Though Roxana was their half-sister, Jal and Coomy’s love for her had been full and complete from the moment she was born. At fourteen and twelve, they were not prey to the complicated feelings of jealousy, neglect, rivalry, or even hatred, which newborns evoke in siblings closer in age.
Or perhaps Jal and Coomy were grateful for Roxana because she filled the void left by their own father’s death, four years earlier. Their father had been sickly through most of their childhood. And during brief stretches when his lungs did not confine him to bed, he was still weak, seldom able to get through the day unassisted. His chronic pleurisy was the symptom of a more serious pulmonary disease, its two dreaded initials never mentioned among friends and relatives. Just a little water in the lungs, was how Palonji’s illness was described.
And Palonji, to alleviate his family’s anxiety, made a running joke out of this coded description. If Jal, always full of mischief as a child, did something silly, it was due to a little water in his head. “You must plug your ears when you wash your hair,” his father teased. Clumsy hands meant the person was a real water-fingers. And if little Coomy cried, her father said, “My lovely daughter does not cry, it’s just a little water in the eyes,” which would promptly make her smile.
Palonji Contractor’s courage and his determination to keep up his family’s spirits were heroic, but the end, when it came, was devastating for Jal and Coomy. And three years after his death, when their mother remarried, they were stiff towards the stranger, awkward in their dealings with him. They insisted on addressing Nariman Vakeel as New Pappa.
The word stung like a pebble each time it was hurled to his face. He made light of it at first, laughing it off: “That’s all – just New Pappa? Why not a longer title? How about Brand New Improved Pappa?”
But his choice of adjectives was infelicitous; Jal told him coldly that no one could be an improvement on their real father. It took a few weeks for their mother to convince her children that it would make her very happy if they dropped the New. Jal and Coomy agreed; they were maturing rapidly, far too rapidly. They told their mother they would use whatever word she wanted. Merely calling him Pappa, they said, did not make him one.
Nariman wondered what he had let himself in for by marrying Yasmin Contractor. Neither had come together for love – it was an arranged marriage. She had taken the step for security, for her son and daughter.
And he, when he looked back on it all, across the wasteland of their lives, despaired at how he could have been so feeble-minded, so spineless, to have allowed it to happen.…
Thirty-six years had passed since. And still he remembered the Sunday evening, the hebdomadal get-together of his parents’ circle of friends. In this very drawing–room, where the furniture was still the same, the walls carried the same paint, and all their voices still echoed from that Sunday evening….
Much rejoicing had erupted when his parents announced that their only son, after years of refusing to end his ill–considered liaison with that Goan woman, refusing to meet decent Parsi girls, refusing to marry someone respectable – that their beloved Nari had finally listened to reason and agreed to settle down.
He could hear every word on the balcony where he sat alone. As usual, Soli Bamboat, his parents’ oldest friend, semi-retired and still a very influential lawyer, was the first to respond. “Three cheers for Nari!” he shouted. “Heep-heep-heep!” and the rest answered, “Hooray!”
Soli Bamboat’s vocal machinery, despite a lifetime’s struggle with the treachery of English vowels, was frequently undone by them. His speech had been a source of great puzzlement and entertainment for Nariman in childhood.…
Meanwhile, the group responded thrice to Soli’s heepheep-heep before commencing with an assortment of individual cheers and good wishes for his parents.
“Congratulations, Marzi!” said Mr. Kotwal to his father. “After eleven years of battle you win!”
“Better late than never,” said Mr. Burdy. “But fortune always favours the bold. Remember, the fruits of patience are sweet, and all’s well that ends well.”
“Stop, Mr. Proverb, enough,” said Soli. “Save a few for the rest of us.”
Curious about their comments, Nariman shifted his chair on the balcony so he could observe them without being seen. Now Mrs. Unvala began professing that she had always had faith in the boy to make the right choice in the end, and her husband, Dara, nodded vigorously. Their opinions were offered as a team; the group called him the Silent Partner.
Then Soli entered the balcony, and Nariman pretended to be engrossed in a book. “Hey, Nari! Why are you alone? Come and join the circle, you seely boy.”
“Later, Soli Uncle, I want to finish this chapter.”
“No, no, Nari, we nid you now,” he said, taking the book away. “What’s the rush, the words won’t vaneesh from the page.” Seizing his arm, he pulled him into the drawing-room, into the centre of the gathering.
They thumped his back, shook his hand, hugged him while he cringed and wished he hadn’t stayed home that evening. But he knew he would have to face them at some point. He heard Soli Uncle’s wife, Nargesh Aunty, ask his mother, “Tell me, Jeroo, is it sincere? Has he really given up that Lucy Braganza?”
“Oh yes,” said his mother. “Yes, he has given us his word.”
Now Mrs. Kotwal scuttled across the room, pinched his cheek, and said, “When the naughty boy at last becomes a good boy, it’s a double delight.”
He felt like reminding her he was fortytwo years old. Then Nargesh Aunty beckoned from her seat on the sofa. She was the most softspoken of the group and usually drowned by its din. She patted the place beside her and bade him sit. Taking his hand in hers, which was shrivelled from burns in a kitchen accident during her youth, she whispered, “No happiness is more lasting than the happiness that you get from fulfilling your parents’ wishes. Remember that, Nari.”
Her voice came to him from a great distance, and he had neither will nor energy for argument. He was remembering the week before, when he and Lucy had watched the tide go out at Breach Candy. Some children were dragging a little net in pools of water among the rocks, searching for sea life forgotten by the amnesiac waves. As he watched them splash and yell, he thought about the eleven years he and Lucy had struggled to create a world for themselves. A cocoon, she used to call it. A cocoon was what they needed, she said, into which they could retreat, and after their families had forgotten their existence, they would emerge like two glistening butterflies and fly away together…
The memory made him weaken for an instant – was he making the right decision?…Yes. He was. They had been ground down by their families. Exhausted by the strain of it. He reminded himself how hopeless it was now – Lucy and he had even reached the point where scarcely an evening went by that they did not quarrel about something or the other. What was the purpose in continuing, letting it all crumble in useless bickering?
Then, while the children nearby squealed with excitement at a creature caught in their net, Lucy tried one last time to convince him: they could turn their backs on everyone, walk away from the suffocating world of family tyrannies, from the guilt and blackmail that parents specialized in. They could start their own life together, just the two of them.
Struggling to maintain his resolve, he told her they had discussed it all before, their families would hound them, no matter what. The only way to do this was to end it quickly.
Fine, she said, no use talking any more, and walked away from him. He found himself alone beside the sea.
And now, as his parents and their friends discussed his future while sipping Scotch and soda, he felt he was eavesdropping on strangers. They were delightedly conducting their “roundtable conference,” as they called it, planning his married life, having as much fun as though it was their whist drive or housie evening.
“There is one problem,” said Mr. Burdy. “We have indeed shut the stable door before the horse bolted, but we must provide a substitute mare.”
“What did he say?” asked Nargesh Aunty.
“Mr. Proverb believes the bridegroom is ready, but we nid to find heem a bride.”
“Don’t you think,” she said timidly, “that lovemarriage would be better than arranged?”
“Of course,” said his father. “You think we haven’t encouraged it? But our Nari seems incapable of falling in love with a Parsi girl. Now it’s up to us to find a match.”
“And that will be a challenge, mark my words,” said Mr. Kotwal. “You can look as far from Bombay as you like. You can try from Calcutta to Karachi. But when they make inquiries, they will find out about Nari’s lufroo with that ferangi woman.”
“Impossible to hide it,” agreed Mrs. Unvala. “We’ll have to compromise.”
“Oh I’m sure Nari will find a lovely wife,” said his mother loyally. “The cream of the crop.”
“I think we’ll have to forget about the cream of the crop,” said Mr. Burdy. “As you sow, so shall you reap. You cannot plough the stubble of the crop one day, and expect cream the next.”
They laughed, and their jokes became cruder. Soli said something insulting about ferangis who wiped their arses with paper instead of washing hygienically.
The detachment with which Nariman had been listening evaporated. “How sorry I feel for you all,” he said, unable to choke back his disgust. “You’ve grown old without growing wise.”
His chair scrooped as he pushed it away and returned to the balcony. He picked up his book, staring blankly at the pages. There was a light breeze coming in from the sea. Inside, he could hear his parents apologizing, that the poor boy was distraught because the breakup was still fresh. It infuriated him that they would presume to know how he felt.
“Prince Charming –didn’t appreciate our humour,” said Mr. Burdy. “But there was no need to insult us.”
“I think he was just quoting from a book,” said Mr. Kotwal.
“My big mistake,” said his father, “was books. Too many books. Modern ideas have filled Nari’s head. He never learned to preserve that fine balance between tradition and modernness.”
“Time weal pass and he’ll become normal again,” said Soli. –“Don’t worry, prosid one step at a time.”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Burdy. “Act in haste, repent at leisure. Remember, slow and steady always wins the race.”
Disregarding their own advice, in a matter of days his parents’ friends arranged an introduction for him. “You will meet Yasmin Contractor, a widow with two children,” they told him. “And that’s the best you can expect, mister, with your history.”
Either this widow, they explained, or a defective woman – the choice was his. What sort of defect? he asked, curious. Oh, could be cock-eyed, or deaf, or one leg shorter than the other, they said breezily; or might be someone sickly, with a weak lung, or problems in the child-bearing department – it depended on who was available. If that was his preference, they would make inquiries and prepare a list for him.
“No one is denying you are handsome and well educated. Your past is your handicap – those wasted years, which have thrown you beyond the threshold of forty. But don’t worry, everything has been considered: personality, family background, cooking and housekeeping skills. Yes, the widow is our number-one choice. She will make you a good wife.”
Like an invalid steered by doctors and nurses, he drifted through the process, suppressing his doubts and misgivings, ready to believe that the traditional ways were the best. He became the husband of Yasmin Contractor, and formally adopted her children, Jal and Coomy. But they kept their father’s name. To change it to Vakeel would be like rewriting history, suggested his new wife. The simile appealed to his academic soul; he acquiesced.