One Man, Two Wives
One Man, Two Wives24 mins 685 24 mins 685
I realized that the two women who were now talking to me shared the same man for a husband; my first reaction was one of surprise born out of a shock. Bigamy was something alien to my world. When I say my world, I mean the world of the middle class of our society; and by the middle class, I do not differentiate on the basis of income or such yardstick, but the mental disposition and attitude that distinguishes them from the rest. Middle-class people, whichever income bracket they may be in, or whichever strata of society they may belong to are all characterized by one singular feature; confused ideology. Being part of the same class which I am referring to, I can very well describe my thought process to you. I have very open views on virtually every subject, yet you can say I am a bigot; I would very much like to be a libertine, but yet am cast in the traditional mould. I consider myself broad-minded and liberal in views but when it concerns the lives of others. Where it concerns me and my family, I prefer to be traditional.
I find myself looking at the two young women before me with great awe, curiosity and with some amount of disgust. How can any women share husbands? How can a woman tolerate her husband marrying another woman when she is still with him? How can she possibly cohabit with the second woman as peacefully as I see these women before me? Disgusting! Anyway, this is not the right time to run away with my feelings of disgust for I am curious to understand this triangle before me.
To give you the background; I am a wanderer by choice and quite often, I set off on my own to faraway lands to be with myself. I just pack my backpack and push off for a week or so, to get away from the ennui and depression that mundane living brings upon you. I find this habit of mine quite refreshing, though it irritates my family a bit. At first, my husband and children worried about my intentions to travel to unknown places alone. How can a woman be safe when she is alone? But when I told them this was an experiment to refresh myself and be with myself for some time at least, and that I would never let down caution and discretion while in strange lands with strange people, they relented. Of course, I was educated on a long list of dos and don’ts.
My own fears about travelling alone were no less than the apprehensions of the family. It was my initiative and I feared that if anything should go wrong with the experiment, I would be at the butt end of family criticism and rebukes. But the idea so possessed me that I could not help but giving it a try. The first few trips were torturous. Every single moment, I would feel like returning back to the safe confines of my city and home. Mostly, I feared men that I had to meet; they would all appear rapists to me, for it was the culture of the middle-class women of India to be hateful and apprehensive of men. We are brought up on the belief that all men are cruel and heartless and only believe in exploiting women. In India, the hold of men over matters and lives is indisputable.
They are always the most preferred, and I dare say, it is the women who made this possible. The infallibility of man and his power is a myth built by generations of women and mindlessly perpetuated by them. So it is that the women of all ages have created and believed in the myth of the fragility of women. Once you start believing that you are frail, you tend to also believe that men are stronger. The more you nurture these beliefs, the more you begin hating the powerful.
With men, Indian women share a strange relationship. They are bound by the universal laws of the sexes on the one hand, quite firmly; yet they forever hate playing second fiddle to men.
Wives of every type love to suspect and hate their husbands, not because such hatred helps them build their own personality, but they hardly know what else to do, to keep their identities intact. Though I do not claim to be a serious student of relationships, I somehow believe that every Indian marriage is a relationship that is destined to be strained. This stretching and straining of the relationship are not because the man or the woman wants friction and enjoy it, but it is because of the tradition that has seeped into them, poisoning their systems. When a woman looks up at her husband, the man has to look down upon her. And when a woman gets the feeling of being looked down upon by her man, she cannot help hating the man.
We all live our lives on different planes without realizing that at some point, all these converge into one, like the rivers into the seas. Boys grow into men fed upon the traditional belief of the woman being frail, and that his responsibility is to take care of her, always. Taking care of her gives him a sense of superiority, and this superiority breeds contempt for the weak and frail. It demands unquestioning faith on part of women in men. All girls grow into women with the traditional belief that someday they will be married to a man who will then be responsible for their lives. Having thus mentally surrendered their lives to men, the women then struggle to find the meaning of their existing apart from doing the bidding of men. The relationship by marriage has several inbuilt features, and enough myths to illustrate these features.
The first is the myth of Rama. The women are protected by the myth of Rama, who despite grave suspicions about Sita at one stage of their life remained faithful to his marriage to Sita. Every Indian woman is comforted by the belief that her man cannot reject her for any reason; that is by and large. The second myth is the myth of Santoshi Mata, which extols the victory of a faithful and sincere woman over every trial and tribulation she is forced to undergo in her life. Unfortunately, every Indian woman believes that the Gods are on their side, and will teach their husbands the right lesson as long as they remain self-effacing, sacrificing and yielding. Finally, you have the Hindu marriage laws which are structured to uphold the sanctity of marriage at any cost. Divorce is the last and least option, made difficult by tradition and law for both men and women.
As I said, we all live different lives at the same time, causing great confusion. We live the lives of husbands and wives, yet yearning for individuality and selfish desires; we live the lives of the gross material, acquiring and building all the time, yet yearning to be ascetic in our thoughts and beliefs and behaviour. We desire to amass and at the same time crave to reject everything. Construction and destruction move side by side in our lives. The positive coexists with the negative. Love cohabits with hate.
Enough of philosophy; I simply overcame the fear of the unknown by persisting with my experiment. I refused to let my suspicion of men to rule over my better senses. I refused to let reason be crushed by the irrational. And I succeeded. My success gave me confidence about my own existence, that I the individual can live and do things without fear and be successful. This feeling gave me confidence in my relationship with my husband, and I am sure, with time, he too felt relieved and confident. In simple words, my lonely sojourns into the unknown, help building my personal life anew, and the family gained immensely. I flouted no tradition, I did not intend to disregard family life, I still loved my husband; all I wanted to do is discover myself, without ruffling any delicate feather in the family nest. The men I met were no rapists, I discovered.
In fact, I discovered that initially, the men I met were confused about how to deal with me; a single woman out on her own, what could she be thinking of doing? Why is she doing it? This was just like the present curiosity and disgust I have been feeling for the two women who shared the same man. But very like my feelings for these women, the men whom I had to met on my journeys soon realized the futility of their suspicion and began to see me as a human being, eager to know about my observations during the journeys, eager to help me in whatever way they can. It is so wonderful when we become human beings within us, without genders, without restrictive thoughts bothering us. Life becomes simple and we begin to feel healthy.
On this occasion, I took off to Himachal Pradesh. I ensure that I have no advance bookings, no itineraries and no fixed plans for sightseeing. I just wander amidst the hills and the valley taking in Nature as it is, and trying to merge myself into it. I make it a point to carry a few books with me that I plan to complete. I carry no camera for I abhor photography. I just carry my note pad and pens and record everything I experience at leisure. As a matter of habit, I ensure I do not stay in comfortable hotels and wherever possible I mingle with the locals, even enjoying their hospitality.
On this occasion, I wander into Hamirpur after days of wandering. I do not know why I came here, not that it bothers me much. From Hamirpur, I again wander into a hamlet located about ten miles from the main town. Here, I meet an old man and ask him whether there is any place to say overnight. He invites me to his home and here I am. This is something I learnt and liked during my trips. People out there, everywhere are simple and hospitable, barring a few misguided elements.
The more you travel away from the sophistication of cities; you connect with more human beings than robots. People here are illiterate, yet wise. They are warm without wanting to pry into you. They are ready to accept you despite your complicated thinking. You cannot talk books or movies or philosophy to them; you cannot expect them to share your views about development, lack of amenities in these parts of the country, politics or any other intellectual stuff. They accept you as you are, without criticism, and expect you to do the same. They accept their life with all humility, despite the glaring problems that you might bring to their notice. They expect you to do the same. And by tuning in with these simple folks, you hit a chord within you, which seems totally alien at first. Imagine life without the luxuries of the city! You will rebel with disgust at first; but once you tune in, you actually begin to realize how many luxuries you enjoy are actually restrictions on your nature. I found that here I need not put up any pretence about me, I do not have to convince anyone who I am and what I am, nobody is bothered if I am a millionaire or a pauper. I am just me here.
The old man is apparently the father of the husband of these ladies. At first, one of the women approached me and enquired if I am from Delhi. When I said yes, she told me that her husband, Nand Lal, lives and works there. She also told me that it had been some time that he either visited home here in Himachal or written to them about his welfare, and quite obviously they were all worried. I asked her why she cannot go to Delhi; her husband does not like them to visit him unless he himself wants them to come. Just as I am discussing with the woman, the other wife strolls in and joins us. The first lady, Meera, briefs her about me and then Sadhana (the other one) asks me whether I can find out about their husband through my sources. They tell me that he works with the Government, External Affairs I guess, at South Block. But I must do nothing to hurt their husband’s feelings, I have to be discreet. All they needed to know is his comfort.
My curiosity sufficiently aroused I want them to tell me more. At the back of my mind, I am already conjuring images of a man, devilish by nature and intent, having two wives in the village and god knows how many in Delhi? I could see Nand Lal in my mind’s eye, a debauch of the worst kind, enjoying his life in Delhi at the cost of two miserable women back home. My feelings swell into a sympathetic wave for the two women before me.
I am handicapped by language, unable to cope up with the accent and Pahari dialect of the two women; nevertheless, I get the hang of it. Sadhana is the first wife and she told me that it was her fault that Nand Lal could not get any child out of her, and had to remarry so that there can be children. Meera lamented that she too could not help her husband or her sister by marriage in any way as she too had failed to conceive. The women are taken to Delhi when Nand Lal feels the need to try and procreate, which, I gather is not very often. The two women live like sisters, joined together by a single family, husband and cause. Their own families consider it their misfortune that their daughters are barren. They barely know their husband beyond the fact that they are married to him. It does not surprise either that they have to share a single man for their lives. The elder woman is resigned to the fact that she has been born with a curse, barren. The younger woman is yet to realize that she may as well be barren! Neither of them even dare to think that something may be wrong with Nand Lal himself, for twice cannot be chance.
The Nand Lal clan respects both the women and they are well looked after. Contrary to my personal view that women who cannot bear children are scorned; it seems that the family is quite affectionate to both women. In a strange way, the womenfolk in the family, a joint family of seven families, empathize with the wives of Nand Lal. I also gathered that Nand Lal is the only male child in the clan!
Beyond this, neither of the wives is able to recount or recollect much about Nand Lal. I ask them who can tell me more, but they advise me not to discuss the subject with anyone else in the family, for I may hurt their feelings. Nand Lal is the most preferred and loved child of all and no one would want to hurt him or be hurt by talking about him. They, however, suggest to me to talk to the elderly masterji, who taught Nand Lal in his younger days and with whom Nand Lal still keeps in touch. They offer to take me to his house in the morning, on the pretext of taking me around the hamlet. They suggest a few temple visits, Baba Balak Nath temple in particular.
What kind of man is Nand Lal? Why does he choose to remain away from his family when they all love him so much? A kind of mystery surrounded the name and I was eager to know more from masterji soonest.
Masterji is a man in his fifties, touching sixty. His wife was milking a cow and his children were studying under his supervision when we approached his abode. He welcomed the two ladies cordially; obviously, he knew them well enough. I was introduced as a stranger who strayed into Hamirpur from Delhi. Masterji, I could see, was mighty pleased to be in the presence of someone who appeared well educated from a big city.
We were served hot milk and jalebi. I broached Nand Lal and saw his eyes registering a mixed emotion of joy and sorrow. I told him that my interest was purely personal and I wanted to know about Nand Lal for the sake of his two wives; so that if possible, I could help them.
Nand Lal came from a good family and he is the only male child in the large family, grew up under the love and affection of the entire family of uncles and aunts. His parents wanted to give him a good education and he was therefore sent to a native boarding school where he could focus on studies seriously. Nand Lal was a good student and scored well and studied diligently. Somewhere along the line, he fell into bad company and developed the smoking habit. His close friend in school was the son of a tailor and the two boys were thick friends who shared a lot of their lives together.
One incident, Masterji told me, would change the life of Nand Lal. There was an occasion when the parents of his friend, the tailor and his wife that is, left their only ward home for a visit to another town for a marriage. It so happened that a young and good looking girl used to supply milk to the household, and it was her routine to visit the house every morning. This young girl was from a Jat family and was commonly known to be accessible in the most commonly understood sense of the term. The entire place knew of her illicit alliances with many boys and it was not therefore surprising that Nand Lal and his friend found her most desirable.
One morning, they invited her into the house and one thing led to the other and soon enough they were both enjoying the physical warmth of the milk girl. After they had their hearts filled, the girl demanded money from them which they refused to pay. Soon enough, the girl began arguing and fighting and finally the boys threw her out. But she soon returned with her family folk, all armed with lathis and weapons. The boys, alone in the house, were threatened by the Jats and somehow managed to flee the place.
It was then that they landed up at Masterji’s house; afraid, terrorized and guilty. They told Masterji all that transpired and begged him to save them. Since he knew the girl’s disposition and repute, Masterji assured them of his help. It seems, the incident left a scar on Nand Lal who would then brood endlessly. He felt guilty of indulging in such an undesirable affair and felt he had let his family down. He was scared of what his family would think of him and do when they found out what happened. Instead of standing up to the problem bravely, he fled the place. He took a bus to Delhi and thereafter decided not to return home. None at home knew where he had gone and all were under the impression that the Jats have had their revenge. Even masterji did not know where Nand Lal had gone.
During the bus journey, Nand Lal befriended the conductor of the bus who promised him to fix up a job with DTC, as a conductor. This did not happen and Nand Lal spent months doing menial jobs; first at a cycle repair shop and then at a cycle parking shed in a theatre. It seems that his interest in studies continued to engage him, for he soon called up masterji from Delhi and requested him to arrange a school leaving certificate for him. That is how it was discovered that Nand Lal was alive and well and in Delhi.
Upon receiving this good news, Nand Lal’s uncle rushed to meet him in Delhi; to persuade him to come back to the village. Nand Lal refused to oblige, wanting to be independent and work in Delhi. Soon thereafter, he was engaged as a peon in the Ministry of External Affairs, where he still works.
The family, upon getting the news that he had managed a government job, pressured him to marry. His uncle (the eldest one) and his father found a girl each for the boy and the pressure on him to marry mounted. To his uncle’s dismay, Nand Lal chose to marry the girl his father had chosen for him, without even seeing her once! He seemed to be utterly disinterested in marriage.
Having married, another kind of pressure was mounted by the family on Nand Lal. He was told to beget a child, a son preferably. Despite repeated attempts, the child would not come. It was when all hopes were given up that Nand Lal’s father in law requested him to marry again for a second time if only to get a child. His family endorsed the idea and immediately pressure started mounting on Nand Lal. All the time, Nand Lal would tell masterji that he was not interested in family or children, but no one would listen. So he was married a second time, against his wishes. As a mark of protest, he stopped visiting the village or even seeing his wives. Once in a while, he would ask masterji to escort his wife, first the first one and now the second one to Delhi. Apparently, despite all his reservations and protests, Nand Lal was himself under pressure to deliver what his clan wanted, a child.
Masterji told me how unhappy and depressed Nand Lal was. He had still not got over the burden of guilt for his childhood indiscretion. He still blamed himself for betraying the love and trust and confidence of his loving elders. Soon after that childhood event and his escapade, his family had fallen on bad days and lost quite some of their wealth and dominance. At that time, most of the land in the village was under the family’s possession, but the turn of events saw them disposing of the major part of their property. Unknown to Nand Lal, the family had paid off the Jats for what their son had done to their daughter, though masterji felt it was not warranted, given that the girl was of the dubious character herself and had actually seduced the innocent boys. Nand Lal blamed himself for the bad fortunes and hardships his family had faced.
Nand Lal’s obstinate refusal to stay away from his family stemmed from his guilt and a peculiar trait that flawed his character. Nand Lal was a coward basically, not that he was afraid of fighting his enemies or beasts, he was afraid of himself! Forever, he wished to run away from the stark realities of life. He loved his family, his uncles, and aunts and most of all his parents, but was barely able to understand what they wanted from him. It was not that he did not care for them, but he would lack expression, thereby giving the impression that he did not bother anyone. He was the simplest person one could imagine, yet so complicated within that his simplicity had become a useless virtue.
Masterji told me that he felt most guilty for his wives, whom he did not even know! He would time and again request masterji to take care of them, and sometimes, in desperation, would cry and tell him that he had spoiled so many lives.
All this was startling. To say the least, I did not know what to make of the information. The wives were intently listening but I do not how aware and alive were they to the information given by masterji about their husband. I could not make out how and what they were feeling, inscrutable as they seemed to me. Did they have normal human emotions? Were they not aching to be with their husbands? What emotions did they have about their own lives which to me, seemed to be directed to nowhere!
I left masterji, deeply disturbed. Suddenly, I hated myself for being in Hamirpur; hated myself for having gotten into the emotional mess of some stranger family. I was angry with myself for having thought so callously about Nand Lal. Angry with his wives; for being so asinine in their knowledge and attitude towards life.
I hated Indians and India; for being steeped in ignorance. What we call simplicity of the rural life is in fact born out of the stupid belief that fate drives our lives. And what we call as the enlightenment of Urban India is again a stupid belief that India is shining and progressive. We the urbane hardly ever understand our country and the people, all the time our lives revolve in our own make-believe world.
What started off as curiosity, my stupid curiosity about ignorant and bovine rural people is turning out to be a lesson for me in philosophy. Despite my urban hatred for all these women who cannot stand up for rights, I cannot help admiring the two. When I try to pierce their stoic calm exteriors, I find nothing within. I want to discover hatred for Nand Lal in them, but no, there is none. I again delve deep to find love for Nand Lal, but even that is not there. And then I realize; how can one hate or love a person without knowing him? This is something only we middle-class urban people can do; we hate people without trying to know them, just because we do not agree with their views. Again, we love most people without knowing them at all!
I try to flashback my own life. Do I love my husband? Do I hate him? What do I feel for my family, my children? The answers stagger me. I love my husband as long as he conforms to my benchmarks, and ditto for my children. The moment my husband or children do something I do not like, I hate them. Come to think of it, my love and hate for people close or far from me are more driven by my own notions and whims, rather than any consistent belief. It is reactive, and love cannot be reactive.
I ask the women what they would like to do with their lives, now that they know something more about their husband. I tell them that in all probability, the inability to beget a child is more due to their husband than any fault or flaw in them. The women cry silently. They tell me that they have never imagined any life of their own, neither cultivated any desires or dreams. All they wanted was that their husband should be happy and should be with them. They did not agree with me that their husband did not have the ability to procreate.
I returned home to Delhi, with a sense of unease. I tried to find out what went wrong with me and the answer I get is that somehow, my tryst with the wives of Himachal has had a deep impact on me. Something had changed or was changing in me, what, I do not know.
I approach some of my acquaintances in the Ministry and trace Nand Lal to his work section. When I went to meet him, I saw before me a short, wrinkled man with stubble; a bidi hanging between his lips; eyes listless, hair tousled. A far cry from the beast I had imagined him to be. I introduced myself and saw no flicker of interest in his eyes when I told him about my stay with his family. He politely enquired whether I would have tea.
I was determined to say to him what I had planned to say. Without mincing words or thoughts, I narrated my story and added my observations. He listened without emotions and when I finished, all there was between us was silence. I wanted to shake him up and ask him to react.
After an eternity, his eyes went moist. I was taken aback, as this was not what I was expecting. He cried silently, a bit ashamed of his tears and then began to talk. He narrated his entire life story, all of which or most of which I had heard from masterji. I asked him why he was so indifferent to his life, his loved ones, to the wives who did not even get to know him. He told me that he was the cursed one in his family. He was cursed not to achieve anything, give only pain and sorrow to all who came in touch with him. Everyone in the family loved him and gave him everything, but he was not blessed to give them back anything. He could not complete studies and become an educated person; he could not give his wives and family a son; he worked for a measly salary that could not take care even of him; his family still sends him money and ration. His life was doomed.
I asked him to come home someday so that he could meet my husband who is a doctor. He came two weeks later. I had already asked my husband to help Nand Lal and told him that I suspected he had some medical problem which affected his potency. My husband took him to a specialist who confirmed my suspicion. Nand Lal was impotent; not physically as I thought; but mentally. Constant guilt and desperation and isolation had impaired his sexual hormones. His problem was more with his nerves.
Nand Lal was put on medication for two months. I went to Hamirpur again and brought his wives with me. Nand Lal was able to have normal sex with both of them and later they both conceived. Nand Lal gave up his job in Delhi to return to his family. He now has four children, two of them daughters.
His family is eternally indebted to me, but the truth is I am eternally indebted to them. My visit to Hamirpur has transformed me, and the way I look at relationships. Love dawned on me with renewed meaning. My husband and children are surprised at how cheerful and friendly I have become. Not that I was boorish earlier. But somehow, I now feel fine and fit to take upon the world with renewed passion. I am still trying to eliminate the emotion of hatred from my system. I want to be like Nand Lal’s wives; peep into them and you will find no love, no hate. Only acceptance, unconditional acceptance.