Teatime with John Gaaru by Kiran Bharthapudi
I had never before traveled to cities where married women don’t wear saris. Moreover, I had never traveled alone. I tucked the loose end of the sari around my waist and using my hands and knees I piled much of the luggage onto the cart. Fifty-one years of my life in India was reduced to two suitcases, a cabin baggage and a handbag. In the bag, I had a newly made passport, the airline tickets my son Pavan had sent via Federal Express and my husband’s retirement money made into three thousand dollars in travelers’ checks. I kept these belongings close to myself at all times, along with a framed picture of my husband and the picture of a twenty-eight year old house where I had spent all of my married life. In this way, I began my first ever sky journey.
Pavan had left for New York for a computer job when he was twenty-two. I had wept for three days when he left us. He was my only child after all. He had been home twice since- recently when his father died and before that to get married to Sunita, a Bombay girl who worked with him in New York. We hadn’t selected Sunita for him and she couldn’t speak Telugu.
My air travel was okay. I did a decent job riding escalators, finding the right gates, reading the electronic boards and interpreting the flight announcements. I had learned English for three years in high school. After marriage I had read the Deccan Chronicle whenever there was news on Rajamundry. While all those years of training helped me in finding my way at the airports, I still had trouble speaking English. I didn’t ask for South Indian filter coffee or food- ate the curd rice I had packed for the night and avoided the meals served on the plane suspecting meat in them.
At the luggage claim area, I saw my son waving his hand and Sunita beside him smiling in her blue jeans and white shirt. I was happy to see familiar faces again. Pavan hugged me briefly and Sunita bowed and touched my feet with her hands, and I was on my way to a new home.
We lived on the top floor of a six-story apartment building. I had my own bedroom. It had a cot with two layered mattress which I refused to sleep on and a mirror mounted on a dressing table which I refused to look at. I’m a widow after all. The room also had a closet with sliding doors, a bookshelf and a bare window from where I could see the illuminated buildings of the city at night. Three weeks had passed and I still had trouble sleeping. I’d lie down on the carpeted floor at nights and hear muffled conversations from the other bedroom. If only Pavan’s father had lived to come with me to New York, I would’ve had him to talk to in bed and wouldn’t have felt meddlesome.
Sunita had explained the kitchen. There’d be rice in the electric cooker, bottled pickles in the cabinet and ready to eat curries in the refrigerator. She advised me not to venture in extensive South Indian cooking, since that could trigger the kitchen alarm and call up the firemen. However, I was free to make tea whenever I liked. Every weekday, I’d wake up to the empty house. For a few moments, I’d stand in front of the window and watch the tall buildings of the city, as the sun shimmered on their shoulders. Later, I’d clean the refrigerator or the bathroom, wash the bed sheets in the bathtub with my own hands or clean the dishes, the sink, the stove or the kitchen shelves.
“Maaji, you don’t have to do it,” Sunita would say in English, but I never listened.
I enjoyed the dinners when children were home. Sunita would cook no matter how late she came back from work. And though I didn’t see a reason why a widow should have three meals a day, I’d serve them standing near the table as they talked with each other about their commute, colleagues and work. They never talked much, however, about their uncles, aunts or cousins from back home.
I also liked the weekends. Sunita and Pavan would invite their friends. All of them would greet me and talk among themselves in Hindi, as I served samosas and tea. I yearned for colder days, so that Pavan and Sunita could wear the sweaters that I’d bought at the largest cloth store in Rajamundry. But the weather never asked for additional clothing.
It was already my fourth Monday in America. I was surprised none of the neighbors had bothered to introduce themselves. I wondered if anyone in the building knew that there was a new person in the house. In Rajamundry it’s a custom that you introduce yourself to your neighbors, usually by offering a food item of your expertise. The Kova sweets, deep fried cheese balls dipped in sweet syrup, which I had made and brought from India, were sitting untouched in the kitchen cabinet. I transferred few of the sweets in a plastic bag and decided to introduce myself to the next door neighbors.
I turned the knob, opened the door and stepped out of the house for the first time in days. It was a hot afternoon. I took a deep breath and moved forward. I knew it wasn’t sensible to experiment in a foreign land but it was about time the people who lived next to us knew I existed. A sticker with letter “I” then a red heart symbol followed by the words “New York” was pasted on the door. I quickly figured it meant “my heart is in New York” and wishing I had a sticker that said “I red heart Rajamundry,” I knocked on the door.
“Hi, can I help you?” A white man opened the door and asked.
“Hello, I am new neighbor...India sweets,” I said, looking behind his face, hoping to find a female resident.
“Wow! Thanks,” he said, taking the bag from my hand.
I couldn’t think of saying anything else. I hurried back into the house, closed the door, turned the knob the other way and gently slapped the forehead with my right palm. As the day went on it seemed like a dream that woke me up between naps, it was hard to believe it ever happened.
The next morning I woke up before Pavan left for the office. I had a very important question to ask.
“What is the name of the place where we live?”
“Woodside, Queens,” he replied.
“You have to remember that,” I said to myself.
I felt it was necessary to know where I lived, so that I don’t get lost if I ever venture into a street. I should admit, my journey out of the apartment the previous day had prompted the question.
“Amma, I forgot to tell you. I bought a few CDs for you last night. They are on the top of the TV shelf. You may want to listen,” Pavan said. I was happy. He was thinking of me.
He bought the music collection of my favorite artists. Moreover, all titles on the album cover were written in Telugu. For the first time in weeks I saw the script of my own language. I was happier.
It was well into the afternoon and I still couldn’t play any music. I especially was desperate to listen to M.S. Subbalakshmi’s Sahasranamam (Lord’s Thousand Names), which I had recited every morning when my husband was alive. I didn’t ask Pavan to give me a run down on how to operate the audio player. I was annoyed at myself. I sat on the sofa for a few minutes with face in my palms. Then I stood up. I turned the knob, opened the door, stepped out of the apartment and knocked on the same neighbor’s door. I wasn’t sure he’d help me, but I felt he owed me a favor nevertheless for the sweets that I’d offered him the previous day.
“Hi, it’s you again,” He said, pleasantly.
“The audio player is not singing, I need help.”
He walked right into the house and I left the front door wide open. Within seconds he played the music and gave a step by step description on how to operate the player.
“No problem, by the way I’m John.”
“Thank you John Gaaru.”
“It is respect word in my language”
“Like Mister in English?”
“You don’t have to say that, you can just call me John.”
“It is fine. I will call you Gaaru.”
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