They planned to drive to Orlando and spend three days there. The hotels were expensive, but to absorb such wonders money was necessary.
Hemant offered to participate in the driving, but Suresh did some more back slapping, this was America, not your India, where a visitor could drive without an International Driving Licence or indeed without any kind of licence at all, just a bribe.
Disney World, Orlando, Florida, USA
Is such a thing possible In your India? There was no end to this question, as Hemant was forced time and again, to say no, such a thing was not possible in their India.
So organized, such crowds, such a money-making machine, such technological marvels, such fantasy, such going through tunnels, haunted houses and castles, such an onslaught of souvenirs, such marveling, such eating of hamburgers, hot dogs, Kentucky Fried Chicken, tacos, and thick milkshakes. Around they wandered with those milkshakes which never seemed to end, sipping the cold sweet stuff through giant straws. Was there anything in this country that wasn't big?
Anuradha and Himanshu loved it, Hemant loved it, Suresh, Seema plus two kids, their millionth visit with Indian tourists and wonder seeker in tow, they loved it all over again. Even Astha managed to be caught up in what she saw and experienced. They were all children together, all Mickey Mousers in a Disney World.
Besides families everywhere there were couples embracing, couples walking with their hands in each others pockets, kissing, eating, conversing, laughing.
Suresh and Seema became even more of a couple here. They walked holding hands. For our benefit, or because they are on vacation, or because they have lived in America so long, or because they love each other so much? It was the last possibility that Astha could bear the least. Anything but that Hemant's sister should live in bliss while she lived in misery.
'I thought Disney World was for children,' she remarked to Seema.
Seema and Suresh both grinned at her.
'Arre, people come to enjoy,' said Suresh.
'Relax, have fun, spend quality time together,' clarified Seema for Astha's greater understanding.'
'Well, wife,' said Hemant, the second night in the hotel, at his most affectionate, swept by emotion at having seen Disney World, and recorded it on a thousand pictures taken for the benefit of back home, 'it's been quite an experience, no?'
'Yes, it has.'
It was late, the children had fallen asleep, exhausted by so much pleasure and walking around. Hemant sat next to Astha, and put his arm around her.
'How's your head? He enquired tenderly.
They sat on in silence. After a while Astha dislodged herself. 'I have to sleep,' she said.
'OK,' said Hemant, getting up as well.
'You think marriage is just sex.'
'Of course I don't. What do you want that I don't give you?'
'Interest. Togetherness. Respect.'
'Baby, I respect you,' said Hemant soothingly, 'you are my wife. As for togetherness, that's just what I want.'
'Why all of a sudden?'
'We are on holiday. This is what people do on holiday.'
'I don't want to'.
'I am not able to switch on and off like you,' said Astha.
'It is not as though you were the most willing creature. Each time I try and come near you, you say you have a headache. A man is tired, he can't be doing the chasing all the time.'
'Is that what you call it, chasing? Not having sex on demand? There has to be something more between us. I have to feel it is me you want.'
Hemant looked baffled. 'Of course it's you I want. You are my wife,' he repeated.
'That's the problem. Anybody could be your wife.'
'What rubbish. I picked you, didn't I?
'Picking is not the same as knowing.'
'Why do you always make things so complicated? You are my wife, that is enough for me, I would have thought it is enough for you. Or is it someone else?'
'Are you referring to my life or yours?' asked Astha
'Come on darling,' replied Hemant, ignoring her barb, 'we are on holiday. I want this to bring us closer, as a family, as a couple.'
He had felt her distance, he wanted her back. There seemed to be no way out, unless he decided to leave the marriage there and then. Slowly she moved towards him.
On and on marched the holiday, relentless, inexorable, eating up money, energy, rolls of film, pushing them to cheap eating places, and suitcases that grew heavier by the day.
'Shopping on the way back, shopping on the way back,' Hemant kept saying but it didn't quite work like that. There were so many souvenirs, the Disney World ones alone filled half a suitcase. Besides there were the presents Seema and Suresh were sending back for the rest of the family, and clothes for everybody, so much cheaper in the States than anywhere else.
London. They were met at the airport by Hemant's cousin.
Astha had always liked this cousin. He had gone abroad to do well, since he couldn't do well in India, and ended up owning a shop in the suburbs of London. Just what this meant was only now becoming clear as they drove, drove and drove, and finally stopped in front of a house, which was a double storied, very narrow building, identical to the entire row on the street. Naked houses on a treeless street.
'Welcome to my humble abode,' said Jagdish, edging the care near the curb, and jumping out to take their suitcases. 'I'll see where Liz is,' he panted, lugging them inside.
Liz, the unenthusiastic wife. 'Hello, would you like a cup of tea? she asked, and they could feel the indifference, and they could understand why Jagdish was being so effusive.
'Their house is so small, Mama,' whispered Anuradha, awed by such discomfort in the West.
'They don't have much money,' whispered Astha back.
The bags, the guests, and the host struggled up the narrow stairs, what a nice house you have Jagdish, well, it's all right, and they went down to have the tea that Liz had prepared.
One week in London, of learning how to take the Tube, of don't worry, Jagdish, we will take care of ourselves, no, no, please do not bother, Liz, we will manage, and Jagdish's reply, well, if that's all right then.
Every morning Astha got up and made sandwiches so they could save money on eating. They bought the ingredients and the drinks at the corner store, because Liz clearly did not understand the imperatives of Indian hospitality, and they didn't want to burden Jagdish's marriage further. They gritted their teeth and managed to not all bathe every morning, the house only had one complete bathroom.
There was some disagreement as to how they would spend this precious week. Astha wanted to see all the art treasures London had to offer, she was willing to go on her own while her family did whatever they wanted. But Hemant would not hear of this – we are here to be together – and as a compromise they spent a morning at the Tate, a morning at the British Museum, and then covered the famous sights of London in a couple of day tours. Many photographs were taken as proof of the good time they were having.
All this over, they devoted themselves to shopping. There had to be much looking, exclaiming, comparing, soul searching, and converting of currencies before they could buy.
'I must say London is a very expensive place,' said Hemant, as they emerged from Marks and Spencer, arms laden, a light rain falling, a cold wind blowing.
'I wish we didn't feel the need to buy everything we see,' moaned Astha, exhaustion reducing her to the desire to lie in front of the department store door, and be trampled to death by all the Indians rushing in and out, buying, buying.
Anuradha and Himanshu looked at her reproachfully. They could hardly contain themselves in this material paradise. Floors and floors of merchandise with Hemant the indulgent father. The trouble, thought Astha, was that she too could hardly contain herself when she saw the kitchenware, gadgets, art supplies, bed linen, children's toys, clothes, underwear, stationery. Was there anything that did not move her with the urge to possess? No, such shopping was not morally good, she felt her sense of perspective and focus vanish amidst its successful assault on her greed. It was just as well these trips were rare.
On the evening of their fifth night. 'There seems to be trouble in India,' said Jagdish, a held back pleasure edging the notes of concern. He was entitled to a revenge so small, that he was in the safe place, the sane country, something in return for his unsatisfactory house, job, career, marriage and neighbourhood.
Astha and Hemant looked at each other. At home trouble was part of the atmosphere, outside it assumed more sinister proportions.
'What's happened?' asked Hemant.
'On the BBC. They are going to build the temple,' continued Jagdish.
Hemant relaxed. Oh, the temple. 'These politicians keep stirring things up,' he replied, uninterested.
While the family ate, Astha hung around the TV waiting for the news.
There it was. A brief visual of the Babri Masjid at night, floodlights beaming, sounds of bhajans in the background, thousands of kar sevaks surrounded by security forces, clearing the ground, laying the foundation for the temple, working, working, round the clock.
Things are tense in this ancient temple town, said the commentator, where a mosque stands on the site that Hindus claim to be the birthplace of the Lord Ram. While six thousand pilgrims work day and night, an estimated fifty thousand more have assembled here. The kar sevaks swear that this time they will rather die than stop. There have been protest marches by groups concerned with saving the Babri Masjid but so far the laying of the temple's foundation continues at a lower spot on the hill. The Prime Minister has called Hindu holy leaders to Delhi to discuss the issue.
How awful, thought Astha, what was going to happen? She wanted to go home. Her political self, her intelligent self functioned best there, here she felt isolated, saturated with things rather than thoughts.
What was Pipee doing? Each day she had been aware of her absence, yet she had enjoyed being with her family, enjoyed the comparative ease between Hemant and herself.
She dreaded what Pipee would say when she sensed this. As she tried to defend herself, I am married, she felt the betrayal Pip would feel, but by now betrayal was a second skin.
Astha had often imagined the breaking of her relationship with Pipee. What she hadn't realised was how slow the process would be, and in what infinitesimal stages.
There were differences, she thought miserably, but they hadn't seemed so important. This was no longer the case. After she came back they were clearly not in harmony.
'You won't like abroad,' remarked Astha to Pipee. 'It is awful.'
'Who would have thought it?' said Pipee dryly.
'You know what I mean,' said Astha impatiently.
'No, I don't. How could I? And anything is better than the things I saw.'
'What did you see?'
'For ten days total frenzy, policemen jeered at, control rooms smashed, loudspeakers blaring out prayers and bhajans – in such an atmosphere – pandemonium at the building site, and kar sewaks all over.'
'You mean you went to Ayodhya?'
'But why? You didn't tell me.'
'Where were you to tell?'
'It might have been dangerous, Pip.'
'Oh Ant, one can't always be safe. It was no more dangerous for me than for all those other poor women there. Besides I wanted to go. I am thinking of a conference on how families are affected in communal riots.'
More PhD stuff, thought Astha. 'Well, how was it?' she asked.
They are going to build the temple in the masjid area. That kind of energy, so deliberately stoked doesn't go away. It's only a matter of time.'
There was a silence. Pipee leaned back in her chair, and stared at the clouds that were running against the sky of her Vasant Kunj flat. Astha looked at her, she seemed so distant. She had felt closer thousands of miles away, thinking of her, writing to her.
Then Pipee said, 'Enough about Ayodhya. How was Disney?'
'And you and Hemant?' she asked. 'How was that?'
Astha kept her face still,. 'Also fine,' she said.
Pipee looked at her sharply, 'You have had sex with him,' she stated flatly.
Hemant's face rose before Astha's eyes, the moments she would never verbalise, her own realization that somewhere he still had the power to affect her. She felt her face going red.
'You've never really liked it any other way, have you?' persisted Pipee, her voice dry and hard.
'That's not true,' pleaded Astha.
'Yes it is'.
Astha winced and tried to retaliate. 'It's not that. You resent that I am not leaving him. You want a full-time partner. I understand that.'
'You would. It is what you have, after all.'
Astha was silent for a moment. It was better not to advance into these murky waters. She went on, 'It has nothing to do with us.'
'You went away with your family, that was bad enough, and I didn't say anything, because it's no use, and then you do this, why have me?'
Everything Pipee said was a distortion. Words were raising their ugly heads, and Astha could do nothing. No matter how hard she tried, she was not going to succeed.
Pipee kept that transgression her heart and used it as a foundation for the separation she saw ahead. A good memory is always useful when something needs to be destroyed.
Pipee and Astha continued to see each other, but there was now a carefulness between them. For Astha everything became dull, the grass looked ordinary, the sky looked bleak, the paint on her canvas colourless.
A thousand times she said to herself, confront her, tell her you want it like it was, or not at all, but she was too afraid. Pipee might say not at all, then what would happen to her, worse than this, much worse.
to be continued.........