The date is 18th May 1944. Two strangers, children turned adults, meet for the first time on the steps of a small church in Mavelikara, a tiny green village, with white sand underfoot, situated in what was then called Travancore state. An hour later, after a long and exhausting ceremony performed in the Orthodox Syrian-Christian manner, they are, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do them part, pronounced man and wife. And thus they begin a conjoint journey that is to last for more than seven decades.
Can you really comprehend how long ago that was? India was then still a colony under the British Empire, the jewel in the crown of its King, the imperial George VI. Two weeks earlier on 5th May, Gandhiji had been released from a British gaol and immediately proposed what would later be called the “Gandhi-Jinnah talks”; they failed and that failure would bring into existence, some three years later, the two independent nations of India and Pakistan. The second World War was still raging, the final assault on the Normandy beaches but three weeks away from the date of the marriage of these two.
The population of the country then was just about 35 crores, a quarter of what it is today. Villages were not electrified, and the first meal that they two would eat together, as husband and wife, was in the light of a dim kerosene lamp in the thatched structure that was his parent’s home. Sree Chithira Thirunal, was then the Maharaja of the Princely State of Travancore. He would soon preside over the dissolution of his kingdom when the country became free and it was annexed into the Indian Union.
That was a million years ago. Over the span of their lives together, the young couple would see penury and hardship, the birth of four children even before life was on an even keel and then the slow, steady rise in their fortunes as, with steely determination and a never-say-die vigour, the man forged a better life for himself and his family. He joined the civil services where, by dint of hard work and transparent honesty, he rose to some of the highest positions in the state’s administration. He retired sometime in the early eighties.
Through all these turbulent years, she had stood by his side; more often a silent supportive nurturer than an active player and provider. At home she cared for the family, the food always on the table, the tiffin boxes packed and ready before the children left for schools, the clothes washed and clean smelling. Her prayers and her piety hung like incense in a quiet place of worship. She was the steady foundation on which her husband built a secure home and a confident family. All their children shone like diamonds, at school and college and in the roiling, churning challenge of life itself.
And then, seven months ago, her tenuous hold on life loosened. For some time now, as a benevolent great grandmother, she had watched her family grow, her children begetting children and grandchildren of their own; she had watched them spread across the globe, much as the smoke trails of the jets of a squadron, as each one of them broke formation to fly on to their own destinies. Husband and wife had but recently left behind the home they had built in south Kerala when looking after it proved too much for their aging bodies; they had sought refuge in their first-born’s home in faraway Gujarat.
Like Ruth among the alien corn, she had tried to find her bearings again. She worried to see her husband turn forgetful and slow, unable to distinguish one day from the next, speaking incomprehensibly and childishly. The fine sharp mind that he had once had, was turning feeble. And she held her breath and worried and prayed. And then it was all too much for her: a passing chill clutched at her lungs with clammy hands and a short spell of hospitalisation later, she was gone.
If he had had his senses about him, he would have said she had betrayed him, knowing fully well that she had been more faithful to him than the blood flowing within his body. Perhaps she would have replied, if she could: husband, you have been leaving me for a few years now; you are here but not here. But he did not know even that; for he lived in a grey world of shadows and unclear images, where past, present and future had merged into a dark quagmire,and where at each moment he was floundering and losing his way, moving to the beat of an unacknowledged sorrow.
Cut to today, 18th May, 2016: it would have been their 72nd wedding anniversary. Surely, we, his children, would have celebrated it with a prayer at the church and the cutting of a cake. But then his alter ego was no longer there: she was gone, flown away, suddenly turned invisible to all the senses, surviving in nothing but the memories of those she left behind. In her husband’s mind, they but flickered and trembled, at times as a living presence, but more often than not as someone who had momentarily disappeared,from the dinner table or the bedroom or in the many corners of the lives they had shared,but would soon be back and then… and then, perhaps he could be content again.
Marriage is a quaint and old-fashioned thing, isn’t it? a mate to share your bed with, a friend with whom you eat your food, a companion on the long journey of life; you watch her back and she watches yours. And if, by a rare fortune you are especially blessed, then you can laugh and cry over the same things together and live through each other’s persona and thoughts, much like some strange, single-bodied, double-headed mystical creature, the finest and most wonderful construct of that sly old thing they call God. But in this brave new world we live in, seven decades from the hot and dusty day in that little church, marriage is not quite a necessary thing, is it not? or is it?
All this and more swept through my mind as I flew back to Bangalore from a short visit to see my father, as he lives out his piquant and tremulous life, mostly alone in his inscrutable thoughts and shadowy memories. He does not say much these days. And what he says makes sense only to him. Perhaps he is still searching for her; or perhaps he does not know how to.
The day was hot and sweaty; the skies were filled with turbulent clouds that rocked the aircraft. Under the drone of the jet engines, I thought to myself, if we live the lives allotted to us with all the courage and sincerity that it demands, if we can place our hands on our heart and say, yes, we gave it the best we could; that we walked the straight and narrow, that we stood by our betrothed partner, steadfast and faithful, that when beaten down, we got up and walked on just the same, well then, that’s enough, is it not?
No need for flying pennants or victor’s crown, no need for medals pinned to the chest; no need for the applause to fill your ears. If we can say that we ran the race as best as we could, then that’s enough, that’s all right, and yes, that is miraculous. We scarce know if there is a perfect heaven that awaits us; but then these two did try to a touch a little corner of it, here on earth, as they lived their days together.
And even though my father cannot say it, even though he may read these words and not understand them, I know, yes, I know, in the deepest parts of my mind I know, that this is the meaning and message of their entwined lives.He had played the game of life as best as he could. And my mother too had done the same, standing by him like his shadow, through good health and bad, through fortune and ill-luck, through joy and sorrow. Yes, she too had stuck it out as best as she could. Till death did them part. That’s all that matters, right?
Nothing lasts forever, we know that; but then the next best thing under God’s heaven is the solid certainty of a life lived according to its rules, with honesty, with integrity. Of that truth I am certain. And will always be.