Bride for the Sahib
Mahaveer sat thinking over his latest misfortune. It had all started years before when he decided to take a second wife. His first wife Shakuntala had grown sick after producing a son and never fully recovered to take her place as the one to keep home going while Mahaveer attended to business. He was very fond of Shaku.
He was from the north of the country, but the family had gravitated to Pune where the Sahibs had established a military cantonment area. Mahaveer had settled there with his parents to establish business supplying all the Sahibs’ army needs. They were merchant class family, but while not the highest caste they retained extended family links to the north where family records could be found dating back into pre-history.
As Mahaveer matured and took over family business his parents decided to move back north to retire with their relatives. It had been an unfortunate parting of the ways. His parents had urged him to marry a bride of their choice from their extended northern family, but Mahaveer had his eye on a Maharashtrian woman from a family equal to his merchant class, but not of his caste. His parents angered at his choice to marry outside caste left Pune taking the bulk of their fortune after serious arguments, leaving him with only a small amount he’d carefully set apart knowing a family rift could eventuate from his choice of Shaku. Through clever trading he became prosperous in his own right.
But Shaku’s health not permitting her to control servants in the house and help him as needed with shop supervision while he dealt with the Sahibs he began to consider Shaku’s suggestions seriously. Shaku had suggested he take a second wife, to help her in management of family affairs. She recommended her cousin Ranjana as a potential second wife and Mahaveer finally consented to go through the process of negotiations through their extended family.
With due ceremony, all arrangements were concluded and Ranjana moved into their home. But while Ranjana produced a daughter for Mahaveer his preference for Shaku made it a loveless marriage and she was more a servant helper for Shaku than wife to Mahaveer. Her daughter Shanti grew up with servant children in early years, but Mahaveer decided she should join in lessons from the private pandit already engaged to instruct his son Manoj an only child of Shaku.
This was unusual for that time in history when it was felt educating a woman was of no profit. They would be married at a young age and only needed knowledge of a woman’s role in the home. To the surprise of all, and under pressure from Ranjana Shanti though starting well behind her half-brother was soon ahead of him in her understanding of letters and commerce. This became an issue between Shaku and Ranjana. Both woman fought constantly from that time on as Shaku urged her son Manoj to try harder with studies and treat his half-sister as a personal servant. Soon after the commencement of bad blood between the cousins Shaku died.
Mahaveer mourned for his favourite wife for many months. Manoj was in his early teens by this time and cast aside study to engage in family business. But his animosity toward his half-sister Shanti and Ranjana continued. Mahaveer noted it all but kept his peace, covering grief by immersing himself in training his son to eventually inherit the family business when Mahaveer was old and needed to turn over responsibility. He let Shanti continue her education but seeing her interest in learning, and skills developed decided to turn over handling of accounting records to her. Manoj was not happy with his sister’s introduction into the family business as his equal.
It was in that role the young army Sahib Bill Higgins first caught sight of Shanti. Bill was a soldier assigned responsibility as purchasing agent for the army in Pune Cantonment. He was single and born in North India to English army parents. He was fluent in Urdu and other languages of the north and on joining the army when of age was assigned to Pune where he quickly learned the Marathi language. The English called their Cantonment Poona. In his job as purchasing agent Bill was surprised at Shanti’s speed and efficiency in arranging accounts and processing transactions in a format required by the army. She was a classic beauty in her prime of life at sixteen and carried herself with pride. Bill fell head over heels in love with his Indian goddess.
Shanti was surprised at first when she realized Bill Higgins was interested in her. She treated him respectfully considering the importance of this man to the family business. If he was not treated carefully her father’s business could suffer should Bill Higgins take army business to a competitor she reasoned. However, she wanted nothing to do with the Sahibs apart from business. There were too many stories of women who’d taken an Englishman’s interest at face value and been left abandoned and ostracized by their own communities when they needed to have support afterward. They were imperialist occupiers of her country, dark plans were already in process for them to be forced out of the country, but that would be well into the future. She sympathized with sentiments of the disaffected, but had to admit ruefully that her family were no better than the many collaborators who profited by British occupation of their country.
But Shanti was not the only one who noticed the interest of the Englishman. Manoj had been watching interchanges between his sister and the Sahib from a distance, and while he could not fault his sister’s actions, jealousy at the favour she had in the eyes of his father and this army purchasing agent had him form a plan of action. He’d be the only one his father would rely on if his plan succeeded.
Manoj began to cultivate Bill much to the surprise of the Englishman. Bill was sufficiently clued in on language and culture, and overheard servants talk when they thought they were alone. The English were admired, sometimes loved, feared and hated in a complicated mix of indigenous emotions. Bill knew there was a huge gulf between his culture and theirs though they intermeshed in a workable blending. So, when Manoj would press presents on the young man he was naturally suspicious. Over time that suspicion was replaced with acceptance and from Bill’s point of view friendship.
And over time as Manoj invited Bill into confidence he began to suggest his half-sister would make a wonderful wife for some lucky man. His remarks would then gravitate to Bill Higgins lack of a wife. Over time Bill’s yearning for Shanti and Manoj’s not so subtle urgings began to yield results. Then one day Bill’s thoughts of love spilled out to his new-found friend Manoj and these were given instant encouragement. Manoj approached his father Mahaveer who was absolutely appalled at the suggestion. He shared Shanti’s suspicion of the Sahibs as stories of failed inter-racial attachments were a topic of conversation on both sides of the racial divide.
Manoj was angry this plot to get rid of his half-sister had failed. Heaping praise on Bill Higgins as a child of India, one who understood and respected languages and culture of the sub-continent he worked tirelessly on his father. One of his trump cards was the danger a rejected Bill Higgins could do great harm to the family business if he revenged by taking army business to a competitor. Mahaveer struggled with these issues. While daughters were tools of trade in forging relationships between families in India, it was considered unacceptable on both sides of the racial divide for him to pledge his daughter to a foreigner. How much of his wealth would he be expected to pay for the dowry?
He was troubled by the thought of being ostracized by Indian communities for participating in such an agreement. It was OK for lower classes, they’d nothing to lose and everything to gain, but he was already out of favour with his own community for taking wives not of their approval. However, there was the potential loss of business to consider, and Manoj hammered his father every day with that possibility. Finally, and reluctantly Mahaveer agreed to receive a proposal and negotiate the dowry. Manoj was overjoyed! His plan had succeeded. He informed Bill Higgins if he was interested in Shanti the family would agree to a wedding shadi.
To be continued.
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