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How was a mother to know that? What device was there for her to assess a stranger? What if, as Yamuna said, he turned out to be a tormentor?
‘This is the last time we are asking you for this favour,’ Yamuna’s mother says to her, bringing her palms together pleadingly. ‘After this, you are free to live the way you please.’
‘Yes but be considerate. Polite.’
‘I can’t guarantee. It depends on how they are,’ Yamuna says tossing the saree her mother had brought to her. ‘No, not this. A salwar kameez will do.’
Yamuna’s casual manner raises the level of her mother’s anxiety as she prepares for another episode of farce. She sees signs of impending doom, but she is willing to take a chance one last time.
‘Wear a saree, Yamuna. For my sake,’ her mother says picking up the saree.
Yamuna stares at the royal blue silk for a few seconds and nods firmly. ‘Okay, for your sake. But not this. I will choose one myself from your collection.’
Her mother takes a breath of relief as her daughter darts out of the room. She returns in two minutes with a black Mysore silk.
‘Black? For an auspicious occasion?’ Alarm shadows her mother’s face.
Yamuna throws her a glare that shoots her mother’s dismay down like a missile downs an enemy rocket. It means, ‘it’s either this or a salwar kameez.’
Her mother crumbles under the glare, surrenders, and leaves. All she wants is to get done with this one last meeting. She rues the moment she agreed to it in a sudden, uncalled for rush of adrenalin. But such was the proposal that her sister had brought. A boy working abroad, good-looking in the photograph, horoscopes matched thrice to the smallest detail and what’s more, no sister-in-law who would peep over her daughter’s life every now and then. She knows the burden of taunts and spiteful talks that sisters-in-law are capable of making.
‘One last attempt, and if this fails, God save my family’, she tells herself as she scoots to the kitchen to scoop the samosas from the wok.
The air is heavy with the smell of smoke from the frying. It makes a lame attempt to mask the tension in the house. Yamuna’s father is waiting for the phone call. He must fetch the boy and his mother from the station, who were travelling from another city.
Her mother has already burnt one round of samosas with her anxiety. Cajoling her daughter to agree to a proposal is her current mission in life. All else is secondary.
Yamuna’s sister, younger by five years, knows that her nuptial fate hangs on this meeting Yamuna has with yet another ‘boy’.
She has been itching to get married herself, to anyone who would allow her to spend her life baking and eating cake, but her parents have so far been reluctant to consider her case before Yamuna is hitched. If Yamuna sabotages the proposal yet again, she will go ahead and get married to the next cake-loving bloke in town she can find. She is determined.
‘Ma, if Yamuna says no again, will you ask them to consider me?’ she asks, nonchalantly pinching a samosa and blowing onto it.
‘Have some shame,’ her mother says, and leaving the younger one to watch over the samosas, walks up to Yamuna’s room to check on her.
‘Ma, what does this guy do?’ Yamuna asks pinning the saree to her blouse at her shoulder.
Her mother rolls her eyes. Hadn’t her father briefed her enough? ‘He is abroad. Somewhere in the middle east.’
‘Ah, so you are trying to pack me off to a foreign country? Not happening. Not happening. I am not going an inch away from India. He can come and see you. Not me,’ She begins to yank the saree pleats off her waist when her mother drags her to the bed and sits her there.
Yamuna continues to shake her head as if to reiterate what she has said. Not happening. Not happening.
They hear the phone ring and the father speak reverently. ‘Oh, I see.’ Then after a pause he says, ‘Yes, of course. I will be there.’
Her mother scurries out of the room. She suddenly remembers the samosas as a singed smell begins to emanate. She runs to the kitchen to find no trace of her younger one there.
‘Lalli, where did you go leaving the stove?’ she hollers. There is no reply. Turning the samosas over, she then asks, tweaking her tone. ‘Who called? What’s it?’
‘They have by mistake got down at the previous station. I must go there to fetch them now,’ her husband says, picking his car keys.
‘Which means an hour to go and an hour to come?’ she asks as she turns the stove off. There was no hurry to fry the samosas. For a moment she regrets agreeing to this drama at her sister’s insistence. She looks at her husband, vexed.
He nods as if to say it was all right, he would go.
Yamuna hears her father drive out of the garage and feels sorry. She is angered by the thought that she must wait for two hours to dismiss yet another clown. When will her parents accept the fact that marriage wasn’t her cup of tea?
After this final act of farce, perhaps. She would make a categorical announcement to them. That she wants to remain single, lead a life on her terms, work wherever she likes, spend on things she chooses, and define happiness in her own way.
Why, they would insist to know.
Petrified, she would confess. She is petrified of getting married. How credible would that sound?
A thirty-year old girl, all right woman, saying she is paranoid about relationships. That the messy, toxic marriages she has seen around her has made her resolve that she alone is good enough for her. That she does not trust any man to keep her safe and happy. Why any man, she does not trust herself to stay in love with anyone forever!
The very thought of marriage alarms her, and she feels compelled to spill her heart to her someone. Perhaps her sister. She finds her buried in a book in the balcony. A half-bitten samosa is languishing in a plate. Yamuna gives her a closer look and envies her relaxed state. All her joy came from eating. She has no ambitions except to eat, sleep and one day, get married.
Yamuna hesitates for a few seconds and then calls her attention.
Her sister jerks her head, ‘What?’ Yamuna shrugs. ‘This is madness.’
‘This whole marriage thing.’
Her sister doesn’t respond. She has a different opinion of it.
‘But for ma’s blackmail, I would not have agreed to this drama today.’
Her sister nods thoughtfully, and extends the plate to Yamuna. ‘Have this. The samosas that ma makes when boys come to see you are the best part of it all.’ She giggles. ‘Why don’t you tell the guy directly when he comes that you are not interested?’ she suggests, biting into the snack.
Yamuna doesn’t think her sister fully comprehends her plight. She leaves without trying to make her understand.
Just then the phone rings again. Yamuna takes the call expecting it to be her father. It is the boy’s mother. She cups the mouthpiece and considers if she has an opportunity to sabotage the proceedings here. Before she could devise a plan in her choppy head, her mother makes an entry.
Yamuna thrusts the phone into her mother’s hand. Her mouth feels bitter as panic grips her. Her mother’s courteous manner to the other lady irritates her.
As her breath gathers momentum, her mother plonks herself into the sofa, with what seems like a blend of frustration and helplessness.
‘You know what? The boy and his mother have taken another local train and reached our station. And daddy must be looking for them in the other place,’ she says, thumping her forehead.
Yamuna turns her head away and lets out a secret snigger.
‘Now what?’ her sister asks.
‘How will daddy know then? He will be waiting there,’ Yamuna says, suddenly alerted to the gravity of the situation.
‘I hope he calls,’ her mother says, looking deeply troubled.
‘What did she say?’ Yamuna asked, motioning towards the phone.
‘She is waiting for one of us to go and get them.’ And in the same breath she says, ‘Get ready. You and Lalli will go to the station.’
‘What?’ Yamuna shrieks. She finds it difficult to believe that her mother just said that she would go to receive the boy and his mother.
‘But why did they leave that station and come here when they know daddy is going there?’ her sister asks.
No one has an answer.
‘Get a rickshaw and go quickly,’ their mother instructs. She is on the verge of tears. She puts her hand on the receiver of the phone, waiting for the father to call. And then the phone rings.
She briefs him about the confusion with a flurry of words. She then pauses midway, and calming down visibly, listens.
‘Yes. Yes. Okay. I will ask them to go right away,’ she says, looking relieved. ‘Daddy is coming back. He wants you two to go to the station and bring them home.’
Yamuna cups her mouth in disbelief. Her sister is visibly tickled. ‘Your drama is turning into a Bollywood script,’ she says to Yamuna, grinning.
Their mother calls for an auto-rickshaw and before Yamuna could realize it, she is bundled into the rickety vehicle.
A week has passed since the girl-seeing chaos took place. There is an uneasy calm in the house.
There has been neither a yes nor a no from either side, which as per her father was a good sign. Yamuna wasn’t as defiant as she used to be earlier. She might, she just might end up agreeing. He sees a change in her, he says.
‘I don’t see any,’ her mother retorts.
Her husband senses her tension and suggests that she speak to her daughter to know what she thinks.
His wife is reluctant. She has promised Yamuna she would not broach the subject ever again. But something in her husband’s words offers her hope. It is a parent’s gut feeling. What if he was right?
‘Does it matter what I think? Has it ever mattered what the girl thinks?’ Yamuna quips when her mother casually asks her about it. Her words are as caustic as ever.
‘All right,’ her mother says. ‘I give up. I am glad they haven’t come back yet. I will be happy if they don’t. It will save us from giving lame excuses and making a fool of ourselves.’
‘Ma, I didn’t mean to be rude.’ Yamuna puts her hand on her mother’s shoulder placatingly, and tilts her head.
She then speaks to her mother about her fears. Divorces. Dowry deaths. Domestic abuse. She has seen it all in her vicinity. Among her friends and acquaintances. The last thing she wants is to consign her life to that kind of persecution.
‘It doesn’t happen to everyone, Yamuna. Look, what a kind man your father is! Have you ever seen him behave that way?’
‘Then find me a man like daddy. Exactly like him,’ Yamuna says as if to challenge her mother.
How was a mother to know that? What device was there for her to assess a stranger? What if, as Yamuna said, he turned out to be a tormentor? Where on earth would she go to find her daughter a man like her daddy?
‘Ma,’ Yamuna says leaning close to her. ‘It’s okay. Don’t hassle yourself over it. I am happy this way.’
Yamuna smiles reassuringly. Her mother nods feebly, suppresses a sniffle and strokes Yamuna’s head.
Two days later, the commotion returns to the house.
Her father announces at the dinner table that the boy’s mother has written to say that they wish to see Yamuna once again. This time, at their place.
‘A second time?’ her sister squeals. She quickly observes that they had chosen to write a letter and not call. The Bollywood plot, in her view, was thickening.
‘But why?’ the mother has her hope rekindled but it is soon snuffed out by the realization that Yamuna has made up her mind. It also occurs to her that the second meeting might be to put forth demands, which under no circumstances Yamuna would agree with, even if they themselves do.
‘Give them some excuse. Something polite. We will not force her into it,’ her mother says resignedly.
Yamuna reads the plea in her mother’s eyes and looks away. She hears an odd knock at her heart and feels distaste on her palate. She walks to the washbasin slowly, spends a few minutes washing her hands, and comes back to the table.
‘I am ready to see them.’
Her mother’s eyes light up, and her breath quickens. She quickly downs a glass of water to ease her churning stomach. She lays her hand on her husband’s lap under the table, and he squeezes it gently.
‘Now this should be called boy-seeing, daddy? I am impressed,’ her sister quips.
Boy-seeing, indeed. A quick, satisfying smile appears on Yamuna’s face. She loves the fact that the tables were turning.
Yamuna and her father reach the boy’s home on time. As they get off the taxi, Yamuna steals a glance at her father. There is no trace of anxiety anywhere in his face; he looks as if he is ready to accept whatever happens later in the day. Such calmness and certitude is what she means when she says, ‘get me a man like daddy.’
She knows, as she walks behind him, that she was asking for too much. No one can ever get her a man like daddy. It is for this man of placid manners and the woman back home whose chief occupation was to worry about her children, that she had agreed yet again.
And then there is something heady about the idea of ‘boy-seeing’. It was as if, now the privilege of asking difficult questions and rejecting the proposal in the end lay with the girl. It means a universal correction of course, in a sense.
Hours pass by in the company of the boy and his family. The atmosphere slowly changes to one of informality. Yamuna is asked to join the women in the kitchen to help them with the lunch.
Slowly, but imperceptibly, she feels as if she is being drawn into the vortex of something unexpected. The resistance she feels in her cells makes her uneasy. How was she going to end it all without making her father cut a sorry figure?
‘Here, chop the onions,’ someone thrusts a knife into her hand as she stands working out her next moves.
As the onions make her teary-eyed and she sniffles, she sees the knife whisked away from her hand. She feels disoriented as the blur in her head and eyes spread.
‘You go, sit with your father,’ she hears someone say, and she sashays out of the room. On her way to her seat, she catches the boy’s eye through the corner of her eye. He seems uninterested in looking at her, and is busy discussing politics with the other men. Her father is an active participant.
Suddenly, the boy’s brother suggests that Yamuna have a private talk with the boy. And then they can talk about other things, he adds.
Other things. The conditions. The demands. The questions. The lists. The Dos. The Don’ts. Her entire life in a charter of rules drafted by people she barely knows.
This is the moment that she was waiting for. It was an opportunity that she was denied when they met the first time, thanks to the confusion. They came, they saw, ate samosas and left.
‘Go for a walk. You don’t want to be disturbed by our loud talk,’ his brother suggests amidst some harmless teasing by the father.
Yamuna is embarrassed. She looks at her father, who nods approvingly.
She keeps her questions ready. The same questions that made boys before this decide that she wouldn’t make ‘good wifely stuff’ and made them beat a quick retreat.
They begin their stroll with a prolonged silence. It is a hot Sunday and there are few people on the road. The sun beats down on the street and it makes looking at the road beyond a point difficult. They squint and cross to the other side of the road and walk under the trees, their bodies spangled by sun-shine falling through the trees.
‘You go first. What do you want to know?’ the boy finally says.
It takes some effort for Yamuna to look at him straight. When she does, she notices that his eyes were the colour of smooth honey. She had never seen brown eyes ever before.
‘No. You first.’
She is surprised that her voice isn’t as curt as it normally would be on such occasions.
‘Can you make roti-sabji?’ the boy asks with an equanimity that surprises her.
Before she can interpret his question as chauvinistic, he continues, ‘I am asking because you will be used to South Indian cooking. I was brought up in the North and I eat roti-sabji. Do you cook roti-sabji?’
‘Yes,’ Yamuna says, instantly regretting having said it. It meant a consent of sorts.
‘That’s all I want to know. The rest is all up to you to decide. It’s your life.’
Yamuna takes a few moments to gather the true import of his words.
‘I don’t get you…’
‘If you decide to marry me, you will still have the freedom to live the way you like, doing things you choose to do,’ he says, with the composure that she has seen only in her father.
She gives him another look to make sure she has heard him right.
‘Is that all you want to say?’ she asks.
‘Yes. Now your turn.’
She rakes through her head for the questions she had listed up, but not one emerges. She finds herself at a loss for words. Finally, she says, ‘I don’t know what to ask.’
‘Shall we go back then?’
She nods, dazed by the way the Bollywood script was going. On their way, he casually asks what kind of music she likes.
‘Kishore or Rafi?’
‘I love music and cricket. Do you like cricket?’
‘We have the same tastes then. You know, I had always wanted to be a cricketer…’
Yamuna doesn’t hear the rest of what he says. Her feet glide down the street to the boy’s home.
She finds it amusing to call a man in his mid-thirties a boy. She wonders if the ‘boy’ could be her ‘daddy’ too. Before crossing the gate and entering the house, the boy-daddy pauses for a minute, extends his hand, and says, ‘Good luck to us.’
‘Thank you,’ says Yamuna taking his hand for a fleeting second and then letting it go.
The boy-daddy holds her gaze for a moment and nods. He opens the door and ushers her in.
‘Welcome to our family,’ he says.
Yamuna walks in feeling awkward. No one asks either of them anything. It is as if they all know how the boy-seeing would end.
Author’s note: The above narrative is based on true incidents that happened way back in the 90’s. Twenty three years later, Yamuna is happy she took the leap of faith that day.
Not a word was spoken about what would be taken or given for the alliance. No one asked what was expected. In a world where stories of dowry and domestic abuse abound, this one is a redeemer. For every tragic story we hear, remember, there are ten happy stories on the other side. And I am certain we will find millions of them out there if only we pause and look.
First published here.
Image source: Indian bride with a mangalsutra by Shutterstock.
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Asha Iyer Kumar is an author, life-writing coach, active blogger, and youth motivational speaker
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