‘This was supposed to be the happiest day of my life,’ Nagesh thought as he waited for the Zoom meeting to begin.
As per his original plan, it was his night of home-coming.
Deciding to pack up for good after 25 years on the foreign shores had not been easy. But he had had enough.
Enough of scrubbing bathrooms and burnt vessels from dawn to dusk.
Enough of enduring the eccentricities of madams suffering from OCDs.
Enough of living cooped up in a ten-by-ten room where all he had for himself was a deck on a bunk bed infested with bugs.
Above all, he had had enough of living alone, away from all that he loved-
the mango orchards in December, the paddy fields in April, the river in spate during rains, his wife, his children, the celebrations, the camaraderie, the freedom.
He had finally decided to go back to them and had put his madams on notice two months ago. They were initially chagrined that their trusted house boy of several years was leaving, but they saw the logic in it. The man’s toil had run its course and he now had to live for himself. He had an undeniable right to it.
‘Has it started?’ Preeti madam asked from the kitchen. She had arranged for him to participate in the Zoom meeting on her laptop. The phone screen was small, and he had requested Preeti madam, the kindest woman he had worked for, to allow him to watch the event on her laptop.
He had logged in early in anticipation, imagining the buzzing atmosphere at home in his mind. Staying logged in gave him a sense of being there, personally supervising the proceedings even as he sat staring at the screen. He projected his thoughts on it, first picturing his daughter, Vanita, in her wedding finery. He had not liked the saree she had selected for the occasion, but had approved it only because she had desired it. Just as he had approved her choice of the groom. He had approved the alliance despite the huge difficulties it posed, only because she had desired it.
Nagesh was initially reluctant to give his consent to the proposal that in the view of many in his family was a windfall for someone like him. To begin with, the boy did not belong to the same village as him, although he was from the same caste. To Nagesh, sending his daughter away to another village was tantamount to sending her off to a distant land, and it evoked old memories of him leaving his parents to take up work in the Gulf.
It was only a minor concern to which he reconciled on his wife’s counselling. What blew the living daylights out of him was what came next.
‘They are demanding twenty lakhs,’ his wife said the day the boy’s family came for discussions.
Nagesh listened to her silently. He said he would think about it.
Preeti madam was livid when she heard about it the next day.
He shared all his personal concerns with her, not because she had solutions to them, but because she gave him a patient hearing, and in the end made him a cup of tea. It was enough for him to think that his problems would miraculously melt away sooner or later.
‘Are you planning to give it?’ she asked.
‘I must, madam.’
‘Do you know dowry is punishable by law?’
‘Not in our village. It is a norm there. I took it when I got married and I must give when I get my daughters married too.’
‘When will you all change?’ she asked. The exasperation in her voice faded as she changed her tone and challenged, ‘What if you don’t?’
Nagesh simpered before saying, ‘Then my daughter will remain unmarried.’
‘Oh, God!’ she exclaimed, thumping her forehead melodramatically. ‘She is only eighteen.
There’s no hurry. Speak to your daughter. Find another groom,’ she stressed.
‘That won’t help. Even if I find her a jobless bloke, I have to give him a few lakhs. And this boy runs his own shop in the town and his family is wealthy. He will keep her happy. She will live in luxury. It is worth it.’
‘Now, this doesn’t make sense. If they are wealthy, why must they take money from you?’
‘Because it's a custom that we can’t break. And we have all accepted it in our place.’
‘But what’s the guarantee that she will be happy?’ Preeti madam threw her hands up as she asked this.
‘Of course, there is no guarantee. I can only hope that she will be. If she is not, then I will bring her back, perhaps. I don’t know. It has never happened in our village, but if my daughter is not treated well, I will not keep her there.’
Preeti madam nodded approvingly. ‘That sounds good. But where do you plan to get the twenty lakhs?’
Nagesh saw a flash of consternation in her face. She was genuinely concerned, rather horrified, at the magnitude of the challenge facing Nagesh.
He did not know where the money would come from either. He took a few moments to make a quick mental calculation. He could sell part of his farming land, but that still would not add up. He would be short by a few lakhs. He could ask for a loan from the rich people whose bathrooms he scrubbed. Not that he expected all of them to give. But he could try asking. The rest could be coughed up by taking a loan from the financing company in his native town. Their interest rates were savage, but his choices were limited.
‘You don’t worry. I will find means to get her married honourably,’ he had assured his wife.
A plan was in place now. It was a plan that made sure that he spent the rest of his life scrubbing bathrooms.
‘Are you happy?’ he asked Vanita a day after the wedding was fixed.
She merely smiled as if to mean both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. She was happy for the lovely stride her life was taking, but she also knew she was depriving her father of his happiness. She was stopping him from making the dream of returning home come true. She was sentencing him to a lifetime of drudgery in the desert land.
‘Father, I am not happy,’ she said to him a week later. ‘I want you to come back and be with us.’
‘What’s gone wrong?’
‘I don’t want to get married at all. I will study and earn and take care of you two in your old age. Come back home, father. Be with us.’
Nagesh laughed at her juvenile suggestion. He knew that Vanita loved him enough to give up her life for his sake. But he was her father, and could he be any less in matters of sacrifice? He would leave no stone unturned to guarantee that she led a happy life. With the man she loved. Even if he didn’t belong to their village.
‘What then will happen to the man you claim to love?’ he asked her teasingly. ‘He will die of heart-break.’
‘Oh, what’s about men? They will always find new interests,’ Vanita said. Nagesh did not miss the pain in her voice as she mildly choked on those words. She was clearly split between her father and her love.
That night, his wife wept bitterly asking him if they would ever live together again.
‘We will,’ Nagesh said, not believing his own words.
The laptop screen had gone to sleep while he wallowed in his thoughts, and he had to call Preeti madam to wake it up again. It was almost time for the ceremony to begin.
Nagesh pulled his new shirt straight, imagining that people on the other side would also be watching him. He had to look respectable. Although the groom’s family knew he was only a domestic servant in Dubai, they were generous enough not to make a big deal of it. Twenty lakhs is something, after all.
The screen flickered and his teenage son appeared on the video. On Nagesh’s instruction, he slowly panned the camera across the wedding hall. Nagesh quickly surveyed the scene to make sure no compromise had been made in the arrangements despite the Covid restrictions.
The floral decorations were satisfactory, although he would have preferred less of marigold and more of jasmine and rose. The attendees, although less in number, comprised of the prominent members of the family and the village. The camera then zoomed in to focus on Vanita who was slowly walking into the arena, accompanied by close relatives.
‘Close up, close up,’ he said, impatiently.
She came closer to the camera and smiled at her father. The mask concealed most part of her smile, but Nagesh read it in her eyes. The glint in her kohl-lined eyes suggested impending tears, and Nagesh wished they did not spill while he watched.
‘How pretty she looks, Nagesh!’ Preeti madam exclaimed.
Nagesh nodded with pride, conceding to himself that the green saree was not so bad, after all. But he could see there was too much make-up on her face, and he pointed it to Preeti madam.
‘Nagesh, that’s how brides must look. Fully decked up. What do you know?’ Preeti madam snapped light-heartedly.
Nagesh’s wife came into view shortly and prompted Vanita to seek her father’s blessings.
‘Be happy always,’ he said, not knowing what else to say.
‘I wish you were here, father,’ Vanita said, holding back her tears.
‘Let the flight ban be lifted. And I will come as soon as I can. I will see you with your husband. You be happy in your new house. Don’t think of me.’
He asked his wife to kiss Vanita on her forehead on his behalf before she was led away to the mandap. At that point, he realized that his eyes had welled up. He looked away, not wanting Preeti madam to catch him crying.
‘It’s okay, Nagesh. I understand,’ said Preeti madam. ‘Let me get you some tea.’
From the kitchen, she called out and said, ‘Congratulations, Nagesh. It must be the happiest day of your life.’
Nagesh nodded, pulling the handkerchief out of his pocket, and wiping his face.
‘Yes, madam. It is the happiest day of my life’, he said as he watched the event of Vanita’s wedding unfold in front of him. It was the day he had planned to shift from the sand dunes to the monsoon-soaked soil of his village. The day he would have changed from a desert shrub to a succulent houseplant. The day he intended to give his life a fresh, new lease.
(Disclaimer: This story in no way supports the draconian custom of dowry. However, it must be noted that giving and taking of dowry is normalized in different segments of our society. This story only highlights its adamant presence in our country. This narrative is as close as one can get to reality. )