I lost my virginity in Lahore. It was a detour from our travel itinerary. Pa and I were to return to Bombay from Karachi by the end of July 1942, after a well-spent two weeks in Sind; but Pa received an official-looking letter; not the type Salaam sent Pa to check on our health and whereabouts or to complain about Gossiper and Rumormonger, but a real letter with the emblem of the Government and all that.
It turned out that the letter was from Sir Gordon (the erstwhile Esquire Gordon, knighted in July of 1936 after serving Her Majesty with fealty), Director of Public Instruction, Bombay Presidency. Pa was ordered to go to Lahore, Punjab. I understood from the look on Pa’s face that these things were unusual but there was little choice. So we packed our trunks and left for Lahore.
What happened in Lahore was the stuff of karmic debts.
Or so I thought. My religious beliefs were a mass of gooey, overlapping confusions. I was part-Catholic and part Hindoo, part-British, part-Indian. And Salaam had told me that there were different heavens for different gods: the pearly white Christian heaven with floating angels sporting yellow halos, flying about serenely, flapping their pristine feathery wings and then there were the vibrant Hindoo heavens beautifed in red and golden and yellow and purple silks, the gods and goddess wearing crowns and jewel-encrusted bodices.
Apparently, planets orbited their divine heads as they wielded chakras that could decapitate erring men. Salaam had never described the heavens of Allah to me. But he, Salaam, had told me each time we rode the tonga together, that there was no place for immorality in their heaven. I was afraid of everything, for Salaam told me that there were different hells too.
“But since everything is so dark there you won’t be able to see anything,” he said, “except for the screams. They are same in all the hells.”
Because I had to, I gave myself to a man I love.
It had been the day Pa was away with the school managers, locked up behind important doors. Yet again, the Professor had been excluded by Pa. So, we had walked around the expansive grounds of the Lively Hearts School, under the shade of an endless row of drooping junipers whose leaves rustled and danced when the winds touched them.
Far away over the treetops, black birds in a flock dispersed into the air, their dark bodies staining the white of the skies. As we walked towards the trees, mostly in silence, they rose higher and higher. The Professor was nineteen years older than me, a foot taller than I was and more handsome than I would ever be considered beautiful. I was four feet and eleven inches with a face mildly pimpled by stubborn adolescence; dark hair tumbled to my waist in frustrating rebellion and I was a brown being with blue eyes, an infallible mistake.
Yet he loved me. I noticed his bleak eyes and cheerless expression and just as I began to ask him if something was wrong, he spoke in a soft, sad voice.
“Show it to me, again,” he said.
We stopped walking. I faced him and upon meeting his eye I had seen both anger and pain. I rolled up the sleeves of my blouse and extended my right arm in a slow and tentative motion.
He ran a light forefinger across the length of my forearm, tracing the path of a deep white ridge, an ugly seam formed by mended skin. His finger touched my wrist and found its way into my palm. I clasped his finger, then his hand and led him away.
I vaguely remember that the walls had been painted a melange of obscure green and gloomy grey – an implausible combination of poverty and distaste. But, it had not mattered, for I loved him and he certainly loved me. There was a certain light in his eyes. And tell me, how can you feign a twinkle in the eye?
I was afraid of society, especially of Rumormonger and Gossiper and the little evening parties of these ancient women, their ancient china, their hushed whispers that would spread like the panic of idiots, their wagging tongues that would scatter away whole reputations into little tads of gossip. Once, long ago Ma had warned me about them and my brother made it a matter of routine to avoid them.
I did have a reputation.
I was known. I was respected. I was an A-grade staff artist at All India Radio and I had cleared seven vigorous rounds of audition by the jury. A-grade, mind you, so you can imagine the quality of the voice, the tonality and the sheer lilt and melody. Staff artist, mind you, not a casual artist.
We are a pompous lot, we staff artists. The grading system ensures division. I would never eat lunch with the B-grade and C-grade singers. I could never be seen with the casuals. I also sang for Hindi films. It had all started when Pandit Durgadas Chaturvedi, music composer and maestro par excellence, zealously pursued my voice.
Finally, I agreed and Tum Aur Main broke all records as the angels in white and the gods and goddesses in purple and yellow silks showered me with snow-white confetti and chrysanthemums. The only people A-grade artists looked up to were maestros from various gharanas, them with the voice of god. I was no less, me, the voice of the goddess. I was aptly named too – Saraswathi, the goddess of Music, Arts, Education, and Wisdom. So, yes, I had a reputation.
“Is everything all right?” Pa asked in an impassive fashion, flipping through the pages of some important looking document that was marked CONFIDENTIAL and from where I was sitting I could make out the words Education Society Press, Byculla, written in an almost calligraphic style on the outer cover.
Pa’s accent was British. The Oxford-bred demeanour always spoke, always intimidated, even before he did, although the eyebrow- less visage and bald pate was Indian and the colour of his skin was indisputably brown.
He was a veritable mash of many places.
Pa’s English-ness faltered very briely and only when he chewed the betel leaf – a habit that was a relic of the days he had spent in Bombay’s chawls. In reality Pa wanted us, my brother and I, to call him Baba; he was holding on fastidiously to an Indian-ness that was perhaps unconscious because all conscious actions were done the English way: English breakfasts, English attire, Anglican hymns, visits to Criterion Restaurant on the good days and visits to Brandon’s on the very good days.
Why then did I sing Ae Watan Main Tumhari Hoon? For the seventy rupees that promptly went into Pa’s deep pockets, I think. I sang when I had Pa’s permission and I had auditioned for All India Radio because Pa allowed me to.
While we were growing up and when Ma was not what she eventually became, she would refer to him as Pa in a manner of, “wait till your Pa comes home” or “Pa won’t be home for dinner tonight m’dears”. So the title (that’s all it was to us) stuck on and the man whom we feared became Pa...not Baba, just Pa.
Pa’s voice cut through my thoughts, disrupting the private turbulence of my mind. He had asked if I was all right.
“Yes,” I said in a feeble voice.
“I don’t think so,” said Pa, folding the important looking document and placing it neatly on the side table. He rolled up the sleeves of his impeccably starched, white cotton shirt, patted his handlebar moustache of horsehair consistency, adjusted the turban on his head, took a betel leaf out of an intricately carved ivory betel leaf box, added a dash of limestone on its spine, spread it throughout the leaf’s modest area, folded it in three, placed it strategically in the centre of his mouth and flicked it with savage precision to the sides of his mouth with the deft movement of a tongue that could bruise egos, break hearts, and cause the abetment of suicides.
I have seen grown men crying right after a verbal duel with Pa.
He then looked at me with a certain amount of disdain. I had always been terrified of this particular look – eyebrow-skins raised and ice in his eyes.
“You see,” he stated with amusement, chewing the leaf with relish and offering me glimpses of his front teeth stained with the red juice, “you were scratching your nubbin time and again, your eyebrows were doing a dance of their own, going up and down, and then dear girl, you frown and then they go up and down again. Yes, yes, I have been watching you for a while now. Something is certainly wrong!”
So my nubbin had given me away, the littlest finger on my right hand, right beside my little finger. I had to tell him something, not the truth but something.
“Well, Pa...I want to go back to Bombay. I am missing Ma you know, Salaam Bhai also, and Hyacinth of course. I have to go back and I miss going to the studios for practice and...Not that I don’t like it here Pa, I do.” My voice trailed and Pa gave me a look of incredulity.
I looked around the room: the floor was an insipid combination of large white and brown squares; the furniture comprised of cane chairs in some rooms and wooden chairs in more important rooms like Pa’s home-office. The curtains were a dull grey and white. I forced on a smile in a frivolous attempt to suggest that I was happy here. We were staying at a government-owned guest house, four miles east of the Lahore Cantonment.
I saw the look on Pa’s face and stopped. He thought I spoke too much. He liked women to be demure, silent and imperceptible, an unseen being whose domesticity seeps through the intangible columns of air. A warm meal. A pile of clothes, washed and ironed.
Spotless mirrors. An invisible being seated on a bed with her head bent, hands folded around raised knees in a dark room. She is not seen. She is not heard.
“My work will be over in three days, Saraswathi. We will return to Bombay after that.”
Pa picked up his important looking document and with a pat of his handlebar moustache and a disdainful look thrown my way, he left the room.
I sat there in the cane chair, completely still.
Three days? I wanted to see the Professor right away. I began to panic. I scratched my nubbin again with my thumb. The Professor and I had crossed an unforgiving line the day I had led him away to the room of green and grey. Both my faiths did not permit such corruption. Neither did his. I was guilty. We both were guilty.
That evening we had lain down beside each other in a lightless room filled with the noise of wall crickets, our fingers entwined, our voices mute, our breathing heavy and swaying, and between ease and unease, I had spoken.
“Is this wrong?”
He was silent for a long time. I thought he had fallen asleep. “Faith exists,” he said in a soft voice, “to keep people in control when they might act out of hate. Not love.” I believed him.
Excerpted with permission from The Heavens We Chase, Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind, IndiaInk, Roli Books.