Aloka Gupta gazed down from the window of her apartment at the gray-brown bustle of Manhattan's Fifty-second Street, her thoughts turning to her childhood home and the family-owned tea plantation in Darjeeling. Urged on by the chill of the short autumn days, the tea plants were now forming their third flush of tender shiny leaves, lending a tantalizing fragrance to the crisp mountain air. Eight years earlier, her life and love, like the bumblebees flitting from bud to bud, had been entwined with those bushes.
The cold jumble of glass, concrete, chrome, and steel before her now stood in cruel contrast to the allure of that idyllic time. As she turned away, the final divorce papers, legal-sized and officiously stamped with the seal ofthe state of New York and the day's date, stared accusingly from the top of her writing desk.
How was a divorce possible? She had always assumed that she would grow up to be a pativrata and remain devoted to her husband for the rest of her life. Having been reared on stories of powerful goddesses, Sita, Savitri, and Sakuntala, examples of devoted Hindu wives, she found it hard to believe that now, at age forty, she would be alone. Sita, Savitri, and Sakuntala would exist only on the pages of scriptures.
She sank down in front of her desk, pushed the divorce papers aside, and picked up the current issue of Manhattan, India, published by Girish Enterprises. Three years ago, she'd landed a journalist's position with the publication, primarily because of her master's degree in English and high school teaching experience. The widely read weekly reported news and events of interest to the flourishing Indian-American community scattered throughout New York and its environs. Subscribers devoured the newsweekly from cover to cover, passed it to friends, talked about it over chai latte, and sent clippings back home. Aloka wrote feature articles and reveled in the challenge of touching the emotions of the readers.
The first two pages of this week's edition were devoted to the profile of a taxicab driver who'd donated his total savings to his village in India to establish a school for girls, and that of a biochemist who served food to the homeless in her spare time. It also contained Aloka's own piece: an interview with a nutritionist about vegetarian sources for vitamin B12. Aloka enjoyed afresh seeing her work in print.
She flipped to page three. The entire top half of the page was dedicated to an advice column, "Ask Seva," the most popular section of the paper. It was her most important contribution, one she penned under the pseudonym. Nine months earlier, when she'd started the column, her editor hadn't been enthusiastic about its reception. Before long she had surprised him with her knack for sensing the needs, feelings, and concerns of transplants from her old country, and responding to them appropriately. By day the new arrivals, the disoriented desis, marveled at the broad avenues, monumental skyscrapers, and well-stocked department stores. By night they longed for the meaningful human contact so lacking in their new homeland. They would huddle in a tiny, dilapidated efficiency, shared with another desi. Their faces growinglong, their eyelashes dampening, they would moan, "My country, my relatives, my language, my food." They would speculate on whether the migration--most often forced by economic realities--hadn't been a mistake. One lonely man, a "married bachelor," was known to dial 800 numbers just to converse with someone. "The first three to four years is a curse," wiser members of the community would advise them. "Thereafter you stop crying."
Aloka did more than stopping tears. Her column was a skillful merger of optimism, guidance, and practical advice on how to make the adjustment to a new home: where to get a silk sari cleaned, how to locate a Hindu priest for an auspicious family event, how to order a vegetarian meal sans eggs in a restaurant, why must one wear layered clothing during the frigid months, and how to make the first move in a relationship.
"Seva" meant service and, as in much of the vocabulary of Indian languages, carried overtones of devotion. True to the spirit of her assumed name, Aloka didn't deliver a terse reply to a sensitive question, or enlist the help of a team of psychologists for a technically accurate answer. Rather, she dispensed commonsense advice a loving sister might offer. Young and the old, male and female, new arrivals and longtime residents alike read her column and conferred about it at the kebob house, as well as on Internet user groups. They corresponded with her and visited her website, www.askseva.com, seeking guidance on all manner of problems but especially those of the heart. They embraced her as a source of hope and wisdom. She was "their own."
This week's column had begun with suggestions of low-cost ways to enjoy the city: the Sunday band at Central Park, the cumin-spiked vegetable juices served by a blind vendor near Rockefeller Square, and the American release of an earlier Soumitra Chatterjee film at a Bronx theater. The column had ended with a plea to help find a missing Tamil-speaking child.
Her upbeat style, clear simple phrasing, and handwritten "Love, Seva" signature, done in a single stroke of the pen, had won hearts. Manhattan, India now boasted the highest circulation of all local Indian-American periodicals, some fifty thousand and growing.
But who was the real Seva?
The question was a hot topic of discussion at social and religious gatherings of the community. The current consensus--and it shifted often--was that the voice belonged to a chain-smoking, elite female novelist, Nandita Pal, who called a choice Fifth Avenue address home. Not even Pranab, Aloka's ex-husband, had suspected it was her. This was the first secret she had kept from him. As her marriage had disintegrated, she had felt a greater need to rely on her own career and identity. She told friends and acquaintances that she worked for a diversified company that counted publishing, music, and importing clothing among its activities. When asked, Aloka would offer, "Oh, I do a little writing and some market research." Seva's real identity remained the paper's closely guarded secret.
Now Aloka reached for the pile of mail she'd brought from work and began sorting through it. She received mostly complimentary letters, along with an occasional diatribe--"truffles and arrows," as she called them. The first card in the batch happened to be from an admirer. It said:
Even if it turns out that you're forty and overweight, with rotten teeth and five terrible children, I'd still love you.
Aloka chuckled and shook her head, tossed the card in the corner waste can, and picked up the next.
I am absolutely positive you are a man.
Your replies are much too intelligent for a zanana.
Annoyed by the condescending term, which translated roughly as a mere woman, Aloka wadded the note into a ball and flung it toward the waste can, missing it by several feet. Her eyes were already focused on the next letter.
Why do women in New York wash their hair so much? The last three attractive women I asked for a date all replied, "I'd love to, but I have to wash my hair."
I wish I were Breck.
Aloka smiled to herself. A suitable solution to "Breck's" problem was beginning to form in her mind when she was startled by the sound of footsteps. She turned halfway in her chair.
Pranab was standing in the doorway. In the drab navy jacket of a telephone repair service specialist, he seemed ill at ease. His body emitted a faint oily odor.
"Oh, it's you." Why today, of all days? she wondered. "I wasn't expecting you."
He stepped into the room. At five-foot-ten, he towered over her; but in the deep afternoon shadows he appeared diminished. His deep-set eyes seemed to have retreated even farther behind the habitual tortoiseshell spectacles; his lips were compressed into a thin line, giving his face an icy expression.
"Just came for a book."
He paused uncertainly before the maple bookcase that contained old volumes bound in maroon, literature they had shared. This study, with its cherry-finished desk beneath the window and adjustable reading light, had always been his shrine.
A wayward lock of hair stuck out from the nape of his neck and her fingers trembled with the urge to smooth it. She rubbed them instead over her tight-fitting denim jeans, a cheerless reminder of the pounds gained over the last several months.
"Can I help you find anything?" She spoke in English, glad that they shared a second language. In propitious times, they had conversed in Bengali, or Bangla, their poetic mother tongue, with its mellifluous tones. Not today. Only English, a neutral language bare of emotions, could be trusted to convey the appropriate formality.
His silence knifed through her like a high wind from the Himalayas. She watched him remove a tattered volume with a cracked binding, his favorite treatise written in Sanskrit, musty scent emanating from it. With long tapered fingers he began to leaf through the book. His expression softened when he turned to a page that contained a favorite passage.
He snapped the book closed and gave her a glance. How quickly husband becomes stranger. Not even the hint of a question hung in the air. When there were no questions between them; she knew the marriage was dead.
He half turned toward the door. "I'm moving to my new place tomorrow," he finally said, in a tone that was low, mundane, and devoid of sentiment.
She wanted to ask: Where have you left the voice that once so forcefully exhorted the tea workers in Darjeeling to rise against their oppressor--my father, no less? In those exciting days, Pranab, his robust figure clad in a white kurta and his luminous eyes emanating fervor, had commanded like the mythical god Arjuna. She had loved him enough to risk her life for him.
"Here's my new address and phone number in case you ever need it." He dropped the apartment keys on a side table and pressed a blue Post-It into her hand.
How would he manage on his own? He needed a woman in his life. Right now she longed to massage his forehead with a fragrant oil to chase away the day's irritations, like a good Hindu wife would do.
She said, "I'll be sure to forward your mail."
He took a step toward the door. "If I can ever do anything for you, Aloka ..."
She heard the regret in his voice, witnessed the tentative movement of his legs. Perhaps their ten-year relationship hadn't ended. There were empty pages yet to be written.
She stood motionlessly, staring after his departing figure, hoping for him to swivel around at any moment. His image became smaller and his outline blurred. It was as though she were peering at him through a rain-drenched glass panel. Finally he floated out of the room. She listened to the familiar squeak of his Nikes descending the stairs. Then an ambulance siren smothered that tiny sound, but not her hopes.
Copyright © 2002 by Bharti Kirchner.