Friday, February 14, 2014

Spouse Without Benefits

It was love at first sight, for me.
Even though I heard her say, ‘Oh, I love him so much. Will you help me marry him?’
[Déjà vu… there seems to be a pattern, but let me not digress.]
‘Yes,’ I replied.
I felt like a martyr, wanting to kick myself. I should have asked for a time-out, assumed a thoughtful pose, fingers joined in prayer mode, half-closed eyes, etc. But, the situation was such, demanding guts and no thought.
[I did have a thought then, and it did seem apt by way of thought association or even anamnesis: me as one of those old heroes, a cold war spy on top of the Wall, caught in the glare of a spotlight, refusing to plead for mercy ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (trans.: ‘I am a Berliner’ or ‘I am a jelly doughnut’), before the merciful staccato of shots from east and west.]
Let me rewind to the beginning.
I was at her parents’ place, ‘to see the girl’ as they say in local parlance. It was supposed to be a mere formality. The elders, on both sides, negotiating the alliance had taken a deep liking for each other, and the decision of the two main actors had been assumed to be a foregone conclusion. 
When I saw Padma, I too did hope so. I should have shifted gears and speeded ahead. Instead, I committed the first of many blunders that day and asked the girls’ parents, ‘Can I talk to her in private?’
We were shepherded to an inner sanctum. I was glad to be alone with her. She looked happy to be with me.
[I should have taken that as a warning sign.]
I would have died for that dimpled smile and twinkling light eyes. In my community, the attractive of either sex usually sports an admirable set of sideburns and luxuriant mustache but this specimen matched me by being free of such. She was the stuff of my dreams – petite, charming, five-four in height, less than sixty in weight, so obviously smart and intelligent even without a word spoken, curves and ohmigod-what-curves!
I said, ‘Hmmm… ah…’
She smiled. Goddess!
Then, she pouted, turned thoughtful, nearly sad, a dark cloud passing a blue morn sky or moon or whatever.
[I was familiar with that poetic turn of events, many a fair lass has changed mood and direction while crossing my path.]
I still felt unprepared when she pleaded, ‘Please help me…’
Padma continued, ‘I am in love. Oh, I love him so much. Will you help me marry him?’
The second blunder followed – the knight in armor ready to help the damsel in distress.
‘Can you take me to the marriage registrar’s office?’
‘Oh no, he lives in Kochi.’
‘Tomorrow morning,’ she whispered, ‘if we leave at five, we should be there before eleven.’
[Events were definitely moving at a pace too fast for me to comprehend.]
‘Can you bring two people?’ she asked.
If I had not been shell-shocked, I would have exclaimed, ‘Whoa! I should bring two people to get you married…’ I chose to sulk silently.
Misunderstanding my silence for ignorance, she informed gladly, ‘We need three witnesses, you know.’
‘How would I know?’ I thought of asking her.
I decided that I had had enough of the knight’s role and decided to apply the brakes.
I reasoned, ‘It’s not as in movies, you know. You just can’t walk in and get married. There is some kind of notice or something about marriage or intending to do whatever?’
‘Oh, we did that a month back. And now, the marriage is ready to be solemnized,’ she explained carefully, as if to a dullard.
I nearly shouted, ‘You did all that and I am here…!’ I stuck to my strong, silent persona.
I should have felt cheated, but I could not help admire her sense of purpose. Definitely the stuff of my dreams!
I was with her for less than ten minutes. When we stepped out, I was in a daze and she seemed thrilled. The elders were pleased with us. One fossil noted, in crude vernacular, that our meeting must have been orgasmic.
[Every time I look back at those events, I wonder if I have embellished it with comic relief to make myself look less tragic or less dumb. The old adage, fact is weirder than fiction, needs no better example.]
I had half a day to prepare for the next day’s journey. For an hour, I thought. That was really tiring.
I shortlisted two names. It took four hours to convince, beg, bribe and threaten those two. I realized only at the end that they would not have let go of the opportunity to see me give away my bride in matrimony to another guy.
Number one on my list was Muthu. He is the ironing guy in my locality. He uses my garage as the base for his mobile operations and leaves his cart there at night. Six days a week, rain or shine, he works from seven till six, with a short lunch-break at one, expertly racing his coal-based iron over mounds of clothes. He is a Tamilian and hails from a border village in the hills near Idukki. He labors for three weeks, saves most of his earnings and then disappears to his village for a week or two. He is in the mid-twenties, about five ten, dark, well-built, better looking than Dhanush, the Tamil actor, and definitely a man of very few words. Once in a while, I ask him about life in his village and I get a grunt or nod in return. My Tamil must be the main block to our communication. The Tamil I try with him is just my Malayalam. But then, the charm of Malayalam as it is spoken in Trivandrum district is that it sounds painfully awful, a blue-collar dialect that could be mistaken for harsh abuse in any lingo. Anyway, back to Muthu. I knew that it was close to the time for his monthly trip. I offered to drop him at Kochi, which was closer to his village and that would save him a few rupees. I managed to explain what he might have to witness. His taciturn face allowed an amused and cheeky grin.
The second one had to be a lady to give the eloping girl a sense of security. For obvious reasons, I decided not to approach sisters, cousins and ladies still in my long-list of suitable companions for the happy ever after. That left only one acquaintance, a lady with the middle name trouble. According to her, she had only two good years without me tagging along behind her. Swathi is a friend of the family, two years older than me, a workaholic who compensates for three or four of my kind, and we rarely see eye to eye on any issue. Or rather, we agree to disagree on everything. Till we were teens, that included physical violence. When I told her about the trip to Kochi, she dismissed me with a curt get-lost. I traded intimate details like my love at first sight. She thought for a while, pensive curiosity found a small space on her disgruntled physiognomy. She fixed up afternoon meetings, on the next day, with a few clients in Kochi. She gave me an hour of her time for participating in my misadventure. I thanked her profusely. She asked details like why-did-she-choose-you and why-is-she-eloping. Swathi was not surprised to find me clueless about such trivial details.
The next morning, at the appointed hour, Swathi drove my car to Padma’s house and picked up the eloping girl. Muthu and I waited at a nearby junction. Padma had told her parents that she was going to Kochi with Swathi, introduced vaguely as an acquaintance’s friend, for a friend’s wedding.
[Mind you, she was honest.]
At the junction, I took over the driving. Padma sat in front, with me. Swathi joined Muthu in the back.
Padma was her cheerful, bubbly self and I encouraged that with my jolly nature. The back seat presented a stark contrast with serious faces and tired resignation. Swathi took on the role of interpreter and translated, apparently for Muthu’s sake, select parts of my conversation with Padma. I noticed that Muthu actually talked to Swathi, rather than use his repertoire of grunts and nods. I hope Padma could not follow the Tamil subtitles from the back.
[Right at the start of the journey, I had decided to fill in the blanks.]
I asked Padma, ‘Why did you choose me? I mean, for this trip. Surely, some friend or cousin…’
Padma replied with her teacher-talking-to-dumb-student tone, ‘They would tell my parents or his parents. I knew that I could trust you not to do that.’
Swathi told Muthu, translating English to Tamil, ‘She trusts him to be a fool.’
Muthu muttered, ‘Clever girl.’
I ignored that and went to my next question, ‘But why elope? Your parents look the decent sort.’
Padma replied, ‘Oh, my parents would be fine with it.’
I asked, ‘What’s the problem at his end? Religion, caste, class…?’
‘Mother,’ she said.
‘He is scared of his mother. And we don’t want to risk her disapproval. He can’t go against her… before he is mine…’
Swathi told Muthu, ‘She is marrying a wimp.’
Muthu said, ‘Ah…’
I checked the rear-view mirror and found them staring in my direction. They were both shaking their heads, quite clearly thinking, ‘You couldn’t beat a wimp?’
Once again, I ignored them.
[I had no intention of letting them know that matters were proceeding exactly as I wanted. Wimp or not, I had this strong belief that Padma was in for a royal ditch. And, I wanted to be there when she rebounded into the nearest consoling arms. I thought about such sweet developments and stepped on the accelerator.]
Padma turned to the two at the back and quizzed them about marriage.
I heard her ask Muthu, ‘Are you married?’
Swathi translated that with high-fidelity.
Muthu nodded.
Padma asked, ‘When did you marry? You look quite young to be married.’
Muthu could not stick to grunts and nods. He replied, ‘I married at 21, five years back.’
‘How old is your wife?’
‘She is now 23.’
‘She married so young?’
[That was taken to be a rhetorical query.]
Padma tried another angle, ‘Was it an arranged marriage?’
‘Of course…’
‘Your wife must have her hands full. Just 23, two kids, you not there…’
Muthu protested, ‘I go every month.’
Padma persisted, ‘But she is just 23. She would have so many dreams. Study, be with you…’
[I think Swathi made that sound as an accusation rather than a longing.]
Muthu responded, sounding incredulous, ‘What do you mean…? She is always with me. We have to work…’
‘She works…?’ Padma sounded surprised.
‘Of course… she works in a shop and also in the school.’
‘But then, who takes care of the kids?’
‘Our parents help…’
‘You live with your parents?’
‘Of course…’
‘Is there space…?’
[I am not sure how Swathi interpreted that but Muthu gave Padma a dark look.]
He replied, ‘Well, I go every two or three weeks… and we have no problem being together.’
Padma decided to stop that interrogation and turned to Swathi.
[Oh boy…! I squirmed in my seat. I expected the worst.]
Padma asked, ‘How about you?’
Swathi replied, ‘How about me?’
‘I mean… are you married?’
That frosty monosyllable ended that dialogue. Padma gave up on her quest for marital guidance.
[I do not know why she did not try out my wisdom.]
I concentrated on my driving and, since traffic was light at that early hour, also thought about Swathi’s reply.
Swathi was married and divorced. We had a really big fight when she married. I did not like her decision and I told her so. She told me where I could stuff my advice. We fight and quarrel but that was the only instance when she refused to listen to me.
[It is tough to explain our relationship. We have known each other for so long that it is impossible not to trust each other. It has been platonic but that does not mean I have not had sexual thoughts about her. The only time she thought I was making an advance, I was new to puberty and I had told her, ‘I think I love only older women.’ It took her a while to realize that I was talking about a new teacher in junior school. When I wanted to learn about ‘the safe period’, I asked her. She was a good teacher, I remember, though I forgot the details after a few hours. During one stay at my parents’ place, she crept into my room and dived under my blanket, next to me, and asked me, ‘What is cunnilingus?’ In those pre-Google-ite days, I had to respond. She was not satisfied with the entry in my faithful dictionary. Picture a fifteen year old virgin boy trying to explain that to a seventeen year old girl, with failing speech and lots of dumb charade. With each passing minute, Swathi crept under the blanket even more. It took me about ten minutes to reach the climax of my efforts and by then, only her eyes and upper part of her head were outside the blanket. She was shaking. I wondered if I had gone too far. She could not hold back any longer. She hooted and doubled up with laughter. It took me less than ten seconds to drag her out of my bed and outside my room. I am sure that incident left me scarred and traumatized, and probably shy of that endeavor forever. Well, that’s how we are.]
But, when she decided to marry, we could not even talk sensibly to each other.
During graduate studies, she fell in love with a senior, a student leader. He was passionate about her and his political views. Though a fire-brand, he was actually interested in social work, however strange that sounded from one of his tribe. Even then, when in college, he was noticed by political bigwigs. He was heady stuff. I was not surprised by her choice. But, I still thought that he was not the right marriage material for her. She was just twenty when she married. The wedding was in a temple. There were her parents, her brother and me; and on his side, his parents, two friends and a sister. The ritual was over in a few minutes. The thaali was on a black thread, and looked like a product of those one-gram gold jewelry shops. She put a gold ring on his finger. That was mine. I gave it to her.
[I am not sure why I wanted my ring to be on that finger which would touch her intimately. I had asked her if she minded her husband wearing that. She had thought for a while, looking at me strangely, before shaking her head.]
After the wedding, we went to a small shop near the temple. He bought lime juice for us. And that was it. They rented a small house. She dropped out of college and took up a job in a small copywriting business. I am not sure if he brought any income to that young household. Her parents told me that the young couple refused to accept any monetary assistance. I made myself scarce in her life but our paths still crossed in the small city.
Each time I saw her, I could see her changing. Initially, I assumed that I was just seeing what I wanted to see. She did not look bitter or sad. Her choice of clothes had changed, of course.
[But it was not just the poorly cut salwar outfits or even the great unifier, the nightdress, though I did find it irritating to find her at a vegetable-shop near her house in that outfit. I would have shouted at her earlier but after marriage, I had very little to say to her.]
I never asked her about her new life.  She did not say anything. Her parents kept me informed. Her husband was not a bad guy. He was busy and poor. He got home late, often with a group of friends. To be fair, he had not changed at all. She had become quieter. Weary, I think that explains her state then, but of what I was not sure.
Four years dragged by.
Then, she phoned me.
‘I want to divorce,’ she said. That’s all she said.
‘Ok,’ I replied.
I introduced her to a lawyer I knew. I helped her shift to her parents’ house. Her husband decided to fight against the divorce. The usual sad routine in the Family Court went on for nearly three years, adjournments to tire and make a petitioner rethink or acknowledge the futility of one’s efforts, adjournments either due to his or his lawyer’s non-appearance for some goddamn reason or delayed reports from a counselor. Two adjournments were due to hartal in the city and one because the judge, at the last moment, decided not to hear cases that day. Swathi did not have the grounds for a divorce and she had no chance of winning the case unless her husband agreed to it. I went with her each time, more than twenty appearances in court in three years. He usually came with a friend or two.
[I used to wonder if he and his political friends might one day ‘visit’ me, to break a few bones. That was not unheard of in such cases.]
I think it was the twenty-first visit to the Court when I walked to him and asked, ‘Can’t you free her?’
His friend stepped forward and snarled, ‘You just can’t wait to get into her knickers, can you?’
Before I could respond, or even take in the barb, Swathi’s husband turned and slapped his friend.
That day, his lawyer told Swathi’s lawyer that he had agreed for a divorce with mutual consent. We had to go to court two more times. The day when the judge asked them if they were sure about their decision, I thought they would pull out of it. Swathi stood expressionless but I could see her lips trembling. She later told me that she felt cold, as if she was dead. Her husband was not in any better shape.
Later, outside the court, Swathi asked me, ‘Can you ask him if I can keep the thaali?’
I went to him with the request. The friend who got slapped was still with him and there was no love lost between us.
Swathi’s husband told me, ‘Yes, of course, who else should have that. Do you think I can keep this ring? Does she want that?’
I replied, ‘No. You keep it. It’s yours.’
‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
I nodded.
Swathi never talked, before or after the case, about why she wanted a divorce. She had held on to some steely resolve during the case. But after it was over, she collapsed. If it was just sorrow, it would have easy. But self-loathing can be a potent poison. Coupled with those wasted years in court, it was total disaster. It took more than a year for her to get out of her parents’ house. It took another year for her to get on with life, as in finding some direction, though fuzzy and terribly unsure. And more than five years of education, hard work, grit, determination and success to reach that state during the trip.
[I came to my own conclusions about the sad affair. One, that there is no bigger pain than giving up a love for the sake of one’s own life and interests. Two, no one, including the judiciary, believes that my first conclusion is sensible and so, it turns out to be a very lonely fight.]
What was I up to in her life in those days? Just the usual – turning up for surprise meals, goading her to cook for me, forcing her to relish my cooking, on weekends going for long drives to nowhere, sharing a cigarette like guilty pre-teen kids we once were even though she hates smoking, reading our writing, discussing big stuff, talking nonsense, fighting a lot, cursing, sulking.
And, of course, granting her special duty like the trip, expecting help rather than hell.
Conversation trickled down to a bare minimum in the front of the car. I tried to be charming and suave with Padma but the back seat lot played spoil-sport with their translation, snorts and serious reflection on the cerebral value of my statements.
At Alleppey, we stopped for breakfast at a government-owned roadside hotel. After the meal, I got a few moments alone with Padma. Swathi decided to refresh herself. Muthu wanted to stretch his leg.
The chit-chat was cordial at the beginning. Slowly, I probed for details about her guy, the wimp. I got a glowing report of the hunk. Somehow, that irritated me. I tried to get her ready for reality, sharing my theoretical wisdom about matrimony and also, bringing up hypothetical cases where the guy ditched the girl at the last moment. That talk irritated her.
Padma asked me, ‘Are you two an item?’
I was taken aback, ‘Who two? Me and Swathi…?’
‘No, you and Muthu…’ she paused, a clever dramatic tool for suspense that one, ‘don’t be silly! Of course, you and Swathi…’
‘Me and Swathi…?’ I repeated.
She raised her eyebrows.
‘Don’t be silly!’ I said.
Her eyebrows bunched together.
[It is never a good idea to return that statement to a lady. They are least sporting in such matters.]
‘Of course not…’ I exclaimed, ‘we are like chalk and cheese.’
She did not look convinced.
I took on my professorial tone, ‘Look, Swathi is definitely not my type. With her, it would be always be a competition about who works more. The winner takes all and the loser is a sucker. Definitely not my type…’
‘So, what is your type?’
‘I am more laid-back. I work and earn enough, but work is not my life. I want a girl who shares that view. It would be nice if she has enough. No silly worries like loans, house and such.’
‘Is that all?’
‘It would be lovely if she takes good care of herself. I hate flabby women, you know. Not that Swathi is flabby in any way. But then, she does not cook enough, you know. Ah, nothing like a lovely cook, you know…’
‘So, you wanted me for money and cooking?’
‘Well, your folks did advertise that…’
‘And not flabby, I guess…’
‘Definitely not…’
‘O God! You wanted me as a wife for that…?’ With that, she walked away, or rather marched, to the car.
‘How do you manage that every time?’
I turned to find Swathi as the source of that question.
‘Manage what?’ I asked, still feeling hot and flustered in that cool morn air.
‘Make every girl stomp away.’
‘She did not stomp away.’
‘Ok, delicately pranced away… so, what did you do?’
‘I did not do anything,’ I protested.
‘I believe that,’ she said, ‘so, what did you say?’
‘Nothing…’ I sulked.
Swathi looked terribly pleased. Muthu reappeared on the scene. He took in the sullen faces, of Padma and yours truly, and the blissfully happy one of Swathi. He had his cheeky grin plastered on his face.
‘Come on… let us get this over and done with,’ I ordered.
‘O captain! My captain...’ Swathi responded.
‘Swathi…!’ I growled.
‘Reporting for duty, sir…. all aboard, sir.’
The rest of that morning trip was of course shrouded in silence. I could sense the nervous tension next to me. Padma had finished off the nails on both hands, and she was starting on the flesh, or nearly. When she tried to call her wimp on her mobile, the call got disconnected.
[I had this premonition that it was going to a tragedy followed by a comedy. I readied myself to bear the weight of a jilted lover, and play a lead role in the latter comic part.]
The back seat preferred to be neutral, and maintained a studied stiff upper lip.
We got to the outskirts of Kochi around nine, but traffic, as usual, was the stuff of nightmares. Tempers were fraying on the front seat. Padma accused me of trying to ruin her life. I shouted at every vehicle near me and presented a docile, meek self to Padma. I did not look at the other occupants, though I could guess their take on my behavior.
At quarter to eleven, we reached the registrar’s office. Padma raced off to find her hunk, the wimp. She came back soon, nearly in tears.
‘He is not here,’ she reported.
I nearly said, ‘Ah! Jolly good…’
But Swathi interrupted me, ‘Don’t worry, dear! There is still time. He will come.’
Padma looked at her with such a sweet hopeful smile, as if she had found a sister long lost.
I interrupted those sweet thoughts, ‘Managed to get him on your mobile?’
‘No, his mobile is switched off,’ she said.
‘Ah…’ I said. Swathi gave me a dirty look to remove the smile on my face.
Padma disappeared leaving the three of us standing near the car. Muthu decided to stretch his legs, yet again, to get the lay of the land. He would make a fine sergeant to a commander in any battle, the one to go to for a quick getaway. Swathi and I stood together, behind the car, beneath a banyan tree that shielded us from the morning sun and the glare of the many hopefuls and witnesses gathered there. Padma was nowhere to be seen.
The tension was mounting with each passing minute. At eleven, there was a buzz near the office, and the crowd inched forward towards their tryst with destiny. Padma was still missing and we could not spot any newcomer that could be her wimp.
Swathi leaned against me, and her head rested on my shoulder. I could feel her breasts crushed against my chest, her thighs touching mine. We fitted well, I should say, like lock and key, though the metaphor could unnecessarily be misinterpreted. I held her, my hands on her lower back. She looked up at me, and kissed me lightly, briefly.
‘So, you two are an item!’
Padma accused us, turning up on stage without warning, with us seemingly in flagrante delicto and all that. She was definitely not in the mood for reasoning, and just a small pinch away from major bawling.
[If I didn’t have Swathi in my arms, I would have comforted her. She needed that, poor thing.]
That same poor thing was not through with me though, ‘You men are all the same! And you had the gall to come and see me…’
I expected her to spit and snarl but she had another mood swing that made me wonder if she had a clinical problem.
‘Oh, he is here!’ Padma shouted and ran towards a guy walking towards us.
‘Oh my, my… what a hunk…!’ I heard Swathi drool. She moved away from me to study this new specimen.
Well, my rival was definitely that. Six two, bloody handsome like a Greek god, broad shoulders tapering to narrow waist, healthy mop of hair that I suspected to be a wig, confidence and success oozing from every pore, with a smile that would definitely make girls go weak-kneed and more.
I heard him tell Padma, in a sickening soothing way, ‘Sorry, love. I had to drop Mummy at a friend’s place. How I tried to escape Mummy all morning…’
Muthu reappeared on the scene. I guess I did not have to translate that Mummy talk for him.
We witnessed the happy wedding, wished them good luck and took our leave. Muthu was dropped at the bus station.
En route to her first meeting, I mused loudly, ‘I had a chance, I think…’
‘Maybe,’ she did not sound too convinced.
‘It was touch and go, I think.’
‘You versus that hunk?’ she countered.
‘That Mummy wimp…!’
‘Sore loser…!’
‘And trust you to muddy the water…’
‘Aha… so, now you are blaming me…’
‘Then, what…? I really had a chance then…’
‘Oh sure…! That girl would have bawled and you would have made a bigger fool of yourself… if that is possible!
‘Why did I bring you on this trip? Instead of helping me…’I complained.
We did not talk till her client’s office. When she stepped out, she told me, ‘Pick me up at four. I should be through by then.’
‘Yes, ma’am…’
‘So, why did you bring me on this trip?’ she asked.
I winked, and she winked back.
I had three hours or so to while away on my own, to think about various false answers and, of course, food. Matrimony has that effect on me.