You may be its guardian, but you may not pluck the forbidden fruit for yourself from the garden. Even if the royal family holds you in high esteem for your performance and loyalty. There are some rules set in stone – rules to remind you of your position in their society. It would be a sin for my father to be in love with a princess, lest an eventual marriage leads to him being counted as one of the royals himself.
For a long time after losing his wife, my father was a dispirited man. He went about his responsibilities at work and at home almost robotically, with dedication but little emotion. And then he got acquainted with Sara.
Sara was a princess but only of a notional kingdom. The royalty had titles only because their ‘subjects’ continued to address them with such; they had none officially. They did not rule over a single square foot of land anymore. They had their status, their jewels, their real estate including a few palaces, their parties, their media coverage and their polo but no political power. They were one family to the world, but were out for each other’s blood within. All of them were embroiled in complex legal battles over assets and inheritance. As the cases dragged on for decades, the number of claimants increased as more children bloomed on the family tree. Deference to the rajmata was holding up the facade from cracking. But only for as long as the aging matriarch was around.
Sara may have been a part of the family, but far removed. If heirs still counted for anything, she would probably have been two hundredth in line for the throne. She was not even entitled to any dividends or shares of the royal assets. Her father made a living as a building contractor. The only privilege accorded to her were invitations to events at the palaces; but it was more to flaunt her stunning beauty than as a relation. Much of the family was undistinguished in their appearance, and they were conscious of it.
But Sara was all humility. And only had love for dad despite being wooed by the finest of suitors from not just within the state, or the country, but even by the rich and the royal of Europe. But she did not want to be a part of their shallow world as she put it, where all she would be expected to do was dress her part and play a wonderful hostess, a doting wife, and an indulgent mother to a brood of children. All Sara wanted was to travel to discover the real world for herself, and capture it in her camera.
What did she see in my father? A fine gentleman, and a good soul. They never opened up about their relationship to others, coming across as just acquaintances. Whoever saw them together could not miss noticing the love they had for each other, no matter how hard they tried to hide it. Of course, Sara would be affectionate toward my father in private. She would even drop by at his home, spend time with his children, bring them gifts, tell them stories, and shoot photos of them. I still hold onto some in my albums with fond memories.
The extended family did not think too kindly of my father’s new found happiness but would not let their displeasure be known; they wrongly assumed Sara would bring riches of the palace with her after marriage. One day, Sara told us she would be travelling for four months on a cruise around the world. Even as a child, I could see her eyes were sad despite embarking on a journey she had spoken of excitedly in the past. I could not understand the heaviness in her voice when she spoke; it’s the last memory I have of the most beautiful face I have ever seen.
She never returned. My father chose not to carry on the relationship despite Sara being readily agreeable. He feared for his children; how would Sara treat them when she had any of her own? I do not want any, she would clarify. I want to travel, and not be bound by any of my own, and yet ensure your children never feel neglected, she would tell him. Being an empathetic man, my father did not want to burden the young and sprightly Sara with the baggage he carried. My father was also not sure how the rest of his family would treat her.
Of course, there was another reason why the match might not have been possible. The rajmata had summoned my dad and expressed her displeasure explicitly when she heard the rumours. She would not even recognise Sara as her relation for all practical purposes, but rules were rules. If my father did not end the relationship, it would be regarded as treason – he could have been jailed for life or even executed in the past. But in the current scenario, my father would lose his job, the only job he was trained for and loved. He would not know how to support his family. The ‘queen’ could well have been bluffing with her threats of firing him; he knew he was indispensable and could not be let loose with all the insider knowledge he had. But loyalty toward the royal family was too ingrained in his blood to rebel.
He acceded to the queen. And from that day on, my father was sick most of his life.
He may have taken it upon himself to be the head of our family when my grandparents died, but Mahesh uncle was like a politician who uses his position to enrich himself and to inflict abuse with impunity.
He had been married once earlier but his wife never returned from a visit to her sister in Canada. His male pride severely bruised at the abandonment, and saddled with the additional responsibility of a six year old son, he desperately sought another wife. A common acquaintance set up a rendezvous with Sarla bua who took to him at first sight; he shouldn’t have felt flattered though. She would have gone for the first half decent man who proposed to her.
She was told about the son Vikram only after she reached her new home. A worse shock followed soon after – she lost her parents within a month of her marriage. It set off a chain of events leading to her moving back into her parental home with Mahesh uncle and Vikram. There was too much happening for her to grudge the stepchild; she just took him in as her own, to care for along with her orphaned siblings.
With no one to question him, Mahesh uncle went about consolidating his financial position, skimming whatever he could of the family assets. For the first time, portions of the haveli were leased out; he pocketed all the rent coming in. It did not take long for the gossip mills of Jaipur to go into overdrive, the town wondering what ailed the Mathurs. Why else would they let out their traditional home to the petty traders of Johri Bazaar, the market of jewellers? Our haveli was a landmark in the area, one of the most prestigious of addresses in the city.
If that was not enough, he became a sexual predator within the house itself. The easiest target was Rupa bua, his wife’s younger sister. She had just been a child when she lost her parents. Mahesh uncle became the man she looked up to in the absence of any other credible candidates. He showered extra care upon her to win her confidence; soon after she attained puberty, he took advantage of the trust she had in him to rape her. There was no struggle, no resistance from a girl who took such a physical act to be a normal human activity; she had been living in a cocoon and knew no different. It pained the fourteen year old the first few times, but she gradually got used to it. As trauma turned to pleasure, she even started looking forward to the encounters.
Mahesh uncle swore her to secrecy, but a child cannot keep things to herself for long. She narrated what was happening to her elder sister after about a year; she sounded as if this was something to be pleased about. Of course, it was a horror story to the older sibling who went hysterical. She sought her husband out, and screamed and cried herself hoarse with the entire household including servants standing witness. My aunt made the mistake of making it public; this was a matter where discretion and sensitivity was of utmost importance. But the damage was done.
Tongues wagged. Within the haveli. And beyond. Very soon, all those who mattered to us knew. The talk was not so much about what uncle had done; people were more interested in what to do with Rupa bua. The victim became the sufferer.
Her schooling was first to get affected. The principal suggested she go for home tutoring or be sent off to a boarding since other students and teachers could not stop talking about her. Both these options would have increased the cost of her education, and Mahesh uncle did not want to invest in it. No one else in the family had the money to. She became an introvert, staying confined to her room, mostly in the dark. Tragically, Mahesh uncle continued to visit her; this time he threatened go public if she squealed. She complied, out of fear of further ostracization. No suitors came forward when she reached marriageable age. She was the keep, the mistress, of Mahesh babu; he was addressed with a respectable suffix to his name as he moved up the social ladder in town. His unsavoury – and illegal – actions were glossed over.
Rupa bua turned bitter; she was a reject of society for no fault of hers. The child in her grew up to be a ‘witch’, venting her anger, frustration and despair at all those who crossed her path. She aged in a hurry. She became scrawny, her hair turned frizzy and grey. Her temper was feared by all, especially the children. She would calm down only when Mahesh uncle visited her. Which he did most of his life. He would still take her despite her appearance. He was the trainer who could tame a caged wild animal. If he wasn’t enough of a scourge in the family, Vikram aspired to emulate his father.