Daddyji's Dalliance

Despite a lot of padding, the story holds the reader's interest because it is a true portrayal of how a Hindu middle-class family managed to hold together.
Daddyji's Dalliance
The Red Letters—My Father's Enchanted Period
By Ved Mehta
Penguin Rs 250; Pages: 190
By any standard, Ved Mehta is a literary phenomenon of our times. He lost his vision when he was four years old. He did his schooling in institutions for the blind. He had as full a life as anyone of his age. He was an active member of the rss during his years in Lahore. He went on to Oxford, then to Harvard and finally on the staff of the New Yorker for 33 years. He is the author of 24 books. Among the many awards he won is the Guggenheims and the MacArthur Fellowship. He had many love affairs and is now a happily married man, father of two daughters and lives with his family in New York.

Quite understandably, many of his books are about members of his family and immediate surroundings. Whenever he did venture beyond his pale, he had to see the world through other’s eyes and often went wrong in his descriptions. But the portrayals of his family were true to life. Of them the best known is his father’s biography, Daddyji. Much later his father himself owned up to having cheated on his mother for some years which he described as the "enchanted period".

Daddyji’s dalliance has an idyllic beginning. On a summer vacation in the hills, he ran into a girl tending her father’s flock. She was unsurpassingly fair—light skin, brown hair and large almond-shaped eyes. They got talking. He was bewitched by her beauty. When he returned to the hills the next summer, the girl was gone. He complained to the British collector but was told to mind his own business. He returned to Lahore to pursue his studies, got selected for the Medical Service, married and proceeded to sire children. Meanwhile, the girl, who had been abducted by an inspector of police, was rescued by a Kashmiri Pandit family. They adopted her, educated her, taught her to play tennis and learn how to conduct herself in upper class society. In due course, they looked for a husband for the girl. And surprisingly, gave her to a pot-bellied widower named Fatumal who had two sons, the elder almost the same age as the girl. But he was rich; he had made his money as a government contractor. One day Daddyji was summoned by Fatumal to attend to his sick wife. She turned out to be the same shepherd girl he had met in the hills, now grown into a ravishingly beautiful woman. The two families became friends. They met in Lahore’s elite Cosmopolitan Club, shared the same house during the summer months in Simla. Ved’s mother got on well with Mrs Fatumal. So did her children, to whom she became Auntie Rasil. Behind everyone’s back, Ved’s father and Rasil became lovers. They wrote soppy love letters to each other. Their dalliance got known. But no one kicked up a shindig. For Fatu-mal, keeping up with the highly-placed government doctor was essential for staying in high class society. Ved’s mother also accepted her husband’s infidelity with good grace as she had no other options. She bore him more children. When Fatumal died, Rasil became her stepson’s mistress-wife.

This tangled tale was put together by Ved Mehta when his father told him about what he had missed out in Daddyji. What compelled him to do so, we are not told. The Red Letters are a judicious mix of fact and fiction. There is also a lot of padding—a long chapter on the history of Simla, an Afterword following an Epilogue. Nevertheless, the story holds the reader’s interest because it is a true portrayal of how a Hindu middle-class family managed to hold together when others would have split apart.

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