by Shweta Shukla
I felt like I was slowly drowning in the chatter of the lively room.
“Oh, I absolutely love your sari Gita ji,” said Mahesh’s mother. “Where did you buy it? I have been trying to find a saffron one. But you know how hard it is in the States. Such limited availability and poor quality.”
“ You have a keen eye!” my mother exclaimed. “ I had my Bhabhi mail this from India. Took two weeks in the air, mind you…”
I looked across the room to my left, where my father was sitting, shifting uncomfortably in his hard, mahogany chair.
“ Yes sir!” he said, gripping Mishra ji’s hand tightly in his, shaking it up and down very vigorously. “I completely agree. You couldn’t be more right. The BJP campaign is really the only sensible option right now. A man who knows his politics!”
Mishra ji just shook his head politely, but I could tell he was secretly gushing at my father’s not-so-subtle compliments.
I sighed and looked around the room, my eyes moving lazily along the high-ceilinged room. I sat on my chair, with my legs crossed, as that was the only proper way to sit with a god-forsaken sari on. I fidgeted uncomfortably and tried to pull down my blouse as it was riding up my midriff. It was a wonder that this blouse was too small for my already small bosom. The room was generously sized; probably two or three times the size of our own living room, with high ceilings, the presence of which was not helping my claustrophobic spirits.
Paintings lined the walls, including copies of Monet, Picasso, and Kinkade, and the bookshelves were filled with foreign artifacts. A bright, red Russian doll set smiled at me, while next to it sat a stuffed, mournful looking duck. On the shelf above, a boomerang was propped up on a small tripod stand. The adjacent shelf contained a yellowing scroll with elegant strokes of calligraphy. The yellowness of the paper did not fool me however; I could sense from the dark, intense ink that this scroll had been freshly printed. Tokens from around the world filled my gaze as I scrutinized the shelves to find something from my mother county. Finally, I spied a small Taj Mahal stonework statue placed precariously on the shelf crammed with a glass cup emblazoned with the words “A Maedel beim Bier ist mein Plaesir,” with the parenthetical translation “A girl with my beer is my pleasure.” I glanced around. No one was looking. Both pairs of parents were engaged in conversation. My aunt was walking around the living room examining the furniture with her reading glasses on and her hand firmly behind her back. I looked to my left and both sets of grandparents were engrossed in conversations about the “Old India”; my grandmother’s glasses were perched at the tip of her nose as she began talking about when she was a little girl.
I got up and moved towards the shelf with the Beer Stein and picked up the miniature Taj Mahal. I looked at it closely. It was a very intricate stone carving of the famous monument. The windows and doors were very carefully etched in, as well as and the front lawn and pond. All in all, it was a very good likeness. Though I had never been there, I remembered a picture I had seen of my mother, posing in front of it with my nani and mosi, her then girlish arms dangling by her side and her face pressed against her mother’s. The Taj loomed behind them majestically, drawing your eyes to it no matter how hard you focused on the people in front of it. Through the thin layer of dust I could see that this statue looked exactly like the photo. I turned it over in my hand. It was cold and smooth, and its weight comfortably filled my palm.
“Come Mahesh! Beta, sit down,” said Mishra ji.
I looked up and saw a tall, dark haired, man hurry down the last few stairs to take the seat beside mine. He was dressed in a crisp Armani suit, and his wrist was decorated with a Rolex watch. His hair had the just-got-out-of-bed- and-ran- a comb-through-it look.
“Hi Auntie, Uncle,” he said cheerfully, nodding his head at all my family.
“Come, Meena,” my mother said excitedly. “Sit down. Let’s see how you look together.”
I looked at my mother and she gave me a stern look. I moved slowly back to my seat, weaving through makeshift seats for the hoard of relatives that had suddenly fallen silent. I sat down next to him, with a quick glance into his eyes, and faced forward in my chair.
“Now that is a good match if I’ve ever seen one,” Mahesh’s father commented, clasping his hands together.
Everyone murmured his or her approval.
“So Mahesh has just completed his MBA from Harvard and did his undergraduate degree at Yale,” his mother spoke confidently to no one in particular. “Tell them what you’re planning on doing, Beta, “she said.
Mahesh cleared his throat. “ Well I’m going to be working with Goldman, and I haven’t quite decided what afterwards.”
“Well yes, of course,” my father said, “business is a very open field. Meena here is just about finishing up her MD and will be applying for residencies very soon. She is looking in the California area you know, as that weather really suits her. Tell them what you’re planning on doing.”
“I’m applying to residencies in internal medicine,” I said promptly. “ I’m not quite sure what I want to do yet. Maybe cardiology or nephrology.”
“Very nice!” remarked Mahesh’s mother. “ Beta, why don’t you take her upstairs? You can talk. What will you do down here with us old geezers?”
Everyone laughed. Mahesh got up and I followed suit, fixing the drape of my pink sari and wrapping it tightly around my shoulder. As we got up and walked towards the staircase, the talking resumed, and the murmur of voices began again.
The staircase was made of polished marble, twisting up elegantly, from where I could see, three floors. I examined the swirl of blue in the marble and traced my steps on them as far as I could go without looking challenged in my coordination. We walked up to the third floor with me trailing behind Mahesh, who silently led the way, glancing back every few seconds, almost as if he had a nervous tick.
“Just on the right,” he said, as he entered the doorway. I peered into the room as I followed him in. It was a spacious room with two sets of large windows. The lace curtains were half drawn, allowing sunlight to stream through them, forcing me to shield my eyes as I continued to examine the room from under my arm.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll just draw these.”
“No, leave them,” I said.
He stopped and offered me a seat on the edge of his bed. I sat down on the Harry Potter bedspread and smiled.
“A little outdated, no?” I asked, with a half smile.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “From high school. Haven’t used this room much since.”
I sat silently, waiting for him to say something. He was supposed to say something first, of course, being the man. Though, I’m not quite sure men would have Harry Potter sheets, no matter how old. I didn’t want to get home and have my mother corner me about how I was entirely too bold and needed to be subdued.
“So you got roped into this too, eh?” he asked.
“What?” I asked.
“An arranged marriage.”
“Well yes. That’s an understatement. How’d you get pulled in? No nice girls at Harvard?”
“Well I’ve dated my fair share, yes. Didn’t find anyone to settle on, however. Had an African girlfriend for a while. Can’t find any family-women these days, though. Just looking around, though, right now; might find something. Not committing to anything. You never know. Might meet some gorgeous chick on some business trip. But my mom is insistent I meet some Brahmin girls, you know. Thinks she can brainwash me.”
“ Have you had a boyfriend?” he asked. “I’m perfectly fine with girls dating,” he added quickly, looking at my face, to make sure I hadn’t pegged him to be the hypocritical type who had double standards for dating.
I pondered this question. Did I have a boyfriend? Or was it in the past? The events of the past few weeks were still hazy in my mind. I suppose I could tell him. I didn’t plan on marrying anyone with such bed sheets or whose house was more a museum than a home. I couldn’t help but judge him on his family, even though I knew that I would hate it if someone did that to me. But it was ingrained in my upbringing to be so judgmental.
“Well,” I said carefully. “There was someone,” I said. I would stick to past tense. “We dated for six years, broke up pretty recently.”
He looked uncomfortable. “What happened?” he asked, not looking like he really wanted to know.
I got up, and paced the room, not entirely sure where to start and what to say.
“Well, I basically brought him up to meet my parents. Didn’t go too well. “
“Why?” Mahesh asked.
“ Caste. He was an untouchable.”
Mahesh remained silent. The word didn’t need further explaining. It was like the plague, slipping through closed doors unnoticed.
It had been a few weeks prior that I sat in my living across my mother, nervously moving my leg up and down. What should I say, I thought. How do you break it to your own mother that you have been lying to her for six years?
“There’s something I want to talk about,” I said biting my lower lip till it bled.
“What,” my mother said, looking up from the apple she was cutting with her pocketknife.
“ I’ve been thinking about marriage,” I said.
She looked up. “ Are you telling me your father and I can start looking for boys?”
I took a deep breath chanting Lord Hanuman’s name in the back of my mind for strength. “ I think I’ve found someone,” I said slowly. Relief washed over me. Words that had been trying to come out of my mouth for several years now were finally out. I felt light-headed.
My mother stopped what she was doing. “What?”
I didn’t repeat myself. I’m sure she’d heard me. I looked instead at the small waterfall on the coffee table, willing it to drown me.
“Is he white?” she said stonily, gripping the couch arm very tightly.
“No,” I said.
“He’s Indian?” she asked, her grip relaxing, the pocketknife slipping from her fingers.
“Yes,” I said.
“Vasudevan.” I said, flinching.
She closed her eyes. “He Prabhu, “ she said. “What sins have I done in my past life to give birth to such an ungrateful child like you?”
It was hard to believe that she was so calm. It was the calm before the storm, though. She was processing, like the clouds soaking up water, before wreaking havoc as a monsoon.
“ How could you?” she hissed. “ How could you go out of our caste? After you have known all your life what this family stands for, the traditions we follow. The strict Hindu traditions of marrying within caste, living a spiritual and simple life. The tradition of obeying your parents wishes.”
“You just want me to marry some nice Brahmin, Indian boy who earns a lot of money! That’s all you care about.”
“That’s all that matters,” my mother said. “What did you want? To marry Shahrukh Khan?”
“ I want a human being. I want someone I can talk to, get along with, be happy with.”
“ Your father and I had an arranged marriage, and we’re fine.”
“ If being fine is arguing every second and wishing your father had married you to someone else, then yes, you are.” I said coldly.
“How dare you.” My mother said, nostrils flaring.
“Who is this boy? I will not let you marry him, even if I die preventing you from doing so.” And then she wept. She wept like I had never seen her. Tears poured down her cheeks, and she shuddered, incoherently muttering about her ill fate at having a daughter like me. This went on for days, and neither of us said anything. We avoided each other in the kitchen. If I went to get a glass of water, she would pretend to cook, and if she sat down on the couch, I would go upstairs to work. My father, however, kept his usual spot on the dining table, in front of his laptop, watching episodes of the Ramayana, oblivious of anything going on. I heard her sometimes from upstairs, where I pretended to do work and apply to my Residencies in front of my laptop. She spoke on the phone with her sister discussing the disaster that had befallen her. What should she do? Where had she gone wrong with my upbringing? They should have never moved to the States. They should have sent her to medical school in India.
Finally my mother spoke. “ Let me meet him,” she said. After weeks of crying and screaming she had finally agreed to have him come over.
I looked up surprised. “ You are not going to marry him, “ she said flatly. “ I will meet him and show you he is not worthy of us. I cannot believe I will be letting an untouchable into this house. I can’t believe what days I have come to.”
I remained silent. A meeting was better than no meeting.
The doorbell rang. I hurried to get it. We had specifically scheduled the meeting to take place when my father wasn’t home.
“Your father would burn down the house. He would kill us all,” my mother had declared. I hadn’t disagreed. Some of my cousins had married out of caste, not as bad as untouchable, but it was still a punishable offense. They couldn’t step foot in my father’s ancestral village anymore.
I opened the door. He stood there with a box of my favorite Mithai in his hands. He gave me a reassuring smile, and I couldn’t return it no matter how hard I tried. I brought him inside, and the glass screen door creaked behind us, closing slowly. He took off his shoes, walked up the stairs, and entered the living room, meeting eyes with my mother, who was standing wearily on the other side of the coffee table. He offered her the box of sweets, but she did not extend her hands. He placed it gently on the table, next to the miniature waterfall, which had been turned off. Its soothing lull was not in the background today, making the room oddly quiet. I could hear a ringing in my ears that was alleviated only by the steady tick of the clock.
He put his hands together in a traditional greeting, and my mother did not return it. She sat back down, in her usual spot, on the very edge of her seat instead of leaned back, legs crossed Indian style.
“Sit.” she said.
He sat down. This was the first time my mother had not made Chai for a visitor. Otherwise, the smell of cardamom and ginger would permeate the living room when a visitor was expected.
“So, you want to marry my daughter?” she asked.
He nodded. “I know this is sudden to you, and I am very sorry. We thought best not to think about any of this until our education was over, and we were settled in our careers.”
My mother stared at him silently. I looked at him, too. He was dressed in a casual blue T- shirt with jeans. He had a watch on his left wrist and thin-framed glasses perched on his nose.
“What do you?” my mother asked.
“Investment banking,” he said.
My mother looked a little mollified. “ You’re south Indian?” she asked dryly?
“ Your parents are alright with this?” she further prompted.
“ I have talked to my parents, and they are alright with it. As long as your side approves, of course. “
“ You speak Hindi?” she asked.
“Tamil,” he said. “I am proficient.”
“ You’re ok with the difference in caste? Different region? You realize we have different cultures, different traditions, and different beliefs.”
“I believe our values are similar,” he said firmly.
“ You’re an untouchable,” my mother said bluntly.
I clenched my fist. How could she just say that?
“Yes,” he said, “I am.”
“We’re Brahmin,” she said. “How could you even think that something like this would work?”
“ I didn’t,” he said. “I wanted to try.” “Look,” he said firmly. “ I really care about your daughter, and I want to marry her. And I will if I have your and her father’s permission. But this isn’t going anywhere, otherwise. I want to marry into a family where I am accepted. I do not want to just marry her.”
My heart felt cold. I had been dreading the moment that he said this. We had talked countless times before. Fought countless times before. He would marry me if he loved me, I had said, whether or not my parents said yes. But he said been insistent. Those were his values, and he was not willing to budge. I had warned him how low the chances of approval were. So low that six years of such a relationship was insanity.
My mother looked at the waterfall and reached over to turn the switch on. Water came gushing out and landed on the smooth stones in the pot, splashing predictably. The lights at the bottom of the pot flickered, but they were not really visible in the light from the sun streaming through the window. She looked up at him.
“Well, you know, that is not happening,” she said flatly. “ Even if I approve, which I do not, mind you, her father will take his life before letting her marry you.”
That was when the doorbell rang and I heard my father’s voice, screaming to let him in, muffled by the dog’s deep barking. I almost wanted to laugh. We should really be aired on Indian TV. The perfect Indian soap opera, we would be. Enter father, enraged and melodramatic.
That evening after all the drama had died down, I felt empty. I didn’t know what to feel. There had been so much shouting and yelling that I had almost gone hoarse.
“ You will no longer be my daughter if you marry that scoundrel!” “ Get out of the house! Get out of my sight! I will kill you before I let you marry him!” He had dragged me upstairs to my room, something that I last remembered happening in 9th grade, when I had refused to go shopping with my parents. I sat on the floor, facing the back of the door, dazed at the afternoon’s events. On the back of the door hung a painting of Lord Ganesha, the god who helped overcome obstacles. I looked at him, almost in disgust. I was living in the 21st century. I looked outside just to check that there weren’t horse drawn carriages parked outside; no, a Mercedes Benz glinted back at me. I looked at the closet, and a colorful set of salwars, saris, ghagra choli’s looked back out at me. I slowly stood and examined them, remembering the times that they had been bought when I had visited India. I had excitedly picked one after the other off hangers, awed by the embroidery and sparkling threads. Now they hung lifeless. I hadn’t worn them since college. It was that evening when it was decided I would wear them again, which I learned as I eavesdropped through my door.
“We’re ruined,” my father said, and I imagined him with his face cradled in his hands. “What has our daughter done? I knew we shouldn’t have moved here. It was the biggest mistake of my life.”
“ Perhaps we should show her around, you know,” my mother said. “Introduce her to some nice Brahmin boys. Take her mind off of him. She will agree to marry someone else.”
Staring hard at the Ganesh, I thought about that statement. “She will agree to marry someone else.” Just like that. They said it, and it was going to be done. We had started dating my sophomore year of college.
I remember cooking Indian food with him like it was yesterday. It was during a fall break, during my junior year of college, when all his housemates had gone home and we had the kitchen to ourselves.
“ I’m hungry,” I said, splaying out my legs on the coffee table.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“ Hmmm. We could go get Indian food, “ I said after a pause
“ Or we could make it,” he said.
“I don’t know how!”
“We can figure it out,” he said. “I’ve watched my mom plenty of times. We could make paneer, chli chicken, masala fish.”
“We could make custard, “ I added unenthusiastically. “I don’t know how to make it,” I whined.
“It’ll be fun, “ he said.
I sighed. There was no dissuading him in anything once he made up his mind. We went shopping that day and bought all the materials. I remember brooding and not talking as we cooked because at the store he had yelled at me for being uninvolved, unenthusiastic, and pessimistic.
“I don’t understand you!” he said. “You’re so pessimistic! I can’t believe I even suggested this. I should have cooked with Maggi. She spent the summer in India and actually likes cooking.”
I had taken that statement to heart and refused to speak a word to him the rest of the next six hours that we cooked. By that night, the kitchen area was covered in dirty dishes and pots that needn’t have been used if we hadn’t been such amateur cooks. Though I must admit, the use of unnecessary pots had come from me. The smell of the chili chicken wafted through the house with the smells of fresh, buttered chapattis mixed in. The masala scent from the fish was still very strong and the sweet smell of the custard was hidden behind it.
We ate in silence too. The memory made me smile. It was only when we started doing the dishes did we talk again.
“That was fun, I guess,” I said begrudgingly.
He shook his head. “ You’re just so stubborn,” he said, throwing the soap bubbles from the sink at me.
“So are you!” I said. “You still made me cook.”
“ You act like you’re the queen of Sheba! Someone needs to kick you off from that throne.”
How could I just “agree to marry someone else?” It seemed like some sick joke.
That was how I had ended up here, sitting across from Mahesh, the fourth boy I had forced to see in the span of two weeks. My mother was convinced that soon enough I would agree to marrying someone else. Then the thoughts of that nasty untouchable would be pushed out of my mind.
“Wow,” Mahesh said. “ That’s tough. Your ex just said no? Does he really even love you?”
I flinched at the word ex. We had not officially ended it. Neither of us knew how to end something that had become a part of our daily lives.
I shrugged. “ Who knows? Our parents love us, too, don’t they?” I looked out the window. The sun had set as we had been talking. There was a small knock on the door.
“Come in,” Mahesh said.
The maid came in with a tray, bearing two cups of coffee. Mahesh took it and dismissed her.
“ I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “We tend to drink coffee. No chai, much too difficult to make.”
I took the warm cup in my hands and took a long sip and looked out the window, at the setting sun. The day was almost over. Another parade almost over. I turned over the Taj Mahal in my palm. I had accidently brought upstairs. I glanced at Mahesh who was adding Splenda and cream to his own coffee. At least I didn’t have to marry this buffoon.