Madhu saw Anand stare at her son. She immediately wrapped her arms protectively around five year old Ajay and left the store, glaring at the impudent man as she left. “Wait,” said Anand, “I just want to talk.” But she didn’t want to talk and in spite of repeated entreaties from Anand, she zoomed past him, her eyes blazing with wrath.
Anand sat on a bench dejectedly. He saw the busy crowds and watched dully with a blank expression. Slowly his thoughts veered to Madhu. It seemed such a long time ago, yet it was only six years before that he was passionately in love with Madhu, his high school sweetheart. They graduated together from the same high school in Mumbai, then moved to the same city in America, studied together and finally decided to marry. Everything was perfect. Their relationship had survived for six long years and it seemed nothing could drive them apart.
Yet, something happened. His family did not approve. “She is Marathi and we are Bengalis,” opined his mother. It is like mixing oil and water, beta.” “Why did you not say anything about this before?” he asked. “We never thought that it was serious, beta. We thought that she was just a friend, and you would get over it.” “Ma, it does not matter. Punjabis, Bengalis, Marathis, all of us, we are Indians. Besides, she has been with me these six years, supported me through good times and bad. How can I abandon her,” he protested. But his mother was adamant. “If you marry her, I have nothing more to do with you. You decide what you want, your mother or – that girl,” she said in a voice laced with contempt.
Anand was in a turmoil. He had seen this happening to many of his friends. Rohit broke off with his girlfriend when his mother objected. Then he went berserk and married a white girl. Today he is going through a divorce. Shanker gave up his sweetheart and remained single for a long time and finally married his mother’s choice, Vidhya. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he is having an affair with another woman.
“Indian Marriages are not stable any more. It has become a victim of tradition that refuses to bend when it comes to caste, community or language,” explained his friend, Raghav, a psychologist who had opened a matrimonial site for divorced Indians. He continued, “Everyday, there are at least 4000 Indians who are opting out of marriage. The Indian male is attracted to the modern looking, self-confident and independent woman but when it comes to marriage, he obediently defers to his parents and relatives wishes. And given a choice, women are reluctant to assume the role of a submissive wife and live according to tradition. The times - they have changed, my friend. Women have made a quantum leap from soul shattering dependence to liberating freedom, but men have not changed. All these dichotomies are rarely addressed and society does not help with a culture of denial and an all-pervading palliative - after marriage everything will be fine.”
Under such circumstances, what can a man do? Can he be forced to choose between parents and fiancé? And if he does choose his parents’ wishes, will he be happy with his mother’s choice? Anand could see no answers. He kept tossing and turning, not knowing what to do. Finally, he decided to do nothing. Maybe he will let things cool for a while.
“What’s the matter with you? Why do you not respond to my calls? When are you going to introduce me to your parents?” asked Madhu. Anand was quiet. He did not want to say anything that would make his family look like they had just arrived from the stone-age. He looked uneasy as he was never good at putting up a pretense. Madhu shrewdly figured out that something had gone wrong. “What happened?” she asked in alarm as she shook him. “I need to know, Anand. I need to know,” she added frantically. When he was still quiet, she said, “Ok, I’m going to ask auntijee.” And with a flourish, she was about to leave, when he spoke up. “No, it’s no use. My mom er- she, she –um –she does not approve.” “What!! And what did you say?” she cried, in panic. He looked at her in dismay. “I I – I don’t know what to do. Give me some time. We will work out something,” he mumbled. “But, Anand, I can’t wait, you know that I’m going to have a baby, or have you forgotten? “Ok Ok. I know. I’ll talk to her,” he said. The prospect of having his own kid gave him the required motivation. With his new-found strength, he approached his mother again.
“Upon my dead body,” said his mother. “A pregnant bride. Never,” she choked. She also said a couple of things that were not very complimentary regarding Madhu’s character upon which Anand to his credit vehemently contradicted. The mother was upset, the father tried to be a peacemaker, and Anand retreated to his fortress. Being the only son of doting parents, he felt smothered by their affection but felt helpless to stand up for himself, or for Madhu. Not even his would-be son gave him the grit to do the right thing.
After a week of waiting and failing to reach Anand, Madhu decided to take the matter in her own hands. She went to Anand’s house and tried hard to convince his mother. “Auntijee, please consider my situation. What will I do? How can I raise a kid on my own? As far as our families, there is nothing to worry, they can always find ways to get along. Please also consider your son’s happiness,” she pleaded. His mother remained unmoved and kept repeating that she will not be suitable for Anand. Madhu looked at Anand, hoping he will say something. But Anand seemed to have lost his tongue. She looked at him in disgust and told him in a voice seething with anger, “Anand, never ever try to contact me or my son. Ever.” Before he could open his mouth to say something, she left angrily, ruing the fact that she gave 6 years of love to this wimpy fool. Be happy with your mother,” she added.
After a bout of depression, Anand continued on the wild swings of fate. His mother convinced him to marry a talented Bengali girl who was an acclaimed singer of Tagore songs. For over a year, he wavered, and finally gave in to his mom’s formidable will. Protima was an ideal bride. She never spoke harshly and respected his parents. If she felt the lack of love, she never expressed it or accused him of not showing any affection. She was good to him. But he could not love her. How could he love her when his heart was broken into several pieces? Several nights, he lay awake thinking about Madhu and his child. He tried to be fair to his wife, but there was nothing in common between them, nothing to talk, and nothing to share. Was it his fault that he could not love her?
One day, his mother woke him up in the middle of the night. “Wake up,” she said, her face filled with excitement. “Protima is pregnant.” Anand was wide awake. His face shone with happiness. “I’m going to be a father, thank God.” His parents had been worried and his mother had voiced disappointment that it’s been 3 years and Protima had not yet conceived. The news that a child would arrive in the next few months galvanized the family and brought fresh life to Anand. Everything went good. The doctor said it would be a healthy boy. And Protima made preparations for decorating the little boy’s room. Friends had baby showers and soon they were accumulating all the baby stuff - strollers, bath accessories, sweaters, clothes, toys, shoes and miscellaneous articles.
It was fifteen days before the delivery. The whole family was ready to go to the temple. Anand drove, while his parents were in the back seat and Protima was sitting in the front. They put on lively music and Anand eased into the freeway. He had barely driven ten minutes on the freeway when a car crossed the median and scraped hard on the passenger side. Protima was knocked unconscious and was hurt. His parents were barely coherent with shock. Having seat belts saved their lives. Anand was the first to recover and realized the grim situation. The police had cordoned the area and there was an ambulance. Protima was taken to the hospital. The family, all shook up by the events looked bewildered and upset. At the hospital, the prognosis for Protima was not good. The doctor came with a grim face and delivered the cryptic news, “Mother is Ok, but we could not save the baby.”
The event sent Anand and Protima into a depression especially since the doctor had also informed them that Protima could not deliver any more children. For the first time, small pangs of regret stalked mother and son. The thought entered his head as he thought of Madhu. “I spurned my own child. I spurned the mother of my child. Now fate has denied me what she had given me at one time without asking.”
He still did not want to blame his mother. She was after all brought up in a sheltered atmosphere and had little exposure to the outside world. Totally dependent on his father, and shackled by tradition, she was a victim too. For centuries women were not educated or allowed to use their mind. It is possible that they may not always make the right decision. There was nothing wrong with Madhu except that she was from another state. Instead of working hard to convince his mother, he took the easy way out.
After a few months, Protima said that she had to visit her sick mother in Calcutta. Anand did not object and even drove her to the airport. She spoke little and he did not dare to intrude on her privacy. She left as quietly as she had come, a casualty of a loveless marriage blessed by tradition and ended by a punishing force.
One day, his job as a pharmaceutical salesman, took him to the city where Madhu lived. His company had given him the job of selling to the doctors and pharmacies in a couple of cities around the same area. As a result, he had to make two or three trips a month. During one such trip, he stopped at a sprawling mall and his heart skipped a beat as he recognized a familiar figure. She was Madhu and she was waiting at the check-out line with a boy who seemed to be four or five years old. He was a cute little boy with curly hair and sparkling eyes. All his emotions came down like a flood that burst forth. His face was suffused with longing and tears welled up in his eyes as he looked intensely at the boy, his son. But Madhu refused to talk and denied him even taking a look at his son. He tried to meet her several times and each time she spurned him viciously.
However, the longing for his son, was too strong to let him sit still. So unknown to Madhu, he would go once or twice a month and watch his son at play, or while he was riding his bike or eating at McDonalds. One day, Ajay was so absorbed in tracking a ball that fell far away from the playground onto the road, that he did not notice a red dodge speeding on the road. It was careening towards the little boy and in a few seconds it would have struck him. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the boy was snatched away in the nick of time. The car came to a halt with a screech, a crowd gathered, and Ajay shaken and distraught, was surprised to see his savior, Anand. He hugged Anand in a fit of overwhelming gratitude. And for days Anand would treasure that childlike hug that wrenched at his heartstrings.
Soon, Madhu came to know about the incident. At first she was angry. Then when she saw how Ajay longed for a father and how Anand had saved Ajay’s life, she felt that she should at least thank him. Through Ajay a meeting was arranged and though it was awkward, it was civil and polite. More meetings were arranged by the willing Ajay as go-between. On one such occasion, Anand decided to come clean and began in an apologetic tone, “Madhu, I know I goofed up and I deserve all your contempt. I was stupid. I am also sort of a victim,” he said hesitantly.
“What do you mean? I am the victim here, remember. I was all alone when Ajay was born, and rebuilt my life brick by brick, stone by stone,” replied Madhu resuming her old tone. “Oh uh- no, Madhu, I did not mean like that. I meant that I am also an indirect victim- of lopsided values that divides our people, of a tradition that does not value affection between a man and a woman,” he explained. Then quickly added with a touch of humor, “except of course in Bollywood.” Madhu smiled and encouraged by her response, he continued. “There is also this thing, I mean this tradition where obedience is valued over doing the right thing.” Anand paused. He was trying to say something, but the words would not come out and eventually he said with a simple sincerity, “I am so sorry, Madhu, please forgive me.”
On another day, he said “I am no longer the same Anand. The sheltered life that I led did not teach me any life skills. It is pathetic that as an educated man, I chose not to change. And so many people suffered because of my silence. You, Protima, my parents, Ajay. How can I ask for forgiveness when even I cannot forgive myself?” He looked so forlorn and sad as he said this that Madhu lost some of her bitterness and rancor.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” she thought, “but few have the courage to learn from them.” She slowly found herself relaxing. The road to reconciliation became less rocky. After a while she replied, “Yeah, don’t worry, it’s okay, I realize you are sorry. But what’s gone is gone. We have lost a precious six years of life. At least, let’s do the right thing for Ajay and raise him to stand up for what is right. We will teach him that tradition is good, but abuses in the name of tradition - gender injustice, cultural chauvinism and power struggles – have to go.” said Madhu. Anand was happy that Madhu was using the term “us” and “we” as if they were together. And he thought this was the right moment to press his case further.
“Listen, Madhu,” he began very gently. “Just consider being with me. Punish me any way you want. Hound me, torture me and I will take it. Only please be with me - forever. I want you by my side when my body aches, or my sight grows dim. And I will do the same for you. I love you, Madhu, more than life itself. I was a fool. Give me a second chance. Even criminals get a second chance.” And he looked so sincere and contrite that she found her heart melt piece by piece.
After a long silence, Anand got up to leave. Ajay came running, “Don’t go daddy,” he said and looked at him with a child-like innocence. Anand looked at Madhu. She did not object and he was surprised to see a small smile frame her lips. He bent down and kissed his son’s cheeks and she still did not object.
Encouraged, he joyously lifted his son high above his shoulders and whistled with pleasure. “Come on, son, let’s all go home.”