Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Two Lives in a memory warp. Being the story of the Mankar couple who lived and died at 233 Khetwadi Main Road as remembered by their son.

Is there such a thing as the “perfect memoir”? Search me. That nothing of that ilk has probably ever been extant dawned on me only when I started thinking about writing one about my parents, Aai (c. 1897 - 1962) and Baba (c. 1880 - 1965). Unfortunately, much too late in my life did I come to realize that their lives were worth being scrutinized with curiosity and recorded with love and understanding by their son.

Reader warned. Doing it has been far from simple, though. Their past before my birth had been more or less a closed book to me. I had never tried to steal even a glimpse of it. So I had to make do with half-remembered hearsay and third-party “testimony” heard or overheard on various occasions and filed away for future use, as it were. Being human makes my memory as fallible and untrustworthy as the next person’s. Also, all along, I have been accustomed to view life through the prism of accumulated prejudices and assumptions acquired over the decades. Much as I may try to shed them, I can never be sure they aren’t there at a given moment. So what you will read here is the story of Mr Waman Keshavji Mankar, Esq., and his lawfully wedded spouse, Laxmibai (née Manak Ajinkya), the original Mankar couple of 233 Khetwadi Main Road http://bit.ly/1fcggIG – as far as I could assemble the mosaic of lost time though undoubtedly not without flaws. Readers will also have to pardon me for sounding embittered and deeply resentful when I refer to some of the people featuring in the tale and their vile deeds. That is how I feel about what happened. Hypocrisy and I never had even a nodding acquaintance. That’s a fact plain and simple − neither hubris nor a boast. 

Name decodified. Before we go any further, I have a theory about the origin of our family name although I cannot lay a claim to the expertise of an etymologist or a polyglot. The “Man” (or the phonetic “Maan”) part of the word “Mankar”, I dare say, might have come from the Marathi word “Maan” (= status, privilege, right) used in a community-centric context. The surname “Mankar” might have thus alluded to a clan who had status in the community and enjoyed certain privileges owing to it. W.E. Gladstone Solomon, art historian, though, had a slightly different take on the surname mentioned in his study, The Charm of Indian Art; “Mankar”, he averred, signified “the noble one”. http://tinyurl.com/3fnunj Fair enough.

Sad but true. There were at least three occasions when I saw and/or heard my father crying. The first one was sometime in 1944 or 1945 when I was 8 or 9 years old lying in bed in the dead of night and trying not to hear his stifled sobs. The incidence is described at http://bit.ly/1rHygza. The trigger was my sister’s avowal to marry a Muslim colleague apparently and her consequent and sudden disappearance from 233 Khetwadi Main Road one Saturday afternoon. (Later, her elder daughter revealed that her mother had in fact been spurned by her alleged boy friend.) The second time I saw Baba sobbing was when he came home after work one sad evening in 1962 and learned that Aai, his by-then estranged wife, had succumbed to her lingering ailment (leukemia) in the Bombay Hospital. The third occasion in 1965 – a short while before his death − was described to me by Ujwal. Baba, as was his wont, was entertaining his elder grandson. Ashu was perched precariously on the edge of the dining table and laughing his head off at his grandfather’s antics as he enacted a funny tale. While thus occupied, he fell off and crashed to the floor. He was a bit stunned but otherwise quite okay while Baba had by then freaked out and was sobbing uncontrollably. It took all of Ujwal’s persuasive skill to calm him down and convince him that all was well. He had great rapport with Ashu and Abhi, then toddlers, as well as their mother. He used to rock his grandsons on his haunches and sing to them ditties of his own making, much to their unmitigated delight. http://bit.ly/1mWMagg He was also responsible, after Aai’s death, for freeing Ujwal from her self-imposed dress code of wearing only sarees in deference to Aai’s wishes. He told her to wear what she felt comfortable in while working and in daily living.

Equanimity personified. My reason to start this memoir with the sad memories was to highlight the fact that Baba’s everyday essential mental state (sthayi bhava) was one of equanimity. He must have come to this mental plateau over time, I gather, dealing with the many problems life kept hurling at him. In my childhood, I don’t remember Baba ever raising his voice at any of us. Even his infrequent reprimands and admonitions for my childish transgressions were administered in a gentle, slightly pained tone of voice. This is perhaps why he was unable to discipline his wayward daughter well in time. At times, a raised voice gets better results than a raised palm. He chose to raise neither.

Details, details, details. When he breathed his last in 1965, a little after I had joined Clarion-McCann http://bit.ly/Hls6wJ, Baba was 85 by his own reckoning, give or take. So, it is my conjecture that he must have been born circa 1880. That’s 7 years before Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) was built and 17 years before the first automobile reached the Indian shores (barely three years after its invention in the US of A). I don’t know anything about Baba’s father except his name (Keshavji). Keshav is one of Lord Vishnu’s names, occurring at the 23rd and 648th rank in Vishnu Sahastranama (the thousand names of Vishnu recited in his praise), by the way. The Mankar family, hearsay informed me, lived in Navi Wadi, a then predominantly Pathare Prabhu precinct in South Bombay, http://bit.ly/1oG4HJn in near-indigent circumstances. Navi Wadi is also where the Mankar Family deity, Maheshwari, resides.

The way the Prabhus dressed, worked, thought and lived. In Chapter 6 of Madame Helena Patrovna Blavatsky's From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan (1879-80) http://tinyurl.com/5l3zb7, she wrote about how the then current generation of the Pathare Prabhus was living "by their pens", which is to say "occupying all the small Government posts in the Bombay Presidency, and so being dangerous rivals of the Bengali Babus since the time of British rule. In Bombay, the Patan clerks reach the considerable figure of five thousand. Their complexion is darker than the complexion of Konkan Brahmans, but they are handsomer and brighter." In Mary Fainsod Katzenstein’s Ethnicity and Equality (Cornell University Press, New York, 1979, p.44), she cites Edwardes’ especial reference in The Gazetteer of Bombay (Vol. I, p.168) to the fact that “although up to about 1870, the dress of the Prabhus was considered model attire, the once wealthy Prabhu families soon began to desert their large Bombay residences for more simple, economical flats”. She also points out that in those days the Pathare Prabhus occupied “key administrative and clerical positions in Bombay under the British”.

Here’s what Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote in Annihilation of Caste with a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi (Navayana, 2014, p.252) about the Pathare Prabhu's abandoning their custom of widows remarrying (i.e., moving from a progressive to a regressive stance): "At one time the Pathare Prabhus had widow remarriage as a custom of their caste. This custom of widow remarriage was later on looked upon as a mark of social inferiority by some members of the caste, especially because it was contrary to the custom prevalent among the Brahmins. With the object of raising status of their community some Pathare Prabhus sought to stop this practice of widow remarriage that was prevalent in their caste. The community was divided into two camps, one for and the other against the innovation. The Peshwas took the side of those in favour of widow remarriage and thus virtually prohibited the Pathare Prabhus from following the ways of the Brahmins."

The one somewhat eccentric trait of the Pathare Prabhus mentioned by W E Gladstone Solomon http://tinyurl.com/3fnunj (p.49), the composing and singing of epithalamiums during the marriage ceremony, is something I can personally vouch for. Written in flowery and hagiographic Marathi, I have heard them over the decades at several weddings, even fairly recent ones, sung to the tune of the mangalashtakas (mantras solemnizing the nuptials).

Among the many talented Pathare Prabhus of those days was Bhujangrao Mankar who was thought of as Sir Isaac Pitman’s Indian reincarnation in his role as the “father” of Marathi and Gujarati shorthand. By the way, the writer of one of the earlier Marathi sangeet natak (musical play), Naladamayanti (1879), was a Pathare Prabhu, Sokar Bapuji Trilokekar (1835-1908). http://bit.ly/149Oaci Also, the second lead pair in the popular musical stage hit, Sangeet Sanshaya Kallol (= a pandemonium of suspicion), premiered c.1916, was named Phalgunrao and Kritika Trilokekar, apparently a Pathare Prabhu couple.  
Baba’s struggles continued. Baba managed to somehow complete his higher education probably with help from well-wishers and scholarships. He passed both his Master of Arts as well as Bachelor of Laws examinations. Then, true to his predilection as a deep-dyed Pathare Prabhu, he entered into the service of the Government of Bombay Presidency as a Public Prosecutor. He retired from his post of Presidency Magistrate, Girgaum Police Court, situated very close to 233 Khetwadi Main Road, sometime in 1936. (Later, in the 1950s, he once again worked for the Government as the Coroner of Bombay.)

Married to Manak. Along the way, at the age of 37 or so, he married Aai, then 20, probably in 1917. They had their first offspring in 1918, Malini, a daughter. The last of their progeny was me born eighteen years later. In between, there was a son who did not survive. Had he managed to do so, chances are I would not be around to tell you this tale. (According to what Ujwal was told by her mother, Aai wanted her obstetrician friend to terminate her last pregnancy but was dissuaded from taking the drastic step.)

Self-evolved. Aai belonged to the Ajinkya family residing on the ground floor of the house opposite the Roxy Cinema where I was born. http://bit.ly/1yBaVUz My four distinct childhood memories about this spacious ground-floor flat are: (1) a wooden swing the exact replica of the one we had in our 233 Khetwadi Main Road residence; (2) a living room practically bereft of books; (3) a Bombay Gas connection for cooking fuel (coal gas that used to be manufactured till the late seventies/early eighties in a Parel plant) in the kitchen just like the one Ujwal’s parents had; and (4) a faint odour of residual decay wafting around the back of the house. You can read whatever little I know about Aai’s family here: http://bit.ly/1uhm2Ol Aai’s elder brother brought her up. I remember him as a fair and handsome man with well-maintained salt-and-pepper mustaches. He seemed to live well after having retired from the French Bank at the end of a long and lucrative career. I remember him giving Aai a gold guinea coin one bhai dooj. I used to visit him mostly in Aai’s company but on a couple of occasions even Baba’s. (I don’t remember Baba ever calling on Aai’s other brother who lived with his family at Gamdevi.) Aai had, I heard her tell, matriculated from the Kamalabai Girls’ School in Nowroji Street where Ujwal’s mother http://bit.ly/1sQ0v0F was her classmate. Aai was small-built. One of my earliest infantile memories of her is being patted and cooed to sleep while I furiously sucked at my lower lip and kneaded a black wart situated at a respectful distance to the left of her belly button. I can vouch for the fact that, throughout my childhood, I watched her cultivating of her own volition an interest in reading light literary fiction in Marathi as well as in watching quality plays. She used to subscribe to three leading monthlies published in Marathi: Kirloskar, Stree and Manohar and avidly read them cover to cover. I also remember accompanying her in April 1943 or 1944 to a ten-night open-air festival of Marathi plays. It took place on the sea-facing ground parallel to the BBCI (now Western) Railway tracks between the Grand Medical College and Islam Gymkhanas on Marine Drive – a once-in-a-lifetime event staged by the Marathi Sahitya Sangh with a view to revive the Marathi theatre. http://bit.ly/1rI3959 Aai also used to take me to Marathi plays staged in nearby theatres. You wouldn’t be wrong in concluding that she was a patron of the arts, albeit on a very modest scale. Maybe, it was due to her culturally-charged Pathare Prabhu genes, who knows? I must confess, however, that she played a big role in nurturing my love for reading and the fine arts in general by setting an example. I used to be a major contributor to a hand-written (hasta likhit) magazine in Marathi produced by the sixth and seventh grade students in my first school. http://bit.ly/1rZD4zY Her daughter did not share her passion for the arts and literature unfortunately. Her reading was confined to the popular English glossies she borrowed from a circulating library with a home delivery service. Besides this, she was an ardent Hindi movie addict regularly watching the banal romantic fare on offer without fail at the various neighbourhood cinema halls and buying the musical discs. She also had a formidable collection of Hindi movie program bills and song books that used to be sold in the movie halls of the time – worth a fortune in the memorabilia market today by the way. Unfortunately, it got lost owing to neglect and lack of foresight. 

The Mankars do well for themselves. Aai’s maiden name “Manak” (or “Manik”) is the Marathi word for ruby, a much-coveted precious stone coloured pink to blood-red. (Ujwal’s mother, Aai’s close friend and confidante, kept addressing her by that name even in later life.) After marriage she was, according to the custom re-christened “Laxmi” after the Hindu Goddess of Prosperity and Wealth. She seemed to live up to her new name as she entered Baba’s life. He prospered in Government service and made enough money and more to support his cousins and nephews and nieces, all part of his extended family. Also, following his Pathare Prabhu predilection once again, he built a house for his family in Prabhu Nagar, Khar, a Western suburb just beyond Bandra served by the BBCI (now Western) Railways, where a lot of Pathare Prabhus were already shifting. My guess is that he must have done it with his own savings because I doubt if bank loans for housing were then offered as freely and avidly as at present. All this must have added to his stature both in his professional and personal life. As usual, life had to add an ironical twist in the story. Baba was named after Waman, the fifth reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, a diminutive hero with a generous heart who vanquished King Bali, the ruler of the three worlds. http://bit.ly/1xNCVmJ and http://bit.ly/ZLWKwH In fact, he stood tall at 5’-8” or so. No doubt, the commonality between him and his fabled namesake was only in deeds. 

Enemy within. Unfortunately though not unexpectedly, there lurked among Baba’s near and dear relatives – the very ones he had sheltered munificently − a bunch of wily demons akin to the rakshasas from his namesake’s universe. A maternal uncle and his family laid a squatter’s claim to his Khar bunglow because he had allowed them to reside there. The sentimental fool that he was, Baba chose to let go of the property quietly instead of proving ownership in a court of law. (Come to think of it, although law was his profession, I had heard him on several occasions advising people to shun the courts and the lawyers.) He, however, broke off all ties with that branch of his family except for a distant cousin of his (Sunder Nayak, nicknamed Kanikaka) who worked for the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (now HSBC) and who, along with his wife (known to me only as “Kaku” = aunty), was devoted to both Aai and Baba. In fact, so close was the couple to my parents that the weddings of two of their three daughters took place at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. What’s more, when my cousin Suresh, the son of Kanikaka and Kaku, chose to marry a non-Prabhu girl, my parents sided with his parents who were staunchly against the marriage in spite of the fact that they were very fond of and close to their nephew (he called Baba "bhaukaka" which literally means "bother uncle" and Aai, "Kakibai") and broad-minded enough to realize that the days of scrupulously staying within the caste boundaries were numbered at least in the urban areas.  

The wards’ fate. In Aai and Baba’s charge and under their care, besides their own daughter, were two of Baba’s nieces, Nalini and Sarojani, who respectfully addressed them with the honorifics ‘Kakibai’ and ‘Kakaji’. Both of them, as far as my recollection goes, were treated by my parents as daughters of the family on a par with the real daughter – although the latter saw the situation in a different light and took every opportunity to display her displeasure. Of the two wards, Nalini was the more gifted academically. She completed her graduation from the Elphinstone College along with her cousin who too excelled in academics. Unfortunately, Nalini was married off in 1939 or thereabouts to a Rationing Office employee – much below her intellectual stature − and ended up as a forlorn housewife. Even after sixty years of a futile existence, her mind had lost none of its original sharpness, though. In a get-together in the mid-nineties at Ashu’s in-laws, we were astonished to hear her conversing fluently in French with a youngster from France who happened to be one of the invitees. Nalini, I think, was also a trained dilruba player though I don’t remember ever hearing her playing it. Her less talented and plain-looking sibling, Sarojani, took lessons in singing and sewing but did not seem to have got anywhere in either field. She was married to a decent enough though far from successful man at the same time as her sister.

Down with the Khetwadi Mankars. Hindsight tells me that the real tragedy of Nalini was that she was married off willy-nilly into a large joint family headed by a matriarch with five sons living on the Antop Hill, Wadala. Nalini’s husband was the youngest of the brood. The wife of the second eldest son, a moderately successful lawyer by profession, was the eldest daughter of Aai’s elder brother residing opposite the Roxy Cinema (please see above). (The Elder Ajinkya’s progeny comprised one son and two daughters.) This worthy – the great pretender that she was – professed profound love and affection for Aai in her presence while secretly envying her good fortune and good life and, more particularly, the success of her husband and, in consequence, despising her and the Mankar family in the bargain and being always on the lookout for a chance to “fix” the accursed lot. She was not alone in this pursuit. Her own husband, her sister (much better educated than her but her match, stride for stride, as far as skullduggery went) and the latter’s solicitor husband – a doppelganger of Justice Strauss from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events saga in terms of his deeds and thoughts − as well as Aai’s own younger sister and the wife and the elder son of Aai’s second brother (actually third, I think – the second one, an Indian Army physician, having migrated to England during World War I) were all a part of the secret down-with-the-Khetwadi-Mankars clique. The scenario happened to be no less sudsy than the convoluted soaps currently doing the rounds in assorted Indian languages on the idiot box.

Self-deluded. My poor, innocent, trusting Aai played into the hands of the villains without fail on several occasions, the only exception being her firm and unshakable resolve to have Ujwal as her daughter-in-law. In Nalini’s case, she deluded herself into believing that her niece would protect her own ward in the virtual snake pit she was being shoved into – relying on her blind faith in people on her own maternal side (= maaher in Marathi; mahike in Hindi). As the saying goes, there’s no delusion more lethal than self-delusion. My mother must have realized later on that she had made a grave mistake in Nalini’s case. Yet, she repeated it toward the end of her life. The elder son of her third brother had been caught red-handed in the commission of graft at the Airport in the late fifties. Again deluding herself into believing in his innocence when his propensity to take bribe was more or less an open secret – the big bunglow he had built in West Bandra was cited by many as a pointer to his not-so-clean hands – she insisted that Baba should “save” him through his many “connections”. He, being the way he was, flatly refused. One thing led to another and they drifted apart, stopped talking to each other. This wall of silence remained in place right till her death in 1962. The down-with-the-Khetwadi-Mankars clique had drawn blood twice over!

Two weddings, a nagging worry and a misadventure. But that was far away in the future. Coming back to the aftermath of the weddings of the two wards of Aai and Baba, they were relieved to have done their duty in loco parentis, i.e., as foster parents, by arranging what they considered as a suitable match for each of the duo in (I guess) 1941 when I had just turned five and we were then living on the first floor of 233 Khetwadi Main Road. The lavish weddings were held in the spacious hall on the ground floor of Vanita Vishram School next door to 233 Khetwadi Main Road and the reception in the garden behind it. The school, by the way, is still very much there doing its job although there are no more weddings held on the premises, as far as I can tell.

Meanwhile, frenzied, near frenetic efforts were afoot to find a suitable boy for the daughter of the house. After all, she was not growing any younger with each passing day. Alas, all to no avail. She had by then taken up a job in the newly opened Rationing Office situated in the Jinnah Hall next to the Grant Road Bridge within walking distance of 233 Khetwadi Main Road. This is where she found her “true love” in the Hindi film style and I have already described at the beginning of this piece what happened then. To keep herself occupied after her misadventure, Malini had learned Hindi and Urdu and started doing honorary social service by tutoring women in a women’s organization in the vicinity. It was only in 1949 that a match was finally arranged for the Princess. Prince Charming happened to be no other than a Lower Division Clerk in the Income Tax Department who happened to reside quite close by. A harmless enough person who fancied himself as an artist; he used to make miniature statuettes out of clay and paint them quite beautifully. He was also an amateur inventor in his own right. I remember being impressed with his system of closing the front door from the outside with the use of nothing but a piece of strong string. (To get the door to open later, though, you had to ring the doorbell.) Malini had fared maybe a notch better in the marriage stakes than Nalini, the more talented cousin she despised and whose husband was not as gifted.

Pooja, priests and a guru. Were Aai and Baba seeking their respective paths to salvation in their own way? Aai had always been a god-fearing person given to daily prayer, weekly pooja by the family priest on Mondays, fasting during the month of Shravan, special offerings to Lord Shiva such as maharudra with eleven Brahmins presiding if so advised by the family priest or her astrologer, a visit to a dozen Rama temples on the Ramnavmi day and so forth. After her daughter’s “narrow escape from a fate worse than death” (as she put it), she had acquired a guru residing in a quaint sea-facing flat on the road along the coast leading up to the Banganga and then on to the Malabar Hills garden. And who do you think had led this guileless woman up this particular garden path? No surprises there. It was someone from the fix-The-Mankars clique: her younger sister-in-law whom she adored as a notable member of her maternal family.

Marx, Radical Humanism, Bhakti. While all this was happening, my father had taken to reading, along with his client briefs and legal reference volumes (he had several shelves full of these tomes stacked in his makeshift home office under a shed on the front terrace of the third-floor flat – where we had shifted by then − at 233 Khetwadi Main Road because his criminal law practice was thriving, thank you), MN Roy’s books about radical humanism, books about communist thought and leaders and biographies of the saints in the bhakti tradition in Marathi (Tukaram, Namdeo, Muktabai, Chokha Mela, Janabai and the like). He had also started to chant aloud Kabir’s doha, Tukaram’s abhang and Ramdas’s Manache Shloka in his leisure time. By the time India became free, he had become a near ardent fan of Nehru tracking his idol’s doings faithfully through The Times of India reportage every morning. (Did his reading leftist literature have anything to do with it? By the way, I have a sneaking suspicion that, when his idol shuffled off his mortal coil on 27 May 1964, Baba shed a tear privately.) By contrast, I saw Aai mildly excited during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. By the time, it ended with the formation of the new state in 1960, her health had started failing and her interest had all but tapered off. Aai and Baba’s first grandchild, Shubhada, was born in 1950, by the way, the second following ten years later.

Real affliction, “false” physician. During most part of his active life as a government servant and as a successful lawyer, Baba had been a victim of a strange malady for which no doctor found either the right name or an effective treatment. From time to time, he would wake up in the morning with a rash of hives all over his upper torso and arms and a shooting pain mainly in his arms which made him cry out and confined him to bed for a couple of days. The cretin of a family physician under whose care he had put himself during the forties and the early part of the fifties (that simpering abomination called himself either Dharadhar or Dhurandhar – he too was a Pathare Prabhu, an unwelcome appendage hailing from Baba’s early life in Navi Wadi, alas! − and lurked in a first floor flat in the building on the corner of Burroughs Lane off Girgaum Road, if memory serves) christened the condition “urticaria” and ordered his patient first to eschew eggs, flesh and fish in his daily diet and then to get all his teeth pulled out. Nothing worked. As he aged, however, the condition and the joke of a doctor gradually waned out of his life. For as long as I knew him, Baba had also suffered from hernia for which he used a support belt made by N Powell & Company (Opera House).

Honour? What honour? As the forties gave way to the fifties, my father was offered out of the blue the post of Coroner of Bombay. Without giving a thought to the likelihood that it would be an avoidable disruption in his fledgling but thriving career as a widely sought-out criminal lawyer, he accepted with alacrity what he thought of as an “honour”. (Those were the days when honour scored over everything else in most people’s calculations.) Honour it certainly was along with a puny honorarium which made a serious dent in Baba’s already unsound and untenable finances. There was another unexpected setback, too. In a no-holds-barred judgment on one of the cases he had to administer, the new but politically inept Coroner of Bombay passed strictures on the admission procedure of accident victims then prevalent in Sir Harkisondas Narottamdas Hospital. The Hospital had by then acquired the ownership of 233 Khetwadi Main Road which more or less abutted their own campus. Baba’s strictures so incensed the Trustees of the Hospital that they vowed to “fix the ghati Coroner once and for all”. Their very first offensive was to shift the hospital’s morgue to the store room at the rear on the ground floor of 233 Khetwadi Main Road. This meant that many a funeral procession guest-featuring loudly wailing and chest-pounding hired mourners originated from the front gate of our building.

Kashmir works its magic. I passed my Secondary School Certificate examination in 1952 and enrolled in the Sydenham College for the Bachelor of Commerce course. After appearing for the Intermediate examination in April 1954, I went on a packaged tour of Jammu and Kashmir. There were only two tourists on this tour apart from me: Ujwal and Saroj or “Tamma”, Kanikaka’s youngest daughter and my cousin.  The tour would have been cancelled for lack of sufficient paying customers but for Kanikaka’s intervention with the tour conductor who happened to be his close friend. So the tour happened and so did the closeness between Ujwal and me.

Not IAS, FMC. In 1956, I completed my B. Com. Course and enrolled for a Masters degree in Public Economics by research in the RA Podar College in Matunga. Baba wanted me to join the Indian Administrative Services. So, I sat for the test twice passing the written component both times but flunking the interview. However, I managed to pass in 1959 the Masters with an excellent report from my examiners for my voluminous 654-page research tome and joined the Forward Markets Commission, Government of India. In the meantime, Aai had decided that Ujwal was the wife for her son – in the face of serious and voluble opposition from her own daughter and the down-with-the-Khetwadi-Mankars clique. She talked to Baba and he was more than willing. So, in 1959, on Jesus Christ’s birthday, wedding rituals and reception were held at the Laxmi Narayan Temple off Hughes Road.

Down in the dumps. After the uncalled-for interruption in my father’s successful career as a criminal lawyer during his stint as Coroner of Bombay, his practice never recovered to its previous level. (I got a personal glimpse in Baba’s courtroom skills when he defended me in a traffic offence matter. It came about in this fashion. In either 1953 or 1954, having just got my driving license, I was just about a fledgling, somewhat hesitant driver. One morning, I was driving Baba to the High Court at Flora Fountain before going to college. Baba was sitting next to me and our chauffeur was in the back seat. Driving along New Queen’s Road, now Parmanand Marg, just as the family Renault reached the Churchgate junction and was about to take the then free left turn to go to Flora Fountain, there was much shouting heard from the front seat of an unmarked Police vehicle coming from Marine Drive and going our way. The alarm was apparently raised by a top Police functionary – probably the Commissioner or Assistant Commission, I never found out which – who made me pull the Renault to the left of the road and took down all my particulars and confiscated my driving license. Our explanation fell on deaf ears because he was thoroughly convinced that there was no free left turn and that I had broken the law. He threatened to sue me and did carry out the threat. When the case came for hearing, Baba really demolished the officer who was put on the witness stand. The poor fellow was aware of the existence of the free left turn and admitted as much to the Judge who passed strictures about wasting the Court’s valuable time. So, it was actually a walkover. And, it put paid to my life as a notorious law breaker – and also to the free left turn at Churchgate!)

Baba’s finances were in the doldrums by the time I had started earning a measly salary not at all sizeable enough to bridge the yawning chasm that had opened up in the family fortune. Baba used to also do all along a lot of pro bono work − at times even when it was not called for, strictly speaking. He had made a lot of bad investments along the way including a major one in a rundown property in a supposedly residential compound in Vile Parle with a bunglow illegally used as first as a manufactory of and later as a warehouse for medicinal products, a one-storey tenement and three temporary structures. He had thought of it as a source of steady monthly income in his old age. It turned out to be a quite a headache and a drain on his already meagre resources. As a Trustee of Pathare Prabhu Charities, he spent quite a bit of his time and, at several occasions, even money on thankless honorary pursuits. (Perhaps, he saw it in terms of “giving back to the society”. His valuable contribution was never sufficiently appreciated by his community, though.) A chain smoker during most of his middle age, he had quit cigarettes around the same time he turned vegetarian. Every Sunday, though, a group of seven or eight of his bezique-playing friends gathered in the terrace flat at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. Moreover, once a month, another group – contract bridge players this time – assembled at the same address and was lavishly entertained by the generous host. Baba was always mindful of the comfort and well-being of his family. The 233 Khetwadi Main Road Mankars lived well. We had a car even before I was born. (A maroon-and-black Wolseley Wasp it was till around 1948, then making way for a red Renault that served the family till the early sixties.) Also, we must have been among the first few families in the Khetwadi precinct to own a pressure cooker, a top-of-the-line wireless set and a refrigerator as early as the beginning of the 1950s. Baba also gladly and willingly bought toys and books for me whenever I “wrote him a note” when he left for work. The family (more often than not for the extended family) summered in Matheran and Mahabaleshwar as a rule till almost the mid-fifties. Once, probably in 1941, the Mankars went as far south as Madras in the company of some members of the down-with-the-Mankars goon squad. (In retrospect, I guess the Mankars were aping the goras who used to summer regularly at Simla, Darjeeling, Srinagar and “snooty Ooty”. I distinctly remember travelling with several trunks and canvas bedrolls or “beddings” which one doesn’t see any more on railways platforms or in the brake vans.) Even these minor (and sometimes not so minor) but regular expenses, his thoughtless handouts to all and sundry whiners and supplicants and money spent on the maintenance of the aging family car and the chauffeur played havoc with the Mankar Family’s cash cache. Things came to such a head that when my mother was hospitalized for leukemia more than once in 1961-62, Baba had no other option to tide over the financial crisis except to sell some of the family jewelry.

Nine yards of resolve. When Ujwal resumed her college education at the Sophia immediately after her wedding, she scrupulously followed the dress code for a newly married woman according to her mother-in-law’s wishes. Her astonished and much amused classmates teased her for attending college in a nine-yard saree and ornaments. Peer pressure was no match for her exemplary resolve, though. She also patiently learned to cook Pathare Prabhu cuisine in the special Mankar style. She wasn’t doing it to earn brownie points, by the way. It was in her nature to behave in this fashion especially with people who gave her love and respect as whole-heartedly as Aai and Baba did. So deeply attached had she become to her mother-in-law that she looked after her almost single-handedly throughout her last lingering illness waiting on her hand and foot and attending to all her needs from bathing to feeding with an eagle eye and an alert mind.

The fault lines begin to show. All throughout, Aai and Baba had been a devoted couple, as far as my memory and “inside information” go. I remember them rising to each other’s defence if a third part questioned either’s intentions, motives or actions. If I said a cross word to Aai in his presence, Baba would chide me gently in a pained tone of voice. Isn’t there a saying “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”? Something similar happened to Aai at the fag end of her life. She insisted that Baba should use his contacts to “shield” her maternal nephew from the dire consequences of the serious misdemeanor he had committed in his place of work. (Please see above.) As a leverage device, she chose the weapon of silence. In other words, she stopped talking to Baba until he was forced to oblige. Unfortunately, he chose to retaliate in like manner. The Cold War was on. It ended with Aai’s death in the Bombay Hospital when only Ujwal was with her and no one else from the close family.

During her last illness, Aai’s own daughter had pleaded her inability to care for her ailing mother or at least help in the process saying she had just delivered her second daughter who took all her time. But this did not prevent her from hounding and harassing Ujwal immediately after Aai’s death when she and her henchwomen, prominent among whom were some members of the anti-Mankar clique, kept visiting her in the afternoons on the pretext of supervising her progress during pregnancy. 

Once, when Ujwal was alone at home in the afternoon with Baba and I out on work and Ujwal’s trusted maid out on an errand, she demanded her share of the family jewels from Ujwal. Ujwal quietly gave her the keys of the cupboard that her father-in-law had recently handed over to her and watched as she plundered at random some of the gold ornaments and silver stuff. The daughter of the house even had the audacity to snatch away the Clyde bicycle that had been gifted to her brother by one of Baba’s friend cum client, a certain Mr Kazarani. Ujwal did not burden her father-in-law with the latest news because she did not want to hurt him. 

The last merry lap with two grandsons. Baba survived Aai by a little under 3 years. In that short spell, he enjoyed what Aai had hoped for but missed by a whisker as it were: playing with the grandsons, singing ditties to them and spoiling them silly. He also made a Last Will and Codicil dividing his property according to his wishes. That it was challenged in the court of law after his death was inevitable. By whom and at whose instigation are open secrets. The irony of it all was that when the bunglow in Khar Baba had built with the sweat of his brow was snatched from him by his own kith and kin, he did not see it fit to file a law suit. As soon as he had left this world, his own kith and kin made sure history repeated itself.

Does every life story come with a built-in moral? I don’t think I can answer the question. Did I learn anything from the lives of my parents? Well, maybe all I relearned was the cliché that bad things keep happening to good people. It’s, I suppose, all a manifestation of what Buddha called samsara: the human condition full of grief (dukkha) and strife, frustration and pain, the result of “attachment, craving and the refusal to accept impermanence”. Life happens in a circular continuum, I guess. It reassures us that even this shall pass. Reality shows on the idiot box and the assorted villains peopling them are not a patch on reality shows and villains in real life, I dare say. At first glance, every life looks like a lost cause. After a bit of thought, one begins to feel not quite so cocksure.