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"If I have to adopt then why should I marry him? My clock is ticking and I want a child more than a husband.”
“Aunty what should I do? Tell naa! Guide me, help me to decide please,” Ruchi implored.
I, from my vantage point of view of sixty-five years, watched her thirty-something-year face full of hope, indecision, and preparedness to be happy or unhappy.
“He says he does not want a child. He has a daughter from his first marriage – his ex-wife too lives in the USA and they have shared custody. We have been chatting for the last six months online. In all other respects, I find him suitable but he doesn’t want a child.”
“I don’t know whether my green card is the bane of my existence or an asset! My first husband had perhaps married me because he wanted to shift from the UK to the USA,” continued Ruchi.
That had been an arranged marriage. So naturally, the groom’s family too had jumped in, thinking they were also getting married to Ruchi – especially the MIL and the SIL. The green card was welcome, but not the ways that a green card entails. Like Ruchi’s habit of buying fresh flowers…
Poor Ruchi knew that she was an Indian, but what middle-class Indianness stands for, she had no idea. The academically brilliant son of the family had completed his FRCS, but hadn’t still reaped the financial rewards that this degree was expected to bring in. So his NRI bride was expected to live in his mother’s 2BHK flat.
Ruchi and my daughter Shaney were childhood friends. After middle school, Ruchi had moved with her family to the USA, but they had not sold the family house. Ruchi and her mother had come back to India because having lost her husband, the mom wanted to spend her old age in India. Ruchi’s brother was still in the USA. So poor Ruchi had one foot here and the other there.
Since Shaney too lives abroad after her marriage, I, Shaney’s mother was being made the confidante, being asked for advice. Ruchi’s mother it seems had left the decision to Ruchi. The poor woman was already guilt-ridden for having made the wrong selection in the first instance. That Arora family had been one hell of a mean one. All smiles, all ‘Haanji’s’ in the beginning, surprisingly expecting solid gifts, a hefty dowry, and a furnished flat, despite knowing fully well that the couple was going to the USA.
Ruchi was expected to fall in with the routine of the family – daal, roti, sabzi [mind you, no dessert (but she loves desserts!)], cooking, cleaning, washing, etc. Yes, yes! They had the mandatory maid but for minimum chores and minimum wages. Used to dollars, Ruchi found the rupee conversion baffling – it was all so cheap – why were they protesting? Carrying tales by the SIL and MIL brought the desired result – a wedge was driven between the bride and the groom, and then their egos merrily completed the task.
“My sister is right, she is married, and she too has made adjustments! Why cannot Ruchi adjust?” thought he.
“What does he think himself to be? Is this the way a gentleman behaves? I have married him, not his whole family. I am here for six months, one year at the most! He has gone back to the UK and left me here with them! Why cannot I go back? Why do I have to bond with them? Why couldn’t he take me back to the UK with him? What’s the logic?” thought she.
The pauses between their communication lengthened and finally, there was silence on both fronts. So the marriage ended in divorce and the dowry was duly returned, or whatever could be salvaged of it. Back went Ruchi to the USA. That was four years ago.
For the last year, Ruchi was in here in India looking after her ailing mother, and searching online for a life partner. She had found this man Harish and they clicked. Whatever people online look for, they had found in each other. To me, it’s a totally alien concept. But each generation has its own way of thinking.
Their progress had met with a bump – the forty-year-old Harish was categorical he did not want a child. He already had a five-year-old daughter. And Ruchi wanted a child. She was not ready to accept this condition Harish had. And Harish was not ready to accept Ruchi’s condition, though both were sympathetic to each other’s view. Empathetic too – that’s a very important word in today’s world. And yes, compatibility is the most important word, whatever it means.
“Ruchi, if you like him on all other counts, marry him. Make your marriage, your home, a haven, and maybe he will become amenable. He will fall so much in love with you that having a child will seem like a natural progression.”
“But I won’t be able to insist if he still refuses; his condition is very clear.”
“Ruchi, this is not a boardroom deal or an office merger. This is not business; emotions are involved here. You cannot love a person on conditions. Both of you want love but on conditions, on a contract basis. He is once bitten, twice shy. He must be dealing with alimony and child maintenance payments on the financial front. You can always love his daughter like your own.”
“Why would his ex-wife let me love their child, aunty?”
“Yes that’s there, but sitting on the shore patting your own back that ‘I am being very careful’ won’t do. You have to jump in; only then you will know whether you can swim well or not. Maybe you will have the child eating out of your hand because ping-ponged kids from broken marriages are starved for affection.”
We were sitting in my bedroom. Ruchi was sitting on the sofa under my husband’s large portrait which hangs on the wall facing my bed. A garland of sandalwood and tulsi beads adorns it. I looked at him and asked him silently, “So Sharma sahib, shall I tell her? Shall I spill the beans? Betray your secret, you respected gentleman?”
Outwardly I continued “Beta, you know Shaney and Abhigyan are not my biological children. You were so surprised when you found this out from Shaney.”
“Yes, I was aunty. I was young, I used to tell Shaney that she looked like you and wonder why I didn’t look like my mummy.”
“So, think carefully. And if you so decide, enter this marriage with an open mind. Half a glass full doesn’t bear comparison to the full glass, but a half glass full is better than an empty glass. You will have companionship, caring, and sharing, even if you don’t have a child. And if you are destined to, you will have a child; you can love his daughter like your own or you can adopt a child – you are financially independent.”
“Oh! If I have to adopt then why should I marry him? My clock is ticking and I want a child more than a husband.”
“Don’t be flippant. A child needs a father, though I know the new-fangled notion is that a child needs only love blah blah. According to our culture, a child needs a mother, a father, and a stable family. Think carefully, beta!”
Ruchi left. Hours have gone by and I am lying on my bed looking at my husband’s picture and talking to him. Abhigyan, our son, lives in Mumbai. By choice, I live alone in this house with my memories.
“So Sharma Sahib, conditions apply, right? You hid your terms very well. At least these kids are honest in their dealings. You were so dishonest!”
Sharma sahib’s first wife died after a brief illness. He had two small kids – five-year-old Abhigyan and three-year-old Shaney. His old mother helped him to look after the children but she was worried all the time about her son and kids – who will look after them in case of her death? “Get married again” was her constant refrain.
Sharma Sahib also realized the truth of the matter but the thought of bringing in a stepmother for the children was very unappealing. What if his new wife mistreats his children? Suppose as his mother says she too dies? He would be away the whole day; the kids were too small even to understand the changes. His kids would be left completely at the mercy of his new wife. His mother did fall seriously ill and he had no option other than to get married to the girl his mother hustled up with the help of her relatives – ten years younger than him and from a poor family. My name became Shaney’s mummy.
Shaney’s mummy took to her new role like duck to water. I was used to looking after my younger siblings. Sharma sahib’s mother passed away two years later hoping for another grandson. Now Shaney’s mummy was the whole sole in charge of the home – very happy! I lovingly looked after Abhigyan and Shaney. They were the reason for my being pulled out of my hand-to-mouth existence, for all my lovely clothes, jewelry, household gadgets, and yes, the status of being Mrs. Sharma.
Two years passed and I started longing for a baby of my own. I dreamed of being pregnant, having a baby, and how Shaney and Abhigyan would be thrilled to have a new baby brother or sister. The well-meaning neighbouring aunties advised me to visit a gynaecologist. Maybe something was wrong with me because Sharma sahib already had two children.
Every time I asked my husband to take me to the doctor, he was very busy. So I visited the doctor with my neighbour Sahni aunty. The doctor found everything to be normal and told me to relax, and not be stressed about it. Sometimes nature takes its own sweet time. Sahani aunty told me about fasts, poojas, totkas, daan and I did all of them. Over the years my siblings too got married one by one. When my youngest sister had her first baby, holding that baby in my arms, I hid my tears from others and acknowledged to myself that I was never going to hold my own baby.
Maybe Sharma sahib was right. “We should be grateful for God’s mercy; we have Abhighyam and Shaney.” I consoled myself that Abhighyan and Shaney, teenagers by then, wouldn’t be thrilled to have a sibling. God always makes the right choices for you. I am very religious, so accepting God’s decision was not that difficult for me.
Abhigyan and Shaney’s education, marriages, and running the house are all a blur to me now. Sharma sabib’s health started failing. He was busy making his wife’s future secure in case of his demise. He wound up his business and invested the money wisely so that I would have regular income till I was alive, and then the money and property would be divided between the children.
During the last month of his life, now I know it was the last – then I didn’t, but he must have sensed it was – I felt many times that he wanted to say something. So I asked him what was bothering him. His words flabbergasted me, “I want your forgiveness. Mujhe maaf kar dey. Only then will I find peace. I am your culprit.”
“What are you talking about? You have been a very good husband and father. You are a good man. You have given me a good comfortable life. Please don’t beg forgiveness. Forgive me if I have unknowingly sometimes done anything wrong.”
What emerged dried my tears, and stunned me. He confessed that he had cheated me. Without telling anyone he had gone to the doctor before marrying me and got his vasectomy done. He wanted to ensure that Abhigyan and Shaney never had a step-sibling and his new wife never got a chance to discriminate. That she shouldn’t get a baby of her own had seemed the solution to him.
“Forgive me,” he had pleaded with folded hands. I neither said yes nor no; I was too shocked. And he passed away the next day.
I kept the cloak of respectability draped around me. I made no fuss and didn’t share the secret with anyone. I kept up the illusion of the grieving well cared for wife and widow intact.
A year has passed but the smouldering anger at his betrayal refuses to be doused. And every day now I utter this repetitive chant before his picture, “May you rot in hell and never rest in peace. You wanted my forgiveness? Forgiveness my foot! Never! May you pay for what you did to me! Such deceit – you could not have been a good person. Had you been a good person you would have kept quiet, taken your burden, your selfish secret with you. You selfishly wanted to unburden yourself! You have turned my life upside down just for clearing your conscience, getting your peace! May you never get that peace.”
I know I have so many memories of the goodness of my husband and I have to let them resurface, to allow them to wash away the anger, the bitterness. But his secret has maimed my self-esteem. Did I have a good marriage or not?
These young adults nowadays are open about the fact that terms and conditions apply in every contract. Good for them. Let’s wait to see what Ruchi decides.
Image source: a still from the short film Ghar ki Murgi
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