If allowed to, disappointments break much more than hearts. They are like those invisible elements that invade our existence these days — the ones that float with the air we breathe, seep into the earth that mothers the food we eat, and mingle with the water that quenches our thirst. The days begin like any other, the nights break like any other. The house stands just the way it did yesterday, its foundation swaying with the hollowness. But everything threatens to buckle under the stress of ether fumigated with deliberate cause and deliberate effect.
Take for instance the choices of Niyati and Achal, the heroes of our story. A married couple that could quail their surroundings with their mutual wrath. Or blossom flowers with just a glance of their combined goodness. Such was the strength of these two people, joined together in holy matrimony. Or so the pandit at the marriage ceremony declared thirty-three years back. Niyati was twenty-one, and Achal was thirty when they vowed to take care of each other in front of the ever-consuming fire of the havan kund. Niyati, a sweet-smiled waif; Achal a dark charmer. Their strengths, however, failed to transport them beyond their weakness — ego.
Chapter 1 — The Two Aspirants
Niyati grew up with six siblings. Her parents, Ma and Babuji for the children, were indulgent without allowing the girls and boys too much. The mansion made up for the restraint the parents imposed. Niyati and her brothers and sisters managed to sneak out to the mango grove to play endless games focused around the trees. Hot afternoons or humid ones, they knew no stopping. These games were an escape for the children, after all. It might sound like fantastic fun, but there was something slightly amiss. None of Niyati’s siblings was of her age-group, and none of them shared her outlook. The oldest sisters and brother were too brash in their play. The youngest sister and brothers were too frivolous. There was an intimate association between the two age-groups, and she longed to be part of that despite her differences with both of them. She did try, but couldn’t succeed much — sometimes because of their in-acceptance of her different ways, sometimes because of her impatience with theirs. She danced a different dance than all of the others.
When Niyati was old enough to know that her life’s train would soon change tracks with an arranged marriage, she began to dream of a man who loved her, supported her, possibly even climbed mango trees with her. She dreamed of finally finding a friend, an intimate confidant who’d accompany her to stupendous spans of love, respect, fun and most importantly, propriety. A man, who gave his everything to her, like she would give all of her to him. It was essential, really, for both to be virginally committed to each other — otherwise, it would be half a pleasure.
Achal was a loner of a different breed. He spent time with people, charmed them, but he was mostly alone in his world and never let anyone in. He had four siblings, all of them much older than him, all of them busy with their own individuality. Their parents, Ma and Pitaji for the children, were loving, but distant. If individualism were made the prerequisite for survival, the members of this family would be among the few prosperous ones. Achal went on jeep drives, tiger hunts, picnics around waterfalls, jaunts with beautiful girls — he allowed the world to embrace him. But never allowed it to feel his heart.
He did fall in love with a girl, though. They dreamt of marrying and doing things all those in love dream of doing. He fought a lot with his mother when she put her foot down against this marriage — she didn’t like the girl. Yes, he did fight for his love, but his mother won. The fact that his girlfriend’s mother didn’t support their marriage either did not help much. Achal had no choice but to look forward to a different life with a different woman. It did not weigh on his well being for long. A love, in a way unrequited, was something he was willing to leave behind. He wanted to look ahead. His mother sought another girl for him after his girlfriend got married. Yes, it was going to be arranged, his marriage. His mother was keen to find a soft, gentle girl for her emotional boy.
She found Niyati.
Chapter 2 — The Ever After
“I know exactly what you are!”
“The hell you do! I haven’t forgotten her after all these years because of just one reason — you. You do not let her go, damn it!”
They had been whispering shouts for the last half an hour, having started off their occasional after-a-party argument right after the last guest had left. Their two children, now 10 and 7, were trying to remember to forget this pounding rage coming from the other room before they drifted to sleep.
In the morning, things would be just the way they were in the mornings. Niyati and Achal would transform into doting parents, forgetting — or pretending to forget — that they were disappointed spouses.
This tiny world they had created with love — yes, they did find love in each other, and for their children — gasped for fresh air, and ached for some respite from shrunken hearts. From the outside, it seemed an ideal world. The children’s friends envied the obvious love they received and Niyati and Achal’s friends saw them as a decent couple working through the minor disagreements all married people with dignity have the right to have.
It was different behind the closed doors, now, wasn’t it?
Sometimes Achal wondered whether he really should have been honest with Niyati and told her about the girlfriend who was not to be; and right after their marriage, too. Sometimes he admitted that Niyati first needed to have been given a chance to believe him when he said that his future with her was important to him now.
Niyati did not like the necessity of having to use the now. Its implication — that there had been a then — irked her.
As a consequence, everything they had done in the last eleven years of their marriage shouted out at Niyati’s latent fear of not being good enough, forcing it to come out. And it culled her much-aspired-for hope to find a man who thought she was, in fact, much more than good enough. She couldn’t help overlooking the love in his eyes when their fingers brushed against each other accidentally in a party, or when someone praised the flower arrangement at the coffee table in the centre of the drawing room she so meticulously beautified. Or when he implored her to follow her dream of learning English, just because. She slapped off his unsure hand that was extended with love, hope and a desire to build something good.
Why did she do so when all she wanted was just that? She wanted his companionship and support. She wanted his confidence. Achal misunderstood her changing needs, though. He did not comprehend that she sometimes needed to be led, sometimes needed to be walked with. So he invariably swapped the two — tried to lead her when she wanted a companion, and tried to become an onlooker when she wanted to be led. Achal began to lose interest in his frustrated attempts. Niyati began to believe her dream was now never to be realised; Achal thought she would never get beyond her complaints.
However, Niyati and Achal occasionally surprised themselves, each other and everyone else who’d seen enough of their impatient sparring. They demonstrated supreme compatibility and enviable comfort with each other sometimes. It was so overwhelming, that their children stopped time in their minds to savour this rare treat. As years approached and they accepted their lives with each other, the two also began to look at their own faults from time to time. Niyati told herself that she had indeed been foolish to begrudge Achal his girlfriend, because she was, after all, no one significant in their lives. Achal had withstood all of her moody complaints, and kept his intention of seeing his future with her as the only life he wanted to consider. He did deserve trust in return. Meanwhile, Achal had learnt to appreciate her unique ability of being a great housewife, a caring mother, and a witty companion.
But these acknowledgements were rare. The magnitude of their disapproval was far greater than that of their appreciation. Years got added to the eleven they had already collected. Life went on, disappointments piled up, until appreciation and respect got buried beyond memory.
Chapter 3 — After the Ever After
It was dawn, and the sunlight had found its way in. A white water lily nodded to the gentle winter breeze. Achal and Niyati had spent the night sitting on the couch, looking at the softly lit courtyard outside. They had not slept at all, and talked a little. Just a little about their boy. It had been a year since he had gone away, promising never to come back. He would be thirty-two today. How indefatigable is life! Their first born was gone, but they still lived — life wouldn’t let go of them.
“I’ll make us some chai,” Niyati said as she began to get up.
“No, wait. Sit a while more first.” She sat down again. Her dainty, wrinkled fingers fiddled with a part of her saree’s long edge.
Achal was looking at the distant redness of the rising sun, his forefinger writing invisible words in the air. “Do you remember the first time he cried?”
“Of course I do. He was in your arms, just born.”
“No, not that. First time as a young man.”
“It was the only time.”
“Yes. His sister was about to get married, everything was perfect — until we found it necessary to argue right there at the mandap.”
“We could never do them enough justice, could we?” Niyati shifted a little for no apparent reason, and gazed at nothing in particular.
“I hope we did.”
The birds were coming home to feed their young. Parrots chattered their throats out, as if today was the only day to talk. The day was breaking. Niyati heard the distant ring-ring of the milkman’s bicycle and got up to go and fetch the patila.
“Don’t make chai just yet. Come back,” Achal repeated his wish, and got up to check on the newspaper. It hadn’t arrived. He kept standing at the doorstep, looking out at the plants he’d nurtured lovingly. The garden was full of asters, his son’s favourite. He had never understood why he chose asters over so many others. Perhaps because of his interest in astronomy? He sighed at another unanswered question.
Niyati made to get out of the door to get the milk. The milkman was almost at the gate.
“Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye.”
“Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas?”
“Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi.”
Ramjanam poured out the milk from the measuring cup he dipped into one of his three huge canisters. He gave her a little more than the two kilos she had asked for.
Achal didn’t say it, but he understood Niyati’s heavy heart. If a mother had to take extra milk to prepare her son’s favourite dessert even if he would never come, it was almost like watering a plant that had long succumbed to the withering rays of the sun. He wanted to reach out and hug her till both their hearts wept out years. The last one in particular.
Her eyes fell on the carved wooden nameplate her son had made for them — Niyati & Achal’s Home, it said. She looked down at the patila instantly, and concentrated on bringing it inside without spilling any milk.
She put the milk on the stove to boil, and came and sat down on the couch.
“Do you want some puris? With the kheer?”
“It’s been years since I’ve had kheer with puri. Yes. Make some today,” said Achal, putting the newspaper away. He wasn’t reading it anyway. “Should I make tea today? It’s been a long time since I made tea for you.”
“It’s been a long time, indeed.”
Achal took her hands in his, and said, “We’ll live beyond all of this. Do you see that?”
“I don’t know how, Achal,” tears streamed down her eyes, as she looked into the old eyes that once mirrored their owner’s hesitant love. They still showed love, this time determined.
“I don’t know how either.”
Niyati felt her usual rage rising from deep inside her again. But she just pulled her hands out of his gently, and looked away. How could he give her hope and then take it back again? She wanted to punish him with her usual vitriol, but didn’t; she was too tired to fight.
“I see nothing beyond. What are we left with?”
Achal straightened his back against the couch back and stretched his arm on its edge, “We have us, broken as we are, and we have our daughter. What about her? Have you thought of what this means to her?”
“She has her family. And I have no energy to think of what she is going through.”
“Are you really that hard-hearted?” Achal began to see his usual disbelief at her attitude resurfacing.
“Have I ever had a choice?” Niyati’s frown was reappearing. She had been trying lately to at least keep her irritation with life in general out of her face.
Achal tried to take one of her hands again; she resisted. He tugged gently at it as tears began to drop down on her saree.
He put his arms around her and rocked her back and forth gently, in turn rocking himself. And he cried with her.
Unfamiliar words and pronunciations
Pandit – Puhn-Dit – Hindu priest
Havan kund – Huh-Vuhn Ku-n-d – the square pit used to light fire in auspicious ceremonies.
Mandap – Muhn-Duhp – the usually square area in which the marriage ceremony takes place.
Patila – Puh-Teela – A deep vessel usually used to store milk
Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye. – “Ramjanam, (I) want two kilos today.”
Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas? – Yes, memsahib. Is there anything special today?
Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi. – Yes, it is bhaiya’s (older brother) birthday. I’ll make some kheer today.
Puri – Pooree – Flat, deep fried bread made of whole wheat flour.
Kheer – Kheer – A rice pudding made by cooking rice in milk until most water in the milk evaporates and gives a divinely creamy, thick consistency to the pudding.
Niyati – Nih-yuh-Tee – Fate
Achal – Uh-chUhl – The Unmovable One, Steady