“I will marry George.”
Paru’s words echoed through the living room as RK grasped the armrests of a wooden chair and sat down with a thump. Bhagyam, his wife, rushed towards him with a rising wail, almost like an approaching ambulance siren.
She wiped his temple with the end of her saree. He winced when the coarse bleached cotton scratched his skin.
“Oh, stop it!” RK said, pushing her aside. “I’m not dying.”
He turned and glared at his daughter.
“But I might as well!” he continued. “Are you listening?”
Paru stood by the sofa across the room, staring at the floor, studying the pattern on the dim mosaic tiles.
“Please don’t say such inauspicious things,” Bhagyam pleaded, her eyes welling up.
RK ignored her. His tailbone was hurting from the hard landing.. Both of them knew that an interfaith marriage would be social suicide in their small town of Vittoor. A bony, wrinkled finger wagged in front of RK’s eyes, that of his long-dead father. “Don’t put the family name to shame, son,” the old man rasped.
Bhagyam thrust a glass of water in RK’s face. He took big noisy gulps, all the while watching Paru, tracing shapes with her big toe. So nonchalant.
Shiva, shiva! Did she just draw a heart sign?
“Paru, have you thought about us, your parents?” he asked slowly. “What this means for us?”
“This is the twenty-first century,” Paru said, not looking up. “You’ll be just fine.”
But this is Vittoor, RK thought, not the big city, or any city for that matter.
“But more than that,” Paru continued, “we’re in love.”
“Isn’t there,” RK tried again, “a slight possibility you haven’t thought this through?”
“Jesus, Dad!” She looked up, incredulous. “I’m not a little child.”
Bhagyam gasped at the mention of the Messiah.
“I’ll ask his parents to give you a call,” Paru said, and went upstairs to her room.
Bhagyam collapsed in the chair next to him, sobbing. RK stared at the ceiling blankly. The leaves of the fan turned slowly, circulating the oppressive summer heat within the four walls.
Caesar, their chocolate Labrador, padded into the living room. Grass from the front yard stuck out of his fur like antennae. He studied the devastated couple with his large brown eyes. Probably sensing something bad had happened, he curled up at RK’s feet and shut his eyes.
A light mist hung over Vittoor park that Saturday. After days of being cooped up at home in shame, RK had ventured out on his morning walk. He avoided the usual east loop. Being closer to the temple, that route had a lot more foot traffic. In pre-George times, RK had used his morning walks to meet neighbors and friends. But word had gotten around rather quickly about Paru’s ‘affair’ with a non-Hindu.
Caesar raised a hind leg and rained on a rose bush. How unabashedly the dog went about his business, RK thought. Who society, what society, he could care less.
“You’re the bad influence in this family,” RK told Caesar. “Paru’s just like you, you know. She couldn’t care less about what others think, least of all her own parents.”
As they passed the peacock fountain, RK spotted a huddle of men on the lawn. Ramanan was dealing cards onto a white cotton cloth laid out on the grass. RK’s heart jumped instantly, and he pulled at Caesar’s leash to make him turn around. Caesar barked, his disagreement carrying through the quietness of the garden.
Ramanan looked up. A wide smirk swept his face.
“Look who it is,” Ramanan said loudly. His friends looked in RK’s direction.
The men hauled themselves up and walked towards him.
RK pulled harder at Caesar’s leash. The dog obeyed this time. He turned around and broke into a light jog the way they had come. Ramanan and his friends followed, half-running, half-walking.
“Treasurer-e!” Ramanan called after RK. “I haven’t forgotten what you called me three years ago.” His belly heaved like a sack of rice. “A traitor to Vittoor, wasn’t it? What does that make you now?”
RK was the sitting treasurer of the temple committee. Ramanan had been Secretary when his son eloped with a Muslim girl and the committee had ousted Ramanan on the grounds that only ‘exemplary devotees’ should be allowed to hold office. RK had been the most vocal one on the issue then, calling for rapid and decisive action on the matter.
RK’s cheeks flushed. His ears burned. Beads of sweat ran down his back.
“Leave me alone, Ramana,” he said, not breaking his jog.
The men launched into a breathy, winded version of a popular Malayalam mass. RK stopped and turned around. He brought Caesar in between him and the men.
“I’ll let go of the leash,” he threatened.
Caesar, meanwhile, eyed another rose bush for potential relief. The men watched warily as the big dog sniffed his way towards them. They didn’t know what was really on the big dog’s mind.
After a few tense moments, they backed off. RK hurried back to the safety of his home.
“I’ll be in the hall, you take the extension,” Bhagyam said.
“Don’t agree to anything just yet,” RK reminded her.
He pulled up a chair next to the bed stand, and stared at the moss-green instrument. The numbers on the rotary dial had faded; there was a crack on the faceplate as well. So what if you had to guess the numbers, he thought. It did what a phone was supposed to do.
Two years ago when she was in the sixth semester of college, Paru had asked for a cellphone. It’s very useful to coordinate group projects, she had said. RK had reluctantly shelled out five thousand precious rupees from his retirement savings for a Nokia phone. If only he had known what it had really been for.
When the phone finally rang that day, RK picked it up in a half-ring, immediately regretting coming off as overeager.
“Hello? Hello, I’m Radhakrishnan, Paru’s father. My wife, Bhagyam, is on the line too.”
“Hello,” the voice cleared his throat. “Yes, Thomas and Annamma here.”
RK noticed his leg was shaking during the initial exchange of pleasantries. Would they ask for dowry? But this was a love marriage, why would such a question even arise?
“Look at what the kids have done,” Thomas chortled. “George tells us he cannot live without Paru. Imagine if we had told such a thing to our parents,” he laughed.
RK agreed with him on that. He found the whole love business ridiculous. If there was one being RK couldn’t live without, it was Caesar.
“Paru’s our only child, as you know,” RK said. “While we would have liked her to marry a Hindu, she has fallen for your son.” RK covered the mouthpiece and let out a long exhale. “We welcome your son George into our tiny family.”
“Thank you for that, we weren’t thinking it would be something like this either.” Thomas said, before adding, “By the way, Radhakrishnan, we Christians aren’t bad, you know. Your daughter will be the princess of our home.”
And that’s where she will be, RK thought. Gone away from them forever.
“Even when Thomas and George are away in Munnar,” Annamma said. “I’ll be at home. Paru has nothing to worry about.”
“We’re so glad to hear that,” Bhagyam replied.
“Well, then,” Thomas said, “let us not delay anymore. Shall we drive down or would you like to visit our home?”
“We’d be happy to host you at our humble home,” RK said.
It was decided that George and his parents would drive down the following weekend for a formal meeting between the families.
At the temple committee meeting, the president pulled RK aside before the session started.
“I heard about your daughter.” His tone was grave, like an oncologist delivering bad news. “It’s a damn shame.”
“That’s no big deal, Menon Sir.” RK waved his hand in the air, as if dispelling the president’s concerns. “We raised her to be independent, after all.”
“Did her upbringing include disrespecting one’s own culture?” asked the president sternly.
RK averted his gaze from the bulbous eyes staring down at him. While RK had joined the temple committee after he retired from a long career as a bank officer, the president was a career temple administrator. He took the temple, the working, the administration – all of it very seriously. He shook his head in disapproval, just like how RK’s austere father would have reacted to the disgrace he had brought upon the family name and their little community.
“But everyone finds their own these days, Menon Sir,” RK said, trying again but this time with a line borrowed from his wife. The night Paru broke the news to them, Bhagyam had consoled herself saying many of her friends’ kids had married outside norms. But why did she have to find a non-Hindu? RK had said. Why did you have to put her in a Catholic college? Bhagyam shot back. RK was incredulous. Because they provide great education. Not so she could go around with guys!
The president smiled sympathetically and hobbled into the meeting room, leaving RK alone in the hallway as he fought back tears of frustration. For the first time in his life, he craved a sense of anonymity that a big city gave its people. His little town was too claustrophobic – to answer every person he met on the street, to receive their contempt or sympathy, to not be able to tell them to mind their own business. In a city like Mumbai or Delhi, he could have maybe moved houses, even if it was just a couple of bus stops down, and dissolved in an ocean of millions of people. Lacking the energy to field any more questions or concerns, he skipped the meeting and went home.
“What is this nonsense, Radha?” RK’s elder sister was on the phone from New Delhi. Calling from the national capital in her bossy voice, her calls always felt like the Central Government ordering a state to clean up its mess.
“Paru has made her choice.” RK had repeated this so many times in the last two weeks he said it without thinking. “What can we do?”
“It’s a problem with her upbringing, don’t you think?”
“What? That is not fair! We brought her up just right.”
“You didn’t beat her enough.”
His sister went on about the flaws in Paru’s upbringing, about things that RK and Bhagyam should have done differently; starting from when she had been born. After a couple of minutes, RK set the green earpiece down on the pillow and left the room.
The family from Pala arrived in two gleaming-white vintage Contessas. Thomas, tall and rugged, was clearly the kind of man who spent much of his time outdoors, probably working plantations. He was dressed in a white mundu and golden-yellow silk shirt, with a thick gold chain around his neck. When RK shook hands with him, he noticed the gold watch and two diamond-studded rings on each hand. George stepped out of the driver seat. Tall like his father; he was slim, wore glasses and was clean-shaven. He wore a navy-blue shirt and a white mundu. RK was dwarfed by the two men.
George’s aunts and grandaunts had come along as well. Once they settled down in the living room, Paru stepped out of the kitchen with a tray of tea. She wore a blue-green saree, the same that Bhagyam had worn on the day she first met RK’s parents twenty-eight years ago.
RK noticed Thomas stealing looks out the window into his backyard. After tea and snacks, while the ladies talked in the living room, RK invited Thomas for a walk around the property.
Thomas surveyed the four coconut palms and ten banana trees. He draped an arm around RK and asked, “Will you be gifting your daughter any gold?”
RK eyed the rings, forever trapped in the fat between Thomas’s knuckles. How much would be enough for such a man? He thought.
“Of course,” RK said.
RK couldn’t conceal his surprise.
“I’m joking,” Thomas grinned.
RK laughed politely. Like every girl’s parents, Bhagyam and RK had saved up money and gold jewelry for Paru over the years. Though asking for dowry was a punishable legal offence in the country, the practice of receiving ‘gifts’ from a girl’s family had never been outlawed.
They walked among the banana trees, trying to keep to the shade as much as possible. It was a hot day. Big sweaty circles grew around Thomas’s underarms.
“We would like to have a church wedding,” he said.
“After the ceremonies at the temple?”
“Yes, yes, afterwards. Paru would have to be baptized though.”
RK’s heart sank. There went the grandchildren too.
“I hope that’s okay with you,” Thomas said. “Of course, it is,” he added without waiting for RK’s reply. “What is this, the eighteenth century?”
Right back at you, RK thought. He managed a smile.
Things moved quite fast. That afternoon, the families decided on a date for the Hindu wedding, giving RK and Bhagyam four months to make arrangements. The church wedding would take place shortly thereafter in George’s hometown of Pala.
It was a rainy night. RK parked his LML Vespa outside the temple, flicked on a torchlight and ran into the administration building. He was fifteen minutes late to the board meeting. He burst into the room, interrupting the president’s speech. All eyes turned to RK. The president shook his head in irritation as RK excused himself and took his usual spot next to the Secretary, wiping water from his face and hands with a handkerchief. He looked around the room; Ramanan was watching him with a self-assured smirk on his face.
RK was incredulous. He nudged the Secretary and pointed in Ramanan’s direction. How did he get back in? The Secretary held up her hand to RK, shushing him, and turned back to the president.
“… and ensure every devotee feels welcome in this humble abode of Lord Shiva,” the president was saying, “so he can share his joys, sorrows, and grief without fear or shame.”
RK’s mind raced to make sense. About a week after the last board meeting, which he had skipped, Bhagyam had handed him a handwritten note from the Secretary announcing a special committee meeting that night. He had chosen to meet with the wedding caterers over the committee. Not once in his seven years as Treasurer had he missed two consecutive meetings.
“Three years ago, we made a hasty decision against an exemplary devotee, whose family has played an integral part in the smooth running of this temple for three generations. I cannot emphasize how fortunate we are to have him back.”
Ramanan rose, beaming at the room. Everyone smiled in appreciation.
“Today, I would like to right that wrong and welcome Ramanan back to the executive committee.” The President shook Ramanan’s hand to a round of cheer and applause. RK felt a lump rising in his throat.
“As you know, our beloved RK has urgent family matters to attend to, a decision the committee fully understands and supports.”
RK raised his hand in protest. “No, no, Menon Sir, I can manage my responsibilities just fine…”
“That’s alright, RK. At this time, you need to concentrate your time and energy on the state of your family. Ramanan will take over as Treasurer immediately.”
RK’s cheeks were crimson.
“We will continue to look for,” the president concluded, “your enthusiasm and dedication in temple activities as a proactive volunteer.”
After the meeting, the President whispered a few words to the Secretary and left immediately. RK went over to her.
“You cannot just decide things in my absence.”
“You cannot just abscond from meetings.”
“Did you vote on this? Or was it one of his,” RK jerked a finger at the president’s chair, “executive decisions?”
“The president suggested and all of us agreed. It was the right thing to do, RK.”
“Just like that,” RK said. “After having worked together for so many years.”
“I’ve to go home and feed my kids,” the secretary said; impatient.
He heard a familiar whistle from behind him. Ramanan hummed the Malayalam mass he had sung in the park, not looking up from the temple’s books; a permanent grin plastered on his face.
“It’s just you and me now, Caesar.”
RK sat in a reclining chair on the front porch and petted the dog, listening to the rain pattering on the roof. The southwest monsoon was in full swing already. The sky would be mostly overcast for the next three months.
A month had passed since Paru’s wedding. The Hindu ceremonies had gone as planned. The only close family member who was missing had been RK’s elder sister, who refused to attend. Most others who attended came to eat and criticize the food afterwards. Paru had left with George to Pala the next day, where she was baptized. They called her Rebecca. RK and Bhagyam traveled to Pala the following day for the church wedding. Walking her down the aisle, RK had been conscious of his ill-fitting suit the entire time. He had never worn one before. He tugged at his pants whenever the minister wasn’t looking. But it didn’t matter; his daughter was the happiest he had seen her since the time he had gifted her the damned cellphone.
A few days later, Bhagyam had left for Munnar for two days with Paru, George, Thomas and Annamma. She had a way of dealing with things as they came, a sort of naïve optimism that kept her going. When he had lost the temple job, Bhagyam had reminded him about the reason he had taken it up six years back – not as a source of sustenance, but to keep his mind occupied in retirement. RK, had excused himself from the Munnar trip saying the monsoon and the high altitude in Munnar would wreak havoc on his sinuses. The truth was he needed some time to himself.
He got up and paced around the house. Caesar followed him, sniffing things at his level, lapping up leftovers or bits of food from the floor. RK dreaded how life would be from now on. He feared boredom the most. He hadn’t realized how busy the temple activities, and lately the wedding preparations, had kept him. These days, he read the paper from end to end – even the sports section of which he had no interest in – took Caesar out for walks, or played fetch with him. Boredom, yes that was what killed most old people, not disease. The second leading cause of death was insignificance.
RK noticed a leak from the ceiling in the corner of the living room. He sighed. Another expense, he thought and made his way up to the terrace one level above. The torrential downpour had given way to a light drizzle. Caesar followed, hesitating at the terrace entrance. He liked to stay as dry as possible. Then, curiosity got the better of him.
RK walked on the wet floor carefully. There was a crack in the cement between the low, two-foot-high parapet and the floor.A mason would have to be called for this. He proceeded to check along the edge for other cracks.
Then he noticed the sliced banana Bhagyam had set out to dry on a newspaper out in the front yard. She had asked him to bring it in before the rain. It was drenched.
“Oh, no!” he exclaimed to himself, stepping forward. He slipped, tripping on the parapet, and fell.
The wind whistled in his ears for a fraction of a second, ending as soon as it began. He screamed in agony as pain erupted through his body. Caesar barked from the edge, then ran down the stairs and out to his groaning, writhing master lying on the lawn. He pulled at RK’s shirtsleeve in an effort to sit him up. After a few attempts, Caesar sprinted off, leash trailing behind him.
When RK came about, he felt as if his skull had been sawed open. His torso was stiff and heavy, his eyelids heavy from the sedation. Bhagyam sat next to him, her hand on his, her eyes puffy. “Why would you do such a thing?” she said.
“I was… Caesar…”
“Caesar called the neighbors, who brought you here to the hospital.”
RK squeezed his wife’s hand in response. He thanked Caesar in his mind, his true best friend.
“Was the temple job that important?”
At first, he thought he didn’t hear her right.
“Or was it Paru and George?” she continued.
“No, Bhagyam,” RK said. “I didn’t try to… I slipped…”
“Shh, life isn’t so bad. Look,” Bhagyam pointed to the glass window on his left looking out into the thickly populated hallway. He recognized a lot of faces. Paru and George, Thomas and Annamma, even the president, were all waiting outside to see him.
Of all the people, he hadn’t counted the president as one of his well-wishers.
“I genuinely slipped,” RK repeated.
“Did you?” Bhagyam’s eyes narrowed.
RK pressed Bhagyam’s hand.
“Anyway,” Bhagyam said, still not convinced. She leaned closer. “As I was leaving for the hospital, the President came by with a job offer.”
“I.. what?” RK blinked, confused.
“Turns out,” Bhagyam whispered, “the Secretary’s sixteen-year-old daughter is pregnant.”
Vivek Santhosh‘s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Litro Magazine and India Currents. He lives in Sunnyvale, USA and is currently working on a novel.