The final break-up with Otto happened during those years. I admitted to myself that I didn’t have the makings of a world citizen. Otto’s plan of six months in India and six months in Norway did not fit with my desire to be rooted. So, what had been a beautiful relationship of mutual love and respect, came to a deeply regretted end.
Father said why do you want to marry at all. Come live with us in our retirement home in Talegaon, teach at Pune University, read, write, forget marriage and babies. The prospect seemed attractive; but I was being wooed. A table tennis friend took me out to a seaside cafe where he played “Yeh mera prem patra padhkar” on the juke box. As the song bounced along, he looked at me significantly. I thought it rather odd that, having so much to catch up on after my years away in England, he was totally tongue-tied when we met. The song ended. He said, “So?”
“Yes. The words are so beautiful.”
Yes. Ke tum meri zindagi ho, ke tum meri bandagi ho.’
Dummkopf I told myself. He’s proposing to you for god’s sake. Can’t you see?
But he was an old pal whom I had slapped on the back and laughed with; whose home I had visited dozens of times. He would be one of the first friends I would invite to my wedding if ever I got married. But did I see him standing beside me in a silk kurta, wearing the garland I had put around his neck? I shook my head. “Sorry yaar. Really sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he sighed. Two months later he came over to invite me to his wedding. He was marrying his medical school classmate.
A badminton player, mixed-doubles partner to the great Nandu Natekar, asked Queen G if she thought I would be interested in marrying her brother, also a badminton player.
Excited by the prospect of being a matchmaker, Queen G invited me and the sister (not the man himself) to tea. I had seen the man play. He was in the habit of looking at the tramlines or net or shuttle or racquet reproachfully every time he lost a point. When his sister gently probed me about the possibility of meeting him “with a view to marriage”, I said, “Sorry. Really sorry. He’s a wonderful player and I’m sure a lovely person. But I’m not planning on marrying just yet.”
Another old friend, mine at first but of the whole family later, wrote to me with a formal proposal. He was small and tense and rarely laughed. He was also a brahmin who was proud of his caste, while to me being brahmin was an accident of birth. So again I wrote back saying, “Sorry. Very sorry,” adding a few elaborations on the theme. He wrote a brief nine-word note back: “Mea culpa. Peccavi. But I hope we’ll remain friends.” He was otherwise a lovely man and we did remain friends, and soon enough he married his cousin and the three of us became friends together.
I was turning down proposals, but I guess I was also looking for a mate. It was not a powerful, insuperable urge; but I would not look away if a suitable man swam into my ken. My old friend AV Bharath, whose acquaintance we had made on a summer holiday in Kodaikanal, the same holiday during which I had written verses about poor solitary girls drowning in the deep, and whose friend Madhav Vaidya had left Paula Kahn heartbroken, was now posted to INS Hamla, the Navy’s logistics and training establishment located in Malad, a western suburb of the city.
It is a beautiful, peaceful base with its own beach of silver sand. Bharath invited Nirmal and me to Sunday lunch. It was the day I had my first Indian Navy trifle pudding which I will not presume to describe. I did not know then that trifle pudding was to become the central motif of my lunches and dinners for many years to come. Along with trifle pudding in Hamla came an introduction to Lieutenant- Commander Vijay Kumar Mohan Shahane, Viju to friends, a pleasantly “healthy” man who spoke of books and little else. Later there were evening parties where dance bands played.
At the first one I was invited to, Viju stamped all over my toes doing what he thought was a fox-trot.
He also told me, not the least apologetically, that he did not speak Marathi. For me, brought up to be bilingual, this sounded like an affectation, an unforgivable one considering his maternal uncle was poet Madhav Julian (born Madhav Patwardhan), member of the Ravikiran Mandal and initiator of the sonnet in Marathi poetry. But I let it pass and we sat out the remaining dances, talking books.
In the course of several more lunches and dance parties in Hamla-by-the-sea highlighted by trifle puddings, I must have come to the conclusion that Viju was the mate I was looking for, notwithstanding that, on his first personal invitation to me that did not involve Bharath, he had kept me waiting at Malad station for forty minutes, before he turned up on his Vespa to ferry me to the base, a half-hour bumpy ride away.
Did I think there was something wrong here? No. I waited cheerfully, transferring my weight from one foot to the other, thinking generous thoughts about how his scooter had probably broken down, poor fellow, or how something urgent must have come up, poor fellow. Hope he’s not unwell poor fellow was the worry that occupied the last ten minutes of waiting. Not for a moment did it strike me that he had been sleeping off a hangover. When he did turn up, he was cheerful as he said sorry yaar and I totally forgiving.
One evening we were at a terrace party in the middle of Bombay, I with my fruit juice and he with his favourite Old Monk, which was then, in 1965, celebrating its eleventh anniversary as India’s only dark rum. He sauntered up to me where I was leaning against the parapet watching the crowd from a writerly distance. I could tell by his uncustomary shuffling and silence that he was priming himself to do something he had either never done before or done badly and earned a rebuff for.
Wanting to ease things for him, I said, “Why don’t we get married, Viju?” Nearly dropping his glass, his light skin reddening, his green eyes popping, he made a brave attempt at nonchalance. “Yes, why not?”
In Pune, where his much-travelled parents had built themselves a dark little retirement bungalow called Mamita, there was much relief at the news of his decision to “settle”. At age thirty-five, he was well into the no-man’s land that precedes confirmed bachelorhood. There was even greater relief that he was not, as his father put it quaintly in his congratulatory letter, marrying “a decorative doll”. Presumably Dada, as he was called, had imagined his son cavorting with many such in wicked Bombay, any one of whom he could have sprung on Mamita as the second Shahane daughter-in-law, the first being Lilu, married to his older brother Squadron-Leader Ajit of the Indian Air Force.
Despite the fact that a war with Pakistan was looming on the horizon and we were soon to cover our windows with black paper and knit sweaters for our jawans, the date set for the wedding was 15 August 1965. This allowed Viju’s friends to joke, each as though he was the first to think of the witticism, “So you’re losing your independence on Independence Day!”
I was financing the wedding. It didn’t strike me as odd that Viju wasn’t offering to share the costs. Nor did it strike me as odd that, despite belonging to the armed forces, he was persuading me not to follow the government order, part of the austerity measures then in force, that put a cap of hundred on wedding guests. He had hordes of close friends, so did his family, my family and I. But we were building the nation and what was good for the nation had to be good for us.
If I had any doubts about my decision to marry at all (women with too many principles make bad marriage partners), or to marry Viju, they were swept away under the naive assumption that love would conquer all. Viju’s bachelor quirks like drinking himself silly and being financially irresponsible would vanish in the warmth of family life, which his mother Mai regretted he had been deprived of for too long. A well-run home with babies scampering around would usher into his solitary life a sea-change that he didn’t at present seem to realize he was yearning for.
Little did I know that his grip on the bottle would grow stronger in self-preservation (being married to someone as prickly with principles as me was so much more complicated than being single); his grip over finances would remain slack, and that nothing was more likely to make him run a mile than babies scampering around. He told me good-naturedly that he did not want them. I told him lovingly that I did. So the babies came, first Renuka, then Girish. The body was back in play.
Excerpted with permission from One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body, Shanta Gokhale, Speaking Tiger.