The Two Hours
By Ram Govardhan
Anita was fiddling with a jewel-studded tiara by dangling it between her hairline and where the third eye would have been in the middle of forehead. She was kneeling as the thinning amalgam had left a lucent space on the upper half of the age-old mirror. It was as old as her father, Subbu, could name their oldest ancestor but recollection never went beyond his great-grandfather; making it easier for guests to guess its age.
Captivated by her daughter's tiaraed beauty, Rukku, Anita's mother, was drawing closer. Spotting her feet in the mirror, Anita feverishly waved her not to approach. If her father were to know the religion of the man, who had gifted the tiara, he would instantly contemplate poisoning everyone and, in the end, killing himself in the name of honour. Her eyes glued on the tiara, a gold-starved Rukku, did not see Anita's gesture. Any gold tinted embellishment always excited Rukku and she reverently felt the circlet but, although it looked too golden and too brilliant, she could not perceive it to be anything more than an imitation piece made of baser metal. Imitation jewellery, sold for pennies, always appeared more golden than the genuine yellow element. Indian lower middle class families, to which Rukku's folks patiently agreed to belong for centuries, could only think of 'rolled gold.'
Summoning up that she herself pointlessly dolled up for hours just ahead of her own marriage, finding Anita in front of the mirror for hours, Rukku easily assumed that her daughter was indeed in favour of marriage now; another assumption based not on rationale but heredity. Resting hands on Anita's shoulders, summoning unusual courage, she said in the most dramatic, breathless manner possible, "The marriage party from Bangalore is still awaiting a word from us, they are still interested, even after two years, for god's sake, say yes at least now."
Of the eleven that Anita had turned down in two years, four were fantastic matches. An utterly disgusted Subbu vowed not to think of her marriage until she wanted one.
"The groom is not so handsome... but is the only son of a great industrialist in Bangalore... nammava of our caste... we seldom come across such magnificent proposals... surely a godsend... you better agree now," hem and hawed Rukku finely tucking her daughter's sari. "No way," said Anita sternly, throwing a stare and quickly snapping her mother's hands away.
Both of Rukku's assumptions were, unusually, very wide of the mark; while the tiara was in no way an imitation one, Anita had no inkling of marrying anyone belonging to her caste or religion. In fact, she was seeing someone from a religion that was the fastest growing faith in the world. It was this 'someone' who had gifted the expensive tiara; it was so dear that Rukku would instantly faint if she were to be told of its real worth in Indian currency. And Anita's father would instantly die of heart attack if he were to know of her man's religion.
At thirty, Anita's age was ripe enough for several speculations to mushroom within the extended family and in the neighbourhood. The predominant one was that she is seeing someone and the other one, more scandalous, was that she has already married in secret and spent daylight hours with him somewhere on East Coast Road.
Within few months, many in Mylapore began claiming to have noticed Anita emerging out of a sports car and waving that 'someone' off, many a time, with ever-increasing frequency, late at night. And the number of claimants was mounting by the day. Though aware of the whole buzz, Rukku never had the nerve to pin her daughter down or apprise her husband of it. But grapevine has a brutal, uncanny knack of reaching everyone, everywhere.
One rainy morning, just as Subbu was heading to temple, disgrace hit him in the middle of the road. A wobbly drunkard seized his umbrella and cried aloud the scandal the neighbourhood was agog with. In spite of the pouring, while the tippler cried "Shameless...shameless," a sizeable mob flocked to watch the street show. Instant giddiness made, this time, Subbu wobble. Forgetting prayers, god and umbrella, he rushed back home thoroughly doused. He did not disclose anything to anyone but Rukku knew what hit him; just a few days ago, but on a sunny afternoon, she herself was shamed by the selfsame dipsomaniac.
Six months passed by with nothing of consequence occurring in Subbu's life except routine visits to temples, thayir saadam curd rice and afternoon naps. And except the wicked-mother-in-law, gullible-daughter-in-law Tamil television serials and potboilers, no exciting stuff ensued in Rukku's life too. Damning gossip was incessantly pouring in but, these days; it was not disturbing her sleep or television time like it did a year ago.
On a full moon day, Anita was not home even by eleven in the night. They called her office, friends and relatives but all of them expressed ignorance. It was almost midnight and the whole family was nervously waiting at the main door. It was one but Anita did not arrive, it was two in the morning but she did not arrive and it was four but she did not arrive.
Subbu was fretting and fuming at the doorway for over six hours. He stood like a statue with all parts of body frozen and unyielding; even his eyelids, battling sleep, were largely obeying him by batting at a slower rate.
A plush, quiet car, an imported one for sure, came to a hushed halt just short of their street corner around five. Anita waved him off. She scurried along disregarding Subbu who was gnashing teeth and upright like a stiff sentry. Anita's grandmothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and nieces trouped in together and encircled Anita near the well. They did not allow her to wash up. They were all fidgety, incensed to have a verbal go at her but their emotions had to wait for Subbu's grilling to commence, finish.
"Who is he?" Subbu thundered. She was quiet. "Who is he?"... "Who is he?" She was still gazing her own feet. Just before the tempers frayed further, one of the aunts pinched Anita's waist prodding an instant reaction.
"He is Salim." Anita's reply mocked and shocked them all; mocked because her voice was so dauntless and shocked since it was a Muslim name. While her audacity was digestible, it was the Muslim thing that triggered the deliberation of killing themselves instantly, collectively.
Even before Subbu asked a question more, Anita retorted, "No one needs to bother, it's my life...leave me alone." The whole family was dazed and collectively slipped into coma for twelve whole minutes. From the thirteenth minute, while most were emotionally preparing and sequencing their numerous questions, a few were gearing up for the dire consequences of their questions. Given Anita's resilience, all of them were uniformly sure that the consequences of Subbu's questions would be fatal. One of the aunts, not the one that pinched, whispered, "Answers of a girl in love are always deadlier."
There was no further grilling, no questions and all that Subbu did, in a fit of rage, was to land couple of wholesome slaps on Anita and cry, "This family is doomed, let us all poison ourselves." Without further ado, he furiously walked out, reached the temple, knelt, prayed Lord Murugan fasting all day and fainted just short of sunset.
Having spent four days in hospital, lying in bed at home, he entreated every one of the relatives, who visited him with bread and Horlicks, to 'conjure up' bridegrooms; even unattractive, less cultured, shorter and darker ones were acceptable. Jobless and aged 'boys' were also tolerable as long as they belonged to their caste, sub-caste, sect and sub-sect. After a few days, finding it difficult, given the exigency, Subbu decided to discount the sub-caste, sub-sect criteria but decreed that the caste and religion measures were not to be fiddled with.
Among the scores of horoscopes that arrived, some turned out to be unbelievably suitable. But the whole family had no illusions at all and, as expected, Anita ruthlessly refused to consider even one of them. After Anita's wholesale rejections, for over a month now, Subbu was not his usual self. He remained cold, brooded, answered in moods that were alien, annoyed easily, always lost in thought, and, as a result, exacerbated his Siamese twins: blood pressure and diabetes.
A few weeks later, with his grit lay shattered, while serving his favourite cup of Narasu's coffee; Rukku seized the moment with a quiver in her voice, "The boy...SSS...Salim...belongs to an aristocratic family...is a medical doctor...owns a chain of specialty hospitals across south India and his father...a renowned cardiologist...heads the panel that doctors the prime minster."
Although he wondered about Rukku's sources that supplied so much of information about the 'boy,' Subbu remained indifferent and, atypically, said nothing and went back to his newspaper. His silence was her first little coup.
Three days later, Parvati, Subbu's sister, arrived from Bangalore unannounced along with her two-year-old grandson. Her arrival cheered Subbu, his great spirit was back, and within days, Subbu was fit as fiddle.
"I met Dr Abbas, Salim's father, yesterday," said Parvati with trepidation, "Abbases are very cosmopolitan in their outlook and they have already met Anita. They liked her very much."
For several decades, Subbu's sway over all domestic matters was complete and unquestioned but, at present, the ladies were staging a domestic coup of sorts. Subbu remained quiet and, quite unusually, groped for the newspaper that he had read twice since morning. Subbu's odd behaviour and silence made Parvati wonder whether this was her first little triumph. Rukku and Parvati mutely rejoiced his silence.
A devout Hindu priest's daughter seeing a Muslim man was too unfathomable. In the whole of Subbu's family, no one has ever married anyone outside their caste and sub-caste leave alone marrying outside their religion. Not a man to tolerate his Brahminical purity to be diluted so easily, Subbu was waiting for his health to permit him to have a go at the Abbases who, he was sure, had brainwashed his daughter into, of all the religions, Islam.
Few weeks later, the moment he was robust enough, Subbu declared that he is going to take the bull by its horns. As a well-thought-out first step, he decided to face them in their arena; the boy's place. And convince them about the impossibility of the marriage given the orthodox, handed-down conventions inherent to his caste. And bury their 'cosmopolitan thoughts' in their backyard before triumphantly returning home. He deferred contemplation of second step since his first step seemed too foolproof. Confounding Subbu, both Rukku and Parvati encouraged him to visit the Abbases; Parvati swiftly jotted down the address on a piece of paper.
He boarded the share-auto rickshaw in the searing, sweltering heat of Madras. Sandwiched between two fishermen, looking more like pugilists and exhaling unsavoury smells, he was saying prayers to his god to somehow bestow better sense on his daughter and on the Abbases. All of a sudden, he felt an agonizing punch in his paunch but blamed it on the omnipresent potholes of Madras; it was one of the 'pugilists' who knocked him unconscious to rob.
The auto-rickshaw driver stirred him up at the Bluestar bus stop. Subbu woke up to see his polythene pouch, which contained a few rupees, missing. With no money, he began walking in the general direction of Abbas Villa with his large, looping marsupial tummy. The street looked too posh and, as he was walking along, he could not believe that he was in India. The avenue was so plush, so wide, and so serene and lined with such huge, aristocratic bungalows that Subbu had seen such beauties only in western movies and Indian ones shot in western locales.
Abbas Villa was an astounding marble marvel and nothing short of a grand palace. Three gate keepers welcomed him with salutes the kinds of which Subbu watched on television on independence, republic days. How do they know who he was? Subbu wondered. Nevertheless, putting on an unfazed gait, he entered the living that seemed as big as a football ground. The instant realisations that he was too crudely clad and too underprepared for the lavish bungalow made him feel out of place. The rich tapestry replete with French allegory on the walls, the Burmese rosewood cabinets were exquisite. In contrast, he wondered, as to how his family of ten lived for so long inside the lacklustre walls of his dilapidated, tiled, rented house; dying for a coat of paint for years and ready to die altogether, anytime. Abbas Villa's imperial grandeur was inbuilt in the edifice and it had no earthly air about it; it could only have been stolen from heaven, a Muslim heaven at that.
He sought to sit on the edge but sank into the softest sofa he ever sat on. Entire furniture looked anything but Indian. "If these movable things, carpets and sofas, were to be auctioned, they would fetch much more than the worth of my entire immovable property in ancestral Kadambathur," estimated Subbu.
Dr Abbas sedately climbed down the umpteen steps of the winding stairs with a pipe clenched in a corner of his mouth. Without any fuss or preamble, Dr Abbas bowed and greeted Subbu with folded hands. Subbu actually expected a handshake or a salaam-walekum with Dr Abbas' right fingers touching forehead. Subbu was treated to a sumptuous, strict vegetarian meal served along with his dearest more kozhambu, more milagaai and appalam. Subbu was too impressed that not only Dr Abbas had put his pipe aside as a mark of respect but also they made sure that there was not even a trace of non-vegetarian food on the table. Abbases wore unfussy cotton khadi clothes while they could afford the most expensive designer ones in town or from Milan.
While he never fell for allurements all his life, a man of canon, with his Brahminical resolve traumatized, he was now in a blind spot. His family would be excommunicated if Anita married this Muslim boy but what if she had loved someone from a lowly Muslim family? While such questions were coursing through his mind and was teetering between opposing emotions, Dr Abbas's wife sat right next to him with a betel pan box that looked a treasure-chest.
"Let us not come in the way of their ardent love," said Mrs Abbas handing over vettrilai paakku betel nut. Not sure of answering, Subbu just nodded. "They make a perfect couple, if our hearts are in the right place, inshallah, everything will be alright," concluded Mrs Abbas. Instantly slipping into a matching magnanimous mode, Subbu muttered something in Tamil, which Dr Abbas did not understand but his wife did, that meant Deo volente - 'if God wills it'.
After spending two hours in Abbas Villa, just as Subbu was about to say goodbye, Dr Abbas asked his chauffer to drive Subbu home; in the same car that dropped Anita on the fateful day in the wee hours. Abbases asked no questions related to his non-existent financial background; steeped in poverty, he was too glad to have emerged unscathed out of Abbas Villa.
Seemingly lost in thought, Subbu ambled to the well in the backyard, splashed water over his face, neck and chest. While Rukku and Parvati intently followed him with a towel, Subbu walked briskly into the living.
"The doctor's wealth unquestionably exceeded that of some Arabian potentates," a sombre Subbu, unbuttoning buttons, told Rukku and Parvati who were all ears. Rukku could see hidden cheer in his eyes that Parvati couldn't; only a wife's seasoned eyes were capable of perceiving such veiled emotions. "But their humble mannerisms, sophistication won me over," he insisted. But Rukku knew what won him over; the two hours spent in grand, opulent Abbas Villa. Subbu never came to know that Rukku and Parvati had spent hours in Abbas Villa weeks before his visit.
And the ladies grabbed it all from there and now speed was of essence. Anita was given a Muslim name but she was free to retain her Hindu one. Within weeks, marriages were consummated; in Hindu and Muslim fashions and, on both occasions, while Dr Abbas wore a colourful Hindu turban, Subbu wore a Muslim style embroidered, white skullcap. A year later, their granddaughter was given two names: one from each faith.
On their granddaughter's second birthday, while Dr Abbas was smoking a pipe and Subbu was chewing his vettrilai betel, ladies from both the families were vying with each other in adjusting the jewel-studded tiara over the little girl's forehead.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010