There hadn’t been an arranged marriage in our clan for years. Decades. We had men and women from all parts of India, most communities, and no one blinked if someone had a boy/girlfriend, as long as studies didn’t suffer! But I remember the comments Zillu’s affair threw up:
“She’s eleven years older than him?”
“She’s eleven years older than him?”
What excitement those hushed whispers generated. After a few days, they were hushed no longer. They were open questions, statements, opinions bandied about. It was shocking. No words could describe such blasphemy. Just imagine this: Ms Y was in the eleventh standard when Zillu entered primary school. By the time he reached the eleventh, she’d already been earning and independent for over seven years, and had a flat of her own. He’d started learning music from her when he hadn’t a single whisker. When and how they fell in love, don’t ask me, because I really don’t know. I just remember a mighty ruckus when one day someone ‘found out’. Probably a nosy aunt or neighbour who promptly tattled to his parents, and then all hell broke loose.
The music lessons were halted from that very moment. It made no difference. Apparently, they used to meet at her place. Zillu was forbidden from going there, and since this was in the era before mobile phones, one of us had to escort him wherever he went, to make sure he didn’t break the rule. But love, they say, finds a way. And in Sanskrit there’s a saying that when in love, a person feels no fear, no shame. It’s a sentiment so old our ancestors knew all about it.
Zillu and his lady love didn’t find it difficult to cheat us escorts. They took us along to the movies. We stared hypnotised at the Phantom as he struck again, while they cuddled up in air-conditioned comfort. We enjoyed the giant wheel rides, they staggered away to hug and snuggle. We licked our way through orange ice sticks, reading comics in a corner of her flat, while they giggled and teased each other. Come Diwali or some other festival, and Zillu’s girlfriend would ‘drop in’ to greet us all. That awkward silence, the clearing of throats, the embarrassed offering of sweet and savoury goodies, it was all such a natak.
Since, from childhood, we were all conditioned to study lest we not get jobs, Zillu had to do something besides go gallivanting with her. And she, being older and wiser, most certainly exercised good sense and insisted that he start earning and ‘settle down’ first before they could consider marriage. These two words, ‘settle down,’ had different connotations in our family, and there were sniggers when this condition of hers was mentioned.
Ten long years after they’d been ‘caught’, they finally signed the register. She’d waited and supported him through his college years, through his initial career. Some said she was too old now. Some said it wouldn’t last. Most said what was the point? He was almost 30 and she at the edge of her child-bearing years. But they did get married. They’d become so much a part of the other’s life that they were inseparable. They merely slipped from one flat into another, as smoothly as putting on a used sock.
They had no children. We cousins, and our offspring, were showered with affection. Their house was always open to us, at all times. In hard times, they were our rock. In good times, the sharers of our happiness.
As they grew older, she became bent, and began to limp as her joints gave way and he was her rock, her stick, her energy, her everything. He really was her prince, always charming, always attentive, always gallant. Through her wrinkles, she smiled at him, and he beamed back. Each summer, she used to sponsor a holiday for him at a hill station. Sometimes they took a few of us cousins along. After her retirement, he took her for a wonderful, month-long holiday. He had years before he’d call it a day. She was house proud and never once missed giving him a freshly cooked meal when he returned from work. Devotion? You could see it in their body language.
I don’t know of what disease, but she wasted and died when he wasn’t yet 60. She was gone, gone. And Zillu was bewildered. He’d always looked up to her. He needed her guiding hand, the comforting words, her presence. Within a year, quite woebegone, overwhelmed by an unspoken grief, he joined her. Age difference be damned, these two were made for each other. Wherever they are, they must be united. That’s for sure.