By Ram Govardhan
Paradise is a Victorian mansion, built during the Raj, in an idyllic setting, a little away from Bangalore. Stained in practical brown, the pointed arches and the flying buttresses, proud of their heydays, defiantly lift their chins, notwithstanding the warped columns, dented pilasters, the rusted lattices, the crumbling beams and the stunned pillar clocks. Radiating the ostentatious Renaissance splendour, the grand facade pretends to be a stately civic structure. Fallen into tragic disrepair for over a decade, surrounded by paddy-fields, echoing shrill tweets of passerine birds, the mansion is now home to scores of Java sparrows, woodpeckers and egrets. The cowsheds, hen-houses and the stables in the backyard host mongrels, cats, rats and, the scariest of flying mammals, bats.
At daybreak, minutes after lipping and chattering with self, draped in Sambalpuri silk ikat saree, with Aerosmith’s Dream On on her lips, finding her driver untraceable, Sara bought a ticket to Ramanagara, the outskirts of which are proud of Paradise, her great grandfather’s ambition that consumed every penny he earned and, in the end, him too. Ruing the decadence of taste and genius of his times, grasping that life is often beset with pain, his point of building it was unambiguous: to recoup from the agony the dearest inflict.
Paradise is where Sara is to wed David, her beau, within a week from now. Leela, her stepmother, is feverishly sprucing up the mansion, while John, Sara’s father, is unwell, well, as now, that’s what we are told.
Sara is gorgeous, too gorgeous to be a girl next-door, with a dream of helping a million girls quit smoking. She also dreams of a day when her signature would be called autograph. The dimpled beauty is too brainy, too bubbly, too talkative, too bold and too obstinate. At times, she might appear frantic, but there’s steel in her convictions. Her interests are too many and too diverse to be adept at any one of them. How deep-thinking is she? She would deep-think so much that you will deeply regret to have asked the question in the first place.
“One look at her makes my head spin…I won’t see anyone more gorgeous all my life in flesh and blood,” David tells his friends, “But beware of her tongue, which is glib as glass, tough as carbon steel and wild, unstoppable as hurricane.”
So overwhelming was raising her that, given his woefully wanting parental skills, John never asked her to mind her studies, mind her language and, now, as she has turned thirty, wasn’t even bothered to find a suitable boy.
“Don’t harass me? There’s no suitable boy for her on earth, even Vikram Seth can’t help…,” John cried at Leela, his second wife, after adjusting his dentures.
Leela, twenty years younger than John and ten years older than Sara, epitomises quintessential stepmotherliness. She wants Sara out of the house, at once, once and for all. Leela can’t stand her stepdaughter’s ‘curt’ tongue, ‘eccentric’ ways and the ‘outrageous’ outfits.
As the three Alsatians barked their heads off, Leela said, “As an envoy, you can only give nice names to nasty things…are barely literate in family affairs…an absolute prototype Peter Pan.”
John turned pensive, easing into one of his diplomatic, weighty silences.
Leela cried over the dogs, “…Adolescence has carried over to her adulthood. Sara, Sara, Sara…have had enough of her, find a boy…and pack her off.”
“She isn’t fond of living with you either, don’t fret…she’ll find one,” John said, “Where’s my cup?”
“In the kitchen…,” Leela said, sipping tea, giving him a cold stare and, unusually, instantly lowered eyelids, trying to dilute the curtly tone.
As John fixed his gaze on her, an awkward pause hung, signifying, well, not an awful lot.
“Greatest wife in the world and ever likely to be in the deep depths of future,” John said.
“Even your pathetic wit is underlining how woefully mismatched we are…,” Leela said.
John’s spheres of influence shrank to dangerous levels ever since he has retired. His handsome pension amuses no one, including the drivers and maidservants. While news channels still seek his bites on Kim Jong-un, Brexit, the Nine-dash line and Crimea, Leela curses swear-words at him for betraying even a semblance of dissent. To keep himself from further indignity, John chose the most pragmatic marital distancing Indian men embrace: sleeping in a different bedroom. He deeply regrets to have held on to her for far too long, assuming that she would mellow and ease into gravitas of maturity, despite knowing that the core of human character seldom changes.
Leela had come into John’s life soon after his first wife died of drowning. In her mid-twenties, while he was past his prime, she was too beautiful with deep, breathtaking eyes and enigmatic smile. With stunning facial angles, with an elegant shape, she was comely. She had earrings that could be dazzling bracelets, handbags that could double as duffle bags. She was stylish, graceful and all the rage. In a nutshell, even to a discerning man, as John puts it, she was a ‘sensory overload’.
Stunning and extraordinarily fashionable in red palazzos, Leela didn’t look a divorcee, at all.
“I am gobsmacked at the gifts you possess,” John said.
“You aren’t as recluse as you look, oh boy! You know how to work a woman…,” Leela said.
John was quite bonkers at times, yet she felt he was sweet enough for a steady sense of affection, despite her own mercurial moods. She adored his comfy-casual look, disarranged hair, the grasp of his large hand, his firm Catholic faith, his funny bones, his red Mustang, his love for poetry, French language, his contempt for narcotics and, above all, his love for Aldous Huxley’s association with eastern mysticism. They both loved the eerie plots and startling climaxes of Indian-American Padma Shri Night Shyamalan’s films. And both of them adored Leander Paes’ grit, his relationship with Michael Madhusudan Dutt and their Tamil connection.
But she couldn’t stand his love for Sanskrit. John isn’t easily shocked but he was, when she said, “Sanskrit isn’t even the mother tongue of your mother tongue…”
“I love the eulogic tone of Sanskrit,” John said.
“Charm of incantation is innate to every language; when chanted well, every tongue is enrapturing,” Leela said.
“Perhaps…,” John said.
Fed up with dry, gut-wrenching acidic black comedy of diplomatic circles, he relished the winning tone of her voice, her refreshing old school wit and the cool wisdom of her seaside humour.
“Great wit isn’t a cultivated flair…is a genetic lottery only a few inherit,” John said, “Nothing to do with your collegiate speech and debate victories.”
What sewed up the relationship ultimately was the fact that serious music deeply moved both of them – as opposed to rock, jazz, pop or folk. While he felt music is a biological need, she claimed that the sonata form touched many chords in her. That she loved heavy metal too wasn’t an incongruity he was bothered about.
“Great musicians know how to magically touch heartstrings…” John said.
“You are no less a magician. As for disposition, I am predisposed to be my own woman, I am not of conforming sort…,” Leela said.
Lost as he was in the sweet cadence of her voice, he hardly heard her. Yet he had an answer.
“As a matter of fact, I like women who are a little rough, a woman looks great when she bosses around a man,” John said.
“You smoke a lot…” Leela said.
“Never mind lass, I will give up anything for you,” John said, “Don’t you think I am past my best.”
“You don’t look a day older,” Leela said.
“Ageing well is living…mere survival is negating good life,” John said.
Driving uptown with her, quietly sipping mugs of espresso and savouring nights in pyramid tents on beaches were the things that gave John immense joy. Leela seemed his ticket to paradise. Since her bling lifestyle was expensive and exotic, he too looked a ticket to paradise as he was already a millionaire and scarcely hit the bottle, certainly not to excess.
“He is a diplomat…about to retire, surely going to come into a lot more money,” Leela often confided in her friends.
Her gamble paid off. Within months, John received invitations from top universities from North America. For a few years, he was the centre of her universe but, before long, during his absence, her interests veered off. Every time he returned, Leela’s relationships with other men unravelled, one by one. When confronted, given her unstoppable condescending monologues, John quickly chose to bury everything in the seal of confessional, once and for all. Yet, Leela’s irreducible depravity was intolerable but, by then, Sara was already into her teens.
As John poured some tea, Sara hugged her dad from behind. She then grabbed the cup, kissed him and walked to the living, sipping. Of course Sara is a lively girl but, of late, he hadn’t seen her so happy, so cheerful. In fact, she is often a bit moody in the mornings.
After making a cup for himself, as he sat, Leela said, “There’s good news…you don’t have to go around the world, she has found one…now convert all the certificates, shares and deposits into cash…”
“Who is the boy?” John asked.
“David, dad…” Sara said.
“Is he the one who had double-crossed you?” John asked.
“He didn’t, dad…I misunderstood him, dad…,” Sara said.
“I want to see his parents,” John said.
“No need, I know the boy…he is bright, brilliant from an affluent family. You won’t be able to unearth a better groom,” Leela said.
“How do you know about him?” John asked.
“She had met him twice, dad…” Sara said.
“A stepmother is a mum too…I must know everything about him,” Leela said.
“How long have you been seeing him again, Sara?” John asked.
“We patched up last week, dad,” Sara said.
“Risky,” John said, “Very risky…I want to see David’s parents.”
“There’s no risk…Sara isn’t a fool, nor am I. Now let’s get on with the preparations. Don’t see his parents, unlike Sherlock Holmes, you can only unearth problems,” Leela said.
“It’s wicked to ignore the groom’s parents,” John said.
“Don’t be more moral and Socratic…” Leela said, “I am going to Paradise to make the arrangements.”
“Like what?” John asked.
“Like renovating the bungalow, seeing the caterers, florists …bandsmen to play the bride entrance song etc.,” Leela said.
“You can’t find violinists and pianists in that village…capable of playing the Canon in D…,” John said, “What about the officiant?”
“Don’t worry, have called them all, going to meet them tomorrow,” Leela said.
John knows that anything that Leela says must be taken with a big bag of salt and questioning her ways is mortally unsafe.
As John handed the money-bag to Leela, Sara said, “Oh! You don’t know about David, dad…he is such a sweet guy, dad.”
Given his two dysfunctional marriages, including this one, John is categorical that matrimony is a safest stairway to misery, while Leela calls it the ‘dignified way of raising offspring.’
And Sara feels that matrimony, as an institution, would always smack of male chauvinism as long as there’s no female Pope. Her greatest dream is to tie the knot when the groom is in jumpers, shorts or long johns on the wedding day, officiated by a gay priest, sans the churchly rituals that suck. She loathes neckties, formals, and ensembles. She wants a man who can joke and jest all night with dirty jokes and who hates protocol, in particular, etiquette, proprieties and, most of all, punctuality.
“Even the sun cannot rise precisely at the same time every day,” Sara says.
She always dreamed of wedding someone younger than herself. As it often happens in life, since she looked for one, she got one, someone four years younger: David.
Reuniting a few weeks ago, looking at an immaculately suited David emerging out of a glistening Audi, Sara said, “Never seen anyone so dressed and so sober…”
While Sara enjoyed David’s dirty jokes, he was appalled at her irregular, nomadic tastes but, within weeks, got used to them. Unlike her, he loved ceremonial bells and whistles, he loved sharp white tie suits, cut well and in classic monogram, lending an air of polish. He loved proper ensembles, almost to downtown abbey effect, with cufflinks and tie-pins along with lustrous metals that harmonize with the grandeur of cathedrals.
As David was hell bent on things proper, after he refused to accept a gay priest, Sara reluctantly agreed for a ceremony at a Russian churchwoman’s house, because Sara abhorred crowded places, masses and congregations. She was appalled that while her guest list contained just half a dozen like-minded friends, David’s was longer with about three hundred.
Numbers don’t really daunt her, but she knows how unorthodox orthodoxy can be when the numbers are on its side.
A couple of weeks ago, during a dinner of several courses at Sara’s place, Leela wanted the wedding to take place at Paradise. David quickly concurred with Leela and waved at Sara to be quiet. He then, going back to an earlier topic, agreed with Leela that the study of theology was humbling and character-building, yet he couldn’t fathom as to why Russian Orthodox Christians hate Baptists and Catholics.
After spending a few weeks at bucolic Paradise, Leela liked the farmers’ slang, gullibility and rustic ways. The unending gusts of dirt and dust and the ubiquitous dunghills seemed incapable of affecting the health of rural folks.
Leela oversaw the renovation of the balustraded bungalow, restoring its former magnificence. The circular stone colonnade, rounded tops of windows, red-tiled roofs and the square bell towers shined, flaunting their breath-taking old-world charm. Shafts of sunlight beamed through diamond-shaped panes of refitted lattice-windows, making intricate patterns in the pool room. The personality packed living space – with buckets of character, funky chairs, exotic plants and gorgeous knick-knacks – gained classy elegance. Bereft of creepers, the balcony now afforded a sweeping view of the gardens, dairy farm, hen-houses and paddy fields.
Sara reached the village and headed to Paradise. The wedding was a week away but Paradise was so dolled up that Sara was proud of her stepmother, despite the bad blood.
Sara was surprised to see David’s car parked in the portico. As she entered, she heard chuckles and bursts of suppressed laughter and then the couple dissolved into hysterical hilarity.
With much trepidation, she peeked through the window; Leela was in splits over David’s lewd jokes.
Sara tiptoed away from Paradise and returned to Bangalore.
Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Literary Yard, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Indian Ruminations, The Spark, Muse India, Nether, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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