by Uma Jayaraman
“The best part of any marriage in our culture is that you have a permanent job. Nobody can throw you out of it until you die.” These are my mother’s wise words to me on the eve of my wedding to a man I had briefly met in a meeting arranged by our parents. My grandparents got my mother a husband; my parents chose mine for me. Her parents bought all her wedding outfits-my parents bought all of mine; her parents finalized her wedding guest list-my parents finalized my wedding guest list; she did not love the man she married (she says she learned to love him later!). I will learn to love the man I will marry tomorrow! Won’t I?
Well, there is lots to do and…lots to do! And so, there is no time to think. Did people of the past concoct these elaborate rituals in the name of preparation so that we did not think too much about that one thing that was an absolute prerequisite to a marriage?
Is that why Hindu weddings went on for days together?
My mom calls me to the living room where the wedding gear has been laid out neatly so that I can be present when she packs them in the sequence in which they are to be worn for the various ceremonies. While I walk to the living room (well, it takes less than half a minute to walk the passage between my room and the living room), my mind rapidly fires ten questions to me and I rapidly answer them. These questions are for me alone and I should not be expected to share them with anyone… if possible, not even with myself. But the bottom line of this exercise is, will I get a perfect score? But…who is my examiner? My parents? My relatives? The community of people who have known me during my growing up years? Or will it be …my husband from tomorrow?
My mother shows me the sari of nine yards I would be expected to wear for the main ceremony. The material of this sari is normally silk with a variable amount of gold work in the borders. The quality of silk and the amount of gold work on the sari is often a handy gauge of the family’s financial status. A commonly noticed trait of Indian middle-class families is their commendable ability to walk the tightrope of respectability measured out by their degree scrolls, the quality of curtains on their windows, their mode of transport on family outings, the food they put on their tables for their guests, the saris they buy for their daughter’s wedding, and the amount of gold the daughter takes to her husband’s home.
Let us return to the sari of nine yards.
No unmarried woman (or for that matter a married woman who has gone through the process of wrapping it around herself) can master the art of wearing it, leave alone looking graceful in it. And that too, in record time, because the wedding priest, for no known reason, invariably gives the bride five to seven minutes to get into this maze. The bride and the groom are kept busy with several rituals that involve anyone and everyone whom they have set their eyes on during their young lives.
So, the activities go on until the priest decides to remind everyone of the auspicious time, which for reasons known only to a select human kind, will prevail for fifteen to thirty minutes at best. The family almost draws a sadistic pleasure in seeing the bride agonizing over this obnoxious length of material in this tight schedule. At this agonizing hour, all female relatives saunter into the room to help. Tradition requires one married female relative of the bridegroom to ‘help’ as well. My best friend, Mala, and I had a secret theory about why this custom was created. We resolutely believed that it was a clever ruse to examine the bride’s bare body for any potential issues. Well, the less said about it, the better.
Agonizing over the outfits probably takes one’s mind off the agonies of wedlock itself!
As I feel the sari, I am reminded not to drape it over my shoulder. The bride should drape it only at the auspicious hour, even if it is to be the afternoon of a Delhi Summer ! I suddenly come to a decision and my shadow recoils at this word! “DECISION?”… “Child! Don’t say you decide. Ask if you may.” This was the ever-obedient wife of my paternal grandfather’s first son—I mean—my mum. But she could not be just that—my mum—ever. She was always someone’s daughter-in-law, someone’s sister-in-law, someone’s aunt, someone’s something, before being my mum.
“Yes,” said my mum, “what is it you want to ask? Please tell me quickly because I have to go over to check on the cooks packing sweets for welcoming the groom’s party.” “Is there not a problem, mum?” I asked. “Don’t worry about anything, Radha,” my mum interrupted. She called me by my name only when she wanted to end the conversation and have the last word.
But the problem was still there. In our kind of marriages, while the groom married the bride only, the bride married the groom’s entire family. When I was growing up in Delhi, I would be fascinated by the way the groom came on horseback wielding a sword. Much as I wanted, I couldn’t get a glimpse of his face. It would be shielded from public view with a garland of flowers until he tied the ‘mangal sutra’, the sacred necklace, around the Bride’s overly adorned throat and bound her irrevocably to his family. Nor had I ever seen the bride’s face. She would have no doubt subjected herself to endless hours of torture at the parlour to beautify herself, but during the entire ceremony, she would be veiled and no one would see the makeover.
This always perplexed me. I would often ask my mother why the bride was all covered up and what was the point of beautifying herself if she did not want to show it off to everyone, and she would giggle as if I had asked her a funny question. “You will know when you are married child”, she would say and disappear into the kitchen. If I followed her with more questions, she would either shoo me out claiming to be busy or say I was too young to know. Looking at my mother then, I would often wonder when the last time she went to a parlour was. Had she ever been to one?
Forced to draw some kind of a conclusion on this burning issue, I assumed that South Indian customs did not have this fanfare. Whenever we went back to Chennai (Madras in those days) to visit family, I would chance upon some wedding ceremonies in the neighbourhood. Grooms came in cars, not on horses. The car had to be carefully chosen too! Very often, the car would be so decorated with flowers that one could easily mistake it for a huge bouquet of flowers laboriously making its way to the wedding. ‘Macbeth will not vanquished be, till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane’, the witch’s words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, would come to my mind every time I saw this spectre. The groom’s party would be received with a grand show of group orchestra, and the couple would be engaged and married over a period of two to three days in the presence of a huge crowd of relatives and friends. Sometimes, the groom would drive up to the marriage venue with close friends. His family and relatives would be waiting for him at the entrance to the hall. The entire party would be ushered in with pomp and show befitting a king. The bride at this point would be sneaked out by close friends to the patio or veranda or whichever spot was available to stand to view the groom, but….she must take care not to be seen by the groom.
When I told this to my daughter last week at the wedding of Mala’s daughter, she smiled and kept quiet. “Sunaina, it is absolutely true, I swear.” “LOL, mum, you don’t have to swear. Okay, tell you what. I believe you.” For the teens now, everything is a matter of ‘LOL’- “What is funny, Sunaina? What is there to laugh out loud about?” I felt like shaking her till I could knock some sense into her, but she looked so pretty in her netted Lehnga Choli and the elegant garnet necklace around her fair throat that I just smiled back. She got busy with her friend from Australia, and my eyes lingered on her. How she had grown in these eighteen years. The little princess had become a young lady. When had this happened? I could remember her share of coughs and colds, school sorrows, success stories, crushes and heartbreaks but…I checked my thoughts when I caught Sunaina looking at me, puzzled.
I must have sighed or emitted some such sound that she turned. “Mum”, she whispered, “don’t look now, but there is this boy next to aunty Shiela. Isn’t he kinda cute?” “Tactless!” thy name is Radha. I directly turned to look to where she had so discreetly pointed, and embarrassed her because the ‘kinda cute’ boy shied away to get himself a drink.
My mother sat on the sofa. She was holding a greeting card. Her hands trembled. Her eyes were swollen. Had she been crying? It was a week before the New Year and my father and I had just returned from Karol Bagh, the middle-class shopping paradise of 1980s New Delhi, to catch the New Year light up. When my mother saw me, she burst out: “How could you do this to me, Radha? Have I not taught you to stay safe? Stay away from boys? Walk with your head bent down at all times?”
I almost said, “Mum, what if I walked into a red line?”
In those days, there were many private buses that plied the roads of New Delhi. With minds set on profits, the drivers were a menace on the streets. Afraid of smiling at this concocted image, I stood with my head bent. My mother hadn’t revealed the cause of her anger yet. She just sat on the sofa and shook the greeting card at me. My father took it from her trembling hand and passed it to me. It was a card from one of my classmates- a boy. He had wished all of us a happy New Year.
“Mum, he is a classmate.” “It is the same”, she burst out crying. Today he will send you a card, tomorrow he will come home, and the day after, neighbours will tell me that they saw the two of you together at the cinema.
I tried to retaliate but stopped short as I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Mala smiling at me. “Hi buddy, dreaming again?” I sadly smiled. “Radha”, she continued, “haven’t you punished yourself enough for all that happened?” “No, Mala, I am not thinking of them anymore. It is her…” Recollecting my conversation with Sunaina now, I looked for her. She was not by my side. Looking around, I saw her talking to the boy she had pointed out to me. “Mala, in those days, getting a card from a boy was punishable. Wasn’t it?”
Mala passed me the drink she had brought for me and I gratefully took it from her. I needed to focus and the mocktail helped me. It was my favourite mojito with an extra dash of basil. It had been Dave’s favourite drink when he was getting me to try what he called real drinks.
Dave and I. I spent some of the best time of my life with Dave. We met at Changi airport, three years after I had moved to Singapore.
“Moved!” What a ubiquitous word. It meant many things, was liberally used but seldom conveyed anything. The point of time that I refer to, it actually meant fleeing home—my wedding to be more precise. Let us return to my wedding day.
After my mother had attended to the packing of sweets for the groom’s reception, she sat me down on my single bed in my room. She remained standing. When I pointed to a place beside me asking her to sit down, she said smilingly, “that place is now reserved for a more important member of your family” The word “your” perplexed me.
“Radha”, she said with an intensity in her eyes I was unfamiliar with. “I may not have been a fun mother but you know I have always cared about you. I am happy that I have brought you safely this far without any scandals.” Another word that perplexed me. “Scandal, mum?” I exclaimed. She went on, as if she had not heard me. “I suffered immensely owing to a scandal.” I couldn’t believe my ears. My mother’s life was sensational after all!
I must have had a wicked smile on my face that made her hastily add, “no, no. Nothing to do with me. It was my sister, your aunt. She eloped with a married man. My father died of shock and my mother never forgave her for it.” “Do you mean, aunt Shanthi?” I asked even though my mother had no other sister. “But you two are such good friends, aren’t you?” I added. “Yes, after my mother passed away, I could not ignore her anymore. I was the only other family member and her married life wasn’t perfect.” A sad, distant look filled her eyes and softened her facial features. My mother almost looked like an angel to me.
She spoke. “Your father’s family never let go of a single opportunity to taunt me. Your father ignored them. I couldn’t.” While I just sat there gazing at her, she suddenly sprang back to action. The softness was gone. The angel cowered when my mother’s left- brain took charge. “So dear, I have done my duty by you and lived up to their expectations. And you have to live up to everyone’s expectations too.”
The bomb had been dropped! Expectations, expectations, expectations! What are the parameters of this word? No Dictionary or Thesaurus in the world can define what it was to meet people’s expectations in those days. Or these days. Or ever.
Unaware of this turmoil in my rebellious mind, my mother went on: “Tomorrow, a new phase of your life starts. You will go to your permanent home, permanent family and friends. Your husband’s parents will be your parents. His brothers and sisters will be your brothers and sisters too.”
If I had said this to Sunaina, she would have laughed and said in her cute way, “What?” and planting a kiss on my cheek, she would have said, “mum, just chillax!” But I couldn’t have spoken like that to my mother. Girls of my age in those times did not speak up for themselves…at least were not expected to.
“If you have issues with your husband or with his family, you must learn to bear with it rather than bring it to us here. I never did.” Then she gently bent over and touched my cheek. “Your husband should be everything to you, Radha. Don’t ever displease him.” Just as I thought my mother was going to lecture me on the pleasures and displeasures of a marital relationship, but her right hand lightly touched my head as she breezed out of my room. An older person touching the head of a young one with the right hand is a universally accepted symbol of blessing in the Indian culture. But now, my mother’s hand sent shivers down my spine. What she had said didn’t make sense to me. How did marriage change a person’s life so much? What did she mean by ‘your’ family?
During the marriage ceremony, there is a ritual when the bride is “baptised” again. She is given a new identity and this is done in a symbolic way. The bride sits on her father’s lap (God save frail fathers!) and he cups her hands within his hands. The groom then keeps his right hand below those of the father. The priest mouths a few sacred chants and sprinkles water on the bride’s head. After this, the father is asked to withdraw his hands so that the bride’s hands may rest on the groom’s palm. The bride is now handed over, literally and symbolically. She doesn’t belong to her parents anymore. She has been handed over to a stranger and his kin!
The evening Sun had begun to descend behind the tall buildings that encircled our ‘type 4’ government flat in New Delhi. Across the Ring road, that had been named thus owing to the way it looped around the capital city, evening prayers could be heard in the Sikh temple. It must be a special day at the temple, I thought absently. I had never heard it before.
Probably someone’s praying for me.
I shuddered at what had passed between myself and my mother today. From tomorrow, I will have a new mother and a father, and many brothers and sisters. Why? Because I will be married to a man who belongs to them. I must begin at the beginning. Learn to love them, care for them and make them mine. Why?
My mind was made up. I called up Mala. Over the muffled tones of my conversation with Mala, I could hear my father speaking to the neighbour. “kal aa jana Mehra ji. Hamari beti ki shaadi hai.” My father was inviting the neighbour to my wedding but referred to me as, “our daughter”. It was all very well to be called “beti” by adults when you are young but now such terms were unpleasant, to say the least. Why should I have another father in Mehraji? Was I not happy enough to have my very own biological father? Honestly, how could any other man really be my father?
I hung up after exchanging quick notes with Mala. I shut the door of my room, sat down on my bed and breathed deeply. There was no other go. I pulled out my suitcase which I had last used on a school trip to Shimla, threw some daily wear outfits into it. After tucking my suitcase under the bed, I did a brief tour of my home. My mother was instructing the cooks about breakfast for the following morning. I peeped out of the window in my father’s study that overlooked an open area. During weekday evenings, boys played cricket here, and when they did not show up, girls played badminton. At times, at sundown, elderly men gathered here and discussed politics. Now, my father was there. He was talking to Guptaji from the next block. I watched my father for a while. He smiled proudly and held his head high while talking to him. Guptaji had issues with his children. Both of them had married out of caste, and this had been a cause of his embarrassment in the neighbourhood for some years. My father was his good friend as they worked in the same government department. They both would retire together next year.
I sternly wiped the tears that trickled down my cheeks and stepped away from the window. I picked up my suitcase from my room and walked out of my home.
What happened after that can be told in a few sentences but I do not have the precise words to do so. Mala met me at the airport, handed me the tickets I had requested for. I flew to Mumbai with Mala that evening from where I fled my homeland in a few days’ time to Singapore.
I had seldom left Delhi, and never alone. I felt a strange tingling in my soles, a strange sense of independence and fear. The vast expanse of Terminal 1 at Changi airport stumped me. I suddenly felt like a dwarf who had landed on a giant’s palm. I breathed deeply to calm myself and looked around. For the first time, I noticed how some passengers had stretched themselves out on the vacant benches for a quick shut eye. Sahana, my distant cousin, born and brought up in California often narrated stories of travelling across the Atlantic and much wanted stopovers in Asian airports. The immigration had a welcome feel to it. It welcomed back returning citizens and permanent residents of the country and wished the tourists a happy stay.
What was I? A tourist? A refugee? A renegade?
I was to stay with Mala’s cousin, Juhi, till I could be on my own. Juhi’s husband owned a private educational institution in Singapore and I hoped to teach English there till I could find something else to do. The paperwork needed to be done and this I thought would take long. But much to my pleasure, things fell in place for me.
Sometimes, things are not difficult. One just has to be in the right place at the right time. In those days, it was not so difficult to get a permanent residence in Singapore as it is now. Juhi was equally resourceful and she arranged everything for me. And before long, I was a permanent resident of Singapore with a full time job and a flat that I would pay off over a period of time.
This was also the time I met Dave.
Dave, I discovered on another occasion, was a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, and had a contract of three years to teach Diaspora studies in the department of English Language and Literature. His wife and daughter were in Australia. It was during Christmas break that I bumped into Dave, literally so, at Changi airport. I had come to the airport to pick up Juhi who was returning from a trip to India. I came a little early to get my morning cup of coffee at Starbucks. I sat down on one of the comfortable chairs in the waiting area and took out Straits Times that I had brought along.
I was not sure how much time had passed but the coffee in my cup was still hot. A report about a young foreigner’s vandalism and Singapore’s take on it caught my attention. Just then, Juhi texted that she had landed. Wanting to finish up reading the article, I got up, still reading, and walked towards the glass panels from where I would be able to see Juhi at the baggage claim. I was almost there when I heard a deep voice, “Whoa, watch it miss!” Before I could ‘watch it’, harm had been done. I had walked straight into Dave who was carrying a mug of coffee and in trying not to spill his coffee, he lost balance and landed flat on his bottom. “Ouch”, I winced in vicarious pain. He made quite a spectacle sitting there with his hands still balancing his mug. I awkwardly folded the newspaper and doubtfully gave him a hand. He passed the coffee mug to me and heaved himself up. Even though I profusely apologized, Dave frowned. He must have noticed how I was trying my best not to smile. Honestly, how could a full-sized man like Dave fall flat on colliding with a chit of a girl? Well, that is what I was, wasn’t I?
To save us from further embarrassment, Dave’s wife came out of the baggage claim with their two-year-old daughter. “If that is not my little angel”, he said to the child that dashed to him with all her might. He swept her off the floor and she seemed to know what was coming. She squealed with joy as he threw her high up in the air, and caught her with his strong arms. Once she was safely in her father’s arms, she demanded that he do it again… and again…and again. But she chuckled as he sat her on his shoulders and walked away proudly with his arms around his wife. In this emotional moment, I was forgotten.
I met Dave again (if the first time can be called a meeting) at a conference in the National University of Singapore. I was a delegate from my institution and Dave was a keynote speaker. Later that evening, a conference dinner had been organized for all of us. I could not wait to speak to Dave because I wanted to apologize to him for my rudeness at our earlier meeting. Juhi’s husband, who had been invited to the dinner, introduced me to Dave. He didn’t seem to remember me and I decided not to apologize. At dinner, Dave was the centre of attraction. His most recent fiction on the aborigines of Australia had taken the academic world by storm. There had been rave reviews about it in reputed journals and the book’s sale increased by its visibility. Juhi’s husband was sure it would be nominated for the Commonwealth prize for the year. Dave smiled at these comments and wishes.
There was a touch of sadness in his smile. I could see it in the slight droop of his upper lip and I wanted to smooth out the crease. He suddenly turned to me and said, “are you not the girl who almost trampled over me at Changi last Christmas?” There was a sudden hush at our table. He was still looking at me. He clearly expected an answer.
“No”, I stammered, “I mean, I didn’t exactly trample over you.” “Well”, he said, “I said almost.” He burst out laughing and everyone followed suit. I ran out of the room and cried my way back home.
A week later, Juhi called me at work. “Hi Radha, what are you doing this evening?” I wasn’t doing anything and said so. “Okay then. I will pick you up at six and we will visit a friend”, she said and hung up before I could answer. She arrived promptly and we drove off in her new Lamborghini to the friend’s house. Dave’s wife greeted us at the door. I recognized her directly but she didn’t. Well, she hadn’t even seen me in the first place.
We were ushered into a small but tastefully furnished living room. Noticing that I was looking around her living room, “Dave doesn’t like any fanfare”, Dave’s wife cooed as she opened the door to the study and announced our arrival to Dave. I was ready to run out again but Dave had already stepped out of his study. He greeted Juhi and came towards me. “Hi young lady, can we be friends?” “I am sorry, Mr Professor”, I blurted, “I didn’t really mean to…”. “Well, that’s settled then”, he laughed, interrupting my attempt at apology. “We are friends now. That will give me some immunity from being run over.” My protests were drowned by raucous laughter.
I tried not to sulk during dinner. Juhi came to my rescue occasionally but I could not sit with them any longer. I did not belong here. I could never fit in here. My home, my family, my friends, were elsewhere. I was not sure when I had walked to the small balcony attached to the dining area. As I stood there looking at the symposium of lights in the adjacent blocks of houses, I felt a movement behind me. I was surprised to see Dave standing behind me. He stood there with his hands tucked into the back pockets of his Jeans. This opened up his chest in a way that was comforting. It was as if I just needed to rest my head there to free myself from my fears. “Radha”, he said without the Caucasian habit of adding ‘r’ at the end of names ending with ‘a’. “I am not sure how you feel now and I will not pretend to understand. But I do know that though we are different, we are still like one another.” While I was trying to figure out this paradox in my mind, he had whisked me back into the living room where the others had sat down for a few drinks.
“A Chambertin for the lady”, Dave announced, much to my consternation. I had never ever tasted alcohol. What was this strange drink he had proposed for me, I thought. Juhi seemed to read my mind. “It is just wine, Radha”, she whispered to me as I sat down beside her. “You can give it a try”. Dave had already poured me a glass of the drink and had placed it before me. What he did next took me by the deepest surprise! He moved to the centre of the living room and raised himself to his full height. He spread his arms in a way that reminded me of Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood hero who made his way into the hearts of millions of teens with this pose in his romantic films. Dave was saying something. I strained my ears to hear over the din the two ladies were making. They were clapping away at what he said and called for repeats. “Encore, Encore, Bonaparte”, squealed Dave’s wife. Juhi picked up her class and tapped on it with her spoon. I watched her intently because I was scared the glass would break with her intoxicated banging on it. Dave was saying, “nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin.” None of this made sense to me.
I met Dave again when his wife and daughter were to return to Australia. Emotions were running high. Dave was in his study when I arrived at their flat. His wife looked at me briefly but continued to tick items off from her travel checklist. She looked unnecessarily busy. Not knowing what to do, I walked towards the study. Just as I was about to open the door, Dave stepped out.
For a moment, I didn’t recognize him. He had a light stubble on his fair chin. It suited him well but…he didn’t look happy. He seemed to have been drinking all morning. I remembered Juhi telling me how once he got to his bar, no one could draw him to anything else. He had this kind of love-hate relationship with his bar. His wife often said that he drank when he was happy and got drunk when he was sad.
Dave was drunk. I drove them to the airport. On the way back, Dave spoke dreamily about his daughter, his work and his dead parents. He seemed to be unaware of my presence. He was talking loudly and there was a sad slur to his speech. I understood. I could connect. I drove on silently as my thoughts drifted through those years of shame, guilt and betrayal.
When I returned to my flat, I made the dreaded phone call. The voice on the other side sounded exhausted, disappointed, lost. Tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to speak but words refused to form on my lips. The mirror across the room reflected the blurry image of a young girl who had run away from her marriage and shamed her parents forever in their community of Mehrajis and Guptajis. I was guilty. Irrefutably guilty. How could I face my mother after all this?
“Hello?” There was a brief hesitation, then expectation and hope in the next “hello” on the other side. “Radha, is that you?” my mother’s voice trembled. Tears trickled down my cheeks. I stifled a deep cry rising from the pit of my stomach. My intestines churned and my heart pounded against my chest threatening to spring out of my mouth and die on the floor. My phone fell from my hand and the battery popped out. The phone died.
This was six years ago. I never called again. Dave returned to his family in Australia after his contract expired. I didn’t call him. Drowning myself in my work was the only option. I hated holidays. Not even Juhi could pull me out of my hopelessness this time. Mala called every week but we never spoke about my parents. This week when she called, she gave me some good news. She had planned to spend this Christmas break with me.
I forced myself to draw elaborate holiday plans to travel in and out of Singapore. She hadn’t been to Sydney. So I planned to treat her to a holiday there. There was another reason for this plan. Mala had lost her husband quite suddenly. He had travelled to an interior region in South India on an archaeological expedition and had not returned. Nobody knew what happened to him. His body hadn’t been found either. This was last year. She survived the trauma only because of her twelve-year-old daughter. This was Mala’s first trip out after the incident. I wanted her to enjoy it to the utmost.
After spending a week in Singapore to visit all the old attractions like Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, Botanical Gardens, Haw Par Villa, Sentosa, to Esplanade-The theatres by the Bay, and the new ones like Gardens by the Bay and Singapore flyer, we flew to Sydney to spend a week there. I had been there once with Juhi and family but hadn’t seen much. This time, I particularly wanted to see the famous Blue Mountains. Many people at my workplace had mentioned the legend of the ‘three sisters’ associated with these mountains.
We arrived in Sydney one sunny afternoon and planned to visit the Blue Moutains the following morning. By the time we reached Black Town, clouds had formed in the clear sky. I was dismayed. When we reached the mountains, they were completely shrouded in thick clouds. But we were tourists. We had all the time on hand… until the week was over. So we decided to wait.
We ate, shopped in the only shop next to the food stalls, and returned to the viewing spot in an hour’s time. Much to our indignation, we heard some tourists walk away with a look of satisfaction on their faces. They had actually got a glimpse of these mountains in this hour. But how? Had it not been completely overcast? We stood around not knowing what to think. An aborigine was seated on a pavement playing the didgeridoo. The song he sung seemed to speak of an everlasting sorrow of the three sisters.
Just then, I saw him. He was leaning against the viewing parapet and looking at the vast expanse of the magic that Nature has selflessly given to mankind. A young girl stood by him eating a sandwich. She was intently listening to the didgeridoo. A few minutes passed. I was watching the girl. There was something familiar about her. The man with her was still absorbed in the scenery. He had a paper and pencil in his hand and he was periodically scribbling into it.
The girl said something to her companion, he nodded and she walked to sit beside the aborigine playing the instrument. Just as Mala and I got up to buy ourselves a drink, he called out to the girl. I stopped short in my tracks. “Dave, is that you?” I called excitedly as I ran to where the man stood. My voice trailed off as I saw someone I didn’t recognize. He was Dave for sure, but transformed. His face looked pinched, his arms hung by him as if he did not how to use them. His legs trembled when he walked.
“Radha, how good to see you!” he said in a soft voice. “You look beautiful as ever”, he added.
“Dave, you liar!” I exclaimed. “But what have you done to yourself? And, is that your little princess?” smiling at the puzzled eyes that stared at me.
“Yes, that’s her”, he said proudly. I almost saw the old twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of his daughter.
“Dave, it is so good to see you. How’s your wife? And why do you look like this? Is everything okay? Where is your wife?”
“Woah, Radha, so many questions. Which one must I answer first?” he tried to smile in vain. He was almost making an effort to speak, I thought.
“Dave”, I said, moving closer to him. “Is everything alright?” “No’, he said almost immediately. “Jane left me last year to marry a businessman. She was tired of my teacher’s salary”, he added with a bitter smile.
“And your daughter? Have you taken care of her since then?” I did not want to probe but I could not think straight. We had walked to where his daughter sat. He sat down by her while nodding to me, patted her gently on her back saying it was time to leave. She obediently got up and threw the sandwich wrapper away in a trash nearby. Taking this moment, I hurriedly asked Dave if he was well. “No” he said. “Not for long anyway”.
I stood confounded. Dave was not well. His wife had left him. His daughter was still a child. He was walking away with her. I can’t just stand here, I said to myself. Mala had just returned with our drinks and stood perplexed at my distress. I was trying to focus on Dave’s receding figure. I just briefly turned to instruct Mala to stay where she was and chased after Dave. But I reached the parking lot just to see the duo drive off in their land cruiser.
Back in Singapore, I could not focus on anything. My work suffered. My students complained. Juhi’s husband advised me to go on leave. “You are not losing your job, Radha. I am only asking you to go on unpaid leave till you can come to terms with whatever it is that is troubling you.” When I looked up at him doubtfully, he sympathetically added, “I am always there for you but business is business, dear. Hope you understand”.
I did not understand and I didn’t care. There was only one thing that needed to be done. I had to sort Dave’s life. I got his address from an old contact at the National University. Before long, I was at Dave’s door. He invited me in, and before I could thank him, he had slumped on a chair nearby. I helped him to a sofa in the living room and sat beside him. The house was small and untidy. Books, CDs, and magazines lay scattered on the sofa. Dave suddenly had a fit of cough and he stumbled into the bathroom. He came out in a few minutes and sat down exhausted.
I looked closely at him. His T-shirt was stained. “Dave, did you just cough up blood?” I blurted. “No silly. Not all that bad”. I looked again and wasn’t sure if that was blood. I didn’t want to be sure. Why could it not be something else? But I said, “what do you mean, not all that bad? So there is something wrong. Isn’t there?”
He did not answer. He closed his eyes and leaned back on the sofa. Even as I looked, he seemed to have drifted into a deep sleep. I may have sat there a good half hour when the doorbell rang. I opened the door and his little princess stood there, smiling. Her smile died when she saw me. “Dad”, she shouted as she ran in. I held her back. She struggled but soon gave in. I knelt before her and kissed her on her cheek. “Little princess, Dad is tired. I can take care of you. May I?” she gently nodded and tiptoed past her father to her room.
I walked into the kitchen which looked unused. There were a few bottles of sauces in the cupboard, some pasta, some leafy vegetables in the fridge, a can of tuna and a bottle of juice. I fixed a small plate of pasta with Pesto sauce for her, which she gobbled up hungrily. I poured myself a glass of juice and waited for Dave to wake up.
Days passed. Dave seemed to say little and eat very little. He began to spend more time in his room now that his little princess was ready to trust me more. A fortnight after I had arrived, Dave had one of his cough attacks. He threw up before he could rush to the bathroom. His man’s kerchief would not contain his secret. Before my eyes, Dave’s form dropped to the floor, and the kerchief soaked in blood sluggishly floated down after him. When we arrived at the hospital, Dave was pronounced dead.
His colleagues attended his funeral that was held without much fanfare. His wife did not attend. A week after our loss, Dave’s daughter and I were seated in the living room. I had managed to feed her some cereal when a registered post arrived with a bouquet of yellow roses. I opened the post with trembling hands and held my breath as I read its contents. It was the court notification of a will that Dave had left with his lawyer. Dave had nominated me as his daughter’s guardian and I was to complete certain formalities if I was to take her with me to Singapore. I pulled out a yellow rose from the Bouquet and held it to my cheek. It was the symbol of trust Dave had placed in me. He hadn’t asked me. He knew I would. I was happy that he had placed this faith in me, as a friend.
On our flight to Singapore, his little princess held my hand and fell into a deep slumber. Her eyebrows were relaxed. Her forehead was smooth. She wore a garnet necklace around her slender throat. Had I not seen Dave’s wife wear it when I visited them the first time? I tried to remove it so that she could sleep comfortably, but she held my hand. Her eyes did not open but she spoke distinctly, ‘aunt Radha, can I call you mum?’ I hugged her closely to my heart and said, “yes, yes”. “And what shall I call you? My little princess?” And she smiled in her sleep.
Dave’s little princess turned eighteen last month. She loves to wear Indian outfits, eat Indian food, and watch Bollywood movies. She is a bright child and aced her school certificate examination. Her favourite past time is to read her dad’s research papers and last year, she compiled some of them for publication in a journal. The papers were published in a special issue and titled, Dave Chapell’s papers compiled by his little princess.
I call her Sunaina, which means ‘eyes that Bless’. Mala calls us to the wedding altar. The marriage is about to be solemnised. I look for Sunaina who is still talking to the cute boy. Dave’s little princess is my beautiful yellow rose.