Continued from My Friend Mani

We went to Mani’s home next evening. We took chocolates and a couple of board games for his two children- a boy and a girl- who were the same age as our girls. For Shikha we took a length of dress material and a book on machine embroidery patterns. This was the first opportunity we had of repaying Mani for all he had spent on us. Moreover, a little salve never hurts.

Our first impression of her was unpleasant. She had a quarrelsome, pinched face. She looked at us with ill-disguised suspicion and hostility. The only word I can use to describe the house and the three occupants was SHABBY. The house was shabby… the woman wore shabby clothes… the kids wore faded and much repaired shabby clothes. They did not look like they were the family of a financially well-off man. It was obvious that they presented the sorry aspect deliberately to shame Mani.

The two children seemed much under their mother’s influence and sat subdued and quiet. Even the chocolates and games did not lighten their faces. It was the sight of those poor kids that made me want to shake that woman up until her teeth rattled in her head. I couldn’t imagine anyone that malevolent and vicious. Did she not see what her own prejudice towards Mani was doing to her children? Why was she poisoning their tender minds so?

Half an hour was all we could tolerate there. If Mani was the embodiment of the phrase Pleasing Personality, Shikha was the embodiment of the opposite. Ritu agreed with me. I promised myself that I would never try to patch things up between Mani and his wife. We didn’t get much of a chance anyway.

A week after our disastrous visit, I was offered a plum assignment in Australia. I was asked to join in fifteen days and stay there for the next four years. I would not have been able to wind up my affairs if Mani hadn’t helped me. He was miserable at the thought of losing the only family he had ever known. Twice he tried to dissuade me from going. When that didn’t work, he told me to go alone and not take the girls with me. He was brokenhearted when I couldn’t agree. We too were sad and the girls were inconsolable. But it was an awesome opportunity we didn’t want to miss.

We tried to keep in touch with Mani but it was very difficult. He was not internet savvy and we were too busy to write. One year later, I got an email from the friend at whose house we had met Mani. He told us that Mani and Shikha had finally got divorced. I can’t say I was sorry. In fact Ritu and I had wondered too why Mani was carrying on with Shikha. We had never said anything to Mani because an outsider can never understand the nature of the bond between a man and his woman. For whatever reason, if Mani wanted to continue in the relationship, we surely had no right to suggest that he terminate it.

We returned to India just two months ago. As soon as we settled down, we tried to contact Mani. We found no trace of him. He seemed to have disappeared into thin air. In desperation, I tried to find out where his wife and kids were. They too had disappeared.

Last week, while we were on a shopping trip, Ritu saw a new boutique and we both went in. We were shocked to see Shikha in the owner’s chair. Even more shocking was the change in her. She was well-dressed, cheerful and pleasant. There was no trace of the woman we had met. She recognized us and greeted us with quiet composure.

Her face had lost its pinched look. She smiled easily and looked confident and happy. In answer to our query, she told us that Mani had moved to Bangalore and was now living with his brother’s family. She insisted that we visit her home and have dinner with her. We were about to refuse when she told us there are things she needed to tell us. We agreed, not anticipating the shock we were to get.

Shikha’s home was a modest two bedroom flat. The kids came and greeted us. The change in them was as surprising as that in Shikha. They were no longer the ill at ease, fearful and subdued kids we had met. They looked as if they had never had a day of unhappiness in their lives. Ritu and I were bewildered. The three of them then began their tale.

Mani was a perpetrator of financial disasters. He was a leech who didn’t let go of his victim until the last drop had been sucked off his body. He knew financial planning like the back of his hand. When someone entrusted him with their money, they would find that Mani had helplessly and inefficiently let their money slip through his fingers. They never knew that it ended up in his pockets. He laid his plans so carefully that even the most exhaustive investigation only pointed to bad luck, nothing else.

His confident and charming manner managed to keep a steady trickle of victims flowing but it was getting difficult. Even when he made a killing, he never contributed to household expenses and splurged the money on himself- buying expensive clothes, shoes and electronic gadgets for his exclusive use. If they dared to touch any of his things, he would beat them. Yes, Mani beat his kids brutally- frequently with his belt! Ritu started to cry bitterly. Even I was devastated.

Mani’s household was run on the money Shikha managed to eke out from her sewing. Whenever he needed money to maintain a facade of a financially successful man, he sold off her jewelry. By the time they got divorced, nothing was left. What Shikha didn’t say in words was very obvious to both Ritu and I. Shikha too was Mani’s victim. He had sucked her dry like all the rest. He spat her out when she had nothing left to give.

He would often beat Shikha and the kids and take their school fees off her because he wanted money to impress a new victim he was fattening. I cringed with shame when I realized that it was her blood and sweat money with which Mani had bought goodies for my girls.

The man who was the first one to rush to the assistance of a friend in a medical emergency, refused to take his own daughter to the hospital when she became the victim of a hit-and-run. While the child’s treatment was going on and Shikha was running from pillar to post looking for blood donors, Mani disappeared. She decided that day; she would divorce him.

According to Shikha, we were saved because we left town suddenly. Mani was not able to execute his plan to milk me. She knew his modus operandi well and desperately wanted to warn us when we had visited them the first time. But neither she nor the kids dared open their mouths or he would have beaten them all later.

It was after she got a divorce that her nightmare seemed to get over. She applied for a loan with the help of a friend and set up her own boutique. She had created a good clientele while she worked from home. Her boutique took off within months of inauguration. We had noticed in the boutique that Shikha was flooded with orders. She directed her tailors with an expertise that showed how well she knew her job. When her eyes rested on her children, we saw a look of pride and quiet repose on her face.

I promised to tell the story truthfully; the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We didn’t want to believe Shikha’s story. We clung to our own ideas about Mani. We fired burning questions at her. At one point in the ‘discussion’ I also, I am ashamed to admit, I told her that it was convenient for her to say all this because Mani wasn’t there to defend himself.

She replied patiently. She answered our rude questions accusations with patience and composure. She gave us the names of two of Mani’s previous victims to confirm her story from. She invited us to investigate for ourselves and find out Mani’s truth.

Slowly, we began to realize that she wasn’t lying. Her words rang with sincerity; her manner was quiet even in the face of our  disbelief. We couldn’t ignore the fact that her sole desire seemed to be to clear the bad impression Mani had given us of her, nothing else. She wanted nothing from us; she had no axe to grind either way- whether we believed her or not. We had to believe her.

If I had a tattoo of a 3D mosquito, I’d occasionally slap it, just to make sure a real and cunning mosquito wasn’t camouflaged there as cover to drink my blood with impunity.

~ Jarod Kintz

The incident taught us a big lesson. We were honest enough to admit that a charming and attractive man with excellent people skills had clouded our judgment. We couldn’t see the trap he had laid for us through his lies and insincerity because he spoke them so winningly. What was unforgivable was that we believed the lies of that charmer and looked askance at Shikha!

Our evaluation of her was based a lot on the way she came across. We never stopped to think even for a moment how incredulous Mani’s complaints were. We even refuted the evidence presented to our eyes. The reason was only this- the man with a charming personality had bewitched us. The shallowness of our evaluating criterion could have brought us to nothing but this gross error of judgment.

Wasn’t he a winsome character, my friend Mani?


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My Friend Mani (Fin)