It had been almost five years since Geetli had come home.
Partition, its aftermath and then Ravi's postings had intervened. Not only Independence, even the new Republic was no longer new.
After the fuss that she had made to go home, Geetli expected a festive welcome.
Instead the mood appeared to be quite somber, even at the station itself; when she alighted from the train, the salaams were respectful enough, but no one seemed to be meeting her eyes or smiling into them.
As she neared the old haveli, there were none of the sounds of a joyous welcome or the rumbustious playing of children. Instead, when at last the children did emerge to greet her, they immediately pushed Geetli into her stepmother, Laajjo's audience chamber.
But Laajjo, the lady of the house was strangely listless, almost indifferent to everything, even the rather disheveled attire of the little girls, Geetli noted with surprise and foreboding :
" Something is wrong here ".
It was eventide before Thakurda came home. Geetli heard his gaadi and ran out to meet him; and stopped in sudden shock.
It was as if some unknown giant had landed her massive father one solid punch and sucked all the air and the life out of him; her baba had aged so visibly, bags under his eyes and emaciated jowls, flesh hanging loose and stooped. -- " My Thakurda is stooped !!"
There was consternation in the thought and Geetli's stomach wrenched with dismay, " He knows that he's been betrayed." The realization of her worst fears-come-true shook tears from her eyes as Geetli embraced her father, clinging to him wordlessly.
But dinnertime brought a greater shock :
The children took their places strictly in order of seniority. A servant led a little one down to take her place after Geetli's five year old Baby.
The question froze on Geetli's lips when the little one turned her face to her. Apparently Thakurda had not needed to be told of the betrayal by his beloved Laajjo, the little one's face told it all !!
Deliberately Geetli injected hostility and accusation in the eyes she turned to her stepmother. For once in her life, Laajjo's gaze dropped before Geetli's.
After dinner, Geetli sought out her Thakurda. Placing a low murrah next to his aaram-kursi, Geetli placed her hand in his. Neither spoke for sometime.
Then his dam burst.
" Did you see ? In any case, she could not have hidden it. But I had known as soon as she got pregnant, that she had been unfaithful; I knew because I had had a problem and Vaidji had separated us for weeks before that. And she had the temerity to claim that she submitted to him only to save my daughters.
That scoundrel has ruined your life and he must be making Prema's marriage hell too. All my fault for believing, like a big fool, that good families breed good men. I could not have been more wrong. What will become of Laajjo when I’m gone?”
Geetli gave him a startled look and marveled at the blindness of the man. Even now, with the new senility of the sorrow of Loss, Thakurda could not see or recognize his own son's obvious anguish.
Dada was his eldest born and more Laajjo's contemporary than Thakurda, more than 20 years her senior. Blind to all but the treachery of his beautiful young wife, Thakurda had failed to realize why Dada had left home to precipitately to join the Army immediately after Prema's doli left.
" I wonder what she will get up to when I am gone " Thakurda repeated.
"Don't utter such rubbish " Geetli rebuked sharply.
" Nay, we are all to go one day, some early, some later. My time is come. I was only waiting for you, Geetli, to make my peace with you."
Wordlessly Geetli stood up and cradled the massive grey head in her arms and tried to find a lost peace. She never really felt happy or at peace except in the presence of her beloved Thakurda.
True to his word, Thakurda had waited only to see her. That night, he died quietly in his sleep.
Looking down at the beloved still form Geetli's mute heart wailed.
" Why, Thakurda, Why ? You were always so strong. why did you allow this bastard to weaken you ? Why did you not avenge your honor and killed him with your strong bare hands. You would have released me from this heavy sentence : " ta zindagi, umar kaid " as his wife."
Later in the day, Geetli took a silent vow at her father's bier.
" No more bowing to his tyranny; he has destroyed my father; I shall destroy him, whatever sacrifice it may ask of me. If it turns me into a shrew, so be it ".
Dada saw her standing in concentration and raised his eyebrow in query. Later Geetli told him all. Not that he was unaware of the raucous flirtation that Laajjo had had with her son-in-law, Ravi, Geetli's husband during the nuptials of the younger sister, Prema.
Dada himself had been present and subject to an emotional churning which wrung out an unspoken confession " I love my mother. not as my mother."
He had left abruptly, before too many persons realized that he carried that torch and was unaware of the aftermath of that flirtation : the birth of Baby Latika, cast in the mould of her father, to announce her bastard and the betrayal of Thakurda by his young wife and his son-in-law.
" Will you back me now on ?" Geetli demanded
" Absolutely." there wasn't the slightest hesitation. " What do you want me to do ?"
"We could not save Thakurda; but we can save the honor of his memory. Ravi has never seen the baby. Laajjo and the little one have to go. No-one, especially not Ravi, must ever see them here."
Dada was caught off-guard by the gist of Geetli's demand.
" Go ? where ? "
" She always wanted to send her boys abroad. Let her go with them and take the little one also."
"Who will tell her ?"
" You are now the head of the family. You must." The burden Geetli put on him, was awesome -- that of banishing his beloved forever, never to see her again. " I'll be with you."
" Have you thought of the cost ?"
" There's plenty in Thakurda's accounts abroad. If more is needed, sell something, land, anything. We owe it to Thakurda's honor ".
" Geetli, Ravi is your husband...."
" Leave him to me. I'll take care of that angle," she interrupted grimly. " First we have to ensure that he does not see the little one when he comes now and that he and Laajjo are never left together. Perhaps it may be for the best if the little one is raised away from all the gossips here. Also, don't tell anyone, anyone at all, of our plan, until it is time to tell her to leave. "
That had not been very difficult to achieve. The funeral's aftermath was protracted and formal. In any case, the children were kept occupied well away from the mourners and the guests. A large number of women mourners hemmed in the young widow, away from male eyes.
Ravi made a belated entry. Prema not at all ??
The funeral was an elaborate backdrop to Geetli's funereal memories of her disastrous marriage to Ravi.
She had never dreamt that a person could be so supremely narcissistic, that he could actually be evil without knowing that he was being so. Perhaps, she reflected, Ravi did know, but refused to acknowledge it ?
That perhaps made it easier for what was left of his conscience, even if the accumulated effect had robbed him of his sleep; Ravi was a chronic insomniac.
Consternation had been writ large on many faces when Prema arrived from her college, in time for Geetli's wedding festivities.
She walked in with all her college-practiced aplomb and missed the despair creeping into Geetli's eyes -- conscious now of the inevitable comparisons. bitter memories of old preyed on her mind.
Prema's pretty aplomb carried her straight into her Jiga's heart, tinkled pink at the appearance of such a stylish saali. He flirted boldly with her and she responded with glee, flaunting herself all the more to spite the frigid disapproval writ large on the face of every aunt present.
" Won't you invite your sister to go back with us ? " asked Ravi of his bride of a day, with a broad smile.
Geetli looked at Prema with barely moving lips. To her consternation, Prema agreed with shameless alacrity and proceeded to fight off all the objections of the Aunts, until Thakurda saved the day.
Firmly grasping Prema by the scruff of her fair neck, he pulled her back " Beti, phir kabhi Geetli se milne jaana ". The Ides did not seem to favorable for a peaceful marriage, proved all too soon when Prema came to visit.
One day, her control had snapped and Geetli had screamed venomously " Randiye... bahenda ghar lootan aee " at the saucy-eyed apparition before her.
There was a loud report - thwack -- as a powerful slap almost socked her head off her shoulders. Geetli toppled to the ground sideways, catching a cheek on the wicked edge of the carved table. It left a bleeding gash.
Her younger sister, Prema had bent instinctively to come help her up; but was rudely pulled back by Ravi. " Let her be. She can go to her saut for medication and cold comfort. you come with me".
Geetli stood up slowly, gently massaging her wounded cheek and looking at the retreating figures with smoldering eyes.
" That, " she brooded , " is my little sister and that is Ravi, my husband, smitten only because she is fresh out of college, clings prettily, speaks English and wears trendy suits, instead of these Victorian lace and ribbon confections foisted on me, " her bosom heaved with heartfelt resentment , " by his bloody first wife !"
It was not as if Geetli was bad looking herself or that Prema was particularly beautiful. Rather they complemented each other, with a strongly discernible family resemblance.
Tall and angular, Geetli was a full head taller than Prema, with rather stern features and an aversion for any sort of reading, a fact which quickly earned her husband's ridicule.
Prema was petite and dimply; curves at all the right places; stylish high heels and deep slits in her kameezes gave her a swinging, hippy gait with a swish which would have turned the head of a saint -- which Ravi most certainly was not.
In fact, Geetli had always secretly felt -- secretly because if she had dared to say so aloud, he would surely do something to the contrary just to prove her wrong;
that behind his well-cultivated " hee haw, hail fellow well met " geniality, he was quite a martinet, with set ways and opinions, to which he was almost slave. But those traits only surfaced much later, when he was considerably older. At the time of his marriage to Geetli, he was stylishly and self-consciously suave.
That Prema incident had come a few short months after marriage, too early for Geetli to have learnt to contend with either Ravi's handsomely smiling audacity, or Prema's bravado.
Her plea back home had been frenetic and the response immediate. Prema was recalled to be shown off to prospective in-laws.
All three knew fully well that for all his suggestive gestures and talk, Ravi would not, could not go beyond bold caresses; negotiations were already underway for Prema's marriage and which respectable family would accept " soiled goods ", no matter how impeccable the antecedents.
Ravi himself was the centerpiece of the negotiations as the prospective groom was his cousin's son.
Geetli smarted from Ravi's blatant flirting with her attractive little sister and the Bigger Betrayal at home.
It had taken her days to digest that bitter truth. Ravi claimed that Thakurda knew about it. " Why didn't Thakurda or someone else tell me ? " Geetli wondered.
When her doli had reached her new home, she had been received with all the due rituals by a contingent of elderly ladies. That there was no mother-in-law had been one of the plus points of the match.
Thakurda had gleefully pointed out " you'll have a proper Bharat darshan with a husband in the civil service, no hassles on the home front. Raj karegi tu, betiya."
Beeji's hold over the household had slowly become evident. Beeji was squat and dumpy, balding and hairy chinned. When she nodded her approval after examining Geetli's trousseau and jewelry, everyone had almost sighed with relief.
Even Ravi deferred to her. She was obviously older than him. She ordered the servants, decided the menus and the new bride's outfits and all the post-marriage giving and taking.
Geetli remembered frowning with perplex ion when Ravi had said " Ask Beeji " the first time when she asked for the safe keys to change her bangles.
But then, since Beeji handled all the transactions and the housekeeping, perhaps it made sense to keep the jewelry in her safe. Beeji seemed to be running the whole show, down to the clothes prepared for Geetli -- she recognized the bygone designs of an older generation. Geetli had not deemed it fit to question who she was, perhaps a particularly close or favored relative, whose close ties gave her the right to take decisions, no doubt.
Then everyone started to take their leaves; everyone, save Beeji, who seemed comfortably permanent in the household.
Geetli could not recall how and who told her the bald truth : that Beeji was her Saut, Ravi's obligation to an elder brother who died early.
But for the deception which rankled, Geetli got along well with Beeji who handled the chores, leaving the younger woman free to devote herself to building up her marriage. With a wisdom beyond her years, Geetli decided to put the humiliation of Ravi's wedding day flirtation with Prema behind her, to concentrate on building up a relationship with her husband, of the kind that he obviously did not share with his first wife.
That was no mean task. At times, he was so easy to get along with; at others, as nerve wracking as walking on eggshells, for no-one knew from one moment to another what Ravi's reaction would be. She sometimes thought he made a conscious effort to undermine her confidence, what little she had of it.
One day he approved of Geetli in lemon yellow; the next time he'd fling " it gives you a TB patient look " at her.
He was always impossible. If Geetli sat, he would ask why she couldn't stand up. and if she stood, he would laugh at her for not sitting down. If she napped in the afternoon, he would snap at her for waste of time. if she spend the noon making pickles or knitting, he would scold her for not resting and not letting others rest.
Above all, there was that constant talking and constant carping, that restlessness and emphasis on loyalty, when he was the ultimate betrayer : he kept his first marriage a secret, never mind if she was a family widow on whom he had been compelled to chaddar chadao; he should have revealed that detail to Thakurda. here she ruled the roost in the house and Geetli did all the work and running a constant risk of critical carping.
In company, he " loved " western food; threw tantrums over baked dishes in the menu at home. He was in his element in groups, but needed a crutch, a whipping boy to be the butt of all his jokes. Geetli sometimes wondered who had served earlier; now she was IT. The gregarious social evenings were a prolonged torture that would haunt her for a long time to come, even after they ended -- the day after Dada came to visit. The memory of that day was etched in Geetli's memory.
" It was difficult. To this day, I wonder how I managed to hang on to my patience and my play acting of a wife. That Geetli, who could whip up 24 types of pickle and 32 different snacks to serve up to his never-ending flow of guests, the Geetli who snapped to attention at the sound of Her Master's Voice and jumped to do his bidding at all times and at any time, day or the middle of the night. Whilst I did it all, I simmered with growing resentment and bided my time malevolently :
He always said that our personal affairs should remain ' is char diwar ke andar '; never discuss family affairs with anyone; and he himself cuckolded my father. showed off his peccadilloes to the whole world at the expense of my Thakurda and his honor. That determined my revenge : that he should never see the face of his beloved again.
This is the man, who kept me on tenterhooks all throughout our marriage, demanding not merely service and respect but obedience and loyalty. And what was the sum total of his loyalty ? flirting with my stepmother, landing her with child and foisting an illegitimate child on my father, causing his death.
Every day I prayed for an end to the waiting.
A year passed since Thakurda;s death and one day Dada appeared at our doorstep. It was a Sunday and Ravi was at home. I shot Dada an anxious querying look, his response was reassuring, but I remained on tenterhooks. Perhaps that had become a habit...being on tenterhooks all the time.
Ravi was his usual hearty self.
" So, how is everyone at home ? "
" All's well. I have taken personal charge of everything now.."
" You shouldn't have bothered. I could easily have handled things while you were away on duty...." protested Ravi.
" I have already put in my papers. my duty now lies with my family."
I had expected this, but Ravi was stunned; no chance of getting his grubby fingers into Thakurda's pies now. Ravi recovered quickly.
" Laajjo must be pleased. With such a large establishment, one needs a man about the house."
"She'll soon learn to be a man herself, where she has gone." Dada was abrupt.
Ravi blanched . " Where has she gone ?" he asked sharply.
" I just saw her and the children off. There are better prospects there for Baby too and the children will keep Laajjo busy between them."
" Who is Baby ? " the tone was now distinctly shrill.
I held my breath. Dada's reply was painfully careful as he looked into Ravi's eyes.
" Baby is my youngest sister, born to my stepmother six years ago."
The blood shot into the thin bald head and the black-rimmed glasses could not hide the eyes. Ravi caught his breadth audibly; then he blurted out " six years ago? Why was I never told of this? How could you just send them away? Who are you to do that ? "
A dozen replies chased each other on my eager lips, but Dada quelled them with a look. Drawing himself to his considerable height, his voice took on an unspeakable dignity as he declared:
" What interest could you have in my stepsister, when your own daughter had just been born ? Besides, at that advanced age, another daughter is not happy news for our parents to celebrate over much. Since my father is no more, the duty of providing for all my younger brothers and sisters devolves on me and I shall always do it as I see best. We decided that, given the circumstances,... " as he said that, despair wrenched his face and I put my hand over my mouth at the pain of his loss, Oh Unkind Fate !!
" ... given the circumstances, it was best for the whole family that Baby grow up abroad. Laajjo will never return to India, at least not until Baby is married -- there. "
It was out in the open. I held my breadth, waiting to see if Ravi would dare to acknowledge Baby and to challenge Dada.
Even my old saut realized that there was something going on here. she had heard Ravi boast of how he had my stepmother around his little finger during Prema's nuptials. For once, she kept quiet and listened carefully, her eyes flying from one face to another. At last she caught my eye. Perhaps the hint of triumph gave her the clue she was looking for, the look she gave Ravi was triumphantly malicious.
' Ah ha, you're caught in your own stew for once, you rogue ', it said wordlessly.
But Ravi had collapsed. Knowing him, I wondered how much from the weight of the knowledge of a widely known by-blow, the total loss of his prestige in his sasural and how much from the awareness that he was one against three, no quarter to be expected for the moment.
From me, never more. it was the end. The sharpened knives were in and there was a whole lifetime in which to turn them. I flung off the mask of the Meek Little Woman. " How does it concern you anyway ?"
The Ravi of old turned on me in a flash, but was taken aback by the blaze in my eyes.
" I, " a distinct emphasis on the I, " saw Baby the day Thakurda died ". nothing more needed to be said.
Dada was dangerously icy " Look Jiga, " that was the first time he called Ravi that, " Don't tempt me to take that pot shot into you and take Geetli home permanently.
I have come to tell you that I am not Thakurda jo beti ke suhaag ke khatir itna bada vishwasghat pi gaya. As far as I am concerned, you have murdered my father. If I ever hear from anywhere that Geetli has been troubled in any fashion, that will be the last straw. Don't worry, if I can look after your illegitimate daughter, I can take care of my widowed sister and her legitimate daughter as well.
Henceforth you will only be tolerated because you are Geetli's suhag. "
The dangerous look in his eyes warned me not to speak. He stalked out.
It had been a let-down. Ravi's cousin, Ved was handsome, more than Ravi, but ..... He had nowhere near his sophistication , nor his loud, open charm. He smiled quietly at Ravi's naughty jokes but did not contribute. Anyway, the marriage was set.
Ravi had organized it and told Thakurda "Hamara wahan kafi aana jaana hai. Raj karegi Prema ...." it was really very disappointing.
At the nuptials, Ravi hardly looked at me, or even at Geetli in the full glow of early pregnancy. He had come with his strategy for winning hearts well mapped out.
Ravi headed straight for Laajjo. Lord alone knows what he said to her, from the day he arrived, he was literally tied to her pallu. The two were all over the house, forever billing and cooing; the sisters flushed under the pointed looks of the aunts, but could do little since they were careful to do so only when Thakurda was out of the house. Who would dare to tell him ?
The only time Ravi was not with Laajjo was when either Thakurda or Dada were at home. Something strange was happening to Dada too. All of a sudden, he's forgotten how to smile. It can't be the prospect of losing me -- more probably Laajjo.
Geetli's triumphant announcement "Thakurda Nana banega" had been blighted by the Ravi-Laajjo flirtation.
Geetli and I had caught them red-handed. Geetli started " everyone is talking about you...." but was stopped by a tirade of ridicule from a saucy-eyed Laajjo,
" She's anxious, not about her husband, or her mother, but about the equanimity about those old crones. Ravi, tell her that I'm saving Prema from being ravished and I'm saving her too; she's in that delicate condition and can't oblige you." then a parting shot " Why be jealous when you can't give the man what he wants ? And don't go crying to your father; leave him at least in peace."
Who was this hussy ? Where was the beautiful stepmother who won over our whole large family and twisted Thakurda around her fingers?
The full extent of Ravi's treachery was much much deeper. How deep I only discovered too late.
My new home was a beautifully, spacious, old-world haveli, well maintained and beautifully appointed, with both considerable expense and exquisite taste. It was very Britishly elegant, compared to the rather casual splendor I was used to at home at Thakurda's. Laajjo was no great shakes as a lady of the manor.
Ravi's presence changed swiftly from the reassurance of familiarity to a shocking trauma of humiliation which will continue to send shivers of shame down my spine to the last of my days.
The drinking and partying for the baraat members had continued late into the night. I fell asleep on the bed and was awakened by a fumbling hand inside my sari. Fortunately I had been warned and did not panic. But it was uncomfortable, so I decided to keep my eyes closed. As the tears seeped out from the corners of my eyes, I heard a hoarse " Open them, bitch, and don't make a noise ". My eyes flew open, widening in shock.
Ravi was leering wickedly over me " Hi sweetheart; did you think I'd let you get away just like that, to this lump ?" He gestured sideways with his jaw and I turned my head to take in the sight of my brand new husband, drunk as a sod, passed out on the bed.
Ravi clamped a hand over my mouth. My sari was thrown over my head and I felt a searing pain in my loins. I squirmed to shrug off the invasion, to no avail. It lasted an eternity. Abruptly the pumping stopped.
Both the sari and the hand withdrew and I opened my mouth to take in huge gulps of air. Ravi was grinning down at me foolishly. "Bahut mazaa aya. kal milenge " I must have passed out, as he started to saunter out of the room.
When it came to, it was morning and Ved was fussing solicitously around me, promising to make up for lost time and Lord knows what.
I really thought that I had had a naughty dream. Nevertheless, a sense of terror kept me in the zenana all day.
To my eternal shame, that night too I fell asleep, only to be awakened by a thud as Ravi threw Ved on the bed, once again out like a light, to head for my side of the bed, grinning widely.
" Ready ? " he asked, raising a sardonic eyebrow. I was paralyzed; a part of my brain observed the fluidity with which he repeated the motions of yesterday. That was no dream : the fumbling with his clothes, the hand on my mouth, the sari over my head and then the energetic rocking and pumping and the almost casual " Kal milenge ".
I lay awake in shock all night.
The third night I waited up. " Did I keep you waiting ?" he asked, Ved slung over his shoulder.
" Ravi....." that was as far as I got.
" Don't say a single word, just open your legs. It's too late to say anything now; nobody will take your word against mine. Besides, " he pointed a derisive nod at the inert Ved, " what can he do ? Maybe I'll make you a son. Raj karegi tu and live to thank me for it ".
I felt soiled and sore. my brain was numb. what to do ? who to go to in this strangely Angrez household ? My languor and red-rimmed eyes made me the butt of sly jokes; no-one guessed.
One night, I kept a vigil, deep in the shadows of the gallery overlooking the hall where the men sat drinking. Ravi was plying everyone with drinks, large ones, mixed ones.
I started as a firm hand descended on my shoulder " Bahu ? " my eagle-eyed mother-in-law. I turned in terror and then ducked instinctively, hoping Ravi had not looked up. Mataji followed swiftly. I was mute, but she joined in my vigil. Both of us saw Ravi carefully filling glasses and finally furtively tipping a potion from a ring into Ravi's glass.
We looked at each other. Wordlessly, she pulled me into my room. the dam burst and a wordless flood of tears ensued. when it subsided , she gave me a quick hug and passed a glass of water. " Sab theek ho jayega " Pressing me into the pillows, she adjusted the night lamp and sat herself down in a vast chair in the shadows. We waited.
Ravi carried Ved up and threw him into the bed. The old lady spoke " Thank you, Ravi, you can go now; I'll help Prema ".
If I had not been taut as a string, I would have laughed aloud at the consternation on Ravi's face as he swung around.
" Good night Ravi, " she said firmly, as she stood up. He had no option but to leave quietly. As his footsteps were heard receding, Mataji turned to me " Lock the door. Nevertheless, I'll be outside ." I sprang to touch her feet in thanksgiving and humility. Rather belatedly relief flooded through me and as I pulled the latch, my knees caved in. I lay against the door for a long time.
The next day was a prolonged cat and mouse game with three players, Mataji, Ravi and me. Hats off to the old lady. In very short order, she unearthed a family hunting lodge in the foothills, had it put into order and packed Ved and me off for that new-fangled English fashionable " honeymoon" !
Before we left, she took me to her suite and pressed a paper into my hand. " This is our phone number. there is a phone there too. If Ravi shows up, give me a call at once."
As we drove in the open top family limousine out of the huge gates, onto the open country road, the mists began to clear from a benumbed mind. Slowly Ravi receded from my vision and I was able to smile back at Ved. Our idyllic honeymoon lasted all of two days.
On the third morning, Ravi showed up, riding his horse right upto our breakfast table set up on the lawn. My stomach pitched.
" Good morning " he smiled. Ravi was his whirlwind self, cracking smutty jokes and jollying up Ved. He took Ved off for a stroll to discuss a hunt.
Taut-faced and shaky-handed, I dialed Mataji's number. It took an agony of suspense to get through to her over the crackling lines. Hearing the returning voices, I had almost replaced the received when the smart voice crackled through, just in the nick of time " Kaise ho tum log ? " I could hear them coming up the verandah.
Quickly I breathed a single word into the mouthpiece " Ravi " and replaced the handset, turning guiltily as Ravi and Ved walked in. " You look ill, Prema. Isn't Ved looking after you, " Ravi advanced solicitously.
" I'm okay. Have to see to the lunch, " I ducked out of the room into a day-long nightmare. my breath remained caught in my throat and I felt like a rat in a trap, watched by a beagle-eyed Ravi, who spoke to me all the time, through Ved.
Perhaps I only let out my held-back breadth late in the evening when a car rolled up the driveway. All three of us rushed out. Ved's parents were climbing out " I thought it would be a good idea to come and see how you children were doing, " announced the old man grandly. " Ravi, what on earth are you doing here -- kabab me hadi ? "
Mataji gave me a gentle embrace and wiped away the tears seeping out from under the eyelids. " Aansoo dikhate nahi hain, " she whispered.
Since Ravi and the old man got along like a house on fire, Ravi was all over us, visiting every few weeks wherever we might be, at the lodge, the haveli, Calcutta or Delhi. Out of deference to his relationship with her husband, Mataji did not give him any chance to suspect that she was upto his game, jollying him, laughing at his jokes, but sitting in on all the sessions and breaking them up early. " Ravi, you are on leave, but your Bhaisaheb and Ved have to work; off to bed, one and all , " she would say in dismissal.
Never knowing when he would turn up, kept me in a permanent paroxysm of anxiety. The ball of tension at the back of my head and in the pit of my stomach turned to terror, when the calendar sent me rushing to my mother-in-law. " Mataji....." I was unable to articulate, only to pummel my stomach.
She grasped my hands firmly. " Hame us hi ka intezar tha " I turned stricken eyes to her, mutely asking that she understand my plight and that I would not have to speak out my shame.
She looked long and deep into my terrorized eyes and somehow understood. " Ravi ? " I nodded.
" Kittni bar ? " Still dumb, I held up five fingers. Both of us closed our eyes, one in guilt and the other perhaps sorrow ? it could have been her first grandchild ! The next morning, Mataji announced that she needed some solicitude and that she was going up to the lodge. I was to accompany her. Late in the evening, we walked into the nearby village where Mataji sought out the dai.
Two days later, we slipped into the dai's house late in the evening. no-one saw us. I was shivering in fright in anticipation of what ? The actual pain made me scream; they stuffed a handkerchief in my mouth.
We stayed at the lodge for over a fortnight. Everyday the dai came to give me a vigorous massage and a piping hot bath. Gradually the numb brain relaxed, the skin and limbs began to glow with the dai's ministrations, the fresh air and the peace.
Mataji took me straight home into Thakurda's outstretched arms. He wept over my head. Why ? he knew nothing of my plight ?
I thought Thakurda look a bit forlorn. Laajjo too was rather subdued.
Mataji had a long, private session with Thakurda. As we drove away, she gave me the gist of it. " I have told him that Ravi is no longer welcome under our roof. He had violated our trust."
Quietly she went on " Prema, I cannot protect you forever. Nor can you rely on Ved. I know, he is my son. You yourself will have to tell off Ravi. Can you ? Will you ? " was that a trace of pleading ?
I took a deep breath " I Will". We headed straight for the capital's Ritz Hotel. Ravi was summoned and received out of earshot of other tables on the lawn, dripping diamonds, pearls and venom.
" Ravi, have your posting orders arrived ?"
" Why ? they are not even due."
" I heard it was down south, Coimbatore maybe." He started.
" Coimbatore ??"
"That should, I trust, put enough distance between us to bring you to your senses."
Ravi turned on me. I met his gaze, my eyes boldly blank. " You have done enough damage. I almost paid for it with my life."
Mataji was icy. " Go to your own wife, Ravi. she is a good woman. Let Prema bear her own husband's children. We will not expect to see you ever again. And, by the way, yesterday we were at Thakurda's......." the tone was ominous with portent. Turning her face away, she got up and walked away, before Ravi could whip up a suitable reply. I was at her heels. my gait was elegant enough, but my palms, I found, were clammy.
Thereafter, I steadfastedly refused to meet either Ravi or Geetli. " Kya mooh leke jaana ? I had teased her mercifully and betrayed her willingly or unwillingly. "
When Laajjo's daughter was born, I was pregnant. Mataji would not let me go. She wanted the baby to be born under her own roof, not at my maika. At Thakurda's, no-one pressed the issue. For all her love and care, I felt terribly hurt and cheated.
A year later, I went home. The house was beginning to look ramshackle; the annual coat of paint had apparently lapsed. Thakurda looked distraught and Laajjo had lost her saucy confidence.
When I saw the face of my youngest ' sister ', I knew why.
" Laajjo too, " I thought, " but then she was willing game." There was nothing more to fear from Ravi anymore, but I never went home again. Not even for Thakurda's funeral.
Geetli haunted me there.
As the years rolled by, Prema grew into a plump contented soul, but my heart bled for Geetli.
She and Ravi lived in a permanent boxing ring in their souls, lashing out at each other, tearing bits out of each. Geetli rarely spoke. Ravi tried everything , from teasing, to raving and ranting. No matter what he said, or how much he needled her, her response was a mute one. Not a word out of her. Only her eyes spoke and they flashed uncomfortably, demeaning him with their eloquent silences.
The only time he heard her voice was when they had guests. Even then, she spoke very little, but very effectively, stripping him in public. Her tongue dripped acid very politely, as if questioning him for her every move and gesture, almost making him a laughing stock.
The boot had obviously gone onto the other foot and she extracted sweet revenge for all those times that Ravi had poked fun at her in front of guests. He dared not poke fun for fear of it rebounding and gradually rolled back the entertaining. After all how long could he go on feeding people on a static fund of old jokes when his wife refused to be the butt of any new ones.
Beeji mentioned that she heard Geetli talking to the children, telling them stories and songs in the privacy of her room , never outside it. So Ravi had to rest content with the knowledge that his children were getting their mothering, even if he seemed to have lost his wife.