“Smug in your new-found fame?” the sharp voice has an unlikely chirp.
I am startled; I’d thought I was alone in my room. Raising a subtle hand to wipe off beads of perspiration from my forehead, I give the Voice a closer look. Didi! She was older than what I last remembered, but looked as elegant as she did decades ago.
“We knew you’d be a writer some day, you’ve done us proud.”
I beam. “Sit, Didi.” She does not.
“So you’re still the romantic, I see.”
I look at Didi and blush as she continues, “You gave a happily-ever-after end to your book without bothering about reality?”
There is accusation evident and I fumble for words. “The genre was Romance, Di,” I lamely offer, “so…,” I trail off.
“So all Romances, according to our family author, are fairy tales?” The tone holds no rancour, just a wistful question followed by a sigh. “Did you love?” The blunt question throws me off-guard. We did not talk of love in our family. I look uncomfortable and try hard to not turn beet-root.
“Aah, the conventional family girl!” Didi laughs. “How old are you now?”
“Thirty eight?” She guffawed, “Thirty eight years and you still can’t talk about love with your family?” I say nothing. “How did you write about it, then?” she chuckled. “Or is that why you wrote about it, because you could not speak?”
I remain quiet. Didi is older to me by ten years or more and we’ve been taught not to talk back to our elders. Through sarcasm and caustic remarks, we keep quiet. We listen to whatever is heaped upon us and clear baggage on our younger family members, never on the ones that gave them to us. It is an ongoing cycle and keeps everyone feeling important and happy.
I was in Class IX (that makes me fourteen years) when Didi had left home. How old was she then? I only remember snatches of hushed conversation between her mother and mine that she was marriageable. Jethima was embarrassed that her daughter had fallen for a Malayali boy and declared that she would marry him or nobody. The declaration was subservient to the act; the idea, the thought that she could look outside her community for affection enraged her father beyond control. Didi was too far gone in love to care about what she was doing to her parents. Who wouldn’t? With a man like Sathya, one had no choice. He was so dashing that he took our breath away. He certainly took mine.
Children in our family were kept away from any news that could corrode their moral fibre. Didi’s love story found a fan following among the teenagers of the house, the very ones the parents wanted to withhold it from. We were witness to the wrath of the elders, to the communal divide, to the illogical emphasis on filial obedience, and above all, to the absolute taboo that love was made out to be. Our firebrand elder sister, Didi, the smartest teacher in her school, was put through the worst possible treatment at home. Jethima threatened to swallow poison if Didi did not detach from Sathya and got sleeping pills to give the threat its rightful form. The family, biological and extended, made it their mission to make Didi change her mind but the Beloved was not to give in without a fight. She fought for two long hard years. We watched in awe as the darling of family transformed into the black sheep. We swore we would never fall in love and bring disgrace to our parents as big sister had. Didi ceased to be the example we had grown up emulating; our parents did not mention her in conversation for fear that the children pass stray remarks about her questionable behaviour. Surreptitiously, mine became the unwilling head where they lay the family crown. The quintessential good girl of the Roys was no more Piali Roy but her younger cousin who was learning about love and its aftermath from the family rebel.
Sathya had brought his parents around; they had come to our house to ask for Didi’s hand in marriage only to be rebuffed by Jethu who had strict ideas about tradition and family values. Didi shrivelled, her mother grew paler but the patriarch was not to relent for that meant accepting defeat at the hands of his progeny. He declared that he would marry his daughter to his friend’s son and set about making preparations for the two to meet, when, defying his despotism, Didi left home.
That was twenty-four years ago. I had grown up, forgotten my promise, fallen in love, married the man I loved and written my first book. And if there was one story I could tell, it had to be Didi’s. Something within me wanted her love to culminate in marriage regardless of what had transpired in real life. Was it guilt that I’d gone back on my own word and tread the same path? Was it my own redemption that I had not been true to the family crown that almost crushed my head? Why was it so important for me to write Didi’s story? What pressing need forced me to write an account without even changing names and giving her saga a romantic end? Was it because I owed her a debt? Was it my way of telling her that her sacrifice had made our parents putty in our hands? That when most of the next generation followed her example, they faced no opposition, no harsh words, no discourses. If anything, we were encouraged to find our own partner and follow our own heart?
My debut novel was my tribute to a sister who had paved the way for my own smooth journey. The book had been received well, was making me famous albeit not rich, and being hailed in the literary circles as a masterpiece on the caste differences that still plague 21st century India. The publishers had even managed to make me reveal the autobiographical elements of the story, and I had obliged. What was there to conceal about a quarter- century old family legend? Surely, the people involved had moved on and shrivelled with age?
And now here was Didi, all these years later, alleging that I was marketing her tragedy. The sting in that charge made me want to retaliate, defend myself, plead innocence.
“Do you know what happened to Sathya?” she said, oblivious to my mental chatter.
“I heard he waited for you for long,” I said meekly.
“How long is long enough, Shona?” Shona, a word of endearment to address a close one, brought a lump to my throat. Shona? Was it affection or was it sarcasm? I could not tell.
I remain quiet. What can I say? I, who had known only love, no separation, no longing?
“Sathya came to meet me in Mussoorie, to tell me that he was there for me. He took me, made me his own and left saying he was coming to marry me.”
I feel my heart thumping in my chest. He took me. I can only imagine what that must have meant two decades ago. He took me!
“I heard later that he had married a Malayali girl his parents had chosen for him. Lakshmi. She brought him wealth and stability. And respectability, of course,” Didi laughed.
I can feel my throat parched. I had heard about the wedding, vaguely, indifferently, too busy with my own life to bother about someone else’s.
Didi never married. She had lived through the betrayal with a stoic dignity. There was no one she was angry with or bitter towards. Her family had wanted her to return home, safe in the knowledge that Sathya was married and they would have their daughter back.
“I’m at home here,” she told them from the residential school she had joined as teacher, and they knew they had lost her forever. They knew from experience that persuasion would not work. Nor would tears. If Didi was past caring before Sathya, she was more so after him. She never looked back at what was once her home. Her parents pined away remorsefully but nothing they did or said could convince her to return to the family fold.
“I wish you’d written the real story instead of the glossed version.”
“Didi, I… I wanted it to end happily, somewhere at least. You two were an ideal couple…”
“The seed of betrayal is inherent in love,” she mused, “only, we are too naïve to know it then.”
“Not if you’re lucky,” she smiled affectionately, her wrinkly eyes glowing.
“How did you feel when you heard he’d married?”
“Numb, I went numb. I thought he would come back to take me home, as he’d promised.”
The fan whirred over our heads and the old refrigerator creaked as the two sisters were joined by a gnawing vacuum that gaped as an open wound time had only worsened.
“I couldn’t be angry with baba anymore; he was not the real culprit. For many years I wondered what had been greater- the heartbreak or the humiliation.”
“What was?” I brave the question.
“The betrayal. The shameless breach of trust. So absolute that I did not dare to love again. Because I could not trust.”
“I know… what is there if not trust… ?”
“The next time you write a story, write about it as real. You understand now what I mean?”
I nod, tears welling up my eyes. “When did you stop waiting, Didi?” I must know this. Not so much for me but for posterity. How much should one, anyone, wait before giving up in despair?
“When I heard that his wife had borne a son. Vishnu.”
“I’d heard- yes I had my sources to give me his news- that initially there were problems in his marriage. That delighted me, gave me hope that he would return. But Lakshmi was a sensible, God-fearing girl. She knew about me, his past, and made certain that he did not revisit it. His parents ensured that they stayed together as a couple.”
I still hadn’t gotten my answer. How long did one wait before moving on? Didi read my mind.
“And then they had a daughter, Sharda, and I gave up completely. There was no chance now that Laskhmi would die at childbirth or that he would ever return.”
I am amazed at Didi’s courage. Lakshmi, Vishnu, Sharda – Didi knew them all by name. She had lived Sathya’s life vicariously, without being his wife. She was the bystander, the other woman Sathya may have come to but never did. In those days of no technology, she had kept up with a fraudster whose every milestone must have created another dent in her plunging self-esteem. Was this love or was this madness?
My eyes are oceans. Didi is poised, detached.
“Seven years, shona. Seven long years before I gave up completely.” By now Sathya had become a neutral third party, we did not mention him by name.
“Do you feel angry with him, Di?” I sniff.
“Did you not love anyone else, ever?”
“I was attracted to and they were too but I could not trust, not after that.”
Twenty four years of not trusting people! I feel a seething anger within me, directed towards that callous man who had ruined my sister’s life, damaged her self-worth and charred her Soul so brutally that she could not muster the courage to answer to a call of love. She found it simpler to ensconce herself within the safety of a boarding school and live a life of seclusion, bereft of family, of love, of life while he went on to marry, rear children and expand his father’s business empire. How different would Didi’s life be if the man had not deserted her, if her love’s labor had not been lost, if they did live happily ever after…
Didi disappeared from the room as mysteriously as she had appeared. Was it a dream; was it my sub-conscious goading me on to reveal the truth? Was it my guilt coaxing me to unburden it?
I decide to call up my publisher and suggest a rewrite for Love’s Labor. My debut novella has gone viral and given me the author tag. I love being an author.
“Whyyyy Andy, the book’s doing so well! You want to pull it off the racks and do a rewrite?” Naheed shrieks from across the world. “It’s also on Amazon now!”
“Yes, Naheed.” I am resolute.
“We’ll lose business, Andy. The book is a best-seller! Nobody wants to hear a sob story, you know that. We’ve done enough market research to know that the world needs happier narratives. We’re catering to the digital audience, Love’s Labor is a quick-read meant to leave a reader smiling. It has the perfect happy ending. Don’t change anything about it please!”
I am quiet this side of the line, rationale lost on me.
“What has suddenly gotten into you?” Naheed is exasperated. Gone is the friendly voice, I can only hear the business professional over the miles. “Andy?”
I hang up.
I need to tell the world that there is a life we live and a life we could have and that we need to choose with care which one we own.
This is my tribute to a sister who lived a life she needn’t have…