The clock blinked 3:15 AM. Krishna felt a moment of panic, convinced he had overslept. Realizing it was Saturday, his spine eased back into the warm crevice of his orthopedic mattress. He turned to look at his wife, clothed in her customary white cotton sari skirt and extra modest blouse, sleeping soundly beside him. She had an armoire filled with nightgowns, all of which provided ample coverage from neck to wrists to ankles, but he would have none of that. His mother had always slept in her full sari; that was how it was done. Protecting time-worn traditions and habits of mind were the traits of a dependable man. In the early years of marriage, the sari had slipped off Kamla and encircled Krishna like a mummy, cutting off his blood circulation at various and sundry parts he cared not to recall. Since then, tradition had undergone a minor undressing from full sari to choli and petticoat, but Krishna held firm to the view that a traditionalist was a dependable man. A man you could set your clock by. A man who would never miss a meeting or let a passing fancy steer him off course. A man of moral fiber who would never let a beautiful woman or wayward daydream distract him.
Following the essential signposts of life with fortitude of mind, body, and spirit—this was Krishna’s personal interpretation of dharma. Righteous path leading to righteous action had been slightly tweaked, like the sari tradition, to the customized credo: Predictable paths avoid the pitfalls of a wrong turn. His carefully charted route to work was a case in point. The winding road that hugged the Halifax Harbour and all too often disappeared behind a pall of thick Atlantic fog made for treacherous conditions for his daily drive to work. But over the years, Krishna had mapped out every ditch the car might slip into, every gas station to which the car might be towed. In the event of an emergency, forethought was key. His daughter Meena thought otherwise. She had tried to foist one of those unnecessarily complicated cell phone devices on him, with the underlying insinuation that abbu-ji should get with the times. That’s the trouble with this generation. They let some battery-driven gadget determine their fate, instead of being the captain of their own ships.
A Captain also knew when and where to delegate responsibility. Krishna was particularly pleased with the way he handled the business of Meena’s marriage. On this count, he had surrendered control entirely over to his wife. He had trusted Kamla to be rigorous in her scrutiny of their prospective son-in-law’s family, to make as many long distance calls deemed necessary, noting that Bell Canada’s recent reduction of its long distance rates was one of many auspicious signs steering them towards a suitable match for their second-born. His part merely consisted of pressing Kamla to set the family network in motion, make the necessary inquiries of kith and kin, and keenly dissect, limb for limb, the various branches of the prospective groom’s genealogical tree (one could not be too careful these days). Of course, it was for him to give the final approval but it was not for him to pry into the private affairs of others. That was a woman’s job. Indeed, Kamla’s innate gift for detecting a milk carton’s shelf-life before it soured was a transferrable skill that helped her tease out even the slightest whiff of scandal before it traveled, like a scurrilous stowaway, on an Air India flight bound for eastern Canada.
The Parmars! Krishna’s heart skipped a beat. They were scheduled to arrive from Delhi! The time had finally come to meet his future son-in-law, Govind Parmar. More importantly, once the formalities were over, he would have to get down to the brass tacks of the wedding arrangements with Govind’s father, Anup. It was little wonder he couldn’t sleep.
Krishna felt Kamla shift under the covers before settling on her back with an unladylike snort. Resentful that she could sleep so peacefully on the eve of such an historic family event, Krishna felt inclined to wake her up. Then he remembered how much pressure his poor wife had been under in preparation for this auspicious day. For months on end, she had made it her full-time occupation to find the perfect match for their second-born. Poor dear. She needed a good night’s sleep more than he did.
After all this planning, there was no doubt that Meena’s marriage would be a welcome relief in more ways than one. If truth be told, their daughter was a little spoiled. In this regard, Krishna had anticipated at least a modicum of resistance from Meena. She could have rejected the proposition outright. At the very least, she could have made the process of whittling down a short-list of suitable matches tiresome and difficult, or demanded far more input into the whole affair. Expecting some level of fuss and drama, he was prepared to make all manner of fatherly speeches about a woman’s familial obligations which, in ranked order, included upholding sacred traditions, honoring the esteemed Gupta name, emulating a mother’s piety, serving her husband with devotion, and so on. It was the longest speech he had ever imagined giving his daughter, and he prepared for it with a certain parental zeal. But Meena’s uncomplaining acquiescence to it all made his carefully chosen words somewhat redundant—so much so that he felt cheated out of the small but integral role he saw himself playing in this particular tradition: the honorable but stern father steering his beloved child away from the abyss of rebellion, also known as the filth and frivolity of Amrika.
Not that he would have been utterly distraught if Meena subscribed to the prevalent belief, in these parts, that rebellion was the hallmark of independence. Pragmatism also required a certain degree of realism, as the sari episode had forced him to concede. Since his children’s entry to teen-hood, he had prepared himself for the price he might have to pay for raising them in the West. He had already witnessed many of his friends’ children metamorphose into alien beings. The Mishras and the Lalls, acquaintances in Chicago and Toronto, had gone so far as accepting gora husbands for their girls. Heck, even Shib Nath—his dear old college friend from Fiji who moved to Canberra after the ’87 coup and thought of himself as nothing less than Rama-in-exile—had succumbed to these cultural mutations in the form of his daughter Unnita’s marriage to some professor at Wollongong University.
Imagine having a degree from a university called Wollongong! One might as well have a BA from Kangaroo College! But Shib Nath had heartily approved of both the relationship and his son-in-law’s credentials, which apparently carried a considerable amount of prestige in Australia. “These are modern times, Krishna, my friend,” he said. “And these new ferenghis aren’t like the old ones. They’re more Indian than the NRIs. Look at my Unnita’s husband, Brian. We were willing to have a Christian wedding, but he virtually begged for a traditional Hindu wedding. He speaks Hindi now and he’s a proper sahib when he comes for supper. Calls his mother-in-law Ammi, for god’s sake! Thinks she’s some sort of culinary wizard, turning the world’s ugliest vegetables into what he calls haute cuisine!”
Back then, Krishna thought that the Fijian island natives had cannibalized his friend’s brain, but now he wasn’t so sure. He could not and would not admit this to Kamla—and he would rather plunge into the Atlantic depths before admitting this to his children—but a small part of him was disappointed that one of his offspring had not fallen in love with a local. The idea had a certain appeal.
There was John Miller’s son Bradley, for example. John, the Regional Manager of his firm’s Maritime division, had groomed his son well; the young man had a brilliant career ahead of him. For one, he made a fortune investing in that Canadian software company’s stocks when it was no more than a pipe dream. His son’s prescient investment gave John bragging rights for months on end. Much to his consternation, Krishna’s own son Javinder—whom everyone had taken to calling Jimmy for short, including Krishna—had decided to forego investing in Canada altogether. “How many times to tell you, abbu,” he defended himself, “I left because there’s zero opportunity there. Why should I have faith in a market that doesn’t even value the price of its own education system? Besides, the future’s in Asia.” Krishna always felt the sting of such comments. He was sure they were his son’s thinly veiled condemnation of Krishna’s decision to settle north instead of south of the border. But, as it happened, Jimmy forfeited both Canada and the US, and headed East! Imagine, after everything he had sacrificed to raise his children in the West!
He had worked hard to establish himself within the ranks of the John Millers of this world. And in ways that his son, who had grown up tallying hockey scores as capably as cricket innings, could never have imagined. Yet here he was: a few years from retirement, comfortably settled in a mortgage-free, five-bedroom, four-bathroom property with a not-too-shabby view of the Halifax Harbour, a loyal wife of thirty-two years by his side who wanted for nothing, a soon-to-be respectably married daughter, and in keeping with the dictates of natural law, a future progeny of genetically perfect grandchildren to spoil rotten. In short, they were living the Dream.
Still, there were gaps, inconsistencies, paradoxes. Minor details, surely. But they persisted like a canker, concealed but festering. For one, he liked to think that said achievements had translated into greater acceptance by his colleagues and peers. As things stood, he and his Canadian associates stayed at a respectfully cordial arm’s length, even after all these years. They would fraternize at office gatherings, perhaps exchange a few pleasantries here and there, and even host the odd cocktail party, but outside these fleeting engagements he always felt like an outsider. He had even taken to drinking “beer on tap” with them at the more informal pub luncheons, though surely something that resembled a bodily fluid was unfit for consumption. And when absolutely necessary, he forced down a whiskey neat, thinking that maybe it was his indifference to alcohol in a culture that viewed the capacity for drink as a sign of manliness that kept him the perennial outcast. He also made sure he kept a well-stocked bar of his own, complete with an upscale selection of the finest liquor that money could buy; a collection of crystal decanters he had given Kamla, much to her chagrin, as a fifteenth wedding anniversary gift; and an eclectic display of wine bottle stoppers purchased at a recent holiday excursion to Niagara-on-the-Lake. He never drank any of that poison, but was very proud of his discerningly stocked gentleman’s bar, dusting the bottles when he was at loose ends on the weekends and reading up on the latest innovations at the world’s finest distilleries for the purposes of friendly repartee at the next Christmas party.
Now if someone like John’s son Bradley had shown even the slightest interest in Meena, he and John would have something real to connect them. For once the Millers would get to see him on his own turf, as the man of the house, the Pillar, the Post, the Pioneer. After one of Kamla’s most scrumptious feasts, the likes of which the Millers couldn’t pull off even with the arsenal of a full catering service, he and John would retire to the basement, whiskey in hand, where Krishna kept all his cricket memorabilia. Being an avid sportsman himself, John would appreciate the fact that Krishna had been something of a champion bowler back in the day. In reciprocal admiration, he would agree to accompany John on those dreadful boating expeditions he droned on about. To Krisha’s utter annoyance, John had come to think of himself as something of a local celebrity, what with the bronze cup he and his son had won at the Halifax Regatta, and because he had been invited to sail the Bluenose II, the racing schooner that was Nova Scotia’s claim to fame. Krishna was a man who liked to feel the solidity and surety of the ground beneath his feet at all times, so nothing was more unbearable to him than John’s tiresome sailing yarns.
Still, he would readily give up dry land for a day if it meant the happy fusion of the Commonwealth nations symbolized by the union of his Meena and John’s Bradley. He imagined them all together, savoring a lobster bisque luncheon on the expansive cedar deck of John’s St. Margaret’s Bay home, its immaculate lawn sloping down into a private jetty. He, Jimmy, John, and Bradley would go out for a sail on the Matthew II (so named after John’s worship of anything related to John Cabot). Kamla and John’s wife, Charlotte, would dote over the grandkids while Meena entertained her sister-in-law Debby with lighthearted anecdotes of married life with Bradley. On the men’s return from a vigorous and most likely nauseating day at sea, Charlotte would have a hearty earthenware mug of hot apple cider awaiting them; though, for Krishna, just one of Charlotte’s winsome smiles would be a sufficient antidote to the biting Atlantic wind.
On their first and thus far only invitation to the Millers’ perfectly landscaped South Shore residence, Krishna had been quite taken by Charlotte. It was as if she had stepped out of a Kennedy family photo in the pages of one of those Town and Country magazines that Kamla kept in the powder room. Her wispy flaxen hair was a bit short for his liking, but he was certain it would be soft and light to the touch. Her cool grey eyes were inflected with just the subtlest speckles of amber, like hints of gold glimmering under a maritime miner’s torchlight. Her skin seemed almost translucent, her lips the lightest shade of pink he had ever seen, and rarely adorned with anything but a smudge of balm to fend off the chapped lips and cold sores that were so common an affliction in the North. Her athletic figure betrayed not even a millimeter of fat or the various other portly signs of an aging body, and she moved lithely about, not a day older than her image in the wedding photo, which he had lingered over perhaps a minute too long.
Yes, he had to confess: Charlotte was a woman who made him tongue-tied, like a schoolboy smitten with his teacher or his older sister’s best friend, a thing of loveliness to be furtively admired. An otherworldly creature passing in and out of one’s orbit like Draupadi gliding through the marbled halls of Hastinapur, averting the covetous gaze of Dushasana.
Since Krishna could not and would not liken himself to the wretched Dushasana, his fantasy doubled back to Meena and Bradley. In the more acceptable context of the next generation—albeit the oblivious benefactors of their trail-blazing parents—Krishna pictured himself in the role of the proudly suited-booted father, walking his lace-clad daughter down the aisle of some rustic Episcopalian church overlooking Mahone Bay. In the ethereal fragments of a picture-perfect vignette, Charlotte would wear a gold-embroidered sari, hand-picked not only as a symbol of their children’s cross-cultural union, but also as a wistful reminder that hers was not a generation permitted the freedom to bridge such daunting chasms of culture.
Krishna’s fantasy was abruptly derailed by the recollection that Bradley had shown little more than complete indifference to the Guptas on the one or two brief occasions their paths had crossed. And as for Jimmy, there would be no Debby Millers to welcome into the Gupta fold either. Jimmy had shown little interest in dating from high school all the way through university. Perhaps now that his son was a bachelor living the high life in Shanghai, he would approach the dating scene with the gusto of his increasingly worldly appetites. But Krishna didn’t expect any unsteady passions from his Jimmy. He was a chip off the old block, as family and friends loved to remind him. In fact, on his last trip home he informed his mother that he would gladly recruit her services to find him a “nice girl” when the time was right. He had it all worked out, down to the ideal weight he wished to reach (his “worldly appetites” seemed to be fixated on fried dumplings) and the gated community in which he intended to purchase his first piece of Asian real estate. And even Krishna couldn’t deny the fact that Jimmy’s migration east was little different than Krishna’s migration west. The latitude and longitude had shifted, as had the physics of luggage, but the motivations and carefully calculated risks were one and the same.
Krishna could not help but think that unlike her brother, who had inherited his father’s cosmically inspired pragmatism, the only thing that kept his daughter from rebellion was a sheer lack of imagination. Even as a child she rejected jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, paint and paper, playdough, and all the other million and one things that infants find absorbing. Meena gravitated instead to the kind of toys that served no other purpose than to make noise—a cow’s moo, a baby’s cry, a train’s whistle—until she tired of them and demanded new lights, new sounds. It was no surprise that she insisted on giving him gadgets for his birthdays, which ended up in the graveyard of his technical ineptitude. In short, Meena took after her mother in both life and looks.
Krishna turned to look at his wife, sleeping soundly beside him. Give that woman a stump for a pillow and she’ll be out like a light. How mortified he was on the day she had done just that—fallen asleep on Charlotte’s deck chair while he was taken on a tour of the grounds. No wonder they were never invited back after that first visit. Kamla shifted over to her right side, and his wife’s sudden movement dislodged the bed covers, leaving Krishna exposed with naught but his flannel pajamas to keep him warm. Krishna tried, ever so gently, to reclaim his share of the covers, but they were securely wedged under his torpid wife. He gave the covers a harder pull but they remained stubbornly unyielding. Reconciling himself to the fact that Kamla couldn’t possibly lie on the same side for the rest of the night, he curled himself into a fetal position and forced his eyes shut. He had a big day ahead of him. The Parmars . . . arriving . . . Kamla . . . arrangements . . . for Meena . . . like mother . . . like daughter . . . poor dear . . . wedding to plan . . . brass tacks . . . gold . . . church . . . picture . . . perfect . . . Charlotte . . .
Feeling his extremities chill, he pulled . . .
“Sri Krishna!” a woman’s voice cries out.
A sinister laugh follows on its heels, prompting Krishna to look upon the scene. There, horror of horrors, is Dushasana undressing the hapless Draupadi with his covetous gaze.
“Bhagwan!” The gentle voice echoes through the empty chamber of the marbled dome.
Krishna looks again. This time he sees Draupadi in the form of a terrified Charlotte Miller, standing supplicant before him. And there stands Dushasana, unraveling yard by ever diminishing yard of Charlotte’s gold-spun sari, its sinuous folds cascading to the palace floor.
Krishna rubs his all-seeing eyes. What fresh hell is this? For Dushasana has taken the form of the deck shoe-clad figure of John Miller, now hoisting Charlotte’s garment as if it were a wayward sail on the Matthew II.
Seeing the beatific Charlotte in the clutches of this blue-nosed upstart, Krishna pries open the dome and casts a blinding light over the odious Regional Manager. John’s grip loosens just long enough for Krishna to enrobe his favorite devotee with a limitless garment. The more John pulls, the more gold-spun silk Charlotte receives from on High.
John pulls and pulls. He pulls with the ferocity of a mortal fighting for his life against the tempest of an angered God. He pulls and pulls till he grows weary of a battle of endurance he surely cannot win against the liberating power of Charlotte’s awesome protector.
When John finally falls to the floor, a sad little puddle of humiliation and defeat, Charlotte stands majestically robed in a sari spun from a thousand cocoons of the rarest silkworm, so redolent with gratitude that it momentarily outshines the powerful deity’s immanent radiance.
Krishna is overcome by Charlotte’s outstretched arms, her flaxen hair now flowing, much to his liking, down her arched back like a gabardine sail at sunset. He turns away in the effort to banish the tides of desire welling in his heart. . . and loins.
“Lord Krishna!” she calls. “My savior!”
Krishna is transfixed, struck dumb, a raincloud of ums and aahs, a fumbling mumbling torrent of speechlessness.
“Krishna, my Lord,” Charlotte endures, “I owe you the debt of a thousand lives!”
Charlotte throws herself prostrate onto the palace floor.
Now it is Krishna who feels like a boat capsized in a roaring sea. He summons the strength of a thousand gods not to grab hold of the sari, fluttering in the wind like a sailor’s lifeline. To pull on the garment which, only moments before, he had used to protect this fair maiden.
“Man the sails,” he hears a voice. Could it be John’s? Feeling himself skirting the spiraling vortex of desire, he heeds the command and hoists the sail. He pulls and pulls and pulls until—
Charlotte responds in kind. She elevates herself onto the balls of her feet like a pirouetting ballerina, unraveling herself from the folds of garment, which begin to vanish like ocean spray in the morning sun.
Krishna pulls and Charlotte spins . . . and Krishna pulls and Charlotte spins . . . she spins and spins and spins . . .
The faster she spins the harder Krishna pulls, freeing her from the suffocating folds of the wretched garment.
Setting his ship back on course, Krishna offers a Captain’s promise: “I’ll give you safe passage, dear Charlotte, my bhakti—”
“Arré! Let go!” Kamla squeals, finding Krishna tugging at her choli.
Krishna pulls . . .
“Mat karo, na!” Kamla yelps. “You were having a bad dream or what!”
Krishna opens one eye to see Kamla getting out of bed in exasperation, the covers bunched up in an unruly mound in the middle of the mattress.
“And why were you shouting bhakti this and ahoy that!” Kamla says, reaching for her tartan house robe.
Krishna looks on guiltily as his wife makes her way to the bathroom. His peripheral vision catches the time: 7:22 AM.
Krishna sits up with a jolt, the image of a half-clad Charlotte, stripped down to petticoat and choli, fused with the blinking numbers of the digital clock. Fumbling under the bed for his Dr. Scholl’s slippers, he tries to suppress what he deems the illicit meanderings of a blasphemer, or worse: the unforgivable defilement of the Gentleman’s Code! He makes a note-to-self to do a special puja later that morning, after shaving and showering, and then once again, before leaving for the airport to fetch the Parmars.
He vows to sit his daughter down for another fatherly speech, if not on the subject of rebellious acts, then at least on the subject of his future progeny. Meena has to know that a childless marriage is a violation of the sacred union between man and wife. There would be none of this “testing the waters” of marriage before starting a family, as was the latest trend. This would be an unacceptable deviation from the path.
Besides, a father had the right to expect some level of return for the million and one sacrifices he had made. Oceans had been crossed, after all.
A father had the right to dream.
Mariam Pirbhai is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. Her short stories have appeared in several collections, including the South Asian Review’s recent special issue devoted to Pakistani creative writing in English. In the moments that she is not trying to convince students to read good books, she is furiously trying to complete what she hopes will be her own good book of short fiction.