A Bollywood Affair
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
Copyright © 2014 Sonali DevISBN: 978-1-61773-013-9
All rights reserved.
All Mili had ever wanted was to be a good wife. A domestic goddess-slash-world's-wife-number-one-type good wife. The kind of wife her husband pined for all day long. The kind of wife he rushed home to every night because she'd make them a home so very beautiful even those TV serial homes would seem like plastic replicas. A home filled with love and laughter and the aroma of perfectly spiced food, which she would serve out of spotless stainless steel vessels, dressed in simple yet elegant clothes while making funny yet smart conversation. Because when she put her mind to it she really could dress all tip-top. As for her smart opinions? Well, she did know when to express them, no matter what her grandmother said.
Professor Tiwari had even called her "uniquely insightful" in his letter of recommendation. God bless the man; he'd coaxed her to pursue higher education, and even Mahatma Gandhi himself had said an educated woman made a better wife and mother. So here she was, with the blessings of her teacher and Gandhiji, melting into the baking pavement outside the American Consulate in Mumbai, waiting in line to get her visa so she could get on with said higher education.
Now if only her nose would stop dripping for one blessed second. It was terribly annoying, this nose-running business she was cursed with—her personal little pre-cry warning, just in case she was too stupid to know that tears were about to follow. She squeezed the tip of her nose with the scarf draped across her shoulders, completely ruining her favorite pink salwar suit, and stared at the two couples chattering away over her head. She absolutely would not allow herself to cry today.
So what if she was sandwiched between two models of newly wedded bliss. So what if the sun burned a hole in her head. So what if guilt stabbed at her insides like bull horns. Everything had gone off like clockwork and that had to be a sign that she was doing the right thing. Right?
She had woken up at three that morning and taken the three-thirty fast train from Borivali to Charni Road station to make it to the visa line before five. It had been a shock to find fifty-odd people already camped out on the concrete sidewalk outside the high consulate gates. But after she got here the line had grown at an alarming rate and now a few hundred people snaked into an endless queue behind her. And that's what mattered. Her grandma did always say "look at those beneath you, not those above you."
Mili turned from the newlywed couple in front of her to the newlywed couple behind her. The bride giggled at something her husband said and he looked like he might explode with the joy the sound brought him. Mili yanked a handkerchief out of her mirror-work sack bag and jabbed it into her nose. Oh, there was no doubt they were newlyweds. It wasn't just the henna on the women's hands, or the bangles jangling on their arms from their wrists to their elbows. It was the way the wives fluttered their lashes when they looked up at their husbands and all those tentative little touches. Mili sniffed back a giant sob. The sight of the swirling henna patterns and the sunlight catching the glass bangles made such longing tear through her heart that she almost gave up on the whole nose-squeezing business and let herself bawl.
Not that all the longing in the world was ever going to give Mili those bridal henna hands or those bridal bangles. Her time for that had passed. Twenty years ago. When she was all of four years old. And she had no memory of it. None at all.
She blew into the hankie so hard both brides jumped.
"You okay?" Bride Number One asked, her sweet tone at odds with the repulsion on her face.
"You don't look too good," Bride Number Two added, not to be outdone.
Both husbands preened at their wives' infinite kindliness.
"I'm fine," Mili sniffed from behind the hankie pressed to her nose. "Must be catching a cold."
Both couples took a quick step back. Getting sick would put quite a damper on all that shiny-fresh newly weddedness. Good. She was sick of all that talk over her head. Being just a smidge less than five feet tall did not make her invisible.
The four of them exchanged meaningful glances. The couple behind her smiled expectantly at Mili, but they didn't come out and ask her to let them move closer to their new friends. The couple in front studied the cars whizzing by with great interest. They weren't about to let their position in line go. The old Mili would have moved out of the way without a second thought. But the new Mili, the one who had sold her dowry jewels so she could go to America and finally make herself worth something, had to learn to hold her ground.
There's a difference between benevolence and stupidity and even God knows it. Her grandmother's ever-present monotone tried to strengthen her resolve. She was done with stupidity, she really was, but she hated feeling petty and mean. She was about to give up the battle and her place in line when a man in a khaki uniform walked up to her. "What status?" he asked impatiently.
Mili took a step back and tried not to give him what her grandmother called her idiot-child look. Anyone in uniform terrified her.
"F-1? H-1?" He gave the paperwork she was clutching to her belly a tap with his baton, doing nothing to diffuse her fear of authority.
"Oy hoy," he said irritably when she didn't respond, and switched to Hindi. "What visa status are you applying for, child?"
The flickering light bulb in Mili's brain flashed on. "F-1. Student visa, please," she said, mirroring his dialect and beaming at him, thrilled to hear the familiar accent of her home state here in Mumbai.
His face softened. "You're from Rajasthan, I see." He smiled back, not looking the least bit intimidating anymore, but more like one of the kindly uncles in her village. He grabbed her arm. "This way. Come along." He dragged her to a much shorter queue that was already moving through the wrought-iron gates. And just like that, Mili found herself in the huge waiting hall inside the American consulate.
It was like stepping inside a refrigerator, pure white and clinically clean and so cold she had to rub her arms to keep gooseflesh from dancing across her skin. But the chill in the room refreshed her, made her feel all shiny and tip-top like the stylish couple making goo-goo eyes at each other on the Bollywood billboard she could see through the gleaming windows.
She patted down her hair. She had pulled it tightly into a ponytail and then braided it for good measure. Today must be an auspicious day because her infuriating, completely stubborn curls had actually decided to stay where she had put them. Demon's hair, her grandmother called it. Her naani had made Mili massage her arms with sesame oil every morning after she combed Mili's hair out for school. "Your hair will kill me," she had loved to moan. "It's like someone unraveled a rug and threw the tangled mass of yarn on your head just to torture me."
Dear old Naani. Mili was going to miss her so much. She pressed her palms together, threw a pleading look at the ceiling, and begged for forgiveness. I'm sorry, Naani. You know I would never do what I'm about to do if there were any other way.
"Mrs. Rathod?" The crisply dressed visa officer raised one blond eyebrow at Mili as she approached the interview window. The form she had filled out last night while hiding in her cousin's bathroom sat on the laminated counter between them.
"It says here you are twenty-four years old?" Mili was used to that incredulous look when she told anyone her age. It was always hard convincing anyone she was a day over sixteen.
She started to nod again, but decided to speak up. "Yes. I am, sir," she said in what Professor Tiwari called her impressive English. The ten-kilometer bike ride from her home to St. Teresa's English High School for girls had been worth every turn of the pedal.
"It also says here you're married." Sympathy flashed in his blue eyes, exactly the way it flashed in Naani's eyes when she offered sweets to their neighbor's wheelchair-bound daughter, and Mili knew he had noticed her wedding date. Another thing Mili was used to. These urban types always, always looked at her this way when they found out how young she had been on her wedding day.
Mili touched her mangalsutra—the black wedding beads around her neck should've made the question redundant—and nodded. "Yes. Yes, I'm married."
"What is your area of study?" he asked, although that too was right there on the form.
"It's an eight-month certificate course in applied sociology, women's studies."
"You have a partial scholarship and an assistantship."
It wasn't a question so Mili nodded again.
"Why do you want to go to America, Mrs. Rathod?"
"Because America has done very well in taking care of its women. Where else would I go to study how to better the lives of women?"
A smile twinkled in his eyes, wiping away that pitying look from before. He cleared his throat and peered at her over his glasses. "Do you plan to come back?"
She held his stare. "I'm on sabbatical from my job at the National Women's Center in Jaipur. I'm also under bond with them. I have to return." She swallowed. "And my husband is an officer in the Indian Air Force. He can't leave the services for at least another fifteen years." Her voice was calm. Thank God for practicing in front of mirrors.
The man studied her. Let him. She hadn't told a single lie. She had nothing to fear.
He lifted a rubber stamp from the ink pad next to him. "Good luck with your education, Mrs. Rathod. Pick up your visa at window nine at four p.m." Slam and slam. And there it was—APPROVED—emblazoned across her visa application in the bright vermillion of good luck.
"Thank you," she said, unable to hold back a skip as she walked away. And thank you, Squadron Leader Virat Rathod. It was the first time in Mili's life that her husband of twenty years had helped his wife with anything.CHAPTER 2
This was what Samir lived for. Drinking himself senseless with his brother was a thing of such comfort that Samir couldn't think of a single other situation in which he felt so completely and wholly himself. Samir took a sip of his Macallen and scanned the crowd divided equally between the glass dance floor suspended over the swimming pool and the bar that overlooked it. He'd much rather be at one of his regular city bars with his brother, but when the wife of one of Bollywood's biggest superstars invited you to her husband's "surprise" fortieth birthday party, you showed up. And you acted like you wanted to be here more than anywhere else in the world. Especially when you needed the birthday boy to act in your next film.
The good news was that the hideous parts were over. The stripper had jumped out of the cake, the champagne fountain had cascaded down a tower of crystal flutes and been consumed amid toasts, tears, and flashing cameras. Now the frosted-glass hookahs were bubbling at tables and the smell of apple-flavored tobacco mingled with the smell of weed and cigars. Samir actually enjoyed this relatively mellow part of the evening, when the pretense was mostly over and everyone was too high to care about how they looked or how quotable what came out of their mouth was. Plus, the combination of the sapphire-lit pool shimmering beneath the glass dance floor and the blanket of stars above was quite beautiful. Not to mention the fact that his brother was here with him to enjoy it. He took another slow sip of his drink, leaned back on the low lounge-style sofa and let out a deep sigh.
Virat threw his head back and laughed. "Bastard, you're sighing. I swear, Chintu, you're such a chick."
"Shut up, Bhai. That was a man-sigh."
"Is that like one of those 'man purses' you carry?" His brother pointed his all-Indian Old Monk rum at the Louis Vuitton messenger bag leaning against a plush silk pillow next to Samir.
Samir shrugged. Given that he was a brand ambassador for Louis Vuitton, he could hardly carry anything else. It was the only modeling gig he did anymore. The money was fantastic and he liked the rustic flavor of the campaign. Truth was he had never enjoyed modeling. Too static for him. But thanks to his half-American genes and the white skin that had made his childhood hell, assignments had fallen in his lap far too easily to turn away. India's postcolonial obsession with white skin was alive and well. And modeling had led him to the camera so he couldn't begrudge it. Even after ten years, bringing a film alive from behind the lens still gave him his best hard-on.
Virat shook his head as if Samir was a lost cause. "Seriously, you drink that fancy shit, you color-coordinate your closet, and you actually fucking know the names of things you wear. Did I teach you nothing?"
Actually, Virat had taught Samir everything he knew. His brother was just two years older, but he'd been a father to Samir, their real father having had the indecency to die without either one of them ever knowing him. The bastard.
"You tried, Bhai. But who can be like you?" Samir raised his glass to his brother. "You are, after all, 'The Destroyer.'" They said that last word together, deepening their voices like they had done as boys, and took long sips from their glasses.
"The holy triumvirate," their mother had called them—the creator, the keeper, and the destroyer. Their mother was the creator, of course. The boys had fought for the title of destroyer. Virat had gone to the National Defense Academy at sixteen and become a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force and Samir was writing and directing Bollywood films. There was no longer a fight about who was "The Destroyer."
"You boys don't look anywhere near done." Rima, Virat's wife, returned from her third ladies' room visit of the evening.
The brothers stood, weaving a little, and grabbed each other's arms to steady themselves.
"Are you tired? Do we need to leave?" Virat's rugged, big-man face softened to goop. He rubbed his wife's shoulder. Her belly was starting to round out just the slightest bit and the angles of her face had lost some of their sharpness, but the rest of her was as slender and graceful as ever.
Rima ran her fingers through her husband's hair and they shared one of their moments. The kind of moment that made Samir feel like a rudderless ship with no land in sight. Not that he was looking for what they had. Neha was on location for a shoot and he was actually relieved that he didn't have to share his time with his family with his girlfriend.
Rima turned to Samir, went up on her toes, and ruffled his hair. Virat might still call him Chintu, which meant "tiny" in Hindi, but at a couple inches over six feet Samir had a good half foot on his brother.
"We don't need to leave." Rima gave them one of her angelic smiles. "But I am tired, so I am going home. You two try to save some liver for later?"
"Don't be ridiculous. We'll take you home. Bhai and I can finish up there. The party's winding down anyway." Samir reached for the jacket he had slung over the couch.
"Yeah, we're not staying here without you, baby," Virat said before wrapping his arms around Rima and breaking into a seriously tuneless rendition of "I Don't Want to Live Without You." Usually Samir wouldn't mind anyone murdering that particular Foreigner song, but there were still a few journos hanging around at a nearby table and the thought of Virat and Rima's private moment mocked in some bitchy film magazine column made Samir positively sick.
Rima, genius that she was, stroked Virat's lips with her thumb, silencing him. Samir loved the woman. He mouthed a thank-you and got another angel's smile in return. "No. You boys continue. I'll send the driver back." She tapped Virat's chest with one finger and gave Samir a meaningful look. "Samir, he's definitely not getting behind a wheel like this, you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am," both brothers said in unison.
Samir watched Virat follow Rima with his eyes as she let the hostess air-kiss both cheeks and walk her out. "I'm a chick, Bhai? You should see how you look at her."
"A real man isn't afraid of love, Chintu." A line of dialog from Samir's biggest Bollywood blockbuster. And Virat pulled it off in an almost perfect impersonation of the hero's theatric baritone.