Pride and Pretense
Uncle Ravi and Uncle Keshav may not have been twins at birth but God were they alike. Strong, robust, Maratha men, one a renowned criminal lawyer, the other a highly decorated military man. Both had excelled in their respective fields and risen to great heights. Uncle Ravi, a hotshot lawyer, hobnobbed with rich industrialists, movie stars and politicians alike. He was married to Aunty Leela, for a good thirty years now, and they had one boy, Salil. Uncle Keshav, our proud army man, mingled with respected leaders, senior bureaucrats and decorated men in uniform. His wife was Aunty Malti and they too had just one boy, my adorable cousin Sanjay. My uncles were highly opinionated, pompous, arrogant men with egos as large as some tiny country’s territorial map.
I sincerely doubted, how these men, were my tiny, unassuming, barely audible, docile mother’s real brothers? There must definitely have been a switch at the hospital. To that Baba would often reiterate, ‘How can you even doubt? Just look at their faces. All three share their father’s large hooked nose and curly mop of hair and your mum only looks meek and soft. She is quite a terror herself. Can’t you see how I am suffering?’
That was Baba, always the joker. A short balding man, with precisely three strands of grey hair growing horizontally out of his large elephantine ears. Baba was a simple man with excellent taste. My best memories of him, are me sitting on his lap, on his super comfortable Eames lounge chair, thoroughly intoxicated by the woody smells of a just lit Cuban cigar. He, pouring himself 60ml Old Monk, Indian dark rum and ice cold Thums up, listening to the lilting strains of either Bhimsen Joshi or Gangubai Hangal on an ancient amplifier. The single appliance, he refused to upgrade, ‘Gifted by my Dad, on my twenty-first birthday Kid, nothing compares to this!’ He sentimentally repeated time and again. Baba was a retired employee of the State Bank of India. Since he chose to marry late, there was nearly an age gap of about forty plus years between him and me, his only precious child. Thankfully the gap in years never became a generation gap, for Baba was a keen learner. Whether it was to do with fashion, food, lifestyle, technology, he always kept up with changing times.
From the days of hard covers to reading e- books online, from desk tops to adapting to the latest I-pad, from dialing numbers through landlines to touch phones and wireless, from manual to automatic, from curved to flat screens, Baba relished it all. He was never the one to begin a sentence with, ‘In our times things were so different…’ More to say, ‘So what’s new these days kid?’ Never one to be shocked. Never one to dismiss without a healthy argument. Always the first to agree to disagree when opinions were fair but varied. Never one to compare. Never one to put down. He loved an intelligent debate, encouraged healthy competition. A natural extrovert, genuinely liked and respected by one and all. The only thing he simply detested were irrational argumentative, know it all kind of loud, flashy people. Found them insufferable and truly a waste of time. Unfortunately he was related to some by marriage, ‘Karma! Kid, it spares none!’ He winked at me watching mum’s reaction, by a corner of his eye.
Uncle Keshav’s wife, Malti, had done her Master’s in English Literature. A graceful and dignified lady, she was just right for a man in the armed forces. Every posting he was transferred to, she accompanied him, leaving her one and only boy to live with his maternal grandparents. She moved back to Pune just a few months prior to Sanjay Dada’s class ten boards. Dada himself was a docile and sweet lad. He did not need much attention, so Aunty Malti began to teach kindergarten classes at his school. The job did not last long as within a year, Sanjay Dada soon cleared his boards and got admission into St Xavier’s College and moved in to stay with us in Mumbai. Aunty moved back with Uncle Keshav, now posted in Assam. ‘Arre had she continued teaching, she would have soon replaced the principal!’ boasted Uncle often at family dinners. Aunty Malti would simply squirm in her tiny chair.
Barely had he finished saying that, Uncle Ravi would pipe up, ‘You know my Leela could have easily won the Indian Masterchef title year after year, had she participated. Every other day we have a party for over fifty people and they all say how amazingly she cooks! Mind you, that to all by herself!’ A fact none of us could ever prove right, for whenever we were invited, it would either be a Tuesday or a Thursday or a Friday, the days Leela Aunty kept fasts, or a working weekday or a Sunday before a working Monday! There would be a simple vegetarian fare laid out, tasty but not amazing! ‘It’s Tuesday today, we are vegetarian. I thought everyone would like simple varan, bhaat and batati fry. As it is tomorrow is a working day and a heavy meal so late, will not agree with anyone’s tummy,’ Aunty Leela would say with Uncle Ravi immediately agreeing, ‘Yes! Yes Leela how thoughtful, you are absolutely right!’ Baba and I would look at each other, grinning from ear to ear, barely able to suppress a hearty laugh, evading mum’s stern looks of caution.
Uncle Ravi came up with the most ridiculous statement one day. ‘Salil has got a full paid scholarship to Harvard, tuition, food and stay all included. But I told Leela, no boy of mine is going to live on someone else’s charity. If he wants to go I will pay the full amount. Let some other needy person avail the crumbs. If Harvard does not like it, too bad, the boy can study here in India itself.’ Truth be told, Salil Dada joined Narsee Monjee for his M.BA, after clearing the entrances with great difficulty. He was on the first wait list. As soon as he got the confirmation, that he was accepted, the first person he called to inform was Baba, his favourite uncle and role model.
‘Arre Sanjay too had got into Narsee Monjee but I told him, Indian Education system is a waste. If a man really wants to succeed he must go abroad. I am sending him to London. Left him to decide what he wants to do. We will be happy in whatever he chooses,’ Uncle Keshav purposely needled Uncle Ravi. ‘Kids today are well aware of what is good and what is bad. We should not meddle in their matters.’ Sanjay Dada did leave for London. Acquired a diploma in fashion designing, a year later. Moved to Hertfordshire, forty minutes away from central London. Started his own boutique just for the ladies, ‘The Bride’s Boudoir.’
Baba suffered his insufferable brothers in law with light humour and a great deal of patience. Every man is quite aware of the rigid female pecking order. First comes her dad, then her brother, then her son, then her dog and if there is any space left, her husband can try his level best to squeeze in between right at the bottom. My mother was no different. Her brothers meant the world to her, however idiotic, however moronic.
Bhaubeez this year was going to be a crazy affair. For once, this year, a day after Diwali the entire extended family was in town. Baba had invited both his sisters and Mum, both her brothers. Aunty Sulabha lived in Canada and managed to make only one visit every two years. She was an infertility specialist and practicing gynaecologist. Barely ever got a break. A sweet kind hearted aunt. Aunty Suhasini lived in New Zealand. She often came to Mumbai. Her in-laws stayed here. Her only daughter was married here. She and her husband had migrated many years ago. She missed Mumbai, the chatter, the gossip, the street food, the trains, even the filth and traffic. Life in New Zealand was just too sanitised for her liking.
Baba loved his sisters dearly and in return they worshipped the ground he walked on. They were a great trio to be around. Always cracking jokes, pulling one another’s legs, no one took anything to heart, sensible but not sensitive, funny but not demeaning. ‘Arre Suhas only one bowl of kheer? Eat some more. You are a growing girl.’ Ninety kilos and beyond, cheekily aunty Suhasini replied, ‘Dada got to watch my figure. It’s summer back home. Won’t be able to fit in my polka dotted bikini if I eat any more.’ Baba laughed heartily, ‘Looking forward to those bikini selfies on facebook, Suhas!’ ‘Sulabha what news from Canada? I believe The Queen herself is flying down from England to honor you with the Order of Canada, for your valued contribution in helping their population grow?’ She grinned and gave back as good as she got, ‘Thank God! Dada its Canada’s population that I have contributed towards and not India. By the way do you know, your dear friend, Kartik just got married for the third time? To a girl his oldest daughter’s age. You both were on the school hockey team na, Inseparable at one time. Vahini you better keep a watch on Dada, he has quite a few notorious friends!’ Baba guffawed, ‘Saala! really? Married! again? Lucky chap I must say.’ Mum immediately piped up, ‘You first manage your three girls at home, then dream about other women, referring to herself, me and our cute little pup, ‘Lady Gaga’.
We were well into this crazy banter, when the doorbell rang, announcing the arrival of Mum’s super heroes, wives in tow. Their boys missing. Salil Dada had been handpicked during campus recruitment by Siemens India. Been at the job for a good six years. Earning quite a generous remuneration. A super charming bloke, a cousin I was glad to be related to, down to earth, loving, reliable and generous. He had approached Mum a couple of years back asking her to speak to his parents, especially his father. He had fallen for a simple Malayalee Syrian Christian girl, his colleague and junior. He wanted to marry her and requested mother to put in a good word and convince Uncle Ravi for the same. ‘I understand your plight son. Had you been my own, I would have gladly given my consent. I genuinely like Mary, having met her a couple of times myself, she is really a lovely girl. But your father is not an easy man to convince. Whatever you decide, you need to do it yourself.’ Past experience had taught mum that her brother could be quite ruthless. The moment she opened her mouth he would shut her up. ‘This is our family matter, you are an outsider. Please do not interfere and encourage Salil. You do not have a son. You can therefore never understand.’ At first disappointed Salil Dada understood her predicament, he too knew his dad well.
‘I have some news!’ Uncle Ravi announced as soon as he settled down. ‘You know how we have been flooded with proposals for Salil. All super rich families from our very own community.’ I saw mum’s face fall. I knew just the thought that raced through her mind. She had let her favourite nephew down and that too at the hour he needed her the most. Uncle continued ‘Someone is offering a car, someone wants to give an apartment, somebody wants him to become a ghar jamai and look after their family business. I told Leela, it feels as if our son is a goat, its Eid and he has a price tag on his head. Well! In that case my son is not up for sale. We have decided to marry him to a girl of his and our choice, one we have known now for many years, a good girl from a decent family just like ours, Salil is going to wed Mary!’ Papa nearly did a cart wheel. How had Salil managed to pull this off? He looked at his sisters and beaming with pure joy, he said, ‘Fantastic news, this calls for a celebration, bring out the glasses. Let’s pop some champagne!’
Not to be out done Uncle Keshav piped up, ‘Good! Good! I too have told Sanjay. He can marry whosoever he wants. We will have no problem, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, koi bhi chalega.’ Baba looked at Mum and winked. They had visited Sanjay Dada last summer in Hertfordshire where he happily lived with his partner Brian. He had come out of the closet many years ago and gave a damn to what anyone, family or otherwise would have to say.
Salil Dada came up to Baba and whispered in a grave tone, ‘I finally gave Dad an ultimatum, if he did not give his blessings for Mary, I would either never marry or then move to live with Sanjay in England. He agreed almost instantly, anything to keep me away from Sanjay!’ Baba was in splits. ‘Let us raise a toast, To Mary and Salil, Congratulations! To Sanjay and his share of happiness! Cheers and God Bless!’