Kumar first saw her at the US Consulate while waiting in the queue for his visa. He had definite opinions about what his wife should look like, and she fit perfectly. “She’s not too tall,” he later told his friends. “Just about this tall,” and indicated his neck. “Quite fair. Brown eyes. Sharp nose and high cheek bones. A really cute face. No, not a bob-cut. Short hair, and she pins it up like a bun. Usually wears salwars. Today she was wearing a yellow and green. Why don’t you come to the Consulate in the afternoon? She’ll still be waiting in the queue just behind me – the poor thing!”
Kumar had completed his bachelor’s in chemical engineering and like a true IITian, was on his way to the land of milk and honey. He was determined to earn as much has he could as fast as he could, and come back just in time for his sisters’ wedding. Maybe an hour earlier, if he could spare the time. Nobody was going to stop him and tie him down until he’d despatched his duty. Not Sailaja, whom he’d left brooding in Vishakhapatnam. Not the hordes of IITians who flocked at his beck and call, only to be dismissed after he’d fed them. Not the millions who thought him the best organizer in history. No sir, Kumar was going to Texas and would come back to marry the girl of his mother’s choice. At least, that’s what he told his friends.
So it was something of a surprise when Kumar confessed to have found a perfect match to his dream girl. He played it down, though. “She’s just giving me something to watch when I’m at the queue, da,” he would deprecatingly comment. His friends knew better the next day, when Kumar walked in dejected. “She’s married,” he pronounced miserably. “I found a yellow thread around her neck. Only married women wear that, right? She was wearing shoes, so I couldn’t see if she had metti on her feet.” Then he started sulking. He wouldn’t even bathe.
“Maybe she’s not a Hindu. What’s her name?” said Anand, trying to console him. It of course puzzled Anand as to how Kumar got a look at the yellow thread, and what else, but he kept those thoughts to himself.
“I don’t know,” said Kumar. “But I think she is.”
“Maybe she’s going to Texas as well. What if she’s joining your college?”
“Nah, unlikely. She’s going on a H-1 visa, so she’s not a student,” brooded Kumar. “Maybe she’s joining her husband there. But so what? I don’t care!” and stormed out. His friends thought they had heard the last about the affair.
Kumar was dejected. A year had passed at Texas, Austin. Two students had been successful in switching over from petroleum engineering to computer science. One was dejected. The other was drunk. Kumar was 67 cents short of his $10,000 dollars, and his diary made no mention of his extraneous expenditure. On the whole it had been a bad year for him – having begun with a true love who was married and ending with a 67 cent deficit and a diary that had no clue about either. It was no consolation that he had volunteered to help receive the freshmen on their first day and might get a coke worth 50 cents for his effort. It was time to take a bath.
He ambled across to the reception area and tried to put up a happy face for the benefit of his juniors. Rows of bleached faces with baggages piled by waiting to be directed to their rooms in the dorm. Kumar politely handed out their keys, smiled a hollow smile and shook hands with a “Have a pleasant stay.”
A voice behind him muttered “Hey Koomar, here’s someone from India. Guess you’d better take care of her accommodation.” Kumar turned around. He saw the face. Then his knees gave way and sank into his chair.
“Sukenya, meet Koomar,” Ralph introduced them. “Our boy Valli will hand you your keys.”
“Hello, Mr.Kumar, I’m Sukanya.” She offered her hand. Kumar grabbed the chance. His heartbeat was still at 150 but his sweat was not noticed in the sweltering heat. Which was why she was wearing a loose T-shirt and shorts.
“G-g-glad to meet you, Mr… Ms… Mrs… um… er… Sukanya.” He did recall that she was married, but when he looked now, he couldn’t see the thread. Here was the perfect opportunity to ask. “It IS Mrs, isn’t it?”
The smile on her face gradually faded. “No. Miss Sukanya,” came the quiet response. “Do you have my keys?” Kumar’s heartbeat went up another 150. He was heading for an attack. Then a smile grew on his face and turned into a grin. “Sure, Sukanya.” He managed to get the key with his left hand, not letting go off her right. “Please let me know if there’s anything else you want.”
“My arm would suffice, thank you,” came the polite reply. A sheepish look preceded the keys and the “Have a pleasant stay.” Kumar was able to confirm that there was no metti in the foot before he passed out.
Sukanya had taken the decision to divorce her husband while waiting for her visa at the US Consulate. The reason had stood just ahead of her in the queue. It had helped that he frequently turned back and let her admire his neatly combed hair that kept falling over his forehead in the smartest way she thought possible. He had been wearing a white IIT T-shirt and jeans. A pair of dark glasses prevented her from determining the colour of his eyes, and whether he was looking at her. He’s probably 22, she decided. How convenient.
Sukanya had been forced into marriage 6 months ago. Her parents seemed to think that arranged marriages were the ‘in’ thing that decade. That would have been all right except for the fact that Sundar was a disgrace to his name.
“He’s weighs 90 kilos and is not even 5’4″. That’s twice my weight, let alone being an inch shorter,” she had screamed. None of it worked. He was earning $20,000 at General Motors and was rumoured to be the next Vice-president, which, incidentally, also said a lot about his age. His parents were long-lost family friends of hers. Worst of all, their horoscopes matched. That had settled the whole matter. Mr.Sundar arrived at Madras on a saturday, was whisked away to her house and was permitted to drool over her. The marriage was on tuesday with a grand reception at Woodlands.
Sukanya had considered eloping with someone. The only thing that stopped her was the fact that she had no one to elope with. She was on the lookout even during the wedding, but her would-be’s friends turned out to be in even worse shape than he was. It was thus that she became Mrs.Sukanya Sundar. Sundar had left the very next afternoon with the words “Add sambar powder and coconut oil to the list of things to bring.” Her passport had taken 4 months. Her father had contacts, but she refused let him use influence. Let it take it’s time. Finally she got her visa token. That was where she saw him.
She noticed that the tall girl behind her had walked up and talked to him. Damn, she thought, but checked herself. She’s probably just his classmate. Maybe she can tell me about him. She struck up a quiet conversation within a minute.
“That’s a pretty dress,” ventured Sukanya, as an opening gambit. It required imagination, of course.
“Thanks,” replied the girl. “My name’s Sujatha. What’s yours?”
“Sukanya. Are you from IIT?”
“Yes. How did you know? I finished my B.Tech in chemical engineering and am going to Texas, Austin for my masters in petro. And you?”
“Um, well…, I’m on vacation. Is anyone else from IIT going with you?” Pretty weak, and she knew it. Please say “He’s in front of you.” Please. Please. Please.
“Yes, four others. The guy in front of you is coming with me as well.”
“What is his name?” she whispered, perhaps a trace too quickly.
“Kumar. Nanda Kumar.” Sujatha talked a lot more, but Sukanya didn’t catch any of that. Kumar. Sukanya Kumar. That sounded pleasant. She had made up her mind.
The divorce proceedings had been smooth, the US laws being what they were. In six months, she was Sukanya Ramnath once again. Her parents had kicked a huge fuss once they came to know of it. But they were on the other side of the planet, while Kumar was just a few hours drive away. A friendly graduate had told her that Kumar had shifted to CS. She took up computer courses and worked several late nights to secure herself a place at Texas, Austin.
Kumar was carried back to his room. After he woke up, jumped on his bed and flounced about in joy. His wildest dreams were fulfilled. His day was made. She was here, and unmarried. He had obviously been mistaken at the visa queue. Why, oh why didn’t he check more carefully? He needn’t have wasted one full year. She’d been here all along! He started singing Hindi songs of love in a loud voice, much to his room-mate’s irritation. Then he took a bath and ran around the room in a green towel. It was obviously time for celebration.
“Enthuku ra all that jumping about?” demanded a half-drunk voice.
Kumar stopped, scratched his head for a while, put up a puzzled expression and said “I wanted to tell you something.” His room-mate was too inebriated to listen, and she walked off.
“How does it matter?” he shouted, and proceeded to run around the room. He was the TA of the girl of his dreams. She would ask him questions. She might even ask him to do her homework for him. Oh, what a wonderful way she would have of asking him. He decided he would do the same. Ask her out of interest. Ask her out. Ask her. And her answer would be “Yes, yes, yes.”
Later that evening, Kumar put on his best suit, tie, dark glasses, and boots, and headed to Dorm A2, Room 207. Pity I didn’t make a duplicate of those keys, he thought. He could see that the lights were on through the keyhole. Knock, knock, knock. Did he hear footsteps? Why did they sound like “lub, dub, lub, dub?” He wiped his forehead and waited.
“Hello, Mr. Kumar. What are you doing here?” She was in a yellow nightie. Her hair had grown and was flowing. She hadn’t removed her earrings. They were yellow too.
“Hi Sukanya. I just came to check if everything was OK. Please drop the Mister. Call me Kumar. Is there anything you need?” He had rehearsed the line 20 times to avoid the “I wanted to tell you something” line.
“No, everything’s fine. Why don’t you come in?”
The “lub, dub” sound became so loud he was afraid she would hear it. He stepped in and shut the door behind him. He had not expected such quick progress. The room was spacious and seemed well organized. She certainly had a flair for interiors. The drapes were pulled. She sat down on her bed and indicated a chair nearby. Kumar looked at the locked door and wiped his forehead.
“It is rather hot, isn’t it?”
Kumar smiled weakly and suppressed the urge to wipe his forehead again.
“Do you like the campus?” What sort of inane questions am I asking?
“Yeah. It’s quite big.” Equally inane. I’d better change the topic.
“You seem to like yellow a lot.” That’s better. I’ll buy her some yellow flowers.
“You’re very observant.” She was of no help. Silence prevailed. They just sat there staring at each other awkwardly.
“Uh, I’ll see you later then. If you want something, let me know. Good night, Sukanya.”
Sukanya kicked herself again. In the morning she actually shook hands with him, but couldn’t bring herself to say anything but hello. She felt she wasn’t to blame on that occasion, though. Kumar’s grip was like iron and the pain kept other thoughts out of her mind. When he mentioned her marital status, she felt a chill through her spine. She barely managed to answer no. And then she embarrassed herself even more by asking him to let go of her hand. That was the first time she kicked herself.
She had just finished organizing her room when she heard the knock. She unlocked the door and found herself saying “Hello, Mr.Kumar. What are you doing here?”, then immediately bit her lip, and corrected her mistake by inviting him in. She had been caught off balance: no makeup, nothing but a nightie to wear, and of all awful colours, yellow. He even commented on it. Oh, help! The attempt at conversation was an obvious disaster. He had left within the minute without even taking a seat. She kicked herself again.
Determined not to repeat her mistakes, she had made elaborate plans for the next day. Her classes didn’t begin for a week, and she used the opportunity to follow Kumar at a safe distance and determine his working habits. He seemed to spend most of the early morning in his room, coming out only once clad in a green towel to dry his clothes. (Oh, what a manly chest! What muscular shoulders!) Then he would stay put in class till late afternoon, taking a break for lunch. He would then get back to his room and come out only in the evening for tea, followed by a visit to the computer center for an hour. Then a spell at the library. Dinner and back to the room. Poor fellow seemed to have absolutely no social life. That probably meant no girlfriends except perhaps his room-mate, but she dismissed that thought instantly.
She began visiting his room frequently on the pretext of seeking clarifications over some subtle aspect of computing or the other, and listened patiently while he expounded his views on the future of World Telecommunications, Inc., of which he was destined to be the founding director. She managed not to sleep through those. But the instant she turned the conversation into broader topics, he would clam up or start stammering. In fact he had developed the perfect way of terminating a conversation. He would stare at her and say “I wanted to tell you something”; then he would crease his forehead, scratch his temple, and remark “I forgot!” and walk away.
Deciding that all this was getting her nowhere, Sukanya decided to gear up her strategy. She took her aunt (with whom she had stayed the last 6 months) into confidence. Part B of the plan was to invite Kumar home for dinner. She made a pair of irresistible offers and managed to elicit a “yes” to visit her for dinner that weekend.
Kumar had convinced himself to spend $100 on the Taylor’s, 1927 that he held in his left hand. After the disastrous ‘first night’ experience in her dorm, he had recovered remarkably well. He managed do some of her homework. For days he had been preparing to ask her out for dinner, but before he could work up the courage, she invited him over to her aunt’s place to look over her laser disc collection of Revathi movies.
The big moment had at last arrived, and he was going to make the best of it. He had spent the whole week thinking of something appropriate for the occasion, when his room-mate had suggested vintage wine. Not that Kumar had any experience with this, you see, but he been told that Taylor’s, 1927 was in a class of it’s own. He knocked thrice with his right.
She was dressed in a red silk shirt and a stylish skirt of black crepe that fell below her knees. What lovely legs, Kumar thought. And she has two of them. He bowed elaborately and held out his left. “May I have the honour of the gift?”
“Oh, how sweet of you. Come on in. Aunty!”
An elderly lady in her 40s walked into the room.
“Aunty, this is Kumar.”
“Hello, aunty.” He wasn’t sure what else to say. But aunty had been briefed rather well on what was expected of her.
“Welcome home, my dear boy. Sukanya has told me so much about you. Do come in. Take your seat. Make yourself comfortable. Did you have any trouble finding the house? We were worried you might get lost. This is not a very safe neighbourhood, you see.”
Great. Here he was to have a possible date with his girlfriend and an aunty had to chatter her head off. “Yes, aunty.”
“My husband’s not back yet. He is the GM, production at General Motors. Very rarely comes home before ten. You can imagine the kind of pressure they must work under. Would you like something to drink? Hot or cold?”
“No thanks, aunty.”
The boy was being as unresponsive and her niece had described. Aunty decided it was time to move in for the kill. “So where do you stay in India, Kumar? Tell me about your family.” Through a series of carefully worded questions over dinner, Aunty managed to get a complete bio-data. It would suffice.
Seven years later, Kumar was patiently explaining the story of his daughter’s birth at her request.
“Then Mommy’s aunty sent Grandma your Mommy’s horoscope to see if it would match with mine.”
“Did it, Daddy?” The eyes of the four year old were filled with anticipation and tension.
“Of course it did, dear. So Grandma wrote back to them to tell them that the horoscope matched, and also invited them to Shanthi aunty’s wedding, so that everyone could see Mummy. That red album on the shelf has photos of that wedding.”
A demand that the album be scrutinized instantly followed, and was complied with.
“Why am I not in any of the pictures, Daddy?”
“You weren’t born at that time, dear. This was seven years ago.”
That took a moment’s thought. “Then what happened?”
“Grandma liked Mummy so much that she decided Mummy would stay with us forever. So three months later, Mummy and I were married on the same day as Sangeetha aunty. Then I became the Director at Global Telecommunications, so we came to this house and lived happily ever after.”
“And how was I born, Daddy?”
At this juncture, Kumar felt he had bitten off more than he could chew, so he left her with her mother and vanished into a room. Within minutes he could hear several loud howls of protest. He came out to check.
“Really, Kumar, why don’t you complete the story before you run off to take a bath? And for heaven’s sake get rid off that green towel. I warn you: if she cries again, I’ll get really mad!”
Kumar looked forlornly at his wife and walked up to his only daughter, who had promptly stopped crying. She insisted on being lifted. Perched on Kumar’s neck, she questioned him once again.
“How was I born, Daddy?”
Kumar thought for a while, then said “I wanted to tell you something, dear, but I ….”
Written in March 1996
This story has an interesting postscript. I wrote the story with a real incident in mind. The first part of the story actually happened to my friend Vivekananda. After I wrote the story, he left for the US. A year or so later, he apparantly did meet “Sukanya” in a theatre. However, they did not meet or talk to each other. Now Vivekananda is happily married (not to Sukanya, though), and is believed to have discarded his green towel.