The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.
- Mignon McLaughlin
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My father was not an exceptional man. He was of average height and build, had an average complexion and toiled all his life in an average Government job, till he retired and quietly passed away in his sleep at the respectable age of 74. However, he did do one extraordinary thing in his life – he always paid attention to his family and he nurtured his three children – me and my two older brothers – so that we managed to grow up happy and lead successful and extraordinary lives!
My mother was not significant in our lives. Whenever I think of her, I think of warm food, and a smell of jasmine. I suppose she was even more ordinary than my father. But despite that, every time I face a challenge in life, I can hear my father’s voice echoing in my head.
“Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. So, have the strength and wisdom to find your own answers. Always remember this Aastha beta, no matter how hopeless the situation feels!”
His words saw me through many difficult times in life. Like the time I was in an accident and couldn’t walk for four months. Or when my son was born premature. I always remembered my father’s advice and ploughed on, regardless of what life threw at me.
And today, of all days, I was at a crossroads where I hugged his advice close to my heart. My husband of 18 years had just announced that he wanted nothing to do with me, and planned to start life afresh with a 26-year old woman from his office, who, incidentally, was already pregnant with his child! He had casually broken the news to me this morning and informed me that he planned to pack his essentials and move out by afternoon. I had never ever imagined that I could be at the receiving end of such a situation!
“Of course, you and the kids can still live here. I don’t want to inconvenience you!” he said magnanimously, packing his things away.
As if that was the first though in my head! Here I was, trying to come to grips with the situation, while he was rattling off lists of financial arrangements to be made. I was still too numb to even comprehend this entire fiasco.
Obviously, I had known for a while that our marriage was having problems – but which marriage doesn’t? After all, Mohit and I had been together for 21 years, and there are bound to be some rocky patches over a lifetime! But lately, our differences had become more pronounced. Mohit would spend longer and longer in office, working almost every weekend and finding excuses to avoid family time. I realised now that those weekends must have been spent with “her”. I kicked myself mentally for being so caught up with my own career and the kids that I had overlooked these signs. Maybe I could have salvaged our marriage if I were more present in it!
Mohit had clearly planned this in advance. He had chosen a Saturday morning when we were alone at home, because he detested any kind of “drama” as he called it. Samaira, our oldest, was off on a well-deserved vacation with her friend Zoya, just having finished her Board exams, and was due to return the next morning. Our son, Rohan, was also away at Football Camp and was not expected home till the next day. It was the four of us living in our large Juhu bungalow, but today it would only be me. Even my trusty maid Anita, who had been with us ever since Samaira was born, was on leave. The watchman and driver hardly counted.
As I watched Mohit empty out his cupboard, I felt utterly helpless. Nothing in life had prepared me to deal with this situation. While one part of my mind was in extreme pain, the other was just numb. I knew I was not the perfect wife, but I certainly didn’t deserve this!
While I wanted to beg him to stay, I knew that things could never ever be the same between us. Not after what he had admitted to me. Apparently, he had fallen in love with “her” almost a year ago, and had stuck around only because he was too worried about rocking the boat. But now that “she” was pregnant, he was forced to choose.
A strangled sob sounded in the room, and I realised with some surprise, that it had come from me. Mohit looked at me in alarm, clearly expecting me to burst into tears. But I held my breath, even as the tears spilled out of my eyes. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me helpless and broken. With as much dignity as I could muster, I stood up and walked out.
“I’ll leave the divorce papers on the dining table. Have a look at them when you get a chance,” he called out.
That was the last straw! He had even drawn up divorce papers! I thought these things took a few months to prepare! I could no longer recognise this stranger I had shared a life with till a few hours ago. I finally burst into tears as I rushed into the guest room and slammed the door.
When I awoke, it was dusk – I must have slept through the day. My body felt bruised and battered, reflecting my soul. I listened for movement but the house was deathly quiet. My head was throbbing and my eyes were swollen. I walked wearily back to my bedroom, expecting the worst. Mohit’s cupboard and his bedside table stood empty. The barren room seemed to be accusing me – I had to tamp down on my guilt.
I had a raging thirst and walked out of my bedroom. As I moved towards the kitchen, my eyes fell on a sheaf of legal papers kept on the dining table, weighed down by a biscuit tin. Those would be the divorce papers – my brain screamed.
I ignored them and continued into the kitchen. Pouring out a glass of water, I swallowed it in one long gulp, and poured out another. Cradling the glass in my hands, I came out and stood staring at the papers as if they were a living thing, waiting to physically assault me.
I cocked my head and listened, but the house was still quiet. It was getting quite dark now and I instinctively switched on the lights. It was such a commonplace action, that it helped break my trance. I steeled my mind and sat down at the dining table, pulling the papers towards me.
After spending 3 unbearable hours poring over the documents, I realised that Mohit had thought things through very carefully. I also realised that while he was fair monetarily, he wanted to take away the most precious fruits of our marriage from me – our children!
He argued that since he was the primary breadwinner, he would be able to better provide for them. Considering that they were not very young any more, and needed economic security more than “a mother’s care”, he argued that he was in a better position to grant the same. He wanted me to have visitation rights while he retained custody.
I felt as if the breath had been knocked out of my body. I couldn’t have imagined this day getting any worse but I was clearly wrong. There was a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach as I realised the bitter truth – that given a choice, my kids would probably prefer to live with their father. In our upbringing of them, I had always played bad cop while Mohit graciously played good cop. He was always the “fun” parent while I would pester them about their homework and classes. Mohit would plan holidays with them, while I would attend PTA meetings at school. And to top it all, they were both in the rebellious teenage phase, where every discussion ended either in an argument or in tears. It was a no-brainer who they would choose between us.
With this terrible prospect looming ahead, I felt the world close in on me. In one fell swoop, Mohit had not only dissolved our marriage, but was also planning to rob me of my flesh and blood – parts of my soul. Overcome by grief and anxiety, I cried my heart out, and exhausted, passed out sprawled on the dining table.
“Mom! Wake up! Are you okay?” I could hear the worry in Samaira’s voice as she shook me awake.
Slowly, painfully, I opened my eyes. It was bad enough that she had found me in this state, I didn’t want to compound her worry any further. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I tried to smile at her and told her I was just tired. She seemed satisfied by my explanation and soon disappeared inside her room, lost in the world of social media like all teenagers. Later as she came out for breakfast, I saw her observing me closely, trying to watch for signs that things really were all right. I tried to behave as normally as possible with her.
“Where’s Dad?” she asked once between mouthfuls. But I avoided answering the question directly.
“He’s meeting with a friend from office,” I said, half-truthfully.
“Oh, is he meeting Rewati? She’s cool! She told me not to call her aunty – she’s only 26 after all,” said my daughter, shattering my heart into a million pieces. Not only did she know Mohit’s flame, she liked her as well!
“Where did you meet her?” I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral.
“We’ve played tennis at the club a couple of times with Dad. She comes there often,” she answered, but her attention was on her phone.
After dropping that bombshell on me, she went back to her room, oblivious to the emotional turmoil within me. I escaped to my room and pleaded a headache so I didn’t have to come down for lunch again. I kept playing every scenario over and over in my head, trying to make sense of things.
I realised with a start that I had dozed off again. Grief seems to have built up an insatiable appetite for sleep in me! I found 6 missed calls from Mohit, followed by a message asking if I had read the divorce papers yet, and what I thought of them. He said he wanted to come over at dinner time to break the news to the kids together. This was moving much too fast!
Rohan must be back, I thought guiltily, as I made my way down. Obvioulsy, I’m a terrible mother, I chided myself mentally. Both the children were in their rooms, with their doors shut as usual. I knocked on Rohan’s door and heard him call out. His half-child voice still had a trace of innocence in it, though he tried his best to make it sound as gruff as possible.
As I went in, I was struck by how much my little boy had suddenly grown up. He was almost my height now, with fine downy fluff on his upper lip. But he was still my little boy, and I gave him a big hug, which he tried to resist with all his might. Trying to pretend that everything was normal, I made small talk with him, asking him about his camp, but he was not interested in any conversation. So after about ten minutes I gave up and made my way back to the living room, dreading the evening.
I knew that Mohit was never one to shy away from challenges, and since he had said he was going to come over and talk to the kids, that was exactly what he would do. But I wasn’t prepared for this just yet. I decided I would leave the talking to him – after all, he was the one who needed to provide explanations. All I was hoping for was that they would choose to live with me rather with him. I couldn’t bear the idea of living without my kids. Never one to be sentimental, I suddenly realised how much they meant to me and how much our life together meant to me. I had no idea how to salvage the situation – I just knew that I wanted things to go back to how they were before.
Before I knew it, it was too late. Mohit was here – I hadn’t even heard the doorbell ring as I sat lost in my thoughts. He came in and sat across from me, without acknowledging my presence. He called out to Samaira and Rohan and they trooped out, hugging him and sitting near him. This is how it is going to be, I thought, them all together and me all alone! Finally, I couldn’t bear it anymore and started crying.
This time it was Rohan who came to me. He held my hand and stroked my back, asking what was wrong. I had no answer to give him, and just whispered in a strangled voice that his father would explain the situation to them.
“Your Mom and I are getting separated,” said Mohit without preamble.
“Both of you are old enough to understand this. We don’t want to live our lives with each other anymore and it is best we live apart. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t love you – that will never ever change. So, don’t ever worry about that!” Mohit was so calm, it was almost as if he was discussing takeout dinner instead of a life-changing event. But to give them credit, both the children also were quiet. They were probably still coming to terms with what they had heard. I could feel Rohan’s grip over my hand tighten for a bit before he let it go.
“And what about us?” he asked the first question.
“Well, that is up to you. Would you like to stay with your Mom or would you like to stay with me?” said Mohit.
“Where will you stay?” Pat came the question from Samaira.
“I’ll stay in a different house,” said Mohit.
“But no matter who you stay with, both of us love both of you very much,” I finally managed to find my voice. My children still had to decide on their verdict and I wanted them to choose me.
“I would enjoy staying with you Dad, but I’ll have to think about it,” said Rohan thoughtfully.
“Me too,” piped in Samaira.
That was the last straw. I felt fear and guilt as I had never felt before. Fear of losing my family and guilt at ending up in this situation.
“Do you want to leave because you love someone else? You can tell us, you know!” said Samaira, in a gentle voice. But strangely, she was looking at me and not at Mohit.
“No, there’s nobody else,” said Mohit quietly. “I still love Aastha the way I used to, but maybe she’s changed,” Mohit gave me a sad smile, with a little shake of his head. His eyes implored me to tell the truth, and suddenly everything fell into place.
He had staged this entire performance for my benefit. It was to help me come to terms with my own feelings and decide what I wanted in life. I didn’t know how he had found out, but I couldn’t continue this charade any longer. Our kids were old enough – they deserved to know the truth.
Once I started talking, I was in a rush to pour it all out. It had started about 10 months ago, when a younger man in my office had made the moves on me. What had surprised him, and more importantly me, was that I had succumbed. Really easily! Maybe I just needed to feel young and desirable again. Maybe I didn’t want to play the role of a wife or a mother all the time. Be that as it may, it was no excuse for my behaviour. And here was Mohit, offering me a choice – him versus our family! And I realised it was a no-brainer!
“How did you know?” There was a tremble in my voice as I asked Mohit. I could hardly look him in the eyes now.
“About 3 months ago, and he almost drank himself to death,” answered Samaira on his behalf.
Mohit had seen us emerge from one of the 5-Star hotels in the city, driven home, and promptly started to demolish his stock of whisky. Samaira had found him, drunk out of his mind, and helped him into bed. In his drunken stupor, he had told Samaira the whole sordid story. It was a lot of responsibility to put on the shoulders of a 16-year old. But thankfully, she had proven equal to the task.
Finally, Mohit had come up with the idea of a make-believe affair, to gauge if I still loved him, and our family, and how dear I held our life together. If I wanted to cut free, this was his way of giving me a dignified exit.
It hit me then what an unbelievably loving and caring husband I had. He was willing to let me go if I wanted to, and that too after taking on blame that was not his to shoulder. He truly deserved all my love and respect.
And my lovely children – if they were mature enough to deal with this issue at such a tender age, then they would certainly sail through life with flying colours.
At that moment, I felt immensely thankful for having them as my family, and I knew that I would never walk out on them. I rushed towards them and gave them all a big hug, tears flowing freely down my cheeks.
There would be challenges and difficulties, but we would see them through! We are family!