On April 11, Alice Williams found out that she was pregnant. The first signs of pregnancy did not occur right away. And over the last week, she noticed a missed period. That was a reliable sign of pregnancy for her. She knew it intuitively too.
It was time for her husband Varun to come home. She called him and broke the good news. She didn’t start dinner. Instead, she stood at the balcony and gazed at the milling crowd on the streets twenty floors below. She wondered what life had in store for her.
It was past 5 PM when Varun returned home. Alice heard him opening the front door and gently call her name. Then she walked up to him and hugged him without saying a word.
“Varun, I don’t think I am not yet ready for motherhood. I am scared.”
Varun sighed and delicately kissed her forehead.
“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”
Her arms tightened against her husband’s shoulder.
“The joint family system is a peculiar characteristic of the Indian social life,” Varun was explaining to Alice in the plane en route to Hyderabad from New York.”A son after marriage does not usually separate himself from the parents but continues to stay with them under the same roof. An Indian family is largely of patrilineal descent.” Alice looked at him with a blank expression.
Varun continued, smiling. “You see, now there has been a radical change in the social fabric of our country. There has been a gradual disintegration of the joint family system and the emergence of the nuclear family. Now let’s stop talking and catch up with some sleep.” Varun patted her hand reassuringly.
Varun was the only son of the wealthyReddys. Alice was an American catholic. When Varun informed his parents that they wished to be married, all hell broke loose.
“Look, son,” his father, Venkataramana Reddy, dragged him to the adjoining room for an earful. “Marriages cement relationships between two different families. That’s why it is very important to marry in a similar caste. I never thought you would do this to me and bring the family to disrepute!” He was seething with anger. His mother Lakshmi joined him and started pleading with him. “Think again,Varun,” she said tearfully. “You deserve a closer match. She is a lovely person, but her race and culture will not match ours. We don’t know her family, her background. What do they have to say about this?”
No amount of coaxing or threats by them would budge Varun from his avowed decision to marry Alice. They had studied together at the prestigious Harvard University. Alice was intelligent, good looking and above all had a kind and lovable disposition. Both had graduated in flying colors. After graduation, they decided to get married in India.
“If you are not agreeable to this wedding, I am walking out of the house. I’ll find a new lifestyle, new religious belief, and a new family cult,” Varun was curt and adamant.
Seeing that they were equally adamant, he walked out of the house, leaving them heartbroken. Alice was shocked at the turn of events. Varun comforted her, telling her about the intricacies of home politics in India. They decided to move to Mumbai and found an upscale apartment to their liking. Their relationship was formalized in a court. Soon they resumed their careers – Alice pursued her Ph.D. while Varun joined an investment firm.
“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s email from your Dad?”
“Of course, I did.”
“So what do you have to say about it? How can you take such abuses lying down? Your parents have denounced us as sinners!”
“Of course not. You are overreacting. They are just upset. Very upset. Sooner or later they will come around. I know my parents. They love me.”
Alice turned away from him. Her eyes fell on the flowerpots in the balcony. She was happy to see the sunflower on the window sill. A week ago, while she was browsing in the local market, she felt a tap on her shoulder. Startled by the suddenness she turned and was even more startled to find an old Hijra smiling at her with an outstretched palm. Alice noticed that she was dressed in a yellow saree and had a big red dot on her forehead. She had heard about these transgender people in the Indian subcontinent. Varun had told her about their tragic life, their castration rituals. “Be careful,” he had warned her. “Many of these transgender people are being used by the underworld for some nefarious activities.”
“Madam, don’t trust these people. They swarm around white people and steal their bags.” The shop keeper shouted at the Hijra and asked her to move away. Alice stopped him and turned to the Hijra who was still standing there with a smile on her face and strangely clapping her hand as only Hijras do.
Alice’s heart melted at the sight of her pathetic presence. She dipped into her bag and gave her a handful of currency notes. This brought the Hijra to tears. She took out a paper packet full of flower seeds and asked Alice to take it from her hands. “God bless you,” she said wholeheartedly.”Plant them at home. You will soon get a lovely new addition to the family. It will be a boy.” She gave her a toothless smile. Alice didn’t understand what she was saying. The Hijra watched her puzzled expression and gently put her hand on Alice’s stomach, then folded her hands like she was holding a baby and ran her fingers on her upper lip as if she had a mustache. Alice found the act very amusing. She understood the Hijra. She thanked her and started to leave her. After taking a few steps shaking her head as if in wonderment, she looked back. The Hijra was not to be seen. Alice stood there surprised, shrugged, and started her way back with the bag full of seeds. She noticed a handwritten message on the packet ”Sunflower seeds, meant only for home use.”She went to the market and bought a few pots for planting the seeds. That was two weeks ago. She didn’t tell Varun about the incident and upset him.
Alice went to the balcony and touched the sunflower plant. It looked healthy and was growing well. The seed had sprouted a couple of days ago and a young plant had begun to emerge.
“Varun?” she raised her voice. “Come here and see my wonderful sunflower plant. It is sitting proudly on the window sill.”
The sunset was a perfect conclusion to their thoughts. Its silky, smooth multicolored bursts of warm colors gradually melted into the calm of night. Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the concrete jungle, quickly grew dark filling up with smog.
“There is something about the sunsets that fascinates me. No matter what I go through, I feel the warmth of the colors which boosts my faith and hope.”
Varun stood next to her, quietly watching the sundown. He put her hand around her shoulder gently. The darker it became the sharper and clearer their silhouettes stood out against the sky.
Varun noticed that Alice’s sunflower plant seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness. Varun was amazed at how quickly it brightened when sunlight fell on it. He was waiting for it to flower. Asha had also kept some daisies, chrysanthemum, and zinnia next to it. He thought her flowers enhanced her beauty. He wondered what his parents would say if they visited him now.
Ten years ago, that evening on the same day April 11, his family was celebrating elder Mr. Reddy’s birthday at their farmhouse on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Celebrating family members’ birthdays was an ancient tradition in his community, often accompanied by a visit to the temple the next day. The family farmhouse offered privacy and was an ideal location for hosting celebrations.
His mother was proudly showing the fine-looking garden they had cultivated to the visitors. They had to move the chairs around the bonfire and make a place for them to dance around the fire. Varun remembered turning out the lights, listening to the rustic voice of his father singing some folk songs, and dancing around the fire. He remembered how they drank beer and liquor and took turns in dancing to the clapping and whistling of the guests. Well, that was long ago. Things were different now. He let out a huge sigh.
Eight months passed. Alice was tendering to the potted plants with love and care. She had strictly told Gavya, her Nepali house-help, to keep an eye on them. That morning she woke up suddenly as if someone had gently stroked her head. She was wide awake and looked at Varun, who was sound asleep. A gentle fragrance of flowers drifted through the door. She wondered where it was coming from as the windows were closed and the air-conditioning was on. She was in the sixth month of pregnancy and the baby bump was very much visible. She carefully got up and slowly walked her way out of the room.
Alice noticed that the fragrance was a bit stronger near the balcony. She heard some sounds in the kitchen. She went to the kitchen and found Gavya preparing breakfast. She looked up and smiled. “Good Morning M’am,” she said softly. “Would you like some green tea now?”
Alice asked her with a puzzled expression,” Do you smell the fragrance of wildflowers, Gavya?”
“No, ma’am. Maybe the smell of breakfast has overpowered it. Let me go outside and check.”
She quickly went outside, leaving the kettle on the stove. Alice followed her. Soon, Gavya shook her head. “I don’t smell anything at all.” Then she rushed back to the kitchen as the kettle started whistling. Alice opened the balcony.
Alice’s face glowed and she let out a small gleeful laugh at the sight of a sunflower that was sprouting in a corner of her balcony. She felt happy that all the care she had taken in watering and tending to the plant had yielded wonderful results. It was of a dwarf variety which fitted perfectly in the corner. It had grown rather quickly. Varun had warned that if the sunflowers grow to an unmanageable height, they might have to give it away. But Alice had put her foot down. “You dare not do it!” she hissed. ”He is my baby and I will take care of him.”
The bud had just opened the bloom was just glorious. It looked large for the size of the plant. Cheerful. And looked like a replica of the sun one sees in the art and crafts stores. Alice gazed at the flower for a minute and slowly moved towards it. She briefly and gently touched it. She thought it was glowing and smiling at the sun. It was a glorious sight. Then suddenly she felt a kick inside her stomach. The baby was moving. Alice felt she was both the receiver and giver of life.
While sipping her tea, Alice felt that every one of her friends and relatives deserved to share its beauty and her joy! Why should they not? On an impulse, she took many pictures of the flower with her phone. “The whole world must see it and feel good like me and think that life is good everywhere,” she told herself.
Varun came out of the bedroom sleepy-eyed and headed for the kitchen to get his first coffee for the day. It was the south Indian filter coffee. Hot, strong, and syrupy. He carried his coffee in a stainless-steel tumbler and sat opposite Alice.
“Hey, good morning,” Varun wished her but didn’t get any response. Alice was staring at the balcony with a smile on her lips. He repeated a bit loudly. Alice looked at him, got up, walked up to him slowly, and hugged him. Puzzled, he looked at the balcony. It was then he noticed the sunflower. Beautiful and cheerful.
“So, your baby has arrived.” He gave a tight squeeze.
“Yes,” Alice whispered and took his hand, and kept it on her baby bump. The baby has started moving.
“This sunflower is so bright, like a little son looking up at this mother, yearning for her attention and being rewarded with the warm smile she gave them.” Alice started talking excitedly, “I think I’ll go blind staring at it for so long. Go get ready to go to work. I have a lot of work to do today. She pushed him away and started planning for the day.
At last, Alice settled on her best idea. She posted the picture of the joyful looking sunflower on the social media accounts with a tag line, “Spread sunshine. Spread happiness.” Her mind was full of positive thoughts.“Why not?” she assured herself. This magical flower will make that happen”. The baby in her tummy kicked again as though in agreement.
“Why not?” Varun’s mother her husband. “Why not we step down from our pedestal and welcome Alice to our family. I hate to admit despite that social progress and development, we are an utter caste-ist society.
Reddy lowered the newspaper and glared at her above the reading glass. This conversation had become a daily routine for the last few months.
“You know why I am opposed to this alliance? Because we have heard a lot of cases of love marriages in our society ending in divorce. I am sure that these marriages will not work!”
Janaki shook her head vigorously. “Marriages unite couples and their families. All of us have to work hard to make it happen”.
Reddy didn’t reply. Deep down in his heart, he knew that his wife was right and his son’s happiness was of primary importance. Varun was his only son. To change the orthodox society’s mentality would be a tough task. It really would never matter after marriage if the two are happy. His status in society would remain.
He suddenly arose and went outside to pace, his face down as he confronted his conflicting thoughts. He realized that the main reason for his opposition was a fear- psychosis, a superiority/inferiority complex, an identity crisis. On the positive side, like his wife, he believed that marriage was holy and predestined.
Then suddenly he looked up. It was then he saw the sunflower glowing in the sun in a corner of his home. He stopped in his tracks and shouted for his wife to come out. Janaki rushed out fearing something terrible must have happened to her husband. There she saw her husband gazing open-mouthed and pointing his finger at the sunflower. Janaki too stood there mesmerized by its beauty and gaze. She couldn’t recall who had planted it there. The sunflower had risen from dead compost. “You see it is trying to convey something to us? Can’t you see that the word ‘sunflower’is derived from the Sun God? Sunflowers are said to mean good luck and lasting happiness,” Janaki gushed.
There was a gentle breeze and the sunflower bowed as if in agreement.
“I am sure Varun and Alice have some good news for us.” Janaki raised her voice. “Let’s go inside and call them.”
At that time the telephone rang. It was Varun.
Alice lay in bed in the private hospital. The excruciating pain she had last night had subsided considerably. She looked tired and was holding on to Varun’s hand who was sitting next to her. She opened her eyes and queried, ”Are you wearing a new cologne?”
“No! I am not wearing any cologne. Why do you ask?”
“I smell a wonderful fragrance of flowers. Can’t you tell?”
Varun sniffed and shook his head.
Alice was smiling from ear to ear. “ I feel something good is going to happen now. Whenever I smell a fragrance, I experience bliss.”
Just then Varun’s parents walked in. Alice was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected visit. Janaki was holding a surprise behind her back. She presented a sunflower in a tall, new vase.
“Can you believe it?” she was talking excitedly. “Out of the blue, I saw this in our garden yesterday. Isn’t it amazing? I’m supposed to give this flower to someone we love. I would like you to have this.”
“Thank you very much,” Alice said with tears in her eyes.”The baby is arriving anytime now.”
“We know,” Janaki smiled. “Varun called us yesterday morning and broke the wonderful news. So?” she intoned. “What is it going to be?”
“I have no idea” Alice looked her in the eye. “We are going to call the baby, Sunny”