'It was one thing for me to bear his physical and verbal abuses. But a few months ago, he began to stay out longer. New smells came from his clothes.'
'My fears were confirmed when I awoke one night and noticed him on the phone, talking and acting dirty.'
A heart-wrenching excerpt from Namit Arora's Love And Loathing In Silicon Valley: A Novel.
All Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Ved's phone rings one morning.
'Bhaiya-ji,' he hears a soft voice speaking Hindi with a Punjabi accent, 'I am Rashmi. Wife of Baldev. We talked in the store last month.'
'Yes, yes, I remember. How are you?' he leans forward, bracing for bad news.
'Can you help me please?' she says in a pleading voice.
'Yes, of course. Are you okay? What kind of help do you want?'
'I want to leave my husband. Today. As soon as possible. I cannot take it anymore. You said you know a women's organisation that can help me.'
'Yes. I can take you there. Where are you now?'
'I'm at home. My husband is not here. He is working at the store.'
Ved takes down her address. 'I'll pick you up in an hour. Be sure to pack all your personal documents and other valuables. I'll call you when I'm on your street.'
He wonders what might have compelled Rashmi to call him. A part of him dreads getting entangled in a truly messy situation. Another part wants to do the right thing, to help this woman. He fears that if he turns away now, it would haunt him for a long time.
However, doubts flare up again. Maybe he should give Rashmi the phone number for Saheli, the local organisation that helps South Asian victims of domestic abuse, and ask her to call them directly? Aren't they far better equipped to handle such cases? He doesn't even know where they are located. He finally decides that since time may not be on her side, he will pick her up, bring her to his place, and then contact Saheli.
Rashmi's street is in a working-class neighbourhood with a string of two and three-storey apartment complexes. Plastic bags and other dry refuse lie scattered in some of the parking lots. He can see no one around her apartment building. He parks directly in front and calls Rashmi.
Rashmi promptly comes down the stairs with one duffle bag and then goes up again for a suitcase. Anita follows behind with a small pack of her own. Ved loads their luggage into the trunk. Beneath Rashmi's salwar-kameez, she clearly looks pregnant this time. Within seconds, without any pleasantries, they are all in his car, driving back to San Francisco. He turns to look at Rashmi and notices tears rolling down her cheeks. There is a fresh bruise on her chin.
'Are you both physically okay?' he asks Rashmi, who nods. 'Please don't worry, you are safe now.' Her sniffling reduces somewhat. After a short pause, he asks, 'Did you tell anyone where you were going?'
She shakes her head. 'But I left a note for him... saying that I am leaving him.' While she uses a combination of Hindi, Punjabi and English, he uses Hindi and English. 'After your call, I didn't have time to contact Saheli,' he tells her. 'We can do that when we reach my apartment. Okay?' She nods.
'Are you hungry?' he asks. She says no. To dispel the gloomy silence, Ved turns on the radio. A story about the intensifying ground combat in Fallujah is on NPR; scores of people have died. When they reach Ved's place, he leaves her luggage in the car and takes them up.
He brings them water. Rashmi slumps heavily onto the futon sofa and breaks down into tears. Perhaps the enormity of her step has dawned on her afresh. Anita stands against the wall, staring at her mother through large, expressive eyes. Her hair is unkempt and one of her shoelaces has come undone.
'I feel so ashamed telling you this,' Rashmi begins in a feeble voice. 'It was one thing for me to bear his physical and verbal abuses. I kept praying to Guru Sahib to change his heart. But a few months ago, he began to stay out longer. New smells came from his clothes. My fears were confirmed when I awoke one night and noticed him on the phone, talking and acting dirty. I realised that he had befriended a dissolute woman, a prostitute, because no respectable woman talks to someone like that.'
'And last night something happened that drove me over the edge,' Rashmi says. 'He brought this other woman home! He locked me and Anita in the bedroom, while he and that woman drank and did filthy things to each other in the living room.' Rashmi starts to sob. 'That was so humiliating! I sat there in total shock. I finally accepted that I was nothing more than a naukrani to him.'
Fresh tears roll down her cheeks. This morning, when she gathered all her courage and confronted Baldev, he hit her repeatedly, calling her a rundee, a whore. She reveals that she is five months pregnant. She was afraid and didn’t know who else to call. She knows no one in her neighbourhood. She didn't want to call the police either, because she has seen the 'kallu' policemen of Oakland and she is afraid of them. Her casual prejudice bothers Ved but he lets it pass. Why hold it against her when even his cosmopolitan college friends often refer to black people that way.
Ved assures Rashmi that she did the right thing by contacting him. 'What will Baldev do when he finds your note?' he asks. She shrugs. Ved thinks it unlikely that Baldev will contact the police. If they find her, that will only land him in trouble. 'What if,' asks Ved, 'Baldev came and apologised to you profusely in a few days? Can you imagine patching things up with him?'
'Nahin,' she says firmly, wiping her cheek, a new resolve shining in her eyes. 'I cannot live with that vile man. What if he hurt the baby next time?' she instinctively draws her hand to her belly. 'I will not go back to him unless Guru Sahibji makes him undergo a genuine change of heart,' she gestures at the ceiling.
Ved looks up the number for Saheli's hotline and dials with the speakerphone on. A woman volunteer answers in English. Ved invites Rashmi to speak to her directly but Rashmi chokes up, so Ved summarises what he knows about her case to the volunteer, and how he himself got involved.
'I'm so glad that Rashmi and her child are not in imminent danger,' the woman says. She then explains Saheli's services. They can pair up Rashmi with a Punjabi-speaking counsellor, who will help her find a temporary shelter, since their own small shelter for Indian women is full. Rashmi will likely be referred to a shelter run by the state of California that's open to all women. Besides food and basic living expenses, Saheli can provide grants and loans to file criminal charges, pursue litigation or resolve immigration issues. Above all, Saheli helps women get back on their feet and support themselves. Rashmi listens carefully. The volunteer arranges a meeting between Rashmi and the counsellor for the next day.
Meanwhile, if Rashmi needs a place to stay, she should call a California state shelter right away. The volunteer provides a number for their area. She also provides the name and number of the counsellor who will meet Rashmi. Ved and Rashmi thank the woman and end the call.
Ved discusses the call with Rashmi to ensure she has understood what the volunteer said. He suspects that he and Rashmi are both thinking the same thing, so he broaches the topic. 'What do you want to do now? You can stay here tonight if you wish -- if you feel comfortable. I have a guest room back there. Or I can call this shelter for you and take you there. It's up to you.'
She looks torn. 'I don't want to be a burden on you, bhaiya-ji,' she says after a few seconds. 'But if it is okay with you, can I stay here for one night?'
'Of course, it's no problem for me. It might be easier too; the counsellor can just meet you here tomorrow.' He fetches their luggage from the garage, shows them into the guest bedroom, and encourages Rashmi to rest for a while. 'If you have any more questions for Saheli, you can call them again,' Ved says, pointing at the phone in the room. Before stepping out, he gives her the piece of paper with Saheli's hotline number on it, and gently closes the door behind him.
When Rashmi emerges a couple of hours later, Ved makes tea for both of them. They sit around the dining table with tea and namkeen. 'The counsellor will likely ask what you want to do,' Ved says. 'Whether you want to stay in this country or return to India.'
'India,' Rashmi says without hesitation. 'I don't have any family or friends here. How can I live on my own in my condition? It is best that I go back to my parents.'
'The counsellor will also ask if you want to file criminal charges against Baldev.'
'I don't want the police involved,' Rashmi says firmly. 'I know Guru Sahibji will punish him in His own way.'
They drink and eat for a while in silence until Rashmi begins to talk. Her openness, her trust in him, strikes Ved as endearing. He learns that in Rashmi's eighteen months in the US, Baldev hasn’t even set her up with a bank account or a credit card, nor taught her how to drive a car. Her spousal visa does not allow her to work in the US. With her pregnancy, there is little chance she can survive here on her own. Going back to her parents is probably her only option. If Bollywood created a villain based on Baldev, Ved thinks, many people might see a caricature in it. Reality can so often seem nastier than what we are willing to consider plausible in fiction.
'How will your parents react when they find out?' Ved asks.
'They will be devastated,' Rashmi says sadly. 'My father will feel very guilty because when I first met Baldev, I didn't like him. There was something about him... his eyes? His swagger? ... I didn't trust him. My father cajoled me into it; he said I was imagining things. One of my aunts even sneered at me: You are just a plain, ordinary girl, not some apsara. You think you can land a better boy than him? He comes from a good family. He even lives in Am-reeka!'
Rashmi's story puts Ved in a sombre mood. She will likely also face victim-blaming at home, including from this aunt. Ved suggests a simple, early dinner: Alu-gobi, dal, rice. Rashmi agrees, rising to prepare the food. But Ved insists that he will manage by himself in the kitchen; better she look after Anita, who seems afraid and confused. He leaves the TV on while he cooks. When not preoccupied with Anita, Rashmi gazes at the screen absently.
She eats quietly while also feeding Anita, who, for a three year old, has been unusually subdued all day, despite Ved's attempts to cheer her up with kiddie-talk. It is as if a shadow of fear surrounds her too, as if her mother's sorrow has infected her.
'Thank you for your kindness, bhaiya-ji,' Rashmi says, her eyes teary again.
After dinner, Rashmi goes to her room and breaks the news to her family in India. When she emerges again, she tearfully recounts the shock and horror it provoked in her family. She heard a lot of commotion in the background of the call and suspects that her mother might even have fainted. Her father wants her to come back as soon as possible.
She soon retires to her room with Anita and locks the door. Ved wonders if this is the first time she has spent a night under the same roof with an unrelated man.
Excerpted from Love And Loathing In Silicon Valley: A Novel by Namit Arora with the kind permission of the publishers, Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd.