Millie was 23 years old when she eloped with her boyfriend. Born in 1951, some seventy years back, in Lucknow the city of nawabs, and the most populated city of India. Having lost her mother during her birth, her father, an overtly honest administrative officer in the government, gave her the very best upbringing he could. She grew up running around in the football fields and cycling with neighbourhood boys scraping her knees and coming back home covered in dirt and stinkingly filthy. Girls her age were not allowed as much freedom as she was. She was plain lucky as her dad returned late from work, seldom paying attention as to how she spent her day.
Slowly, her identity as a tomboy developed among the girls, who preferred to stay away from her. As she blossomed into a young woman, she became very vocal about her likes and dislikes in the neighbourhood functions and get-togethers. When the neighbourhood women rebuked her on her miserable sense of dressing up, she found it discriminatory and when they commented on her impolite manners, she found it oppressive. She would appeal to break the pathetic divide that society builds up around how a boy should be raised and a girl should be perceived. Clearly, she was demanding transformational change. Her disregard of the expected stereotypical female roles infuriated the neighbourhood women who labelled her as stubborn and opinionated.
Therefore her running away was not a shocker to them, for them it had always been her way or highway, and as expected it was the highway she took, albeit with her boyfriend.
The memories of that day are still so vivid and fresh with me. Early morning Milli gave a closed envelope to their part-time maid to hand over to her father, and she left the house with bags and a bit in haste. The maid, not ready to come back in the evening for her father, went and handed the envelope to the next-door neighbour after finishing her work in the house describing the events of the day. The nosey neighbour finding Millie‘s attitude a little uncool tore open the sealed envelope. The letter inside turned out to be an apology addressed to her dad on her decision to elope. The news travelled across houses in our neighbourhood like fire and by noon from young to old all were talking about it but who could break this news to her sixty-year-old flailing father was the question.
Millie was the third born, with two elder brothers, yet the only family was her father. Her brother, seventeen years older than her had settled in the USA. He seldom visited home. Her next brother, thirteen years older than her, was always away. Either at another city for a new job interview or trying to keep up the old one. Both being unavailable, it was the maid who was found both close and available to do the task.
It must have been around four in the evening when women hanging on to balconies and windows saw the father walk down the narrow lane to his house. The maid was quickly summoned and handed over the responsibility as per the earlier instructions of Millie, with just a slight change. He returns home, she shall meet him, hand the letter and not the envelope for he would see it had been torn open.
The maid, now aware of the situation, obeyed as told and coyly went to the door of the house and rang the bell. The father by now was inside and was just about to shout out at Millie for his evening cup of tea, he did not know had eloped. Since she was a little girl, Millie had always been waiting for her father. Standing near the staircase every evening as he would enter the hallway after opening the entry door with his set of keys. The small two-floor house would echo his voice as he would call out” Warm up the tea for me Millie and bring it to the drawing-room...while I change quickly and be back there, get yours too, we will have it together.”
The maid could hear the footsteps approaching the double shutter door as the man opened it. She handed the letter to him with her head bowed down. Without making eye contact, she quickly receded the same lane as fast as she could. The snoopy neighbours saw the door closing and took a sigh of relief. Everything happened as per their carefully detailed plan, till they heard a scream that sounded like a cry of wild abandonment.
A few neighbours ran out of their house and knocked at his door but he did not open it. He was far from the voices outside. Inside as the first wave of grief passed over him he walked towards the drawing-room and sank heavily in his favourite armchair. The letter clenched tightly in his fist as he closed his eyes and scenes from the past became alive.
It was the usual Thursday, and he was bending upon the dining table over the newspaper circling the matrimonial ad where the grooms-to-be and their families advertise under the wanted bride section. Saturday and Sunday would pass away in the numerous meetings he would arrange with these suitable suitors and Millie hated it. Monday they would have a heated argument, Millie would call it a display of herself and he a meeting of minds, but the worst part was no suitor ever said ''yes” for Milli. She was nowhere presentable in the marriage market where stubborn patriarchal traditions reigned, and her offensive style of dressing, her barely five feet tall frame, and her big mouth that never stopped her ideology to escape failed her always. How many Thursdays to Monday this repeated like a ritual he could not recall, 20,40,52 his memory was failing. All he recalled was Millie’s strong headedness “I won’t allow men to hush me” she would always say in her defence and then latest that was added last week was "``People claim to be open-minded but can't accept an educated woman, all they want is a doll to display with their drawing room furniture”. Millie herself had just finished a degree course in architecture in Lucknow itself and so the outburst.
He felt exhausted, drained, and fatigued. The same way he always felt after those constant arguments. Those arguments increasingly made him insensitive towards his daughter's desires.
His hands slumped to his side and the letter dropped from his hand, his thoughts knotted around his very neck a hangman knot barely allowing him to breathe, he gasped for air, and a delicious scent of rain hit his nostrils from an open window. With great effort, he opened his eyes and looked in that direction. He saw large patches of grey rain-laden clouds passing over the big white sky and heard the deafening sound of a thunderbolt. As he looked around he saw the newly rain-washed trees swaying. The sound of birds chirping in shrieking tones gave an orchestra kind of environment. High up a big bolt of lightning slashed across the sky, creating a narrow creek that quickly shaped into a deep dark ditch. A gust of whispering winds swayed above his head for a brief moment, he saw them shape into the big black hole of the society before being pulled into the ditch by a mysterious skyward force. The big black hole that had been sucking his daughter’s ideology, devouring all her joys and desires ferociously was completely gone.
She was free. Free from the male-dominant society that labelled men and women with roles. Free from the system in which men have more power than women. Free from living the same system for days, weeks, and months. Free from the endless perusal of the right man. Winter, summers, and all seasons would be for her to enjoy. Many opportunities would lie ahead for her to seek.
His heart began racing fast with the abundance of joy that he felt reverberating inside him. He felt incapable of holding so much joy and felt a strange tightening around his chest, he quickly breathed a silent prayer to live longer and witness it all.
Elopement wasn't bad; it was the only way to throw the rule book away. Yes, that was it! Everything seemed clear.
He was engulfed by a deep desire to hold her in his arms, to wash away the guilt, the shame, and the pain. To see her smile when he would tell her that dad would be by her side when she would stand against age-old society rules.
It was time to celebrate and to rejoice. He tried to get up but his feet gave way and he felt the force of his falling on his back. His chest tightened further, his lips parted, his breathing became heavy, and he felt the blood draining from his very fingers. He tried moving them but they lay motionless, he tried moving his legs but they seem strapped to the ground, he tried moving his head up but it just felt like a ton of dead stone on his neck, it was his eyes that moved and he looked up. The storm had subsided, the air was clean and the sky was white. The formations, the creek, the ditch, the big black hole, all seemed to have disappeared as fast as they had appeared to him.
Ultimately, every death is different – and you can’t predict who will get a better one. But this one for sure was peaceful. It is very much possible that the man experienced his most profound moment just before death embraced him when he finally conceded with his daughter's viewpoint.