“Don't call me, I will call you,” Thomachen said.
This was the fifth time Kuriachen heard those same words. He was sitting on a folding chair by the phone and suddenly he felt like throwing the phone against the wall or banging it down. Instead, he place it gently back and wondered at the callousness of his friend, Thomachen. Nice friend he was indeed.
For days, Kuriachen had been pursuing Thomachen with a proposal for his second daughter, Mercy. Thomachen put him off every time with some excuse or the other. Kuriachen had never thought his friend could be so smooth, treacherous and vile. But he was the father of a girl and it was difficult being that, especially when he had three daughters. It was as if he had depreciated considerably in the eyes of society just because all his children were female. As if they were a burden.
But he had brought up his daughters like gold.
“My daughters, all of them are like gold, all my daughters,” was his constant refrain. “Any boy would be lucky to have my daugther as his wife.”
But as they grew older and the prospect of marriage came up, he discovered an ugly face of the people, even friends around him.
“Aren't you marrying off your daughters?”
“What age are they?”
“What business is it of yours? If you have a proposal tell me. Why do you constantly needle me like this?” Kuriachen had shot back, half playfully.
But the full realization of the reasons behind their teasing was apparent to him. Never had he felt that his daughters were a burden. They were sweet and loving girls. They didn't know the ways of the world. They were never meant to know. All they were encouraged to talk about at home were shorthand and typing speeds and how they were progressing with the diphthongs.
Kuriachen worked at the Atomic Energy Commission office as a stenographer. His wife, Annamma, was an upper division clerk in a central government office. Both were cushy jobs, with lots of benefits of their own. For example, if they wanted they could take leave for months together and nobody would ask them for an explanation. That had happened when his first daughter, Maria was expecting. Annamma had taken leave for almost six months to care for her. If in the middle of the day they felt sick, they could leave the office and not be marked absent or as being on leave. They had facilities like free medical care, free hospitalization, dearness allowance, provident fund, gratuity, bonus and travel allowance. These were some of the privileges they enjoyed as government employees. What more could they ask for? When he got a job in a government office, Kuriachen's joy knew no bounds. And when he married a girl who worked in a government office, he was thrilled beyond words. Together, with both of them working for the government, life would be an interminable succession of joys and happiness. Or so he thought.
The birth of his daughters made him realize that he had to save money. A lot of money. Because giving them away in marriage would not be a joke. He would become a joke if he didn't get proper husbands for them. They had to be tall, fair and with jobs, preferably, in government offices. So when his elder daughter, Maria, was of marriageable age, he set about finding a husband for her. Thomachen's son was first in his list. Georgie was fair, well-built, personable and worked in a bank. He had asked Thomachen several times if he could visit him and talk things over. But Thomachen, shrewd and vile man that he was, kept putting it off. He and Thomachen worked in the same office and they went by the same bus to work and attended the same Mar Thoma church in Chembur.
“Thomacha, why are you avoiding me? Why don't we sit together and discuss things over? After all we are friends and have known each other so long.”
“Kuriacha, the time will come. What's the hurry?”
“I have girls to marry off. Don't you realize?”
“The time will come for them. Let Georgie finish his computer course.”
Georgie's ambition was to go to the United States, and he was learning computer programming for that.
“He can learn computer programming after marriage also. Can't he?”
Kuriachen knew that Thomachen was greedy and he considered his son like a fatted calf to be traded to the highest bidder. He was open to bidding now, and knew that once he committed to Kuriachen, he would be tied down to the proposal by public consensus. So he avoided raising the matter with Kuriachen, and studiedly avoided him.
That was when Maria got a good marriage offer, and everything happened so fast that Thomachen and his son was forgotten.
Matthew was a good match for Maria. He worked in the Port Trust and was tall, handsome and a good husband. Kuriachen considered himself very lucky to get him as a son-in-law. The proposal was from a friend of his wife's. The boy's father accepted whatever Kuriachen offered as dowry because Maria was working in the customs department and had a good salary. Besides, it was a government job and everybody's mouth salivated at the mention of a government job -- a steady and secure income for doing virtually nothing.
“In a government job, nobody can question you. It is nobody's business to question anybody. The government is of the people, so who will question the people?” Kuriachen had said to his wife when talk was going on about the proposal.
Before the marriage, he redecorated his flat in Chembur. They had taken out all their fixed deposits, and decided this was a good time to spend it on re-doing the house. He had a western toilet put in place of a squatting Indian toilet, bathroom tiles in the kitchen and toilet, plaster of Paris and paint in all the rooms and a chandelier-like lamp put up in the front room. He bought cloth for new curtains, cushions and cushion covers matching the wall color. A few framed photographs of his parents and their wedding photograph were all dusted and hung in the front room. All this cost money, but he was sure people who came to the house would be impressed and they would come with proposals for Mercy, his second daughter.
But nothing of that sort happened. Mercy worked in a private company and nobody wanted a girl who worked in a private company. That was when Kuriachen developed high blood pressure. He had initiated talks for many proposals, but everybody said the same thing:
“If the girl had a government job we would have agreed, but she has a private job.”
“Don't call me, I will call you back.”
“Only government serving girls will do for us.”
It was as if, he, Kuriachen, who worked in a prestigious government department had become a pariah dog. He was proud of working in a government office, how could they downgrade him so much because his daughter worked in a private office. Moreover, Mercy was still writing exams and trying to qualify for a job in the Railways or the Income Tax office.
The doctor advised him to take it easy and not to get too upset about anything. But how could he not get upset when he had lost all credibility in their community. He was very careful to invite both Thomachen and Georgie to Maria's wedding. Not to show off, but he still had Georgie in mind for his second daughter, Mercy. He had gone personally to Thomachen's house with the wedding invitation with Annamma. Their words had been cordial and they had talked most amiably about office matters and the coming revision in pay scales. But on the day of Maria's wedding, he kept an eye peeled for Thomachen, his wife and Georgie. But none of them showed up for the wedding.
Was something wrong in the way he invited them? But he had shown them all respect. An invitation with a personal visit by both the bride's father and mother was supposed to be a great honor, and nobody ever turned down such an invitation. Where had he gone wrong? After that when he met Thomachen, he seemed cold, distant and forbidding.
“Thomacha, if I did anything wrong please forgive me. Why didn't you come to the wedding?”
“What? I am not saying you did anything wrong Kuriacha… ”
“Then what is wrong? If Maria is already married then let's talk about Mercy. She is of marriageable age, more beautiful than Maria, only… she works in a private office.”
“No, but I said let Georgie finish his computer course then we can talk of these things. I don't want to disrupt his studies.”
“But then these things… you don't know how it is. Things happen with lightning speed in marriages. I want to cement our friendship and this liaison was in my mind for a long time. Why don't you give me your word?” Kuriachen said, his pressure rising.
“How can I give you my word when I don't know what Georgie has to say about this?”
“Georgie is a nice boy, he will agree if you do.”
“How do I know?”
“Why didn't he come for Maria's wedding? Do you think there was some shortcoming in my invitation?”
“Nothing of that sort, Kuriacha. I had some other engagement on that day.”
“See, we are friends. We are working in the same office. We go to the same church. We know each other's family backgrounds. Do you think you would get a better proposal? If it is a question of money, I am willing to withdraw from my provident fund and pay you.”
Thomachen was evasive as much as Kuriachen was persuasive.
Then Thomachen received this proposal from a rich Indian settled in America. For a while, Thomachen's dream of sending Georgie to the United States seemed a reality. The girl and her father were coming to see the boy shortly. There was excitement in Thomachen's house, and sadness in Kuriachen's. Naturally, the dowry would be a princely amount, no doubt about that. Much more than Kurachen could ever afford.
“That stinking dog, born and living in poverty…” Kuriachen fumed to Annamma.
“Don't get so angry or your pressure will shoot up.”
“What if it shoots up, eh?” asked Kuriachen, as combative and confrontational as ever.
Then Kuriachen had a mild heart attack. It began as a dull pain in the chest and soon radiated to his arms and legs. Annamma rushed him to the free Atomic Energy Staff Hospital where he continued to fume despite being told to relax and take it easy.
“Doctor, how can I relax when someone I trusted like a brother has let me down so badly?”
“You stop thinking about it, or your condition will deteriorate,” the doctor said.
So Kuriachen spent a few weeks in the luxury of the free medical care under the watchful eyes of his wife, daughters, nurses and doctors. His dear daughters, whom he had brought up 'like gold', came and nursed him like the loving daughters they were. In those few days, he realized that he was lucky in having three lovely, well-behaved daughters. They understood him more than any ill-mannered boy like Georgie would ever do. Maria took leave and was by his side all the time and had to be persuaded to go home every night. Mercy brought him food and medicines, and made sure that he took all the prescribed medicines at the proper time. The youngest, Molly, was in school and was too young to understand what sickness meant, and she spent her days in blissful unawareness of her father's condition. Annamma would be with him at night, and would go home only in the morning when Maria came to relieve her. He felt rich and happy in those few days as a result of the love of those three wonderful human beings.
'That Thomachen, let him burn in hell. I don't care', Kurianchen thought.
Soon visitors came bearing the news from their Mar Thoma parish. Secretly they all knew the cause of Kuriachen's affliction. They comforted him. They told him all about Thomachen's greed.
“That girl, she is retarded, ugly… she can't speak two words of Malayalam,” they said to console him.
“Who would want a boy like Georgie? He is a duffer too. Heard that he was not making any progress in computer class.”
Kuriachen recovered and started going to work. He would see Thomachen, but would not speak to him. He could see that Thomachen felt guilty at the turn of events, but made no overtures towards him. Kuriachen gave him a cold glare every time they passed each other. The animosity was mutual now.
Then, as if it was some quirk of fate, news came that the Indian father (who was in America), whose daughter was being considered for Georgie, was being repatriated back to India. It turned out that he was an illegal immigrant who had overstayed, and was detected by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That broke Thomachen's heart. Georgie was not making any progress in computer programming and his dreams of having him settled in the United States were shattered. What use is an ugly, retarded girl living in India, even if she would bring a big dowry? The engagement was broken. It was Thomachen's turn to have high blood pressure and he had a heart attack too, a major one.
Kuriachen went to visit him in hospital.
“Edo, would it all have come to pass if you had listened to me, eh?”
“Kuriacha, I am very, very sorry, forgive me.”
“You deserve to burn in hell, not forgiveness.”
Thomachen recovered, though slowly. He didn't have loving daughters to care for him. Boys were boys, and Georgie was a boy with his own preoccupations.
Church members now shunned Thomachen, and not Kuriachen.
“Where is your American daughter-in-law?” They teased him openly.
One day on their way to work, they met in a bus.
Kuriachen could see that Thomachen was suffering a lot because of his follies. He was not the smooth talking Thomachen of old. He was downcast, pale and had grown thin.
Kuriachen sat beside Thomachen.
“How are you Thomacha? See, there is nothing to worry about. I have gone through it also. You will make it. But remember, one should be honest and not a hypocrite like you.”
“Kuriacha, I ask your forgiveness…”
“When I had brought my daughter's proposal, you were busy talking with that American, weren't you?”
“That is over… don't trouble me anymore with that… the very thought of it rankles me. Tell me how is your family?”
“They are fine. Mercy has passed her Railways test and interview, and has been selected.”
“Oh! Is that so?”
“Yes,” Kuriachen said proudly.
“That means she is a government servant like us? With provident fund, medical, gratuity and ample leave?”
“Yes… yes… You forgot free travel three times a year to our native state of Kerala.”
That night Thomachen phoned Kuriachen at home. The subject of their discussion: Would they consider Mercy's alliance with Georgie? No, they didn't want any dowry at all. Just a beautiful daughter-in-law with a job in the Railways would do!
“At last he had the decency to phone me back,” said Kuriachen with a triumphant laugh.