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For Matrimonial Purposes

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For Matrimonial Purposes Kavita Daswani HarperCollins For Matrimonial Purposes KAVITA DASWANI Copyright (#ulink_31b0dc14-eaf9-5906-97c8-b2f28d31de27) This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the authors imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. HarperFiction A division of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/) Copyright Kavita Daswani 2003 Kavita Daswani asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins ebooks HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication Source ISBN: 9780007160587 Ebook Edition NOVEMBER 2012 ISBN: 9780007387908 Version: 2016-10-03 Dedication (#ulink_f4f12e3e-2743-524a-b6ef-c8d7bafe946c) To Mummy and Papa, for teaching me humor and humility. To Sunita, Ranju, Sanam, Mansha and Sohana, a family that I am profoundly proud to be a part of. And especially to my exceptional husband Nissim, who made me believe that my words have worth, and our gorgeous son Jahan, who moved me to write as he lay in my belly. As long as I have you both, my life is blessed. Contents Cover (#ufe975211-c3b1-56f1-bdbe-8ae0bc7e7f50) Title Page (#u3c5b038b-3028-51c9-824e-24b438c9d414) Copyright (#ub315292b-22ea-5a05-8097-1881cd6f4d3c) Dedication (#u6e88419f-31df-54f2-ac33-774616967da7) Part One (#ueb6759f4-399c-56fc-9687-722651f7fa84) Chapter One (#ua605457c-0746-500b-980d-58ea6b0d4361) Chapter Two (#u8e6ae6c6-1de1-56a9-846e-f70c32946a14) Chapter Three (#u8d38f1a9-9189-530c-9da2-beaf7a39d201) Part Two (#udca17c32-e465-5091-b0ef-99ae75784408) Chapter Four (#u82672821-882c-57b5-a4b4-9f10b863b94f) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Part Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgment (#litres_trial_promo) Keep Reading (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) PART ONE (#ulink_d1f2e79c-7277-5f5f-8fb2-0f76f9747eee) Chapter One (#ulink_f4f12e3e-2743-524a-b6ef-c8d7bafe946c) The normal religious marriage was and still is arranged by the parents of the couple, after much consultation, and the study of omens, horoscopes and auspicious physical characteristics (w)hile a husband should be at least twenty a girl should be married immediately before puberty. The Wonder That Was India by A. L. Basham My grandmother was married off two days shy of her tenth birthday. My mother found a husband when she was twenty. I thus reckoned that if every generation increased by a decade the acceptable age for marriage, I should have become a wife by thirty. But at thirty-three, I was nowhere close to being married. And it was this that brought much consternation to all, tainting the joy and inciting hitherto suppressed family politics, at the wedding of my twenty-two-year-old cousin, Nina. I was at a family wedding in Bombay, the city where I was born and had spent most of my life. My parents and two brothers still lived here, in the same house that I knew as a child, a house conveniently located just minutes from major temples and hotels. Which was a good thing considering how much time they spent at such institutions, attending weddings just like this one. It was always, of course, someone elses wedding and never my own. Nina had jumped the queue as they all liked to say. She was much younger, and marrying before me. But then, as Ninas mother pointed out, how long could everyone wait? I forced myself to smile and look happy. It wasnt that I was unhappy. It was just that, on this steaming May evening, I was hot and flustered, conscious of the damp fog-grey semi-circles formed by droplets of sweat on the underarms of my sari blouse. I had to press my limbs down against my body so they wouldnt show against the pale fabric. Both the sari and blouse were creamy whipped pink, like the pearly sheen of the inside of a seashell, or of little girls bows. Six yards of the fabric were wrapped, nipped and tucked around my body, making me look in my estimation like a blushing eggroll. At least that was what I told anyone who complimented me. I had been fidgeting all evening with the flowers in my hair. They were faux, bought off a wooden stand on a Bombay street-corner, papery and the size of a fingernail, about a dozen of them pinned into my upswept coiffure. Not exactly my idea of understated chic. But the hairdresser had insisted: Your cousin is getting married! You need some decoration! Thankfully understated wasnt the order of the day here at the Jhule Lal Temple. Nina was about to become a wife in the presence of three hundred people, most of whom she had never met. I felt self-conscious standing there on the sidelines, the older, unmarried cousin, aware that people were glancing over at me yes, to see what I was wearing, but mostly to detect any hint of pain or jealousy on my face as yet another younger cousin married. I closed my eyes for a second, inhaled, found my centre the way they taught me to do at my Wednesday evening Hatha yoga class. Then, I lifted up my smile, and made it stay. Your turn next, said Auntie Mona, my mothers second cousin, who was standing next to me. She grinned, revealing a space between her two front teeth the size of East Timor. That gap was considered a sign of good luck. Any Indian face-reader worth his chapatti dinner knew that the wider the space, the greater the fortune. Dont worry, beti, it will be your turn soon, Auntie Mona consoled, patting me on the back. God will listen to your prayers. Its all karma. Tsk Tsk. I allowed her to comfort me, as I had learnt to do all these years, and noted how miraculous it was that my self-esteem wasnt completely annihilated by now. Since arriving in Bombay a week ago, I had been on the receiving end of many things: advice, sympathy, concern. But mostly, it was pity and consolation. Now, coming from Auntie Mona, these sentiments were delivered with the same gravity as a diagnosis of Lyme disease. My relatives never thought to ask about my interesting and independent life in New York, what I did there, who my friends were, or whether Id scored a ticket to The Producers while Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane were still in it. Instead, it was an incessant: Why arent you married yet? I turned towards Nina, who really was the sweetest thing, looking a dream in her wedding sari. This was pink too, but a celebratory pink: deeper, richer, embellished with thick gold, a bridal bonus. The top of her gleaming black hair, parted down the centre, was covered with the same fabric, her smooth white forehead dotted with tiny flecks of red paint in an arched design spliced in the middle by a gold-and-diamond bindi. Her hands, lavishly hennaed, reached up to push back a wisp of hair that had fallen into her half-closed eyes. Nina was praying, and blushing, swooning from the heat. She and her groom were sitting in front of a small bright orange fire, both sets of parents by their side, deep in their own thoughts as our family priest, Maharaj Girdhar, uttered thousands of Sanskrit words that no one but him understood. The ceremony was about done, and now came my favourite part when the groom slipped his finger into a pot of sindoor and traced it down his new wifes hair-parting. The gesture seemed to say, Youre mine now. We belong to each other. He looked at her with something that appeared to be pride mixed with awe. While it might not yet be love, the happiness seemed real, born of gratitude. He also seemed relieved. He had done it; hed found the perfect bride and the fun could start. Later, they would spend their first night together, and kiss for the first time. The groom had won Ninas heart without really trying. Shed fallen for his looks, his height (five feet eleven), his casual, easy-going demeanour. It was an arranged match. They had met twice, and then got engaged. That had been five weeks ago. The couple stood, poised to garland one another and exchange rings. Nina bowed her head before her new husband, who looked upon her excitedly, like an archaeologist who had just stumbled across some rare artefact and couldnt wait to examine it. Within seconds, they were surrounded by waves of well-wishers who hugged, kissed, shook hands and leaned in to see up close just how big the necklace was that Ninas parents had given her. Everybody wanted to know the precise carat weight of the marquise diamond her groom had placed on the slender ring finger of her left hand. It was time for me to make my way through the pack of people towards the couple. En masse, they smelt of sweat, turmeric, paan leaves and Pantene hair oil. I could detect here and there a whiff of Charlie perfume that I knew had been sitting in someones metal Godrej cupboard for fifteen years. I winced for a second, but when I reached them, summoned up all my warmth and goodwill and embraced them. You look gorgeous, honey, Im so happy for you. God bless, I said, kissing Ninas smooth, warm cheek. Didi Anju, she whispered, taking my hand. I loved how she always referred to me as didi big sister. I said a prayer for you while I was walking around the fire taking my vows. Youll be next. I asked God, and God always listens to the prayers of brides. The pure sweetness of the gesture made me want to cry, but tears here would be misconstrued as a sign of longing and sadness, so I pinched them back. I turned to the groom, and looked up at him. Congratulations, sweetie, I said, reaching up to hug him. You look after her. I became, as the word didi implied, the generous, solid, single, big sister. That duty done, I turned and wove my way through the clusters of chattering people who were shuffling out of the hall to a large dining room below. I found my parents in one corner and padded, still barefoot, over to them. Next would come the horror of trying to find my shoes in the pile outside. Bombay weddings were notorious for shoe theft, and I began wondering belatedly how good an idea it had been to wear my Dolce & Gabbana mules today. OK, come, lets go downstairs and eat, said my mother, as she automatically adjusted the part of my sari that was coming undone. My father was mopping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. Too damn hot, he said. Lets go downstairs. Maybe its cooler there. The large air-conditioners rumbled away, blowing frosty air on the long lines of people forming at the buffet table. My father put away his handkerchief, and picked up a plate. OK, said my mother, turning to me. Have you seen anyone here you like? Any nice boys? Mum, I havent really been paying attention, I replied. I wanted to watch the wedding ceremony properly. Again, my mother sighed, and looked around. People carrying plates piled with spicy aubergine and vegetable biryani were starting to fill up the rows of plastic chairs that had been set out. Thats when she spotted him. Whos he? my mother asked, a finger pointing at a stranger in black across the room. The boy talking to Maharaj Girdhar. Mum, stop pointing! And how am I supposed to know? I was getting testy. This was inevitable, this scouting around for available men at a family wedding. But I was hot and tired, my sari felt like it was coming unwrapped, and, a day away from getting my period, I just wasnt in the mood. My psychic, had he been there, would have said that I was experiencing a mild form of resentment at Ninas new matrimonial state, that it had brought up my worst fears about my own future. Because he had been right about such reactions in the past, I decided on the spot that from now on, Id save the money Id spent on him for shoes. But the Great Official Husband-Hunt, as I had come to call it, was well under way. I had been here for several days, and there had been some talk of this boy and that. Tonight, my mother had spotted a real-life prospect. I turned to look at the man, and I was struck by the extreme shininess of his hair, as if he had emptied an entire bottle of Vitalis oil on to it. He also had one eyebrow. Well, not strictly one eyebrow, but two that merged in the middle. I fought the urge to run home and find my Tweezerman. He wore a black shirt with little shiny translucent stripes running through it, a white short-sleeved undershirt and black trousers. And white socks. There was also a big gold pendant hanging from a chain around his neck, a shiny bracelet and diamond-studded watch. Looking at him, I felt like I was having an eighties moment. Wait a minute, my mother instructed, and moved off to consult with Ninas new mother-in-law. I knew she figured that if the man she saw was not from our side of the family, then he must surely be from the other. At that precise second, the guy with one eyebrow turned to look at me. My stomach sinking, I saw him lean over and say something to Maharaj Girdhar, who quickly moved to intercept my mother. The two talked quietly for a few minutes, while I stood alone, in my shimmering pinkness, looking around awkwardly. I knew I should be off celebrating and chatting inanely with random family members, but just couldnt summon up the initiative. I saw my two younger brothers, surrounded by a gaggle of girlies who were brilliant and shiny in their embroidered saris, dangling earrings and colourful bangles. My brothers were the undisputed Princes William and Harry of this community, albeit somewhat older than the British royals. Anil was twenty-nine and Anand two years younger, and they were the hottest and most eligible boys around. In their Indian silk outfits, both clean-shaven, hair combed neatly back, their smiles revealing perfect teeth and an attitude often described in these parts as happy-go-lucky, easy-coming-easy-going, they looked as if theyd just stepped off the set of a Listermint commercial. Other, younger, girls on the Great Husband-Hunt were mesmerized by them as were their pushy mothers. Of course, the fact that the boys stood, one day, to inherit a substantial jewellery and antiques business didnt hurt their combined appeal. I figured I would go and join them and let the young girls be fawningly nice to me. Always a plus to having an eligible brother or two. But first I saw my father stepping outside alone, so I followed him. He was looking over the metal gates surrounding the temple, and out on to the sea. He seemed wistful, perhaps remembering all the family weddings he had attended here, in this very temple three in the past year alone and how at each one he had prayed that the next time he came it would be to give his own daughter away. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. When he opened them, he saw me walking towards him, negotiating my way on ridiculously high-heeled shoes that he knew I had spent way too much money on. Fresh air, he said, enjoying a rare moment of calm in what had been a wedding-crazed week. All is well. God is great, he sighed, pensive and calm. I paused, then said, It stinks out here. Daddy, this is so not fresh air. Youd have a better chance of finding it standing on the corner of Madison Avenue and Fifty-Seventh. I can see your lungs blackening! Come on, lets go back in, I said, hoping to interrupt his regretful thoughts about me, if that was indeed what preoccupied him. Back in the temple hall, my mother, beaming, rejoined us. Anju, beti, hes asked for you. That boy. Maharaj Girdhar said he likes you and wants to meet you. What do you think? Part of me, I had to concede, was flattered. It was not every day that a man would look at me across a crowded, overheated room, and decide right off that he wanted to marry me. The last time it happened, Id been with my girlfriends in a seedy salsa club on Eighth Avenue and Thirtieth Street. There, a man in a polyester pinstriped suit and a handlebar moustache told me he wanted to marry me, right before he threw up in a potted plant. That, pitifully, had been my last proposal. And that was basically what this was. As loose an expression of interest as it seemed, this was a proposal, no doubt about it. There was, however, the whole issue of first impressions. The last man Id dated wore Prada. No gold, no gum. Hed been cool. And he had neat eyebrows. But there certainly had been no proposal forthcoming. But, here and now, my mother didnt want to hear about bad dress sense. That was an unacceptable reason to say no. What shall I tell Maharaj? she asked me again. Mum, I whispered, he looks like he should be on some Americas Most Wanted list. Anju, be serious! OK, OK. Wheres he from? Accra. As in Accra, Ghana, West Africa? I exclaimed. What the hell am I going to do in Accra? Dont say hell here, beti. People will hear you. Theyll think you have no manners. Mr Monobrow was a vague distant relative of the groom, here to find a wife. He was from a well-to-do family that had made its money in grocery stores, my mother told me. Beti, Maharaj says hes a very good boy. Very good family. Plenty of money. At least meet him, no? Im sure hes perfectly nice, Mum, but really, I cant imagine living in Accra. I mean, arent there military coups there every five minutes? And he just seems, you know, a bit kind of uninteresting. I cant see that wed have anything in common. My mother gave me that familiar look: the super-sized frustration-annoyance combo, with a side order of impatience thrown in. Anju, really, sometimes I think you have been in Umrica too long. She sighed, and returned to the priest, who was waiting for an answer. She went to tell him they would think about it. In Indian-parent parlance, that meant she needed a day or two to convince me. Mr Monobrow, in the meantime, had sidled off to the buffet table, with a short, plump woman who was probably his mother. I went off and found Namrata, Ninas eighteen-year-old sister, who had been given gift-holding duty. Hey, sweetie, whats up? I asked. Nothing, didi. Just so tired. My feet are really paining me, Namrata replied. She was toting a Singapore Duty Free Stores plastic bag filled with pretty envelopes, little silk purses and the odd velvet box, all containing cash, gold coins and jewellery. How are you, didi? Having a good time? she asked. Namrata was, like her sister, wholesome and good-natured. She reminded me of Britney Spears in her pre-sex siren days, all perky and popular, but minus the cropped tops and mini-skirts. Like her newly married sister, Namrata too could sing from Hindi film songs to religious bhajans. She had learnt how to pickle lemons and fry papads perfectly. And with her soft, fair, plump complexion, she was every Indian males dream-wife. She looked a vision tonight, in a floaty lilac embroidered gagara-choli. She was being primed; her mother was already on the lookout for son-in-law number two. But Namrata was also bright and funny, not a cream-puff like so many of the other girls in this room, so I ran the Monobrow-dilemma by her. You see that guy over there? I motioned to him. He told Maharaj Girdhar, who told Mummy, that hes interested in me. But hes from Accra. What am I going to do in Accra? Namrata glanced over at him, and a knowing smile spread across her pretty face. You know what it is, right, didi? In your baby-pink sari, you look like a marshmallow. All soft and sweet and fluffy and nothing inside but air. Thats what he would want in a wife, dont you think? Two days later, I spent the morning with my mother at Bhuleshwar market. If there were such a thing as an urban purgatory, this would be it. Strings of small shops lined a road that wasnt quite a road. Cars were stalled every two feet by a dead cow, a sleeping homeless person or hawkers selling food. They heaved around worn wooden carts filled with plastic buckets and stainless steel forks, weaving their way in and out of the hundreds of people crammed throughout this smelly, fly-infested labyrinth. We embarked from the quiet and cool sanity of our white Ambassador car and joined the approximately seventeen million other pedestrians. The only way to really do Bhuleshwar was to walk it. The stench of cow dung in the heat was overwhelming; sweaty people pressed against me. Scrawny men with paan-stained teeth heckled and cat-called as we stopped intermittently at a stall here and there to shop. My mother chastised me for wearing embroidered capri pants and a slightly cropped white Martin Margiela T-shirt. You should have put on a cotton salwar kameez, beti. Now they all know you are a foreigner. The purchases, however, were worth the horrors. I bought thick copper bangles, packets of bindis and little painted clay dishes that Indian families use to hold devotional flames. Id give those to my best friend Sheryl for her Tribeca loft where they would look great as trinket boxes. We selected a bale of woollen shawls, and countless yards of coloured silks that Marion, Erin, Kris and the other girls from work would fashion into cool cushion covers or summery sarong skirts. I found mirrored slippers that sold at Scoop for two hundred dollars (What nonsense! my mother screeched when I mentioned this), and which sold here for the equivalent of four dollars. See, there was much to return to Bombay for! We were home in time for lunch, before the sun became too hatefully hot. I grew up in this apartment on Warden Road, a nice residential part of the city not far from the sea. The cool of the marble in our entry corridor felt delicious against my bare feet. The apartment took up the whole of the top floor in a seven-storey building. It had once been two three-bedroomed suites but now had been combined into one rather oddly laid-out but grand six-bedroomed home. My grandfather had had the foresight to buy both units when he fled with his young family from Pakistan to Bombay around the time of the partition in 1947. Hed been able to sell his land in our familys original homeland of Hyderabad Sind, and came across the border on trains piled with other refugees, his pockets filled with old gold coins collected over the decades. With the help of relatives, hed bought property, set up a jewellery business and raised his family safely away from the chaos over the border. As we entered my mother reached out to touch the feet of a big stone statue of Lord Ganesh by the entrance, something she did each time she went out and returned home. I always resolved to emulate her, but mostly I forgot. Id love some tea, Mummy, I said as I dumped the flimsy shopping bags in my bedroom. I suddenly craved a steaming hot cup of the rich, cardamom-laden milky chai that Starbucks tries to do authentically. Chotu, chai laikhe ao, my mother called out to the family cook, who was busy preparing dhal and pulao and pakodas. My father was sitting on the burgundy silk settee, reading The Times of India, his legs stretched out over a mirrored coffee table. Heat-wave in New York, it says here, he announced, looking up. Why are you leaving so soon? Im sure the airline can change your booking for tomorrow, maybe postpone it a few days, he said. Dad, I need to get back to work, I only took two weeks off. The wedding is over, it was nice, time to go. Plus Id rather suffer heat stroke in New York than hang around here. You know what I mean? I didnt want to hurt my parents. This was, after all, their home as it once was mine. I didnt want to seem dismissive as if I was now better than all this, as if I had left them behind for what I perceived to be a more worthwhile life. But as much as I wanted to please my parents, I couldnt stay here a day more than I had to. I joined my father on the couch and turned to look outside the window. There was never anything other than complete pandemonium on the streets of Bombay. The cars seven floors below honked furiously, futilely, for no reason other than to hear the sound of their horns. Pedestrians darted in and out between vehicles and motorcycles called scooters in these parts with complete disregard for their lives. They had a fatalism about them: get run over, lose a limb, all meant to be, whatever. Huge billboards painted with the faces of the hot stars of today, Hrithik Roshan and Karisma Kapoor, stood atop rickety buildings. In India, everything looked as if it were on the verge of collapse. I spotted another billboard across the street, advertising a new health club. Open from 5 in the morning until 11 in the night! it trumpeted. Come on, get FIT and look COOL! The visuals featured what appeared to be a couple of amputated pecs and a hacked-off torso. Fine art in the world of advertising was not a forte of my homeland. But still, this was the new Bombay, one in which womens magazines advertised condoms, sultry Bollywood love scenes were filmed, barely clothed MTV starlet-veejays and Baywatch bodies ruled the small screen and everyone was having affairs. And marriages were still arranged. A navy Mercedes pulled up on the street just outside the building, depositing three well-dressed, polished-looking women Indian, but obviously not living in Bombay on the pavement. They made their way into Benzer, a chic store across the way. They scowled at the broken paving stones, littered with cow dung and refuse. Bombay had evidently been their home once too, and now, like me, every time they came back, it became more and more a home they no longer recognized nor resonated with. While lunch was being prepared, and I was enjoying my chai, my mother was on the phone with her sister Jyoti, Ninas mother. The newlyweds had gone off honeymooning in southeast Asia, and then they would fly off to London, where theyd be living. Ay, Leela, I miss Nina, Jyoti wailed. Shes left the house, shes no longer my daughter, she belongs to someone else. Ay, Jyoti, my mother consoled her, as if someone had just died. It has to happen for all of us. The girls must get married and leave. Be grateful, your daughter has found a good boy, shell be happy, dont worry. See, Im still waiting for my Anju to find someone. No other boys came from overseas for the wedding? What about the Accra fellow? Jyoti asked. Maharaj Girdhar called today. He says the boy is very interested. I think you should pursue it. Hah. Let us see. Well talk about it over lunch. Chotu, our cook of twenty years, appeared from the kitchen carrying a large stainless steel tray bearing steaming, richly spiced dishes of food. A good Bombay meal was one of my favourite things about coming home. Hot, soft pulao embedded with mung dahl. Spinach smeared around chunks of paneer, soaked in a dozen freshly ground spices. Bite-sized pakodas dipped in mint chutney and eaten with thick white bread. Ulrika, the goddess of New York fitness trainers, would positively pulverize me if she could see me now. Beti, my mother said as she ladled out some food onto a plate for my father. The Accra boy is still here. Why dont you meet him? She paused, waiting for my response. I didnt provide one, so she asked again. So, what do you say? The guy hadnt even crossed my mind since the night of the wedding, I thought guiltily. I was poised to get on a plane the next day, to fly back to New York, my home for the past seven years, and to my job as a fashion publicist. Though I loved my job, and loved living in the city, it wasnt getting any easier for me there. So many men, but none of them quite what my parents had in mind for me. And because of some weird cultural osmosis that I had unwittingly succumbed to, I felt they werent right for me either. I was on the party circuit, hung out at hip restaurants in the city, and because of my job, even went on the occasional junket to Europe. But most of the men I had met were gay, or white, and usually both. My parents, perversely, thought gay was fine. When I was thirty, my mother had introduced me to a nice Indian boy from a nice Indian family. I had known right away; the red Versace leather trousers gave him away, as did his endearing but ultimately condemning interest in my Manolo Blahnik collection. After gay suitor and his mother had left, I voiced my reservations to my mother, who dismissed them with a simple: Once they marry, they change. I doubt it, Mum, I had said. Elton John: case in point. Pretty much once a year, every year since I had moved to New York, Id been hauled back to Bombay for a look-see. All my cousins had done it that way, usually meeting their spouses at a family wedding. It was almost a domino-effect, although I thought it interesting that I was the only female cousin still left standing, with the exception of Namrata, and another, who was only eleven. Even she would probably find a husband before me at the rate all this was going. I had also been told that, at Ninas wedding, at least five girls had expressed their interest in either one of my brothers. Such was the grab-bag nature of the game. That I had received one expression of interest was in itself of tremendous significance. Bombay, after all, was a matrimonial melting-pot. All a single person need do is show up, make a few calls, pray, seek the advice of astrologers, family priests and professional matchmakers. And then pray some more that these people had some idea what they were doing. And most importantly, as my mother never failed to remind me, it was all about compromise. From my familys perspective, this proposal was a big deal. Someone had literally asked for me, and it was an honour, any way they looked at it. I had always told them I really wanted to get married. Truly I did. I wanted to slip back into the system. Yet I had been away so long now that often it was like Id been forgotten by the society I was born into. I realized that when an attractive, eligible man appeared on the scene, I wouldnt be the first choice because I was living alone in New York, far removed from the matrimonial-minded masses. I was oddly drawn to the age-old system of arranged marriage it seemed exotic somehow, noble, and fragile. Observing the tradition would elevate me to the highest ranking on the scale of social conduct; when a girl marries a man her family members select for her it is the ultimate act of piety, and, according to tradition, would bring many, many blessings. On each of my trips back to Bombay, I secretly hoped that this would be the special, destined journey in which I would find the one. That here, in the midst of the wedding parties and politics and desperate mothers seeking boys and girls for their offspring, I, too, could find my intended. On this trip, now, there was a proposal. But, for Gods sake, he lived in Accra. Beti, its not the place, its the person, my mother said, reading my mind in that most inconvenient way that mothers do. If hes a good boy, then youll be happy anywhere you go. Nice thought. But I still wasnt buying it. What do you think? my mother asked my father. After thirty-five years of marriage, my mother still never addressed her husband by his first name. She had told me when I was very young that wives should refer to their husbands only with a very grand he. Anything else would be defamatory. Your husband will be your lord, and you must treat him with dignity and respect, she had said. I must have been five. But now, my father was stumped for an answer. He was no longer as involved with my matrimonial affairs as he had been, say, fifteen years ago. In fact, he would commonly say that he had given up, which hardly inspired hope and confidence in my beleaguered and perpetually single thirty-three-year-old heart. At last, my father spoke. We should definitely consider it, he said, wrapping a floppy brown piece of chapatti around a chunk of paneer. Youre here, so you may as well get the job done. That way, at least your airfare wont be wasted. After lunch, my mother telephoned Maharaj Girdhar. Yes, Im calling about the Accra boy, she said, as if responding to an ad in the Village Voice about a second-hand Volkswagen. She grabbed a piece of paper and pen, and started scribbling. Yes of course good oh, almost thirty-nine? Very good Educated Well-to-do and all Good Yes, Ill talk to my husband and call you No, Anju is supposed to be leaving tomorrow, but of course if something works out, shell stay. Her job in New York is not so important, hah? She must see the boy first, no? she said in a conciliatory tone, wanting to please the priest as he, evidently, held the key to my future happiness. She hung up, and turned back to us. OK, so here are the details. Hes almost thirty-nine, which is a good age. Five foot eight, which is quite a good height, OK not so tall, but then youre not that tall and youll maybe have to stop wearing such high high heels, she said. Scanning her notes, she went on. Only son, one sister married, they have their own business, some shops, even a factory. Rich. Parents are nice. He also went to school in America. He travels here and there, Im sure hell take you along. She paused, having felt shed done a sufficiently convincing sales pitch. He seems to have everything. What else do you want? she asked, reasonably. Well, its just that I have a nice life in New York, I began. And Im sure hes a decent enough fellow, but I dont think Accra is the place for me. Beti, do you want to stay unmarried for ever? my mother countered. Just imagine, if you met someone, and you married him, and he lived in a place you dont mind living in, such as New York or London or Singapore, and then something happened and he had to move to not such a nice place, like maybe even Accra. Are you saying that you wouldnt go with him? That is what marriage is, sacrifice and compromise. Yes, I understand, Mummy, but Im not married to him so the sacrifice thing doesnt come up. I have the choice right now. You know what Im saying? I looked at my mothers slowly greying hair, elegantly swept off her smooth and unlined face, the prize feature of which was her regal, haughty nose. She was wearing a polyester kaftan, similar to one of those 1970s-style Gucci djellabas from a few seasons ago, but this one had been made by the family tailor. It was my mothers preferred choice of stay-at-home clothing. Anju, you cant have everything in life. You cant be too hoity-toity. Didnt Maharaj tell you so many years ago that you have to learn to compromise? Where will you find everything you want in one boy? Its not possible, beti. Youre already almost thirty-four. Soon, no one will ask for you any more. You must think carefully. I was thinking carefully. About waking up to Matt Lauer every morning, about the paraffin manicures and oxygen facials at Bliss, and Saturday afternoons shopping in Nolita. And the parties and fund-raisers. And waiting to see if Paris Hilton and Aerin Lauder would turn up, and what the fabulous ex-Miller girls would wear. And trying every different flavour of Martini, every new designer shoe, and giggling with my girlfriends as I listened to the stories of the boys in their lives. It had taken me some years, but now it was a life I had grown intimately familiar with and happily accustomed to. And, like so many women in my situation, I wanted a man to fit in neatly with it. I wanted him to live the same life, enjoy the same things, look the part. And, simultaneously, I wanted him to be chosen by my parents, sanctioned by the rest of the family. It wasnt much to ask for, was it? But I also knew that in the view of my society, a woman was never much of anything until the day she got married. She was always a guest in her parents home, they were her temporary caretakers. When the right man came, regardless of where or how he lived, this young, single woman would wrap her life around his. It was not about what she wanted, it was about what he wanted for both of them. Given that view, I remembered how my mother was baffled one time, watching an American TV movie, where a woman left her perfectly nice husband because she said she wanted to find herself. Such nonsense, Mummy had said. Hes not beating her, hes not doing anything wrong. She wants to leave, for what? Stupid woman. My mother just didnt get it, but there was no reason she should. Her life had been all about sacrifice and compromise, the same virtues she plugged to me every day. My parents met once, and were engaged within five hours, married after two weeks. Together, they created a life that they had helped ease one another into. But they were both twenty when they met, and the word option didnt exist for them. As my mother never failed to remind me, by the time she was my current age, she had been married thirteen years and had had all three of her children. Yes, I deeply wanted to get married. I associated it with love and commitment and security plus all the parties and new saris and a trousseau full of pretty dresses. But a family wedding in Bombay was one thing; a lifetime in Accra something else entirely. Mummy, I decided a long time ago that it was going to be G Eight only. You know, developed nations or nothing. Plus, there is the issue of compatibility here. We dont look compatible. My father interjected. What? Is he too short for you? No! I said emphatically. Look, theres got to be a vibe that happens between two people; you know, kind of a connection. You just get it either its there, or its not. Aarey, I dont know what youre saying, my mother replied. I just want to be happy, Mummy. Beti, she replied, I dont want you to be happy. I want you to be married. Chapter Two (#ulink_4759da89-5cfa-52b4-87c0-0063f526ec32) It is considered highly improper for a young man or woman to take the initiative for his or her marriage. With the spread of education nowadays the boy and the girl are given a chance to see each other unlike the old days when the newlyweds saw each other after the marriage. Hinduism: an Introduction by Dharam Vir Singh There seemed to be nothing more for it but to call Delta Airlines and change my flight. My mother had implored me to stay in Bombay just a few more days, convincing me that since the wedding had only just finished, calls would be made and somehow between all my family members we could find out if there were any interesting, suitable boys floating around. Of course, my mother then had to casually suggest it: Beti, while you are still here, why dont you meet the boy from Accra? You cant just look at how he was dressed, a wife can always change her husbands clothes, she had reasoned. And so? Whats wrong with white socks? Maharaj Girdhar worked quickly and set up a meeting for the following evening at the Sea Lounge in the Taj Mahal Hotel. He wasnt going to waste any time. If this thing went through, he would collect twenty-five thousand rupees as a matchmakers fee about the price of a small Louis Vuitton handbag certainly more than enough for him to live on for the next six months. He had organized Ninas match, so he felt he was on a roll as far as my family was concerned. Unlike with dating agencies, there was no payoff for him until the deed was done; he wouldnt collect a paisa for simply setting up a meeting. This was an interesting metaphor for the Indian-style matrimonial game. The jackpot is a wedding, and there are no consolation prizes. Its all or nothing. The Accra boy project had begun to acquire a momentum all its own, and it had swept me away. No matter how hard I looked, there simply was no good enough reason to say no the whole I dont like the way he looks excuse just didnt fly any more. On the instruction of my parents, I had emailed my boss, Marion, and told her I had caught a touch of dysentery, and the doctor thought I shouldnt travel. Marion emailed back, and said fine, absolutely, weve got everything under control. Evidently she was aware I was fibbing too, because she added a PS: Have you found a husband yet? At six the following evening, my parents and Anil the older of my two brothers walked ahead of me as we all trod up the wide, red-carpeted staircase leading from the lobby of the Taj to the Sea Lounge. This was one of my favourite haunts in Bombay: a couple of times in the past week, while the rest of the family had been busy with wedding preparations, I had escaped here with a copy of the latest Vanity Fair, and sat and sipped fresh young coconut water while occasionally looking through the open windows on to the Gateway of India and the sea beyond. Neutral ground, light and breezy: it was not surprising that the place was a popular venue for fix-ups of this nature. Aunt Jyoti had wanted me to go ethnic, in just a simple salwar kameez. Its better, Anju, youll look more Indian, more domesticated. But I had said that I would feel much more comfortable, and therefore exude a more relaxed air, if I slipped into a silky BCBG dress. It was sufficiently modest not to offend any sensibilities, yet feminine enough so that, when I was fully dressed, my mother had glowed at me in delight. She wanted me to wear some nice jewellery enough to show the Accra family that we were people of means, yet not so much that the man in question would think that I was some high-maintenance diva-de-luxe. It was a delicate balance. They were already there, seated at a corner table, with Maharaj Girdhar. The spacious, comfortable lounge all cosy aqua-green chairs and natural lighting was filled with the genial buzz of conversation. The name of the intended was Puran. Next to him was his mother, the woman I had seen him with at the buffet table at Ninas wedding. With them was also a sad-looking man the father, I figured. Puran was still chewing gum, and I fervently hoped it wasnt the same stick from the other night. I tried not to stare at his one eyebrow, bushy and unkempt, reminding me of two baby ferrets lying nose-to-nose. But there was something else he was wearing the same semi-transparent black shirt and the same black trousers that he had worn at the wedding. As I walked closer, I noticed that his trousers had little flowers embossed up and down the leg. Someone, I thought, should get this man a stylist. They stood as we approached, and awkward handshakes and introductions were exchanged all round while I smiled nervously, wanting to be pleasant and affable and enter into the spirit of this thing, yet utterly convinced in my soul that this was never going to happen. Anju, why dont you sit there, my mother entreated, pointing to an empty seat on the other side of the prospective groom. Good thing I was wearing my slides, as Puran appeared shorter than I remembered him. Drinks were ordered, small-talk made (So hot here these days, Bombay is getting worse and worse, announced Purans father), and both mothers complimented one another on their saris. I said nothing. I had been through so many of these that by now I knew the drill intimately. It went something like this: 1. Wait until the boy speaks first. 2. Smile. 3. Reveal as little as possible. (In the words of my mothers guru from years ago: Dont show you have any opinions or intelligence. Boys dont like it. You can say what you want after youre married, but until then, be quiet. It was straight out of The Rules. And it hadnt worked thus far.) So, you like Bombay? Purans mother asked me. I smiled and nodded You must be liking New York also? the father asked. What is your work there? I, um, just work in an office, they do like, um, an advertising type of business, I replied, knowing I should dumb-down my life. Puran still hadnt uttered a word to me or to anyone else at the table, immersed as he was in the task of stirring his mango juice with a plastic straw. I had opted for a lassi, but, at that moment, would have sacrificed a Fendi bag for a Cosmopolitan. I smirked at the thought of how ordering a vodka-heavy drink would look to my potential in-laws. So, Puran, my father began, taking on the tone of a paternal job interviewer. I understand you have some shops in Accra? Puran finally spoke, in a voice that sounded a bit more helium-enriched than I had imagined. Yes. Groceries, general provisions, like that, he said, with no further elaboration. And hows business these days? Up and down. There were some riots last year, and our stores were looted. I was not encouraged. Talk of anarchy on ones home front did not make for good first-date conversation. I glanced over at my brother for a show of support; Anil winked and smiled. Just pretend its a game, he seemed to be saying to me. An uncomfortable silence descended upon the table, as Purans mother eyed me up and down, ascertaining if I was a daughter-in-law in the making. No doubt, if this had been thirty years ago, my appearance would have been different. My mother went to meet my father for the first time wrapped in a blue silk sari, with jasmine flowers laced through her long, braided hair. She never looked up once. And the words New York certainly never featured in the conversation. My father says he wanted to marry her as soon as he saw her enter the room. It was, actually, deeply romantic. Most mothers of supposedly eligible Indian men want their sons to marry unspoiled and domesticated girls from wealthy families. That way, dowries are munificent yet the girl herself is acquiescent and non-demanding. It is the ideal. Purans mother was no exception. She was clearly disapproving of the living-in-America factor, but was willing to overlook it when she thought of the kind of parties my family would throw to celebrate finally off-loading me. And the images of suitcases containing silver and silks, of the red velvet boxes carrying jewellery and gold coins that would be sent over to her in the run-up to the wedding well, what was a little independent streak in a daughter-in-law one that could surely be quelled with marriage in comparison to that? Puran, why dont you take Anju for a walk? his mother suggested, smoothly segueing into the next step in the proceedings. Please say no, I silently beseeched. That would signal that he wasnt interested, that he had decided that I didnt suit him, and I could go home with my family, then fly back to New York, and never have to think of Accra again. But Puran obediently put down his glass of mango juice, and stood up, turning to me and expecting me to do likewise. I had no choice but to rise; to refuse would have been hugely embarrassing for my parents, and I would never hear the end of it. I consoled myself with the fact that it was going to be a quick stroll around the interior of the hotel, no big deal, I could do this. Quickly, I reminded myself of all the things I should not say: my mother had fudged my age a bit, so I was really now only thirty. And not a word about the travel that had been integral to my job publicizing fashion designers boys didnt want to hear about their prospective brides organizing back-stage interviews for Michael Kors in Paris. Say nothing unless asked, and if forced to speak of it, play it down. Doing otherwise would sabotage this from the outset, and my parents would have another rejection on their hands. And my pride wouldnt allow me to be turned down by someone I would never marry. Ever. Even under the most dire and desperate circumstances. What time do you wake up in the morning? he asked as we made our way across the lounge and through the double doors leading to the corridor outside. Excuse me? What time do you wake up in the morning? Um, well, here, because Im on holiday, quite late, perhaps around ten or so, you know how it is when theres a family wedding and youre out every night. But in New York, generally, never later than seven. I try and get to the gym before I head off to work and I realized I had revealed too much about my life already, and stopped. I mustnt sound ambitious or successful, so I just kept visualizing the word my young cousin Namrata had used: marshmallow. I was going to be a marshmallow, just for tonight. Because at home in Accra, everyone gets up early, he countered. There is too much to do. So its good you are an early riser. Easier for you to adjust. Much energy was now being spent on squashing the words inside me that were fighting to be spat out. The poor sod thought it was a done deal. In his mind, I was his wife already. We have three maids at home, and a cook, but they have to be supervised. Its a job for the woman of the house. All the work starts early in the morning. They still dont know how to use the vacuum cleaner. Do you know how to use a vacuum cleaner? I sighed. This is what my life had become. I was in one of the most beautiful hotels in Bombay, on a sultry evening, dressed in silk, sweet and smiling and basically being a delightfully charming dream-date. And walking next to me was a man who only wanted to marry me because he needed to supplement his domestic task force. My mummy tells me your work in Umrica is to do with fashion, he continued. Do you like my trousers? He stopped, lifted up one leg like he was a pooch about to pee, and pointed out the little embossed flowers. They are the latest thing, he said proudly. At some point, I phased out of the conversation, Ill admit. and then on Sundays I take my mother to the market we have three maids and a cook, but they have to be supervised, so its better we do the vegetable shopping ourselves you cant trust the natives, you give them money to buy aubergine, and they buy cigarettes instead and then say the money was stolen. Ridiculous! My mother sometimes doesnt feel like going to the market, you know, shes getting a little old now, so of course that will be a job for you. Then, every four Mondays, theres a picnic with all their friends, and I take them there. Do you like picnics? But sometimes its too hot so we have to hold it in somebodys house. We play bingo. Do you play bingo? When Im not at a Tae-bo class, sure, I replied. Puran just looked puzzled, and continued nattering on about his life in Accra how he came home for lunch, but on the days he didnt, a tiffin had to be sent to him at his office. His father was more or less retired now, so he had to run the business by himself, and it could be stressful, so it was time he found a wife. He needed someone he could come home to and who would pour him a whisky soda although she wasnt allowed to drink with him, because he thought it was very bad for a woman to consume alcohol. And I like getting massage, do you know how to give massage? And on and on he went, not once asking me what I saw for my own life. Even if he had, I still wouldnt have wanted to marry him, but at least he wouldnt have come across as so ridiculously archaic. I didnt expect him to peer into my soul, but a smidgen of polite interest would have been nice. At least I hadnt deluded myself, as I had done so many times before, into thinking this could be Mr Right. If nothing else, this was just another story to regale the girls with when I finally got home. And they thought they had had bad dates. Wed better go back now, no? I said to him, as we made our fifteenth circuit around the Taj lobby. He looked happy and satisfied, that perhaps after years of interviewing, he might just have found the right candidate. Oh my God! I said to my parents, as soon as we were safely back in our car. What was that? Who was that? What were you thinking? So that means you didnt like him, Anju? my mother asked, innocently. Like him? Like him? What was there to like? He didnt seem that bad, said my father. And theyre interested. Anil, who was sitting in the front passenger seat grinning, finally spoke. Yeah, they were already talking wedding dates while you guys went off for your romantic stroll, he said. They want to do it before they fly back to Accra, so I guess in the next couple of weeks. Youd better start getting your stuff together, didi, youre going to be married! he said. Mum! I pleaded. Come on! If youre not interested, youre not interested, she said, resignedly. Ill just tell them when they phone tomorrow. Of course, theyll tell Maharaj Girdhar that youre fussy, and then he wont call us if there are other boys, because hell think youve become too hoity-toity, but what can we do? Youre saying no, we have to say no. Yes but, Mum, you know me. Did you honestly think that Id be into someone like that. Honestly? But, beti, look at your age! Youre not twenty-two any more. Youre not going to get proposals like Nina and Namrata. There arent so many boys still unmarried who are older than you. Maybe hes not perfect, but at least hes like you. Elderly-type. As we all anticipated, the call came the next day. Maharaj Girdhar phoned to inform us that the boys side says yes. It was a triumphant pronouncement he had already no doubt decided on how he would spend his finders fee. But more than that, he thought himself brilliant and clever for at last having found someone for me, that wayward girl who had left her family in Bombay and gone to live in Umrica, all alone. This would no doubt elevate his status within the religious-social circles in which he slithered. It fell upon my mother to tell him otherwise. Sorry, Maharaj, but hes not for us, she said quietly. But why? the priest retaliated, sounding horrified, as if I had just turned down the hand of George Clooney. The boy is so good, everything is so good. So many girls were interested in him. See, they chose your daughter! How can you say no? Sorry, Mum, I said after she had put the phone down. But you know it would never have worked. Really Anju, she sighed, I dont know what youre looking for. Later that afternoon, Aunt Jyoti sent over a jar of cream. Someone at the wedding had pointed out that I had nice features, but was a little on the dark side. Being fair-skinned was as important a criterion as having all ones limbs intact. Ordinarily, my complexion could be described as milky chai. But perhaps I hadnt been using my sunscreen very faithfully: I had to concede it was now more like a double espresso. Fairness indicated fragility, docility, prettiness. A girl could be cock-eyed, buck-toothed and have had a botched rhinoplasty, but if she were fair, she was considered a beauty in the league of Catherine Zeta-Jones. So I sat on my bed, holding a jumbo-sized tube of Promise of Fairness. There were no ingredients listed on the container, but I had read somewhere about how the product was found to contain a high concentration of mercury. I called my aunt to inform her of this, and to tell her that if I used it, I would probably contract some ghastly skin disease like melanoma. Aunt Jyoti quickly agreed. Yes, better not, she said. If something goes wrong with your face, who will marry you? A slight depression fell over me as evening descended. It was another scorching night, and I was lying on my bed listening to vintage Toni Braxton on my CD player. I felt an odd mlange of melancholy and confusion. No return date finalized for New York, and not a lot to do here in the aftermath of the chaos of Ninas wedding. It was just a lot of waiting around, hoping or at least my mother was that the phone would ring with another offer. So I hopped across the street to the neighbourhood internet caf in reality a bunch of computers and a coffee-maker stuck into an old garage. I passed a trio of fifteen-year-old boys downloading porn, and settled in front of an Acer to check my emails. There were thirty-five messages, mostly from my friends in New York who were filling me in on their holiday plans. Sheryl was going down the Amazon. Marion was thinking the Pyramids. Erin was going to stay close, in the Hamptons. But you, sweetie, are having the most unique experience of all! Sheryl wrote. A literal, far-reaching, no-stones-unturned quest for a husband! So brave! So Indiana Jones! At home an hour later, the phone rang. It was Rita Mehta, a professional matchmaker whom my mother had called a few days earlier. I listened as my details were divulged: age twenty-nine, a further reduction; height (five feet four), build (average), complexion (medium). So far, I hardly sounded scintillating or vibrant. No talk was made of preferences, hobbies, interests. Just how old, how tall, how slim, how fair. Is she very Umrican-type? the matchmaker asked, when my mother reluctantly let on that I had been working in New York, temporarily, in an office. I mean to say, can she adjust? Rita clarified. Shes a very good girl, my mother said. Smart, but homely-type. By that, my mother was wanting to drive home the point that I was a stay-at-home kind of girl, the gentle and subservient sort who would subjugate her own needs for the sake of a peaceful household. My mother wasnt far wrong, either. I was fairly sure my club-hopping, plane-changing days would stop the day I found a groom. Shes living for a short while in Umrica now, but shes Indian at heart, she continued, aware that my living in Umrica thing was not just a fall from grace, it was a huge, almighty thud. Men who came to India to find wives generally didnt want women who had carved out independent lives for themselves away from their families. Mr Accra had chosen to ignore all that because it didnt seem too important, in the scheme of things. What he had wanted was someone who would marry him, move to his country, and above all spend the rest of her days memorizing the vacuum cleaner manual. Were looking for a good boy, my mother continued. No bad habits. That was an oblique reference to cigarettes, over-indulgence in alcohol, extravagant spending and womanizing a proviso that basically eliminated everyone in my New York circle of friends. She started scribbling some notes down again, in a small red notebook that had Boys marked on the front. Sitting next to her, I saw her write Dubai, 36, own clothing shops, well educated, Lalit-something-or-another. A fathers name, a mothers name. Rita said: Hes a very good boy, Ive checked everything thoroughly. The boy is not in Bombay now, but if there is someone interesting, hell fly down. This time, my mother didnt even consult me. Within an hour, she was on the phone with a friend who had lived in Dubai. Can you make some inquiries, find out if the boy is good? Its for matrimonial purposes, she asserted. Poor fellow, I thought. Hes probably out having a perfectly nice day, doing whatever they do for fun in the United Arab Emirates. Little did he know that before the end of the day, my family would know enough about him to do a Kitty Kelley. As it turned out, Lalit had spent six months in jail for forging cheques. My father curtly said, Drop it. We dont want a criminal son-in-law. But my mother thought he was acting too rashly. So? Its not like he murdered anyone. Plus, after marriage, hell change. Another week passed. Sunday morning, and I joined my parents in leafing through The Times of India matrimonial pages. My father circled a couple of interesting prospects: Overseas Indian (Sindhi) male in mid-thirties seeking overseas Indian female of same caste. Must be at least 5?3?, slim, medium complexion, good nature. My mother called the number on the bottom of the ad. Er, yes, hello, Im calling about the boy in todays paper. A fleeting pang of guilt struck me. Going on thirty-four, I couldnt even find a mate on my own, and my mother was spending her Sunday mornings in the twilight of her life on the phone with the families of strange men. Yes, the girl is now here Were local people, but shes living temporarily in New York, working in an office there Yes, shes the right height How old is the boy? Hah, thirty-five, very good. And where does the boy live? And so continued a barrage of questions to the woman on the other end, the sister of the boy in question. Hah, OK, yes, she said, starting to scribble. Suddenly, she stopped writing, and quickly said: Hah, OK, OK, thank you, Ill talk to my daughter and phone you back, before hanging up. So? my father asked, looking up from the paper. He lives in Indonesia, my mother said. He owns a small videotape copying shop, you know, people bring in their tapes and he has a lot of VCRs and he copies them. She looked over at me. I didnt think youd be interested. But then came something far more promising. A prospect from Spain. Madrid actually. Mmm, I thought. Romantic and cosmopolitan. The home of Loewe, and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, and a stately King and Queen, and tapas and sangria. And at least a place where an electricity generator was not a mandatory household appliance. He was a banker, thirty-seven, educated, good-natured, tall, according to the ad. In Bombay from June 2 to 15. Thats now, my mother announced, enthusiastically. She got on the phone again, this time reaching a very pleasant-sounding woman, who was apparently the prospects mother. He went to Yale, and was head-hunted for a position starting up a new American bank in Spain. He had a sister at university in California, so apparently they were fairly liberal people. He had taken a few weeks off from work to be in Bombay, like myself, for matrimonial purposes. It was decided that, before it went any further, photographs should be exchanged. Quickly, go find one, something that doesnt make you look so old, my mother instructed. I may as well have been hunched over, clasping a cane, shuffling off into the next room. For an Indian woman, I was not just spinsterly; I was positively old-maidish. Knowing this made me laugh but only because Id cried enough about it in the past. Marrying me off now, at this appallingly late stage, would require a miracle. And some savvy marketing. And a flattering photograph. A couple of hours later, a driver appeared to deliver an envelope containing a photograph of the banker from Spain, and to pick up mine. I tentatively pulled out the colour print. It was a picture of him taken in an outdoor caf: Barcelona, July 2000 was inked across the back. He was wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt tucked into blue denim jeans. He was smiling, one finger resting lightly on the edge of an espresso cup, the sun shining down onto his black hair, a light shadow falling over part of his face. A good face it was, too. Open, kind, intelligent. He seemed nice, somehow, not like the sort of narrow-minded chumps who were on the prowl for another maid, another mother. You like him, no? my mother asked when she saw a satisfied smile appear on my face. Well, he looks like a nice guy, Mum. It had suddenly become a situation full of possibilities. The possibility that my father would finally stop moaning about how I kept wasting airfare, that my mothers friends would stop tut-tutting their way through their card-playing sessions about poor, perennially unmarried me. And, most importantly, the possibility that I could find someone for me, even if I wasnt the ideal Indian woman someone with the talents of Martha Stewart and the body of Claudia Schiffer, a vegetarian teetotaller who never stopped smiling, praying, pleasing and nodding. That despite all this, maybe, just maybe, there was someone who wanted me anyway. As my more supportive relatives would always say: Beti, the boy destined for you is already born. He is somewhere in the world. We just have to find him. The sun set, and a light breeze came in through the open windows. My father was asleep in his armchair, my mother went off to nap in the bedroom, and the boys were out somewhere. I was eating dokhlas spongy semolina snacks served with a cool mint chutney, and watching rehashed coverage of the Tommy Hilfiger fashion show on CNN. I remembered being there, standing way at the back as all publicists do, ensuring that the Vogues and Elles and In-Styles were all happily seated. All the front row divas looked bored and constipated, as if they were doing the world a huge honour by simply showing up. All praying that they would be the ones seated next to the celebrity-of-choice at this particular catwalk show, maybe bold and brassy Samuel Jackson, or skinny, pretty, sad-looking Gwyneth Paltrow. That had been my life catwalks and cocktail parties and being able to say that I had been in the same room as Angelina Jolie. It was fun and frivolous, but that was it. The other day, I had read some of the pages in my journal from last year: Yes! Got the last Kate Spade bag in the Barneys sale! or Why did I spend $1,500 at Patagonia when I hate hiking? or Exhausted from power yoga, and not helped by the three Raspberry Stolis I had afterwards. There were no words about being moved in deeper ways, except for those occasions when I might have attended a meditation class and returned home vowing to change my life, become connected with the greater universe, find inner peace. But then The West Wing came on, and all was forgotten. Mine had become a life lived on the outside. And if I tried to probe to see what was beneath it, there would only be concealed neuroses and petty jealousies and more dysfunction than I could deal with. So instead, Id have a Cosmopolitan, buy a pair of shoes, whatever. It was, essentially, a biodegradable life, one that, if I let it slip from my grip, would merge with the dirt and disappear, leaving nothing behind. I needed a change. And perhaps that change could begin with marriage. I said a silent prayer that the nice-looking man from Madrid would call. I hadnt even heard his voice, nor did I know anything about him beyond the basics. But he seemed closer to the one than anyone I had come across in a long time. Like the struggling ingnue who has already written an Oscar-acceptance speech, I had yet to meet this man, but I had already named the children. My parents finally stirred awake from their afternoon nap. Did they call? my mother asked me. I shook my head. They all knew that for every hour that passed, it would be less and less likely that the phone would ring. I then realized that although I had liked the look of him, perhaps he didnt like the look of me. Could that be? I had sent along my most appealing photograph, taken in Central Park on a sunny afternoon, me in a summery pink top and white pants, subtly conveying some of that fluffy-marshmallow element, just in case. In the picture, my black hair, lightly tinted, looked shiny and lush under the sun, my smiling face a vision of relaxed happiness. And I didnt look too dark-skinned either. How could anyone not like the look of me in that photograph? I attempted to busy myself with various things, but every time the phone jingled, I stopped what I was doing and I prayed that this would be the call. It never came. Late the next afternoon, Aunt Jyoti stopped by for tea, and settled onto the sofa in preparation for a no-holds-barred gossip session that would last at least three hours. I hear the parents of that Madrid boy have been making inquiries about you, she said to me, with the air of someone who had obtained classified information from the Pentagon. Oh, yes, we spoke to them yesterday, my mother interjected, surprised. She had wanted to keep this quiet until something worked out, so ashamed had she become of the litany of failed alliances that trailed behind me. But Bombay was a small town when it came to things of a matrimonial nature, and it never took more than about four minutes for news of pitches and proposals to spread. I began to feel like one of those screenplays that get touted around Hollywood agents and studios and producers; everyone takes a quick look and passes, yet they continue knocking about ad infinitum. We exchanged pictures, my mother said, figuring she may as well tell her sister all. We liked his. We didnt hear back. Maybe they didnt like how Anju looked. Oh well, cant be helped these things happen. For my sake, my mother forced a couldnt-care-less attitude, although I knew she was deeply disappointed. At last, she had come across someone her daughter seemed interested in, and this time they werent interested. Karma, she thought. Thats what everything comes down to. Its not her looks, Aunt Jyoti said. The family made inquiries and heard that she has been living alone in New York for some time, that she was independent-type. The boy says girls like that cant be moulded. He wanted someone a bit more traditional-type. What can you do? You have to live with it. My mother and aunt looked over at me with pity and tendernesss, as if I were a quadriplegic. That is so not on! I cried out. I mean, this guy went away to university in the States, right? His sister is there, right? So whats the hypocrisy all about? Anju, beti, Aunt Jyoti started. Its not that. Boys feel its OK for them, maybe even their sisters, but in the end, they dont want to marry a girl like that. He just doesnt like it that you have been living alone there, without your parents, for so many years. He feels that by now you will surely have become too much independent. I told you years back when you were going that this would happen. Now see? Thats why I would never let my daughters go off like that, she said, casting a look of disapproval at both my mother and myself, and recalling proudly how one daughter was snapped up at twenty-two, and surely the younger one would not be far behind. My mother, surprisingly, stood up for me. Jyoti, boys should be more open-minded these days, more forward-thinking. If he doesnt want my daughter, thats his loss. Well find someone better. He can just go marry some dumbo who cant even open her mouth without asking for permission. You go, Mum, I chimed in, smiling. I felt better now, knowing that my mother didnt chastise me not in public, at least. At that moment, the phone rang. It was Sheryl, calling from New York. Hows it all going over there? Married yet? Should I be booking airline tickets, buying the dress? Will you seat me next to someone cute? she asked. She always spoke this way, always sounding breathless, rushed and enthused. Some guy from Spain who seemed interesting turned out to be a flake because he thought I was too independent. Me! I cant even find a man without my parents helping me. How independent is that? Look, said Sheryl. He probably just wants some submissive twelve-year-old. Its his prerogative, you know. Its like he went into Henri Bendel, saw a nice sweater, but its been there for a while, marked down, on sale. So maybe he takes a look at it, puts it down, moves on to something else. Something in the new arrivals section. Its nothing personal. He just doesnt want that particular sweater. I could always trust Sheryl to reduce everything to a shopping expedition. Anyway, she continued, you think youve got problems. I had a blind date last night, a fellow called Jerome my cousin set me up with. The date was fine, but when he dropped me home, he wanted to come up and use the toilet. After he left, I went in there and he had peed all over the place, on the floor, splashed around the toilet bowl. What do you think is the likelihood of me wanting to go out with someone who cant even pee straight? I dont know, Sheryl, I said. But I still think my dilemma is far worse than yours. I was rejected by a man before he even met me. Beat that. Chapter Three (#ulink_7762c3f5-39d5-5a1f-ae06-f80cbf952b97) The scriptures forbid the sacrifice of female animals, but in the case of human beings, sacrificing females gives the greatest satisfaction. Chaturanga by Rabindranath Tagore Im not understanding it, my father said, putting down his newspaper and turning to look at my mother. Theres nothing wrong with Anju. Shes a pleasant enough girl, quite attractive. Im not understanding how shes so unable to find a good boy. My mother turned her attention away from the Hindi comedy show a rip-off of The Brady Bunch that she was watching on Zee TV. Its Gods way. We have done our best, and all now is in Gods hand. I was in my bedroom, half reading an old Wodehouse book I had found lying around, in a failed bid to distract myself. All day long, I had only been able to think of my life in New York. The free concerts in Central Park would be starting soon, and the mens shows for fashion week would be under way in a few weeks. I had called Marion this morning and asked for an indefinite leave of absence. Professionally, it was the most illogical thing to do. But I really did feel as if I had little choice if I was going to see this thing through. I need to show my parents that Im making an effort, I had told my boss. Yes, I was tearful, anxious, bored, desperate a lethal combination sure to drive all the boys away. And yes, I wanted to return to my little apartment on the Upper West Side, to my girlie dinners alfresco, to finding clever ways to describe a new handbag collection in a press release, to my Sex and the City existence minus the sex. I loved my life there. But I loved my parents more. Look, Marion, I dont know how long its going to take, but I think I need to give it a fair shot. I had no idea when I left New York to come here for my cousins wedding that Id end up staying longer than two weeks, but thats whats happened, so I have to deal with it. Are you sure youre OK with what youre doing? Marion asked, a concerned tone in her voice. Fortunately for me, my boss was a sympathetic sort, and the complete antithesis of a fashion doyenne. She was a former rebirther turned PR guru who spent most of her time counselling the six neurotic female publicists and one hyper-neurotic gay male one she employed. She served us camomile tea and vegan cookies when we were having a bad day, hair-related or otherwise. Marion, I really appreciate you being this understanding. Not a lot of bosses would let their staff have some time off to find a husband. She laughed. Honey, Im not that altruistic. Im just dying to come to an Indian wedding. So hurry up and get on with it. And by the way, Im not that great a boss. Im giving you leave, all right, but its unpaid were not exactly Fortune Five Hundred. In August, I was turning thirty-four. As far as my community was concerned, I was already a write-off. As far as everyone else saw it, I was always going to be there, still single. There were some girls that all the boys wanted to marry, but I, sadly, wasnt one of them. Marion told me once that it was better to be divorced at thirty-five than never married at all. At least that one failed marriage proved some capacity for entering the union, if not actually the ability to sustain it. What do you mean? I had responded to Sheryl, my first real friend in New York, during our first real lunch together. Sheryl had asked what defined me. We were both twenty-seven. I mean just that. What defines you? What makes you you? Whats your contribution to the world? How do you see yourself? These were very Sheryl questions. She was a kick-boxing devotee who, in her time away from her financial analyst job, studied the Kabbalah and took opera-singing and rock-climbing lessons. She saw life as one giant lab experiment that could explode at any time, but felt that was half the fun of it. Nothing defines me, Sheryl. Im a very ordinary Indian girl. The only way I managed to get to this country was because my father thought it would be a good way for me to meet boys. So maybe thats what defines me. That was what it was always about, what its still about. Getting married. You know, from the time I was seven or so, my aunt Jyoti insisted that my mother slap a homemade concoction on my face, chickpea flour mixed with lemon juice. It makes you white, you know. Sheryl narrowed her eyes. So, what went wrong? she asked, taking in my brown complexion. Oh, I stopped using it. It just got to be a drag, a bit smelly and it stung. My aunt blames that for my lack of proposals. She says nobody wants a dark wife. You know how little girls dream of what they want to be when they grow up an air-hostess, a movie star, a queen? I continued. I used to tell my mother what my dreams were. I wanted to be a social worker, or a manicurist, I couldnt decide. I saw them both as helping people. But my mother only said, First get married, then do what you want. I think I was twelve. It wasnt just me though. There was a big bunch of us girls, cousins and friends and neighbours children, all the same age, and we went to birthday parties and ate jam sandwiches and we used to only talk about the kind of men we would marry. My best friend from school, Indu, she even had a name for her dream husband. Suresh. She liked that name. She said he would have his hair parted down the middle, and that he would be taller than her, and that she would get lots of diamonds on her wedding day, and also a big house and a fancy car. Thats how she saw her life. Did she get that? Yup. At seventeen. A proposal that came through her aunt. They got engaged after talking for an hour in the lobby of the President Hotel, surrounded by both sets of parents. He was everything Indu said she would find, except his name was Sanjay. They have twin boys, and she rides around Bombay in the back of an air-conditioned Mercedes. So, happily ever after? Sheryl asked. Not really. I think he ignores her most of the time. I toyed with the slim gold bracelets around my wrist, and went quiet for a minute as I remembered my old friend Indu, and thought how our lives were so different now. Even she, I knew, disapproved of me. As soon as Indu was married, everyone started looking for a husband for me. She and I were the same age. My mother had taught me everything I needed to be a good wife, and really, I had to compensate for being so dark. So I learnt how to make perfect Indian tea, with just the right amount of condensed milk and elaichi. Blindfolded, I could tell the difference between the dozens of bottles of spices on our kitchen shelves. I could make samosas, no problem. And all the Indian bhajis, even the complicated ones, were a breeze. They used to take me to visit people, and say, See our daughter, all grown up now, she can do everything, cooking and all, and shes such a sensible and clever girl. In that sense, I suppose they are pretty proud of me. And now, here you are. Away from all that, Sheryl observed. Who would have thought it? Given where I had come from, and the circumstances that had brought me here, who indeed? PART TWO (#ulink_29016932-f4d2-5ee7-a44a-4618a152593b) Chapter Four (#ulink_e15a0ed1-a3b4-565a-979c-e41dbb65dca9) The father who does not give away his daughter in marriage at the proper time is censurable. Sources of Indian Tradition, Volume 1, edited by W. M. Theodore de Bary In my early twenties, I had never had any intention of leaving home before becoming someones wife. Heading off, solo and independent, was unthinkable and irrevocably scandalous, and would effectively seal the coffin on my parents endeavours to find me a husband. Long before I started thinking otherwise, my mother had started us down on the more traditional path. Two days after my twenty-first birthday, she called Udhay, the most noted astrologer in Bombay. His tiny cubby-hole on the streets of Colaba flanked by a seller of dog-eared Mills & Boon books and a hawker peddling flea-smattered limp leaf vegetables was a regular stop-off point for Bombayites and their visiting relatives. They called on him for advice about whether to invest in a new stock, move house, when to undergo the angioplasty, should the marriage proposal be accepted. Hes verrrry good, Aunt Jyoti had said to my mother a week earlier. Remember when we were having all those problems with our flat in Mysore, trying to evict the tenants? He told us on what day we should appoint the lawyer and start the legal proceedings. Believe me, Leela, within just a few weeks the problem was solved. Ive been hearing verrry good things about him from my friends also. Bas, definitely you should show Anjus chhati. You still have her birth chart somewhere, no? Really, Leela, shes completed twenty-one now, shes graduated, but still no boys are coming for her. Hell definitely tell you when it will happen. Put your mind at ease, no? Fortunately, Udhay said that for a higher fee, he would make a house call, as my mother expressed her anxiety about being seen lingering outside his painted blue cubicle. Doubtless, someone would see her, and within precisely forty-five seconds, it would be all over Bombay society that there was, surely, something wrong in our family. Hah, hah, no problem, Ill come, said Udhay, when my mother called him one evening. But vill you send me your car and driver? He looked educated enough. No dhoti around his thin brown legs or tilok on his forehead. Indeed, he could have been a middle-rung civil servant, in his polyester shirt and trousers, with his sun-chapped feet in tatty chappals, and toting a brown leather satchel that looked as if it had barely survived World War Two. So, vot is the problem? he asked, once seated, a cup of chai on the table next to him. My daughter, said my mother, pointing to me, appropriately dressed for the occasion as I was in an unadorned cotton salwar kameez. She has just completed twenty-one, and my husband and I are most worried, as no boys are approaching us. Maybe there is some grechari? she asked. This is a black cosmic cloud that is said to hang over the heads of the unfortunate, woebegone souls who are about to go bankrupt, lose a limb, or remain single for another year. Ha, ha, dont vurry, ve vill see vot is the problem, Udhay replied, reaching into his fatigued satchel to pull out the Hindu almanac, a pad of paper and pencil and a calculator. Do you have her chart here? he asked. My mother handed over a laminated sheet covered with elaborate drawings and interspersed with the names of planets in Hindi. Udhay consulted his almanac, jotting down numbers and punching in figures on his Casio hand-held calculator, muttering under his breath. I sat on my sweaty hands, my mother next to me, both of us quiet but anxious, the only sound in the room from the sleepy whirring of the air-conditioner behind us. All of my friends had already been forced to have their charts read or their mothers had done so surreptitiously so I knew I had no choice but to sit through it. Since graduating with a bachelors degree in commerce from Jai Hind College in nearby Churchgate, I had been having a rather grand time or at least as grand a time as could be managed by a young girl in Bombay with a curfew and somewhat neurotic parents. But I needed to get serious about marriage, and this was the first step. So I adjusted the soft chiffon dupatta that was slipping off my shoulders and looked at Udhays face for any hint of what was to come. I knew, having heard about my friends experiences, that whatever he said in the next half-hour would set the tone for the rest of the day, indeed, the next several weeks. If the news was good that I could and would be married within the year, to a good boy, good family, and all that, then my mother would be in such a fine and sparkling mood that my brothers would be allowed to hang out with their friends after school for at least an hour longer than usual. I had observed, these past few months, how my mothers innate joie de vivre seemed slowly to diminish under the weight of her anxiety about me. She had nothing to feel sad about, surely: my fathers business was thriving, allowing her to visit India Emporium to shop for Banarasi silk and French chiffon saris whenever it pleased her. Or to spend three afternoons a week playing rummy and eating pakodas with her friends. Or to go along to all those religious gatherings, baby-naming ceremonies, kitty parties, where she could show off a new, shiny piece of jewellery made by my father, or talk about how well her sons were doing in school. But invariably, she would return home from each one of these social gatherings with her elegant head slightly drooping from her graceful, South-Sea-pearl-draped neck, telling me or whoever was around that she had just heard that Shantas son was engaged, or Miras niece or Renus grandson. My mother watched as all the women she grew up with, and all the distant relatives she had acquired after her marriage, were jubilant in their news of another engagement, another marriage, even another grandchild on its way. Sitting there, with her plate of pakodas and her share of playing cards, contriving a smile and uttering congratulations, she always wondered why when it came to her daughters matrimonials she had been dealt a bad hand. More tea? I asked of Udhay, standing up to make for the kitchen, falsely believing that if I made a good impression, it might affect the outcome of things. Nahin, bas, enough, the astrologer replied. Looking up, he said, I think I have understood vot is happening here. I caught my mothers short, whisper-quiet intake of breath, priming herself for the best news, or the worst. There were two words she would die if she heard: anura yoga that the possibility of marriage does not exist. Your daughter has rahu in her seventh house, he said, pausing. The timing is not good for her now for marriage. She must vait. How long? my mother asked, biting her bottom lip, her face slowly turning white, as if she were being sentenced to Alcatraz. Some years still, said Udhay sorrowfully. He hated being the bearer of bad news. It often meant that the envelope containing his cash payment when he left this session would be lighter than if he had delivered happier tidings. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39789505&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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