Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fifty Years, A Love Story

Over half a century ago, my grandfather set out to do what most Indian fathers do: find a 'suitable boy' for his daughter. Amidst all the boxes he had set himself to tick, his daughter - my mother - had added one of her own: the 'boy' had to be in the army.  My mum has always liked uniforms!

My grandfather found such a 'suitable' boy. Except that particular road was frought with Shakespearan complications: jealous stepmothers; odd mixed messages; mistaken identities because Rajputs seem to have zero imagination when it comes to naming our daughters; and also actual threat of bodily harm to the bridegroom who was serving on the border. An uncle sent out by my father to check out his bride was too shy to lift his eyes and thus reported that 'she had beautiful feet.'  And then there was my mother, the 'ice princess' herself, who was - and remains - too beautiful for words and very much a daddy's girl. Could any man match up to her father?

In face of numerous complications, my maternal grandfather, a man dedicated to modern judiciary, eventually gave into his feudal instincts and took a train full of men armed to their teeth to the engagement ceremony. He decided he was going to walk off if my to-be dad didn't meet his standards even if it triggered a blood feud. Phew! Dad's good looks - or undeniable charms - avoided that particular bloodshed.

Things didn't improve much when I came along a couple of years later. My first  memories are of my  mother searching casualties lists in the newspapers to find my father's name and weeping over those of his men who did not come home.

My dad thankfully did.

And my mother wore a sari the colour of the midnight embroidered with silver stars.  The silver stars made her lap too scratchy for me to sit on but my father told me that she looked beautiful. She teased him that if he 'truly' loved her, he would have brought her Dhakai silk that would be as soft as butter. Thirty years later when he returned to Dhaka in peace time on a work trip, he brought back two of those beautiful saris for her.

They stayed that  way: glamourous, mysterious, even when my sister was born. They danced till the early morning hours in officers' messes in far off army camps. Amongst our military home gear, the most precious possession was an expensive 'hi-fi' sound system. Wrapped carefully in towels, it travelled in the back of my dad's government issue Jonga across India's north eastern region. In far off army camps, in the midst of the jungle, the hi-fi sound system would play Indian and Western songs while my parents danced in the soft glow of dozens of storm lanterns.

Until another war - and a life in hostile territory - came about. There was a new baby - my brother - and a new war: the Soviet-Afghan one. Our house was bugged so family conversations happened in the shower. My father had given up his uniform for strange games of shadows, reflections, smoke. And my mother had a crochet knitting bag full of knitting needles and balls of wool. She carried it everywhere but we were not allowed to touch it. Because the bag held the gun. And my mum is a damn good shot!

My parents locked into each other during those years in Pakistan. Call it co-dependency. Call it addiction. Call it battle fatigue.  Or just call it trust.

And so it has been. Mr and Mrs Smith have nothing on them.

But then there were the years in the wilderness.  Not with eachother, but for the world. Where everything seemed wrong. Or at least harder. And they were not made easier by the  many questions about the choices they made - not in the least about their children (my choices have never been easy to defend - mum and dad, I am sorry) .

And there have been the years of empty nesting where all of us left. I remember my parents' bewilderment at having to negotiate a relationship that was unmediated by a child. Any child.

They grow old now and relatively feeble. So no more forty kilometers a day marches for my father.  And more cautious; so no more family trips through war zones. But it amazes me that they still have so many things to talk about. After five decades, my father still wakes my mother with a tea tray in bed. My mother still buys my dad's clothes and knows exactly what he loves. But more importantly, they have a lot to say each other every moment of the day. And they still have lots to argue about. And they hug each other when they nap.

After fifty years, that's a damn high bar for relationships. But it is also the right one!

So happy 50th anniversary, parents!