The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 8, 2001
Life Ties

A relationship that could not be defined
Taru Bahl

RAJIV Suri had strained relations with his wife. A whimsical man, he was often misunderstood. People chose to exaggerate his easily excitable and argumentative nature, refusing to acknowledge the mind which was sharp and sensitive, crying to be free and unfettered.

When his only son got transferred to South Africa and his wife decided to accompany him under the pretext of looking after his twins, Suri was left with a feeling of déjà vu. He could have gone with them but he did not feel comfortable with the idea. Besides, whenever he had visited his son, he had always felt an alien. He could never connect fully with the lifestyle and temper of their household.

As months flew by, he knew he had to get his life in order. How long could he eat out of jars of packaged foods ? His brothers, who lived in the same city, did not shun him but he knew he wasn't welcome either. He was losing interest in work. Having risen from the ranks in the Ministry of Defence he was close to becoming a Joint Secretary, which was nothing short of a feat in the eyes of his colleagues. With an academic bent of mind, Suri's best moments were spent in libraries, research institutions and at seminars.

As loneliness engulfed him and periods of depression became longer, he impulsively decided to take premature retirement. He neither had a fancy job nor any grandiose plans. He just didn't want to carry on with a routine which appeared futile and meaningless. So what if he picked up his next rank before retiring ? There was nobody to share the glory with him.

For a while he dabbled in writing but was irregular and could not meet deadlines. His health was on the decline. He had high blood pressure, anxiety attacks and growing insecurity about the future. His house was run by part-time servants who instead of giving him comfort ended up creating more stress. He had touched rock bottom. Which is when Raji stepped in.


She walked in one day looking for a job. She was a good cook and claimed to be an efficient housekeeper. The qualifications were just what he needed. She came every morning and left when night fell. After many years, somebody was taking care of his diet, insisting he go for walks, resume activities which gave him pleasure and cultivate people whose company he found stimulating. Her concern for him went beyond what her job profile demanded or what he paid her. He began to form a routine and at the end of the day would tell her what he had done, whom he had met. Gradually, the lines separating them on a class and societal basis blurred. While the relationship was purely platonic, the bonding was becoming intimate.

Raji had a painful past. She belonged to a backward Rajasthani tribal community, her husband, as was the norm, had taken a younger second wife, abandoning his family. She and her daughters picked up housework. Farsighted and wise, she had joined a number of committees (kitties) to forcibly save some money every month. This helped her to marry off her daughters. The sons turned out to be wastrels whom she ended up feeding.

When she came to Suri's house to work ,she was mentally and physically exhausted. She did not have the energy to shuttle between half a dozen homes, which is why the prospect of working for a no-fuss gentleman was a relief.

When Suri had his first heart attack it was Raji's action of immediately rushing him to a nearby cardiac centre that saved his life. His son flew down much later.

Again, it was Raji who decided to spend the night at his place since he had become increasingly insecure of being left alone. She would make an occasional trip home though the girls would come and visit her and Uncleji. Neighbours were initially intrigued by the continuous presence of the housekeeper. But since Suri had a decent reputation the whispers died down. Besides, they had never seen his family and were actually sympathetic towards him. Surprisingly, the resistance came from suri’s brothers who lived in the vicinity. Suddenly, they were 'concerned' about how society would view this 'unnatural' arrangement.

When Raji's influence increased and she began to air her views about Suri's relatives and friends, often using her native intelligence and making outspoken scathing observations, the family joined hands in 'driving her out'. The possibility of her cheating him of his property was a matter of constant speculation. Since none of them came forward with viable alternatives (after all they had not volunteered to look after him ), the status quo remained.

The respect Raji received from Suri was something no woman in her community could dream of. He indulgently taught her how to handle his bank work; motivated her to invest money in property, loaned her huge amounts which she dutifully paid back; gave his old television set and refrigerator to her and got her a gas connection.

While watching television talk shows and news bulletins, he patiently explained the background of the issues under discussion. Not only was she an eager learner but she also had opinions which she now confidently articulated. Her entire persona changed. Gone were the tribal ghagras. In their place came simply stitched salwar-kurtas. Her rustic dialect was replaced with a purer form of Hindi.

Suri, in spite of his failing health, carved out a routine and pace for himself. He hosted brainstorming lunches; went for occasional plays; libraries were a regular haunt; he was guest lecturer at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Raji's presence had subtly healed him on another score. He no longer nurtured any grievances against his family . His relationship with his brothers improved since from his side there was no rancour and feeling of thwarted expectations.

Raji coaxed him to visit his son in South Africa. He undertook a few trips and was reasonably happy but longed to get back to his own little nest. So, in spite of his son insisting that he stay with them, he would buy time saying, "When I am left with no choice I will". Raji was now accepted into the family fold, she accompanied him for weddings, holding his bag of food, medicines, water and books. She never overstepped her limits, blended into the woodwork but her presence was sure and steady.

The time came when Suri's son decided to return to India and settle down in the same city. Raji by now had served him for 16 years. Suri suffered a second heart attack and doctors insisted he move in with his son. Raji was happy that he was finally going where he belonged. She was free. She had always wanted to set up a dhaba or a PCO. Suri packed his bags, locked the house and went to live in his son’s place where Raji was not welcome since Suri's wife would have nothing of her.

It was when Suri actually left that Raji began to suffer withdrawal pangs. She missed him, his conversation, advice, mild bouts of anger and his intimate sharing of anecdotes. He had always given her credit for saving his life, for giving it longevity and direction by looking after him when everyone had abandoned him. She missed that boost to her self-esteem. The shock came when she realised that she no longer fitted into her community. She had changed beyond recognition. She was more empowered and aware of her rights, wiser and independent. She could not adjust.

Suri, meanwhile, settled down in his new environment and was happy. He had made a provision for Raji by creating a life-long pension fund for her. He still had fond memories of her and would talk to her on the phone regularly but for him she was now a part of a very memorable past.

Raji was disjointed for months. Her world was collapsing. She hadn't realised that her emotional dependence on him had penetrated her entire being. But as time rolled by, she found her old strength and resilience returning. She saw that Suri would have wanted her to lead a life of dignity without the crutches of a society which did nothing but give lip service. She had to stand up for herself. She decided to move out of her basti into a more developed area. On her own steam she first opened a tiny tea shop which later expanded into a dhaba.

Today, she employees half a dozen hands and has added a profitable gift outlet and PCO. She knows she could neither have had the vision, managerial skills or the survival instinct but for Suri. It might have been a nameless relationship but it had changed both their lives for the better.

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