Raj and his parents looked at each other incredulously. They didn’t know what to think of Naina. Every few minutes she would excuse herself and go behind the curtain. Having lived in a small flat like this one all his life, Raj could guess that the curtain shielded a narrow hallway which probably led to a bedroom on one side, bathrooms on the other and a small kitchen at the back. They could clearly hear the girl blowing her nose in the sink. From the amount of noise she made, they could deduce safely that the sink was just outside the bathroom, a few feet away from the curtain.
She came back in the hallway again, wiping her hands on her duppatta. Her nose was a beetroot red but she didn’t seem to care. “She is so nonchalant,” Raj thought. “Doesn’t she care who we are? Aai (mother) is certainly not going to be happy,” he thought with dismay.
The nose blowing girl could feel the disapproving glare of the boy’s mother sitting across from her. Naina had to pinch herself hard to stop from laughing out loud. She couldn’t get the image of the woman, all prim and proper in her starched sari, with a band aid on her nose, out of her mind. She knew she had been making excessively loud noises blowing her nose but she didn’t care. The unwritten rules of the matchmaking ritual demanded that she be presented as a docile, homely and sweet natured girl. Ever the rebel, Naina was determined to break every rule. Blowing her nose loudly was a minor infraction in her long list of penalties.
Two years ago, since she had been deemed of marriageable age by her parents, Naina had refused to carry the mandatory tray laden with tea and biscuits or to wear a sari and strings of necklaces to impress the visiting “dignitaries”.
In India, the ubiquitous tea and biscuits are almost always offered to guests.
Her defiance had increased when she found a job working for a major newspaper in Bombay. She was staying with her cousin sister, Priti tai, at the time and was falling in love with the fast pace of the city. Her new job and the financial independence were too exciting and tempting to give up for a life of matrimony. Every time she went through one of the “viewing” sessions, her resolve to resist grew stronger, her violations more severe.
There was that time when she had to visit with Priti tai one of the boy’s home, an hour’s train ride away. Tai’s two kids, aged 4 and 1, had also tagged along. On reaching the destination, the boy, Naresh, turned out to be missing in action. “He had to go to work all of a sudden,” his father had said casually.
“They couldn’t tell us that before we started for their home?” Naina had ranted later. She was beyond furious. Travelling two hours on Mumbai’s crowded local trains with two young kids was not her idea of fun.
“It wasn’t enough that they refused to send a photo of their son, they had to call us over all the way so they could see how I looked and behaved in person.”
She had always hated it when the boy was thrust up casually in the scene but his family demanded not only her photo but would also call up to find out her complexion, height, weight. One family even had the temerity to ask if she wore glasses. “We don’t want a girl who wears glasses. My son doesn’t even want to meet the girl if she wears contact lenses,” a woman wearing bifocals had once told her mother proudly.
Naresh’s family had turned out to be distant relatives of Priti’s mom and so the little detail of inconvenience was ignored. Naina had sat listening as her cousin sister and the boy’s father traced back relatives and brought up old acquaintances and caught up on the missing family links.
Before leaving, Priti had asked for a photo of Naresh. “Suresh, come here,” the father called someone from inside. A thin, bespectacled young man came out and stood smiling nervously around. “Naresh looks exactly like him, just a little older,” the father explained. “But don’t worry; we will arrange a meeting with him shortly so he can meet your niece.”
“He can meet your niece! What about asking if the niece wants to meet their son?” Naina had ranted afterwards.
“Now Naina, I know what they did wasn’t very nice, but since we know them, it is the right etiquette to meet the boy. We will do it at your cousin’s place so you can be comfortable. And if you don’t like him, you can always say no,” her cousin had tried to placate her.
On a Saturday, a few weeks later, Naresh came down to meet Naina at her cousin’s home. She had disliked him from the get go. Looking exactly like his younger brother (“at least the father was honest about that,” she had thought), he prattled on about his plans to settle in a village someday and take up farming; on how he didn’t like his colleagues socializing after office hours.
“I don’t approve of unmarried young men and women going to movies and restaurants together. It is not our culture,” he was saying as Naina was thinking about the upcoming picnic she was planning to attend with her colleagues.
He went on and on, espousing his philosophy on what constituted as appropriate behavior for young men and women in the workplace.
“Would you like to come with me to my workplace for a little while?” he asked looking at his watch.
Naina was startled out of her reverie. She had been thinking about the pav bhaji her cousin’s cook was going to make for dinner; tomatoes and potatoes, sweet peas and mushy green bell peppers, a hint of cauliflower, simmering with spices, sparkles of finely chopped onions and garnished with finely chopped fragrant cilantro and a slice of lemon.
“Well, would you? I have some papers to sign with HR and then I will drop you back. It will take an hour and a half,” he was saying.
“An hour and a half more of this?,” Naina thought. “Let me go ask my cousin,” she said.
“Tai, I don’t want to go. Lets tell him we have plans,” she had implored her cousin.
“Just go with him and we will tell his family later about our rejection,” Tai had said with a smile and Naina went reluctantly to fetch her purse.
Photo courtesy: Sunshinemom
As the two of them approached the bus stand, her footsteps had started dragging. At the bus stop she had the strong urge to turn around and start running. But she stayed where she was and didn’t move when the bus stopped in front of them. She watched as Naresh climbed the steps with the rest of the passengers. She saw him looking for an empty seat and then turning around to look for her. She didn’t move when the conductor rang the bell for the bus to start. As the bus began to move she saw Naresh zeroing in on her, a look of disbelief on his face as she started waving at him from the shade of the bus stop.
To be continued…
My version of Pav Bhaji is here.
Besides my regular link to Sra's Soup that came alive, here's a link to the talented and creative Sunshinemom who took time out of her busy schedule to take the above click of a Bombay bus stop just for this story. Thank you Harini. She not only has scrumptious vegan and vegetarian recipes on her blog but her delicious, because that is what they are, clicks will make you drool and almost lick your computer screen. So head on over and check out her blog.
Note: Arranged marriage is a long standing, ancient institution of Indian culture. It has changed a lot over the years, from girls and boys betrothed at a tender age to the high tech world of matrimonial sites. Contrary to the popular belief, the grown up girls and boys are not forced into arranged marriages. Instead the families arrange for them to meet, often in a casual setting, at home or a restaurant, where they can chat and get to know a little bit about each other. Both sides are free to reject the other, though even now, the rejections from the girl’s side are few. In a society where dating is not very common amongst the classes, arranged matches offer a chance for people to meet from the same socio-economic backgrounds, making transition to a life of matrimony easier. There are exceptions to every rule. Arranged marriage is no different. Sometimes, even after all considerations, arranged marriages fail. On the other hand, a love story not failing ever is no sure guarantee either.