The non-conformists

Berjis Desai

In the early ’60s, Navsari was a bastion of orthodoxy. In one of its most pompous mohallas, where they seldom smiled, stayed a couple, in a small and narrow, one storeyed home. The lady was a principal of a local girls’ school; and the gentleman served as a teacher in the same school. The couple was not married. They had no children. In a locked room on the upper storey, a mentally disturbed man resided. He was the lady’s brother who had been a brilliant barrister and also a qualified solicitor. On the rear side of the ground floor, the gentleman’s cousin — a MD from Edinburgh — resided with his spinster sister, who was exceptionally short.
The gentleman was fair, handsome, tall and had kind eyes. He spoke shuddh (pure) Gujarati without any Parsi accent. This irritated the Parsis of Navsari who regarded it as evidence of being ‘Gujaratised.’ She was frail, had a pock marked face, with penetrating eyes. Despite her rather pedestrian looks, she exuded sex appeal which had given her confidence to reject many eligible suitors during her stint as a teacher in a Bombay school. He wooed her in theatrical style and called her ‘Anarkali’ (a legendary courtesan of great beauty), she reciprocated by saying he was her Clark Gable, much to the amusement of teenagers eavesdropping on their romantic conversation.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


They were cousins. Three times removed; their great-grandfathers were brothers and partners selling sandalwood and frankincense. At a big, fat family wedding, celebrated over six days in the mohalla, they were truly smitten. However, when they coyly announced their matrimonial intentions, there was vehement opposition from her mother, widowed at 22; and his father, who wanted a better looking bride for his Clark Gable. She accepted to be a teacher in a Parsi run school in Bombay; and he wrote long, flowery letters in his calligraphic handwriting (postcard at two paise was cheaper than the more confidential inland letter at five paise of which he licked the gum to seal the contents) to his Anarkali.
Both the obstacle causing parents perished within a short span, giving rise to speculation that Clark Gable would soon wed Anarkali. She did return for good to Navsari and was appointed the school principal; however there was no marriage announced. They observed great decorum in the school, so as not to give any cause for complaint to the school trustees. However, every evening, they walked together in the Lunsikui area, past the bungalows and orchards of the rich and famous; and every Sunday morning, they enjoyed the matinee English film in the local cine house where you had to sit cross legged to avoid the rats scrambling on the floor. Then, one day, without much fanfare, he walked into her house in the mohalla, and they became live-in partners. The family was shocked; the mohalla was shocked; the school was shocked; why, the whole of Navsari was shocked.
A delegation of senior ladies (mobile moral barometers) castigated them for setting a wrong example to the young; urging them to marry. In a tone which dripped excessive politeness, he told the delegation to go and marry their husbands again. She glared at them as if they were some half rotten earthworms. Luckily for them, the chairman of the school trustee board, in his 80s, had both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and thought she was a goddess from a different planet. Thus, they cocked a snook at stuffy Navsari.
Their blissful existence was shattered when her upcoming barrister brother screamed at a High Court judge and abused him. He steadily went downhill, was shifted to an asylum where he was given electrical shocks. His sister brought him to Navsari, a handsome man with a blank look. Some nights, he donned the lawyer’s black gown and white bands, and conducted an imaginary trial in his booming baritone voice, which reverberated in the deathly silent mohalla; even the stray dogs whimpered. During the day, he was kind and gentle, sweetly smiling at the passing school children. Never harming a soul, except that he hated his sister’s lover.
Clark Gable who was roughed up by the lawyer urged Anarkali to place her brother in a rather notorious, makeshift asylum, not so far from Navsari. She flared her nostrils and admonished him never to say a word again. Then, during monsoon, her wooden house caught fire; and all three had to move to his ancestral house, a few feet away. His doctor cousin, though highly qualified, was a lazy sod whose sleep was disturbed by the nightly court room drama. The barrister had become more organized. The prosecution rests its case, my lord. The defense would then vigorously refute. Everyone rise, shouted the court peon. And the judge delivered his learned judgment until dawn, when the ladies sprinkled water in the mohalla to settle the dust.
The MD from Edinburgh decided to take matters in his own hand, so to speak. The barrister was injected with sedatives, more sedatives, and yet more sedatives. The court went on a permanent vacation. A hastily scribbled death certificate followed.
The couple enjoyed rearing poultry in their backyard. Each hen was named and a tiny anklet of colored beads tied around its neck, for identification. They laid many eggs which were gratefully consumed along with some unbelievably delicious golden potato wafers, which she fried. Clark Gable was able to sleep well now and composed poems in Gujarati, of which none got published.
Life was not dull for a moment. She punished a nine-year-old girl, for some minor indiscretion, by asking her to remain in class after school was over. The old peon locked the school building unknowingly, and much embarrassment followed. The couple’s enemies worked overtime to condemn her. He stood beside her like a rock.
They courted yet another controversy, when they permitted the Navsari chapter of Avatar Meher Baba (a mystic/godman of Irani origin) to sing bhajans (devotional songs) from their home, every Friday evening. The charge of extra religious worship was added to the existing litany of allegations. The neighbors were scandalized and stopped talking to them. Anarkali and Clark Gable gave a damn.
Then they provided a final surprise to humdrum Navsari by suddenly registering their marriage in Surat under the Special Marriage Act, without any Zoroastrian ceremony. He was 67 and she was 63. Within months of their grossly delayed matrimony, she died of galloping cancer. He resigned from the school and pined away all day for his Anarkali. The clucking chicken in the backyard made him more melancholic; and he gifted them away to his servant girl. The Friday bhajans were cancelled too. The MD from Edinburgh and his exceptionally short sister died too. Some nights, he swore that he heard the barrister conducting a trial on the first floor.
One Saturday dawn, he heard that familiar whisper — "Clark Gable, come, my dear, it is time to go!” He smiled in disbelief. 

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.