At what stage did thoughts of the Professor replace the permitted thoughts of her fiancé in Virmati’s mind? That he looked at her, she knew. That he paid attention to her, she was aware. But to think of him was impossible, given the gulf between them, until he bridged it by crying out his need. Eldest and a girl, she was finely tuned to neediness, it called to her blood and bones. He spread his anguish at her feet, and demanded that she do with him as she pleased. Days passed, and Virmati’s confusion grew. She would sometimes wish that … but what could she wish? Early marriage, and no education? No Professor, and no love? Her soul revolted and her sufferings increased. The question of the fiancé loomed large.
‘Tell him, tell him.’ The Professor became exigent. ‘The thought of him in your life is like poison to me.’ By now, Virmati had finished her BA and her wedding date was fixed.
‘How can I tell him? I hardly meet him. And never alone.’
‘Look at me,’ urged the Professor, stroking the hair of her bent head. ‘It won’t matter to him. As you say, he hardly knows you. How can convenience be allowed to come between us? Say you have changed your mind,’ he persisted.
Changed her mind? In what world was he living?
‘They will think I have gone mad. They have been patient enough with me as it is. And then there is Indu,’ she tried to explain.
At this, his face puckered with distress. The grip on her hand tightened, and his fingers, trembling with passion, travelled persuasively up and down her soft arm. Virmati’s whole body tightened with tension.
‘Someone will see. She may come in.’
‘No one will see. She’s gone out.’
‘Still, I don’t like it. There are others. They will tell her – them.’
The Professor gently placed his fingers around the thin column of Virmati’s neck. ‘Don’t worry about her‚’ he pleaded.
‘Why not? She is your wife, isn’t she?’
The Professor looked crushed and Virmati thought again how it was not his fault, how could he help it if he had been married off at the age of three? Her arms closed around him, and she cushioned his head against her young shoulder.
Later, on her stealthy way home, she felt as usual tainted by her moments with the Professor. The thought of her wedding was always at the back of her mind, splitting her into two socially unacceptable pieces.
As Virmati entered her house, she heard Indumati’s voice, ‘Pehnji! Here’s a letter for you.’ The coyness and interest left Virmati no doubt as to whom it was from. Irritated, she grabbed the letter from her sister’s hand. She would read it later, after her milk, in the privacy of the second terrace on top of the house.
I have been very busy these past two months, so I have not been able to write to you. The bridge project is to be finished soon. Mr White says the work is going very well. He comes once a week to check the position. He spends the night in an ordinary tent and puts up with all the inconveniences. When I apologize, he says that although he holds me responsible for everything that goes on in the project, he will make an exception of the weather and the insects. I smile when he says this. You have to understand the way the British say things. I will be able to come to Amritsar for a few days on the second of the month in connection with preparations for our marriage. I will call on you and pay my respects to Mataji and Pitaji, and Bade Baoji. I hope I will be able to meet Kailashnath also.
Virmati read this brief letter several times. She searched the words, but could find no sense that she was important to him, no impatience to be united with her. But maybe, thought Virmati indecisively, these things came after marriage?
In her pocket was another letter, part of a correspondence the Professor had insisted on maintaining, although she hadn’t seen the need.
‘But why? You are right here. We see each other almost every day.’
‘Until I am with you every moment of the day I cannot be satisfied. Every thought and feeling I have, I want to share with you.’
Now, feeling wretched, Virmati unfolded the Professor’s latest offering.
How difficult it is to teach while you are sitting before me! Your face is the fixed point to which my eyes keep returning. Let the world – the class – notice and remark, I do not care. You are imprinted on my mind, my heart, my soul so firmly that until we can be united in a more permanent way I live in a shadowy insubstantial land. So darling, you can imagine the state I am in these days. To have your family still labour under the delusion that you are going to marry some clottish canal engineer agitates me greatly. Must this situation, so unfair to all, be allowed to continue? Think how unpleasant it will be for them to hear of your decision later rather than sooner. Of the canal engineer I say nothing. Anybody who digs in canals all day must have a soul as dull and uninspiring as the mud he deals in. What pain will he suffer? He does not even know you, has never tried to know you. For him, you are a woman that his family has arranged he should marry. For such men the individual is unimportant. It is the institution they are concerned with. If not you, then someone else. I am sitting by the window in the sitting-room. I can see great rolls of cumulous clouds pile up in the sky outside. It is going to rain, the whole earth is waiting, joining a waiting lover in his mood. I feel one with it, because no matter what I see or do, there is some connection that can be traced to you. The koel is singing to its mate, a pair of squirrels are running up and down the jamun tree in the corner by the hedge. We too will one day be together. It is the faith I live by.
Till then, I am,
Ever your H.
Virmati put these letters on the parapet and stared at them as they lay indecently side by side; the Professor’s crushed from hiding in her pocket, the fiancé’s with legitimate public folds. Quickly she tore up the latter and scattered the pieces over the wall. Wasn’t her future partner decided by the first touch of a man on her body? Even though in this case it meant humiliating her grandfather, who was publicly associated with female education, betraying her father who had allowed her to study further, and spoiling the marriage chances of her siblings.
Virmati remembered, once upon a time, she had been quite happy to be engaged to someone her elders had chosen. Had she been able to follow the path they had so carefully planned for her, they would have seen to it that the transition into adulthood was as painless as possible. Now all that was over. Oh, why hadn’t she married sooner? But deaths in both families had made hers a two-year engagement. In those two years she had fallen against the grain, and whatever might be the consequences, she must continue her course.
Virmati found it difficult to broach her topic. Instead, she silently watched her mother work. Kasturi was sitting outside her room, in the veranda that ran along the side of the house. Before her, on the chattai, was a spinning-wheel, on which she was making thread from a pile of cotton. With long, careful movements, her left hand swung back and forth, pulling out the thread from the needle on the spindle. Her right hand slowly turned the wheel. Disturbed by her daughter’s unmoving eyes,
Kasturi repeated, ‘Yes?’
Virmati sat down on the floor and started playing with the cotton. She felt her mother’s inaccessibility even more because her hands could not join hers in their work.
‘What are you making?’ she finally asked.
‘I am getting this last khes ready for the beddings you will take with you.’
‘I don’t think I want so much bedding.’
‘It is not your job to decide how much bedding you want and don’t want. This is a question of marriage.’
‘Maybe we had better wait,’ said Virmati desperately, after a pause.
Kasturi’s hand faltered in its steady movement, and lumps formed in the thread. Making an irritated tiching sound, she broke it off.
‘Are you out of your senses?’ she asked harshly. ‘Two years is not long enough for you?’
‘What is wrong with not wanting to marry?’ appealed Virmati, bringing the words out in the open where they wilted in the hostile atmosphere.
Her mother could only stare. Virmati fidgeted, pulled more cotton apart. ‘Shakuntala Pehnji never married. Look at her,’ she said.
‘Shakuntala Pehnji did not have five sisters waiting to get married either. And do you think it makes her mother happy to have her daughter unmarried? She may say what she likes about jobs and modern women, but I know how hard she still tries to find a husband for Shaku, and how bad she feels. You want to do the same to me? To your father and grandfather?’
‘No, no‚’ said Virmati feebly.
‘You are the eldest, Viru, your duty is greater. You know how much the younger ones look up to you. Your grandfather and father both have confidence in you, otherwise would they have given you so much freedom? They thought school and college would strengthen you, not change you. Now what will they feel when you want us to break our word and destroy our good name? How will they understand it?’
By now the cotton was almost completely pulled to pieces. Virmati knew being the eldest meant being responsible. It was unfair on the part of her mother to think that, after all those years of looking after them, she could even think of harming her siblings.
‘I’m not harming anybody by studying, Mati,’ she pleaded.
‘You harm by not marrying. What about Indu? How long will she have to wait? What is more, the boy is getting impatient. What about him?’
‘Tell him I don’t want to marry‚’ whispered Virmati, hanging her head still lower.
‘Hai re. After making him wait so long? What were you doing all this time? Sleeping?’ Kasturi’s voice was rough with exasperation.
‘Let Indumati marry. Give her this khes you are making. I don’t want any bedding, pots and pans, nothing!’
Virmati was growing frantic.
‘What nonsense!’ exclaimed Kasturi. ‘And what about his family? What face are we going to show them? Do you think you find such good boys every day?’
‘Mati, please, I want to study …’ Virmati faltered.
‘But you have studied. What else is left?’
‘In Lahore … I want to go to Lahore …’
Kasturi could bear her daughter’s foolishness no further. She grabbed her by the hair and banged her head against the wall.
‘Maybe this will knock some sense into you!’ she cried. ‘What crimes did I commit in my last life that I should be cursed with a daughter like you in this one?’ She let go of the girl’s head, and started to wail, rocking to and fro. The reels of thread spilt from her lap. Virmati moved to pick them up.
Kasturi slapped her hand away. ‘Leave them there, you ungrateful girl!’ she hissed. ‘Otherwise you do just what you want! Why bother with the show of picking up thread! Get away from my sight‚’ Kasturi’s face was purple with fury.
As Virmati got up, she said coldly, ‘Remember you are going to be married next month, if I have to swallow poison to make you do it!’
Slowly Virmati dragged herself away. As Kasturi watched her daughter’s retreating back, the arms swinging uselessly by their sides, the head buried between hunched shoulders, her own despair increased. What had come over the girl? She had always been so good and sensible. How could she not see that her happiness lay in marrying a decent boy, who had waited patiently all these years, to whom the family had given their word? What kind of learning was this, that deprived her of her reason? She too knew the value of education, it had got her her husband, and had filled her hours with the pleasure of reading. In her time, going to school had been a privilege, not to be abused by going against one’s parents. How had girls changed so much in just a generation?