The Amethyst Mask

Praveena Naidu sat down after a long day to savour a cup of piping hot chai. She opened the steel box her mother had couriered to her from India, along with 10 kgs of additional sweets and spices. It was her favourite sweet Putharekulu, a wafer-thin rice dessert resembling paper, stuffed with sugar and dry fruits. It was still intact to her surprise, she bit into a piece savouring the memories it brought back.

It was a hot Sunday afternoon in Hyderabad one year ago when her mother introduced her to Akhil. He was in India for his sister’s wedding, a short break from Austin where he had been for the past 5 years. “You are just talking to him, there’s no pressure. He is the only guy out of the 10 your uncle sent you who you liked. So we thought it would be nice to set up an in-person interaction” her mother told her.

For a mother who wanted this encounter to look casual, she was awfully overdressed. “Black is not auspicious, you can’t wear this. White makes you look fat. Yellow is making you look dusky” her mother rattled on. After what seemed like a thorough analysis of her physical shortcomings her mother approved a light pink salwar kameez.

It was an awkward first meeting. Akhil was a tall chubby man with dimpled cheeks. He wore a purple shirt with khaki pants. He was relatively quiet but seemed like a good listener. He remembered details of her from the profile his parents had shown him. She was cautious about how much information she wanted to reveal to him. She gave him enough information making sure none of it would cause a scandal. The last thing she needed was relatives calling her mother and telling her information that would cause her blood pressure to rise.

They met a few times after that day in private. It was a quick 2 weeks before Akhil had to leave. Their conversations got easier, he was funny after a few drinks and Praveena opened up about her life after her father’s death. It had been a difficult few years, her mother had always been a stay at home parent while her father worked as a loan officer at a private bank. After his sudden death, Praveena had to take the first job she got after her Bachelors degree to support them. They struggled for the first few years and it was after Praveena secured a higher position in the organisation that they were in a comfortable place.

Akhil had his fair share of troubles with his student loan and pressure to clear them. His parents were pressuring him into getting married as he was their only son. They were a conservative family from a small town in Andhra Pradesh. On the last day, they met at her favourite biryani place in the city. He gave her a parting gift, a deep purple amethyst pendant, it was Praveena’s birthstone.

“It’s been 2 months since you first met the boy, have you decided?” her mother asked. “I can’t decide in 2 months, it takes time” she responded. “When you are 31 and middle class, the matches are far and few. When someone good comes knocking at your door, you should consider yourself lucky” her mother complained as she was folding the laundry. “His salary can really help us out you know. You could live a life we could never afford. I know that you would have to be a homemaker until the visa is sorted but you have worked hard for 10 years now, it’s okay to take a break and focus on starting a family” her mother said as she sorted out Praveena’s messy room.

It had been 4 months since they had met each other and stayed in touch. His past relationships were non existent, he didn’t want to complicate things. “My parents would never approve of my choices so I didn’t bother” he told her. He was receptive to her views of the world and found her to be a compassionate person. One rainy night in July Akhil called her, “My parents have been hounding me if it’s a yes from your side. I like you and I think we could make it work. Your mother had some concerns regarding your visa situation but there is a lot to do here as a stay-at-home spouse. We can help her out financially in case that’s her concern” he told her.

Praveena was a practical person, she had waited for many years to find love but it never worked out for her. Caste differences, religion differences and the fact that she was responsible for taking care of her mother prevented the relationships from transitioning into marriage. Her mother worried constantly that she was responsible for delaying her daughter’s future plans, she didn’t have the family support of their extended family after her husband’s death. The only life she knew since she was 20 was her husband, daughter, her parents and her brother. She had spent the last 30 years taking care of this little family that was her entire world.

Praveena had always dreamt of living in a foreign land, and her wealthier relatives had established a comfortable life for themselves abroad. Her father would have loved to see her living her best life with her own family in the U.S. “I think we should go ahead Akhil, we should give our parents the good news” she responded unsure yet happy.

It was now one year later when she sat by the window eating the Putharekulu and sipping chai. She called her mother, it was part of their weekly ritual. Every week it was the same call, the same status update and the same lies. “Everything is fine, we went to a new restaurant on the weekend, good Mexican food. I will take you when you come” she told her. “It’s been a year, you should start trying for a baby. Now is the time since you are anyway at home. You can’t take care of the baby when you are working” her mother advised. “Not now Amma, Akhil is the only earning member. After we save up, we’ll give you the good news” she explained to her mother. “You have been very lucky, look at your friends, none of their husbands help their in laws out. The daughters have to secretly send them income but Akhil has been so open about helping us financially. How could we have cleared our home loan without his help?” her mother told her heaving a sigh of relief. “Yes Amma, I have been lucky”.

It was a few weeks after moving to Austin, Praveena was unpacking her stuff at the house when she found a box full of Akhil’s books. She was placing each one carefully on the bookshelf when she found a stack of polaroids in his ‘The Intelligent Investor’ book hidden away and covered in dust. He was with the same man in all of them, a tall, slender, dusky skinned older man wearing gold-rimmed glasses. They were at different parties and events in all the pictures. She had never seen him before. She had met Akhil’s colleagues and close friends soon after arriving at Austin and this man was not part of these groups. Perhaps an old friend whom he had lost touch with she assumed. She put the polaroids back where she had found them.

It was a challenging time in Praveena’s life. She had no friends in Austin and did not know how to drive. Both of which were essential for an immigrant in the US. She tried to integrate with Akhil’s existing life seamlessly. She attended Indian cultural events and parties trying her best to fit in. She was no longer employed and had more time than she needed on most days.

Akhil was a good husband to her. He was patient while she figured out how to navigate life in a new country. He remembered the things she liked and made her feel welcome in a house that he had lived alone in for 5 years.

It was Akhil’s 33rd birthday, and he never made it home that night. Praveena cancelled their weekend resort reservations. He was not going to make it in time for the flight judging by the way he sounded on the phone. The next morning he arrived with the man she had seen on the polaroids. He had worn formal clothing with a gold bracelet on his wrist. “I just came to drop Akhil, he was not in a position to drive last night. I’m Ranjan by the way” the older man told her. Ranjan was originally from Sri Lanka, they met at a work conference a few years ago. “Akhil never mentioned you so I was a little worried when you called me last night” Praveena told him. “I could not make it for your wedding, I was working. He must have forgotten to tell you that we catch up often since we both work in finance” Ranjan told her smiling.

‘Seeds of doubt when planted, will grow’

A few months later, her mother-in-law called her with demands to be fulfilled. She wanted the couple to think about giving her a grandchild. “You are 32 now and need to think about this. There were younger women we suggested but Akhil liked you. I have spoken to your mother regarding this. It is our combined opinion that you talk to him”.

When Praveena was going to approach the subject, Akhil had to leave for a work meeting in California. She was home alone and decided to go out for dinner with Akhil’s friend’s wife. She was a lovely woman who had great taste in food and always picked the best restaurants. The food however was going to be a distant memory when she told Praveena at the end of the meal “I never expected Akhil to get married. I am happy he did though” she said. “Why did you think he wouldn’t get married? Did he have too many ex girlfriends?” Praveena asked. “No he very private about his relationships, my husband told me he was seeing someone but we never knew who. I am glad that ended and you entered his life. He is happier after marriage” she told Praveena smiling.

Akhil’s office threw a grand Christmas party every year, and employees and their biggest clients attended it. Praveena wanted to wear a white shimmering dress but she reminded herself that her mother always said she looked fat in white, so she went with a maroon dress instead. She wanted to make it a romantic evening, she bought herself a Christmas gift, delicate lingerie that she had been eyeing for a while. It was purple, Akhil’s favourite colour.

After a few drinks and some nostalgic 90s Vengaboys music, Praveena was left alone while her husband interacted with people whom he deemed tragically important. She couldn’t pretend to be on her phone since it was already dying, she looked around for someone to talk to. She walked to the bar and spotted Ranjan, who was getting a drink. “Hi, Ranjan! I wasn’t expecting you to be here” Praveena told him. He looked surprised to see her “Hi….I work for one of their biggest clients so I was invited as well. You look nice by the way” he said smiling as he sipped his whiskey. “Thanks. Do you also work similar hours as Akhil?” she asked. “Of course, we work together sometimes in fact. The hours will be worth it in a few years, you’ll see” he responded his gold bracelet shimmering against the light.

Praveena and Ranjan chatted for a while longer until Akhil returned. Ranjan seemed to know a lot about her while she knew nothing about him. She noticed he was wearing a tiny deep purple amethyst pendant. “I like your pendant, Akhil gave me a similar-looking one when he was leaving India,” she told him admiring how well he could carry off jewellery. “I helped him choose that” he said with a coy smile.

Akhil looked surprised to see the both of them together. “I thought you said you were not coming to this party,” Akhil asked him. “I changed my mind last minute, I wanted to meet some guys that are hard to get a hold of otherwise” Ranjan responded. Akhil looked mildly annoyed, he recovered his expression in a second and asked Praveena if she wanted to go home.

Back at home, Akhil was not responsive to Praveena’s lingerie in the way that she expected their night to end. After several futile nights of overpriced lingerie, she took it upon herself to go on a gluten-free diet and take up pilates. Looking attractive and making changes would spice things up.

It took many months of her in-laws nagging them for a grandchild that he brought it up during lunch on a weekend. They were sharing a meal of rice, spinach pappu and rasam when Akhil told her the truth. “I’m gay. I always have been. My parents don’t know and they wouldn’t understand even if they knew. It’s a small town and they think it’s a choice or an illness” he told her looking at her in the eyes as he finished the last of grain of rice on his plate. Praveena felt the rasam rising to her throat, she swallowed hard to push it back down. “I was not expecting that” she responded quietly.

“I had to get married because I’m their only son. Our entire town runs on dignity and having children. Telling them I am gay would take away their dignity and not having children is unacceptable” he told her looking dejected. “Why did you pick me then? You could have picked someone else to pretend with” she asked him surprised at herself for not being livid. “I met a lot of women, I connected with you. You are genuinely nice and needed the help financially” he told her matter of factly.

It took Praveena several moments to process the information she had just received. It was as though she suspected something was amiss all along but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “Have I ever mistreated you or not supported you?” he asked her. “No” she responded. “Then you have a choice. We make a good team, we care and support each other versus we fight and break up our families” he stated. “There is hardly a choice when you lied to me for over a year now. Now I don’t know when you pretend and when you don’t” she said fighting an urge to scream. “I never pretended, I lied about my sexuality because I had to. It was years of nagging until I met you. Some things you do for your family’s happiness, you understand that well” he said holding her hand gently. She understood that part well.

Stuck in a country with no job, no friends and now no husband to rely on she sunk into a pit of darkness. They limited their communication to the bare minimum while she processed her grief alone. After several weeks of tiptoeing around each other, they took a walk in the park together. “Should we discuss the elephant in the room?” Akhil asked.

Weeks later, feeling terribly homesick one evening she called her cousin in India. After the usual chatter her cousin said “I saw your recent pictures on Facebook, my mother was saying you have lost so much weight and look so young. Are the gyms there better than here?” she asked eagerly. “It’s just a gym, they are all the same. I haven’t been eating much lately, it’s not the gym” Praveena told her. “I overheard your mother telling my parents about Akhil. He sounds so wonderful. I want to meet a man like that, you are so lucky!” she said. “I am lucky, I will take you to the Mexican restaurants here when you come. They are very delicious!” Praveena said with nothing more to offer to her naive cousin with big dreams.

One year later, it was Diwali and Praveena was in Hyderabad visiting her mother. “Special ladoos this year, I made them from scratch,” her mother told her as she opened the steel box. “I hate these ladoos and you know it,” she told her mother with a disgusted expression. “It’s not for you, it’s for the little one. At your age, you need to eat right to have a healthy baby” she said gently patting Praveena’s protruding belly.


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