Many-Splendoured Love/Selection

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That evening there were a lot of people at the New York Airport. It appeared as if thousands of them had descended at the Arrival Terminal. People were constantly going this way and that way, all around. “This is worse than the crowding at the Manekchawk Market”, raising his eye-brows Mahesh muttered to himself. “The whole world is here. But where are those two who are needed just now?” That thought started making him nervous. “What if Silufoi and Fua can not find me in this mob? Oh, what will happen if they do not come to pick me up at all?”

Mahesh had no idea about What to do?, Where to go? “Oh God, Where have I come?” He looked at the time. The wrist-watch was still showing the Indian time. In the plane, feeling sentimental, he had not changed the time. To find some nice person to ask something, he kept looking around. “Everyone is busy searching for someone, or with the people they came to receive. Who is going to even look at me? So, you were too keen to come here, study here, eh? So now enjoy this”, he clenched his teeth in anger towards himself.

Finally, thinking of something he went towards the Information Counter. Just then, he spotted Silufoi and Fua, trying to come in from the open doors, but getting pushed back in the out-going rush. He could not help shouting, “Silufoi, Silufoi, Here, here.” Forgetting the troley with his luggage, he started running towards them. Just then they saw him. Before they could say sorry, and explain about the lot of traffic, Mahesh had blurted out in irritation, “How late. I am waiting for so long.” Silufoi hugged him with big smiles. Fua had extended his hand right away, saying, “Welcome, welcome.”

At First -

For a long time Mahesh could not shake off the irritation of that first hour in America. “ In the name of High-Way Toll these Government people are taking so much money, and even more, all those that collect money are only black. Totally only black people.” Mahesh had not seen the look that his aunt and uncle had exchanged on hearing his words. He went on saying things like - “ Is this a white people’s country, or just black people’s? ”

Silufoi took solace in thinking that, at least, he does not know any hurtful words for the citizens here.

Even at home, in a day or two, Mahesh had started giving advice. “ Very large pieces of furniture you have selected. Rooms are small, right? Walls are painted totally white, wouldn’t they get dirty very quickly? Instead, dark colours would look much better”, etc. Silufoi just listened to all this. She did not argue at all. Nor did Fua. Both understood that he is still immature, and inexperienced, and that he will slowly change.

So far, Mahesh went on saying whatever that came to his mind. “Even if we are at home, the doors have to be kept locked? Is everybody so fearful? The windows never open here? How strange is that? No one in this country finds it necessary to have fresh air? It is so good in India. Everything is open, and nice breeze flows around.” Fua smiled now, and said, “Yes, and along with that a lot of unwanted dust and insects will also come. What about that?”

Not just for the first few days, but for first several months Mahesh remained critical of everything in America. “What kind of country is this? Everything here is either the opposite, or strange. Light swirches - the opposite; traffic moves - in the opposite direction; petrol is called ‘gas’; and things that may be like new, just twenty- twenty five years old are called ‘antique’. If they were to see something in India they will understand what to call ‘antique’. It is a crazy country, I’d say. And University is called ‘school’. Have you ever heard anything like that?”

Mahesh had taken admission to do Masters in Engineering in America, so when school started he went away to the hostel. Even there his objections to everything continued. “This country is too much. Nobody knows what Vegetarian food means. They will ask, so you eat chicken? You can eat fish, right? Besides, eating all this white bread will only ruin the digestive system.”

At Silufoi’s house he had to eat left-overs for lunch, but for dinner he always got fresh food. This thought suddenly brought a sense of deep thanks in Mahesh. He called them right away, with the intention of saying sorry to them, but they were not home. And he could not leave a message asking forgiveness on the recording.

Perhaps the biggest issue he faced was due to his own name. When any one read his name -Mahesh - in English, be it White or Black, they all pronounced it in an unbearably wrong way. “Hello Ma Hesh”, they would say, or even worse, “Hello Mother Hesh”. They will say it this way, and would laugh also. Who thought that in this country, even a name would not be said properly? Mahesh could not stand this kind of teasing for long, and he started introducing himself just as ‘Hesh’.

He surely said ‘Mahesh’ when he was with other Indian students, but with the ‘firangs’, having no other way out, he had to use the meaningless word ‘Hesh’ as his own name. His anger stayed on in his mind, but still, this was better than being insulted and laughed at all the time.

After a while Mahesh had started sharing a rented flat with two other students. One of them was Indian like him - Rakesh, and the other was Patrick from Ireland. Mahesh did have an objection for that, but he could not tell Rakesh directly that foreigners are rather unclean.

In just two days he felt that it was good he did not say any such thing, because Patrick was the best flatmate in every way. Always a smile on his face, he would go on singing or whistling softly away. Cleaning was, as if, only his job; and Mahesh had not imagined that Patrick would be also a vegetarian. Seeing such naturally good-hearted behaviour, slowly, for the first time after coming to America, Mahesh started losing his snobbishness.

Also, when he went to a store to buy something, he made a face upon seeing Black men working there. He said to himself, “I hope these people would not rob me.” There were always many other shoppers there, so there was not any real fear. Once, after getting the two-three things he needed, he paid for them and left the store hurriedly. Soon he spotted a Black man following him. Mahesh started walking faster, so the other man also increased his speed. “What to do now?”, Mahesh was wondering when the other man caught up with him and tried to stop Mahesh.

“What do you want?”, Mahesh shouted. The other man extended his hand and said, “Sir, this had fellen off from your wallet.” In his hand was Mahesh’s credit card. Handing it over, without waiting for even another second, he walked back to the store at a fast pace.

Words like “Thank you, Brother” crowded in Mahesh’s consciousness, and threw a shadow on his mind. “ Oh, these ordinary people could have such honesty?” For such a long time he had behaved and thought unjustly - about this country, about these people. Suddenly his attitude towards life changed some.

That change was also timely, because soon he was to start a job in a good firm. There, like before, if he continued to run others down, and to go on boasting, he would not last any length of time, he realized. When he got his first pay-cheque, he took Silufoi and Fua out for a specail dinner. And there, at last, he apologized to them. “ How childishly I had behaved. How did both of you tolerate me?, my behaviour?” Making such a confession made him feel good inside.

While working, he came to know many Americans; he started to know American History, and got to understand contemporary life in America. Now his thinking was - how different is the personality of every country. And how fascinating.

In the office he became friends with Veronika. After that Mahesh started changing in many other ways. His mental opinion that White girls are only interested in pursuing men, was being proven wrong. Veronika’s intelligence had brought her to high position in the firm. Without being impolite, she generally kept formal distance with most colleagues. She had travelled to India - in fact, she had seen more of India than Mahesh had, so she liked talking to Mahesh about India.

One day Mahesh took Varonika to Royal India Palace Restaurant for dinner. She liked the food, and enjoyed the evening, and in return she invited Mahesh to her flat for coffee. Slowly, eating together, going out together, or just sitting at home quietly together increased. Mahesh would hold her hand, some times he would softly touch her cheeks. Once Veronika gave him a hug and a kiss on his lips. Mahesh let that moment pass.

A little later he said, “I also like you a lot, and I do want to stay close to you all the time, but what if we just remain close friends for now? I keep thinking that I should go and meet my parents once. and tell them about us in person. I feel that this much tradition I should honour.” Veronika was from Spain. For her as well, respecting the family’s tradition was very important. She agreed with Mahesh.

  • Later On * -

Mahesh was thinking about going to India, but he was not making any serious plans about it. “I will go; what is the hurry” - was the state of his mind. One afternoon, in the office he got a call from Silufoi. Generally they talked from home, so instantly Mahesh got worried. But what had happened was that his younger sister’s marriage had been fixed with a young man visiting home from USA, and had to be organized in a hurry. The young man that was liked had just about ten days in India.

It was the first wedding in the family, so both the parents were very keen for Mahesh to be present there. Silufoi was leaving right the next day. Fortunately, Mahesh was able to secure a few days’ leave from the office. He was to leave within two days. Veronika went to the airport to see him off. Embracing him before saying goodbye, she said, “Move in with me when you come back.” Holding her face tendrely in his hands, Mahesh kissed her, and said, “Perfect idea.”

There was much bustle at home. Everyone was very happy. Out-of-town guests had already arrived. Mahesh was meeting everybody after four years. One day his mother called him over, and introducing a lady, she said, “This is my close friend, Chanda Aunti.” Mahesh had never met her before. He joined his hands in a polite greeting, and started leaving. “Oh, no, no. Just Namaste is not enough”, Chanda Aunti said. “You will have to touch my feet respectfully. I am going to be your mother-in-law after all.”

Mahesh could not help shouting, “What are you saying?” His mother said smugly, “Just wait till you see her daughter Nalini. You will tell me then, Oh, what a girl you have found for me, Mom.”

All of them at home had taken the decision, and had made the selection on behalf of Mahesh.. There was no doubt that he will like her. So along with the daughter’s, if Mahesh’s wedding also gets done, so much the better, wasn’t it? Once he gets married, who is stopping him from getting back to USA? His father said, “Mahesh, you are so lucky. Nalini already has US Visa. Also, she has been there, and knows everty thing about there. She will be able to go with you right away. Then you can relax, and we are relieved. isn’t it right?”

“Pappa, Without asking me, or even informing me, how can you people take a decision like this about such an important matter?”

“Ohho, but wait till you meet the girl. You are sure to like her easily.”

“Pappa, I have made my selection in USA. I have a girl friend there, and we do not want to marry in any hurry.”

The father felt angry and insulted, but kept quiet. He did not want to create a shouting match in the household full of people. He informed the mother also in a whisper. Mom seemed to lose her voice out of the sudden shock. That night she had acute chest pain. Doctor had to be summoned. Nobody was told the real reason for this.

“Too much excitemen, nothing else”, everyone agreed. Chanda Aunti gave assurance, “You all manage the wedding. My Nalini will stay with her at night.” The mother did not speak a single word with Mahesh.

Only Silufoi felt that something had happened. She quietly went and sat near Mahesh, and asked, “Will you tell me what is happening?” He told her about how the parents had decided his marriage with Nalini.

“So?”, Silufoi said. “I have seen her. She is very pretty, and she is intelligent too.”

Finally Mahesh told her about Veronika. Silufoi was surprised, but understood the circumstance also. Very wisely she explained this to Mahesh, “Look, my dear, In life not everybody gets the person of their choice. Mostly, people get used to it, learn to tolerate, like, and even love the other person. All around, there are all these husbands and wives, do any of them look unhappy? And you have not gone any farther than being friends so far. You have not made any promises, so there is no cheating in this.”

Mahesh was absorbed in thoughts. Silufoi continued, “ Decision is yours. It will hurt and bother you for some time, to say no to that one person. But if you say no to the others - that is, to your parents - it will make your mind restless and guilty for the whole life. Your parents may not even see your face again. So think about this from all sides, dear.”

If something happens to Mom, it will affect Pappa also. Sister’s wedding will be totally disrupted. Just because of him, and his decision, everyone will suffer, that was sure. After all, his responsibility towards the parents was higher than anything else.

The whole afternoon Mahesh kept wandering in a park near by. And kept thinking, and wondering about what to do. In the evening, with Silufoi’s help, the tiff with Pappa was solved. Afterwards Pappa must have informed Mom of the same. May be that is why, holding on to Nalini, she had come out to sit with others.

At night Mahesh went to the phone-booth and dialled Veronika’s number. He had tried to give a long explanation. But just saying things like “Yes, OK, OK, it is all right; yes, no problem”, she had put the phone down. Saying “Hello, Hello, V, listen, please”, Mahesh was left standing there.

He had called the office and had asked for more leave. He had to accept it without pay. Pappa said, “It is good that you got the leave. What is the use of just having money.” Mahesh could see that after all, for America, Nalini was certainly an ideal girl - educated, good-looking, smart, knew driving, could cook, spoke English well. Everyone said, “What more does one need?”

After reaching America, at first they went to stay at Silufoi’s. Nalini would say, “I know everything. Here salt is less salty, and sugar is less sweet. A lot gets thrown away here. This country is really something. And one does not feel like touching anything that the black person is giving”, and more. Mahesh felt embarrassed, but in his mind he knew that like himself, when the time comes, she will also understand and will change also.

He also felt embarrassed to go to the office. When he sees Veronika there, what would he say? It would be so awkward. But such a situation never came about. He did not get to meet her, because she had gone on leave.

Now instead of finding a rental flat, Mahesh bought a house. Nalini had found a job also, and both their income was enough for all the expenses. But along with the habit of working hard, Nalini acquired a disease - the compulsion to shop. She had to buy almost whatever she saw. Even if there was no need for something, she would buy it, and then would go and return it. Standing in line to return would bore her, tire her, and then she would complain about it at home. This became her routine.

She collected so many things - for kitchen, for bathroom, for the other room. No place to arrange them anywhere, no possibility of using them.

Mahesh remained very busy at the office. He also enjoyed working. Veronika did not return to that office at all. Mahesh had no idea where she would be now. But one time, in the street, accidentally they saw each-other. Mahesh hesitated to talk to her, but she said directly, “My apartment is quite near. Come up, I will give you coffee.”

  • At Present * -

Mahesh was tempted, but he could not go. “Not today. I am in a hurry”, he said, and went on his way. He had to get going on his way. He had lost an opportunity, yes, but that evening he had to take Nalini to the hospital. As it is it was just for a check-up, but once they were there, the doctor admitted her right away. She was expecting twins, and it seemed that they were arriving much earlier. “It is good that I did not give way to temptation”, Mahesh sighed. “What would have happened if I did not reach home in time?”

The twins arrived - a son and a daughter, both healthy and perfect. Mahesh wanted to give them such names that could not be shortened or distorted. He did not want any letters like ‘Ma’ as in Mahesh, or ‘Na’ as in Nalini. If he had long since become just “Hesh’ in America, she had become just ‘Lini’ as well. So they selected “Jigar” and Jiya” for the twins. Both would say, “These are not difficult to pronounce at all”, and really, the kids never had any problems because of their names.

Nalini never tired of praising her children. But then, both of them really were very bright. It may be sports or studies, piano-playing or debating - Jigar and Jiya were always ahead of others. Both were always eager to join every possinble activity. Parents could not stop them.

Once, playing hockey in school, Jiya was seriously injured. The ball somehow hit her head, she fell down, and the bones in her wrist and elbow cracked. By the time Jigar called his Mom and Dad, Jiya had already been taken to the hospital.

Mahesh was extremely worried, but Nalini was beside herself with grief. She could not look at Jiya lying unconsciously in the hospital-bed. And it was as if this accident changed her completely within hours. Her tears never stopped flowing, and her lips kept moving. The person that was always obsessed about going to shops, and in shopping all the time, suddenly that afternoon, became engrossed in constant praying. The simple words - about seeking Lord Krishna’s Mercy - that she had heard her grand-mother repeating, became her big emotional support.

Jiya’s wrist and elbow had to be operated upon, but fortunately, her brain was not impacted very hard, and no surgery was needed.

She got better slowly. Nalini believed with crtainty that it was because of her constant praying. Even after Jiya came home, and while she took complete care of her daughter, Nalini continued her silent chanting. From this she turned to reading Hindu scriptures, discourse on the Theory of Detachment, Buddhist preaching etc. Without her own knowledge, her life had found a definite positive turn. Her time to grow up had finally arrived.

Mahesh felt that, after fifteen years together, married life had become happier and more peaceful. Even then, he did not know that almost every afternoon Nalini was going out, taking many unused and unwanted things in the car. She would go and donate them in some church shop, or to a hospital shop, or at the Salvation Army shop. Many unopened packets of sweet buscuits and salty crackers, as well as food-tins she would take to the soup kitchen near by.

She knew, now, what were the things one simply could not do without in life.

Jigar and Jiya had started going to college. Nalini started worrying about some different things now. From earlier days many girls and boys would come home, to play with Jigar and Jiya. White and Black youngsters, and Spanish, Chinese and others also were their friends. Nalini was used to see all of them coming and going, and being together. Even then, she wished that her son and daughter would get closer with some other Indian students in college. Jigar had brought two or three different girls over at home, and had introduced them to Mom casually. But later, it seemed that with one girl he was getting much closer. Seeing that, Nalini suggested to Mahesh to have a talk about this with Jigar.

“Oh, Has the time to talk about their marriage come already? Have the kids grown up so much already? Don’t you think the years went by very fast?”, Mahesh kept asking such questions in wonderment.

One evening, when Jiya was not at home, Mahesh brought up the subject. Jigar said, “Dad, We are born and raised in America, and we certainly are American as well. It is not necessary that we would become intimate with Indians only. This friend of mine, Sophia, and I like each other. I was going to tell you and Mom about her. We are serious about each other, Dad.”

Mahesh had this to say, “Don’t do anything in a hurry, son. In such matters, one should not decide hurriedly.”

As if he did not hear this at all, Jigar said, with some excitement, “Oh Dad, Sophia’s aunt knows you. Last Saturday their family had a get together. Sophia introduced me to all of them. Hearing my last name, the aunt said, “Munshi? Really? I knew one Mumnshi in New York once, many years ago.”

“I casually asked her for the name of that person. And Dad, you know who it turned out to be, right? It was you yourself, Mahesh Munshi. Unbelievable coincidence, isn’t it? I am sure you certainly remember her too.”

Mahesh felt very nervous suddenly. Jigar went on speaking, “ My Sophia, she is beautiful, right? But this aunt of hers is very good-looking even at this age. Aunt Veronika. She works in that non-commercial news channel on Television. She has become quite a Star there. And uncle Joseph is also very handsome. He is a big lawyer.” At that moment Nalini came into the room. Jigar started telling her, “OK Mom, relieved now, right? You heard everything, right? Dad knows Sophia’s aunt, so it proves that the family is good. All good now? OK then. I am taking Sophia out now. I am not eating at home. Don’t wait for me.”

Mahesh was afraid that Nalini would say or ask something about this aunt, but she did not do anything like that. These days she was reading a book on Zen Sect. She picked that up again. After a while Mahesh spoke, “You did not say anything. What do you think about Jigar’s selection?” Nalini still did not say anything. She closed the book, gave Mahesh an enigmatic smile, and saying, “I am going to bed, all right?”, she went upstairs.

“With that mysterious smile, what was she trying to say?”, Mahesh tried to figure that. He remained seated, feeling confused. At one moment he thought of switching on the channel Veronika worked at. He picked up the remote, and kept turning it around in his hand for a long time. He did not feel too keen to turn the television on. At last, he put it back on the table and went upstairs to get some sleep.

It was as if Jiya’s life was going parallel also. She was also getting closer to one young man. One night Nalini asked her, “You were very late tonight. Who dropped you off?” “It was Jeff, Mom.” “Which Jeff?” “Oh, Jeff Bigman. You know his Mom, he told me.” “Who, that Black family?” “Mom, You do like President Obama, don’t you? These people are even less dark than him. And at least think, that after all, we are not White ourselves.” “Yes, but Indian Culture is so ---” “In general, among Indians here all I see is Bollywood ‘Culture’. Mom, Jeff’s Mom and Dad live simply, and do so much charity work for their church, do you know? And Jeff? He is going to graduate from Harvard Law School. He is a total idealist. I know that I am never going to get a better life-partner than him.”

Then addressing Mahesh she said, “Dad, to meet you and Mom, and to ask for your permission to marry me, Jeff has wanted to come for quite a while. I have been stopping him. I thought that if he came on Mom’s birthday, it would be even happier; and we would always remember that day for these two reasons. Jeff was the one who wanted tell you, and look, because of Mom’s worrying, I had to tell you all this.” Jiya suddenly became serious. Right away, saying “Good Night”, she went upstairs.

“She is more serious than Jigar, isn’t she?”, Mahesh said. “Do you know this family?” Nalini just nodded her head, and without saying a word, she gave that smile once again. To Mahesh it felt mysterious again. This time he did not let it go. With some emphasis he said, “Say something. Tell me what you are thinking at least.”

Slowly Nalini spoke, “How happy both the kids are. I do not want to hinder them in any way. To have real feelings for one-another, and to be able to spend the whole life with someone your heart has selected is so precious. After all, everybody does not have such good fortune.”

Mahesh was stunned and speechless. Many years ago, Silufoi had said almost exactly the same thing. Those words would still come to his mind some times. Today Nalini mentioned almost the same thing. Was it that both of them had to marry without their own choice? Mahesh felt ashamed in his mind. All his life - for all these years - he had gone on blaming his own Fate. He had never even thought that so many young women never get to marry their own loved ones. Did Silufoi and Nalini also just tolerated their Fate in their lives?

And At Last-

After about four months Jigar and Jiya told their parents that they wanted to arrange a party - to announce both their engagements. Not only that Mahesh wanted to make all arrangements, he was eager to do that. But the son and daughter made it clear that they wanted to do everything, and the party would be just for their own friends.

“We do not want any elders. Not even the two of you”, they informed Mom and Dad. The parents were surprised by this, and were greatly disappointed also, seeing that both the children preferred to exclude them like this. But then they consoled themselves. “Oh. let the youngsters have fun by themselves. We will see all the photos later”.

On the day of the party, Jigar and Jiya remained very busy. They hardly had time to be with Mom and Dad. It was after nine at night when the bell rang. Mahesh was startled. Nalini immediately started worrying. He opened the door and saw as if Jigar and Jiya were standing there. In that first moment. But no, no, it was Jeff and Sophia standing there.

Sophia had worn a Chudidar-kurta outfit in red, black and gold. Jeff was in a navy blue and silver-embroidered kurta. “Ahaa, how good-looking are both of them”, Nalini mused. Who would say they could be non-Indian? “How come you are here, at this time?”, Mahesh asked.

Sophia hugged Nalini fondly, and said, “Mom, there is no reason to worry. Just get ready quickly, both of you.” Jeff said, “We have come to get you both to the party. Did you really believe that we would cut the cake, and have the ring-exchange done without both of you there? Come quickly, we are giving a surprise to everyone in the hall.”

Within fifteen minutes the four of them were in the car. Sophia said, “Both Jigar and Jiya had planned this from the beginning. They had thought of giving both of you a surprise also. Jigar was the one who wanted to come to pick you up. But Jeff and I said that no, we will go and would bring Mom and Dad over. How can we do such an event without you both?”

Mahesh choked with emotions. He turned to see Nalini wiping her tears with the edge of her saree. He extended his hand and got hold of hers. Nalini looked at him with tear-filled eyes, and again gave him that enigmatic smile. This time Mahesh felt that he could understand that smile now.