Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
Vidya Bhushan Gupta
Vidya Bhushan Gupta is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College. He has published in professional journals such as Pediatrics, American Journal of Epidemiology, and American Journal of Public Health.
The talk-of-the-town in the Asian Indian community in Bergen County was the impending divorce of the Mittals. Ashok Mittal was a wiry man of swarthy complexion with a bristling moustache, rather too big for his thin oval face. Shashi Mittal was a pale woman of medium built, with sculptured features. One could hardly notice that she was an Indian when she donned a denim jacket and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. Their marriage had been so successful that they, once, featured as the couple-of-the-month in a local magazine.
Every Indian in Bergen County remembered the gala Ashok had arranged when he returned from India with his bride six years ago. About three hundred people had been invited for the black tie event in the Valley Banquet Hall. Women dressed up in their brocaded Benaresi or Canjeevaram sarees, the ones usually reserved for weddings. Diamonds were removed from the safety of lockers to adorn the ears and necks of women. The hors d'oeuvres included chat, pakoras, bhel, alu-tikia, sheekh kebabs, and chicken wings. The bartender finished ten bottles each of Chivas Regal and Royal Crown, because most Indian men drink only scotch at open bars.
There was a belly dance to entertain the guests. The dancer stuffed many dollar bills, which inebriated men offered to her after waving these around her gyrating belly button, into her scanty clothes.
Everything which Ashok Mittal did in and about his nascent family was a first in Bergen County, setting precedents, as it were. The Mittals celebrated the first birthday of their daughter under a gazebo in their backyard. The caterer made at least ten types of fresh nans and stuffed paranthas in the tandoor set up on the patio, and the twenty-pound birthday cake was not Carvel junk but was custom made in the shape of the frock of a doll which proudly stood atop the cake.
Well, that was then and this is now. Now, the Mittals were the main theme of the evenings in all the parties, not for the standards they had set for others to emulate, but for the tradition they were breaking.
"Indians are getting Americanized," Mrs. Bhatia said.
"Money corrupts people," Mrs. Singh opined.
"But Behnji, they should at least think of their children! Their daughter is so cute."
"Have you heard anything, Suresh? You and Ashok are tennis pals." "He has not mentioned anything, but I guess he might be having an affair with his secretary," Suresh replied.
"No, I have heard that there was some problem with dowry."
"But if it was dowry, then their marriage wouldn't have lasted so long. Dowry feuds usually occur right after marriage."
"It may be their second daughter. A second girl in the family, baba, it means big dowry. In fact, I saw them fighting bitterly in the last card-party about who would carry the younger daughter to the car. Shashi was loaded with the baby-bag and empty dishes, and the older daughter, irritable just before sleep, was tugging at her mother's skirt. Shashi asked Ashok to pick up the younger daughter, but he refused. When she persisted, he angrily replied that he was not her puppy or indentured servant. She stomped out fuming and slamming the door behind her, and made another trip to pick up the younger daughter."
"No, they are not orthodox. Ashok is an engineering graduate from MIT. He cannot have such archaic ideas."
Such misdemeanors were unheard of about the Mittals in the past.
One day Mrs. Seth saw Mrs. Mittal carrying her younger daughter in a stroller at the Grand Union and noticed that the left leg of the youngster was in a cast. This led to a flurry of gossip. Mrs. Seth was convinced that Mr. Mittal was a wife and child abuser. The O.J. Simpson case opened people's minds—even Indians—to the possibility of wife and child battering. Mrs. Sharma, on the contrary, was against such unscrupulous speculation because, for her, Mittal was like the Hindu God Ram, an ideal man, above all vices. She held the view that it was all Shashi's fault. To her, Shashi was like a princess—daughter of a sugar magnate from the sugar belt of India—a flagrant spendthrift, and fond of flashy parties. May be Shashi spent all her time in beauty salons—she had coiffed her hair in three different styles since she came to the States—and she neglected the children, which upset her husband. Mrs. Gandhi held a different opinion—her husband had seen the family in the waiting room of a geneticist. Why should a child with a fracture be seen by a geneticist? "There may be something seriously wrong with the infant and that was straining the marriage," she thought.
There was no way of confirming all these theories because the Mittals had isolated themselves since the rumors began. Socialization among Indians is more a matter of satisfying the palate than a meeting of minds or hearts. Most people in the community keep their woes to themselves lest the family name be scarred.
The truth unfolded more slowly than the speed with which the rumors had spread. Mrs. Tolani, a neighbor of the Mittals, noticed the wailing and flashing of an ambulance siren one day and when she looked out of the window she saw the paramedics carrying the infant to the ambulance. By that evening, the whole community knew that the Mittal's younger daughter had been admitted to the Valley Hospital. The Bhajan group advised its members through a telephone chain to call the Mittal family for support and goodwill. The Mittals were terse in replying to these calls of sympathy from their fellow countrymen. The infant had a seizure, and the so called fracture was not a fracture after all. It was an extra joint in the bone due to a rare disease. But why should a sick infant lead to marital strife?
Mrs. Seth was convinced even more strongly that this was a case of child abuse. She had heard that the brain can be damaged by shaking an infant and that artificial joint theory was baloney. "Who has heard of an extra joint in a bone! Mittal is a smart aleck. He has come up with this fancy explanation to save his skin," she maintained. Mrs. Seth had been always wary of Ashok Mittal's success. She had a field day now.
Mrs. Sharma was still strongly opposed to any insinuation against Ashok. She had known him since he came to the USA as a student. He was a diligent student, strict vegetarian, and a devoted Hindu. The boy had never even looked at a girl before his marriage. He went to India to get a bride through arranged marriage. How can such a virtuous man be a child abuser! Two intermediate views among these extremes were that Ashok had married Shashi for a huge dowry but the two were incompatible—he was an ex-nerd, and she was a rich, but air head, heiress. They had nothing in common—he spoke immaculate, flawless English and she spoke with a pronounced village accent. He loved western classic music and she loved Bombay soap operas.
An alternative view was that she married him for a green card. Now that she had become a citizen she wanted to dump him. He was only the son of a clerk in the Finance ministry in Delhi. He lacked that certain elegance that one sees in khandani amirs. Opinions were divided, mostly along gender lines. More women believed it was his fault and more men believed that it was her fault. Mrs. Sharma was an exception.
The elderly in the Indian community were really upset about this episode, as if their worst fears about this libelous, licentious and litigious land had come true. They invoked the examples of Ram and Sita, and Savitri and Satyavan, two ideal couples of the Hindu mythology, who confronted demons and death for one another. They reminded the youngsters about the vows the bride and bridegroom take around the sacred fire. What if the children are sick? One has to reap the crop of Karma, if not in this life, then in the next.
Soon more information leaked out. It became general knowledge that the infant had a genetic disease, neurofibromatosis. Apparently a beauty spot on Mrs. Mittal's face was not a beauty spot at all, but a minor symptom of the same disease. No one heard anything from the family, but facts started falling in place. Ashok was angry that his daughter had a genetic disease which had been passed to her from his wife, Shashi. He blamed Shashi for the pain and suffering of their child. The little girl may limp for ever, have epilepsy, and may even have mental retardation. The women in the community were still sympathetic to Shashi. Perhaps she did not know that she had this condition. Mrs. Seth was strongly behind her. Men cannot divorce their wives just because their child is sick. Maybe his genes were as bad as hers or perhaps were the only bad genes.
However, Mrs. Sharma's theory was more popular in the county. Shashi's parents and Shashi knew that she had a disease that could be transmitted to the children. They had deliberately hid the facts from Ashok, a credulous, devout Hindu son who went back to Mother India to find a bride—some say he went to India because he wanted a beautiful, always-willing, faithful Indian wife rather than a big-mouth-liberated Indian broad, born and raised in the USA. Shashi's parents gave a dowry of one hundred thousand dollars, supposedly, to mitigate her shortcomings, besides throwing the most extravagant marriage party in India—a marriage which was covered on the first page of all the tabloids in New Delhi. The bridegroom's party went to the Sheraton Hotel with the bridegroom saddled atop a bedecked elephant and the Delhi Police band playing the tunes of popular Hindi film songs in the background—"Chumma dey dey-chumma-chumma dey dey." They chose him over boys in India because they hoped that all diseases could be cured in the USA, the last frontier of medicine. Somehow the possibility of having brain damaged children was forgotten in the transactions.
No one knows the conclusion of the story for certain because the Mittals moved soon after the fateful hospitalization of their daughter and never stayed in touch with anyone in Bergen County. It is believed that Shashi's parents came to take their daughter and grandchildren back to India, and Ashok moved to Texas, married a white American woman, and changed his name to Ash Miettle.