"So in my teenage years, I read things like Anna Karennina and Sons and Lovers and The Great Gatsby and A Room ofOne's Own. I'm glad I did, but maybe Aunt Nalini--that's Sudha's mom--was right. They were no good for me. They filled me with a dissatisfaction with my own life, and a longing for distant places. I believed that, if I could only get out of Calcutta to one of those exotic countries I read about, it would transform me. But transformation isn't so easy, is it?"
What about the other places of her growing-up years? The ones she never spoke of, the ones you'd have to eavesdrop among her dreams to find? Such as: the banquet hall where she saw her new husband stoop to pick up a woman's handkerchief that was not hers? But the rest of that scene is brittle and brown and unreadable, like the edge of a paper held to a flame, another of those memories Anju keeps hostage in the darkest cells of her mind.
"The bookstore was where I met your father. He had come dressed in an old-fashioned kurta and gold-rimmed glasses--a kind of disguise so that I wouldn't guess that he was the computer whiz from America with whom Gouri Ma was trying to arrange my marriage."
"He'd come to check me out! Can you imagine! People just didn't do such things in Calcutta, at least not in traditional families like mine. When he confessed who he was, I was terribly impressed. But what made me fall in crazy love with him was that he bought a whole set of the novels of Virginia Woolf. She used to be my favorite author, you know. But he'd done it only to win me over." She sighed. "Later I couldn't get him to read even one of them!"
"Still--he's going to be a wonderful father to you. I'm sure of that. He'll love you more than anyone else does--except of course me and your Sudha-aunty!"
This evening, her dinner uneaten, Anju pushes back her chair and walks over to the old, discolored mirror that hangs in the small bathroom in the passage. She runs an uncertain hand through her hair and touches the dark circles under her eyes. She presses down on her jagged cheekbones--she's lost a lot of weight since the miscarriage--as though she could push them in and hide them. "God, I look like such a witch!" she groans.
Last week she opened her India suitcase and took out a framed picture of herself and Sudha at their school graduation dinner. She examined it for a long moment before setting it on her dresser with a dissatisfied thunk. Even at that heedlessly happy time in her life, she hadn't been pretty in the traditional way. She didn't have her cousin's rush of curly hair, or those wide, sooty eyes which always looked a little mysterious, a little tragic. But anyone could see (anyone except herself, that is) that she had spirit. In the photo, she stares out, a challenge in her eyes. She crooks her lean, stubborn mouth in a half-smile. There's an irrepressible intelligence to her nose. Maybe that was what made Sunil choose her from among all the girls he could have had as an eminently eligible, foreign-returned, computer-whiz groom in Calcutta.
But somewhere along the way Anju's eyes grew dull and muddy. Her mouth learned to twitch. And the expression on Sunil's face when he watches her nowadays--he does this in bed, sometimes, after she has fallen asleep--is complicated. At times it is pity. At times, regret.
All through the fall of her pregnancy, while the leaves of the maple turned a crisper, brittler red until they were suddenly gone, Anju told Prem stories of Sudha. Beautiful Sudha, the dreamer, the best cook of them all, the magic-fingered girl who could embroider clothes fit for a queen. Luckless Sudha who worked so hard at being the perfect wife to Ramesh even though she didn't love him. Until the day she walked out of the marriage.
"It was because of her witch of a mother-in-law. For years she'd been harassing Sudha because she couldn't get pregnant. You'd think she'd be delighted when she found out that Sudha was having a baby. But no. She had to have an ultrasound done, and when she discovered that her first grandchild was going to be a girl, she insisted that Sudha should have an abortion. So Sudha ran away--how else could she save her daughter--though she knew they'd make her life hell afterwards.
Excerpted from The Vine of Desire by Chitra Divakaruni Copyright 2002 by Chitra Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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