Today I am posting part of a new book called "Bonding" on behalf of my friend in India, Lakshmi Raj Sharma.
Lakshmi is a professor in the Department of English and Modern European Languages at the University of Allahabad where he lives with his professor wife, Bandana, and etymologist son, Dhruv . He has written several books and articles on literary criticism and literary studies. His books are witty, fun, and full of the wonderful imagery of India and I find his stories entertain and inform readers looking to escape via the literary imagination of a master storyteller. His first collection of stories, Marriages are Made in India, has now been published as an e-book by Publerati, USA. His first novel, The Tailor’s Needle, first published in the UK, is now being published by Penguin Books India, later in 2012. His article, “Charles Dickens and Me” is to be published this autumn by the Oxford journal, English.
Bonding' is a story of a couple that has no choice in their marriage as happens in the case of several Indians even today. The bride turns out to be one with a different sexual preference and so begins the conflict in their lives, even from the first day of their marriage.
Himanshu could see that his bride wasn’t satisfied with the deal. He tried to smile at her but that seemed to only bring forth the flood of tears that she had dammed inside. He held her hand but she jerked him off. He closed in towards her and put his arm round her and that was too much for her to bear. She pushed him away and stood up in fury.
‘If I have married you, it doesn’t mean I am sold to you. You and your people have given me no dowry, okay? Just stay away from me!’
‘You seem really angry and hurt, Suparna! Have I offended you?’
‘Offended me? You have ruined me. Why was it so necessary for you to marry me? Were all the other girls dead?’
‘Who could have guessed that I was marrying someone who disliked me so much? Neither my parents nor yours.’
‘But you jumped at the idea, when my parents sent the proposal. A decent man would wait a week at least before plunging into marriage.’
‘How did you get to know that?’
‘Durga Aunty told Mummy everything. If you hadn’t jumped for joy at the idea of the proposal, my parents would have thought a little before tying me up with you.’
‘Durga Aunty wasn’t there when your father pleaded that I marry you. He was ready to give anything we wanted but my mother said she only wanted a good wife for her son and a decent daughter-in-law for herself. Anyway, you are tired. Rest till it is time for lunch. Nothing is lost yet.’
‘Nothing is lost for a wretched man who is carrying away a bride. The loss is always ours!’
‘Ours? You surely don’t mean both of us? Have you started considering you and me, us?’
‘No, my dear! Don’t have hopes. I mean the female species. I can never team up with a man. I am a woman first and then anything else. And I think I was born to set things right for women! Let it be clear from the beginning that I consider you my natural enemy.’
‘But why should you consider men and women to be natural enemies? Don’t they complement each other?’
‘Ask your mother that! And let me get some sleep. I get sick quarrelling with stupid men.’
Himanshu felt dizzy talking to this woman. What had his parents seen in this creature to have married him to her? Life had suddenly become so unmanageable. He could see his future in that moment. It would probably not work out. Now he realized how infinitely better a love marriage was. At least you knew which species you were marrying into.
As Suparna lay down on the lower berth and Himanshu climbed up on the upper, she almost panted in rage. She had been plucked out of her comfortable life and thrown into the uncertainty of an unknown existence. Who could have thought that things would change so suddenly? Within a fortnight everything had transpired. The phone call announcing the arrival of Himanshu’s parents, then their arrival, then the fixture of the wedding and then the wedding itself, all had happened so dramatically. Everything was done in a satanic hurry. Her father was determined to get her fixed now after his three unsuccessful attempts with other boys. He was hell-bent to ensure that she did not escape the knot this time. God! The strategies he and her mother had used! He had gone to the extent of saying that he could have a heart attack if she said no to this boy. She had had no option but to agree for the time being. She was confident that she would convince the fellow that she wasn’t in love with him and that their marriage was purely for convenience. She would convince him that she could never relate meaningfully with any man and that he would be a fool to take the relationship seriously. He did appear a proper fool to her when she saw him. He was the only man she could agree to marry temporarily because he seemed manageable. But now after the wedding, the fool of a fellow could become a pain in her life and she had to do something to keep him at a distance. She wouldn’t leave him immediately as that could actually lead to her father getting seriously ill. She had to pass the time, somehow.
Then Suparna thought of Pallavi. How beautiful she was, and how delicate! She could change the very nature of a place with her presence. A mild and decent girl, she was always smiling, always so accommodating, always tolerating Suparna’s moods. She had never objected to anything, and had always returned her love so gracefully. Could Suparna have ever found anyone more suitable for herself than Pallavi? The poor soul had even wept when Suparna sat in the train to leave her. How unfair Suparna had been to her. So treacherous!
Himanshu, lying on the upper berth, felt quite wrecked. Was this the meaning of marriage? How would he face his family and friends after he reached Saharanpur? People would soon see the strange woman he had married. He would become such a laughing stock. He would not be able to live in peace with such a woman around. What would he do? How could he solve his problem? Perhaps the best method of managing his affairs was to beg her not to show her true feelings towards him and his people when he reached Saharanpur. He would plead with folded hands and request her to pretend to like him, or he would be ruined.
Himanshu got off from his berth on the first station that the train stopped at, got out of his compartment and went towards the bogie in which the rest of the wedding party sat chatting. Having got into the other compartment, he tried his best not to reveal his feelings. But his face was like a book that he needed to keep closed. His younger brother shouted with excitement when he saw his brother enter in.
‘Bhaiya, where’s Bhabi? Why did you leave her behind? Should I go to her?’
‘No, don’t. She is asleep! Let her rest!’
‘Look my brother’s got so concerned about his wife already! He’ll soon forget us!’
‘Stop being so idiotic, Saurabh!’
‘Saurabh? Bhaiya, since when have you started calling me Saurabh? Did Bhabi ask you to do that?’
‘Shut up, Billoo! You are growing up. Till when will we call you by your pet name?’
Everyone noticed that something was wrong with Himanshu. His father asked him to return to his bride. It was not safe to leave her alone with so much jewelry on her. Himanshu obeyed in silence and returned to his own coupe, where his bride looked at him without uttering a word.
Himanshu looked at her once. He hoped she would smile at him to invite him on her own berth. But that was not to happen. She looked in every direction except the one in which he stood. In despair he climbed the upper berth as the train began to move once more. The journey still needed about eleven hours to complete. Time seemed to hang round his neck like an albatross. It just wouldn’t move. Its stillness became even more glaring with the movement of the train. He lay on his birth thinking of his future with this difficult woman and she thought of what she was leaving behind, the elegant Pallavi. For Suparna the problem of settling into a new life was not as hurtful as the getting out of her earlier one. She hadn’t got the time to think about the different setup in Saharanpur. It was not until she hit the floor of the entrance of the new house, when she stood there a bride who had to kick over a vessel, throw behind her back a handful of rice and then walk over the beautifully arranged patterns of the flower petals. It was now that Suparna began to get conscious of the added responsibility of tackling a mother-in-law. How easily she had managed everything with her idiot of a bridegroom, but would an older woman be as easy to handle? She got conscious that this would be a harder nut to crack. Of course she was right.
The mother-in-law had invited the whole neighbourhood to welcome Suparna. Women of every shape and size had assembled and were excited to see the bride’s face. They could scarcely contain their feelings. They began to comment on her sweet face. One or two at the back were even heard saying that she was all right, nothing exceptional. And then someone said, a woman’s beauty lies in her actions and that she would prove herself to be a good daughter-in-law. These were simple, unenlightened, women who had hardly been touched by feminist thought and so they spoke freely without the consciousness of any wrong. One even said that the height of the husband and that of the wife were ill-matched. Suparna could take this no longer. She got up in huff and left the room asking someone to lead her towards her own room. There was silence and all the visiting women first looked at her quietly and then looked at each other meaningfully. Suparna was under the scanner and she could see this very clearly as she left the room. Just outside was Himanshu wondering what had gone wrong. He tried to follow her but she slammed the door to his face and he had to pretend that he was going elsewhere.
Himanshu had to hide himself from his friends as well. Some of them wanted to be introduced to his wife but he did not have the courage to let them meet her. She could have said anything to them and made him look stupid. He tried to keep a smiling face though his smiles gave out that they were forced. Then his father called him aside to a corner.
‘The mistake has been made. I can see that it has. I am responsible for not making sufficient inquiries before agreeing to accept the proposal. But what’s done cannot be undone now.’
‘But what’s wrong?’
‘Your marriage is! Go to your friends, don’t run away from them. Men do need men when they’re in distress. Maybe Suparna will see sense soon.’
Himanshu felt as though he had a lump in his throat. He just walked out, sat on his bike and drove on the Delhi Road till he saw the Phoolwari Garden, which was the venue for a wedding that evening. The place was being dressed for the event. Another wedding, he thought to himself. Ha!
In the evening Himanshu discovered that Suparna was talking very seriously to someone on her cell phone. She seemed extremely engrossed, excited and passionate as she spoke. He wondered who it could be that she was bonding so well with. His curiosity got the better of him and he tried to listen. He heard her say that she could die due to the absence of that person. Himanshu felt hurt but began to guess the reason for Suparna’s odd behavior towards him and his people. This clearly seemed to be the end of his relationship with her. What a short lived relationship this was; it ended before it could begin. But then he tried to convince himself that this could have happened with anyone and Suparna could not be blamed as she had been given no choice in the matter. Besides, it was better to break away from her in the initial stages rather than living on in animosity. He went to her and spoke to her with deep feeling.
‘I heard you talk to the one you love, Suparna. It is understandable that you should love someone. Let us both work as a team so that you can get the person of your choice instead of living unhappily with me!’
‘Really? Will you help me to get back my love?’
‘I promise that I will. Trust me.’
‘But how will your parents allow that when my own parents did not?’
‘Leave that to me. I’ll persuade them somehow.’
‘Okay give me some time to think.’
‘Take some time but please hurry up because I will be going through hell in the meantime.’
‘Hell? Why should you go through hell? You have never known me. What am I to you?’
‘Exactly! What are you to me? Nothing! Why am I even thinking all this rubbish? Whoever it is that you have loved all these days should be invited to Saharanpur as soon as possible so that we can make arrangements for your final settlement.’
‘Final settlement? What do you mean? Can anything in life be that final?’
‘I don’t know what you expect from life, but in my own limited understanding of things, a little stability is desirable in life.’
‘What a sentimental fellow you are . . . what’s your name . . . Himanshu! You are not contemporary at all. This is an age of live-in relationships which are often of a rather temporary nature. People are running away from permanent solutions because people have realized that if there is anything PERMANENT in life it is CHANGE.’
‘ Really? Where did you learn all this philosophy from?’
‘How does that matter to you? I learnt it from somewhere.’
‘Okay don’t tell me anything. Sorry I asked you that! Let me quickly make arrangements for your settlement, even if I cannot call it permanent.’
‘You seem to be getting sentimental and upset again. All right I’ll tell you where I learned all this contemporary stuff. I was studying in the Delhi University. In the S.S.S. College and was living in the hostel. There was our group of girls who decided that we’d not allow silly, age-old and worn out traditions to govern our lives. We decided that it was more sensible to live life according to our own standards of what was right and what was wrong. Live-in relations were the in-thing for our circle of friends. We were basically against traditional marriages. My parents did not like the way I mixed with my friends. My father got worried and married me off to you. Now you know my story in a nut shell. Though, if you were contemporary at all, you’d know that in fact you never know anything in final terms.’
‘I am not contemporary at all, I am sorry, and am therefore beginning to know you a little!’
Himanshu was confused. Suparna’s behavior had been strange. The fact that she even believed in live-in relationships and was not the kind of person who would be ideal for a daughter-in-law in his setup made him feel that he had to forget her. She was just not right for him. But he had promised to help her get settled with her lover and so he had to complete the project, not leave it midway.
‘Okay, Suparna. Tell me how can we get your friend to come here and settle down to the kind of relationship you desire – that is take you away for the live-in relationship, I mean?’
‘I’ll ask my friend to come here, if that is all right with you. Then the arrangement can be discussed and planned out thoroughly.’
‘Please call your friend here as quickly as possible. I will make arrangements for his stay in Saharanpur. I am responsible for you because I have married you. I cannot send you away without knowing who you are going with. We must also sign some legal papers before we say goodbye to each other. We must part in a formal manner.’
‘You seem to be quite a sensible man, and responsible too!’
‘That is of little consequence to you, now, I suppose. I would, however, ask you for a favour.’
‘Till such time as we part, please let everyone in this town believe that there is nothing wrong between us and that you are a proper wife to me. I will never so much as touch you while we are in our bedroom, I promise.’
‘Done! So I’ll ask my friend to come over to Saharanpur and you make the arrangements.’
The arrangements for Suparna’s friend were made in the neighborhood guesthouse. Himanshu thought that the settlement would take two or three days and then the matter would be over. He had to do something quickly to save the situation. His mind had been full of tormenting thoughts that just wouldn’t leave him. But he had to do something to save himself from ridicule. People would probably make fun of the man whose wife turned out to be so unscrupulous. Who would come in support of a man who had got neither dowry nor wife in marriage? He would be reduced to a tale to be told by idle women. He had to be smart and save himself as far as was possible. It had to be now or never would he get the time to act in self-interest.
The man and his legally wedded wife went to the railway station to receive this special guest that was arriving in Saharanpur. The train was late by an hour or more, but it was finally seen coming towards the platform. It halted. People ran this way and that – some trying to get in somehow, others to get out. Ultimately Suparna pointed in a direction and ran towards it. Himanshu tried to follow her. He found himself walking slowly but curiously; wanting and yet not wanting to have a glimpse of the face of this person. Then Suparna dashed towards a girl who had got off the train. She hugged her hard. Himanshu thought he had seen this girl t his wedding in Jaisalmer but wondered what had happened to their guest who was to arrive in this train. Finally after a few minutes Suparna spoke to the girl.
‘Come I’ll introduce you to him. Himanshu, this is Pallavi.’
‘But where’s our guest Suparna?’
‘Don’t insult her Himanshu. Pallavi is our guest!’
‘But I thought . . .’
‘Stop thinking and pick up her luggage,’ said Suparna to a man more confused than he had ever been before.
The girls were dropped in the guesthouse and Himanshu went homewards. He was somewhat relieved that Suparna’s guest was a girl and a beautiful one at that. He felt less threatened by her than he would have been by the presence of another man. In fact he began to feel that now there was hardly any urgency for him to end their marriage. But the situation had to be watched yet; Suparna was too complicated to be understood so quickly and explained away. He decided to meet his friend, Haider, whom he had been ignoring in the past week. Haider could be trusted with a secret as no one else could. Besides, Haider was sharper than any of this family and could have come up with some useful solutions. Two minds, in any case, were better than one.
In the guesthouse Suparna sat in comfort with Pallavi after a week’s stressful experience. But Pallavi, though as elegant, as ever, seemed a little changed and uneasy this morning.
‘Suppi, tell me now, what was troubling you so much? Why did you want me here so urgently?’
‘Come on, yaar, I don’t need to tell you that Pallavi! You know everything. What should I tell you?’
‘You can’t be joking! Soops, tell me!’
‘Himanshu has come up with a wonderful solution to our problem. He says he will make a permanent settlement for us to live happily ever after, together, far away from this horrible world!’
‘What? Is he mad? How old is he?’
‘I don’t know. Why?’
‘He seems so innocent, so ignorant of the world we live in. But he’s really sweet.’
‘What do you mean, sweet? He’s like any bloody man. These chaps appear very innocent and then one day they make you pregnant, with nowhere to go for help. Really sweet!’
‘Suppi, you will never change. I had thought marriage would have changed you to some extent. But you are just as you were. The same impractical idiot!’
‘Don’t call me married. It’s very insulting, yaar! I will marry you and no one else. That’s final!’
‘Imagine Suppi of all people talking of final solutions. According to your own understanding of things, Suppi, nothing can be final. Then how can our relationship be that final?’
‘Have you gone crazy or what, Pallavi? How oddly you are behaving today. Have you forgotten all the promises we made, all the love we gave to each other?’
‘No, no, how can I ever forget. You saved me from all those wicked boys who visited our hostel. You stood against them like a wall and protected me. Remember how you chased that Urfi fellow with a hockey stick. He almost wet his pants after the wallop you gave him. You gave me more protection than anyone else did. My father and my brother never had a moment for me. You were the only one I ever had. But . . .’
‘What but? Go on, I love that image of myself. I love to see myself as your protector, your guardian, your man should I say?’
‘I love you for saying that but, I don’t know. Things are not as simple as they seem to be.’
Pallavi was no longer the girl that Suparna had known in Delhi. She had undergone a sea change after Suparna’s marriage. Just the few days after the event made her see that she had not been true to herself. Suparna’s over concern for her and her own insecurity in her home had probably been responsible for her getting swept away towards Suparna. Her mother having died in her childhood and then the men never paying sufficient attention to her needs had made her depend so much on the emotional support offered by Suparna. Pallavi was becoming increasingly aware that her relationship with Suparna didn’t have the leg to stand on. It had to go and thank God Suparna had cleared the way for her liberation by getting married. Yet she was mature enough to see that Suparna needed her help to transfer her emotions to her husband. She had therefore gladly accepted Suparna’s invitation sent in desperation to her.
That was one side of the situation as seen by Pallavi. But Pallavi also knew that Suparna was not going to give her up so easily. It would be very difficult to make her see that Pallavi was not her permanent settlement. If there was any permanence possible in her life it was with Himanshu. She had to take up the responsibility of getting their minds married. But how would she do it? She had to do this gradually not hurry up everything to make a mess of it all. It was a challenge that she had to take up.
The guesthouse could not have been the best place for the two women to stay as it created all kinds of problems, confusions and speculations. They therefore soon shifted into Himanshu’s house. Himanshu’s mother wondered why her bahu needed a friend to be living with her so soon after her wedding. But she had the grace not to make her feelings public in the first few days. During the meals she did not go out of her way, like Suparna, to pass around the various food items that were spread on the table to Pallavi. Suparna began to get self-conscious that she was always worried about Pallavi’s near empty plate. Himanshu had to come forward to take care of Suparna’s guest. He would always make it a point to ensure that Pallavi did not go hungry. His mother saw this and it hurt her to see her son taking more interest in Pallavi than was good for him. Pallavi was very graceful, even with Himanshu’s mother and made it a point to compensate for Suparna’s cold behavior towards her. It was an odd chain of reactions – Suparna cold to the mother, the mother cold to Pallavi, Himanshu warm to Pallavi, Pallavi warm to the mother. When Pallavi noticed Suparna’s coldness to Himanshu, she decided she would be warm to him. Himanshu’s childhood friend, Haider, was often present at some of the meals and in his typical manner he would give a commentary of what was happening in the room. He was the only one Himanshu had shared his misery with. He even knew about Suparna’s sexual preference.
That evening at the dinner table, Haider was in an unusually cheerful mood. The food was laid on the table in a buffet style. There was scope for the dinners to move about with their plates or sit at the sides on the chairs placed there. Haider began his commentary the moment he saw Suparna pick up the matar paneer dish to pass it to Pallavi:
‘Ab Suparna nay matar paneer ka donga Pallavi ko pass kiya hai aur ab Aunty ghoor ke dekh rahi hain ki kaise donge ko doosri oar laya jaye. Ab Himanshu ne apni Mummy ko saaf chakma dete hooay Pallavi ko ek roti pakda di hai, Pallavi ne Aunty ko chaunkaate hooay oos roti ko Aunty ki plate mein daal diya hai. Uncle chupchap sab kuchh dekhte hooay ek kone mein kha rahein hai. Ab Billoo, yani Saurabh, jise ab tak koi roti nahi milli, pareshan ho kar apni Mummy ki plate se roti uthane ki koshish mein aage badh raha hai.’
Himanshu wasn’t actually happy listening to the comic commentary of his friend. He had a rather serious and sober relationship with his father and felt a little embarrassed about the whole thing. But Haider kept his eye on each one dining and kept up his commentary almost at the cost of having his dinner.
Haider was amazed at his friend’s tolerance. How could a man bear up with a wife who had no feelings for him? He wondered how it was possible to go on putting up with a rude wife like Suparna. But Himanshu always gave an explanation for why she behaved this way. People make mistakes and this poor girl had been given a bad deal even by Nature. It was necessary to study the situation before breaking up with her. It is so easy to identify and sympathize with people like yourself, the one who was truly educated would be able to see the other’s point of view. Haider agreed to keep the experiment on till a conclusion could be drawn. But gradually each member of Himanshu’s family was affected by the odd relationship between Suparna and Himanshu. The mother began to show signs of her resentment and generally Pallavi came to save the situation. She was great story teller and would describe the very difficult situations she had gone through after her mother died. She even said that if Suparna had not come forward to support her while in college she could have become suicidal. Her stories had a great impact on the family and they looked forward to what new events she had in her bag for the next sitting.
Himanshu began to study a lot of material on women, particularly on women who could only love other women. He came to realize that in the West there was, some decades back. a phase in feminist thought in which women wanted to do away entirely with men. They decided to make do with women instead.