SHORT STORY

Our Time Will Come
by Vijay Aswani

     Pankaj thought about what he had once read in a book.  It was a statement an Indian had made to a westerner: “You westerners marry the woman you love, but we Indians love the woman we marry.”  Noble as it sounds, was it a choice or a stoic resignation to forces too strong to resist?

     Anu was short, only five feet tall and dark in complexion.  The kohl eyeliner she wore enhanced her large almond-shaped black eyes and her black hair, tied into a single thick plait, snaked right down to the small of her back.  She smiled just a small smile of recognition as she steered herself in his direction.

     “Hi!” Pankaj waved as she drew close.

     “How are you?”

     “Fine.  How have you been?”  Anuradha’s face burst into a smile as she squeezed Pankaj’s hand in her own.  They walked in silence for a while out of the University Computer Science building, where Anuradha Iyer was a student working on her Master’s degree.

     The couple walked unashamed and unafraid through the green campus, hand in hand—there was no one from their families to see them here.

     Pankaj was a fair-skinned north Indian, Punjabi to be exact, while Anu was a dark-complexioned south Indian from Tamil Nadu.  Pankaj’s family had been businessmen for several generations (Pankaj had broken away from that family tradition when he chose a career in pure science).  Anu’s parents both held advanced degrees in their respective fields and worked as technical experts in medical technology and nuclear engineering respectively.  Pankaj was an exuberant extrovert, while Anu was a shy person who believed in just knowing and having a few people as close friends.

     But what did love know of these differences?

     “How was work, Pankaj?” Anu asked softly.

     “Well, the enzyme purification is taking longer than I expected,” Pankaj replied, his forehead creasing into lines of anxiety as he thought about his work.

     Pankaj disengaged his hand from Anu’s as his preoccupation with his thoughts withdrew him a psychological distance.  They continued to walk across the campus to the bus stop.  Anu reached back for Pankaj’s had and squeezed it hard.

     “My Pankaj!  This post-doc project is turning out to be quite a challenge, isn’t it?”

     “Anu, I love you.  I want to finish this post-doc and settle down in a university faculty position someplace so that we can be married.”

     “I understand, Pankaj.  Don’t be discouraged.  You’ll find a way.  Besides, though the road is clear from your parents’ side for our marriage, mine have still to agree.”

     “Yes, I never forget about that!” Pankaj mumbled with pain in his heart.  His mind revolted at the situation.  Anu’s parents knew who he was and rejected him as a potential match for their daughter because he was Punjabi and they were orthodox Tamil Hindu Brahmins.

     The situation exasperated Pankaj whenever he thought of it (and that was almost all the time). “At least in science,” he thought, “problems have some rational solution; one just has to find it.  But human stubbornness and prejudice makes an irrational wall that yields to nothing.  One just has to wait and hope…”

     The couple had reached the bus stop and joined the queue.

     “C’mon Pankaj!  That’s our bus.”

     The red and grey colors of the city’s public transportation bus caught Anu’s eye.  The bus pulled so close to the stop that the letters ‘B-E-S-T’ (Bombay Electricity Supply and Transport) on its side were up close in the faces of the people in the queue.  Anu pulled Pankaj out of his reverie as she yanked his arm and they both rushed for the bus entrance, the queue having disintegrated into a chaotic clamor to get on.  A few moments later, Pankaj and Anu were comfortably seated.

     “You know Anu, when we finally do get married, we simply must invite the director of BEST.  We spend all our time together on the bus!”

     Anu laughed.  “Pankaj, one day my parents will accept you.  I know they will.  We have prayed and God will surely make it happen.”

     Pankaj shrugged.  “He’d have to because there certainly isn’t anything we can do.  Until my post-doc’s over and I’ve got a some faculty position somewhere I can’t even offer you much security…”

     Anu shook her head vigorously and cut in.

     “Pankaj, I love you for what you are, not what you can give financially.  Anyway, I’m confident we’ll be well off.”

     “Ha!” Pankaj smirked, depressed.  “Professors don’t live well. And I’ll never match up to the standards of your other suitors—the ones your parents keep chasing: businessmen, engineers, chartered accountants…”

     “Pankaj, stop it!  Don’t talk like that.”

     “By the way, what progress with that family from Dubai that’s interested in you?”

     Anu heaved a sigh.

     “Well, the whole family’s not in Dubai, only the boy is.  He’s a Brahmin from Tamil Nadu of course and is a chartered accountant working for a chain of sportswear stores.  They’ve sent him my photograph and he ‘likes’ me.  His parents are very happy with me; they say he’ll be coming down in February.  Then they’ll finalize their decision.”

     This was the way marriages were decided in her culture and this was the way Anu’s parents would decide hers.  The boy’s parents chose a bride for their son.  It was a tradition that went back a thousand years.

     Pankaj looked troubled.  “Anu, can I ask you something?  What if he says ‘yes’?”

     Anu looked at Pankaj.  “Then my parents will want me to get engaged.”

     “And you’ll be the obedient daughter and do it.  What next, marry him?”

     There was a small pause before Anu replied, her voice was soft but had a steel-like firmness to it.

     “Pankaj, I love you.  I believe we’ll be married.  Don’t ask me for a logical reason.  Though my parents reject you because you’re not a south Indian or Brahmin, they’ll change.  God will do it.  Then we’ll be married.”

     The bus stops came and went, edging the couple closer to where Anu lived.  They talked of many things: his work, her course, mutual friends, and their future together.  As they reached Bandra, Anu turned to Pankaj and holding his hand said, “You’ll better get off here, Pankaj.  If you come all the way to Chembur, we may be seen together and someone will tell my parents.”

     “I know, Anu.” Pankaj gathered his shoulder bag in his arm in resignation and got up.

     “I’ll pick you up from your labs class on Friday, okay?”

     “Pankaj, if you have a lot of work, don’t come.”  Anu knew that Pankaj often stole these four hours away from the lab to ride back home with her, only to return to the lab later in the evening to work into the night.

     “I will, Anu.  Riding back home with you is the only way we can spend time together.”  Both Anu and Pankaj knew that since her mother had come to know of her interest in him, she had monitored her movements out of the house by a barrage of questions every time she returned.  Only the predictability of her prevented Anu’s mother’s suspicion when her time with Pankaj was the shared bus ride back from class.

     Pankaj watched from the traffic island at the signal where he had alighted, as the bus receded into the crowded street.  As he journeyed to Dhobi Talao, back to the hospital where he worked, his troubled mind buzzed with a hundred thoughts: his research, Anu, the conflict their culture differences and traditions created in their being together…

     Pankaj Chopra was one more commuter among the millions in the city, going somewhere, each with his or her own life, problems, each busy in their own thoughts.  It was the ceaseless breathing of the collective human mind of Bombay metropolis.

*                                  *                                  *

Date: Friday, February 4, 1985

Place: Corridor outside Computer Lab, Bombay University Kalina Campus

     By the time Pankaj arrived, Anu had been sitting on the bench for over ten minutes.  She had heard Pankaj’s footsteps echoing in the corridor as he ran through the building entrance to meet her.

     “Sorry I’m late, Anu.”  Pankaj gasped and panted as he stood in front of her.

     “I barely managed to collect the samples and secure them in the freezer.  I’ll have to go back later tonight to finish processing them.”

     Anu shook her head.  “Why do you apologize?  Most of the time, it’s me who keeps you waiting.”

     They began walking out of the building.

     “Maybe.”  Pankaj replied.  “But that’s not your fault.  It’s because I keep coming before your class gets over in the hope that if you’re let off early, we’ll get more time together.”

     Anu looked at Pankaj and smiled.  As they came out of the building and into the open campus, she slipped her hand into his and squeezed hard.

     “I love you, Pankaj.  I don’t know how many other boys would have borne up with our difficult situation.  Sometimes I feel afraid that you might get tired of waiting and leave me.”

     Pankaj squeezed Anu’s hand back.

     “Anu, we’re in this together.  It isn’t that I’m waiting for you because you want your parents to agree before we do anything.  It is that I also believe that we should get their consent but how?  What should we do to change their minds?”

     Anu looked straight ahead.

     “There’s nothing we can do.  I just have to keep letting them know that I love you and want to marry only you.

   “On…  let me see…  yes, Wednesday, my mother took me along to buy some jewelry.  She kept talking about the proposal, you know, the one from Dubai.

     “Well, she could see that I was unhappy.  She even asked me, ‘Why are you unhappy?’  When I answered nothing, she understood.

     “‘Oh, you still want to marry that Pankaj Chopra?’ she said.  ‘Anu, I’ve told you before.  He’s a nice boy.  Why, we even gave him dinner when he came, because he was your friend.  At that time, if we had known…  Anyway, you should forget him.  Sacrifice for our sakes.  He’s not a Brahmin and not Tamilian.  What would people say?  Do you want to cut our nose in society?  You must be happy and marry whom we choose.  You know your father has such dreams for you.’”

     “So they still know I love you.  At least they haven’t forgotten you.  Of course, they don’t know we still meet.”

     “Yes” Pankaj replied sardonically, “in the BEST way”.

     Pankaj realized that in Anu’s culture, girls never vocally express their preference; it would be construed as rebellion.  Anu could not say “I love Pankaj Chopra and will marry him only.”  Her silence was supposed to be indicative of that.  He also realized that in her own way, she was doing the best she could to convince them.

     “By the way Anu, how’s your dad now?  You said he had some back trouble?”

     By now, their strides had brought them to the bus stop.  It seemed more crowded than usual.

     “He called us up yesterday.  He’s feeling much better.  He’s joined this holistic medical center for sessions every week.”

     “Yeah, I’ve heard about those.  He’s in California, isn’t he?”

     Anu nodded in the affirmative.

     “You know, Anu, it’s amazing.”

     “What is?” Anu asked.

     “Your dad is a nuclear reactor engineer.  Here is a man who works in a cutting edge field.  One would think that somebody like him who lives abroad, works in such a futuristic field and is open to alternate forms of medicine would be more open to the changing times with regards to marriage.”

     Anu was serious.  “Pankaj, I guess people can be very advanced in one area of their lives and yet very orthodox in others.”

     Pankaj nodded his head in agreement.

     “Perhaps you’re right.  It’s curious though, how on the outside people can change while on the inside, their ideas, their beliefs and values go back centuries.  I mean, here in India, for example.  Most of us who are educated wear western clothes, study in a western system of education and work in fields that didn’t even exist a few decades ago.  But when it comes to things like marriage, we fall back on a way of thinking that’s ancient and many see no reason for that to change.”

     “Come, the bus …”

     Anu and Pankaj joined the crowd that pushed and jostled.  Pankaj had his hand protectively around Anu to ward the lecherous pushes and handling that often took place in the crowd.  A few hectic moments later, they were crowded together in the aisle, no sitting place available.  Anu slipped her arm through Pankaj’s and pulled him close.

     “Hey Anu, you know, I’ve been reading up on migraines.”

     “And what did you find out?” Anu asked.  She suffered frequently from severe migraines and Pankaj worried about her.

     “For one thing, it’s genetic.  I also found that out that migraine seems very common in your community as for example, contrasted with mine.

     “So?”

     “Don’t you see?  Marrying strictly within the cast and sub-caste has led to a smaller gene pool and genetic defects are augmented.  With time, disease genes don’t get diluted out through marriage outside the group.  It’s similar to the case of Sindhi and Kutcchi communities where thalessemia and diabetes are found to a greater extent than say, in Tamilians.”

     “This is another reason for encouraging inter-caste marriages.  It dilutes the bad genes out into a wider gene pool.”

     “Of course, Pankaj!  That’s it!” Anu exclaimed.  “That’ll convince my parents.  I’ll just go to my mother and say, ‘Mom, you should let me marry Pankaj Chopra.  It’s in the interest of our genes.”

     Pankaj’s face broke into a smile.

     “I know, I know.  It just comes to mind.”

     For a few moments, neither of them said anything.  Anu shifted uneasily in her place.  She squeezed Pankaj’s hand as she began slowly.

     “Pankaj, that person from Dubai is coming to see me on Sunday.”

     “Is it time already?”  Pankaj’s confused mind struggled and then remembered that this person was to come in February.  He stood still for a moment.  His lips were pursed and he felt a sick feeling in his stomach.

     “Anu, I find our forced inactivity the most difficult thing to handle in this whole affair.  I mean, these proposals keep coming up and we don’t do anything… except perhaps pray that they are unsuccessful.”

     “What should we do?” snapped Anu impatiently.

     “I don’t know!  Anyway, my parents have already agreed.  It’s yours we’re waiting for.”  Pankaj’s breathing quickened and his cheeks flushed as he struggled to contain his anger.

     Anu pulled her hand away from him.  She spoke slowly and in a soft voice.

     “If you’re unhappy, you can leave me.  I’ll understand.”

     Pankaj frowned.  “That’s out of the question and you know it!”

     Silence.

     “Look, I’m sorry” began Pankaj reaching for Anu’s had again. “It’s just that I’m worried and confused.  When will this end?”

 

     In his mind, Pankaj added, “And will you be my wife or someone else’s?”

*                                  *                                  *

Date: Thursday, February 20, 1985

Place: Molecular Biology Lab, Bombay Hospital, Dhobi Talao

     Pankaj scooped the phone receiver out of its cradle on the first ring.

     “Hello!”

     “Hello, Pankaj.”  Anu’s voice was soft but the tension and strain was perceptible.

     “Anu, what’s wrong?”

     “My marriage has been fixed for Saturday.”

     Silence.

     “Pankaj, are you there?”

     “Yes, Anu.  I’m here.”  Pankaj sighed.  It was now or never.

     “Anu, listen.  I know this is hard for you, but it’s our only way.  You must leave your home.  Saturday is only two days away.  Don’t worry about anything.  I’ll make all the arrangements.  Please let us not wait anymore for your parents to agree.  We have their decision now.”

     “Pankaj, I can’t!”  Anu’s voice cracked as she spoke.

     “Then what?  Are you going to go ahead with the marriage?”

     “No!”

     Pankaj did not know what to say.

     “Pankaj, we’ll wait till Friday.  If nothing happens by then, I’ll leave home.”

     Pankaj heard the sound of a door opening over the phone.

     “Someone’s coming!  I’ll call you.  Wait for my call.  Bye.”

     Before Pankaj could say any more, the sound of Anu’s voice was replaced by a dial tone.

*                                  *                                  *

Date: Friday, February 21, 1985

Place: Molecular Biology lab, Bombay Hospital, Dhobi Talao.

     The phone had barely rung once when Pankaj scooped the receiver out of the cradle and barked in:

     “Hello!”

     His tense features relaxed as he listened for a few moments and then called out.

     “Dr. Shah! It’s for you.”

     The day passed slowly.  The phone rang several times bringing a panting, tense Pankaj to the line.

     Anu had not called.

     Pankaj left the lab at 9:30 pm.  Sighing, he slouched down the staircase in the dark.  The stairwell light had blown out and had not been replaced yet.  Pankaj embraced the darkness.  His tired mind was filled with dark thoughts of doubt, fear and helplessness.

     Anu was married on Saturday, February 2, 1985.

     That evening, Pankaj walked home.  There was a light drizzle and he did not care that his place was an hour away on foot.  He was not angry at Anu.  As he thought back over all the years of their relationship, he realized that she was never going to stand up to her parents.  She just couldn’t it.

     Pankaj heaved a sigh.  His heart was heavy.  Change will come.  One day young people will marry the partners they love and choose for themselves.

     “Well,” he thought, “that day did not come for Anu and me. Hopefully, it will come for others.”

 END

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