Extract

Sisters Mrs Sona Lal and Mrs Rupa Gupta, sisters both, were childless. One was rich, the other poor, one the eldest daughter-in-law of a cloth-shop owner, the other the wife of an educated, badly paid government servant.  They lived with their in-laws in the same neighbourhood in Karol Bagh. They met frequently, allowing each husband ample opportunity to justify his secret contempt for his wife’s relatives, while each sister reinforced her belief that the other’s problem was light in comparison to her own.Rupa, the younger one, had difficulties that are easily narrated. She was fortunate in that she only had a father-in-law to look after; in her case, the thorn in her life came from the wicked tenant upstairs, a man skilled in making the couple’s life miserable. He was a lawyer, who refused to pay his meagre rent on time, and who was protected against eviction by unfair, tenant-favouring laws. The family was fighting him in court, but instead of getting justice, the lawyer, who represented himself, was successful in using legal tactics to delay hearings and continue the status quo. They knew his goal was to torture them into believing the only way they could achieve peace was to sell him their home at distress rates.  The educated, badly paid government servant had to spend much time and money, blood and sweat, on this case. Rupa frequently remarked to her sister, while spending the day, ‘We are cursed, Didi, what to do? It is our fate. Perhaps it is just as well we don’t have children, that man will trouble us life after life.’It was all very well for Rupa to be complacent, thought Sona bitterly. She had her own cross to bear, and she thought Rupa’s troubles insignificant. What was some nuisance-mongering  tenant, who ultimately would be got rid of, compared to relatives, attached for life? Rupa was supremely lucky, she only had her husband and father-in-law to deal with. She was not subjected to sneers and taunts, she was not the only barren woman amongst myriad sisters-in-law whose wombs were bursting with perpetual pride. She didn’t have to dandle a thousand babies on her lap, coo over them, pretend to love them, while the ache in her empty heart and belly increased day by day.  *Unlike Rupa, whose marriage had been arranged, the history of Sona’s courtship did much to intensify her misery.Sona first entered the Banwari Lal Cloth Shop on a hot morning during the marriage season in May 1965. She was seventeen, in her last year of school, and had come from Meerut with her mother and sister to attend an uncle’s wedding. It was necessary for marriageable girls to blossom during such occasions, it being likely that among the guests a boy, or better still his parent, would cast a glance and hold it steadily upon her person. Then it was hoped subsequent enquiries would yield results.  With this in mind, the mother was shopping in Karol Bagh, determined that her daughters should look their best for every function. The Banwari Lal Cloth Shop, they were told, provided tailors who could stitch blouses in a day, with free dyeing thrown in. Sona’s mother was at that moment trying to stretch the free service to its limits. Her own old blouses she had already altered for her daughters, now for the price of one little cloth piece, she wished them dyed to match the saris she was showing the young attendant.He was patiently explaining the service, one free dyeing per blouse material bought, when Sona, blushing, looked up and smiled appealingly. The shade card the young man was holding persuasively against the mother’s saris drooped. Confusion overtook him as he fell in love, and contemplated a future with this beauty by his side.He flung the card away, and picked up the old blouses. Yes, of course, he could get them dyed and sent to her house in one day, and in order to secure a client’s good will, dyeing, delivery, all would be free. The shop was theirs, they only had to let him know how else he could serve them. All the while his eyes sought to convey that such sales talk would be, in this instance, the literal truth for the rest of his life.  He found out that the girl was from Meerut (he had to move fast, she might return before he could secure her), here for a wedding and wearing a sari for the first time (still unattached, obviously meant for him).Alone, he held her Delhi address in hot sweaty hands and stared at her handwriting. The girl was reflected in the tidy round curves and careful lettering – now all it needed was a proposal.*Yashpal spent the night in the throes of love, and next morning presented the address to his father. At this place for a few days resided the girl on whom his happiness depended. His father should go and talk to the family without delay. If he could not marry her he would leave the shop and spend the rest of his life celibate, by the banks of the Ganges.  His parents did not take kindly to this threat. They were traditional business people. In order to remain financially secure, and ensure the family harmony that underpinned that security, marriages were arranged with great care. The bride had to bring a dowry, come from the same background, and understand the value of togetherness. Falling in love was detrimental to these interests. How was it that their son, so sensible, had forgotten this?‘The girl must have done black magic to ensnare him,’ wailed the boy’s mother. ‘Otherwise would he go against his own family after seeing her face for a second? Tell him not to bother leaving the house. I myself will disappear to make way for the wretch he prefers before us all.’Her husband recognised the shock that made her talk such rubbish. He himself was disturbed. He had hoped for an alliance from one of the better cloth shops in Karol Bagh, Sadar Bazar or Chandni Chowk. Perhaps he should not have waited so long to marry his son, already past twenty-five. At that age he had been a father. But circumstances had stepped in, shaken the family, along with a continent, and irrevocably altered the life he had known.

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