I live with my husband in Cambridge. I haven't gone back to India since I left five years ago. I came here on a spouse visa, got a degree in information systems, and work in a small firm as an analyst. Last year we bought a house together. My friend Jaya was right, people like us do well in America.
Every morning I start my day with coffee and an apple pastry, and then take the Red Line from Harvard Square to Wollaston. I realize that all the stations in the world are similar in some ways but Wollaston and Nungambakkam Station in Chennai seem even more so, like sister stations. The elevated open platform, the benches with peeling paint, the concrete beneath smudged and damp; it adds up to a gentle reminder of a time from back home. That brief period when Jaya and I took the train together to work.
Sometimes I become visibly frantic when a train pulls into the platform. I am gripped by an irrational fear that the man who killed Jaya is going to find me and push me in front of an oncoming train. Maybe I've developed some kind of phobia? Yet, I still choose to take the train every day. My husband recommends therapy. I'm afraid he realizes that something is off with me despite my efforts to appear normal.
And when I think of Jaya, I think of that one day in the rain, back home in Bombay six years ago. That memory in all its details often comes to mind. I was at a park. Jaya was still alive. It was six in the evening. Dark clouds were gathering up in the sky, carpeting the horizon with different shades of gray. It was drizzling. I adjusted my umbrella and sat staring at the sea, waiting for her. I leaned on the railing, soaking in the stray placid drops under my umbrella. A rocky beach lay beneath, stretching beyond the park and into the sea. The beach was speckled with couples, young and old, trying to find privacy between the boulders.
Jaya came and sat next to me. She was wearing a short kurti with skinny jeans instead of her usual scrubs like black pants that she wore at work. Her kurti was silk instead of cotton, a smooth green with gold border and wide neck. I complimented her. She smiled. I noticed for the first time her collar bones jutting out, conspicuously slanted down like a crossbow, rather like an unending dark line on a sand dune. Etched and fragile. I took in her round face, her mahogany-colored skin was flawless. Her hair was pulled back in a plait, so thick that the plait looked like a baby elephant's trunk. A black dot bindi on her forehead accentuated her kohl lined eyes. She'd never looked this beautiful. Or maybe I want to remember it that way.
We were software engineers right out of college, 22 years old, at our first job. She was from Chennai. I was from Bombay. We spent the first six weeks in training, the only women there. She was a Java programming genius who loved her filter coffee. I'd call her Java Jaya in a crude, sing-song manner: Java Jaya, Java Jaya, Java Jaya. She liked it. We became friends on the first day, and two weeks later, here we were in this park. This was the first time we decided to meet outside of work. It had taken her two trains and a bus to get there. She looked nervous. In Chennai, going out in the evening after six wasn't permitted by her parents.
We sat for a while without speaking. She took out a packet of spicy banana chips. I smiled. Jaya always carried snacks in her bag.
“You want?” she asked. I shrugged, no.
We discussed our assignments, the people in the training, more assignments. I watched her cradling her handbag, as she earnestly explained how to implement an interface and debug compiling errors. I nodded along without really listening.
“My boyfriend wants to become an actor,” I cut in.
She looked amused. “He is an engineer too?”
“His family is not scolding him for that?”
“You know how it is. We do engineering to make our parents happy, and afterwards try and figure what we want to do in life,” I said.
Jaya looked perturbed. “You should not marry him. He has no real job.”
“My family will never agree, anyway,” I said curtly. I was a little upset at her quick judgment.
“Does he look like a movie star?” she asked.
“He's no Shahrukh Khan,” I said. At that we both smiled.
“I will have an arranged marriage.”
“Are you ok with that? You've never liked any boy?” I asked, acting surprised despite knowing that I, too, would have an arranged marriage.
“No, my parents are strict. I have to marry within my caste. But I don't want to marry now. You want to? So soon?” she said. Her tone was level but I sensed a mock challenge, a judgement again.
“I don't know. Maybe after two-three years, I think, but not now,” I mumbled, embarrassed. Silence.
Suddenly we heard a woman squeal and giggle from behind a rock. It made Jaya chuckle. After a while she said, “Actually, I liked a boy once. He used to be in my school bus. Much older than me.”
“And then?” I asked.
“We got ice cream once, alone. It was so hot the ice cream melted all over me,” she said, winking.
I laughed. “And then?”
Jaya shrugged. I nudged her for details.
“Jaya, don't tell me incomplete stories.”
She stretched her hand out to feel the rain, and slowly said, “But that is my life. All incomplete stories.” There was a sadness in those words that I couldn't quite fathom. Before I could say anything, she shrugged and laughed it off.
The sea was getting rough. The waves were coming in more frequently and the beach began flooding. Jaya pointed to a couple at a distance. They were on a big rock close to the water, under an umbrella. Like so many couples in Bombay, they came to hide by the sea. I presumed they were either very young, or old, and long lost. They were surely hiding—from the world, their lives, their past, present, future, maybe a little of it all, I romanticized out loud.
Jaya promptly disagreed and said, “I bet they meet every day and are just desperate.”
“You mean horny?” I asked. Jaya did not know that word.
We watched them, perched on a rock so close to the splashing waves, their arms wrapped around each other. The woman's bright orange salwar kameez stood out in the gloomy silver gray twilight. A colorful splash on a grisaille landscape. The distance made it comfortable for us to stare. My mind flirted with a dramatic soliloquy as we watched them canoodle (a term Jaya used when describing the incident later at work). The woman seemed hesitant, almost nervous, and kept looking back, but after a while she leaned into her man. They became a single orange speckle on the horizon. Jaya, looking scandalized, exclaimed, “Oh, look at them!” But I could see that she was enjoying the little scene.
The rain was coming down faster and the waves were getting bigger. Jaya and I, transfixed on the couple on the rock, moved closer under my umbrella. I felt her arm on mine. I turned sideways and smiled, trying to catch her eye. In her warmth, I realized how cold it had gotten. I caught a whiff of coconut oil from her hair. It was heady. I felt that familiar excitement I had felt for a girl back in college. I moved a little closer to Jaya as if I wanted to say something. Jaya leaned in. We watched the couple, we looked at each other. Java Jaya, Java Jaya, my mind sang. I tried to linger in that moment, in the possibility of us, yes, at the possibility of Jaya and I. It was bizarre and Jaya seemed right with me.
But that's what it was, a moment. Suddenly a blind flash and a huge wave followed. The couple vanished from the rock. Jaya screamed. We looked about frantically. It had happened so fast. The couple was gone as if they never existed. I heard shouting. A few men below made their way towards the ill-fated rock. But the rising waves and flooding drove everyone back.
We stood in the park above, the cops were making their way. They began clearing the beach below. I saw two fishermen from the nearby slum take out their boat. The rain felt like pelting stones.
We walked out of the park and towards the beach, where the cops were clearing the area, wanting to learn more. We stood there holding hands while people rushed around us. We had watched it from a distance, we didn't know who they were. Or what they meant to each other. It was surreal. My mind flashed images of the lovers, of their dramatic exit, quite like the movies. We found some of the cops huddled near a tea stall. I could hear them complaining “Saale, ye premiya, akal nahi hain.”—“Bloody lovers got no brains”.
Then Jaya said something which made me stop, “Just like that you go.” I looked at her. She shrugged. Still holding hands, I walked her to the bus stop. Just like that you go.
“Okay,” Jaya said. “Bye now. I'll text you.”
I watched her struggling to get into the bus, the men around her shoving and pushing. I waited until her bus pulled away and then rushed to the train station to catch my local, shoving and pushing through the men around me. My phone was already buzzing and beeping with her texts while my mind hummed: Java Jaya, Java Jaya, Java Jaya.
For the next few days we looked through the papers for news on that couple. There was none. Instead we found stories of other drownings, a lot of them couples at different beaches. We were surprised that it happened so often.
“Horny couples,” Jaya said with a sad smile.
After the training, Jaya and I both got placed at the Chennai office. My parents were upset.
“Can't you ask them to place you here?” my father complained. “Marriage proposals have started coming in; it'll be hard to manage with you in Chennai.”
“I don't want to marry now,” I protested. “Let me work for a year at least before we start this.”
“Yes, yes, you work. We've only started the process. Arranged marriages take time.”
“But I don't want to start meeting anyone,” I tried to explain.
“Relax,” my mother cut in before my father and I could argue. “You focus on your work. Like Baba said, these things take time.”
They did not know that I had requested for Chennai and that I could've easily been placed in Bombay. I was doing these things without really understanding. There was no plan. I just wanted to follow Jaya.
When I told Jaya, she simply asked, “What about your boyfriend?”
“I don't know. Baba and Ma will never agree anyway,” I said. Jaya looked relieved. Her phone beeped, she ignored, her phone beeped again, she put it in her bag.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Nobody,” she replied.
Now it was my turn to be away from home, from Bombay, for the first time. Jaya found me a paying guest accommodation close to her place. We lived in a neighborhood in Chooleimedu close to Nungambakkam. My rent was half my salary. It was a nice neighborhood with important colleges and plenty of restaurants around. The railway station was a ten-minute bus ride. The train to Mahindra City where we worked was an hour-long journey. I called it the Chennai office but it was really a township about sixty kilometers away from Chennai. Jaya at this point was preparing to take the GREs to apply to graduate schools in America. I was helping her study. Verbal was her weakness, the section in the test she was most worried about. All our time was divided between traveling to work, debugging code, and preparing for the GREs—the inevitable and excruciating reality of our existence. But I did not mind it, there was constant learning, and our days were packed. Jaya was my world.
“Who keeps texting you?” I asked.
“Nobody,” Jaya replied.
“Tell me,” I asked again. Jaya looked away.
Every day we skirted past a line of beggars before we got to the platform. Jaya would spare a coin, or give away part of the food she carried. We learned new words from the GRE flashcards and quizzed each other. We would try and use words like emasculate or serendipity or jugular in our conversation. And then there were those moments on the train. Moments I would lean on Jaya, put my head on her shoulder, and rest my eyes. Images flashing. Jaya never seemed to mind. She'd hold my hand and gaze out the window. I'd nudge closer. No conversation, just the rumbling of the train carrying us forward. We ignored the men and women staring. Did we make them uncomfortable? I don't know. I wondered about that, wondered if maybe that was the reason for what happened.
“Why do you want to go to USA?” I asked one day. Her phone was beeping again. Jaya ignored it. We were right outside the station, after work, getting idlis (ground lentil and rice cakes), the best time to get it during the day. I slurped mine with the watery coconut chutney. Jaya was having hers with a brownish red spicy mix, podu, which I liked to call gun powder. Her GRE test was three weeks away.
She stood contemplating for a while, and said, “You should think about it too. It will delay the arranged marriage thing more maybe.”
“People like us do well there,” Jaya continued. I heard her phone beep again.
My parents would never agree, I told her. They barely agreed for Chennai.
I looked at her and wondered about her true motivation, beyond the fact that a lot of our peers were planning for America. We never spoke about chasing a better life, or about having dreams to travel the world. People like us do well there. What did that really mean? I was scared to go there, to define what it really meant, for her, and for me. Her phone beeped.
“Seriously, who keeps texting you?” I asked again. It had been going on for a month now, the texting that is.
Jaya did not respond, and continued eating. Beyond her there were men at a different stall gaping our way. I made a face, some averted their gaze and some stared back defiantly. I sighed. People like us.
Three days later I fell ill with jaundice and came back to Bombay to recover.
“It was the damned chutney,” I complained to Jaya over the phone.
She was surprised. “But you are from Mumbai. You ate street food there all the time.”
I missed her, that's what happened. It took me by surprise. A strange “now what” kind of feeling took over. Like a broken engagement. A worry that I'd be replaced. That she would move on, get over the feeling. I spent my days thinking about her, about us. I pined for her. Soon she would leave for America. The thought scared me. In panic, I began contemplating when to book my GRE date when it happened.
I read about it in the newspaper. It had taken three days for that news to reach Bombay. It was six-thirty in the morning, Jaya was waiting at the Nungambakkam Station for the six-fifty train when a man approached her. They argued for couple of minutes. He then chased her down the platform with a sickle and hacked her to death. The people around stood watching and then when the six-fifty finally came many boarded and left. Her body lay on the platform, no one touched her. The police and railway authorities came after two hours. Two hours. A man said he definitely saw her twitching for a while but then his train came and he had to leave, what else could he do. There was even a blurry black-and-white photograph of her sprawled on the platform, her kurti over her head, her midriff showing, Ziploc bag, probably with spicy banana chips, by her side.
I would have been with her at the station that morning had I not been sick and away from Chennai. The details of her death swirled through my mind. I began imagining the murder that I had not witnessed in a space I knew so well. Even that early in the morning it would have been humid and her hair must have curled around her forehead. It always did. There were so many people every morning waiting to take the train. The incessant melancholy was always palpable. A vignette flashed through my mind of the tired troubled faces bobbing around, barely afloat. The heat, the humidity; the lives they led, all in slow motion. I felt the echo of labored breathing, like dyspnea, an illness looming beneath. Why didn't anyone help her? Why didn't anyone help her? It did not make any sense, the violence and the absurdity of killing Jaya, who was simply waiting to catch the train to work.
But this was not new, it was not uncommon, this attack on a woman in a public space with mute spectators. It happened too often. But I never imagined it would happen to Jaya. There were a lot of speculations. The Stalker theory was the most popular one. That the killer was most likely from a low caste poor family who grew up watching movies where uneducated men wooed upper caste “fair skinned” women by relentless stalking and pestering with lewd songs and pelvic thrusts. (There have been plenty attacks before and since Jaya where the men were neither low caste nor uneducated. And all kinds of women have been targeted.) The woman always gave in. Patriarchy and misogyny an underlying part of the narrative. In real life he could not handle the rejection. One news reporter said that this was getting common. But he noted that using a sickle was a new one. Regional flavor perhaps. Acid attack was the popular choice for such crimes of passion.
There were articles written about the growing intolerance, about the safety of women, of how we need to build a better free thinking society. Then there were editorials and blogs warning girls not to get on Facebook, how to dress, not to go out in the evening to clubs, bars, coffee shops (even though Jaya was killed early morning on her way to work). How women needed to take responsibility for their own safety by basically shutting themselves up. This was the kind of rhetoric that would have made Jaya uncomfortable when alive. In death she became the poster girl for it.
Her father gave one interview. He mourned that they left her exposed on that railway platform. I watched him plead with the media not to tarnish Jaya's image. It was important to him that the public knew that she had no boyfriends, that she did not go out and party, and that she was a good Brahmin (upper caste) girl. “That's what matters to him—that she lay there exposed, not that she lay there dead or dying.” Of course my anger was misplaced and vacuous. He was trying to communicate that Jaya had not brought this upon herself.
I tried to remember the men around us. Ignoring cat calls and getting shoved (sometimes we would shove back or grunt) on the streets had become second nature to us. Did we anger any men around us, I could not remember. At work, as was the norm (we assumed), we pretended not to understand the inappropriate jokes and remarks some male colleagues made. Some did seek her out, flirt with her, and she was always friendly. Was there someone bothering her, I did not know. The constant beeping of her phone often came to mind. Those constant cascade of notifications, mostly chat and text. Why would she never tell me, why didn't I insist enough to know? I waited for the police to call me, for her family to get in touch. I may have information. Tell them about all those men around us, about her phone beeping. But no one did. Maybe I should have called them but I had nothing to offer.
I became obsessed with news, especially news of women murdered. This world of men we inhabited, we struggled in. The spatial and virtual boundaries merged like fault lines, a mental stress took over. My parents waited for my anger to ebb.
The doctor told my mother that jaundiced patients suffer from delirium sometimes. Feelings can get exaggerated. That the screaming and thrashing would stop. My mother hoped there would be no long term psychological problem. “I mean the girls barely knew each other, she wasn't even there when it happened,” I heard her tell the doctor.
It's been five years since I moved to Boston with my husband, Joydeep. Six years since Jaya's murder. I wasn't allowed to return to Chennai. I was married and carted off within a year of that tragedy. I never told Joydeep about Jaya. Sometimes I have wanted to, as if that would explain something about me.
Most of our friends were Joydeep's friends, couples like us from India. Some of the wives worked (like me), some weren't allowed to, some could not (visa constraints), and some chose not to. I played my part. I cooked when he wanted something special, I cooked when his friends came over (often), I cooked because we needed to cut down on eating out he said. His working hours were longer than mine. He earned more than I did, so apparently that was the balance we had to maintain. Along with cleaning and keeping the house (as he put it). It was a reasonable expectation to have, only that I didn't really like to cook.
A thought often came to mind, I could have been with Jaya that day. I should have been with Jaya that day, and I am thankful that I wasn't. The fear and sadness never left. It haunted me. With time, I became more discreet, even if not in control, of my feelings. But there were still nights when I would wake up screaming, convinced that the killer was still looking for me. The times Joydeep's family or relatives visited (which was often) were the hardest. As I mentioned before, Joydeep often suggested speaking to someone, that therapy was a good thing.
I began running. Running made me feel less foreign in this city. I signed up for 5ks, 10Ks, evening beer run meet-ups (Joydeep did not know that I drank in these meet-ups). I stayed out late and made some running friends.
Five years is a long time to carry on this way. A long time to bide my time. I don't think I can handle another visit from his family. His mother keeps asking, “When will you bless us with a son, when will you bless us with a baby?” I am contemplating divorce. Joydeep would be shattered by it. He would rather stay in an unhappy marriage, than deal with the stigma of divorce.
A colleague from our old company messaged me on Facebook. I scarcely remembered him except that he had been friendly with Jaya and me during training. He mentioned that he was still working at the Chennai office. He had read in a local newspaper that Jaya's killer after six long years had been caught from a small fishing village three hours from the city. That the theories were right, some guy stalking Jaya. “I thought you'd want to know since you guys were friends,” his message read with a smiley emoji. I thanked him. I stared at his message for a long time. I asked him for more information but he did not respond. I googled Jaya's name, but no updates came up, nothing about this unrequited lover.
After work I got off at Charles MGH and walked along Charles River. My favorite place in Boston. It was the beginning of summer and the sun was preparing to finally set on a pleasant day. I watched young couples sitting (and canoodling, Jaya's word) on the wooden pier. The Boston skyline was dazzling as if on fire in the setting sun's rosy rays. Men and women on their run gushed past me, so fluid and determined, but my steps were heavy. I remembered my park back in Bombay. The dark gray clouds, the gloom, the rain. Jaya and I giggling in the gentle rain, the voices from that day echoed in my mind. “Jaya, don't tell me incomplete stories.” “But that is my life.” The only true remarkable memory of our time together. The orange color splash, then the couple drowning. Jaya's wide eyes, her beautiful neck, an unending line on a sand dune. Jaya's words drummed and echoed in my mind—Just like that you go. Just like that you go, almost like an anthem. I knew I had a lifetime to sort out these feelings and that my broken heart would take time to mend. But I was ready to begin again. That I had been ready for a while. The sun set, twilight passed. The hymn of a gentle breeze followed me, the leaves swished, nodded, and swayed in commiseration. Buoyed, I began running.