For over two decades I have been a collector of stories of the great Indian middle-class. True stories that can rattle an overtly prudish society. This is one such story.

Shades of love How Mallika fell out of the love she fought for and then found herselfImage for representation only.
Features Relationships Thursday, August 30, 2018 - 18:16

Middle-class India! They usually find a way to walk the tightrope between society's diktats and their personal choices without falling flat on their face. More often than not, people tend to lead a dual life. The one they live for society, friends and neighbours, and the one they live for themselves. The former is lived openly and the latter, for most parts, is secretive, but true. This is especially accurate when it comes to love, sex, and relationships.

If they go against societal norms, they will be pushed to the margins of the society – for most middle-class Indians that would be the death knell. If they aren’t true to themselves, then the repercussions of it will one day eat them alive. So, people of the great Indian middle class have found a way to live their lives with the dexterity of a trapeze artist.

For over two decades I have been a collector of stories of the great Indian middle-class. True stories that can rattle an overtly prudish society. Over time, these stories have taught me that it would be foolish to be judgmental of the ways of another, based on one’s own beliefs. Their methods might be in direct contrast to what the society has prescribed. But it is a path they have chosen to tread. Who has the right to throw the first stone? Why should you even?

*****

“I still love you in my own f***ed-up way.”

- Silver Linings Playbook

Arun* fell in love with his neighbour Mallika* when he was in Class 10, and she in Class 7. She told her brother about the “bad neighbour.” Big brother gave the pimply-hormonal teenager a stern dressing down and sent him on his way. Arun’s love strengthened further and resurfaced again after two years. This time, he wrote Mallika a 10-page love letter. He was ready to face the consequences. Mallika responded to his letter positively – but after two years. Back then, Arun would’ve waited an eternity for his ‘lady love’.

“He was my first love. And my best friend,” says Mallika.

Arun came from an illustrious film family. Mallika belonged to an orthodox Brahmin family that was as far away and disconnected from films as East was from West. They spoke different languages. Their customs and traditions were different, too. “Our families were like chalk and cheese,” Mallika says.

On the day Mallika returned home after writing her last exam in BA Economics, her father sat her down and asked her what was going on. “I couldn’t hide anymore. I told him about my love for Arun and our desire to get married.”

The proverbial ‘all hell’ broke loose. Mallika was locked up in a room where she remained for the next 10 days, while her parents plotted the next move. Mallika’s older brother was now working in Bengaluru, and her parents decided to shift the family to the Garden City from God’s own country. Mallika overheard her father say to her mother, “She will forget him. Once he is out of sight, he will be out of her mind.”

A serendipitous visit from a friend allowed a desperate Mallika to sneak a letter to her boyfriend. On receiving the note, Arun marched into his neighbour’s house and asked Mallika’s dad for her hand. “Of course, my dad rejected him right away. But I was adamant,” she recalls. Finally, Mallika’s father told her: “If that’s what you want to do, then you can leave the house. But not through the front door. Because you don’t deserve that courtesy.” He then opened the back door for the couple.

“Back then, I loved my man more than my parents,” Mallika says. “He was my world.” The couple went to Arun’s house and met a similar fate. Undeterred, the duo walked out into the world, hand in hand, with only the clothes on their backs and empty pockets. But they had friends.

Talking about those blissful days following her “register marriage”, Mallika says: “We lived in the living room sofas of our friends and then as Paying Guests. We did odd jobs because we couldn’t get a proper job since our college certificates were still in our homes. If we earned Rs 250 per day, it was a handsome sum. We would then splurge the money on food and beer. We were young, in love and we were living in the moment. Both of us came from well-to-do families. But now we lived a hand-to-mouth existence. But it didn’t matter. We had each other, and that was enough for us. Life was one big happy roller coaster.”

A couple of months later, Arun’s older sibling died suddenly. His heart-broken father reached out to Arun and asked him to return home with his wife.

Soon the responsibility of running the joint family household fell on Mallika. “Right from the food they cooked, everything was different from my background. But, I gladly transformed myself. That’s what we women do,” she says. Next year, Mallika gave birth to a baby boy. After a couple of years, her parents too reconciled. “That’s the magic of a grandchild,” Mallika laughs. Life couldn’t get any better for her.

Arun decided to follow in his father’s footsteps in the film world. Life was running smoothly for some time before the cracks began to show in the marriage. “While I was busy being a mother, wife and daughter-in-law, my husband got involved with another woman. Gone were the days of loving and caring. He began saying awful things to me. I was now either too fat or too dark or good for nothing. I was hurt and confused by the rejection. What did I do wrong?” Mallika recalls asking herself.

In 2003, Mallika shifted to Chennai with her husband and son, hoping that the move would help the marriage. But it only got worse. There were more women and more affairs. Arun was unable to cope with living in his father’s colossal shadow. His ego wasn’t helping him either. He tried to solve his problems with alcohol. Physical and verbal abuse became the norm. Mental and emotional torture, a habit. Though Mallika gave it back as good as she got, she was hurt and saddened. “Soon, my hurt and sadness turned into anger, and I began to retaliate by finding solace outside the marriage – in meaningless one-night stands. I thought what was good for the goose was good for the gander, too. But my anger would abate only to be replaced by guilt.” She was living life in a vicious cycle.

The couple reached a stage where they hated the sight of each other. They decided to part ways. Mallika remembers signing the divorce papers. “Strangely, I never saw those papers ever again, until recently,” she says. “My son was 17 at the time. His life was in Chennai, and I thought it would be unfair to uproot him.”

Mallika returned to Kerala. She was 40 years old. For the first time in her life, she took up a job. “I learned to use computers. Even the small act of learning how to create a Word document or an Excel sheet made me feel free, strong and independent. Finally, I was doing something for myself.”

Strangely, after a few months, the separation brought Mallika and Arun closer. The distance faded the rancour. They often spoke over the phone. They were cordial to each other. Over time, they once again became good friends. “Arun encouraged me to pursue a career. He would call me regularly. He even gifted me a house on my birthday.” Every three months, he would fly Mallika down to Chennai to spend a couple of days with the family. “He turned those days into a party. He began appreciating every little thing I did for the family. I started seeing the old love in him and he in me.” But now, Mallika had a life of her own and revelled in carving her own identity. She was reluctant to return to her old life in Chennai. Also, Arun hadn’t changed his ways. He continued drinking and womanising. Offers in the film industry dried up too. Soon, his health began to fail him.

Towards the end of 2014, Arun was diagnosed with severe kidney and liver problems and became bedridden. In January 2015, Mallika returned to Chennai to take care of him.

In the next four months, Arun’s health deteriorated rapidly. Mallika was by his side every waking moment. “My husband and I were best friends. We were each other’s first love. In spite of all that we had gone through in life, I think we never stopped loving each other,” says Mallika. They spent Arun’s last days laughing and talking. They often walked down memory lane. Revisited happy times; a time when it was them against the world; a time when they believed in ‘happily ever after’; a time when they felt their love for each other was enough.

In April 2015, Arun passed on, leaving a saddened Mallika behind – the woman he loved in his own f***ed-up way.

A few days later, when Mallika was sorting out Arun’s documents, she found the forgotten divorce papers that she had once signed. “He never filed them,” she chokes.

Putting her life in Kerala on hold, Mallika decided to stay back in Chennai. Because now, her 25-year-old son needed her. He’s chosen a difficult career path – the one where success eluded his father before him.

“I will be around till my son finds his feet and is settled. Then I shall do something for myself. Find love again, maybe!” says 49-year-old Mallika.

*Names changed to protect identity.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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