Anita was late for the meeting. By the time she reached, the evening prayers and chanting were already over and the leader had started to speak. Anita was looking forward to the prayers as this is the only time she found in her busy day to pray. Nevertheless, she settled down and took out her notebook in which she took detailed notes of every lecture.
Shashikant saw Anita come in. He had reached early and had welcomed everyone who came in. People came in looking formally dressed. They had come in directly from work. Looking at them, Shashi felt a pit in the bottom of his stomach. He had lost his job 3 months back when his company decided to exit India operations. They had paid him for a couple of months. He had been looking for a job ever since but had not been able to find anything.
Shashikant couldn't help notice Anita from the corner of his eye. He found her graceful and intelligent. She was quite pretty too and always carried herself with dignity. He had had the impulse many times to talk to her and even once planned to ask her for a cup of coffee. However, contact between the group's unmarried male and female members was actively discouraged. Males and females were seated separately in all group meetings.
Guruji’s group was meticulously organised. The organisation reminded Anita of Multi-Level Marketing organisations that she had read about in management school. The group’s members were organised geographically and were further broken down into residential societies. At each level there were leaders, responsible for the members within that level.
Anita had become a follower of Guruji about 10 years back. She had lost her father to a sudden and unexpected heart attack. Anita, only 20 years old then, had to shoulder the financial and emotional responsibilities of the house. Her mother had slipped into depression and had retreated into another world. Then, a friend who had been a follower of Guruji initiated her into the practice. Ordinarily, Anita was skeptical of anything religious, but Guruji was an internationally renowned personality. He had followers in close to a 100 countries and his organisations did a lot of charitable work in the local communities. The group practiced what they called 21st century Hinduism. A westernized, secular and scientific version of 5000 year old Vedic tradition, its website claimed. Some aims of the group included conflict resolution, nuclear disarmament and reversal of climate change. This resonated with Anita.
After attending only one meeting with a friend, Anita found the prayers restorative and energizing. The prayers were an ancient Vedic chant popularised by Guruji’s own guru, a mystic who had spent decades meditating in the Himalayas and read the ancient Vedic scriptures deeply. After 10 years of assiduous practice, he chanced upon this particular mantra hidden deep in the Vedas and after reciting it 108 times, achieved enlightenment. He was then convinced that recitation of this mantra was the solution of all ills and repeated recitation of it would lead the chanter to enlightenment.
While the leader spoke of Guruji’s teachings, Anita noticed Shashi stealing glances at her. She looked him straight in the eye and he smiled at her. She smiled back, disarmed by his enthusiasm. She knew Shashi was a few years younger than her. He also had the air of a child with his long, floppy hair. She could guess he was one of the ‘creative types’, a copywriter or graphic designer. Another member told her that Shashi was looking for a job and had asked Anita to look out if there were any vacancies in her company.
The lecture ended. This is the part Anita dreaded most. Members socializing with each other as they prepared to leave. Often members would come up and ask her how she was doing. They would often bring marriage up. It was known in the entire group that Anita had been trying to get married for a few years. They would ask her how her search for a life partner was progressing.
A couple of years back Anita was involved with someone. Amit was a management graduate from the best business school in India. He was working in Hong Kong. His father was a friend of Anita’s mother’s brother. They added each other on Facebook and got talking.
Anita enjoyed conversations with Amit. He was straightforward, funny and honest. A few months later, he had come down to Delhi to meet his family and he and Anita met for coffee. They both had a great time and spent the next two days together.
A week later Amit left India. However, Anita and he remained constantly in touch. They spoke everyday around 5:30 pm when Anita left office and Amit was winding down for the day. He often even woke her up as her was two and half hours ahead of her. Their individual families became aware of their growing closeness. Anita visited Amit’s parents at their house in Delhi
About a month later, Amit had to take a work trip to Bangalore. He invited Anita to join him. She wanted to go but was worried. Would sex be involved? Anita had never been intimate with a man. She was not a prude but she had been cautioned against illicit sex by too many people for too long. Confused, Anita did what she always did. She prayed for hours at a time. Praying always helped her strengthen confidence.
Finally, Anita took the trip and had a great time. They did end up having sex. Anita enjoyed the intimacy but the sex disappointed her. It was painful and seemed pointless. Was this what all the fuss was about?
Anita came back and a week later Amit’s mother called her mother and the wedding was agreed to. Anita’s mother was ecstatic. Amit’s mother asked for Anita’s horoscope.
A week later, Anita received a call from Amit at 3:30 am. He sounded worried and tired. He said that he hadn’t slept the whole night. He informed Anita that there was a problem with her horoscope. The pandit who they consulted told his mother that her horoscope said that her mother-in-law would die with a year and a half. Amit told her that they will have to break the wedding off.
“You know I don’t believe in all this. But my mother does. I dont care but she does. How can I reason with her? These are stupid beliefs. There’s no point of even negotiating with anyone about this. If something happens, my family will blame you. Do you want to live with this?”
However, Amit promised to call regularly. When they hung up, Anita knew it was the last time she was speaking to him
For most of his life, Shashi had worked as a freelance graphic designer. His father had wanted him to pursue medicine or engineering but Shashi was always drawn to what he could make with his hands. A friend of his had set up a small potter’s studio churning out fashionable wares and Shashi had paid him a visit. Shashi was instantly captivated by the feel of the clay moving in his hands. It seemed as though the clay had a life of its own and yet Shashi could always bend it and it would follow.
When he came back to his house, there were clay stains all over his clothes. Shashi’s father was livid and beat him black and blue. Shashi couldnt understand. Why was his father so angry? A few hours later, his father instructed his mother to pack their bags. They were taking a trip to his native village near Benares.
Despite the afternoon incident, Shashi was excited. He had never seen the village before. They were to stay with his father’s sister, a widow who had moved back into her maternal home after Shashi’s grandfather died.
Over stove cooked rotis, Shashi’s aunt told him about his grandfather. He came from the caste of potters, traditionally considered a low-caste or untouchables. However, his grandfather had rebelled and got admission at the Benares Hindu University. When he would visit home, local boys from the dominant caste would often corner him and beat him up. Despite this, he persevered and graduated as an engineer. He found a job in a public sector company and moved his family to Delhi. From his childhood Shashi had been told about his grandfather and how he should be grateful to him.
Shashikant was trying to focus on the leader’s lecture. There were plenty of charismatic and well-spoken leaders in Guruji’s group but this particular leader was not one of them. He basically read out Guruji’s lecture from the series and added nothing. If I wanted to read Guruji’s lecture from the book I needn’t have come to this stupid meeting, flashed through his mind. He corrected himself. This was not the right way of thinking.
As the minutes passed, the lecture came to a close. Shashi knew it was time to go home but he dreaded it. He had recently moved back with his parents after losing his job for the second time. It would be 7:30 pm when he would have reached home. Just about the time his father would start his drinking. He glanced at his mother who was deeply absorbed in the lecture signalling to her that they would leave in a while, once he was finished helping other members pack up and leave.
Author Notes: I will be publishing the story in multiple parts.