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Authors: Manju Kapur

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‘It is all due to you, Bhai Sahib,’ said Yashpal.

‘She is your daughter,’ said Rupa, not wanting to seem possessive of the girl. Sona might get jealous.

Sona looked complacent, while Sushila from upstairs pointed out that with her uncle caring so much, the girl was bound to do well. She would be a dunce if she did not.

Rupa knew the subject of the next week’s conversation was being created right there. So that she should be able to repeat her own remarks as a counterpoint, and win her sister’s approval, she added, ‘Her uncle does take a lot of pains, it is true, but Nisha is so intelligent it is clear she comes from this family.’

The pattern of Nisha’s next ten years was now set. She spent all week with her aunt and uncle. A rickshaw picked her up, took her to school, dropped her back. When she spent weekends with her parents, her father made sure that Vicky was never close to her.

VII

Vicky

To everybody’s delight Vicky passed Class X with a third division. Sweets were distributed. Done with education, Vicky left school, never to open a book again.

There was now the question of his future.

He should go back to his father, argued Yashpal.

Pyare Lal concurred. We have done our duty, if we keep him he will be a noose around our necks.

But Lala Banwari Lal looked upon Vicky as the agent through whom he could redress the wrongs that had been inflicted on his daughter. Such a tender sentiment was not to be tampered with easily.

Suggestively, persuasively, insinuatingly, persistently, hoping that reason and common sense would prevail, the family kept at it. Send him back, we have Ajay, Vijay, and Raju to establish, as well as Nisha to marry. The father should be given a chance to settle the boy, they were being unfair in keeping him away. An only son, he would shine in his parental home, here he was lost among cousins. Finally the grandfather agreed.

Vicky was used to Karol Bagh, and remembered his father with loathing. He wept, he asked what had he done to displease them, why were they casting him off. If he was sent back, he would kill himself.

Uncles and aunts were united in their opinion of Vicky’s behaviour. Deceitful, cunning, his father’s son, not poor Sunita’s. Vicky was told that if he disturbed Lala Banwari Lal by tears or threats, future connection with his mother’s relatives would be severed.

Lala Banwari Lal was now approaching seventy, but such was his heart, exclaimed the family, that he insisted on taking the boy to Bareilly himself. They would travel by the night train, spend the day there, and return the next morning.

A week later, Vicky, with his possessions in an aluminium trunk, was escorted to the station along with his grandfather and younger uncle. He was silent. The men tried to persuade him once again that he was embarking on the future his mother would have desired. His grandfather had cared for him all these years, his father now wanted a chance. There would of course always be visits.

Vicky saw very little visiting when his mother was alive and preferred to express his feelings through stubborn silence.

The journey was not a pleasant one.

Bareilly. Was it always like this? Dirty, crowded, everything small and mean, the buildings indistinguishable from one another? Lanes so narrow that for a car to pass, rickshaws, cyclists, and pedestrians had to squeeze against the side of the road next to open drains?

And the house? True, with two angans it had a sense of space. The one in front led to a veranda, with a latrine next to the entrance. The central angan had a charpai in the middle with some aluminium folding chairs. The kitchen and the bathing area were to one side, sleeping rooms bordered the other two. But its dingy, slovenly air shrieked negligence from every one of its bricks. Paint was peeling from the walls, the ceilings were lined with patches of damp, flies and mosquitoes rivalled Murli’s hospitality. It was perpetual night in the bathroom, a forty-watt bulb shone on the green slime that lined the walls. There was no running water, a hand pump in the middle had to be worked over the bather.

For the moment Vicky was treated on a par with the visitors, seated with them, given sherbet with them.

Almond sherbet, commented Lala Banwari Lal appreciatively. You made?

Murli only smiled.

After breakfast, the men bathed while Vicky brooded in a small dark room next to his trunk. He was now in the house his mother’s death had made hateful to him. Tears came to his eyes, he let them fall.

If the boy’s happiness lay in Delhi, remarked the father, drawing attention to the boy’s long face, he would not stand in the way. He put his welfare above everything, no sacrifice was too great where he was concerned.

This was exactly the attitude the uncle had come prepared to deal with.

In the journey of life, he pointed out, the mother’s family had brought Vicky this far. Now it was the father’s turn to settle the boy, use his help in the shop, train him for his future role as owner.

‘I do not need any help,’ remarked Murli sullenly.

They looked at him. Dark, weedy, paan-stained lips, alcoholstained eyes, gaps in his mouth where the teeth had fallen; Vicky’s features. He wore a white pyjama, and a brown, longsleeved, striped polyester shirt over it. From time to time he hawked and spat into the little gutter running along the angan edges.

However unprepossessing the person or the place, Vicky’s home was here, with his father.

It took a month for Vicky to escape to Delhi. He tries to beat me, he is abusive, he has a woman, I will kill myself if you send me back.

His stories were so wild, no one believed him. But he was still young enough for his elders to feel responsible for his welfare. Lala Banwari Lal refused to force him back.

They wrote to the father. Get him married. Once he settles down he will be happier.

Vicky declared he would only marry if he could live with them. Otherwise what would he do with a wife in Bareilly?

After much discussion they agreed to build him a small room plus bathroom on the barsati. In this way they would fulfil an obligation, without having to see him all the time. Once he stood on his feet, he could set up independently somewhere.

Murli found a girl in three months flat. She was high-school pass, suited to Vicky’s own level of education. Her father was dead, her background impoverished. Such a girl had all the makings of a good wife, she would have no expectations and would create no fuss.

There was no question of anybody from Delhi travelling down to see her. The father had chosen, if they interfered he would be only too glad to leave the whole thing to them.

Vicky went with Pyare Lal to Bareilly for the engagement, along with moderately expensive saris to give as presents plus a gold set for the bride.

Murli found an opportunity to inform his son that his future lay with his mother’s family. He should guard against letting them get rid of him cheap, they had short-changed his mother and now they were trying to do the same to him.

‘Do you like the bride?’ demanded Ajay, Vijay, and Raju when their cousin came back an engaged man.

Vicky scowled and said nothing.

‘Bhabhi will think her husband has gone dumb if you never say anything,’ they teased.

The wedding was fixed for the end of May. The date was auspicious. The children would be on holiday, and as it was a slack period the shop could shut for a day. For a wedding everyone, far and near, must come, must come.

A tailor was installed, cloth brought home from the shop. Day and night he stitched, to make way for an embroiderer who in turn embroidered day and night.

Rupa moved in to help. Her husband was invaluable in getting things organised. Reliable, decent, honest, he saved them money on the vegetables and food he bought, on the bus he booked, on the pundit he hired, seeking the best for the least. It was a blessing that his job with the Government was undemanding and secure enough to allow absences to go unnoticed. The Banwari Lals were loudly appreciative of his services, and frequently pressed him to spend the night. But Prem Nath put a limit on the time he would devote to his wife’s family. Pleading his father’s ill health, he left his wife and Nisha, to return as early as he could the next day.

At last, the night before the wedding. The hired bus stands outside the Karol Bagh house, while inside the last rites of puja, packing, and mehndi application are simultaneously taking place.

‘Lock the rooms.’

‘Have you got the keys?’

In an undertone, ‘Have you got the money?’

More undertone, ‘Have you got the jewellery?’

This is repeated with variations as each adult settles into the bus that is taking the nineteen-year-old Vicky to his bride. As they start, Banwari Lal is filled with a sense of satisfaction. The family has seen to an orphaned child’s welfare, and is transmitting him with a sure hand into the future, equipped with the responsibilities of adulthood (employment) and the rites of manhood (marriage).

The bus speeds across the city in the dark, still heat of May. The lights are put off. The barat tries to make itself comfortable in the hard, cramped space. Children stretch across laps. Vicky sits in front, a starched pink turban on, a firm red tikka blazoned across his forehead. He smells of cheap hair pomade, sweat, and nervousness. He is not sure of what the coming days will bring, but he is the centre of attention, and he likes that. This bus with all its passengers is going to Bareilly because of him, the shop is shut for one day because of him, everybody has got new clothes because of him. And it has been made quite clear he is going to live in Delhi, that is a battle he has won. He slumps down until his knees are level with his head and tries to sleep.

The grandmother sits behind him, her heart full of strong feelings. Her grandson’s marriage is the completion of the final duty left by her daughter’s tragic death. It had been difficult with Vicky: failing continuously, Sona perpetually angry with him, but now everything is going to be all right.

Nisha lies on the hump of her grandmother’s stomach. Her gaze flickers across the shapes of her family in the bus. Three years have passed since her removal to her aunt’s house, and the dark thing inside her is deeply buried.

She thinks of the wedding, and all the clothes that have been made for her to wear. Slowly she drifts off to sleep, the jolts of the bus cushioned by the stomach she has her head on.

The driver stops for tea at five a.m. at a roadside stall in Rampur, an hour away from Bareilly. A few step out into the dark, torpid air on to a pavement lined with benches. A kerosene stove hisses under a huge saucepan of steaming, red-brown liquid. Next to somnolent flies on piles of filth lining the gutter, hawkers are busy tying together bundles of morning newspapers.

The wedding party sips hot tea in sticky glasses. ‘How sweet it is, bap re! Bhai Sahib, less sugar in the next round, if you please. We are Dilliwallahs.’

In the darkness of the bus, Sona yawns and stretches. She takes a peek at Raju, slumped against Vicky, his mouth open, saliva staining the bridegroom’s new kurta. Satisfied, she rummages under her seat for the snacks packed in Delhi. Forty little packets of biscuits, barfi, mathri, gulab jamun. Sweet, spicy, salty, and bland. Her husband distributes them to everybody, driver and tea maker included.

‘The boy is getting married,’ he explains.

‘Wedding party,’ says the tea maker understandingly, and throws some extra leaves and milk into the boiling cauldron.

The sky lightens. The flies begin to rise. Some more in the bus yawn, stretch, and stagger out for a second round of tea.

The tea does its job. ‘Nature calls,’ whisper some wives to their spouses. Rupa’s husband goes to look for a suitable place.

He comes back much excited. ‘There is a gurudwara round the corner. Neat and clean. Everybody can do their business there.’ A wave of ladies descend, murmuring ‘latrine’. Seduced by the promise of neat and clean, they drag along half-asleep children.

Minutes pass. The bus driver sleeps. From time to time ‘Let’s go, let’s go’ is heard. ‘Murli Bhai Sahib will be at the bus depot in Bareilly at six-thirty’ is also heard.

By now the sun can be seen. The women stagger back, affirming that the gurudwara is indeed neat and clean. They settle to the breakfast packages. The men are inspired. They slyly disappear around the corner. More tea is boiled up.

And finished. Restlessness grows. ‘Are we going or not?’

‘I will take Vicky and go. You people can join us for the wedding dinner,’ cackles the grandmother.

‘Where is Vicky, that you will take him and go? He too is sitting on his throne in the gurudwara,’ points out Sushila. The bus giggles. Sushila looks pleased.

‘How will there be a marriage if we are here all day?’ points out another Banwari Lal.

‘Arre, barats are never on time. It is all right.’

‘At least phone Murli and tell him we shall be late. Poor man standing in the sun at the bus stop.’

A group of young men troops to the nearest phone booth to phone the boy’s father.

‘Is Murli himself ever punctual that we should waste money phoning him STD?’ demands Sona as they go.

‘Arre, he is the boy’s father. Let him feel important. It is still not full rates.’

‘What has he done that he should be made to feel important?’ asks an older aunt known for her frankness.

‘He is making all the arrangements for dinner,’ replies Sona, in a way that suggests Murli had never done enough, nor ever would.

‘Well, it is his son who is getting married. If he doesn’t make the arrangements even for this, when will he do anything? When Vicky is dead?’ opines the frank aunt.

‘Hai, hai, don’t talk like this at Vicky’s wedding,’ comes a sleepy mutter from the back of the bus.

The speaker looks abashed, and silence spreads in the bus. A newspaper vendor clambers on and shrieks the name of the local paper. A few are bought and used as fans.

Finally the men come strolling out from behind the corner. They look fresh, washed, and combed. As they get in and settle down, the barat realises that the bridegroom is missing.

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