I always thought that Hell was a burning inferno in some nether world, where sinners roast eternally on a spit, having no reprieve through one-time annihilation, and no possibility of escape. But I was promised Heaven on earth, and though at first I was wary, the thought of enjoying happiness and wealth sans effort, blinded me to the fact that I had merely entered Hell through the back door.
My story is not an unusual one. But in a country like mine, such stories never get told, and though I am not hostile to the institution of marriage, I must add my voice to Stevenson who said, “An imprudent marriage is a field of battle, and not a bed of roses.”
The arecanut plantation on which I lived, was spread out on the hilly slopes of the Western ghats . It was jointly owned by members of a wealthy clan. Petrodollars from the Middle East ensured a lavish life style, and a certain arrogance in their vulgar flaunting of wealth. Their houses were clustered together in close proximity, so that what was whispered in one house, carried from window to window into the other houses.
Most of the men were away in the Gulf. For appearances sake they were all businessmen. But the rumour doing the rounds was that they were flourishing smugglers. In the absence of the men, the women ruled the roost, and some of the older matrons could put the fear of the devil into any human being. Decked to their gills in gold ornaments, they could have turned a Maharani green with envy. These buildings were collectively called “Seventh Heaven.”
We labourers lived on the fringes of the plantation in long low buildings called chawls, which were partitioned into one-room tenements. Many of us were poor relatives who were employed on the plantation. They paid us well, and we had no cause to complain.
I must have been around four years old, when tragedy struck the plantation. It was a perilous gale, with terrifying bolts of thunder and lightening. Parts of our living quarters collapsed to rubble and injured many of the labourers. I lost both my parents in that tragedy. But by a stroke of luck, I had escaped with minor injuries. My aunt and uncle took me under their wing in spite of being overburdened with their own large brood.
There was much wailing in “Seventh Heaven” as well. Lightening had struck a pregnant lady. The gold necklace she wore was burnt to a cinder, charring the flesh beneath with the imprint of the chain. The shock of it sent her into premature labour. With the elements so violent, there was no way they could take her to hospital that night. My aunt a barber-midwife, who delivered cows and goats in the village, was summoned to conduct the delivery. She quaked and trembled all the way to the Big House, knowing that she would be squarely blamed if anything untoward happened to the child that was born.
I heard her tell how the child was alive, but contorted into a ball, its fingers and toes lumped together as though held by a high voltage current. The child was a girl, and the matrons of this extended joint family insisted that she be smothered to death, as her wizened face and abnormal appearance was ugly.
“Kill it,” they yelled at my aunt. “We don’t want people thinking that the mother has Syphilis.”
But my aunt a compassionate woman, refused to be instrumental in the child’s death, and ran back to the safety of her family.
And so, Ayesha lived. Most of her childhood was spent in and out of hospitals. She had corrective surgery on her tangled limbs, and exercises to help her walk. To make matters worse, she was deaf and dumb. When she grew older, she would wander down to our quarters and play with the workers’ children, as her own cousins teased and bullied her beyond endurance.
I attended the village school till the eighth Standard. Then my uncle and aunt thought
I should supplement their income by working on the plantation. I had my own dreams, and when I reached the age of eighteen, persuaded them to let me learn driving. I fancied myself a chauffeur in a stiff white uniform, driving one of those swanky cars belonging to “Seventh Heaven.” The day I received my driver’s licence was a memorable one for me. Waving it like a passport to greater things, I walked through the plantation, telling all who would listen about my good fortune. Ayesha was playing by herself under a tree.
“Look Ayesha, I’m a driver now. I can drive cars or buses or anything that moves,” I bragged.
I knew she didn’t understand a word until I acted out the part of a driver. This tickled the girl and she roared with laughter.
Soon, I became the chauffeur of a businessman. The job came to me through the recommendations of “Seventh Heaven.” Sometimes during lunch break, I would bring the vehicle home, and the children on the plantation would pile in for a ride. Ayesha couldn’t bear to be left out of the fun. However, she demanded that she be driven alone in the car. If Ayesha wanted the moon, we had to get it for her. So, I would drive her once around the plantation to make her happy. She would jump out, give me a hug and run off to play. Ayesha couldn’t speak. But she had ways of letting the world know when she was happy or sad. If happy, she would smother anyone within her range with hugs and saliva-dripping kisses. When angry, she would hit and pummel her victims and scream like a banshee. But everyone on the plantation made allowance for her turbulent moods. After all, she was the child of ‘lightening,’ none too sane, and forever unpredictable!
Ironically, it was these acts of kindness that trapped me in an inextricable tangle. Like an unsuspecting animal, I had walked into a camouflaged trap.
Ayesha was sixteen, and the matrons at “Seventh Heaven” decided that it was time to marry her off. The girl was becoming too inquisitive; perhaps a little too interested in things of the flesh. The TV gave her ideas and titillated her senses. Her relatives were willing to deck her up in jewels like a queen, and settle a big dowry on her. Suitors arrived in numbers, but promptly turned tail and ran when Ayesha descended on them.
The matrons were getting desperate. So they put their crafty heads together and devised an ingenious plan. When I came home from work one evening, I found my aunt in tears.
“What’s the matter Aunt? Do you need money? Are you ill?”
“Oh my boy! Did I have to save you from the gale and rear you as my own son for such a thing as this?”
Her tear-stained face worried me. I had never seen her so sad.
“What have I done, Aunt? Tell me?”
“Have you been playing fast and loose with Ayesha?
“But Ayesha is an abnormal child. Why would I ever take advantage of her? Besides, where could all this have taken place?”
“The women from “Seventh Heaven” swear that they have seen her hug and kiss you.”
“For Goodness sake! Ayesha hugs and kisses whom she pleases. Hasn’t anyone seen the number of times she has pulled off chunks of hair from my head and scratched my cheeks?”
“Son, these women are making a big issue of it. They say you have compromised her and therefore must marry her.”
“Never,” I said, anger and frustration making me livid, “They obviously can’t find anyone else. And I’m such a handy plaything for her.”
At that moment, my uncle staggered in. I had never known him to take a drop of liquor. Now he was sozzled, and his words came thick and slurred.
“Those witches are framing you. They want our handsome son, and they won’t stop until they get you.”
“I’ll run away. I won’t stay here another minute.”
“They have anticipated your moves. Your boss has been informed already. Money and power can bring you back dead or alive, no matter where you go.”
“Oh God! I must find a way.”
“Don’t do anything rash. Think carefully my son,” my aunt pleaded, “They have threatened to throw us out of the plantation if you don’t agree. Where will we go? We’ll have no roof over our heads. Your uncle is getting older and may not find another job. The girls are unmarried as yet. Have pity on us, Son.”
This was emotional blackmail, the age-old strategy used by mothers everywhere! I knew what it felt to be impaled on the horns of a dilemma. I watched my hopes and dreams, my plans for a happy future, crumble into a heap of rubble at my feet. How could I bring unhappiness to this couple who had loved and cared for me all these years?
After the wedding, I moved from our chawl into “Seventh Heaven.” In this cluster of houses, walls had ears. What was whispered in one house, gathered volume and momentum as it spread from house to house. It was a claustrophobic existence. We were under the scrutiny of the matriarchs all the time.
I insisted on keeping my job as a chauffeur, however unnecessary they thought it was, as it brought me some respite from the house and my child-bride.
But all hell broke loose when I began to claim my conjugal rights. I was neither an ascetic nor a pansy, and I needed some outlet for my manhood. Ayesha began to leap at me like an angry tigress, screaming as if to bring the roof down. What followed could have been hilarious, had I not been the victim. The entire crowd of women from “Seventh Heaven” came banging on our door as if to batter it down. Did they think I was murdering her? This went on a few times, and I had to relinquish any hopes of a normal life. My function was merely to be a puppet for my bride.
But by the close of the first year, I had reached the end of my tether. I was young and healthy, with hot blood coursing through my veins. I wanted out of this farcical situation. Taking courage in my hands, I accosted Ayesha’s mother.
“I’m just about fed up of this existence. Either you take her to a doctor and find out what’s wrong with her, or I’ll exercise my right to talaq. “
“How dare you? You’ve been living with her for one whole year, and now you want to abdicate your responsibility?”
“I’m not wasting time in arguments. Off we go to the doctor or else……”
Ayesha’s mother and sister reluctantly dragged her to the doctor. I followed, wanting to know what story they would fabricate for the doctor’s ears.
“She’s run down physically, what with such a hunk for a husband. She needs a good tonic and some vitamin injections to pep her up,” said her mother.
“The girl is mentally retarded. Don’t you know that?” asked the doctor.
“No, she’s perfectly normal. Just deaf and dumb,” said her mother, “But perhaps a little too shy.”
After a thorough examination, the doctor informed the women that the marriage had never been consummated. Also, it was not in the interest of the girl to have a baby. She then ushered them out, and asked to see me. She understood my predicament even before I could tell my story, because she probably had come across similar instances. She wrote out a certificate, which stated that the girl was mentally challenged, and was a virgin.
“This will stand you in good stead if you ever contemplate divorce.”
But for this act of kindness, the doctor paid with her life. Within a week of our visit to the hospital, her car was involved in a gruesome accident and her death was instantaneous.
Now I really began to fear for my life. They were capable of anything. Wealth and power were a dangerous combination. They were also cold and heartless. I had to plan my moves carefully. I couldn’t discuss them even with my aunt and uncle.
About a month later after setting out to work, I took the road out of town, climbing high up into the Western ghats . I parked the car on the edge of a cliff, and gave it a gentle shove into a deep valley below. When it settled down in the grass partly concealed from view, I hitched a ride in a lorry traveling to Bombay . On reaching the outskirts of the city, I alighted and then vanished into the faceless crowds.
I could not use my driver’s licence for fear of being traced. I found accommodation in a crowded slum in the suburbs, and earned my bread through casual labour. Then Luck smiled on me, and because of my experience on the plantation, I secured a job as gardener in a local school.
My refugee status did nothing to buoy my sagging spirits. At twenty three, I had nothing to look forward to. Mine was an empty life devoid of any happiness, and the worst part of it all was that none of it was due to my fault. Moreover I was afraid that my one traumatic year with Ayesha had rendered me impotent. But how was I to know, I who had never been initiated into the intimacies of marriage? Heart thudding against my rib-cage, I decided to find out.
The young men in the area frequented a certain lane. I had heard about their escapades which were openly discussed and bragged about. I entered with trepidation, and even in the dim light, I could see this apparition wrapped in gaudy silks with lips painted blood red. Glass baubles sparkled in her ears and around her neck.
“No, no, this is not for me,” I thought, as I hesitated in the doorway.
She observed my embarrassment and turned up the lights. I saw that in spite of her coarse exterior, she had kind eyes. She could not have been more than thirty.
“I’m not going to eat you,” she said kindly. “Is this your first visit?”
“Come sit here beside me.”
I shivered as I sat on the edge of the bed. What was this woman going to do to me? My extremities felt frozen.
“Come boy, I’m not such a witch. Why have you come here in the first place? Who sent you here?”
She reached for her betel tray, and prepared a pan for me.
“Take, eat this. Let’s break the ice. What’s your problem? What’s eating you?”
Her kindness was my undoing. I burst into tears like a baby, and in halting words my miserable story tumbled out.
“Okay, take heart,” she consoled, “I’ll see what I can do to help. There are some rich and influential guys who sneak in here. I can ask one of them to fix you up in a decent job. We’ll take it one step at a time. Do you need any money to live?”
“I have enough for the present. Thank you. But I must find something to keep me occupied. Otherwise I might go mad.”
“You run along now. I’ll see you in a week.”
The lady obviously had some good connections. A new driving licence with a new name and identity was arranged for me. I became the chauffeur of a busy doctor who paid me well and asked no questions.
From time to time, I dropped in on the kind lady who had befriended me. She gave me the understanding and confidence of an elder sister. What’s more, she cautioned me against trying my prowess in houses of ill repute.
“Keep yourself clean, Boy. Someday you will find a girl you can love. It’s worth waiting for that day. Most of us are in this business because there are no alternatives.”
My dreams were getting better all the time. Some day I would marry again. I was no criminal, and therefore did not need to be afraid. Besides, if trouble came along I had the doctor’s certificate still with me. I enrolled in an Evening College to further my studies. The students soon became my good friends.
But Life had a package of surprises in store for me. Perhaps I should blame it on my stupidity. Ever since I left home, I had been thinking of my uncle and aunt. What had become of them? How were they surviving? Had they been chased out of their home?
I pleaded with my mentor Gowri to help me out. If she’d allow me to send them a money-order in her name, I’d be grateful. However it fell into the wrong hands, as my relatives had been sent away soon after I absconded.
One night, Gowri entertained a customer as usual. He was well-dressed and appeared to be rich. Business over, he quickly turned interrogator.
“Why did you send money to the couple? They have never received any gifts from you before.”
Gowri knew very little about my aunt and uncle. She realized that the questions could get more difficult. So she feigned ignorance.
“This must be a case of mistaken identity. You’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m not the Gowri you want.”
The man bent over her, his knife unsheathed. His eyes were red with anger.
“Tell me the truth. Why did you send them the money? Or did the boy enlist your help?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about and I’m not afraid of your threats. If you so much as lift a little finger against me, you will not leave this lane alive.”
The hand around her neck tightened. The point of the knife glittered menacingly a few inches from her chest. But some urchin began thumping the door impatiently, begging for his usual share of bread. The man moved away angrily, and in that split second Gowri landed a blow on his head with her metal betel box. Then, before he could recover from the shock, she fled through the back door and was lost to sight like a rat in the sewers.
Gowri’s contacts were legion. She had influential clients who would do her bidding. Some out of genuine concern for her, others for fear of blackmail. Gowri seldom asked for favours. But now she decided to protect me at all costs. She made contact with the policeman in the area, and lodged a complaint that an unknown customer had tried to kill her. She asked for police protection. The red-light area was a cauldron of trouble, and there were always a few policemen on the beat. For the next few days, the lane was swarming with constables. Gowri also made contact with my employer, and told him to keep me out of circulation for a few days.
My employer was a man who minded his own business. He conveyed Gowri’s message to me and advised me not to venture out of my room. Though he had to drive himself to work, he made no fuss about it. But a few days later, when my photograph was flashed in every newspaper, accusing me of stealing a Mercedes and making off with three lakhs of rupees, the doctor saw red.
“You blackguard,” he yelled, “You have the audacity to take cover in my house? I’m going to call the police right now. I knew there was something fishy between you both. I refuse to be a party to this.”
“Sir,” I pleaded,” These are false charges. Please listen to my story and take pity on me.”
I don’t know what he would have done next if Gowri hadn’t pressed the door-bell at that precise moment. The doctor greeted her with a volley of abuse. It was so unlike him that she was taken aback for a moment. But her killer-instinct took over.
“Hey, Doctor Sir, you just watch what you’re saying. If anything happens to my brother, your wife in the village will be the first to know of your indiscretions.”
His face looked blanched. Then he found his tongue.
“Okay, pipe down you hag. We’ve got to think. The missing vehicle must be found at once.”
He asked for the exact location and date when I had pushed it down into the ravine. Then he assured Gowri that he would do his best, provided she never set foot in his house again.
“Off you go. For all you know, those guys might have trailed you here. Get out by the back door and be on your way.”
Dark and dismal thoughts passed through my mind as I stayed cooped up in my room for more than a week. Was I never to be free? Was my life going to be one long game of ‘Hide and Seek’? Why didn’t I end it all by going down the ravine in that car?
After what seemed years, the doctor came in one day waving a newspaper. The news item said that a hunter had discovered the wreckage of a car in some ravine in the Western ghats . Most of the vehicle had been burned to cinders including the occupant of the car. But a few scattered remnants and part of a number-plate had helped identify the lost car. In view of this fresh evidence, the hunt for Rafiq Ahmad the man on the ‘wanted’ list, had been withdrawn and the case closed.
“How did you manage this, Sir?”
“It was obvious that the car had not been found. Hence the search for you continued.
I persuaded a friend of mine to send out a search party and promptly report it to the police when the wreckage was found. You know the rest.
”Sir, how can I thank you for your kindness?”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Gowri. You know what a persuasive woman she can be.”
I’ve been to Hell and back, and while I’m enjoying my freedom, I’m still chauffeuring the doctor around. But not for long. I’ve got a Bachelor of Arts degree in my pocket, and I’ll be moving on. I’m also an eligible bachelor to date and perhaps I’ll stay that way for some time. Gowri continues to be my well-wisher and friend. She is thrilled to see me walk tall again. But next time I goof it up, she might just let me go to Hell.