Where the Grass is Greener
“Fifteen years!” Shankar boomed into the phone. “I can’t believe it’s been that long since we last spoke.”
Ram was in his office that afternoon, about to break for lunch, when he got the call from Shankar, who said he’d tracked him down via Google. “I came from India and am in Atlanta to attend a conference,” Shankar added. “I’m hoping we can meet today.”
“Absolutely,” Ram said, trying to absorb the shock of hearing from his former friend after all these years. Feeling somewhat tongue-tied, he stood with the phone near the window and looked out, letting Shankar do most of the talking. A thundershower that morning had washed all the cars in the parking lot, where they now stood gleaming in the sunlight, quietly waiting for their owners to reclaim them later in the day. Finally finding his voice, Ram offered to meet Shankar at the hotel.
“I’d also like to meet your wife, Ram, unless you think it’s not a good idea.”
“An excellent idea, Shankar,” he said, flustered. “Nalini would love to meet you. I’ll pick you up.”
Shankar mentioned that a local attendee and fellow environmentalist had offered to drop him at Ram’s house, given that he lived in the same neighborhood. So Ram called Nalini to inform her and then drove home with trepidation in the afternoon traffic. Considering how his friendship with Shankar had ended, he was more than a little nervous about this reunion.
“You seem tense,” Nalini said. “I thought you had a good chat with him.”
“Yes, I did.” Ram stopped flipping the TV channels and put down the remote control. “But, you know, it’s been fifteen years?things change. I never expected to hear from Shankar, let alone see him again.”
“Why not? I thought you were best friends in India.”
The doorbell rang, cutting off their conversation, and Ram almost tripped as he hurried to the foyer and opened the door. Breaking into a wide smile, Shankar greeted him effusively and, to Ram’s surprise, even spread out his arms for an embrace. He’d put on weight and his thinning hair was almost completely gray, making him look older than his age, but for Ram, that engaging sprightliness was instantly recognizable, bringing back memories of their close friendship. The car, having already backed out of the driveway, was on its way to the street behind Ram’s house.
“It’s good to see you, Shankar, after such a long time,” Ram said, ushering him into the living room, where Nalini was waiting. The conversation flowed without any awkwardness, although they stuck to banal pleasantries. That changed after a round of drinks.
“So how did you and Ram meet?” Shankar asked.
If Nalini was surprised by the question, she didn’t show it. Laughing, she sipped her wine and brushed back her wavy, jet-black hair with a flick of the wrist. “You should ask your friend here,” she said. “I’m surprised he hasn’t told you yet.”
“Well, you know how it’s been,” Ram said. “We didn’t stay in touch.” Aware that Nalini and Shankar were gazing at him, Ram suddenly became preoccupied with his drink, as if he’d seen something unsavory in his glass. There was a serious, almost stricken expression on his face and he didn’t look up.
“I was wondering about that,” Nalini said. “Did you??”
“We just drifted apart, more or less,” Ram cut in. “The fact that I was here and Shankar in India made it a little complicated.” Even as he spoke, without looking at Nalini or Shankar, Ram wondered how convincing he sounded.
“That’s interesting,” Shankar said, following a pause. “I thought there was more to it, but I can see what you mean.”
The phone rang. It was a business call for Nalini, who took the cordless from Ram and, excusing herself, left the room.
“I didn’t tell Nalini about Priya,” Ram said gently.
“I thought as much, Ram.” Shankar looked through the large bay window at the newly built deck in the backyard, where, even in the fading golden light, one could see the dogwood trees and flowering shrubs—including the azaleas, honeysuckles and lilacs—that had bloomed in a blaze of colors.
“Do you remember how we used to joke about students who were obsessed with America?” Shankar continued. “What was it we used to say?”
“Where is the grass greener?”
“And the answer would be, ‘Where the land is paved with greenbacks and green cards.’ Yes, I remember now!”
They laughed heartily at this old one-liner, although Ram felt a twinge of discomfort at the same time. “Shankar, you knew I couldn’t go to India because of my visa situation. And you know how long it takes even after getting?”
“I know. We were just surprised that it meant so much to you. But don’t get me wrong. I think Nalini is wonderful.”
“Yes, she is. I’m fortunate. I deeply regret, though, that Priya and I had to end our relationship the way we did. How is she these days?”
“Fine, Ram. Her husband joined a new company in Hyderabad. They’ll be shifting there soon. They have a two-year-old daughter.”
“Are we ready to leave?” asked Nalini, a quizzical smile on her face.
Startled by her sudden appearance, Ram mumbled, “Yes, of course.” He wondered if she’d heard the last bit of their conversation.
Earlier, they’d decided to have dinner at an Indian Chinese restaurant. There wasn’t much chatting on the way and even Nalini seemed a little subdued in the car. Ram and Shankar had met as college students in India, hitting it off on the very first day. Looking back, Ram found it hard to say what it was that had initially attracted them to each other. Ram, just out from a boarding school, felt like a duck out of water in the new environment, where most students had attended schools in that state and, unlike Ram, spoke the local language fluently. Shankar was one such student and, in fact, English had been his second language in school. But he was a quick learner, Ram realized, with a keen interest in his studies.
Sometimes, in the classes they took together, Ram sought help from Shankar, who was always genial and approachable. They became close friends and remained roommates until graduation, following which Ram stayed with Shankar’s family in Bangalore while looking for a job. And then, just a few months after joining an IT company, Ram got a work visa for the United States. The decision to go abroad was momentous, changing his life in many ways. America had never been on their radar in college; on the contrary, they used to make fun of students who seemed excessively fixated on America and college admission tests such as GRE, GMAT and TOEFL.
Ram, however, got swept along in the excitement of that period’s dot-com boom, and the two friends found they no longer agreed on where their futures lay. It shouldn’t have affected their relationship, given their strong ties, except that Ram’s decision to go abroad had other consequences.
At the restaurant, they ordered a bottle of Riesling and before long the words began to tumble again, although Ram and Shankar avoided any mention of their relationship. But Nalini, who had uncharacteristically drunk more than one glass of wine, went back to the question she’d been asking in the house. The food having arrived by now, they helped themselves to crunchy Chicken 65 and steaming, pungently fragrant dishes of Chili prawns, Gobi Manchurian and Haka noodles.
“Fifteen years—that’s a long time,” Nalini smiled. “So what happened? Or am I being too nosy?”
“No, you’re not,” Shankar said. “We drifted apart. Maybe the distance proved to be a barrier, as Ram implied.”
“Not really.” Ram’s voice was so low they could barely hear him. “I was once engaged to Shankar’s sister, Priya.”
Nalini and Shankar stopped eating and stared at Ram, who’d become quite still. He could hear his heart thumping as his eyes stayed focused on the plate in front of him. For a few moments, though it seemed much longer, the sound of silverware and murmuring voices from other tables filled the restaurant.
“That was a while ago,” Shankar said, ending the tense pause. “Why bring it up now?”
Nalini’s face had turned pale and she’d hastily drunk water, as if to clear an obstruction in her throat. “How come you never told me this?” she asked, her voice trembling.
Ram didn’t look up. “Please, let’s not talk about this,” Shankar said, looking distressed. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
Rising abruptly, Nalini picked up her purse and said she’d wait for them outside the restaurant. After Ram paid the bill, they all piled into the car and remained mostly silent on the way to Shankar’s hotel. Shankar had politely declined to spend the night with them, noting that he’d be waking up early to catch the airport shuttle. As soon as Ram tuned off the ignition, on reaching their house, Nalini got out wordlessly and went up to the bedroom.
Feeling jittery, Ram lingered in the family room and turned on the TV, but he did not watch anything. Nalini was sleeping, with the light on her side turned off, when he eventually entered the bedroom. He spent a restless night, tossing and turning, and fell into a deep sleep just before dawn. In his dream, he saw Priya on a domestic flight while visiting India. As Ram flipped through an airline magazine, and Nalini beside him looked out the window, he happened to see Priya passing by in the aisle. She noticed him at the same time, the shocked expression on her face quickly changing to a smile. There was only time for casual hellos, since the passengers behind Priya were trying to reach their seats.
“Who is she?” Nalini asked.
“Somebody I knew when I used to live here,” Ram said softly.
But Priya, who was still close by, heard him. “It was more than that,” she said, turning around. “Ram and I were engaged for a while.”
The chatter in the vicinity stopped, and Ram became aware that a few passengers were glaring at him. Though Nalini looked stunned, she managed to speak.
“How come you never told me? Did you break off your engagement to her before you met me?”
When Ram didn’t respond, he saw that Nalini’s eyes were brimming with tears.
Shards of sunlight leaked through the window blinds and caressed Ram’s face, ending his dream. He’d overslept. Nalini had already gone to work, and when the smell of coffee didn’t greet him in the kitchen, he realized that she’d left without brewing the usual pot for the two of them. Deciding to work from home, Ram turned on the coffee machine and carried his laptop to the dining table. With the uninterrupted stillness of the house keeping him company, Ram remained absorbed in his project for the next several hours. Thoughts of Nalini, lurking at the back of his mind, also acted as a ghostly companion throughout the day.
It was in an elevator, while on his way to a job interview, that Ram first saw Nalini. She, too, had come for an interview at that firm. A moment of awkwardness followed, but Ram was relieved when he found out they were not competing for the same position. They talked briefly and, after exchanging business cards, wished each other good luck.
Ram didn’t get the job, and he wondered how Nalini had fared. She phoned him first to ask how the search was going but seemed reluctant to talk about herself—at least, initially. Then finally, speaking in an apologetic tone, she told him the firm had offered her a job. It was the position Ram had applied for. He was momentarily out of breath, as if somebody had slapped him. But recovering quickly, Ram offered his congratulations.
“No, no,” she said. “I’m not taking it. That’s not the job I applied for. I don’t know why they?”
“Because they were impressed by you, Nalini, and felt you’d be good for that position. Listen, please don’t make a hasty decision. Why don’t we meet for a cup of coffee and talk it over.”
He’d spoken impulsively and didn’t know what there was to discuss. It was her decision, after all, and Ram knew he was being presumptuous even as he spoke. Surprisingly, though, she agreed to meet him. In a café the following day, Nalini’s unaffected charm and amiable manner put him at ease. Her long silken hair, drawn back and tied in a ponytail, accentuated her well-chiseled features.
“I hope you take the job,” Ram said, putting down the steaming cups of coffee. “It’s a good opportunity.”
Nalini smiled but didn’t say anything. Suddenly it dawned on Ram that she’d already turned down the offer. Her reason for agreeing to see him was different. His heart gave a lurch, although the thrill he experienced was mingled with anxiety. He’d been unhappy for a few months now, not only because he was struggling to find a suitable job but also because he didn’t know how to end his engagement to Priya. He hadn’t seen her in two years and felt their relationship had reached a dead end. But Priya and her family didn’t seem to think so. It was his closeness to the family, and a fondness for Priya, that had led to the unofficial engagement. Given their traditional background, there had been no courtship in the conventional sense.
Ram and Nalini started dating, but he lost his nerve when it came to telling her about Priya. A bigger blunder was that he didn’t call Priya immediately and explain everything. His lack of judgment had led to deception, Ram realized sorrowfully, and he’d ended up hurting both women.
Closing his laptop, Ram reached for the yellow legal pad near him. Then, in a carefully worded letter that avoided being defensive, he told Nalini what had happened. After struggling to end it on the right note, Ram decided that anything other than a brief explanation would be inadequate, even inappropriate, on paper. Whatever else he had to express—words filled with emotion, gestures laced with feeling—could only be done in person. Ram folded the sheet of paper and left it on the kitchen counter. Stretching to relax his tense body, he realized that Nalini would be home in an hour. He took out his recipe book, which he had meticulously compiled but seldom used, and began to cook. As the light outside began to dim, a sharp yet pleasing aroma filled the kitchen, and when Ram finally turned off the stove, it was with a feeling of satisfaction that he decided to go for a walk.
Though it wasn’t raining, Ram took an umbrella with him. Otherwise, if a thunderstorm arrived like an unannounced guest, as it often did these days, there would be no time to find refuge. An afternoon shower had left the air crisp, and now as the daylight completely seeped out of the sky, turning dusk to darkness, Ram felt invigorated by the brisk walk. Returning to the house, he saw that Nalini’s car was back in the port.
The motion-sensor lights sprang to life, casting a bright glow on the driveway and a big chunk of the lawn. The grass had grown fast because of the rain and in places it had coiled into glistening tufts of greenery. He would have to mow the lawn soon. As Ram approached the side door, he noticed that the kitchen blinds were still open. Nalini, who was taking out dinner plates from the cabinet, turned to look out. Ram saw her face only for a moment, but he was certain she’d smiled at him. He hurried forward and opened the
Murali Kamma’s fiction has appeared in AIM: America’s Intercultural Magazine, South Asian Review and Asian Pacific American Journal, among other publications.
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