"I love him", sobbed Uma into her hands. Her tear-stained face had peeped into Rukmini's office that evening and immediately Rukmini knew that her Aunty avatar was required.
It was a simple story, repeated ad nauseum in Indian movies. Boy spots girl, romances her, they are an item, their friends know they are an item, they decide to get married, they tell their parents, all hell breaks lose. Love marriage, the family asks? To a boy not chosen by them? Neti, Neti. The story is common and so are the points at which the girls normally approached Rukmini.
The first break point:
Should I fall in love? Is he the right guy? What will my parents say? What will society say?
The second break point:
How should I tell my parents?
The third break point:
My parents have forbidden it. What should I do?
The fourth break point:
My marriage has been fixed to someone else, but what can I do?
The fifth break point:
I am getting married tomorrow to someone I don't love. My life is ruined. I can't do anything.
Sometimes, when the sobbing and sniffling was unbearable, and the gaiety in the bar enticing, Rukmini rued that she didn't write up a little practical advice book on the various means and ways to deal with each break point. The girls wanted to hear the same thing: yes, this is not what would be acceptable to your parents, but do it anyway because love is worth it. Or some such bilge along those lines, sighed Rukmini. For they all inevitably arrived only after they knew what they wanted. It was the final act of articulation, a confession really, that delivered them to action. So sure was Rukmini that Uma's story ran along those lines, that she only half-paid attention to the torrent of words that emerged from Uma. She made the right noises, gestures and then, as was expected, narrated how choices seem difficult but everything turns out alright. Uma didn't seem consoled but was ushered out of Rukmini's office nonetheless. That night, Rukmini was feeling impatient. And the thought of that feeling, the intense desire to brush aside the girl and her trivial problem, was what caused her to feel utterly shaken and then guilty, when she heard that Uma had committed suicide.
This was the first time that a client of the bar had come seeking advice, for the last time.
After the initial period of sadness and dismay, Rukmini decided that she needed to know what went wrong. Uma's friends were not prepared for her death either; they seemed confused and inconsolable that their friend had taken such an extreme step without speaking about it or giving an inkling that she entertained such a thought. They, like Rukmini, felt irresponsible. Yes, they knew of her boyfriend and they gave Rukmini a number to call.
Odd though it would seem, Rukmini decided to call the young man. They met at park near the college where Uma and he studied. Rukmini watched him as he walked towards the park bench and felt his gait to be of a man walking with a broken heart; dark circles lined his eyes and he seemed tired, weighed down by sadness. Why did she do it? I ask myself that every single day he says. We had decided to announce it to our families and we knew there would be opposition. How her parents, or mine reacted was not surprising. Yet, things were not unpleasant or ugly at home; uncomfortable and dramatic, but not violent. Her parents suggested that she should at least meet boys from families that they selected for her, and if she felt they fell short as compared to her selection, they would relent. The day of her suicide, she met one such man. But the meeting happened at home and the family were chaperoning it. Uma had called him after it was over and everything seemed normal. Now, he doesn't know if he will ever feel normal again.
It took a couple of months for Uma's friends to get contact details of the man Uma had seen the day of her death. When Rukmini called him, she got no response. She found out where he worked and tried to meet him at his office. She was unable to get past security; the man was avoiding her.
It was desperation that got her to seek the help of a professional detective. She lied to the professional, telling him that the boy in question was a prospective match for her daughter and she wanted to know a bit more about his habits. The detective even had a standard fee for this service, so common was it in his line of duty. A month later he gave her a detailed report. There was only one aspect of note: the boy made a weekly stop at the city's red light district. This revelation hardly made sense to Rukmini. There was nothing to connect this with Uma's death. Nothing obvious anyway.
Rukmini decided to follow the boy on the night of his paid love. After he had left the building, she approached the Madam. A stone-faced, quick tempered woman met her at the entrance and only Rukmini's foot prevented the door being slammed in her face. Luckily, Rukmini's early days at the bar afforded her some friends in this circle. She implored the Madam to call them and verify that she wasn't a threat. The Madam did so reluctantly and once assured by the voice at the other end of the line, grudgingly let Rukmini in.
No greetings or further personal information was exchanged. As succinctly and unemotionally possible, Rukmini narrated how she arrived here. Rukmini finished her story and looked for a response. The Madam neither acknowledged nor denied details; her thin-set lips moved in rhythm with her tobacco chewing. The eyes conveyed boredom and annoyance. They sat there in silence for a while: two fiercely independent stubborn women locked in a story with a sad ending. That boy, the Madam said, is a regular. He pays up on time, and I have never had a complaint about him from the girls. It is all business, Amma. That was it. There was no more information forthcoming. There was no question of the Madam allowing Rukmini to meet one of the girls; it was working hours for them.
As Rukmini walked distractedly to her car, a man drew up in front of her. His aspect was menacing and he screamed, "What do you want from me?" It was the boy. He was close to Rukmini, his breath percolating on her face and his dark angry face glared at Rukmini.
"I want to know why Uma died. I have no other interest." Rukmini declared as calmly as she could.
Suddenly, the boy broke down. His anger dissolved in a flood of tears and he leaned into Rukmini sobbing. "I don't know, I don't know" he repeated. Taking a deep breath, he found his bearing and recalled, "I met her that morning with my parents. They suggested we take a walk in the park to talk to each other alone. I heard then about her boyfriend and it didn't bother me. I offered to tell my parents that I didn't like her. That night, my mother conveyed the news to their family. Next day we heard she had committed suicide. My family now looks at me accusingly for ruining that girl's life. I haven't slept in days. There was no note, no SMS - I had no communication with her except for twenty minutes that morning, yet everyone secretly blames me. What am I to do?" He staggered away into the night. Rukmini was transfixed. Later, at home, she wondered if it was all a big act. But the boy was not a disingenuous person. The detective's report described a kind and generous personality, with the brothel visit as the only exception to his high "moral" character.
There was no more road to travel. Why did Uma kill herself? That thought would torture a lot of people for the rest of their lifetime. Silly, silly girl.