Where Peacocks Fly-19

By Prema Sastri

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Chapter 19

Meera had been married to Ramaswamy for more than twenty years. She had not been able to build a relationship. His only response to his family was one of displeasure. He gave her money to run the household. His budget did not allow him to give her anything beyond the bare minimum for clothing. Her parents bore the expense, sending clothes for the children and saris for her. The son-in-law was not forgotten. He received material for a pant and shirt, whenever there was a festival, or on his birthday. He accepted the gifts politely, without enthusiasm.

Meera felt ashamed, she could not repay her parents’ generosity. After the wedding she noticed that they bought a cheap brand of tea, managed with fewer servants and stopped entertaining. They did not buy new clothes, even for Diwali.

They were happy their daughter was well settled. They even boasted that their sambandi had not taken a single rupee as dowry. This was true. Kamala was pleased with the lavish wedding arrangements and the treatment given to her. She did not need money, as her son sent her twenty per cent of his salary every month. He also sent her gifts of saris, footwear and any other item she asked for.

Meera knew this. Ramaswamy had been brought up to be a dutiful son. He did not know how to be a husband and father. She did not have the means to add to her income. Many women took in knitting or sewing. They gave tuitions at home. As the wife of an I.A.S. officer she would be looked down upon if she used any such methods to make money.

The days stretched ahead like an endless black ribbon. Mohini Menon kept herself busy with her card playing group. She did not grieve so much over the absence of her son Gopal. Savitri was occupied with bhajan sessions. She played the harmonium. A friend clashed cymbals. Another beat the drum. Meera had attended one gathering. Soon the women were in ecstacy, closing their eyes shaking their heads and swaying from side to side. This did not prevent them from eating heartily of the lavish refreshments provided by the hostess of the evening. Meera left with her ears ringing with cacophony, her stomach churning with food forced on her.

Nita was engaged in an endless round of parties and social events. Mr. Kapadia was often seen with her. Savitri preferred to stay at home. Meera had no major occupation to fill her days. Once in a while she went to Vasant Vihar to visit her parents. They were glad to see her, although they needed nothing beyond one another.

Meera bethought herself of Betty. Betty’s constant round of welfare activities was exhausting. She doubted if she could keep pace with her. Perhaps she could involve herself on a smaller scale. She called Betty and invited her home for morning coffee. Betty arrived looking dispirited. She perked up after a sip of filtered coffee.

“Meera, your coffee is the best in the world. It cheers me up.” Betty stretched her hands towards the bondas. “My favourite.”

Her hostess was wondering how best to broach the subject of opportunities for volunteer work when Betty wiped her fingers on a paper napkin, and leaned back.

“I’m returning to America in a few weeks.” “You need a break.” “I’m going back for good.” “I didn’t know that Greg was transferred back to America.” “He is not. We’re getting divorced.” “What? It’s unimaginable.” “It happens all the time.” “Not you and Greg.” “Why not?” “You seemed happy together.” “I was happy. Greg was not.” “That’s impossible.” “He wants to marry Gloria.” “Oh!” “You met her at the fete.”

Meera remembered Gloria. She was plump with straw coloured hair, which could have passed as blonde. She was busty and wore a tight black skirt beneath which her bottoms wiggled like freshly kicked footballs. She did not seem to be Gregory’s type.

“Greg and I were neighbours in Wilkinsberg, a small town in the mid west. We grew up together. Greg went to Yale. I waited for him while I taught at a kindergarten. I prayed he would not find any one else. He returned and asked me to marry him. I was nineteen and could not think of a life without Greg. We were married in the local church. It was the event of the year. Every one in Wilkinsberg attended it. Greg joined the diplomatic service. When he was sent to India, I was not so keen. I came to love India. Greg came to love Gloria.”

“I don’t think he loves her. He is dazzled by her.”

“It comes to the same thing. He doesn’t want me.” Betty gave up all pretence of blowing her nose. She began to sob with long convulsive gasps. Meera put an arm around her. After a while Betty’s body stopped heaving.

“I’d better powder my nose.” She went into the bathroom and returned, having washed her face and combed her hair. “Excuse the dramatics. I’m all right now.” She made for the door. “Betty, I am very sorry.” “I’ll be all right. Don’t worry about me.”

When Betty left, Meera made herself a cup of coffee, she was in shock. Betty’s world had crumbled. Gone was the self assured, energetic woman whom Meera had known and liked. In her place was a heart broken child. What had caused Greg to change? It did not need much thinking out. Gregory was a man. Gloria appealed to his senses. She was much younger and probably brought Gregory the promise of revisiting a lost youth. For that he was willing to destroy all that he and Betty had built together. If they had children it might have been different.

She shuddered. Could this happen to her and Ramaswamy? If it did she would not be able to make a new life. Divorce among their circle was rare. She could not imagine her husband courting another woman. With all his faults she knew she was safe with him.

She cleared the coffee cups and plates and went to the verandah. Every person she knew was in pain. Ramaswamy would probably never get over his crippling childhood. Her overtures of affection had borne little fruit. His experience had been with parent figures. They had been strict and demanding. They were the only role models he knew. He treated his children the same way. His father had been distant from his mother. He was the same with Meera.

Mohini alleviated her loneliness by playing cards. When the game was over she faced the walls of her empty house. Images of her son Gopal floated through her mind. She sent him to Tellicherry to give him stability, without changing schools every two or three years. For this she paid the price of living without him. Her husband Wing Cdr. Menon was a busy doctor, dedicated to his work. She saw little of him and mostly ate alone.

Nita Mehra went from one function to another, dressed in chiffons and georgettes that showed her figure to advantage. She spent a lot of time in beauty parlours, and shopping for clothes and accessories. Mr. Kapadia was often at her side. Her son was in boarding school. She did not seem to miss him. Her husband was rising in his career. He turned a blind eye to her affairs.

She appeared to lead a free and glamorous existence, Meera wondered. Nita often looked bewildered. From a few words she dropped without thinking. Meera came to the conclusion that Nita’s life was empty. She had no goal. Her activities were a cover up for an inner emptiness. Sometimes her face was pinched and drawn. Meera suspected she was a secret drinker. She talked incessantly, breaking off in the middle of a sentence, without completing it. At such times her eyes were vacant. Meera did not envy her.

Savitri lived in a world of self deception. She did not seem to be aware of her husband’s blatant affair with Nita. She drowned herself in pujas, prayer and bhajans. She withdrew herself from reality. Savitri worked hard in her house, cooking and cleaning. She took care of her two daughters with fanatic zeal. She cooked, sewed and knitted with frenzy. She was determined to see them well clothed and fed. She taught them bhajans, involved them in her pujas and read to them from the Gita. As a result the girls had no time for friends or play. They fared poorly in their studies and appeared anxious. Savitri praised their father. If there were chinks in her armour she did not let them show.

As Meera looked at the gate she thought of Capt. Khanna. Did he really love his career as much as he professed? Was it a means to forget his heavy responsibilities at home? He was in a bizarre situation. His wife Asha, was lovely and good natured. Her mind had not developed. She could not answer more than a few simple questions. She was unable to make a cup of tea or keep her house in order. Rakesh Khanna had not only to face the rigours of his official work. He returned to the massive chores of housework and looking after his child wife.

He showed no signs of affliction. He was his joking, cheerful self at all times. Meera wished she could help him. He was too proud to take help from any one. She thought of a way. She called Rakesh Khanna. His ringing voice came over the phone.

“Khanna speaking.” “I’m Meera Ramaswamy. I need some help from you.” “Of course! I”ll do anything for you.” “My maid Chotu’s mother Sadhvi needs a job and a place to stay. If you care to employ her it will be a relief to me. She is good at her work, sincere, faithful and honest.” “I’ll discuss it with Asha and let you know.” “Thank you. I hope to hear from you soon.”

Within a week Sadhvi was installed in the Khanna’s servant’s quarters. Her daughter Chotu volunteered to work with Meera full time. She was given quarters but preferred to sleep in a corner of the house. She took over the minor chores. Sadhvi soon became a support to the Khannas, taking over the cooking and care of Asha.

Meera was glad her plan had succeeded. Sadhvi would take a load off Rakesh.

To be continued........../- Chapter 20

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