One summer afternoon, around April of 1963, I returned home after my typing class to find 3 pairs of stranger’s shoes outside the door of our apartment in Ghatkopar. Strangely enough, Acchan’s shoes were also outside the door, neatly arranged along the wall, in his trademark style. That was unusual because he had left for work on the dot of 8 this morning , after his usual breakfast of 4 idlis with coconut chutney and a large cup of Horlicks.
I was curious to know who could be visiting. There was a pair of woman’s sandals in the lot and so I presumed one of Amma’s friends might have come calling. I rang the bell tentatively and it was opened by my aunt, Ammingamma, who smiled, quickly pulling me through the hall way and into my parent’s bedroom.
“Wash your face quickly and wear this saree,” she said, gesturing to the bed where she had laid out a rose- coloured silk saree, her face awash with an unknown excitement .
“Why? I am hungry. I have been outside since morning,” I protested. “Can I meet the visitors after I eat lunch? I can smell Sambar and Thoran.”
“No, my child. Someone is here to see you. They can’t wait indefinitely. What took you so long today?” Ammingamma said, handing me a towel and nudging me into the bathroom. “Don’t forget to comb your hair and plait it neatly,” she said, closing the door after her.
A strange sort of numbness came over me as I washed up with Amma’s favourite Moti soap. My legs felt weak and my heart thudded crazily in my chest. My hands shook as I combed through my waist-length hair and attempted to plait it.
I had come to Mumbai to finish my college education, so why were my parents thinking of marriage? Like my 2 aunts, I too wanted to have a career. I wanted to work in a bank and count out crisp notes that I would hand out to customers who came to my bank in their smart trousers and shirts and shiny briefcases . Why were my parents talking about marriage?
I came out of the bathroom wearing my petticoat and blouse and waited patiently as Ammingamma tied the saree around me, holding it in place with safety pins so that everything looked neat and tidy. “It is time you learnt to wear a saree on your own,’ she said, pulling my cheeks and kissing me gently on my forehead. “You are sixteen now and old enough to have a family of your own. Do hurry up and powder your face and be ready to come out when I call for you,”“ she said, heading out to the drawing room from where I could hear male voices in muted conversation.
“Pramila Kutty, can you get the tea please?” Amma’s voice cut through the chaos in my mind and set my heart slamming again so that I could barely hear her. “Moley , come soon. The tea will get cold”, she added.
I headed to the kitchen and Ammingamma’s close friend ,Sumatichechi, was there pouring out tea in Amma’s best white and gold tea cups . Acchan worked for a British company and even though we had our tea in steel tumblers every day, she insisted that the family had to own at least one tea set for when his friends or colleagues visited. There was parippu vada and boondi ladoos on another plate and I had to carry all of that on a tray to the drawing room.
I saw the preparations laid out on the dining table and froze. I could not do it. How could I walk into a room full of strangers who would look at me up and down and decide if I was fit for their son or not?
“I won’t take this out. I don’t want to go there,” I said to Sumatichechi, a sudden couple of tears blinding me.
Sumatichechi held my hands gently. “Every girl has to do this, moley. This is part of every woman’s life. Wipe your tears and take this out. They are good people and you will be fine,” she whispered. I picked up the tray and headed to the drawing room, handing it over to Ammingamma who stood by the door, just inside the room, her saree drawn tight across her shoulders.
“Come in Pramila. Nair uncle is here and he wants to introduce you to our guests.” Acchan said, sensing my hesitation.
I walked in, breathless because my heart seemed to have come loose and was slamming against my throat and my mouth had gone dry as if I had not had a drop of water all day. I stood by the door, face turned away from the visitors, pressing myself into the walls, painfully aware of six pairs of eyes on me. In a moment I sidled close to Ammingamma, reaching for her hands as my knees threatened to give way under me.
“It is alright,” she said in her kindest voice and somehow, that reassured me. “Why don’t you say hello to Nair uncle and his guests?”
I turned then, slowly and lifted my head up and looked straight into what were surely the kindest, most sincere pair of eyes I had ever seen in my life. There was an honesty and purity about the eyes that set my heart at rest immediately. He smiled instantly, a wide open smile that lit up his face and I dropped my eyes in confusion, aware that I was blushing furiously. In that moment, I knew that this was the man I would marry, and no other.
Ammingamma led me out of the room after that and the guests stayed for barely 10 minutes but I heard them tell Amma and Acchan that they would send word in a few days. When they had gone, I heard my parents discuss the boy with Sumatichechi and Ammingamma, both of who liked him. “He looks like a good boy,” Ammingamma said. “He will keep our Pramila happy.”
Later, Ammingamma came into the room and told me the boy’s name was Radhakrishnan. He worked as a Station Master in Central Railway and lived in Dombivili with his widowed mother, in government quarters to which he was entitled. “Did you like him,” she asked me, looking into my eyes , smiling. “I like him,” I said, confidently.
Two days after their visit, Nair Uncle called Achchan at work to say that the boy and his family had liked me. But the boy had expressed concern about my very young age. I heard Acchan tell Amma over dinner that night that the boy had called Nair Uncle at work , telling him that his mother had led him to believe that the girl he was to see was 23 years old and that was the reason he had come to meet me. It was only when he visited our home that he realised that I was just 16 years old while he was 30. It was not fair on the girl, he had told Nair Uncle, requesting him to convey the message to my father and let him decide what was the appropriate thing to do.
“I think he is too old for our Pramila. Besides, I learnt from someone that he is a union leader and often sits in dharna outside VT station. We don’t want such trouble makers in our family. Better to decline the proposal.” Acchan said. “It is your decision,” I heard Amma say and for some reason, I heart sank.
Later that night, as I sat attempting to focus on practicing my short hand lessons, Amma came into the room and said: “Moley, that boy who came to see you the other day is not suitable for you. He is unlikely to give you a good life. Acchan is planning to call them tomorrow and decline the proposal. But you don’t worry. We will soon find another boy for you,” she said.
“ Amme, that is not possible now. Don’t look for another boy for me. This is the only boy I will marry,” I said, grabbing the courage that the universe sent to me at that moment. I had never stood up to my father ever before this but I had fallen in love with the handsome man with kind eyes and a smile that made me feel like I was the most beautiful girl in the world. I would have no one else as my husband.
Five months later we were man and wife. I never set eyes on him in the months between the day he first came to “see” me and the moment I was ushered into the Kalyana Mandapam in my cream and gold coloured Kanjeevaram saree.
I realised soon enough that mine would not be a life of marital bliss and domesticity that I dreamt of. CR ( that was what he was known as to his legion of followers) was married to his first love, the railway worker’s union and everything in his life revolved around getting justice for the exploited working class. He was a man on a mission and took on the might of the railway management as he fought a relentless war against exploitation of labor. Often times this meant that he would be demoted from his existing job- one time they demoted him to the rank of a signal man and send him off to work in a remote hilly area so that he would not be able to organize workers in the city. Undefeated, CR went on to organize the hundreds of humble casual workers who manned the huge stretch of railway tracks in the ghat section but worked with measly pay and non-existent safety mechanism for their own lives.
Acchan was outraged that his first born had to face endless difficulties and had barely enough to run her household and feed her chiIdren. One day he made me a proposition. “Pack your bags, pick up your children and come back home. Leave him now and I will look after you.”
“No,” I said. “I love the man I married and no matter what happens to me, I will never leave him. I have never asked you for help, Achcha. I’ve never complained to you. Please don’t say unkind words about my husband again.” Acchan never brought up the topic with me again but as CR’s commitment to the labor movement grew, so did the distance between him and my husband. To his credit and to my joy, CR remained faultlessly respectful of his father-in-law even though he was fully aware that my father disapproved of him thoroughly.
As he got increasingly involved with the worker’s movement, going underground to lead lakhs of railway workers on the historical Indian Railway Strike in 1974, losing his job for over 3 years as a result , I raged and grieved for the man I loved even more than myself. But over the years, as I raised our four children we had, I resigned myself to the fact that I would always have to share my husband with the lakhs of workers for who he was almost God. I gradually pawned and sold every piece of jewellery I had ever had so that I did not have to ask my parents for money to run the household. But not once in the years that he tended to his work and I struggled to keep my children in school, did I ever regret my decision to stand by the man that I had fallen in love with. I am glad I followed my heart. He was, indeed, the kindest man I had ever met.
Amma and Achchan would have been married for 53 years last October but life had other plans for them. In February last my father passed away after a sudden illness, leaving her grieving and in shock from the loss of her companion of over half a century.
In August last year, in a desperate bid to keep her from losing her mind to the grief that has taken over her life, we started encouraging her to write about her life with our father. And, miraculously, she took to it like fish to water.
Six months on , Amma is ready with her book of reminiscences of her life with her trade unionist husband and is raring to get it published.
The chapter above is a dramatized excerpt from her book.