Loud cries emanating from the bedroom told the assembly of family and friends Shamala’s ordeal was over. All eyes turned to Mohan who was staring expectantly at the bedroom door waiting for servants to emerge. They then glanced at each other moving their head from side to side as was the custom when engaged in conversation or acknowledging an event of profound circumstance.
Of course every event was worth acknowledging in this way, but now it was accompanied with a sudden babble of voices as all shouted their congratulations to Mohan. But Mohan continued to stare. His good fortune was only to be acknowledged after confirmation his new born was a boy.
So far the gods had favoured him. This was his third child and the first two were boys. People looked at him with awe as he paraded his sons around the maidan during time off from work. The birth of boys was an obvious nod in his direction by the gods and he fully expected good fortune to continue.
Mohan’s patron was Laxmi the goddess of wealth and he made sure Shamala had performed puja and there had been adequate evidence of family devotion each evening when he returned from work. He’d instructed that garlands should be fresh each day, incense burned and food offerings in plentiful evidence at the household shrine.
The door opened and servants appeared carrying their wailing bundle for all to see. Eye shadow had been applied and sacred thread put in place so malevolent spirits would be fooled into thinking this was a child they should not have interest in. The hope was said child would be considered too ugly or sickly to cause jealousy and thus prompt the evil eye to mischief.
Mohan removed the covering cloth and froze. Relatives and friends crowded around to inspect as he removed the cloth and a cry of dismay went up from all. It was a girl! Some whispered apologies and pled other appointments as they slowly withdrew. It was unlikely there would be a celebratory feast so no point in staying. Relatives felt it was their duty to stay and expressions of sympathy poured forth as Mohan covered the child and handed it back to the servants. He sat dejectedly while relatives broke into clumps and discussed this unexpected turn of events.
Mohan was the ranking member of the family. While all were high caste Mohan was the one who’d prospered economically and was a benefactor to them all. They turned to him when their sons needed to be placed in positions of influence as they reached manhood and Mohan used his influence for the benefit of family. His good fortune was to their collective benefit, and if his gift of good fortune was running out what would become of them and their families?
It was very much on the mind of Mohan as he sat at rest and tried to guess what this stroke of misfortune meant. He’d been in the right place at the right time after India’s independence and foreign banks were looking for Indians of aptitude, education and experience to fill places of foreigners leaving the country in droves after independence had been declared. Mohan had all the characteristics needed to take a top place in their India operations. By right he should have been elevated to one of the top positions long before independence, but his unhappiness at the obvious discrimination in this era of the Raj was mollified when suddenly transported into a position of prominence in the banking hierarchy. It was a choice those foreign bankers never regretted. Mohan was suddenly elevated to a position of honour in Bombay society. He had caste, and he now had the influence position carries with it. Relatives flocked to him seeing a bright future for the extended family.
Inside Shamala rested and considered the ill favour now resting on her. She‘d produced a girl and not a boy. Somehow this made her responsible. Perhaps she’d not performed puja in a way the gods sanctioned? She tried desperately to think of an event where this had occurred but it seemed her actions had always been appropriate. Shaking her head to try and clear a depressed state of mind she sank into the deep sleep of exhaustion while midwife and servants darted around cleaning up and rearranging the bed.
The midwife stood at the door expectantly having washed and exchanged her sari for a clean one. She watched as one of the servants bent in front of Mohan and whispered her presence. Mohan reached inside his clothing to the cloth bag tied around his waist and extracted one hundred rupees agreed to in advance, and carefully added another rupee to try and entice good fortune back into the home. He threw it on the side table and the servant bowed and picked it up backing up to the midwife to hand it over. The midwife counted the money slowly and carefully again recounted just to make sure it was all there. She left grumbling at the lack of Mohan’s gratitude. While they’d always agreed to the one hundred rupee fee at the birth of his sons, Mohan had given much more than agreed after her efforts were over. This time it was different. It was a girl.
Shamala sat cross legged behind Mohan facing the Hindu holy man as he considered his charts. Mohan had called for this meeting and brought with him liberal gifts and money for the holy man’s service. The holy man had glanced at the gifts and signalled his chela to wrap them in cloth to be taken to the ashram after the ceremony was over.
Mohan was interested in how the birth of this girl would affect family fortunes, and what was to be the end result of her entry into the world. The holy man charted the exact time of birth and position of the planets at that precise birth moment, considering results of his study for a long time before delivering an opinion. Finally he spoke. The girl’s dharma was good, but there could be rough patches along the way for them all if insufficient and infrequent gifts were offered at the temple, and merit not obtained through liberal gifts to worthy causes. Mohan relaxed as he felt this was a habit he’d already acquired.
There’d already been consultations among relatives as to a suitable name for the child and the holy man was consulted for his opinion. So after all this consultation the name Shakuntala was chosen. When the official naming ceremony had been completed she became known only as Shaku, a term of endearment for her in the household.
Shaku (Shak-oo) became the property of servants in her early childhood and enjoyed her earliest years in the company of servant’s children, but as she grew to childhood a slow class distinction was imposed. No longer was she permitted to play with these children, and to her surprise her former playmates now greeted her with Namaste, bowed and retreated outside the home to play when she appeared on the scene. Shamala began to instruct Shaku in the culture of the privileged classes, the requirements of her religion and awareness of the claim her extended family had on her. Shaku also noticed the clear distinction in rights of sons as opposed to duties of daughters within her society. Sharp rebukes and punishments helped to cement this distinction in place in those formative years.
As her mind developed Shaku became aware of the vast difference between the mansions on Malabar Hill where she lived and the squalid slums extending like a cancer through the vitals of Bombay. Her eyes took in the jam packed commuter trains and compared them with the comfort of their spacious car with the smartly uniformed driver taking them wherever they wished to go in comfort after dropping Mohan at his Colaba office each morning.
Shaku was bought up in the golden years of Hindi Cinema. Bollywood would emerge only as she reached marriageable age. It was thought below dignity of the family to attend any of the myriad cinemas Bombay was noted for. Movies were only to be viewed in the home so class distinction could be preserved. Mixing with movie star’s children at Breach Candy Club was permitted however. That former preserve of British expatriates was being slowly transitioned to the controllership of wealthy Indian families.
But while Mohan and Shamala did their best to bring their children up with conscious attention to class, Mohan in his interface with his foreign counterparts lived a double life mixing with those “untouchables” as a matter of necessity at work and social occasions while seeking to protect his family from similar contacts. Stress from his high pressure job at the bank, and double standards of his personal life took its toll on his health as Shaku reached her early teens and decisions had to be made about her future education.
A private tutor had taken her through her elementary education, but as Indian families were now giving preference to educated girls in choosing a bride for their sons Mohan found himself with a further stressful decision to make. Traditionally it was thought educating girls was a waste of investment as their work should centre round management of home and children. But India was slowly changing and it would be unthinkable for Mohan to have a marriage proposal rejected on account of a perceived lack of education. So he would seek a suitable school for Shaku’s higher education. Though this directly confronted his cherished beliefs it would cause loss of face to his extended family should a marriage proposal for Shaku later be rejected because of her perceived lack of education. It was his duty to see this did not happen.
Mohan had made his decision and now hastened to put it into action. His eldest son Ramesh had completed most of his education in Bombay and would remain there with him until he finished. A few of the servants would remain to care for their needs.
But the rest of the family he’d move to Poona up on the Deccan Plateau to the southeast where he maintained a vacation home for his parents to escape the stifling humidity of Bombay during hot season. His second son Rajeev could commence his Masters in Economics at Poona University and Shaku could begin work on her BA. So his parents, Shamala, Rajeev and Shaku found their first class apartment, along with trusted servants who were to travel third class. Luggage was loaded by red cap coolies on the Deccan Queen to make the rail transfer to their temporary home and the coolies gathered around Mohan for a usual spirited negotiation for their baksheesh.
Shamala smiled with satisfaction as the train reached the top of the ghats and familiar sounds could be heard as hawkers shouted their wares. “Garam chai! Tanda pani! Lonavala chici! This was the beginning of familiar territory for Shamala. She’d been born in Jehangir Nursing Home Poona and spent all her years up to the time of marriage in that city. This was home. Her parents and most of her siblings still lived here. Gandhiji and some of the freedom fighters had been interned here during the last days of British rule. The great Maratha warrior Shivaji had made this a bastion of freedom from foreign influence in glorious times past. She was proud of her Marathi heritage. For the few years of her son and daughter’s final education she’d be happy here not relishing the thought of returning to Bombay when it was all over. The thought of that return caused her to frown momentarily.
Mohan sat silent watching his family as brown stubble fields flew past his first class carriage window. He’d miss the evening rituals as they sat to share a meal together. The house would no longer ring with the loud shouts of two young men which Mohan would silence with a cold stare while Shamala and Shaku sat demure watching the men eat before retreating to the kitchen where Shamala reigned supreme. There they’d eat their own food.
But there’d be no shouts now. He’d thought the custom of foreign families eating their meal together was a nice custom to adopt and once tried to encourage Shamala and Shaku to join them while they ate, but Shamala was horrified at this assault on custom. It was just not done in the culture she treasured and no amount of urging on Mohan’s part would ever change her thinking. Shaku had eagerly moved to join the boys when Mohan asked them but Shamala had gently but firmly pulled her back. Her daughter would be schooled in the old ways regardless of Mohan’s plan to give her high educational credentials for marriage.
Mohan’s mother began to chant one of the religious themes of her Hindu heritage as they approached the outskirts of Poona, her body moving to the beat of the chant. Shamala noticed her holding her leg as she sang. This was usually a sign her mother-in-law was having discomfort with her legs again. Without a word she sank to a squatting position touched those shrunken feet as a mark of respect and began to massage aged legs. The old woman grunted in appreciation then resumed her chant.
As Mohan watched a deep feeling of love and respect for his wife flowed through him. She had produced two fine sons to carry on the family name and perform rites necessary for him to be transported to another incarnation when the time came. Only a son could perform this rite for him. As for Shaku, she’d now become another object of his affection and he reflected with sorrow on his attitude at the time of her birth. He was proud of her now and wanted to ensure her happiness in life.
Mohan relaxed in a waiting room outside the office of Professor Bhave. His parents and family were now settled in their summer home. This time it would be a several year stay rather than the few weeks holiday his family spent there each year. His parents usually spent the whole of the hot season in this bungalow and were delighted to be home again. It had been their ancestral home with spacious grounds and ample quarters for the servants. Disused stables at the back suggested the era this bungalow had been built for, and it was now occupied by an assortment of old cars and broken horse carriages pots and other garden tools. A faint smell of horses still permeated the place even though horses had not occupied those stables for about forty years.
Shamala sighed with satisfaction as she surveyed servants busy settling bedrooms and noted the Dersi setting up his sewing machine on the stone side porch ready to measure her and Shaku for new clothes. This was a family ritual, the up market shops in Bombay being considered inferior to the traditional dress maker who did it all where it could be supervised and was patient enough to endure multiple fittings until Memsahib was satisfied. She’d just dispatched her head servant to the wet markets to bargain for their provisions and set up the kitchen. She’d visit Chandan and Darabji’s Stores at the Cantonment Main Street to personally select her spices.
Professor Bhave appeared to greet Mohan personally. The Professor was a relative in Shamala’s branch of the family. Mohan was respectfully ushered into the office and with a click of his fingers the male secretary was sent off to bring back chai and sweetmeats. After a polite catching up on each side of the families fortunes they got down to business. The professor handed completed forms to Mohan which he’d personally signed. These would be the passport for Rajeev’s MA studies in Poona University. Mohan received these with two hands outstretched in traditional thankfulness for the favour. The Professor casually remarked his own son would soon be graduating with a Master’s Degree, and wondered whether Mohan would recommend a banking career? Mohan nodded his head in silent understanding and suggested the son visit him at his office in Bombay for a personal interview.
The Professor hesitated as he picked up Shaku’s application form. A rivalry between departments at the University had made this one harder to deal with in spite of his high ranking within University faculty. In a low voice he mentioned he’d been able to get Shaku into Fergusson College, an affiliate of the University. Once finished her BA she’d have no trouble getting into a Masters program if that’s what Mohan chose to do. Mohan nodded thankfully and pocketed the papers with the Professor’s personal recommendation. It was obvious he’d have to accommodate the Professor’s son after all these favours.
The professor lingered over Shaku’s ID picture before handing the papers over. She was developing into an attractive young woman, was obviously well versed in the culture of their social group, and with education would be a sought after match. He nodded with approval as he thought of the good work Shamala his relative had done with her upbringing. He’d keep ‘Shaku in mind for his own son’s bride when she finished her course of BA studies. In his opinion it would not be necessary for her to have a Master’s degree, but he dare not mention that to Mohan as he’d like to see his son settled in Mohan’s bank first.
Aware that they’d soon be involved in heavy study routines Rajeev and Shaku decided to leave the confusion of the house settling exercise. Everywhere they seemed to turn they were in the way of struggling servants rushing around, and as Mohan and Shamala were out of the house on business they decided to visit old haunts of their happy childhood holiday memories.
Rajeev borrowed a Bajaj Scooter from one of his cousins and with Shaku perched side saddle on the back they roared through the cantonment area headed for Parvati Hill to the south of the city. Climbing the one hundred and eight steps they paused at the top to catch their breath and turned to look back over the city of Poona. It was an inspiring sight and their hearts swelled with pride as they considered they were back in the Maratha heartland where the purest of their language was spoken. This hill 2,100 feet above sea level spoke to them of their Maratha ancestors who presided over a vast kingdom in the sub-continent until eventually absorbed by the British.
And here was represented on this hill the gods the British had never been able to conquer! They sat in silence absorbing this grand vista and speculating on changes in their lives over the next few years. As the sun began to set Rajeev gave a sigh, nodded to his sister and they began the descent of those one hundred and eight stairs to embrace their new life.
Servants fussed around at the front door as Shamala issued commands to get her reluctant children organized for their first day at their respective educational institutions. They’d enjoyed their brief time of freedom with cousins Dilip and Ranjana as they visited around city haunts together on their Vespa scooters, but today was registration day at their chosen educational institutions and Shamala had been instructed by Mohan who was now back at work in Bombay to see they completed registration on time.
Mohan had called both the children before his departure and laid down strict rules to be followed as they began their studies. They were both to study hard and not waste time with their classmates after lectures were over. There was to be no mingling with any of the opposite sex except of course in the case of their cousins, and even those contacts were to be limited on school days. Further, Mohan expected their grades to be in the upper honours group when reports were issued by school authorities. Obviously this caused great anxiety to Rajeev and Shaku and they were not that anxious to get to their appointments that registration morning.
Mohan had purchased a new Vespa scooter for Rajeev to travel back and forth to the University each day. It had received a good workout since first presented to Rajeev, and Shaku had enjoyed riding side saddle on the back. But Shaku being younger and a girl at that would be driven to and collected from her college studies each day by car. This soon proved to be inconvenient as class schedules could be changed frequently and Shaku found herself at odds with their driver’s daily schedule. Both Shaku and the driver were loud in their complaints about hours of wasted time for either of them and of course the driver, being one of the household servants, was always to be blamed. But Mohan refused to budge on this issue. Shaku must be delivered and picked up by his driver each day and they’d have to put up with the inconveniences suffered.
After some time Rajeev began to enjoy association with University students outside classroom lecture periods. He became involved in after class study groups, and these began to occur more frequently at the Poona Coffee House in the heart of old Poona City. There he came in contact with other young men and women of the privileged class, many of whom had finished their degrees and were working in corporations scattered around the Poona area.
Among them were young women who considered themselves liberated from the constraints of the past. They lived a double life, paying lip service to culture at home and exercising their new found freedoms within their close knit circle of friends. Rajeev’s grades began to suffer. Mohan made discreet inquiries and learning the cause put him under close scrutiny. But with the aid of his friends Rajeev found enough discipline to bring his grades back into line and yet keep up his secret contacts with the in crowd. He had a particular interest in Maloti whose father was one of the top executives of a multinational manufacturing in Poona. Maloti was from the Hindi heartland in the north and not of Marathi heritage. Rajeev knew this would be unacceptable to his father, but his heart yearned after Maloti nevertheless.
As Rajeev became distracted with his studies and personal life he and Shaku drifted apart. At first Shaku missed those excursions on the back of Rajeev’s Vespa scooter, but as her own study interests developed she was less interested in going out in her spare time. She was diligent in study and immersed herself in this. Spare time was reserved for bonding further with her Mother and Grandparents. She was happy with her life. Friendships at college she considered transitory and her home and family paramount. Her main study interests centred on economics and her hobby was Marathi literature though she was exceptionally proficient in her study and use of the English language.
Mohan learned through contacts at college of Shaku’s success in studies and smiled with pride. This was the daughter he’d been so distressed to see enter the world. Now she had the potential to make the family proud of her achievements and this thought filled him with excitement. The type of husband he’d seek for her advanced several notches upward as he considered her future. Her aptitude for economics could perhaps be advanced by experience at the bank during vacations he thought. When he suggested this to her he was gratified at her eager acceptance.
His eldest son Ramesh would be in London during Shaku’s school vacation and plans were made for her to stay with him in Bombay during that time. She’d be company for him and at the same time learn something about banking to supplement her studies in economics. This would be her final semester and he was confident she’d emerge with high distinctions in her Bachelor’s Degree study.
Whether she should go on for a Masters at Poona University was to be decided, and the trade off would be whether on finishing that Master’s degree she’d be too old for the marriage market. Mohan sighed as he thought of that day in the future when he and Shamala would proudly see their daughter married to the man of their mutual choice.
Shaku smiled happily as she registered for her final semester at college. The vacation period spent with her Father in Bombay had been a huge success. She’d been placed in close proximity to the practical side of her economics studies as she learned the basics of banking and had met some important movers and shakers in the banking industry from India and abroad.
She’d made a huge impression on foreign bankers with her quick grasp of the trade and insights she’d offered which had totally amazed them when they learned she’d not yet completed her studies. Mohan had observed the approval of these men with pride, but had drawn the line when they suggested sending her to London to attend the School of Economics. Sending a young woman abroad for such studies was just not done in his community and he frowned at the thought, but for some reason the suggestion kept coming back to his mind. He’d dismiss this angrily when the thought occurred. But his pride in her achievement had been fairly obvious to all, especially to Shaku.
As a maturing woman this had given Shaku a chance to observe her Father more closely than she’d thought of doing as a child. She saw and understood his struggle to be true to his class and culture but balance this out with the need to mingle with those “untouchable” foreigners. She reflected on her childhood and noticed that Mohan was much more comfortable now with his foreign counterparts than he’d been in those early years. As she considered this she began to realize India itself was changing and the old superiority of class was beginning to erode with a changing generation. She was part of this new generation. While proud of her heritage and family values she felt on a par with others in her emerging profession. She felt she was neither inferior nor superior to those she studied and worked with. The distinction was in achievement and ambition, not in class.
As the semester drew to an end and Shaku looked forward to graduation and the receipt of her Degree Professor Bhave made his move. He’d been watching her progress with interest and could see Shaku would be a suitable match for his son now with her degree. Not that she would use it of course. It would be something to hang on the wall and that along with her stunning looks would show this woman of the house had status along with suitable family connections, and this in turn would bring added respect to the Bhave family. But her place would be to serve her husband under the supervision of her Mother-in-law and produce sons to carry on their proud line. The degree had no other use.
So Professor Bhave took the Deccan Queen train to Bombay and arranged for Mohan to be his guest at the Taj Mahal Hotel restaurant while he attended to University business in the city. Mohan was glad to accept the invitation and they had a pleasant time catching up on news of mutual family interest. Then when the meal had finished and they sat enjoying the afterglow of food excellently prepared the subject was delicately approached.
Mohan was speechless. He’d not anticipated this was the reason for the invitation and was unprepared to give his usual pre-thought to the proposal. But he gracefully deflected a definitive answer suggesting this was an important decision and he’d consult with Shamala when next in Poona. He left that meeting with the usual courtesies, but a very troubled mind. The baby girl he’d not welcomed at birth was now very precious to him and not to be surrendered without careful thought as to her best future interests.
When Mohan shared the news with Shamala on his weekend visit to Poona she was overjoyed. What better future could there be for Shaku than to be connected with her own family. She felt proud that the respected Professor Bhave would consider her daughter a suitable match for his son. Did they not owe him this respect for having accommodated Rajeev and Shaku in pursuing their studies? This further troubled Mohan as he could see now a refusal would drive a wedge between Shamala and the rest of her family.
He talked with Shaku to gauge her feelings and noted the acute disappointment registered at this marriage proposal. Shaku had come into close contact with Professor Bhave’s son, the proposed marriage partner at the bank in Bombay. Mohan had been instrumental in facilitating his employment as a distant relative, and understood exactly what Shaku’s concern was. The young man was very competent in his job, but was cold and distant unless there was something to be gained from a contact in which case he was calculating and manipulative. Shaku with a woman’s insight recognized that there’d not be the same loving relationship she’d been accustomed to seeing between her Mother and Father as she grew. Custom demanded certain reservations between a husband and wife in their culture but the underpinning love and respect between Mohan and Shamala was without question. Mohan nodded in understanding agreement. He knew Shaku would follow whatever he asked her to do, but he wouldn’t expose his daughter to a loveless marriage just for family alignment sake.
So he told Shamala the marriage proposal was unacceptable, but swore her to secrecy as he wanted to put off communicating his decision to Professor Bhave until both Shaku and Rajeev had their respective degrees safely in hand. Mohan recognized the Professor had enormous potential to prevent this happening if upset at a refusal, and he could always hide behind faculty decisions over which he’d no claimed control if Mohan were to take his revenge on the young man in question at the bank. Mohan smiled at the thought. He’d not be guilty of such a churlish act, but he needed to be sure the Professor was equally magnanimous.
With both the MA and BA studies final and results declared in their favour the family waited for the release of these degree certificates as Professor Bhave pressed Mohan for an answer. Mohan requested further time to think this over in that the bank was requiring his uninterrupted attention at that time.
But after the usual time had well gone for the issue of these certificates Mohan made a personal visit to each institution and collected them himself. Office staff in each case made weak excuses as to why certificate release had been unaccountably delayed, but Mohan recognized there’d been behind the scenes representations that these should be held for the present. However when Mohan made it a personal need to collect certificates himself unspecified reasons for them to be held in the office seemed to evaporate.
Both the Professor and Mohan played their game of brinksmanship without revealing their intensions openly. Mohan realized the next test was soon to come, and it had the potential to affect Shamala’s relations with her extended family. He communicated to Professor Bhave that he was not ready to offer his daughter for marriage as he wanted her to pursue further studies. He realized that would no longer be possible at Poona University where the Professor had great influence and moved his family back to Bombay.
Mohan had decided to put his daughter to work at the bank while he considered her future. While the thought of sending her abroad had not appealed to him when foreign members of the international bank he represented suggested it he began to wonder if that might be a solution to the present problem. His refusal of Professor Bhave’s request that Shaku be given to his son in marriage had created a lot of complications for him.
The Professor was a leading member of his wife Shamala’s extended family and very influential in Poona city. To the Marathi people the city had always been Pune, but during the time of the British Raj Poona had accommodated their difficulty in pronouncing that name. Now with the departure of the British it had reverted to its original name, and with it the influence of leading Marathi high class families became paramount.
The Professor’s influence would be felt in all institutions of this world renowned educational centre Poona, and even extended to some of the leading educational centres in the city of Bombay, now renamed Mumbai after the goddess of ancient coastal fishing clans Mumba.
His parents would no longer find living in Pune during summer months as friendly in their contacts with old friends, and Shamala was already feeling the coldness of her extended family relations on return to Mumbai with parents in law, son and daughter now that this phase of her children’s education had been completed. Mohan had recently found his wife in tears in a secluded part of their bungalow compound away from servants prying eyes. Seeing her in tears tore at his heart as he guessed her strained extended family relations to be the cause. Shamala had quickly said her eyes were watering from allergies to the mango blossoms, but each was aware of the true nature of those tears.
Then there was Suresh. He was the son Professor Bhave had requested Mohan to place in the bank Mohan managed as a favour to him. It was understood this was because of his facilitating placement of Mohan’s children in Poona University and Fergusson College for their respective studies.
Suresh was also the son the Professor wanted Shaku married to. Suresh had always considered it a done deal, and had let it be known far and wide he was Mohan’s future son in law and as such should be treated with respect. His cold and calculating nature made him a hated member of the staff, but each kept their counsel in the mistaken belief he’d be a force to be reckoned with in the office politically with his claimed future connection to the boss.
It was some time before Mohan became aware of this when one of the staff casually referred to a coming marriage. Mohan had been quick to say he’d no knowledge of such a plan, but it was obvious the whole office was buzzing with the news. Staff members had gleefully passed this denial on to Suresh and he became an object of scorn in the office. But Suresh had confidence in his father’s influence and determined to bide his time. Someday he’d be in a position to settle scores with scoffers on the staff, and Mohan too for causing him this embarrassment. He’d use his treatment of Shaku in the marriage relationship to cause Mohan and Shamala acute pain. His face set in cold determination as he thought of possible ways this could be accomplished.
When Professor Bhave communicated to his son Suresh there’d be no wedding between he and Shaku, at least for the present, Suresh was astounded. How was this possible? His father had enormous influence in the educational field and Suresh thought this influence should give him clout in the business and political arenas. He found himself hating Mohan and his family even more.
It was while he was thinking his thoughts of hatred one day Shaku entered the office with her father and headed to her work desk for the day’s activities. Suresh followed her to the desk and poured out his frustration in a torrent of abuse finally questioning whether she was in fact a child of Mohan and Shamala, or whether she was the child of one of the servants Mohan may have had a speculated affair with? The office staff who heard the raised voice rushed to hear what was going on and one hurried to Mohan’s office to alert him.
Mohan appeared just in time to hear this last angry statement from Suresh and momentarily froze in his tracks. He’d always been a highly moral person and this was and unmerited claim in front of his office staff! Shaku stood, eyes blazing with moral indignation and removed her shoe. He’d insulted her and her family publicly; she’d give him the crowning insult. Taking the shoe she slapped him again and again in full knowledge that by doing so the shoe, ceremoniously unclean, would be something he’d never forget. It was an act that peasants in the villages would kill a person in return for such an insult. Those foolish actions by Suresh and Shaku would cause a rift between their families for generations to come Mohan thought.
They were summoned to the office. Mohan first phoned his driver to come. Shaku would be returned home and placed under guard and must not be seen in his office again. Her life was now in danger and she’d not be able to move around without a bodyguard for some time to come, perhaps never? Suresh now realized what a fool he’d been to cause this commotion, but his father’s influence would protect him. Mohan would not dare to sack him in spite of the insult. Somehow it would be worked out.
Mohan handed him a slip of paper with a sigh. Suresh looked at the paper in disbelief. Severance pay! Sacked? He fell to the floor and caught Mohan by the feet imploring him for forgiveness, but Mohan motioned to security guards who’d been summoned by staff when things seemed to be getting out of hand and they led Suresh to the cashier’s desk. Office staff stood and clapped as Suresh was then removed from the building. Their thorn in the flesh had been summarily dealt with and they looked with appreciation in the direction of Mohan’s office where a sobbing Shaku sought her father’s forgiveness. Mohan drew his daughter to him and held her while she sobbed uncontrollably.
It looked like the wisest course of action for Shaku would be to study out of the country for some time until tempers cooled and it was safe for her to return home.
As predicted the skirmish between Suresh and Shaku, and resulting removal of both from the bank created a rift between the families of Mohan and Professor Bhave. This placed the less affluent members of these extended families in a predicament. They relied on both men for favours from time to time and were faced with the difficult task of appearing to side with the one they needed a favour from without this being reported to the other. Most of them were able to walk this minefield successfully, but if any were to be found out in their subterfuge they would henceforth only be able to tap the generosity of one side of the family. Slowly over time all were forced without enthusiasm into one of the camps, but it was not their fight and they were constantly at work trying to figure out how to get back into the good graces of the side they were alienated from. They wished reconciliation between the families were possible.
Shamala was devastated by this train of events and fell into depression which only the services of her doctor could place under control. Mohan watched his wife sink into a lethargic medicine induced disinterest in things around her. Shamala’s activities became mechanical, and while she cared for her responsibilities as before the spark that had welded this family together began to fade. Mohan wished there were some way they could return to the happy life they’d all enjoyed together before this unfortunate rift in the extended family.
Shaku was equally depressed. Sometimes she wished her father had decided to marry her to Suresh. She’d have been desperately unhappy but at least her Mother would be happy, and the families would be at peace. She mentioned this to Rajeev who passed this thought along to Mohan. Mohan called Shaku and reassured her. It was not her fault at all, fate had been unkind to them and no one was to blame.
Mohan was angry with Professor Bhave, and furious with Suresh for his untrue remarks in front of his office staff. It was only after Suresh had been sacked the staff felt brave enough to bring their complaints about him to Mohan’s attention, and Mohan realized how fortunate the bank was to be without the young man. Mohan had only seen his technical competence, but the staff had seen his true character and he was not the kind of person Mohan felt would project the image his bank should have in the community.
Relatives had whispered back to Mohan the tale Suresh had told his family. Suresh’s version of what had prompted his sacking was he’d rejected Shaku’s uncalled for advances and she’d “slippered” him in the office in frustration without any cause. He’d resigned to protect his good family name after that insult, but Mohan had covered up the whole thing by presenting his departure as a sacking.
Now Professor Bhave had checked that story with contacts in Mumbai who knew some of the office staff and had been told the true version of the story. He’d beaten Suresh severely when he learned the truth in spite of the fact his son was an adult, but to preserve face for the family he spread Suresh’s version far and wide.
At one stage the Professor looked at the possibility of having each of Mohan’s children’s university and college results reviewed with a claim that cheating had occurred, but then realized the accusation coming after a split in the family could point the finger of suspicion back at him. Apart from that, Suresh was now unemployed and he discovered even good friends in industry were reluctant to give Suresh a job in their companies as they’d done their homework well after the Professor’s request for help for his son. Of course these friends always had good excuses for not taking Suresh. They were overextended financially, or their boards had decided someone else had better qualifications for the job. He could not afford to provoke Mohan to a retaliation that may affect his son’s future further. So he satisfied himself with spreading rumours about Mohan and his dealings and unfair treatment of his son. No one who knew Mohan believed these rumours and the Professor lost credibility over stories circulated.
In the meantime Mohan had contacted his eldest son Ramesh in London in connection with Shaku’s further education. The original intent had been for Ramesh to gain experience at the London head office of the bank, however he’d done well and it became apparent to bankers at head office with extended experience in London he could in time be placed as manager of one of their overseas regional branches, perhaps even a replacement for his father when Mohan decided to step down and retire from the Mumbai regional headquarters.
Mohan had quickly arranged marriage so Ramesh wouldn’t forget his cultural heritage while living in London. After prolonged negotiations a bride was found. She was daughter to one of Mohan’s childhood Indian friends now established in New York, and anxious to see his daughter married to someone of her own culture and social status. The parents on both sides were overjoyed at the match, and Ramesh and Anita fell in love at first sight much to the delight of their parents.
At first Ramesh felt uneasy at the thought of being responsible for his now fully grown and beautiful sister. London was a freewheeling city and all foreigners who found their way there seemed to eventually accommodate to the folkways of the city. These folkways were sometimes diametrically opposed to the way he’d been brought up, and he feared for the influence this would have on his sister, and how this would be explained to Mohan should it happen. Shaku was now the apple of Mohan’s eye, and he’d be watching Ramesh closely as he handled this trust. But the more he thought of it, the more he warmed to the idea. Shaku would be good company for Anita, especially when he had to travel overseas on assignment. Anita was excited at the prospect of her sister in law living with them for a time too.
As soon as the acceptance letter arrived from London School of Economics Shaku’s passport and visa was collected and she found herself at the airport with family, friends and staff from the bank to wish her a safe journey and profitable study time in London. Shamala wept as Shaku, brushing the tears from her own cheek, waved goodbye and headed for the Immigration area and her Air India flight. She’d make them all proud she thought as she sat at the gate to await her boarding call. Her heart pounded with excitement and mingled fear as she contemplated her new life.
Shaku was confused as she left the plane at London’s Heathrow Airport and tried to make sense of signs to find her way out to relative safety of her brother’s care at the arrivals gate. It was not that signs were not clear, she was on unfamiliar territory, and as this was the first time she’d been abroad her sadness at leaving family was relegated to the background and replaced with fear of the unknown. One of the Air India stewardesses noted her confusion and steered Shaku in the direction of Immigration and Customs whispering directions as to what to do as they sped down the passageway. Shaku joined the Immigration line uncertainly checking and rechecking her documents as the line inched toward the counter.
The Immigration Officer surveyed her documents and stared at them thoughtfully for a while, then beckoned to one of the supervisors behind him. As they examined her passport Shaku’s heart seemed to stop beating. What would she do if they didn’t let her pass? What would happen to her luggage? How would she be able to contact her brother and let him know what happened? But then stamped documents were thrust in her hand and she stared at the Immigration Officer uncertainly. The Officer pointed behind him to luggage collection and Customs section and Shaku realized with relief she was now officially a guest of the country.
Another half hour and she was through it all and searching the crowd outside for her brother’s face. Would she recognize him? He’d been absent from home for a few years now. But before she noticed Ramesh a flying sari clad Anita had descended on her hugging her tightly while Ramesh trailed behind at a sedate pace. Ramesh gave his Namaste greeting and joined Anita in hugging his sister, then taking her luggage trolley from her they began the long commute to the vehicle parking station with Anita chattering excitedly in Hindi all the way.
Ramesh had taken vacation time to see his sister oriented to the city and registered for her studies. At first Shaku was nervous travelling in this unfamiliar city with its strange customs and folkways. She had difficulty with the clipped precise British version of English and some of the dialects of London. She was used to the lilting English accent spoken around India, but was a quick learner and soon able to understand.
However she came alive when they visited the Little India of London where a cacophony of familiar Indian languages vied with each other against a backdrop of Hindi music blaring from shops. The city seemed to be more cosmopolitan even than Mumbai, and she marvelled at relative order even in the confusion of Little India. She sighed with satisfaction. It was wonderful living with Ramesh and Anita, and there was enough of her culture available to make living in this city pleasurable indeed.
Weeks passed and Shaku was now totally familiar with the environment and happy with her studies. She found her studies stimulating, Lecturers soon learned they were handling a student of exceptional qualities and took special interest nurturing her expanding knowledge. Shaku blossomed in this nurturing educational environment and felt totally accepted.
She’d heard unsettling stories of racism rampant in London before leaving Mumbai for studies abroad, but this she didn’t experience in her contacts with lecturers and students. Occasionally she was taunted by skinheads lurking on the fringes of Little India streets, and these were fearful moments, but she’d experienced teasing in Mumbai too in her growing up years and put it all into perspective. One had to be alert to danger and seek to avoid it anywhere in the world.
Shaku had met some of the Bank Directors on their business trips to Mumbai and they’d followed her progress in India, and now in London with interest. When it became apparent Shaku was doing exceptionally well in her studies they marked her as a potential future recruit. Seeking to observe her further working out of her own environment they suggested to Ramesh she could occupy vacation time working at head office. Ramesh was uncertain as to whether his father would approve, so telephoned him for advice.
Mohan was glad friends at head office were taking interest in his family. It would be good for Shaku to be occupied on vacation rather than being subjected to temptations mingling too freely with young foreigners. He readily granted approval. Shaku was delighted to be given the opportunity, and the Bank worked with Immigration to allow her some work time on her student visa.
Young recruits at the bank were a highly motivated and ambitious group. Shaku found her contacts with this group stimulating also. Many of them had been brought from countries where the bank had regional branches to gain experience at head office before being sent back to their own country, or in some cases to other regional centres around the world. Some of course were British born.
Shaku was thrilled at her exposure to many different world cultures and began to compare them with her own. These contacts firmed her appreciation for her own culture, but added a dimension of tolerance and acceptance for things different. There were times she and Ramesh clashed over this tolerance. Ramesh had learned to compartmentalize and keep separate home and office cultures as his father did. Shaku tended to blend the two to the alarm of Ramesh. He communicated his concerns to his father who issued a sharp rebuke to his daughter. Shaku smouldered with resentment over this rebuke for weeks afterward, but family devotion was strong in this family and she soon put her resentment aside.
But this rebuke caused her to think about her own future. She’d have difficulty becoming a traditional Indian wife after her London experience, and began to dread the day when Mohan would again bring up the subject of future marriage. She knew he wanted her to have a happy and fulfilling married life, but would she be able to make that transition from a person with successful business prospects to a traditional housewife now? Would her future husband support her in using the knowledge gained in both study and work?
It was in her first year at London School of Economics Shaku and Ramesh heard from Mumbai Rajeev and Maloti were to be married. Mohan had managed to get Rajeev a position with the Bajaj group and during his time in New Delhi he’d become reacquainted with Maloti who’d finished her education in Pune and was now living with parents again while working at a government office. Rajeev found himself smitten again with this beautiful girl, and each of them had matured and left the foolishness of the Pune Coffee House years well behind.
Maloti’s father had noted the interest between his daughter and Rajeev, and began a thorough background check on Mohan and his family. He was delighted with what he found. While they were from differing ethnic and linguistic backgrounds they were equal in cast status. This was a must, even though Maloti’s family were liberal in their attitudes in other ways.
So it was a complete surprise to Mohan when a mutual friend go-between suggested Mohan may be interested in a marriage proposal. Mohan then did a very thorough check on Maloti and her family in New Delhi and noted they were influential, well placed and of the right social standing. But they were not Maharashtran and momentarily he dismissed the thought of a proposal. Then he remembered his eldest son had married outside the community so he was not being consistent. He’d been quite satisfied with the arrangement between Ramesh and Anita as Anita’s father had been his close friend during childhood years. He shrugged his shoulders and decided to accept an invitation to discuss this marriage proposal.
As Shamala had not been keeping good health since the family split over Dr Bhave’s proposal, and the fiasco with his son at the bank, Mohan had been quite protective of his wife and decided to meet Maloti’s father at a dinner meeting in Mumbai by himself. The two men developed an instant liking for each other and a meeting between the families was arranged at which Rajeev and Maloti would be presented formally to each family and marriage arrangements haggled over.
So when the marriage took place in Mumbai it was a big affair and became one of the social events of the year. Mohan wanted his children to fly out from London for the wedding, but when he discovered the auspicious wedding date carefully chosen by a Hindu holy man fell at the time of one of Shaku’s important exams he regretfully instructed her to remain in London. Ramesh and Anita would make the trip. Shaku was devastated and was angry another date hadn’t been chosen to enable her to attend this important family occasion. She was beginning to feel cultural issues like choosing an auspicious date should be relegated to folkways of the past rather than rules of life for the present. However she dared not express this to Ramesh or her father.
So when Ramesh and Anita were away and still feeling angry over her exclusion from the wedding celebration Shaku looked for some way to vent her frustrations. She quite understood her father’s decision logically. He’d decided this in her best interests as he always did, but the inflexibility of the marriage date irritated her. She needed to find someone to share her frustrations with.
She’d been part of a small class group that worked together discussing case studies and project assignments. Her contribution to the group was formal and incisive and each of the group members saw her as an important contributor. Charles saw her as something more than a class member. He was impressed with her intellect; he was in awe of her stately bearing, smitten by her beauty. Many times he’d shyly tried to make a more personal contact with her only to meet with a wall of reserve. It was not the wall of superiority, but a cultural barrier that Shaku erected against an invasion of western values which she found to be quite unacceptable. She was Indian! She was Maharashtran, and her values were quite different to what she saw around her in this city. Charles was part of a culture she rejected, but could live with when it came to personal advancement. But she couldn’t let him into her private space. He was परदेशी foreigner and there could be no compatibility there.
And yet Shaku had been very aware as a woman of that underlying yearning in Charles’ eyes when he addressed her in class discussions. Alarm bells rang in one hemisphere while pleasurable sensations frolicked in the other hemisphere of her brain when Charles looked at her. Her face registered neither of these emotions and that barrier had protected her from what this could lead to and the shame it would bring on her family to be seen in close familiarity with a foreigner. Shivaji the great had fought to keep the British out of her country for most of his life. It was up to her as a descendent of this great warrior to see she kept them out as rulers of her life. Equality she believed in, subjugation she rejected.
But when Charles approached her in his shy way this day Shaku’s reserve crumbled in the irritation of her being kept out of this important family occasion. She poured out her frustration in a torrent of words while Charles sat quietly listening. Then what seemed like hours later Shaku suddenly realized what she’d done. She’d let down her guard in front of a foreigner, and worse still to a foreigner who was obviously in love with her. She felt wretched. One part of her wanted to respond to the message behind those eyes, the other part of her screamed danger.
By the time of her final year of study Shaku had become used to having Charles around. He was unassuming and quiet around her, but within lectures a very intellectual and insightful contributor. He was an active sports person too and tried to encourage Shaku to get involved in sporting activities. She knew such activities would cause anxiety to Ramesh and her father though and politely refused his invitations. Shaku begun to understand his faithful attendance to the informal class group was more motivated by a desire to be where she was rather than need for intellectual stimulation. The alarm bells had been slowly reducing in intensity for a long time now. He was now allowed to intrude into her space, but only so far. She knew there could be no possibility of romance between them as it would alienate her from her family, and that was something she could never accept or recover from.
Charles seemed to understand that, but the light of love emanating from those eyes could not be hid even when words were kept within strict bounds. Shaku found him intruding into her thoughts though. In her imagination she’d dress him in the white Indian kurta and pants with a Gandhi cap sitting rakishly on that broad British head of his. She’d smile at her fantasies and shake her head in an attempt to shake them out of her imagination. But they’d return and she’d smile with delight at the foolishness of it all. The impossible dream!
It was just after her final exams word came from Mumbai Shamala had passed to her rest. This time Ramesh, Anita and Shaku took the Air India flight to Mumbai together. Shaku was inconsolable. Her studies had been important in the knowledge her parents were behind her as a team and it was her duty to make them proud of her. She remembered a happy childhood with Shamala as her confidant and guide. Now her mother was gone!
The Father meeting them at the Mumbai airport was a much different man. Watching his beloved wife slowly deteriorate health wise had been a constant knife in his side and he’d visibly aged through the experience. To the public and the business community he was still the formidable Mohan and he’d skilfully masked his sorrow. But within the safety of family he subsided into a ghost of the father they’d known in their youth. Not long after the ceremonial cremation of Shamala Mohan declared his intent to retire from banking and make the pilgrimage to holy sites and shrines before settling in to a life of austerity. He was too broken to deal with plans for Shaku’s future and in spite of her protesting she wanted to return and spend time with him he instructed her to return to London until he’d completed his pilgrimage.
The Bank’s London office executives were surprised at this turn of events. They’d been of the opinion Mohan would spend more years with them before talking of retirement and went into conference immediately to decide who’d be a most appropriate replacement. There were several potential contenders for the important Southern Asia regional manager, and these included Mohan’s son Ramesh who was considered to be a rising star at the bank.
When interviews had been completed Ramesh emerged as the unanimous choice. A few years in Mumbai looking after their regional interests and they’d call him back to London to help manage world oversight of their banking activities. Ramesh and Anita were delighted at the chance to return to India where Ramesh would be in a position to keep an eye on Mohan and see he was well cared for.
Mohan’s friends at head office offered to take Shaku as a full time trainee as soon as London School of Economics results had been declared, and Ramesh helped her move into a single apartment in a safe part of London before leaving for his new appointment in Mumbai where he was welcomed enthusiastically by staff who’d served Mohan loyally. They’d been apprehensive about his potential replacement as soon as he’d declared intention to retire. A new broom sometimes sweeps clean and their own jobs and future were on the line until they knew they’d be safely confirmed in their jobs. Of course there were some who’d hoped for the top position and they began to look around for other opportunities to better themselves. Ramesh had worked with the staff for a time and was a known person.
Shaku enjoyed the challenge offered her in banking. Without restrictions placed on her by Ramesh and in the knowledge her father had now entered a phase of life where decisions would be more family decisions than parental decisions. She began to test her emerging status, personal financial security and freedom. She also began to break down the rigid wall of partition and mingle with her peers in commerce and establish a hybrid culture of her own.
Charles had been offered a well paid and high ranking job in Europe and had shared this news with Shaku. She’d wished him well and congratulated him on the appointment but inside struggled with a sense of further loss. He’d become her best friend and confidant over the years and she’d miss him terribly. He then informed her quietly he’d refused this opportunity and accepted a lesser position in London. Shaku was shocked! Why would he do such a thing? But Shaku knew why deep inside. He wanted to be with her! Involuntarily she reached out and touched him in acknowledgement of his sacrifice, then withdrew her hand in alarm. Why had she broken with her culture in this way? Touching was part of a marriage relationship, and she was determined to keep this as an essential part of her personal value system.
Charles beamed with pleasure at that touch. He understood the difficulty she’d have in making a commitment to him and resolved to let her make a decision on their future without any form of pressure. He’d gladly wait for however long it took. But for the present he was happy she’d recognized the import of his decision to stay in London and that would suffice for the present.
Shaku realized with a start she was in love with this foreigner. His background was very different to hers but she’d observed him over the years and could see he’d always be there for her and provide the kind of loving family environment she’d been exposed to in her own family experience. She wanted this man, but knew that her family would never accept him. It was a terrible choice for her to make. Turn her back on the man she loved, or turn her back on the family she loved. It seemed there was no other choice.
The little band of pilgrims wound their way up the steep mountain track in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Mohan glanced around to see how Professor Bhave was handling the last steep incline. They’d soon reach their destination, the ashram tucked into the side of this mountain with spectacular view of the Far Pavilions of the Himalayas in the distance. It was here Mohan would seek his spiritual enlightenment and heal that great void left by the death of his life partner Shamala. Professor Bhave grunted with the effort shifting his great bulk up that mountain trail and whenever he could catch his breath would intone “Ram; Ram, Ram” breathlessly.
Mohan recalled the time at Shamala’s burning on the funeral pyre when the rift was mended between Shamala’s branch of the family and his. All relatives had been present for the funeral and it was observed as a notable event in the city of Mumbai with political and business leaders paying their respects in the background while ceremonies were in progress. Ashes were collected to be scattered in the waters of the sacred Ganges. It had been then Mohan had vowed to take his wife’s ashes personally and make this trip into the mountains after that ceremony had been completed.
It was at the conclusion of Shamala’s burning Professor Bhave had approached crying bitterly to fall at Mohan’s feet, catching his legs and begging for forgiveness. As he aged he’d recalled events which had shaped his life and made him successful. But there were memories which troubled his conscience greatly, and he knew these events were observed by a higher power and would be taken to account when, as he supposed, he was reincarnated as Hindu beliefs taught him. Good deeds accumulated merit in his religion, bad deeds would send one back down in the cycle to a low life form depending on the evil these deeds had caused to those around him. He knew on that realization he’d have to make things right with Mohan’s family. Relatives had whispered the break in family relations had been a primary cause of Shamala’s early death. Professor Bhave had always been fond of Shamala, and this thought distressed him.
Mohan had mixed emotions as he looked down at the crouching figure of the Professor. His first impulse was to reject this plea for forgiveness as he knew the rift he’d not been responsible for had destroyed his wife’s health. Then there was the question of trying to influence the graduation results of his children in a negative way. But Mohan had the same belief system to contend with. Good deeds accumulate merit! So he reached out and touched the Professor in acknowledgement. Their families were linked by fate and who was he to break that allotted path.
A few days later the Professor appeared at Mohan’s bungalow offering Namaste as he took off sandals and entered the house. The three children regarded him coldly and sat looking stony faced. It was customary to offer chai and sweetmeats to visitors in a respectable Indian home and Mohan glanced at his children looking to them to shout at servants and offer this hospitality. The children glanced at the floor. Mohan snapped his fingers and ordered servants to bring refreshments.
The Professor understood the reason for Mohan’s children responding as they did. He deserved their anger. He politely acknowledged Mohan’s forthcoming pilgrimage to the Ganges River and requested permission to join him in ceremonies associated with scattering of the ashes. Mohan nodded in agreement, and the Professor handed him a neatly wrapped parcel which contained a saffron robe suitable for a pilgrim to wear. He indicated it was identical to the one he’d purchased for himself and hoped this symbolic act would seal their friendship once again. Mohan was deeply moved as he took the robe.
Then turning to Mohan’s children the Professor made his confession and begged their forgiveness also. When they hesitated and looked at their Father he nodded his assent. The children then performed Namaste and retreated to their rooms too shocked at the turn of events to know what to think. A deep respect for their Father’s magnanimous act emerged as they considered what had happened to their family, and how evil had been repaid with nobility.
Little did they realize on seeing Mohan depart for his pilgrimage this would be their last time to see him. They took up the threads of their life again in their chosen professions and locations. The magnanimous spirit of their Father would forever be a guiding principle in their own lives.
Chapter 13 (Conclusion)
Several months had transpired since the death of Shamala, but Shaku still found herself recalling childhood and the Mother who’d been her rock as she’d faced life challenges while growing to womanhood. As she came to terms with the fact Shamala wouldn’t be there to enjoy her eventual marriage and children her grief deepened.
It was during one of her darkest moments of depression Charles dropped by her apartment one Sunday to invite her to a picnic in the park. Shaku had been longing for someone to share her grief with and burst into uncontrollable sobs. Charles was nonplussed. Had he said something wrong? His mind raced through the greetings and their polite conversation at the door as he stepped inside. He couldn’t think of anything that would have caused this outburst and stood there wondering what he should do next?
Then it all came pouring out in a torrent. She shared her grief over her Mother’s death, and the incident in Mumbai with Professor Bhave’s son that caused a rift between the families which in turn had destroyed her Mother. If she’d been more controlled would that rift have happened? The new assertiveness of Ramesh as he took family control as eldest son, for their Father had abdicated this place to take his pilgrimage, worried her. Ramesh was now making active contacts for a suitable marriage partner for Shaku. There was no consultation in this process, only stern urging to fall into line with his plans. Shaku felt isolated and vulnerable. She was also resentful as she felt she was smart enough to make her own decisions and had financial independence which a traditional marriage would not permit. She missed being an integral part of her culture, but realized she couldn’t survive in it and be happy any more. She really didn’t fit into her traditional culture or the culture she now lived in, but did feel safer and more independent and valued here. She didn’t know who she was anymore!
Charles was not sure what he should do. His heart went out to Shaku in her grief and he wanted to hold her and comfort her. But would that natural impulse spell doom to the relationship considering her strict upbringing and value system? But emotion is oft stronger than logic. Charles stepped forward and folded her in his arms whispering comfort as he did so. To his surprise and gratification Shaku snuggled into his embrace and slowly encircled him with her own arms. She luxuriated in the peace this brought to her soul and they stood that way for what seemed like hours, Shaku’s sobs slowly subsiding into sighs of contentment. This was to be her man. She would claim him come what may.
It was soon after that Sunday morning awakening Charles threw all caution to the winds and asked Shaku to marry him. Without hesitation she said yes and they chose an engagement ring next evening after work. Shaku thought she’d wait a little while before informing the rest of her family as she feared their reaction, but there was so much excitement at her office over the engagement word reached Ramesh in Mumbai the day after Shaku showed the ring to her office friends. He was on the phone immediately ordering her back to Mumbai. Shaku informed him she’d made her decision and it was non-negotiable. This sent Ramesh into a towering rage and he threatened her he’d use his influence in the London office to see she lost her job and with it her work visa. That would force her to fall in with family plans for her marriage to a suitable Indian husband.
Charles suggested they bring their wedding plans forward as a precaution. As the wife of a citizen of the country it would be more difficult for Ramesh to carry out his threat and she’d been in the country long enough now to be a candidate for citizenship. Charles visited immigration officials and came back with the news it was possible to work things out. Shaku was happy she’d not be forced to return to Mumbai and the mercy of Ramesh, but sad that once again the family was torn apart.
Then just as Shaku was beginning to relax she received a phone call from Ramesh ordering her home to attend their Father’s funeral. Mohan had been found dead at the ashram, and Ramesh had made a trip to collect his body and bring it back to Mumbai for the funeral. It was to be a huge event in Mumbai society and the city elite had insisted on making this an event of honour. By now Shaku was suspicious of her brother’s intentions and phoned Rajeev in New Delhi just to make sure their Father was really dead and it was not a trick to bring her back under Ramesh’s control.
Charles by this time was also suspicious of Ramesh’s intentions. Charles and Shaku were married in a celebrant ceremony with his family, their London School of Economics professors and friends and her administrators and staff from the office present. Still it was with some foreboding both boarded a plane for Mumbai the day after their wedding.
They booked into the Taj Mahal Hotel on arrival and Shaku phoned home to inform them she was married and staying at the hotel. Within a half hour Ramesh was at the hotel accompanied by members of the extended family. His manner was pleasant and he explained to Charles he’d need to have Shaku at home to discuss some important family issues, and as he’d not been formally introduced to the extended family perhaps it would be better if Charles did not accompany them on this trip until he’d had a chance to inform family members in an appropriate way after the funeral ceremonies had been completed. Then there would be time to welcome him into the family after days of mourning had been completed.
Shaku agreed this would probably be good counsel, and waved to Charles as their car moved out into the confusion of Mumbai traffic. But she soon had reason to fear as Ramesh’s manner changed and he began to berate her for her foolish marriage to Charles. Now it would be difficult to have the marriage annulled, and to find a suitable Indian husband who’d be willing accept spoiled goods. It would probably be an older man who’d lost his wife for her now. Shaku shouted at him in fear and rage and tried to open the door as the car paused in a traffic jam, but her relatives held her securely. A half hour later police arrived and took Charles into custody for kidnapping. He was officially charged and locked up, and it was only next day he was allowed to inform the British Embassy of his plight.
Charles was in custody for a day before the marriage document had been validated by the British Embassy and representations made at the highest levels for his release. He’d expected to find Shaku at the hotel frantic to find out where he’d gone, and on learning she’d not returned the day he’d been taken into custody phoned Ramesh to inquire if she was with him. This time it was a different Ramesh he confronted. He told Charles Shaku had stated she’d made a terrible mistake marrying him and only realized that after coming back home to Mumbai. She didn’t want to speak with him because of her embarrassment and urged him to return back to London without her. She would be staying in Mumbai.
But Charles knew his bride better than that. After consultations with the Embassy he lodged a counter claim of kidnapping against Ramesh with the police, and it was with considerable surprise police arrived to question Ramesh and talk with Shaku as relatives were assembled to plan Mohan’s funeral arrangements. As Ramesh was just establishing his credentials in Mumbai society this was a great embarrassment. Mohan was respected as a highly moral member of society, and to have any question about his son and heir was a terrible misfortune for the family. Ramesh denied all knowledge of the whereabouts of Shaku, but as police questioned extended family members it became apparent Ramesh must know of Shaku’s whereabouts. Servants were summoned and questioned individually until one broke under questioning and led them to the locked room where Shaku had been placed. Ramesh was summoned and told to open the door, and they entered an empty room much to Ramesh’s relief.
Ramesh’s wife Anita had been shocked when Shaku was bundled out of the car and pushed roughly through the house and locked into a back room. The servants had come running gasping with surprise as they heard Shaku Memsahib banging on the door and screaming to be let out. She called out the names of those she’d played with in her childhood and begged them to help. The servants wailed with grief but ran in fear as extended family members rained blows on them and drove them away.
Anita ran to the back of the compound where Rajeev and Maloti were sitting under Shamala’s favourite mango tree remembering happier times. They’d grown tired of Ramesh’s overbearing manner as he and the relatives planned Mohan’s funeral arrangements and decided to get some fresh air. When they heard what had happened to Shaku they were appalled. This time Ramesh had gone too far! Rajeev caught the servant who’d been entrusted with the key to take Shaku’s meals to her and removed it from her. None of the family members were happy Shaku had married without any word to family, but she was a family member nevertheless and should be treated with respect.
Anita loved Shaku like her own sister and the two of them hugged as Shaku cried in gratitude at the risk they took in releasing her. Maloti had borrowed one of the servant’s saris and rushed back with it instructing Shaku to put it on and cover her head. Anita and Maloti would walk from the compound with Shaku following respectfully behind like a servant girl. They’d get her back to the hotel safely and into custody of her husband.
But when they arrived at the Hotel and requested Charles come down from his room to take her into safe possession they were shocked to learn of his arrest. Knowing Shaku was not safe at the hotel either they found a room for her in the busy Colaba district, gave her money and promised to check on her every day until things resolved.
The visit from the police had brought Ramesh to his senses. He realized Anita and his brother had intervened, and while this irritated him he was glad they had. It was likely the police would have their eye on him for some time to come so he’d need to be very careful in his actions from now on. They would still be looking for Shaku, and what would she report when they found her? Any hint of impropriety and his reputation with the community and banking administrators in London would be dashed. He’d been fortunate this time to escape. It must not happen again! Apart from that if his actions were to be known outside the family it would bring shame to the memory of Mohan and the extended family. Ramesh buried his head in his hands and wished he could undo what he’d done. If Charles was bold enough to make a charge of kidnapping against him here, what kind of report would he give to those he knew in London? And he’d been instrumental in having him locked up too! Charles would be out for revenge.
Rajeev had been keeping watch on the Taj Mahal hotel, and when enquiries at the desk revealed Charles was back again he met with him and explained the situation and apologized on behalf of his family. Together they went to retrieve Shaku from her lodging in hiding, but it took a lot of persuading for her to feel safe enough to return to the Taj Mahal Hotel. Rajeev asked that they forgive Ramesh for the sake of Mohan’s memory and to preserve the reputation of the extended family. That evening Shaku and Charles dined with Rajeev and Maloti. Anita sent her love, but as a loyal wife she felt she should not bring loss of face to her husband by attending. The next day Rajeev had a long talk with his brother and urged him to make his peace with Shaku and Charles, each of whom he had seriously wronged, and for once Ramesh listened instead of issuing commands.
After performing the last rites for his Father as the eldest son Ramesh talked with Charles and Shaku and asked their forgiveness for his foolish actions. When days of mourning had been accomplished Ramesh facilitated another wedding for the two. This time it was to be traditional Indian with all the pomp and ceremony that goes with that celebration. It was a grand affair attended by Mohan and Shamala’s extended family and a host of Mohan’s friends. Ramesh as the head of the family was there to give his blessing on the proceedings much to the amusement of police who’d been keeping a stealthy presence in the background after Charles had removed his complaint. In that the Embassy had been involved and the Department of Foreign Affairs they’d taken a lot of interest in this family dispute just in case this should flare up again and become an international incident. They were resentful they’d been dragged into this family dispute.
Safely back in London the couple, now twice married, were thankful things had turned out the way they did. “I guess it took time in jail for me in order for peace to be restored to the family and for us to be accepted!“ Charles laughed ruefully at the memory of that uncomfortable jail cell. “And I guess it took being snatched away from you and locked up for a day to convince me I’d made a very wise decision to marry a man who believes in non-violence” Shaku said with a smile. “I wish my Father had the opportunity to meet you. I know he’d be just as proud of you as I am” Shaku snuggled comfortably into Charles’ tender embrace.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2012” All rights reserved