Whither Thou Goest ... I Will Not Go: MUMTAZ KAUR
“Mum, you were so young when you got married,” says my daughter as she flips through our wedding album.
“You were a baby. Just eighteen,” she continues.
She flips over another page. “I’m sure you never dated. How could you? Nanaji would never have let you. Besides you were such a missy-goody-two-shoes. You would never have done anything behind his back. A-ah! You’re so proper!” She sighs and walks off.
She is right.
I was proper.
I still am very proper.
Dare I tell you, daughter, that this very proper mother of yours too fell in love a long, long time ago?
I was very naive. My world was small. My world was safe. I did what was expected and did not make any waves. I was happy.
In my small safe world, Anil entered.
He was my father’s best friend’s brother. We were living in Uganda. He arrived from India to join the family business. Over family dinners, I would catch him looking at me. I began to look forward to these family gatherings.
This went on for months. Neither of us directly spoke to each other.
One evening he called. He knew that my parents were not home.
A pattern developed. He would always call when my parents were away.
It is said that love cannot be hidden.
We never went out together. We never spoke in public. We never told a single soul. Yet, tongues began to wag.
Our secret was out. Our eyes had betrayed us.
My bhua (father’s sister) confronted me. “What’s going on between the two of you?”
“Nothing,” I reply.
“His eyes always search for you, when he enters the room? And you glow when he’s around.”
I say nothing.
There is nothing I can say.
Anil’s eldest brother had always treated me like one of his own children. So, he was extremely unhappy hearing the rumors. He hauled Anil in and demanded answers.
Anil confessed and added that he wanted to marry me.
His brother was overjoyed. He wanted to call my father immediately.
But Anil asked him to wait. He wanted to propose to me first.
That night, Anil called and proposed. Needless to say I was ecstatic.
He relayed the entire conversation that he’d had with his brother. I felt safe, knowing how happy his brother was that I was going to be a part of the family. In my mind everything was settled.
But, not quite …
Next morning, I told my parents about Anil’s proposal.
They were shocked.
Yes, they had heard whispers but they never imagined that things had gone that far.
“He’s a Hindu,” said my father.
“So what?” I replied in disbelief.
This was the first time that I had ever heard my father mention religion. Dad was not a religious man. Rarely, did we go to the gurdwara. I knew little about my faith. Besides, to a seventeen year old who fancied herself deeply in love, his statement just didn’t make any sense.
“Dad, you and his brother are so close, almost like siblings. You both come from the same village back in Punjab. Besides Anil doesn’t smoke or drink. And he comes from a good family. Even you and Mum like him,” I pleaded.
My parents did not relent.
Their answer was an emphatic “NO.”
Weeks passed. The atmosphere at home was tense. Mum did not step out of the house. The telephone from my room was removed. I was not allowed to touch the telephone.
One day, I overhead Dad tell Mum that Anil’s brother had called at the office, but he did not take the call.
This drama went on for 2-3 months. I lost a lot of weight. Got quite sick and that scared Mum and Dad.
“Call Anil and tell him that his brother can call me,” said my father one evening.
I was thrilled. I did not see the anguish on my parent’s faces. I took the telephone from my parent’s room and plugged it into my room.
What I am about to write next is the honest truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
As I was walking to my room, I saw a scene flash before my eyes.
A mundan (the ritual first shaving of the head of a Hindu boy) ceremony is taking place. I saw a pundit, I saw a havan and I saw a small boy crying …
This scene had a disturbing effect on me. I didn’t know what to make to it.
I picked up the telephone and began to dial.
I saw another scene flash by.
I am standing behind Anil’s sister-in-laws who are decked in silks and diamonds. We are all carrying trays and ringing the Hindu temple bell.
This scene shakes me beyond belief. I don’t know why. Even today, I’m not sure exactly why.
Anil picks up the phone. He is of course thrilled to hear my voice. He’s worried about my health, etc., etc.
All I ask him is, “Will I have to do what your sister-in-laws do?”
I have no idea what possessed me to ask him that question.
“Yes,” he replied.
In all fairness, Anil was the baby of the family. His six brothers and bhabhis (sisters-in-law) absolutely doted on him. His father had died when he was very young. He was practically raised by his brothers.
“Why do you ask? Have your parent’s agreed? Can my brother call your father?” he rattles on.
“Not yet,” is all I say and put the telephone down.
That night I did not sleep. But I can’t recall my thoughts.
At day-break, I went to my parent’s room and said, “I don’t want to marry Anil. But I want to go away, far away, tomorrow. For a few months.”
My parents were thrilled beyond belief. They never asked me why I changed my mind. And to this day, we have never spoken about it.
My Dad spent all day running around to get the appropriate visas. I left the next day for England and spent the next eight months traveling around Europe, Canada and America.
When I got back home, Dad told me about a marriage proposal that he had received for me.
“Dad, what do you think I should do?” I asked.
“He’s the right man for you. You will be happy with him,” he replied.
“Alright, then,” I said. Just like that.
I got married and left for a honeymoon to Thailand. Before long, we settled down in London to start our life together.
Adjusting to married life was a challenge. I was only eighteen.
From time to time, when things got tough, my mind would drift … Would things have been different if I had married Anil? The one thing that I was sure of was that I would’ve been decked head to toe in silks and diamonds.
I don’t think I obsessed about it. But as I am being brutally honest here, I am sure deep down there must have been a lingering doubt, whether I made the right decision.
Over the years, things got better, much, much better. I adjusted to my new life. My daughter arrived. We were happy.
* * * * *
Fast forward to 1984.
I am in Britain. News of the attack on Darbar Sahib and the pogroms that followed have affected me deeply. It felt like I had been jolted awake to reality: I felt the pain of my people, for the first time. I became clear about my identity: I was a Sikh inside and out, and proud to be one. Woe to anyone who would try to take it away from me.
In 1985, I went to visit my parents. There, I heard whispers that Anil’s brother’s had said, in a gathering where 1984 was being discussed: “The Sikhs deserved to die.”
I wept silently.
“Where would I be if I had married Anil? What would I have done? How could I have continued to live in the same household, if I had …?” haunted me for days and nights.
I knew I had been saved from experiencing hell.
Why was I saved?
I don’t know and may never know.
Now, decades later, I am happy, content and grateful to be with my husband. My father was right: he was and is the man for me.
Will my daughter who has grown up with us here in England value my story? Will she be able to see the Divine Hand that has guided me? Or will she see her mother as a wimp?
I care not for the silks. Or the diamonds. The only thing that I long for now is the jewel of Naam.
I have never spoken to or met Anil since that night I told him of my decision.
However, years later, I feel I owe him an apology. So, dearest, gentle Anil, please accept my apology. I hope and pray that you are as happy as I am, if not happier.
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 17, 2012, 1:05 PM.
What a lovely, unadulterated Prem Kahani! How many of us thank God that we did not marry the first lout mistaken as Prince Charming or the first world's 'most charming damsel', the 'Laila' of our dreams. Marriages, whatever you make of them, are still made in heaven ... who else could have been able to put them together!
2: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), October 17, 2012, 1:42 PM.
Beautiful and honest story. Although, if I understand correctly, the original purpose of the Prem Kahani section was to retell stories of common people with worldly love and romance. Here is a story that has components of both worldly human love and the longing of a Sikh who yearns for spiritual love - the Naam. I am completely awed by the climax of this story where the author has offered an apology, instead of carrying any resentment towards Anil because of the hurtful comments made by his family about Sikhs in '84. This reflects a state of contentment and love where one only desires good for all others - "jin prem kio tin he prabh paayo". Very inspiring.
3: Simar (United States), October 17, 2012, 5:28 PM.
I have a similar story and I must say I felt the same way this lady had felt. Though the delusion of love is nice, but it is tough to marry a man of a different religion, especially if he expects you to follow his faith and beliefs. I believe religion should be of choice, one should not compel the other. At the same time, raising a family with two faiths is tough and often times children grow up confused and pick a certain faith for all the wrong reasons. Though I still strive to be a better Sikh, I am proud of my faith and the love of the Naam. I don't think I could survive without it.
4: Kulwant Singh (U.S.A.), October 17, 2012, 8:50 PM.
Your daughter wouldn't be here, had you not made your final decision. The Divine Hand that guided you, ultimately brought her to this earth.
5: F. (New York, USA), October 18, 2012, 4:35 PM.
You are twice blessed to have chosen Sikhi and Naam, today your daughter is blessed too. I wish I had had your wisdom ... then my daughter would not be drifting to her father's religion.
6: P. Kaur (Syosset, New York, USA), October 19, 2012, 10:36 AM.
I have read this essay several times and I am in awe of the maturity, clear vision and sacrifice you were able to exhibit at such a tender age. I agree with Ms. F ... Wish I too could have had the same wisdom and foresight in my youth and could have spared everyone in my life, including my children, the pain. Have learned plenty on my journey about love, especially love of Sikhi. Thank you for writing this deeply moving essay.
7: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 20, 2012, 5:21 PM.
There is a Punjabi 'Akhan' (saying) which in a line is: 'khaan, paerhaan atey isht' (eating habits, your lifestyle and your religion) - for smooth sailing, these three ingredients are central to good living.