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?
|Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape|