Back to previous chapter Chapter 7
In the summer of 1976, Ameesha arrived in Coventry for her post graduation. Margaret was determined that her daughter should get the best training available. After graduation, Amy had evinced great interest in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and Margaret had promptly made arrangements for her travel to England. It meant more sacrifices on her part as money was always in short supply. But no sacrifice was too great for her daughter. The bond of affection between them was as strong and as durable as any biological relationship between mother and child.
“But not even my love could insulate Amy from the cruel barbs that were directed at her. It’s hard to believe how malicious the human heart can be. People grudged her the security and happiness she found in my home. Some of her classmates were truly vicious in their bullying,” Margaret recalled.
There was one particular classmate Shailaja Bhandari, who was a devil if ever there was one. She was a thorn in Amy’s side all through her school years. Jealous of Amy’s intelligence and resentful of her quiet poise and dignity even in the face of insults, Shailaja tried every trick in her repertoire to destroy Amy’s self confidence. The irony of it all was that Shailaja happened to be the daughter of her faithful friend Dr, Bhandari.
“Patience dear,” Margaret consoled Amy, “They say that Voltaire prayed ‘Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ You must do the same. You cannot stoop to her level and retaliate.”
Many times, when Amy sobbed her heart out, Margaret held her close and would recite a poem by Phillip Brooks which she had learnt as a young girl.
“The little sharp vexations and the briars that cut the feet,Why not take them all to the helper who has never failed us yet?Tell Him about the heartaches and tell Him your longings too,Tell Him the baffled purpose when we scarce know what to do.”But Margaret never complained to Dr. Bhandari. When the girls finally went their separate ways in college, both Amy and Margaret breathed a sigh of relief.
There were other types of indignities all through Amy’s young life only because of the accident of her birth. But what almost broke her heart was an incident that happened after her graduation from Medical College. She was helping Margaret out at the hospital during the interim period before she could start her house surgeoncy. Amy was bent over a sick baby examining it, when an angry Brahmin woman had rudely pushed her aside screaming, “Don’t you dare….don’t you dare.”
Amy was hurting, and Margaret had only her faith to communicate to her.
“Hang on there even when the pain is unbearable. Life’s pinpricks are opportunities to test your courage. Draw your strength from the Lord. Put your hand in the hand of your heavenly father, and keep it there until He walks you through the pain.”
Now here she was in a far off country, desperately homesick and nervous in this new environment. Though there were many Indians working in this hospital, none of them were really friendly. Ameesha sat huddled in one corner of the lounge, trying desperately to concentrate on the movie showing on TV. The lounge was full of doctors sipping mugs of coffee and talking shop.
Suddenly a booming voice asked, “Hi there! You’re new around here I guess?”She nodded.
“I’m Gopal Rai, Registrar in Surgery. Been here for a while now. Hope to finish my Fellowship next April – that’s if I’m lucky.”
She was to learn much later, that he was the most sought after bachelor on the campus. His major specialization was not Surgery but in chasing pretty girls. Slick, suave and completely at home in the company of women, his tongue drooled honey, and his eyes brazenly invited intimacy.
When the initial days of awkwardness were over, Amy settled down to work and studies. She owed it to the one woman who loved her unconditionally and sacrificed so much to enable her to come this far. Besides, when she completed her post graduation, she would have to go back and take over the reins of the hospital, as her mother was getting on in years.
The Indian doctors were a close knit community. They had a tendency to stick together just like other immigrant groups in England. Those with families invited the singletons over for parties at week ends. The talk was usually about their dreams and frustrations, and the problems they encountered in this country. They spoke nostalgically of “Home,” ate the food they were accustomed to, and listened to Indian music. Politics in India and racist tendencies in Britain were hot topics for discussion. But in spite of all their moaning, there was no talk of returning home.
Gopal often invited Ameesha to these parties which she disliked intensely. She had never socialized at home, and liked her own privacy. But whenever she refused, Gopal always grumbled.“You’re nothing but a spoilt sport. Always wanting to hide in your room and bury your nose in a book. Why don’t you learn to enjoy life?”
Gopal was a charming fellow. His manners were impeccable. He made no attempt to conceal his fondness for her. Even the English girls commented on it.“He has no time for anyone else these days. The dusky beauty has got him in her clutches.”
Ameesha cleared the exams within the stipulated three years. She would soon have to return to India. Would Gopal just let her go, she wondered. They had been inseparable for three years.
That evening Gopal burst into her room.“Come on. I’ve got a surprise for you.”“Tell me what it is.”"No, you’ll have to wait and see.”
He bundled her into his car and drove full pelt to Birmingham. In the shopping precinct, they walked hand in hand to a jeweller’s shop. Gopal pointed to a circlet with three tiny diamonds, resting on a velvet cushion.
“For you,” he said, “We’re getting engaged, you know,” he said.“But you haven’t proposed properly and I haven’t said ‘yes’”The answer was a smattering kiss in full view of the people in the precinct.“We’ll be married soon,” he said, “I don’t believe in long engagements. But you’ll have to postpone going home until I too clear my exams. Besides, I still have six months of my contract to complete.”“I’ll write to Mother,” she promised.
That night, she sat up late and wrote a long letter to her mother. She had mentioned in her letters that there was someone special in her life, but they were just good friends. But with Gopal’s proposal, their friendship had moved on to a higher plane.
“Ma, I’m the happiest creature alive. Gopal has asked me to marry him. He is such a romantic. He proposed in the middle of a shopping complex and slipped a diamond ring on my finger. I know you are waiting for me to come back and take up my responsibilities. Your frail shoulders have borne too much for too long. But Mother dear, could I ask you to wait just a little longer until Gopal clears his exams? We both want to come back together.”
Gopal wouldn’t settle for a private engagement. Everything had to be done in style. An Indian restaurant in Birmingham was the venue for the engagement party. All the Indian colleagues from Coventry were invited. Gopal’s cousin who had recently joined the staff was invited too.
After her success in the exams, Ameesha had secured a Registrar’s post at another hospital in Nuneaton, some miles away. So she was the last to arrive at the party. Waiters in red coats and large red turbans were busy serving drinks to the men, while the ladies slipped gingerly on their soft drinks and nibbled at cheese wafers and salted peanuts. Dim lights and soft music provided an oriental ambience.
Ameesha’s appearance created a sensation. She was dressed in a smart outfit that showed off her figure to advantage.
“Ah Amy! There you are at last.”Gopal got up to meet her. Her eyes twinkled in anticipation of a wonderful evening when everyone would know that she was betrothed to Gopal.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she apologised to the people in the room.But even before she could complete her sentence, a high pitched voice reached her from across the room.“Dear me! Imagine bumping into Ameesha here. She has surely come a long way.”
The voice oozed venom, and Amy’s face showed consternation.“Shailaja Bhandari? The very same person who made my life so miserable in school? I didn’t even know that she had become a doctor. I was away in Vellore for my medical studies. She wasn’t all that bright or studious as far as I can remember. Just a big bully, who threw her weight around, because she belonged to a rich family.”
Now here she was, even before Ameesha could take her seat, holding forth and directing all attention to herself.
Amy’s hands had gone cold and clammy. The feeling of being trapped in cage with no means of escape took hold of her. She took a tissue out of her handbag and quietly wiped the perspiration from her face.
All eyes had turned to Shailaja. Even the men were straining to listen. They were sure it was some exciting gossip. Shailaja’s loudest whisper echoed across the hall“Oh yes, we were classmates. But she didn’t look anything like this. The prim and fashionable lady standing here is a missionary’s daughter - a foundling dumped on the good doctor’s doorstep. Everyone at home knows that she is the daughter of a sweeper who died in childbirth. What airs she gives herself! And she would have fooled you all, if I hadn’t come along.”
“But she’s a highly qualified doctor and a very genuine person,” someone said, “Gopal wouldn’t settle for anything less,” said one male doctor.
“But we can’t ignore her origins, can we? Who knows what genes she has inherited?” said Shailaja.
Ameesha looked at Gopal. His eyes were averted, and his angry face had turned a reddish purple. In that moment she knew that he would never come to her rescue.
“What an embarrassment!” Gopal thought, “I could have taken my pick from the cream of society – Indian or English. This woman has made me look like a fool. If only she had told me who she was. What audacity to think I would marry a low caste sweeper’s daughter? At home, she would not have been permitted to come within twenty feet of my doorstep. Was this her means of becoming socially acceptable and respectable by marrying me?”
Ameesha was suddenly the despicable untouchable in their midst. She thought of the many times she had been in and out of their homes for parties. The many occasions she had feasted at their tables. Now she was something worse than what ‘the cat brought in.’
Shailaja had not done with her as yet.“She has taken Gopal for a ride. If only I had arrived earlier! I could have saved him a lot of embarrassment.”
Ameesha quietly walked out with all the dignity she could muster. No one bothered to stop her. She drove back to Nuneaton. Caste was something that had never crossed her mind in relationship to Gopal. In fact she didn’t consider herself lesser than any other human being. She was the daughter of a respectable missionary doctor. The origin of her birth was immaterial at this stage in her life. Besides, she was a good human being.
“I never for a minute thought it would matter to an educated progressive doctor like Gopal. I’m glad it happened now rather than later. In a way Shailaja has helped me see him for what he is - a vainglorious fop who will never love anyone but himself. Now that there’s nothing to keep me in England, I will plan on going home.”
It was only when she reached the privacy of her room that the floodgates burst open, drowning her in a torrent of tears.
“God, are you up there watching? Am I never to be free of the stigma of my birth?”
“I’m right here,” a voice seemed to say, “Rely on Me completely. I will give you the strength and wisdom to make your sadness sing. Trust Me.”
Continued ..... Chapter 9