Ma was my biggest weakness. And the most troubling mystery in my life. Nobody wanted to provide any clues when I asked even simple questions. The answers used to be studiedly vague and evasive. Buaji’s starched and controlled expression used to change at the mention of Ma. Chumkididi would look at me beseechingly and say, ‘I know nothing! ’Asking Babuji was not an option. I desperately wanted to know—everything—or even a little. There was a portrait of Ma, painted by some famous artist. I would gaze into her expressionless eyes, and try and find a clue or two. There was also an ornate silver frame with her wedding photograph. She looked beautiful, in a tragic sort of way … a little betrayed and lost. She was sixteen or so at the time. Like I was at my betrothal.
I looked rebellious but happy in my engagement picture. Maybe I was still thinking of the kachoris I didn’t get to eat! But Ma? She looked like a she-goat being led to the slaughterhouse. Babuji looked proud and stately. When did this fragile, delicate beauty turn into a ‘Madamji’? And why? I could hardly enquire with Ramlal, the oldest driver in service. He used to drive Babuji to school. There were pictures of them in Darjeeling, with Babuji seated on Ramlal’s shoulders.
My father was a sharp-featured, aristocratic looking man, who had been sent off to St Paul’s, the posh and exclusive boarding school for children of the wealthy. The few friends he cared to spend time with were from that era, that school. ‘I have nothing in common with these Marwaris, but one is forced to be polite at social functions. My friends prefer books to ledgers. They read … hunt … travel … are more refined.’
Buaji discouraged such comments at the table—the rare times he would join us. ‘Don’t forget your own Marwari roots, ’she’d say. And then swiftly change the subject. Ma was considered ‘different ’(for want of a better word). She didn’t conform to any known stereotype. Buaji once told a visiting great aunt, ‘Madamji is trapped in her own beauty … I feel sorry for her. Beauty can be such a cruel prison.’
I didn’t understand what she was saying. Ma was perfection to me. Nothing but. How could her beauty harm her? Babuji had married her for that very same beauty! He was the biggest catch of his time. And he had chosen Ma over all the other alliances that came from far and wide.
‘Even England and Uganda …’ Buaji had once boasted, looking proudly in Babuji’s direction. Ma, some said, had ‘saved ’her family by agreeing to marry Babuji. Her father had lost a great deal of money in the cotton trade and was heavily in debt. Babuji’s father had stepped in to bail him out … in return for his daughter’s hand in marriage to his Oxford-educated, handsome son.