There were no fixed norms for meals in our house. Everyone had their own schedules, their own menus, and their own eating places. Sometimes there was sharing and caring, but people stayed to themselves mostly. There were exceptional days though, like one when Brajesh tauji sent word out for all to have dinner together. He made it sound important, and mandatory.
After all, his marriage to Gloria Sternberger deserved a toast, even if it was just over a family meal. She was Jewish, from Israel, in town to write a history of the sports the royals played. The charmer of a man played the perfect game in winning her over; besotted by him totally, she agreed to marry him despite being fully aware of his personal situation. She could not be bothered about his modest financial condition; her father was an arms trader, a key player in keeping the Middle East well supplied with weapons and ammunition to be able to keep fighting. He traded with all sides, and they protected him as their own. Gloria was the sole heiress to his wealth. If Tauji’s heart fluttered more for those riches than for the woman, then disappointment lay in store. His new wife would not let him have a whiff of her money even if they had vowed to be one for as long as they lived.
Dinner was served on a massive dining table built about a hundred years ago; it was an heirloom, a priceless one. Money cannot buy such wood and workmanship today. Everyone was there – only Lata tai was missing. Not surprising though. There was small talk over starters of chicken tikka and lamb soup, but the corners of all adult eyes were firmly on the white lady. The kids stared at her directly for the entirety of the evening. And then tauji spoke up. Let me introduce you to Gloria; we got married today morning in Birla Mandir. She is from Israel but will now be staying with us. She speaks English and Hindi very well, so you can all talk to her. I hope you will give her the respect due to the eldest bhabhi, or sister-in-law, in the family. We would have liked a bigger ceremony as the occasion deserves, but we decided to keep it simple. Her majesty, the rajmata, is very close to bhabhi and has blessed our union. Gloria is a historian and a scholar, and has studied in Cambridge in England. She needs her peace and quiet, and I hope no one will disturb her when she is working.
The uncles and aunts exchanged pleasantries with Gloria, but fell short of making meaningful conversation. The children milled around her out of curiosity, pulling at her silken flowing dress, and giggling while testing her Hindi. She was not exuberant in her expressions, but would smile easily.
An unusual chapter had been added to our family biography. It would not make for very pleasant reading.
Lata tai was at war. With everyone in the house. But she could not ride to battle alone. Birju chacha, the useless one with all the time on his hands, was recruited to be her ally. He readily accepted a role where he could indulge in the pleasures of fornication, had someone to attend to his daily needs, and was handed over keys to a money chest to fund his wasteful life.
In a house of open secrets, their proximity was not missed by anyone. They became inseparable, sharing meals, going out shopping, socialising, and just hanging out together at home. In the verandah, on the terrace, in the kitchen, in the bar, in each other’s bedrooms. They bolted the doors from the inside at times, giving a hoot to wagging tongues. She was out to spite the family, he was being the parasite he was born to be.
The tai discovered the joys of illicit sex with chacha; all was fair in a war where her own husband was lost to other women. She came from a rich family in Bikaner, and chacha would help himself to much of the pocket money her parents sent every month. When this was not enough to fund his wanton ways, he gifted himself his paramour’s jewellery to be pawned or sold. The tai was too focused on the bigger battles at hand to be bothered with material losses. She dismissed the embezzlement as fee for the services her brother-in-law rendered.
And then tai struck the first blow. She came pleading to my parents to save her marriage. What could they do? They had no say, and certainly not on conjugal matters. It was between the couple, more so when the bull-headed tauji was not one to pay heed to anyone.
I want a child, the tai said.
But how? You don’t even share the room, said my mother. She feigned ignorance of her relationship with chacha.
But the white whore has already given him two children. A boy and a girl. How can I bear to see that?
You are our elders, how can we interfere?
I just want one child. I know I will not get one from him. Can I adopt one of your sons?
My mother went pale at the prospect. She had a daughter and two sons, but each were as dear to her as the other. Even the thought of parting with one, even if living in the same house, would be too much to bear. Why would bhabhi put them in such a predicament? Why couldn’t she just seek a divorce and go back to her parents? My mother knew that option was worse than death for tai; she would rather continue living in humiliation in her marital house.
My father, who had been quiet throughout, finally spoke up. Addressing my mother, he asked if she would be agreeable to letting Aman, the elder son, be brought up by tai. It really will not change anything. We would be living in the same house. He will have two mothers instead of one. He will be well looked after. No one would be going anywhere.
My tai knew my father would support her. He could not say no to anyone in the family even if it called for emotional and financial sacrifices by his own wife and children. Aman was adopted by my tai and her husband in a religious ceremony followed by legal formalities.
The guilt of giving up one of her children began bothering my mother. It was her turn to talk to my father, and thus the idea of me took shape. I was born two years after my brother was given for adoption by his tai.
Disturbed, disjointed and dysfunctional – that was the state of the House of Mathurs, as was commonly referred to with our family name. It’s subset, my immediate family, the one I was born into, was disintegrating even before my birth and the pieces just kept falling off through my growing years.
I lost my mother before my first birthday. An unidentified complication during my delivery left her extremely weak; despite running all possible tests by the best of doctors, she could not get better. My elder brother, Aman, was adopted by my eldest tai; it was supposed to be more of a placebo for her hurting soul. He would be living just a few rooms down the corridor. But my tai was playing a grander game with the Mathurs; she took him away much further without consulting his biological father. Aman would eventually come back home, but only after a failed suicide attempt upon being betrayed those he trusted within the family.
My father and sister had their own share of hurt and heartbreaks, their stories running parallel despite the generational gap. My younger brother almost died of burns when his bid to scare Birju chacha went awry. The residual scars – on his body and on his soul – would leave him lesser able to lead a life with any semblance of normalcy.
Radha didi had been a witness – and victim – to all that was wrong around us. I should have run the first time she told me to.