Sunday, April 20, 2014


At first it was the unfortunate Laali incident.  A week following New Years Eve a scorpion that was perched inside her chemise stung her when she wore it right off the clothesline where it was hung to dry. That was only a few days after she came home following a dispute with her new husband. The Kohlis never talked to anybody in our family about the matter, nor did Laali utter a word when she returned. Then the insect snuffed her. Things were pretty crazy in the Bhatia household for near to two months that followed her funeral. So I could obviously not bring my case up on any of those days. It would have seemed somewhat heartless on my part. It kind of would also have been a bit of a bad luck. Moreover my instinct of being consumed right over the tandoor by the entire family was unsettling. So the drill was only to wait for a better time, which I resolved to carefully ensure convincing Reeha to stay put till the clouds moved.

The Bhatias were pretty prosperous from all the textiles money, but the ancient duplex in Punjabi Bagh was still too small for a joint Sikh family with nineteen members not including the maids and the Dachshunds. So even at twenty-two, I was sharing bedroom with Jimpi, Bunty, Pressure and Mintu, and the bed with Makkan, who up until two years ago skillfully wetted it on most nights. Despite having the luxury of Reeha’s bedroom window right across the street, it didn’t do much with these jokers breathing down my neck all the time. None of them in the room knew, except of course Pressure who was a resourceful wingman from the beginning, and in the house, perhaps our famously unmarried Raju Aunty, with all her clairvoyance (she had predicted the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she was just twenty six).

I was certain that it was going to disappoint everybody in the family, but trickier than persuading my own parents was to bring it up with Daduji- the tyrannical patriarch of the Bhatia household and a widower who despite going to turn ninety any minute was strong enough to take down all the burly men in the neighborhood and still stand upright. He was the singular most difficult person in the world I ever heard of, both living and dead. Back in the day when I violated the norms of conduct, while the worst threat my father came up with was to enroll me into Queen Mary School for girls, Daduji warned me of amputation of fingers! His problem with the Kohlis was yet unresolved and the local police had to be brought in to restore the momentary peace. All I knew was that the Kohlis did not have anything to do with the insect bite. I’m not very sure as to how the whole issue was finally put to rest, except the fact that the Kohlis soon moved out of Delhi, and ever since their Pashchim Vihar bungalow has remained uninhabited.

After cousin Laali and the toxic scorpion slowly subsided into the list of acknowledged domestic tragedies, the family routine gradually gained speed. Meanwhile, across the street, Reeha was beginning to get serious marriage proposals, and one of them from a Mechanical Engineer at Bajaj Auto almost actually took off. Her typewriting classes at Vishal Typing & Shorthand Center were stopped and I saw less and less of her as more proposals went raining in. I finally decided to stand up for my truths and announce it to my folks, but before even I moved a finger in this regard, Raju Aunty foretold another looming tragedy in the family, and less than a week later Tonu Uncle, Father’s youngest brother and Pressure’s dad, was fatally mangled when a Labor Union strike went out of control at the distribution wing of Sargun Garments and Exporters, the hub of our family business in Kirti Nagar, named after my late grandmother, Daduji’s wife. He was hospitalized with spiral fractures on his ulna and the radial bone of his left arm and a bruised ego for almost half a month, and my case was adjourned indefinitely. Heaven knows, I have never before prayed for somebody’s speedy recovery more than I did for Tonu Uncle's in those days. Eventually when he was up and about, there were talks and peace settlements with the leaders of the Labor Union, which went on for some time leaving a kind of constant domestic unrest in its wake, day and night, as the overall atmosphere in the house was controlled by the ups and downs of our family business as a rule. Before the issue with the Union got stable, a new suffering broke loose in the Bhatia family. It was Jimpi who actually brought in the virus from Guru Nanak Public School. In two weeks' time everybody except a few grown ups including Daduji and me were down with Chicken pox. It was quite a riot after that, everybody with boils moving around like zombies.

Reeha was at her wits’ end. A new proposal was brimming up and the two families were planning to meet up any day. I did not have a lot of time left to act. But there never seemed to be a good time for it. Either ways guts were going to spill. If I made Daduji unhappy, he was going to cut me off from the Sargun Enterprises, which if ever happened, I had not the slightest clue as to how to make a living any other way, although in response to what I had to say, cutting me off from the business was the least of what he was capable of. My own father’s reaction was going to be nothing more than a little display of shock and some scolding for setting a bad example for Teena, my little sister. But Daduji’s instincts would be to cut me in half. I lost sleep. After the cousins retired every night I talked with Reeha hours on end in sign language through the windows in the light of emergency lamps. It only riled her up even more. Yet I promised to rescue her soon.

At last when the madness of the Pox unhurriedly declined, I mustered every ounce of courage to confront the Bhatias, when the resident soothsayer spoke again, this time of another likely death in the family! It was just unstoppable! But I did not have a choice even if it was my end that figured in Raju Aunty’s forecast. That evening, I waited till every last little Bhatia came to the dinner table before I addressed the family. The monsoon influenza was in town, and along with a few others in the house, Daduji was feeling poorly. But then, I was determined. So I declared to them all- once and for all- my love for Reeha Kazmi, the dusky daughter of our Muslim neighbor Ajmal Ali Kazmi, with whom I was legally wedded for almost eleven months, although we agreed to live separately till we educated the families about it. I admitted the fear for keeping it a secret in the initial days, but for leaving things at it, pushed the blame on to the subsequent string of tragedies that never stopped striking the Bhatias the whole year. I’m quite sure that I surprised them all. Daduji was really weak to respond, so he called Goldie Uncle next to him and whispered in his ear. Quickly absorbing his father’s big secret, Goldie Bhatia, a titanic mountain of a man and former “Mr. Ludhiana” enthusiast, walked up to me and swiftly swung his enormous right hand on my left ear, and in a clap, it all blacked out! A ring resonated into the hollow for some time, but the darkness remained.

It was over so quickly! Mine must have been a rather short life, but I was not disgruntled about it. There were not a lot of regrets either. I was only sad about having left Reeha behind. Even though Pressure and I have had discussions on life after death a number of times while growing up, we were not quite sure about the details. For instance, the glowing transparent winged beings that fluttered around me in the dark never figured in any of it. I was flying too. But I had no wings. We were all headed for some place I had no clue about. In fact they were guiding me through the thick and bottomless night. Pressure and I also had a secret pact- whoever died first will have to come back and talk to the other from the world of the dead. I looked around, only in vain. Let alone Pressure, there was nobody in sight except the angel figures till I reached a place where I finally could hear voices, still in the dark. I recognized the voices. They were all there, that is, everybody still alive in the family, and it was their voices. I couldn’t see any of them but they were all talking about a recent death in the house, and how Raju Aunty’s latest prophecy also clicked. Pressure was there too, but despite trying real hard, I could not speak with him, or perhaps I did, and he couldn’t hear me. I could also recognize Reeha’s voice amongst them. This went on for a long time. There were prolonged bouts of silences in between as well, when they all shut up and left. But then they returned sooner or later. All this while I was trying to connect with someone or the other, but with no luck.

I was unconscious for a whole week, and when I finally opened my eyes, they told me Daduji was dead from complications that arose with the fever. Reeha was next to me. The Kazmis had sent her over with only one condition. They asked us to expel the Dachshunds from our house, as Ajmal Kazmi wished to stick with his religion at some place possible in the alliance. With Daduji’s death and the general distaste about our marriage, there was no party in the family, but many a number of times during the wake, we sneaked out to Damdama Lake for some non-Bhatia time and occasional boat rides as it was winter time already. While things couldn’t get all that normal in the Bhatia household even without Daduji, we started living like other married couples, and the bad year finally came to a close. 

1 comment:

  1. I could so well relate to the joint family hassles and problems in your story, I liked the ending too. Came back to read our fiction and happy to read the story. Super!!


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