Literature & Fiction | 47 Chapters
Author: RAJESHWARI NUKALA
Sonam is super excited! Her husband Raj, an IT professional, has been posted in the US of A on a project for his company. Together with their 2-year-old son, Rahul, they relocate to the States. Sonam has starry eyed dreams and ambitions about her new life in the US --- an A-list designer wardrobe, a huge mansion with a pool, Instagramming her life in the coolest and most spectacular parts of America and most of all becoming a ho....
Today is the day I bid farewell to my family, friends and my country! In a couple of hours, I’m flying to the United States of America with Raj and Rahul. I’m absolutely thrilled; but as I put the last of my folded clothes into the suitcase, I can’t help feeling a little glum. I will miss my family, friends and this 2 BHK apartment terribly. I’ve lived here for the last seven years; it’s hard to believe it won’t be my home any longer. Except for a double mattress on the floor, on which we have been sleeping for the last one week, some Nilkamal plastic chairs and the suitcases lying around, the apartment is bare. In the last month, all the furniture, utensils, and miscellaneous items have been donated, sold or boxed away in my in-laws’ garage. It meant leaving behind my favorite Jaipuri quilt, tea mug and all of Rahul’s toys except his chocolate brown teddy bear. It also meant leaving behind my wedding albums, scrapbooks from college, favorite novels, 27 handbags and some of my clothes. It took me a week to come to terms with it, but I can’t possibly take 27 bags with me. We are allowed 6 suitcases in total. The weight requirement complicates it further. How can I pack a house into 6 suitcases?
I slip the theplas, Maggi, Haldiram’s savories and sweets into the suitcase. Carefully, I put in the mango pickles which are professionally packed so that the oil should not leak out. Mom has wrapped it in her old saree. Even though it is useless, I gaze at the saree fondly. It smells of Mom. I zip the last suitcase.
I hear voices from the living room. My father-in-law’s cousin’s grandson and his wife have come to wish us safe travels. Raj and I have never seen them before today, so I can’t comprehend why they have turned up now as if we have been the best of friends.
‘Who has booked the flight tickets?’ I can hear the guy asking.
‘Raj’s Company,’ my father-in-law answers. I can sense a hint of pride in his voice. My in-laws stay a couple of blocks away. They have been coming home for the past week to help us with packing and to watch over Rahul.
‘Can she work?’ the lady asks, obviously referring to me. Of course, I can! I have been a banker for the last 8 years. I would never trade my financial independence for anything in my life, not even for America.
‘Yes, she can,’ my father-in-law answers patiently.
‘Wow, now both will be earning in dollars,’ she replies, and everyone laughs. That’s the first thing everyone mentions about America.
‘Can you ask Raj to refer me in his company? I have been trying to go to America for two years now,’ the guy says. I roll my eyes. The reason for their visit is now clear.
The six suitcases are packed, zipped, tagged and locked; they are lined up at the door of the apartment. My parents, in-laws, sister, her husband, her in-laws, my chachas, chachis, mamas and mamis, cousins, Raj’s aunts and uncles are all crammed into our 2 BHK apartment.
Mom is doing the aarti to a picture of Ganesha. Mom is fair-complexioned — that’s where our similarities end. She’s plump, short and walks with a limp because of the onset of arthritis. For as long as I remember her, she has always dressed the same, banarasi georgette saree, big oval red bindi, her hair in a bun. Her enormous diamond solitaire studs sparkle in her ears. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen her without them ever. Aarti done, she puts the red tika on Raj, Rahul and me.
I wipe the tika hurriedly from my forehead. I don’t want it to spill on my new coat or spoil my makeup. I want to make the best impression when I get off the plane in America. I am wearing skinny jeans and a top; but have added a long, black overcoat from Marks & Spencer. I have paired it with black, knee-length boots. A zing of red lipstick matches my manicured nails perfectly. My poker straight, waist-length hair is swept into a neat ponytail. I would have ideally wanted to show off my newly done-caramel balayage, but it seemed a bit impractical to leave my hair open for the long flight.
We touch the feet of the elders. Everyone goes on about how much they will miss us, and wish us a happy journey. All of us file out of the house, Raj locks the door of the apartment and hands over the key to his father. The apartment will be rented out starting next month.
The three Matadors that Dad has arranged to take us to the airport, are waiting outside our apartment building. Some helpers are loading the suitcase into them. Everyone starts getting into the Matadors. They are all coming to see us off at the airport.
As I step out of the building, the burly security guard of the building comes running to me. ‘Happy journey madam,’ he says. I smile. I will miss him. Our cook and driver had already wished me in the morning and taken leave of me. But my maid wanted to see me off. I can see her standing a little distance away. She’s intimidated by all my relatives and is standing at a respectful distance. I walk up to her and hug her, much to my mother’s disapproval. But I can’t help it, I have known her for a long time. I slip her some cash; I know she needs it.
‘Take care madam. Take care of Rahul,’ she says in Kannada. She’s close to tears. I nod.
As I get into the Matador, I look back once, taking it all in. I look up at my apartment. It is totally dark. I had moved in here the day I got married. I have lots of memories here. I glance at my quiet lane, a cul-de-sac, tucked away from the Bangalore traffic. The streetlights are on, casting a yellow light everywhere. Our apartment complex, which has six apartments, is out of place in a lane full of colonial bungalows. I know most people on this lane, am familiar with the pets, the street dogs and even know all the maids who come to work on this street. Each house on this road has a story to tell, and I know most of them.
‘Get in, Sona,’ Raj’s voice breaks into my thoughts. I am the last one to enter the Matador and have been holding up everyone.
Finally, we leave for the airport at around 8 pm — all 49 of us. We pass familiar roads, familiar buildings. We pass the park, and the lady who sells corn is still there. As we pull onto the main road, my eyes well up. I quickly blink back my tears. For heaven’s sake! I am going to America, what’s wrong with me? I force myself to put on a smile and look around.
We finally reach Kempegowda International Airport at 10 pm, after a drive of an hour and a half. It is only 40 kilometers away, but the jams and the potholes made it worse. We get down at the international departures terminal. We still have around fifteen to twenty minutes before we have to enter the airport.
Some of my relatives sit down on the chairs, the others stand; but everyone is busy talking. After the luggage has been loaded onto the carts, Raj and I sit down. I sit next to Mom; she’s clutching my hand, trying not to cry. The early October breeze messes up my hair. I gather loose strands of my hair and tuck it behind my ears. There is a slight chill in the air, enough for Bangaloreans to take out their sweaters, shawls and coats. There is nervous chatter among my relatives. Raj and I make small talk with our relatives, quietly dreading the moment when we have to say our goodbyes. Raj is constantly looking at his phone; he looks apprehensive. Rahul, who is all of two years has no clue what’s going on.
After some time, Raj gets up, and picks up his shoulder bag. ‘Ok, this is it,’ he says, motioning towards the security gates. I get up with a heavy heart and look around. Mom starts weeping, my mother-in-law hugs Rahul. Though he’s standing in the dark, Dad’s short, paunchy frame is clearly visible. He comes forward to hug me. He hides his emotions by asking me, ‘Is your passport with you, Sonam?’ I nod. It’s an overwhelming moment for us. I start to cry. I hug and kiss everyone goodbye. Rahul looks at me worriedly. He’s never seen me crying. But looking at his grandmothers crying too, he’s genuinely alarmed. He starts sobbing loudly too, to add to the confusion. I pick up my tote, carry the bawling Rahul and quickly walk to the airport entrance. My eyes are blurred with tears. I try my best to wipe them away as they stream down my cheeks. Raj quickly catches up with me. He looks at me crying my heart out. ‘Relax Sona, everyone goes abroad. It’s not a big deal,’ he says impatiently. I nod and quietly wipe away my tears.
All our pre-boarding formalities are completed; our boarding is finally announced at 3 am after a long wait. Our plane takes off at 4 am. Rahul is in the middle seat; Raj and I are on either side of him. Rahul is fast asleep, it’s way past his bedtime.
I am going to miss my family a lot. I am sobbing quietly. But I am excited too; this is the first time ever, in the 32 years of my life, that I am traveling abroad.
It’s a long journey from Bangalore to Salt Lake City (SLC); nearly 26 hours including a layover at Paris. It’s even longer and tedious, thanks to Rahul. He has thrown some of the worst tantrums ever. He has inconvenienced the people in front of us, behind us — let’s just say the entire economy section, by screaming, wailing, running down the aisles and kicking everyone’s seats. But people have always been forgiving; I think its Rahul’s chubby cheeks that work in his favor every time. I have seen people going from an expression of WTH to Awwww in seconds when they set their eyes on Rahul. It’s like a superpower, his chunkiness and his liquid, big eyes.
We land in Utah. To be honest I had never heard of it before our move was finalized; but the name kept haunting me after Raj told me three months ago that he has an offer to move there on a company project. One day, it suddenly flashed to me that I had heard it on ‘Friends’. Ross is trying to list the 50 states and Joey points to Utah and says, ‘Dude, you just can’t make states up’. I kind of gathered that Utah is the not the most popular state in America and it really did dampen my spirits for a bit. But then, as long it’s in America, who cares?
Utah is in the west of the United States. Raj’s company has sent us on an L1 visa with 3-year validity. Raj is confident that our visa will be renewed again, for an extended stay of two more years.
We get off the plane; I don’t look like the exotic Indian diva I had envisioned. I mean I do look exotic but more like an exotic zombie. My hair is a mess, my eyes are red with lack of sleep and my glossy, black coat has food stains, crayon marks, drool and everything else Rahul could get his hands on.
Now for the fire test; our entry into the United States. I have heard that some people get sent back from the airport itself. I pray that’s not us. I can’t, just can’t endure another 26-hour flight with Rahul. I will die! And my dad has to arrange for the Matadors to pick us up, all my relatives will tag along to pick us up; not to mention the scandal in the society that our visas didn’t get stamped. Could I ask people to give me back the things that I had given them freely? No, no, it wouldn’t look nice! We get into the line for immigration check. By the time it’s our turn, I am sweating, and my mouth is dry from fear. It’s our lucky day. The immigration officer has no questions, our passport is stamped in less than two minutes. Gosh, I can’t wait to step out of the airport and see America.
We book an airport cab, a Dodge Grand Caravan; all our luggage is loaded into the trunk of the van. Rahul is strapped into a car seat, a first for him. Surprisingly, he doesn’t cry and looks quite comfortable in it. Raj gives the driver the address, which he keys into his GPS. It shows 30 miles or approximately 42 minutes. I look outside my window. I am afraid to blink — I don’t want to miss a thing! It’s around 7pm in the evening; almost dark outside. We start driving through the airport exit. After a couple of minutes, we get onto the I-15. The speed limit is 80 miles/hour.
I see a clear sky, wide roads, tall buildings interspersed with open spaces, and fast cars speeding in their lanes. It looks straight out of a movie. Everything that meets the eye looks organized and neat, no unruly traffic, no potholes and not many jams. It’s a completely different world from what I have left behind. I am lost in my thoughts, when in the distance I see the bold silhouette of the Wasatch mountains. The mighty, rugged, mountains loom out of the darkness, a magnificent backdrop for the great Salt Lake. The lake is calm and placid. I am in awe of the scene in front of me, the spectacular sight of nature juxtaposed with the stark modernity of the tall buildings and speeding cars!
After thirty minutes, we get off the expressway by turning into exit 284. We enter Lehi city and start driving to the condominium complex, ‘Creekside Condos’ in Traverse Mountain. It’s a temporary accommodation that Raj’s office has provided us for a week. As we enter the suburbs, the houses come into view. The tree-lined neighborhoods with wide sidewalks are utterly charming. The houses are picturesque and are neatly lined with manicured lawns in front. The entire setting looks just like a postcard, romantic and delightful!
It’s love at first sight for me. I am in love with America! It’s exactly the way I had imagined it to be, in fact better. I can’t believe how blessed I am; I am going to live in this paradise!
We arrive at the 3-bedroom condo. As I close the main door, I feel something is out of place. I can’t place my finger on it at first. I later realize it’s the deafening silence. I never realized that silence could disturb you. In India, I was constantly used to noise in the background: barking dogs, blaring horns, noisy vehicles, loud fans, the list is endless. I am so accustomed to noise that I can sleep peacefully with a handful of dogs barking outside. This quiet will take some time to get used to.
The condo is elegant and modern; it has a pleasing, faint, citrusy and vanilla smell. The entire condo is carpeted, unlike in India where we mostly have tiles on the floor. The rooms are ultra-modern and huge. The all-white kitchen is state-of the art; it has an island, a built-in cooking range, cabinets, shelves and a dishwasher.
I am still exploring and checking out the condo when Raj puts his arms around me from behind and pulls me close. ‘Mrs. NRI,’ he says. I turn around to look at him. Tall at 5’ 11”, bronzed, hazel brown eyes, he is dishy. His physique is not overtly muscular but he is quite athletic, with a good build. He was a star football midfielder in college and it still shows. His jet-black hair is styled in a brush up crew cut. Though very masculine, there is something boyish about him, his smile maybe. He always wears jeans and a collared tee.
‘We are living the American dream. Do you like it?’ he grins. He hasn’t shaved, and there is a hint of a five o’clock shadow on his jaw making him look ruggedly attractive.
‘Hmmm … yeah,’ I laugh and throw my arms around his neck. What can I say? I just can’t express my joy! I had never dreamed that one day we would be in the most coveted country in the world!
Raj goes out for a bit to shop for milk, coffee and some miscellaneous items; he picks up dinner too. We have chicken sandwiches with coleslaw and fries for dinner. Life’s fantabulous, and I am grateful.
Ok, life’s not so fantabulous at this point. It’s 4 am; I am completely drained out, not to mention jetlagged. We finished dinner 8 hours ago, but Rahul is not sleepy at all. He hasn’t slept a wink since then, and naturally, neither have we. He’d been playing all this while quietly; but now he’s supercharged and excited. He’s making a weird noise (which can be best described as a mix of a quack and a roar) and running around the apartment in circles. We are trying everything to get him to sleep. Raj is concerned that his running and squealing will wake up our neighbors downstairs. I do all I can, from giving him warm milk to singing, till I almost fall asleep — but not Rahul. He finally falls asleep at 7 am. He stopped running at around 6 am, but that weird noise just went on and on. Gosh! I feel like a zombie. My head hurts, and so does my body. I crawl into bed and zonk out.
The sunlight is streaming down on my face. I blink several times, taking in the new surroundings. It all comes back to me. I am in America. I say it aloud, three times. I still can’t believe it.
Rahul is sleeping peacefully next to me and Raj is nowhere to be seen. I tiptoe into the kitchen. I don’t want to disturb Rahul. I glance at the kitchen timer. It’s 1 in the afternoon. I want some coffee in my system. I make some coffee and butter toast. I think of calling mom, but then realize it’s after midnight in India.
I remember Raj telling me that we have to look for houses for rent today as this company accommodation is just for a week. I am super excited. I have always heard that American houses are huge and magnificent. I want to live in a big house with a pool and a large patio. I can have pool parties every weekend, and on weekdays, I can lie on a giant pink flamingo float in the pool with a pina colada with a little umbrella in it. Ooooh! And I can Instagram all the pictures.
The real estate agent is supposed to pick us up at 4 pm. At 4 o’clock sharp, there is a knock on our door. The agent is here on time. This kind of punctuality is new to me, as in India, almost everyone I know is at least 10-15 minutes late, either by design or not! But, for me, I don’t have to try hard to be late, it comes naturally to me. I am quite gifted that way. So, at 4, I am still scrambling for our jackets which I can’t find, and at the same time, I am looking for my handbag. Rahul is crying loudly because he wants his iPad back. The agent watches us with mild amusement; Raj throws me a murderous look. Before we leave, the agent asks us our budget and gives us options of a condo similar to the one we are staying in or a townhome. Houses with swimming pools do not fit into our budget. It’s upsetting but I don’t let it dampen my spirits. We decide to check out townhomes. After twenty minutes, we finally leave the condo.
The nippy autumn air greets us outside, bringing with it the smell of dried leaves. Utah is even prettier in the day. The sunlit, majestic mountains create a scenic vista under the blue sky. The views are arresting to say the least, the leaves are a vivid red and orange. I can’t get enough of the scenery in front of me!
Raj’s office is in South Jordan City, so we decide to look for houses in that area. It’s a 25-minute drive from our condo. As we drive, I can’t help notice that the sidewalks are eerily empty, unlike in India.
We check out 3-4 medium-sized townhomes. They look pretty much alike — freshly painted, newly carpeted, airy and bright. All the houses have temperature settings inside, and all bathrooms have a bathtub. The houses are contemporary, comfortable and quite spacious. Each house has a lawn at the back — maybe I can have lawn parties! That will be supercool! We can have a Gatsby theme party! Ooooh! I can wear pearls, cloche hats and pretty dresses! Or brunch in the lawn in pastel chiffon sarees, pearls and sunglasses, what Sabyasachi calls the Palermo afternoons. How exciting!
We look at more showings the next couple of days and finally zero in on one house.
The house, or rather ‘home’, is in a horseshoe-shaped, mid-budget neighborhood. The lawns are neatly manicured, with trees on both sides of the road, and the entire neighborhood is well-maintained. There’s a play area in the middle. The neighborhood has about 20-25 townhomes; all similar in structure and size. We stay right in the middle of the neighborhood. The houses are adjacent to one another and each house shares a common wall with the next one.