FOR WHOM THE BILLS TOLL
Tick, tock. Pause. Tick, tock. Pause. The ceiling fan continued its Hamster Run stirring up a little air. Unlike stirring of intense anger, anxiety, agony in the minds of the family, breathing was laboured but silent. Only the clock continued its sermon. Shen looked from one serious face to another very serious face. He could almost count furrows on his father’s forehead. His siblings tried to melt into the background. The mother smacked her forehead and wailed:
Shen managed to convert his laughter into a coughing fit. He couldn’t help laughing – but laughing at such a serious occasion would create problems. Whoever said that ‘a laughter is the best medicine’ did not foresee an occasion like this. Every statement has an exception, and this was the exception for the laughter and medicine.
Monday morning, he had returned to Panaji-Goa after a quick trip to Bombay. He brushed aside all the questions about the trip, and whispered in his mother’s ears.
“I have brought a gift for you from Bombay – a daughter-in-law. Saanvi and I eloped and got married in Bombay.”
“Seriously? Or are you joking as usual?”
A copy of the marriage certificate and pictures of wedding ceremony convinced her. Being a romantic herself, she shared his thrill of ‘run-away’ marriage. But not his father. A strict disciplinarian. He rarely raised his voice or hand – but his mere look would give shivers to all his children (and their friends). He stared at Shen:
Shen touched his right cheek tenderly. At the age of five, after playing with Saanvi (who was then three), he had declared to his family about his undying love for her and his intention to marry her at the right time. SMACK! Followed by another SMACK! His right cheek was red for days, and he was banned from watching cinema for a whole year.
“He is influenced by the romance in the cinema. Let him read instead.”
It did not matter that Shen was too young to read anything. He touched his right cheek again and decided to have another approach.
“Saanvi’s parents were planning for her marriage with a doctor in America. She wanted to spend her life in India and with us. Not the US!”
He hoped that the touch of patriotism would work.
“So, you run away and get married? What about us?”
“Maa and run? She can hardly walk!”
A sliver of smile on dad’s lips assured him that he had not lost his sense of humour – YET! There was a silver lining ahead.
The council of war consisted of his parents and two elder siblings. The courses of action were suggested, discussed, and then discarded. Saanvi’s parents did not know about the run-away marriage – as she was still in Bombay.
The clock struck twelve, and Shen was very drowsy. But he dared not appear so. He suppressed his yawn and looked around for a solution. Should he propose a cup of tea? The clock continued its ticking, and the fan its running.
“Why should we be the only ones to spend a sleepless night? Let’s call Saanvi’s parents and discuss the matters with them.”
The whole room was charged with anticipation and expectations. Shen feared the worst. The fireworks with lot of noise. Every possibility that Saanvi and he would be the only persons who would get hurt.
Saanvi’s parents came over within fifteen minutes. Sleepy and puzzled, yet apprehensive that there must be a grave situation requiring midnight summons.
Shen uttered a swift prayer, seeking the mercy of all gods and people in the room. A fine trickle of sweat dripped down his spine. His brown face – if it could, would have mirrored a rainbow of all the colours and emotions! But brown it was, and brown it remained.
Though past midnight, the tempers and voices rose. So did the wailing and crying. Character assassination – and if it would be legal, Shen assassination would have been the order of the night. He stood motionless, emotionless through the ordeal. Mentally, he focused on Saanvi’s sweet smile and blocked all outside noise.
“Look at him! After doing all this, he is smiling. No shame. What the world would think of us now?”
At dawn, the peace reigned once again – Saanvi’s wailing mother and fuming father left the house – with a threat to meet again. Shen remembered the high school English lesson:
“If looks could kill, I’d be dead right now.”
Monday turned into Sunday – Saanvi was ‘rushed’ back to Goa escorted by relatives. At Saanvi’s place – various options such as Nullification of Marriage, Divorce, etc. were discussed and discarded. The newly wed couple couldn’t even exchange a phone call. Shen got the news from his friends that Nilesh (Saanvi’s younger brother) was seen contacting a few local thugs to get an estimate for beating Shen.
“Bro – don’t go out alone – not without us. We are here to protect you!”
Sunday evening, the family was in its usual cold war zone. The same clock ticked away, and the old fan continued turning, spitting out wisps of cool air. THUNK, THUMP – a hard knock on the door. Something slithered below the door. Shen’s sister screamed. All looked at her, and then the door. A sealed envelope. Now what?
Shen’s older brother tore open the envelope, and out fell a small piece of paper.
“Come to our house at 6:00 p.m. – Bring Shen with you”.
Not a request and not signed! The family knew who and where. But not why!
Shen went with the parents (thankfully, his siblings did not) with as much enthusiasm as a convict going towards the hangman’s noose.
“Lift your right foot, place it ahead of your left foot; then lift your left foot, place it ahead of your right foot. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Or should it be repent, repent, repent?”
They had to stop to let a funeral procession pass. Few metres down the road, a black cat scuttled and crossed their path. And as they turned into the lane leading to Saanvi’s house, someone sneezed repeatedly. God-fearing mother broke into tears. Three times bad omens. They were doomed! Should they just turn and go home?
They had to stop to let a funeral procession pass. Few steps down the road, a black cat scuttled and crossed their path. And as they turned into the lane leading to Saanvi’s house, someone sneezed repeatedly. God-fearing mother broke into tears. Three times bad omens. They were doomed! Should they just turn and go home?
The father was resolute. He continued his onward march and the other two followed with impending dread.
Entering Saanvi’s garden, they heard a crackling sound of tadka (tempering) of spices being roasted. An aroma of delicious, fresh sweets (loaded with cardamom and saffron) floated and surrounded the three.
“Hah! Everything seems resolved. Shen, my son – may I be the first one to congratulate you on your marriage?”
The father and the son hugged each other, while the mother continued to sob!
December 13, 2020