By Devraj Singh Kalsi
The Duggals had received their first invitation to attend a grand reception organised to celebrate the divorce of Upasana Malhotra, the only daughter of a reputed steel magnate diversifying into organic agribusiness. Having lived in the same colony before fortune ferried the Malhotras away from the middle-class neighbourhood to a posh locality teeming with industrialists, the Duggals were the only family they shared close ties with decades ago. The same affection remained in place even though their visits happened only on special occasions. So, it was a surprise for the Duggals to be invited again after three years to the same household where they had gone to bless the couple exchanging vows for continuing wedded for life.
More startling was that the girl possessed the courage to throw a lavish party, inviting distinguished guests who came to her wedding party to re-appear, bless and congratulate her again for her decision to leave the Poddar surname attached in haste. After a breezy romantic courtship that blossomed in a top-notch US university campus, the much-talked-about marriage solemnised three summers ago hurtled to a premature end. The Duggals knew it was one of her crazy ideas to celebrate the mutual separation ostentatiously and showcase the event for public consumption, with attendees looking baffled about how they should behave on her D-day (read Divorce Day).
As the Duggals were flabbergasted, they sought the help from Google to find out more about such parties. They could not find ample content to clarify their doubts, so they sought help from their tech-savvy son, Shamsher Duggal, who called up an event manager friend to dig up details about divorce parties. She said there were no separate rules to follow, and it was just held the way marriage parties are held, with much scope to innovate for the couple. The guests were expected to maintain the usual decorum and focus on wine, food and music to celebrate the bright future for the divorcees. Shamsher asked his parents to keep the Charh di Kalaapproach in mind, to calibrate themselves with the equivalent of joie de vivre: stay indulgent, in high spirits to mint fresh memories of fun and enjoyment.
Mr Duggal kept gazing at the invitation card delivered by courier, running his podgy fingers on the embossed letters. It was fancier than any marriage invitation card. The gold-plated card glittered, perhaps indicating the glittering future after the mutual separation that was to be formalised at an auspicious hour. The names of the couple and their families were mentioned along with the programme schedule, with the Lord’s name emblazoned on it to suggest this separation was being formalised with divine blessings, to thank Him for mercy and saving the couple from a boring life together.
Freedom at midnight is always good as it heralds a new dawn. The midnight timeline for the divorce echoed in a similar strain. The couple would wake to a new life of freedom after their tryst with matrimony. The big idea behind the invitation was to come and bless the separating couple with tons of happiness in their post-divorce lives. The creative note was penned by a professional copywriter who gave it a spin and hyped it to such an extent that it seemed missing this event would be the biggest blunder for couples who had experienced the beautiful side of getting hitched but not the equally, if not more, wonderful side of getting ditched. When Mrs Duggal picked it up to read, those emotional lines struck a chord with her and filled the gaps in their marriage. She looked at divorce through the prism of optimism.
Mr Duggal, yet to recover from the initial shock of being invited to attend the divorce party, found it challenging to customise his expressions to suit the occasion, to look happy like he did when Upasana married this guy three years ago. He remembered sharing with relatives and friends the video clip featuring their energetic Bhangra dance to show how charged they were as a doting, retired couple.
“Do you think we are expected to bless them again? Isn’t it a farce? Grooving and smiling would be tough, isn’t it? Those vivid memories of blessing her would haunt me. What is the need to hold this function? What are they trying to prove? Mocking at the institution of marriage? Don’t you think they are making a grand show of putting up a brave face when misfortune looms large? Check the program list. Leading pop singers from the film world are going to perform live,” Mr Duggal went hammer and tongs.
“They are not going to sing sad songs of separation. Not your favourite dard bhare geet. They wish to celebrate divorce as a happy occasion – the harbinger of good times. A peppy show loaded with dance and masti. Frankly, I am impressed with her plan, no matter what you say. Chalo, let’s not waste time. Choose my dress and matching jewellery, so much to do. Stop brooding and decide which suit you want to wear or buy something traditional,” Mrs Duggal showed her positive frame of mind for the special event they were privileged to attend. Finally, she would have something unique to discuss at her kitty party next week.
Mr Duggal was not in high spirits, unlike his wife who got another opportunity to look fabulous and interact with the upwardly mobile guests she had met at Upasana’s theme wedding. When he mentioned the name of the sensational singer, Mrs Duggal slipped into dance mode, visualising it to be awesome.
“Our blessings are mere formality; did not mean much the last time and it is not going to matter this time again,” Mr Duggal tried to get her back on a serious track.
“Oh Sardarji, come on, you know it is all like that. Do not ruin the fun part. They have entertainment. We ate a gourmet dinner last time. Expect the same this time. They are sweetly mocking the institution of marriage so let them do it. Relationships are like that only today. Here, we carry dead relationships on our shoulders and try to revive them instead of ending everything on a bitter-sweet note,” Mrs Duggal offered her worldview without sounding preachy.
“So, you mean our marriage can also go to the rocks one day? Our four decades of marriage can crumble,” Mr Duggal expressed concern, “In case you have such intent, do let me know a year in advance so I can prepare and plan my future, and get check-ups done to avoid cardiac arrest. But if you decide suddenly – just give me a slow disclosure so that the shock does not upset my weak but vital organs,” Mr Duggal pleaded with her in a lighter vein.
“Now stop worrying about your fate and go and ask if Shamsher would join us,” Mrs Duggal tried to reduce his anxiety.
“Has he ever been anywhere with us in the last ten years? No point asking and getting the same standard reply,” Mr Duggal furnished his bland refusal.
“He was not asked to accompany us to Upasana’s wedding. They were friends in childhood. Maybe now you can ask if he…” Mrs Duggal tried to persuade him.
“You remember so much. Anyway, since you insist, I am seeking his presence. Did he complain he was not asked to go last time?” Mr Duggal asked with curiosity.
Mrs Duggal kept mum, waiting for him to understand something without words.
Mr Duggal went and knocked at his son’s frosted glass door and asked if he would like to go.
Instead of refusing, he said he had an important presentation that evening so he would stay home for the project.
“I told your Mummy you are not a party-loving guy, but she insisted I should ask you to join us. When will your mother understand you as I do?”
Mr Duggal rummaged the wardrobe looking for a suitable blazer and trailed a volley of queries after informing her that Shamsher was not joining them.
“Do you have any idea how we are going to behave there? I mean do we look sad or happy? I am bad at faking, you know that. Are you going to give them bouquets separately?” Mr Duggal fired a big one.
“Not decided. But yes, better if we give one each separately. You give to Upasana, your missed Bahu. And I will give her divorcee hubby. Don’t think so much. They are happy to heal this way, so why should we grudge? We are invited – go and enjoy. Be practical like them. Just chill,” Mrs Duggal gave sound advice to make him comfortable.
Mr Duggal was not okay with this whole idea. He thought this was intended to make fun of marriage although his wife and son were on the same page in this matter and hailed it as a progressive step.
“I am clear I am not going to bless them again,” Mr Duggal stressed with raised eyebrows, “I know the Malhotras will be upset doing this tamashabut Upasana is forcing them to stage this show.”
“Whoever has planned it, at least some people got work, some organisers, catering guys, bartenders, and DJs. Money is flowing out of the tycoon’s coffers for a divorce party that is just like a farewell party. Touchwood, I am super excited. I am going to wear a silk Sharara, and diamond jewellery for the divorce party,” Mrs Duggal revealed her plans.
Shamsher joined their discussion late and cheered for his mother and persuaded her to buy a flashy suit for his father, maybe a tuxedo.
When Mrs Duggal mentioned this divorce party, none of her friends reacted with excitement as they were not invited. It was a matter of privilege for the Duggal family to be invited. Upasana liked Duggal Uncle when her father was not super-rich. As good family friends, Upasana bonded well with Duggal Uncle who gave her strong lessons to be independent and brave like a boy child. This gender parity thing was a gift from Duggal Uncle who wanted her to be free in her choices.
“You are the one who put those modern ideas in her at that young age,” Mrs Duggal accused her husband of being the real culprit.
There was no denying the fact that Mr Duggal never discriminated against based on gender and encouraged girls to follow their dreams. He had encouraged his sister to join the medical profession. Considering Upasana to be just like his own child, he gave her genuine advice as her father was busy expanding his business empire.
On the day of reception, the Duggals walked in, decked in their best. Upasana spotted them from a distance and walked down the aisle to receive them and hugged them after touching their feet. She had not forgotten the traditions. Mrs Duggal congratulated her for being bold enough to walk out of a loveless marriage based on presumptions. Citing this as the most probable reason, she went ahead with examples of women from her community separating fast. As they reached the dais where the florally decorated, chairs for the split couple were arranged, her ex-hubby greeted them with folded hands and shook hands with Mr Duggal who almost squeezed it in true Punjabi style, and his smile almost dried up under pressure.
“Nice, you are leaving Upasana, not made for each other type actually,” Mr Duggal said to the former groom, Puneet Poddar while releasing his hand from his firm grip. Mrs Duggal offered him a bouquet of roses and congratulated him on his quick release from the marriage cell with a sardonic smile and an avancular peck on his chubby cheek.
Trying to appreciate her sense of humour, Puneet Poddar reciprocated with a half-hearted smile and claimed it was his idea to throw a party and seconded by Upasana. “The real purpose behind this party is to meet you, guys. All those who attended our marriage got the invite to this party – from both sides. Our families loved this idea and gave the go-ahead to end it on a happy note,” Puneet explained briefly to the Duggals and guided them to settle in the front row seats on the other stage put up for the gala musical night.
Mr Duggal wanted to meet the Malhotras first and asked him, “Where are your parents and in-laws?”
Mrs Duggal went to reserve the best seats for the music show while her husband continued the chat with Puneet Poddar who informed their parents that were together, formalising last-minute plans of setting up a new company abroad.
“Son and daughter are separating but the parents are forging a new bond?” Mr Duggal looked stunned.
“That is the beauty of our separation, Uncle. No bitterness. They remain friends and come closer while we call it over. They clicked as business partners, but we did not as partners. Simple as that.”
“This is something unique, never heard of, dear, business interest supreme,” Mr Duggal admitted, “very practical, beta, loving it now.”
“Honestly Uncle, we all are happy, we are beginning new lives,” Puneet Poddar asserted with a dash of confidence.
“Where did Upasana vanish? Let me find her.”
“Must be busy with her girl gang inside,” Puneet said coldly.
Guests started trooping in with gift hampers and the band of musicians arrived on the stage. Mr Duggal looked around and found the best whiskey.
Contrary to Mr Duggal’s expectation of tearjerker numbers, sad songs of the Rafi-Lata-Kishore era being played out in a remix version, or some Ghalib ghazals, the band started jamming on peppy songs of freedom and carefree living and travelling the world. Perhaps that was the brief: celebrate freedom and free living. The dance floor rocked, as couples of all age groups began to waltz. The laser beams flash here and there to create colourful images of a happy crowd enjoying every moment of the party, with dozens of cameras zooming and capturing the party from various angles.
The couple that was breaking up could be spotted together on the stage, flanked by their parents for the last photo-op. The press guys went click, click, click.
Mr Malhotra held the mike and spoke with verve, “We are glad to have you all with us on this happy day, to wish the separating pair the best for their future lives as independent people in their solo journeys.”
He gave it to Puneet to utter a few words, and he trundled out a stirring speech. “It was a wonderful journey of three years, and we realised this is all we had to share. No question of remarrying but remaining focused on living as free souls. Marriage is not fit for our nature and temperament. I am not marriage material. I guess we both have this trait in common. These three years have convinced us. There are many more like us who keep quiet and continue. Not us because we have choices. I was lucky to have Upasana who realised the same, and we gave each other the best gift possible. Freedom. If marriage was wrong, divorce is right.”
Puneet Poddar won a legion of admirers with his speech, and the guests expected Upasana to say a few words to surpass him.
Upasana picked it up from where he left, “Yeah right, marriages don’t have to be dysfunctional and then end in a split. Even apparently peaceful and stable marriages can end without raising a flutter. When beautiful things unfold in our lives, more beautiful than marriage that impedes and dilutes the experience, marriage should give way to that beautiful future we cannot share. Our lives cannot be beautiful together, not as much as our separate lives can be, and we realised it,” Upasana poured forth, “perhaps we come across as selfish, but if the sole focus of marriage is to make two people happy forever, we felt we were not going to make it as a couple. Better to part ways as friends who tried out marriage but thankfully did not suffer in it.”
The thunderous applause for her fiery words paled everything else into insignificance and glorified their divorce.
The priest who had come to perform their marriage rituals had come for the divorce. His presence was needed to bless them again for a new phase. His holy presence would be seen as auspicious for their divorce. After blessing them on stage, he came down and went to have his quota of snacks and drinks.
Mr Duggal bumped into him and held his arm, “Arrey, Sharma, where are you running and with what?”
There was a glass of drink in his hand, and he claimed it was nothing but a cold drink.
“When did I say you are having anything else?” Mr Duggal quipped.
“Sardarji, the couple took the right decision,” the priest confessed, before taking a sip, “Their stars did not match, but I got paid extra to match everything. There is a defect in the birth chart and a big chance of a fatal accident if they remain married for five years. This is the real reason for the split, I am telling you. But anyway, it is a new experience for me. I am enjoying a divorce party for the first time at fifty-five. I have performed hundreds of marriages, and many couples split up in courts, but nobody tried this. Congratulations to their families, and hope this inspires more couples planning to split, to follow suit.”
Mr Duggal was not the superstitious type, and such disclosures did not cut much ice with him. Polishing off the drink, the priest went to relish paneer butter masalaand kulchaswhile Mrs Duggal remained busy in the chaat stalls and savoured scoops of gelato ice cream.
The parents of the divorcing couple ate together while the pair was busy with their bosom friends. Everybody seemed to enjoy the evening, except for Mr Duggal who felt a tad remorseful as this was not what he was expecting to happen. Since everyone seemed happy, he had no reason to feel sad. Puneet was a nice man and what more do you need than a nice person as a life partner? He could not answer that for himself and realised nobody knew for sure what they wanted in life but knew only what they wanted at a particular stage of life.
The priest disappeared to gorge more kulchas while Mr Duggal set forth to take charge of his wife, who was careless regarding her sugar intake. She seemed to have enjoyed the sweets — all alone. With Mr Duggal reminding her of dietary restrictions, she lost the sense of freedom and almost threatened to leave him, “Stay away, or there will be two divorces today. Let me indulge in what I like.” Mrs Duggal made it resoundingly clear.
Mr Duggal felt scared of divorce at his advanced age and let her have her way. He went to listen to the music band singing some peppy chartbusters from across the world. Soon after, they wanted to leave but the divorcing couple and their parents were nowhere around. They moved out quickly without informing anyone except the priest who trailed behind them to the exit gate. Mr Malhotra was already at the gate when he saw them. He gave a warm hug and apologised for being tied up during the entire evening, “Thanks for coming, yaar, our friendship from Model Town days survives despite everything. Upasana was closer to you than me. She still misses Bhabhiji ke Chhole Bhaturey.”
On the way home in their hatchback car, Mr Duggal could not convince himself whether this was all real or fake.
“When people appear madly in love after marriage, it is also far from real,” Mrs Duggal hinted how a façade is always in place, “Forget everything, it was a good freak-out session. I enjoyed the music, golgappas, chaat and ice cream flavours like mint and paan, just wonderful. I remember that. Nothing else. Perhaps divorce is not a bad thing after this. The lesser burden on our courts. You have to admit they set an example. End it without scars and bruises, without social stigma. The same people who attended the marriage were present at their divorce, so hopefully, they will not badmouth them. I won’t be surprised if this catches up fancy and becomes a trend here like in the West,” Mrs Duggal gave her candid views while Mr Duggal focused on driving safely to negotiate the final bend near their house.
“Perhaps you are right,” Mr Duggal agreed as he stopped the car at the entrance. Shamsher came out to open the gate and asked,” So how was your party, guys?”
“Oh, it was lovely, beta. You should have comewith us. I have something for you,” Mrs Duggal gave him the box of laddoos they were gifted before leaving the party ground.
While Mr Duggal parked the car in the garage, Shamsher opened the designer box and saw the printed photo of Upasana, with a thank-you note.
“Like Shaadi ka laddoo, this is divorce ka laddoo, taste it, beta,” Mrs Duggal teased her son who was unwilling to marry even though he was close to forty.
When they entered the living room, Shamsher went to the upper floor and stood on the balcony. Mrs Duggal sent his father upstairs to check his emotional state. Mr Duggal came and placed his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Did you like Upasana?”
Shamsher did not turn around to answer the question. In the meanwhile, Mrs Duggal came upstairs slowly with her arthritic knees, and responded on his behalf, “What will this coward say? He could never say it earlier. Always busy with computers.”
Finding him unusually quiet after this salvo for the first time in years, his parents left him alone to regain emotional composure. However, his silence answered a lot.
“You knew all this?” Mr Duggal asked her after reaching their bedroom.
“Of course, I am his mother. I can sense that. I know his feelings better than you do,” Mrs Duggal shot back with confidence.
“But you never said it to me. Maybe I could take it up with her,” Mr Duggal said.
“But I was not sure if she was also having the same feelings for him,” Mrs Duggal explained to justify her silence.
Shamsher recollected the three years he and Upasana studied in the same school together. Then she left the locality and was admitted to a girl’s convent. Later she left for the US to pursue higher studies where she fell in love with Puneet Poddar who was studying on the same campus. Some mutual friends kept offering updates though he never established contact with her.
Shamsher picked up one laddoo from the box without hesitation and put it in his mouth. The saffron flavour was awesome, cooked in desi ghee. His smile of satisfaction grew wider as he stuffed another laddoo – to celebrate their divorce and gave a hearty laugh to release his residual feelings of childhood love.
 High spirited
 Bride, daughter-in law
 Show or event
 A loose trouser
 A preparation of cottage cheese
 A kind of Indian bread
 Savoury snacks
 Sister-in-law’s chickpea curry with fried flatbread
 Savoury snack
 Betel quid regarded as a digestive after a heavy meal
 Wedding sweets
 Homemade clarified butter
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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