Sita, Govinda and Me

by Peter Breyer

Sugar cane being processed for juice

Who loved me more, Sita or Govinda? The thought consumed me as I exited the Pan Am Clipper in Bombay. The air was so thick that it smelled. I walked into the terminal with large, swirling fans hanging from the dirty ceiling above. Counters were piled high with stacks of papers, and dozens of officials were scurrying about.

My connecting flight to Bangalore was delayed, so I was off to a hotel in the city. Dawn wanted to turn to day, but the mist would not lift. Wretched people lined the road. They squatted in their rags with lotuses in their hands. The road was rutted and the bus bumped about.

After my local flight to Bangalore the next day, I saw Govinda and his driver, Singh. Govinda gave me a big hug. “My American brother,” he said softly in my ear. It was late in the day, and Singh weaved the Ambassador sedan between the ruts, goats, bullock carts, and people. When daylight faded I cringed every time a car from the opposite direction approached. First Singh would turn off his lights, and then the other driver did the same. I thought it best to close my eyes. This was a strange Indian driving custom that I never fully understood.

Three hours later I was escorted into their home on the outskirts of Mandya, a medium-sized town known for its sugar mill. Sita (Govinda’s wife), her father, mother, and two servants stood in the foyer to greet me. “Namaste,” I uttered, holding both of my hands together while bowing slightly. Surreptitiously I glanced at Sita. Her long, black hair, partially covered by her sari, glowed in the dim light, and long earrings dangled ever so slightly to the downward movement of her head. Unable to look away, I found myself entranced by her dainty feet encased in open-toed chappals with her toes adorned with silver rings.

Sitting at the thick wooden table with Father at the head, Govinda to one side, and me on the other, the samosas were placed on our silver tiffin plates. Mother served dahl and rice and Sita the vegetable condiments to follow. I reached for a paratha, tore off a piece, and filled it with vegetables and rice. I scooped it deftly into my mouth with my right hand.

My two-year stay as a Peace Corps volunteer had ended the previous year. That’s when I met Sita and Govinda. I became friendly with Govinda first, who introduced me to his wife, Sita. Our group was one of the first to arrive in India, shortly after the Corps was established by President Kennedy.

“I will show you our son tomorrow, after you are rested. He is so beautiful and fair, like you,” Govinda said while bowing his head gracefully. With the rice and vegetables finished, Sita served more rice abundantly soaked with plain curds or yogurt. A wonderful way to soothe the hotness of the heavily spiced food.

Lying on the bed of the guest room, momentarily hypnotized by the steady twirling of the overhead fan, I lay in anticipation. Reading some passages of a favorite book, The Last Mughal, I fell into a slumber, not quite asleep nor awake. I heard footsteps, the opening of a door, and the click of the light switch. The sense of anticipation was unbearable. Sita flowed into my arms. Her bare body lay against mine. It was this touch that I so missed. As we cradled each other, a desperation overtook us, a hungering desire to consume each other and to create that miracle of life. Sita and Govinda wanted another child. I was their deliverer, as I had been with their first son, Jagdish.

Drenched in the sweat of love, Sita nimbly tiptoed out of my room after midnight. Exhausted and fulfilled, I savored the draft of the fan. Sita would come to me abundantly in the weeks ahead before summer’s end, and then it would be over. I considered that if this child was a girl, perhaps they would want to have another one. Sita was hoping for a second boy.

I waited in the foyer as Singh, the family’s driver, retrieved the car. He was a tall, slim man, turbaned and bearded, as most Sikhs, and always impeccably dressed in a pressed white shirt and dark pants. As Singh pulled the car in front of the door, Govinda, who had been sitting in the front seat, took his arm back from Singh’s neck. 

“Now you will see one of our many jaggery mills,” Govinda said. “Be prepared for my men’s hospitality as they will undoubtedly offer you fresh sugar cane juice.” Govinda had since come into the back seat, sitting by my side. At the edge of town, we passed a row of beggars sitting by the road. The worst, still there from my time as a volunteer, had barely a face, most of which had been eaten away by leprosy. One hand was a stump, the other showing some forms that were formerly fingers. I wanted to tell Singh to stop so I could throw some coins in her battered tin cup. But I sat immobilized. The wretchedness surrounding me had already become normal.

The blazing sun peered over the rice paddies. Women with their saris tucked up between their legs were bent over, ankle high in water, placing small rice seedlings from a sack into the rich, flooded soil. In the weeks ahead long, thin rice stalks would appear after soaking up the water and rich manure that had been embedded into the soil. On another field, not yet ready for planting, two bullocks labored under a single plow with a man standing on the ancient implement as it ripped through the soft soil. I had tried it once during my Peace Corps days and could not stand on the plow without falling. We careered off the dirt road onto a yet smaller road.

Singh stopped the car and quickly came to open my door. Govinda got out himself and began shouting to a group of men in front of a large structure with a thatched roof. The men quickly ran to a large machine. Govinda guided me forward. Two men were feeding sugar cane stalks into a crusher. The crushed stalk came out onto a moving conveyer and juice out of a spout underneath. Govinda issued some commands in Kannada, the language that I could still only barely understand, and one of the men, in khaki shorts, a sleeveless, dirty tee, and barefooted, retrieved a large, silver cup and held it under the spout. In barely a second it was filled with raw sugar cane juice. The man approached me and, with a big smile that displayed his receding gums, offered me the cup. The rim of the cup had the remains of dried, crusted juice, which was a delight for the flies circling around.

“Yes, drink,” Govinda said with a broad smile that evidenced his stained red teeth from the betel nut paan he chewed after each meal. Sita complained that he was still a villager at heart despite his many jaggery mills, cloth shops, and movie theaters.

I knew the routine so I leaned my head back and lifted the cup just inches from my mouth. To refuse would have been a grave insult to Govinda and his many workers, who could only wish for such a treat. With all eyes upon me, I tried to hide my grimace as I poured the nectar down, pausing only briefly to swallow. As I raised the empty cup, I heard the shouts of approval from Govinda, Singh, and his half a dozen workers. Govinda explained that the raw juice is poured into forms and hardens in three-by-three-inch squares. It is then consumed by poorer Indians as a sweetener or brought to the sugar mill to be processed into refined sugar. I felt the need for a long run to work off the three thousand calories I had ingested in less than a minute.

“No, not hungry for dinner,” I told Sita as I lay down under my mosquito net with the overhead fan on full blast. And then, “No,” again I announced as she winked at me regarding her visit that evening.

I was living a dream. I would awake early, play a round of tennis with the local director of CARE (an American-sponsored feeding program), return for a hearty breakfast of dosa, yogurt, sweetened coffee, and a mango-plankton plate. By then Sita had left for the local college, where she taught Indian history, while Govinda was gone, along with Singh, to his many business enterprises. I would read until midday and then consume a light lunch with Father and Mother. Their English was minimal so we usually ate in silence. One to 4 p.m. was siesta time, when all life came to a halt. Before the evening meal Sita’s servant, Lakshmi, would bring little Jagdish out to the main gathering room. Sita would sit with Govinda as Lakshmi would hand the child over to me. I would raise him up and down, kissing his cheeks with each lift. His puffy cheeks registered his enjoyment.

All the while Govinda would clap his hands to a recording of his favorite Carnatic music. The sounds were intoxicating. So different from anything common to my ear, yet so delightful in its unrhythmic dissonance. I could feel Sita and Govinda’s eyes upon me. Sometimes Govinda came to me and hugged me. And when Sita came to me on frequent occasions late in the evenings, I reveled not only in the passions of the moment but the realization that we would produce another child.

It was a time with little to do, no worries, and love, both physical and emotional, amply bestowed upon me. I relished the now, forgetting what my future would be once I returned home to resume my teaching job in the fall. 

It wasn’t until I was about to part that I experienced Govinda’s love of Singh as I saw them huddled together in Singh’s quarters. When they saw me pass the partially opened door, they simply smiled. That’s the first time I ever saw Singh smile. So much of Singh’s humanity was revealed to me in that momentary smile.

I boarded the plane in Bangalore with regret, not knowing if I would ever be invited again to see my new child. Yet I felt content with the love I experienced that would remain with me always.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story