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Authors: Manju Kapur


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A Novel

Manju Kapur

Maya, Katyayani, Agastya

Joint family

The Banwari Lal family belonged to a class whose skills had been honed over generations to ensure prosperity in the market-place. Their marriages augmented, their habits conserved. From an early age children were trained to maintain the foundation on which these homes rested. The education they received, the values they imbibed, the alliances they made had everything to do with protecting the steady stream of gold and silver that burnished their lives. Those who fell against the grain found in their homes knives that wounded, and once the damage had been done, gestures that reconciled.



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.

Lala Banwari Lal, the family head, had a deep belief in fate. Before Partition, his had been one of the largest cloth shops in Anarkalli, the famous commercial district of Lahore. However, fate had seen fit to teach him that in this world nothing is permanent. His shop had been one of the first to be destroyed, but amid the slaughter that raged, his family survived, and grief for material loss assumed a less significant place in his scheme of life.

With his seven-year-old son, two-year-old daughter, pregnant wife, and wife’s jewellery, they crossed the border into their new, wizened nation. First they were sent to a camp in Amritsar, then Delhi, to finally arrive in Karol Bagh. The jewellery was sold, a house bought, and a shop rented within walking distance on Ajmal Khan Road.

Which was a good thing because Banwari Lal was not about to waste money on even a cycle in the early days. All his profits were poured back into the shop. The family never took holidays. Their main entertainments were eating and an occasional trip to the local cinema. The clothes they wore had everything to do with shop leftovers and wholesale prices.

Lala Banwari Lal allowed no regret to weigh down his attempt at rebuilding their lives. At thirty-two he felt great rage at being forced to start again, but that made it all the more necessary to bury his feelings in the determination to recreate every brick, every shelf, every thread of that which had formed the substance of his life from the age of fourteen.

Once settled in Karol Bagh, Lala Banwari Lal became a devotee of a holy man, a Baba, who lived near the house. His faith needed an anchor, and the holy man combined astrology, palmistry, spiritual guidance, and reassuring predictions about the future. Pray to the Devi, everything will be all right, feed the cows, feed the Brahmins, everything will be all right.

When she turned eighteen, Lala Banwari Lal married his daughter Sunita to someone Babaji knew in Bareilly. The dowry asked for had been negligible, and the boy, when Banwari Lal went to visit him, had seemed decent enough. There was no mother-in-law to trouble Sunita, no sisters to share the house with, the family business was a small retail one in hosiery with every prospect of growth.

That these facts proved inadequate to ensure Sunita’s happiness, that the boy drank and became abusive was something the daughter did her best to hide from her parents. This shame was now her own.

The Banwari Lal Cloth Shop continued on a small level for fifteen years, while the father waited for his sons to grow. Yashpal finished school at sixteen and joined the trade. The younger brother Pyare Lal followed rapidly in his brother’s entrepreneurial footsteps by refusing to graduate. The shop was his future; he saw no reason to postpone its realisation for the dreary memorising that passed for studies. The father saw his point: the boy kept on failing, and at forty-six, he felt the need for the active presence of both his sons. A year after Sunita’s marriage, the fourteen-year-old Pyare Lal started travelling with his father and was in the interesting process of being introduced to all the ins and outs of purchasing. Every month or so, depending on the season, father and son journeyed to large retailers in Madras, Varanasi, Bombay and Calcutta, besides investigating new ranges at annual summer and winter garment fairs.

The two sons had been brought up to consider their interests synonymous with those of the family. The patriarch was keenly aware of any disagreement between them. Neither must feel exploited, but the eldest had to have the final say. This was not a democracy, in which freewheeling individualism could be allowed to wreck what was being so carefully built. United we stand, divided energy, time and money are squandered.

In Lala Banwari Lal’s mind, the business was still struggling to reach the heights of the Lahore days, and he had chosen to wait in order to get the best possible match for his son. Though the boy’s mother sometimes complained of his advancing age, he knew how obedient the boy was, and thought he had nothing to fear. He had not seen the dangers of celibacy in his pliant son till his falling in love spread terror and confusion in the home.

Even he had noticed the girl, but then dealing with cloth and colours, appearance and apparel, one became adept at observing people. The girl was pretty, very pretty – but to want to marry a customer? Where was his son’s professional objectivity?

She had been dressed in the latest fashion. Churidars, kurta tight around the knees, two large flowers appliquéd across the front. Her fringe swept her eyebrows, highlighting her long brown eyes. She had a little bouffant, and down her back hung a long, glossy, thick plait with reddish tints. Did all this portend simplicity? Homeliness? Dutiful service to elders? Was this girl destined to make his son happy, while at the same time understanding that the interests of a business family came before personal concerns?

Ah, the fires of youth, he sighed, thinking of his slightly pot-bellied son, so careless of the larger picture, so heedless of where the collective good might lie.

His wife was not so tolerant of the fires of youth. The boy had to see sense. She would rather eat poison than negotiate for a girl like that. With their status and position, why should they have to ask anybody for anything?

Babaji was consulted. The son’s horoscope was as good as his father’s. Their stars were in the ascendant, anything they touched would turn to gold.

Gold. Sona. It was the girl’s name, and from Babaji’s mouth, the word took on the hue of a good omen. His wife should make the required visit to the address his son had given.

BOOK: Home
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