by Rudy Ravindra
Rekha, a high school junior, was browsing a few colleges in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. She was neither mediocre nor brilliant, somewhere in between, got reasonable SAT scores. She wasn’t really sure what she wanted to major in, knew she had to go to college, get a degree, and get a job. One of her teachers encouraged her to study political science and international relations. She said, “Rekha, I think you’ll do well, your term papers on democracy versus dictatorship are pretty good. Also, you are a good debater, articulate your points clearly.”
When she told her parents about her plans, her father looked at Rekha as if she committed the crime of the century. He thundered. “What nonsense is that? Politics? My foot! International relations? What do you think you are? Hilary Clinton, ha? I’ve been telling you ever since you were little, we need a doctor in the family. Why is it I have to repeat myself so many times?” He fiddled with his iPhone, rapidly responded to a text message.
“But, Daddy, I don’t care for medicine, I hate the sight of blood.” Rekha wrung her hands, looked at her mother for support, who kept her head down, studiously focused on her crochet.
“Young lady, you’ll be fine. Once you are in medical school, everything’ll fall into place. When I was your age, I’d no idea whatsoever about my future. My father put me in an engineering school, I kept my head down for four years, studied hard, got my degree, came here to America, got a degree in computers, and now here I am, in a decent position at one of the big Wall Street firms.” He checked his iPhone, “Oh, I need to go to my desktop.” He ran downstairs to his basement office.
Rekha pleaded. “Mom, you gotta tell him to stop harassing me. I hate this doctor business.”
Nirmala looked at her daughter with kindly eyes. “Honey, you know your dad, he has to have his way, all the time. His mind’s made up. You have no choice. It’s not that bad you know. I majored in Biology, could have gone to med school, but got married, you came along and then Anushka. Two kids, a busy husband, my hands were full.”
Anushka, the younger daughter, came bounding down the stairs, “Mom, you need to take me to Sheila’s. We have a pizza party.”
“It’s only five, what’s the hurry?” Nirmala put her crochet stuff down. “Let me see if your dad needs anything from the store, I’ll do a little grocery shopping after I drop you off.”
She went down to see her husband barking some orders into his iPhone, didn’t want to disturb.
Rekha said. “Lemme come with you. I need some fresh air.”
As usual the sisters fought for the front passenger seat. Nirmala had to intervene. “Rekha, let your sister sit in the front. You sat in the front last time.”
Rekha gave dirty look to her sister, settled in the rear seat.
Anushka looked back. “Hey, Miss grumpy, dad giving you a hard time, ha? I heard him yelling at the top of his voice.”
Rekha smiled wanly. “What’s new? The same old broken record, he wants a doctor in the family.”
“Why don’t you become a dentist, ha? Easy work, you can have your own practice, just like Sheila’s mom.”
Rekha grimaced. “Who wants to look at patients’ mouth every day, yuk, bad breath, decaying gums, oh, no, never.” She shuddered.
Anushka laughed. “If dad has his way, you’ll become an ob/gyn doc, look at women’s bottom day in and day out. I don’t know which is worse, ha, ha, ha.”
“Go on, laugh all you want. You’ll get your turn when you are ready for college. I can’t wait to see how you’ll handle our own home-grown Hitler.” Rekha clapped her hands in glee.
Nirmala said in a mock-stern voice. “Now, now, girls, you know he’s not all that bad. Doesn’t he provide for us, works long hours, eh?”
Both the girls said in unison. “Yeah, yeah, he’s the great benevolent dictator, just like Mao, power grows out of his big mouth.” They both laughed loudly.
Anushka calmed down. “But seriously, Rekha, what’s your problem? Go for it, he’s gonna pay for it. You havta get through college first, that’s four years, Major in Biology or Chemistry. When you are in your junior year, apply to med schools, screw up the MCATs, say you can’t get in, what can dad do? Nothing. You quietly take courses in politics and stuff, do you own thing. He can’t blame you, you tried to get into a med school, fair and square, couldn’t make the cut, yeah.”
Rekha brightened up, “Wow! That’s a brilliant plan. You know what? I’ll enroll for a double major, Biology and Politics.”
Nirmala smiled to herself, let the kids day dream, planning to outwit their father. But, she knew Mahadevan was much too smart. She remembered when the firm he worked for went belly up during the Great Recession, while many of his colleagues were applying for unemployment benefits, Mahadevan was one of the very few to land on his feet, found another good job quickly. He kept his ear to the ground, knew all the gossip, who to toady up, who to dump, whose stars high, whose low.
It was an arranged marriage. Mahadevan was doing his Master’s in computers at an obscure university in Texas. They got married after he completed his studies. He got a job in some hedge fund outfit in New York City, fixing computers, writing software. She came to know very quickly that Mahadevan was an extremely stingy man, and also very controlling. Before her marriage, she used her father’s generous allowance, enjoyed the occasional glass of beer or wine, steak and salmon, chicken and crab, wore fashionable clothes, got her hair done regularly, had manicure and pedicure. Once she got married, she had to give up everything, one after the other. A teetotaler, Mahadevan abhorred alcoholic beverages; a staunch Brahmin, he considered eating surf or turf a sacrilege; felt only hussies get their hair done and paint their nails, not God-fearing Hindu wives. She gave up everything for the sake of peace and quiet. She hated to upset him, hated to see his austere face contort, his quivering mouth spew out sarcastic barbs. At all costs she did her best to avoid such scenes, gave him what he wanted, food on time, love on demand, obeyed him all the time. Her dreams of romantic candlelight dinners by the waterfront, sipping red wine, holding hands, gazing into her lover’s eyes remained just that—dreams. The saving grace was he did not physically abuse her. Sometimes she wondered what he might have done if she were not so acquiescent.
Nirmala was brought back to the present by Anushka. “Mom, you need to turn left here.”
Mahadevan was beaming from ear to ear. “Rekha, I found a perfect program. This college is in upstate, they have an arrangement with Georgetown Med School. Now you’ll join this college, do your undergraduate courses, and at the end of four years, you’ll transfer to Georgetown. No need for MCAT, no pressure. Direct admission, isn’t that cool or what?”
Rekha’s face became ashen, she was trembling with anxiety. If she and Anushka thought they could hoodwink their dad, buy time and somehow manage to get out of the med school nightmare, she was sadly mistaken.
Completely oblivious to her feelings Mahadevan continued. “Right, next weekend we’ll go check out the college, dorms, food etc. So, get ready folks.” He looked at Nirmala. “Tell Anushka that she’s coming with us, she’ll find this useful. When the time comes, we might admit her also in the same program. I might work out a deal, two for one, ha? Two doctors in the family won’t hurt. One ob/gyn, the other a pediatrician, ha, ha, ha. Rekha, you deliver the babies, pass them on your sister. It’ll be a good business, no?”
Rekha rushed out of the living room, banged her door shut.
Mahadevan yelled at no one in particular. “What’s with these kids now-a-days? When we were young, we never questioned our father. He’d beat us to pulp if we as much as raised an objection to his plans. I’m spending a lot of money just to enter this program, on top of it tuition, board and other expenses every year for the next eight years, that’ll be at least two hundred grand. What do I get? Gratitude? No, sir. Just apathy, as if I’m condemning her to some dungeons.”
While Rekha did quite well in political sciences, her performance in biology and chemistry was anything but stellar, just got by. After four years, she got a bachelor’s degree, reluctantly moved to Georgetown to start medical school. Life was placid in the upstate, she enjoyed the nature, the rolling hills, the long walks in and around the wooded campus, and a few good friends. But, the hectic, fast-paced urban atmosphere at Washington, D.C. wasn’t conducive to a peaceful life. Added to this, the courses in the first semester were repugnant. She cringed at the sight of cadavers, detested to dissect dogs in the physiology lab. She failed miserably in both Anatomy and Physiology, two essential courses, had to repeat them. Adding to her misery was her father’s fury, who berated and belittled her. She tried her best, but couldn’t overcome her aversion to cadavers and canines. On the day she was supposed to take her Anatomy exam, she had a nervous breakdown, started talking gibberish, pulled at her hair, ran around the apartment complex in her underwear. She was admitted to the psyche ward. The Dean said that Rekha was ill-equipped to be a physician, advised Mahadevan to take her out of the med school.
With the help of a good psychiatrist, her loving mother by her side, it was several months before Rekha was back to her normal self, several months before she smiled, several months before she enjoyed the simple things of life, several months before she met her friends, to laugh, to carry on a normal conversation, to go to the movies or shopping. While she struggled to have a semblance of a normal life, her father was anything but supportive. He constantly harassed her, said things to hurt her ego, called her nincompoop, called her lazy, and many other things. She kept quiet, let him rant and rave. When she got better, she got a job at a dentist’s office, answering the phone and setting up appointments, and moved out of her parents’ house.
Mahadevan said. “Your sister disappointed me, I felt insulted in the society. I told all my friends that my daughter is in the med school, she’ll be a doctor…hmmm…she’s a bloody weakling. Now, Anushka, I know you are made of better stuff, you are a fighter. I know you can do it. How about you enroll into that program? Shall we go to the upstate college next week end? I spoke to the Dean, he’ll be happy to have you. The same deal. You get your college degree, simply glide into Georgetown, no questions asked, no MCAT. How about it, ha?”
Anushka said, “No, dad. I want to be writer. I’ll major in English.”
He yelled. “What? What? You want be writer! A bloody writer! You are no Jhumpa Lahiri! Most writers struggle to make a living. I sacrificed so much for you girls, scrimped and saved so you’ll have a better life. I wanted to be a proud father of two doctors. Two bloody good doctors in the family. You’ll do what I tell you to.”
“No, no, no.” Anushka stood her ground.
Mahadevan was enraged, slapped her hard, she reeled, held on to the couch, massaged her burning cheek. Nirmala touched his shoulder. “Take it easy, it’s not the end of the world.”
He shook her off violently, she fell, her head hit the hardwood floor with a thud. Anushka kneeled at her mother. “Mom, mom, are you okay?”
Nirmala got up slowly, sat on a chair. “I’m okay, Anu, don’t worry. I’m fine. Get me a glass of water.” She glared at her husband. Sipping the cold water, she said. “Mahadevan, I put up with you for all these years, hoped you’d change, become a normal human being. I’m sorry, you’ve remained the same, an insensitive boor, a bully and a self-important bore. I’ve had enough.” She got up, held Anushka’s hand, “Come, let’s go. Go someplace where we can be free, happy, be ourselves.”
When Mahadevan tried to block them, Anushka screamed. “Do not move. Do not come near.” She brandished a sharp menacing kitchen knife.
They got into the car and drove off.