She Spoke in Tongues - 9

Glory Sasikala

Serialized novel, by Glory Sasikala

CHAPTER 9
There's so much going on below,
Oh my! Dear Me!
Said the Moon, overwhelmed,
“What all I have to see!”

Meanwhile, all was not well at the Tharani-Sushanth homestead, if it could be called that.
“So,” said Sitara, conversationally, sitting on the kitchen counter, “We have the same boyfriend. You—my mamma—and I. How does he treat you?”
Tharani coloured and didn't answer. She pretended to stir the curry. “Does he rub your back? Or does he...?? You know...” She looked teasingly at her mother, “Because he likes to rub my back with...you know!”
“Sitara!” called Yamini, from the doorway, “Come and help me with this.”
Sitara got off the counter and made her way to her sister, “Yo! Yamini to the rescue!”
She went with Yamini to the bedroom and helped her lift the bed on to the cot. Yamini had been cleaning up and dusting her bed.
“Sitara,” said Yamini, quietly, “Spare her.”
“No, I won't,” said Sitara, shaking her head from side to side, her curls moving too, “Why should I after what she's done to me? She's sold me, she's sold you. You want to call her mother, that's your call. I'd like to rename her as ‘Pimp’ or ‘Whore’.”
“Shut up, Sitara! You're just making things worse.”
“Am I?” said Sitara, throwing down the mattress and moving belligerently towards Yamini, “Am I the one who's creating the trouble? Did I ask for this? Ask her to give my childhood back! Can she? Can she??!!”
She was hysterical, and she pinned Yamini to the wall. Tharani opened the door and came in. She grabbed Sitara by the shoulders, “Sitara, please come with me.”
Sitara shrugged her arms off angrily. “Don't touch me! You make me sick!”
And she stalked out of the room. 
Yamini and Tharani stared at each other. Tharani could feel the pain and terror in the girl’s face. Yamini’s lips were trembling and her hands crossed her chest. And then, CRASH!! The sound came from the hall. They ran into the hall and found that Sitara had overturned the table and everything in it. Crockery and dishes and spoons and books and other paraphernalia lay on the floor, scattered. The table had toppled to one side and lay like a man shot dead. A few chairs had been shot dead too and lay on their backs, their feet up in the air. And Sitara was seated on the sofa looking defiantly at her mother. Tharani took a step forward, then checked herself, warned by the pure hatred in the girl's eyes. “Give me my food,” she ordered. Tharani went into the kitchen, took out a plate, placed a couple of idlis in it and some chatni and brought it over to Sitara.  She took the plate from her mother. She seemed to have quietened down. Tharani turn to go back to the kitchen.  CRASH!! The plate was flung across the hall and landed at the petrified Yamini's feet. Sitara got up and went into the bedroom and locked herself.
Tharani, who had run out of the kitchen at the noise, looked at the food on the floor. She turned to Yamini, “Go and get dressed and leave for school. I will take care of this.”
Yamini nodded. But even as she turned to go, the bedroom door opened and Sitara came out with her clothes and towel, went into the bathroom, and shut it.
“Go to the other bathroom and have your bath,” said Tharani to Yamini. She nodded and went into her bedroom.
Sitara came out in her uniform, went into the bedroom and shut the door. Soon she was out, dressed, hair combed, and her bag ready. She went and sat on the sofa and waited for Yamini. Yamini was soon ready too.
“Have some breakfast,” Tharani coaxed Yamini. She shook her head and said, “No, we're late.”
Sitara walked out the door and Yamini followed. Tharani watched out of the window as the girls made their way to the bus stop. Thankfully, Sheila studied in a different school and had left earlier. The child was too young and she was indeed protected well from whatever was going on. 
Tharani sighed and turned to go in. She took in the mess. The food splashed across the floor and on to the walls. Mess and chaos everywhere. She sighed.... And slowly, and feeling very tired all of a sudden, she set about cleaning up.
It took her a couple of hours to set the house right, but it was finally done. The dishes had been washed, the clothes hung, everything set in its place. She made herself a cup of tea and sat down by the side table where the landline phone was, and she dialled out Shanthi's number.
“Hello!”
“Tharani, hi! How are you?”
“Not so well, Shanthi,” and she proceeded to tell her about her woes.
“Relax. She is young and wild. She will temper down by and by.”
“Yes...Shanthi, I haven't heard from Sushanth in quite a while now. It's been two months...”
“Oh...”
Something in her voice made Tharani sit up, “What is it?”
“Nothing.”
“Shanthi, if there's something I should know...”
She heard a sigh. “Yes. Yes, there is. Sushanth....he, well, likes a woman.”
“What do you mean ‘likes a woman’?”
“He's been living with this woman. She joined the store as cashier.”
“He's having an affair with her?”
“Yes...he stays at her place. She's middle-aged and a widow. She and her brother share an apartment.”
“And Sushanth stays with them.”
“Yes. Yes, he does.”
Tharani's heart went cold. She was silent, trying to process the information.
“Tharani?”
“I'll...I'll call you later. I need to think.”
“Yes. Okay. I understand.”
And Shanthi rang off. Tharani sat there, feeling numb. Her mind was not really working. What....How?? Where do they go from here?
Suddenly, the phone rang. She picked up the receiver automatically, like a robot. “Yes?”
“Madam, is this Mrs. Tharani?”
“Yes.”
“I'm the Correspondent from the school, Ma'am. Your two girls study here. Sitara and Yamini.”
“Yes,” said Tharani, her heart going icy cold, “Is there something the matter? Are they okay?”
The Correspondent's voice sounded uncertain, “Yes, Ma’am, they're okay. But we have had some trouble from one of them. Sitara... The Principal wants you to come over immediately. Could you please come in right now?”
Tharani relaxed. The girls were physically okay. Sitara of course. She had acted up.
“Yes, I'll come immediately.”
She cut off the call and called Shanthi. “Shanthi, I have to go to the school.  Sitara...”
“I'll come over right now. We'll go together.”
“Thank you Shanthi.”
She placed the receiver, and went and got ready.
At the school, they made their way to the Principal's office and were shown in. The Principal, Mrs. Lalitha Shankar, looked up. She was a dignified looking lady in her early 40s. She wore a crisp cotton sari and her hair was coiffured elegantly. She looked up from the papers she had been signing and gestured to them to sit down. She did not smile. She completed signing the documents and she rang the bell. A peon came in and took the folder and went out. She then gazed at the women seated before her, “Which one of you is Mrs. Tharani?”
“I am,” said Tharani.
The Principal removed her spectacles, and rubbed it with a piece of soft cloth and put it on. She looked directly at Tharani and said, “I will not mince words, Mrs. Tharani. I will come straight to the point. Both your girls have been expelled.”
Tharani's eyes widened in terror, “But...”
The lady lifted her hand, "There is nothing you can say that will make me consider otherwise. You daughter Sitara walked into class today with her blouse buttons undone. When the teacher reprimanded her, she undid the last two buttons too...leaving her blouse completely open.... This is a school of repute, and it's a co-ed school. I'm sorry, but there is nothing we can do, no way we can reconsider keeping them.”
Tharani pleaded, “Yamini...”
“Yes...Yamini. We are really sorry this has happened and she has to leave too. A brilliant child. In fact, our one chance of a state level student. That's why this is not a hasty decision. We did a background check...”
She did not elaborate, and indeed, there was no need for her to elaborate. A background check would have revealed the shady family history.
“I would suggest that you take the girls home immediately. You can collect the TC and other documents later. In such cases, it is generally preferred that we warn other schools from admitting such students, but in this case, I am not going to do that. In fact, I will write out a recommendation to another school explaining the circumstances and requesting them to admit your daughters. They will do so on the promise that this kind of behaviour will not be repeated. It's not a prestigious school, but it will do very well.”
The women were silent. Tharani was looking down and tears poured incessantly down her face.
“You may leave now. Thank you.”
And the Principal got up and went over to the window and looked out.
Shanthi placed a hand on Tharani's arm. “Come, let's go.” She led Tharani out and they walked down the longest corridor of their lives. They were ushered into a room, and they walked in and saw the two girls seated in a corner, looked forlorn, lost, and terrified.
Sitara's eyes were wide with fear as she looked at her mother. Gone was the angry defiant girl of the morning, and in its place a terrified child. Yamini's face was red with crying and she buried her face once again in her hanky and cried. Shanthi moved forward and said briskly, “You girls pick up your bags. Let's go.” No one moved.  She then picked up the bags and moved to the door. Tharani looked at her, then back at the girls. She moved forward. “Yamini, let's go.”
Sitara tugged at her sari, “Ma!”
Tharani ignored her. “Yamini, come on, let's go!”
The tug increased, “Ma!”
Yamini got up and followed her mother. Tharani turned to Sitara. “Come!” she said. Sitara got up. She ran over to her mother, flung her arms around her and burst into tears. Tharani let her cry. Then she disengaged herself. “We have to leave now."
Sitara nodded and followed her out. No one was out there except the management staff and the office boys. Classes were going on and they could hear the distant voice of a teacher talking, explaining. The girls felt extremely humiliated and walked blindly out, only wanting to get away from it all. They felt eyes boring down their backs, passing judgements. The cab was waiting out for them, and they climbed in.
Once back home, Tharani went into her bedroom and locked herself in. Yamini moved to the other bedroom and closed the door too. Shanthi placed the bags on the table. Sitara moved to the far corner and curled up on the sofa. She looked around. There was a sheet hanging outside, in the porch. She got up and pulled it down and covered herself with it and curled up again. Shanthi watched her, “You might as well take off your clothes now and get comfortable.” A sarcastic comment that came to her lips was not voiced because she knew that they, the adults, were the actual perpetrators, not this child who had lost her innocence out of no fault of her own. She held her peace and went to the kitchen. She made tea, poured it into two cups, placed the cups on a tray and a plate of biscuits and came back to the hall. She shook Sitara and said, “Get up. You must eat something.”
“I don't want anything.”
“You must eat. Get up.”
The authoritative voice worked and Sitara got up. Shanthi handed her two biscuits and a cup of tea. She then took two biscuits and a cup of tea and sat opposite the girl. They were silent for a while, concentrating on eating.
“Sitara...sorry this happened.”
Sitara looked at her, “Why are you sorry? What did you do?”
“I...we immigrants are all the same. It doesn't matter if your mother apologizes or I do. It’s all the same.”
Sitara sipped her tea, “If this is life, I don't want it,” she said.
Shanthi looked at her sharply, “This is life. You are alive because we never thought along those lines…ever. Not when our houses were bombed, taking with it everything we had and the life that we knew. Not when we walked across the Himalayas; not even when our kith and kin died in front of our eyes. We always thought we'd survive, we'd live, we'd make it work. It's that spirit that has kept us going, kept us alive.”
“At what expense?” asked the child, sadly.
Shanthi sipped her tea thoughtfully, “Maybe that wasn’t necessary. Maybe that was greed. Maybe your mother has fallen so low that she did not know where to draw the line. And maybe it's up to you to draw the line and place boundaries.”
Sitara listened carefully.
“Your father might not be coming back.”
Sitara looked sharply at her, “Why?”
“He's with another woman now.”
“What! I’ll kill him!”
“Sure,” said Shanthi, “take a train to Mumbai and kill him.”
Sitara was quiet, “He’s not divorced. He’s still my mother's husband. Bastard! Pimp!”
She spat.
Shanthi had finished her tea and biscuit. She got up and took the cup from Sitara and placed both cups on the tray. “Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that happened at school. Maybe you would have had to drop out anyways.”
“What about the money that we got from...you know. From Ramesh?”
“I think your mother sent it all to your father in the faith that he will invest in the business, and I think it has now disappeared into the woman's pocket.”
Sitara's eyes filled with tears. She did not notice that her mother had come out of the room and had heard the conversation. “He sold my virginity to a prostitute?”
“She’s not exactly a prostitute.”
“She's living with another woman’s husband. She’s worse than a prostitute. And yes, I am aware that my own mother stoops to the same dirty levels. I don't want this life!”
Shanthi turned and saw Tharani standing there transfixed and staring. She took the tray and moved past her to the kitchen, where she stayed, washing up.
Tharani did not move. “Ma!” said Sitara, but Tharani did not answer. All that she could think of was that her world had come crashing down, and the debris lay at her feet. Her husband was gone; the hard earned money—even if it was dirty money—was gone; and her children had been expelled from school. She had nowhere to go, no money, and she had three girls to look after.
“Ma!” Sitara came over to her mother and shook her, “Ma! Wake up!”
Tharani moved like a zombie to a chair and sat down, looking glassily ahead, staring at nothing.
The other bedroom door opened and Yamini came out. She came over to Sitara and said, “I want to talk to you.” She took Sitara by the hand and led her to the bedroom and closed the door. “Sit down,” she said to Sitara. Sitara sat down at the edge of the bed. Yamini stood over her and looked down. There was sadness and love in her eyes, “I'm sorry, Sitara.” She sat down on the floor and took her little sister’s hands, “I'm sorry I did not protect you. Forgive me.”
Sitara looked her sister's gentle face looking up at her and her lips trembled, 'I'm sorry too, Yamini. I was so selfish, thinking only about myself. I forgot that you…that you…I was thinking...oh! I wasn't thinking! I'm so sorry I did this to you!!” She burst into tears. The two girls hugged each other and cried their hearts out.
Eventually, they disengaged and Yamini said, “Sitara, I promise you—and this is a promise for life. I will never ever allow anything to happen to you any more or to Sheila. That is a promise.”
Sitara shook her head, “That's not the promise I want. Promise that we—none of us—not you, not mom, not Sheila, and not me—will ever do anything like this again. We will never ever sell our bodies for money. Promise me that.”
Yamini placed a hand on her Sitara’s head, “I promise. We promise.”
The girls felt a sudden strength in their resolve. They felt strength in knowing that the wrong window had closed shut and that they will surely find the right path soon.
“Did you hear about Daddy?”
Yamini nodded, “I did. We must wait for things to come to a head. They will. Meantime, I have to look out for a job.”
“Me too.”
“And Sheila must continue to go to school.”
“Yes.”
Out in the hall, Shanthi had taken leave. She had not bid Tharani goodbye as Tharani continued to stare into space. She had pressed her shoulder, “I'll come back later. We'll work out something.” When there was no answer, she said urgently, “Don't do anything foolish. Keep the girls in mind.”
She then left. Half an hour later, there was a knock on the door. Tharani did not bother to open it. Yamini and Sitara came out of the room, and Yamini crossed over and opened the door. It was Ramesh. “Can I come in?” he asked.
Yamini hesitated, 'It’s not the best of times,” she said.
“Please.”
She opened the door wide and he came in. He took his seat opposite Tharani and took her hands, “I heard,” he said.
She looked at him, “You heard that the girls were expelled. Did you hear that my husband is now with another woman?”
“What! No, I didn't hear that. I’m sorry. It’s all come at the same time, hasn't it?”
Tharani did not answer. “Listen, you, Tharani and the girls, I want to talk to you.”
“But we want to talk to you first,” said Yamini, 'There is something I...we wish to tell you.”
Tharani looked up at her daughters, startled, “Yes?” asked Ramesh.
“We...my mother, myself, Sitara, and Sheila...will never go down the wrong path again. We will never do anything that is hurtful and wrong. We will never sell our bodies for money again.”
Tharani and Ramesh listened to them. Tharani's eyes were wide in surprise. How were they going to survive? But Ramesh smiled, “Yes, I think that is a wise decision. I’m sorry I was the way I was. I don't want to be like that anymore either.”
They looked startled. “You don't?” asked Sitara, incredulously.
“No. Look, I know it's a bit too late, but I would like to think of you girls as my sisters...my family.”
Despite herself, Sitara snorted, “He’s reborn. So now it’s all incest.”
Ramesh glared at her, “I’m surprised they took so long to throw you out.”
“At least I grew up faster than you did, possibly because I’m not a zamindar kid. Boy! You people take your time growing!”
Ramesh laughed and Yamini smiled. And somehow everything was alright between the girls and him, possibly because they were all so young.
“I came with some good news,” Ramesh continued, “my sister studied in the ___ convent. My family...my father is one of the trustees. I have spoken to the Principal. I...I told her the truth. I told her it was bad judgement on your part, Sitara, and that I was giving her my word that it would never happen again. So, if all of you will come with me now, we can wrap up the admissions and you girls can continue with your education where you left off from next week on—and in a better school.”
They stared at him incredulously. He turned to Tharani, and he took her hands, “I also have other news.... I am getting married. I am getting married this coming Saturday. My father, he knows all about....us.  He spoke at length to me and he feels it’s time I settled down and took over the responsibilities of running the estate.”
“What!!” said Sitara, the outspoken one, “A girl is actually willing to marry you? She must be bonkers.”
Ramesh looked hurt, “That’s true. I’m past redemption apparently.”
“Who’s this girl?”
 “I don't know. Some schoolmaster's daughter,” Ramesh said, uncertainly, “Daddy said she was the only girl willing to marry me because she has a dosha in her horoscope and that she was squint-eyed and one leg is slightly shorter than the other.”
“Squint-eyed and limping? You're okay with that?”
He shrugged, “I’m worse off than her, am I not? I don’t deserve her…or anybody.”
They were silent.
“Anyway, this might be my last visit…at least in a while. I…my wife and I are leaving for Malaysia after the wedding. We have an estate there and my father feels I should get away and take care of it for a while. For a couple of years, in fact. So I want to ask you something,” he turned to Tharani, “I want to fund the girls' education completely. I want to see them through college, all three of them. Please allow me to do that.”
Tharani stared at him as did the girls, “But…but why would you want to do that?” she asked.
“Because you're family. Because I like your spirit, the way you fight out your way in the world. You came here with almost nothing, but you fought to hold. And now, they are my sisters. I want to see them happy. I have the resources to help them, and I want to do it. Please don’t say no.”
Tharani looked at the girls with tears in her eyes. She could not speak. The girls were crying too.
Yamini put out her hand, "Ramesh, you don't know how much we are indebted to you. Our own father has betrayed us…but you… Thank you! On behalf of my mother and sisters and myself, thank you so much!”
He took her proffered hand, “I understand. But it will be easier, now that I'm taking away the burden of education. For the rest...”
“For the rest, I have my sewing machine,” said Tharani. They all looked at her. She actually smiled. “Relax, all of you! I'm good with my needle.”
They smiled too, “Yey!” said Sitara.
“We must move,” said Yamini, “We must move to a different locality.”
“Yes,” agreed, Ramesh. "I'll give you the money for the advance and the first month rent.”
Yamini looked embarrassed, so he added, “Look, I'm quite sure you’re going to earn well. You’re too smart and intelligent. It’s only a matter of time. You can repay me then. I promise I’ll take it back with interest.”
She smiled then. “Okay then, come on, let's go to this school and sort out the admissions.”
It turned out to be a beautiful day after all. The girls were admitted in the school, and it was an even more prestigious school than the one they had been in. Ramesh took them out shopping after that and they got the material for the school uniforms, which, of course, would be stitched by their mother. They bought other necessities, and then, they lunched out.
“Let’s go to the temple,” said Sitara. “We all have solemn vows to take. To never go down the wrong path again. You too, Ramesh.”
He nodded. So they went to the temple. Soon, it was time to say goodbye. “Well,” Ramesh, “This is it.” He looked at Tharani, and then at the two girls. “Take care. I’ll always know your whereabouts. I’ll always find out. And I will keep sending you money.”
“Thank you,” said Yamini, on behalf of all of them, “Have a wonderful married life. And wish you all the very best.”
Ramesh turned to Sitara, “Be good.”
She smiled, “I will.” But her lips trembled and she turned and ran into the temple.
Ramesh turned to Tharani and a look of understanding passed between them. He nodded to her, then turned and left without looking back.
Despite so many setbacks, it was a fairly happy set of women who went to sleep that night. But the next day held a different kind of nightmare...
The older girls had no school the next day, but Sheila did. So while Yamini and Sitara slept, Tharani got up to get the little girl ready and off to school. Her bus came in at 8 am. Hardly had she seen the girl off and settled down with a cup of coffee than the doorbell rang. Tharani got up and opened the door. Sushanth stood at the doorway. Tharani looked at him with hatred, hardly wanting to let him in.
“May I come in?” he asked, and she moved aside to let him in. He was carrying a small suitcase, and he placed this on the sofa. He then sat down and removed his shoes. He looked up at Tharani, standing and staring belligerently at him. “How are you?” he asked. “Still alive,” she replied, her face wooden and devoid of any expression. “What brings you here?”
“Please Tharani!” he reached out for her, and she moved back instantly, “No! Don’t you dare touch me!”
He put down his hand, defeated. "How long have you been living with that whore?”
“She's not a whore!”
“Really?”
“Look...I...I'm sorry...”
About what? You gave her all the money, all the jewels I sent you?”
He did not say anything. "Do you realize what your girls and I have been through to feed your girlfriend?”
“Yes, I know. I know I've been a bad father and husband. I'll repay, I promise.”
“With what?”
“I'll send you and the girls money every month. Please Tharani.”
“But you're going to continue to live with her?”
"Yes. Actually, that's why I came here. I...I want you to sign the divorce papers...”
Tharani left the room. She came back with a broom and started to hit him with it, right and left, right and left. His screams woke up the girls and they came running out.
“Mamma! what's going on? Oh, Daddy!”
Tharani stopped beating him when she saw the girls. They stared at their father, and he stared back at them. And then, Sitara said words that no father should ever have to hear, “Why did you stop? Hit him harder.”
Tharani raised the broom, but Yamini intervened and took the broom away from her and threw it. “No Mamma! No. He is our father.”
Yamini turned to her father and said quietly, “Why are you here?”
“I want a divorce...”
“Oh, okay.” She turned to her mother, “It's your decision. You can hand it to him and get it over with or refuse and punish him for being unfaithful. He will never be able to marry her that way.”
“Ooooo!!” said Sitara, “I like that!”
“Keep quiet, Sitara!” said Yamini, “Mom, I would advise you to give him the divorce and let him go. It will be closure for you.”
Tharani nodded, “Yes, I don't want to remain married to this dog!” She spat at him.
Sushanth slunk over to his suitcase and took out the papers. She signed them and threw them back at him. “Now get out of the house!” she said.
He picked up the papers, put them in this suitcase and walked out.
He did not see the panic building up in his girls’ hearts. Sitara moved restlessly from one foot to the other, her eyes brimming with tears, and Yamini stood there crying, the tears flowing down her face. “Daddy!” said Sitara, and he turned. She ran towards him and flung herself into his arms. “Don't go! Don't leave us and go!”
He held her close. She was crying loudly now. Tharani went into the bedroom and shut the door. Yamini looked uncertainly at the closed bedroom door. Should she go after her mother?  She turned back to look at her father. Their eyes met over Sitara's head buried in his chest. Yamini came over.
“Do you have to go?”
He nodded shamefacedly, “Yes.”
Sitara's tears stopped and she became still. She extricated herself from his arms.
“What do you mean you have to go? You're leaving your family, your wife, your children, and you have to go?”
“I...”
“You what? You love that lady? Is that what you're saying?”
Yamini laid a warning hand on Sitara's shoulder, “Sitara!”
And suddenly, the man standing there was no longer their father. He was a stranger. A dirty unprincipled, unscrupulous stranger.
“Get out!”
“Sitara, don't!” pleaded Yamini, although she was sick to her stomach.
But Sitara removed her hand from her shoulder. “You go right now. Go back to your whore. And don't you dare come back!”
She looked around for something to throw at him, but Yamini blocked her and turned to Sushanth, “Please leave!”
He turned, opened the door, and walked out.
---------------------------------------------------------/-
“So what's all this? Who're you getting married to?” asked Ramesh's friend, Vivek.
They were all there on the terrace, Ramesh's friends, on the eve of his wedding, his bachelorette party, if it could be called that.
No fanfare at this wedding. Just some close relatives had been informed, and Ramesh had invited his friends over. They were to stay with him overnight and till the wedding was over the next day. They were young men who had grown up together. It was night and the moon was out. It would be full moon tomorrow, on the wedding day. Stars shone in the sky, bright and big. The cool night air blew around.
Ramesh poured out a drink for Vivek and handed it to him, “I don't know," he said.
“What do you mean you don't know? You don't know who you're marrying?”
“No,” said Ramesh, half-sitting on the railing, and sipping his drink. “She's the daughter of a schoolmaster in one of our villages. A very remote village...a very village girl.”
“And why did you agree to this?”
Ramesh was silent. He looked up at the night sky, the almost full moon. “It's time I settled down.”
“So...settle down. Why do you have to get married?”
“Because my father wants me to.”
He turned back to his friends, “I've been in a relationship with somebody...you must have heard.”
“Right! We heard that!” Rashid said from his perch on the floor. He opened his mouth to tease, but Vivek flashed him a warning look.
“People say they're not good…. People who don't know them. You know...”
They nodded understandingly, but not really understanding. Rashid looked confusedly at Vivek. So he voiced it for them, “How can they be good? How can a family that enamours a young man and takes all his money be good?”
“The parents maybe, yes, but there are the children. Three girls.”
“You....??”
Ramesh shrugged, “I think of them as my family. I love them.”
“So do you intend going back to them after your marriage?”
“No. That's over. And I won't be doing anything stupid anymore. But the point is, I haven't been a good person. I've...I've robbed from my mother...jewels...money. I've gone astray.”
“And so, you let your father talk you into this marriage to a strange girl.”
“I trust my parents.”
“Right!” said Rashid, unable to contain himself any longer, “It's dawned on you finally, I suppose.”
Ramesh turned to him, “Yes, it has. It's late but at least it’s dawned.”
They laughed.  “How's the girl? Any idea?”
Ramesh stared intently at the glass, “I'm told that she is well educated and ran the school with her father. Her father died recently. I'm also told that she squints...and that she limps. One leg is slightly shorter than the other.”
“What??!!”
His friends stared at him incredulously. “And you said yes because...?” asked Anil.
Ramesh turned to him, “Look, I'm not perfect okay? If you could see my soul, it's black and perforated. Squint eyes and limp weds perforated black soul. We're the perfect couple. Well matched. Who am I to choose and complain?”
“But...” said Vivek.
But Ramesh held up his hand, “This is my wife you're talking about, and I'd rather you did not say anything more. Please!”
Vivek sighed. “Okay. But I need a strong drink.”
They all laughed and went back to partying.
The day of the wedding dawned bright and sunny with a blue blue sky and lovely white clouds. Despite the temperance, there was the unmistakable air of festivities in the air. Everyone looked happy. It seemed that the animals felt it too. The horses neighed, the dogs wagged their tails, the cat sat on the wall, preening and cleaning itself and basking in the sunlight.
A servant was sent to wake up the boys early morning, and they got up reluctantly. The servant was an old man who had been with the family before the children were born and he was treated more like a family member than a servant. Ramesh and Meenakshi called him “Babuji Uncle” and neither of them knew why they called him that. “Babuji, please pulled down the curtains! It's too bright!” Ramesh complained.
“Get up baba. The girl’s people will be here soon. You're getting married today. You can't afford to sleep. Wake up.”
He soon had the disgruntled boys out of bed. They bathed and came down to breakfast. In the big, wide hall, the swing had been tied up out of the way and the mandap had been set with the brick stones in a square at the centre for the wedding. A fire would be lit there. Ramesh donned the white dhoti and he sat down on one side, leaving a place vacant next to him for his bride to sit. The priest began the ceremony. Soon Devika was brought in, and she walked ever so gracefully and sat down on next to Ramesh. And that's when all of Ramesh’s friends had apoplexy. They gestured to him wildly and pointed to the girl. He did not turn in her direction but instead he watched his friends, puzzled and confused. “What?” he asked, and they gestured again wildly, pointing to Devika. Rudra and Savitri and Meenakshi were grinning from ear to ear. Then, Meenakshi bent and whispered in her brother's ears, “I think they want you to look at the girl.”
And Ramesh turned and looked at her. She turned to him and gave him the sweetest smile. Before he could stop himself, “You don't squint! You're beautiful!”
The smile disappeared and she glared indignantly at him, “Of course I’m beautiful. And excuse me! I don't squint!”
“Ah, but she limps,” said Rudra, who was standing close by and looking blissfully innocent.
Devika glared her father-in-law, “Appa! I don't limp!”
He roared with laughter, so infectious, it set everyone laughing.
The priest looked around disapprovingly. “The auspicious hours are slipping by. Can we get on with the marriage?”
They nodded, but it took a while for everyone to settle down and stop smiling. When Ramesh got up to go around the fire with his bride, he could see that she was indeed extremely beautiful and walked gracefully and without any limp.
“Appa! How could you do this?” he whispered fiercely to his father.
Rudra grinned at him happily, “You should have seen your face. Priceless! So worth it! Payback time!”
Later that night, Ramesh stood in the terrace and his wife, Devika, walked in and up to him with a glass of milk. He turned to her, “Why did you marry me?” he asked her abruptly, “You knew I was not a good person, didn't you? Or did they fool you?”
She placed the glass of milk on the railing, “No...no one fooled me. You married me long back.”
“What??!!”
"I was lost in the fair and you found me, and when you took me home, you put a chain around my neck and said, “Now we're married.””
“Oh!! So that was you! You were a kid then!”
She smiled, “Yes. I was 10 years old. But see!” She searched among the numerous chains around her neck, and she took out one—multi-coloured gypsy beads strung together, “I still have it.”
“Oh my!” said Ramesh, overwhelmed. “This is...” he looked at her, not wanting to tell her how absurd it was, “I don't know what to say! Is that why you married me?”
She nodded happily, "And I saw you. I saw you daily, going by on your bike…with your friends. I was in school, then college. I saw you!”
She was blushing now. Comprehension dawned on Ramesh’s face, “Ah! And you fell in love with me.”
“Yes,” she said, now quite rosy with embarrassment.
“You know, I'm so glad to hear this.  It’s not...Oh! Never mind what it is and is not!”
He put his arms around her and pulled her close, “I promise you this: I will never ever cheat on you. Ever!”
And the full moon and the bright stars bore witness to his promise.

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