Deepika Sahane and Deepak Apte were residents of Sikandar, a town in Maharashtra&’s Berar district. It was a municipality established by Aurangzeb in 1701 in honour of one of his many, now long forgotten grandsons when vast territory in Central India was ruled by the Mughal Emperor. Located in modern Maharashtra 500 km inland from the capital, Mumbai, Sikandar was too far from urban glitz to shed its quaint “old-world” flavour with a population stationary between only 60,000-70,000. However, it did acquire a whiff of modernity when post-Independence “Digital India” brought wi-fi connectivity that enabled younger denizens like Deepika and Deepak, both 25, to access the Internet.

Curiously, though, while Deepika and Deepak knew of each other in their small-town environment, they were mere acquaintances, certainly not friends. The reason lay in the wide social gap separating the Sahane and Apte families.  The former comprised successive generations of greatly respected highbrow scholars and teachers. In an astute move aimed at pleasing subjects of all denominations, the Nizam of Hyderabad, who ruled Berar in those days, had created the hereditary title Vidya-Ratna and conferred it on Deepika&’s great grandfather. His Exalted Highness, as the Nizam was known, allowed succession through the female line to save the title from extinction. Be that as it may, then, as now, wealthy scholars didn’t exist so the titled Sahane family was but of modest means.

Deepak&’s forefathers, on the other hand, had been manifestly loyal to the Nizams, one after the other, and reaped the benefit of royal largesse. Over the years, ruling Nizams gifted large orange orchards to Apte patriarchs. Berar was famous for its produce of luscious oranges. The family&’s 10 fertile orchards yielded huge annual crops that cumulatively made their owners very rich indeed. Deepak&’s heritage, therefore, comprised old wealth — a far cry from the Sahanes. Besides, the matter of wealth apart, Deepak&’s dad was a member of the state legislature, owing allegiance to the party in power.

In practical terms, owing to the social disparity between them, Deepika and Deepak&’s paths seldom crossed. By sheer chance, their names were so similar that despite the palpable lack of evidence — substantive or vicarious — there remained widespread conjecture about the nature and extent of their “relationship” and “friendship” respectively. After all, they had been schoolkids together! In effect, they were victims of perpetual human curiosity.

Suddenly one afternoon their paths did cross accidentally and there begins our story. Unfortunately, the event was accidental in the literal sense of the word. Depending on the hour of the day, Sikandar&’s narrow streets could be pretty crowded. Deepika was seated in an open three-wheeler cycle rickshaw returning home from the library where she was employed as assistant. Deepak was driving his rather large Indigo automobile. He, too, was returning home after a spell at his office near the market. Deepika, immersed in her own thoughts, was oblivious of the noisy, congested street. She noticed neither the low-slung car alongside her left trying to wend its way through the busy traffic nor the identity of the driver.

Just then a stray goat frisked onto the street from the left pavement. In natural split-second reflex action, Deepak swerved sharply to his right to avoid the animal, which he did. But space for a car to manoeuvre simply wasn’t there. The rickshaw hadn’t been hit hard but the abrupt collision toppled its frail, lightweight frame.

Although neither Deepika nor the rickshaw driver was directly struck, the impact threw both traumatised innocents on to the road.

As is wont in Indian towns, agitated spectators surrounded the site in moments. Deepak ran to Deepika&’s side, firmly held and helped her regain her feet, gathered her bag and spilt books from the road and expressed genuine anxiety at her misfortune. Adding colour to the drama, the owner of the goat appeared with the bleating but unhurt animal cradled in his arms! He “appealed” to the crowd to pity the poor goat. Deepak quelled the spectators’ murmurs of support by swiftly slipping him a 500-rupee note. Man and goat instantly disappeared. For good measure,  Deepak, a businessman well versed in the ways of the world, gave the same amount to the rickshaw driver, who rolled off his lightly damaged charge without fuss. Deepika was left alone with Deepak; she was pleased to accept his plea for forgiveness, which she gladly granted. After all, there were no broken bones, slipped discs or bloodshed to write home about. By now the disappointed crowd had dispersed.

For the first time, the young Sahane-Apte twosome met and spoke in eyeball-to-eyeball proximity. A bridge spanning nearly two centuries had kept them apart. Now the bridge played its true role of “bridging the gap” between a Sahane and an Apte. Deepak gallantly offered to drop Deepika home. Averse to another rickshaw ride, she said, “Yes.”   Stepping into Deepak&’s errant car,   Deepika erased Sahane-Apte aversion and thus rewrote Sikandari history.

Life, alas, is hardly ever a bed of roses.  Deepika&’s Vidya Ratna father was irate to learn of his daughter&’s public display of “intimacy” with the Apte scion. Instead of sympathising with her, he expressed irritation at her “indiscretion” and roundly scolded her, leaving his heir presumptive tormented and distraught.   The result was Deepika&’s decision, taken then and there, to accept Deepak&’s gentle request to allow him to pick her up from the library gate at five o’clock the next evening when the library closed for the day. Recklessly repeating her so-called daredevilry, she emailed Deepak that night.

Sure enough, he was present as promised. Deepika&’s heart welled with relief. It was a first-time-ever feeling! She stepped into the car for the second time in two days. Instead of getting his passenger home right away, Deepak drove out of town and cruised effortlessly through the countryside towards Chandrapur, a neighbouring town Deepika hadn’t ever visited. They halted at a tea shop there, enjoying each other&’s company for an extra 20 minutes.  When she reached home 45 minutes late, her parents froze with disapproval and didn’t utter a word, either through the evening or at the dinner table. Not a single question was asked. They were obviously very angry; their daughter was very anxious but they didn’t seem to care. 

Deepika was deeply hurt. Nevertheless, she emailed Deepak yet again. The next evening they motored along to Chandrapur and happily shared tea at that shop. By the time she was dropped home almost an hour late, the duo had accepted each other as friends. Her parents were left gnashing their teeth in despair at Deepika&’s obstinacy.

One evening, Deepika asked, “ Instead of going to Chandrapur may I visit your home today?” 

Deepak was thrilled. Very soon they reached his high-walled mansion where Deepika was ushered into the lavishly furnished drawing room by well-mannered domestic staff. Mr and Mrs Apte received Deepika very cordially. She felt quite at home in their company. Tea was served in style. Deepak sat on the same sofa and Deepika turned to him and impishly remarked sotto voce, “Quite a far cry from the Chandrapur chai shop, isn’t it?” 

Once tea was over Deepak drove her home; she reached 40 minutes late this time, only to face the parental cold shoulder. She didn’t care! On her part, Deepika remained totally silent. No word, whisper or discreet sob escaped her lips. Yes, she felt intolerably humiliated. After all, she was 25 and well knew what was happening. She wasn’t aware her parents were suffering as much as she was.

Late that night, in the privacy of their bedroom, the parents agreed that there was only one solution to this dreadful impasse. Deepika and Deepak must marry. But would the rich and powerful Aptes agree to allow their son and heir to marry an impecunious girl? Protocol needed the girl&’s side to bring the proposal to the boy&’s guardians. First they needed the consent of the love-struck duo. The thought left them worried and scared. They mercifully broke their obstinate silence and spoke to Deepika, who not only agreed but phoned Deepak in her parents’ presence to confirm his consent. 

To keep her parents happy, Deepika emailed Deepak and obtained his family&’s green signal in writing. Unostentatious nuptials were held the following month. Neither side accepted any gifts. Though immensely relieved, the Sahane parents were bitterly remorseful. Future generations would never understand that sheer force of adverse circumstance had led the Vidya Ratna to conduct this “utterly unequal wedding which forever remained a hated, dark blot on the fair face of Sikandar&’s proud history”.

Obviously, Sahane&’s Vidya didn’t cover February 1925 when Henry Ford had spoken three celebrated words,   “History is bunk!”

But was Ford right? Well, nobody knows.