Star-crossed

My family invited you to our place

as the prospective bride,

of a very eligible cousin.

Such uncommon hospitality,

was actually intended

only to soften the blow

of an engagement which was to be broken.

My cousin left suddenly,

the day before you arrived,

apparently called away abroad

on "urgent business."  Secretly,

of course, he had made up his mind

not to go through with the wedding.

Months later, they broke the news

to you as diplomatically as possible.

To lessen the pain, they said

“We’re sorry, he can’t be back for two years,”

you’d best make other arrangements.

I fumed, "It's his fault;

there's nothing wrong with you,

so don't blame yourself."  Then,

foolishly, added, "If I could,

I myself would marry you...!"

I was not yet fifteen then.

 

For the first time in days,

I saw a smile on your face.

Aunt was actually relieved

that you'd found a companion

and generally left us alone.

My cousin's betrayal must have hurt you,

but you tried your best not to show it:

"I hardly knew him, so

I had no expectations really,

at least not yet."

But the fact was that the rich had

always trampled over the poor

as had men over women;

it was just the law of the land

which you knew by instinct and bitter

experience, while I was just beginning

to understand and learn.

 

            In the beginning,

I couldn't overcome my slight unease

even sense of superiority over you:

you were the typical small-town girl,

lower middle class, rather conventional,

petite and artless, very pretty, of course,

but not in the fashionable sense, with an erratic

dress sense and an indifferent English accent.

I, on the other hand, went to a public school,

was tall and well-groomed, moreover,

had read a number of books,

and certainly wanted to considered a man.

Wishing to shock you,

I once asked:  "Do you wax your legs?"

Without batting an eyelid,

You lifted your sari up two and a half feet

and coolly said, "Do I need to?"

I gaped, speechless, at your smooth, white calves,

with faint, soft down.  "But seriously,"

you continued, the dress dropping down again,

"I don't need to because I wear only saris."

Then, with an arch look in your eyes, conceded,

"What is more, you're the first man

To see my legs...,"  and,

unable to resist a final dig, added,

"But are you really a man?"

Later, it was your turn to ask personal questions:

"Have you ever kissed a girl?"  I bluffed, "Yes,"

thinking my prestige was at stake.

"Come, come" you snorted, "you're lying."

Obviously, you knew me better than I admitted.

 

You managed an appliance store

owned by a big, fleshy man, with a gaping mouth.

Sometimes we went out after you finished work.

You counted all the cash,

looking very professional behind the counter,

and handed it to the boss before shutting shop.

He trusted you, but seemed rather possessive.

You warned me not to say anything “funny”

in his presence, but I soon realized

that the precaution was quite unnecessary;

he didn't understand English.

We went to a restaurant to have Coke and chips,

and roamed all over the market,

checking out the shops. 

For a week, I felt like your boyfriend

before I finally went away.

 

Against my family's wishes,

I insisted on visiting your house.

When I arrived I was shocked to see

just how poor you were,

how much you had lost.

I walked up two flights of broken stairs

into a set of shabby rooms,

with peeling plaster

and almost no furniture.

On the string cot,

sat a crushed, old man,

his sightless eyes flickering restlessly--

your father, I guessed.  Beside him,

the thin, careworn, once beautiful woman

was, obviously, your mother.

With three daughters to be married,

she looked frightened and haunted.

You were the only breadwinner,

working as a salesgirl

in that home appliance showroom.

Soon your younger sister arrived,

back from secretarial school,

a burst of acne on her face,

and a cheap romance tucked under her arm--

she was just discovering her womanhood.

in a rather risky way.  The third,

your youngest sister, was still at school.

The surroundings suddenly reminded me

of what you'd told me earlier:

this was a household with

four menstruating women, none of whom

could afford sanitary napkins.

"We use old saris and wash them later;

they're really quite soft."

 

Such were the intimacies

you shared with a boy not yet fifteen

in that one fortnight,

after my cousin dumped you.

He, with his international job,

five bedroom house, swimming pool, servants,

and chauffeured car--still remains single—

poetic justice?  And you?

Married to that obese, possessive

middle-aged, shopkeeper you were working for,

already the mother of three, careworn,

and housebound—or something quite different,

an independent woman, happily married,

as none of us had imagined or expected?

Back to Selected Poems from Partial Disclosure

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape