It was 16th January, as Shraddha was preparing breakfast I called Jayesh Mistry, my friend and former colleague from Delhi, to wish him on his birthday. In this era of WhatsApp, Facebook, and other mobile applications, it’s only on such special occasions that most of us give a call to the person instead of messaging. I am not different from rest of the crowd. Jayesh and I were colleagues for a brief period in 2006-07. Till Jayesh picked the call, I was entertained by his caller tune, “I am not afraid, to take a stand, everybody, come take my hand, we’ll walk this road together, through the storm, whatever weather, cold or warm…”
“Good Morning Sanjeev Ji, what reminded you of me so early in the morning?” he picked the call and asked.
“Hey, Jayesh, Happy Wala Birthday to you; I wish you great health, wealth and success not only for today but every coming day of your life. So, what’s plan for today”, I said.
“Nothing much, we are spending the weekend in Nainital. Looks like my wife, Savita, is secretly planning a party”, he responded.
We shared a bit about our families and his new job then he asked me, “Sanjeev, did you hear about Dheeraj”?
“Are you referring to Dheeraj Sharma? What happened? Last I spoke to him was in November, on his birthday”, I said.
“Yes, I am talking about our former boss, Dheeraj. He is no more”, he replied.
For a moment I didn’t know what to say.
“He got cardiac arrest and died on the way to the hospital,” Jayesh continued.
“That’s sad. How did you get to know”, I asked.
“As you are aware that Dheeraj started his HR Consultancy in 2010, my new organization was one of his clients. He was helping us with restructuring and succession planning. He was scheduled to have a meeting with our leadership team, but he didn’t come. His mobile phone was switched off. When I called on his office landline, I got to know about his untimely death”, Jayesh explained.
“Yes, indeed it was an untimely death. He was just around 55 years old”, I said.
We talked for some more time before bidding goodbye with a commitment to stay in touch.
Dheeraj was one of my role-models – one of the very few people I admire and hold them in high regards. He lived his life on his terms. He made some bold choices in his life at a time when Indian society wasn’t as open and as brave as it is today. Making those decisions are tough even for the current generation but he did what no one could think of.
Dheeraj, Jayesh and I were working together with a Financial Service Organization in Delhi during 2006-07. Dheeraj was designated as Associate Vice President (AVP) and was working as Head of HR. Once, as a part of our recruitment campaign, I got a chance to travel with Dheeraj to Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Mumbai, a Five-Day schedule. Dheeraj came across as a very simple person, with a crystal clear idea of what he wanted. He never complained about anything. Those were the days when I was struggling with my public speaking abilities; I was shy and very introvert, not as aggressive as I appear today. If someone asked me something, I would respond with limited words. So, in public appearances, my trick was to put a question, before the other could ask me anything. One evening while we had our dinner and drinks, to initiate a conversation, I asked Dheeraj, “Sir, in your career span of 15-18 years, you might have taken several decisions and made many choices, which were your most difficult choices or decisions?”
His answer, which started at 8 PM, continued till 1 AM (even though we had scheduled interviews from 9 AM). Probably, no one had ever asked him this question. His answer, however, increased my respect and admiration for him and a new bond germinated which continued till his last breath. Dheeraj said, “I belong to a very conservative family from Udaipur, Rajasthan. My father is a business person. He is a wholesaler of vegetables and fruits. He is very traditional and religious. I have TWO elder sisters. Being the youngest child in the family, and that too a son, I was pampered a lot. I always got everything that I ever wanted. After completing my 10th grade, I was sent to Delhi for further studies. Later, I got admission in Delhi College of Engineering, from where I completed Bachelors of Engineering (Mechanical). I was staying in a hostel. While I was still in the first year of engineering, one day while searching for a book in the library, I saw Jennifer Rodrigues, a final year student. She was the prettiest girl in the college. I still remember that afternoon when I saw her for the first time; she was wearing sea-blue colour salwar-kameez with a white colour dupatta, her big eyes, a broad smile showing her white teeth and shoulder-length curly hair were making her look damsel. For me, it was love at first sight. Neither before nor after that day, I felt such emotions for any female.. I kept thinking only about her, her face, her touches and how I could be with her. Hesitantly I approached her. Soon my cautious talks turned into study talks, casual discussions, and friendship and I realized my life was nothing without her. I was head over heels in love with her. When I proposed to her, she refused, in fact, she stopped talking to me. I apologized, and we got together again. Three months later, I proposed again but this time neither did she accept nor did she refuse and we continued to talk and meet. After her final exams, I proposed her again and this time, she said, “Yes.” She also confessed that she too was in love but wasn’t sure if it was love or just an infatuation.
Not only she was gorgeous but was also intelligent, I realized this after she got final year results. She had topped the college in Mechanical Engineering. She got admission in Delhi College of Engineering for her Master’s in Technology, which means we could continue to meet on the college campus. Over the period, our relationship grew stronger and emotional. By the time I completed my engineering, Jennifer was working with L&T ECC as an Assistant Manager. Ever since she had completed her Masters, her parents had begun to solicit marriage proposals for her, but she had refused all of them. After completing my engineering, I got a job with Maruti Suzuki, as a Management Trainee, in their Gurgaon office. Now was the time for us to break our love story and our decision of getting married to our families. As we had expected, our relationship wasn’t acceptable to our parents. They were opposed to our religion, our social status (Jennifer’s family was economically stronger than ours) and of course, our age difference, she was FOUR years elder to me, and it was in 1988 when such things were seen as a big taboo in our society. When I took Jennifer to meet my parents, she wasn’t accepted inside the house and was asked to return to Delhi, the same day. Both of us returned to Delhi. Later, my parents at first tried to influence me emotionally and then they threatened to get me killed. It was the same in Jennifer’s home. Her father got a cardiac arrest. In the hospital, they asked to promise that she won’t get married to me and instead marry a groom of their choice in their community. She stopped talking and meeting me. A couple of months later, when I was returning from office, I was beaten by few people and till date, I don’t know who they were. When Jennifer got this news, she came to meet me. That day we had a long chat. We cried our heart out because that wasn’t the way we wanted our relationship to end. We loved each other, and the society opposed our love. We had been taught that love knows no religion, no language, and no age but the practicality was different. That day, we made a decision, a decision to be with each other, comes whatever. We got married first in a temple and then in court. Our families got to know about our marriage when we went to seek their blessings; we were not allowed to step inside the house. That day we were disowned by our families. On the foundation of our love, we began to build our world. It was the first major decision of my life. I chose love over societal values.
The manner in which we got married followed by the awry reactions of our families, we couldn’t go anywhere for our honeymoon. Therefore, for our first anniversary, we decided to go for a short vacation to Ooty. Four months before our first wedding anniversary, Jennifer broke that special news to me. We were expecting a new member in our small nest, our first child. It gave us one more reason to celebrate our first anniversary in a grand way. I still remember that night, around three weeks ago from our holiday’s in Ooty, we had returned after having a dinner at our friend’s place when Jennifer began to complain about a bad stomach ache. As the night grew darker, her pain became sharper. We were on our way to All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) when she had a miscarriage. This incident broke us emotionally. She would wake up to disturbing dreams and then start crying. It took us THREE months to accept the truth and become normal in life.
We bought our new house and a car. We could also afford servants and a driver. To enhance my career prospects, I enrolled for Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) in Delhi. In 1993, on the occasion of our 5th wedding anniversary, we went to Manali. It was our first long holiday in three years. We were there for THREE weeks. Two months after we returned from Manali, one night when we were about to sleep at 11 PM, after a long and hectic day, Jennifer came closer to me and in my ears, she whispered, “You are going to be Papa.” That one line shooed away my sleepiness. As she said this, tears began to roll through her cheeks. I hugged her tight. My eyes also got moist. While she was still crying, she told me that she was already into her 3rd month of pregnancy. Considering what had happened in 1989, she had kept this news to herself only. She said, “I didn’t want to hurt you the way I did last time.” By this period, our respective parents had a change of heart and had gradually accepted us. We shared this news with them as well. My parents had come to stay with us. Jennifer had left her job as she wanted to prepare for the arrival of our child. From 3rd month to 9th month of pregnancy, how time flew, we didn’t even realize. Now, it was a matter of time before we could embrace the bundle of our joy. We had begun the shopping for our child – new clothes, toys, etc. With every passing day, our excitement was multiplying and so was the joy and happiness in the family. As they say, our child had brought our families closer to us.
My brother-in-law was getting married, just a few weeks before the due date of the birth of our child. I didn’t want to give any strain to her. So, it was decided that Jennifer would go and attend the wedding in Church and then return home and later in the evening, we would go together for the reception. She was on her way to the church when at a traffic signal near Connaught Place her car was hit by another vehicle speeding from the left. Both Jennifer and Driver were severely injured. Jennifer had sustained multiple injuries – her head and vagina were bleeding profusely, her right leg got multiple fractures, and her jaw line was broken. Bystanders were kind enough to take them to the nearby, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. By the time I reached the hospital, our families were already there, and doctors were operating on Jennifer. Hardly TEN minutes might have passed when a team of FOUR doctors came to us and told us that the situation of both, Jennifer and our kid were severe, “Your wife has suffered multiple injuries and so does the child. We will be able to save ONLY one of them. What should we do”? Both families were looking at me for the decision. That was a most difficult situation. I said, “Doctor, save my wife.” The surgery took more than 18 hours. In the meantime, I had told my parents-in-law’s to continue with the wedding reception of my brother-in-law. It wasn’t just about my in-law but also about families of girl side. They must not suffer.
Next morning, after completing the surgery, doctors called us to the cabin, my father and Jennifer’s dad came along, and said, “Mr. Dheeraj, we have sad news for you. Though we could save your wife, we couldn’t save your son”. It was only then when we got to know that Jennifer was pregnant with a baby boy. “Another thing is that,” they continued, “Your wife will never be able to conceive again. We had to remove her uterus”. Listening to this, her father began to cry, while I stood there, numb and speechless. Saving my wife instead of my child was my second most difficult decision.
It took few months to heal external injuries of Jennifer, but she was broken inside into zillions of pieces which weren’t healing. She didn’t sleep for many nights. She cried her heart out for many months. I would try hard to console her and bring her back to normal self, but then something would happen, and she would return to her cocoon. She was getting into deep depression and more than anything else, she had begun to feel worthless. I remember one evening when we were having a cup of tea; she came to me and said, “Dheeraj, can I ask you for one thing”? Divorce me. I am not able to keep you happy. I am so worthless. Cannot make you father”, she continued. “Jennifer, my happiness is with you. As long as I have you in my life, I will remain the happiest person in the world. Please don’t say such things. We will continue to be together, till God part us away”, I said. “But, Dheeraj, I won’t mind if you decide to have a relationship with some other woman, maybe someone else can give you the pleasure of fatherhood,” she said. “That will never happen, Jennifer. You are my first and my last love. I am not going to any other woman”, I said and went closer to her and hugged her tight. We might have cried for a couple of hours. Society played its role in making our life miserable. Someone had told her, “You are a curse, who cannot do what other women can do, conceive babies. Someone else told her “you got married against the wishes of you parents, that’s the reason God is punishing you.” There came a time when people stopped inviting us to their weddings, baby shower, and other happy functions. It had been THREE years, since that traumatized day of our life and it seemed our life got stuck in the middle of an ocean. In early 1997, I took THREE months of unpaid leave and went for a holiday with Jennifer to Himachal Pradesh and Leh-Ladakh. We just wanted to be away from the crowd and negativity of society. We met new people, talked to them, and celebrated their functions, served in old age homes and orphanages.
We were staying in a rented house in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. Near to our house, there was an orphanage where there were around 30 kids in the age group of 6-months to 10 years. We began to go there to spend time with children. We would play with them and eat with them. Some days we would take gifts for them and other days we would sponsor them for an outing. Those were the best days of our life. After a long time, I had seen Jennifer laughing loud and smiling all through the day. She had become a child with so many kids around her. Among those kids, there was a Two-year-old girl, Anjali. She was very fond of Jennifer. All through the day, she would hang around with Jennifer, holding her finger, cuddling her and eating with her. In those 15-20 days, she had become so possessive about Jennifer that she wouldn’t let any other child play with Jennifer. When we were about to return, Jennifer asked me, if we could take her home. I spoke to the guardian of the orphanage, who then explained us the process of adoption. We agreed to it. It took us ONE month to complete the entire process and take Anjali along with us. Anjali was happy as she found a mother. I was happy because Jennifer was happy. For THREE years, she had forgotten to smile and be herself.
When we broke this news to our families, they opposed it strongly. My father said, “You must not have brought an outsider into the household. Don’t know whose genes she is carrying. If you wanted kids, you should have taken from your sisters. Between two of them, they have FIVE sons. I still remorse that moment when I sent you to Delhi for studies and this witch entered into your life. I don’t know what magic she has done to you; you have forgotten your parents and family and just listen to her. I would have been the happiest person had she died that day in the accident. At least we could have found a bride for you who knows and understands our culture and family values”. It led to a heated argument with my family. When Jennifer wanted to say anything, she was asked to shut-up, as they considered her as an outsider. We came back to Delhi. Even in her family, the environment was as hostile as it was in Udaipur. Her father was regretful about Jennifer marrying a guy who was younger to her, had no maturity and purpose in life. Her mother said, “Instead of seeing this day, it would have better had I killed you the day you were born. Because of you, we feel so humiliated in the society”. When people in our neighbour and office got to know about the adoption, they began to boycott us. Someone told me in the office, “Dheeraj Ji, whose dirt have you brought to your house? It is one thing to feed a homeless child on the street, and it is another thing to bring that child to your home”. In the end, we understood that it is only both of us who are for each other. For the society, we are non-existent, who didn’t follow their norms. Bringing Anjali into our life against the wishes of the community was the third most critical decision of my life”.
With every experience that he shared, my respect for him grew manifold. By the time, Dheeraj Sir finished sharing his experiences, and his eyes had become moist, and voice had become dull. That day I understood the man behind that rough and strict taskmaster. It was incredible to know that person. I still take pride of every moment I had shared with this person. To learn that he is no longer is a big blow. “Wherever you are, may your soul rest in peace, Dheeraj Sir. You have inspired many people and have lit many lives”.
We must not judge people from what they show to the external world. Every person has a story we are not aware of. Inter-religion and inter-caste are still a taboo in our society. Wife being an elder to the husband is still not acceptable. Adopting a child is still frown upon. This man did all of these in his life. Finding such people in today’s world is difficult.
After I had spoken to Jayesh, I called Jennifer Ma’am to express my condolence. I was glad that she remembered me. Though I was in regular touch with Dheeraj Sir, I had met her 2-3 times only. Later, in March 2015, I met her in their house in Chankayapuri. Currently, Anjali is doing her MBBS from AIIMS.
Many people crib about bad circumstances and situations, but few dare to choose and stand by their choice; hats off to such brave people. Two people, who are immensely in love with each other, can face any challenge of life.
How different you would have lived your life, had you been in place of Dheeraj or Jennifer?
Stand with your love, always.
Composed By – Sanjeev Himachali
Email – Sanjeev.firstname.lastname@example.org