“Watch your ass.”
My sister Meena laughed, but Aunt Radhika was serious.
“Prepare yourself. It’s what they all want sooner or later.” She offered this warning while turning rotis on the stove, thrusting her leathered fingers into the pan as the flatbread puffed like a balloon and blue flames flitted at the iron’s edge.
She spoke of husbands. Now, finally, was the time to dispense advice, as my visa had come. Now was the moment for discussing, in graphic detail, which parts of myself I’d be expected to surrender. But what did she know? Her husband was drunk on 80-rupee whisky more days than not. There wasn’t a week that went by when he didn’t piss in the staircase at 2 a.m., or lose the grocery money on a card game. ‘V.S.’ Such a discreet name for a man utterly lacking the quality.
Canada would be different. It was different, I could see it written on the landscape as the plane slipped through the crisp air. Things looked neater. An orderly people, Canadians. Kept their noses clean. That’s all I really wanted — a clean nose. No one pissing on the stairs.
Pawan was a good person, I was pretty sure, and so my dream was in the offing, waiting on the far side of an endless flight. Didn’t a telecom engineer in a sweater-vest have to be good, wasn’t such a person the definition of sedate pragmatism? No crazed hippy, no gold-yoked gangster. Just a B.Tech grad in reasonable attire. And he’d acted sweetly at the wedding, so that was something. But it’s hard to gauge a man in four days.
* * *
“Welcome to Canada.” Three girls stood behind the counter at immigration, speaking cheerily in unison. I’d expected burly uniformed figures like the antagonists of Indian soap operas, seething and suspicious. Instead it was like a child’s birthday party, a trio of moms doling out goodie bags at the front door. They passed me a pouch of pamphlets and scrawled something in my passport. Then they sent me unceremoniously into my new life.
Arrival is the anticlimax of immigration. After all that waiting, all those forms, tears, applications, arguments, and interviews, you get nothing but three words and a bag of papers. As ordinary as paying your electric bill or washing your husband’s laundry – something I’d be doing by tomorrow. No flair for drama, these Canadians. Still, life would be different here. It had to be. Anyway, all the great changes sneak up unseen. Like your first wrinkles, the slow fruits of worry that move in edgewise over decades.
* * *
“Hey,” he said. The waiting area brimmed with expectant souls garbed in grey, Pawan included. He wore a grey sweater as thin as he was and smiled broadly, gums glistening in the harsh tube light. I’d seen nothing to fear in this tiny man, but I noticed my hands become wet and blood rush madly to my cheeks. I hadn’t expected him to say this, not that I’d had something in mind, and I worried any response I could drum up would seem foolish.
It was a very Canadian thing to say: ‘hey.’ Laid back. Maybe that’s why it threw me. I was more used to “What is your qualification?” than “What’s up!?” I realized the Pawan I’d met in Delhi was different from the Pawan here in Vancouver. Or maybe it was I who’d changed, who’d been cracked open by the sharpness of the steel water and all those grid-lined city blocks furrowed with emerald trees.
I looked in his wide brown eyes and saw a world in them that I longed to know and distrusted at the same time. I wondered if I would become laid back, if I would hang out in coffee shops and drink beer and read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I assumed wasn’t banned here. Would he allow me? There were so many things to be worked out on this new terrain, and it could go one of two ways. The coin of my life spun furiously in the air and there was no way to call heads or tails.
“Hello,” I said, smiling like it was the first day of a job I wasn’t sure I wanted.
“How was the flight?” he asked, taking my handbag.
“Oh it was very comfortable,” I said. It was true compared to how I felt at that moment – there in the presence of a man I didn’t know, but with whom I’d all the same slept many months ago.
We found his car on the third floor of a parking garage crisscrossed with lines of paint that had been scrupulously respected by the absent drivers. The scene was a veritable orgy of order, without so much as a single betel stain splashed on the ankles of the concrete pillars, which partition sections of the garage. So many imagined boundaries deferred to with no second thought. Would he defer to mine, this man of Vancouver?
“You are going to love it here,” he told me, starting the engine.
“Yes,” I said. But will I love you?
I had more to say, but not then, not to him. All I could think of was to seal my mind within my body like a tortoise in its shell, and in that moment a tragic respect for my mother washed over me. I surveyed the garage’s shadowed lines, its smooth grey regularity, looking everywhere except at the man I’d been consigned to. Pawan placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Chinta maat karo,” he said. ‘Don’t worry.’ About what? I wondered. My ass? The car beeped as we slipped down the ramp.
“Buckle your seatbelt, it’s not just for drivers here.”
We left the airport for the streets of Richmond where Canada began in earnest. I knew my mother would expect a call right away. What’s it like there? How are the people? How is Pawan treating you? She was just as afraid as I was, though less hopeful I’m sure. There were things I wanted in this life that she wouldn’t dare imagine.
* * *