The Second Mrs. Sharma
by Bindia Persaud
Mrs. Nisha Sharma was a sociable woman, and a galaxy of friends and acquaintances swirled unceasingly around her. Among these, Dr. Mohan Sharma was a faint, unobtrusive star. Small and neat, with soft, plump hands and a gently raised paunch, an air of shabby respectability clung to him so resolutely that people were inclined to forgive his not infrequent social lapses. Mrs. Sharma was fond of him in a distant, abstracted sort of way, but when he left a message on her answering machine, inviting a “marital alliance” between her son and his daughter, she was as scandalized as if he had cornered her in some secluded spot and exposed himself. True, parents were supposed to see to their children’s marital prospects, but his approach was denuded of all subtlety and finesse; it stank too strongly of the market. Mrs. Sharma knew that young people today, girls especially, wouldn’t submit, as she herself had submitted, to being prodded and shuffled around and finally mated to a near-stranger. (Mrs. Sharma carried within her a hot fistful of anger that would emerge at odd moments. When her future in-laws had visited her for the third time, buoyed by their unassailable status as the boy’s people and encouraged by her mother’s boasts about her musical prowess, they had insisted she sing a bhajan. She had chirped out a few lines of “Om Jai Jagdish Hare” while blinking back scalding tears. Since then, whenever the memory descended upon her, the tips of her ears turned crimson with indignation and she would goad her husband into a thunderous confrontation that left her limp, yet flushed with satisfaction.)
Mrs. Sharma made a brisk, peremptory stabbing motion with her index finger at the answering machine’s delete button, but just as she was about to make contact, she paused. Nikhil was twenty-nine. His age would have lent him a fitting air of gravitas if he was a doctor or an engineer, but her son was drifting desultorily towards a Master’s degree in English. It wouldn’t be like the old days, a meeting over tea and then an engagement announced the next week, but there was no harm in meeting the girl, at least. She resolved to Consult her Husband (this operation was distinct in Mrs. Sharma’s mind from merely asking his opinion, and necessitated the use of capital letters).
Mr. Arun Sharma, when she played the message for him after he had arrived home, was not receptive.
“Have we ever even seen this girl? Or the wife, for that matter?”
“The wife’s an invalid, I think. I’ve seen the girl at temple a few times. I think we should consider it. She’s doing medicine.”
“So why would she look at him?” Mr. Sharma delivered a hard, decisive snort through his nostrils. “Bloody loafer that he is.”
Mrs. Sharma remained silent, but her mind was whirring. Her husband was a mechanical engineer, and he saw the world in terms of brute certainties. She, though, possessed a refined, artistic sensibility that had been nurtured in a good ladies’ college in Delhi. She knew that the things she could perceive had a weight of their own, even if her husband dismissed them as gauzy irrelevancies. Her son had been seven years old when his arresting physical beauty had announced itself. He had been playing quietly in a corner while she idly scanned his face for family resemblances, and she had realized with a start that the commonplace features bequeathed to him – her husband’s assertive nose, her own moist, slightly protuberant eyes – had been transfigured into something extraordinary. She had been mortally afraid that adolescence would mar him, but in high school his limbs lengthened gracefully, his skin remained clear, and he acquired a trademark languor that enraged his father and entranced everyone else. Mrs. Sharma was acutely aware of the avid glances that fastened upon Nikhil whenever he entered a room, and she saw no reason why his face could not be considered a potential marital asset, as valuable in its way as a healthy mutual fund portfolio. There was very little difference between boys and girls these days, and if Sona Chopra’s fat son with his flapping Dumbo ears could get a girl who looked like Madhuri Dixit, just because he was an internist at St. Michael’s hospital, her son deserved to have a future GP as his wife.
Mrs. Sharma decided that it would be most prudent to bypass her husband for the time being and ask the boy directly. She made her approach while Nikhil was sitting Buddha-fashion on his bedroom floor, reading a book of political poetry by a South American that she had never heard of. Mrs. Sharma kept her gaze fixed on the angry brown fist on the book cover, and, in as even a voice as she could muster, outlined the proposal and awaited his response. Without raising his eyes from the page, Nikhil replied that he would need time to get to know the girl, but yes, he would consider it. Mrs. Sharma had expected some initial resistance, and had an arsenal of weapons (cajolery, threats, tears) at the ready. Her mouth fell open, goldfish-like, when she realized that she had won without effort. In a second of two, she collected herself and went downstairs.
Nikhil’s chief reason for saying yes was the ex-girlfriend that his parents had spent four years studiously ignoring. Now that she had left him, they were happy to pretend that she had never existed at all. Nikhil had met Corinne in a D.H. Lawrence seminar. At first, she had seemed bony and nondescript, with hair and eyes of no determinate colour. It was only upon his second look that he noticed her finely turned wrists and ankles, the elegance of her long spine. Her temperament was intriguingly brittle and spiky, but his foreignness made her easy to cow, at least in the beginning. When she asked him why he still lived at home, he told her that she had an ethnocentric lack of regard for non-Western familial patterns. She was silent; she even bowed her head slightly. Towards the end, though, her nerves had become dangerously frayed and she cycled between icy hauteur and coarse, barking fits. The decisive break came after she and Nikhil arrived at his house at two o’ clock in the afternoon and unexpectedly found his mother there. Nikhil murmured, “You remember my friend Corrine, right?” before sliding listlessly onto a sofa. Corinne remained standing. She slowly raised a hooked, accusatory hand and pointed it at Mrs. Sharma.
“You people,” she began. “You people reek and you don’t realize it. It doesn’t matter that you air out your clothes and douse yourself with that godawful perfume or hair oil or whatever it is you use. There’s always a smell of cardamom and fucking fenugreek clinging to you. If you weren’t home, I was going to suck your son off upstairs. He tastes of what you smell like. That entitles me to a bit more that ‘friend’ status, don’t you think?” With that, she stalked away. Nikhil saw her from time to time, scurrying around campus, but they never spoke again. He was surprised at how bruised he felt, and for the first time he thought that he could gladly sink into a conventional marriage, as easily as one would surrender to a soft mattress.
Mother and son had to convince the father; outnumbered, he grunted, but assented. The phone call was made to Dr. Mohan Sharma, who gave a faint cry of exultation when he heard of their acceptance. He insisted on setting the meeting for the following Saturday, and he made it clear, through subtle hints, that both sets of parents were expected to be there. Mrs. Sharma expected Nikhil to protest, to insist on meeting the girl alone, but he said nothing. Secretly, he wanted the reassuring bulwark of his parents between himself and whatever was to come.
On the appointed evening, after a silent, fraught car ride, the three Sharmas stepped up to a modest house of salmon-pink brick. Mr. Sharma dawdled, and when they came to the door, he squinted at the doorbell as if he had never seen one before. In exasperation, his wife pushed past him and pressed the doorbell with more energy than was necessary. They could sense a brief flurry of movement inside, then the door swung open. The woman standing before them was a rakshasi.
She was so tall that her head knocked against the door frame, and her height was matched by her vast, spreading bulk. Her breasts and belly hung loose and distended beneath the concealing folds of her sari. Small, red eyes shone balefully from the wide expanse of her face. Her mouth was open, and they could see her thick, scarlet tongue and the wet gleam of her sharp teeth. She smelled of meat and moss and something else. She held out a hand tipped with cruel scimitar claws, and greeted them in a voice that was surprisingly low and musical. “Please come in. I am Manju.”
The Sharmas, their minds reeling from the revelation that their hostess was one of the female demons of Hindu legend, were stupefied into obedience. They half-expected to be led into a dank chamber strewn with bones and viscera and the huddled forms of groaning, half-dead human victims, but Manju Sharma’s living room was little different from their own. There was a bronze Nataraja in the corner, a Rajasthani print on the far wall. She had even covered the sofas with plastic wrap, as did so many zealous matrons of their acquaintance, and there was a plateful of samosas and pakoras sitting on the coffee table. She gestured towards them, inviting them to sit. “My husband and Swati shall be in shortly. We’ll eat dinner when they arrive. Please help yourself to snacks in the meantime.” With that, she ambled off to the kitchen. There was something tentative about the way she moved, in spite of her size. It was as if she had to school herself to make delicate movements, rather than the broad, expansive ones that her limbs were accustomed to.
When she was completely out of sight, the Sharmas, perched on the plasticky sofa, gibbered to each other in high, urgent whispers.
“Mom, what is she?”
“A rakshasi. A demon. Nisha, you’ve seen the girl before. Couldn’t you tell what she was?”
“They can change their shape. You know that, Arun. We should go now. Just run. God only knows what they want to do with us.”
“They want to eat us, mother and daughter both. That’s what rakshasas do. They lured us here, and you, you were so eager to see your son’s shaadi that you fell for it.”
The Sharmas all rose at precisely the same time, as if they were one body, but as they did so, they heard the awful, ineluctable sound of the key being turned in the front door’s lock. Dr. Mohan Sharma came forward first, eager and smiling, rubbing his hands together in that fastidious way of his. His daughter followed behind. Nikhil sat back down on the sofa with a heavy thump and kept his eyes trained on the floor. The girl’s presence flitted at the edge of his vision, but he didn’t dare look directly at her until her father said, “Nikhil? This is Swati,” and pushed her gently towards him. He raised his eyes to her and saw, not a ghoulish apparition, but a broad, tawny face, marked with strong eyebrows and framed by a leonine mane of hair. She smiled at him, and he could make out, resting against her full lips, a dainty pair of fangs.
“You’re all hungry, I’m sure. We’ll eat, no?” said Dr. Sharma, in that humble, ingratiating manner that brooks no opposition. The wife loomed in the doorway, and denied the chance to bolt, the Sharmas numbly followed their host into the dining room.
The food set before them was the same scrupulously vegetarian fare that they had eaten thousands of times: naan, rice, dal, rajma, mutter paneer. Their host fell upon the meal with surprising vigor, but his women, flanking him on either side, sat before empty plates. Curiosity and the iron imperatives of solicitude loosened Mrs. Nisha Sharma’s tongue. “You aren’t going to eat anything, beti?”
“Not yet, auntie. My mother and I don’t eat that,” the girl replied with a slight toss of her head. The saliva dried in Mrs. Sharma’s throat, and she stared down at her full plate. She resolved not to eat anything. One bite and she would descend into a dizzying black sleep, and would awake to find herself trussed up like one of those monstrous turkeys that adorn Thanksgiving tables. She signaled to her husband and son, but saw, too late, that the stupid boy had already started clearing his plate. His eyes were glued upon Swati, and his hand shoveled food into his mouth mechanically.
The meal continued in quiet, punctuated only by Dr. Sharma’s contented slurping. Silence was an intolerable vacuum to Nisha Sharma, even in circumstances such as these, and she felt compelled to fill it. “So, Mohan, how did you and Manju meet? Arranged marriage or lo–” The ludicrous question died in her mouth, and she swallowed the last syllable.
Dr. Sharma wasn’t offended; he laughed. “Love, love! As in all our best films, we were childhood sweethearts. My father was a forest officer, and we met Manju’s family deep in the jungle. Manju and I spent every waking moment together, until I left for school. When the time came, it was only natural that we get married, though there was opposition from both our families. Her father picked me up and threw me against a wall, although if you saw how we get along now, you would never believe it. Are you quite finished? I think it’s time for the ladies to eat now.”
Dr. Sharma’s wife and daughter cleared the plates and disappeared into the kitchen. The host’s eyes followed them fondly. His voice dropped to a low, conspirational whisper. “I have to warn you, my family has certain dietary requirements that may seem strange to you. In truth, I found them off-putting at first myself, but marriage requires tolerance and adjustment, for us gents as well as our better halves.” He leaned back in his chair and beamed.
The women re-emerged, carrying an enormous brass platter between them. On it was a freshly killed goat, with a pristine white coat and wide, mournful dark eyes. They set it in the middle of the table. The older woman made a clean incision in its belly with the claw of her index finger, and then, without preliminaries, she and her daughter began to feast. They ripped the ropy innards from the body and crammed them into their mouths, pausing only to spit out the odd piece of gristle or hide. They pooled blood in their hands and drank it, and as their terrible meal progressed, their hair and faces became speckled with slick red wetness. Mrs. Sharma’s sick fascination gave way to the realization that she and her menfolk were not the intended meal, and she began to laugh, the high, unhinged laughter of relief. “My dear lady, your face looks like the sun emerging from behind the clouds. My God, surely you didn’t think – ?” Dr. Sharma turned to his wife. Manju belched, and belatedly placed her hand before her mouth.
“I can’t deny that my people have had bad habits in the past, but that was centuries ago. We aren’t barbarians. I can’t blame you though. We hide ourselves away in jungles and then wonder why people have misconceptions about us. I think it’s time for tea now, and we should leave these young people to talk in private.”
Mrs. Sharma sent a brief, interrogative glance towards her son; he nodded slightly. The elders cleared out, leaving Nikhil and Swati facing each other. She spoke first. “So, what do you like to do in your spare time?”
“I like to read. Poetry and plays, novels, that sort of thing. Do you have much time for reading yourself?”
“No, school keeps me too busy. I can’t say I’m literary. I read Stephen King to relax, when I find time.”
“I could recommend something to you, if you like. How about Chekhov?”
“Like the guy on Star Trek?”
“This is a different Chekhov. He was a doctor like you. His stories aren’t exactly action-packed, but he really understood human nature. I’ve got a copy at home. I could lend it to you.”
“Okay. How about you bring it over next Saturday? … Look, this might be stupid, but I was wondering if you could come here and stand by me. I want to see if you’re taller.”
Nikhil got up and moved towards her. When they were side by side, he caught her scent. It was sweeter than her mother’s, and somehow familiar. He struggled to place it, and recognition flooded over him. There were times when he had put his arms around Corinne, and, through nothing more than a dim olfactory sense, he could tell that she was having her period. The same faint yet heady perfume clung to this girl.
It turned out that he was half an inch taller. This made him feel curiously light and airy. She hadn’t repulsed him, even from the first, but he had found the prospect of marrying her as incongruous as if someone had suggested that he wed a comet, or a patch of arctic tundra. Minute by minute, the idea was becoming less strange.
The parents came in then, and they took their leave. As coats and shoes were being pulled on by the door, Manju Sharma smiled at Nikhil. It was a surprisingly gentle and beneficent smile, in spite of her nightmare teeth. “Such a handsome boy,” she said. “Looks like Shashi Kapoor.”
Nisha Sharma’s belly was bathed in a warm, pleasurable glow, as it always was when someone remarked upon her son’s looks. The feeling persisted as they walked down the sidewalk to their car and drove off. They sat engrossed in their own thoughts until Nikhil punctured the reverie with an abrupt announcement. “I’m going to see her next week.”
There was a brief, barbed silence. Then Mr. Sharma said, “After all, our great hero Bhima married a rakshasi, and they had a noble son. Who are we to disapprove?” Mrs. Sharma knew that her husband’s sententiousness meant that she had scored a decisive victory. She aimed a secret, serene smile out into the dark.
The second set of Sharmas stood together at their front window, long after Nikhil and his parents had disappeared into the night. This meeting was all Mohan’s doing; his daughter was twenty-six, and he wanted to see her settled. He had chosen Nikhil because even men couldn’t help responding to his beauty, and they shared a surname. One day when Swati was fourteen, she came in from basketball practice and announced that when she got married, she wouldn’t be changing her name. In spite of his own unconventional pairing, her father was old-fashioned about certain things, and he expected his daughter to dutifully become Swati Gupta or Swati Shrivastava when the time for her nuptials came. She wouldn’t budge on this issue, though she was a tractable enough child in other respects. When the dermatologist in the office beside his got married and added her eastern European husband’s tongue-twister of a name to her own squat WASP one, he came home and said hopefully, “Some ladies have double-barrelled names these days, like the English aristocracy.”
“I’m not doing that. I like my name just fine the way it is.”
He had sighed and said nothing, but his heart leapt when Nikhil’s parents accepted his invitation. Manju had worked herself into a frenzy of worry. She had even wanted to cast a glamour over herself and Swati, but he had vetoed that proposal. “No dear. They have to accept you and Swati as you are, or not at all. There can be no pretense.” There had been a few tense moments during the evening, but all in all, things had gone well. Swati had told them she would be seeing Nikhil again, before she skipped upstairs.
The wife enveloped her husband’s hand in her own huge paw. “I think everything will be all right,” she said softly.
Ten months later, the wedding invitations arrived at Arun and Nisha Sharma’s residence for their perusal. They were burgundy and cream, with embossed gold lettering. On the front, a jaunty little groom marched in front of a demure, downcast bride in a palanquin. Mr. Sharma snorted (a faint, barely perceptible snort – his wife was sitting at his elbow), and thought to himself that in this case, the wife should be marching and the husband should be following behind. No matter though; the wedding was going to happen, and there would be grandchildren, beautiful vigorous ones. The ordeal was almost over, and they all – bride’s parents, groom’s parents, boy, girl – could let out a grateful, shuddering sigh of relief.More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Canadian authors, Guyanese authors, Hinduism, India, Indian authors, Indo-Guyanese authors, Women authors