Tchau, tchau Beena
“Sheela, what is going on? Why did you sell all your investments without consulting me? Is it about that fucking citizenship again? You have gone insane, Sheela, completely mad!”
“Ajay, mind your language. Beena was right. I am nothing but a doormat to you. The moment I stand for myself, you resort to swearing and calling me names.”
“Sheela, come to your senses. Beena is a worthless witch who has cast a spell on you. Are you really going to leave me and take the kids and leave? Drop this madness and let's go back to how things were. I will take some time off from work and let's go to Manali for a brief holiday next month.”
“That’s your problem Ajay. Everything in our lives has to be as per your schedule, your wishes. But what about me? Why can’t you do something because I want it? Why don’t you ever trust me to do something in our family’s interests? Am I not doing this for the family - for all of us to have a better life? I don't expect you to help me, but at least don't call me names!" Sheela turned away, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Ajay sighed in frustration, "How can we have a frank talk when you break down in tears at the drop of a hat? Fine, do whatever you want, but I am warning you–it’s on you alone. I refuse to get involved. You and your precious Beena can go to Mongolia for all I care, but I am not leaving Mumbai ever.” Ajay stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
The Nair household had been in a turbulent state ever since the visit of Sheela's school friend Beena six months back. Beena had migrated to Portugal a decade ago after her uncle had sponsored her family. Beena's uncle, a resident of Goa, had moved to Portugal after the Indian government had annexed the state of Goa in 1961. The uncle had not married and agreed to sponsor Beena, her husband and 2 children to stay with him and take care of him. Beena and Sheela had been inseparable growing up and while marriage had taken them to different cities, they continued to stay in touch. In 2010 Beena had migrated to Portugal and for the last twelve years Ajay had heard countless tales of Beena's husband's fantastic job in a Lisbon bank, the fabulous schools her children attended, the scenic beauty of the neighbourhood she lived in and the interesting people who lived in her neighbourhood. Beena visited her family in Goa once in 2-3 years, but she and Sheela had never met because of conflicting schedules. However, whenever Beena returned to Lisbon, she would moan to Sheela over how backward India was and how she was glad she had emigrated. She was critical of her nieces' and nephews' education and announced that they would be unemployable if they did not pursue higher education abroad.
When Beena had come to Mumbai to attend a wedding, Sheela had been so excited to meet her childhood friend after over two decades. Sheela wanted to show off her lifestyle and family to Beena. Her husband, Ajay, worked in a senior position in a multinational company and they owned a 3 bedroom apartment in an upmarket neighbourhood. Sheela had 2 maids who helped her with the housework and cooking. The children went to a prestigious school and Sheela herself did not work, choosing instead to manage the household and raise the children.
However, Beena's visit had not gone as planned. Beena had looked around the apartment with a sense of disdain commenting on the small kitchen, the noise from the traffic filtering into the house, slums adjoining the building etc etc. Sheela’s house was her pride and it was difficult for her to hear Beena’s criticism but she said nothing. It shocked Beena to hear that Sheela’s daughter Pia was studying in a school following an Indian syllabus.
“Sheela, why isn’t Pia in an IGCSE or IB school? Those are the only curriculum worth studying. Indian curriculum is useless and outdated. Is it the high fees? Surely Ajay is making enough to afford the best for his only daughter. In Lisbon, both Amit and Aman go to the best school in the city and I tell you the difference it is making. They have excellent teachers and all children from the school go to the best European and American universities. Sheela, tell Ajay and immediately change Pia’s school.”
The final straw came when one servant had coughed while serving Beena. Beena had refused to eat any of the delicacies prepared and chided Sheela for being careless about the hygiene of her household. When Ajay had intervened and said that he would have something else prepared or ordered for Beena, she had turned on him. "Ajay, I want to know how you can let Sheela live like this! Why are you putting her to so much hardship - living with dirty, sick household help, struggling to help Pia cope in a backward education system? She used to be such a talented dancer and now she has no time for any of her interests. She has no social life at all. What have you done to my dear Sheela, Ajay?"
Beena's outburst had taken Ajay by surprise. He knew she was right - he had been neglecting Sheela and their children in favour of his job. He worked long hours and often came home exhausted and irritable. Sheela had stopped dancing after they got married, as Ajay had not wanted her to continue with her "hobby" and had wanted her to focus on creating a pleasant home for them. However, he thought he had been a loving husband and father, providing a good life for his family. Beena's words made him wonder if he had been selfish and insensitive to what Sheela wanted. After Beena's visit, Ajay promised to make some changes in his life. He took a long hard look at his priorities and decided that he would ask Sheela what she wanted to do. If she wanted to take up dance again or even a job, he would support and encourage her with no questions.
Sheela had looked disturbed ever since Beena's visit. On their anniversary, three months after Beena's unfortunate visit, Ajay and Sheela had gone to an expensive restaurant for dinner and Ajay had laid his hand on Sheela's and enquired, "Sheela, I know I hurt you when I asked you to give up your interests and hobbies. Please forgive me. I want you to live freely now. Pursue all your dreams. I will support you completely."
Sheela looked at Ajay in surprise. She had never expected him to apologize or change his attitude so drastically. She said, "Ummm Ajay, there's one thing I have been thinking of, but I wasn’t sure what you would say."
"Sheela, I just said - ask me anything. I will do my best to make it happen."
"Umm...Err... I know you don’t like Beena, but I was thinking of what she said. Are we depriving Pia of a better future by continuing to stay In India? Why don’t we migrate to Portugal or Canada? I have been looking at the immigration portals and I think we will meet the criteria. Pia is relatively young and will adjust to the local schools. Beena also sent me the contact of an immigration agent who helped some relative of hers migrate to Spain. I spoke to him and he told me he would give us a discount as we were coming through a referral," Sheela continued speaking, not realising that Ajay had withdrawn his hand.
"Ajay, what is wrong?"
"How could you even think of such a thing? We have a good life here. I have a good job. Why do you want to leave everything and start from scratch in some unknown place? And what about our parents? Both of us don’t have siblings. How can we just leave them alone when they need us the most? And why are you listening to Beena? If she is happy in Portugal, let her be! Aren’t we happy here?"
"Ajay, that's not true. I was just thinking about what would be best for our family. I thought you would be open to the idea, as you have been talking about changing your priorities. And Beena is just trying to help us. She's not trying to cause problems."
"Sheela, I have had enough of this. I will not discuss this any further. Just drop the whole idea."
"Ajay, this is so typical of you. If it's my idea, you never want to discuss it. What has Beena said that's so wrong? She is only being a good friend and looking out for me. It is you who is being narrow minded and not willing to consider any idea that is not yours."
"Fine, if that's what you think. I will not waste my breath arguing with you."
Ajay got up from the table and left the restaurant without waiting for Sheela. This was the beginning of months of regular fights. Sheela pursued the immigration and was in constant touch with Beena about life in Lisbon. Beena was encouraging and promised to help Sheela settle in. Ajay refused to discuss the topic or even acknowledge that she was going ahead with the plans. He started spending more time at work and only spoke to Pia. Sheela felt frustrated and alone in her decision. Beena told her Ajay was wrong and urged Sheela to stick to her decision. Beena and Sheela spoke and messaged almost every day. Sheela, hurt by Ajay’s behaviour, decided not to press for reconciliation and ignored Ajay.
Ajay's anger, Sheela’s stubbornness and their refusal to communicate took a toll on their relationship. The fights became more frequent and intense. Finally, after one bitter fight, Sheela left Ajay and decided to move to Lisbon with Pia. With Beena's help, she had got all the paperwork done, and they left for Portugal within a month. Ajay did not come to the airport despite Pia’s heartrending entreaties to stop her mother.
Beena was shocked to hear about Ajay's behavior and assured Sheela that she had done the right thing in choosing to leave him and make a better life for herself. Sheela and Pia stayed in Beena’s house. Beena assured them they could stay as long as they wanted. Sheela enrolled Pia in the same school as Beena’s sons and started looking for a job. The only jobs that were on offer had long hours and minimum wages. Sheela did not want to leave Pia along for a long time. She was also conscious of the limited funds she had brought with her and was worried about being unemployed for too long. Beena kept reassuring her that everything would work out fine and to just stay calm.
As Sheela observed Beena and her family, she noticed a few things that were not clear before. Beena's husband, Vinay, worked at a bank, but he was on an annual contract. The contract paid well, but there was no assurance that it would get renewed. He worked long hours to prove his worth and importance to his employers. He had faced a long period of unemployment after their migration, where he had worked in supermarkets and gas stations to fund living expenses. Beena's uncle, who had sponsored them, let them stay in his house but expected a monthly rent. Beena had to be at his beck and call as maid, driver, housekeeper, nurse all rolled into one. He always reminded them of their obligation to him and never failed to add how he had graciously chosen them to come to Portugal. Vinay had already paid back the money the old man had spent to sponsor them, but that left them with minimal savings to afford a house. Beena was also not keen to move out, as they had already enrolled the kids in a good school close by. So they continued to live with the rude uncle, who knew of their plight and used it to his advantage. Vinay stayed with a friend during the week and came home only over the weekend to see his family. Beena’s uncle always picked a fight with Vinay during his visits.
Despite all these difficulties, they put up a brave front and never complained in front of each other or anyone else. They wanted their children to have a good life and be proud of them. Seeing them go through all this made Sheela realize she had been hasty in her decision to come here. But it was too late to turn back now. She had sold all her investments and borrowed money from her parents to come here. She would have to make the best of what she had and hope for the best.
Ajay was feeling regretful and sorry for his behaviour. He had let his ego come in the way of the decision and lost his family. He was struggling to cope with the loneliness and feeling guilty for what he had done. His parents were aghast at his decision to let Sheela and Pia go abroad alone. He had not told them about the immigration, but it was just a matter of time before they found out. Out of pique and anger, he had not even spoken to Sheela since her departure two months ago. He spoke to Pia every day and heard all about her new school and friends. He knew Sheela was hunting for jobs and trying to find a house for them to rent.
One day, Pia called in panic, "Daddy, please come quick. Beena aunty is leaving Portugal for Canada and her uncle has told us to vacate the house immediately, as he has sold it. Amma is pleading with him to give us some time to find another house, but he is refusing. Daddy, please do something. Beena aunty and Amma are fighting and Amma is accusing Beena aunty of cheating her. I am scared and don’t know what to do."
Ajay was shocked to hear about the turn of events, but he quickly composed himself and said, "Don't worry, Pia, I will take care of it. Just give the phone to your mother."
Sheela was in tears when she heard Ajay's voice. She had not talked to him since she left India and she did not know what to say to him. But she was relieved and happy that he had called. Ajay told her not to worry and that he would take care of everything. Within a week, he had arranged for them to move into a rented house and also found a job for Sheela. He himself took leave from work and went to Portugal to help them settle down. Seeing him make such an effort for them, Sheela realized she had been foolish to leave him. Ajay also realized his mistake, and they gave their marriage another chance. They both swore never to let their egos come in the way of their relationship again and to always communicate with each other freely. Sheela wanted to continue staying in Lisbon, but understood Ajay’s dilemma in leaving a secure job in India and coming with them. They agreed to continue with the current arrangement, but they decided with love and understanding instead of anger and resentment. The family was finally together again, and they were happy. They had learnt their lesson the hard way, but they were stronger and more united now.
Sheela could not forgive Beena for her deception and had deleted her number and blocked her on all social media. She got to know through a common friend that Beena had moved to Toronto and lived in a relative’s basement for over six months. Vinay had found a job in Vancouver after a long and frustrating search but could not take his family because of the high cost of living. Beena had found a job as an elementary school teacher in Calgary and lived with the kids there. Vinay travelled to meet them once a month, and they spent summer vacations together. One day, after almost a year, Sheela sent a Facebook message to Beena on her 40th birthday. Beena had sent her a message over WhatsApp, "Thank you, Sheela. Hope you are doing well. So happy to hear from you again. Are you still in Lisbon? Why don’t you come to Calgary for a visit? Life here is far better than in Lisbon. The air is so much cleaner and the people are so friendly. And the education system is world class. Far superior to Europe's schools." Sheela sighed and deleted Beena's message from her phone. It was again time to say bye, bye or tchau, tchau Beena
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Very valuable lesson and great story!
Loved the story, Gayathri. Keep writing.
The reality of so many migrations, especially later in life migrations from South Asia for better prospects to the West. The reality is very different from the stories and pictures posted on FB, Insta, Snap, Tik Tok and others. What you are giving up on is lost forever and what you gain will not close the gap of what is lost. Great one Gayathri,, awesome one to ponder on.