I really don’t want to talk about Mani.
But I must talk about him. I feel compelled to tell the story- and to tell it truthfully. It makes me look bad but that can’t be helped. I need to tell you what happened to my friend Mani; for the sake of everyone associated with the story, including Mani.
My name is Raman. My wife Ritu and I have been married for twelve years. We are blessed with two daughters who are the most precious to us. The sun rises and sets in the eyes of my three girls. That’s all there is to it.
We met Mani nearly five years ago at the anniversary party of a mutual friend. My two daughters had disappeared with some other kids. My wife and I hardly knew anyone there except for the host. But it didn’t bother us because we’ve always enjoyed each other’s company best. We were soon chatting away like the best friends we are.
Just then, the hostess came over with a well-built, handsome man. She introduced him as Mani and told us that Mani was a self-employed, successful Financial Advisor. Before she could tell us more, she was called away by some others guests.
With seamless ease, Mani picked up the mantle. He talked with a straight-forwardness which was at once impressive and endearing. His dry sense of humor soon had us in splits. He used his whole body when he talked. His hands, eyes and face all reinforced his precisely articulated words. His smile was the best part of his personality. It lit up his eyes merrily. There was such a wealth of good will and simple joy about him that one naturally warmed up to him.
He asked questions about our interests in a manner that left no doubt in our minds that he was genuinely interested in knowing us. He oozed happiness and contentment. When we asked him about his profession, he talked with a simple frankness that showed that he was very knowledgeable about financial planning. He did not self- promote but we were left in no doubt at all that we were talking to an expert. For all that, he looked- and behaved- like a man out to have a good time.
Mani was wonderful company. Soon, other people joined our group. Mani had us all laughing, joking and sharing. He was the life and soul of the party- and he knew it. He seemed to have an inexhaustible fund of amusing anecdotes and stories.
During dinner, our hostess dropped by for a minute to ask Mani why he hadn’t brought Shikha and the kids with him. For a very brief moment, Mani’s face clouded over. We could guess she was asking about his wife and children. He looked embarrassed for a moment and was at a loss for words. Then the grin came back and he shrugged his shoulders. Our hostess nodded sympathetically and left it at that.
By the time the party wound up, it was almost morning. Mani and I had exchanged phone numbers sometime during the night. He told us that he would call on us soon because he had really enjoyed our company. We assured him of reciprocal affection on our part and that we looked forward to his visit.
Mani paid us a visit three days later. He was as jovial, articulate and charming as he had been on the day of the party. Our friendship grew rapidly. My two daughters adored him. He didn’t behave like an adult with them. While they were around, he would frequently cut us off mid- sentence to reply to one of their endless questions. For him, they were the priority, not we. It was very unusual to see an adult make children the main focus of his attention. We thought him ‘adult’ company but we were wrong! It was obvious that he adored kids… and they adored him back.
By the time his visit ended, the kids were hanging on to him, refusing to let him go. He had to promise them to come again the next day before they would let go of his arm. He had won them over, lock stock and barrel. We were delighted and were sold on him more than ever. Who wouldn’t be?
From then on, Mani became closer and closer to us. He would come in the evening, play with the girls and have dinner. Once the girls went to bed, he would sit talking to us until late at night. We loved those conversations with him. He surely had lived a very unusual but tough life. He shared everything with us freely. But he hardly ever talked about his family. At the most he talked of his children’s early years. But of his wife, he said nothing. Even when asked, he just shrugged as he had at the party, his face clouded, his eyes filled with sadness.
Almost every day, he brought something for the kids; savory gulab jamuns, ice-creams or chocolates. Neither Ritu nor I liked that and we protested one day. With his eyes brimming, he shut us up by saying that he was bringing things for ‘his’ kids. There is no way we could refuse him after that.
He played their childish games with them for hours. When they studied, he would sit by and help. Sometimes when my wife and I had to go somewhere, we would leave the girls with him. He would cook scrumptious meals for them and the three of them would have a rollicking time together. He had become a part of our family.
He was very generous and kind-hearted. He would go out of his way to do things for people; all people, not only us. If anyone had a medical challenge, he would be the first one to help out. I don’t remember how often he donated blood for friends… and friends of friends. One day when he called me at office, I told him that Ritu had burnt herself badly. In the evening he came with homeopathic medicines and a jar of aloe-vera gel. He would never accept payment for the things he bought. I am not the sort of man who is comfortable letting someone else pay for things and I was uneasy.
I began to wonder about his family. He spent all his after office hours with us and avoided going home for as long as possible. I wondered why he was so alienated from his family. We guessed that his relationship with his wife and children was stormy. He was such a loving and kind-hearted man, surely the fault must be with his wife. The kids probably followed her blindly.
Ritu and I wanted to help resolve the issues between them. Accordingly, I suggested he bring his family over or to let us visit his home. He gave me a non-committal answer and I didn’t pursue it then. I didn’t let it go though. For four months I kept repeating my request every few days.
One day the three of us sat talking together after dinner. It was after midnight- the hour when it is silent and dark. It is the hour when secrets dark with pain can be spoken of in the hushed silence. Mani told us why he tried to find love and companionship in the homes of his friends- instead of his own.
He and his wife didn’t get along at all. He was making good money. He made sure he never gave her anything less than twenty thousand to run the household. He asked Ritu if she thought it was enough. Ritu assured him that it surely was, and that she managed comfortably with fifteen.
Money wasn’t the only fly in Mani’s marital ointment it seemed. They never saw eye to eye on anything. Shikha criticized him constantly for everything he did. She never supported him in any venture. She took in sewing from the neighborhood telling everyone that she was forced to do this to make ends meet. She had given him the reputation of a useless man who couldn’t take care of his family’s needs.
His children had no respect for him. He pined for their affection and love but all he got from them was derision, hostility and disrespect. They believed everything their mother told them. He loved his kids most devotedly, yet they had told him to leave them and go away.
The poor guy simply broke down. Ritu and I also found it difficult to control ourselves and our eyes filled up. We didn’t know what to say and sat in silence until Mani’s storm blew over. At last when he was quiet, I told him we will visit his home the next day.
He wasn’t too happy about it, but couldn’t refuse.
Read the concluding part at My Friend Mani (FIN)…