On the street parallel to our home lived a Rajput family. Rajputs, as you might know, are a fierce and beautiful race, originators of Sati, the practice of urging a wife to leap on to her husband’s funeral pyre—for what is a woman worth without a man, anyway? Better to burn baby burn, and get all the endless vicious abuse a widow is subject to out of the way, once and for all. Never mind that in thousands of cases the husband is a doddering old fart, and the wife a young girl led to marital slaughter by virtuous parents. Duty and honor were considered paramount in those days, and a “good” woman was urged to end her life when her man was gone. Those who refused were drugged, thrown onto the funeral pyre, and drums were beaten loud and hard to drown out their shrieks.
Now Lakshmi, youngest of three graceful daughters born to this particular family, committed the mortal sin of falling in love with Shaukat, the attractive son of a local Muslim building contractor. Traditionally speaking, the Rajputs and the Muslims are arch enemies; so, when some spiteful gossip leaked the information to Lakshmi’s parents, her father—an important man in the Rajput community—went stark raving bonkers: Lakshmi was instantly pulled out of college, given the whipping of her life, and placed under house imprisonment. And since neighbourhood elders supported her parents for disciplining their wayward daughter in this drastic manner, not one adult attempted to ameliorate the poor girl’s fate.
Shocked, a bunch of us neighbourhood kids held a pow-pow to which we invited the grieving Shaukat. Since I was considered the bravest in that small group of rebels, it was decided that I would find out what was going on. Next morning we hid behind some bushes and waited until her father’s car drove out of their rambling house. Armed with a letter from her swain hidden in my shoulder bag, I walked in through her gate and rang the house bell. Her mother—a darkly pretty woman who spoke not a word of English, having come straight to the big city from a village near Jaipur—opened the door, probably thinking it was a salesman. I pushed past her and raced up the stairs.
Lakshmi, who had spied me entering the gate through her window, was standing at the door to her bedroom. Quickly I slipped her the love letter, trying to control my tears—in the space of a couple of days, her eyes were swollen with crying and her attractive face was covered with masses of pimples. In a low and dramatic voice I delivered Shaukat’s romantic oath—that he would rescue her one way or another and make her his bride. The light that suddenly shone through the stark misery reflected on her face made me want to cry even more.
Like Rajput heroines of yore, her genes had made Lakshmi not just smart, but amazingly resilient. It did not take her long to convince her father—in truth, a kind man who simply could not break free of the old ways—that she had “reformed”. Then, three years later, exactly a day past her twenty-first birthday, Lakshmi simply disappeared from the house, leaving behind all the expensive gifts her parents had given her. A note sat on her bed: “You gave me everything material,” it read in true Bollywood style, “but not my heart’s desire.”
Her father drove frantically over to Shaukat’s house. “Where’s that bastard?” he screamed in Hindi at the servant woman who stood by their gate, desultorily chewing paan. The old thing spat a stream of red betel juice over the wall. “Gone,” she announced with a shrug. “Nobody here. All family gone to Shaukat marriage.”
Almost a decade later, on my annual vacation down from Manhattan, I bumped into Lakshmi’s brother on Commercial Street. “How are things with Lakshmi? I asked anxiously. “Fine,” he replied with a grin. “They have three cute kids—two boys and a girl. Dad relented—he invited them home after their third baby. Now both our families are friends.”
A fairy-tale ending? Yes, but look at it this way: Lakshmi was patient and infinitely cunning in plotting her escape; as for Shaukat, the lad never gave up. And while I believe that Shaukat truly did love his exotic sweetheart, perhaps the Muslims wanted to teach the proud Rajputs a lesson. Most such situations would have ended in suicidal depression, murder or suicide.
Another little tale….Noor, a slender Muslim girl with a sexy overbite, joined my school as a senior. Rumor had it that she’d been expelled from her old school by the very propah Principal for hanging out with boys. Pretty in a sluttish way, Noor was clearly lacking in the brains department. Soon she was back to her old tricks—Lotharios on fast motorbikes and slicked-back pompadour hair would pick her up at the school gate at the start of lunch break and rush back with her, tousled and grinning shamelessly, just before the bell rang for afternoon class. What they managed to do in so short a time boggles the imagination.
Years went by and I found myself in college. One day, strolling down the main drag of our suburban neighborhood, I saw a woman waving at me from the doorway of one of the new houses that had mushroomed all around us. Garbed in purdah, carrying an infant in her arms, she did not look like anyone I would know. Curious, I walked across—and recognized the overbite—yes, it was Noor!
As she plied me with tea and pistachio barfi, Noor told me her father had forced her to marry right after school. Her husband was a businessman who treated her like dirt—almost certainly, she admitted sadly, because he was aware of her wicked past. He’d agreed to marry her only because of the huge dowry her father had offered. Noor pointed to a photo of her husband and herself on the mantelpiece; I bit my lip: just a few days ago, this same man had stopped his car as a friend and I walked down the road and, with a lecherous smirk, had asked if we would join him for a beer at Bangalore Club.
Now if this sort of stuff happened in the higher echelons of our society, what would you think of the plight of our women servants? Since it always depresses me to open that particular can of worms, I’ll tell you instead about the strapping driver employed by a friend of mine. After work, the fellow would visit one of his five mistresses—each of whom had been abandoned by her husband. The woman would fry up spicy chicken livers and serve them to him with the country liquor to which he was addicted. But if she picked a fight even for the most valid of reasons, he’d up and leave, sticking four fingers in the air—the message was this: hey, woman, if you don’t like me just the way I am, there are four others right now who’ll take me in!