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Vol. 4, No. 1

The Blooming Season for Cacti
by Chitra Divakaruni

~

"You won't be happy working for me, not for long," says Kishan Malik in his resigned, matter-of-fact voice. "You're too educated, too smart, I can see it in your face."
    What had I expected him to look like? When my brother told me of his empire of restaurants and groceries and apartment buildings, I'd pictured someone like Seth Ramchand back home, corpulent in an overstarched Nehru jacket, smoking a cheroot, flashing a diamond on every finger. Or, given the American context, maybe a suave Armani-clad villain. (Who but a villain could so easily rake in the millions that steadily eluded my brother?) Bodyguards would hover in the background as he stepped out, dark-glassed, from his limousine. But here he is, a trim man, not too tall, with a bland blue department-store shirt and a cautious haircut. (He does own a limousine, but I will not learn this fact until much later.) His mustache is neat and nondescript. I've seen a thousand mustaches like that on the streets of Bombay.
    "Too pretty also," says Malik, and suddenly there's a look in his eye that's neither bland nor cautious.

 

~

When I announced my plans for leaving Dallas, my brother had tried his best to stop me. He explained how dangerous it was, a girl traveling America alone. Dangerous was a word my brother liked to use. In this he was like all men who have never experienced its reality firsthand. He cajoled and pleaded, said he'd pay for me to take classes at the local community college. He tried damage containment. "Why does it have to be California? Go to the East Coast instead, if it's excitement you want. I have friends in New Jersey, solid family men, they'll take you in, treat you like a sister."
    At last he gave me Malik's address in Sacramento. He and my brother had gone to college together briefly, before Malik dropped out to start his first restaurant. Now they stayed desultorily in touch, sending each other Diwali cards, informing each other of the births of children or changes of address.
    My brother kept at me until I said, "Very well," I would go to Sacramento rather than Los Angeles, like I wanted. Even then he wasn't happy.
    "Leaving us like this to live by yourself--Ma would have been most upset if she knew," he said at the bus station, handing me my backpack with a sigh. "At least Malik will be there in case you run into trouble. But I do wish it were someone more suitable."
    I shoved past him without answering. My skin felt like someone had rubbed chili powder into it. What right did he have to speak of my mother? He wasn't the one who had searched for her through the rubble of streets filled with the stench of kerosene and burned flesh, calling her name. He wasn't the one who had gone to one police station after another with her photo, to be told by exhausted officials that there were too many missing people for them to keep track.
    "Maybe it's better if you don't find her," one inspector had told me finally.
    I kept my face turned away from the tinted bus window, from my brother's waving arm, the crease of worry between his brows, simple as a Crayola line drawn by a child. Still, I heard him through the engine's backfiring: "Watch out for Malik, Mira. He has a reputation."

 

~

I sit on one end of the sagging sofa that takes up most of our living room and watch Priya trying on makeup. She outlines her lips in sultry red and pouts into the mirror she is holding. She flutters her mascara-thickened lashes. She is practicing, because she is to be a wife soon. Her hair, unbraided now, falls in a sleek torrent over her left breast.
    Malik has given me a job at the restaurant--I am to be a cashier, morning shift until I'm ready to handle the heavier evening crowds--and a room in an apartment building he owns down the street. The rent, to be deducted from my pay, is reasonable. I can eat in the restaurant kitchen for free, if I wish.
    "He's a fair man, you have to admit," Priya says as she shifts her hips, trying to find a comfortable spot on the sofa. She wears a demure nightgown, high necked and long sleeved. Malik had called her into his office and told her that he was putting me in her apartment, since it had a second bedroom. I would have resented the intrusion, but she doesn't seem to mind. "Kind, even. Looking at him, you'd never believe the stories."
    She pauses, lips parted expectantly, until I ask what the stories are.
    I listen absently as she talks of under-the-table deals with warehouses, a partner who died too conveniently, huge bribes paid to Immigration so they won't look too closely at his employees' green cards. A manager who crossed him, and now he's gone, disappeared, even his family doesn't know where. And then there's the matter of his second wife.
    Priya's sleeves are pulled up above her elbow; her arms are smooth and dimpled as she raises them in a languorous stretch. She undoes the two top buttons of her gown--it is a warm night--and fans herself with an old copy of Good Housekeeping. The gold-brown gleam of her skin disturbs me. But why? Where I come from, it isn't unusual for women to undress in front of each other. Growing up I saw naked women many times, in the jenana changing rooms by the sea, and paid them no more attention than the rickety clothes-racks on which we threw our saris.
    "He saw her on a trip back to India--by chance, just like in the movies. He'd gone to his cousin's village for a wedding--and saw her in the crowd of guests. He liked her so much he married her that same week, didn't even ask for a dowry. Her parents were delighted, they knew how rich he was. But when she got here she found he was married already, even had kids and all. So she tried to kill herself. Slit her wrists, right here in this building--he'd put her on the top floor, in the best apartment. What a mess it was, ambulances, police, scared us all to death."
    A lot of women killed themselves after the Bombay riots. People were shocked, but not surprised. "For centuries of Indian women," the editor of a Hindu newspaper wrote, "it has been the honorable way." Remember Queen Padmini of olden times, who, along with her attendant women, threw herself into the fire rather than become her Muslim captor's concubine?
    In modern Bombay, death by hanging, a noose made from a sari, was the most common. Those who had connections and money bought sleeping pills. A few women swam out into the ocean.
    "She didn't die," Priya says, "luckily." Her voice wavers over the word, unsure if it's the right one. "Malik-ji must have felt terribly guilty, because he transferred the building to her name, yes, the whole thing, she owns it all, they say it's worth a million and a half, maybe more. I think he really loves her, but of course he can't divorce his first wife because of the children. Every Friday night he sends his limousine for her--oh, you must see it, I've heard it even has a TV and a fridge inside. And she'll come down the steps in a silk sari and diamonds, with tuberoses in her hair, beautiful, but in a sad kind of way, like Jaya Bhaduri in Silsila, did you ever see it, when she finds out that Amitabh has been having an affair with Rekha. You'll see when you meet her."
    My mother used to wear tuberoses in her hair. After my father died, she gave up the habit as a vanity. But she would place bowls of the slim, fragrant flowers on tables and windowsills, so that a visitor, coming in from the bustle of the Bombay streets, would be faced with cool whiteness. When I allow myself to think of it, I like to believe that she was one of the women who swam out to sea.
    "Just two more months left," Priya says as she begins to wipe off her makeup, "for my wedding. He's in India. My parents have set everything up. I've been saving all my money for the trousseau."
    My mother would have swum through the warm salt--we had done it many times together--her sari growing heavy with it. Maybe she would have loosened the cloth and let it drift from her so she could move more freely. The waves were silver, like flying fish. They bore her up, they sang in her ear. Behind her the charred mass of the city drifted away, terror and loss. Did she look back in the direction of our house?
    "How about you?" asks Priya. "What are you saving for?"
    I don't reply.
    "Never mind," says Priya kindly, patting my shoulder. Her lips glisten like wet plums. "Things will work out. You're so pretty, you're sure to find a husband soon."

 

~

The trouble started about a month after I arrived in Dallas, in my sister-in-law's house. But there were signs earlier. Hushed consultations in the corners of parties, telephone conversations that turned innocuous when I entered the room. Appraising glances. Little questions here and there, sharp as ant bites.
    "Mira dear, what did you think of Mr. Advani, the man in the maroon Adidas T-shirt who brought us drinks--most attentive, wasn't he?"
    "Don't you just love Ashok's jokes, Mira? The one about the sardarji today--oh, I laughed so much I thought I would burst."
    "He was most attentive," I would say. "That joke was hilarious." Then I would go to my room.
    On this day, just as we started dinner, my sister-in-law said, "Mira, you'll never guess what happened this afternoon. Arpan Basu called your brother at work. He wants to marry you!"
    She waited for excitement, delight, coy confusion at the very least--Arpan was eminently eligible; he owned his own company, something to do with bathroom cleaners.
    "I don't want to get married," I said.
    "Why not?" said my sister-in-law. "You think you're too good for him, for all our friends?"
    "Please--" said my brother.
    "Ask your sister," said my sister-in-law to my brother, "if she doesn't want to get married, what does she want? Now if she had a brilliant career, instead of a job selling pots and pans at Sears--"
    "Please," said my brother, putting his hand on her arm. "Don't you remember how it was for you when you first came here? Mira's been through a lot. She needs time."
    My sister-in-law bit her lip and was silent. When she spoke again, her voice was different. For just a moment it made me see that all our lives have depths that strangers can never chart. And that's what I was to her, a stranger.
    "Unfortunately," she said, "time doesn't wait for us women to get over our shocks. Today the men are buzzing around Mira. Tomorrow, who knows?"
    I watched them sitting across the table from me, a graying man, a woman tending toward plumpness. They meant well. How could I tell them that when I thought of a man touching me, I smelled the water tank: smoke and corroding metal. Below, the streets were filled with weeping, struggling women, their blouses ripped open, their bodies pinned down right there, on the pavement's dirt. The mob yelling encouragement.
    "A marriage might help her get over what happened," my sister-in-law said.

 

~

That night in my room in my brother's house I took down the atlas, opened it to the United States, to the word that gleamed for a moment at the edge of the continent: California.
    My mother and I had discussed California after my father's death, when we received the first of my brother's letters asking us to come stay with him. He included postcards from a trip they'd taken to Los Angeles: Hollywood, Universal Studios, a boardwalk somewhere with Ferris wheels against an unnaturally brilliant ocean. There was one card titled MOJAVE, all glinting rock and cactus.
    "If I were a traveling kind of woman," my mother had said, "I'd go one time, just to see California. They say there's still gold in the deserts there. They say the beaches are more beautiful than ours in Bombay."
    We'd caught each other's eye and laughed disbelievingly. Gold in desert sand? Beaches more beautiful than Bombay's?
    Now I closed the atlas and sank back against my pillow, it's small comfort. Small comforts were all I had: a softness beneath my head, a place to go next.
    All night as I slept for the last time in my brother's house, California was the brightness that pulsed through my narrow-tunneled veins, the contracting chambers of my heart.

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