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Add A Fire And Priest

Posted: May 1, 2012

“…It’s probably fair to say that most Indian women have their first sexual experience with a complete stranger. If that were happening post a visit to a bar and a few drinks — horrors. Subtract the bar and add a fire and priest — all well and good…”

I have pinched the above lines from the Wall Street Journal- India Real Time blog of November 6, 2011. These are stark – shocking to some – lines which describe a marriage where the woman getting married has no say. I am one who is completely against arranged marriages of any sort, but that’s not why I am here. I am here because similar thoughts had come to me about someone years ago.

Nearly three decades ago I was friendly with a girl whom I shall call Meera. She was vivacious, intelligent, expressive and had an opinion about everything. She had a dream of becoming a successful businesswoman, and was full of ideas how to go about it. We would spend a lot of time discussing her business plans.

One winter evening we were at a local club where we would meet off and on, and talking about nothing in particular, when out of the blue the following conversation took place:

Meera: By the way, I am getting married.

Me (startled): But we met just a fortnight ago…you didn’t tell me anything.

Meera: It happened all of a sudden, I got engaged last week.

Me (almost speechless): Oh, who is the guy?

Meera: Some doctor from so and so place…name is XYZ…I hardly know him…We are getting married on the 2nd of next month.

Me: What’s the hurry, Meera? It’s all so sudden, isn’t it?

Meera: My grandmother says she’s old…wants to see me married before she leaves the world, and then suddenly this offer came…

Me (agitated): That’s why you are marrying? You have no say in this?

Meera: Sunil, I don’t want to marry…but that’s how it is.

Me: You met this guy?

Meera: Oh yes, first when he came to see me, then during the engagement and then once we were allowed to go out for lunch.

Me: But Meera, you are marrying in another few days. Will you meet him again before that?

Meera: I don’t think so…everything is being arranged by the elders.

Me: Meera, what about that guy you have been so much in love with?

Meera (extremely upset): Sunil, I knew all along my parents wouldn’t have agreed to my marrying him…I can’t even let him know…

She married, of course, and went away. I wondered on the night of her wedding that after all the pot bellied guests had been fed, the fire lit, the priest’s chants over, she would be violated (I use the word ‘violated’ deliberately- she was not ready for this) by a man she hardly knew- she had told me just days back that he was “some doctor from so and so place…name is XYZ…I hardly know him…Sunil, I don’t want to marry…”

We lost touch for many years till we literally bumped into each other. We had a long talk over many cups of tea- she seemed okay, a mother of two- a daughter and a son.

Let me try and quote parts of the conversation:

Me: How have things been all these years?

Meera: Oh, fine, Sunil. He’s a great guy, my children are studying…doing well…

Me: Did you finally manage to start that business you always dreamt about?

Meera (suddenly teary eyed): No, I couldn’t. He’s really nice I told you, and I thought he would agree…I hoped he would agree…

Me: And?

Meera: He didn’t agree. I begged, I cajoled, but he always says ‘why do you need to work?’

Me: You’re happy otherwise, Meera?

Meera: I guess I am…I could have done a lot with my life…but that’s ok I guess…

I sat there staring at her and remembering the Meera I had known years ago. The spark in her was missing.

She telephoned me a month back, telling me her daughter (an investment banker) was getting married. We met.

Me: Congratulations. Who’s the guy?

Meera: Someone she has known for sometime…they studied together, they like each other…he’s a businessman…my husband agreed to it reluctantly…luckily the boy is the same caste…this caste stuff really matters among my in-laws…

Me: And you?

Meera: Oh, I’m absolutely ok with anything my daughter chooses…

Me: But?

Meera: Doesn’t really matter…my in-laws had to agree…

Me: Inviting me to the wedding, aren’t you?

Meera (silent for a while): Actually Sunil, I want to, but my husband…he might not like it.

Me: Meera, we are childhood friends, close ones at that…what’s wrong with that?

Meera (cutting me off): Please Sunil; let’s not make it worse than it already is…he is the jealous kind…I wish you could be there, I want you to be there, but…

I let it go at that. Her daughter married a week ago. I went to the wedding, but stood outside among the drivers and hangers-on, and came away. This was the only way I could pay tribute to a friend who could have been a successful entrepreneur in her own right; and who could have invited me to her daughter’s wedding.

*Photo credit: dweekly (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License)

I am a former bureaucrat, and have worked a lot on gender issues, disaster management

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