“You think you can mend my pants, dear?” Shreya, a middle-aged woman asked a teenage girl, Ankita, who had just entered her apartment, in more of a commanding voice than making a request, “It’s not much, just a thread got pulled; so, I don’t think it should be thrown away.”
“Sure auntie;” responded the girl as she checked the pants. There was a miniscule amount of damage, which could be repaired easily.
“It’s just a pilled thread auntie.”
“A pulled thread can destroy the whole robe; even more; and it may not leave an option to mend or throw the dress either; … not even throw!” Shreya thought to herself, and sighed.
“It’s quite minor auntie; pants can’t be discarded for this. It’ll take only a few minutes. Where are the needles and threads?” Ankita continued.
“Oh, the needles and threads; in the top drawer of the shelf in front of you dear. There is a little wooden box in the drawer; I keep all the sewing material there.”
“I find only the needles, no threads Auntie. There are other things, but no threads;” Ankita said after searching the box for a couple of minutes, “A needle without a thread can sew nothing auntie;” the girl said with a mischievous smile.
“How well do I know my child; how well do I know!” Shreya sighed as she advised the girl, “There is my wallet on the counter; take it and get some threads from the corner shop.”
The girl had already left, even before the lady had finished telling her about the wallet.
Shahdara, a suburb of the capital city, Delhi, located to its north, was a ‘Half city – Half village’ those days. People from the countryside had moved close to Delhi to settle for the convenience of commuting to and from their jobs in and around Delhi. Finding an affordable place in the burgeoning already crowded Delhi was next to impossible. That’s how Shahdara had begun. People from the countryside brought their culture with them, which was getting amalgamated with the overflowing city culture.
There used to be a mass migration between Delhi and Ghaziabad, located some kilometers north of Shahdara, every morning and in the late afternoon. There was a large population living in Ghaziabad but working in Delhi. The reasons for some of them were similar to the Shahdara-people. One of the other reasons was that the parental families of some of them were already living in Ghaziabad, and they found it more convenient to continue to live there. The crowd going in the opposite direction consisted mainly of the students travelling from Delhi to Ghaziabad in the mornings and back to Delhi in the afternoons. These students could not be accommodated by the Delhi institutions. Main means of transportation were the trains, which used to overflow at those peak hours.
While it was only a part of Ghaziabad that commuted, Shahdara consisted mostly of the commuters. Only the non-working members of the families and the early school-age children lived in Shahdara. In time Shahdara was engulphed by Delhi, but that was later.
Shouts of “Chai Saheb, delicious chai Saheb” filled the air as the train stopped for a minute or two, on every station. Shahdara station was not as bad as the others, such as Ghaziabad and Delhi; but it was remarkable even there that a massive number of passengers got off and on the train in such a short time, not to mention the tea vendors and the like completing their transactions. The situation was quite similar to that in the Toronto subways during peak hours except that in Toronto there were no vendors and the guard always made sure that all passengers got on and off safely before the doors closed and the train moved, while in Shahdara, and other places around there, everybody was on one’s own.
Here Shreya;” a boy peeking out of the window of a train compartment was shouting, as he was waving towards the young girl Shreya waiting on the platform together with several other girls. It was about impossible to hear him in that noisy crowd, and spotting anybody was equally difficult, but humans seem to have very keen senses for what they want to hear and see. Shreya always managed to get on the train in the same compartment where the boy would call her from; and the other girls would squeeze in behind her.
It was not always like that.
Some of the boys deluged in hormones seemed to wander with their hearts on their sleeves, even on their palms. These boys seemed to feel obliged to bother the girls with lewd gestures and words. They likely thought that that was a good way to woo them. To discourage such ‘Lover Boy Romeos,’ and for company, several girls traveled together in a group.
One day it happened so that Shreya’s friends did not go to the school. She did get in a compartment but could find space only to stand. One of the ‘lover boys’ came too close to Shreya so much so that his body was touching hers.
“Would you please not press against me;” Shreya addressed the boy.
“I am not pressing against you miss, it’s just too crowded in here; its only our clothes that are touching;” the boy played innocent.
“Crowded but not that crowded; Just stand at a decent distance from her;” a boy sitting close by with his friends told the ‘lover boy’ in a stern voice.”
The ‘lover boy’ was no yobbo, he was just a common mischief, a ‘Romeo.’ So, he withdrew with a remark: “Here; are you happy now?”
Nobody responded to him. For his part, the helping boy got off his seat and insisted that Shreya sat there. After the usual initial denials, Shreya did take the seat. There was only some introductory conversation after that, and they parted after reaching their common destination. That is the first time the boy found the girl’s name and she found his, ‘Arvind,’ although they had seen each-other before.
Shreya mentioned this incident to her uncle. Referring to Arvind, he remarked, “Oh yeah, he’s a nice boy. I know his father; he too is a High School teacher, but in a different school. They live around here not far from us.”
Shreya’s uncle did encounter Arvind’s father the next day when going to their schools, and thanked Arvind for helping Shreya. Arvind’s father conveyed the appreciation to him and instructed Arvind further to help Shreya whenever needed.
After that travelling together became a frequent occurrence for Shreya and Arvind; and then, almost a routine: Shreya and her friends would be waiting on the platform for the train to arrive; the boy would invite them in a loud voice, and they would squeeze in the compartment. Their travelling together drew joking comments from the other students, like, “A minor chivalrous, common curtsey paid off well Arvind.”
Arvind ignored the comments, but he did inform one of them, “Her uncle and my father are friends. My father has instructed me to help her whenever needed.” The students understood and the comments stopped.
The students didn’t even notice, but the time never has time to listen to the excuses; it passes by. Most of the students in the groups of Arvind and Shreya graduated at the standard time; Arvind graduated in Chemistry, and Shreya, in Philosophy.
Shreya’s father lived in a remote village near Hindon river, which was a rather mighty river those days compared to a tiny channel it reduced to later. He had acquired a medical diploma, which did not make him a full-fledged medical doctor, but enabled him to have a license to practice medicine to a limited extent. He had no chance of survival in a city where plenty of qualified medical doctors and hospitals were available. That’s why he opened a clinic in his parental village, which proved to be quite lucrative, although not as lucrative as he boasted of.
There were no other medical professionals even as qualified as him in the area; therefore, he got a large clientele, which contributed to the clinic’s success. The success of the clinic generated more revenue creating in turn the impression that he was a good doctor He fed the impression by showing off his ‘wealth,’ much more than the reality. This served his ego and created an impression that he was having a booming business that helped increase his business further.
There were little schooling facilities, just up to a few grades, around where Shreya’s father lived. The problem of Shreya’s schooling was solved by keeping her with her uncle in Shahdara, the high school teacher in Delhi. She could go to school there and be safe under the guardianship of her uncle, as well as live with his family. This was still much better than many other girls who never saw the grounds of any school. Shreya’s brother was living alone in Modi Nagar, where there were many schools from the lowest to the highest level. Being a boy in that society, there was less danger to him in living alone, in a sharp contrast with a female, particularly young.
Her brother had quit school several years earlier, before she graduated, and now he was trying to build, or pretending to build, a career there. His father had always wanted him to become a bona fide medical doctor, but he did not have the ability. In fact, the boy might have been able to build a reasonable career in a non-technical field, but his obsession induced by his father’s pressure did not allow him to try hard enough for anything else. Thus, he lost it all, and was now just floundering trying to find some ‘get rich quick’ way.
On the other hand, Shreya was quite successful in the schools, but her father channeled her into non-technical subjects. To him her education was only to make her a desirable bride so that he could marry her off and wash his hands off her; any more expenditure was not going to benefit him, and therefore, would be a waste; in his thinking. She was quite unhappy about this discriminatory attitude, but it was not uncommon, although not universal, in that community those days.
After graduation Shreya wanted to do her Ph.D. but her father objected, “You’ll have to live in a residence; that won’t be safe.”
“I can join Delhi University and continue to live with Uncle ji.”
“I cannot continue to burden him. Besides, his daughters are getting older increasing his burden.”
“But Babu ji, you pay Uncle ji for keeping me.”
“Even then.” …
Shreya understood the real reason: Money. Graduation was necessary to find her a decent boy, but more would have been a ‘luxury.’
In a technical field she could try for some scholarship with good chance of success. Now her only chance was to get a job and do her Ph.D. at the same time, but jobs in non-technical fields were difficult to find.
The only way for her left was to live with her brother in Modi Nagar and tutor the lower grade students. She wouldn’t get any students in Philosophy but there was a good demand for English language tutors, which she was well qualified to teach. Furthermore, she could pursue her higher studies there at the Modi College. Living together worked out well for both as they got company and could help each other in various ways.
For Shreya, in addition to thinking and planning for her future, there was plenty of time now to reflect-back on her past. While going to school, she had taken her friends for granted; she had under-rated some of them and over-rated some others. Looking back, she realized her error and regretted having wasted the time that could be used to foster some good life-long relations. She often thought of the lyric: “Don’t know what you got, till it’s gone,” and sighed.
She felt an urge to renew her friendships. The problem was solved by the approaching Deepawali festival when people exchanged annual greetings.
Arvind and Ayesha were on Shreya’s mind often; so, the first cards were mailed to them; and the first cards she received were from them. From the places Shreya received the greeting-cards, she learned to her surprise that her close friends had scattered far away as if a compact ball suffered an explosion upon graduation scattering its fragments far and wide. To her consolation however, Arvind and Ayesha were living in Delhi area, and around, for now. In her greeting card, Shreya invited Ayesha to meet some place and Ayesha invited her independently. Shreya wanted to invite Arvind also, but the social protocol inhibited her. Arvind being a boy, had no such qualms. She did receive an invitation from him to meet. The ice was broken.
Shreya thought often of her school days. She recalled that her association with Arvind had taken a step ahead of just common decency. They would linger on the Ghaziabad station a bit longer than they had to; miss their trains deliberately; just sit on a bench and chat. Before they would notice it, their conversations would drift into meaningless nothings. Although Shreya did not appreciate its depth at the time, it was not completely missed on her either and she confided her feelings to Ayesha. Ayesha in turn had said:
“This is love Shreya. … Unless it is a fair damsel falling for a knight in shining armor for a common chivalrous act.”
“I would not exclude a feeling of love; in fact, that’s why I am talking with you, to resolve whether it is ‘falling for a knight in shining armor’ or a natural evolution of a friendship into love, or something else. The event of the first meeting was just something that gave us an opportunity to come together. … Arvind is intelligent with a decent upbringing in a Brahmin family; … There are other boys there, equally chivalrous and there are other girls who have no special inclination towards Arvind. They likely have feelings for other boys. … Isn’t it quite individual matter Ayesha.”
“Yes, quite; like you are a Hindu and I am a Muslim, but we gravitated towards each other naturally.”
“It is likely due to the pheromones.”
“What are pheromones?” Ayesha asked a bit surprised.
Shreya’s father had explained to her once that pheromones are the molecules, which the animals use for recognition, communication, and the like. For example, the king cobras eat rat snakes but since they do not see the color, they can’t distinguish between a rat snake and any other kind. If the pheromones of a king cobra and a rat snake are in a certain orientation, the cobra knows that it is food.
“This is remarkable Shreya!”
“Yes, nature never ceases to amaze and fascinate us.”
“Your pheromones and those of Arvind are in a proper orientation;” Ayesha remarked.
They both burst out laughing.
Shreya, as many others, was frequently going to Delhi for shopping for lack of adequate facilities in Modi Nagar. Therefore, for Shreya and Arvind, someplace in Delhi was a natural choice for their meetings. Normally they shopped together and then spent time sitting and chatting some place like a restaurant and some park. Crowds of a big place can provide an opaque veil, not available in small places. She could not squeeze Ayesha on the same days, but Shreya did meet Ayesha soon after meeting Arvind each time. While she had other things to talk with Ayesha about, some time was always devoted to updating her about the meeting with Arvind.
Upon graduation, the parents of the students started applying pressure on them to get married. Until then, Arvind used to ward off his parents by telling them that he must first get his Ph. D. and then build a career before having a family; but now Shreya was quite a bit on his mind; that was his reason for taking advantage of the Deepawali greetings to avail an opportunity to meet her. Situation with Shreya was about the same. So, when his mother suggested: “I’m getting old son, I need a daughter-in-law to help me around the house;” Arvind responded:
“I have found a decent girl Mummy, eminently suitable to be your daughter-in-law. …”
Arvind’s mother almost had a heart attack; she shouted, “Arvind’s Babu ji, Arvind’s Babu ji, …”
“You know Mummy, Babu ji is at work in school.”
“Finding a girl for you was our job; you just had to meet the girl’s father, when asked.”
“Mummy, they are the old ways; society has come a long way ahead now; times when a boy could be thrashed for meeting a girl are long gone;” Arvind laughed as he commented.
The mother talked to her husband in the evening. After usual discussions, it was agreed that according to the customs, Shreya would ask her father to talk to Arvind’s father, and they would then negotiate the terms of the marriage.
Arvind let Shreya know the outcome of his conversation with his parents. Shreya in turn paid her uncle a visit and informed him, who in turn visited Shreya’s father. In earlier times Shreya would have been reprimanded for meeting the boys, but now her father was glad that much of his work was already done, which was to find a suitable groom for Shreya. Only discussing the details of the wedding were left for him.
A meeting between Shreya’s and Arvind’s fathers was arranged by Shreya’s uncle. Shreya’s father visited Arvind’s father. He talked to Arvind for a few minutes. Then, he came to the point:
“Kids these days are brushing us old-timers aside; we just have to formalize the matters; … and pay for the wedding. …;” and took a one Rupee banknote to offer Arvind’s father to seal the deal. This is one of the customs that endures still as a ritual.
“I’d like to meet the girl;” the mother interrupted before the matters could go any further. Arvind’s father pacified her with, “You’ll have the veto power. I’ll not accept the rupee until we have satisfied ourselves. … I’ll arrange your meeting with Shreya very soon. … Her uncle’s place should be quite convenient, I believe.”
All was going well until this point, but then there were some sparks and the meeting ended inconclusively with an agreement that they’d now communicate through Shreya’s uncle.
“He is the most boorish person I have ever met;” Arvind’s father told Shreya’s uncle, in a meeting that soon followed, “Within minutes he managed to put me down and place himself on the pedestal. He boasted of being immensely rich and powerful; claimed to be brushing shoulders with the Union Ministers; … declared that he had acquired three feet by three feet genuine marble replica of Taj Mahal, to give to Shreya as one of many exotic wedding gifts; … I’ve not seen such a large replica of the Taj in Delhi; have you?”
“No,’ Shreya’s uncle concurred somewhat embarrassed.
“Furthermore, he told me that he had set a bagful of cash aside for dowry; but upon being asked “How much money was there in the bag?” he advised me, “You can count it after the wedding. … He stinks money that he doesn’t have; … yes, doesn’t have. …
You know my friend, what this means; this means that his bag of cash is just bag of hot air, and a replica of Taj and all that could only be flashing of imaginary exotic flower gardens in front of my eyes to blind me. … If I fall for his tricks, I’ll feel like a big fool that I’ll have proven myself to be. … His mannerism conveyed to me that he expects me to be grateful to him for having him as a relative. … He’s an imposing and manipulative egomaniac. … I can bend backwards for Arvind but can’t break my back. … As for dowry, there is so much talk against it; some of which is legitimate; but should our daughters have no shares in our properties? … Arvind has two sisters, I’ve to educate and marry them off in a way that their happiness would be assured; and as you know, money helps. If I receive nothing for Arvind, the burden of my two daughters will become unbearable. … I’ve done for my daughters all I’ve done for Arvind and will do. … You have four of them and one boy, and as far as I know, you are doing all you can for them. …”
“Yes, and we must; in fact, would. … I don’t know how my brother developed this ugly attitude, but he’s always been a bit of an odd ball. This requires a change in the laws, like giving the daughters equal right in the parental property. …”
“There is talk of it, every now and then, but it’ll take time. Besides, the attitudes can’t be legislated.”
“But the behavior can be legislated; and change of behavior induces the change in the attitudes. Concern about the past injustices have changed the present-day society for the better; and the concerns about the current injustices will do the same for the future.”
“Hopefully. In the meantime, there will be quite a few casualties, unfortunately.”
The conversation ended with the assurance of Shreya’s uncle that he would talk to his brother and see if things can proceed further in a civil way.
Shreya’s uncle did talk to his brother, but the only response he got was, “Now you’ll tell me how to do things? … I’m older than you; never forget that.”
Shreya and Arvind, both were devastated. They did meet after that. During the meeting, Arvind told Shreya: “You know how much I love you Shreya, but I cannot part from my parents; if I do, my mother will die, literally; my father will reduce to a zombie; and my sisters, … can’t even imagine; … we all have our albatrosses around our necks Shreya; … I have my duties towards my parental family; I cannot abandon them; … but I cannot part from you either. … At this time, I am totally confused. Let us take some time and sort things out; … I’m sure a way will be found. …”
For her part, Shreya also mentioned that whatever her father may do, she would not want to stigmatize the family. Among other things that is likely to affect the life of her sister adversely:
“She’s going to be damaged and hurt by my father’s deeds, but I would not want it on my conscience. … We have no right to encumber others for our happiness; if sacrifice is called for, we must make it.”
They agreed to meet in future, but both knew that that was ‘The End’ for them; barring some miracle; and everybody knows how often the miracles happen. They have been alleged to have happened at times, but not for us mere mortals, if for anybody at all.
No tears rolled; no blood was shed; but a life was cut from a life. The world had changed.
“My parents have started applying pressure on me to get married,” Ayesha said, “My sister had gotten married when she was five years old; …”
“What? Did you say five?”
“Yes Shreya; my sister had gotten married at five, and that was late. You see, my father was born and raised in a remote village like your father. In that community those days, most Muslim marriages were pre-arranged: If a brother had a daughter and his sister had a son, in the same age group, they were married off to each other; and any time after they were about two was fair. … They didn’t start living together right after the marriage though; that they did after the girl had reached her puberty. … My father was going to school those days. Luckily, I was born quite a bit after my sister, twenty-five years later; several brothers and sisters in-between. In the meantime, my father got a job in New Delhi. He had gotten quite mature, being educated, and living in a very different cultural milieu; so, I survived; so far.; … but this is the end of the road for me. … The road had led my sister to hell way back. She is in her mid-forties and already looks old with grey hair and a flock of children, about a dozen and a half, several married already, with grown up children of their own. … I do have a cousin in our age group, and my mother has been applying pressure on me to get married with him in the old traditional way, but I would prefer to die than marry him; he’s not even educated much; my father is on my side on this one, but with Ravindra she hit the ceiling in rage. …”
“Who is this Ravindra fellow?”
“You don’t remember Ravindra? He was one of the same old bunch we used to travel to the college with. …”
“You dirty old bitch! …”
“Any dirtier than you Shreya?” Ayesha teased back.
“No Ayesha; I was just joking. I’m actually very pleased to hear that you have found someone worthy of you. Hope your case fares better than mine.”
“Don’t lose hope Shreya; I’m sure a way will be found for you two.”
“Thanks for the kind words, my dear friend. But … Oh, well; leave it. You were telling me about Ravindra and you.”
“Yes. After my parents applied pressure on me to get married, I told my father about Ravindra. He said he would discuss the matter with my mother.
“And they agreed of course.”
“Not so easily Shreya. … It took a lot of effort, but my father managed to get my mother’s consent.”
“Wow, when is the wedding? I’m starting the preparations right away.”
“Don’t get excited Shreya. … My father told me that I could get married with Ravindra, as soon as he converts.”
“He won’t convert Babu ji;” I informed my father.
“What! He won’t convert!! … Are you out of your mind daughter?” He reacted wildly.
“Neither of us is religious Babu ji; religions are only in the way of our progress, a big obstacle.”
To cut it short Shreya, my mother declared that I could marry a non-Muslim over her dead body, and my father declared that he would abandon me. …”
“I’m quite astonished that our elders are caught in a time warp.”
“Yes; my mother had even wanted me to call my father ‘Abbu,’ as all the ‘other nice Muslim kids,’ but my father himself preferred the prevailing term in that community; so, she didn’t insist.”
“What our old-timers are Ayesha, maniacs? Or smoking hashish basi-munh (first thing in the morning)?”
“They are permanently under the influence of hashish Shreya, hashish of religion, hashish of their traditions; … and then there are their prejudices and idiosyncrasies; each one of them is much more potent than hashish.”
While supporting herself by tutoring, Shreya was working for her Ph.D. under the supervision of a Professor at Modi College, who was not all that interested in the academic activities. Shreya just happened to be there; so, he thought that he might as well earn a few extra free credit points. Shreya on the other hand, was keenly interested in learning and breaking some new grounds. Thus, the association was doomed from the beginning. She consoled herself by arguing: “Oh well, I am better off in Modi Nagar, away from my father’s clutches. I have more options here; and I can be self-dependent that avails me more freedom.”
Arvind joined the graduate program at Delhi University. Being in a technical field with high marks, he had no difficulty getting the admission, and an admission carried a standard scholarship with it. Shreya and Arvind were proceeding with their lives separately.
Communication between Shreya and Ayesha on the other hand increased in frequency and intensity. While Shreya was trying to get through her degree, Ayesha was trying to get away from her surroundings. She had moved away from her parents quite a while back ‘to be close to her workplace.’ Now she was trying to move to Mumbai to try to build a career in writing upon the advice of a friend who had some contacts there.
Having failed in arranging the marriage of Shreya with Arvind, her father increased his efforts to find a groom for her, but without success. The reasons for the failures were the same as with Arvind: Lack of dowry and his attitude. He was also unhappy about Shreya pursuing her studies further, “She will have educated herself out of the marriage market. Men don’t like their wives to be more educated than themselves.” Another reason, probably the ‘reason,’ was that she was now asserting her individual identity out of his domination.
Time was passing relentlessly. Before they noticed it, Shreya had crossed her twenty-five years marc, beyond which a girl was labelled ‘an old maid’ those days; and with it was increasing her father’s desperation.
Finally, he found a prospective groom. Parents of the groom-to-be didn’t ask for any dowry; that suited Shreya’s father well and the boy was ‘educated.’ The fellow had graduated several years earlier from the same university as Shreya, but from a different college, located in Meerut city. Shreya’s uncle asked his brother about the matter.
“The boy has a university degree in English literature with high marks, currently employed as a clerk at CCS University, his parental family is financially strong and well connected. What more could we ask for? … When the boy, together with his relatives came to meet Shreya, she and the boy talked a lot; they seem to have hit it; Shreya is happy with the arrangement.” her father responded.
Shreya’s uncle made independent inquiries. His findings were very different. He found that the boy was a graduate alright, but not in English literature, instead he had graduated in Social Sciences, a subject with much lesser in demand; his parental family was struggling financially; they had sold their meagre property in their ancestral village and used the proceeds to try to build a life in the city; the boy was unemployed since his graduation several years back; worst of all, the boy was a chronic alcoholic to the extent that he was retrieved periodically from the roadside in a drunken state.
Shreya’s father went in rage, “Are you telling me that my findings are wrong?”
The father screamed and ordered his brother:
“Get out of my sight, this very minute, and never show me your filthy face again.”
“Brother, I am willing to tolerate abuse from you for Shreya’s sake. She is equivalent to a daughter to me for being a daughter of my brother, but more so since she has lived with me for a long time. …”
“I paid you, …”
“I’m not complaining or showing an obligation; it was a pleasure to make Shreya a member of my personal family. And it is for that reason that it will hurt me immensely if she is hurt. … You give me a few months’ time; and keep out of it; rest assured, I’ll find a satisfactory boy soon. … Please, be willing to spend some money; you have quite a bit, not as much as you boast of; give Shreya a fraction of her fair share; in fact, much less will do.”
“A girl’s parental place belongs to her brothers.”
“You mean they have no rights? Not in parental property, not in husband’s parental property?”
“We raise them and marry them off. After marriage, she’s her husband’s responsibility.”
“No longer parental responsibility? Get rid of her and forget about?”
“I’m not arguing with you. My decision is final, including my order not to show me your face again. Good-bye.”
As Shreya’s uncle got up to leave, his brother added in a subdued voice, “You can attend the wedding. … Just keep your face out of my sight.”
“I shall not attend this wedding;” answered the uncle emphatically and left.
Shreya’s uncle told her that due to an urgency, he would not be able to attend her wedding, but gave her a decent sari as her wedding gift in advance. He did not tell her about what he had found about her husband to be and his conversation with his brother; saw no point. However, he did ask, “Are you happy with this upcoming marriage?”
“From what I am told, it is OK.”
“Hmmm, and it is my brother who told you all that you know.
Seeing her being thrown in the situations facing her, tormented him, but he felt completely helpless. He felt that divulging any of his findings to her, would prejudice her mind, and thus, would be counterproductive. He took a vacation around her wedding and went to visit the Jagannath Temple.
Ayesha flew from Mumbai to attend Shreya’s wedding, which was accomplished with fanfare. The groom side had not asked for any dowry; they were glad to trap somebody into giving their daughter in marriage to their boy. However, they did expect a decent amount in the form of gifts and did complain about the miniscule amount they received.
Ayesha combined her visit with her vacation to visit her friends and family. Thus, she stayed for quite some time after the wedding, during which they had ample opportunity to talk frequently.
Shreya found within the first couple of days at her husband’s parental place that what her father had told her about her groom and his parental family was all false. Her findings were about the same as her uncle’s. She was crushed between her expected responsibilities towards her new family, her old family, and herself.
Whenever they met, Shreya told Ayesha that her husband came home drunk late every evening, had sex with her and collapsed:
“It is a demeaning life Ayesha.”
“I understand Shreya; … but what I don’t understand is that you are always so eager to go back to your husband instead of spending more time with your parental family and friends, which is customary in our society; particularly, in an arranged marriage, to ease up the stresses of transition.”
Shreya responded after a long pause: “Ayesha, I’m twenty-six, just a couple of months short; never even held the hand of a boy until after marriage, in a romantic way, I mean; … natural urges take over our bodies and minds Ayesha, and how we react to them becomes an irrational compulsion. … Before marriage, I couldn’t even concentrate on my studies; didn’t know what I was doing; had to get up every half an hour and walk around to try to calm my nerves, to no avail. …At such times, to be blunt, a girl longs for a man; any man would do. … Each time I meet my husband, I hope that it would be better this time; fantasies have a very strong grip on us; we hope, even against all hopes. …”
“But Shreya, these are the feelings of a teenager. Hormones are at their peak in the teens, and fast and radical changes in the body play havoc with our minds. Those things reduce in intensity as we grow older, and increased maturity modulates the intensity of desire. …”
“But the cumulative effects increase; needs of the body increase; desire to experience increases. … Are you still a virgin Ayesha?”
“No, No Shreya I’m not; I met this boy in Mumbai, and we got romantically involved, rather swiftly. … He is also helping me grow professionally.”
“That was still quite later. … Is this a case of the ‘short memories Ayesha?’ … How did you feel before going to Mumbai?”
Ayesha laughed a feeble laugh. After a pause she admitted, “Now that you mention Shreya, I can understand how you feel. … It will subside in a few months though.”
“Let those few months pass quickly by then Ayesha. … But no; in your case it subsided in a few months because you found a satisfactory partner; you moved to Mumbai short time after graduation; mine has been more than four years of wait to have some experience, and relief. Satisfaction, … of the kind you mention Ayesha, I can’t even dream of. And getting. … getting some happiness with my husband, is just a fantasy for me, it is going to remain that: A fantasy. Ayesha, I hope each time that it would be better this time, as I told you, but each disappointment nibbles another bit of my life. … During the student life, we joked and fantasized aloud about our future husbands. … We took them as jokes Ayesha, but we were dead serious; our sexual urges and repressions were showing up; our need for love, and I mean love, were also very intense; as intense as for sex.”
“Yes. … But by now they have subsided; intensity has reduced, and the feelings are no longer novel. Once you have the experience, it is not all that great a thing. Is it?”
“If you are getting it Ayesha, it is nothing, but if you are not, then it is the holy grail. Not getting it can crush you. … You had been getting it, for the last several years, I wasn’t. … So, I am trying to get my fill now, and what I got is all I have. At least not waste this opportunity. … Now do you understand my apparently contradictory behavior?”
“Yes; … you can use him for whatever his worth.”
“That too is not easy, Ayesha, I feel sex with him so degrading; I feel like vomiting after having sex with him. …But that is ‘after,’ ‘before,’ the desire is intense; it builds up after each ugly experience … I feel used and abused after ‘using’ him. … It is not I who is using him, it is he who is using me.”
“You have deterred me from an undesirable marriage Shreya, even more than I was before. …
“If my father was willing to pay a respectable dowry Ayesha, I would have been the daughter-in-law of Arvind’s parents. … They weren’t expecting much; do I have no right in my parental property? The way things are, it’s all for the brothers. And then his behavior; that is something else.”
“You still long to be Arvind’s wife; it shows even in your avoiding to say so;” Ayesha joked, “I can play cupid, if you want.”
Shreya laughed a feeble, rather depressed, laugh. “Cupid had already shot his arrow, which had found its mark Ayesha. … Arvind had told me that dowry was a rather minor factor, a compromise could be reached, both sides had to move a little, it was my father’s behavior; and that is not going to change. Who’d want a relative like him! My husband’s side tolerated it because they were desperate; but now that they managed to trap somebody, they are showing that they can counter him on his terms. … No, that is ‘The End’ for Arvind and me; I’d be an ultimate fool to entertain any hope. …”
“Sorry to hurt you, my dear friend; I was thinking I could cheer you up. … But you still love him, don’t you?”
“First love never leaves you Ayesha; so yes. Has Ravindra left your mind?”
Hurt showed on Ayesha’s face as she spoke feebly with bowed head, “No.”
Shreya continued after a brief pause, “But some relations are not meant to end in union, some journeys never reach their destinations; … it’s wise not to pursue them. Literature all over the world is filled with such stories. … There is still hope for you and Ravindra, but not for me and Arvind.”
Ayesha visited her parents before heading back to Mumbai.
“You have become quite independent Ayesha;” her mother commented.
“All birds fly far out of the nest Mummy, someday, but they come back at times. I’ll be visiting you periodically,”
There was a period of silence; then her mother asked, “Have you given some thought to settling down?”
“I had Mummy, you didn’t like my idea and I didn’t like yours.”…
“If Ravindra is willing to accept Allah, I’ll accept him.”
“He’s not going to become a Muslim Mummy?”
Her mother just looked at her.
“These are obsolete ideas Mummy, adherence to religion. As for Ravindra, I don’t even know where he is and what he is doing. I would not do anything to impact adversely upon your prestige, your standing in the society; and on the lives of my siblings and their children; so, don’t worry. I’ll remain unmarried;” Ayesha said.
… “I can find a nice Muslim boy for you’” her mother added after a pause.
“Mummy, I was never in favor of the arranged marriages. Now after learning what happened to Shreya, I’m dead set against them. … You don’t worry about me anymore. My life is taking off; I’ll be fine.”
“It is not easy to make it in writing in Mumbai, Bollywood I mean. You are probably living on a shoestring budget.”
“There are difficulties in every endeavor in the beginning, but as I said, my life is taking off. … I went there upon the advice of a friend who has been helping me. …”
“Your friend is a man?”
“Yes Mummy. Why are you so hung upon the gender and religion of my friends? In our lives, professional and personal, we make many friends, some men, some women; some Hindus, some Muslims, some Christians, and all that. …”
“Are you very close to that man?”
“Are you …?”
Ayesha’s Mummy stared into her eyes inquiringly. Ayesha was feeling very uncomfortable and it was getting worse.
“I’d save you the trouble Mummy: Yes, I’m romantically involved with Anupam; that’s his name; and he’s a Hindu, that is, he was born in a Hindu family, but he’s not religious, like me; and yes Mummy, we sleep together. …”
“You sleep with a man before marriage!” She almost screamed.
“Will you marry him?”
“May be! …” They both just stared at each other.
A period of silence followed as they both were quite confounded, particularly the mother.
“Mummy, I cannot marry every man I sleep with. …”
“Every man you sleep with!”
“Yes Mummy, I have friends, and each one fills a void inside me. I have discovered that we are multi-dimensional creatures, that is, we have several dimensions to our personalities. Accordingly, we have variety of needs, and we need number of friends to complement us fully. Besides, there is bonus: They help me generate business. …”
“That is selling yourself; … prostitution; … sharing bed for job.”
“It has been said Mummy, that ‘Marriage is legalized prostitution;’ some of them definitely are, most of them actually. What is yours Mummy? … The men in my life have needs that I fulfill, and they fulfill mine. As for using each-other’s bodies, it is for pleasure; and I get as much pleasure out of their company as they get out of mine. … I might have remained a ‘one man woman,’ if you had let me marry Ravindra; likely; I would not have discovered what I have now; but that would have been then; now I’m happy with how it is now.” …
“Allah does not forgive polygamous people; …”
“Allah allows men to marry four times; even more by divorcing and marry more. On top of that, He provides seventy-two virtuous virgins to each pious man. If this is not condoning polygamy Mummy, then what is it?”
Her mother was taken aback but had not given up as she continued:
“Allah has prescribed certain ways, …”
“I don’t know if and what Allah, if there is one, has done, but I know what you have done to my sister. You made her follow your ways. What happened? She slept with a cousin whom she didn’t like, and you call it the right way, Allah’s way; Allah doesn’t seem to have a concept of genetic diversification either.”
“What is that?”
“Mummy, a couple with diverse genes produces healthier off springs, ensuring the survival of the specie. Allah’s way seems to allow a narrow set of genes to go forward. …”
“Tauba, tauba, that’s kufra daughter; Allah shall not forgive you for that.”
“Allah can do what he wishes with me. And I don’t know if what I’m saying is kufra or what; but I know well Mummy, what you did to my sister is definitely kufra of the worst kind; I don’t know what is the case in yours and Allah’s view, but in view if the human justice it certainly is. … She spent whole her life so far raising a platoon of children she can’t cope with. It is a long story Mummy, but let me mention: You had her go through the humiliation of halala also, just because she had to attend to her sick child, and was late in serving the dinner to her no good husband. No Mummy, that’s not for me. You support halala but not polygamy! You support instant triple divorce but not polygamy! … And Shreya, that’s another story. You are sacrificing your children at the altar of your customs, beliefs, superstitions, egos, and what not. …”
There was yet another period of an uncomfortable silence. Ayesha saw no point in prolonging the discomfort. She mentioned:
“There is a flight in a couple of hours Mummy, I should leave now to catch it. …”
“Shouldn’t you meet your father? You can go tomorrow.”
“That’s what my plan was Mummy; but now the way things between us have developed; … just convey my regards to Babu ji.”
Ayesha left with a void in her heart but leaving a void behind also.
Shreya’s brother got married after her marriage. Her father managed to con his prospective father in law that his son was operating an electrodes production factory. Shreya’s brother even took his prospective bride’s father for a tour of an electrodes production factory in Modi Nagar that belonged to a friend of him who had agreed to act as the manager during the tour, and of course, Shreya’s brother was ‘the owner.’ There were several other lies and deceptive deeds. All in all, the fellow got married to a well-educated girl with an affluent parental family; and she brought commensurate dowry ‘in view of the prestige of her parental, and the groom’s parental family.’
Shreya became pregnant soon after getting married. This new experience took her mind off her miseries for a while like the proverbial man stuck in a tree with a beast eying him on the ground and a predator bird trying to snatch him from above. To make the matters worse, two mice, one black and one white, were nibbling on the stem of the tree. Periodically, a drop of honey would drop in his mouth from a beehive above him, and he would forget his predicament for a while.
Soon she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She was filled with joy, so much so that she wanted to have another one, right away; and she did: A girl this time. She felt very fulfilled as a mother.
During all this time she was almost sleep walking, but the proverbial mice were doing their job as the day and the night: Time to find a solution had gotten so much shorter. After two babies she realized that the constraints had increased and she had gotten deeper into the difficulties, particularly as her husband was still unemployed. Her in laws’ expectations from her regarding the household chores were increasing; ‘after all they were sustaining her family.’
“You exaggerate daughter; you should listen to your husband and you’ll be fine. Your husband is educated; only thing lacking is a job. Your father has contacts in Meerut and Modi Nagar; he’ll get him a job.” Shreya’s mother mentioned one day during a conversation.
“Why hasn’t he gotten one till now?”
“Your father didn’t think that his help was needed yet; he was making progress by himself.”
“And a job for my brother? He too has been struggling for many years?”
“He wants to establish his business by himself. He has told his father that he’s doing well, and when the electrodes production has started in his factory, he’ll show us.”
“Keep waiting Mummy; because he’s floundering; the factory is only in the imagination of whoever wants to believe it.”
"Your husband will reform now that he’s a father. Men are like that; they remain juveniles until they have a family. Now that he has a wife and children, he’ll reform.”
“Hope your hope is realized Mummy, but I can’t be so optimistic.”
The only change in the behavior of Shreya’s husband occurred was that he had started abusing her physically, and the brutality of abuse was increasing. Her base in Modi Nagar eroded, she had nowhere to go but her parents during the period of serious discord between her and her husband. Her parents always prodded her to ‘get along’ with her husband. In fact, they wanted to wash their hands off her, never wanted to listen to her problems, not even wanted to see her: Out of sight, out of mind:
“We found her an educated husband; she met him before the marriage, she had ample opportunity to evaluate him. Her complaints now are illegitimate. She should learn to live with her husband.”
Thus, her life was getting kicked between Meerut City and her parental village like a football.
Arguments between her and her father started getting more and more heated. During one of those arguments, Shreya mentioned:
“If you were willing to pay even a modest amount in dowry, I wouldn’t have ended like this Babu ji.”
“You are telling me to accept a bad custom of our society!”
“Bad, when you have to pay; good when you receive? … And a little civility in behavior wasn’t going to hurt you.”
Her father placed his hand on his heart and started walking erratically creating an impression that he was badly hurt by the comment and might get a seizure. Her mother lay him on a cot while muttering all the time:
“I don’t know what this girl is going to do. She’ll give him a heart attack one of these days. Does she not know that he has a weak heart! What shall we do if he goes? He’s all we got. …”
Shreya was flushed reflecting a feeling of guilt. By that time the mother had sent someone to fetch her brother who was visiting them.
After things calmed down, her brother also reprimanded her:
“You have made your life hell by not getting along with your husband. He must be fed up with you to react the way he does. …”
Shreya spent the night there somehow. In the morning, she headed back to Meerut, to face the music.
Shreya’s uncle had made some wise investments in real estate near Modi Nagar. When his daughters started going to the college, he sold his property quietly. When Shreya’s father found this out, he had his son drive him to her uncle, in the car he had received in his dowry; although he had told the uncle not to show him his face.
“How dare you do this to our family? Grinded our prestige in dirt! Have you no sense of responsibility? How shall I show my face to our father in heaven? …” he was almost screaming at his brother with hand placed over his heart.
“Calm down brother and tell me what you are talking about.”
“What am I talking about! You shameless scumbag, you! Sold our property without my permission. …”
“That was my property;” the uncle corrected him, “ I had acquired it more than a decade back, expecting it to appreciate, which it did beyond my expectations. Now I need money to send my daughters to college, and then to marry them off to nice educated grooms from respectable families. And the boy too of course, but he’s still young. …”
“You sold our property to spend on your daughters!”
“This was my plan from the beginning. By the way brother, that wasn’t our property, that was my property.”
“Squander wealth to spend on daughters!”
“That’s what I just told you; but not squander, invest in my daughters.”
“Our wealth is our wealth, not our daughters’ wealth. They get married; go away; and take the wealth with them. Our wealth must remain with us.”
“My daughters are my children; they can do what they will with their shares of the wealth. Besides, it will be spent on them; to educate them and build their lives. There won’t be much left for them to take. My son will get his share.”…
“You’ll give them dowry?”
“After spending that much on them?”
“Yes. They should have something to start a new family with.”
“And their husbands?”
“They’ll bring some from their sides. Combined resources will help them start a new family.”…
“I would have bought it from you; I had set aside a bagful of money, well above the value of the property. …”
“The kind of bag you had set aside to give to Shreya in dowry?”
The father made tight fists and just screamed.
For about a decade, Shreya could think of no way out of her predicament. She communicated with Ayesha, who could only sympathize. She did invite her to live with her and try to build a life in Mumbai, but there were differences between her and Ayesha and their situations. That might have been feasible a decade or so back, but that route was no longer feasible for Shreya. She thought of number of individuals from her past she could seek counsel from; but they all turned out to be the dead ends.
One day, she noticed a trail in that thick dark forest: She had made a good friend, Deepa, during her days in Modi Nagar. One day, after sustaining yet another one of her drunken husband’s beatings, Shreya headed to Deepa in Modi Nagar, leaving everyone and everything, including her children behind.
Deepa was surprised to see her old friend. After listening to her story, Deepa inquired why Shreya hadn’t reported to the police.
“That would have given a black eye to my parents’ standing in the society.
“Screw their standing. Come with me; we are going to report this to the police right away.”
“It’s not only the prestige of my parents, it’s my respectability also. You know this society. People will comment on me, my children, my parental family, and my husband’s parental family. My brother or my husband, or both might even try to kill me for this. … No, Deepa; … let’s keep it under the cover. Just let’s try to find a way out of it.”
Deepa started thinking quietly. Just remarked:
“You should not have delayed it so much. You know, you could come and live with me any time for as long as you wanted.”
The news that Shreya was living in Modi Nagar reached her parents quickly, who dispatched her brother to get her. He expressed his anger telling her that staying with someone so close to ‘her home’ was an insult to them:
“You know, what have you done to Babu ji; he almost had a heart seizure, and Mummy, is crying nonstop. People are already talking. …”
“Calm down brother; I’ve seen such antics too many times to be deluded anymore. I wish I had seen this before. …”
“Why did you not come home, your home?”
“My home! Where is it brother?”
Her brother was taken aback. After regaining his composure, he responded:
“Where we live is your home.”
“In that ‘home,’ I’ve always been told that my home is with my husband, and I must accept the kind of life he gives me. And enduring the beatings is a part of them brother.” …
Shreya refused to budge from her friend’s place.
She got almost absorbed in Deepa’s family. Deepa’s husband and children took naturally to her. Deepa also found her a job in a private college where she was working herself, albeit a low paying one.
Her father died about a year later, due to a massive heart attack, of course. Her brother and mother blamed Shreya and the Uncle for his death:
“He could not recover from the hurt they gave him, …”
Her contact with her parental family had already ended, except for some formal protocols. Whatever was left was gone now.
After about a decade, she found a well-paying job in Jaipur, a middle manager in a private company. She started saving some money for the first time in her life.
In time Shreya lost her job. By that time, she was hitting her sixtieth year.
Now Shreya was a middle-aged divorcee, living in Vrindavan, close to her Lord Krishna. She found solace in religion; submitted herself to her Lord Krishna. She was living off the interest of her savings supplemented with her income from tutoring young students. She devoted the rest of her time to prayers in temples in front of the statues of her Lord.
Ayesha had kept in touch with her all the way through. She visited Shreya who took her to her favorite temple. Ayesha didn’t know how to pray, but she did participate in the mass prayer in a clumsy way, mimicking the ways of the crowd. They had a chat about their lives.
“Do you ever think of Arvind?” Ayesha asked.
“Yes, often; but quickly he dissolves into the image of my Lord Krishna, and then in His grand form engulfing me. I reach an immensely peaceful state, a state of ultimate ecstasy, a state of super consciousness. …
How about you? Do you ever think of Ravindra?” Shreya asked after coming out of her short-lived trance.
“Of course, I do; but not in the way you think of Arvind. Ravindra springs in my memory without warning; often when I am in the arms of one of my lovers.”
“How many do you have?”
“Depends on when.”
“Didn’t bother to count.”
They both laughed.
“At times I wonder Shreya, what a slow killer the ‘life’ is; death just sneaking upon us, spreading a thin shroud over our existence, consuming us, little by little.”
“Mine certainly has been so Ayesha; mine certainly has been so.” …
“You probably think Shreya, that mine has been better, but not really, fundamentally, I mean; you might think that I have it all; … love, sex, professional satisfaction; … but Shreya, there is a void inside me, I can’t fill it, it strangles me; all I do is try to escape from it, but that too isn’t possible. … The hurt the life has inflicted upon me dwells inside me; as the hurt your life has inflicted upon you dwells inside you … happiness has eluded me as much as it has eluded you Shreya; … you find solace at the feet of your Lord Krishna, I find solace in the arms of my lovers; …, whatever there is.”
Ayesha’s words sent Shreya gazing into space. After a long pause, she whispered:
is a needle without a thread
pokes and pierces
is a song
full of tears and sighs
arrested in throat
is a journey
along a contorted trail
in a thick forest
full of rocks and pitfalls
twists and turns
“Reminds me of a passage from Macbeth:
Is a tale
Told by an idiot
Full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing’ ”
“Come with me to Mumbai Shreya my friend; there is always hope, there really is;” Ayesha said before parting.
“No Ayesha; you go my dear friend. Visit me whenever you can. My place is at the feet of my Lord.
Shreya hugged Ayesha her goodbye.
“Your pants are mended auntie;” the young girl, Ankita said.
“Uh,” Shreya made an inadvertent sound, as if she just woke up from sleep.
“Oh yeah. Thanks, dear; now come sit with me. I’ll give you half an hour extra today for your service.”