It was only after my marriage in the early 80’s that I came to know what a metropolitan city actually looks like. The story about how I won my ticket to the ‘big city’ was just the same age-old saga of Indian arranged marriages. I was a naive girl who belonged to a remote village in Tamil Nadu till I was a collegian. The end of my college days marked the end of my bachelorhood as well. My parents succumbed to an alluring proposal that came my way and decided to marry me off. They started floating on cloud nine as the boy’s family informed us about their plan to visit us next week. I kept battling with myself as I couldn’t decide whether to feel exhilarated like my parents or nervous and bashful until the day my future groom and his family stepped into our house. An assertive nod from him led to the sealing of the deal as asking for the girl’s opinion was not customary those days. In the evening, I chanced to overhear the conversation between my mother and father.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to marry her to a boy living in such a big city.” Mother said.
“Why? What’s wrong with that?” Father asked.
“People living in those big cities are so crooked and self-centered. Unlike us, they have no regards for human values. All one can expect from them are lies and deceit.”
“That’s not true. I have managed to survive a lion’s share of my life in a city and so will she.” He concluded and soon his snores filled the room.
My mother’s perception of the inhabitants of the city settled deep down my soul as I got busy with the preparations for the marriage. I still remember the day when I stepped into the housing colony where Naresh, my husband of a fortnight used to live. I immediately became aware of those numerous sets of eyes scanning me from the adjacent flats as Naresh unlocked the door of our apartment. My natural instinct was to flash a friendly smile at them but then I remembered my mother’s ‘words of wisdom’.
“They are entirely different from us. They are not the kind of people whom we can trust. So it will be good for you to maintain a distance and never ever try to become friends with them.” I silently followed Naresh into the apartment with downcast eyes in order to avoid them.
During my initial days in Delhi, I had only loneliness to keep me company as I was confined within walls of my flat. Apart from being warned against getting friendly with the atrocious people of the city, my inability to speak Hindi also surfaced as an obstacle. After finishing my household chorus, I had nothing to do except waiting for Naresh to return from work. There was only one channel that reigned over television during those days – our very own Doordarshan. On the top of it, all the programmes which were being telecasted on Doordarshan were in Hindi. Although I couldn’t comprehend the language I still used to keep the television switched on as I craved to see a few human faces and hear them talk.
In this way, a week passed which seemed to me like a century! One fine morning, as Naresh was leaving for the office, he informed me that a few friends of his from our hometown will join us for dinner tonight. I was enthralled by the idea of having a few human beings to keep us company tonight. I fervently started making a few delicacies for our precious guests of the evening. But as soon as I opened the jar of sugar for making some sweets I had the shock of my life. The vacant jar stared back vacantly at me and left me aghast. As means of communications were not as well developed as today I had no way of contacting Naresh. I had no idea where the market was so going out to buy sugar was out of the question. I was left with no other option but to borrow some from the neighbours. The flat adjacent to ours was occupied by a Punjabi family. I pressed the calling bell with a shaking finger. It was answered by the lady of the house who seemed to be in her fifties and had succeeded in camouflaging her salt and pepper hair under the mask of henna.
“Do you have some sugar, Aunty?” I asked her in English and watched an expression of utter bewilderment paint her face.
“Kya chahiye?” She fired back with questioning eyes.
I drew a conclusion that her knowledge of English was as sparse as that of mine of Hindi.
“I wish to make some sweets so I need some sugar.” I placed my demand once again in English as it was the only language that could aid me in communicating with her.
“Sweets?” She was able to grasp a single word from the whole sentence and I felt relieved. Most probably that was the only word in English which she was familiar with.
“Yes,” I nodded with an ear-to-ear grin.
“No, no sweets.” She waved her hands in negation and my face darkened again, “Your Uncleji is diabetic so I don’t make any sweets. Sorry dear.” She replied in Hindi adultered with a few words from Punjabi.
“No, not sweets.” I shook my head and said, “I want some sugar.”
I held out the bowl that I was carrying with me hoping for her to understand. She stared at me thoughtfully for quite some time while I waited patiently.
“Come in.” She gestured with her hands and I followed her.
She took me to her kitchen and opened all the cupboards as well as the refrigerator.
“Take what you want.” She said posing as the generous genie, who is always ready to grant your wishes. My eyes intently scanned the neatly arranged jars on the shelves before finally halting at the jar filled with sugar.
“That one.” I said excitedly pointing at the jar, “I want some sugar from that jar.”
“Oh, so you want sugar.” I was relieved as I watched her heaving a sigh of relief though I couldn't understand a word of it.. “Then you should have told me in the first place itself.” She said in a language which I discerned as a hybrid of Hindi and Punjabi.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you all the time, my dear lady.” I muttered under my breath.
“You are Naresh’s bahu, isn’t it?” She asked as she piled my bowl generously with sugar.
As I used to watch Hindi soaps on Doordarshan during the long hours of solitude and later clarified my doubts regarding Hindi words and their meanings with Naresh, I could cognize that ‘Bahu’ meant daughter-in-law.
“No Aunty.” I said confidently as she turned an absolutely astounded face towards me, “I am not his bahu but his wife.”
She burst out laughing and said, ”That’s what I meant.”
Although, I was quite confused as to how Bahu and wife could possibly be used synonymously but preferred to remain silent rather than further probing.
“If you need anything, don’t hesitate.” She said flashing a smile doused with maternal affection that spoke more than words.
“Thank you very much, Aunty.”
In the evening after our guests had left, I and Naresh offered the sweets that I had prepared; to our Punjabi neighbors. Those sweets managed to enthrall their taste buds and they applauded my skills. Naresh suggested me to take Hindi lessons from Pammy Aunty and she readily obliged. With each passing day, we grew close to each other and she introduced me to other ladies from the society who happened to be her friends. I was exuberant for being released from the confinement of my apartment and was able to make a few lovely friends. As I bonded with them, I was forced to ponder that how devastating a thing prejudice is to human relationships. The next time I visited my hometown, my bags were full of gifts that the ‘mean’ people from the city had sent for my family back home.
“The people in the cities are not as bad as we thought.” My mother sheepishly acknowledged as she tore open a gift package and her eyes brimmed with joy.