[1987, somewhere in a small town on the West Coast of India]
There was a loud, angry knock on her door. She peeked through the old-style iron grill window of her modest home. Strangers frequenting her home had become the new norm lately. A gentleman with a turban on his head and a flat briefcase in his hand was jostling restlessly outside her door — an unusual sight for the small town nestled in some remote, coastal part of Karnataka. “Yes?”, she enquired, with her anxious eyes, wondering how many more creditors would show up at her doorstep, looking for her absconding husband. “Is this Mr. Rao’s house? I am here to meet him”, the gentleman ordered. She moved her head, twice, vigorously, from left to right indicating that the man he was looking for was not there. “Where can I meet him?”, the gentleman insisted. “I don’t know…”, she replied with a stern voice, “…I haven’t seen him in the last three months. If you find him, let me know.” The gentleman made his best attempt to contain his fury and retorted, “And, you are?”
“I am his wife”.
His thick eyebrows shot up, almost touching the edge of his turban. Mrs. Rao looked very young, possibly half his age, barely in her mid-twenties. His heart flinched. “Can I come in? I am here to discuss a business matter”, he spoke lowering his tone. She stood still for a few empty seconds before opening the door. The gentleman left his shoes outside the door where he noticed three other pairs of worn out plastic slippers— one adult and two kids— neatly lined up on a red stone verandah. “Please sit down.” She politely pointed to the small bamboo sofa that looked quite oversized for that room which was also stuffed with a shoe-rack, a teapoy, a large movable showcase dividing the room in two micro halves, a single bed and a small black & white television lodged on the other side of the showcase. He looked around estimating the size of the rest of the house. “One bedroom, one living room, one kitchen”, she said, pointing to all the rooms in that order. “You want to have a look, please go ahead”, she said with no sign of panic in her voice. The gentleman started to feel uneasy, embarrassed and exasperated in equal proportions. His conversation with Mrs. Rao was not going to be easy. She seemed particularly smart and thick-skinned for her age and the place she lived in.
His company was a major supplier to Mr. Rao’s automobile spare parts business which had boomed in the initial years giving him a good return on his investment. Though they had never met, he had spoken to Mr. Rao several times, in the last five years, over trunk calls and speed dials from Chandigarh. He had taken a liking for Mr. Rao. The man had seemed intelligent, soft-spoken and god-fearing, besides understanding the nuances of this business well. He came with a huge recommendation from the Hegde family whose chain of automobile businesses he had managed successfully for a very long time before venturing into his own enterprise. But, things had flipped, drastically, over the last one year. Mr. Rao had missed multiple payments. He had promised to pay as soon as the business picked up. But, over the last three months Mr. Rao had not been reachable. His phone line was dead. So was his business.
“I will come straight to the point. I am here for debt recovery. Mr. Rao owes my company five lakh rupees. I have a court order to identify any assets belonging to your husband or the family which will help us recover the debt. So, please answer my questions truthfully.”
Mrs. Rao nodded in agreement. She seemed particularly calm.
“Is this your own house ?”, he began his probe.
“Can anyone in the neighbourhood confirm the same?”
“The big house next belongs to the owners. You can speak with them.”
The gentleman asked her if they had any other property registered in their names. She once again shook her head from left to right signalling a no. Her voice had a hint of melancholy as she told him that the bank had a mortgage against their home – their sole property – and has initiated the sale proceedings. “Any cash or jewellery in the family?” His barrage of questions didn’t seem to halt. But, she maintained a striking calm. “Do you see anything around my neck Mr. Singh?…”, she spoke politely returning a tolerant smile. “…the last piece of jewellery I had, my Mangalsutra, I sold that too when he was gone. What use is it to me now anyway!” Her voice choked a bit for the first time in their twenty-minute conversation.
The gentleman started to feel sore. He had travelled 2500 odd kilometers to make good a financial loss of five lakh rupees and the interest on it. He had hoped to recover the debt, partially, if not fully. It was a considerable sum to forego. Besides, his daughter’s wedding was fast approaching. He couldn’t let it go down the drain, just like that. He had incurred significant travel costs to hunt Mr. Rao’s residence, only to find him absconding, leaving him to deal with his headstrong wife who did not seem perturbed by any of this. She continued to stand upright, close to the door, maintaining her standoffish demeanour, wanting him to leave her place at the earliest.
“I understand your husband is gone, Mrs. Rao. But you don’t seem to care for the plight he has put me in. Tell me if you have any other assets which you haven’t disclosed to the Court? I will remain silent about it. Let’s just settle the matter privately. My daughters are getting married soon. I need the money.”, he spat out coldly looking away from her. It was his final shot. He was prepared for some amount of hysteria after what he said. But, he was astonished to see that her reaction was from it.
She silently walked into the next room, letting his hope gather some steam. Money makes a man do strange things, he thought to himself. There was Mr. Rao who had fled town to free himself from his financial obligations leaving behind a family to fend for themselves. And, there he was waiting in some damp, godforsaken town, to fulfil his duty towards his family. He prayed she would return with a briefcase loaded with money, possibly stacked away in some old attic.
“Mr. Singh. Here are my undisclosed assets. My fixed deposits”, she said smiling brightly at him.
He went breathless for a few seconds. He saw her standing tall, with two very young daughters by her side. “This is my older one, Nithya. She is eight. And, that little brat you see, she is Kriti. She just turned five last month. As for me, I make decent money from baking for a sweet mart nearby, which is sufficient for our livelihood. I don’t have any grand ambitions, like my husband. I pay my bills on-time and I have decided to educate my girls so well that they don’t have to depend on anyone. So, you see Mr. Singh, in a storm you can either choose to be a leaf and get blown away or stand still and wait for the calm. That is what I am doing. I have nothing to hide. I don’t have anything else, except my two daughters.”
The gentleman was speechless. He looked at the two little girls. They carried the same calm, like their mother. He was suddenly gripped with a stark, palpable caution. The scene before his eyes had undoubtedly questioned the way he had raised his two daughters, guarding them more than necessary in a well-insulated environment. His excitement about their marriage had suddenly been replaced by a vague sense of defeat. How was he going to un-protect his daughters now, just a few months before their wedding? In the hands of a powerful destiny wanting to test their grit, would they not fall apart? The estranged wife of a man he was after for a very long time had strangely become the voice of reason. She had filled him with a reverse sense of urgency, to undo what he had done for his daughters all along. He had to rush home to teach them to be resolute before he gave them away to another man, who could fail to guard them the way he would. He must make them learn that the world around is only a reflection of who we are, both in a storm and the calm. And, no one, not even the hand that was meant to safeguard us, has the power to make us any stronger or weaker than we already are. It all comes down to the force we carry within the core.
“You have everything you need. God bless you my child.” He gently placed his hand on Mrs. Rao’s head, feeling deeply for her loss and left her home with a thankful smile for the calm she had gifted him.