It was 5:30 am. I was jet lagged and roaming in the dark. Should I use this time to unpack my suitcase, which was lazily resting against the back of the living room couch? I went into the kitchen and made myself a cold smoked cheddar sandwich and then sat cross legged in front of the suitcase, staring at it as I took a big bite.
The flight home had been long with a quick plane change at Amsterdam. I had dashed out and purchased some colorful wooden tulips at Schiphol airport. I rotated my shoulders, they were sore. The last two days of the spring semester, right up to the point till I had boarded the plane, had been extremely strenuous. I felt my arms. I had built some muscle between packing my stuff and moving all the boxes into the basement. I smiled, remembering how I had wet my underwear while lifting the carton loaded with books. Was it common for women to ejaculate during heavy lifting? I made a mental note to check that up on the internet.
I heard the mynahs (starling) chirp. Morning must be approaching. Looking up at the window, I saw pink streaks emerge across the vacant sky. I took one last bite, dusted the crumbs of my hands and opened up the suitcase. Out came the clothes—new and dirty, the shoes—heels, sneakers, ballet flats, boots, yes boots that had been very useful to fight off the eight inches of snow that covered Knox’s campus in Galesburg. A bag loaded with chocolates and cheeses made its appearance and I went to dump it in the refrigerator.
I came back to find my half awake mother staring confusedly at the remaining contents in my suitcase. “Hi ma”, I cheerfully exhaled but she didn’t respond. She was too busy squinting. ”Can you get me my glasses Shalu?” she asked. Sure I said, as I went towards her bedroom, wondering what could have caught her attention so intensely. I only had undergarments left to unpack. By the time I found her spectacles, she didn’t need them. She was sitting on the floor holding an opened box of tampons she had plucked out from amongst the thongs and pushup bras strewn about.
Oh that! I said to myself as I bit my upper lip.
“Are you having sex?” she whispered suddenly.
“No” I lied instantly.
“Because only married women use tampons. Young girls should not. It is very shameful if we sent you to America and instead of studying you are having sex.”
“Just relax mom, Ayesha asked me to carry them for her sister, who is married.” I lied again. She smiled hesitatingly, obviously relieved and turned to me and asked, “Are you still a good girl?” I blurted out a yes too fast.
She patted me on the back as she continued to whisper, “Please don’t have sex with anyone until you are married”, and then she leaned over even closer and added, “And even if you do, don’t make the mistake of telling anyone. Not even your best friend, not even Ayesha, because one day she will use it against you.”
I just nodded so as not to encourage this topic of conversation, but really, why was premarital sex such a crime to my mother? “Your grades are good and soon you will get your degree. You have a good education and good health and soon you will get a good job and find a good husband. But if you want to find a really good husband, then you must have a good reputation in society.”
I was getting increasingly amused by her obsession with “everything good” that I decided to be a bit of a saucy tart. “What does a good reputation mean ma?” Happy that she could impart wisdom to me, she stroked my hair and said, “It means that people in society—your neighbors, your relatives and your friends—all can expect you to behave with good manners and make good choices. That is how a person’s reputation gets formed.”
“If you sleep around” she said as she inspected one tampon closely, “you will find you have many boyfriends but none of them will want to marry you. Is that what you want?” Taking a deep breath she concluded her sermon, “All your father and I want for you is a good husband from a good family.”
She got up to go to the kitchen and make her morning cup of tea. “Would you say dad came from a good family?” I asked cheekily. She was silent as she put the water on the boil, tossing some ginger and cardamom into the pot. She needed a few minutes to form a politically correct answer.
“Well your grandfather, Gogia Pasha, was a famous magician.”
“But you also said he was an alcoholic, and that two of dad’s brothers were mentally unwell, so how is that good?”
“Your father is a good person” she shot back defensively, “the character of the boy you marry should be good. That is what is most important.”
“What about your family mom? Would you say you came from a good family?”
“Of course! We are Brahmins and everyone in my family has a masters degree.”
“But didn’t your father beat your mother and didn’t she leave him and separate? You said that your whole life you were ashamed that your parents were divorced and that you grew up with very little money…”
My mother’s face turned red and her nostril’s flared. I tried to reason, “All I am trying to understand is what makes one family good and another not when all families have their sunshine moments and their dark secrets…”
She had lost interest in this conversation (or any conversation that challenged social norms). My dad woke up and walked towards us. She smiled at him and quickly chucked the tampons into the suitcase and shut it, probably to save me from embarrassment.
“Good morning Shalu” dad said as he hugged me. “Welcome back! Did you find the driver easily at the airport?” I nodded smiling. Our maid woke up and made me and dad some green tea. “So how was school” he asked as we both sat with our legs stretched out in the tropical sun.
“It was good”, I winked. “I really enjoyed my art appreciation class…”
“Art? Why are you studying art” my mother interrupted, “that isn’t a good subject! What happened to economics?”
“Geeta let her finish talking”, my dad gently chided my mother, “so tell me beta, what other classes did you take this semester?”
“French, macroeconomics, political geography and marketing…”
“Sounds good” dad said and then got lost reading the several morning papers that were on his tray.
“Did you hear about the Chandok’s daughter” my mom asked out loud.
“No, what happened to her” dad responded without looking up from the paper.
“She just graduated and got engaged to this boy whom she had met in college. The Chandok’s thought he was from a really good family but two days ago Kimaya walked in on him kissing some English blond girl in his hotel room, and now they have called off the engagement.”
“All boys are like that Geeta, they want to have a fling with a blond girl before they settle down…”
“But Kimaya was a good girl; she didn’t deserve this after she got engaged to him…”
Blond girl versus good girl, hmm—my parent’s theories were very amusing. “Mom, why do you say Kimaya was a good girl?”
“She always wished all her mother’s friends at parties. She didn’t avoid them like you do.” I would have said something to defend myself but I didn’t want to break her train of thought. “She always dressed up very nicely and I think she graduated at the top of her class. This boy was her first boyfriend.” My mother sipped her tea as she looked at me, very satisfied with her answer.
I didn’t want to ruin her good impression of Kimaya or ruin this good day by telling her that Kimaya had an abortion last semester. Rumor has it that she had gotten pregnant by an African-American football player at her university. She had only started dating this loser Amar on the rebound as he had helped tutor her through Calculus last semester, which she was badly failing.
And as for me, yes I was having sex and using tampons. I was playing around with many subject choices and was finding economics hard and boring. I didn’t avoid my mother’s friends; I only excused myself when they started to ask prying questions. I was perhaps, not making a very good impression, but I was having a good time.
As I leaned forward to grab a copy of the Times of India, I quickly pulled down my t-shirt. I didn’t want any of my parents seeing my butterfly tattoo right above my butt crack. My mother would only have two words to say.