12 December

Neempatta’s lips twist up into a smile parallel to her left eyebrow. “Appi, I won’t eat up your friend, you know.”

I feel much as I had in school in the 5th Std., when I had loyally tagged behind my best friend, Scratch-n-Bite to the Principal’s office.

Scratch-n-Bite’s modus operandi in any classroom situation was to scratch and bite her opponent. In this case, she had administered her patented treatment to a girl who was teasing me. Thus, I felt a honourable but mistaken desire to be punished along with Scratch-n-Bite for her honourable and mistaken intention to defend me.

The Principal however did not see it that way. She called us in separately into her office, told each one that the other one had snitched, and cleaved us apart forever by putting us into different divisions.

Not that Neempatta is going to do any such nasty thing. But I still feel foolish for getting dragged into her office by Comma for a discussion on Comma’s marital prospects. But Neempatta is amused and Comma is too anxious to care.

As far as Comma is concerned:

1. She needs to talk.
2. She needs me to listen and support her.
3. She needs Neempatta’s advice.

And she is going to get it.

Neempatta: “That’s all fine, Comma. But does he take bribes? Or does he manage only on his salary? Because if he doesn’t take bribes, he’s never going to be rich, you know, in a government job. Would you be able to manage on that much? Or are you OK with bribes?”

Comma of course, is completely flummoxed. In these 5 days of Relentless Perusal of The Proposal, she had never thought about the salary v/s bribes issue.

Neempatta continued, “You know, if you love some one, that’s fine. But when you are going in for an arranged marriage, sort of, then you have to think of the financial prospects, right? Doesn’t make much sense to get involved with someone who’s not going to be really well off unless he is corrupt. Unless of course, you are happy enough with someone who is corrupt. Or else, happy enough with little. Are you?”

Comma looks confused.

“I’ve never really thought of money. I mean, I manage pretty well on what I earn here, and that’s not much, you know.”

Neempatta smiled, “No, not much. But managing when you are unmarried, only for yourself is one thing. It’s fun when you are young. Besides, you don’t have to send anything back home. You’ve always had a comfortable life. Are you up to managing with limited funds when you have a family of your own?”

Comma is ready to give up The Prospect, but doesn’t sound elated about it. “So, I should say ‘No’ to him, right?”

“No, don’t say ‘No’ right away. Meet up with him, if you can. Ask him these questions. Maybe he has some family inheritance. Maybe he has some future business plans. All I want to say is, that when you meet, you need to talk about these things, values, ethics, money, etc. Romance and all can come later.”

I had read several newspaper articles by Neempatta, while in Law College. The morning of my job interview I peered closely at the grainy black and white photo at the top of an article, and wondered what Neempatta would be like in real life. In the paper, she looked fierce and androgynous, much as one would expect a fighter like her to be.

My first glimpse of her was brief. She waved me into her office, asking me to wait, and hurried away. I turned, and stopped still.

The walls of her office are plastered with family photographs. Even after 2 years of working at Neem, I stop still for a moment every time I enter Neempatta’s office to look at the photos.

Neempatta, smiling and warm in each one:

1. With her husband.
2. With her daughter and son when they were little.
3. With them as they grew older.
4. With their spouses.
5. And lots of new photos with her grandchild.

That 1st day, Neempatta had walked in and caught me looking at the photographs. She put two cups of coffee on the table and we spent the 1st few minutes of my job interview discussing our families. She was surprisingly soft and gentle and family-oriented for someone who has seen so many, many embittered embroilments of the institution.

And yet here she is, giving Comma such hardheaded advice about arranging a marriage. Advice one would expect from:

1. A conservative aunt.
2. Or a businessman father in a Hindi film.

But somehow, I am not surprised.


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