Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Nelsons of Nozzy

Installment 5
By Suzie Q.

1. Janeece

No doubt about it, Rajkumar Chatterjee was an interesting man. Raaaj Kumarrrrrr (rolled r) Chatterjeeeeeee. He'd told her to call him Raj. Roger that, Raj. Hee hee hee. Rajah Raj.
He'd started working in the Wales Bank on Main Street six months ago, and already she felt like she'd known him for ages. He manned the other non-drive-through teller booth, five feet away from Janeece in hers. Except for lunch hours and first thing in the morning (why did people over 60 all want to bank at dawn, anyway?), their untaxing job gave them plenty of time to chat. She'd become accustomed to his accent after just a couple of days, and now everyone else in town sounded like big dumb hicks in comparison. Lamarr in particular.
Poor Raj. If there was ever a fish out of water, Raj would be it. A dark-skinned Indian man in all-white Nozzy; a well-educated man where book-learnin' was carefully concealed unless it had to do with the Church. A skinny vegetarian in a town populated by hefty cattle ranchers. Delicate, emotionally transparent, considerate, polite. An alien being, but for her, a breath of fresh air.
Apparently his life was kind of a mess, which was understandable under these circumstances. He told her about it five minutes at a time, between customers, over the months. Three years ago, when he was working as an Associate Professor of Finance at a medium-sized Calcutta university (he'd told her the name a couple of times, but she couldn't quite get the knack of how to pronounce it), his family had been visited by two Mormon missionaries. Two girl missionaries. Sister KayDee Rasmussen and Sister Bryttnee Bolton had knocked at their gate, and because they were well-dressed and American and white--"the gori-est goris of all time!" Rajkumar chuckled--the gatekeeper and then Raj's parents, Akash and Amrita, had let them in. Devout Hindus, they had no interest in anything the girls might have to say about their peculiar Christian-ish religion; they did, however, have all the interest in the world in finding their son a wife--and they'd heard no one was more eager to marry than Mormon girls. It was high time: Raj had his Ph.D., he had earned tenure and stability at his job, and he was about to turn thirty. The situation was about to become dire unless they acted quickly.

So the older couple invited the two girls in, and offered them chai at regular intervals, and met the girls' determined refusals with good grace. ("Is that the kind of tea with caffeine in it?" "I suppose it is, yes.") Raj's parents visited with them from early afternoon--a significant sacrifice, as they had to skip the siesta virtually required by the muggy Calcutta climate--until evening. The girls were pressed to stay for dinner, and they happily accepted. By the time gulab jamun was brought out for dessert, long after dark, one thing was clear to everyone at the table: KayDee Rasmussen was completely smitten with Rajkumar. Even Raj couldn't help noticing Akash and Amrita grinning at each other across the table, winking every time KayDee smiled or giggled at Raj, which was pretty much constantly.
After dinner ended, near midnight, the Chatterjees sent the girls and their bicycles home in a tuk-tuk they insisted on paying for. Raj knew what was coming, and sure enough: as soon as KayDee and the other one putted out of sight, Akash and Amrita began enumerating KayDee's allegedly excellent qualities, all the ways she would make him a wonderful wife. It was as if the whole visit had been a normal arranged-marriage interview, though it had begun by chance.
A very strange courtship then followed. Although Mormon missionaries of either sex are not supposed to date, nor focus on things other than proselytizing, Raj's parents and KayDee conspired to throw them together often. The Chatterjee family had a particular attachment to Ganesha, god of new beginnings, removal of obstacles, and scholars; they had a human-sized idol in their prayer room, which they carefully steered KayDee away from when she visited. They frequently exclaimed his name aloud ("Arre, Ganpati Bappu Morya!").  Nevertheless, they feigned interest in Mormonism, and begged Raj to do the same, in order to justify to KayDee's supervisors the copious time she was spending at the Chatterjee's spacious house. Raj felt basically the same about both marriage and (outward) conversion to the Mormon church: fine, kuch bhi (whatever), as long as it makes maata-pita happy. None of the Chatterjees felt they were betraying any religious principles: they were well accustomed to accepting God in myriad different aspects and incarnations, so what did it matter to add one more? Raj liked KayDee, though obviously not as intensely as she liked him. She would do, and maybe this would help him find better-paid, more prestigious work at an American university. For her part, she only ever wanted to live in America; permanently settling "in this crazy country" appealed to her not one bit.
Visits were all whole-family visits. Like any respectable Indian boy, Raj did not seek to spend time alone with KayDee, lest people think God-knows-what-all would be happening. He listened politely, silently, to the four official missionary lessons. He smiled when smiled to, laughed when she laughed; his face ached from it every evening. When it came time for her to ask him if he would be baptized, he said he would. The next evening, over the mildest vegetable curry imaginable (adjusted for KayDee's American palate), Akash and Amrita asked her to marry their son. She shouted yes and laughed and clapped her hands and cried. Raj nodded politely.
And so when KayDee's mission was finished, after another six months--most of which, to her profound unhappiness, was spent in other Indian cities, away from Raj--she returned home to Logan, Utah in the American West. At the end of his semester, Raj resigned from his university and moved there too. He stayed with Indian friends, faculty at Utah State University, for a few weeks until the wedding in the Logan Temple.
There wasn't a whole lot more of this story that Raj was willing to tell. All he would say about his temple wedding ceremony was that it was "most peculiar and rather embarrassing." Janeece figured she knew what he was talking about, that whole undressing and anointing thing. That had embarrassed her pretty well too, back then. Amrita and Akash never quite got over not being invited inside, nor KayDee's declining to walk around the sacred fire in a sacred Hindu ceremony. They stayed in Calcutta, fuming to themselves.
After the wedding, the marriage was a fast, uninterrupted ride downhill. Raj discovered that American university hiring didn't work the same way as back home: it followed an unbelievably slow, complicated process, and it felt stacked against foreigners. During the two interviews he did have in the area, the silly people kept talking about how much they loved Gandhi and samosas, barely inquiring about his qualifications and experience. He wondered if he was supposed to enthuse about burgers and Bush. Both schools sent form letters of rejection three months later. He had taken the teller job in Nozzy--despite his vast overqualification for the job--out of pure urgent necessity, shocked at how expensive even food and basic housing was here.

KayDee and Raj didn't do much better as a couple. Knowing so little about Mormon culture, he didn't see coming what nearly anyone else would: now that she was "finally" married, all she wanted to do was produce children, lots of them. In fact, he learned to his dismay--if it had been in the lessons, he'd missed it, while he smiled and nodded absently--that Mormons believed "the more children, the better." Each soul needed an earthly body to achieve salvation. The more souls you could provide earthly bodies for through procreation, the more blessed you'd be, the more good you'd do for the universe. Those souls had to get here somehow. Sheer, irresponsible, unsustainable madness, he thought. And but so, KayDee and Raj quickly found themselves at an impasse. "Let me get reestablished in my profession first," he insisted. "God will provide," she insisted. They talked of little else. They enjoyed little together. Within a year, they chose and quickly got a divorce.
So now here he was, living alone in a studio apartment in Nozzy, working as a bank teller, wondering how it all went so badly so quickly. Every day, multiple times, he thanked Janeece for listening so kindly to his "prattle" (a word she loved to hear him say in his accent--she loved hearing both t's), for being a "good friend whilst I consider my next move" ("whilst"! how adorable!).
Such a very interesting man. Not like Lamarr at all. Not like anyone else she'd ever met.
Speaking of which: was Rajkumar Chatterjee a Lamanite? Janeece had always been taught that God had cursed the bad people in the Book of Mormon with dark skin (Lamanites), so you could tell them from the good ones (Nephites), but now she was wondering what category people from India fit into. Raj had explained that in India people took every shade from darkest dark to whitest white--so what were they overall? What was Raj specifically? He had pretty dark skin, but he didn't seem bad. Something didn't make sense. Either God was choosing individuals' color--would He do that? what about genetics?--or, well, the whole Nephite/Lamanite classification didn't quite add up. And then what about like Chinese people? What about albinos? Surely they weren't especially good? It was all such a mystery.
Anyway, Raj had become a thoroughly indispensable ray of sunshine for Janeece. Sophisticated, smart, sensitive, kind to her without fail. She could hardly wait until the next day, when she could chat with him again. She'd written down a couple of jokes she thought he might like; she wanted to see how big they'd make him smile.