Hello. My name is Shailesh Kunder. I live in a small town in Uttar Pradesh named Saharanpur. My life has been very uneventful, I am sixty now, with not many stories to tell my grandchildren. But whatever I tell them is completely true, and I tell them with all my energy. I do have one story though which I cannot tell my grandchildren. This is that story.
When I was ten, I met for the first time a girl named Keerti Kumari. It was slightly strange, the meeting: our parents had not told us anything at all about each other when our families met for the first time. Our families became good friends over the years. Inevitably, we met often and since I had no siblings and Jyoti, Keerti’s sister was much older, we only had each other for company.
As such, the friendship grew for many years. By the time we were both eighteen, this friendship was taking on a new meaning for me, and for her too I think, because I did see some flashes of affection in her eyes now and then. But as was the custom at the time, the girl never showed her feelings. It was an oppressive custom for the men, because the prolonged suspense was never good for the nerves. Nonetheless, I was quite sure the attraction was mutual; I had known her for too long to not spot the change in her behaviour. Concern for my health for instance, was a drastically new thing.
We had gone to the local gol-guppa shop again one hot summer afternoon, and had had the same gol- guppas we had every summer. The next day, I fell ill with a bad case of jaundice, while Keerti was perfectly fine. Over the next few weeks whilst I was bedridden and fighting the infection, Keerti fed me, did all my college work, came home every day and only left after it was dark and no longer appropriate for her to stay. Her presence was healing and I found the strength to fight off the infection very quickly.
Compare this to when five years ago I had caught dengue. That time, she had only come over to meet me three to four times; and then only to laugh at me –
“You know the size of a mosquito, Shailesh Kunder? You know the size of the thing that has made you this sick?”
When we turned twenty (our birthdays are only two weeks apart, and our parents had insisted each year to celebrate together on the day exactly one week after mine and one week before hers), we both had important changes in our lives. My grandfather passed away after a long, difficult, but successful life of ninety years. It was not a sad occasion, but Keerti was at the funeral and was crying almost as much as my father’s sister. Father did not shed a tear of course, he had always taught me to be strong and that death was just another thing that happened.
Keerti’s elder sister, Jyoti was married off the next month in a grand ceremony to the most incredibly ostentatious family you can imagine. The baaraat was a sight to see. Thirty boisterous Punjabis drove up to the Kumars’ house in black Mercedes cars, the women wore jaunty jewelry that was made only to look expensive, and they all threw money around the pandaal like it was nobody’s business. The waiters almost crushed each others’ hands trying to gather as many of the notes as possible; I imagine at least one of them went home richer than Keerti’s parents.
Keerti’s family had spent a lot of money to make this marriage possible; not an insignificant portion of that expense was the dowry. Why these Punjabis needed more money I do not know, but word had it that they were not happy until Keerti’s father had to sell off their car and scooter to collect enough money.
This was disturbing to me, perhaps even more so than my grandfather’s death. I had always held Keerti’s parents in high regard; I was unable to fathom why they’d marry their daughter into such a family. That said, the bridegroom turned out to be a kind-hearted man. Jyoti was happy, and so life went on.
Soon after, I finished my post-graduation. The time had come to finally take a long break before diving into work, so I went on a long vacation to south India with some college friends. We toured around Kerala, Tamil Nadu, even parts of Karnataka. It was a memorable three weeks. What happened when I returned though, ruined it.
During the final weeks of my post-graduation, I had begun to feel certain that Keerti and I would officially begin our romantic relationship once I started work– it was one of the things that I was looking forward to most. When I returned however, something was amiss. I could not explain it. I called up Keerti first thing as usual, but she did not take the phone, did not allow me to come home to meet her. I thought it was some small issue at first, but the situation only worsened over the next few weeks. My parents offered no explanation:
“What’s wrong with Keerti, ma?”
“How am I supposed to know? She is your friend isn’t it? Am I supposed to keep track of every girl in Saharanpur for your Highness’s convenience? And why haven’t you bothered to ask your father? Am I to be victimized for everything that goes wrong in this household or is someone else also going shoulder some – “
She stormed into the kitchen saying that.
Never, in the thirteen odd years that I had known Keerti, had this happened before. In fact I had got a decent job in Saharanpur itself, just so that I could still be around her when I began to get my life into my own hands and settle down. And then, this happens, leaving me completely confused and dejected.
I finally decided to confront Keerti after two months of agony. This was the summer of 1970 or thereabouts. I went over to her place on my cycle, parked outside in the narrow street and knocked on her door. She opened it, and stood there stunned for a few minutes.
“Why are you here?”
“I – well, I just want to know – “
“What? WHAT? What do you want to know? Stop stuttering like hakla and speak clearly!”
“Well – I just, Keerti, what happened?”
“If you aren’t smart enough to know what has happened, and if you don’t have enough brain cells to figure it out, then it is perfectly clear that what I am doing is right.”
She slammed the door in my face. I knocked for another five minutes or so, but to no avail.
I was completely nonplussed. What was I to figure out? How on earth had this happened?
I went to our gol-guppa shop and asked the uncle there if she had been there recently.
He was surprised himself when he started to think about it –
“No, beta, now that you mention it, she stopped coming completely two or three months ago!”
“What, in April?”
“Now if it was April or May or March I don’t know, but, yes, it was definitely after Holi, I saw her with pink on her ears I remember.”
“Holi. Late March… So that means she came after I had left for Kerala once too?”
“Oh-O! Kerala!? When I was twenty eight, I and my brother had also –“
“Yes, yes uncle, I will hear your story another time. Have to be somewhere now…”
I asked the tikki-waala, the jalebi shop, the rickshaw guys, everyone who knew the both of us were inseparable – no one had seen Keerti since sometime in early April.
Things got even more suspicious three months later, when my mother made a snide remark about Keerti’s mother over dinner. It was surprising that she had made this comment in the first place, but what was completely inconceivable was that father had not bothered to contradict her or tell her off or even just make a disapproving face. He nodded – in agreement no less! I did not dare ask what this was about at the time, but as the days passed, this kind of rhetoric picked up steam and I heard my parents regularly talking contemptuously about Keerti’s, and her parents’ character. One of the common themes was the Kumars’ inability to keep their word and honour. I inquired many times, but never got a straight answer. Father never even bothered to try answering, mother almost always ended up in the kitchen shouting about something completely irrelevant. I was also getting more and more absorbed with my work, and so could not pursue the matter with any great persistence.
Next April, less than a year since, Keerti got married. It was quick, we were invited of course, but my father forbade us to go. She was married into another loud Punjabi family, and this time the Kumars’ luck ran out – the boy was a rotten egg. He drank too much, smoked too much, and didn’t know the first thing about social manners. Keerti’s social life became very strained and awkward, and she had to teach herself how to live by herself and with her in-laws, who were nice enough. Keerti was extremely unhappy for the next two or three years, until she had her first child: the beautiful Khushboo. From then on, Keerti dedicated her life to her children (she had Kartik five years after Khushboo), and never bothered to get in touch with me.
I for my part got married too – a love marriage to a pretty girl from Chandigarh, with whom I moved into a small flat in Delhi. Later on we moved to Gurgaon as I was doing well in my firm. In Delhi and Gurgaon, I and Aparna raised our four children – Avnish, Aakriti, Amit and Amrit. They are wonderful children, and have bore us two grandchildren each over the past four or five years. I have a big loving family and am happily retired.
Keerti’s episode, however, never resolved itself, and although with time the wounds healed and the sadness faded into the background, I never quite forgot about it. My parents died over a decade ago – within months of each other. I never got anything out of them regarding Keerti. My father did change his statement from “Shut up” to “I’m sorry” whenever I asked him over the last few months before he expired. What he was sorry about, though, I only got to know from the horse’s mouth last month.
I met Keerti after many, many years at her newest grandson’s first birthday. She invited me out of the blue to the birthday party in Chandigarh, and I accepted without hesitation. There are some mysteries that must be unravelled before the lights go out in one’s eyes, and I was keen to solve this one.
The party was in a noisy restaurant in Sector 17. I arrived alone, as none of our children had ever managed to establish any contact with each other. She was dressed in an old maroon saari, wearing rectangular, gold-rimmed spectacles. She was heavily wrinkled around the eyes; a crude remnant of the beautiful folds the same skin had had when she used to smile in her youth.
We went outside the restaurant and sat at the benches in the middle of the open compound of Sector 17. The music was still audible, but it was generally quiet. Very few people had come out yet as it was still early afternoon. For the first few minutes neither had anything to say. Conversation could not flow through the questions that had blocked my mind.
“So how has it been?” she asked.
“The last four decades?” I replied with a touch of sarcasm.
“I see you haven’t lost your touch.”
I stayed silent for a minute.
“So how come you remembered me after all these years?”
“Well – um – “
“Stop stuttering like a hakla and – “, I said, mimicking her high pitched voice. She laughed a little, then coughed and stopped.
“So, what happened Keerti?”
She took her time before saying the next few lines.
“My husband died recently.”
I started to say some words to console her but she raised her hand and stopped me, shaking her head.
“I am not sad, I won’t lie to you Shailesh. He wasn’t the best husband. He was a good father though, and the children loved him, so I never thought about leaving him. But now he’s gone, and I feel much lighter. Kartik and Khushboo are dejected, but I just can’t get myself to feel the same way. That makes me feel slightly guilty, but that’s just how it is.”
I stayed silent. I was unsure really of what I could say or do. She didn’t look like she needed to be consoled…
“I called you for the birthday because I needed to let you know what happened when you left for Kerala.”
I tensed. This had taken a long time to come.
Three days after you left, my parents took me to your house. Your parents were all dressed up, your grandmother was there too, smiling away to glory. Your father opened the conversation –
‘So Kumar Saab! The time has come to finally complete what we started many years ago! My son is settled, educated, and has turned out to be fine young man, and Keerti is the most charming young lady in all of Saharanpur!’
‘What? What is this about mom?’, I asked my mother, but she was too busy smiling.
My father looked really happy too – ’Yes, Kunderji, it is time to officially tie the bond! I am extremely happy sir that I will finally be able to call you my relative!’
‘Wait a second, what is happening here, father?’
‘Well you and Shailesh are going to be married of course! You should be happy! We’ve seen how you two are together!’
‘Yes, well, I do like him I suppose, all that is fine but what is this that uncle is saying about “completing what we started years ago”?’
‘Nothing beta, your parents simply had the foresight of knowing you and Shailesh would fall in love eventually, you’ve been engaged to be married since you were just ten years old!’
I was speechless.
She continued her eyes unmoving now, staring resolutely into the distance.
“I didn’t know what to do then, Shailesh. When my father said that – his teeth gleaming, mother’s jewelry shining in my eyes, the tea’s scent in my nose, everyone looking so happy – I … just didn’t know what was happening. I had to get out, I said some things I can’t remember and left the room. Over the next few days my parents did everything they could to convince me Shailesh, convince me to go with the plan – but do you understand? Do you understand how I felt?”
“No, Keerti, how did you feel?”
“It is as if, as if, our whole lives had been scripted, that the love that I felt for you was not because we were perfect for each other, but because, because we were forcibly put together in a cage with no option but to love each other. I felt, powerless.”
I took my time to soak it all in. Much time passed, before I mustered, ‘So that is why’…
Many minutes passed again in silence, punctuated only by the sound of the bass from the birthday party’s blaring music.
Then, I told her this.
“My wife is still alive, Keerti. And the love that I had reserved for you for many years is completely Aparna’s; she has earned my respect, my devotion over very difficult years. There were years together when I did not think of you at all, Keerti, because I was content. I do not know what you wanted to achieve by telling me this now, when the only thing from that time that was still intact in my mind was my love and respect for my parents. You have succeeded in shattering that memory too. I suppose that all you wanted was to relieve yourself of this burden. I am happy that you were able to. But I must leave you to your wonderful family, while I will return to mine.”
Kartik called yesterday and told me that Keerti sat there for several long minutes after that. He told me she was never the same again after that birthday party, that she began to eat lesser and lesser each day until she fell badly ill. Within one month of our meeting, Keerti had passed away. Kartik said that she had left me a letter in her will.
I have returned to my family; I still tell my children about their grandparents with great gusto. I still tell them that my parents were virtuous, kind and brave. I still weave story after story about how wisely they had conducted themselves in difficult situations throughout their lives. The only difference now is that I have begun sometimes to tell them stories that are completely untrue. I tell them of things my parents never really did. It does not matter to me what the truth was anymore. I only hope that when I pass away and my children have no one to tell them about their grandparents, the memories I gave them will stay forever. True or not, those memories will guide them throughout their lives.
As for the letter, I went back to Chandigarh a month later. I took a taxi to Kartik’s house and rung the bell. Kartik came out, saw me, said namaste and took me inside. I sat in their living room while Kartik brought the letter out. It was still sealed with wax. Good.
I said a quick goodbye to Kartik and walked out into the neighbourhood. I held the letter in one hand, and with the other, I dished into my pocket for the lighter I had just bought.
And with one click of my thumb, I burnt it.