What’s the time now? Shimonti, now Samantha (her American name), looked at her watch, half past one. Martha should have fed her baby by now. She had specifi- cally instructed Martha to feed Moni by one. But had she? Samantha was doubtful. Most likely she was watching some raunchy soap on Tv, or listening to music on her cell phone. She had not liked the attitude of that girl from the very begin- ning; some American ‘don’t-care’ type, always chewing gum, even while talking. But which American teenager was not like that? it wouldn’t have been any better if she had called some- one else.
Should she call home and check on Martha now? Samantha looked at the X-ray plates lying on her desk. One more left. it would take another ten minutes to write the reports.
it took less. Samantha reached for the phone. it kept on ringing. Samantha felt a surge of anger swelling up inside her. What was the girl doing? Gone to sleep or what?
The ringing stopped. Someone picked up the phone. There was the sound of shuffling and dragging. Why was she taking so much time to pick up the phone?
A soft voice was heard at the other end. Samantha’s heart jumped and melted at the same time. Her baby! Her little girl Monica! Saying hello to her on the phone!
“Baby? is it you?” Samantha asked fondly. “Ma?”
“Oh, baby! Where is your Martha Auntie?”
A silence was on the other end. Then Monica spoke again
in her sleepy baby voice.
“She is in the other room, talking with Tim.” “Tim?” Who
is Tim? She thought to herself.
it took a couple of seconds for Samantha to realize what
was going on. Blood shot to her head.
The girl had turned out to be wilder than she had thought.
“Will you please call Martha, baby?” Samantha told her kid. She heard Monica putting down the receiver on the table.
A surge of warmth flooded her heart.
The little girl, who only a while back could only say ‘Ma,’
was now answering the phone. But that girl! What is she do- ing? The warmth melted into rage as Samantha thought of the babysitter. Has that girl brought a boyfriend into the house?
“Yes, ma’am?” Martha’s voice was heard on the receiver.
Who else is there in the house! Samantha wanted to scream, but did not. it wouldn’t be right. These girls could get pretty nasty at times. if she yelled at her now, she could vent her wrath on her baby.
“Did you feed her, Martha?” she asked in a cold voice.
“i am preparing. it will be ready in a minute,” came the reply.
She was lying. Samantha took a deep breath to cool her nerves.
“i told you to feed her by one, didn’t i?”
“i will do it right now,” the girl replied in a gum-chewing voice.
Samantha hung up the phone. A feeling of helplessness overcame her. if only she could go to her baby now. She would call some other babysitter tomorrow. This one was totally ir- responsible. How dare she bring her boyfriend over? The thought made Samantha’s ears burn. The guy was still there and who knew what they were doing!
“Won’t you be coming with me for lunch?” Patty appeared at the door.
Samantha looked up at Patty Langford, her colleague and junior radiologist. Samantha was senior to this smiling blonde girl, both in age and designation, but that had not become a hurdle in their friendship. Patty was now a family friend, of- ten visiting their house. She was very fond of Monica, and had given her a big teddy at her birthday. Monica liked her, too.
“What’s the matter, Sam?” Patty asked. “You seem to be in an off mood.” Samantha told Patty about the babysitter.
“i need to look for another one.” She shook her head in indignation. “This one is too hot to handle!”
“Then better look for a granny!” Patty suggested with a chuckle. “Any young girl as a babysitter would bring her boy- friends into the house. i did when i sat kids during my high school vacations. No big deal.”
Samantha looked at Patty and sighed, showing her frus- tration. it was in these moments that she felt so helpless in this country. Everything was so different here, the mindset in particular. it would be no less than a scandal in Kolkata (Calcutta) – a young girl bringing a guy into the house! But here it was a way of life! Even the concept of babysitters was non- existent back in india. There was always someone in the house to look after the kids. And even if there was no one, the kids could be safely deposited with the neighbors who would take care of them until the parents returned, feeding the kids, bathing them, even pottying them and mostly free of cost, just for the sake of neighborly love. Here, even if Samantha called the girl next door to look after Monica for a couple of hours, the girl had to be paid handsomely.
“Are you coming or not?” Patty hastened.
Samantha rose reluctantly from her seat. Her appetite had gone. Her baby had not had her lunch on time, and Samantha did not feel like eating, but unwillingly went with Patty. This would be interesting and informative to talk to her about many things about this country.
Samantha hardly ordered any food at the cafeteria, and asked Patty to take whatever she liked. Then she initiated the conversation. “So you can’t trust any teenager to take care of your daughter?”
“Of course not.”
Samantha was disappointed. Patty said, “i know you wouldn’t like many things in this country - take me for in- stance. i loved one guy with all my heart but he fooled around with many girls. it is very common here. Of course, i had no choice but to abandon him. And unfortunately, long before, it had happened with my husband too. it is hard to trust anybody these days. i had to divorce him...which is very common as you might know.”
Samantha was puzzled. “We had a very small divorce rate in our country though many marriages are dull and without excitement. But we don’t get divorced so fast like you do. We don’t believe in it.”
“There are two sides to everything, Sam. Sometimes when i am alone, and waiting for the date; it is the downside. On the other hand, i can’t even imagine how you stay with one person day in, day out the rest of your life. How do you do that?”
“We are brought up that way. Even if the marriage isn’t so great, for the sake of the family, for the tradition of my coun- try and culture we stay in that marriage. i know you won’t understand. Security over love, i may say. Loyalty is very im- portant to our country’s people. i am sure two different mind- sets – Eastern and Western.”
“Two different cultures too, ha? it is very hard to under- stand, really. Women in your country compromise and sacri- fice a lot for the sake of the marriage. it is not like that here. By the way, how is your relationship with Amit now-a-days?”
“Well, yes. Even though he is not romantic at all, but he is always there for me. it is kind of a boring and indifferent re- lationship, and if he wasn’t always busy with his career, then may be, we could have a better life.” She complained.
“Oh, that’s not very good, Sam. i’m more concerned about Moni though. What are you going to do about the babysitter?” Patty was thoughtful.
“i’m thinking very carefully. i don’t know what exactly i’m going to do, yet. it is such an appalling issue for all women to decide what to do about their child or children if they have to work and i feel for all single mothers in your country who had to bring up their children all by themselves. ”
Samantha looked at her watch. “Oh, Patty, we better get back to work, otherwise we will be late to finish.”
“Okay. i will catch up with you later. i really enjoyed the conversation, very interesting!” Unwillingly they went back to work.
As soon as Samantha got home, she hugged Monica.
“i don’t like Martha,” complained Monica, the moment Martha was gone and she was alone with her mother.
“Why, baby?” Samantha asked.
“She doesn’t play with me. Always tells me to sit quiet. She scolded me!”
“Why did she scold you?”
“i dropped my ice cream on the floor. She didn’t give me another one.”
“i will get you one. Do you want another one now?” Samantha asked.
Monica nodded her head in eager consent.
Clinging on to her mother, she licked the cone with great satisfaction. Samantha caressed her hair with great fondness. This little thing was even more little not so long ago. On one cold February morning, she came into her life, lighting up her world. it had been a long wait, a pretty long one. Seven years to be precise. They had chosen not to have a baby for the first three years of marriage. Coming to America, they both got busy, first in their studies and then in their jobs, delay- ing the desire to be three farther and farther. And when they decided to have a baby, finally discarding their habits with contraceptives, they found they could not conceive. Samantha had developed complications and it took innumerable visits to clinics and specialists and many more nights and days of pain- ful longing until, finally, one day while in the kitchen her head spun and she emptied herself in the sink.
Much had changed by then. They had achieved things af- ter a long struggle - the American Dream. Amit had set up his own clinic in California, the land of movie stars, earning loads of money and a reputation as an orthopedic surgeon in the process. They had moved out of the one-room apartment in New York. They had endured lots of hardship and doubt over the years, but they were always confident that they would make it eventually.
Amit bought a big beautiful house in California with a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, and palm trees. She still remem- bered when Amit bought a BMW and asked her to drive. in her wildest dreams, she had never thought that she would drive an expensive car like this on her own. She realized she was now in America, the richest country on earth.
She took a job as a senior radiologist, climbing the ladder one step up from a junior radiologist, the designation she had when she joined the hospital after completing her MD.
America had given them all they had desired, but the one thing that could be achieved without migrating to a country, without much effort, only by a spell of love followed by a spell of pain, had eluded them for years and without it. All their achievements seemed meaningless. Getting back to bed after a hard day’s work followed by routine love-making, they lay side by side, sleepless in the dark, surrounded by a consuming hollowness. Waking up the next morning, they immersed themselves into more work to get rid of the feeling of helpless- ness only to make it more acute at the end of the day. Passing by happy, healthy American families full of life and children, in parks and in malls, her heart twitched in silent pain and she felt the dryness within her suffocating her very existence. Nothing seemed to help. The changing colors of the Grand Canyon seemed monochrome; the night spent under the tent at Yellowstone seemed no different from the nights spent un- der the shingled roof on Castle Hill Avenue. Life was fast be- coming a monotonous slog.
Then the moment arrived; she had conceived. The prayers kept at the Kali Temple at Baldwin and the blessing of the Mother Goddess of Light via the dry red hibiscus made ‘blessed’ at her stony feet had finally paid off. The heaviness of pregnan- cy, the pain of labor was almost pleasurable compared to the dry days of unbearable barrenness. Samantha came back from the hospital pressing the little ball of flesh close to her chest. Suddenly, life was colorful. Waking up in the middle of the night to the shrill cry and changing soiled diapers with sleep- filled eyes seemed no big deal at all. Little Monica had filled up the vacuum in their lives with her little heart-warming baby ways, evaporating the hollowness that had surrounded them before she came, cementing the disappointment that was be- ginning to appear. She babbled and crawled and walked and talked, in her crib, on the floor, in the bed, and on Samantha’s lap, filling up the emptiness of the house and of their souls, bringing them closer together like never before.
Days passed into months, months into years. The little ball had grown into a beautiful little girl who ran to hug her mom and dad, every time they returned home from work. She recit- ed rhymes that she had learned from her teachers and showed the dance moves that she learnt, too, and she cried helpless tears if her parents happened to fight, forcing them to call a truce as soon as they started. And after a meal in the evening on weekdays and anytime on Sundays and Saturdays, Monica sat on her mother’s lap and listened with eager ears and wide eyes to the stories she would tell of Sinbad the sailor and his adventures, stories of rajahs and their sandstone palaces in Rajasthan, of wise Birbal and Akbar the King, of Abdullah and Marjina and the 40 thieves on whom Marjina poured hot oil. And the stories of a magical land far, far away called Kolkata, where her mother once lived, where everything was good – the food and the people and their gentle, caring ways – her father, her uncle, her aunt, her sister, her grandfather, and her grandmother.
Samantha wanted to create a magical dream about india for her daughter where she spent the best time of her life. She told her the story about sleeping on the roof when it was very hot and humid, staring at the broad, beautiful sky lit up with the golden moon and how they would chat for hours and fall asleep with the night’s cool breeze. She also told Monica about the first rainstorm or monsoon of the season when the dry, dusty, and thirsty earth waited for it and the clothes left to dry on the roof would get wet and how Samantha would run out under the pretense of bringing the wet clothes back in because she wanted to be showered with the cool rain water.
“Why are you crying, Ma?” Monica would ask, wondering why her ma’s eyes would moisten every time she narrated the stories.
Now she was playing, sitting on the expensive carpeted floor of her new big house, her dolls and toys strewn around. Samantha watched with a peaceful heart. The fruit of her love was growing before her eyes. Life and its progress was a permutation of genes, circumstances, and luck, besides the power of will. And prayers. She could not speculate about her child’s willpower at such a tender age, but she had the genes of a sensitive mother and a hardworking, practical, intelli- gent, ambitious father. They would provide her with the best opportunities that a child could get in this country. Samantha was even ready to sacrifice everything for that. But what luck would bring for her little girl she did not know. The tragedies that had struck her family in the not-so-remote-past made her shudder in apprehension at times, but then, this was America, where despite the alienation, they were safer and they were richer – in money and in spirit. it was no less than good luck that her daughter was born in this land of opportunity and hope, where one can be the person he or she wished to be, as Amit had. She could only hope the best for her little Moni. And pray.
Amit returned to the bedroom, taking a look at his sleep- ing daughter. This had become a habit for both of them, al- ways checking up on the little one. Samantha had never liked the idea of their little daughter sleeping in a separate room, and she still didn’t.
“How could such a little girl sleep by herself? Let her grow up a little, and then she can sleep alone.” She had argued and pleaded, but Amit was firm. He wanted Monica to grow up like any other American child, independent from the very be- ginning. But his paternal instinct was no less than the mater- nal instinct of his wife, and the slightest noise from the other room woke him up too. He had never grumbled while chang- ing diapers when Monica was smaller, and he never grumbled now when he had to get up and pacify her when she cried in the middle of the night, woken up by some terrifying dream.
“i am not going to keep that babysitter anymore,” Samantha said, expecting a reply from her husband as he lay on the bed. “You won’t get a better one,” Amit answered, turning off the
bed lamp. “They’re more or less the same.”
“But how could she bring a guy to the house? We can’t allow
“Do one thing then,” Amit chuckled. “Employ someone else to keep an eye on the babysitter.”
Samantha did not react to the humor. Amit’s response
was not a surprise. She did not expect anything else from her ‘broadminded’ liberal husband who was more than eager to assimilate into the American way of life. it seemed to be her problem and her problem only. The rest of the world was fine with everything that was happening, however gross it might be. Only she had a problem accepting things, ‘stuck in a middle class Calcuttan mentality’, to use her husband’s words.
“i’ve been invited to lecture at the African-American institute, Shimu!” Amit said excitedly. “i am the first Asian to be invited there! They are going to give me an honorary doc- torate in recognition of the AiDS awareness program i con- ducted. i want you to come with me.”
Samantha did not want to respond as the thought of the babysitter still occupied her mind. But she knew Amit would be hurt if she remained mum. A big achievement indeed for the high-flying doctor, though not his first and neither would it be the last. She should be happy about his success, or at least express it.
“Great!” she exclaimed. “When is it?” “Coming Sunday.”
“Coming Sunday? But aren’t we supposed to attend the Bongo Sammelan in New Jersey on Sunday? We don’t want to miss the once-a-year cultural program for the Bengalis. i heard 8,000 Bengalis will be there to celebrate, indian classi- calmusic, dance, food, jewelry and socialization.”
“Oh, yes!” Amit exclaimed. “i forgot! What can be done now? i have already accepted their invitation!”
“We have to skip the Bongo Sammelan this year then.” Samantha tried to sound as cool as possible, but she was very disappointed.
“Won’t you be coming with me to the felicitation?” Amit asked.
“Okay, i will.”
A silence descended in the darkness.
“You don’t seem to be very enthusiastic about it,” observed Amit.
“Am i not?”
“You know better.”
She was not. She had been to these felicitation programs
many times before, ornamenting her husband’s illustrious presence. it was great to see her husband basking in glory, and she basked in it too. His pride was her pride; his happi- ness was her happiness. She had persuaded herself to believe this age-old conviction. Some hot-shot white American hang- ing a medal around her husband’s neck pinning a badge on his lapel was indeed thrilling to watch. And even more satisfying was the sight of a house full of whites, blacks, and browns im- peccably suited in black and charming ladies adorned in high fashion outfits, listening to his speech in mesmerized silence, then bursting into thunderous applause.
it reminded her of that afternoon in Calcutta where before a hall full of young students; her father delivered his speech on market equilibrium, equally mesmerizing the audience with his baritone voice. She was so proud of her father in those moments and very much upset when the speech was inter- rupted by some political goons. No such bad luck for Amit. All his seminars and speeches had gone smooth as silk, with no interruption, no criticism, only praises and facilitation, and medals and honor. But over time she felt tired and bored, especially after Monica was born. She didn’t feel good at all attending the functions, leaving her baby behind under the care of some babysitter. She felt uneasy in the milieu, think- ing of her daughter, always worrying, always wanting to go back home as early as possible. She never complained, care- fully camouflaging her true desire behind sugary smiles and tired handshakes.
She was feeling the same at her work lately. in the middle of looking at a plate or writing a report, she thought of Moni – her baby qualms and antics, the sudden burst of laughter that came from slightest of wonders, filling the surroundings with sunshine. Samantha felt like leaving everything behind, the reports and the deadlines and the programs, and rush- ing back to her daughter. The more hectic her job became, the more pangs she felt. Should she quit then? Leave her job and spend quality time with her child, watch her grow up before her eyes, savoring every moment of it, sharing all the joys and pains? She knew that was what her heart wanted her to do. Should she listen to her heart? in this country, everyone tried to listen to their hearts and act ac- cordingly. She knew highly skilled professionals who had quit their well-paid jobs just because they believed that they were missing something very important by not being at their children’s sides as they were growing up. She, too, felt the same. She knew Amit would not object, he would be happy if at least one of them was at their daughter’s side all the time, and, after all, Amit earned so much money it would not be a problem at all. it was she who would have to make a choice. Between a job that she liked – a job that was the fruit of her years of education, her father’s dream – and something that was even more precious: her fruit of love, her own flesh and blood. She could no longer keep herself immune to the cries of her daughter when she left for the office each day. She could no longer put a stone on her heart when Moni said, “i won’t let you go, Ma. i want you to stay with me.” Samantha would quit her job bringing up her daughter when she needed her the most. it would be worth the sacrifice; she had to choose at this moment. When Moni was grown, in the future, Samantha would be working again. She always wanted to give her, undivided attention and bring her up with her own indian values, her own traditions, her own culture and religion.
Of course, this time she would attend the meeting with her daughter and there would be no worries at any time.
“What are you thinking?” Samantha heard Amit ask.
“i am quitting my job, Amit, and it is completely my de- cision. Besides, i can join your clinic later,” she replied, try- ing to sound as serious as possible.