Mrinal and I were close friends in school. He was the only one in our batch who remained a bachelor whilst the rest of us from the class of ’66 had wed in the ’70s, a good two decades earlier. I hadn’t met him since I got married and so was delighted when he called up to tell me that a business meeting had brought him to the station where I was posted. When I came home that evening, I told my wife that we were having a guest for dinner the next day.
“What’s his name?,” she asked.
“Mrinal,” I said. “Mrinal Sen.”
“Is he coming with his wife?”
“No, he’s single,” I replied. “Though why he has chosen to remain in that state is something I’ve never understood.”
The next day he arrived on schedule and the next two hours flew by in happy reminiscences of times gone by.
Over dinner, my wife casually asked him why he had chosen to remain single. He was silent for a while, and I tried to change the subject, sensing his discomfiture. “It’s all right,” he said, cutting me off. “It’s been so many years since anybody asked me that question, and truth to tell, I’ve never answered it yet. It started very innocently. She was the daughter of a business acquaintance of my father and we met at a party. She walked up to me and introduced herself. ‘I’m Sara. I believe our parents have similar business interests.’
Her voice was soft and gentle. I was mesmerised when I looked into her eyes, and in that instant I fell hopelessly in love for the first time in my life. That evening, I was embarrassingly tongue-tied and awkward and she must have passed me off as an idiot who could not even blabber.
I found out that she was working in her father’s firm, and a few days later I went over to meet her. Well, that was the start of a long romance, for soon we were seeing each other rather frequently. I had no idea where the relationship was headed and was content to just be with her. Sometimes we had dinner out together, but for the most part it was talking over the phone or taking a walk in the park. And about six months later, I proposed to her.
We were sitting in the park when I asked her to marry me. Her eyes lit up, but she did not answer me. Instead she posed a question. ‘Will your parents accept me?’ she asked.
‘I haven’t discussed it with them yet,’ I told her. I held her hand and squeezed it gently, but she was far from being reassured.
‘Your parents are wonderful people, but they struck me as very conservative. What will happen if they don’t approve?’ Her tone was soft but I could detect the anxiety it portrayed.
Still holding her hands, I looked into her eyes. ‘It’s about the woman I love; of course they will accept you.’
She smiled weakly. ‘Let’s wait till you speak with them,’ was all she said.
She was more aware of the strength of societal pressures than I was. Or perhaps I had a misplaced faith in my capability to win my parents over. When I spoke to them that evening, that fact came painfully to light.”
‘”I have asked Sara to marry me.’ Seven simple words were all it took to shake the very edifice of peace in my family. My father froze as if in shock. Mom appeared paralysed. Then after what seemed an eternity, my father rose from his chair. He was seething with rage. When he walked away wordlessly to his room and shut the door behind him I knew I stood accused of letting him down.
I looked to my mother for support but none was forthcoming. She said, ‘Sara is a wonderful girl, but she does not belong to our caste. You cannot disregard the customs of our people. And our religious beliefs are different too.’
Over the next two weeks, I tried to make my parents understand, but they refused to budge. During this entire period I didn’t meet Sara, neither did I call her. I did not know how to handle the conflicting emotions raging within my heart. My father had withdrawn into a shell and my mother was totally listless. I was well and truly caught between my love for Sara and my duty to my parents. Finally, I sacrificed Sara on the altar of custom and tradition. I had to convey my decision to Sara personally. That was the least that honour demanded of me. When I met her, I could see the strain on her face. She must have anticipated the worst and my demeanour merely confirmed her fears. ‘I’m sorry Sara,’ was all I could say. There was no need to say anything else. My face said it all.
She was silent for some time, and then she started crying. I could see the hurt in her eyes. I made my way painfully to the door and she walked behind me. I could have turned back, held her hand and married her the very same day, but I didn’t .… Instead I walked out of her house and her life. In that brief moment I died a thousand deaths, and my soul died too.”
“Now you know why I am still single,” Mrinal said, looking at us. “I knew I had made the wrong decision and I could never forgive myself for it. From then on, I foiled each and every attempt of my parents to get me married. I had to bear my cross alone.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” my wife said. “Societal pressures are not that easily cast off.”
“That may be true,” Mrinal replied. “But I can’t claim not to have been aware of what society expected of me. While I had made no promises to my parents, I had committed myself to Sara. And I broke that commitment. I wronged her. My parents were afraid of what people in our society would think of them and I was afraid of hurting my parents. In the final analysis, I let a faceless society set the agenda for my life, and I lost what was most precious to me.”
Mrinal prepared to leave and we bade each other good-bye. But my wife surprised me with her next words.
“Mrinal — Sara has forgiven you ...”
Mrinal looked at her, uncomprehendingly.
“It’s time to let go of the ghosts of the past,” she said. “Sara and I were friends in college, and we’ve keep in touch. I know how hurt she was when you left her, but even then she could not bear to hear anything said against you. She forgave you many years ago and is happily married now. The past is over. It’s time you forgave yourself.