Marriages are Made in India: An Extract (The Concluding Story)
Rana Kishore, My Foster Mother
The stunning discipline in the large auditorium, dressed up to receive the guests, gripped everyone. I always ended up sitting in an unnoticed corner of the hall, becoming all eyes and ears during the function. I had always admired the Christian teachers who took charge of every movement that our bodies made. We were totally controlled. Our smiles, our voices, our gestures, were all controlled by our disciplinarians. We were somewhat like robots that had been programmed to the unvoiced commands of our masters. Even after forty years have passed, the memories of school often haunt me. I cannot paint what exactly I was then, but I can say that those years made deep impressions on my mind. The annual prize-distribution day would always make me self-conscious. My chief emotion inevitably turned out to be one of envy and awe for the smart school captains and the best-all-round-boys who stole the show. Even in Class IV, I was conscious of the prestige and pomp that went along with such positions and awards.
We were made to sit erect. Our shoes shone, our blazers blazed, and our tightly trimmed hair seemed to be hats that we wore in a community. The organ lent grandeur to the hymns, to our impressive school song, and to the National Anthem. I heard and saw and marvelled. But I was in fact quite outside this scheme of excellence. The unfortunate thing about me being that I was surrounded both at home and in school by those that outshone me and I could never have a moment of cool comfort. Perhaps fate had willed that I be conscious of what others were, and I was not, achieving. In the sports field I was one of the most unemployed figures, my high jumps easily became low jumps, and my races turned out to be my disgraces.
Life was a burden and I was its beast. The classroom demonstrated, the fields corroborated, and the stage confirmed that awfully bitter truth. I had to trudge on ahead, towards wherever my wobbly weaknesses carried me. To crown it all, I was the unsuccessful brother of the highly successful Vinay Singh; a brother who had risen to power and glory with sheer merit and determination. He may have passed out from school when I got admission there, but his stories lived on and haunted the campus.
I remember that very first evening when I entered the boarding school. It was a chilly January evening and the boarders had to get themselves and their belongings examined with utter thoroughness by the Sergeant. The next morning school would begin and that seemed something like the beginning of an eternal doomsday for me.
‘Move, you blighter!’ said Sergeant Joseph in a booming voice. ‘Are you part of a funeral procession or what?’
‘I’m sorry Sir!’ I mumbled.
‘What, ‘sorry Sir?’ Where’s your box? And where’s your holdall? And where’s your list? And . . .’
‘. . . Where’s your courage? And where’s your strength?’ . . . he could have asked me with greater chances of finding me guilty.
‘It’s h, h, here Sir! I said pointing to my possessions that I had been guarding for the last hour and a half, with the dread of what if I lost it? At the age of six these fears tended to get magnified at such moments.
‘Rana! Just come and help me check this fellow’s items. You’re the school captain now, and you should help me with these little tasks!’ said Sergeant Joseph.
‘Yes Sarge!’ replied the smashingly smart Rana, whose hairstyle was so impressive that I couldn’t get my eyes off it. His smartness made me conscious of my own ineptness and his smiles told me that I had a serious face. There was something wonderful about Rana; his personality seemed to be one big smile. I was then too little to realise what exactly the problem with me had been. I got the impression that I was made of things like sighs, tears, and jitters whereas he was made of fun, style and confidence. His fair complexion looked so good against the very dark colour of his hair. His shapely puff made him out to be a hero of the 1960s; you would think he had stepped out of a Bombay film to impress us with his smarteze.
‘Come, sunny! What’s your name?” asked Rana putting his broad hands on my shoulders. He was about ten years older than myself and vastly taller.
‘Pranay Singh,’ I squeaked out.
‘Pranay, that’s a nice name,’ he said and his smile confirmed that he actually meant it.
‘O, he’s Vinay’s brother!’ said Sergeant Joseph, ‘Could you ever have thought that this sickly little thing is Vinay’s brother?’
‘Vinay’s brother? Pranay, your brother is someone I’ve always admired. He was three years my senior and he was my model.’
‘My God!’ I thought, ‘Even Rana needed models, and what luck that my own brother provided him with one.’
‘Yes!’ I said relieved by the acquaintance I was making.
‘School will be fun,’ he said, ‘from tomorrow you’ll play football!’
‘Football?’ I sighed as though I had been asked to do trapeze in a circus.
‘Yes, you’ll play like your brother. I’ll teach you.’
‘Thanks. That’s very good of you.’
‘Stop being formal. Yes, open your box and your holdall and let me see that list.’
The checking went on and I saw others like myself, some nervous-wrecks, some quite unshaken. At 7.30 the bell rang and we went for supper.
The dining-hall was big indeed. It had over hundred boys seated on either side of hugely long tables with prefects at the head on each side. I sat near Rana and that seemed to be the saving grace. Sergeant arrived and his booming voice followed him like his shadow. In the same voice he said a grace and we repeated it. I was soon to learn this thanksgiving because it was short and sweet. The food served, however was a different matter and was better left undescribed. It was impossible to swallow it and it had a smell that stings my nose when I think of it, even now when so many years have passed. But the bigger boys had got used to the grub and had accepted it with some kind of philosophy. Their faces didn’t exactly tell their true feelings about what they were eating.
‘Why don’t you eat Pranay? What are you thinking?’ said Rana.
I could not oblige him because even my dogs would have thought twice before agreeing to eat and I in any case had been a fussy eater.
‘Eat, you blighter!’ yelled Sergeant Joseph in his booming voice from behind my ears.
Before the next minute could pass, I found myself swallowing the leathery chapattis and their inedible kind of accompaniments. The curry seemed to contain something that resembled the dung of some animal.
‘You’ll soon get used to all this!’ said Rana reassuringly and how true he was! Before a week could elapse I began to eat this kind of food without much fuss. I must have begun to acquire the philosophy which helped this food go down. But I began to see how fussy I had been at home when my mother served me with tasty food. I knew now what was literally meant by the phrase, ‘eating the humble pie’.
Rana was soon to realise that I wasn’t made of the stuff that my brother had been. But he still tried to keep up my spirits and always made me feel that I was progressing. I vividly remember the day when I was made to wear boxing gloves and spar with a bigger boy and how giddy I felt after the very first punch on my face. Rana came to my rescue and asked the boy to sit aside while he made an effort to teach me. I tried and tried and I cried and cried. Rana took me to a bench, we sat on it, and he then told me of that famous bout when my brother threw a challenge to the older and heftier Ronnie Lambert.
‘You know,’ said Rana, ‘Ronnie had been bullying Vinay off and on. He would snatch Vinay’s pocket money and the snacks he brought from home. He’d push or pull or kick or nudge or slap or poke, till Vinay could bear it no longer. What could a weak boy do against such a hulk? Vinay would weep in a quiet corner but he simmered with anger within himself. One day the Hindi master, Mr Dubey, saw Vinay crying and found out the reason. He realised that the solution to Vinay’s problem lay in long term planning. Mr Dubey, who had served in the army earlier, taught Vinay how to box. He also taught him how to increase his stamina and he convinced him that even a crow could chase and frustrate a kite. After six months of practice and training Vinay was able to throw a challenge to the older and bulkier Ronnie Lambert. A notice was put up and it was given out that there would be a challenge fight between Vinay and Ronnie. Senior girls from the sister-institution were also invited to witness the fight and even your own sisters arrived to watch this much-publicised bout. Your sisters wept when they saw who their brother was pitted against. The bout began and before two or three minutes were over Ronnie had been knocked out of the boxing ring, and he didn’t want to return to it. Vinay had suddenly become a hero, and Ronnie his errand boy, after that evening.’
I had heard some version of this episode from my sisters and from Vinay earlier. Rana’s narration of it didn’t seem to have enough spice to pep me on. I was after all miles away from my brother and the only thing I could ever surpass him in was in withdrawing into my own shell. The story was no more than words to me.
‘What are you thinking Pranay? Come, pick up your hands and box me. I won’t touch you, I promise. You just box me in the face.’
I picked up my gloved hands and tried to give him a few punches but he dodged me so effectively that I got terribly frustrated and I found tears streaming out of my eyes again.
‘All right, all right! Here, hit me hard on my face!’ said Rana.
I managed to hit him hard once, twice and then four times. He bore the brunt very sportingly. I punched him and I wept, I wept and I punched him again. His smiling face observed me and smiled on, till it saw me tire of punching him.
‘Now come! Have some water to drink! You’ve been such a wonderful boxer, little chap!’ he said.
‘Don’t tell lies,’ I said, ‘I won’t talk to you. You’re making fun of me!’
He laughed and put his arms round my shoulders affectionately and took me to the school canteen and gave me a lollypop. I didn’t know whether I actually loved him or was cross with him. But I did know that for me he was a home away from home. In him I sometimes found the kindness of my mother; for both I had similar feelings. I was angry with my mother, somewhere within myself, because she had sent me away from herself and her protective care. But I did see her cry when I was leaving. So she couldn’t have been really unkind. Rana also led me on to the difficult and painful tasks that I was expected to undertake. But he always did that with sympathy and concern for me. I often dreamt that my mother was being taken somewhere far away from me and I then saw Rana coming to her rescue. There was something so comforting about this senior boy; perhaps this was what some people meant when they called something divine.
After I was three months old in school we had a fete. I had never seen anything quite like it before. It was meant to provide fun and frolic to us, and lots of income to the school. When I now look back on the fetes that I attended in school, I long to get that kind of pure fun which seems to have disappeared with those times. I liked these fetes because they gave us the opportunity to eat delicious things in those very hungry times. The school gave us lots of pocket money at this time so that we could help them sell their goodies more easily. Of-course the pocket money we got from school was billed with our fees and our fathers felt the pinch of our splurges. But at that age those considerations never crossed our minds. It was nice being a spectator in these fetes; one wasn’t guilty of being a non-performer. My sole contribution in the fetes was to help the food stuffs get sold faster. But Rana had other roles to perform and, even at the age of seven, I saw how romantic it could be to be a Rana Kishore and be the centre of attraction in a school fete.
On the loud speaker blazed the haunting tunes that still keep coming back to me. ‘Lipstick on your collar tells the tale on you’, ‘Summer-wine’, ‘I’ve never seen a wonder like you’, and ‘Tom Dooley’. As I heard these lilting tunes I saw my hero move with a rosebud in hand towards the head-girl, of our sister-institution, who I later learnt was called Sandra Gardener.
I felt somewhat upset to see Rana finding another object of attraction. It was as though your mother had found another fellow to walk away with. Sandra’s response told me that she had already fallen to the charms of Rana. She got up to accept the token of his love and returned to him the kind of smile on which Rana seemed to have had the copyright till then. I watched all this, not knowing what to do with this highly problematic situation. The Rana Kishore who had offered his hand like a surrogate mother suddenly began to slip out of my grip. I watched the two go into one corner of the school compound, sit on a bench, and eat ice-cream cones together. I sat myself down on a tree stump and looked at all the fun that went on around me, and of which I wasn’t a part. Participating in what others considered to be fun was always an uphill task for me.
Sitting on the tree stump and drowning in the growing gloom amidst the fun and games of the others, I suddenly felt the hands of someone on my shoulders. I looked back and saw the kind old Mr Dubey standing behind me. I stood up and looked down at his feet.
‘Son,’ he said, ‘sitting alone?’
‘Yes Sir,’ I replied awkwardly.
‘Feeling home sick?’ he asked.
‘No Sir!’ I said, home being a distant thought in my life’s experience now.
‘I see that you remain alone most of the time. Vinay was very different.’
‘Yes Sir,’ I said, ‘I can never be like him.”
‘Don’t think you’re any less than Vinay,’ said the gracious old teacher. ‘You’ll do as well. The path to greatness is a lonely one. And you seem to have taken it already. You may not get the kind of success which comes to people who grab it all the time, but you’ll get it all right!’
Saying this he moved on towards other boys who stood close by. At that age Mr Dubey’s words didn’t make much sense to me but with time they began to acquire meaning. Though I remained far from anything even remotely connected with greatness, I began to see what the old man wanted to tell me that evening in that fete.
I heard Rana’s name being announced on the microphone. He had paid for a special request number, which seemed to express his feelings for Sandra. The song told it all and the cheap Sandra got all the intended signals from the words of the song and puffed up in gratification. Since then for some years she became my idea of the wicked witch and I longed to get her out of my way.
The next day was Sunday and in the morning I went and sat under a neem tree thinking of how cruelly my newfound mother had been snatched by fate from me. I saw that next to the bench, rather close to me, a lady was sitting on a rickshaw. For a split second she seemed to be one who was frightfully familiar. I looked again and lo, it was my own mother. She was sitting in a pensive mood, hardly noticing my presence. God alone knew what she must have been thinking not to recognise me. I didn’t know how to react to this unexpected event. Was it possible that my own mother had actually come to see me, looking almost as she had looked when I had left her three months earlier? The worst kind of things had been happening to her in my dreams and here she was as safe as anything. But why was she not noticing me, I wondered. I got up and went a few steps towards her and still she looked blankly at me, as though she was no longer interested in me. I went still closer to her without being able to draw her attention. I could have been just about anyone on the streets. I felt hurt. I turned back and walked away from her. She had first sent me to the boarding and now she had become so indifferent towards me.
I had hardly walked ten yards away from her unsympathetic gaze when I saw my father and Rana walking towards me. Rana’s smile preceded him as usual and he pointed towards me. Father saw me and he seemed happy, or at least that is what his expression suggested. It was such a relief to see that my father hadn’t changed in these few months.
‘So, how are you, my son?’ asked Father as he hugged me. I replied that I was all right.
‘But why are you walking this way? Have you not seen your mother sitting in that rickshaw there?’ asked Rana. ‘Run up to her!’ he said but I didn’t want to follow his instruction. He held my hand and started running in the direction in which Mother sat. We were there in a minute, with Father following behind. It was like my foster-mother delivering me back to my own mother. He nodded at her to greet her and with a smile that seemed to be made of some very real feelings, said ‘Aunty, here comes Pranay!’
Mother got off the rickshaw and looked at me. She was shocked to see me. I had obviously changed so much in three months that even she was finding it difficult to recognise me. I had become half my weight and highly sun-tanned, she informed me. She must have been right because my pants seemed to be constantly slipping off and I had some problem holding them at the respectable level.
‘Beta, what’ve you done to yourself?” she enquired and we clung to each other as I felt that my world was still not entirely lost. There was something that hadn’t still changed in it in spite of the vast transformation that I had been encountering. I was to gradually realise that one’s only true mother was one’s very own mother. The rest was all a mothering-romance, which wouldn’t last longer than the shine on a naughty boy’s shoes.
Next year Rana left school and plunged into the larger sea of life. He had gone but his smiling face seemed to come back to me again and again for some years. He visited the school once in a year or two and I longed to meet him when he came. But I was growing into a highly self-conscious creature and even though I craved to run up to him whenever he came, something in me kept me back. I was now a thin, characterless personality and his pink, glowing complexion seemed to rebuke my own brown. I would hide behind a tree or rush into the canteen when he was looking for me. Of course, I was only one of the fifty different boys he wanted to meet each time when he came to school. He became smarter and smarter as he grew into a full-fledged man. I would admire him and the ease with which he always did everything. Then I heard that he had joined the army or, better put, the army had joined him. It must have taken him places because he stopped coming to school after that and then he even went out of my thoughts to return there only very rarely.
Now almost forty years after I joined school, I sat in the same auditorium on the annual prize day in a different capacity. My son, Devraj, was to get the best all round boy’s medal and I was to witness this happening as a proud parent. Who could have thought that I would be invited for this ceremony in this capacity? The large auditorium was dressed up and made ready, as usual, to receive the guests and it had the same over-awing silence. Nothing was out of place. The boys sat in rows that could have been sketched with the help of rulers. All eyes looked in one direction. All heads turned or remained unturned as per the requirements of the school.
I had imagined that I would be under focus, being the Best-Boy’s father and may be sitting in the front row. However, contrary to my fears, no one asked me to sit in front. Those rows were reserved for the special invitees: the Bishop, the principals of other institutions, other Christians, and the bureaucrats of Allahabad. I was somewhat relieved to find myself sitting at the back in my usual unnoticed corner. This time there was the additional difference that my wife was sitting next to me, giving me the feeling that I was not alone or forsaken.
The guests filled the hall and now the Chief-Guest arrived. And when I looked at the chief-guest I thought he looked very familiar. He was a senior army officer and someone said, ‘General Kishore, this way, please!’ I looked more carefully, and found that it was the same Rana, my, one time, foster-mother. He had changed no doubt. The body does change. His glow had faded; his hair had changed in shape and colour. But somewhere within the man I saw the same spirit. There was still a bounce in every ounce of his being. I didn’t know how to respond to so much good luck on one day. Rana sat on the stage with the Principal and a few others. The Bishop also got up and joined them there. Rana outclassed the others. I sat at the back wondering whether he would recognise me now; being my odd defeatist self, I imagined that I had grown much older than I actually had.
The music of the organ flowed as usual. God’s grandeur filled the air of the hall as the grand hymns and anthems resounded within its walls. The principal gave his speech, but it seemed to concern me in no way. I kept looking at Rana and I kept hoping for the impossible that he would spot me and find me familiar, at least, even if he didn’t recognise me. After the principal had said something, the prizes were distributed. The penultimate award given was the Best Boy’s medal. I found myself quivering when I watched Devraj get on to the stage. Rana shook hands with him. And what a handshake it was! He then enquired if Devraj was in any way related to Vinay Singh, my brother; Rana had found in them a striking resemblance. His voice could be heard at the back because of the sensitive microphone near him.
‘You are so much like that Best Boy of my own time,’ he said.
‘Mr Vinay Singh is my uncle!’ said Dev.
This called for a kind of celebration. Rana hugged Dev hard. The two looked very good together. It was one Best Boy awarding another. It was at this point that I realised that I had been weeping. Those sitting next to me were perplexed by this odd sentiment. I pondered on whether Rana had played some role in my son’s development. Perhaps he had lived on in me and, through me, had shaped my son. Rana was then called upon by the Principal to say a few words. He came and gave a speech which still rings in my ears. He was unsurpassable. He saluted the school and made me feel like doing the same. He brought back to life our childhood days and whatever we had seen in school. He reminded us of the teachers, the boys (both the odd and the even ones) which the school had housed. He spoke of the romances and the affairs he had in school, the naughty things he did, and the caning he received.
During Rana’s speech the Bishop fell in love with him and when he was asked to conclude the function with God’s blessings and thanksgiving, he did something that could have scandalised the Christians present. While he spoke of the General’s magnetism, he quoted an old Hindi-movie song which said, ‘I have seen thousands of beauties, but I’ve never seen anyone like you!’ Rana took this rather unusual kind of remark from the Bishop without any self-consciousness. The event finally came to a conclusion.
I decided that soon after the function I would meet Rana and face him, as I had never done before. I had shied away from him so many times, and this was my chance to face him, or he might be lost forever. After all he had meant so much to me. Some teachers of the school were escorting him towards his car. I managed to reach him before he sat in his car.
‘Rana, do you recognise me?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, you look very familiar.’
‘I am Pranay!’ I said trying to give him a better glimpse of my face.
‘Now, that name rings a bell!’ he said.
‘I am Vinay Singh’s brother!’
‘O, yes! I think I remember the little boy who joined school in my last year,’ he said though he didn’t seem to place me very clearly.
‘That was in 1961,’ I said. ‘You gave my son the medal today!’
‘Your son’s a smart chap, Pranay!’ he told me, ‘He seems to have taken after his uncle.’
‘Yes,’ I said as the school authorities showed Rana the way to his car, not allowing the crowd that followed him to get any personal attention from him. I watched the car go far away into the darkness and now when I think of it, I sometimes feel that the car resembled an undertaker’s carriage in which my mother sat rather permanently.