By Reena Kapoor
This is the third time in three months that she’s called. I hesitate. I want to help. Gosh, I’d love to help. What an example, a woman like her could set! Especially in our community, our well placed diaspora, our model minority. But I’ve been in this business – this woman “saving” business – long enough. I know, I know I shouldn’t be using words like “saving” but I get tired. We all get tired. I talk to so many women. They call. They are mad, we get mad and there’s a lot of heat and breath. Then nothing. The dust settles, half-hearted apologies are issued, bargains are struck. And the players go back to where they were. Until…until I don’t know. The bargains recede into bitterness, sometimes worse. I’ve even seen it cycle back through the kids who grow up angry, afraid, sometimes both. Like our fine traditions the cycle lives on.
I worry about her. She loves her trinkets and frills and the adulation that comes with it. Fact is her husband provides amply. More than most. I know, I know, I am not supposed to go there either. And he’s one of our biggest donors. She signs the checks but it’s no secret where the money comes from. She has it so good on all fronts that some days even I wonder what it would be like to have her life! I hate these thoughts but feminist fumes can only carry you so long.
Weirdly, I like her husband. He is the usual successful desi man with the usual desi expectations of work and family and life. He seems to genuinely listen when I talk about problems women face in our community. There are only about 500 Indian families in this small midwestern town. But those numbers are sufficient for us to be deluged. And always need money. He’s one of the few desi men who doesn’t try to deny our truths. Or is he just keeping tabs?
Anyway I have to be true to our mission. When she called this morning she sounded different – strangely desperate. Besides what else am I going to do? We are “Women helping women”. And a “big case” like this could put us on the map!
She arrives looking tired, and stunning as usual. I stare a little when I open the door. Her lipstick is always a different color, each one bending to her beauty. She’s always carefully careless with her looks, pretending she’s unaware. But I’ve seen her play coquette or serious thinker depending on the audience. Gifted that way. Her solitaires sparkle, her diamond rings perfect. But it is I who she turns to for help. I am in the business but I am also her one friend, who’ll tell her she deserves better.
She walks in and we hug. Her boys five and seven follow. They let me hug them. I lead them into the kitchen. She motions the boys to my family room. We can see them from the kitchen but if we keep our voices low enough they can’t hear us. “Oh, what does it matter anyway? They won’t understand – not now, not ever. They’ll grow to be desi men too!”, she declares. The boys have pulled out distractions they brought along – a beaten toy engine, an iPad, a game boy. They sit with their backs to us.
She sits at the kitchen table. I make a great show of putting everything aside and sit down to face her. She launches, “He’s traveling for work again and I know she’s also on the trip. He promised me it’s all over between them. Then last Friday he calls to say he’s extending his stay by three days. For some customer follow-up bullshit! I asked him straight out if she’s there and he said it doesn’t matter if she’s there or not. I called his secretary and that fat bitch acted like she had no idea what the extended stay was for. I am ready to leave for good. But I am stuck… with the boys. Even my parents…” Angry tears choke her. I grab a box of tissues. She snatches a couple and blows her nose. I’ve never seen her do this in public.
She goes on. “I hate my life! Constantly driving them to all sorts of garbage and play dates and stuff. I’ve stopped cooking – everyone gets grilled cheese sandwiches. All week. I smoke all the time, thanks to their constant demands” she says, pointing to the little desi men in my family room. “This morning he calls to tell me it will be another week! When I asked who else was staying he brushed me off and said he had to go. Now he’s not picking up my calls. I’ve had it! Who’d believe I got an Ivy League education? Look at me! Stuck in this god-forsaken town that can barely understand my accent, all in service to his career. I am done with him. DONE!” She bursts into tears. The boys are now looking at us. I nod at them and mouth, “It’s OK” before I put my arm around her. “I am so sorry.” My mind’s jumping into gear. I put my hand on her diamond-studded one, “How can I help?”
She almost shouts, “First, I need a job. Then I need to get the hell out. Can you help?” I barely contain my excitement, “Of course! With your Ivy League background, there are plenty of jobs out there. One opening is all you need and…” She looks at me hopefully “Really?” “Absolutely!” I gush on, “You can work online or go out…there are many options – in sales or client management for a small company or at a bank or even teaching or …” She’s looking at me with her beautiful tearful eyes, “But my experience is limited. I don’t even know where to start.” I swell at her need. I will be there for her. This is how women help women.
I start to blurt out ideas. She looks a little distracted. Then she nods. Suddenly, “You know Debra – the woman next door to us? She worked for ten years, became a director and then had kids. Now she’s home full time. What’s the point? Wasted her life. And married that school teacher!” I bite my tongue. One of these days we’ll need to address her attitude. Can’t have her blabbing like this if she’s going to be a spokeswoman for us.
I go to the fridge and pull out sandwiches I had ordered ahead. I get lunch set up and bring the boys their plates. I’m hungry but she nibbles. The boys eat quietly, keeping one hand on their distractions. I feel sorry for them. They are innocent in this drama. But back to the mission at hand. “Send me your info or better yet let me send you a resume template. Let’s get started on that right away. I know businesses everywhere have openings. You are going to have no trouble…” She nods. I want her attention back. But she’s probably depressed. We’ll fix it.
Soon it’s time for her to leave. We hug. Before I can hug the boys they are outside standing by her car, looking back at us. I wave at them. They turn away.
I’m excited. Once she’s working the world will open up for her – and us. If she goes through with this we’ll likely lose some donors. But she’ll be a great spokeswoman. Telling other women how we helped and how she turned her life around. That should bring other funding. But first things first. That evening I send her a bunch of information. She responds promptly. After a few days her responses slow down. That happens. I overwhelmed her. It’s OK, I tell myself. Go gentler. A week later I call her. She tells me she’s busy and then nothing. I have to be patient.
Two weeks later I arrive at a party. I know she’ll be there. I am usually the only single desi woman at such gatherings. Some of the men are awkward around me, as usual. I wonder sometimes if they invite me out of pity. I know the women like to keep me close. In case they ever need an out. The men like to keep me closer, as in keeping your enemies closer. I need them too. They’re donors. I know my work has little meaning for them, even though they like to occasionally shout about it from their facebook rooftops. I know how to milk it. All I have to do is make a facebook post recognizing one of them for a donation and the rest come pouring in. Always trying to gauge who donated more. No harm. The money is for a good cause.
But today I need to talk to her alone. She looks up, gives me a faint nod and continues talking. She is beautiful, holding court as usual, surrounded by other women who cannot get enough of her, her baubles, her beauty. I am one of the few who’s allowed behind the curtain. I go over to hug her. I get a watery response. She avoids my eye and continues to hold court. Her fans mill about. I let it go.
Then I notice they are all admiring something she has. A new ring? I can’t tell. “Hush! Not so loud”, she giggles. “The fineness is mind blowing… it even works with my smallest ring,” she points to one with chocolate diamonds on her pinky. “You can’t buy it on the open market. He really had to go fishing.” She looks over at her husband who’s standing in a circle of men talking animatedly. He catches her eye and they exchange smiles. My heart sinks. The women gush. I feel like I’m on the verge of seeing something but I can’t put my finger on it.
I look for a break in the evening. I am about to give up when she gets a call and walks away into the foyer. I follow her. She’s irritated, “No, wake him up NOW and make him eat. I can’t have him waking up hungry in the middle of the night. … No! Please get it done. Yes. … Thanks! We’ll be home after 11. Bye.” She ends the call, turns around and sees me. She raises an eyebrow.
I start babbling, “How are you? Are you getting my emails…” She forces a patient smile, “Oh dear! I am good, hon’. You are so sweet…” I try again,“Are you done with your resume? I sent you a few links. I’ve been looking for…” She looks irritated, “C’mon! What did you think? I am not going to work, and mess up my family because of one bad day. He’s a good man. He loves me. Plus I’m not abandoning my kids by taking on a job.” She starts walking past me towards the party room.
I am desperate now, “Abandon? But we made all these plans. You’d do so well, you’d never look back. I was even thinking of featuring your case in our newsletter…” She laughs out loud. She’s standing at the entrance to the main room looking back at me. The other women are staring at us now. I force a smile. She steps towards me, “My case! Listen to you darling. Well, thanks for your concern but I don’t need it. Besides, what did you think? I’d take a teacher’s job or a bank clerk’s job? What do they even make?” I notice she’s stroking her shawl.
She turns back to the party. This time it’s the men who come up to her. I watch in fascination from the foyer. I can’t decide what fascinates them more. Her beauty, her diamonds all are irresistible. I wonder if they’re trying to divine what keeps a woman like her in thrall?
Her husband sees me standing aimlessly and walks over. “How’re you doing?” I nod and mumble. I’m still staring at her. He chuckles, “Oh don’t tell me even you’re enamored by that shawl. I thought you were above all that!” He’s laughing, “Did you touch it? People hear the word shahtoosh and they want to touch it. Took some complicated transactions to get one. Called in a few favors. Told them I had to save my marriage!” He guffaws. I don’t say anything. He stiffens at my reticence, “Rest assured, I paid them all very well. Those shawl makers need to make a living too. Who are we to say the Chiru’s life is more precious than their livelihood? In fact, making it illegal has made it even more profitable for poachers…” He’s looking at me as if asking me to defy his reasoning. I just nod.
A memory comes flooding back. A shahtoosh – literally meaning “royal wool” – was passed down in my father’s family. It was a prized object belonging to my grandmother. Even more rare after 1975 when the Chiru antelope was deemed endangered and weaving its hair for these shawls was declared illegal. I had seen the shawl only once. The shawl was remarkably fine even to my teenage touch. So fine that it slipped into every crack of grievance my father’s family had ever nursed, tearing us all apart after my grandmother died. My father had called it the Chiru’s curse.
“How much was it?” I shock myself by asking. He looks surprised, hesitates, “25 grand…USD.” He pauses then goes on, “…and worth it. She’s worth it. And peace…” He looks at her. The men are gingerly touching the shawl. One of them takes off his ring to put the shahtoosh to the test. She hands over the shawl. It passes through his ring. They all clap. It’s a sight to behold.
It dawns on me. I am invited to these parties so these women can reassure themselves that they chose wisely. Look at the alternative. Me. Single. Alone. Unadorned. I start walking to the door. Her husband calls from behind, “Not staying for dinner?” I shake my head. “I need to get to work…” He nods, “Ah OK. Have you received my check?” I manage a smile, “No. Not yet. But thanks.” He goes on, “No, I should thank you. I know you helped her through… her struggles.” I stop smiling, turning now to look at him fully. Is he warning me? But he looks genuine and unreadable, as usual. I search his face, then nod. “No problem” I say and hurry away. “And you’ll be getting a match from the company…” he calls from behind.
In my car I make a list. First order of business: recognize her husband’s donation on facebook ASAP! As I leave, I wonder if the Chiru went on to thrive after 1975 after the protections became binding? Or were they poached at even higher rates as the shawls became even more rare and expensive? Life is complicated.
Reena Kapoor grew up all over India as an“army brat” and that wandering sensibility is reflected in her debut poetry collection Arrivals & Departures. Her work has been published in The Bluebird Word, Potato Soup Journal, Ariel Chart Literary Journal, 433 Magazine, Tiny Seed Journal, Poet’s Choice, Visible Magazine, Writing in a Woman’s Voice and India Currents. Four plays by Reena were produced by EnActe Arts in 2021.