In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think anyone really cared that Suresh Babu would be married twice—not even my sister Vaidehi, who was to be his second wife. Least of all Vaidehi, considering she had orchestrated the whole thing in the first place.
She had fought hard against our parents to go to college, and now that she was just a year away from finishing, Amma had started sending out feelers to the gossipy old ladies she met at weddings or housewarmings or christening ceremonies. Krishna, that good-for-nothing rowdy who roamed the streets all day on his motorbike, was being considered as a suitor. As was Tilak, the college Principal’s son. He was alright, educated too, but about as boring as watching cows graze on a deathly still summer afternoon. Of course, what bothered Vaidehi most about these boys was that with any of them, she would be stuck in this town forever, watching her dreams of living in a bigger city, attending an university, and having a career slither quietly into the dark cracks in the earth.
One fine day, having tired of Amma’s pitch about one purportedly suitable boy or another, Vaidehi had decided to accompany her friend Sailaja on a few errands. They stopped for a few minutes at Sailaja’s brother’s office at the Agricultural Council, and that’s where she noticed Suresh Babu, riding pillion on a motorbike, his body tense as he held onto the seat.
“Who is that?” Vaidehi asked. “Looks like he’s never been on a bike before!”
“That’s Suresh Babu, he came in from Vishakhapatnam last week. He’ll be working with my brother at the Council for about two years. Apparently he’s the rising star of the State Department of Agriculture.”
Vaidehi looked at the young man before her, struggling to hold onto the seat while making sure he didn’t drop the files tucked under his arm. She smiled at how he gingerly released his grip on the seat every now and then to push his glasses further up his nose, or to rearrange his hair.
“And,” Sailaja continued, “he’s still unmarried.”
And just like that, as she stood there and watched Suresh Babu, an idea slipped into my sister’s mind; an idea she thought would be the key to the life she desired, and one that would make her parents happy as well. She would marry him.
“Aiyyo, pichchaa? Mad or what?” Sailaja screamed when she heard my sister’s plans. “The reason he’s not married is because he was born under mangala dosham!”
“Come on, Sailu! You believe in all that?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. Your parents believe it. They believe you will die if you marry a mangalik. They won’t allow it.”
Sailaja was right, of course, but my sister wasn’t going to give up on her dreams because of some antiquated claptrap. She decided at once that the solution to her parents’ superstitious objections was to convince Suresh Babu to marry someone—or even something—before her, so that the curse of the planetary misalignment that supposedly catapulted a person’s first spouse to mortality, would not affect her.
As fate would have it, at the very moment that my sister was thinking of this plan, Chandrakala, the sickly, dying dog that often hung around in the town centre, showed up out of nowhere and sat meekly by my sister’s feet. Perfect, my sister thought. He can marry her. Poor thing. She’ll get to die having served a purpose.
And thus it was arranged. Making Suresh Babu do what was required was relatively easy for Vaidehi. She had Sailaja’s brother bring him over to our house a few times, and then furtively asked him to a movie. “He was so shy,” she giggled into the phone later on, unaware that I was listening. “First I shifted in my seat so my pallu would fall a little, and I pretended not to notice it. Then, when he didn’t do anything for sometime, I just grabbed his hand and put it on my leg. When I turned to look at him, he stuttered, ‘Vaidehi, your… your eyes… such perfect orbs…’ Oh, but I promise you, Sailu, it wasn’t my eyes he was looking at!” Suresh Babu had melted like ghee on a bowl of steaming rice. In two weeks, for the sake of my sister’s perfect orbs, he married Chandrakala the dying dog.
After Suresh Babu’s first wedding, Vaidehi busied herself preparing for her own wedding. By day she rode with Amma in a rickshaw across the bumpy roads of our town to buy silk saris and gold jewellery. By night, after our parents had gone to bed, she logged on to the Internet to look up the admission requirements at Andhra University, and sex tips on the Cosmopolitan website.
Suresh Babu, in the meanwhile, seemed to have disappeared from our lives. At first, this didn’t seem to bother Vaidehi much. The ease with which she’d had her way with him thus far had given her the impression that she still had him wrapped around her finger. But when two weeks turned into two months, she called Sailaja to ask if she knew where he was.
“Yeah, with his wife.” Sailaja paused, and then burst out laughing.
“Chandrakala. Didn’t he tell you? He’s adopted her. Got her a collar, a leash, everything. My brother says he brings her to the Council everyday.”
The next day, my sister put on her special-occasions half-sari, pinned a strand of jasmine to her braid, and went to the Council with a homemade lunch for Suresh Babu. She found him sitting in the courtyard, Chandrakala lying next to him on the bench.
“I brought you lunch. I haven’t seen you in a while, so I thought maybe we could eat together. But I see you’ve already got your own lunch.”
Suresh Babu stood up to make room for her on the bench.
“Oh, no, no… please sit. I’ll just push Chandrakala off the bench. She can sit in the grass.”
“No, let her sit there. I think her stomach ailments come from the shrubs she keeps chewing on. I’m trying to keep her off the grass.”
“Suresh Babu, everyone in town has tried to feed Chandrakala. Rice, eggs, milk… but she can’t seem to digest any of it. She’s… really just going to die.” Vaidehi, having settled on the bench, decided she would eat there with Suresh Babu anyway, and reached for a chapati in his lunch box.
“No, no. Don’t touch the chapatis, please.”
Vaidehi withdrew her hand, embarrassed.
“Sorry, Vaidehi. I didn’t mean to sound like that, but those are for Chandrakala. She only eats coarse wheat chapatis. And they seem to have a good effect on her too. She’s been less sluggish lately.”
It was true. My sister noticed Chandrakala’s spine wasn’t pushing out through the skin on her back as much as it used to. Her eyes were a little less glazed over. Heck, even her panting seemed less laboured. Good for the dog, she thought. Poor thing, at least she will be a little more comfortable when she dies.
“Anyway, Suresh Babu,” she continued. “Have you thought about the wedding date yet? My parents were asking, because they need to send out the invitations.”
“Wedding date?” Suresh Babu’s face twisted into an expression Vaidehi didn’t know how to read. “But… Vaidehi, I… I mean, there’s Chandrakala… How can I? She’s still alive!”
At this, Vaidehi coughed violently, almost choking on her food. She stared up at Suresh Babu as he patted her back and offered her his thermos.
“Look, I should have told you this earlier, but I didn’t think it was important, considering the state of Chandrakala’s health—I promised my mother before she died that I would never break my marriage vows. And we—Chandrakala and I—went to a temple and did this, Vaidehi. With God as our witness. How can I just abandon her like that?”
“Suresh Babu, what are you saying? She’s just a dog! And you only married her to negate your mangala dosham…”
“I know, I know, but… I… look at her, Vaidehi. So helpless, so innocent. For the first time she has someone taking care of her.”
“We can take care of her after we’re married, if that’s what you want.”
“Yeah, but what about the vows? The ceremony? It wouldn’t be right!”
That evening Vaidehi came home very confused. She spent a couple of days in bed, refusing to tell our parents what was wrong. But soon enough she had a new plan. She invited Suresh Babu to meet her at the landscape garden. With its undulating mounds of grass and strategically placed boulders, she was confident she could find them a spot tucked out of view, and appeal to his sensibilities like she had in the movie theatre. She was a little disappointed to see Chandrakala by his feet when she met him there; nevertheless, she found them a nice spot behind a boulder, settled into the grass, and leaned over close to him.
“Isn’t the breeze just perfect, Suresh Babu?” she asked, her voice wispy.
“Hmm? Mmm hmm,” he responded, busy scratching behind Chandrakala’s ear as she squinted into the daylight.
“Suresh Babu…” Vaidehi looked at him coyly, then took his right hand and caressed it, kissed it.
“Oh, no, no, Vaidehi, that’s not right, no?” Suresh Babu tried to withdraw his right hand, while still stroking Chandrakala with his left. “I mean, in front of her?”
“In front of whom?”
“Er, Chandrakala… she’s right here. How can we do this?”
“What do you mean, Suresh Babu? She’s just a dog!”
“Yes, but… you know how I feel about this. I’m a God-fearing man, Vaidehi. Besides, she’s just started to get better. I don’t want to upset her, you know?”
Vaidehi screamed so hard into the phone that afternoon, the glass shutters on the windows in her room rattled a little. “I’m going to kill that bitch!”
Sailaja reminded her, through breathless guffaws, that this whole thing had been her idea in the first place. “He’s feeding her, he’s taking care of her, he’s whispering in her ear… he’d rather touch her than me. What kind of strange love is this? The bitch is looking healthier by the day. At this rate she’ll survive, what, another ten years? Twelve? I’ll be thirty-three!”
“Maybe you can work out some kind of arrangement with your sister-wife, no?” Sailaja laughed, knowing full well my sister would have thrown something at her, had she been in the room.
“Urgh! Sailu! You’re awful. That bitch, Chandrakala, is awful. This whole stupid town is awful!”
“Look, look, Vaidehi, calm down. He’s a God-fearing man. Clearly, he was too mesmerised by your ‘perfect orbs’ to think this through before he did it, but now he’s probably racked with guilt, or something. Maybe he feels responsible for Chandrakala.”
Vaidehi flung her arms in the air, then slumped onto the bed.
“She’s just a dog!”
I admit, I quite enjoyed watching the drama of my sister’s life from the side lines, but now I had begun to feel a little sympathy for her. She had some twisted ways of pursuing her dreams, but that happens when your dreams are bigger than your family, your beliefs, or your town. Over the next few months I watched her unsuccessfully attempt to get Suresh Babu to discuss their wedding, as he and Chandrakala grew more and more devoted to one another. He would bathe her, stroke her fur, and make chapatis for her. She would sleep at his feet every night, and bark protectively when someone came too close to him, including Vaidehi. With every passing day Chandrakala got healthier, and Vaidehi watched her dreams vaporise.
In the meanwhile, Vaidehi’s application to the Master’s program at Andhra University had been accepted. She hadn’t told our parents, obviously, but as the deadline for registration approached and Suresh Babu remained dedicated to Chandrakala, she decided the only option was to run away to Vishakhapatnam. She would be breaking our parents’ hearts and her own—they probably wouldn’t talk to her for a long time—but this seemed to be the only way to the life she wanted. So on a sweltering morning in May, on the pretext of staying with a friend for a few days, Vaidehi packed a suitcase and boarded a train to Vishakhapatnam.
She met a man on the train, she told me in an email weeks later. He was around the same age as Suresh Babu, and was on the way to Vishakhapatnam to start his job as a bank manager. They spoke for several hours; the ease of his company surprised Vaidehi.
As the journey wore on Vaidehi felt hopeful. They talked about his move, and how he had left his ageing parents back in Bhadrachalam.
“Of course, I’m taking Pavani along. I could never imagine leaving her.”
Vaidehi paused, wondering why he hadn’t mentioned his wife before.
“Well, where is she? Your wife?”
“My wife?!” The man burst out laughing. “No, no… Pavani is my dog. I’ve had her for seven years, and she’s very attached to me. So I decided to take her along. She’s travelling on a special bogey for domestic animals…”
Vaidehi stood up before he could finish his sentence. She unchained her suitcase and pulled it out from under the berth. Without a word, she walked out of the compartment in search of another seat. The rest of this journey, she firmly decided, would be finished alone.