Soul Mates (2000)
"Love is a hideous wasting disease."
Four of us are clustered at the bar in The Bear. The conversation revolves loosely around the subject of love. I'm being mischievous and throwing in controversial statements such as the above. Our positions, like our rounds, are well established.
"But how", Mark wants to know, "can we define love? We must agree on what love is before we can continue."
"Is it possible to have an objective definition of love?" I pitch in. "Surely love is completely subjective." They all see that I'm about to play Devil's Advocate and shout me down.
"When you are totally in love with someone," stresses Lynne, "you know because it's like you've met your soul mate."
Mark and Joe pick up on this and agree strongly. When you meet your soul mate, they reckon, you just click. Lots of synchronicity. You both go to ring each other at the same time, you have the same idiosyncratic likes, the same laughable fears. Soul mates, it seems, recognise each other and the sparks that fly between them are definitely indicative of love.
"Soul mates," says a voice behind us. "I could tell you a thing or two about soul mates."
We turn to see Colonel Blimp behind us. Not his real name obviously but he has that stuffy military air about him. Normally he is half comatose by the time we come into the pub after work. I don't believe I've heard him speak other than to order his next pint of Ordinary and shot of whisky. I'm always scared that he's going to corner me and want to tell me his life story but normally he acts quite the opposite, staring balefully at the wall behind the bar, appearing to ignore all around him.
"Sorry to butt in," he continues, looking anything but. "I heard you talking about soul mates and thought you might like to hear a very strange story on the subject. I witnessed part of myself and can vouch for a certain amount."
I, frankly, am nervous. Maybe he's been lulling us into a false sense of security all these months, I think. Maybe he's about to unload the big one on us. I glance exaggeratedly at my watch. It's too late, though. Mark is already encouraging him, drawing him on.
"Well," he begins. "When I was stationed in India…"
(I give Mark a filthy look.)
“I was called on to arbitrate a dispute between two local merchants." Blimp is warming visibly to his theme.
A collective sigh; we know we're caught. A quick nod to Marcus behind the bar ensures that a new round is prepared. Joe waves his hand expansively at the Colonel to indicate that he should be included in this round as well.
"Let me give you the background first. It was 1973 and I was serving with the Foreign Office in Srinagar. Srinagar is in the province of Jammu, next to Kashmir, right up at the very North of India. As you probably know India and Pakistan have been at each other's throats for years over this disputed part of what's currently India. Well, in 1972 the Indians had just stuffed the Pakistanis and got them to sign the Shimla Pact, temporarily taking the heat out of the situation. Obviously there were still some British interests in the area, so I had been posted there to keep an eye on things and give advance warning to the people back home if I sensed any deterioration in the situation.
Although the Indian legal system was running smoothly by this stage, I would occasionally be asked to unofficially arbitrate in disputes between people. This would occur only rarely and in cases where either the cultural baggage on both sides demanded an "“ as they saw it "“ strictly neutral opinion or where the participants wanted neither the expense nor notoriety of taking the case to court and agreed to be honour-bound by my decision. In this particular case, the merchants – there's still a degree of sensitivity about this case so let me call them Mr Singh and Mr Patel – probably had both reasons.
Jalal Singh was, in fact, already known to me. He owned a number of silk mills just outside the city and ran a thriving business supplying the silk to local industry and also exporting some abroad. We had run into each other at various semi-formal functions and one or twice I had asked him for his thoughts on various rumours that had come my way. Jalal could usually be relied upon for providing sound judgment for the trade routes are as good a barometer of political unrest as any. A small, neat man he was, as you would expect, always immaculately dressed.
Balgur Patel was a very different character. When they were first ushered into my office, he refused to sit down and took to pacing back and forth across the room, wringing his hands, running them through his hair and tugging on his clothes. This nervous energy had clearly impacted his appearance and his hair and clothes were by now in a state of some considerable disarray. When he was invited to speak, he spoke until all the air in his lungs was finished (often leaving him in the middle of a sentence) whereupon he would take a long, deep, juddering breath and continue from exactly where he had left off.
Balgur owned several shops in the city, mostly selling a mixture of general goods and souvenirs. He had started off with a single, inherited store but by dint of hard work, sound financial practices and some good luck (with the war stopped for the moment, tourism was booming in Srinagar) Balgur's expanding chain of shops were doing extremely well.
The essence of their story, I am about to tell you now in a, hopefully, coherent fashion."
With this he smiles ruefully at the whisky that has been sitting on the bar in front of him, picks it up and downs it in one. He moves the bitter within easy sipping distance and continues.
"But it took me a long while to piece it together. For one thing, whenever one of the men was telling his side of the story, the other would inevitably begin disputing certain statements and throw the whole tale off course. I also had to work through a large amount of local custom and belief to understand exactly what they were getting at.
It became obvious very quickly that the nub of the issue for both men was that their children had fallen in love and that neither parent approved of this turn in events. After some cursory probing it seemed to me a fairly typical instance of love crossing the, sometimes highly rigid, social divide in India.
For starters Jalal was a Muslim. Two thirds of the Jammu region are, so that was not surprising. He was, furthermore, a very conscientious one who was closely involved with the local Hazratbal Mosque, which reputedly contains a hair of the prophet Muhammad. Balgur on the other hand was a Hindu who devoutly attended services to the God Vishnu. Jalal regarded this as no better than primitive superstition.
Then there was the caste issue. Both belonged to the same overall group of castes "“ the Merchant Group or Vaisya, but within that group are numerous strata. Jalal as the owner of silk mills and from a long, wealthy background was at the top end of the grouping whereas Balgur, considered a lowly shopkeeper who may come into contact with any number of impurities, was at the bottom.
In fact as a Hindu, the caste issue probably worried Balgur more than it did Jalal. Jalal was more driven by the snobbery and predictable resentment of the "Old Money" for the "New" and was not about to give Balgur a helping hand up the social ladder. Balgur accused Jalal's son Jugnu of taking advantage of the good nature of his daughter, using and abusing his position to turn her head with promises of wealth and power. Jalal in turn accused Balgur's daughter Kamini of seducing his son, of using her womanly wiles and charms to win his favour. As they continued speaking, it became clear that the only thing on which they were agreed was the impossibility of the match continuing.
They had come to me in order that I might assign some measure of compensation to the injured party (both of them believing that to be themselves). When I enquired as to the nature of the damage suffered, I discovered that the incident had attracted a reasonable deal of attention throughout the city and across the various cultural divides. Each man believed that their reputations had suffered and that people were beginning to laugh.
As I said, up to this point it had seemed to me to be a fairly straightforward case that I could deal with easily. However, something had been nagging me as I questioned the men. I could sense that I was missing a vital point in it all. Now, asking why a situation that was becoming more commonplace caused such comment, I discovered with a shock what that something was. The two young protagonists – Jugnu and Kamini – were 7 years old!
I must confess that my own initial reaction was almost one of hilarity but, having borne witness to the passion of the two men over the previous half hour, realised that they did not consider it to be at all amusing.
I questioned them more closely and worked out that the "liaison" had been going on for over two years – that is, from the age of four. Following the story back to the beginning, it transpired that Jugnu had accompanied his father on a visit to one of their customers, a hosier in the centre of the city. While his father was busy discussing business, young Jugnu slipped away to go exploring. When Jalal realised that he had gone he started a panicked search of the surrounding streets. Luckily Jugnu hadn't gone far and was discovered in front of a cornerstore, playing with a little girl his own age.
As Jalal approached, Jugnu introduced his new playmate.
"Dada, this is Anna."
The girl put her arms around the boy and said, smiling: "Bas".
Before Jalal could say anything, the owner of the store stuck his head out, saw what was happening and cried out "Kamini, what are you doing? Come here."
When he saw that his daughter had no intention of moving he rushed out, grabbed her up and with much hand wringing, shirt tugging and apologising (for it was none other than Balgur) he backed into his shop. Jalal, totally confused by all this, led his son back to the hosier's shop and, keeping a close eye on him, concluded his business.
And that would have been the conclusion of the whole business had not Jugnu continued encountering Kamini with alarming (for both fathers) regularity. He seemed to almost be able to know where she would be and led his unsuspecting father there under the pretext of looking for new schoolbooks, toys or clothes. At this early stage Jalal and Balgur began to blame each other for allowing their offspring mix. What they appeared unable to admit was that they could do nothing about it.
Jalal quizzed Jugnu as to why he called Kamini "Anna" and why she called him "Bas"