No (said Arun, as we waited for dinner to be prepared), I did not fall in love with my neighbour’s wife. It is not that kind of story.
Mind you, Leela was a most attractive woman. She was not beautiful or pretty but she was handsome. Hers was the firm, athletic body of a sixteen-year-old boy, free of any surplus flesh. She bathed morning and evening, oiling herself well, so that her skin glowed a golden-brown in the winter sunshine. Her lips were often coloured with paan juice, but her teeth were perfect.
I was her junior by about five years, and she called me her “younger brother”. Her husband, who was forty to her thirty-two, was an official in the Customs and Excise Department: an extrovert, a hard-drinking, backslapping man, who spent a great deal of time on tour. Leela knew that he was not always faithful to her during these frequent absences, but she found solace in her own loyalty and in the well-being of her only child, a boy called Chandu.
I did not care for the boy. He had been well spoilt, and took great delight in disturbing me whenever I was at work. He entered my rooms uninvited, knocked my books about, and, if guests were present, made insulting remarks about them to their faces.
Leela, during her lonely evenings, would often ask me to sit on her verandah and talk to her. The day’s work done, she would relax with a hookah. Smoking a hookah was a habit she had brought with her from her village near Agra, and it was a habit she refused to give up. She liked to talk and, as I was a good listener, she soon grew fond of me.
The fact that I was twenty-six years old and still a bachelor never failed to astonish her. It was not long before she took upon herself the responsibility of getting me married. I found it useless to protest. She did not believe me when I told her that I could not afford to marry, that I preferred a bachelor’s life.
A wife, she insisted, was an asset to any man. A wife reduced expenses. Where did I eat? At a hotel, of course. That must cost me at least sixty rupees a month, even on a vegetarian diet. But if I had a simple homely wife to do the cooking, we could both eat well for less than that.
Leela fingered my shirt, observing that a button was missing and that the collar was frayed. She remarked on my pale face and general look of debility, and told me that I would fall victim to all kinds of diseases if I did not find someone to look after me. What I needed, she declared between puffs at the hookah, was a woman – a young, healthy, buxom woman, preferably from a village near Agra.
“If I could find someone like you,” I said slyly, “I would not mind getting married.”
She appeared neither flattered nor offended by my remark.
“Don’t marry an older woman,” she advised. “Never take a wife who is more experienced in the ways of the world than you are. You just leave it to me, I’ll find a suitable bride for you.”
To please Leela, I agreed to this arrangement, thinking she would not take it seriously. But, two days later, when she suggested that I accompany her to a certain distinguished home for orphan girls, I became alarmed. I refused to have anything to do with her project.
“Don’t you have confidence in me?” she asked. “You said you would like a girl who resembled me. I know one who looks just as I did ten years ago.”
“I like you as you are now,’ I said. ‘Not as you were ten years ago.”
“Of course. We shall arrange for you to see the girl first.”
“You don’t understand,” I protested. “It’s not that I feel I have to be in love with someone before marrying her – I know you would choose a fine girl, and I would really prefer someone who is homely and simple to an MA with honours in psychology – it’s just that I’m not ready for it. I want another year or two of freedom. I don’t want to be chained down. To be frank, I don’t want the responsibility.”
“A little responsibility will make a man of you,” said Leela; but she did not insist on my accompanying her to the orphanage, and the matter was allowed to rest for a few days.
I was beginning to hope that Leela had reconciled herself to allowing one man to remain single in a world full of husbands when, one morning, she accosted me on the verandah with an open newspaper, which she thrust in front of my nose.
“There!” she said triumphantly. “What do you think of that? I did it to surprise you.”
She had certainly succeeded in surprising me. Her henna-stained forefinger rested on an advertisement in the matrimonial columns.
Bachelor journalist, age twenty-five, seeks attractive young wife well versed in household duties. Caste, religion no bar. Dowry optional.
I must admit that Leela had made a good job of it. In a few days the replies began to come in, usually from the parents of the girls concerned. Each applicant wanted to know how much money I was earning. At the same time, they took the trouble to list their own connections and the high positions occupied by relatives.
Some parents enclosed their daughters’ photographs. They were very good photographs, though there was a certain amount of touching-up employed.
I studied the pictures with interest. Perhaps marriage wasn’t such a bad proposition, after all. I selected the photographs of the three girls I most fancied and showed them to Leela.
To my surprise, she disapproved of all three. One of the girls she said had a face like a hermaphrodite; another obviously suffered from tuberculosis; and the third was undoubtedly an adventuress. Leela decided that the whole idea of the advertisement had been a mistake. She was sorry she had inserted it; the only replies we were likely to get would be from fortune hunters. And I had no fortune.
So we destroyed the letters. I tried to keep some of the photographs, but Leela tore them up too.
And so, for some time, there were no more attempts at getting me married.
Leela and I met nearly every day, but we spoke of other things. Sometimes, in the evenings, she would make me sit on the charpoy opposite her, and then she would draw up her hookah and tell me stories about her village and her family. I was getting used to the boy, too, and even growing rather fond of him.
All this came to an end when Leela’s husband went and got himself killed. He was shot by a bootlegger, who had decided to get rid of the excise man rather than pay him an exorbitant sum of money. It meant that Leela had to give up her quarters and return to her village near Agra. She waited until the boy’s school term had finished, and then she packed their things and bought two tickets, third class to Agra.
Something, I could see, had been troubling her, and when I saw her off at the station, I realised what it was. She was having a fit of conscience about my continued bachelorhood.
“In my village,” she said confidently, leaning out from the carriage window, “there is a very comely young girl, a distant relative of mine; I shall speak to the parents.”
And then I said something which I had not considered before; which had never, until that moment, entered my head. And I was no less surprised than Leela when the words came tumbling out of my mouth: “Why don’t you marry me now?”
Arun didn’t have time to finish his story because, just at this interesting stage, the dinner arrived.
But the dinner brought with it the end of his story.
It was served by his wife, a magnificent woman, strong and handsome, who could only have been Leela. And a few minutes later, Chandu, Arun’s stepson, charged into the house, complaining that he was famished.
Arun introduced me to his wife, and we exchanged the usual formalities.
“But why hasn’t your friend brought his family with him?” she asked.
“Family? Because he’s still a bachelor!”
And then as he watched his wife’s expression change from a look of mild indifference to one of deep concern, he hurriedly changed the subject.
Excerpted with permission from Writing for My Life: The Very Best of Ruskin Bond, Puffin Books India.