It was Mrs Sabharwal who first realised something was wrong. It started with Raman’s departure, a usual event, but one of deep concern to the mother-in-law.
‘Beta, did he go off all right?’ Shagun snorted.
Here she was talking about her portfolio and all her mother could think of was whether her husband had managed to catch a plane. Which any birdbrain could do.
‘Why are you always so worried about Raman? You should be the one married to him, not I.’
‘Is this any way to talk about your husband?’
Such useless questions. That was the trouble with mothers. Their eyes were like those of a lynx, their gaze tried to pierce your being, their interference in your life knew no limits.
Mrs Sabharwal was thinking. Did her daughter’s indifference to Raman’s welfare suggest a deeper malaise? Shagun was too innocent, that was the trouble, and her husband too busy. Always travelling, leaving a young wife largely to her own devices. Shagun raised her marvellous green eyes, eyes that established her as a rarity from the moment of her birth.
‘Why can’t I talk of my husband in any way I like?’
‘Has anything happened? Tell me.’
‘You and the children should stay with me for a few days while he is away. I hardly see you. Whenever I phone, you are out.’
The daughter looked through the window at the two feet of cemented space next to the gate of her old home. Here her mother’s plants surrounded by concrete on all four sides slowly wilted and gradually died. The pots that contained these pathetic specimens were chipped. Yesterday’s storm had broken some of them, exposing white, densely intersecting roots, raw against the mud.
‘You know I can’t just leave, Mama. There is the children’s routine and the household.’
The logical thing to do would be to invite the mother to her place, but for this Mrs Sabharwal had to wait another two days, and then it was worse than not being called at all.
‘Mama, please come and stay – I have to go out of town.’
‘Good heavens, why?’
‘You remember my friend – the one who settled down in Bareilly?’
Mrs Sabharwal remembered no such friend – but her memory was bad and she said nothing.
‘Well, Mama, do you? Anyway, they have just discovered her husband has cancer – poor man, he is only in his late thirties, she called me in a total flap, they have to go right away to Bombay – and she has asked me if I can come – only till her parents manage to get there – so can you, Mama? Just for the weekend – two nights? Not even two days? I’ll be leaving tomorrow afternoon.’
There were many things Mrs Sabharwal didn’t know, many, many. Why you had to go to Bombay if you had cancer, who Shagun’s friends were, and whether they were married in Bareilly or not. But she could read the minutest change in her daughter’s voice and now suspicion unwillingly filtered through her mind as she agreed to spend the time required with her grandchildren in their mother’s absence.
Once in Shagun’s house she was reassured. The children were as loving as ever, the servants gave no dubious replies to any of her oblique questions. But when Shagun returned two days later, the glow on her face, the radiance emanating from her made the mother’s alarm wearily rise to do more duty. She might as well rush in where angels fear to tread.
‘Who is he?’ she asked.
Shagun blushed. ‘What are you talking about, Mama?’
‘You weren’t really in Bareilly, were you?’
‘Of course I was. Phone Rita – I can give you her number – and ask her.’
‘Phone a stranger to enquire about my daughter? No thank you.’
‘Mama – if you don’t trust me, you shouldn’t have agreed to come. I am tired now – and I want to spend time with the children. I am sure they missed me more than you did.’
Quietly Mrs Sabharwal left the house. Her intuition made her wretched. She would have given anything to not know that Raman was no longer the centre of Shagun’s life. For the first time in twelve years, she felt irritated with him. He must be to blame in some way, her daughter would not jeopardise her home so easily. If that was not true, her life’s work had failed. All night Mrs Sabharwal tossed and turned, desolately seeking sleep. The electricity went. The inverter came on, and with it the fan. Again and again Raman’s face rose before her with all the urgency of a threatened species. Was this her fault in some way? Since her teens, Shagun had had an infinite number of unsuitable boys after her – she had needed to ensure her daughter’s safety before the fruit was snatched and a tender life ruined. Raman was the antidote to every fear.
All that anxious care had apparently served no purpose. This was a worse situation to be in. Such transgressions seldom remained hidden. Some servant, some overheard phone call, some casual reported encounter. Raman might resort to violence against his wife, hard to imagine, but till yesterday it had also been hard to imagine her daughter going astray. And what about Raman’s safety? Stories of lovers murdering husbands appeared regularly in the newspapers. She got up to start reciting the Gayatri Mantra, praying for protection for her daughter and grandchildren.
She prayed for Raman too as she had done all these years. How often had she told him that he was better than any son because she would never lose him to a wife. Now a wife was coming between them. Next morning found her at her daughter’s door.
‘Why do you want to destroy my peace?’ she demanded. ‘You have to tell me who he is. What kind of person will take you away from your husband, such a good man?’
‘You always take his side.’
‘You never said that was a problem.’
‘I was so young, what did I know?’
‘You were of marriageable age, twenty-one, same as me.’
‘Have you come all the way to tell me this?’
‘Does he suspect? He must know – or guess – something at least.’
Shagun stared at her mother. Her face was drawn and tense, her hair dishevelled, her sari crumpled, the blouse even less matching than usual. For twelve years her mother had praised Raman for being the son she never had.
Now she looked as though she had lost a child.
‘If I tell you, you will get more upset,’ she said, ordering the maid to make lemonade with lots of lemon and sugar the way Naani liked it, and to also bring the pista, still unlocked after last night’s drinks.
No, no, let the pista be, it will be too heating in this weather. The daughter paid no attention. Her mother loved pista, and denied herself routinely. ‘If men can have pista with drinks that are already heating, you can have it with your lemonade, which is cooling.’
‘Shagu, I couldn’t sleep all night. What will happen to you? To the children? And Raman? His family is everything to him.’
‘Mama, stop going on. It is hard enough as it is. Am I to stay married to Raman because you love him so much?’
That would not be a bad idea, thought the mother, but she said nothing. Her daughter looked perfect in her pale lavender embroidered organdie kurta with the purple salwar and chunni. Her small white feet were in delicate beaded jutti. She wore amethyst earrings, pale pink nail polish, purple glass bangles on one arm, a dainty gold watch on the other. The mother noticed a tiny diamond set in the dial.
‘Did he give you that watch?’ she asked.
The daughter nodded, her blush rising from neck to face as she remembered his insistence that she carry a token of their love into her house: jewellery was too conspicuous, a watch had seemed ideal.
Mrs Sabharwal renewed her attack. She promised not to blame, she would only try and understand. Shagun wrapped her arms around her, whispered how sorry she was, really she hadn’t wanted to do anything to hurt her husband, she too was afraid, but now this thing had happened, she was already more deeply in love than ever in her life, more ecstatic, more miserable. She knew what her mother felt about Raman, but she herself didn’t care if she lived or died.
What choice did the mother have? She had to agree to keep silent, without having accomplished her goal of making Shagun follow the path of virtue. Now she was an accomplice to the crime. Society could point its finger at her and say, she knew and did nothing. How would it look? she blurted, and her daughter replied, ‘Look to who?’
To God, how will it look to God?, but this was not a response that would influence Shagun. Raman, for marketing reasons which Shagun found incomprehensible, had just returned from Singapore, and was anxious to distribute presents of cutlery sets, perfume and chocolate to both sets of parents. Shagun knew how transparent her mother was, and till her news had lost the capacity to shock, tried to postpone going to Alaknanda.
‘So much chocolate is bad for her,’ she said, looking at the small sack of Lindt Assorted.
‘She loves the stuff.’
‘Doesn’t mean she should eat it.’
‘Has something happened?’
‘Then? Why deprive Ma of a little chocolate? Besides, you wouldn’t want your husband to visit his mother-in-law empty-handed.’
The visit was made, during which Shagun had to endure her mother’s awkward behaviour. To have the knowledge she did and behave normally was practically impossible for Mrs Sabharwal.
‘Ma, are you all right?’ asked Raman, noticing the frown, sensing the worry.
‘A slight headache,’ she quavered.
‘Maybe you should take Belladonna 200,’ said Raman.
Since the birth of his children he had dabbled in homeopathy.
‘Thank you, beta.’
‘Do you still have the bottle I gave you?’
‘Yes, don’t worry about me, beta.’
‘It’s nothing, don’t fuss. You know she gets a headache sometimes,’ said Shagun curtly.
‘Shagu, I don’t think we can call Ma’s pain nothing. The headache could be an indication of some deeper malady. Homeopathy is a holistic medicine.’
‘Beta, please, I am fine – just a little tired.’
Raman was forced to be content. Afterwards Shagun pointed out to her mother, who needed help in these matters, did she notice what a fusspot her husband was being? Going on about the headache, boring, predictable, she must have heard that stuff about holistic medicine a hundred thousand times.
How could Mrs Sabharwal find Raman’s care boring? Comforting was how she saw it. If this was being scorned by his wife, what was left?
Her headaches increased.