A Stifled Life

The doorbell rang, almost as if someone had placed their entire weight on the button. We ran to the door. She could barely speak, she was gulping for air. We led her in and asked her to make herself comfortable. When she caught her breath she told us that she had developed a blood pressure and cholesterol problem of late and had been out on an evening walk in the neighborhood in an attempt to get these aberrations under control.

This evening, however, her asthma got the better of her. She has been an asthmatic all her life and had forgotten her inhaler at home. So we offered her some water, some refreshments. She demanded tea and I made it for her. Then my husband offered to take her home. She didn’t live too far away but we didn’t want her walking back. She declined the offer. She was very firm in her refusal to accept this small favor. We kept insisting and she kept refusing. She said that her husband would be very upset with her if he saw her get off our car. We refused to accept this. We couldn’t believe that her husband, who I knew, would be upset with her for accepting a ride from us when she was in such bad shape! It was unbelievable. She said he would be angry with her for forgetting her inhaler at home and under no circumstances was she prepared to incur his wrath.

We were bewildered. Her husband and I used to commute together when he was employed at a firm in New York city. We often used to sit together on the bus. I found him a brilliant conversationalist, an intelligent person who could wax eloquent on any subject. I often found him sketching, writing or reading during the two hour bus ride. He told me he was a classically trained musician, a flautist. He is an information technology, data warehousing professional by trade but in his own time he performed at Hindustani classical concerts and taught flute classes. He was also extremely critical of the so-called life we led in the US. He detested every aspect of his life here, he wanted to return to India. Expatriate Indians arrive here with an American dream but he had a passionate Indian dream. He wanted to build up his savings over the next two years and then pack up and return to India. He once told me – “Hum log sangeet mein is gehrayee se doobe hue hain ki yahan rehna mushkil sa ho gaya hai”- (Translation: we are in so deep in Indian classical music that it is just not satisfying enough to continue living in the US) – I used to enjoy his company and never would have seen him as someone who could inspire such fear within his wife.

We interact socially, we are neighbors. It’s a family of four, my co-commuter, his wife and two teenage kids. His wife has become a good friend too, if one could call an acquaintance such as ours a friendship. She always calls and leaves messages inquiring about my health and well-being, expressing a desire to meet for dinner, lunch or even tea. I am rarely able to return these calls only partly because of the odd-hours I keep; we really don’t have much in common and I find a satisfying conversation with her rather difficult. But she is persistent and we have lunches and dinners together when we can. She has a well-ordered home, well-behaved kids, a pet rabbit whose antics my three-year old daughter enjoys observing no end. It is a very sane and sanitized life and she is an incredibly efficient home-maker. Makes me wish my house was in such immaculate order.

She manages her affairs with clockwork precision. Her refrigerator is impressive; all food items labeled and nutritionally organized, arranged in order of preferred consumption. The floors are so clean you could almost eat off them. I feel woefully inadequate in her presence. She always asks me what I cooked or what types of meals I have planned for my family and I am always ashamed when I tell her I’ll “nuke” something or the other, either that or that we’ll eat out or my husband will cook something up. I silently consider how happy and stress-free I would be if my life was so peaceful, so planned, so impressively streamlined.

So it’s always amazing to me when, every now and then, she shows a side to her that is full of regrets. She plans hare-brained schemes at asserting her independence and makes pitiable attempts at proving her worth. She has told me how she doesn’t want to go back to India. She has asked me to plead with her husband on her behalf, saying her asthma would kill her if she was to go back. She says she doesn’t have her husband’s ear, that he would never listen to her. She says he is very strong-willed and dominating.

Last year she took up a job flipping burgers at Burger King! She has a masters degree in Sanskrit and Hindustani classical music and she wanted to flip burgers! They are extremely well-off and if she wanted to work, there were better jobs out there but she took up a job at Burger King, of all places. She has been in the US for ten years, her husband hasn’t allowed her to learn how to drive and she was always requesting her neighbors or me to drop her off or pick her up from the burger joint. It seemed so unnecessary to me. I asked her what she was trying to prove. She just said she was bored at home and this gave her some independent income, even if it was less than the constitutionally mandated minimum wage! This led me to believe that her husband never even let her have an allowance for her personal needs.

Then one day she go fired from this pitiable job. She was depressed for a few days and then came looking for me with an employment application in her hand. She was trying to apply for a janitorial position at a nearby old folks’ home. We asked her why she wanted this job and she said she wanted it because she could walk to it, she didn’t need anyone to give her a ride. But what brought her to us, this evening, was the fact that she was incapable of filling out an employment application. She needed help. She hasn’t even learnt how to fill out forms! Her brother is a microbiologist and she can’t even fill out an ordinary form for a janitorial job! I was always baffled by her.

Her husband wasn’t home he had just left for the airport, for a two-week long trip to India. We interviewed her and proceeded to fill out the form for her, until the point where her social security number was requested. This nine digit number is an essential element on any job application. One cannot find a job in the US without providing this number. It is also a unique identifier and one shouldn’t share it liberally with others. She did not want to put this number on the form. She implied that her husband would really lose his cool if she was to give out this number. We tried to tell her that her application would not be accepted without it but she refused to provide it, she seemed so terrified of her husband.

I often notice stark terror on her face when she talks about her husband. She lacks confidence, she rarely smiles in his presence, she is the most stifled, enchained, enslaved woman I have ever seen and it amazes me. I know her husband, I like to think I am good at gauging people. He is affable, amiable, knowledgeable every time he is with me, my husband or others. He shows incredible gentleness in his interactions with his kids. I have even seen him do yard work, house work and cooking!

So why is she so terrified of him? Why was she so scared of being seen getting out of our car when my husband offered to give her a ride home? Why was she more terrified of her husband than a life-threatening asthma attack? I fail to understand! I am baffled! I refuse to believe that her husband abuses her physically. I haven’t seen any such signs and I just don’t see him as an abuser. But is this perhaps a case of unimaginable mental abuse? How could a person who seems so enlightened be capable of mental, if not physical abuse? Are we being presumptuous in this assertion of any kind of abuse? I wish I knew and I wish I could help!


  1. I think this is an accurate picture of quite a few women that I have met among the expatriate Indians. Without pre-judging the man, I have met many men who have these dual personalities and it never ceases to amaze me how this can be possible. I would say that the man is trying to project a politically correct liberal face to the world whereas deep inside, he could be deeply conservative/ regressive as they can get. Ofcourse, there is also the possibility of the woman suffering from excessive paranoia, and one cannot discount that altogether…

  2. Pragya,i guess this makes us realize that there is a lot about people we dont really know..ever.We see the surface always and one does not really have the time to probe further unless there is real cause for concern.Men and women are truly complex unique beings.Am just getting back to blogging and checking blogs–:)

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