Akshay had a flat in a new neighbourhood in South Delhi. A row of tall houses lined the street, facing another row on the other side. He’d already arranged for her ticket on the night train. At first, he’d thought he would put her up at a hotel, then he thought she could simply go to a hotel herself. But Vidya had appointed Akshay for this task so Radhika wouldn’t have to spend her first day back alone. So, he took her to his own home.
As he unloaded the luggage and paid for the taxi, Akshay worried Radhika might be inconvenienced by his simple home, after the glamour and glitz of abroad. Radhika weakly tried to pay for the taxi, but he stopped her. When he came upstairs, Radhika was standing in the sitting room. “Please have a seat, why are you standing?” Radhika sat down. The room was square. There was a sofa against the wall, a leather chair – clearly of the Scandinavian style – and a full bookshelf on the side. Everything was neat and tidy, but lacking in ambience. A servant came in with a tray, placed it on the table and stood respectfully to one side. Radhika was surprised by his appearance. He looked Tibetan; neatly dressed, and extremely polite.
“Sonam,” Akshay said, “this is Radhika, she’s just returned from abroad.” The servant bowed in greeting to Radhika then began to prepare the tea. “You’re being inconvenienced on my account,” said Radhika, turning to Akshay, her cup in her hand. “No, nothing of the sort.” He drank his tea and went to the office. Now the house was completely still; she couldn’t even hear Sonam rattling around in the kitchen. She sat silently for a while, repeating to herself that she’d come home to her own country.
Today was her first day in India. But no kin had come to greet her at the airport. She sat in the home of a stranger, the sort of person who says nothing of himself without being asked. All she knew was that he had a small flat and a Tibetan servant. She was alone. She had imagined this day many times. She had believed that Papa would surely come to fetch her even if Vidya did not. Then the two of them would stay someplace nice and Papa would take her out to dinner. She would order the food she’d longed for while away: beautifully puffed, crispy puris; a spicy tarkari of Kabuli chana, decorated with thin slices of green chilli and lime; paneer koftas; gujiya soaked in yogurt; chutney; all types of pickle; peppery pappadums; and for dessert, carrot halwa sprinkled with dry fruits, or freshly cut mango slices and cream, or thick syrupy kheer fragrant with saffron.
“The hot water is ready for you,” Sonam told her. Radhika bathed and went to lie on the sofa. The room had filled with sunlight, and that pleased her. She spread out her wet hair on a cushion and covered her eyes with her arm. She wished she could forget the terrible memories. Yes, she’d gone abroad after a horrible fight with Papa, but that had been three years ago. She’d begged forgiveness and returned. Was Papa still holding a grudge against her? If not, why hadn’t he come? Fathers and children struggle in every household – but this hadn’t been an inter-generational struggle. Radhika had fought for her personal freedom. It had been Papa who had taught her not to fall in line. She knew her behaviour had upset him, but she’d never imagined he could be so cruel, so hard. On her way home, she’d sent him a cable, believing he’d have forgiven her by now and would come to get her in Delhi.
She’d looked around eagerly as she got off the plane but had seen not one familiar face. The older American who had sat in the seat next to her from London to New Delhi had turned to her and smiled. “How does it feel coming home after so long?” he’d asked. Radhika couldn’t immediately respond. She glanced once more at the row of people leaning over the railing and felt suddenly emotional. Everything here belonged to her – the dust-clogged air, the pale sky, the sun-scorched grass, the hard earth beneath her feet – she was an indivisible part of all of this. How could she express in one sentence all she felt at that moment? But the man was expecting an answer, so she laughed slightly and said, “Just wonderful!” Radhika began to scan the crowd again.
The people hanging from the railing were waving, their arms undulating like the sea. A small clutch of girls stood to one side on the steps; an elderly couple carefully scanned the faces of the arriving passengers in an attitude of serene anticipation. Surely a friendly face would appear the moment she cleared customs and came outside. Everyone in her family shrank from emotional displays. Maybe that’s why no one had squeezed forward to throw their arms around her. But joy cannot be disguised. Radhika arrived in the lounge with the other passengers. The customs officer was young. He sported a small moustache and his shoulders were stiff with the awareness that he was the one and only arbiter in the situation. Radhika was not offended by his taking care of the foreigners first; it was only proper, after all. As she sat on the cane sofa awaiting her turn, she felt a bit hopeless. Other people’s relatives began entering to greet them in the lounge. Even the elderly couple had found their son and his white wife, and now all of them stood about, as Radhika contemplated her dreadful situation.
She wouldn’t look over at the door anymore. Instead, she began glancing towards the customs counter again. When her turn came, she rose with a feeling of calm control and handed her passport and suitcase keys to the customs agent. He read her passport, then glanced at her.
Date of birth: January 1940
Height: five feet three inches
Weight: one hundred five pounds
And one more glance. All men looked at her twice, this Radhika knew. The first time cursorily, the second, attentively. She knew the reason, but she didn’t accept it. At first glance, she looked like any other Indian woman: a fair complexion, black eyes, black hair. But there was also something they saw in that first glance that made them look again.
Excerpted with permission from Won’t You Stay, Radhika?, Usha Priyamvada, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Speaking Tiger Books.