Read an Excerpt
By Anjali Banerjee
Downtown PressCopyright © 2006 Anjali Banerjee
All right reserved.
Ma wants me to marry a young Indian Paul Newman, have five male babies, and make a million dollars for our sari shop, all before I turn twenty-eight, which gives me exactly three months.
She doesn't tell me in words, but I sense her old-fashioned longings, as I discern the yearnings of our customers, who pretend to peruse saris while they secretly dream of winning the lottery or the Miss Universe pageant.
I can't say if these dreams will come true. I don't have a crystal ball in my brain. I don't see dead people. The knowing is an occasional window into the hidden lives of nervous brides and proud parents, grandmothers, and rebellious teens. They all squeeze into Ma's boutique, Mystic Elegance, which is sandwiched between Northwest Karate and Cedarlake Outdoor Gear. Across from the shimmering lake, the shop is a mini-India just north of Seattle -- a soft world of silk and satin. We attract a range of clients, from Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to Indian immigrants who settled here for a variety of reasons -- to open businesses or work in the high-tech industry or academia.
Today, while Ma flits around in a turquoise organza sari, I charm a slim, young woman whokeeps eyeing the expensive silks. I'm comfortable here, nearly invisible in my glasses, jeans, and baggy kurti blouse, but Ma keeps glancing at me with an anxious look in her eye. She's been on a desperate quest through the Indian matrimonial ads, not for herself but for me. Her yearnings are in overdrive, as if she's holding a delicious secret.
I focus on the slim woman, who is wrapped in a traditional cotton sari, the embroidered endpiece, or pallu, drawn over her head. She holds a paper cup of Seattle's Best coffee, and her woolen coat is damp from the autumn rain.
"I've heard of you, Ms. Lakshmi," she says softly, her voice touched with a lilting accent. "I'm Rina. You must help -- I need a long sari that won't slip. It must stay on and cover everything." Her voice teeters along the edge of a cliff. A tiny diamond stud glitters like a lonely star on her nose.
"Why do you want to cover up?" I ask. "You're beautiful."
Pinpoints of color come to Rina's cheeks, and her long eyelashes flutter. "My mother-in-law's rules," she whispers.
"I see. She lives with you?" Her mother-in-law must come from a traditional community in India. Perhaps Rina is the wife of the second-born son, in which case exposing her head might be considered immodest.
"She arrived from India two weeks back. I've only just come here a year ago to join my husband. I hoped that his mother would not visit. I'm not accustomed to her rules, but what can I say to her? She shouts all the time, insists that I dress formally, even when I'm home. So I put on a sari. But when I go out . . ." She glances down at her clothes, then at my casual getup. A thread of purple longing drifts from her mind. She wants to tear off the sari and pull on jeans like mine and a comfortable kurti over her bra.
I take her hand, and her anxiety hums through me. "Don't be troubled," I say in my best soothing voice. "A sari is simply a length of fabric, pure and unstitched. You can do what you want with it. Remember that."
"My saris have minds of their own, always slipping! I'm constantly worrying that the pallu will fall off my head -- "
"I understand. I can help."
Rina's eyes grow bright with tears. "She comes in with tea in the mornings, doesn't even knock! And I must cover up or what a scolding I get -- "
"How long is your mother-in-law staying?"
"Only God knows. Perhaps forever."
"Can you talk to her? Explain how you feel? Maybe she'll relax her rules in America."
"I can only hope."
"You'll be fine. I'll show you the perfect sari." I want to rescue Rina. What if her mother-in-law never gives in?
"Thank you, Ms. Lakshmi." Her shoulders relax. "I must confess, I dislike saris. I never wore them much until she arrived. I mean no disrespect, but saris are so difficult to put on -- "
"I understand -- no need to explain." Rina's worries climb into me. When she ties her sari, how much skin will show? Will the petticoat be too tight? What if the sari falls off altogether?
I know just what to give her.
I search through a sea of saris until I find the perfect raspberry-colored georgette with a floral border. I unfold the sari on the counter. "Very modern," I say. "And this particular sari has a magical quality. It will not slip."
Her eyes light with hope as she runs the semitransparent fabric through her fingers. "It's so thin," she whispers in awe. "So delicate. How -- "
"Trust me, Rina. Try it on."
She glances around, as if her mother-in-law might be watching, then scurries into the dressing room. When she emerges, a vision in dark pink, the pallu covers her head as if glued there. "I can't imagine how you found this!" A tear slips down her cheek. "Thank you, Ms. Lakshmi. I'll be back again."
"Take care of yourself." I ring up her purchase at the cash register, and as I watch her leave, warmth settles in my heart. I'm helping women one sari at a time. Soon our shop will expand, maybe even become a franchise, and I'll fulfill Ma's dream and marry the perfect, supportive husband.
And yet I'm restless, as if a jumping bean is leaping around inside me. What if I end up like Rina, a nervous insomniac worrying about exposing too much skin? I'll make sure I marry a man whose traditions match those of my family. But what if I never find him? Love will be a long journey, the goddess said.
I have little time to obsess upon such problems, for Mrs. Dasgupta, elderly matriarch extraordinaire, strides in, shaking water from a black umbrella. She flings her silver pallu over her shoulder. She always wears a formal sari to our store. I've never seen her in western clothes.
Surrounded by customers, Ma motions to me to help. I press the palms of my hands together in a gesture of greeting. "Mrs. Dasgupta! I've put aside some lovely silks for you."
"I don't want silk today. Have you cotton?" she shrieks. Her thoughts blow past me like newspaper tumbling along a sidewalk. Blue cotton sari, sandalwood scented, pale as an anemic sky. A shadow-man smiling in the background.
I give her my best patient smile. "Our Bengali cottons are mainly white, but let me see what I can find."
"You always give me just the right sari. My friends say, 'Pia Dasgupta drives all this way for a bit of cloth?' But I tell them, Lakshmi Sen knows." She presses a gnarled finger to her forehead. "You always know what it is I am thinking."
"I'm a good guesser." I pull more saris from the shelf. "We have fine handloom cotton. One of a kind, each of them."
Mrs. Dasgupta snorts, fingering the fabric. "Gold border is also handwoven? What is this design?"
"Auspicious -- peacocks." I trace the handwoven threads. "These are long saris, won't show your ankles." Mrs. Dasgupta would consider a short sari lower class, hiked up to the knees so women can work in the fields.
"What is it I'm looking for? My nieces arrive from Mumbai tomorrow. We're having a family reunion -- "
"You still want cotton? What about festive Madrasi silk?"
"Far too bright. I'll not wear the silly garlands in my hair."
Despite the autumn chill, my armpits break out in a sweat. I pull out sari after sari in different colors and patterns.
Mrs. Dasgupta frowns. "What are you thinking with this red one, that I am just getting married? And this yellow -- I'm not rolling around at temple, and I'm not pregnant. Three boys are quite enough, and lucky I am not to have given birth to girls."
"I brought you red and yellow because you look so young and beautiful." I hold her hands, as brittle and parched as fallen leaves. It's a wonder her fingers can support all those ruby-studded rings. An image of forgotten youth breathes through her skin, races up my arm into my brain. She's maybe sixteen again, her hair blue-black, down to her knees. She's wrapped in a crimson wedding sari embedded with jewels and gold. She holds the translucent pallu coyly over her face, giggles at a slick young Indian groom with a bulbous nose. Then the shadow-man appears, her sari changes color to pale blue, and her longing for him hits me like a bowling ball.
I let go of her hand. Such specific images visit me rarely -- I've never sensed longing so acute, so raw.
"Well, you think I look young?" Her lined face softens, and she pats the white bun on the back of her head.
"Not a day over twenty-nine," I say.
"And my skin is looking so fair, nah? Must be the Light & Lovely cream. Have you got any more?"
I give her a tube from the glass case. In India, fair skin is highly prized. Our customers swear by Light & Lovely. You won't see an Indian in the Mango Bay Tanning Salon on the corner.
Mrs. Dasgupta pops the tube into her massive handbag. "Now I shall look even younger."
"And yet you hold the wisdom of the world." I'm busy searching for a sari in a crimson print, like her wedding sari.
"You're buttering me up. What about you? Twenty-seven and no sign of marriage. Your ma is quite concerned." The lines deepen around her mouth.
"She needn't worry." I glance at my mother, gliding around in translucent organza. She hides her secrets behind a wide, toothy smile. Golden bubbles of elation bounce around her -- bubbles that only I can see. What is she up to?
"Could you not find a good Indian husband when you lived in New York?" Mrs. Dasgupta says. "Your ma says you were there for three years, gallivanting around on Wall Street. There must be rich Bengali bachelors there, nah?"
"I wasn't on Wall Street. I worked at a small investment firm, and I was always busy." I can't tell her about my many disastrous dates with colleagues and high-powered executives, about my fruitless search for the perfect relationship.
Mrs. Dasgupta smacks her lips. "Young women these days, so independent. Career girls, nah? And now you're all the time working for your mother."
"The shop is a full-time job, I must admit." Maybe Mrs. Dasgupta forgot that I own half the store now, that I'm the one keeping the business afloat. Ma might be a whiz at buying fabrics, but she doesn't know a plus sign from a minus, payables from receivables.
"You must look for a groom full-time instead. Your ma has been saving your dowry money since you were choto. This small." Mrs. Dasgupta pats the air two feet above the ground. "Such is the case with girls. Their parents must pay for everything while the husband's family sits back and holds forth. They will want a huge feast, expensive jewels, a thousand wedding guests."
A guest list of a thousand is common for Bengali weddings. But what about a husband? I picture Ma's delighted face at my wedding, a grand Bengali affair to cement the relationship between the two extended families.
Maybe I'll have to go to India to find my match.
"Lakshmi?" Mrs. Dasgupta is tapping my arm. "Are you all right?"
"Sorry, I was just thinking about weddings." The goddess said love would test me, but how will I recognize love? Did I love Rijoy, the eccentric but handsome entomologist I met as an undergrad? He loved the University of Washington and still works there as a research fellow. We had fun, but he was most interested in studying insects. So I escaped to New York after graduating, where I finally met Sean, the suave American financier, fluent in five European languages. Despite my education and upbringing, my skin was still too brown for his blue-blooded family.
He wouldn't introduce me to his parents.
"You're considering only appropriate men from your community, I should hope," Mrs. Dasgupta is saying.
She means my family's community in Kolkata.
"Of course," I lie. She is hopelessly old world. The truth is I have to cast a wider net here. I've dated Americans, Italians, a German exchange student. But I suppose I've always known, deep in my Bengali subconscious, that I would eventually come full circle, home to family and tradition.
"Then you can be certain of the way the boy was brought up," she says. "That he is a good boy of good breeding."
"Of course. But it's difficult here -- "
"That's why you must go back to India."
"I go occasionally with Ma on her buying trips -- we've been looking everywhere, believe me. She's introduced me to family friends -- "
"Then you must look harder or your ma will become old and wrinkled and still her daughter will remain unmarried. And what would your father have thought?"
Don't bring Baba into this, I want to say. But I smile politely and pat Mrs. Dasgupta's arm. "Always watching out for us. How kind you are."
"And why you wear those ugly glasses and tie your hair back, I don't know. Men want a beautiful wife these days, nah? Never mind if she can't cook, clean, take care of the household."
"But I can cook and clean, Mrs. Dasgupta. I don't enjoy Bollywood-ing about."
"Your Ma taught you well, but men these days want a wife they can parade around."
"A good man will see past these glasses." I glance at Ma, who gives me a look pregnant with unspoken secrets, a new idea popping from her sleeves in those bright golden bubbles. Maybe she's found me the Bengali prince of her dreams, like Pooja's fiancé. Dipak is kind, handsome, and smart, and Pooja loves him. She is our slim part-time intern, all frizzy hair and elbows, off helping two teenage girls in the shawl section. In Dipak, she's found herself a perfect match.
Only Mr. Basu, Ma's right-hand man, remains unmarried at fifty. His engagement fell through when his fiancée ran off with a prince, and Mr. Basu never quite recovered. His bald head, round body, and slightly sour odor don't help his prospects much, and neither does his propensity to hide in the back room unpacking boxes.
The golden bubbles burst, and fragments of Ma's jumbled worries break through -- she's probably fretting about the leak under the bathroom sink.
Mrs. Dasgupta keeps chattering. " -- to see past your specs, a man needs to have X-ray vision like that Superb-Man, or what's it -- "
"Superman," I say. "Maybe I am waiting for a superhero." I let out a hollow giggle and push the glasses up on my nose. Nobody knows they're plain glass, not prescription lenses. The elastic hair band is so tight that it's yanking the ponytail from my scalp. I can't let my hair down in the shop, where brides-to-be wobble in nervously on cold feet. The goddess told me not to flaunt my beauty.
" -- and you've studied the Rabindrasangeet?" Mrs. Dasgupta goes on. "Lovely songs, nah? The perfect expression of Bengali culture."
"I love to play the piano, mainly classical," I tell her. Erudition and musical skills are coveted assets to make a prospective wife more attractive, but to me, music is a blissful escape from the longings of others.
"And the Kama Sutra?" Mrs. Dasgupta gives me a sly look.
"Mrs. Dasgupta! Really!"
She lowers her voice. "I call it Kama Sutra for your benefit, but I know it as Kamasutram, and it is about the science of love, not at all about what the Americans think! Only twenty percent is about you-know-what! Written by the great Vatsyayana. He was a celibate scholar, did you know?" She sounds reverent, as if his celibacy somehow made him an expert on sex.
"Fascinating, Mrs. Dasgupta." The blood heats my cheeks. I don't want to imagine her in exuberant youth, practicing all sixty-four positions of the Kama Sutra. With her shadow-man!
She's fingering the saris and thinking of him. Then the image of her husband's bulbous young nose returns, and she's at her wedding again. The ceremonial fire rises in bursts of flame, the crimson wedding sari burning away, leaving only the gold and jewels. She still wears those gems on her fingers, around her neck, in her earrings.
But who was the shadow-man? What about the blue sari? Did she wear it for him?
I know just what to give her!
"How about this new soft cerulean blue muslin?" I unfold the sari on the countertop, and the heady scent of handwoven cotton fills the air. "This wasn't mass produced. A master weaver made this -- it's very expensive."
"Oh, my goodness." She leans over the counter, and the pallu slips from her shoulder. Her thoughts burst with pulsing hearts of happiness. She flips the sari back over her shoulder. "How did you know about this blue?"
The door swings open, and the whole store goes silent. A damp breeze wafts in on a current of exquisite floral perfume. Even before I glance toward the door, I know someone important has arrived. A faint imprint of thoughts drifts toward me -- color and brightness, a swirling burst of rose petals.
Mrs. Dasgupta turns around, and her mouth drops open. "Oh, Shiva," she whispers and elbows me. "Is that who I think it is? Coming into your store? Oh, what I will tell my friends!"
If it weren't for the wall clock ticking away the hour, I would think time had stopped. Customers freeze, holding kameezes or earrings, mouths stop in the open position, words stick to the air. And still the rose petals swirl toward me.
Ma's on the move, hurrying to greet the new customer, a beautiful young woman in a wheelchair, her leg thrust forward in a cast. She's in black slacks, floral silk shirt, and a purple coat beaded with raindrops, the blustery storm rushing in around her. Shiny black hair cascades past her shoulders. Her perfect oval face shines, and her wide, long-lashed eyes exude divine beauty. Only this woman is not a goddess, she's a Bollywood actress, Asha Rao. I recognize her from Star magazine.
If I whip off the glasses and let down my hair, I'll look as radiant and beautiful as Asha. And that's precisely why I keep my head down, glasses on, my figure hidden beneath the baggy shirt. The last time I showed my beauty, the customer, a bride-to-be, fled the store in a huff and took her business elsewhere.
"Asha Rao," Mrs. Dasgupta says in a hysterical whisper. "In your store. Ah, Lakshmi. What is happening?" The blue sari slips from her fingers. Time moves again as customers stare at Asha. Their longings crowd in. Some want her to be their daughter, their sister. Some want to be a Bollywood actress like her. Some want to throw her off a cliff and steal her life. Some want to steal her fiancé, the jet-setting hotelier and actor Vijay Bharti -- hooked nose, big hair, and all. Asha's thoughts bounce out into the fray. She imagines dancing with Vijay in a Bollywood musical, rose petals fluttering down all around them. An entourage of fans bobs in the background.
I feel him before I see him -- a deep, reckless presence, a man who could jump from a plane at high altitude, brazenly sure that his parachute will open. In a tailored black suit, he's pushing Asha in the wheelchair. His blond hair is long, parted on the side, and he's tall, broad-shouldered, large as a quarterback. His eyes are the blue of hard-cut gems.
He steps across the threshold and the door slams, trapping a pocket of the storm inside with us. The rose petals fall away, sucked down an invisible drain into the cosmos. Someone pressed the mute button on everyone's secret thoughts, shut the window, closed the curtains.
I sense no longings, no thoughts, no deep desires from others. I'm blind to it all and gasping for breath, a goldfish flung from its bowl. In the space of a moment, my entire sixth sense collapses and disappears.
Copyright © 2006 by Anjali Banerjee
Excerpted from Invisible Lives by Anjali Banerjee Copyright © 2006 by Anjali Banerjee. Excerpted by permission.
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