Sunday, June 29, 2014
At Sixty-Five By Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra
This man (65) struggled hard for existence in his childhood, never thought, not even for a moment, of his personal life, except his family, never forgot, not even once, his concern for his family and his duty to them. Family to him didn’t mean his wife and children only; it meant all those he grew up with, including his parents. He sustained them, both emotionally and financially, sacrificed his personal well-being and comfort for the welfare and well-being of his family but the same family disowned him. Why? He wanted to remarry at sixty-five after the death of his wife. He found life difficult and different after his wife’s death and the family members he had sustained and lived with all these years hostile.
Doesn’t a sixty-five year old man have freedom to live a life of his choice? Why should a person be stopped from marrying if he feels he need to remarry in order to live meaningfully and gracefully? Does life end at sixty-five? Can a man be forced to become a Sanyasi as the Indian philosophy envisages at the age of sixty- five? Why is an old widower’s remarriage considered a dirty affair? Has a widower no right to start his life afresh at sixty-five? Is his marrying at sixtyfive immoral? Why not grant him the freedom he requires to live and act? Who is responsible for curtailing an individual’s freedom-family or society? Has individual freedom and choice no meaning for society? Why does society refuse to grant freedom to an individual in matters of marriage? These are some of the questions the story raises.
“Shiva wants to marry.”
Your neighbour.” This was the first news that greeted me when I reached the town. I wanted to ask him why but couldn’t. He was busy driving and seemed engrossed in his thought.
“Bastards.” The suddenness with which he spoke the word interrupted my thought. During my long association with him I had never heard him swear, not even once. The chaotic traffic of the town did irritate him in the past also, but he was never abusive.
“The goats. Can’t you see them?” He had stopped the car to let the goats cross the road. And it was then I looked out. The town was still the same. I saw people walking leisurely on the middle of the road, stray cows roaming freely and sneaking into shops, people chewing paan and spitting left and right, youngsters sitting on their bikes on roads and gossiping, traffic rules blatantly violated and vehicles meandering.
“He can’t.” I understood. He meant Shiva.
“We won’t allow him.” This was something I was not prepared for.
“Who are you to stop him? And why should you?” Suddenly, the car came to a screeching halt and he looked at me fiercely. This was something I did not expect from a person I always called a copybook driver.
“What’s wrong with you? You’ll decide for him!”
“You shouldn’t interfere.”
“Who are these we?”
“You will force him!”
“Don’t you think you are trying to overstep your limit?”
“We have already decided and we will stick to it.” I wanted him to see reason but he refused to budge. I was astonished. When the atmosphere turned heavy, I looked out again. It was a fifteen- minute drive from the station, but it took halfan- hour to reach my house.
“I’ll come in the evening,” he said, when I stepped out, and sped away, leaving me at the gate of my house.
Shiva was an engineer. His father had been a village school master. He taught primary students at a school in a village. Shiva studied in his father’s school. After ompleting his primary education, he joined a high school, six kilometres away from his village. Every morning he left early, walked all the way to reach his school, and after school, walked down. The year he was to appear at the school final, his father was summoned by the school Inspector.
“Your son studies in Rampur.”
“And he walks up and down every day.”
“But you never told me.” He didn’t know what to say.
“I have transferred you to Rampur. Go and join tomorrow.”
“Thank you Sir, Thank you very much.” He wanted to say a lot but couldn’t.
The next day he joined the school where his son studied. Shiva did his father proud when he stood first in the district at the High School Final Examination. After doing his Intermediate from the only college at Rampur, he joined a prestigious engineering college in the capital of his state. He studied there for four years. Throughout his stay there he couldn’t afford to stay in the college hostel. He rented a very small room near his college, cooked his meal, and even earned by tutoring children. At college he was known both for his intelligence and his poverty. He was recognized by the only dress that he wore throughout his four-year stay. He washed his clothes on Sundays. His classmates ridiculed him by calling him “the boy in the uniform”. But he was not ashamed of his poverty. Three months after he had his degree, he joined the state electricity department as an engineer and remained with it till his retirement.
He had always wanted to help his family but couldn’t as he didn’t have the means. Once he had the money on him, he did whatever he could for the welfare and prosperity of the family. He provided the money the family needed for a graceful living. They never felt the pangs he had felt. His younger brother and two sisters stayed with him and read in prestigious schools and colleges. His younger brother didn’t read much and chose to join his father’s school back in Rampur. The two sisters studied as hard as Shiva had, and later taught Physics at the college where Shiva had studied long back in Rampur. When the time came for their marriages, he came forward and accepted it as his responsibility. He provided all the money the family needed for their marriage. The two sisters left their jobs after their marriage. Shiva’s parents lived at Rampur in the huge two-storeyed house he had built for them. His brother also lived with his parents in the same house. The family treated him as its saviour. He was there whenever it needed money and emotional support. Even the extended family looked towards him when it needed any help. He helped jobless youths find jobs. His parents were never tired of praising him. After his marriage, he lived with his wife in a distant town. Even when he had his only son and two daughters to bring up, he didn’t forget his duty towards his family. Shiva had earned respect for the family.
His eldest daughter studied in a prestigious college of the state capital. Shiva wanted her to work after completing her study, but she chose to marry and settle down. She got married to an engineer posted abroad. Everything looked nice and promising but life had something else in store for him. The day he learnt his only son was a slow learner, he felt helpless. He went to school for two years and then dropped out. He ultimately left his son to the care of his parents. Shiva requested a teacher to teach him at home. He was paid handsomely, but he left after two months. Many cam , one after the other, for the money they thought Shiva would pay them, but none for the boy Shiva was worried about. He kept his patience, but when he discovered after four months that no one was willing to teach a slow learner, he gave in. When he grew up, he was married to a highly educated girl from a poor but respectable family. Her poor parents had not been able to find a suitable match for her. Shiva’s proposal was seen as a heaven sent opportunity. “Who would not like to be a part of Shiva’s family?” they argued when they were asked why they wanted to marry their girl to his son. His condition was raked up,but they ignored it. “What has intellect got to do with marriage?” the daughter heard her father telling her mother one day. The poor parents married her off amid scandals and rumours. “Shiva paid them handsomely”, rumour mongers said. A year after she gave birth to a child, Shiva felt relieved. A cause of perpetual tension had gone.
The day I saw him first he had come to Rampur. He was holidaying there. He wanted his parents to live with him but they didn’t want to leave Rampur. He often came to meet them. The day I met him he was getting down from the rickshaw. I stood at a distance, waiting for the rickshaw puller to move. I taught at a local college then. I wanted to hire that rickshaw but he was not willing to go. The town was notorious for underpaying them. Shiva pleaded for me: “Professor Sahib is a nice man. Take him. You will get more than you expect.” And then he looked at me and said, “Go. He’ll take you to your college.” The rickshaw puller was convinced. “Thank you”, I had said, smiling. That was the only time I talked to him. I didn’t see him for years after that. I saw him from a very close range once I moved house. I had become his next door neighbour. I could now see him talking to his parents, watering his plants, washing his clothes on the well, milking the cows, feeding his cattle, talking to small children, plucking flowers he required for his worship, helping labourers drain out water from his water logged compound, plucking vegetables from his kitchen garden, pruning herbs and shrubs in his compound, lying on the cot in the shade of trees, sitting around bonfire during winter, hanging clothes up to dry, arranging dried clothes, and sweeping his compound. This was a new Shiva I had known. His concern for his family was well known. The people of Rampur could not believe that there could be a person like him in an age of me- and- me only. “He is a Shravan Kumar”, they often said. Shiva and Shravan Kumar. Shiva by name, Shravan by deeds.
His youngest daughter didn’t study at the college where her elder sister had studied. The climate didn’t suit her. She came back and joined the same college in Rampur where his father had studied and his two sisters had taught. A part of the huge house he had built always remained unoccupied. They eventually decided to rent it out. Many approached them but they decided to rent it to a married businessman. His wife and children lived thousands of miles away in a village. He lived alone. “After all we have our daughters at home”, they had said when they decided to rent it to him. He never created any problem for them, paid his rent in time, and never demanded anything. He was trusted because he was married. But one plus one does not make two in life. Many a time it makes one. This they realized when Shiva’s youngest daughter eloped with the businessman one day. Search parties were sent to different places but she could not be found. Rumour mongers enjoyed the situation. Stories were concocted and circulated. People asked Shiva about her whereabouts. He was even blamed for giving undue freedom to his daughter. He was also accused of being hand in glove. Shiva denied, but he was not trusted. “Why should I?” he argued, but it fell on deaf ears. Six months later his mother died and a day after his father. Shiva was shattered. His father had been his strength. With he gone, Shiva became very alone. He became a recluse. He was never garrulous but he was not laconic either. He had become one now. Four years later the daughter came back as silently as she had left. The man she had trusted deserted her. “Shiva has brought her back”, people said. Scandalstarved people came to his house but they all left as starved as they had come. A year later Shiva got her married to a boy from a poor family. He was jobless and poor. He was said to have given unimaginable money to the groom’s family which consisted of his mother only. “Boys marry such girls just for money. Didn’t Kalu last year . . . ?” People argued. She went to her in-law. After a year she came back, never to return. Shiva’s friends and relatives asked him many times and in different ways, but all they could get from him was “God’s Will”. They wanted to study his silence, but they couldn’t. One day she was found playing with a child. “She can’t remain alone throughout her life. She has adopted a child.” He told whoever asked him about the child but they didn’t believe him. Scandal mongers were at work once again. “This boy is hers from the man she had eloped with”, they said.
“Shiva won’t be able to face the community now”, they had predicted, but he proved them wrong when he settled down in Rampur after his retirement. Many private companies requested him to join them, but he declined politely. “I have worked enough”, he told whoever approached him. “I want to live with my family now”, he told his friend one day. But that was not to happen. His wife died four years later. He couldn’t recover from the blow. His daughter-in-law looked after him after her death. She took care of his dietary habits. She even brought his meals to his room as he didn’t want to eat where he had shared his meals with his wife. The dining table haunted him. But after six months she stopped coming to his room. The family didn’t like her concern for him. “Why does she feel so concerned?” they wanted to know. “Are we not there to take his meals to him?” they said. “Why should she only go there?” “Why does she go?” “Stop her”, they said. The debate didn’t reach him because he never moved out of his room. They said they were there to look after him but nobody went to him with his meals. A servant was sent instead, but he was also withdrawn after six months as he wasrequired somewhere else. Many a time he went to bed on an empty stomach. The welfare of his family had been his only concern and only hobby, but he was not required now. He found the silence daunting, the loneliness crippling. One Sunday he came out of his room. The family was surprised to see him out.
“I have decided to marry,” he told his brother.
“At sixty five!”
“Yes”. The family was not prepared for it.
“This has never happened in our community. We won’t let you disgrace our family”, his brother said.
“It will bring shame on our family. We won’t be able to face people. What will they say about us?” his daughter shouted.
“Let him marry. He is very lonely.” His daughter-in-law pleaded for him.
“Stop, you bitch”, his daughter snubbed her.
“No, you must not”, the son said.
A speechless Shiva looked at his son, and came back, humiliated and disgraced. The news spread like wild fire. People came to meet his brother in the afternoon. “He has gone mad. Put him in a mental asylum. Don’t let him roam free”, they warned Shiva’s brother. He couldn’t sleep for many nights. The words kept ringing in his ears. “Why did they say that? They say I can’t but why can’t I?” He asked himself many times but he didn’t get an answer. “They say I’ll disgrace the family. My daughter says she won’t be able to face people. How did I? And my son! I only know how I suffered when teachers left one after the other. And my younger brother! He didn’t volunteer to teach a slow learner. I respected his decision. They decided not to let my daughter- in-law come to me with my meals. I accepted their decision. ”People heard him talking to himself, standing in front of his father’s garlanded photograph. “They don’t need me now. They say I can’t but why can’t I. Didn’t Lord Shiva . . .” The idea struck him. He decided to confront them. A month later he saw his brother drawing water from the well. He called him near the window he was standing by. “Why can’t I? Didn’t Lord Shiva . . .?”
“At Sixty-five!” his brother said contemptuously and moved away.
“We don’t want perversion in our family”, his daughter said. He was shattered. The next morning he left for an Ashram in Varanasi. “He has gone to the right place. The age when people should think of Sanyaas, he thinks of marriage. He must think of God and not marriage. I don’t want my children to hang their heads in shame”. His brother told visitors and well-wishers who had come to sympathize. The family forgot him but he couldn’t forget the questions that haunted him even years later. “Why didn’t they?” “Why didn’t I?” “Why couldn’t I?”