* * *
On Saturday, October 9th, when Tom and I were feverishly defending her choices for boyfriends with her mother, Sirisha was tying a knot around her neck just a few yards away from us. To imagine her as desperate and about to end her life in her garage when we were discussing HER well-being in my living room chokes me up. How had Siva, her ex-husband who still shared the house with her, not heard anything? How did I, her best friend and neighbor, never pick up on her heartbeat? Why does America, the leader of the First world, still have deaths by suicide outnumber the deaths by car accident?
The envelope the officers had given me a few hours later had those two words that I had learnt via her texts.
To Bhanu, పెద్ద నవ్వు :————)
It is Telugu for LOL, she had told me. Inside was a note with her impeccable grammar and cursive writing. “When I die, can you cry?!”, it had said.
I had seen her body hanging from one of the metal beams in the garage when Siva came banging on our front door early Sunday morning. When Tom and I rushed to where he was directing us, I heard wailing sounds coming from Sirisha’s mother that woke up our entire neighborhood. The EMTs were there in 4 minutes.
It was getting colder and the pumpkin season was upon us in Johns Creek, Georgia. I was feeling dazed but brought Mrs. Nadella indoors and gave her some water and tried to calm her down at the breakfast table. While Siva attended the police, I was left to call Prarthana[Prayer] and Prema[Love] who were at universities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. I dodged difficult questions from them wondering if they had the courage to fly home after hearing the truth about their mother. Then I called Rohan, my son who is a senior at the University of Georgia in Athens, a couple of hours away, to come be with me.
In life, Sirisha signified a woman who was very much on the dating scene. Her jeans never once sagged off her thighs and she shopped exclusively at Victoria Secret. A couple of months ago, she had promptly driven to Goodwill to donate all her ballet style shoes because the D’Orsay flats were the new rage in the summer of 2014. She reminded me of the times I looked at myself in the mirror and thought of why marriages stick and how loyalty is so important.
At the police station the investigators had told us that a text, something to the effect of – “it’s over between us”, from a guy might have driven her to suicide. We later found out that it was from Vinesh, her current boyfriend.
Later that day, Rohan drove us, all women, from the hospital after we made arrangements for Sirisha’s body to be transported to the funeral home. Tom rode with Siva in his car. The two girls whom I have known since their childhood, the two girls whose combined promiscuity was far lesser than that of my son’s, were sitting in the back seats sobbing and tightly clutching their grandmother’s arms. As little girls they had been proud of their cool mom for not getting fat like the rest of us and for making Indian curries for theirs teachers. “You are pathetic. Stop talking about love, it makes you sound like a loser.”, was Prarthana’s last text to her mom. Indeed, what does a mother know about love if she cannot demand it when she needs it so desperately?
I made dinner for everyone and tried very hard to keep my mind off Rohan who was left alone with the two girls in our basement for the night. Chris, my book club buddy, had once told me how kids with some form of Indian parenting background did not do so well coping with drugs and sexual freedom that comes with high school and college.
Two nights after we cremated Sirisha as per the Hindu tradition, and one day after her daughters left for their universities, Mrs. Nadella came knocking. She was holding a black dirty looking duffle bag in one hand. I took it into my hands and silently let her in trying not to think of what Tom’s reaction will be when he came home. She followed no pecking order, and the way she wrapped her saree around her showed no outward signs whatsoever of assimilation into the American ways, yet there was something about her that drew me towards her since the day I saw her for the first time.
One afternoon, a few months ago, as I sat in my car on the driveway waiting for the BBC newshour to finish on NPR, I saw her walking across our yard towards me. I knew Sirisha was back from India with her mother, but had not met her until then. She came up to the car and stood with her arms akimbo and eyebrows arched. I rolled down the window and looked at her questioningly and smilingly. She asked me why I hadn’t parked and walked into my house and that she had been observing me from her bedroom window. She spoke in Telugu, a language of my forefathers, which I have very little grasp of.
During my early days of scribing, I covered many community events around Johns Creek and wrote recipes for picnic staples like Beer Braised Bratwurst and Rosemary Pork Loin. When you have a name like Bhanu Chilukuri-Witt and you write about American fare, your friends eventually and politely convey it to you that you don’t sound authentic. And since I look like a true-bred Indian instead of the 1/4th that I really am, I must be an expert on all things Indian?! Needless to say the web-based Indian Samachar[news] magazine that I run out my home office is thriving.
I also wanted to reason with her that in America we ate, listened to our radios and did a lot more in our cars with our windows rolled up. Heck, it is a part of our cultural DNA as Americans. Like that late afternoon in May, 1992 on our honeymoon in Ludington, Michigan, when Tom and I sat in the trunk of our Jeep Grand Cherokee and “warmed each other up” a little waiting for someone to pass by to jump start the old piece of junk.
As I walked back to my desk after setting her up in an empty bedroom, I thought of the old lady who did not have anyone she could call and cry. For a while that afternoon, we both remained untouchable. “You never gave Sirisha a chance to help you but I have a favor to ask you. There is one condition though. I will cook for you.” She had finally said as I made tea for both of us.
That evening Tom invited Siva for dinner and explained to him that she will be staying with us until she sorts out what she wants. Sirisha had an issue with her husband, he did not have an opinion one way or another on anything. And, she had been right. Siva did not protest.
Unless she was high on too many fruity wine coolers, Sirisha would not discuss the men in her life. Vinesh was different, she told me, mid 30’s, extremely charismatic and handsome, and most importantly showered her with a lot of attention. They had met at the gym. When I tried to probe further about where they were meeting up, she told me it was none of my business.
One evening, while Prema was still a senior at Johns Creek High, Sirisha had served divorce papers for Siva’s dinner. She called me with the news that night in an emotional phone call. “You know how hard it is to divorce Bhanu? You are an American, you put more importance on your personal freedom than your family. He is going through midlife crisis or whatever and it is driving me up the wall. I even got him that convertible he had been dreaming about. First it was Prarthana leaving for college, then it was Snoopy’s cancer diagnosis. I am fed up. I can’t afford to move out and he can’t pay alimony. He needs one room on the main floor and I am keeping the rest of the house for myself and Prema. We have both agreed that our lifestyles are off limits for conversations.” Wasn’t she an American too, living and naturalized in the US for over 20 years? My parents had brought me to the US when I was 12. Things haven’t been splendid since Tom and I got hitched in school while majoring in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. We respect each other for our cultural differences, that’s all. But, I did not argue.
Aunty, as she wanted me to call her, was very comfortable around Tom. He is not different than us Indians, she would say when we sat down for our afternoon tea sessions when Sirisha was still alive. Her observations might not be entirely baseless, Tom would secretly joke. He is an Information Technology project manager, had a wife who was of Indian origin – he would be out of his mind to think he was any different.
* * *
— To be continued in Part II