‘We are not man and wife. We are divorced.’ This statement took me by surprise as the speaker was an ordinary middle-aged man, looking exactly like the college professor that he actually was. The prim, neatly attired woman sitting by his side looked what the headmistress of a high school should look like. Their pleasant expressions, the normal setting of the house, and the fact that we were engaged in drinking a cup of tea appeared to be out of tune with what the man had just said.
‘I beg your pardon? What did you just say?’ I enquired, not wishing to believe what I had heard. The man repeated that he and his wife were separated. He then proceeded to explain that this was a mutual consent decree and he held out a sheet of paper which appeared to be the decree of the court annulling the marriage. I felt a strange reluctance come over me, but had to force myself to ask the next question. ‘Do you still live together?’ The man replied that they did, with a polite expression. The woman continued to sit quietly by his side, to all appearances, the normal picture of a wife allowing her husband to speak to the visitor.
The paper in my hands was proof that the bombshell he had just dropped was a fact.
I looked around at the large spacious house with its well-appointed furniture and fittings. The house stood in a large walled compound, with rows of coconut trees marching off into the distance. A car stood in the garage. The sound of a pump indicated that the farm was being watered. A typical prosperous agricultural property, I thought.
How could they apply for eligibility under the communal reservation scheme intended for those with low incomes from selected communities? I pointed this out to the man. His answer was ready and confident: ‘My income is Rs 10,000 per year. That is the only source of support for my son. Therefore, he is eligible for the reservation.’
The purpose of my visit was to verify the claim of people like him about their incomes being within the eligible limits, so that the benefits of the scheme would go to those who genuinely deserved them. It was clear to me that this family definitely did not need the benefit of reservation.
Seeing me glance around the house and the ground, the man smiled and went on: ‘The house belongs to my wife. We are now divorced. The agricultural property is in the name of my daughter. The farm income goes to her. Therefore, my son and I depend solely on my salary. This is my salary certificate from the college where I teach. This supports my statements.’ The woman sat calmly, looking at me without any expression. Her very ordinary appearance and demeanour were completely at odds with her remarkable actions.
The family appeared to have figured that they had worked everything out to their satisfaction to accomplish their goal of getting their son eligibility for concessional admission under the specified quota. This included filing for legal separation despite the social cost ordinarily attached to such a step in this very conservative society. That they continued to live together after the legal separation appeared to cause no discomfort to them, or perhaps even to their neighbours, as all their actions appeared to have been sanitized by the purpose for which they had been done. A classic case of ends justifying the means. All is fair if it was done in the line of getting the best deal for one’s sons and daughters, I thought with some asperity.
Verifying income certificates did not ordinarily fall within the normal scope of the work of a sub-collector, as these were handled by village officers and verified by the tehsildar. I had received a bunch of papers from the collectorate, sent by the Department of Higher Education a few days ago. Curious about their contents, I found that they represented several claims put forward by people obviously not eligible for educational concessions on the basis of evidence that appeared to be difficult to ignore. Several had resorted to annulment of their marriages in order to ensure that the income limit was not crossed. The covering letter requested a report on whether these claims of marriages having been annulled were genuine. Since the admissions had to be finalized according to the strict schedule, the reports had to be sent quickly. Therefore, I scheduled the visits to the homes of the parties concerned, having decided that a hearing at my office based just on documents would be less effective in getting to the truth. This was in retrospect a sensible decision.
Padmanabha Pillai, my CA, was finding it difficult to contain his mortification at the lengths to which people were prepared to go to gain some advantage. While he was a broad-minded man of the world, there was a puritanical streak in him that refused to ignore what he felt was beyond the pale. And here, quite evidently, judging from his frown, was the mother of all preposterous subterfuges. He could not believe that I was taking the whole thing quite calmly, appearing to treat everything said by this couple seriously.
Trying not to smile at Pillai’s impotent anger, I kept a straight face, and turned to the couple in front of me, who were by now quite comfortable in the knowledge that things were proceeding smoothly. The professor even appeared to be getting a little vexed that an open and shut matter was being needlessly prolonged, and his expression as he murmured something in an undertone to his wife betrayed this. At this, my benign amusement evaporated, and I decided to put an end to this charade.
I gathered my papers and handed them over to Pillai, who briskly tied the red ribbon securely and rose. Rising to my feet, I told the couple that my work was done. They waited expectantly, as if expecting me to congratulate them on their stratagem having worked. Trying unsuccessfully to maintain a poker face, I thanked them for the tea and biscuits, and again complimented them on their lovely home and grounds. They accepted the compliment graciously, but appeared to expect more. Finally, unable to bear the suspense any longer, the professor asked: ‘So, I trust that everything is all right?’ I nodded, and said that I had all the information I needed to complete my report. The man then asked me bluntly: ‘So you accept our contention regarding the family income being only my salary, as my wife and I are now divorced?’
I looked around the opulent house, and thought of the many deserving students who would lose their seat if the scion of this affluent family became eligible for the benefit. Turning to the professor and his schoolteacher ex-wife, I said: ‘I am afraid that would not be possible. My report is that your income has to be clubbed together to determine the family income.’
The professor became visibly angry. He expostulated: ‘But we have proved that we are divorced. How can you refuse to accept the evidence we have given?’
I replied: ‘I have been asked to determine your income in the year just over, not the year that is to come. Your divorce papers are dated a couple of weeks ago. That means, for the better part of the current year, you were man and wife. Therefore, your incomes will be clubbed to determine the family income. As you know, that makes you ineligible for the admission concession.
Their faces fell as the import of my words sank in. They looked at each other, their lips moving as if they were gasping for air underwater. I was concerned that one of them would have a fit. They sat down heavily, as I strolled out of the door, Pillai smiling again. I was tempted to stop, turn and advise them to marry again, so that they could get on with their placid lives that had been so dramatically turned upside down just to secure their son an easy and undeserved university admission. While Pillai would have been pleased to witness the discomfiture of the luckless couple, I did not have the heart to do this, and having instructed the waiting Sreedharan Pillai to find us a decent place to have lunch, climbed into the waiting car.
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