Nothing, neither the receipt of purchase, nor the plastic carry bag, proving that the purse was bought in Macy's, State Street, Chicago, USA, could erase that moment of mortification from her memory, or that smirk off Mrs. Khanna's face. Some things simply cannot be undone.
Mrs. Mehta could recall precisely when the simple parties she organized for the women of standing in the neighborhood—the "ladies' get-togethers" they were called—turned into mean-streaked contests over the possession of imported goods. True, there always had existed a competing spirit while comparing saris (Calcutta silk versus south Indian silk), jewelry (the relative purity and weight of gold necklaces and precious stones) or other indigenous knickknacks, but it was all done in a healthy, sporting way.
Mrs. Khanna, however, the day she brought over watches and perfumes her husband had procured from duty-free Dubai shops, changed the rules of the game forever with the subtlety of a bulldozer. This prompted Mrs. Kulkarni to turn up with calculators and digital diaries in the next meeting after her husband returned from a trip of Singapore. Not able to see her crown usurped for long, Mrs. Khanna's answer was a Japanese electronic synthesizer two parties later.
From the sidelines, Mrs. Mehta watched in dismay as her easygoing get-togethers turned into elaborate games of one-upwomanship. Until her son came home from the US during his semester break with that purse for her. This was the chance to upstage Mrs. Khanna, whose stock was continually on a high, since Mr. Khanna's job entailed frequent travel abroad. Her latest triumph had been a camcorder and a laptop, neither of which any of the assembled ladies (including Mrs. Khanna herself) knew how to operate. The consensus in the air was the items were getting too gadgety, too manly for them to appreciate. Chiffon and silk saris they could compare; Sony and Toshiba laptops they could not.
Hence the significance of the purse, marking the renaissance of the ladies' item. Moreover, saying "it's from America" carried greater weightage over saying Japan or Singapore or Dubai. America was the international place; America was what people really meant when they said "foreign returned" or a "trip abroad."
And the purse was such a beautiful piece: a lovely, rich shade between red and maroon, smoother than leather, white furry borders softening the edges, and with so many inner, concealed pockets and compartments that guaranteed gasps of admiration from every woman. Mrs. Mehta knew the moment was hers to seize.
The whole evening was indeed hers until Mrs. Khanna discovered that last unexplored inner pocket with a merciless whoop of exultation. The purse was passed around chair to chair, a titter breaking out on each pass, until, the circle completed, it returned to Mrs. Mehta. The taste of defeat, she realized, is not sour; it's more like chewing on a mouthful of sand, and feeling the grit between the teeth. Inside the innermost pocket was a little white label marked "Made in India."
The day after her son went back to the States, Mrs. Mehta gifted the purse to her niece, bowling her over with her generosity.
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