Artwork by Israa Tariq
Young in Mangalore
By Jerusha Sequeira
“Where are you?” Stella Rego asked her daughter over the phone.
“I’m on my way,” Tanya replied.
“I’ll be home in ten minutes.”
“Who’s dropping you?”
“Sharon and Devika.”
Stella heard male laughter in the background over the strains of an AC/DC song. Two other voices hissed at the laughing boy to be quiet.
“Who was that?”
“You know it’s getting late. Your father’s very angry. It’s almost 10.30 in the night, and you’ve been out since five in the evening. Maybe we have to stop your socializing on weekends. This is becoming a pattern.”
“I said I’m on my way! We’re in the car!”
“Come soon,” she said and hung up.
* * *
She replaced the phone in its cradle on her bedside table, smiling wistfully. It never failed to amuse her how her young daughter so frequently forgot that her mother too had been young once. She had lied to her parents in the same manner that all those who come of age do, when honesty no longer seems the best policy, and parents often have to be kept in the dark for their own good. Oh yes, she had been there, and she knew exactly how it went. She could spot one of Tanya’s fibs from a mile away, and she was well aware when a “nobody” was a very important somebody and when an “I’ll be home in ten minutes” meant “I really haven’t left yet.”
She rose from her bed and began to walk towards the bedroom door. On her way, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror that stood atop her dressing table. Stella Rego was forty-five years old, and she looked it. She stared at the face that had been pretty once but was now creased with fine lines and wrinkles slyly edging their way around her deep brown eyes. She had laughter lines once. She rarely laughed anymore. Worry often creased her brow as she wondered where Tanya was and what she was doing; frowns sullied her aging beauty when she had heated arguments with her daughter. Her shoulder-length hair was mostly black, but streaks of grey were slowly starting to make an unwelcomed appearance around the edges of her crowning glory. At least her petite figure had been maintained to a certain extent, and she had not begun to sag and bulge in unsightly places like a few less fortunate friends. She pushed a few strands of her hair behind her ear and unconsciously stroked the pearl earring she was wearing. The earrings had been a gift from her husband of twenty years, John. John was her husband, but not her first love.
A glance at the wedding photograph on their bedroom wall sent pangs of guilt through her. John had been nothing if not a good husband. Maybe that was the problem. He had never tried to be anything more than a good husband. When John came home from work, he expected to relax in front of the TV and read the newspaper till it was time to sit down to the dinner she had prepared. Their married life was characterized by a quiet and blissful harmony, occasionally broken by a mild disagreement, but peaceful overall to the extent that it was almost boring. There was none of the flaming passion that she had dreamed of in her youth. All the Mills and Boon novels she had read as a teenager had filled her head with what her mother would call “mindless fantasies.” None of it awaited her in the world of marriage. Perhaps it would have, if she had had the chance to decide who she would end up with.
She tried to push these thoughts away. There was nothing wrong with her life. She had a patient husband and a daughter who loved her (most of the time). They lived in a comfortable apartment on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, tastefully decorated with furniture she had chosen with loving care. The hustle and bustle of the chaotic traffic on the highway outside was a stark contrast to the quiet and peaceful interior of her home. John, her husband, was a pediatrician. Stella had worked for a prominent bank in Dubai but lost her job in the 2008 global recession. However, John made enough money that they did not need the dual income, and so, she abandoned the life of a working woman and became a home-maker instead. After the recession ended, she had peaceably settled into her life as a full-time mother and did not see the need to rejoin the workforce. Age was not on her side if she were to start hunting for a job again, anyway. It was funny how a man in his mid-forties would be considered respectable or distinguished, just right for a managerial position maybe. She, on the other hand, would be well past her prime in the ageist eyes of recruiters.
Stella made her way into the living room where John sat in his armchair, his grey head poring over the day’s edition of Gulf News. An Indian news channel played on the television. She sat down to wait. She began to ask John how his day was but thought better than to go there again. He would simply give her a perfunctory response and go back to the paper. She resigned herself to waiting for Tanya instead.
Presently, the door opened and Tanya strode in. Tall, lean, and beautiful, eighteen-year-old Tanya Elaine Rego would have been any parent’s pride and joy were it not for her fiercely rebellious streak. She was a bright student and an accomplished guitar player, and she had just gained admission into Symbiosis, a leading Indian university in Pune, where she would pursue a bachelor’s in business management. Both John and Stella were keen on sending Tanya back to India, as they knew (but did not admit to others) that their spoiled brat had some growing up to do, and India was ideal for that purpose. In India, Tanya would have just the right amount of freedom to gain the independence she needed, but she would be safely ensconced under the watchful gaze of her relatives to ensure she stayed out of trouble – a luxury they would not have if Tanya went abroad anywhere else.
Tanya obstinately refused to be within three miles of her house on weekends, choosing instead to spend all her free time with her friends. This, of course, caused several arguments at home between mother and daughter, which would usually end up in Tanya storming off, and Stella rolling her eyes over what a spoiled little brat she was. Stella sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a closer relationship with her daughter. Were a mother and daughter supposed to be bloodthirsty enemies constantly at each other’s throats? Or could they share a special bond, confide in each other, and say things that wouldn’t be possible to tell anyone else? She thought back on her relationship with her own mother and then thought probably not. A mother and daughter could never be close.
“Hope you enjoyed yourself,” Stella wryly remarked.
Tanya said nothing and looked defiantly at her mother. Without a word, she turned on her heel and walked to her room. The door banged behind her and within a few minutes, strains of her beloved acoustic guitar could be heard in the living room. John shrugged and turned back to his paper. Stella rose. She walked across the hall, knocked on Tanya’s door, and opened it.
“Did you eat?” she asked.
“We had pizza.”
“Who was that boy?”
“I heard him,” she persisted. “On the phone.”
“I told you. Nobody,” Tanya was sullen.
“Don’t give me that. I know when you’re not being honest.”
Tanya smirked. “What else do you know Mom?”
“I was young once.”
“I find that very hard to believe,” her daughter retorted.
“You may have been young, but I don’t think you ever had any fun. And you don’t want me to have a life either. You can’t stand it.”
“I honestly don’t know what to say to you.” Stella angrily slammed her daughter’s door behind her. Something stirred in her, maybe rage, maybe just wanting to prove Tanya wrong. She went to her bedroom and closed the door behind her. She knelt beside the bed and stretched her hand into the dark hollow below, fumbling around till she found what she was looking for. She pulled out a battered old wooden chest and blew on it to get rid of the dust that had settled over the years. She opened it carefully.
In this box lay several unrelated odds and ends, tattered remnants of her youth. A tiny doll that had been gifted to her by her great grandmother, faded photographs of her with her school friends, stubs of cinema tickets she had saved up, an autograph by a famous Indian movie star – she had hoarded these and several other items, each of which had a happy memory associated with it. She rummaged through the stockpile and at the very bottom of the box, she found the old brown envelope she had been looking for. She opened it carefully, her heart pounding with the same excitement with which she had received its contents so many years ago.
Reaching into the envelope, she pulled out a bunch of letters, musty and yellowed by the passage of time. The familiar handwriting on them sent her heart into flutters. She did not need to read the words; she had read his letters so many times that she knew them all by heart. She closed her eyes as the memories came rushing back, and she traveled back to another time in her mind.
It was 1988, and she was 20, studying nursing at an all-girls Catholic college in Mangalore, India. Run by domineering nuns in starched white habits, the college was a place infamous for its ceaseless commitment to rigid discipline. Her memories of this upstanding and immensely “respectable” institution were memories of draconian rules and regulations, perpetually hassled doctors, greasy-haired peons always eager to do you a favor for a bribe, waiting rooms that perpetually reeked of disinfectant, and harsh white and joyless corridors. She remembered whiling her time as a student in the dingy classrooms with noisy ceiling fans overhead – an eternal kind of background music to the lecturer’s droning. She lived in a hostel on campus with rows and rows of beds on which giggling girls would lie and talk into the wee hours of the night, only to be rudely woken up by the screeching of a gigantic bell at 5.30 every morning.
In the midst of this misery, even the smallest of pleasures brought with it a joy so pure and profound, she doubted any happiness she felt in later years could compare. Skipping a boring lecture, sneaking back into the dormitories after the 7 p.m. curfew, venturing out for ice cream from the cafeteria down the road, sipping cans of beer secretly with her fellow dorm mates at night – all of these were simple moments in her otherwise dull days when she had been carefree and happy. When she would ride on the rickety public buses with her friends around town, the jostling crowds of commuters never bothered her as the bus would bump its way to the city, where the real excitement was. The women in colorful sarisand the burly mustached men were fellow travelers on her joyful journey.
She was perhaps never as happy savoring stolen pleasures as when she and her friends would make secret trips to that place everyone who was once a teenager has a fond memory of: The cinema. It was on one such trip to a seedy theater in town when she met him. She was waiting in line with a few friends to buy a ticket for the latest Amitabh Bacchan flick. She was wearing a pink shalwaar kameez that settled nicely on her thin frame. She fidgeted and nervously toyed with her hair, stealing furtive glances around to make sure she wasn’t being spotted by anyone she knew. It was then that her eyes settled on him. He was wearing a black jacket and nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, as two of his friends prattled on. He was tall and lean, and he had wavy black locks. Everything about him seemed to suggest that he was unsuitable, and it was this that she found irresistible.
Junaid Hussain, as his name turned out to be, was born in Gujarat and was studying law at another college in town. He was a rich brat from a well-to-do family, and his dashing good looks ensured he never got into trouble. Junaid was spoiled, but he managed to retain an endearing childlike quality, his handsome face breaking into an impish smile every time someone lost his or her temper at some act of mischief he pulled. It turned out that they had a few mutual friends. They were introduced to each other eventually at a graduation party thrown by one of the girls in Stella’s college.
As she noted from the first time she saw him, Junaid was wrong for her through and through. Wrong religion, wrong family background, wrong values, wrong upbringing, wrong this, and wrong that. He constantly smoked and loved to party. He was Muslim, not to mention far better off financially than her middle-class family. Stella’s Catholic parents would not accept Junaid as a son-in-law at gunpoint, and it was unthinkable to imagine otherwise. Nevertheless, puppy love did not care for what her parents might think, and she and Junaid clicked almost instantaneously when they met.
Before she knew it, they were dating. Was she the only one? Probably not, but she didn’t care. For Stella, who had never had a boyfriend her entire life, riding with Junaid on the back of his Hero Honda bike as they whizzed through the city streets was like a fairy tale come true. The bike was her chariot and with him, she felt more beautiful than Cinderella, Snow White, or any other Disney princess. Their romance was dreamlike and seemed straight out of a Bollywood movie. Those were the days before the cell phone arrived in India. Junaid would write cute notes and love letters which he would hand over to a friend of hers, who would then deliver it to her with a knowing smile. These letters she treasured more than any amount of money she ever owned. Every time she looked at them, she would be transported back into the naïve innocence of her youth and the sheer happiness of being wooed by her heartthrob.
They agreed that on the night of September 29th, a Friday, she would sneak out of her hostel room at 12, scale the wall, and join him on the other side where he would be waiting on his bike. Together, they would speed away to a birthday party thrown by one of Junaid’s friends at his farmhouse in a less populated part of the city, twenty miles away from her campus.
She went to bed at 10 p.m. that night, suspiciously early for her. She lay awake till 11.30, when she threw off the covers and silently leaped off of the bed, fully dressed. She sneaked out into the hallway and down the stairs, all the while keeping watch for the warden. She made her way to the reception. The pot-bellied guard on shift snored loudly on his chair, his head tilted upwards and mouth hanging open. The door was open much to her relief, and she walked out into the humid night, her heart pounding with nervous excitement. She walked through the dense grass until she reached the brick wall surrounding the campus. She had set aside a particular section of the wall where she had spotted a few cracks and crevices she could use to climb. She took a deep breath.
She slipped one foot of hers into a spot on the surface of the wall where a stone had chipped off. Her hand grabbed some of the vegetation growing on the wall, and she hoisted herself up. Finding similar footholds and crevices to slip her hands onto, Stella, who had been a star athlete in her school days, began to climb the stone wall. She wished she could wipe some of the sweat off her brow. It really was humid, she thought to herself. The darkness made it hard to see. Stella then grabbed another handful of the mossy vegetation and found to her horror that it was slippery. The humidity of the night had made the creeper damp, and she lost her balance. Her right foot slipped out of the foothold, while her left dangled in the air. All she had to hold on to was the slippery vegetation. The vine could not hold her weight. She let out a piercing scream into the night as she fell backwards.
With a loud crash, she landed on the ground, falling squarely on her back. She lay there on the damp grass too afraid to move, her arms and legs outstretched like the Vitruvian Man. Had she broken anything? She could hear Junaid calling out from the other side: “Stella? Stella!”
Soon enough, there was a loud commotion and she could hear running on the grass with voices excitedly asking what had happened. A bright light flashed into her face, hurting her eyes. Her heart sank as she made out the faces of the warden and pot-bellied guard peering at her. They looked concerned, but their concern was instantly replaced by stern expressions when they realized what she had been trying to do. She closed her eyes. A scandal like this would be very hard to suppress.
She turned out to be right. Word of Stella’s attempted escape soon spread around the small town of Mangalore, with fat aunties eagerly gossiping over tea about how the Pinto girl had tried to climb the wall of her college in the middle of the night to meet her North Indian Muslim boyfriend. Muslim! If he had been Christian, it would have probably been less disgraceful. Terrible shame, really. The Pintos were such a decent family. Few exciting things happened in Mangalore, and a salaciously juicy story of this proportion was not going to die down anytime soon.
Unable to dissociate themselves from what had occurred, Stella’s parents decided that the only way to quiet the wagging tongues was to get her married. She was in her final year, and once a suitable boy had been found, the date would be set for after her graduation. All of Stella’s pleas to her mother, usually the more reasonable parent, went in vain. Both Mr. and Mrs. Pinto were shocked their daughter would be capable of something like this, and they could not seem to get rid of her fast enough. Mrs. Pinto refused to listen to her daughter’s tearful apologies and earnest begging to be allowed to work for at least a year before she tied the knot. She claimed she had no idea that Stella even had a boyfriend. If she could keep a secret of this magnitude from them, her own parents who had always loved and cared for her, why should they trust her anymore? Stella repeatedly vowed to never repeat her behavior but to no avail. The decision had been made.
Aunts and uncles from all over were called upon to assist in finding a husband. The ideal boy would be Christian, obviously. He would be well-settled, and with at least a bachelor’s degree. Young men were increasingly flocking to the Gulf those days in search of lucrative employment, and Stella’s parents began to look for a similar suitor for her, who worked in Dubai, or maybe Kuwait or Qatar. This was all easier said than done, however. Stella’s reputation had been irrevocably marred, and parents of eligible bachelors were hesitant to marry their sons off to her. The Pintos’ only hope was to find a family who was unaware of Stella’s past, or willing to look beyond it. Their dreams were answered soon in the form of the Regos.
Stella’s parents eventually learned of the Regos, who had a recently widowed son and were on the lookout for a wife for him. Many prospective brides had shied away, despite the fact that the Regos were a wealthy lot and their son John was a well-established doctor in Dubai. This was because firstly, John Rego was 37 – a few years past prime marriageable age in India at the time, where it was sacrilegious to be unmarried after 30. Secondly, nobody wanted to be daughter-in-law to the Rego matriarch, Clarisse. Stella soon saw why.
One morning, Stella’s mother poked her head into Stella’s room and frantically urged her to get ready and put on her best clothes as the Regos were coming to “see” her. By this, she meant that Stella would be closely scrutinized and interrogated to determine whether she was an ideal match for John. “Mrs. Rego is a tough one,” her mother warned. “You need to be at your best behavior today.”
So Stella put on her best blue sari. She lined her eyes with kohl and slipped a thin, gold chain around her neck. She hesitated for a bit, and then slid a few blue bangles on each wrist. She sat down on her bed to await her fate. At around 11, the doorbell rang. By the sounds of her mother cooing and gushing out in the hallway, Stella guessed the Regos had arrived.
She demurely entered the living room, balancing three cups of steaming hot tea on their finest tray. In the middle of the living room, loomed a large woman, disdainfully surveying her humble surroundings. She was clad in a nauseatingly green sari, and her jet-black hair was securely tied back in a bun. Not a strand was out of place. Her heavy figure was decked with an array of obnoxiously shiny gold ornaments. She was begged, pleaded with, to take a seat by Stella’s mother, who was falling over herself to make a good impression. She agreed, reluctantly, and haughtily asked for a glass of water. To say that Clarisse Annabel Rego, president of the Mangalore Ladies Club and chairwoman of the Karnataka Catholic Women’s Association, was intimidating was being generous.
Trembling with fear by now, Stella placed the tray on the coffee table, praying she wouldn’t have a trademark clumsy moment and spill piping hot tea onto Mrs. Rego’s sari. She timidly glanced at John, who sat in a corner, looking at the photographs of their family on the wall. He wore rimmed glasses and a black suit, with the top button of his shirt undone. Respectability seemed to emanate from him. What didn’t seem to emanate was any interest in her.
The afternoon dragged by at a painfully slow pace, with Mrs. Rego posing a series of questions and Stella dutifully answering each one. Yes, she could cook. Yes, she could prepare traditional Mangalorean food if that was what John liked. Yes, she could sew. Of course, she would be happy to move to Dubai. Would she like to work there? Well yes, if John had no objection, of course. How many children did she want? Two would be ideal, she said with a smile. Stella’s mother also prattled on about her accomplishments: she had always been top of her class at school and nursing college (lie), she was well liked by her teachers (lie), and she was wonderful with children (lie, she hated them). Stella sat with her hands on her lap, silently cursing her mother under her breath and wishing she wouldn’t set expectations so high. This was the business of marriage in Mangalore, however, and Stella knew better than to butt in. The greater the exaggeration, the better her prospects would be.
After a good deal of grilling, Clarisse Rego finally seemed somewhat satisfied. She turned to John and asked him if he would like to spend some time alone with Stella. He shrugged and agreed, and they walked out into the garden. They sat mostly in awkward silence. She asked him about his work and life in Dubai, and he gave her brief and curt responses, declining to make any serious attempt to take the conversation further. Stella soon grew bored and after about twenty minutes, she suggested they go back inside, and he followed her.
When they were back in the living room, Stella noticed Clarisse look questioningly at John. He nodded his head. That was all that was required. The women of both households began to discuss the wedding preparations in an excited frenzy. A date in August was decided upon, agreeable to both parties. The church where the ceremony would take place and the hall for the wedding reception were also decided upon. Both mothers eagerly began to debate over the details and make mental checklists. Outfits and the bridal gown were to be bought, caterers to be called, jewelry purchased, invitations sent out – the list of things to do was endless, and August was only four months away. The women accepted the challenge, however, and went into wedding planner mode. Mrs. Rego decided that her son’s second wedding would be even more lavish than his first. Mrs. Pinto decided that she would ensure that the only gossip that would circulate about Stella from now would be about how fabulous her wedding was.
The ceremony took place on Sunday, the 7th of August, 1988. Friends, family, and hordes of acquaintances flocked from near and far to the quaint little church to watch John and Stella’s nuptials. They were married with much pomp and splendor, with both sides having spent well beyond their means on the wedding. As Stella stood in her white gown in the hall where the reception was being held, she wondered how her life had spun out of control so quickly. It seemed like just yesterday when she and Junaid had been whizzing around Mangalore on the back of his Hero Honda. He had repeatedly tried to contact her after the debacle at her college, but she had refused any attempts to stay in touch for fear her parents might find out. She missed Junaid terribly. Tears clouded her eyes. She forced smiles for the camera as well-wishers took turns to pose for pictures with the newlyweds. Under the harsh glare of the photographers’ lights, nobody could see her sorrow. The fake smile was the façade she hid behind. This was to be her life from now on, and she had to accept it.
They moved to Dubai after the wedding, and seven years later, Stella was pregnant. Part of her deep down wondered how it would be if this was Junaid’s child she was carrying, and the rational part of her would tell the hormonal part to be quiet. Tanya was born on July 25th, 1995. She was the first real love of Stella’s life after Junaid. Mother and daughter spent endless happy hours together in a small park in the neighborhood. They would lie on the grass, sprawled on a mat Stella had spread out. Stella would talk to her chubby toddler as she crawled around and cooed, trying to put everything she found into her little mouth. These, and her teenage years, were the happiest times of her life. Sometimes she would carry a book and read aloud to Tanya. As Tanya began to walk, she would run gleefully on the grass with her mother chasing her, laughing all the time. When Tanya began school, she would come back every day and regale her mother with tales of what happened at school, her terrible teachers and her fall-outs with her friends, when she got good grades and bad – Stella was not spared a single detail. As Tanya hit her teens, her parents became less “cool,” and her friends took on the role of family. She and her mother gradually grew apart and their relationship turned rocky, with fights erupting every now and then over whom Tanya was spending her time with, why she stayed out late, and so on and so forth. The deep friendship of yesteryears gave way to a relationship rife with distrust and suspicion, made worse by Tanya’s constant rebellion.
And yet, despite their differences, Stella knew her daughter still loved her. They may not have been as close as they once were, but there was no reason they could not try to go back to being that way. If Tanya would not tell Stella everything, she could at least tell her what she wanted to. Stella realized with a pang that while her own mother had refused to listen to her when she needed it, she didn’t have to do the same with Tanya. They could be different. The last thing in the world she wanted for her daughter was for her to make a mistake and not be able to talk to anyone about it, and heaven forbid, bear its consequences for as long as she lived.
The only way, Stella now saw, to prevent her daughter from meeting a similar fate was to try and have a more open relationship with her. She had to make Tanya understand that her mother would be there when she needed her, and she would always listen. She would listen to Tanya’s woes regardless of whether she chose to pay heed to her mother’s advice. She would listen patiently. She had to make the first attempt at bridging the gulf between the two of them, however. That would not deter her, she firmly decided. She may have lost her first love, but she wasn’t about to lose the one person who mattered the most to her now – her precious daughter. She would make it right.
Stella replaced Junaid’s letters in the envelope and placed it back in the chest. She pushed the chest under the bed and stood up. She walked to Tanya’s room, gently knocked, and peeked in. Tanya was on her bed, reading Pride and Prejudice. She seemed to have calmed down. She looked questioningly at her mother. Stella entered and sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed.
“Do you remember, when you were about nine or ten, we would go to the mall every week? You wanted to go only for the My Little Pony ride in the play area. You once sat on that ride for hours, and you refused to get off,” Stella said.
Tanya looked a little perplexed. She seemed to be wondering what brought on the sudden rush of nostalgia. “Yeah, I remember,” she cautiously admitted. “I really loved that ride,” she added a few seconds later, a wistful smile on her face.
“It’s been a while since we went to the mall. I was thinking we should go sometime. It could be a mother and daughter thing, like we used to do in the past.” She held her breath and anxiously waited for the response. Would Tanya think her mother was crazy?
“That would be nice,” Tanya finally said. “I’d like that.”
They sat in silence for a while. Tanya put her book aside and shifted closer to where her mother was perched, on the foot of the bed. She placed her head on Stella’s lap and lay there. Stella was a bit surprised. A feeling of tender warmth engulfed her. For that moment, she was back in the park watching her chubby toddler crawl around on the grass. She affectionately began to stroke Tanya’s hair.
“I’m sorry.” Tanya sounded a bit ashamed, and her voice was a barely audible whisper. But it was loud enough for Stella to hear. She heard it crystal clear. She smiled. Maybe a mother and daughter could be friends, after all.
 A garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from the Indian subcontinent .
 Tight trousers worn by people from the Indian subcontinent, typically with a kameez or kurta (a long shirt).
Jerusha Sequeria is a 21-year-old Indian student in her senior year at the American University of Sharjah. She is majoring in Mass Communication with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in English Literature. She will be graduating this semester and hopes to graduate magna cum laude from AUS. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career as a journalist in print news. She is a feminist, a proud member of the Grammar Police, and a stereotypical Virgo. Her short story, “Between Hello and Goodbye,” won first place in the Oxford University press story competition of 2014.