By Punam Mohandas
Fallen Angels is a labour of blood and tears, written well into the night after the world was asleep. It was published during the Delhi Book Fair of July 1996.
Later, many people came up to me and confessed to identifying with some of the stories. Apparently, reading what someone else has written helped them to cope with their own private angst much better; it is a comfort of sorts to know one is not alone in what seems an enduring hell.
I hope Fallen Angels continues to bring solace to many readers.
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work and is the owner of all copyrights. Unauthorised copying, reproduction or distribution of this book -either in parts or as a whole – without prior permission of the author is strictly prohibited. All images used are courtesy of upsplash.com and are copyright free.
She lay down with trepidation on the narrow bed, a rubber sheet under her hips.
“Open your legs,” the woman said curtly.
She felt shame flood through her. She had never bared herself like this before another human being. After all…she was only sixteen.
The woman looked up and nodded to someone behind the girl. “Give her the injection now.”
“What injection? Why?” The girl’s voice trailed off as she realised no one was listening. Twisting her head, she saw a man advancing toward her, hypodermic in hand.
“Is he going to be here while…?” She sat bolt upright. “Oh no!”
“Lie down,” snapped the woman. “There won’t be anyone here except you and me.”
Lying back obediently, the girl pondered on the woman’s attitude. One of the best-known names of the Jhansi Medical College, they, or rather, he, had chosen her because of her gender. But there was no softness in her, and the girl gradually understood what a terrible mistake they had made. Never mind, she consoled herself. It won’t be long now.
Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by something pushed deep inside her. She gasped once, and then the breath was knocked out of her as she felt her insides being ripped apart.
“Stop it,” she screamed, trying to hold the woman’s hand. “What are you doing, oh God, stop!” They wrestled for a moment, then the woman wrenched her arm out of the girl’s grasp.
“Lie still,” she hissed. “I can’t stop now, do you want half a baby left inside you?”
Cold steel ripped up implacably through her girlish belly and up into her womb. She screamed, a long, keening sound, a tortured animal.
The woman raised her head angrily. God, why wouldn’t the kid shut up?
“Be quiet, I said, be quiet,” she said harshly. “Making such a noise; what is there to scream about? So many others have gone through this before you and I’ve never had any trouble. Be quiet or I won’t finish the job.”
The girl lay still, afraid of the threat of a deformed baby. Her face was deathly pale, animal whimpers passed through her lips. She tried stuffing a knuckle in her mouth to stem them. My God, how much longer would this agony last. Her insides felt raw, burning, and still the woman carried on scraping, scraping. Her mind wandered. She felt blind, helpless hate for her husband. Abhorrence at the deed, revulsion at herself for killing a baby, her baby, tearing out part of her body as if it didn’t matter. They had had this argument before, so many times before.
“It’s not a baby yet, stupid!” he’d yelled. “It can’t see, it can’t breathe, it doesn’t have anything.”
“Yes, it does,” she pleaded. It becomes a living thing soon after, you know. I learnt about it.”
“Huh, listen to the 10th std pass biology expert,” he sneered contemptuously. “God alone knows what crap those nuns have filled into your mind.”
Oh, what would they think of her if they ever found out. Her poor baby, doomed to die before it bloomed, condemned by its own father. Theirs was supposed to have been a love marriage, and she had dreamt of his babies and his home, brought up on a diet of Hindi movies and notions of a silly mother.
She was close to fainting now; her mind had detached itself from the pain and was drifting, drifting. Turned sixteen less than two months ago, just out of school, she had transcended suddenly from girlhood to womanhood in these brutal, pain-filled moments. Or had it been earlier, when he had first told her to abort their child, and the fleeting thought that he was making a tasteless joke had quickly faded away.
She was dimly aware of events in the room. Those pushing, insistent hands moved mercifully away from between her legs. She felt a warm trickle on her thigh; was it blood, water, the woman’s perspiration…she didn’t care anymore. She closed her eyes…tired…she was so tired.
“Get up, I said, get up,” the voice was insistent. Finding no response, the woman called out through the open, curtained doorway: “You can come in now.”
The girl’s husband entered the room.
Balding, yet trim, he fiddled awkwardly with hi wife’s salwar, seeing she was incapable of anything, and fearing the doctor’s impatience. Getting her into some semblance of order, he helped her up. She was immediately dizzy, and he put an arm around her. “Thank you,” he said to the doctor, as they walked out.
Dimly, the girl’s pain-fuddled brain registered the social nicety. She laughed cynically within herself. Thank you. For what, she silently screamed. For killing your baby, thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Can you manage?” asked that self-centred boor.
She mumbled something, he couldn’t hear what, but the gesture of her hand was suddenly, for a brief moment, clear enough. ‘Keep away,’ it said.
She put a hand out to grasp the railing, missed, and immediately tumbled down the steps. He ran to her, genuinely alarmed now.
“Wait here, I’ll bring the car,” he gabbled.
Having brought the car, he tried to revive her. “Come on, get into the car, then you can sleep,” he kept repeating. The silly man didn’t think to just lift her. Maybe, not so silly – it would have been conspicious as people were walking around the campus now, even though it was still early morning. He bundled her into the car somehow, pushing her legs in as though she were already a corpse. What a day he had chosen; her mother was to arrive that morning for a brief visit.
Once home, he got her into their double bed and shook her insistently awake only to say. “I’m going to the station now to pick your mother.” Struck by her blank eyes, he hovered lamely. “Can I get you anything, water, something to eat? I was so worried,” he confided. “I was chewing gum like mad all the time, waiting for it to be over. God, how I wished for a cigarette.”
Her gaze went through him and passed slowly over the room. Uncomfortable, he left.
She felt emptiness settle like a dead weight over her. She was wide awake now, the sedative powerless to combat the horror and yet, her body felt lifeless. Her eyes moved around the room; funny, despite an air conditioner, the room was dreary, she had not managed to leave any impression in the six months she’d been here. Her eyes moved to the dressing table, an innocuous piece of furniture and yet, the reason he’d first hit her. Stupid, stupid; she felt so tired…she closed her eyes, but images moved behind them, a fascinating kaleidoscope of the agony she had just undergone, coupled with the brutalities of the past months and her own rose-coloured ideals of what could have been.
She could pinpoint the exact moment it had happened, as though it were yesterday. After a long time, he had gone for an early morning walk, while she wanted to sleep on. When he returned, he found her still asleep; she had kicked off the covers since it was so hot, and her nightie had ridden up above her hips. He looked at her, warm, flushed, tousled hair, firm breasts clearly outlined and has immediately felt himself jutting out. He knelt to kiss her; half asleep, she opened her eyes and raised her arms to him lovingly, trustingly, invitingly. His throat constricted – God, she was so seductive in her innocence, all woman: his woman. His pants were suddenly too tight; he unbuckled them in a swift movement. He lay beside her, feeling himself to be bigger than he had ever been. Their lovemaking that day was different…urgent, yet unhurried…he felt something strange taking place…a sharp intensity that brought them closer in spirit as he stared deep into her eyes and saw the same dawning awareness there. And then spurted deep within her. Something beautiful and infinitely precious was born that day, something so tender, and now he wanted to destroy it all, deny the communion between their souls as though it had never been.
Suddenly, her mother was in the room. What’s happened, how, when, why, the usual inanities, coupled with the absurd declaration – “You’ve lost weight.” At this, she began to smile, she really couldn’t help it, while he watched with trepidation, afraid she was losing her mind. Funny, he’d thought women just walked in, had these things done and walked out again. Like getting your hair done. He hated condoms, he hated anything interfering with the feel of his male hardness against moist, womanly warmth. Was she such a weak creature, then? She certainly didn’t look it when he’d married her.
She couldn’t tell her mother, oh no; she had never been able to share anything truly private with her. And then, after all, it was because of her pig-headed, perverse attitude that she was in this mess at all, that she had taken the extreme, rebellious step of marrying this man. I will never do this to my daughter, she promised herself, and then the reality of what she has just done hit her again.
Her mind wandered. She knew she was attractive; she’d had boys panting for attention ever since sh could remember. She was told she had a good figure; personally, she thought her breasts were too big, but apparently men liked them that way. Was it true then, what they all said – that he’d married her for her face and body? He’d told her he loved her with his life, she was his whole world – the first time anyone ever said such things to her.
Where was all that love and tenderness now? Oh, she’d tried so hard to make him change his mind, and finally, she’d refused to budge. “No!” she’d said. “Is that your last word?” he’d said. And then had followed the torture; beating her, keeping her locked in the bedroom while he went to work. Once, she’d managed to escape and go for a walk, with no money, no clear idea where she was headed. He’d followed her in a panic at what she would tell people, brought the car to a screeching halt by the roadside, flung open the passenger door with one hand and pulled her inside. Then had followed the worst beating she could remember. When she lay there, broken, crying, he’d changed his ploy; insidiously started kissing her tears away, begging her not to make him hurt her anymore and to have the abortion. God, what sort of a man was he? Even though the doctor had clearly warned him she may not conceive again since this was her first baby, he’d gone ahead and signed the consent form as she looked at him dully, disbelievingly.
She began hemorrhaging badly four days later. Great clumps of blood fell out of her. Hysterical, she tortured herself in the bathroom, peering at the pot: ‘This could be part of its arm, gosh, that’s really big, maybe it’s the liver.’
“Let’s go to the doctor,” he pleaded.
“She is not a doctor, she is a butcher!” she screamed. “And you – the only thing you’re worried about is it won’t look good on your report if I were to die in this condition. Don’t worry – I’m grown up now,” she said sarcastically, feeling drained out.
I survived. Basically, I am a fighter. But I have never forgiven nor forgotten. Wherever you are, Dr Rama Mitra, I hope you rot in hell for what you did to another woman, nay, merely a girl, old enough to be your daughter. Even though I am told women are now administered an anaesthetic for the procedure, I am against abortion – I do not believe women in India will truly have a ‘right to choose’ for at least another hundred years to come.
Hold Me While I Weep
“Will you marry me, my darling?” he whispered huskily and “Yes, oh yes,” she breathed rapturously, eyes shining, face aglow and the die was cast.
He was thirty-four and she was fourteen, but what did any of that matter. They were madly in love, and everything felt so right. You might suppose the man to have had more maturity and he did try, truly he did, but it was a losing battle with common sense, with practicality. He had never before, in all his years, met someone with such a quaint mix of maturity and yet a childlike joy, a wonder, in all that life had to offer, that appealed to the child within him. For too long he had shouldered his burdens by himself. And then she appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and instantly grasped the hunger within his soul.
Stolen moments…stolen kisses…walking companionably down Calcutta’s busy bylanes. Strolling hand in hand through New Market, watching with undisguised pleasure how the famous Kathi rolls at Nizam’s crackled and sizzled into life. Calcutta in the late seventies was indulgent toward young lovers; there was magic in the air as they discovered each other, in the cool gardens of the Victoria Memorial, in near empty theatres offering insipid fare where they were often one among three or four couples only! She was an incorrigible romantic; at the age where girls the world over are brought up on a diet of Mills and Boons paperbacks, even if they have to be smuggled into the convent! It was nothing short of a miracle – to have a dark, handsome stranger propose to you on the banks of a river, swear undying love, swear you were the sun and the moon and the stars besides. How could anyone not melt? And she, of course, was but fourteen.
They had not planned on getting married so soon, indeed, had not even thought that far, secure in the promises they had made to each other. He intended to speak to her mother, do things right. The girl tried frantically to dissuade him from his intention, asked him to wait awhile. “It will be all right,” he assured her, basking in the warm afterglow. He told the mother and, from then on, things took an ugly turn. She was sent back to the convent, with stern admonishments. Unknown to her, the nuns had been warned with a sordid account of the whole, and it became shameful as some eyed her up and down, while others would corner her and eagerly press for details. Her friends were curious; she avoided them. Not only were his letters censored, he was warned of dire consequences if he continued writing to her. In desperation, he once sent her a box of chocolates purportedly from an “uncle” after first removing the chocolates, taping a letter underneath and then replacing the contents. She was fourteen. These cloak-and-dagger games appealed to her childish, as yet unformed, mind. However, such tension did little for her peace of mind, and she barely scraped through the Board exams.
Came home, to find the family feeling smug that they had successfully nipped the affair in the bud. She speedily shook them out of their complacency by informing them she was still of the same mind about him. They were shocked, and thereafter began to physically ridicule and ill-treat hr. She was pinched severely, beaten, had her hair pulled whenever they so felt like; hounded loudly in front of friends and visitors. Even the servants, most of whom had known her as a child, watched in silent sympathy. A childhood friend, son of a leading hotelier, came by morning and evening in unspeakable fury, to drag her away from this harsh treatment for a few hours reprieve. The family gave in with ill grace, had to, for fear of offending his parents.
“Marry me,” he muttered. He loved her, always had, and had meant to ask her anyway, later, but things were moving much too fast for any of them to control.
She looked at him sadly. “I don’t want to marry anyone now, there’s so much I have to do. But if I have to, then it has to be him – I love him, don’t you understand?”
“He must have forgotten you by now, a man like that,” sneered the family, and anyway proceeded to frighten her by the threat of a lawsuit against him, for dallying with a minor.
“Do you think he’s had sex with her yet?” they asked each other casually, but loudly, in her hearing.
She fled to her room in anger and shame and wrote him a letter with shaking hands.
She befriended the postman and lay in wait for him every day. He, in turn, took pity on the white, pinched face of the fatherless child, and let her quickly sort through the letters before he delivered them to the house.
The last straw came when they decided to send her abroad for higher studies, instead of the local college as had been planned all along, in an effort to break her spirit. And so, you see, the lovers were pushed into taking the irrevocable step. She did not run away, far from it; she informed the family quite composedly that she was going to marry him, but they laughed it off disbelievingly. And voila! A second class rail ticket did the needful.
Alas, why are there so many shades to love? Why is it different before, and why does everything change once there is a label on a relationship? Now that they were married, he expected her look after the house, cook, sew his buttons, hire and fire servants. Why did he keep forgetting she was only fifteen years old?
Her mother started visiting, but it only made matters worse. While she had wholeheartedly approved of the man when he was her peer, now that he was her daughter’s husband, she felt personally betrayed somehow. The loud fights, the sleeping pills episode, attracted the neighbours’ attention. “Cradle snatcher” was a frequent taunt around the house. The tension began to build up in their lives.
Her man changed suddenly, overnight as it were. Even today, years later, she does not understand how it could have happened. From a gentle, caring man, he became vicious, sadistic. Small things brought forth ridicule; while earlier he would be flattered at being consulted on the colour of a saree or the way she re-arranged the sitting room, now he complained it was her lack of education that made her so unsure. He would pass meaningful, loaded comments about working ladies – this one is a lawyer, that one is a doctor.
She could sing passably well, indeed, was always in demand at school. After marriage, she sang a couple of times in a gathering of friends. Once, they asked her to sing at a small function at which his senior colleagues would be present. She told him in a burst of nervous excitement, and he almost fell over laughing. “You don’t have any degrees or anything, you’re not even trained in music – how can you open your mouth in front of all those people?” There he went, making her feel inadequate yet again. The organisers pestered her; a whim of pure devilry made her say, “ask my husband,” and was rewarded with a murderous, speaking glance from him.
Yes, casually, almost conversationally, the slightest mistake evoked a beating. The first time it happened, she was so stunned by the abruptness of it that she readily forgave him, especially when he cried and knelt at her feet begging for forgiveness. But it never stopped, and he condoned himself on the grounds that: “You are always provoking me.” To this day, she has never understood what form this ‘provocation’ took and how she could have possibly prevented it.
Once, he kneed her in the stomach when she was six months pregnant. She was shaking with fright as she went to the doctor the next day, who was puzzled because she wasn’t due in for a check-up. He did it anyway on her insistence, while she invented some cock-and-bull story about a pregnant maid servant whose husband had kicked her and the maid was now afraid for the well-being of the baby.
“Bring your servant in,” said the doctor kindly. “I’ll have to do a check-up.”
“She can’t come here, her husband won’t let her,” she babbled, averting her eyes and thinking frantically. “Please doctor, just tell me if, in this condition, the baby will be all right,” she burst out desperately.
The doctor looked at the unshed tears, understood the situation, and sighed. “The baby is all right, now go home and rest,” he said gently.
After the baby was born, it became worse, just when she was hoping the child would, like a fairy godmother, make everything all right. He was a beautiful baby, big and bouncy, fair and plump, with laughing eyes and a ready gurgle, but the sight which brought forth exclamations of delight from everybody else left her husband unmoved. He now had a new lever to punish her with. For a small mistake, he would pull the baby away at its feedtime and hold it carelessly with one arm as he locked the bedroom door on her with the other. She could hear the baby wailing, maddened by hunger as well as the tight grip, and the hot, scalding tears mingled with the milk from her full breasts that stained her dress, as she beat hopelessly on the door.
Or the time when, on Holi, he beat her so mercilessly she had a welt on her back for days. All because she insisted she wanted to use the bathroom first, to give the child a bath!
He had grown paranoid about her, hated to see her talking to other men, even, his colleagues. Once, at a party, she danced with someone else and returned to find him trembling with anger. It was not even a ball dance; there was a tacit agreement between them that this was something each reserved for the other. She thrilled at this show of possessiveness, until it was borne upon her that nothing had changed, as he dragged her into the garden once they got home, sat on her chest so she couldn’t move, and systematically beat her, careful not to bruise her face lest the marks show to the world.
And then, she discovered she was pregnant again. This child was already petrified of his father; she could not risk bringing another one into a loveless home, and the very thought of abortion was anathema.
“I am pregnant,” she told him calmly. “And your animal behaviour has got to stop, else I will leave this house with my children. Don’t think I am completely helpless – I will scrub dishes, floors, even, sell myself. No education is needed for that! But I will make a life for myself and my children away from you. Don’t ever raise your hand on me again, or I might have to do the same.”
He rushed at her then, and she surprised him by hitting and clawing back. Her defiance angered him – definitely, she was worse off in the fight, since he was physically stronger. But it drove home a point to him – that she was not willing to have him wipe the floors with her anymore.
And so, every time she gave back as good as she got, though the retribution was far worse. In some curious way, it awoke a grudging respect in him, that she was daring to fight back.
Of course it hurt; it would be foolish to suppose otherwise, and the emotional scars went deeper than any physical pain…
Friends used to disgruntedly call them the “perpetual honeymoon couple.” There was a time they were always together; doing things together, going places together. And there was always so much to talk about…everything, from the bai’s peculiarities to discussing his students’ performances. A touch on the hand, a private look, and it was enough to see them through the evening. Their friends grumbled good-naturedly – don’t you get enough of each other in your own home? What do you find to talk about anyway?
Then there were the snotty lot, who remarked caustically, even enviously, that of course, what it boiled down to really was a matter of pure, simple sex; after all, what other interest could bind those two?
Ah, but you see, it wasn’t like that. The sex between them was good and seemed to get better as they shed all inhibitions but no, it wasn’t the sex. Then what was it? How do you analyse a coming together of two people? Was it the fact that he, with all his conservative, stifling southern shackles, could be carefree with her who, by very nature of her age, was blithe and free? Was it that after years of being constantly goaded by his father to strive and attain heights of brilliance, he could be himself and still be loved, by someone who thought him brilliant because he could change a light bulb? How do you pin down this indefinable emotion called love that defies all logic, all rules, that made her stay on though each moment later contributed to a hellish existence.
Yes, what of her. Was she looking for a father figure and did she find it in the security and love he had to offer? Perhaps, but I think it went beyond that. You could thankfully categorize it in the classic Eliza-Professor Higgins mould but ah, that is again the social animal talking, insecure without labels, compartments. If you let your imagination run free without any curbs, it might help you to understand the strange, emotional dependence these two shared.
She, who shied away from physical contact, squirmed in awkward embarrassment at social hugging and air-kisses and therefore, unwittingly created a snobbish impression, she, who through a repressed childhood learnt to repress herself, she welcomed his touch. Even if she were sick, she would rather he cared for her than anyone else. And in her eager receptiveness of him, he found an outlet for his own repressions. For the first time, whether through his experiences or that of his peers, he found it was possible to have a relationship on your own terms; where you could weep if you were hurt and she would not think less of you as a man, where you could lick your wounds and no one would say – stand up and be a man.
But then why – why did he change, why did he behave as he did, why did he stop caring if he hurt her, why was her warmth, her tenderness, suddenly not enough; why did he have to ruin everything with his own hands, so many ‘why’s’…
The word ‘why’ is a paradox, an anachronism; it can be anguished or accusing, it can ask a question or be uttered without expecting a reply.
Why? She asked him, years later.
And he replied that he did not completely understand himself. Perhaps it was a conditioning since childhood, that it was all right to show women once in a way who was the master. Perhaps it was his secret fear that her youth would drive her away to like-minded people her own age. Ironically, in trying to hold her fast, he was the one who drove her away emotionally.
Why? Her friends demand.
“What else could I do?” she says, flatly, tonelessly. “What does anybody do, who does not have a supportive family and therefore is too proud to go back and hear a triumphant ‘we told you so.’ What does anybody do, who has no qualifications, no expertise, no means of earning a livelihood, and worse, has it dinned constantly into her that she a nothing, a virtual parasite. It is easy to walk away, but infinitely harder to stay. I think, rather, that I am a fighter…I stayed, I conquered the demons, and emerged victorious.
“Today, my children are not homeless and fatherless; they love and respect their father, they know nothing of the turbulent times, and that is how it should be. As for me,” she smiles sadly. “I have paid a heavy price; the price of all my dreams, my aspirations. Through all my troubles, one line of Tagore’s would haunt me: ‘Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.’ I made up my mind – there would be no more, fruitless, hopeless dreams. What I dreamt, I was going to make happen, or crush the dream myself; no more pain of having someone else do it. Today, I am successful in my own right, I earn my own money, good money. No, of course I don’t keep a separate bank account – that would nullify all the teams I have invested in this relationship.”
And Then There Were None
She could never again smell the aroma of sooji roasting in pure ghee to be transformed into delicious halwa, without remembering that other morning many years ago, when the same smell wafted through her childhood home, and the pundits sat chanting mantras in front of the havan (sacred fire) to pray for her father’s recently departed soul. No one remembered the child hiding behind the wooden screen, wide eyed. Her bua’s daughter found her huddled there, bewildered and, feeling sorry for the child, tried to coax her into eating some of the still warm halwa. “Didi,” she remembered calling her didi; a woman already married with a toddler of her own.
She was only eight years old.
She could never again smell the fragrance of Pears soap, without remembering that night many years ago. It was her grandmother’s favourite soap. She was staying with her tonight; that was something she could recall – always being shunted from home to home ever since her daddy fell sick. Tonight it was at Bari Mummy’s, and her favourite aunt Freddy was giving her her nightly bath. What fun they had, shrieking, splashing water on each other; she never had so much fun with her mother. Her youngest maasi was standing outside impatiently, wanting to join in, and surprisingly, grandma never said a word of rebuke at all. She was never very close to her grandmother – her mother saw to that – and consequently, was always uncomfortable around her.
She was only eight years old.
She was shaken awake from a deep sleep and stood uncomprehending as Freddy – strangely – fumbled with her clothes. She vividly remembers someone slipping a banian (vest) on her. Her aunts were tightlipped; no one spoke, but there was an air of urgency around the house. They got into a car and went to her house first to pick up some things. Her nanny, a devout Catholic lady, fell on her weeping: “Oh my poor child, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.” Her aunts pulled away the poor servant impatiently, and they were back in the car.
“What’s happening, Freddy, you must tell me,” she lisped, clutching her aunt’s pallu wildly.
“Hush, child, hush. You must be a very brave little girl now, for your aunty and your daddy, okay? We are going to see Daddy in the hospital.”
“But I don’t want to go now,” wailed the child. “It’s so dark and I’m so sleepy.”
How do you explain to an eight-year old that she has just lost the only person who loved her unconditionally?
Upon reaching the hospital, they all piled out of the car, and the child was momentarily forgotten. Her eldest maasi’s husband saw her standing all by herself and rushed to draw her away…but not before she had seem her father lying still, oh so still, the dialysis machine still placed over him, dwarfing the giant of a man he had once been, her mother hysterical, screaming at him to get up, her maasis huddled around trying to control her…and then she was taken outside.
She had always been in awe of this uncle; he was a good thirty years older to her aunt, so everyone pussyfooted around him, and now she glared at him with dislike. He was not a man given to demonstrations of affection, besides, he had no children of his own, and didn’t know what to say to this one.
“I want to go inside,” she said defiantly.
“No child, not now; go in later,” he said gently, but firmly.
“What’s happened to my daddy?” her face crumbled.
The man softened, put his arm around the child.
“Well, you know, there are lots of angels in Heaven, who look after little children, but God wanted you to have your own special angel, and He loved your daddy very much because your daddy was a good man, so God called him to Heaven. Now he will be an angel and look down on you from the sky and always take care of you.” Her tears were arrested; she gazed at the old man wonderingly. She would never have thought him capable of knowing something like that. He, the business tycoon, looked startled himself – this was to remain their secret forever.
Her father was a big man, and she was his world. Even when she learnt how to ride a tricycle, it has to be outside his office, where he could see her occasionally. Francis would go and hire one from the nearby corner shop for 25p an hour. Till she learnt to ride and daddy bought her her own. But she couldn’t ride in the house because mummy would get angry – she had so many expensive things in showcases all over the house.
Thursday was Daddy’s holiday, and she loved this day best. He would perch her on the ironing table while he ironed his shirts. Perch her on the dining table while he made lassi for both of them. He would let her go out and play in the first rains, splashing, gurgling. Her mother wouldn’t approve. But what did he know – after all, deep down, he was just a rugged son of the soil. His simplest pleasures came from being back home in the Punjab; plucking a gaajar or mooli straight off the field and eating it whilst the fragrance of the fresh soil was still on it. Not for him the designer shoes, the fancy clothes or the English cutlery.
Going for picnics was fun. Daddy would drive the black Cadillac and she would have the back seat to herself. This was one day she was allowed to eat whole bars of Cadbury’s chocolate – peeling off that lovely, purple-coloured wrapper with anticipation of the treat in store. Later, after a picnic lunch, she and Mummy would creep off to scribble their names on the trees, while Daddy dozed in the shade, and the monkeys scampered around searching for scraps to eat.
Going for after-dinner walks to buy some ice cream was fun. The kind of fun that only a child who is secure and loved can experience. Swinging along beside Daddy, her little paw firmly in his large hand. Stopping ever so often to say “hello” to some uncle; Poona in the sixties was warm and hospitable, and the whole city seemed to be a mass of uncles and aunties to her. They bought pista ice cream, always pista – well, she loved chocobar too, but pista was better. So much so that Daddy kept her pet name Pisti. Coming back one day, they met a beggar asking for alms. Daddy promptly put his hand in his pocket and dug out a 10paisa coin. “No Daddy,” she said, tugging urgently at his hand. “What will he do with that, give him a rupee.”
“Come to think of it, what will he do with a rupee?” he asked, half amused, half exasperated.
“Kyon, pau (bread) kha sakta hai, biscuit kha sakta hai,” she argued earnestly, ice cream dripping down her chin.
“You’ll make me a poor man, feeding these beggars,” he grumbled, but gave it all the same, feeling proud of his little girl, and went home and bragged to everyone about what she had made him do and how special his daughter was.
He was a man of convictions, a man of principles. Everyone said so. He dared to marry a Muslim girl in those days, because he loved her and wanted to do the honourable thing. Such was the power of his simplicity that he won over his family, and hers.
He hated being away from the child born after fourteen fruitless years. Sunday was kept aside for going to the races. He hated seeing that forlorn face clutching a foreign chocolate, in the arms of the nanny. Mummy would be in the car already, impatient. “Can’t we take her along?” he asked mildly, one Sunday.
“Of course not,” Mummy snapped back. “Children aren’t allowed at the races.”
“I’m not going too,” he said stubbornly. “You can go with your family, since it means so much to you.”
Mummy sighed, and gave in with ill grace. “Why did you bring her?” her maasi hissed later, out of her father’s hearing. Mummy rolled her eyes speakingly, everyone looked at her disapprovingly, and they all ignored her. For them, she was always in the way.
Back to the grandmother’s home. It started filling, spilling; all the relatives from the Punjab, everyone weeping, weeping. The day of the funeral there were so many people they occupied the neighbour’s lawns, the road in front of the house…gosh, she didn’t know her daddy had so many friends. All the newspapers wrote about him, she still remembers one described her as the, “charming young daughter.” She didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it was something nice, and she remembers feeling proud…she was, after all, only eight years old.
They asked her to come and see her father one last time. There was his mother sitting by him. Boji was old, always with a white odhni over her head. She had never seen her cry before, yet here she was, “hai mera putt,” trying to hug the child, but she evaded the embrace.
“Why have they put cotton in his nose, my daddy can’t breathe?” but no one heard. The neighbour lady was given charge of her. She liked Remy aunty, besides, her daughter had a good collection of dolls too. They sat on the bed, and Remy aunty told her the story of Red Riding Hood, as they tried to shut out the wailing crescendo outside.
It was night now, but she couldn’t sleep, what with all the crying going on. She crept into the hall. It was dark, a diya flickering eerily as everyone kept vigil. It frightened her, but there was no one to hold her. No one even noticed her, there in the shadows. She grew adept at hiding, emotions tightly under control.
She started going to school again, but from Bari Mummy’s house. Her own mother was always spaced out, dopey, on some sleeping pills – mandrax, they called it. The first time she went back home to see her, she was scared; her mother was lying so still. “Is she going to die too?” she asked her maasi tremblingly.
They tried, they did really, the aunts and the grandmother. Her grandmother once made some lovely, sticky coconut barfi, coloured it yellow, and sent it for the school tiffin. She came back home with a gay heart for the first time in many days, at the thought that someone cares. Today, when she reminds the old lady of that gesture of love, she can’t remember – after all, she’s almost ninety now. But the girl does.
Her mother had a rare, lucid moment, and asked about her daughter. She grew hysterical on hearing she was with the grandmother. To pacify her, the little girl was brought back home, even though she was in no condition to look after a child.
From then began a nightmare for the girl. Her mother was always drugged out, snappy, irritable, always wearing white like a badge. There was no room for laughter, for colour, for good food. The mother made jelly once, and mistakenly poured cream over it. The little girl hated cream ; she wondered how her mother forgot, and timidly mentioned it. The mother flew into a temper: “Eat it, you ungrateful child!” So she ate it – and was promptly sick in the bathroom. Ungrateful child…the label was to remain…
Always shy, she grew into a withdrawn, surly, awkward girl. It was difficult at school; everyone knew about her father. One girl – Aneesha Vaidya – from a rich, insensitive, bania family, asked her bluntly: “How does it feel, to lose you father?” The class was stunned into an embarrassed silence. “I mean,” persisted the girl. “It must be awful, no?”
She wanted to hit her, burst into tears, anything. She lifted her head higher and uttered simply, “Yes,” and walked away. Alone.
There was talk of her mother making a new life; going away someplace else, since Poona now held painful memories. The problem – what to do with the child? The aunts held a witch’s coven, found the answer in obvious relief: “Send her to boarding school!”
And so, at the grand old age of eleven, life took a bewildering turn for the hitherto sheltered, much-loved child. She was packed off to Simla, to a reputed convent school there. She was careful not to make the mistake of letting the girls there know she didn’t have a father – even at that tender age, she decided no more pity, ever. She pretended a distant relative in the Army was her father, that’s why he couldn’t come to visit her, that’s why, in fact, she was in a boarding school to begin with. It helped that her cousins wrote letters which she passed pass as “from my brothers.” So she not only acquired a father, but an extended family.
Her mother knew the lie her child was living daily – but chose not to know. She was busy finding “peace”; going out, meeting people, making new friends, learning how to like the occasional brandy or whiskey – purely social, you understand! The child meanwhile, endured taunts and jibes for the ankle-length socks when everyone else was wearing knee-length in that bitter cold, the badly-stitched uniform skirts, the poorly-knit sweater made by one of the nuns, the hand-me-down clothes from cousins and daughters of her mother’s friends. Never enough tuck to share around: “You’re not supposed to share; everyone is supposed to bring their own,” stated her mother firmly. Upon her pushing the matter, there was that stock phrase again: “Your father has not left behind a fortune, that I can keep on spending money! Even your school fees are being paid by your aunt!” The first time she heard that, she was shamed into silence. Why? They were not exactly starving. She went without so many things then; she was a good piano student, a quick learner, but now she wouldn’t ask if she could take lessons and no one asked if she would like to, even though when her father was alive, she had piano as well as Bharatnatyam dance lessons. The music teacher became fond of her and often cajoled her to come and learn after she had finished with her regular students, but she never did – accepting charity was not part of her make-up. No one came for Sports Day or Annual Day; she grew tired of waiting and watching year after year, for promises that were never kept nor meant to be. It was as though along with her father dying, she too had been forgotten, discarded. She was always cold in the winter, there were never enough blankets even; she asked for a hot water bottle like some of the other girls had and was grudgingly given a leaky one so that she woke up miserably in the middle of the night to cold, wet sheets , and wondered for the umpteenth time why her father had to die.
P.S. Years later, married and with children of her own, she waited anxiously for them to cross the dreaded eight-year old mark, and breathed with relief when her husband remained unscathed. This was to be her own private hell.
P.P.S. Years later, why did it come as no great surprise to learn that “loving” aunt Freddy had been the most vociferous advocate of the boarding school?
P.P.P.S. Years later, she bumped into the kindly neighbour, Remy aunty. Old herself, the good lady could not understand the girl’s quiet expression of gratitude. But…the girl could never again hear the story of Red Riding Hood without remembering the chants of the mantras and the wails of despair, of that July morning so long ago.
He was like a Greek god, tall, fair, handsome, with curly hair that he cropped short. Warm, hazel eyes. In addition, he was gentle and kind and always laughing. He had a love for life and life, it seemed, loved him in turn. He was irresistible; how could she not tumble hopelessly, completely, in love, the second she laid eyes on him.
We shall call him Raj. And her? Well, for want of a better name, we shall call her Sita, since that is how he thought of her. Lovely, and loving, and fiercely loyal.
They had common likes and dreams. Hot samosas with garam chai. Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi. Roaming around carefree with the rain pelting down on their heads. He was a wonderful singer, with a deep, magnetic voice; she could listen to him, enthralled, forever. ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ had just released; it was their favourite movie, with the pathos of unrequited passion running as a thread through their lives too. Many a time of a balmy Delhi evening, with the warm breeze caressing their faces, he would lie there with his head in her lap and hum the words as she ran her fingers through his curls. Those haunting words, with the heavy sadness underlying them; she dreaded the song and yet was drawn by it. He laughed gently as he nestled her head on his shoulder, and swore that he would never let anything part them, as he showered kisses on her face. And all they ever wanted was to live happily ever after, in a happy home, with lots of happy children, where the sons would look just like him and the daughters like her.
“Don’t ever leave me,” he begged suddenly one afternoon, hiding his face in her hair. “You are my whole life, I couldn’t bear it if you were to go away.”
She stroked his hair tenderly, touched at his vulnerability.
“I’ll never leave,” she promised fervently. “You are my world, my reason for being. I am incomplete without you.”
And they gazed into the other’s soul with a longing that thwarted lovers the world over have known.
For, like all love stories, theirs had ‘The End’ written across it clearly, before it could properly bloom into being. She was distantly related to Raj, just as most middle-class Punjabi families often tend to be, and had taken to visiting his home often in the last few years, especially as his mother looked upon her as the daughter she never had. She knew of the adoration the girl had for her son and perhaps – did she? – wish that things might have been different. However, she did not disapprove, not really, until it was borne upon her on his last visit that her son was deadly serious about the girl.
For, you see, he was married already. No, it was true that it was an arranged match, and true too that his wife and he were poles apart, indeed, she never got along with the rest of the family either. But who is to know these things when parents play God in deciding their children’s future. Besides, his wife never forgave him for making her pregnant before the first year of marriage was out.
Even though our lovers knew the sands of time were running out, they were afraid to tempt Fate by asking, what next? And so, they were content to go from day to day, grateful for any snatched, precious moments of togetherness. Once, Raj went to see her without letting anyone know. They spent the whole day together, but there was a bitter-sweet feel to it. He was her first, true love; she loved him with a purity that transcended mere physical beauty and this secrecy, this skulking, was distasteful. Yes, he was married, but he and his wife had been unhappy with each other long before she entered their lives and she did not feel she was taking anything away from anyone, since it had never been given in the first place. On a couple of rare occasions she asked Raj, hesitantly, “What will become of us?” and “I don’t know,” he had answered honestly. “Let’s wait till you finish your graduation,” and she was content to let her man decide her fate. Perhaps this is where she erred; where indeed, most women go wrong – to put all your trust in one human being, without thinking clearly for yourself. Man is but man after all – he is not infallible.
If only the future would prepare us in some way for the hard knocks it has in store for us. Came a letter from Raj’s mother to her own; the usual, newsy, chatty letter pertaining to various family members and then, the tailpiece: “Oh yes, you will be glad to know Veena is expecting again. We are so happy, and we are hoping for a boy this time, as it will complete the family beautifully.”
Her mother reached the end on a tone of glad surprise. Sita was white; she felt like vomiting and slipping to the ground all at the same time. “What rubbish!” She said – was that her? The voice of a stranger. “They must be joking; maybe they are hoping for something like this and are putting it into words.” Words, words, words; her mind was churning, finding loopholes, of course it wasn’t true, he couldn’t be sleeping with someone else, sharing those intimate moments, worse, giving her the ultimate honour as the mother of his child…he was supposed to love her, his Sita, wasn’t that what he always said?
“No, it’s quite true,” said her mother, sounding surprised at her reaction. “Are you all right?” she said, concerned. “See, here it is, read it for yourself.”
She snatched the letter and skimmed it through frantically. There it was, at the end, blue ink on blue inland form.
Veena was already three months pregnant. But that meant it was around the time she and Raj had consummated their union, after four years of waiting. He had always been patient, and she had been more than ready when the time came…
She had gone with her parents to their home at a nearby hill station, to escape the scorching summer heat. What with the heat here and the cool breeze there, she promptly caught a cold and was miserable for the first two or three days. Mid-way through their holiday, they received a message that an old relative was very sick and not expected to last long. Her parents had to go back, but it was decided Sita should remain in case her cold worsened; anyway, they were going to be back within three or four days.
She went to bed early with a hot water bottle and a whole lot of Vicks. Next morning when the bell pealed, she awoke disoriented and cursing. Whoever it was had a finger firmly on the button and she hurried downstairs crossly, hastily slipping on a dressing gown.
And there he was, eyes sparkling at her surprise. He had known her parents were away and he had come to be with her, spend some time alone by themselves. No, she was not naive – sooner or later, she knew what it would lead to. But they had waited so long, and it was hard to tear themselves away, hard to ignore the hunger and desire in his eyes, hard to turn away from the passionate kisses, the fervent promises.
And he took her that night, there on the terrace, under the wide open heavens and the twinkling stars, where the moon bathed them with her soft, white glow, and the trees formed a protective canopy around them. He walked toward her naked, strong and proud his maleness, all the while holding her gaze with his own. He stopped near her and wordlessly searched her eyes for doubts. They held his, shining, unwavering, and he gently slipped her gown off her shoulders. She was so beautiful, and it thrilled him to watch the warm blush suffuse her cheeks as she stood there shyly…and then she was in his arms, joined head to toe as his mouth searched insistently for hers.
And he had been tender, so unbelievably tender, at the sudden, sharp jab and the way her eyes darkened with pain. She had been unable to control the whimper, the involuntary tensing of her body. She didn’t know it was supposed to hurt; nice girls weren’t supposed to know these things, much less do what she was doing with a married man! And so…she had given him all that she had, all that was hers, but what for her had been a cementing had, for him, merely been a conquest.
She stopped going to his house completely. She did get various messages that he was asking about her, but she ignored them.
She told her parents tonelessly that she was ready for marriage, and to accept the first match they found. They were too happy at this volte face to wonder much at the change; for some time now, they had worried about her inexplicable stubbornness to get married.
And then suddenly, one fine morning about two months later, he was there. No one was at home; everybody had gone for some family function, and she hadn’t called the part-time maid today. Even now, her heart did a somersault at seeing him standing there, so virile, all male, and she had to check the desire to run into his arms…the arms he held out so invitingly and which she had never before taken a second to think over.
“What’s happened, darling?” he crossed the room swiftly to her side. He looked so genuinely crestfallen she wanted to believe, with all her heart, that it was not true. Oh, how she wanted to believe…wild thoughts crossed her mind, he would say, of course it was not true, or he would say the child was not his, anything, something. But he continued to stand there, seemingly bewildered. The words rose to her lips, but she checked the onslaught imperiously. What could she say, how could she say “Raj, how could you sleep with someone else, even though she may be your legal wife, when we had a commitment to each other? How could you share the intimacy that arises from the act of lovemaking, with our promises between us? How could you let someone else’s head rest on your shoulder, someone else’s hair fall across your chest in the sweet aftermath? How could she – Sita – ask this carefree, callous soul these questions? Surely she had too much pride for that! In retrospect, over the years, she was to torment herself with this question many a time: what if I had asked, what would he have said? She could not even begin to understand how he could have done what he did and still be standing in front of her blithely…her, for whom the world began and ended with him. Perhaps, like her namesake, she was too loyal, and her fidelity was wasted on the likes of him. Perhaps, after all, it was time to recognise her Greek god had but feet of clay.
And so she straightened her back and looked him in the eye and said, on a note of false gaiety: “It is good that you came by, now I can give you the good news in person.”
“What good news?” asked he warily.
“I’m getting married!” she tinkled and, at the look of utter shock on his face, her resolve began crumbling and all the doubts came surging back.
“What are you saying, oh God, you can’t mean this,” he said wildly. He came closer, clasped her in his arms, but she stood stiff and unyielding and he drew back. “How can you do this to us, what about our promises, our dreams?” he said, harshly.
She stood there deathly pale and murmured: “Am I the only one to have forgotten promises?”
“What are you trying to say?” he said, very still now.
She shook her head and said tiredly: “Leave it, Raj, it’s over. We shared something so beautiful and I will always remember that. But I don’t want to get hurt anymore, I am tired of just waiting for everything to become all right by magic. I am moving on; I have told my parents to accept the first suitable match, and negotiations are on with some people. They say you never forget your first love, and I don’t think I will ever be able to. I am not looking for what we had in another relationship, but I will be a good wife.”
He stormed, he wept, he pleaded, but she remained detached; a stranger looking in from the outside.
The morn had turned to dusk; twilight cast long shadows across the room as he knelt before her. Her throat was raspy; the unshed tears shimmered in her eyes and were reflected in his own. He reached up a hand unsteadily to wipe her cheek; of its own accord, her face turned into his palm. He lay his head in her lap as of those summer evenings so long ago and whispered brokenly over and over, “Don’t do this, don’t leave me.” By reflex, her hand reached out to touch those springy curls and she stayed it. Her heart felt heavy within her; funny, she had always mocked this before as a figure of speech, but now she knew well what it meant.
“I don’t understand,” her betrayer kept saying, lying till the very end. “You will not be happy with anyone else, you know you love me. Please don’t do this, give me a chance to work things out.” But her foolish, foolish pride, that prevented her from confronting him…surely she ought to have trusted him more than that? Another wild thought crossed her mind – what if their families had somehow come to know of their feelings, and had mounted this elaborate charade to separate them, knowing fully well pride would do the rest? Ahh – but what if he was guilty, what if this moment of infidelity had not even mattered to him, this betrayal of trust that he would not construe in quite the same light…and in the agony of indecision, at last, the sound of his footsteps faded away, and all that was left in the empty silence was the lingering fragrance of Brut, his favourite. Ever after, she was to alternately thrill and recoil from this fragrance. Ever after, a curly mop of hair would set her heart thumping wildly, till the glimpse of an unfamiliar profile quietened its crazy rhythm.
He entered their lives as suddenly as he was to leave it. He came by one evening, cocky and self assured, and asked to see Mrs—. The servant was flustered, and called her to answer his questions. “Mummy is not at home,” she said. “Fine, tell her I’ll come again tomorrow,” and away he went.
He came the next day, but this time her mother was at home. She received him with icy politeness, but nothing seemed to faze him.
Who was he? This is a question that remains unanswered till today. Of course, he claimed to be related through some branch of the family, but how he knew who they were and where they lived is something he explained to no one’s satisfaction. Yet, surprisingly, her mother started thawing as he spoke; he was quick to note that, and his grin broadened.
Slowly, his visits grew more frequent, and inexplicably, her mother grew to be extremely fond of the brash, young man. Not much later, she announced her decision that he would marry her daughter.
The whole family was aghast. “Have you gone mad?” they exclaimed, and tried to make see sense. “He doesn’t even have a steady job yet, we don’t know who he is, where he comes from.” But the mother was strangely adamant.
Without warning, the man posed the question to the girl one fine day. She was taken aback, it was so unexpected. “I’ll have to ask my mother,” she faltered. “Oh, that’s all right, she loves the idea,” he replied. “Well, in that case…”she trailed off doubtfully, wondering why her mother had not said anything to her.
Girl? A typing error, that. She was but a child!
She was shy, with a strong, rebellious streak that was to assert itself in later life. But for now, she was accustomed to being shunted to the side whenever she was in the way.
He had come to their city to complete his engineering degree. A short, somewhat stocky figure, the cockiness was a part of his make-up. He enjoyed life, enjoyed the good things it had to offer, but had a shallowness that played a dominant part. And…he was twenty-four to her nine summers!
His parents were bewildered at why he suddenly chose to spend his leave away from home. They came to meet her family, suspicious and oddly out of place; a typical, middle-class Punjabi couple, with a short, plump wife, a dour, balding husband, and brought with them their youngest son who was but seven months older to her.
The children sat together at the far end of the room, while the families got to know each other. The young boy’s feelings were all mixed up – he had come here expecting to meet his older brother’s to-be wife and instead had encountered a girl younger than him even, with too-big eyes and long plaits. Unthinkingly, he frowned – how could she agree to this? – and turned to look at her in a puzzled sort of way.
The child intercepted the glance and bit her lip; it was not the first time she had encountered such a look. It was a pity; she had been so pleasantly surprised to find him near her own age. At last she could have someone to relate to on her level. But it was not to be , and she sighed to herself. Her eyes grew larger, unknowing to her, turned beseeching, and eh acknowledged the look and felt ashamed in turn. She was just a child like him after all – what did she know of grown-ups and their ways? His brow cleared. “Do you collect stamps?” he asked casually. She looked crestfallen, shook her head. “I’ll help you start a collection,” he grandly offered. “But you must give me any duplicates you get,” he hastily added. Her eyes lit up; she smiled shyly, and they went into the other room to do the things children are meant to.
The talks were not going so well at the other end. His parents were incredulous, kept shaking their heads; he had not told them the intended bride was virtually in her cradle still. Her mother was pushy, insistent; “She’s my only child, she will have everything possible.” Nobody asked why she was so keen on getting rid of her precious daughter to someone miles older than her! Her voice droned, on, clearly, as they looked around the room, at the obviously smuggled goods by smart Sindhi traders – the Japanese cigarette lighter, the gondola that lit up with fairy lights when you flicked a switch, the huge, walkie-talkie doll with soft, brown hair and blue eyes, ostensibly for the little girl to play with…the visitors looked around and at each other as, in the silence, the two children in the other room looked at each other and caught their breath…and there was no contest really, greed won over humanity, and the parents were there for the asking.
All right, so now it was official! Except that it played havoc with a young girl’s psyche, while everyone else involved went blithely about their business, congratulating themselves on a deal well sealed. She felt awkward, out of place at school; nine is hardly the age you discuss boys, at least not in the India of the seventies. Her best friend – they had started school together on the same day at the grand age of three, slept over at each other’s houses on weekend and had absolutely no secrets from one another, twins in spirit – asked insistent questions. How could she say her mother had arranged to marry her off to someone so much older? The friend felt uncomfortable around this man, didn’t like the way he would look at them. But for the first time, she evaded answering her, and it created an imperceptible, unacknowledged rift between them that was to widen.
They were to visit his family at Jhansi. It was a hot summer, one of the hottest, flies swarming all over. The only plus point was meeting his brother again, who had become quite a friend. He had a dog too – a lovely, silky, black spaniel called Honey, with melting, brown eyes; a proper dog, the Enid Blyton kind, the kind you roll with on the grass, not the powdered and primped Pomeranians her grandmother had.
The man didn’t like the growing friendship between the two. Did it bring home to him a not-so-nice reminder of his avarice? “Come here,” he ordered sharply one afternoon, as the children were poring over some comic books. “Come and press my feet.” She looked to her mother in silent mutiny but – “Go and do as he says,” reinforced her mother. How own mother was appalled at this; leave her alone, she’s only a child, she protested, but it didn’t matter. Besides, this was an innocuous enough order – if she knew of the other things, what would she say?
He had taken to attempting a physical relationship with her soon after he spoke of marriage. Night after night, he would awake the little girl from a deep, dreamless sleep and lie atop her forcibly. The first few nights, he had to place a hand over her mouth in case her mother heard her protests. Thereafter, she submitted, uncomprehending, totally blank as to what was going on. And night after night, as he failed to penetrate her childish, unformed body, he became more impatient, more demanding…oh, thank God that Nature at least offered protection in some form when all else had forsaken her. She grew to hate the dark, the furtiveness, the stale, rubbery smell of his sweat, and associated all these ever after, as a necessary, distasteful part of sex. It left an indelible mark on the young mind that was never to be erased; she hated making love in the absolute dark. Never was she able to tolerate anyone touching her except for her husband who wore down the barriers with persistence; though she was unable to recount the full horror to him, what he learnt was enough. She even found herself inhibited with her children once they began growing up, and relied on her husband to provide the physical demonstrations of affection that children periodically need to reassure themselves.
It was nothing short of a miracle that, while violating her mind, he left her body intact. After all, open any newspaper around the world on any given day, and you read about two-year olds and five-year olds being raped. Perhaps she should be grateful for his inexperience? What is even more wondrous is that, despite sleeping on the same bed in an unlikely menage a trois, her mother supposedly remained unaware of all the heaving and fumbling and heavy breathing; whenever the girl glanced piteously in her direction, she would feign to be sleeping with her back to them.
He didn’t allow this frustration to get him down for very long however, for soon he thought of something different and far more exciting – for him! One afternoon, when the maid had gone home and they were alone in the house, he called her to him. She came unsuspecting – he seemed to be in a good mood. And then…he opened his pyjamas and took out his pink, fully erect penis. The consternation and embarrassment on her face seemed to turn him on even more. She didn’t even know what it was called; all she knew is this is what men did their bathroom with.
“Would you like to kiss it?” he offered.
“No-o-o-o,” she said, stammering, shuddering, as that rubbery smell arose again.
“All right, come here, don’t get scared, it won’t eat you,” he said jovially, and chuckled in delicious anticipation. “Come here,” he snapped suddenly, when she didn’t move.
She came closer reluctantly, and he took her hand and placed it over himself. “Just keep moving your hand up and down,” he said. She obeyed fearfully. “Ahh, good girl,” he sighed. “Do it faster now.”
She tried as much as her small, nine year old hand would allow, but obviously it wasn’t enough, for he slapped her hand away and proceeded to do it himself, while she watched in fascinated horror.
The nightmare was to continue for a long time. He had this habit of scratching his private parts, and seemed to do it especially when her mother was around. She, in turn, would say playfully, “Stop it now.” They had taken to playing cards every night that he stayed on, over foreign cheeses and liquor. The girl would finish her homework, eat her dinner silently, and go to bed, for tomorrow was another day. One of their favourite rules was where the loser would remove an article of clothing, one by one. They hardly noticed her, absent-mindedly acknowledged her quiet ‘goodnight,’ totally lost in their game.
All things eventually reach their nadir, and so it was here. She was having a bath one day, when she realised she had forgotten to take her underclothes in with her. “Mummeee,” she kept shouting, but there was no response. The bathroom door was wooden, old and battered, with plenty of cracks that had formed over the years. Exasperated, she put her eye to a chink and stared straight across the room – just in time to see her mother getting down from the bed, stark naked!
What went on within the child at this final, ultimate act of betrayal? She stood there in the bathroom, dazed, her nine-year old mind at a loss to comprehend the machinations and manipulations of adults. What for the elaborate charade and the ignominy of introducing the man as the daughter’s would-be husband, as the mother’s “adopted son,” in order to pull the wool over the eyes of society. The seeming paragon of virtue, to wear widow’s weeds outside the house and, within its impregnable interiors to cavort and make merry with a much younger man.
The girl became morose and silent. The mother noticed and questioned her. At her prodding, the child – for child she was still – burst out with what she had witnessed. Stumped for the moment, the mother rallied quickly enough with a tale about the Devil and children who spy on grown-ups. The girl looked up with old, old eyes and said inaudibly – there are no such things, mamma.
About a year later, the man died in a freak road accident, on a motorcycle coincidentally enough gifted to him by her mother. She remained strangely unmoved through the ensuing drama of grief, death, loss. Her mother accused her of being heartless, not caring enough. How could she explain that what she felt was a pent-up release of emotions, as though she had been holding her breath too long?
Seconds For Sale
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Whoever said that knew what he was talking about. She felt so drained out, lethargic, all the while and yet, when he came home they would be snapping and snarling at each other.
It had been a fairy-tale romance while it lasted, she supposed. The fact that he was from a different faith, and a divorcee with two children, mattered not a whit. She did not pause to think it through, would not listen to her family whom she felt were too biased. “If he can leave one woman, what guarantee is there that he won’t leave you,” seemed too trite and cliched to pay heed to.
He could be gentle, and warm, and funny, and make her believe she was the only woman on earth made for love, to be caressed and nurtured. She was so desperately seeking for someone who could understand her, so tired of constantly having to fight for and explain herself.
Religion was never a major issue with her and she was quite content to conform to some traditions, provided he did not expect her to bend over backwards, which he didn’t. His children – a boy and a girl – were another matter altogether. However, she got along well with them and was confident enough to give the relationship a try.
In the beginning, it felt as though everything might just work out. But it never is easy to fit into a ready-made family, to step into someone else’s shoes. Slowly, the first, perceptible cracks started appearing. It was one thing to accept his children, but quite another to accept the presence of their mother in her daily life. What made it worse was an unshakeable fact that she, in her naivette, had overlooked as inconsequential; the fact that the first wife belonged to the same town as she did. Which meant that their holidays home had to perforce include her, since she wanted of course to see her children. And, since they stayed at her mother’s, it followed willy-nilly that her mother’s house became the meeting ground – a fact her mother vociferously objected to but which he, in his arrogance, refused to acknowledge, going so far as to state that if his children were not welcome any place, he would not go there too, which, in turn, meant he would not allow her to visit her family anymore. His ex-wife was there, all through, as a tangible being…all through…in the books, painstakingly preserved, which she had lovingly inscribed to “her husband,”paintings she had done, the utensils with her name proudly emblazoned across in customary Indian tradition. “Let’s change all the utensils,” she suggested. “Why, what’s wrong with them? We found them okay before you came,” he replied. “It’s just that I don’t like to see her name staring up at me every time I’m cooking or having a drink of water. It’s too forceful a reminder of what you shared with someone else.” she said, stung.
“Well, in that case, you should resent the children too, since they are a living reminder,” he retorted. “Anyway, you’re making too much of nothing, really, I think you love living with tension. After all, you knew I was married once before.”
And that’s invariably how the arguments would end. She was not allowed to change anything around in the house. They never went for movies, for walks, or an ice cream even, alone anymore; suddenly, he was uber-conscientious about leaving the children to themselves.
And the children? Well, it was but natural perhaps that they would try and exploit the situation. Seen from their point of view, they felt threatened by her maybe; after all, they had had their father to themselves for as long as they could remember.
If she said ‘no’ to something, they were bound to run to him and get him to agree, which only sparked off an argument between the husband and the new, young wife. If she stayed out of things diplomatically, she was accused by him of not caring enough, about being a ‘step-mother.’ It got to be so that if they wanted a glass of orange juice, or a chocolate, or just carry a chair from one room to another, they would ask him conspiratorially, as though she were such an ogre. The air of tension, of simmering indignation, was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Each time she returned to the house, she could feel the hostile vibrations emanating from it. Her throat would tighten; it was so tangible she would begin feeling nauseous in nervous anticipation of what awaited her. From being a laughing, care-free girl on the threshold of her life, she was now a universal ‘aunty’; unofficial cook, baby sitter, and maid-of-all-work.
And so yes, she resented them, even, disliked them. Invariably, she got the feeling the three of them were ganging up on her, discussing past incidents and acquaintances she knew nothing about. She tried, she did really, not to be the wicked stepmother of the fairy tales, but it was getting harder by the day. All she wanted was some time alone with her new husband, and all they seemed to do was cart the children along – even for the wedding ceremony and the so-called honeymoon! Perhaps he was right – perhaps what she resented most was the fact that they were there, born of his union with another and silent spectators to his verbal and physical abuse…and her shame, for when the mere sound of his beatings grew too tame for his sadistic nature, he would strike her in front of them. Once, a few days after he sprained his leg, he slipped and fell in the bathroom. She rushed to help him up but – “Leave me alone, bitch,” he snarled. Hearing him moan, his children came running up, just in time to hear this, and her remonstration. “Shut up, bastard,” spat his son; inaccurate perhaps, but the hatred on their faces was very real.
Twice he faked a heart attack, groaning realistically and clutching his heart, only to throw a scare into her. When he found she was getting immune to his ploys, he would hit himself, bang his fists against his head, in his uncontrollable rages. God, she hated these scenes, this display of lack of control. But she stayed on – she wanted to make this marriage work with all her heart, she believed in the sanctity and security of this institution and the happy-ever-after endings it offered.
She met a colleague of her husband’s, who was in a similar situation. Naresh and Kiran had just been married seven months; for both, it was the second marriage. Kiran would be glowing, laughing uproariously at parties. She used to envy her apparently carefree life. Once, she asked her hesitantly if she ever had any adjustment problems. “None at all, darling,” trilled Kiran. “It’s so divine I can’t tell you. All the kids get along so well too; our daughters are the same age, and Naresh’s son is older to both the girls.”
But then, bubbles are fragile, and have a way of bursting just when you’re getting complacent. One day, there was a frantic call from Kiran. “Can I come over?” she pleaded, and was there within the hour. She looked terrible, with her age clearly written across her face in the deep lines on either side of her mouth and the heavy make-up that stood out starkly against exhausted eyes and lank hair.
“What’s happened?” she asked quietly, over steaming coffee and Marie biscuits. It always seemed to soothe her, and she hoped the simple formula would work for her distraught friend.
Kiran started blubbering and sniffling, as the words burst forth in a sad, incoherent stream.
“It’s awful, you don’t know how awful it is,” she said. “Everything seems to be going wrong, and the children are the major cause. They don’t get along, so he’s asked that my daughter not stay with us. She’s staying with my sister now and is not even allowed to visit me; I go to meet her every now and then. She’s turning against me too, and I understand how she feels; after all, we only have each other. And Naresh has started his drinking and flirting again. Things are very tense but I can’t – I won’t – take it for very long.”
“What will you do?” she asked quietly, so quietly, and held her breath for the answer, hoping somehow it would be a key to her own Pandora’s box.
“What will I do – I’ll leave him, what else,” said Kiran, defiantly. “I’ve done it before and I can do it again. I’m not afraid of society or anything. How do you manage; I really envy you, you know,” she said, softly.
She was startled. Kiran envied her! If only she knew how mixed up and twisted she was inside, confusion churning within her and no one to talk to because she did not understand it all herself. How easy Kiran made it sound – the option of leaving when there was no dignity, no respect.
She was deeply mortified at the corrosive jealousy, the turbulent passion that had taken over her life. Never before had she experienced rawness that felt like everything was being ripped and shredded. How could she attempt to explain it; it sounded ridiculous even to her. Would anyone believe the way this man behaved in the privacy of his four walls? Nevertheless, the fact is that for seven years of her life, she lived with the searing emotions. It seemed to have completely warped her; sometimes she felt she was indeed losing her mind, a statement he made with unfailing politeness each day. But the feeling of another woman between them was so persistent and palpable…each time he touched her, caressed her her breasts, entered her smoothly, she would think of him sharing the intimacy with someone else, having his babies by her, and she would shrivel up, become a bitter, ranting person, unrecognisable to herself even. It did not help when he passed comments on her physical appearance, in comparison, like after her child was born. A few weeks later, he looked her over critically and observed, disappointed, “Your breasts don’t seem to be getting any bigger, the way hers did. Why do you think that is so? Maybe you ought to check with the doctor.”
Was she being illogical? As he was quick to point out, she too had been involved with someone else earlier, and had shared moments of passion and intensity – something she had disclosed to him in a misguided moment. Yes, but she never flaunted it in the clothes she wore or the music she listened to. Whatever had been ‘their’ songs, their moments, were locked away forever in a deep recess of her heart, and she had destroyed any letters or pictures. Not like this, where she found love letters carelessly pushed into his drawer, where he would give her another woman’s jewellery or high-heeled sandals to wear, “instead of just letting it lie around,” and when she retorted sharply, “keep it for your own daughter,” he turned on her savagely.
Perhaps he was the one who needed to put more into the relationship, who needed to see things in their proper perspective instead of being touchy and on the offensive. Instead of the healthy laughter that a newly married couple share over burnt daal or sticky rice or curds that never set properly, instead of growing together, they were growing apart by the day, where every fault, every ignorance, was held up to a magnifying glass. Her self-confidence was being rapidly eroded at, she was made to feel she was a nothing; somebody who should be grateful to have a ready-made family accept her, somebody who would never be able to hold her own in the outside world were it not for the strength of his name backing her.
No one should have to go through such humiliation, such ignominy…no one.
She stood there with her hands folded over her tummy, a look of mingled surprise and delight on her face. Her hands moved of their own accord, probing, touching gently. Her belly felt flat and firm, but she knew, instinctively, that there was new life stirring within it. She was only two days overdue; logically, it could be argued that she was being hasty in arriving at this decision, but then, on the other hand, she was never late. No; her brow cleared, most definitely she was pregnant again. And, most definitely, it had to be kept a secret from her husband until it was too late to do anything about it.
She remembered the last time she was in a similar situation. His decision had been swift and final – we have to do something about it. And the very next day, he had fixed up a meeting with the gynaecologist. For some reason, the doctor insisted that she wait till she was two months pregnant, for him to do anything about it. It was such torment, such unspeakable despair, to carry that baby within her, knowing it was growing stronger by the day only to be slaughtered by one who had made it his life’s profession to save other lives. To be fair, the doctor had been understanding and sympathetic; the only person to have been kind to her since the nightmare started.
“Quite obviously, you are not prepared for an abortion. Then why are you going ahead with it?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Because we already have two children, and that’s a good enough reason to me,” responded her husband, bitingly.
“That’s all right, so many people have three children, and since you are already in this condition…” seeing the man’s implacability, and her beseeching, hopeful expression, the doctor’s voice trailed off as he looked back at her helplessly.
She opted for it to be performed under general anaesthesia. “This way, you will suffer more, you will be in the hospital for a longer time,” the doctor warned. “Do it the usual way, then I can discharge you on the same day.”
She met her husband’s gaze steadily and defiantly disregarded the warning glint in them.
“I don’t mind,” she said, flatly. “It will serve me right; after all, I am making an unborn, helpless baby suffer due to my inadequacies.”
She hated contraceptives that had to be inserted by a stranger and so never used them, and the pill of course, was not reliable enough. He hated condoms. While he never laid the onus on contraception on her as most other husbands did, when something like this happened – a miscalculation – abortion seemed too radical a solution to her and almost casual to him. What hurt her most is that they never really talked about it; he just clammed up and refused to discuss it any further, as though the decision was his alone to make.
And so here she was, at six o’clock in the morning, shivering in the thin, white hospital gown on a cold, December morning. They had woken her up at 5am, no tea – since she was to undergo a major procedure. No kind words – the ayahs looked at her with disdain; she was, after all, about to kill her child in a perfectly legal, socially acceptable manner!
They had shaved her belly and her pubic area, given her an enema – which has got to be the most undignified act one human can do to another – and had wound her hair up in tight plaits, securing them with a bandage around her head to prevent any wisps from escaping through. Nothing should get in the way – nothing, except for these damned emotions she had no control over.
The husband entered the room silently around 6.30, to find her staring with unseeing eyes out of the window. His heart gave a little lurch – she looked blank, lifeless, like someone ready to receive the death sentence in those frightful clothes. She looked at him dully; what was there to be said? But suddenly, the words came rushing out of him at seeing here there so defenceless, and the enormity of what he desired her to do struck him then. “Come,” he said hoarsely, and cleared his throat. “Let’s go home, let’s forget this madness, let’s take our baby home.”
Just for a second, something flickered in her dead eyes, before the shutters dropped again.
“It’s too late,” she said tonelessly. “You made me eat some medicine which was supposed to ensure a ‘natural abortion,’ remember? Nothing happened, but how do I know it didn’t affect the baby? I can’t bring a deformed child into the world and watch it suffer; far better to end it all now as planned.”
It wasn’t as though she had not tried. There was a good friend, who had since moved away to another locality, who had tried to persuade her she must have the baby. Laughingly, Neelam said: “Give it to me if you don’t want it.”
Eagerly, desperately, she had grasped at this straw. “Do you mean it?” she asked feverishly. “Will you really take the baby?” anything to keep it safe, keep it alive.
The woman moved away from the naked desperation, eyeing her as though she were mad. For her, it had been social chit-chat, nothing else, and thereafter, she took pains to avoid her till she eventually moved house.
She had been scheduled for the first surgery at 7 o’clock, a privilege accorded to her husband’s senior status – was that supposed to make it all better? As she entered the preparation room, the doctor came forward with a harried expression: “Would you mind if we took someone else first? There’s an emergency.”
She inclined her head and, for the first time, looked curiously at the woman next to her, now the first patient. A pretty, too-plump Nepali girl, the wife of a junior Army major, with eyes red and puffy from crying.
“Don’t cry,” the inane phrase was meant gently, but her voice came out all raspy.
“I don’t want this, please,” the woman whispered tremulously.
“Why are you here then?”
The woman bowed her head in shame and said softly: “Our first child is a daughter. This time, my husband made me go through a test, and it’s a girl again, so…”
The much-reviled girl child! She sat on her bed, swinging her legs aimlessly, impotent rage and frustration taking hold of her. ‘Is she worse off than I am, or are we just two sides of a coin?’
Soon enough, it was her turn; she looked at the doctor and said drearily: “What you did to her was wrong.” He watched her warily, anticipating hysterics, but she lay down quietly on the narrow table as they pushed the needle into her vein and swiftly, everything was merciful darkness.
She awoke blearily to an unfocussed room. Someone was slapping her face insistently; the slaps were stinging and she moaned in protest. It stopped immediately and she began to sink back into blessed oblivion, only to have them renewed forcefully. “Wake up, darling, please, fight the sleep, you’ve got to wake up,” she heard, and blinked into her husband’s anxious face. “Thank God,” he whispered. “They’ve gone to call the specialist; you’ve been unconscious the whole day!”
Her tongue felt thick. “Water,” she muttered.
“Not now, they said you’d have to wait,” he said, stroking back her hair.
“Water,” she repeated more strongly, and he gave her a few sips.
She had an overwhelming urge suddenly to go to the bathroom and asked him to help her. “Wait a minute, I don’t think you’re supposed to get up quite yet, let me get someone.” He returned with a nurse, who shoo-ed him out of the room. The nurse propped the girl’s unresisting legs on the bed and pushed them apart as she proceeded to pull out a bandage stuffed deep inside the vagina, simply reams and reams of the bloody, sodden stuff put there to absorb the bleeding, as the girl stifled cries of pain.
In some unfathomable way, this incident brought the husband and wife closer together. He genuinely wanted to make amends for his peremptory decision, moreover, in his own way he did love his wife and had not thought about the risk she was putting herself in. These things – abortions – had become so commonplace that no one paid much attention to the trauma it brought in its wake.
And now this! She curved her hands protectively over her stomach, and decided to go about as if nothing had happened. She would tell him later, much later.
But not quite as much later as she would have liked! He found out anyway. He sneaked up on her in the kitchen one morning as she was preparing breakfast, and wrapped her in a close embrace. “Mmm,” he said, nuzzling her ear, as the fresh smell of his aftershave wafted to her. “Someone’s been getting plump lately, and I haven’t noticed, eh?” She grew still in his arms, and terrible suspicion darkened his mind. He pulled back, holding her all the while, his arms ominously tight around her now as he scanned her face closely. “Is there something I should know here? I hope you’re not pregnant…are you? Oh God – not again!”
Well! He made it sound as though it were all her fault! She stood there warily, watching him, not saying a word.
“So I’m right then?” His mouth clamped shut, he whirled around and started to walk out the kitchen. “Forget breakfast, I’m going to get dressed. I’ll make an appointment with the doctor before going to the office. You’d better get changed too.”
“No!” the single word rang out in the room, shattering forever any warmth, any closeness they had managed to infuse tenuously into the relationship.
He checked his steps, came back, and thrust his face aggressively into hers.
“What. Did. You. Say?”
“No,” she repeated softly, strongly.
“No? What do you mean, ‘no?’ My God, I can’t believe you kept this from me – just when were you planning to tell me?”
She remained stubbornly silent and he exclaimed bitterly: “Oh, I get it now. You were waiting until it would be too late to do anything about it, right? Well, bad luck for you, now let’s get ready! Damn, it’s already 8.30.”
“Please,” she said. “Please, can’t we talk about it this time? Tonight, when you get home?”
“We can talk all right, but I can tell you right now I won’t change my mind. Okay, I’ll make the appointment for tomorrow.”
She went about the whole day as a nervous, mindless wreck. He was late getting home. When he did, he had a pre-occupied air; from the bundles of files, it was evidently going to be a long night, and she sighed with relief at the reprieve.
Two days later, he caught a viral infection, and the big decision was willy-nilly put off for some more time. But as soon as he started recovering, he was at her again, urging her to go to the doctor and fix a date.
Unknown to him, the tension and pressures had placed such a severe, emotional strain on her that she had begun spotting shortly after he fell sick. It had never happened before with the other children; frightened, and with no one to turn to, she kept quiet. It had started on the day he was admitted into hospital; embarrassed and terrified, she went to the nurse on duty for help. The nurse looked at her contemptuously, not knowing she was pregnant and thinking she had her periods: “God knows when you people will learn, why can’t you keep a track of your dates? This is a mens’ ward, don’t you know that?” she said, brusquely.
Worry gave her the strength to respond abruptly. “I DO know that, but I’m pregnant, and suddenly, I’m bleeding. Don’t you have some gauze or bandages here?”
The nurse eyed her speculatively. “In that case, you should go across to the gynaec word,” she said firmly.
“Look, please,” she sighed; why was everyone so difficult? “I can’t go there now, they’ll want to admit me. My husband is already a patient here and I have two small children at home. Just give me something and I’ll take care of myself.”
Now, days later – this. There was a sudden flow of blood; panicked, she ran out of the bathroom and lay on the bed. He came to see where she was, and rushed to her when he saw her crying.
“What’s it, what’s happened?”he asked in alarm.
“Hurry,” she gulped. “I’m bleeding, help me.”
“I’m going to call the doctor right now,” he declared.
“No,” she almost screamed in frustration and fear, and tried to control herself. “Help me, please,” she said, more quietly. “Put some pillows under my hips, raise the height. Please, I know what I’m saying,” she said desperately, afraid to move herself, as he still looked unconvinced.
He did what she asked and then phoned the doctor. She was babbling hysterically by then. “It’s all my fault, this is God’s way of punishing me for letting you talk of killing our baby. This is His way of punishing us for rejecting an unexpected gift. Oh God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she babbled incoherently, as the flow of blood continued.
He was weak and groggy himself from his recent sickness, and sounded panicked as he spoke to the doctor. “Keep her legs raised and give her a sedative to calm her down,” instructed the doctor. “But if the bleeding hasn’t stopped by the evening, I’m afraid you’ll have to bring her in,” he said, with a tone of finality.
She awoke, exhausted, around six o’clock, to find he had kept a steady vigil, even checking to see if she was still bleeding. He had been shaken up by the experience that had brought them to the brink of what he thought he wanted. But as she saw the genuine worry in his face, and as the flow of blood gradually ceased, she knew that they had turned a corner.
They hadn’t been out together for days, ever since this nightmare started, and planned an evening out once she was better. They went to Hyderabad’s Tank Bund area after putting the children to bed, with its carnival atmosphere of food kiosks, squealing children, indulgent parents, and cars whizzing madly by. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Hussain Sagar lake, where the mammoth Buddha statue lay encased in its scaffolding, they munched on chicken tikkas companionably while the stars twinkled and shone on the placid waters, and it was as if they had managed to turn the clock back. The magic seemed to get to him too; he sighed and took her hand in his.
“It’s not that I don’t want the child,” he said, quite overlooking the trauma he had put her through the past couple of months. “But I’m looking to the future as well; how will we manage to look after our children, give them all they want in life? Besides, what will people say – for me to have a baby at this age?”
It made her look at him disbelievingly; so, she was supposed to kill off another baby just because it wouldn’t make him look good?? She checked the impetuous, angry words and answered more tactfully. “We are not having the baby for other people, we are going to have it because we love it and want it. We have never had support from others. I will try and be more prudent, more economical, only, don’t ask me to do this. We should have been more careful – abortion is not the answer. If we were to keep a score card,” she said, finally letting bitterness spill over. “Then I have had more abortions than living children!”
He recoiled as if stung, and looked out over the still waters.
“Let’s do it this way,” she urged. “So far, you have only thought of it in terms of an abortion, of this baby being a burden. Give yourself a week to think of it positively, to think of having a baby in the house again. Think of all the people out there who long for children and can’t have them and here we are, so blessed – and you want to throw away the blessing as something unwanted. Think of it as ‘we can’ instead of ‘we can’t.’ I hope with all my heart,” and now her voice was firm. “I hope you can see it my way for this time, I will not be swayed to your point of view, even if it means that this is where we part ways.”
He looked at her swiftly, saw the unshed tears and the purpose in her eyes, and nodded. Saw that he had finally pushed her to the limits of her endurance. Silently, they got up and went home.
Neither of them referred to the topic for the next few days and then, one night, when she was distinctly beginning to show, he surprised her by leaning over her in bed and placing a hand over her tummy. “Goodnight, baby,” he said, and she knew they were home free.
How Red Is My Blood
She was so happy and excited. Finally, the big day was drawing near – her wedding day! He was an army officer, and it gave her a thrill every time she thought of him in that crisply ironed, olive green uniform. Indeed, he teased her mercilessly over that: “Sometimes, I think you’re marrying me more for the uniform than for myself! God knows what my chances would have been if I didn’t have this blessed olive outer skin!”
They had met exactly a year ago, and now the D-Day was fixed for December. Her family had been against the match initially; not because he was in the army, which meant their daughter would be away for long periods. No, what bothered them was that he was a Keralite – a hitherto unknown species! They had heard the south Indians had all kinds of strange customs and dress and eating habits and, while a dosa was all right once in a way, how could you make it an entire way of life?
But then they saw how adamant she was, and that he was a nice, responsible person after all. Besides, they already had plenty of inter-caste marriages in their family, and all had reached some kind of amicable adjustment after the initial rocky patches, even down to deciding the children’s’ names. So they gave a brief, collective sigh, and nodded their assent to the lovers.
Of course, little hiccups cropped up every now and then. For instance, her mother asked him to obtain his horoscope so they could be matched; a typical Punjabi custom, something so commonplace you don’t think twice about it. His statement that he didn’t have one since his family didn’t follow the practice, proved to be a major setback. For a while, negotiations reached a delicate pitch, till she intervened hastily: “This is all so old-fashioned, Ma. Anyway, you have already agreed to the marriage, so what difference will the horoscope make?”
“Not a question of ‘difference,’ it’s how things are done,” her mother sniffed, but they were back on road again, and she sighed with relief.
Throughout the entire proceedings, his family has remained an enigma. He was the eldest son, and all the other brothers were in the army or air force as well. His family were Namboodiris; his father had been in the services too, and they were now settled at Bangalore.
For some reason, even though he claimed he’d written to them, they never responded to the news that their oldest son was getting married. Coming from a comparatively more well-knit family, where every member’s achievements or faults were dissected thoroughly, where even a distant relative was accorded a warm welcome, she found this attitude strange, even, faintly alarming. She was so looking forward to being a part of a large family, have his brothers call her “bhabhi” affectionately…she felt she already knew them all since he spoke so much about them. But this – this was unsettling, and she tackled him about it.
“Give them time,” he said evasively. “Look, see it from their point of view – I’m their eldest son, and I’m marrying out of caste. So it’s natural they’ll be disappointed.”
“I would have thought they’d be happy to see their son happy,” she retorted. “And not so much of the out-of-caste business – my dad comes from one of the highest Brahmin families in Punjab!”
But Love will out, and this minor skirmish too blew over quickly. Her mother, who was in the midst of sorting out utensils and bedsheets for the dowry, was rudely snapped out of her haze: “I will take no dowry,” he informed them in a no-nonsense tone. “All I want is your daughter.”
No amount of arguments – “but this is how it is done!” – would sway him. Her family were spellbound and looked at him with awe – a man who wanted no dowry! A rare species indeed in our country, and they looked on the match more favourably.
He had only one request to make. “Could we get married in my village in Kerala? At the famous Guruvayoor temple there? My maternal grandfather was the head priest there and it would make my parents very happy. Besides,” he confided to her. “I should feel rather silly coming on a horse and all, and meeting your family’s friends – gosh, you people know almost the whole town!”
She loved him for what she saw as his shyness, and agreed readily to whatever he asked.
Now, each side was used to its own rituals and way of doing things and, since there were no elders present from his side, no one thought of checking with him. Therefore, it came as a rude shock when he vetoed the traditional bridal attire. “Not red,” he said firmly. “Our colour is off-white.”
“But that is the colour of widows!” her mother wailed.
“Off-white,” he insisted. “However, she can have some gold border or something, on it.”
There was more to come! Her paternal grandmother, Boji, had given the sets of ‘chuda’ (traditional red and white bangles, the symbol of the newly wed bride) in her mother’s keeping, should she not live to see her granddaughter married.
“What’s this?” he exclaimed, horrified. “She can’t wear this; all this kind of colourful stuff is only worn by low-caste women in our parts. She can only wear gold, nothing else.”
Her family bristled; already, the fetters were closing in. In retrospect, she feels he could have been more accommodating, more sensitive, more flexible, but at that point in time, all she saw was her chance at happiness slipping away.
And there was still no news of his parents! “Oh, they will meet us at Guruvayoor directly,” he said with nonchalance.
Guruvayoor, in 1980, was a small, dirty place, with too sour dosas and watery sambhar – the only thing you could get to eat beside the thaali food! There was a cinema hall screening a pornographic film bang opposite the famous temple! There was only one hotel, and even that was in the process of completion. However, the owner agreed to let out two rooms to them.
You had to make an appointment for the wedding ceremony, rather like reserving seats at the theatre. Theirs was fixed for 7am! Strange place…no help…no water timings…no proper mirror even…of course they were late! Hardly an auspicious beginning, to face a frowning priest!
A big culture shock was to find that you had to walk down the street in your wedding finery! Well sure, this was a temple town and sure, everyone else did it too, but she was not expecting this – to have to walk from her hotel room to the temple and have hordes of strangers gawking and obviously passing comments, since they looked so out of place, being non-Malyalis.
The pundit was openly sneering, and they hit a sticky patch when he refused the customary sindoor to be applied, saying it was not “their custom.” Her mother grew almost hysterical; her stock of acceptance had long since been used up. Surprisingly, the girl, who had almost been sleepwalking through the entire experience, now spoke up firmly. “I’m sorry, but this is OUR custom and it’s going to be done!” The priest muttered for a while, and then acquiesced that they could do whatever heathen thing they wanted to once he had finished his bit.
The temple itself was relatively clean, and quietly peaceful. However, the sight of those naked torsos shiny with sweat and the constant, unfamiliar smell of coconut oil, was beginning to make her feel slightly queasy.
Joy there was none on that dismal morning. Everyone looked uncomfortable and withdrawn. And all wondered – where were the groom’s promised parents?! With all that talk of Brahmins and rituals, it surely seemed odd they would stay away from their eldest son’s marriage!
They went to nearby Trichur and took in all the temples, more temples – which is hardly something she wanted to do on her wedding day! No laughter, no mehendi, no welcome noise, no family – the first signs of perturbation were awakening now.
They went to Palaghat and saw the marvellous Malampuzha Dam, as he laughingly tried to teach her to roll her R’s. Kerala was tranquil, serene…its richness, lushness, flowing into the other…the green paddy fields…the towering palms swaying gently…the flash of brilliant, white teeth…the musical, singsong language washing over and around you. Aah, what a relief to stay in an air-conditioned hotel finally. For ever after, she would remember making love to Boney M’s ‘Daddy Cool,’ a tape the hotel played incessantly on a loop on its internal piped music system.
Her family insisted that she go to Bangalore to meet her in-laws, and he reluctantly agreed. He was hurting too from their indifference, and he smarted at the fact that they had not even bothered to acknowledge the wedding ceremony even.
She packed only sarees for the trip, no salwar kameezes; she didn’t want to antagonise them when there was already cause for friction. She had even tried to master the ‘mundu veshti’ (Keralite half saree) but was not yet confident of it, why, she was still awkward and fumbling with sarees, and he knew it.
“Don’t bother,” he said sadly. “They are not going to appreciate all this, wear whatever you’re comfortable in. And then,” he pretended to growl. “Look at all the luggage you’re carrying along – each saree has its own blouse and petticoat! And once there you’re going to eat my head to find someone to iron all this.”
It was only after they reached Bangalore that she found out he’d booked them into an Officers Mess.
“But why?” she protested. “This will only be another black mark against us – imagine not staying with them in their home!”
“You’ll see,” he prophesied grimly. “You’ll find an hour with them quite enough for a lifetime. They’re different. There’s not much to give there; they’re not like your family. Besides, I couldn’t bear it if they were not welcoming with you, if they hurt you in any way. So it’s better like this,” he said, with a tone of finality.
She laughed at him for being so pessimistic and dressed carefully, remembering not to wear her mangalsutra – no black beads, they’re low-caste too!
It was a cluttered, crowded place; “match box” as her husband described dispassionately, where the Old Man had attempted to create a room for each of his children in the meagre, insufficient service salary you get, and had instead created a maze of tiny rooms. There were the prerequisite coconut palms shielding the house with their lofty leaves, and a well had been dug off to one corner – a throwback to the old village.
They entered into a strained atmosphere, no greetings, nothing. Dutifully, she touched her father-in-law’s feet; there was no sign that he acknowledged the salutation. Already her husband was beginning to simmer; when his mother offered a lukewarm “stay for lunch” invitation, he snapped back – “no, we have to go somewhere.” He relented ungraciously as he caught his wife’s pleading glance, and ate the thick rice and sambhar rebelliously. “All this food must be strange for you, no?” his mother asked rather derisively, in ungrammatical English. “Actually, no,” she responded shyly, pleased that someone had thrown a direct question at her. “I know how to make some dishes – aviyal, elisheri, certain vegetables…actually, whatever are his favourites.” “Hmmphh,” her mother-in-law snorted, and he butted in immediately, “Actually, she cooks better than a Malayali and definitely better than what we are eating now!” A stony silence descended over the table, shattering forever any tenuous links they have managed to forge.
His sister was a stout person, rather reserved. They never did get friendly; many years later, she summoned up the courage to ask her pointblank – why don’t you like me? You haven’t even made the effort to know me, to know whether you’d like me or not! His brothers were, by and large ambivalent, except for one, the next to youngest, who was easygoing and talkative and made a genuine effort to welcome her. Him it was who taught her how to prepare the delicious coconut chutney. He would call up from wherever he was posted: Guwahati, Delhi, Bombay, even – Moscow! Her husband warned her bitterly not to get carried away: “He is a matlabi, a selfish person who will do nothing to rock the boat. Let him see which way the wind is blowing and then see how fast he will drop you.” She had ample cause to reflect on his words over the years as the rest of the family influenced this brother too against her. When he was getting married – a function she was not invited to by the way and had to coerce her husband into attending – her father-in-law took her husband aside and proudly ticked off all the dowry items.
Well, that of course was a major sore point with them! Not only had their son been foolish enough to have a ‘love marriage’ out of caste, he was also foolish enough not to fill his coffers while he had the chance.
But then, that was her husband, fiercely proud and independent, and she loved him for it. It made things infinitely easier that, since he was in the army, they lived on their own, with no familial interference. Yet, she knew the emotional distance and unacceptance hurt him. Their entire attitude was so unfathomable to someone like her who only craved their blessings. What sort of people were these, to cast off a son as though he had never been, only because he disappointed them in some way? To totally ignore her very existence, deny her right as his wife, all because she was born under another roof? Was not her blood as red as theirs, did not her tears taste the same? While such behaviour might be expected, condoned even, of a rustic, village patriarch, her father-in-law was an educated man who had travelled all over India, worked with the British, sent his sons to the best public schools. Yet, more than her mother-in-law, he used to niggle away at their happiness, sending greeting cards addressed to her husband, with no mention of her or their baby son. In a fit of fury, her husband wrote back saying they need not maintain contact with him if they were going to deny his family! He was so different from all of them…loyal and sensitive, full of love and laughter, at peace with himself, and he managed to communicate his aura so that all around him felt peaceful and secure. His family’s unrelenting attitude twisted his very soul; in anguish he told her once – “You know, I really think I must be adopted or something, for them to discard me so easily.”
There was, by and large, a high level of amity, of tolerance, here in the army; most thought it rather wondrous that two people from different backgrounds should have chosen to make a life together. Around them, in their circle, there were other inter-caste marriages too, some happy, while in others, an uneasy truce prevailed. None quite as rigid as hers, or so she thought till she met Neha. Neha was a Kashmiri from Delhi and she was married to a Punjabi whose father was in the police force, based in Delhi too.
“You can’t imagine what awful people they are,” Neha shuddered. “It is difficult to believe my father-in-law is a senior police officer. Just imagine – when we go to Delhi, I stay with my parents and Rahul stays with his – their excuse being their house is too small! If they see Rahul doing anything for our two year old son, they start taunting him that what else to expect since the wife is a working woman who earns her own money.” (Neha is a schoolteacher.) “I really wish,” she said wistfully, “that Rahul would stand up for me.”
Another friend, Suhasini, a Keralite married to a Bengali, and the editor of a widely read magazine, was more forthright. “You are a fool,” she said bluntly, to me. “Stop waiting for their approval; you are not less of a person if you don’t get it.” Suhasini had retained her maiden name all through in her own peculiar brand of logic: “I am not going to subjugate myself, lose my identity, just because I am married to him,” she declared.
Well, that was certainly one point of view, but it was not hers. She did not believe it was a question of “identity” here; taking the husband’s name was the accepted Indian social norm and this was just how it was going to be unless you wanted to cause tension – which they already had plenty of! Besides, if your man respects your individuality, then this was like making a mountain out of a molehill.
No, what galled her was the hypocrisy, the frivolity, behind it all. Their family name was used as some kind of magic ‘open sesame,’ these people were considered pillars of society and yet, there was not an ounce of humility, of compassion, of humanity, in them. She had seen her father-in-law only twice in the twelve years she’d been married. As for the much touted “customs,” they were waived when the brother was to get married – his pure, unadulterated, unabridged Keralite bride wore a PINK saree – was that the leeway provided by a hefty dowry? It saddened her, to see how the ‘we-have-given-life-to-you, we-have-nurtured-you’ litany was used as a parental yoke over their sons and daughter. It angered her, to see how “religion” and “tradition” became socially accepted passwords for your own shallowness, your own failure to give unto another human being what the Maker had given unto you – tolerance.
Years later, the two men made their peace on the father’s deathbed. But the Old Man had done his work well – even for the last rites, the eldest son faced opposition and resentment when all he was doing was carrying out his duty.