I joined St Stephen's College, Delhi, in 1952. Then, it was still an all boys' institution.
After I graduated from St. Stephen's, I joined classes at Delhi University's Arts Faculty. This was co-educational. Miranda House, an all girls' college was almost abutting St. Stephen's College in the Delhi University Campus. Sheila, my future wife, was a Mirandian. After some convoluted wooing, we gelled together and began dreaming of a future in tandem.
I decided to politely inform my parents after completion of exams when I returned to Jodhpur, where my father was CEO Jodhpur Municipal Corporation. He gave me full freedom in choosing my course of studies and my professional career. But, he was adamantly particular about the choice of a bride for me. My mother (Amma) went along with Babuji (my Father) in matters matrimonial. He was strictly traditional, and was keen that I marry a Brahmin girl with a religious background. Sheila was not only a Punjabi Khatri but a liberal to the core; a way of life I fully endorsed.
The fallout of my choice was stiff resistance on part of my parents, more so as Babuji had already ‘chosen' a girl for me with similar traditional background.
The 'Screening Committee' met at Air Commodore NP Nair's house. He was the youngest brother of Mrs. Gyanwati Verma, and had been allotted a sprawling bungalow diagonally opposite Claridge's Hotel on Aurangzeb Road. His (Nanne) uncle's two elder brothers RP Nair (Raja uncle) and KP Nair (Ghugghi uncle) were equally well-placed professionals. Raja uncle was Director, Civil Aviation, and Ghugghi uncle was a veterinary surgeon in the Army with a full colonel's rank.
Together, the three brothers were a formidable combination. Although they clearly belonged to the human species, Ghugghi uncle needs special mention, not only because of his peculiar nickname, with three ‘gees' and two ‘aitches'.
It's said that the owner of a pet starts looking and behaving like his pet in due course of time. Uncle Ghugghi, chiefly occupied with inducting and treating ‘horses' in the Army stables, vindicated this belief to a certain extent. He was a toothy, bouncy character prancing about like an ‘unbroken' colt; a confusing blur difficult to slot most of the time.
The impressive address and princely accommodation did contribute to the selection of the venue for my interview, but the main reason was that the convener of the screening committee resided there. Auntie Basant, wife of Air Commodore NP Nair aka Nanne uncle, was the unanimous choice for the post of chief moderator in all matters relating to forging of family liaisons and other allied subjects. And so, the three Nair brothers, auntie Basant, and last but not the least, Mrs. Gyanvati Verma and her husband Shri Prakash Chand Verma completed the quorum of ‘scanners'.
It was clear to me from the start that Basant auntie called the shots and it was expected of the rest of the conglomerate to meekly follow their leader. There was, however, a lone non-conformist -the ‘born-in-between' Ghuggi uncle.
He, unmindful of his sister in law's disapproving glare, proceeded to usurp her prerogative and fired a direct question at me. It sounded, to my untrained ears, more like an accusation than a polite attempt at seeking information.
"Hello dear chap, first things first. What is your poison?" Totally confused, I looked at Sheila in the hope that she would give me the appropriate hint that would facilitate my tackling the prickly issue. But she simply shrugged and gave me a blank look. The three Nair uncles, on the other hand looked at me expectantly as if my future with Sheila depended solely on my response.
No doubt I was a mild social-imbiber of the 'hard' stuff, but having been traditionally brought up, I did not go about blatantly admitting the fact before the elders. Moreover, Ghugghi uncle's upfront approach was rather unsettling; in that it seemed to convey the impression that he strongly suspected my being an incorrigible addict, which I certainly wasn't. So I was about to respond with an emphatic 'no' when I spotted a well-stocked bar as a backdrop to the drawing room.
"Yes Sir," I said, "Occasionally, a glass of beer, that too once in a while." This hesitant confession had a rather unexpected reaction from the other two Nairs. Evidently, they were holding their breath and hoping that my reply would be in the affirmative. They sighed deeply, beamed happily, and nodded in unison as if to say that any person, who drank, even if sparingly, was good enough to be their son-in-law.
Thereafter, they apparently lost interest in the proceedings and seriously got down to the business of 'tanking' themselves up. However, the 'in between' Nair, after providing me with a mug of beer, and fixing a 'Bloody Mary' for himself, gave scant attention to his drink. Instead, he continued to give me a fixed stare.
Basant auntie stepped in to the breach and tried to put me at ease by initiating amicable chatter and, in the process, seeking some seemingly harmless information.
"So you are from Jaipur", she said, "lovely place. I have been there many times. My cousin is married to Mr. Manohar Lal Khanna, eye-surgeon." I said I had heard of him and that he was reputed to be professionally very sound. She then, very tactfully, put me through a series of pertinent queries without making it sound like an inquisition. Mr. Verma, duly regulated by prompting nudges from Mrs. Verma gave timely nods to indicate his approval of the ‘question-answer' format.
Ghugghi uncle's unfaltering gaze, however, discomfited me no end, as it seemed to convey the impression that he was heading a team of experts deputed to stock the stables of an army unit. And that, I, a claimant, put up before the committee for approval, was a spurious product professing pedigreed descent. He fidgeted about in his seat as if he was restraining himself with great effort from coming over and wrenching apart my lips to closely inspect my dentures for any signs of false teeth that could assist him in refuting wrongful claims of age and lineage.
Ignoring her brother-in-law's twitching frame, Basant mamiji finalized the proceedings after looking at each member of the conclave and apparently obtaining their silent consent.
In a formal tone, she said," Achchaji! Shekhar ji! You must know that Sheila is the darling of the family and we are all very touchy on the subject of her marriage. We have full faith in her judgment and are happy, dear Shekharji, that she has made the right choice. You have our blessings."
I relaxed and glanced at Sheila, who with a faint smile playing on her lips, was looking down intently at the floor. Suddenly, I felt a strong urge to tell Auntie Basant, "No formality ma'am. Please call me Raju." But, of course, I didn't. Instead, I gave a modest nod. And I joined Sheila in the search for the elusive speck on the floor; that scintilla of hope that would open the door ajar for the final resolution, since both of us knew that now the ball was in my court and that my tennis racket was being firmly held by my parents.
It wasn't, however, the end of the proceedings. Ghugghi uncle had no intention of allowing the convener to have the benefit of the concluding gesture. Apparently, he had to seal the deal with his own emphatic approval. Hence, notwithstanding that he had been foiled in his attempt to make a probing prod at my dental blueprint, he shot out of his chair, traversed the distance between us at a quick trot, and subjected me to a sample of pure Punj emotion.
With tears teetering in his eyelids, he clutched my left palm and began kneading it at a furious pace, as if pumping air into a flat tyre. I patted his intruding arm soothingly many times to break the gridlock but failed.
Then, my would-be father-in law, God bless him, gently coughed and spoke for the first time. "You two (mercifully he was implying Sheila and I; and not the colonel and I), why don't you go for a drive? Take my car." That broke the spell. Colonel Nair, rather reluctantly, withdrew his palms and said, "Yes, Yes; that's a good idea. In fact I have a better proposal. Why don't you two come in my car? I'll personally drive you both to wherever; whenever."
The suggestion jogged our self-preservation instinct. As I hesitated, Sheila quickly pointed out that it was getting dark and they would rather take a small walk. And before the Verma/Nair duo could moot any other viable suggestion, we hurriedly made our exit.
Just above, I have written:
"I gave a modest nod and joined Sheila in the elusive search for the speck on the floor; that scintilla of hope that would open the door ajar for the final resolution. For, both of us knew that now the ball was in my court and that my tennis racket was being firmly held by my parents."
That was actually a bit of an exaggeration. To explain this, it is necessary for the ‘tennis racket' allegory to acquire retrospective effect.
When I was just a teenager and studying at a residential school (Mayo), I had come home for my summer vacations. Babuji, my father, who was a fairly accomplished amateur tennis player at Bharatpur club, thought it a good idea to exhibit his prowess by inviting me to play a singles match with him.
I hesitantly accepted his proposal. Then, in a tactful ploy, I lost the match with a narrow margin. He gave a grin that lacked conviction, and decided to give up the game. Perhaps, he realized that as his son had deftly stepped into his ‘shoes', his frolicking days on the tennis .court were over.
Amma, my mother, on the other hand, hadn't a clue about the existence of courts other than her courtyard at home.
Hence, her resistance was nothing more than a token gesture of support to Babuji's stubborn stance.
And, mercifully, Babuji's firm grip too had noticeably relaxed because of two developments. First, my getting a call to join training as an IPS probationer at Central Police Training College (CPTC) Mt. Abu. This had somewhat convinced him that I was not a wastrel, solely whiling away my time wooing Sheila.
Secondly, after obtaining my nod, Sheila had written a letter to Babuji. The operative portions of this letter were:
"Most respected Babuji,
"Being fully aware of the likelihood that I may appear to you a ‘bold, unrefined' woman', I am taking this risk in writing to you.
"With due regard, I would like to say that if your son wants to marry me, he is doing nothing wrong, because we both love each other immensely.
"As for me, Raju is my dream, my reality, the basic element of my future existence. And, we firmly believe that, for a marriage contract, there is no better foundation than pure love.
"Even so, I would like to assure you that without your and ammaji's, as also my parents' consent, we shall not take any steps whatsoever, to realize our intention.
"Please give us a chance!"
These two developments, hopefully, mellowed down Babuji's resistance.
For our walk, Sheila and I went to the Lodi gardens, which were literally at a walking distance from Aurangzeb road, the residence of Nanne uncle. There, in an isolated patch, we sat down on a bench. Following a deep sigh, I said that at least there was some progress. Sheila shrugged and said, "What progress? My parents have been calling you ‘Raju' for quite some time now." She was right.
Today's meeting was only by way of formalization of a relationship that had been willingly accepted by her side of the family. Nonetheless, I was determined to celebrate the ‘now' of the occasion. I gave her a soulful hug that she reciprocated after a bit of hesitation.
Then, I giggled nervously at the recollection of overpowering emotional display by Ghugghi uncle. The dear man just could not be wished away and kept rebounding in my consciousness. I said, "He seemed so desperate for a positive outcome."
She gave a tinkling laugh and said, "Uncle ‘G' is a highly excitable individual and, even ordinarily, he would have behaved as he did. But, as it happens, he has strong reasons to go overboard."
I was agog. I had yet to meet another person like him; a dynamo tightly packed and wired for perpetual motion; as if he was ceaselessly reaching out to catch a speeding train. There could never be a dull moment in his company.
"You see," Sheila continued, "He is married to a princess from Jind, and they have a beautiful daughter my age."
I grinned happily and said, "Ah-ha! A family of beautiful daughters I see."
She looked embarrassed and said, "No you don't see. I am no patch on her. Mini, my cousin, is a ‘flaming' beauty; sadly, so is her temperament. She has had a long chain of suitors. Some of them have been able to cross the barrier of preliminaries, and qualify for an audience with the Nair conclave. One, or maybe two, has even made it to the stage of approval. Eventually however, they too have been left stranded by the wayside.
"And Mini continues to be the single most sought after unattached girl in town."
Sheila paused for impact, and then added with a smirk, "Uncle Ghugghi's anxiety that you might also meet a similar fate at my hands was perhaps reason enough for his excessively possessive reaction."
Then seriously, and almost as an afterthought, she said, "Umm! Rest assured I have no such intentions. You are for keeps."
I latched onto her arm and kneaded it with rare vigour. Rajasthanis are no less evocative but unlike the Punj clan, they don't wear their emotions on their sleeve. They are selective in their timing. I said, "Rest assured, uncle ‘G' is not half as possessive as I'm going to be."
She writhed momentarily in masochistic delight. And I continued my needful kneading.
All of a sudden we were startled by a rustic, booming voice that demanded to know, "Yeh kya ho raha hai (What's happening here)?" And I looked back to see two men gazing menacingly at us. One of them looked like a plug ugly pugilist and sounded like one with a damaged larynx. He was the one who had spoken.
The other person of average height and looks seemed comparatively more sophisticated. So after his companion had done his bit, he took up the thread and said, "We are police. Public display of asabhyata (indecent behaviour) is prohibited Please come to the police station with us."
Ah! I thought. This promises to be the mother of all defining moments - a police officer with a lady in tow ending up at a police station!
Survival instinct prompted me to speak a half truth. I said, "Oh Helloji. What a coincidence! I too am a police officer and this lady here is my wife." Then I asked, "Where is the police station?" Apparently the goons were not too keen to expand my general knowledge, and promptly vanished into the advancing shadows.
Sheila's wide brown eyes dilated further and she softly whispered, "Wife?"
And then, we together, hand in hand, walked into the sunset; hoping for a better tomorrow!!
© Rajendra Shekhar 2018.
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