Gopal Das suddenly found himself elevated in the eyes of surrounding communities, at least at his level in the rigid caste system. People he didn’t know joined in with the known crowds flocking to his house to bring their congratulations and gifts. Gopal Das accepted each gift carefully and thoughtfully. The acceptance of gifts brought with it obligations at some chosen point of time in the future. He knew very well the majority of those well-wishers had little thought for his family. Soon coming wedding made him a valuable asset in presenting their needs to Humphrey Sahib’s father as the need arose. Where that obligation could potentially prove dangerous Gopal Das made sure each gift was neutralized by a gift in return. But the cost of expected entertainment and return gift giving in this community celebration mounted. He had to fall back on his married children to contribute, but they too were struggling to establish themselves and had little to spare. Something had to be done. Falling into the hands of the money lender was unthinkable.
Finding an accommodating holy man liberally rewarded for his cooperation an auspicious date for the wedding was invented and both Gopal Das and the holy man made an appointment to see Humphrey and his father. It was presented that no other date than the one suggested, soon as it was, would be acceptable to the community or the watching gods. Then the delicate matter of an appropriate celebration was broached. Gopal Das mentioned that as it was his responsibility he would have to greatly disappoint the community by restricting the invitation list. This of course was not true. In India everyone turns up at a shadi regardless of invitation, but of course those invited would be particularly honoured and cared for.
Humphrey and his father were not taken in by this, but they understood there were elements of truth to the situation which would need their direct intervention. The community would consider with the Sahibs involvement a large wedding was required. Reed Sahib knew Gopal Das wouldn’t be able to satisfy community aspirations however there was face to be considered. So an agreement was reached. Gopal Das would care for all wedding arrangements and behind the scenes the Reed family would care for expenses without letting that be known to the community. But of course the community knew the truth of the matter when merchant bills were settled by the Reeds.
Geeta was both excited and frightened in equal measure. There was no chance of her escape from the agreement now. Her family and the community were looking forward to the event with eager anticipation. She had a clear understanding of her place in an Indian home, but what would be expected of her as a daughter-in-law of the Sahib? Would her mother-in-law expect her to massage those white limbs at the end of the day and supervise her every move? How far behind her Sahib husband would she be expected to walk? Would he beat her severely when she made mistakes? Would he be rough on her on the wedding night? Would she be allowed to keep her gods in the house for protection? The more she thought of these things the more terrified she became and women counsellors from the village fed her conflicting stories which terrified her further.
The community talked about that wedding for many years after the event. Gopal Das had pulled out all stops to make this a memorable event. The wedding pandal erected on railway grounds excelled in its decoration, a discordant loud band behind which marched village girls with lighted candles energized the event, Humphrey on his white horse dressed in Indian bridegroom finery creeping along behind the procession looked uncomfortable and slightly disoriented and the bride dressed in the finest silk arrived surrounded by family members, having been bathed and decorated with ancient marriage symbols to invoke the pleasure of the gods. This was a source of pride to the community. It was the actual ceremony though that had caused the most upset.
The Anglican priest had arrived at the invitation of Sahib Reed to perform the ceremony, and it was only then it was learned Gopal Das had brought along a Hindu priest to care for the ceremony. Offence was taken by both of the officiating priests who could barely be restrained by the respective parties to the marriage and each with shouts of anger demanded the other leave. The Reed family had to intervene with substantial financial support to the local Anglican Church and the Hindu Priest in order to arrange a compromise. It was finally determined that each would conduct a ceremony separately .This turn of events enhanced the enjoyment of the community attending as everyone loves a tamasha at a wedding and this was one of the best. The Reeds had agreed in advance to a vegetarian menu so there was no point of conflict there though European attendees were visibly disappointed.
It was only on their honeymoon subsequent to marriage event the newly married couple learned not all are happy with an inter-racial marriage. Travelling first class rail they were treated with distain by both an element of the colonial masters, and caste conscious Indians. They found themselves in trouble travelling and in hotels for that reason and were relieved to get back to their home community where they’d experienced much acceptance. Prejudice from both sides of the divide would be their lot for the rest of their lives.
For Geeta the difficult adjustment came when the senior Reeds refused to have Hindu gods in their home. How could she protect her husband, herself and children they may have in future without favour of the gods? But that was only until Humphrey’s father found a separate bungalow for them and Geeta could slowly move her gods into place.
She was also dismayed when Humphrey showed irritation when she was not at his side when walking rather than several paces behind. She knew this angered the men of the villages around them if they walked side by side. Villagers looked on her walking beside her husband as a mark of disrespect for him and them. It was OK for a white woman, but never for an Indian woman as far as they were concerned. It was distressing to her when her husband wanted his mutton curries. She could not bring herself to cook the forbidden and would not eat such things. After scrubbing the pots she’d spend time in ceremonial cleansing and do puja to the gods explaining her dilemma as her husband was like a god to her and she looked to them to forgive this lapse of her culture.
But slowly the two worked through their cultural differences. Humphrey loved Geeta very much and never ceased to find ways to try and make her happy, and Geeta eventually grew comfortable with his ways and did everything in her power to please him. The Elder Reeds loved their daughter-in-law and she grew to love them in return.
It was only on the birth of their first child Felicity Rani that the clash of culture returned. Humphrey could not understand the need for Geeta to stay with her parents preliminary to the birth and utterly forbad that. All of the taboos associated with Indian culture came back into focus. Humphrey found the idea of the sacred thread confronting. He had no respect for devils and could not understand why they should be appeased or the evil eye avoided. It was nonsense to him.
The locking away from the community and outside environment of mother and child for the specified period of time after birth was confronting too when all Humphrey wanted to do was show his bundle of joy off to the whole world. Then the idea of mother and child sleeping together and apart from him was difficult for him to fathom. She was his wife and should be by his side! But they came through it all stronger in their love in spite of those challenges.
Gopal Das tried to be more assertive in his relationship with Sahib Reed. He felt this would give him more respect in the community and they were related now anyway. Talk of freedom was in the air and he longed for the day when he would be the station master and Sahib Reed would return to the land of the Sahibs. Then one day he was shocked to learn Sahib Reed had other ideas. Just as his father had dreamed, so he too dreamed of passing his job over to his son on retirement. Gopal Das began a slow but consistent program of building himself up in the eyes of the community and attempting to spoil the reputation of the Reeds regardless of the fact his daughter was now a Reed too.
Sahib Reed had been born in India, was fluent in the languages and understood the gestures and silent communications and key phrases which were part of the culture. It soon came to his attention that the relationship between he and Gopal Das had broken down. With a heavy heart he called Gopal Das to account and in no uncertain terms outlined his assistant’s expected future if his nefarious activities were not changed. Of course Gopal Das swore his undying allegiance to the Sahib and cursed the story tellers who lead Sahib Reed to such an unfortunate conclusion. But his activities, now more secretive, continued.
Sahib Reed thought the matter over very carefully. He did not want to do anything to Gopal Das which would cause distress to his daughter-in-law who he dearly loved. But he realized they could not continue to work together. So taking time off made his way over plains to the regional headquarters of the rail line. There he made impassioned plea on behalf of Gopal Das for an appointment where he could find fulfilment and be away from the temptation to ruin his reputation. To his surprise his strong recommendation worked and an appointment was made which would be to Gopal Das’s satisfaction. Then he made his way back to deliver the news.
Calling community leaders together Sahib Reed delivered the glad news Gopal Das had received an appointment to a small station where he would be in absolute command. Glowing tributes were made by the Reeds to years of faithful service and well wishes given for his future. A community celebration was planned with food supplied by the Reeds. Everyone gave their good wishes and congratulations.
Gopal Das was overwhelmed with the expressions of goodwill and gave a rousing speech praising Sahib Reed for his intelligence and support over the years. Tears were shed and never ending friendship promised.
While Gopal Das understood the situation well he was overjoyed that finally he’d have a chance to prove his worth as a station master.
To be continued.
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