”
“We came just to see Geetha garu, say hello and leave.”
“No, no, we did not expect to eat lunch here.”
“Promise, some other time.”
Hari dismissed their protests, waving his hand. “Come on, I insist. There is plenty of food. Actually, I’ve got everything ready for you.”
Geetha was amused. She did not expect this but, apparently, some customs die hard. Indians are Indians anywhere. Unannounced visits and expected hosting!
“I still think it is not right to bother Geetha garu,” Sumati said.
“Don’t you worry, Sumati. I am not going to put your kid sister to work. I will make lunch myself,” Hari said.
“Kid sister”! It was so Indian, Geetha noticed.
Sumati laughed. “Ha, ha. We all have tasted your cooking. I will fix something. You stay out of the kitchen, that is a big help.”
Tesh followed Sumati into the kitchen. Pani and Gnanesh joined them. Geetha also went into the kitchen.
Sumati turned on the stove and started with making rice for puihora[1] Cooked rice mixed with tamarind mush and turmeric, also called yellow rice. . In another pan on another burner, and added two tea spoons of veggie oil, waited for a couple of minutes for the oil to heat, and threw in some mustard seeds, urad dal, and a few red pepper pods. While the mustard seeds popped, she took out two packets of cut beans and threw them into the pan. The pan made a big hissing noise and subsided.
Geetha was watching them with amazement.
While beans were cooking, Sumati took an potato and started slicing for bajji[2] Potato slices dipped in Besan batter and fried. Similar to onion rings..
“I will cut it,” Geetha said, taking a step toward Sumati. She feeling awkward to stand there, doing nothing.
“Don’t worry, I got it. You are still a new bride. We don’t let new brides work the first day,” Sumati said, playfully.
“I can’t just stand here doing nothing. After all, this is my house. I am supposed to be doing the cooking.”
“Ah, no, Geetha garu, for today we are the hosts here. Starting tomorrow, the kitchen is all yours. We will not enter the kitchen unless you beg us to.”
“To be frank, I am not much of a cook.”
“None of was at first. But, after a couple of months, everybody becomes a master chef.”
Geetha laughed.
Lunch was ready. Beans curry, Pulihora, Bajji.
As they were eating, Geetha made coffee.
“I haven’t had this good coffee since I left India. Geetha garu, Namaste to you,” Gnanesh said.
“You too can go home, get married, and bring the bride. You can have great coffee everyday,” Sumati teased him.
“Well, what if I don’t get a wife who can make coffee like Geetha garu. I would be a big loser on both counts.”
“You can ask her to make coffee when go to her home to meet her and her parents.”
“That is probably not a great option,” Gnanesh said.
Geetha was confused. How could they talk so lightly about such a grave subject, the institution of marriage?
“What is he talking about?” she asked Sumati, feeling there might more to it than his marriage or good coffee.
Sumati replied, “He has made a project of it. once a month, he sits down and make a list of things he wants in a girl: Fair skin, correct height, best features, etc. And then qualifications: A physician is good for taking care of kids, an economic major can take care of investments, and a home economics major, of course, will satisfy his taste buds. These priorities change each month, depending on the dominant zodiac sign on any given day.”
“If you ask me, he really is not ready for marriage. All that talk is just past-time for him, and entertainment for us. That’s why we tease him.”
All the fun and frolic were interesting to Geetha. Strange but not unusual, come to think of it. She felt right at home in their presence. She said so too.
“Back home, they told me Indians in America would behave very differently. You all are soooo Indian, I feel like I have not left home at all.”
“It didn’t sound like nothing. Am I being naive?”
“I am not saying you are naive.”
“Then what?”
“Do you remember the proverb, ‘you don’t test each grain of rice to see if the entire pot is cooked’?[ annam antaa patti choodakkarledu. You don’t check each grain to know the entire pot of rice is cooked. ] That does not apply to humans. As far as I could see, humans come in all shapes, sizes and attitudes, everywhere. One wave does not make the ocean. One instance is not enough to understand the nature of anyone person, or a handful of people, for that matter.”
Geetha did not reply. Suddenly, she thought of Susan and Peter. She had told them the same thing, almost!
“I am just saying humans are very complex creatures. Just take it in stride.”
“Okay,” Geetha nodded.
“Never mind all this nonsense. You are tired. Go, get some rest,” suggested Gnanesh.
“Yes, you need to rest,” Viswam said.
Geetha said, “I am not tired. It’s okay,” feeling shyly.
“Come on. No formalities with us over here. We all know how it feels like after such a long journey. We are not going to find fault with you. Go, get some rest,” Pani insisted.
Hari also assured her that nobody blames her as lacking in manners.
Geetha took leave of them and retired.
Geetha was getting used to the new environment, but it was not getting any easier. Every little thing was a new lesson for her. Cold cereal for breakfast, air-tight rooms, very little semblance of any human to be seen anywhere; and Hari’s constant warnings, “don’t go out,” “don’t open the door,” “keep the doors locked,” etc. were depressing her. She was feeling suffocated. Mother, father, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends, even the maid, and the vegetable vendors were coming to her mind constantly. That was her life. The thought of loneliness, like a huge wave, rose and engulfed her.
She recalled the brief conversation she had had with Radha two days back.

(May 20, 2022)


1 Cooked rice mixed with tamarind mush and turmeric, also called yellow rice.
2 Potato slices dipped in Besan batter and fried. Similar to onion rings.

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