FOR BREATHING FREE
Captain Diwakar Swaroop was twenty four when he met Arundhati Sagar. He was doing his engineering degree course in CME - the College of Military Engineering at Poona now called Pune. Arundhati had just completed her Masters in mathematics and was teaching in a private school. Her father Brigadier Arvind Sagar was Deputy Commandant of the CME. The two met often in the officers’ mess and in the Ranji Singhji Institute, the famous RSI- the rendezvous point for the defence officers in Poona.
Diwakar was very fond of dancing and so was Arundhati. They often paired on the dancing floor; became friends and over the time, intimate ones. Brigadier Anand Sagar liked Diwakar. He knew Diwakar was doing well and had a promising career in the army.
“Arundhati, do you like the bloke?” Brigadier Sagar asked his daughter straight forth, typical of an army officer. And when Arundhati affirmed, Brigadier Sagar asked his wife to go ahead with their marriage arrangements.
“I may have to move out in couple of months. I want to them to get married before that,” he told his wife.
Captain Diwakar was happily married to the girl of his liking. They had very loving moments in Poona and before Captain Diwakar completed his degree course, Arundhati gave birth to a daughter. They named her Abha – meaning glow. Both of them felt the new born had added a glow in their life. The young couple were extremely happy. They felt it was a heavenly blessing; a God given gift. They loved their daughter immensely.
After completion of his degree course Captain Diwakar was posted to an operational area. Arundhati shifted to ‘separated family quarters’ in the Bombay Engineering Group & Center at Kirkee.
Over the years, Diwakar was promoted as Major, Lieutenant Colonel and finally to the rank of Brigadier as Commandant of the BEG & Center. During the interim spells when Diwakar was posted in the forward area Arundhati took up teaching in her old school because she loved teaching and it kept her busy.
Little Abha had the best of schooling and did her graduation from the prestigious Fergusson College, Poona. Abha was bright, beautiful and charming. In fact, Arundhati had wanted another child but Diwakar was reluctant.
“I don’t want our love to be divided between two kids. Abha is God’s benediction; I want no distraction in bringing her up.”
Thus Abha remained the only child of the Swaroop family. Both the parents were ever eager to meet her demands. Abha had taken to tennis and reached the national level. Diwakar had engaged the best coach for her and Arundhati always accompanied Abha to the stadia and places she had to play.
It was in one of such tournaments that Abha met Patrick who was a state level player. They played several tournaments together and in some, they played ‘mixed doubles’. Patrick was tall and handsome and an excellent conversationalist. Abha was attracted towards him. Brigadier Diwakar Swaroop was uncomfortable to see Abha getting closer to Patrick. The Swaroops had no knowledge of Patrick’s background since Abha had never given any satisfactory answer whenever they asked her about Patrick. The parents were in for a shock when one evening Abha announced at the dining table that she was planning to marry Patrick.
“You are too young for marriage. Moreover, you have never told us about his family and his background. How are you going to survive?”
“Patrick has applied for a tennis coaching certificate and I have an offer to model for an MNC product.”
Diwakar and Arundhati were stunned. They could not believe that little Abha could have an independent existence; beyond the parental periphery.
“You never told us earlier,” Arundhati asked her.
“Did you ever ask?” Abha was quick to defend.
Yes that was the stark reality. They had let her grow her way, never interfered in her matters. But marriage was a serious matter.
“By the way what product is it and who is the promoter?”
“Papa, how does that matter? They are paying me well and if I am accepted in the market, I will be in demand. And that is what matters.”
The couple was silenced by their little daughter. To their embarrassment they found out that Abha was modelling for a well-known brand of condoms.
“Mom, modelling is just a profession like any other. There is no breach of morality in selecting a product. Don’t look for me when you see the ad on your TV. Look at me as a model marketing a product.”
A couple of months later Abha was married to Patrick. It was revealed during the court proceedings that Patrick belonged to Hyderabad where his father worked as a clerk in the treasury office. Patrick had left his parents after his secondary examination and was staying with his uncle in Poona.
Though Swaroops were unsettled by the sudden pace of the event, they arranged an impressive reception in the officers’ mess of the Center. In their private moments, they wished Abha had made a better choice.
Brigadier Diwakar Swaroop retired from service and moved to a cottage he had purchased in Pashaan, a satellite town of Pune.
As a model, Abha was not a big success. Consequently, there were not many offers; typical of the show-world. Patrick worked as part time coach in couple of schools but his income was barely enough to meet his own demands. The young couple was always short of money and would quite often ask Arundhati for help.
“Please don’t tell papa, Abha would always say with a promise to return the money at the soonest possible. Since that never happened, Arundhati had no option but to keep Diwakar informed. And when Abha had a daughter, Swaroops had to bear all the expenses. In fact, they had to take the newly born baby to their place for Patrick and Abha lived in a small room in a slum area. The elderly parents took upon themselves all the responsibilities of the newly born including the expenses thereon.
Besides financial burden there was acute time constraint on Swaroops. With the new baby at their hands, they could hardly move out. In good old days they never missed any cultural event in the town and they were still considered the most gracious dancing couple in the officers’ mess. Arundhati who was also fond of classical music and writing poetry had no time for her hobbies. In fact, she had sizeable collection of her poems, which Diwakar wanted to get published after his retirement.
“I want it to gift it to you on our Silver Jubilee,” he had promised Arundhati.
But the little money they had saved was needed for the new baby and to support Abha and Patrick. The situation worsened when a year later they learnt that Abha was again in the family way and to their consternation, Patrick was earning nothing and staying away from Abha for days together.
“Why don’t you ask Abha? After all they should have thought before going for another child. How are they going to manage?
“How are we going to manage?”Arundhati corrected him. Diwakar grimaced. He never thought his loving daughter will bring him to such discomfiture.
The second child birth was more expensive for Abha had developed some pre-natal complications. Patrick had come for a couple of hours before the child birth and vanished thereafter. Swaroops had to manage everything including footing of the bill.
Arundhati realized that Abha was too weak to look after her daughters. Resultantly, she was fully confined within her cottage. From sunrise till late evening and even during nights it became her responsibility to look after Abha and the two babies. All her social visits were shelved. She couldn’t even go to malls for shopping. It was now left to Diwakar to buy grocery from the army canteen or from the Big Bazaar.
Abha’s daughters were growing and they had to be put in a school. Abha was keen that her daughters were put in the Army Public School.
“Papa, please go to the Station Commander. He was your subaltern at one time. I am sure he will help,” Abha insisted.
Diwakar was reluctant and felt embarrassed to approach the Station Commander for he knew the request was not covered under rules. But on Abha’s persistence he had to yield. It was a saving grace and much relief for Diwakar that his onetime junior honoured his request.
Abha took up a job with a travelling agency. It was a little relief for Swaroops particularly when Patrick was conspicuous by his absence. He often disappeared telling Abha that he was going to his parents.
It was the duty of the old couple to get Nisha and Rita, their granddaughters ready for school; take them to the bus stand and then receive them in the afternoon. And it was an arduous task to make the siblings eat their lunch or make them drink milk for both of them were freak and finicky. Taking them to park in the evening was assigned to Diwakar who hated to abandon his evening walk. Abha would return late in the evening looking tired, which required Arundhati to make dinner.
Abha’s elder daughter Nisha was fifteen now. She was exceptionally beautiful and intelligent. Abha saw the potential of a new-look model in Nisha. She re-established her links with the modelling world and persuaded one of her old friends to take Nisha in his project. Nisha was good in dialogue delivery with perfect diction. She became an instant success in the ad-world. She was in demand; Abha lost no time to raise her fee. Money started pouring in; a big financial relief to Swaroops.
Nisha was now a celebrity. The soap opera producers wanted to take her in family serials. Patrick was now handling family matters actively. A room was added to the cottage, which was designed to ensure Nisha’s privacy and Abha engaged a maid to take care of Nisha’s menial comforts. Abha was also quick to realise the difference between her two daughters. With rising popularity and celebrity status of Nisha, her second daughter Rita was developing a complex. To obviate it getting escalated, Abha shifted Rita to a boarding school.
There was a premier of a family soap with Nisha in the lead role. The family was preparing to attend the function. The social media was expected to be in full attendance. Arundhati was in cheerful mood. She was in her sky blue silk sari, which Diwakar had presented her on their silver jubilee. Suddenly Abha rushed in and told Arundhati that there was a problem.
“The producer has given us only four invites and my boss wants to attend with his wife. That would make us seven including Rita.”
Arundhati was taken aback. She couldn’t believe her ears. She slumped on her bed and then managed to say, “Abha you should have told me earlier in the morning. Both of us have got ready to attend the function.”
“I am sorry Ma. But my boss is very keen. In fact, he has put me in an odd situation. The clown has asked me to introduce him and his wife to the other celebrities,” Abha said with a broad grin.
Arundhati didn’t appreciate the gesture. “Please tell your father... he will be terribly disappointed.”
Brigadier Diwakar was indeed shocked and pained beyond words.
The premier was a grand success. Abha and all the guests were in high spirits. On reaching home, she asked her parents to join them over a dinner in a top end fancy restaurant.
“I want to celebrate the occasion. It is a big day for me. God has rewarded me for all my hard work and prayers,” she told the bewildered parents. The evening was a big show. Abha spoke of her woes in bringing up her daughters. “I am happy, my labour has been rewarded in my daughter’s success,” she concluded. There was no mention of Arundhati or Diwakar in Abha’s thanks giving. The old parents were hurt. The dinner closed with Nisha presenting a bouquet to her mother as Arundhati and Diwakar watched from the sides.
Nisha was now a popular actress with Abha as her chaperon. Slowly, Abha took over the control of the household. Arundhati was feeling suffocated in the new realm but Diwakar was adjusting to the new order. He had to accept it because he was a chronic diabetes patient depending on Abha to take him to doctors and hospitals. Arundhati gradually noticed that she was being ignored not only by Abha but by Diwakar also.
One evening Arundhati had invited a few friends to tea; they were her old colleagues. The guests had arrived and were being served tea when Abha and Nisha entered with few friends.
“Ma, can you take your friends to the lobby. I want to talk to these guys in the drawing room. They are important people in the film industry. In fact, I want to clinch a deal for Nisha. It is very important for her.”
“The lobby is equally big to accommodate your guests,” Arundhati suggested. “It will look odd to shift my friends midway,” she added after an awkward pause.
Abha was adamant. “Ma, these matters have to be handled in privacy and discreetly. The negotiation must remain a closely guarded secret.”
Arundhati noticed that Diwakar didn’t utter a word of demur. This offended her more than the embarrassment caused by Abha before her friends. She apologised to her guests and took them to the balcony of her room and kept her cool till they left but the humiliation was too much to bear. She quietly retired to her room; Diwakar was eager to find out the outcome of Abha’s meeting.
Next morning Arundhati surprised everybody. She was ready with her suitcase. As Diwakar came out of the wash room she said, “Diwakar, I am going to Ranikhet; want to stay there for some time.”
“Why suddenly? It is winter, Ranikhet will be very cold.”
“I know but I feel suffocated here. I must go.”
‘For how long?” Diwakar was getting nervous.
“I am not sure,” she whispered and after an uneasy pause added, “The fact is, I can’t stand the ignominy anymore. But you are free to stay back.”
Diwakar was unnerved.
“Arundhati please understand. You know my predicament. I need medical help on day to day basis. I have to go to doctors and hospital every now and then. I have diabetes and high blood pressure and I already had a stroke... I need regular checkups. There are hardly any facilities in Ranikhet. Please think it over again,” he pleaded.
“I am aware of your health condition. You don’t have to accompany me but please don’t stop me. I am dying every moment of my life before my natural death. I want to breathe freely.”
Diwakar watched helplessly as Arundhati left her family after an association of over thirty years.
Years have rolled past. Arundhati is old and infirm, living a lonely life in a small cottage in the hill town of Ranikhet, which is around six thousand feet above the sea level. The town is lush green, picturesque and free from pollution but cold for a woman in her sixties.
Arundhati stays in-door until the sun comes vertically over her cottage. There is a small kitchen garden and an orchard in front of her cottage where she passes her long dreary hours. The orchard has apple, pears and apricot trees. Arundhati loves watching these trees shedding leaves during fall and blossoming in spring.
She is an old patient of osteoporosis; in fact, her legs have buckled inwards; walking is a painful exercise for her, which worsens in winters. She has therefore engaged a part time help from a neighbouring village to cook for her and look after her household.
Despite her failing health, she is compassionate and helpful. Spares an hour or so daily, teaching the village children and in some cases helps them buy school books and stationery. A year back when she learned that the mathematics teacher of the government school had retired and his replacement had not joined, she taught the students during the remaining academic session without any recompense. She was more than happy that they sincerely acknowledged her help.
“I always loved teaching and I am happy I could help these poor children save their academic year. Gives me immense happiness that no pecuniary gain or words can substitute.”
Often people who know her background ask her, “You belong to a renowned, opulent family. Why did you opt for your present arduous life?”
Arundhati simply smiles but says nothing.
I have chosen this path for breathing free. I wanted to live my own life. She speaks to her inner soul.