LIP SYMPATHY AND CROCODILE TEARS
[a short story]
The doorbell rings. The woman called Manjula opens the door.
“We’ve come to fit the air-conditioner,” the man outside says.
“What? We haven’t ordered any AC,” the woman says and begins to close the door.
“Wait!” her husband’s voice says from behind the man. He’s come home early from work. He guides the man inside while his wife Manjula looks on in bewilderment.
“AC? You gone crazy? You just go and order an AC without even telling me?” Manjula asks her husband.
“Mother told me to get it. Smita and her family are coming,” the husband explains.
“Oh! So all this is for your darling sister and foreign husband, is it? When we ask for a cooler you crib, and for them it’s an AC!”
“He’s not a foreigner. He’s of Indian origin settled there.”
“So why does he need an AC?”
“Mother said they wouldn’t be able to stand the heat here, especially the kids.”
“Listen, Houston is much hotter and humid than here.”
“Maybe. But they are used to air conditioning.”
Please don’t argue with me – as it is the heat is driving me crazy!”
The bell rings again.
“It must be the commode,” her husband says and goes to open the door.
“Yes. Western Style.”
“This is too much! I’ve seen her shitting in the open, in the fields near our village, when she was a kid. And now she’s an NRI and wants to defecate western style? Bloody snobs, I don’t know why they come here and try to show off. And you, the perfect dutiful Mamma’s boy – no guts of your own!”
“What’s the matter? Is everything ready?” she hears her mother-in-law’s stern voice from behind, so Manjula lowers her face and slips away into the kitchen.
“Her name is Manjula [sweet voiced] but she speaks so uncouthly,” her mother says sarcastically.
“Her name is Smita [cheerful] but have you ever seen her smiling or laughing – just carps and cribs all the time,” Manjula mutters to herself.
The NRI guests arrive from Houston, and the next few days are hell for Manjula, physically and mentally. She dies a thousand deaths in her heart seeing the favoritism of her mother-in-law towards her sister-in-law and her family and is unable to bear the patronizing attitude of her guests and the subservient groveling of her husband before his mother. And all the time Smita make sarcastic barbs at Manjula and her incompetence, offering lip sympathy and shedding crocodile tears at old woman’s ‘agony’. And Manjula’s dear husband remains silent, a mute spectator! Why can’t he stand up for her?
One evening, they’ve invited a large number of guests to dinner, and while Smita is reveling in the paeans of praise being showered by her mother and her cronies, Manjula slogs it out in the kitchen.
“See Smita’s house in Houston,” the old woman boasts, showing everyone a photo album [which all NRI’s invariably bring with them to impress us ‘natives’!]. “It’s got a swimming pool, and her children, they are so accomplished, and her husband…” she goes on and on till Manjula can’t take it any more and she interrupts rudely, “ Mummyji, if you like it so much here, why don’t you go and stay there with your darling daughter?”
“What?” her mother-in-law asks disbelievingly.
“I mean, Smita is your own darling daughter after all, and I am sure she will look after you much better than me, isn’t it? After all, they are so well-off, and caring and loving. I’m sure it’s better for you to go there and live in luxury like a Maharani rather than suffering it out here with us!” Manjula says instinctively, but seeing the fiery look in her mother-in-law’s eyes, she starts to tremble.
Time freezes. Manjula feels tremors of trepidation wondering what is going to happen next. She has gone too far this time.
There is silence. A grotesque silence! And suddenly Manjula hears her husband’s voice, “I think Manjula is right.”
“What are you saying?” Smita asks astonished.
“I am saying that Manjula is right. It would be much better is mother stayed with you at Houston for some time. You’ve also got to take some responsibility and look after her, isn’t it?” her husband says firmly to his mother, and then he turns towards Manjula and looks at her in a way she has never seen before.
Copyright 2007 Vikram Karve