fiction

He Got You
- Saborna Roychowdhury

'Everything is ready now,' I told my childhood friend, Mr Physics. 'The passport, visa, and the tickets. Statue of Liberty ... here I come.'

Mr Physics grimaced a little. 'Go, go. Just fly away to the new world. Who are we to stop you?'

I looked at his thick-rimmed glasses, and unevenly trimmed moustache, and gave him a friendly poke. 'You are always so busy reading those fat physics books. You won't even notice I am gone.'

Mr Physics had graduated from high-school a year earlier and had already started college. He had always known he wanted to be a physicist, and getting physics honours with his excellent scores in science and maths was a piece of cake for him. I often found him sitting on a mat on the open terrace of his house, surrounded by yellowing papers filled with bizarre mathematical symbols, his eyes glued to the lens of a small telescope, with a cigarette ablaze in an ashtray beside him. When I asked him what he was searching for, he pointed to the glittering night sky and let out a wistful sigh. 'Everything ... planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies. Out there is the land of fairy-tale that is both enigmatic and enchanting.' It seemed to me Mr Physics was always more interested in affairs outside our world, and much less in our worldly matters.

In the last few days before my departure, I wandered around Calcutta, visiting places, ordinary to most Calcuttans perhaps, but sacred and luminous to me. Mr Physics came with me as I muttered tear-filled goodbyes to the road-side puffed rice vendors and tea stall owners we had known growing up. Insignificant structures like a banyan tree, an iron gate, or a pond, felt like a treasure I was leaving behind. I told Mr Physics how much I wanted to hold each moment close to my heart, how much I wanted to remember the dust, the rain, the quiet dawns, and inky-black dusks of my favourite city. Mr Physics said nothing. He lips curled up into a humourless smile.

One day, we visited the crowded alleys behind New Market, where a palm-reader read my hand. 'Your Sun-line is very prominent,' he said. 'Looks like you have a very bright future ahead of you.' To Mr Physics he said, 'You will have to struggle a lot, son. I see the planet Saturn sitting on your career path.'

'Don't believe anything he says,' I comforted Mr Physics as we stepped into the bright sunlight. 'If you give him extra five rupees, he will remove that Saturn and bring in Jupiter, the good planet. These palm-readers cannot be trusted.'

'In a sense, he is right, isn't he?' said Mr Physics. 'You do have a bright future ahead of you. You are going to a glamorous world of fast-moving cars, flyovers, and multi-storeyed buildings, while I will be stuck in this city of discoloured buildings, stray dogs, and garbage-eating crows. Don't try to keep a mental engraving of this stagnant city. You will be wasting your time. We have no prospects, and nothing here ever changes.'

The bitterness in his voice took me by surprise. In my excitement of flying away to a new world, had I ignored what my friend might have been feeling about our impending separation? When was it that the trip to America, and the beckoning of my new life, became so important that I stopped paying attention to my dear childhood friend? I knew Mr Physics could not leave behind his ailing, handicapped father and think of a trip abroad. He was his father's sole care-giver. So it was understandable he was feeling trapped.

'Hey,' I told him. 'I will write to you every week, I promise. I may even call you once in a while... International calls are not that expensive, you know. I will get a calling card or something.'

'I am not a child.' He struggled to mask his bitterness. 'Please do not delude me with your empty promises.'

As my departure date approached, I ran around filling up my suitcases with everything I imagined would be essential in the new world — warm clothes, hats, gloves, cooking utensils, and music tapes. To my horror, my mother inserted curry powder, pickle jars, and mangoes chutneys in every bag, and refused to take them back. No Indian girl can live without these items, she insisted, Your mother knows what's best for you. The night before my departure, Ma pointed to a bright star in the night sky and said, 'When you think of us, look at that star. Remember, I will be looking at the same star from here thinking of you.'

Mr Physics came to say goodbye. We sat in my tiny study where the table-lamp cast long shadows on the wall. In the yellowing light, I saw Mr Physics's eyes glaze over. I reached out and touched his hand. 'Hey,' I say. 'So what if I am leaving? Sujata is here to take care of you. You like her, don't you? It's time the two of you started dating.'

Mr Physics did not react to my advice. He was used to my harmless teasing, especially about my best friend, Sujata. She was tall, good-looking, with thick black hair and doe-like eyes. All men around me fell in love with her instantly. 'She asked about you,' I press on, determined not to let him off easily this time. 'I really think she likes you. Why don't you ask her out?'

That was when Mr Physics shook his head and smiled meaningfully. 'It was never her you know.'

I stared back at him, unable to think of an appropriate response.

*****

There is nothing dull in the new world. I am always busy taking classes, studying for a test, or working in the college bookstore. Mr Physics and I exchange a few letters through which he informs me that he is leaving Calcutta and moving to Benaras. He thinks physics has no future, and he wants to pursue mechanical engineering. The letters are not sentimental, simply informative. In graduate school, I meet my husband. He says all the right things, quotes Pablo Neruda and TS Eliot from memory, and discusses far-left, almost radical politics with me. We watch Il Postino together, and I see his deep brown eyes fill up with tears. I am in love with him instantly. I know he is the right man for me. We both share a goal – bringing equality and social justice for the people back home. In time, my husband joins an engineering company and we move to Houston. Somehow, our far-left ideas about changing the world get buried under unending family responsibilities.

I came to Calcutta for a short holiday a few weeks ago. Sometime back, I heard from my mother that Mr Physics has moved back here. He is married, and has a little girl. Even though I've not been in touch with Mr Physics for a long time, I pick up the phone and dial his number. We meet at one of our old haunts. I am taken aback by Mr Physics's appearance. The glasses and the moustache are both gone. Instead, he wears a formal shirt, and a black dinner jacket, looking completely out of place in the hot crowded café — a meeting place for mostly teenagers and college students.

'You look different,' I manage to say. 'Very corporate.'

'Things are different for me now,' says Mr Physics with great satisfaction. 'Since you left, economic opportunities have expanded in India, entrepreneurial avenues have exploded, and I am in demand. I pick and choose what kind of company I want to work for, and I sell myself to the highest bidder.'

'Good for you. But why did you give up physics? It was really important to you. Why did you abandon the land of fairy-tales?'

He seems distant for a moment. Then he takes a deep breath, and forces himself to look into my eyes. 'Because life is not a fairy-tale. You think you are the only one who has the right to aspire for a better life? After globalization, the economy here was exploding, and I wanted to see some action too. Physics and Calcutta were both holding me back.'

I start to protest and stop. His arrogance and aggression take me by surprise. Sitting before me, in a familiar shell, is a young man who talks in a language unfamiliar to me.

I order a dosa and a coffee, and Mr Physics insists on paying for it.

'I make good money,' he tells me. 'You can say I make close to an American salary without having to move to America. My family doesn't know how to spend so much.'

I flash him a quick bright smile to cover up for the confusion I feel inside. I dig into the dosa with my fingers, and stare self-consciously at the table, as he studies my face.

'How much does he make?' he asks me suddenly, leaning forward and almost blocking my view.

'Who?'

'The man you married.'

'Why do you ask? How does it matter?'

'You won't tell me.' He gives me a satisfied smile. 'Can't be much then. Did he even go to college?'

'Don't be ridiculous. Of course he went to college!'

'Where? Wait! I know. It must have been a community college somewhere in the mid-west. Am I right?'

'My husband went to MIT,' I say evenly.

'MIT? Really?' He looks skeptical. Then he shrugs. 'Maybe he did. But I did my MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. It is considered the second best B-school in the Asia Pacific region.'

'Congrats. I am happy for you. But why are we discussing colleges and salaries? Tell me about your wife. How did you two meet?'

'What was there to meet up for? When you do a MBA from a prestigious college, women line up at your doorstep.'

'Stop!' I cry, unable to take it any more. 'You don't need to be so obnoxious. Who are you? I don't think I know you at all.'

'I don't think you ever knew me, or wanted to know me.' He smiles, ignoring my outburst. 'You always thought I would rot in Calcutta and amount to nothing.' He lights up a cigarette and sinks back in his chair. 'So what made you marry that husband of yours? Was it because he went to MIT?'

'I married him for his intelligence and wit. One day, we will come back to India and work towards ending poverty.'

'Ending poverty?' laughs Mr Physics. 'You and your husband will end poverty? Man, it's been a long time since I laughed this hard.'

I am pained at his attitude. I am pained at the comparisons he makes with my husband. The man sitting across from me is nothing like the friend I have known growing up -- the friend who gave me bike rides, took me for my visa interview, and donated blood when my father was sick in the hospital. There are so many sweet moments in the recesses of my mind, so much gratitude I have stored for him over the years. Yet, when I look in his eyes now, I don't see any emotion. Instead, there is a glint somewhere, as if he is asking me to compete with him. Whose life is better now? he seems to ask. Yours or mine?

Slowly, I gather my purse, and my belongings, and get up to go. 'It's getting late. Ma will worry about me.'

He follows me to the door. For a moment I hesitate, and then turn around to face him. 'You won you know,' I snap at him. 'You are doing better than my husband. Congrats to you.'

The ruthlessness disappears, and suddenly his eyes-lashes are misty. He touches my arm briefly and says, 'But ... he got you.'

Saborna Rouchowdhary is a Pushcart nominee whose stories and articles have appeared in New York Stories, Quality Women's Fiction (UK), The Four Quarters Magazine, and TheWeekendLeader. Saborna's debut novel, The Distance (Istoria Books, 2013) received wonderful reviews from South Asian Review, The Dawn and Hyphen Magazine. The Distance also received a starred review from Publishers Weekly in 2013.Saborna now lives in Houston with her husband and twins and teaches at Lone Star College.