When we reached Saroja’s house, I found her waiting for us. I got down from the autorikshaw first as I was sitting at the edge of the seat, hanging would be more appropriate. I wondered how the four us could get into the autorikshaw, meant for, at the most three persons apart from the driver. I was the skinniest of the four and that’s why, I thought while getting out. Saroja’s house was located in the bazaar area and if she were not waiting for us at the small door between two shops, I wouldn’t have been able to spot that door. She gave us a very warm welcome.
Although she had been my classmate for more than a year, and was part of our group frequenting the university canteen almost every afternoon, I knew very little about her. Born and brought up in Hubli, she was essentially a city girl. She wore skirts, t-shirts, and jeans and high heels. Well below five feet, she was slender but curvy, with swells and depths at appropriate places and proportions. She was neither fair nor dark; her complexion could best be described as the colour of pale cinnamon. She corrected her myopic eyesight by powerful lenses, but whenever any boy was around, she would remove her glasses. It was evident that she was worried about the dark circles around her eyes, but never guessed that they didn’t in the least reduce her attraction. Yes, she was attractive, but not very beautiful. On the long corridors of the university, we the boys observed many times that her casual gait changed into catwalk as soon as she found that we had spotted her. This was a topic of prolonged and hilarious discussions amongst us in the hostel.
Another thing peculiar to her was her speech, that is the habitual manner of speaking. She had a very soft and very feminine voice. She wasn’t a chatterbox but she used to quip now and then. If you were not attentive, you are certain to miss out what she said, for she delivered her quips at express speed. Aside from all her mannerisms, she was very kind, considerate and condescending to her friends. We used to make fun of her, behind her back and sometimes right under her nose, but none of us could have disliked her.
Her house, though with a small and narrow entrance, was sufficiently spacious with two stories. Though the furniture were old and worn out, they were covered with artfully decorated covers. She stayed with her mother and an elder sister; both were present when we visited her. Her sister must have been only a couple of years older, but not even half as much good looking as Saroja. I couldn’t ask any personal question as to where her father was, what was he, did she have a brother or not and so on, neither in the presence of others, nor in person, for it would have been grossly inappropriate to do so. Asking very personal questions immediately after getting introduced is very common in this part of the world, but somehow, I had come to consider it as bad manners and as violating personal liberty. It might well have been the influence of the western literature and philosophy to which I had been exposed.
I began enjoying the get together, for Saroja and her mother were wonderful hosts. Saroja’s elder sister kept somewhat aloof, busying herself in the kitchen preparing breakfast for all. I observed that she smiled but very rarely and that a deep melancholy glued to her face as though eternally. In contrast Saroja was radiant and loquacious and she chatted with all of us garrulously. Their mother, in her early fifties was obese but surprisingly very agile. She too spoke with all of us, enquiring about our families, parents, family-properties, and our plan for the future.
“As far as Saroja is concerned, she need not work. We have sufficient income to take care of all our needs. Whenever she wants to marry, I can give my son-in-law, whatever dowry he may demand,” She said happily without noticing that Saroja was feeling uneasy and embarrassed.
“Two blocks each on the either side of this house were owned by my family and have come to me as parsimony,” she continued, “My parents were one of the richest family in this whole region once upon a time. But they lost much of their property just by their magnanimity. They land and buildings to educational institutions run by the maths.”
“Mother, what is the use of mulling over the past now?” Saroja interjected agitatedly.
“No dear, I am just giving some information,” her mother brushed her away and continued again, “Not that it matters now. But even now we’re left with sufficient and you needn’t get master’s degree to obtain a job. That is what I am trying to tell them.” I could see a scowl on Saroja’s face.
Oblivious to Saroja’s feelings and unconcerned about her remarks, her mother, this time looking at me as if she were addressing me alone, began with a renewed enthusiasm, “Our family is very liberal and modern in outlook, in spite of the fact that we belong to a conservative caste of Lingayats. Saroja is a very lucky girl. She may marry any person of her choice irrespective of his caste.”
Now even I was feeling embarrassed. Mohan and Nirupama were engaged in their own chat in whispers and probably didn’t hear anything. So were Saroja and Vani. Saroja was by now resigned to the fact that she could not bridle her mother’s cackle. I was left alone in the direct line of fire. Was she offering me something, or was she sounding me or was she indulging just in a small talk, I couldn’t figure out. Although Saroja looked busy talking to Vani, I knew she had all her ears to the dialogue between her mother and me. She would steal a glance at me now and then as if trying to know what I was going in my mind. But I was nothing but perplexed.
“Look, we have everything that is needed for a comfortable life. But what I do not have is a male child. That’s why my only condition to my future son in law will be that he should stay with us, as my son would’ve, if I had one,” Saroja’s mother was still concentrating on her speech and on me, as I suspected then.
To my relief, and perhaps to the relief of Saroja also, her elder sister entered the room with a big tray cluttered with plates of dosas, upama and sweets. She kept the tray on the teapoy and went inside without saying a word. My guess was she was to bring another tray, perhaps with cups filled with tea. Saroja’s mother had to cease her babble and she now addressed her younger daughter, “Saru, don’t just sit idly. Ask your friends to feel at home. Serve them breakfast.”
Saroja, with a relieved look in her eyes, got up and handed a plate to each of us and served chutney and pickles. I hadn’t had my breakfast and was starving. I said, “As far as food is concerned, aunty, I always feel at home, especially when I am not eating at my own home!”
Everyone laughed as I took my plate from the hands of Saroja and said, “Looks delicious! What are you waiting for, friends? Let’s attack!” I was surprised myself by what I had been able to do and say. All of us began to eat silently, for unlike in the west, it is considered bad manners to talk while eating in this part of the world.
It was not a breakfast, but what these days is called a brunch. Everything tasted so good that without anybody goading me to eat, I ate to the content of not only my stomach, but also heart. If you are compelled to eat in the hostel canteen everyday, you are certain to feel the way I did when I was offered such a delectable food. At about eleven, we took leave and decided to walk down to the bus stop instead of taking an autorikshaw. Saroja asked us to stay for the lunch; in fact she was begging her to stay till evening. But Mohan whispered to her that we’d some other plan. I didn’t know of any plan that we had, and I thought he was just making an excuse.
While walking back to the bus stop, the girls saw a readymade garment store and Mohan permitted them to go inside on the condition that we wait outside the store. He wanted to have a cigarette badly and I wanted to be with him alone, so I could clear some of the questions that were pestering me.
“Where is Saroja’s father?” I asked him as soon as he lit a cigarette staring at the back of the girls entering the store.
“Don’t you know?” he feigned surprise and said, “Her father left her mother for another younger woman. Now he visits them once a week, on Sundays. While studying for his graduation, he was staying with his maternal uncle, who was Saroja’s grandfather. The old man had taken pity on her father because apart from being very poor, he was a distant relative. The old man wanted him to marry Saroja’s mother, which the young boy obeyed dutifully. But when he completed his education and got a good job, he began to think that the old man had duped him into marrying his daughter. Then he fell in love with some colleague of his and married her. Saroja’s mother took everything into her stride and contented herself with taking care of her daughters.”
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed, but felt relieved that I didn’t ask any question about Saroja’s father while at her home. “How ungrateful people can be!”
I also lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. I had to ask another question and this was the only opportunity. So I asked it, “Her mother was continuously talking about Saroja’s mother. But Saroja has an elder sister about whom she didn’t even make a single reference. Why is that?”
Mohan, who was staring at a girl wearing tight jeans and t-shirt, turned his face towards me as if forcibly, and replied, “She’d been engaged once. Even the marriage invitations cards had been distributed. I’ve heard that it was a love at first sight for both the boy and girl. But at the last moment, the marriage was cancelled because of what Saroja’s father has done. Since then, Saroja’s elder sister has lost all interest in marriage. In fact she looks like she’s lost all interest in life. It is very painful to see a daughter in such a state of mind. Isn’t it?”
I was shocked speechless. I remembered all that Saroja’s mother was telling. It was not a blabber. She wanted at least her second daughter to be happily married. The melancholy filled face of Saroja’s sister came to my mind. I began to feel very sorry for her, for Saroja’s mother and Saroja herself. How could she look so happy in the university, having such difficulties, trials and tribulations at home? She was indeed a very brave girl. My respect for her multiplied that instant, but there was a bitter after taste to the scrumptious food I had had at her house.
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