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Before 1952, it was legal for Sikhs to have more than one wife (divorce remaining unthinkable), which, here, poses problems for a young couple who fall in love while earning their master's degrees at Berkeley. The handsome, charming Tej convinces Helen to marry him anyway, though, and so she leaves her home to join him in his native Punjabi village, where the newlyweds live in a large family complex without running water or electricity—but with a spare wife. Tej assures Helen that the marriage is a formality: Dilraj Kaur is his dead brother's widow, and the marriage is in name only, the kind of union commonly performed to protect the rights of widows and ensure the inheritance status of their children. It all sounds reasonable enough, but when Helen arrives a domestic power struggle begins. Dilraj Kaur organizes the household tasks, alienating Helen in a world where family service is supreme; further, she attempts to pit Tej's family, his mother, father, two sisters, and brother against Helen, implying that she bewitched the much beloved Tej. Meantime, Tej refuses to believe the situation is anything but cozy, and Helen does try to accommodate Dilraj Kaur, especially since she and Tej are soon to be parents. One accommodation leads to another until Helen feels a shadow of her former self—no longer the adventurous young woman with a passion for photography but a pregnant matron without a voice. She runs away to an ashram, not quite sure whether she wants Tej to follow or not. But of course he does, after sending Dilraj Kaur off to live with her brother, and the future looks rosy.
Predictable fare, but Singh nicely depicts her frustrated heroine unraveling the elaborate configurations of domesticity in India.
I have been saving Helen for later. I have spent an adult lifetime doing it. All these years, stray memories of her have been hovering like uninvited guests, ready to step nimbly across the threshold. And I have made polite excuses. I knew coming to grips with her—the idea of her—would take more time and energy than I could allow. Once in, she would take up too much of my attention. I had to think about a career (which I eventually had, and am now retired from). I had to think about renting apartments, buying houses, moving into condominiums. I had to plan vacations and sabbaticals, engineer judicious moves from college to college, university to university, committee to committee, consultancy to consultancy, until the carousel stopped, and I had to get off. Now, attention is all I have. And time. It occurs to me today, as I go through old letters and papers, that this is the "later" I have been saving Helen for.
I have to deal with her once and for all, so that I can make my final move unencumbered. They have said I can take only one or two possessions with me to the new place—a few photographs, my favorite books, a souvenir or two—whatever will fit into one room. And I know Helen isn't one of these. There won't be space for what she was and what she might have finally become.
There is, in fact, so much uncertainty in the accounts which various friends gave of her over the years that scarcely one of them is reliable. Helen was, to be sure, an ordinary girl, or so she appeared. At the same time she was a bundle of conflicting loyaltiesand contradictions. She remains for me, after so many years, an enigma.
Was she carried off like that by her own whims and impulses against her sense of survival? Or was it the logical outcome of all that went before? None of her letters ever helped me decide. And she wrote to me often, in the beginning, when she first went out there. They were long letters of mundane detail. It is possible she was trying to prove that I had been wrong that day when I declared she was going on an adventure. The idea appeared to quietly infuriate her.
"I don't know why you keep hugging that idea, Carol," she had said to me. "Why don't you let it go?"
"But what you're considering doing is unusual," I remember saying.
We were sitting in the coffee shop in the International House at Berkeley, she looking out through the big plate glass windows onto Bancroft Avenue and I facing her and the door that led into the Great Hall.
"Unusual?" she took up. "That's what everybody seems to think, even if they don't say it," she said, studying the irrelevance of the spoon in the cup of sugarless, black coffee on the table before her.
And so when she wrote to me afterwards, her letters dwelt on the ordinary, the externals: what the weather was like, how the food tasted, how the relentless throb and hum of insect life filled the days and nights. Sometimes she enclosed snapshots, not her own excellent pictorial compositions, but ordinary, grainy prints of herself and Tej against blurred backgrounds or amongst a host of smiling, foreign faces. They seemed part of her compulsion to prove us all wrong, to let us know she was not having an adventure, but simply living life.
I searched in vain between the lines of her letters for an indication of what it meant to her to go so far away. What it was like to go back in time by centuries. Surely there would have been the initial thrill, followed by a seizure of panic at the realities of life lived without technology.
There she was, becoming a part of, or at any rate living intimately with, the fixtures of another culture, knowing that she was not like someone on a guided tour, but locked into a process that offered no end in sight. The language factor, daunting enough in itself, would have been just one dimension. And what was it like to be taken in like that, into the household of strangers ten thousand miles away, not as a guest or casual visitor, but as a bride? Tej's bride?
Helen attached no comments to her accounts of the externals, so I will have to make wild guesses (not knowing the place, never having been there) and some calculated surmises, based on my knowledge of her—at least as she was before she went out there. The one impression she was bent on conveying was that there were everywhere and in every situation correspondences, similarities in degree or kind, to life as she'd always lived it. But what these were remained unexplained in her accounts, and in any case, after all this time—forty years—it is beyond me to recall what actually these correspondences were.
Everyone predicted she would be back in Berkeley by year's end. But by then I had completed my master's degree and had got my first job, in Michigan, dogsbody to a classics professor, working on a translation of Dante. I scarcely noticed that Helen's letters, at first getting more infrequent, had almost stopped coming altogether. She might have lost my new address, or indeed might never have received it. Or was back in Berkeley and didn't want to disclose the fact to any of the old crowd, who were in any case scattered to the four corners by that time. I knew she would not want me in particular to know she had come back, at least until she had pulled herself together, because I had been set against her going in the first place. I suppose as I was her best friend, she would have expected me to understand her, or anyway not try to understand her, but simply and unconditionally accept what appeared to me to be her own special brand of lunacy, a peculiarly self-destructive kind. Her return would have signaled a kind of defeat. And Helen didn't like defeats any more than anyone else did. I will never know for certain whether that is what it turned out to be, because I lost track of her for a while about the time my own life got complicated.
First, there was the dismaying fact that the Dante professor, with whom I was hopelessly and abjectly—now as I recall it—in love, was nearly twice my age and besides was married. Then, because he was in the Army Reserve and the Korean War had started that summer, he was called up. He went off to attend a crash course in Korean for intelligence personnel, half a continent away, and I had to face my first abortion alone. Instead of stepping out onto the Dali landscape of the postwar scene, holding his hand for reassurance and waiting for him to reveal the future to me with one parting of the curtain, I sat alone on the treeless plain amongst the soft watches, the crutches, and the bemused, burning giraffes, dealing with the scene as best I could. I sat there, a young woman of the time, with a shoulder-length pageboy bob (achieved by the nightly application of pin curlers, unaided by sprays, foams, and mousses) in my uniform of cardigan, pleated plaid skirt, navy blue blazer, white buck saddle oxfords and lots of red lipstick. The demure exterior concealed a person inside more at home in the Dali landscape than an observer would have dreamed.
I wondered if Helen had had to discard all her cardigans and white blouses with round, lace-edged collars for some pastel-colored sari as soon as she got there. This trivial idea occurred to me as I read through a letter of hers (I have it in front of me even now) which reached me at a time when I was obsessed with the growing swell separating the pleats of my plaid skirt, too big now for my navy blue blazer to hide. I teetered somewhere between panic and hysteria while contemplating that very real, small being I would have to say goodbye to even before it took a breath. And yet, the look of sweet complacency that distinguished the faces of my female contemporaries was, as I recall, still quite intact on my own features, even if nothing else in my life was.
After my double loss, the father and the child, there was always Dante. Besides, I drew comfort from the fact that my predicament (if not I myself, Carol Thorpe) had been celebrated in lofty lines of iambic hexameter in many an epic scene and my tears dissipated in the sorrows of other, nobler spirits. They dwelt in other places, other times far grander than my own, simply for being mythical, remote. And so it was at infrequent intervals, while lighting a cigarette after dinner (in a new student housing complex now, in a different city) or walking back from another, distant university library in the cold night, that I remembered Helen Graziani, the way one seizes on an idea at such times, like a hand grasping a live electrical appliance it can't let go of.
"It's as if everybody thinks I'm some kind of fool, doing something different just to escape being mediocre," I remembered Helen saying. The corners of her mouth turned up in a short smile, but her green eyes weren't laughing. "You imagine I'm out for adventure or something?" she said. "Some kind of lark?"
"If not for adventure, then for what?" I asked.
I don't believe she heard my question and I don't believe she was interested in it, because just then her attention became riveted on something outside, beyond the window, in the middle distance. Her hand replaced the spoon in the saucer, but she didn't let go of the handle. For a moment that stretched too far, there was nothing to give evidence that she was even breathing.
I turned around to see what had changed her to stone, and as I did so, the scene outside fell into focus. In the distance, fog came swirling in through the Golden Gate, skimming the bridge cables, crowning the city. The middle distance was designed only to support the Campanile, now striking ... twelve? The foreground swarmed with students heading up the hill to lunch. An unextraordinary sight to my eyes. By the time I turned around again, Helen was looking at me. "You're dead wrong," she said, "like everybody else." There was an odd moment when I thought she was going to laugh outright. But she didn't. She had a joke she did not want to share.
The scene rearranges itself. The philosophy major (no one knows his name) is sitting alone at his usual table by a pillar in the middle of the coffee shop reading a paperback novel and ripping out the pages, crumpling them up, and throwing them away as he finishes reading each one. Four Hungarian refugees, the burden of life lived on the run still upon them years after their escape and deliverance, argue furiously over a bid at bridge. Streams of other residents shoulder their way into the crowded space that is blue with cigarette smoke and fluorescent lights. "Erotica," she of the elegant profile, dangling earrings, and ivory Florentine skin, makes her entrance like a mascot in the midst of a pack of intellectuals. She is complacently unconcerned about their arguments over Proust, not bothering even to pretend to understand, and meeting their profoundest insights with dimwitted silence. The conversation has been in progress for more than a week now. She is their Muse, her mere presence working its magic on their brains when creative thought has given out. Behind her cool gaze may lie an insight or two, who knows? Besides, she is decorative.
This noon, as usual, the place is noisy and disordered. Hamburgers and french fries are being passed along, and cherry cokes; mugs of coffee are being handed over the counter. An Indian girl, all sari and black hair, is balancing one in either hand, trying to get through the jam to her companion at a far table, a Pakistani who owns a car.
Was it before or after Helen had looked out the plate glass window so intently that the subject came up of her plans, much speculated about and mystifying. It might have been before. Perhaps it had been a peculiar way to put it, an adventure. Was it my word choice that offended her? Did it suggest something exploitive, some disgraceful motive that denied someone their humanity?
"I don't know why you keep harping on that," she said. Or had she said, "I don't know why you keep insisting on that?" Harping was probably her word; insisting mine.
"Forget I said it," I replied. Or I think I did. Or perhaps going over this scene so many times in my remembering imagination I am adding some things that might have been good or helpful to say at the time, but hadn't actually been said. I'm quite certain, however, that I went on to suggest that she was very brave.
"That's another strange word," Helen took up immediately. "That and adventure. I'm not going tiger shooting." Her manner, usually so straightforward, struck me as mocking and inexplicably unpleasant. "I'm not even going to go live amongst wild elephants. Just people. Like you and me."
"You know and I know there are many kinds of bravery," I said. Or perhaps I just sat there noticing the way she fumbled with her lighter as she took out a cigarette. Perhaps I just sat there, without even saying that, because surely she knew, and was merely pretending not to know, not to acknowledge, the other kinds of bravery that would present their demands when the time came.
I'm trying to remember what precisely was said (it has become important to me now that I'm putting all my things away). I'm also trying to discover why this particular occasion and not others comes to mind in relentless detail. Why I keep recalling the way the coffee shop felt that morning (like a too-warm garment), the sound of friends' voices at nearby tables, the rattle of plates and silverware, even the scraping of chairs and the shuffling of feet on the tile floor. It was an ordinary day, a working day. I had already gone to my Greek seminar, and the effort of sitting through the presentation by a Viennese refugee bent on trotting out trivia had made me hungry. I ordered a Spanish omelette and toast and sat waiting at the counter for it to be ready so I could move on to a table by the window. When I turned around, I saw Helen. She was already there, saving me a place.
"I overslept," she said when I sat down opposite her, as if some explanation were due. "Missed my Goethe seminar." She was halfway through a cigarette and black coffee. As always, she had her twin lens Rolleicord along. It sat in its shabby case amongst the notebooks on the table beside her.
"This is by way of breakfast," she said. "I don't feel like having anything else."
She sat with her elbows on the table, circling the white mug of black coffee with her white hands, her fingers still holding the cigarette and her wrists emerging white and stark from the pushed-up sleeves of her black cardigan. Like most tall women, she had, as if by design, arranged herself in the act of sitting down so that legs, arms, torso—all were composed, as it were, into an agreeable whole. She hadn't bothered to do her hair in a coronet of braids that day, but had simply left it loose to frame her face. The flat lighting of the room illumined her features and made them animated. No shadows settled there. Only her eyes, restless and bright with impatience, looked as though she had had no sleep. And then I remembered seeing her and Tej, in the midst of the ritual coffee break at eleven the night before, rush, laughing, through the swinging doors out into the lobby and down the stairs.
Someone at our table (labeled the "intellectual table" perhaps because it was frequented by Englishmen whose Oxbridge accents lent "tone" to the hot discussions) had said something at the time about Helen "crossing over." I suppose what he meant by that was that she was nowadays more to be seen at the Indo-Pakistani table than at ours. She often sat enthralled by the company and the conversation, overheard tables away. It was as if these Punjabis, with their shared heritage, language, and culture, were surprised to suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of an international border and needed to talk about it ... loudly. This proved more gripping to Helen than our prolonged arguments over the virtues of hypocrisy (it's better to believe and betray than not to believe at all), or the vice of mediocrity and ways to avoid it at all costs. Not even the presence amongst us of a couple of ex-Resistance fighters, recently arrived from France and high on the new existentialist writers whose books and articles they had brought with them, was enough to hold her interest.
As we sat there in the coffee shop that morning, it was obvious Helen didn't want to talk about herself and Tej. "Tej rhymes with rage, not wedge," I remembered her saying once, correcting my pronunciation of his name. "You could also say it rhymes with sage, which is more like it," she added with a laugh. "He's more wise than angry." Now she didn't even want to mention him. For a moment his image came to mind. It was easy to picture him. He had a way, though slight of build, of filling up a space, enclosing everything around him in his aura. It had something to do with his musicianship, with the affair with his sitar that he celebrated, inviting all who listened to share his passion. But I'm making him larger than life. In any case I guessed from the way Helen looked around the crowded room searching for something else to talk about that she did not want to discuss him. We sat there without saying anything, I attending to my Spanish omelette and noting that the onions in the sauce were underdone; Helen lighting another cigarette.
"Are you really going away forever with your Sikh friend?" I asked, bringing up the subject again. If Tej had been just another enthusiasm in her store of enthusiasms, she would have been open and frank and amusing. As it was, mention of him caused her to withdraw behind a show of vagueness and inattention.
"Is that what people are saying?" she said without answering me.
"What about your folks?" I went on. If she had been someone else I would have said "family"; but Helen's people (like mine) were definitely folks. I hoped mention of them would provoke some response beyond her evasive counterquestions. I knew her mother, especially, was bound to lie at the bottom of a coil of any uncertainties she might have.
My remembering this now, after so many years have passed, is hard to explain. Why in such detail? Why this occasion? Why, even in those early days in Michigan did I keep going over it in my mind, at all odd hours, in strange places, amidst my own crises? She was, it is true, a good friend, and like a sister, even taken for granted. But what did her fate have to do with mine, or mine with hers, to make me obsessed with it? What happened to her? Why did she suddenly go silent after that last puzzling letter?
In particular, I need to know why this brief scene in the International House coffee shop that late morning has so taken hold. Sometimes I think the details I claim to remember are only my elaborations, variations on a theme recalled in old age. I wonder, for example, if I actually did ask her about her family on that occasion or if it was later, when it appeared she was determined to go away after all.
I can hear her voice now, the way it went faint as though she had wilfully turned down the volume: "What about my folks?" she said.
I had her at last! It was, then, not the first time she had considered her mother, her father, her three sisters, and all those Italian relatives. The fact was not lost on me that she had parried yet another question of mine with a question of hers.
"How do they feel about your going away?" I persisted.
When she understood I was not going to stop until I had an answer, she said, "They don't know anything about it."
I tried not to look surprised. "I see," I said, as I let this sink in. "Well, I guess you can look upon it as a kind of elopement then? But the distance is so great between here and ..." I hesitated again.
"Now it's an elopement. Not an adventure any more, but an elopement," she said. "Why do you insist on dramatizing it?" She smiled. I knew her well enough to realize that beneath her offhand dismissal lay a fierce reluctance to say anything further about Tej, about going away with him, about leaving everything here—family, country, years of study, all kinds of human investments that had nothing to do with money or time.
"If it's not an elopement," I said, "then what will it be?"
I don't think she heard my question. And it is always here that I stop (as she did, to look out the plate glass window) and try to go on with what happened next. I shall try to conjure it up once more. She's looking out the window. I follow her gaze out toward the fog-wrapped city across the Bay, with the streets of Berkeley spilling away down the hills onto the waterfront, the day sunny this side, the Campanile striking the hour, unreal blue sky, theatrical clouds.
It's almost fall, and I know without seeing it that Faculty Glade it still all green grass, minus the pink-and-white daisies now, and that Strawberry Creek still cuts its way, as it has to, through the verdure. The air is chilly outside, but not cold, and I know without feeling it that a smart breeze is whipping the foliage of the eucalyptus trees down by the Forestry Building. Somewhere outside Sather Gate undergraduates are waiting to meet friends between classes or stopping to read the posters, sharing space on the steps of Wheeler Hall with the Great Danes from the fraternity houses, or just sitting in the sun.
None of these everyday sights could be the cause of Helen's sudden and complete attention. Whom or what had she seen outside? Under the force of her concentration, all else hung suspended. When I turned around again, she was already standing up, gathering her things, slinging the strap of her camera bag over her shoulder, ready to go. For an instant, I had the irrational notion that she had been appropriated, taken over, possessed, so that, although the young woman in front of me looked like Helen, she was really somebody else. The illusion passed as quickly as it came.
"What will it be?" I asked again.
"Nothing. I don't know," she said. "In any case, you're dead wrong, like everybody else." She got up. "I've got to go now," she said, and hurried away.
It might have been her final goodbye, but it wasn't. It doesn't seem to me that she has ever really taken her leave, even after years of my not hearing from her. I have one of her letters in front of me. It's one I picked up from the pile just now, and it happens to be one I got from her early on. It's dated June 26, 1950.
"Dear Carol," it says, in the timeless voice that memory confers on the writers of old letters rediscovered, "Here I am ..."
Excerpted from HOME TO INDIA by Jacquelin Singh. Copyright © 1997 by Jacquelin Singh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.