“Neha, I can’t be a slave here.”
“Slave! You are my husband, dear.”
“I am no husband. I am a slave, nothing else.”
“Why, at night you are OK being a husband. What happens to you when the day dawns? Another bout, today.”
“Neha, why don’t you understand? I love you, but… but I have lost my self-respect here. I have no identity of my own. I am known just as your husband.”
“But Vikas dear, I always call you ‘ Vikas dear’. Isn’t that your name? What else do you want?”
“Neha, don’t make fun of me. I am serious. Here everything is yours. This house too. There everything is your father’s. It is his show. What is mine? Nothing.”
“When I am yours, what is the problem? This house—it was bought by my dad. So naturally they would buy in my name, not yours. And there, that business is my father’s. So that will be in his name. When you set up your own business, it will be yours, and in your name.”
“But I have been working like a donkey all these years, and yet…”
“Haven’t you been taken care of? Your food, clothes, stay, and then me, all these things cost. Nothing comes for free. If you are ambitious, go and do something of your own.”
“Yes, I want to set up my own business. But your papa doesn’t help me. He should give me some money, buy me a shop… He is such a rich man. Can’t he do this much for me?”
“No, he can’t,” Neha said severely. “And why should he do it? He is a rich man because he has worked hard for his money. He came here when he had nothing. He washed dishes in the hotels, and saved money, and rose to become what he is.”
“Neha, what do you want? I should wash dishes!”
“If you want to be something, if you want to rise like my dad, you have to work hard. In England everybody works hard,” Neha said ,sipping her coffee.
“I had never thought that you will treat me like that,” Vikas said in anguish. “I thought I was marrying the daughter of a rich man settled in England. So…”
“You Indians believe in unearned money, like everything comes in dowry, along with the girl,” said Neha sadly. “My Dad is running your home. Of course, you are working at his shop. That’s all. That’s what he promised. Or has he cheated you in any way?”
Vikas was lost in thoughts: Mr. Kapoor, Neha’s father, had visited India and met my uncle. They were good old friends. I had always pestered my uncle to persuade his friend to help me in emigrating to England. That time he talked to him. Mr. Kapoor met me and was impressed.
“You want to go to England, I learn. Are you really serious or it is just a fancy?”
“No, I am seriously interested.”
“OK, I have a proposal for you. I have a daughter, not highly educated but OK. Good looking of course. We are looking for an Indian match for her. If you are interested, I can talk to her. If you both like each other, you would be in England. That is the only way you can settle over there. I have a good business. Until you are on your own, you can join me.”
My uncle patted me on my back and said, “Just say yes. You can’t have a better way of going to England. You go to England and get a girl too. How lucky!”
Neha looked into his lost eyes. She knew he was ruminating over his past. After all he had been a manager in a bank, had a good house and caring parents. He left everything and came here. He must be very ambitious. And here he is working like a servant at my father’s shop. My father! How intelligent he is! He puts his earnings in my bank account and never gives him any money. He buys things for us, this house too, but all in my name so that he treats me properly and is always doing things I want him to do. Of course, it is a lot of money my father gives to us, and we have all the fun in the world. We enjoy our life to the full. We do whatever he wants. And yet all the credit cards are in my name. And my father has instructed me to keep him on leash, always, if I want to be happy. What can I do? I have money, so I flirt with my leisure too. No restrictions of any kind. He is at the shop, under the strict watch of my father. And when he comes back, he is in my bed. He is happy in my bed, always lolling around, drugged with my body… I pity him. It is only on such rare occasions that his inner urges—the foolish notions of being free and independent—are awakened. But I soon lull them to sleep. After all he is a man, I realize. And he is intelligent too. But helpless all the same.
Vikas slowly turned to her and said staring into her eyes, “Cheated me! Yes, he has cheated me of all my ambitions, all my dreams.”
“Yes, he has treated me worse than a slave. Even my earnings go to your bank account. Why?” Vikas said furiously. “Even servants are not treated like that.”
“Oh, come on,” said Neha sweetly. “You bother about small things. My account or your account—what is the difference when you and I are one? Isn’t he giving us a lot of money?”
“Not for free,” growled Vikas. “I work all day for him, more than eight hours that people normally work. I can’t accept this situation forever.”
“Well then, what do you want? If you are really serious, tell me what you want once for all. Don’t create this ‘ tamasha’ every other day.”
“I want to go back to India. I don’t want to live here.”
“OK, when do you want to go? Give me the date, and I shall get you the ticket.”
“Yes. But before that you will have to get divorce from me. I can’t go on waiting for your return indefinitely”, said Neha bitterly.
Vikas was shocked. He had not even thought of that. Neha was an English girl, born and brought up in England, he realized. He loved her. How could he do that? He had reached the crossroads. He had to take a decision. He thought over his situation: If I return to India like this, I will be considered a failure. Everybody would think I was at fault. They have money, and money is always right. My parents expect a lot from me. They always think I would one day become a big man and call them too here. All the other relations too expect big things from me. I won’t be able to have any position there in India, and how can I live with the stigma of a failure all my life? They are very clever people. They will paint me in black, and as they have a great standing, everybody would believe them. Neha would get another husband, another crazy man like me, and I would be forgotten forever. Should I accept this situation? Why should I? Death is better than dishonor. And it is a country of opportunities. Why can’t I try? Even if I fail, that failure would be far better than this kind of life, life of a slave, life of a dog, life of total dependence. They are very shrewd people. They use people for their own benefit. They have used me, used my craving, used my humility and acceptance. They have used me unfairly. No more, no, never.
He turned to Neha and gazed into her eyes. She was horrified. She had never seen his eyes so glaring and determined. “No, I won’t go to India”, he said in a measured tone, “but I won’t work at your papa’s shop either. I shall try my luck somewhere else. And from this moment on, I shall not use your money.”
Neha was perplexed. She had never thought that he had the guts to stand independently. It was just his fancy, she thought, and so didn’t give much weight to it. In two-three days this madness would vanish when he would sleep with the costly drinks, she thought and smiled.
Vikas immediately rang up his friend, Navin, who knew him from India. They had met quite often and discussed the world. For the first time they got personal. Vikas asked him if he could get a job somewhere.
“What is the problem? So suddenly!”
“I want a job, that’s all.”
“OK. If you are serious, come and join me tomorrow. Why a job? You will be the manager of my new store that I opened last week. Honest, sincere and hardworking people are rare these days. If you want a drink, come over and we shall finalize the deal”, Navin said generously.
“No, it’s OK. I shall meet you tomorrow morning.”
In the evening, Mr. Kapoor came over and tried to persuade Vikas and win him back. “Well, what has happened to you? What do you want?”
“Nothing. Only I want to stand on my own, not on the crutches provided by you.”
“But these crutches are golden and come free,” Mr. Kapoor said sardonically. “You will suffer, and make Neha also suffer. I can’t allow that.”
“If Neha thinks she can’t live with me in difficult times, she is free to separate. I am ready for any kind of settlement.”
“What! You are talking like a fool! I love Neha. You don’t know how far I can go for making her happy,” Mr. Kapoor said, his face red, his body shaking.
Vikas stared at Neha.
Neha read his eyes and realized the situation she was in. “Papa,” she said, putting her hand on his father’s shoulder, “I am fine. I will be fine. You don’t worry. If Vikas wants to try his luck elsewhere, let him. Maybe, that will be good for everybody.”
Mr. Kapoor was apprehensive. “I don’t know what will become of you. How will you manage your life without my support?”
“Papa, as you managed your life without my Mum’s parents,” Neha said with a smile.
“O Neha, you don’t know it was a very, very difficult life. I don’t want you to suffer that way.”
“Papa, don’t worry. We shall be fine. Ultimately, everybody has to find his own way. Life teaches you all the lessons, bitter or sweet. Nothing is absolute here. So why worry?” Neha said with equanimity.
Mr. Kapoor was amazed. She had grown up, he thought.