A Valentine's Day Special... BY DR. ANAND R. BHATIA
Though I was hearing that voice after more than 40 years, it had the same smoothness as that of a silk scarf lightly passing over your face...
The call came most unexpectedly. It was a Saturday afternoon. We had just finished our lunch and both of us were relaxing, watching the Indian TV program of songs.
“Tring“...“tring“...the phone jingled.
“Hello”, I said as I lifted the instrument on the coffee table next to my easy chair.
“Is this Anil Malhotra?” a woman’s voice asked from the other end. It was an unmistakable Indian accent and sounded so familiar; but then all India voices, with our telltale Indian diction, sound like it must be somebody you know.
“Yes, Who is this?” I asked, half expecting that it would be one of Polly’s many “kitty-party” friends and I would, as usual, be only an intermediary, passing on either the phone or a message to her. My wife, Polly, was not too far away, anyway, slouched in a long tee-shirt and Capri pants, her “uniform” on any week-end, in the easy chair only an arm’s length away from me.
“Anil, mai........(pause)...... Chandani bol rahi hun” (Anil, this is Chandani speaking), she said, haltingly. She did not have to say any more..........
Boy, how could I not have recognized that sweet voice? Though I was hearing that voice after more than 40 years, it had the same smoothness as that of a silk scarf lightly passing over your face creating a romantic tingle throughout your body that I had known so well - oh, a long, long, time ago!
There could be no mistaking it. No other person on earth could have that voice, that sweetness in every letter that was uttered, and, of course, she had already revealed her name. So what was there to doubt? Yes, oh, yes. That was indeed MY
CHANDANI. But how could it be, and more importantly, WHY??????????????????
I knew that Chandani lived in Atlanta with her husband, Sukhbir Singh, and had been living there (or around there) since the time that she had come to the US after her marriage in 1965. We had not spoken to each other for all these years. In fact the last time that I had spoken to her was at Bangalore in December 1961.
Yes, how can I forget the last time I had spoken to her!
I had proposed to her on that day!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I still remember it as though it were yesterday. We - that is -
Chandani, her dad, Major Gurpal S. Bedi, mom, Satwant Kaur (my Guddi
Didi), and her kid brother Ravi, had all gone to a late night movie at the cantonment base theater, not far from the Army bungalow allocated to Major Bedi (as I called her dad).
Chandani’s mom, Satwant Kaur - everybody called her Guddi - was really the oldest daughter of my mom’s childhood friend, Surinder Kaur (my Suri aunty). Since Guddi too had married an Army chap like my father, our acquaintance had deepened and I called
Guddi, Didi (Didi-a respectful term for older sister). She was about 18 years older to me and really treated me like her younger brother.
I first saw Chandani at Agra in 1953. I was 15 and Chandani was 13. I had just completed High School at the “all boys” Dhoon Boarding School and was visiting my parents at my dad’s army posting there. Major (then Capt.) Bedi was also posted at Agra.
It was the middle of the hot season. It was about 6 PM in the evening. I had just come off a hot train journey from Dehradhoon and was just relaxing on the veranda deck chair and shouted, “Aare, bhai koi pani lao” (Oh, somebody please bring some water), hoping that one of our house servants would bring me a glass of cold water to drink. The sun was just down in the Western horizon and the slanting rays were trying their best to reach the deck chair that I was sitting in. I was unlacing my shoes to take them off and looking down at them. I heard a sweet silky soft voice say softly, “Pani”. I looked up. The rays of the sun were behind the person holding the glass of water. The whole body was as though framed in a glow of light. And the most beautiful face that I had ever seen was beaming down at me!
It was Chandani. And I fell for her like a ton of bricks!
I just kept staring at Chandani and was as if in a trance from which I was awakened only when she again said, “Pani” and extended the water glass towards me. I sort of half rose from the easy chair and said, “Aare, aap kyon laye
hain?” (Oh, why have you brought it?). Her smile just widened and she said nothing. Before we could talk any more, all the others in the house came on to the veranda to greet me. My dad introduced Guddi
Didi, her husband, Chandani, and her 5-year-old kid brother, Ravi, to me and explained our “relationship“ to them. He also told me that they lived next door to us at Agra.
That summer was the best summer of my life. I literally stayed more at Chandani’s house than ours. We would play cards, and carom-board, and just chat about this and that and just “hang out” together and I just loved to be with her!
Soon, and it looked like too soon, the summer vacations were over. I was going to be joining Delhi University from August that year, but was most reluctant to go off to college. But there was no excuse for me to stay on at Agra, and so we parted.
But from that day onward, there was no holiday, Summer, Winter, or in-between, that I did not visit Chandani for the next 7 years! At first it was because Major Bedi was usually at the same Army base where my dad was stationed, but even after the Major and his family moved on to different Army bases around the country and my dad was permanently posted as a staff General at Army Head Quarters at Delhi, I would always visit them. I kept visiting Chandani and her family even when my dad retired from the Army and settled at Nanital in 1957. The visits continued even when I got admitted to the Engineering College at Rurkee (in Northern UP) to get my bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering. The distances I had to travel became greater and the time shorter for these visits, but I nearly made it like a “holy pilgrimage”, on an average of every 6 months or so. I just loved Chandani and the more I saw her the more I loved her. I was completely smitten!
I tried to ease the pain of being away from her even for the short 6 months that I did not see her through letters, but Chandani was a lousy letter-writer, and for every 2 or 3 letters that I sent her, she would send one. Even the few letters she wrote were so short that they said practically nothing. But I still treasured them and awaited their arrival. But I never mentioned or expressed my love for
Chandani, either in my letters or personally.
Primarily, because I did not know how Chandani felt about me. And I was scared that if she just thought of me as a friend - and nothing else - expressing my love to her would “ruin” that friendship. Yes! I was a chicken! Oh, how I cursed myself every time that I parted from our “friendly” meetings. Why, oh why, could I not express my true feeling for her?????????????????
Around my 23rd birthday in October 1961, I got the news that I had been admitted for my graduate studies at the University of Texas in the USA. I would be going away from India for at least 2 years, if not more!
I would have to leave for the USA within a few months. Like all Indian mothers, my mother was also worried that I would marry a “gori mem” (white girl) in the United States. She started telling me that she would look for some nice “sonee kudi” (Punjabi for sweet girl) for me to marry, if not within the few months left for my departure, at least when I came back in a couple of years!
So what would happen to my “love”? How would I survive this “judai” (parting)? What should I do? I decided that now was the time. Even if Chandani said “no” to me, I kept remembering the cliché, “It is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all!” I had to find the guts to tell Chandani that I loved her and had loved her for all these years. So, as usual, I found an excuse to go and visit Chandani and her folks at
Bangalore, where the Major was stationed. So here we are, at a late night movie a couple of days after I had come to Bangalore in December 1961. As luck would have it, Chandani did not like the movie at all, and wanted to go home right after the intermission of the movie. I saw my chance to be with Chandani alone! I immediately volunteered to accompany Chandani as her escort while the rest of the family saw the movie till the end.
It was a short walk from the Cantonment Theater to their house. I still remember that it was nearly as bright as daylight with the full moon shinning very brightly that night. It was about 11 o’clock at night as we both started walking on the deserted road back to the Bedi residence. Oh, how beautiful she looked in that silvery moonlight! Like a Greek goddess wearing the moonlight as a cape around her body. Her perfectly round face was like the moon itself, with her beautiful eyes mesmerizing all my senses as though I was walking in a trance. I was awake, and yet I was asleep. No, she was not bathed in moonlight, but the moon itself in human form, come to earth to take me to heaven. We spoke very little on the short walk to her bungalow. I was still in a mental quandary on what to do or say and before I knew it, we were at her bungalow!
Oh, if I only could have had the guts to “take her in my arms and never let her go“! Oh, a curse be to my private school background; to the “proper” gentlemanly upbringing that forbade any “vulgar“ moves; the son of the great Lt. Gen. (ret.) A. K.
Malhotra, India Army, who could not do anything to bring “shame“ to that great name - and a certified WIMP.
We reached her house and went into the dining nook in the kitchen. I was nervous as heck and just couldn’t think straight. My heart was just aching to express my love to her, but how???????????????????
I started by telling her that I would he leaving for the USA in a few months and that my mother wanted me to get married as soon as I returned after 2 years; and then........ with all the guts at my disposal, I blurted out, “... and you know,
Chandani, I would like to come back and spend the rest of my life with you!”
Oh, what a dumb way of expressing your love to a 20-year-old girl you loved with all your heart! Man, how could I be so DUMB!!! What happened to the three most famous words in any language?
I LOVE YOU!
I just could not say them. Even saying what I had said brought sweat to my brows and I was nearly shivering! And what of poor
Chandani? She just did not know what to say! She was a heck of a lot more composed than me, yet just kept saying, “Oh, Anil, what are you saying?” And then I started again, a bit more boldly, “Chandani, you know exactly what I am saying. You know that I am very fond of you and like you very much and I know that you like me too. Please say that you will wait for me till I return from the US, and marry me.” She just kept saying, over and over again, “Oh, Anil, what are you saying!”, not so much a question now, but much more like as a statement. She was going from room to room and I was following her like a love-bound puppy. Man, this was the time for action! But I was the intellectual, not the soldier in the family! Was I really the son of the great General
Malhotra? - The Lion of the Gurkha Regiment, who had won numerous awards for his bravery??? It certainly did not look like it here!
And now I was scared about what would happen when she told her mom and dad about what I had told her. I begged her not to tell her parents about this conversation, but she just kept repeating, now her mantra, “Oh, Anil, what are you saying!” as though that was the answer to all my concerns.
Anyway, her parents and brother were home by midnight and were cursing the movie, which they said got worse after the interval, but they saw it through to the end. And whatever else they said, I did not hear!
I only remember that I did not sleep that whole night.
In the morning, Major Bedi went to his office and Ravi to his school early in the morning and I did not meet them, but when I came down from the bedrooms (on the upper floor) to breakfast, Guddi Didi was visibly upset. I immediately guessed that Chandani had “ratted” on my conversation to her mom (and dad?) and that had upset her. I know that she liked me a lot and I did not know if she was upset that I had done the “badtamazi” (insolence) of “proposing” to her daughter behind her back rather than the proposal coming through “proper” channels; or that she had trusted me with her daughter as though I was really her “brother” and how could I “stoop” so “low” as to “draw strings” on her daughter; or could it be that they were “Sikhs” and we were “Hindus” and it would be considered an “interfaith” proposal and taboo! But whatever the reason, she was REALLY upset.
Boy, was I in the soup! I made some small talk, but the atmosphere was so thick that you could slice it with a knife. Chandani was just roaming about as though nothing had happened. It was just too much for me. I just found some flimsy excuse to leave and took off from Bangalore that very evening, not even waiting for Major Bedi to get back home from work. I can still remember Chandani’s beautiful face as I saw her waving “by-by” to me as I looked at her through the rear window of the taxi taking me to the Bangalore Railway Station.
And that was the last time that I saw or spoke to Chandani.
I went back to Nanital and somehow found the guts to tell my mother about my love for
Chandani, but not that I had proposed to her myself. As many of you may know, in those olden days of the 60’s, parents might tolerate “loving” somebody, but “proposing” had to be done by the parents due to a false sense of “AAN“ (Prestige). Now this issue of Aan may seem strange to those brought up in the American culture, but talk to any Indian or even an Indo-American, and they will readily understand it. Anyway, my mother heard whatever I said, and as I had begged her not to tell my dad, she kept quiet about it till I left for the US.
In the US, I was at the University of Texas at Austin. It was not very far from Houston, where my Meena Masi (mother’s sister) lived, and that became my “home away from home” for all the time I was at Austin. Meena Masi was much younger to my mom and had lived with us ever since my
Nani, (mother’s mother) had died when Meena Masi was only 9 years old and my mother, being her only relative and already married, had brought her up. She was like my older sister, as she was only 8 years older to me. She got married and had come to the US only a few years earlier. Meena Masi knew all about my “love affair” with
Chandani. She promised to write to Guddi Didi and “propose” me for Chandani as soon as I was “qualified for marriage“. I got my Masters in Engineering in fall 1963 and got a job as an engineer in Houston itself. I started living in her home till I could “settle down” on my own. True to her words, Meena Masi wrote to Guddi Didi proposing me as a “suitable and qualified” candidate for Chandani’s hand in marriage.
We heard nothing about the proposal for the next six months, though Meena Masi wrote a reminder to Guddi Didi again in January 1964. In March 1964 Meena Masi got a letter, not from Guddi
Didi, but from Major Bedi, along with a printed wedding invitation card announcing the forthcoming marriage of Chandani to Sukhbir Singh by March “something“, 1964. The letter thanked Meena Masi for her proposal and said that “after due considerations, we have arranged Chandani’s marriage to Dr. Sukhbir Singh, who is completing his residency in internal medicine in the USA”. That was it. Nothing else.
Meena Masi did not show me the letter for nearly a month after it came, scared that I would be utterly devastated. But how long could she hold off, anyway? From the time that letter came she kept hammering at me with encouraging, but negative remarks, such as, “ Oh, don’t be too impressed by
Chandani, she is not as beautiful as you think,...” and that, she is...” like “this” and “that“, always trying to downplay Chandani’s beauty and charm, coaxing me to stop “loving” her and saying that “I was too good for her“, now that I was a employed engineer and earning very good money (and in dollars!).
When I kept insisting that she write to Guddi Didi again and again, she finally had to show me the letter, as she knew that I would just not leave her in peace!
Boy, was I really devastated! But what could I do? Why had this to happen to me? What was the reason for the rejection? Did Chandani love somebody else and therefore had not replied to me when I had asked her to marry me and “wait” for me! And had she not immediately told her mother (even when I had begged her not to do so) about my proposal because she did not care for me at all! Oh, how could she? How could she be so cruel?? If nothing else, had we not been “friends” for so long? Even if she did not know before that I loved her, she certainly knew it that fateful night at
Bangalore! How could she not love me??? But love follows no logic, and liking somebody does not equate to loving somebody. May be she loved somebody else, maybe this or may be that. Or what if her parents were just “forcibly” marrying off my Chandani to this Sardarjee because he was of their own religion? Or what? What? WHAT?
Fortunately, I had many other problems to worry at about the same time, such as my immigration status (I was still on a student visa), my job permanency, and a horde of many other problems, most associated with me being a “foreigner” in this alien land and that only somebody who has gone through them would really understand. Boy, my “stars” must have really been all messed up and “crossed” and I was in the pits of depression for many days after that.
Meena Masi did her best to “help” me overcome my depression and was really “mad” at the whole Bedi family, and especially Chandani for “hurting” her poor nephew.
Slowly, time and circumstances made the “hurt” and “pain” in my heart subside, but it never really vanished even after I was married in an “arranged” marriage to “beauty queen” Polly Aurora of Delhi, on a quick trip to India in late 1966.
Polly was not really my wife’s name, though now she has officially changed it to Polly after her naturalization. She was born Urvashi Aurora, daughter of the great industrialist, Vijay Aurora, of Delhi, but everybody called her Polly even then. She went to the famous Miranda College of Delhi and had won the first Miss India contest in 1964 at the age of 19. Boy, was she different from Chandani as day is from night. While Chandani was the quiet, intellectual kind, fond of poetry, and leisurely garden walks, and quiet card games; Polly was a real outdoorsy kind, full of mischief, and boisterous behavior. She was tall, athletic, good looking and 20 years old when I saw her on my “rounds“ of looking at girls of marriageable Khatri (a sub-caste of the Punjabis to which we belonged) girls and liked her the best. I married her exactly on her 21st birthday! I was 8 years older than her and she looked “up” to me instead of “at” me and after only a few meetings, we agreed to marry. It was, as I said, an “arranged” marriage and those marriages are “of the head” not of the “heart”. Love, when it enters, comes later!
Now you may wonder, how could I possibly love Polly if I loved
Chandani? Of course I loved Polly too. But that love is so different than the love that I had (have?) for
Chandani. I love Polly because of a thousand reasons:
- First and foremost, she is “my wife”. It may seem strange to those who only associate the romantic notions of love to be “true love”. But that is wrong. Love does not demand exclusivity. You can, and do, love many people and even things, and for different reasons, at the same time. One loves one’s children, one’s parents, one’s friends, one’s country, and a horde of different “things” and none are exclusive. Love entails “belonging”, “bondage”, “possessiveness”, “concern,” and “genuine regard”. One can love more than one person at the same time.
- Next, a woman, especially an Indian woman, forsaking her family, friends, relatives and all near and close beings, comes to share your life, She does it without any preconditions, so then it becomes a man’s duty (commitment) to take full responsibility for that person. At least per Hindu philosophy (and I believe that it is as true in other religious philosophies too) she is your “Ardhangani” - half your body - in both mind and body. How can one not “love” one’s own self?
- Another reason, and this argument gains further strength with time, is that she is the mother of my three beautiful children And now we would soon be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary. How could anybody remain with another person for 40 years and not feel “one” with that person. She is I and I am her. We are not two people but one. Yes indeed, I love her too!
- And I could give you the remaining 997 reasons too, but I am sure you get the drift - I love Polly too.
And time just went by.........................
I settled in San Francisco over the years, opened my own construction company (that was listed on the New York Stock Exchange), had three beautiful children (all married now) and even retired to Lake Tahoe in Fall 2004.
I kept in touch with Meena Masi (after all, she was my Masi) and she kept informing me about the whereabouts and “happenings” in Chandani’s life, from time to time. She would say things like: Chandani and Sukhbir never got along well; or, that Chandani had 2 boys now; or that Chandani had started working at a bank; or this or that was happening in Chandani’s life. She even mentioned many times that she now saw Chandani more frequently as her own son had settled in Atlanta and she went there very often. She also said (many times) that she had been telling Chandani about me too and that Chandani “knows all about you“. Meena Masi always kept in touch with me throughout the years and we would meet every now and then over the years.
And now this phone call after 40 years..........
“Hello, Chandani, Kaise ho?” (How are you?), I asked. And of course, this perked up Polly more than
Chandani! She kept making signs at me “asking” what Chandani was saying and I pointed to her to pick up the extension in the kitchen, and she readily ran up to the kitchen to hear our conversation.
Polly knew all about my “love affair” with Chandani and she had been “jealous” about Chandani when I had first told her about it (shortly after our marriage). Over the years, however, she used to talk about Chandani more to “tease” me than anything else. She would say things like, “Oh, your “girl-friend” Chandani would do this“ or “do that”, and ask me teasingly, “Now what would your girlfriend Chandani say in a situation like this“ or “in a situation like that“. I resented it in the beginning, but over the years it had just become a running joke in the family, and when our kids grew up, they too knew, and even their spouses knew, that there was somebody named Chandani that Dad loved when he was unmarried. She was more a phantom “ghost” of my past than a real “live” person in the present.
After some pleasantries, and “how have you been” and “we have been hearing about you all from Meena Masi”, and “this and that”... she came to the reason for her call after all these years...
“You know”, she said very casually, “I have been mad with you all these years, but today I just turned 65 and thought that I should find out something from you.”
Yes, I remembered, it was April 17, and that was indeed her birthday! I used to remember it so vividly in the “good old days’, but time had taken its toll and now I only remembered that it was sometime in April! I congratulated her on her birthday and she continued, “You know I came here after my marriage in 1965 and was very lonely as Singh worked long hours at his residency...and I had a real hard time then”. Yes. Everybody does, I thought. But she was not specifically talking about that. She continued, “The only person’s address I had with me then was yours at your Meena Masi’s place”. Yes, that sounded very logical. “You know I sent you a letter in January or February 1965. You never replied to it!” What letter I said. I do not know of any letter that she had ever sent me! “You sure?” she asked again. Oh yes. I was VERY SURE! “Well, I did send you a letter, but you say you never got it?” she said accusingly. “Yes, Yes, YES! I NEVER EVER GOT ANY LETTER FROM YOU”, I was nearly shouting. “You know, if a letter does not reach its destination in the US, it is returned to the sender”, she again admonished me. Yes, I knew that too. “Then what happened to the letter?” she again inquired. Yes indeed! What happened to that letter? I again assured her that I had not got any letter from her in January or February or March or...whenever. I was trying my best to convince her that I had not got any letter from her, EVER. Finally she said, “Yes, I always believed in my heart of hearts, that you had not received my letter and I wanted to really verify it with you”. Well, she had verified it with me now!
“BUT WHAT DID THE LETTER SAY?” I asked.
She was silent for a few moments and then said, “Oh, it is not important now”, And then again after a few more pleasantries, she quickly hung up.
Boy, I was all shook up! And so was Polly! She had been hearing all this conversation, as I had asked her to pick up the extension in the kitchen (for she was just “dying” to hear what my “girl-friend” had to say to me after complete silence for 40 years!)
I could not sleep that whole night thinking about THE LETTER.
What indeed did that letter say? Was it a cry for help? Was it an admittance of the “failure” of her marriage to
Sukhbir? Was she asking me to “come” to her rescue? and take her away from the “stranger”
Sukhbir? Was she planning to run away with me, if I had the guts to fly down to Atlanta from Houston? AND WHY HAD MEENA MASI NOT TOLD ME ABOUT THAT LETTER, IF SHE INDEED HAD RECEIVED THAT LETTER.
WHAT DID THE LETTER SAY???????????????????????????????????
I had to ask her. So the next morning I called her at work. She had suggested in our last conversation that if I ever called her, I should call her at work as “Singh“ (she always called her husband “Singh“, never
Sukhbir) would not “understand“ any other Indian man asking to talk to her. I told her that I would know for sure that Meena Masi might have hidden the letter from me, if, and only if, Chandani told me what the letter said. She was silent for a very long time....
“Chandani...., Chandani, are you still there?” I asked.
“Yes Anil, I am still here, but please don’t ask me what I wrote in that letter. It is not important now,” she said with a sigh. Again, I started to insist and said that I really wanted to know.
“Anil, these are things of the past and they are better left hidden, anyway. Swear on the love that you have ever had for me that you will never ever ask me what I wrote in that letter!” she said and hung up.
And the “love that I have for her” really prevents me from knowing from her what she wrote in that letter!
I could ask Meena Masi, but I doubt that she would even admit that she ever opened any letter addressed to me - leave aside one from
Chandani, knowing how deeply I loved her and “would do anything” for her. Well, may be the fact that I would do “something stupid”, according to her, prevented her from giving me Chandani’s last letter.
Yes, so now I will never know.
Polly still teases me that I was Chandani’s “knight in shining armor” that would have “ridden to her rescue” and “fought the devil himself” to help her and would have married her and “lived happily ever after“. Then again, she teases me that Chandani knew all along what a “gentleman” wimp I was and that she just wanted to “use” me to “run away from her uncaring husband”. Who knows? If you do, let me know!