The husband studied in an all boys’ public school, and I believe one of the rites of passage into manhood involved the studying and memorising of the basic facts of life, as laid down by the male order.
The most important of these facts is that ‘all wives are profligate creatures, waiting for a chance to fritter away their husbands’ life’s earnings’. Accordingly, the moment I say I’m going out shopping, the husband begins exhibiting a peculiar set of symptoms. His hands start clenching and unclenching involuntarily, his teeth begin gnashing, and the vein on his forehead starts throbbing in a threatening staccato.
Some years ago, he took to wearing his most tattered shirts whenever I was home. The more tattered the collar, the better. The look in his eye said, ‘If I can manage with six shirts, why do you need your twenty-first salwar-kameez?’ After a few weeks of this treatment, I went out and bought him six new shirts. He collapsed of the shock.
Then he took to paying the credit card bills himself, instead of leaving them to me, as he used to. This is accompanied by a different display of talent – first he slits the envelope with a roll of his eye, looks at the amount and whistles in shock, draws out his cheque book with a lo-o-o-o-ng sigh and fills out the cheque, then tears the cheque leaf out with a sound as of a breaking heart – but to the same effect, nevertheless: Why are you doing this to my bank balance?
It’s not as if the husband is a miser. Actually, I’ve not managed – in all these years – to figure out what will be a no-no. He’ll take us out to the new restaurant in town even before we’ve discovered it. No occasion at all, and he’ll stump me with a piece of jewellery.
But ask him for a new pair of shoes for me, and he’ll look at me as if I asked for the moon. Tell him to get himself a new pair of trousers, and he’ll grab his purse-strings and wind them tight around his wrist. I think the answer lies in the facts of life we were talking about earlier. Fact number two must have been: ‘If she asks for it, it has to be no.’
Some years ago, the husband took his beloved ‘Mercedes’ out to the workshop for a much needed denting and painting job, unfortunately not as much in vogue then as it is now. I gave him a list of the things I thought the poor thing needed, starting with new seat covers. He promptly put them on his ‘Not Urgent’ list, ending with new seat covers.
When the Mercedes came back, glossy in her new coat of paint – you could actually make out what she was, a 1985 Fiat that had been suffocating under the trials and tribulations of daily life in the metro.
‘Wow!’ I said. ‘You did get the new window glasses.’
‘The guy at the garage lost my list,’ mumbled the husband sheepishly, as I womanfully struggled to conceal my laughter.
‘Let’s go and get some new seat covers and you’ll have a new car,’ I suggested. But that was obviously the wrong psychological moment to have said that. The husband looked at me as if I’d said let’s go put in a bid for the Koh-i-Noor.
A few weeks later, the Ma-in-Law dropped by. ‘Your car looks really good,’ she said. ‘But it needs new seat covers. Here,’ she rolled out a wad of notes, ‘it’s on me. Your anniversary present.’ That was five years ago. The money is still lying in the husband’s socks drawer, as pristine as the day she gave it to us.
Meanwhile, the Merc had begun to rattle and wheeze once more. ‘I think you should get it overhauled,’ I said after it had been to the garage for the fourth time that month. ‘Or, better still, let’s get a new car.’
‘All you can think of doing is spend money,’ came the retort. ‘There’s nothing wrong with her that a little grease will not set right.’
That was Monday. On Wednesday, the Merc lost her floor. Luckily for the husband, the floor went on the passenger seat side, so we were able to drive her to the garage. The most excited, of course, was the son, who insisted on accompanying the husband there so that ‘he could see the road go by’. From under his feet.
With our combined wallets lighter by about seventy-five thousand rupees, the Merc is back, and I can’t quite suppress my grin as I ask the husband, ‘Shall we get new seat covers?’ I already know what the answer will be.
First published in The Financial Express in July 2000.