She had been sick for months. She was one of the first women in the hospital administration system in Calcutta and had fought with her bare hands and feet for her education. She was a fisherman’s daughter, a fisherman who learned to scribe and clawed his way up colonially rigidified social sub-castes. She actively wrestled and passively withstood hardship for her right to practice medicine. Against her caste, against her husband whom she married too young, against her children screaming for her to stay home.
She had fought, with her hands and teeth, for a medical degree that now served her not one whit. She was wasting. She was nauseous. She was waiting on a death sentence.
And he was in love with her. He had been since she was 15. She used to stop traffic walking across the street in her school skirt with her nose in a book. He would chortle and swig his scotch and tell people about the accident that his young “girlfriend” caused between the rickshaw and the ox cart. He promised her he would have her, Brahmin or not. She was no Brahmin. She was too far from him in caste. His family would never have her. But he couldn’t not. For years he followed her, doing his business and his schooling on the side. They tell a famous story about him, about how he shook one of professors out the window, dangling him by his ankle, maintaining a light enough grip to shake him until he promised a different score. He convinced her that he had found alternative energy sources in the mid twentieth-century, long before any such technology had been invented. “He could make tractors run on water,” she would tell the other girls in her convent school. So she finished high school, and she ran off with him.
“I was never in love with him. Never once. I only knew that after I married him, but I didn’t even think about being in love. I was more swept along by the sheer force of his personality. He had 17 girlfriends, but he only wanted to marry me.”
She would say later on that perhaps he knew it was the only way he could get her. Nothing, then, was more serious than this marriage. Nothing, then, but this marriage could have stood between him and his Brahmin mother, the wrinkled woman in the white sari who would not let your feet touch her door if you were in your monthly. She would not speak to his new wife. This new wife, who had the audacity to not know how to cook most of the things her son loved to eat, who had the audacity to believe she was going to medical school because she graduated with such honors. She was his, then. Her family was horrified by the fact she had run away, and were, in the small Mumbai flat, usually without the means to support her regardless.
She took his beatings the whole time she was in school, and the minute she got her first residency position and she came home, her daughters watched. “Mummy laid the paycheck down, and everything changed.”
There were the daughters. There was the painful learning to boil oil far away enough from her face. There was the picking him up and putting his scotch down next to the charred pots and pans too many nights in a row. There was the laying of the garland of jasmine on the altar hand in hand. There was the braiding of her hair early in the dusty Calcutta morning.
And now there was waiting on the ambiguous death sentence. And he disappeared. He disappeared.
He made the pilgrimage to Manasarovar, the beautiful, sacred lake in the Himalayas by Mount Kailash. She couldn’t keep any food down, and her daughters were lost, both in secondary school and confused as to why there was nothing they could do.
He made the pilgrimage and walked around the long, beautiful lake three times. He prayed, though he had never prayed before, for the wife he had always been in love with, the wife who would never be in love with him. He prayed for her beyond all the violence he had done her, to take any illness into his own body, to leave her clean.
He prayed and he returned, and he never spoke of it.
Her recovery was inexplicable, and no one in her family has been deeply religious since.
He died of colon cancer three years later, and I would never know my grandfather.
My grandmother is still alive today, hale and beautiful, and she is the one who taught me that—whether shared or unrequited, known or unknown—there is no task that love cannot accomplish, no evil that a great love cannot undo.
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