Her mother taught her two things- to clean and to save. With the alacrity of kindergartners, when friends shared their mother's recipes of cauliflower pickles and sweets made of walnuts, figs, pistachios, and clarified butter, Mrs. Tuli cared about her spotless house and an empty purse. At 28, going to be 29 in two days, Mrs.Tuli with her ancient eyes felt stuck, hogtied by the words her mother spoke-Money is a restless being, it escapes through the zip and pockets of the purse. Save it as much as you can. That’s the mantra.
She sits on the white commode, her mind reviewing the Amazon wish list she had created over 5 years. Her eyes, like any other time, in constant search of dirt, spots two strands of hair clinging to the beige side wall and she shifts her weight to pick the strands, immediately, before her mother comes.
To an ordinary person, such mundane aberrations could go unnoticed. Mrs. Tuli's life oscillated between being clean with the house and being tight with money. It had been during her school year when her parents refused SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work)supplies calling it unproductive and a waste of time. When students experimented with watercolors, acrylic and pastels with fan blenders, deerfoot stippler and detail spotters, Nayantara, shriveled with shame and envy, stroked the plastic brush that came with 12 field box watercolors. Ms.Kalpana, the dance teacher from 2nd grade till 8th grade sent complaint reports in the school diary, but her parents considered musical anklets an improvidence on part of the dance teacher. Her mother tied her shame with a petticoat drawstring and five metal bells for each foot. Beaming with pride she remarked, " They look better than real ones and sound just the same."
Hell broke the day Nayantara slipped into somebody's new school shoes kept outside the dance room, leaving behind her dusty shoes with torn buckles. There was hardly a choice left after months of complaining, “I need a new pair of shoes. I can't wear these to school anymore," lamented Nayantara to her father who had his own wisdom to stitch things back. "The money we save today comes to use tomorrow. It's only torn from the sides. Polish it well, it won't even show. We will buy when it's needed," was her father's chant, as he went about his life. He was the quintessential breadwinner of the home. To the world, he was a Mechanical Engineer in SAIL(Steel Authority of India Ltd), Bokaro, an obscure town in the state of Jharkhand, known only because it housed a steel plant of much repute. They were not poor, the way poor people are. Every weekend her father purchased half a kg chicken which he handed to his wife with pride, “Half a kg chicken. Make it well. Keep the gravy thick and add some potatoes too.” Naina often wondered how half a kg chicken would suffice a family of 5, where two older brothers would fight for the leg piece, the juiciest, the fleshiest and she would have to suffice with the bony neck. How she wished the chicken had five legs. When puberty knocked from beneath, she used old bathing towels, sarees, and curtains to soak the flow. Is it so difficult to buy me a sanitary pad, she often wondered?
"I wash them well before I use them. These clothes are hygienic and cheaper. They absorb more than one pad would. Why throw old clothes? They are useful," was her mother's response clutching a small packet of Whisper at the billing counter. If saving was her heart, cleanliness was her mother’s soul; so much so that the family evaded social gatherings, birthday parties, and New Year celebrations at their place to keep the 'unclean and disorganized' crowd away from their spotless, organized home decorated with DIY knickknacks and tchotchkes. Her mother had the skill of stitching the silken floral pattern from her overused Banarasi saree into tea coasters, of using old bedsheets with intricate patterns as table covers and Horlicks bottles for storing spices and pickles. She cleaned them well, removing every remnant of the gluey bright blue sticker that once boasted of a health drink and now housed red chili powder in it. Playing host was difficult for the parents, as also they avoided being guests lest they have to buy gifts. On most occasions, the gifts were handmade or taken out from an aluminum trunk which had treasure accumulated over the years from various people and later became gifts for others. The aluminum trunk also had a list of who gave what and when to ensure that the giver didn’t become the receiver of his/her own gift on a different occasion.
Years passed and childhood faded away, leaving behind a quagmire of hankering, envy, acrimony, and shame to last a lifetime. She graduated in Fine Arts from Women's College, Bokaro, and before she could apply to NIFT, she tied to Praveen Tuli; a software engineer by profession, selected by her parents and approved by the society. She was 22 and flew to Jersey City with her husband by the end of their first year of marriage. America, as they say, is a land of dreams, most of which got crushed under visa rules and the demands of a new life.
Mr.Tuli flew on an H1B visa at a salary which Nayantara started saving with twice the aggression of her mom. A man of short stature and a timorous smile, Mr.Tuli wore heavy black-rimmed spectacles and a perpetual gaze of being a victim, chose not to interfere in home affairs. "You are managing things well, I have nothing to say. I have seen worse. The curry is good; if you add potatoes, we can have it for dinner too," said Mr.Tuli. The first wedding anniversary came and went, the way it had for her parent’s 39 anniversaries. Mrs.Tuli’s life oscillated between idleness, cleanliness, saving, and being cautious with hope. When her back started to hurt by constant bending and picking dirt and strands of hair with a dustpan and a blue plastic brush all over the house, she caved in to buying a vacuum for the carpet of her one-bedroom apartment on Tonnelle Avenue.
6 years passed by and while preparing for their repatriation next year, Mr.Tuli's donkeywork was rewarded with the Green Card processing. Not that he cared about either the green or the red. For him --------I have seen worse was the mantra that suited any occasion, happy or sad and helped him find a perspective. For Mrs. Tuli, the H4 EAD was no less than Mr.Muscle, clog remover. Two days after she got her EAD card that the art class flyer was floating in the Indian Community WhatsApp group and a week later 5 students had enrolled. Her sample of work was impressive.
A few minutes later, she washes her hands, her gaze fixed on the shining beige square tiles, a by-product of her upbringing and Dettol. The washroom wasn’t grand but could compete for a space in Good Housekeeping magazine. The fixtures were old, carrying rust and black spots stained the glass mirror. She had created a flower pattern with rhinestones found in bulk at Walmart. Wine bottles collected from the recycle trash bin decorated the corners of the house. Two of the Gerard Bertrand Rose bottles found a new life becoming vases; a sunflower stick hanging out of one and Mandala art on the other. Three of them stood near the washbasin, each half turquoise and half coral orange with vibrant henna style design. An empty salsa bottle now held seashells collected over their meager weekends near the beach and marble stones from Dollar Tree. Mrs.Tuli acquired a calculation in her head. The trinkets each around 3-10$ helped her not only adorn her humble abode but also her listless life. Pines cones picked up during her lonely, wistful walks found a new lease of life under her creativity.
Back at the laptop, she logs in to www.amazon.com. The orange arrow from a to z holds promise today, unlike other days where she would browse for hours and log off. Her cart is empty and her finger taps 'My Wish list'. Within a second, the screen floods her eyes. The 6 Feet Lighted Birch Tree with 72 LED Lights is the item on the top. What follows is a list, a wish list, created and curated over the years but never checked out. They stayed in silent slumbers, like wishes, magical and delicate, awakened only by the glistening eyes of Nayantara. Amazon membership had happened out of chance rather than choice. “Dettol is all you need- from kitchen countertops to bathroom floor to cuts and wounds. You have seen me right," her mother instructed the new bride in America. The couple couldn’t find Dettol in the neighboring store. An Indian neighbor introduced them to Amazon. The login created for Dettol opened the world of shopping. Mr.Tuli's reluctance to venture out and the shop wasn’t a grievance anymore to Nayantara. Her initial attempts though met with cold resistance from her husband —
“Why new teacups? It's only tea.
“We have a small bathroom, why clutter?”
“Why kitchen towels? Use the old hand towels. My mother used to do the same.” “Sofa cover? Who comes to our house?”
The dry waste bin of the community did what Amazon could not.
"Where did you get these fancy bottles?" her husband questioned, his mind, body, and soul working on the Python code.
"The next-door neighbor was going to throw it, we met in the corridor and I got excited at the idea of a craft," She answered, her mind, body, and soul working on her stolen treasure.
Making something special required money, and she had a difficult relationship with the rupees and the dollars. To those who say that money doesn't buy happiness, had not met Mrs. Tuli. At twenty-nine, she knew more about money than someone reverse her age.
She looks at the time. Two hours to go before Mr.Tuli came back from work. She has to order right away. She has 1886 dollars in her bank account. Racing through the clutter of items on the screen, she hurriedly adds it all to the cart. The Satin Spaghetti Nightgown in rose pink had been a dream which Mr.Tuli never cared for. His lovemaking was unceremonious, devoid of a gentle start, and a breathless end. It happened now and then to take care of the hormones rather than the person behind the hormones. The hair on her arms and legs went unnoticed to him but not his body odor to her. She had dreamed of a different life. Sometimes she wished the lightning struck and something different happened.
Mr. Burberry Eau De Toilette followed by several Bohemian Statement Thread Tassel Earrings in every possible color. Soon after tumbled a bathroom rug, living room carpet, Utopia 4 -piece bed sheet set, LED floor lamp, Corelle 16-pc Dinnerware, dining table embroidered runner, kitchen towels, a rose pink women's bathrobe, boat neck floral lace tops, Indian Embroidered Silk Throw Cushion Pillow Covers, 5 pieces matte lipstick by Revlon, 5-blade Venus razor for women, Ayur Hot wax with waxing strips and a book by Jhumpa Lahiri-The Interpreter of Maladies.
"Where did my apron go?" She mutters under her anxious breath. The smell of turmeric and coriander powder on her clothes lingered way beyond the meal, way beyond her dislike. She found it disgusting. She further digs into her wish list as she moves from page to page. Some items she deletes and some she let them rest a little more. That's when her eye catches the attention of Kenneth Cole Men's Shirt, Royal Blue, Slim Fit ."I don't wear bright colors." Mr.Tuli disapproved of her choice the very first week when she spoke of her favorite combination. Today, things are different. Her determination flows through her fingers as she proceeds to check out. One final look at the items and Mrs. Tuli punches her debit card details and clicks.
Without wasting another second, she hops to her Gmail account and logs in. Going to the draft section, she looks at the draft dated 6th September 2014. It was the first-anniversary party invitation she had intended to send but could never. A few minutes of work, figuring out the email ids of the guests, she does another click on ‘send’. In a flash, life seemed PERFECT, the way she had always wanted, different from her mother's saving and cleaning, different from her husbands 'have seen worse' chants, different from all that had been.
She loosens herself and tries to peep at the sun rays shining on her. Money has the power to change a life, define happiness, and alter the course of one's journey. She felt she had done it all in just two clicks. Was it that simple? She thought to herself. Singing a tune to herself, Mrs.Tuli straightens the crumple of the bedsheet on which she sat and went to cook chicken curry for Mr.Tuli. It would be good to have a smiling Mr.Tuli at the party in his royal blue shirt and Burberry perfume. She envisioned her husband, her own self in the teal blue gown with a glass of Malbec and jazz playing in the background. It wasn't new to her, she had envisaged it while reading the Filmfare magazine with Deepika Padukone splashed on the cover page, she had planned the details of the party from the Good Housekeeping magazine talking about west coast living. The rug, the decor, the crystal glasses, the gown, the length of her heel, the perfume, the drapes, the theme, the food, and of course the music escaping from the open windows so that the community could know. There is always a cheaper version of the big brands the magazines boast of and that helped turn` her dreams into reality- the cheaper reality, the affordable reality, a reality nonetheless, a reality far-fetched from her lackluster and parsimonious upbringing and an insipid, unpretentious life partner. She had invented details of the conversation that she would initiate during such evenings, floating in her living room, pecking at her friends, joining inconsequential polite conversations.
Picking the marinated chicken pieces one by one, she slides them in the onion tomato gravy simmering in the steel wok. It would take thirty minutes for the chicken pieces to get tender and the spices to seep through the flesh. She looks at the quantity and feels something missing. Her eyes waver looking around the tumblers and spices spread all over the kitchen countertop. There is something amiss, she tries to think hard, then dips her index finger in the gravy to check the salt. Feeling the salty and spicy gravy on her tongue, she starts clearing the countertop, dismissing any concerns over the chicken curry.
"Put some potatoes in the curry," Nayantara turns, her face washed blank in confusion. "Put some potatoes in the curry", the voice echoes again draining the blood from her face. Pallid and discombobulated, she tries to walk, each step refusing the next. Who was there? Slowly, very slowly she moves around her house, checking if her husband had chosen to surprise. Wincing and rubbing the heel of her palms over her forehead, she sits next to her computer, on the royal blue swivel chair bent with overuse and stares at the screen, unable to decipher the voices in her head. Minutes pass, Nayatara slouches as if overcome by lassitude. The potatoes continue to bulldoze her and her fingers log in to the Amazon account. Going to the section- my orders, she clicks 'CANCEL' and logs out. Back to the Gmail account, she writes an email. Confirming the email id of the recipients, she adds the subject line-Party Cancelled and clicks 'send'.
Humming a tune, a childhood song she had loved, back in the kitchen, she searches for the potato basket and starts peeling them.