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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: India Life Stories

Vaishali and Sachin
Nate Bell

Sachin told me that Vaishali had been born a Brahmin. Because the hierarchy of the caste system is based on the relative purity of the castes, Brahmins rarely leave their houses, preferring to stay sheltered in the unblemished confines of their homes. Brahmins are very proper. They are proper about what they eat and who comes near them and the ceremony that is performed for the deceased. They are proper about education and their status as the upholders of the true Hinduism. And they are proper about marriage.

The first time I met Vaishali was in Madison, where my seven classmates and I took Tamil in preparation for our year in Madurai. A meeting with Vaishali had been scheduled in a small room on the deserted top floor of a University of Wisconsin building. What I remember about that meeting was not the clothes Vaishali wore or the details of her lecture on Indian political history. Rather, from her answers to our questions after the lecture about what living in India would really be like, I remember coming away sure that she would be an insufferable rule enforcer.

Vaishali had warned the American girls of the nasty intentions of seemingly nice older men and implored all of us to be careful with our possessions. She asked us to avoid the police and to be wary of the beggars that we would find along most streets. But most importantly, she said, we must avoid any and all sexual relationships during our year in Madurai. She said that once before, a girl on the program had carried on a secret affair with a young Indian man, but that it had ended badly, as all relationships so far out of traditional frameworks likely would.

Sometimes it felt like Vaishali, my study abroad director, was trying to make herself disappear. Her hair was cut above her shoulders, unlayered and plain. Her shalwar kameez were dark blue or dark green. No designs, no bright colors. She had an overbite and a wide, strong chin. She wore glasses. Her behind rather than her belly bore the brunt of her aging weight. She rode a small, puttering moped that I once passed along a straightaway on my bicycle. In the program house, she stayed mostly behind her computer in the office. Even during lunch, when she sat eating with us at the giant table, it still seemed that there was a wall she took with her everywhere, separating her from the world.

A minority of what I know of Vaishali, I have pieced together from conversations in her office about my 100 page research project on "Happiness" and the odd talk at the breakfast table when we were the only ones left sitting after everyone else cleared. Throughout the entire year, I learned from her only that she had worked as a bureaucrat, had a son and a daughter and recently completed a Phd dissertation about Gandhi. The rest I learned from her husband Sachin.

Sachin used to be a famous rock and roll performer. Now he works for the University of Wisconsin Madurai program, has a bald head and is quick to laugh or talk at a volume greater than one would expect from such a small man. He shares an office with Vaishali and though he had been involved with the program since the first years, she is his superior.

Near the end of the year, to celebrate the birthday of one of my classmates, my friends and I smoked weed on the roof of that girl’s house with two of our Kenyan friends. The family that lived below must have smelled something and called Vaishali because the next day she held a meeting around the giant table in the program house. In that meeting, Vaishali said that she was most disappointed in our decision to smoke with Africans. "Africans have a bad reputation in Madurai" she said slowly with furrowed brows and odd gaps between words and small random tics of her head to the side. "There have been many problems with Africans. I do not want any of you to go to jail."

Yet despite being obviously troubled by our actions, Vaishali meted out no punishment. When people woke up too late for breakfast and skipped class, she looked the other way. When assignments were turned in late and done shoddily, she said nothing. And when I got sick from drinking the water she told me over and over to avoid, she took me in a rickshaw to the hospital and didn’t chastise me for refusing her advice. After a couple of months in India, I realized that, awkward and cold as she was, Vaishali was no rule enforcer. And as the year stretched on and I filled hot, lazy afternoons gossiping in the breezeway of the program house with Sachin, I learned that Vaishali had been a rebel.
I knew that Sachin smoked and drank; after a lecture at an ashram that had dragged on and annoyed both of us, he said that his retreat was "drugs, sex and rock and roll." Sachin often talked about smoking and partying with groupies when he was a touring performer. I guess his stories of revelry, not all of which I believed, were his way of connecting to us young Westerners. This connection was understandable; he claimed to have first found out about rock and roll and marijuana from early students of the same program he now worked for.

Sitting next to me in the breezeway reading chairs Sachin said, in a booming voice that surely could be overheard throughout the house, that Vaishali used to be much different. He said that Vaishali had been a wild woman when she was younger. He said that she smoked and drank and dressed scandalously and was sexy. "Some people change, Nate. And some don't ever change," he said that day, the same day he told me that they lived apart. He also told me that he had been born Christian.

My guess is that Vaishali’s former vibrancy that Sachin so missed had partly been bottled down by becoming a parent, but even more by a disconnection from her family. Sachin’s Christian family was unhappy with the marriage, but kept up distant contact. But Vaishali’s Brahmin family was viciously angry and kicked Vaishali out and considered her polluted. They refused to let her enter the house. They thought her entrance would make the house impure. It took over a decade before they let her come back to her childhood home, and in rare, tense encounters, retain her place in the family. But when Vaishali’s father died and Vaishali attempted to attend the funeral, her family prevented her attendance.

To be without a family in India is, in the eyes of many, not to exist. Sachin and Vaishali live this ethereal existence. That must be why they love Americans. For Vaishali, Americans, or at least the majority of the Americans who go on the program she runs, are fellow atheists. I remember after a lecture on yoga during which I grilled the presenter with tough, perhaps rude questions, she approvingly called me a "Doubting Thomas." And earlier in the year, she lent me a book by Bertrand Russell. When she went to Chennai for a meeting, she bought more of his books at a big bookstore and gave them to me. For Sachin, Americans were fellow aficionados of Rock and Roll. But perhaps we had failed him in this. After missing most of his references to old bands over the course of the first two days, he had made few musical references the rest of the year.

But outside of the program house, in the India that they couldn’t fully avoid, these fascinations received little interest. The only community of which they were truly a part was the group of American college kids they were paid to watch over. In a place where faith, family, food, marriage, birth, death and community are so closely linked that they approach meaninglessness without one another, their marriage received little support.

As a young man who desired romance and believed in the transcendental power of love, I could understand Sachin and Vaishali's love marriage. They too had been young. They too had seen the stale, passionless arranged marriages based on utility rather than connection that I saw all around me. Like me, they preferred to leap off into the unknown, come what may, than submit to a life stuck in constricting filial roles. Plus, they wanted to marry each other, not strangers prescribed to them by their families to be met on the day of their weddings.

It was as if Sachin and Vaishali were sandwiched, caught between the restrictive Indian culture of their upbringing and the liberated, individualistic West. Perhaps if they had lived in America, they would have found peers and their marriage would have prospered. Or maybe, with divorce being a more acceptable option in America, their separation would have come much earlier.

Sachin insisted that their marriage was once passionate. It must have been; the strength of their connection compelled them to leave behind their families for a life with one another. But sitting in the little nook outside of the kitchen, reading one of the Bertrand Russell books Vaishali had bought for me, I looked up to see Vaishali and Sachin pass without even a glance towards one another. They had lost their families. Now they had also lost each other.
© Nate Bell August 2009

Cartamma and Mutamma

Nate Bell
It was with Cartamma and Mutamma that I felt connected to the "real" India. Working side by side and laughing with me

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