– A short story
The family huddle was in full swing in our drawing room. There was old Uncle Narayan sitting with a frown on his face looking like a bear on a bad morning, not that I’ve had chance to meet bears on their bad mornings! Next to him sat Mrs.Roshan, beautiful soul, face downcast, a little embarrassed perhaps, but still her dignified self. Not being part of the family she had been reluctant to join this meeting. But Uncle had insisted. Good God, the wily old fox had her hand in his. Good for you Uncle, I thought smiling! At the other end of the room was another frowning face, that of Nitesh, his son. In an adjacent sofa sat Nitesh’s wife Rita, a bored look on her face. I was flitting in and out of the kitchen, cooking as also listening in on this all important discussion. Discussion, my foot! Where the heck was the need for any discussion and for so long?? I was about to explode. Hari was giving me warning glances. We have been married for three years. Long enough, I think, to gauge each others moods and intentions. He knew I was all set to jump into the fray and give a piece of my mind.
I still remember the day Hari announced Uncle Narayan’s impending visit. Probably he had some work in the city office about his pension.
“How long??” I had asked mentally trying to adjust my work load for the next few days.
I was puzzled.
“Its sort of like umm..”
I shot him an exasperated look.
“Some months…” He blurted out quickly before I sent something flying at him.
“Whaaat??” I almost shouted. Oh my God!! Did he mean months?? Of course he must have or else he wouldn’t have said it. And I had been thinking on the lines of a day or two, maybe even ten days. Aaaargh!! This was going to be a problem!!
Oh, don’t get me wrong!! I’m not one of those wives who don’t like having their spouse’s relatives over for a long stay. I get along pretty well with them except for the odd sharp-tongued aunt or a spoilt brat who insists on dismantling my laptop. But… Uncle Narayan?? That stuffy old gentleman, with ex-army written all over him, who lived by a chronometer, whose disapproving silent glare was enough to make me feel like a worm?? Oh God, what was I going to do?? My house had no rules at all. I mean how could we?? Hari and I both had jobs. Life was a mad rush. I usually dragged myself out of bed in the mornings, awakened Prachi my two year old baby, readied her and finished the morning chores as best as I could. While Hari coaxed Prachi to have some breakfast I could just get ready on time. There was absolute madness when the maid played truant. Prachi had to be dropped off at the play-school on my way to the office. Hari’s office lay a good distance away in the opposite direction. For a week or two I could take some time off. But some MONTHS!! Would I’ve to cook all those elaborate traditional meals day in and day out for that long?? Oh God!! I shuddered at the thought.
I glared at Hari.
“ Well.. It’s like this… could take pretty long….”
“Nitesh and Rita are moving back to India with their children. They are building a new house over the old one. So I offered that Uncle could stay with us…”
I rolled my eyes. “Softie!” I muttered. Uncle Narayan had been a pillar of support to Hari’s family during tough times, and they had a soft spot for him.
“I’ll try and reach home earlier” he said. “Don’t worry… we’ll manage.”
I sighed and nodded. I had no clue but we had to somehow. That’s how Uncle Narayan came to stay with us.
I was back in the kitchen stirring the vegetables. The silence in the drawing room was getting to me. The only sounds were from the ladle stirring the vegetables in the kitchen and Prachi singing to herself amidst her toys. I switched off the stove and busied myself with the salad.
“Dad please think again about your decision”
“Nothing to rethink” was Uncle Narayan’s gruff reply.
“Nitesh, its no big deal you know…” Rita drawled, while admiring her own nails. I have wondered how she would adjust to life away from the big city after their return to India.
“Times have changed. It’s his life… he has every right to live it his way…” she continued.
I looked at her with newfound respect. She wasn’t the mere social butterfly I thought her to be.
“Shut up!” Nitesh said irritably. Rita shrugged her shoulders and went back to admiring her nails. The deepening frown on Uncle’s face told me that he disliked the way Nitesh spoke to Rita.
It was Prachi’s bed time. As I tucked her in my thoughts drifted to the day I had carelessly left some important papers back home.
It was almost three months since Uncle’s arrival. That day had been exceptionally hectic. The maid had played truant. In my hurry I forgot an important document. I rushed home during lunch hour to get it. My new footwear was killing me. To compound things, the lift wasn’t working. What a perfect day!! I slipped off my footwear and holding it in one hand, my handbag in the other, wearily started climbing the stairs. We live on the seventh floor. Just as I was about to step on to the landing I overheard a voice,
“Sumi, you know I’ve loved you always..”
I literally rocked on my heels. That was Uncle Narayan’s voice. He was hidden from my view as I hadn’t yet stepped on the landing. Obviously he was standing right in front of our door talking to someone. Sumi?? Who was Sumi?? I suppressed an insane desire to giggle. I couldn’t for the life of me digest the fact of that stuffy old Colonel expressing eternal love for some Sumi.
I heard soft laughter. I reeled yet again. I knew that laugh!! I am still surprised I am alive to tell this tale. I should have fallen down the stairs and broken my neck just then. I was so shocked. That was my neighbor Mrs.Roshan’s laugh! She was a cheerful lady of about sixty, a widow, living by herself on her husband’s meager pension. She had no immediate family, but for those of us staying in the apartment block she was family. She was always there for any one in need. It was to her that I ran with all my little joys and woes. She was the one who helped me out by looking after Prachi the odd day that both Hari and I got delayed at work. She was my surrogate mother! But… when I had introduced Uncle and her, neither had said a word about knowing each other!!
“No!” said Hari in surprise when I recounted the day’s happenings.
“Yesss!” I said. “I tip-toed back down the stairs, wore those damned shoes that were killing my feet and made plenty of noise to announce my arrival!”
“..and??” he asked.
“Aunt Sumi…” here I giggled for no reason, “was sitting right there reading the newspaper and Uncle was in his room”
“Nitesh is not going to like this,” Hari said thoughtfully.
I raised my eyebrows. Hari took it as a sign that I would launch into one of my lectures on individuals and their freedom. He hurriedly said,
“Oh! I agree with you… I was only telling you how Nitesh would take it…”
Anyway we decided to leave the love-birds to their vintage romance.
Prachi was asleep. I wondered if the ‘discussion’ was over and whether I should lay the table for dinner. It was no fun having dinner with frowning, sullen faces. Rita looked at me and smiled as I walked in.
“Help??” she asked.
“No thanks Rita. I only have to lay the table”
Our exchange seemed to wake Hari from a self-induced trance. He hated scenes of any sort. He turned to Nitesh and said,
“You can say that! It’s not your father who’s getting married to his childhood sweetheart at seventy!” He glared at Aunty and continued, “Gosh I will be the laughing stock! I decide to return to India and this immortal romance awaits me!!” The last four words had a sarcastic ring.
“Times have changed Nitesh” my bright husband said repeating Rita’s words. I almost expected Nitesh to say, ‘shut up’ in reply. Mercifully he refrained. He sat with his head in his hand imitating a Greek tragedian. I rolled my eyes at Hari and walked into the kitchen.
Two days after I had overheard Uncle Narayan professing his love for Sumi we found him clearing his throat at the breakfast table. Yes, we had actually begun to sit down to a proper breakfast after Uncle’s arrival. No more TV dinners too. The house was a lot more orderly. His disciplined demeanor was having an overall good effect on our lives. My heart warmed the way Prachi had bonded with him. The gruff exterior he presented to the world was largely a facade. He now offered to ply Prachi to and from her play-school on my busy days. He even insisted on cutting the veggies when he saw my frenzied activity trying to balance kitchen and office work.
Hari looked up from his newspaper on hearing Uncle. Having caught his eye, Uncle Narayan said,
“I’ve something to tell you both.”
What he said was simple and to the point. He and Mrs.Roshan were childhood sweethearts but some silly family quarrel had thwarted their wedding plans. Aunt Sumi’s family had moved away while he was away at work. Though no efforts were spared to trace them, he hadn’t been successful. Years later both had succumbed to family pressure, married people chosen by their respective families and settled down. But they hadn’t forgotten each other. It was a real surprise for them to meet again after all these years. Now they wanted to get married. Hari and I were like her own hence he was telling us. Nitesh would be down soon and Uncle was going to tell him too. He wanted to register their marriage as soon as possible and take Aunt back with him to the new house. I found it all so romantic. I glanced at Hari. I swear he had tears in his eyes.
And here I was rolling my eyes at Hari because Nitesh felt that Uncle was making a fool of himself in his old age. I must say I was pretty annoyed with Nitesh. The man was an idiot! Listening to him going on I pitied Rita, her life with him.
“What will other relatives say?? How will I look them in the face??” he lamented. “Why can’t you be like other old people and spend the rest of your life praying?? Do you have to act so foolishly??” He went on in this vein even asking his father if he had ever loved his mother, who was now long gone. He wasn’t going to allow this marriage to take place he said with finality, and if his father went against his wishes, the new house was closed for him.
“Excuse me” I said ignoring Hari’s warning glance.
“Uncle and Aunt are going to get married because it’s their life. It’s that plain and simple to understand. They’re adults and have a right to live life their way. Their age doesn’t preclude love life and they don’t have to accept your vision of what’s right and wrong. You are refusing him a place in the house that he bequeathed you?? Shame on you!! And for your kind information, they’re going to stay with me, not you!”
Nitesh and Rita didn’t stay for dinner that night. They left soon after despite Hari’s pleas. Uncle didn’t say a word, just nodded when he took leave. Remorse was eating me for having spoken thus to Nitesh. But I knew things would be alright soon when Rita winked at me as she followed Nitesh out.
* * *
The wedding took place at the local Registrar’s office. The wily fox had made all arrangements in advance. There were sly snickers from some of those present. The couple was least bothered. Nitesh seemed sensitive still. Oh yes, Nitesh and Rita attended. Rita’s wink had meant something! Before leaving Rita and I exchanged addresses. Yeah we had become good friends. I found that there was substance behind that bored social-butterfly mask of hers. Uncle is staying next door with Aunt. The work on the new house has started. Now Uncle is in no hurry to finish it. Neither am I. Having been offered a better job Nitesh has postponed plans of returning to India. I wonder if he did that for fear of facing his relatives. And oh, did I tell you Uncle told Aunt that my kadai paneer was worth dying for? Yup, that’s why I am grinning.
Reposted from shail-mohan blogs @ sulekha.com