Raman subsequently spent a wakeful night telling himself how much he trusted her – he had no other option. In any other scenario lay madness and despair.
Next morning the Indica he had hired arrived at five. His wife rose with him, offering to make tea, to pack some sandwiches. As he refused everything, she looked at him anxiously; he moved to kiss her, but like last night her body sent its own message, and he silently let her go.
When he left she worried about that. She could tell her husband was beginning to suspect, but to have anything to do with him physically made her want to scream. While he was away she made a thousand resolutions: be wife like, be good, docile, compliant, but the mere sight of him sent these decisions out of the window.
To blot out such thoughts she dialled a number. It was very early, but she knew, day or night, he was always glad to hear her, no matter how sleepy, no matter how inconvenient. As far as he was concerned, her freedom was absolute.
In the mean time she had five clear days in which to indulge herself. And nights, nights that she would ask her mother to come and spend with the children. Only a few hours, she would be back early in the morning. No matter how disapproving, she knew her mother could not refuse her.
Raman returned with his own resolutions. This marriage was going to work or he would die in the attempt. He ignored the lack of interest about the meeting at the district level in Chandigarh, he ignored her absent-minded appreciation of the shawl he had bought her. But what was harder for him to disregard was the rejection he faced in bed that night. You need two hands to clap, as his mother was fond of saying, two hands, and in this marriage he increasingly felt there was only one hand making its lone gestures.
Once in office he looked up the number of a private detective agency in the yellow pages. He had reached the point where not knowing was worse than any certainty.
Unaware of the trauma that her son was going through, Mrs Kaushik, on the other side of the river, was involving herself in the lives of her neighbours as usual.
Chief among them was Mrs Rajora, a librarian at the Arts Faculty of Delhi University. She lived three floors above Mrs Kaushik in Tower B. Mrs Rajora's working hours meant that she could not go to kitty parties, play tambola, or sing devotional songs in groups that met in the morning, all favoured activities among the society's non-professional women. The friends met instead in the evening, during walks around the building and for arti at the temple. On Wednesdays they took a rickshaw together to the market at Mandavili.
Occasionally they visited the elder Mrs Kaushik in the A-block flats, but the elder Mrs Kaushik was so absorbed by her grandchildren that she seemed to have little time for anything else.
The Rajoras had one child, a daughter, Ishita.
Ishita's early history had been marked by illness. Both parents worked and they had found it hard to manage even with this one child, dividing her care with a part-time maid and a neighbourhood woman who ran a crèche to supplement her income. Perhaps a mistake, because Ishita was diagnosed with TB when only four. A low-class disease, thought the panic-stricken mother, as in a fit of anger she fired the help – these people – you never knew with these people. They were the carriers, the ones who coughed all over your dishes while washing them, over the vegetables while cutting them, who never rested until their germs were plastered over every house they visited. It was the revenge of the downtrodden.
For nine months the child was on TB drugs. They sapped her strength, and made her vulnerable to the waves of cough, cold and fever that swept the city each year. Doctor after doctor, hakims, vaids, homeopaths, nature cure advocates, the parents went to anybody they thought might restore their daughter's health.
Eventually the caring paid off and Ishita grew stronger. Fortune further turned her face in their direction, for Shashtri College, Mr Rajora's workplace, acquired a tower in a building co-operative across the Jamuna, and teachers could pay for the yet unbuilt flats in three instalments. Collecting, borrowing from bank and family, withdrawing from their provident funds, they managed to produce the required lakhs.
When Ishita was twenty-two they moved from Panjabi Bagh, and within weeks Mrs Rajora had met Mrs Kaushik.
By this time Raman was married and a father and Mrs Rajora could spend a lot of time soothing the hurt that Raman's behaviour (that of blatantly preferring his wife to his mother) caused Mrs Kaushik, and Mrs Kaushik in her turn was careful to praise Ishita whenever she could.
The child was a beauty, she said, and so sweet-tempered, her future home would rejoice. This pleased Mrs Rajora, even though she knew that Ishita was sweet rather than pretty, and that without a dowry her qualities, both outer and inner, had to be the sole attraction.
Marriage was far from Ishita's thoughts. She knew it lay in her future but she wanted to work first. Having finished a BA, the family decided she should do a B.Ed., a degree that would always be useful. If she got a job in a government school, she would have security, a steady income, as well as the lighter hours that future matrimony demanded.
Ishita had begun to apply for teaching posts when a proposal was received. Should a good offer come, insisted her parents, you have to answer its call. Everything else can wait, not this.
The family was a traditional merchant one, just shifted to South Delhi from Morris Nagar. Their caste was the same, their horoscopes compatible. The boy was twenty-five, shy and inarticulate.
The prospective in-laws said they wanted a homely family-minded girl, dowry was not a consideration, they had enough money of their own. Surakanta was their only son, and grandchildren were expected within a year.
Ishita was hesitant. The women of the family didn't work, daughters-in-law were obviously expected to devote themselves to home. What about her B.Ed., her desire to be independent?
A degree would always come in use. God forbid should anything happen, persuaded her parents. For now, it was better to start on a good note. Stubbornness was not prized in daughters-in-law.
Ultimately, Ishita saw sense. Though they had yet to exchange a sentence, the boy had smiled beguilingly at her, and at twenty-three, that was her most intimate encounter with a non-relative male. They got married on an auspicious date in summer.
Both husband and wife found marriage liberating. For Suryakanta a female companion was a novel thing. For five years he had studied hard at the Delhi College of Engineering, now it was time to enjoy himself.
'SK, yaar, you have really changed after marriage,' said one of their friends as they sat in a restaurant after a film.
'Bhabhi, you should have seen him before. He was like a mouse.'
Ishita laughed. So far as mouse like qualities were concerned, she had her own share. The custom of arranged marriages seemed replete with wisdom, the institution of the joint family a safeguard against any loneliness she might ever feel.
Her sisters-in-law, school-going Tarakanta, college-going Chandrakanta, were the siblings she had always longed for. She spoiled them as much as she could, helping them with their homework, participating in their shopping.
The Rajoras congratulated themselves on the successful completion of their life's duties. Ishita had jumped a notch in the world. Car, address, situation – all better. Her colour too seemed fairer, her hair shinier, her whole bearing more alive.
As the months wore on, there was no sign of a pregnancy, and Mrs Rajora became uneasy. The couple were young but it was better to prove that the machinery worked early on in the relationship. Producing grandchildren was a moral obligation.
'Beta, you are not taking anything, are you?' she asked.
Her daughter blushed. No, why?
Just like that, responded the mother.
There was little point in distressing the child, but she could no longer enjoy the sleep of one whose life's work has been accomplished. Instead she nagged her husband with her fears.
'Take her to the doctor,' he said finally, 'I cannot answer all these questions.'
'No, no, her in-laws will say we knew there was something wrong with her. I am not taking her to any doctor.'
'In that case don't fret, she is a healthy girl, she will conceive.'
But the mother could no more stop worrying than she could stop breathing. She looked up books on female reproductive health in her library but she didn't understand a word.
She buttonholed a gynaecologist neighbour near the elevator, but instead of assurance she got more reasons for alarm. Fifteen per cent of couples were infertile, though not necessarily sterile. Treatments were available, both invasive and drug-related; they worked fairly quickly if you were lucky.
These treatments, continued the anxious mother, were they expensive? Were they effective?
It all depended on the type of infertility, and the number of attempts that were made. There were many options even if the normal anatomy was lost, but she had to see the couple before she could give an opinion.
How could Mrs Rajora involve the couple when they had not sought her advice? All she was looking for was hope, and words such as 'infertility' and 'loss of normal anatomy' did not do the job. With a heavy heart she thought of the pre-marriage emphasis on the girl's homeliness, on the little Suryakantas she would bring into the world. Mrs Rajora decided her husband was right, she was getting tense for nothing. Ishita and SK were young, everything would be fine.
Ishita's father was pleased to note that his wife had stopped her incessant worrying. He did not know that Mrs Rajora's helplessness was so extreme that she had decided to follow the scriptures and live in the present. She redoubled her prayers, went to the society temple morning and evening, with offerings of sweets, coconuts and flowers.
Eighteen months into the marriage the boy's family began to make noises. 'They are beginning to ask, why haven't you conceived? SK says he doesn't want to be a father yet, but they say he doesn't know what he is talking about. They behave as though he was a child,' reported Ishita to her mother.
'What else do they say to you?'
'Isn't this enough?'
Was it her mother's imagination or had the girl lost the bloom that had been so evident a year ago?
'Are they treating you well?' she asked.
The girl's listless nod was further reason to panic.
'They say it is equally the boy's fault if there is no conception,' said the mother, swimming vigorously in waters she had hesitated to dive into earlier. 'Why are they not getting him examined?'
'He is willing, but it is probably something to do with me.'
'Nonsense. Keep faith in God. He will not let you suffer.'
'My in-laws have asked that I do this special jap 108 times a day. And fast on Tuesdays.'
'You must do whatever they tell you.'
'They want to take me to a doctor also.'
'That is not necessary.'
'I don't have a choice,' said Ishita, as she dragged herself out of the door and into her car.
Shortly after, the miracle occurred.
Such a crowd so early in the morning was odd, thought Mrs Rajora as she turned the corner of the building towards the temple.
Mrs Kaushik saw her and gestured violently.
'He was the first to discover it.'
'What has happened?'
'A miracle, that's what. A miracle.'
'Hai Ram. In this day and age?'
'Bhagwanji is drinking milk.'
'Are you absolutely sure?'
'See for yourself. Do you have any?'
'Only fruit and flowers.'
'That won't do. Has to be milk.'
'Should I go and get some?'
'Run, run. And get a spoon as well.'
Her husband was waiting for his tea.
'Hurry, hurry. Bhagwan is drinking milk.'
'Society temple. Leela said her husband was the first to discover it.'
From the corner of the balcony Mr Rajora could see people hurrying to the front of the building. At the elevator entrance their neighbour was holding a glass of milk, smiling, sharing his joy.
By the time they reached the temple, they could see that some of the society officers had organised the crowds into a queue. The building was home to a thousand people, and at least half of them were here. The small puja room was crammed. People were holding milk in all kinds of containers.
Everybody was excited. Could it be really true? Were the gods physically accepting their offerings? When Mrs Rajora's turn came she held out a trembling hand and watched as the milk slowly vanished from the spoon. People around stared. She reached out a finger and gently touched the dark stone cheek. It was dry.
'Arre, the god himself is drinking,' said the man behind her. 'Otherwise, wouldn't the whole floor be wet? So much has been offered since the morning.'
Ashamed, she pulled back her hand, allowing her husband his turn with the spoon. Then other anxious to have a go edged them away.
Once home, Mrs Rajora hurried to the phone. Ishu, come here, the gods are drinking milk, you must offer some, from your own hands. It is a miracle, beta, a miracle.
It seemed Ishita had no need to come there. The gods were drinking milk throughout Delhi. Later when they put on the TV, it was to find deities consuming milk all over India, and by the evening there were reports of similar phenomena in Britain, Canada and the USA.
Clips followed of scientists talking about capillary action, saying that the milk was just spread over the surface of the stone images, but people believed what they saw.
The next morning again Mrs Rajora hurried to the temple, but the people outside told her that the god was no longer accepting milk. 'That is how we know what happened yesterday was truly a miracle, no matter what the scientists say.'
Mrs Rajora agreed. And if the miraculous could occur all over the world, then why not in her daughter's life?
A few days later, Ishita phoned, jubilant. Her mother-in-law had taken her to the gynaecologist, who had said that not enough time had passed – they should wait another six months before going in for tests, which were neither easy nor cheap. A stress-free life was essential. Now they were being very nice to her.
to be continued...