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Sullu vows to never, ever speak to Renu again. Every time, a Hindi film song extolls the virtues of ‘Dosti’, she feels a tide of anger within her.
Sullu arrives at the duck-pond and seats herself on ‘their’ bench.
Two girls are standing near the edge of the pond. Around seven or eight years old, they are clutching a bag of food in their hands. They call out making cooing sounds.
Sullu knows what will happen next and watches with amusement.
Sure enough, mama duck, by now attuned to alternate food sources, paddles into sight followed by her hungry brood. The girls hold out the food to the ducks. Mama Duck waits patiently until the girls, tired of waiting for ducks to behave like pet dogs, start tossing the crumbs into the water. The bread is snapped up as soon as it hit the surface of the water. When it is all gone, with peacock-worthy disdain, Mama twirls around and swims off with her family.
Sullu watches chuckling at the display. Never has she seen a Mama duck accept crumbs from a human hand.
“Thirty years ago, those two girls would have been us …Renu and I” she thinks with a pang of deja vu.
Saving the contents of their tiffin-box and feeding the ducks is a daily ritual on the way back from school for Renu and Sullu. Later, they stretch out on the grass (there was no bench back then) gazing at the pattern of the clouds visible through the screen of trees, and talk and talk till they could no longer linger without worrying their families about the late hour.
“Arre… that Sharma teacher, so many sums! My fingers are hurting. How will I do the homework!” complains Sullu.
“Hmmm!” said Renu. “Don’t worry, I will help you…”
They walk home in a leisurely manner, kicking at tiny stones in their path, gossiping about their classmates, bitching about strict teachers, complaining about the pile of home work.
Renu is in tears.
She has her periods today and the P.T teacher had not excused her from her exercises. She was terrified that there would be a mishap and there had been. Thankfully, Sullu had come along before anyone noticed and pretended to push Renu into a puddle. Renu was excused from class and Sullu punished.
Renu is crying, tears of humiliation and gratitude. Sullu sits there, on the bank of the pond, just holding her hand. They sit on the grass, their camaraderie silent today, hating this time of the month, wishing they could be boys with their no-problem existence.
A little bench that accommodates just two people comfortably has been recently installed. Renu calls it the Throne of Truth, because Sullu confesses to having a crush on a senior boy called Titu. After she has denied it all day, she blurts it out just seconds after sitting on the bench. Renu has noticed that Sullu has been ignoring him on the playground, but making goo-goo eyes when she thinks no one is looking.
She blushes as she says, “So cute he is na! When he walks past me, my heart starts fluttering and my mouth goes dry…Renu….don’t tell anyone, okay? Yesterday he winked at me, and ….I think I am in love.”
Renu, the pragmatic one, conceals her alarm, because Titu is an older boy notorious for ‘gundagardi’. Hairy, muscular and clearly stupid, he is someone to steer clear of.
Sullu, a typical Punjabi girl with her clear skin, curvy figure and winsome smile, is at sixteen, the school heartthrob.
“I think he is interested in Pammi. I saw them last week, Sullu. Having gol-gappe…Near the movie-hall.” Renu says, bending the truth a little, because it was actually a big group, not just the two of them. But she needs to nip this dangerous attraction in the bud.
As expected, Sullu looks more sullen than heart-broken, her balloon of infatuation pricked effectively.
They are in college and the lake is off their route. But they still come here on weekends, to grace the Throne Of Truth and of course, to feed the ducks. The water is greener and murkier, the grass littered with plastic wrappers. Often the place is crowded with pairs of teenagers exploring the boundaries of PDA, or just hanging-out in noisy groups.
But being here seems to relax them. The familiar pond, duck-feeding ritual and the little bench now covered with heart symbols and initials carved by lovelorn visitors somehow seem to unlock their thoughts.
Sullu, the pampered younger child of an affluent business family has always been groomed for marriage. Renu, however, yearns for something different.
“Renu!” Sullu is saying, “Dekh yaar! I don’t want to study too much. It gives me a headache. Anyways, my husband will earn enough, na? I would love to stay abroad, Renu. My Maasi in the U.S. is always saying how she will find me a good match there. So….after I graduate…. Whooooo I will go away.”
To her credit, Renu never opines on her friend’s choices. Shy, studious but prone to introspection, she knows what she wants. The daughter of a bank clerk, and the eldest of three girls, Renu dreams of studying further, of a job, a career, earning enough to support her parents.
“Sullu!” she says, “I want something different. Babuji… I have to make him proud of me. He always dreamt of higher studies, but had to start working at an early age to support his siblings, his family, then us… I want to share his responsibilities, make life easy for him. He is always so stressed and worried. So I don’t want to marry…”
What Renu dreams of is unheard of in this little town, she knows. Renu thinks of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ whenever they have this conversation.
Renu and Sullu first bonded in kindergarten when Sullu kicked a boy for pulling Renu’s pigtails. Friends, teachers and family are fond of saying, “Yeh Renu and Sullu ki Jodi is like Jai-Veeru in Sholay.”
“No, no,” an incensed Sullu, an avid Bollywood fan would retort, “Don’t forget, one of them died! We are like Dharam-Veer- kabhi nahin tootegi ye Jodi.”
Nearly twenty-one years old, Renu and Sullu are still inseparable, at one against the world.
They complement each other. If Sullu is a carefree, joyful kite, then Renu is the string, anchoring her to the earth, yet letting her fly at will. Renu, always shy and quiet, has Sullu to protect her from the world, like a giant umbrella unfurled against the elements.
Sullu, the affluent one, lends Renu her clothes and personal stuff, and Renu, the sincere student is always bailing Sullu out with her studies. They frequently lie for each other to protect the other from the wrath of their elders. But Renu, whose inner compass always points true North, set limits on this.
Renu borrows her mother’s watch to wear to a friend’s birthday party, but on the way home realises that her wrist was bare.
After a tear-filled hour of futile searching, Sullu says, “Renu yaar, I will tell my Mummy that I took it from you and lost it. She will buy a replacement.”
An exasperated Renu says, “First of all, I never lie. Not about important things. Secondly, that watch was a gift to my mother from my father. So…. far more precious than its actual value, isn’t it? Feelings, trust, honesty… Sullu, they can’t be bought or sold or feigned.”
Sullu hugs her, instantly contrite.
Sullu will be married in a week’s time. The groom is the son of a family friend based in Canada.
They sit on ‘their’ bench perhaps for the last time, for Sullu will fly to Canada with her husband soon after the ceremony.
Sullu is excited and happy; Renu sad and contemplative.
“Promise me….you will keep in touch. And that you will visit me.” Says Sullu, suddenly tearful.
“Yes, Sullu” says Renu, knowing that she will never be able to afford the air-fare.
She feels the wrench of losing her friend like she is losing a limb. But she is happy for Sullu whose dreams are coming true.
Renu sits alone on the Throne Of Truth. It is an island in the ocean of turmoil that her life has become.
Renu’s father has passed away of a sudden heart attack three months ago. But his wife and three daughters have had no time to grieve.
He has taken loans from many people, which Renu as the eldest is trying her best to pay back.
No savings, no job, so many creditors knocking on their door and now….this decision to be made.
Today, Renu needs to think.
There is one way out of the mess ….to accept the bizarre, unexpected, out-of-the-blue proposal that has been received by her family. She is tempted to refuse outright, but the memory of the relief on her mother’s care-worn face when she had realised that there was an ‘honourable’ away out hardens Renu’s resolve.
Dusk has fallen by the time Renu sets off for home, her decision made.
The next day, Sullu gets a call from her mother.
“Sullu beta? Ek khush khabar hai! (There is some good news!) Our Naren is getting married to your dost… Renu. After all these years of my urging… He has finally agreed to marry I am soooo happy, beta! We are planning on a chut mangni, put byah (a quick marriage)….only available muhurat (auspicious day) is next month. Sullu Ohh, I am sooo excited. Of course there is no dowry….they are so poor….but Naren insisted on marrying only her and your Papa relented.” Her mother drones on and on.
Sullu is so happy that she cries. It is a dream come true, her best friend becoming her sister by marriage.
Sullu is unable to attend her best friend’s wedding to her brother. She is pregnant and her baby is due within the month, But the quick, almost urgent pace of the whole affair, especially so soon after the passing of Renu’s father raises many eyebrows in the sleepy little town.
Sullu visits India every two years. Her parents also visit Canada, although Naren and Renu never do. Renu continues with her studies, although she is not ‘permitted’ to have a job. A ‘working’ daughter-in-law is against the family’s code of conduct. Every time she visits, Sullu tries to get her friend to gossip, confide and chat like old times. Renu maintains her distance and gently rebuffs her every time, citing some prior commitment.
Sullu’s mother is, however, always complaining, “Sullu, please tell Renu she should not go to meet her mother so often. Always going over and I am sure giving her money and God knows what else! Have we not done enough for them already! We paid off all their family debts when we got her married to our son! What more can we do? Yeh madam hai ki abhi tak (this woman), not given us a pota…a grandson!”
Sullu’s father who is listening to this, flushes guiltily and shushes his wife.
Sullu’s mother has progressed from subtle hints and indirect comments to being vocal about her “barren” daughter-in-law. There have been poojas and mannat (prayers) and thread-tying and removal of Nazar (evil eye). She knows this even thousands of miles away because her mother is always harping on about it. Sullu repeatedly tells her mother that both husband and wife can be equally responsible for infertility, and that Naren and Renu should both be tested by a doctor.
Sullu’s mother is furious, because Renu has flatly refused to go to an infertility specialist. In the midst of all this, Naren, the ‘blameless’ husband (who has been silent until then), suddenly digs in his heels and sides with Renu.
Sullu reluctantly comes down for a lightning visit from Canada at her mother’s insistence. To “talk some sense” into her friend.
“Renu….why don’t we go for a walk? To the lake like old times…..sit and chat like we used to…”, Sullu says.
Renu is quiet for a long time. “Sullu, I need to visit my mother today. You know she has diabetes and blood pressure. Now with one of my sisters married and the other studying in Mumbai, she is all alone. She barely eats and hardly takes her medication.”
For the rest of Sullu’s visit, Renu avoids her, an effort that drains Renu. Sullu returns home angry, puzzled, and hurt.
Two months later, Renu’s mother passes away. Precarious finances while her husband was alive, the burden of debt after he died, worrying about her daughters, and taunts about Renu’s ‘barrenness’ has whittled away at her will to live.
One night she goes to sleep and just does not wake up.
Naren and Renu announce that they are separating and filing for a divorce. The divorce is amicable and they complete the formalities by mutual consent.
Sullu is stunned. Disappointed. Why would Renu do this, she wonders? Being childless was not an insurmountable problem. She had not even tried to find a solution. She feels sorry for her brother.
Sullu vows to never, ever speak to Renu again.
Every time, a Hindi film song extolls the virtues of ‘Dosti’, she feels a tide of anger within her. Any film showcasing friendships is the recipient of Sullu’s scorn and derision. Sullu vows never to visit the lake or feed the ducks or sit on the bench ever again.
Naren closes down the family business and moves to Delhi. Renu has moved to Mumbai as soon as the divorce was final.
Sullu hears from others that Renu has a job working at an insurance firm in Mumbai and lives in a flat that was apparently bought with her share of money from the divorce settlement.
Finally, Sullu thinks bitterly, Renu is living her dream life….after having trampled on my family’s!
Sullu’s mother calls up.
Quivering with outrage, she says, “I bumped into Renu. She has come to visit her sister. Can you believe her cheek? She came up to me and says,’Namaste Aunty!’?”
Sullu is silent. A hundred memories are bubbling inside in her, all coated with a dark anger and rage.
But Sullu’s mother is not done. “Sullu! She has remarried, looks like. Mangalsutra and all. She is also pregnant! Why did she not try with our Naren!”
Sullu’s mother is wailing, “My poor son! Moved to Delhi and so heart-broken, he has not married even now!”
Sullu is in Delhi. She is attending a big, fat Punjabi wedding with all the trimmings. The bride is the daughter of a business colleague of Sullu’s husband. It is in a posh five-star hotel, over a week of dancing, drinking, gaiety and fun.
She has not spent time with Naren for a long time and feels guilty about it. She decides to come alone a couple of days early, and surprise her big brother. Her flight lands in the early hours. She catches a cab to her brother’s flat.
Dawn is breaking when she rings the bell. The door is opened by a young man wearing only his briefs. He is yawning, but stops and stares at Sullu. The expression on his face- recognition, guilt and chagrin sets alarm bells ringing for Sullu.
“Who are you? Isn’t this Narendra Kumar’s flat? Is he in town?”
The man recovers, then nods and steps back for Sullu to enter.
Behind him, from the only bedroom of the flat, Naren emerges. His expression mirrors the one on his flat-mate’s.
Sullu’s face is crumpling up with dismay. Their guilty expression is leading her to draw her own conclusions
“Bhaiyya….what is this…who is he?” She asks Naren, when she regains use of her voice.
“Sit…. Sullu….Let me make you a cup of a tea. Then we will talk. Perhaps it is a good thing that you will hear the truth.” He introduces the man who had opened the door.
His partner, Melvin…..they have been together for the past six years, he says.
Sullu manages to be polite, even civil. Melvin leaves, mumbling about an early start at work.
Sullu and Naren sit in silence at the dining table and sip their tea. A pretence of normalcy.
Outside the little flat, Delhi is waking up. The noise of a normal day filters into the little flat. But inside, everything is different. Nothing seems real. Am I dreaming, she wonders! At last, I know how Alice had felt when she tumbled down the rabbit- hole.
“Where to start? Sullu, I knew that I found men attractive and not women when I was around thirteen years old…somehow Papa also knew about me.” He says quietly. “I don’t know how….but he did. He tried desperately to change me….and that is another story….for another day. But it was a small town and times were different back then…. Sullu, I was a coward. Immature, young, way too dependent on my family for everything. So, I took the easy way out. Papa offered to pay off Renu’s family’s debts if she agreed to marry me.”
Naren looks into Sullu’s eyes. She has not spoken much after her initial outburst, but her eyes ask a question amidst the turmoil that she is feeling. Naren flushes and says, “No. Renu didn’t know that I am gay then. Papa swore me to secrecy….he said I should pretend….but….on the first night itself, I told her the truth. I had to… God…I was not the least bit attracted to her…how could I…?”
Naren pauses, “Believe me! I hated myself that day….The look on her face…trapped, hunted, desperate, angry.”
Tears are rolling down Sullu’s cheeks. Oh! The horror of what was done to Renu!
The rights and wrongs that she has clung to, all these years are all topsy-turvy. Like the myope who is suddenly blessed with clarity after being fitted with the correct pair of spectacles, Sullu has twenty-twenty vision. Metaphorically.
“Renu cried for three days straight after I told her. We were on our ‘Honeymoon’.” Naren stopped and held his head in his hands. “Before we returned, she made a pact with me. She reluctantly agreed to live the lie… we had bought her silence she said. Also divorce would break her mother’s heart. But the lies would stop at the bedroom door and we could never be intimate. She promised that no one would know the truth from her lips.”
He takes a deep breath.
Naren continues, “A couple of years later…when I met Melvin on a business trip, I knew he was the one. I made trips to Delhi to be with him. I wanted to be with him all the time, but couldn’t.” He looks at Sullu and deciphers the look on her face.
“God, Sullu! Do you think I liked my double life? But Renu was worse off. The taunts, the comments….the things she was forced to undergo! I admire her for her strength. I wish I had half her courage. The strain of hiding the truth…. the need to present a facade….we faced so much together….”
“When I was older and mature….financially independent…We gave some thought to separating, But by then, her mother’s health was precarious. When her mother passed away, Renu and I discussed the matter. And finally went our separate ways. Renu took all the blame. She told me never to tell you or Mummy about me. Some illusions need to be preserved for life to go on, she said… that both of you would be badly hurt by the truth. I moved here… to Delhi. The anonymity of a big city is nice. The laws in India are relaxed now, so I need not pretend. Renu moved to Mumbai, where one of her sisters also lives.”
He looked sad, “I wanted…no needed to do something for her to make up for all that she went through. So I put up the down-payment for a small flat in Mumbai. It was the least I could do.”
Sullu stands up, “Basically, Bhai, what you are saying is our family took advantage of my friend’s situation and bought her off to save face. And now you are justifying the whole thing, again with money. I am not a homophobe… but this deceit…”
Sullu is quiet for a minute, her eyes tightly shut. “Bhai!” she says, “I don’t know who I hate more, myself for deserting her, not making the effort to find out more or…. you and Papa… for doing this.”
She stands up and takes a deep breath. “Just one request before I leave…no…make that two. For all our sakes’….I really think you should tell Mummy, so that she can stop trying to get you married. And…I need a phone number to contact Renu.”
When Sullu texts to request a meeting, Renu has chosen this place.
The girls who were feeding the ducks have drifted off, their chatter fading away. A cool breeze is blowing and the reeds at the edge of the pond are swaying back and forth. It is blissfully quiet, deserted even….the teenagers of this town having discovered multiplexes and malls.
Sullu is nervously checking her phone every few seconds. She would not blame Renu if she cancelled the meeting or even stood her up.
Suddenly Renu is there, seating herself on the bench next to Sullu.
Before Sullu’s stammers her rehearsed apology, Renu pulls her into a tight hug. Just two souls connecting. Two old friends meeting after a long time. Sullu realises that she has been forgiven even before she has apologised. Perhaps forgiven a long time ago.
Some friendships are like that.
Renu, her face incandescent with joy is holding up a bag, bulging with bread-crumbs.
“Think Mama-duck will eat from our hands today?” she asks with a mischievous smile.
Sullu laughs, although tears are pricking her eyes. She is light-hearted and heart-whole after a long, long time. “Well,… we can certainly try!” she replies.
And together they walk up to the edge of the pond.
Image source: YouTube/ Cars24 Ad
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Mostly Normal is a book of innocence, longing, filial love, angst and acceptance, encapsulating a gamut of human emotions within its lightweight edifice. The book touches the human heart and will stay with you.
Some books enthral you till the last page, and then there are those that you stop reading after turning a few pages. Some books are a one-time read, while you carry some books with you long after you have read them. Then, once in a while, a book hits you so close to home that you find it difficult to slot into any category.
I will put Priyadeep Kaur’s Mostly Normal (BookSoul Reads, 2022) in this last bracket.
At a little less than hundred pages, Mostly Normal is a testimony of the power of words to inspire, irrespective of their length.
Most women do not get to live their lives the way they want, on their own terms. So why should they be tied down in their old age?
Every morning, while dropping the kids at the bus stop, I find a grandfather waiting with his granddaughter. I see him again when I fetch the kids. This has been the pattern for the last few years.
He is seen actively participating in his granddaughter’s activities, from morning and evening walks to attending her parent-teachers meeting, sending her for extracurricular activities to even planning her birthday party. He is admired by all. He is appreciated for making himself useful in his old age. People rave that the doting grandfather is doing his duty towards his children and grandchildren. The much-admired grandfather is also a widower, having lost his wife years ago to chronic disease. It’s also to be noted that both his son and daughter-in-law are working parents.
Every day, the onlookers appreciate his sense of duty and dedication. They say that this is how the elderly should keep themselves occupied. They should bring up their grandchildren while their children go off to work.
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