She left us!

Garima…… A forgotten memory.. that is who she has become now. I have to make an effort to remember anything at all about her. Her mannerisms, voice, gestures, reactions, all of which were so much a part of my life… Where are they now? Buried under sands of memory, sands of time..

Where once she was just a heartbeat away, today she is miles and years away. Where once I could not do without seeing her or talking to her today, it’s been almost fifteen years since I last saw her. And do I miss her, remember her…. not really.

How we change, how life changes !!

Garima and I were college sweethearts. We met while we were in college studying to be engineers at one of the premier institutions of India.  We had met in the college canteen and over countless cups of the special chai served by our canteen guy Shekar, samosas and dosas we first became acquaintances and then great friends. We were two years apart but ended up being part of the same group.

We discovered that we had many things in common, our passion for reading, travelling and music being just a few. But these were what drew us to each other in the first place. As we got to know more about each other, we liked each other even more, and it was only a matter of time before we discovered that we had feelings for each other. We were in love and decided that we would get married at some point. Though we were aware that the road ahead would never be easy, somehow, we knew that we would end up being together.

We belonged to two different parts of the country. While I was a North Indian, she belonged to the South of India. Other than our culture, we differed in other ways too. While she was a die-hard feminist with extreme views about everything, I was a very happy-go-lucky person who believed in living and letting live. She was a very independent and outgoing person, and I was the opposite. Between going out to be with other people and staying at home, I chose the latter, preferring to be with my music and books. But as they say, opposites attract, and so we attracted each other and like how!!

We passed out of college, and I went abroad to pursue my Master’s while she decided to take up the job she had got as part of the campus placement.  She moved to Delhi, and I moved to the US. Though physically apart, mentally, emotionally, we were as close to each other as two people can be. We regularly wrote to each other and spoke to each other though it wasn’t a cheap option. The world wasn’t so technically advanced back then the way it is today, so keeping in touch wasn’t that simple. But then I think the hearts and minds know where to make that extra effort, and ours were no different.

After finishing my Master’s, I got a job in the US and decided to take it up. Though supportive of my decision, Garima wanted me to eventually head back to India as she loathed the idea of settling anywhere else. She was a true Indian at heart. So after working for a couple of years in the US, I came back to India as we wanted to get married. Though I loved the work culture and the work ethic of the US, I chose to give it up to be with my girl. Garima, of course, was on top of the world. My parents, as expected, were not too happy with my decision. Those were the days when the big American dream was what everyone was after. America was the land of opportunity, of prosperity, and my parents thought [and maybe rightly so] that I was foolish in letting it all go. But like they say, love is blind, and I had made up my mind.

I came back and got a job in Mumbai, and though we were still in separate cities, Garima was okay with it. My parents had all along suspected that I had given up my American dream for a girl, and so when I broached the topic of getting married to Garima,  I proved them right.  To top it all, when I revealed that she was a South Indian, all hell broke loose. So although they hadn’t said a word to me after I had come back and shattered their dreams, they made it clear that no way were they going to let me get married to a Madrasi!!

Garima’s parents were no better. They were a typical, orthodox family, and it was unimaginable for them even to consider a North Indian son-in-law who lived on non-vegetarian food.

We had always known all this, so their reaction didn’t come as a surprise or shock. The opposite would have definitely flummoxed us. But despite that, we knew that we would get married somehow and would be able to convince our parents sooner or later.

We decided to start the process by taking on the easier parent first. While in my case, my mother was the softer one, in Garima’s case, it was her father. So one weekend I decided to come to Delhi and try speaking to my mother. Garima decided to go to Chennai to do the same thing, but her target was her father. Thus we embarked on the mission.

As expected, we both fell flat on our faces. Both our parents refused even to consider the idea. Though disappointed, we were made of stern stuff and were not willing to give up.

We thought of adopting another strategy. Now our society was such, and we had reached that age where our parents were getting desperate to get us married. We were both in our mid-twenties, good-looking, having good jobs, and so very hot for the marriage market. Both sets of parents were busy looking for life-partners for us, of course, the kinds that suited them rather than us! So we decided to make use of this opportunity.

Therefore whenever my parents suggested an alliance or showed me the picture of a prospective bride, I showed no interest. If at all I had to, I just refused or said that I didn’t like the girl. While I hated to reject someone like that, I had been left with no option but to do that. They were not open to any reasoning, and though I had the option of getting married without their blessings, I didn’t want to do that. I felt that I could make them come around.  Both Garima and I were on the same page on this. This drama went on for about a year, after which it stayed dawning on both sets of parents that they couldn’t force us to marry someone of their choice.

What happened was that on one of my weekend visits, I once again refused to go to a wedding where my mother wanted me to meet a girl from a very good and loaded family. I got furious and had a showdown with her when she kept insisting. But I stuck to my guns, and she had to go alone as my father wasn’t in town. She went, but she sulked and sulked. And so did I. We didn’t speak to each other for one whole day. It was a long weekend, and we still had Monday with us. So on Sunday night, my mother cooked my favourite meal and sat down with me in one last-ditch effort to convince me. I was sweet, I was pleasant, but I was adamant. I made it clear that I wanted to marry only Garima and no one else, and she had to accept and respect my decision. Ultimately after a lot of convincing and cajoling on my part, she agreed to at least meet her.

Not one to let go of an opportunity, I quickly called Garima on her landlord’s number and told her to meet us the next day in a coffee shop close to where she lived. We got ready, and though my mother was all smiles, I could see that the smile was a put on. She was hoping to either reject Garima outright or convince me about the foolishness in marrying her. I, of course, wanted to convince her to agree to our marriage, so the meeting took place. My mother couldn’t find any fault with Garima; the thing was that Garima was beautiful, well-spoken and a confident young woman. The only thing my mother could say was that she was very advanced to come and have met her alone. I chose to ignore the statement.

We spent a good two hours by the end of which I could see that my mother liked Garima, and other than the fact that she was a south Indian, she couldn’t object to anything else. In fact, she had thoroughly enjoyed her company, and the two of them had a lot to talk about. We reached back home, and she reluctantly agreed to speak to my father about it. She had realized somewhere that I was hell-bent on marrying Garima, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. My father came back and, to my surprise, wasn’t so much against the idea. He felt that if I liked the girl, she liked me, then the rest of the world had to learn to live with it.

So I had an all-clear from my end, and now the ball was in Garima’s court.

She knew that and so started working on her father. She would keep pestering him, trying to convince him to give me a chance to present my case. She told him about my work, about how much I loved her and about the fact that I had dropped everything to come back to India to be with her. She was consistent and persistent in her effort, and ultimately, her father had no choice but to give in.

I flew to Chennai over a weekend and was summoned to their house on a Saturday morning. I went full of apprehension, and the reception I received would have disheartened anyone but not me. I  had been expecting the cold treatment. I walked into the lion’s den, knowing that I had to fight it out. When I walked in, Garima was there to receive me.

Garima and her parents lived in a large house with a lovely garden in the front. But as I walked into the house, I couldn’t help but feel that it looked bare and empty. I looked around the big hall and realized that it wasn’t that it hadn’t been done up or anything like that. It had been done up barely and sparsely because that’s how they probably did it in that part of the country. It was most unlike a house in the north of India where every inch of space is used up or gobbled up.

Garima hugged me and then went in to call her parents. Both of them came out and stood like three feet away as if trying to gauge me. Her mother took one look and walked away; the father greeted me albeit stiffly and formally. He didn’t ask me to sit and so I kept standing. He asked me a few questions about my work and education, and then there was nothing to talk about.

I was feeling very awkward, and Garima could sense that. She tried to engage us but wasn’t able to do it for too long. Eventually, she just started looking at me with a helpless expression on her face. I tried drawing her father into a conversation but only got monosyllabic answers. But after what was only fifteen minutes but seemed like an eternity to me, I decided to take my leave. Her father did not even say bye; he just turned away. It all seemed very strange to me. I had come from a culture where even if people did not see eye-to-eye with a guest, they at least offered them a cup of tea and definitely invited them to sit down. But I guessed that people were different, cultures were different.

As I now recall, there was a thing that stood out for me in that house, and that was the number of pictures, statues and figures of gods and goddesses; they seemed to be everywhere. I had known Garima for close to seven years by then but had never realized that she came from such a religious background. The fragrance of incense and flowers was all over the house. It was as though I was in a temple. At that time, I took no notice of this aspect though later in life, it would come to haunt me in more ways than one.

Anyways, Garima got very upset with her parents for having mistreated me and told them that she would not enter the house again if they did not apologize for their behaviour. Her father agreed and came to see me. We kind of patched up, but that was all. We waited for another six months for her parents to approve, but when they didn’t, Garima told them that she would marry me despite their disapproval. We fixed up a date and decided to go for a court marriage. In any case, we didn’t want to spend too much money on feeding the world.

My parents, who had wanted the big fat wedding for me, were shocked and heartbroken, but I put my foot down and told them this was how it was going to be. They gave in, and so the wedding day dawned bright and clear. The bride, the groom,  the groom’s parents, a few of our friends were all there, but the one absence that could not go unnoticed was that of Garima’s parents. They had chosen not to show up though they had been informed about the wedding well in advance. Garima was very disappointed and heartbroken. She had felt that her father would at least turn up. I tried to make up but obviously couldn’t. And so the bride and the groom exchanged garlands and rings, signed the register and were pronounced man and wife. But all along the bride’s eyes kept looking for some sign of her parents’ presence but alas!!

But Garima was not one to let things be. She was so upset with her parents that she called up her father a few days after getting married and gave him a piece of her mind. The thing was that Garima was an only child of her parents, so it wasn’t that they and in particular her father were too happy about not having been there for the wedding. But at the same time, they could not accept a north Indian son-in-law.

After that one call, Garima decided to break all ties with her parents but eventually, her father’s heart melted, and he came to see us. I had also moved to Delhi by then and had taken an apartment on rent. He found the address somehow, and one Sunday evening, he was there at our door. Seeing her beloved father in front of her was enough to melt the daughter’s heart and let bygones be bygones. A few months later, her mother also visited us, and it all became hunky-dory. But actually, it wasn’t so. Life is never simple.

My mother had huge issues now. She couldn’t see eye to eye with her daughter-in-law on anything. Though we didn’t live with them, she loved to visit us and interfere in our lives. She didn’t like the food we ate, the way we kept our house and celebrated all festivals. My mother believed that after getting married, a girl should forget all about her parents’ house and their lives and focus on the husband’s side. Therefore she had no business to celebrate any of her Madrasi festivals, as she liked to call them.

There was one thing that I, too, had begun to notice, and somewhere I didn’t like it. The thing was that just like her parents Garima too believed in several gods and goddesses and was gradually making our house look like the way her parents’ house did. She loved hanging pictures of gurus and other people she liked to follow. Now I had grown up in a very liberal environment where religion wasn’t such a big deal. Yes, we prayed to the Almighty, we visited the temple off and on, but that was about it. There was no compulsion to do anything. Though I chose to ignore her actions, with time, they started to get to me.

Many times when I walked into the house, it would seem as though I had entered a temple. The fragrance of the flowers, the incense would be all over.  I could gradually sense that Garima was obsessed with her religious devotion, which didn’t seem normal. But I chose to ignore it as religion was a sensitive subject in our relationship, and I didn’t want to ruffle feathers unnecessarily. We had initially agreed that a little corner of the house would be like a temple where she could pray and perform all her rituals, but I would not be a part of them. However, with time, her devotion seemed to be encroaching on every aspect of our lives.

Two years into the marriage, Garima gave birth to our firstborn, a daughter who we decided to name Rhea. Though my parents would have loved to have a grandson since she was the first child, they were okay with it. In fact, they adored her. It was my mother who, in fact, helped us out all through the pregnancy and even afterwards. Garima’s mother just visited us once after Rhea was born and stayed for a few days. Though Garima would have wanted her mother to stay for a little while longer, she didn’t. So Garima had to depend on my mother for everything even once she joined work; since we did not have help at home and did not want Rhea to be left in the creche, my mom stepped in to help us.

She, too, had a vested interest in that she wanted her grandchild to pick up at least some of our ways and not become a total south Indian. The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law would often have disagreements over the way Rhea was dressed up, the way she was handled by my mother. My mother would sing her Punjabi lullabies to her, which Garima absolutely hated and objected to. But I advised staying quiet because we were dependent on my parents. I told her categorically that she had only two options if she didn’t want my mother to have any say in the manner Rhea was being raised. She could either call her mother or she could quit working. The other options of the creche and a maid in our house had already been rejected by us. So since she had no choice, Garima kept quiet, but the resentment kept brewing.

It is so true that the more time we spend with a person, the more we get to know them. And not everything about them is to our liking. The same holds in the case of marriage as well. Though we had been with each other for close to ten years, there were many facets to Garima’s personality that were now slowly coming to light. I was beginning to realize that though she was all about women’s rights and their empowerment and loved to talk about it, in her personal life, she was different. It surprised me to see that though she loved Rhea, she longed for a son who she thought would carry the family name forward. And that coming from someone who was an only child!! But I figured that certain things have to be taken as a given, and one has to learn to live with them. Maybe I  should have spoken to her, tried to make her stop obsessing about a male child. And yes, that is what was happening. With time she was getting obsessed, and she wanted a son no matter what.

Rhea was four by now, and though we still had time on our side, my wife did not believe so. She thought that time was running out, and we needed to have another child as soon as possible. I was okay with it though I failed to see the urgency. By now, I was also doing very well professionally and had risen to the position of Vice President in my organization. Though Garima had started very well somewhere now, she was beginning to lose the plot. She was obsessed with a male child but was unable to conceive. We consulted many doctors, specialists which I thought was a complete waste of time. I firmly believed that she needed to relax and take things easy, and the conception would take place. But she refused to believe me or anybody else for that matter. The doctors, too, agreed with me but to no avail.

Due to her obsession, Garima had started neglecting Rhea, her work and the house. She had now reached a stage where she had begun consulting astrologers and visiting them one after the other. I couldn’t see the point, and as a result, we started fighting and arguing. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not convince her to stop believing in who I considered to be cheats. Our frequent fights had now started impacting Rhea, which was something I couldn’t tolerate. I consulted my parents. My mother also tried telling Garima that she had no reason to get so worked up. She had to give herself time, and things would eventually fall into place but to no avail. And even her parents were of the same view as the rest of us, but that didn’t make any difference. A male child was what Garima wanted, and she had to have him no matter what.

Though I was pretty stressed about my wife’s obsession, I could not have imagined the extent it could go to until that particular day. That day when I came back from work, I found Rhea, who was five by then, sitting with the maid crying her heart out. It was nine in the night and a time when Garima should have been home. I assumed that she must have got stuck at work. I tried calling her, but her phone was not reachable. I did not give it too much thought. As it is, Garima had been neglecting her work a lot, and so  I assumed that she must have been held back at work.

However, what was strange was the fact that even by ten-thirty, I could not reach her. By now, I started panicking, and by twelve, I decided to call one of her colleagues. I hesitated a bit since it was pretty late by then, but I didn’t have much choice. Her colleague Sapna took my call, and when I inquired about my wife, to my shock, she told me that she hasn’t been coming to the office for almost two weeks now. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe it, but of course, I had to because Sapna worked with her. But now I was worried. Where the hell was she?  I tried calling her again but couldn’t reach her. Seeing me all stressed, Rhea was also getting stressed, which I didn’t like. I tried to lighten the mood, but Rhea could figure that something was not right. Her mother had never left her alone ever like that.

I called up my parents, who, despite the late hour, rushed to be with us. We couldn’t sleep the whole night. My mother tried to put Rhea to sleep, but the child could sense the anxiety and wouldn’t sleep. Even if she did for a while, she would wake up crying for her mother. My heart was going out to her, I tried comforting her, but I couldn’t fool her. That day, I realized that children are incredibly perceptive, which would be lifelong learning for me. Morning came but with no news. I decided to go to the police station to lodge a complaint and went to my room to get ready. My parents had decided to stay on, so I knew that my daughter would be well looked after. As I went into the bathroom, I passed by Garima’s dressing table when I saw a piece of paper sticking out from under one of her perfume bottles. Somehow I had missed seeing it the previous evening. I pulled it out, and when I read it, my world collapsed. I couldn’t believe my eyes!

My wife, my soul mate, had left us !!! My brain was refusing to comprehend what was written on that piece of paper, but it was true! My wife had left us, her family to join an ashram in the hills. She had written that she believed that she couldn’t conceive because she had sinned in her past life. She needed to do a penance which would take six months, and therefore she was going to stay in the ashram for that duration.

The note was pretty long. She had mentioned some Swamiji who ran the ashram and who had suggested this remedy to her. I was livid after reading this. I rushed out to show the note to my parents, who were equally shocked. Though Garima had given details about how she would make up for her deeds, nowhere had she mentioned where the ashram was located. She knew that I would rush to get her back if I got to know where it was.

The problem was how was I going to locate her. I tried talking to her friends and finding out from them. What baffled me was how I had no idea about this swami who had managed to influence her to such an extent that she had left us, her family. I was determined to get to the bottom of this. I took leave from the office and got in touch with anyone and everyone with whom Garima could have had contact. Finally, the culprit who had introduced her to the swami turned out to be our next-door neighbour. I learned that our neighbour Mrs Malhotra was a disciple of this swami and had taken Garima to meet him about six months ago. She had confided in Mrs Malhotra about the problem she was facing and how desperately she wanted a son. So, therefore, Mrs Malhotra had suggested that she consult Swamiji, who had a solution to every problem.

This explained why Garima had to be away sometimes on weekends. She would tell me that she was going to see a friend or was going to the parlour. I could have never suspected her of lying to me. But of course, she had. My mother was furious with me. She blamed me and my laid back attitude for the mess that I found myself in. For once, I couldn’t defend myself. I felt let down. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that my wife, who was so well-educated, modern in her outlook, had felt the need to consult a religious guru! And that too, without keeping me in the loop!

I understood that she might not have told me about it because I would have objected to it but then to go away for six months! For what! Did she not realize the danger she was putting herself into by staying at the ashram. I decided I couldn’t let this happen. All those stories of women who got trapped with these kinds of people began to haunt me. What if something happened to her? Hadn’t she thought about that? Well, apparently not! But I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her and so decided that I would go to the ashram and try and get her back. I wasn’t sure if she would listen to me, but I was going to try. I owed it to our daughter, to our life together and each other.

So much against my mother’s advice, I went to the ashram. The moment I walked in, I was attacked by the same [now] sickening fragrance of the incense and the flowers. They seemed to have become the bane of my life. Taking that in now took me back to the day I had gone to meet her parents. I wish I had known then how a mere fragrance, a belief, could ruin lives! But had I known, would I have done things differently? I had no answer.

The ashram seemed to be quite a modern establishment,  pretty swanky, I felt. I entered the building and was taken to the reception area, where I asked for Garima. I was told that all the residents were in a session and would be free only after two hours. I had no choice but to wait. I called up my mother to inform her about my safe arrival, spoke to Rhea and waited. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Garima walked towards me. She seemed surprised to see me. Probably she hadn’t expected me to trace her.

She came towards me, and though I got up to hug her, she didn’t seem very comfortable with the idea. She figured that I had many questions, so she decided to take me outside in the garden to sit and talk. However, the only thing she was willing to tell me was that she would be there for about six months to come to terms with her life and the direction it was taking. Any concerns that I had about Rhea, about me or our life, were met with stony silence. It seemed that she didn’t really want to talk. When I expressed my concern about her safety, she assured me that I had nothing to worry about. It was a safe place, and there were many other women there.

I spent two hours with her and by the end of it felt like a fool. She had made up her mind, and no matter what I said or did, she wasn’t going to change it. She had no regrets about leaving us behind and was definitely not coming back for the next six months. And although I wanted to tell her about Rhea and everyone else in the house, she didn’t seem interested. It was as though she had switched off a part of her and did not wish to have anything to do with it.  Finally, I gave up, wished her luck and left the place. The fool that I was, I still wanted to ask her if she needed any money, but then something prevented me from doing that. I walked out with a feeling of having left a part of me behind. There was also this huge sense of betrayal. And what would I tell Rhea? She believed that I had gone to get her mother back, but that wasn’t the case.

I reached home pretty late by when thankfully, Rhea had gone to sleep, but only after my mother promised to wake her up the moment, we reached. Since Garima had not come with us, I decided to let her sleep. I didn’t have the heart to face her. My parents didn’t say a word. I had my dinner and went to bed, but I just couldn’t sleep. As the shock of the entire episode started wearing off, anger started taking its place. And though eventually, I slept off, I woke up in the morning boiling with rage. How dare she do this to us? How could she be so heartless?

Well, if she could do this, I could do more. I decided that I wasn’t going to wait for her to come back. I was going to send her a message saying that she could stay in the ashram for as long as she wanted to as we no longer wanted her. But how was I to deal with my daughter? As it is, she felt that her mother had abandoned her. I decided that I would tell her that mummy had gone for some important work and it would take her some time before she could come back.

Meanwhile, my parents moved in with us, and my mother stepped into the role of Rhea’s mother. I also realized that children are very resilient, much more than we expect them to be. They also adapt very soon, and though initially, she missed her mother, gradually, she learnt to live without her.

Life moved on, and the six months got over. Though I had messaged Garima and told her not to come back, a part of me was still waiting for her. She didn’t disappoint and, as promised, came back. It was a shock for her to see that the world had changed. Her in-laws were living in her house, her daughter, though happy to see her, had become used to a life without her, and the husband too was pretty indifferent to her. She tried getting back to the usual way of life, but it didn’t really work. Even her job was no longer there. Her boss informed her that she had exhausted all her leave, and because of her irresponsible attitude in going on leave at a crucial juncture, it was better she left.

I didn’t know what she thought or went through. I realized that I could no longer connect with her the way I used to. There was an enormous chasm that I couldn’t fill up.  I no longer felt the need to discuss my work or any other issue with her. The same was with Rhea. She was a little girl who did need a mother figure, but somewhere my mother had fulfilled that need. Garima was no fool. She could sense everything. And what was ironic was that she had gone through the entire exercise to have a son. But she had lost the husband and the daughter in the bargain.

So, although she tried to become the old Garima, she couldn’t. For one, she had become quite used to the ways of the ashram, her routine there. And I couldn’t tolerate it. In fact, I still remember one particular incident; she had got into the habit of waking up at the crack of dawn to pray. The prayers involved her singing bhajans at the top of her voice and ringing bells, and of course, lighting up all the possible agarbattis. I would have none of it. The first day she did it, I gave her a piece of my mind and told her that no way was I going to accept it. Though shocked at my outburst, she didn’t say anything and quietly went into our room.

Even the room wasn’t hers any longer. Though we shared a bed, we were like strangers. This went on for almost a year by the end of which Garima took a decision, or rather we all forced her to take it, I can’t say.

She left us to go back and join the ashram for good. I don’t know whether I could have or should have stopped her. I didn’t. I let her go.

Life moved on, and we all moved on. I immersed myself in my work and rose to become the country head, the regional head, and finally the company’s global head. I met several women along the way; my mother wanted me to settle down as she said but somewhere, the entire experience with Garima had unnerved me. Though I had several serious relationships, some of which could have culminated into marriage, I couldn’t do it. I was happy and content living with my parents and my daughter. That was the extent of my world, and I didn’t want anyone else. I didn’t even keep in touch with her parents. Though they did try for some time but eventually gave up. After all, how could they succeed? Somewhere I held them responsible for the way their daughter had turned out. And so I wanted to sever all ties with them and didn’t want them to influence my daughter in any way.

Today my daughter, Rhea, is twenty. My mother is still with me, though my father passed away six years ago. Rhea has grown up to be a beautiful and sensible girl.  She is studying in one of the top universities in the US. She is highly ambitious and aspires to emulate her father. Her mother’s absence has affected her but not as much as I had thought it would. My mother’s presence more than made up for her. We are not in touch with Garima. She is no longer a part of our lives, not even a part of our memories.

And life goes on….

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