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However, the onus of the final decision rested with the two matriarchs—Mihir’s Bua Ji and her grandmother. If they agreed, then the rest of the kin had no alternative but to fall in line.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Supriya Bansal is one of the winners for the July 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Jane De Suza commented, “A deep-dive, this one. The writer goes into depth, creating a world in a single scene, from ‘the chandelier of Gulmohar’ to the viewing by potential inlaws which is described as ‘being sieved and sifted by strangers’ – this is the power to use words to paint pictures.”
Vishakha stood on the balcony, her gaze directed towards the teal sky. She drew a deep breath — inhaling in the calm of the morning to hush her inner turmoil.
There was no need to worry, she told herself. It was just a formality. She adjusted the pleats of her fuchsia sari and rearranged her Pallu, as she had done a million times before. Why was she so anxious? Mihir was not a stranger. Not only were they going steady for the last four years, but also, she had met his mother many times before.
The jitters were perhaps inevitable, she surmised, given that they were meeting the extended clan for the first time. Though the parents had consented to their match, a nod of approval from the extended kith and kin—especially the elders—was mandatory for the wedlock.
“You’ve had it easy so far, but measuring up to my grandmother’s expectation would be your first real acid test,” she had teased Mihir. He had dropped her at her parents’ house last night. Like many times before, they had taken the flight to their hometown together from Bengaluru, their engineering college.
“Don’t think it will be a cakewalk for you. My Bua Ji can make mincemeat of people she doesn’t like,” Mihir had retorted playfully. “Though on a serious note, Bua Ji is a tough nut to crack. Papa would rather die than go against his elder sister’s word. She’s fixated on the idea that my love marriage would make it harder for Veena’s marriage. I hope she likes you enough to not crimp our plans.” Veena was Mihir’s younger sister.
“Why will she not like me? I am a tall, charming, convent educated girl with a light complexion.” Fanning her face with one hand, she had recited a matrimonial advertisement from the newspaper. “Didn’t your Pandit Ji match some thirty-two or so *gunas in our horoscope? You, dear sir, have found a dream match in me.” Stifling a laugh, she had given him a sidelong glance.
Now, perched on the first-floor veranda with her eyes affixed to the wrought-iron gate, waiting for Mihir’s family to arrive, she wasn’t too sure.
She had grown up expecting to marry someone selected by her family—a suitable man within their circle. It was what her sister, her cousins and even the daughters of her father’s friends did. It was the norm. Having a boyfriend was out of the question. Leave aside being able to marry one.
“You’ve been lucky so far. Don’t push your luck,” Vishakha’s mother had reminded her when she had protested against the congregation of relatives to decide on the matters of her marriage. Her mother hinted towards her privilege of studying in an out-of-town college and a possible chance of a love marriage. Or as her Chachi had summed up—love cum arranged marriage.
Going abroad or even to another town for studies was a birthright reserved for the family’s boys. She had become an exception to the rule by a stroke of good fortune. After securing a good rank in the Engineering Entrance examination, she was offered the course of her choice on the Bengaluru campus. Her parents had taken a chance on her.
However, all hell had broken loose when she had professed her desire to marry Mihir four years later. It didn’t help that Mihir ticked every box of her folks’ expectations—complimenting their wealth, status, class and religion. Her close-knit, conservative family had collectively blown a fuse at the premise of a girl from the family choosing her own groom. The near and dear ones had talked twenty to a dozen.
“This happens when you let your daughters get out of hand.”
“There was no need for her to study in another city. It was a disaster waiting to happen.”
“What precedent are we setting for our girls if we consent to this match? This is a license to have boyfriends.”
Things weren’t too different in Mihir’s household.
The young couple had been left with no option but to agree to a traditional girl-meets-boy get-together to pacify the relatives. The reasoning, as usual, was something on the lines of — a marriage alliance being the union of two families and not only two people. Her paternal uncle had also highlighted an oft-repeated mantra for her benefit. The readiness to cooperate with the extended kin on decisions like career, mate selection, and marriage apparently mirrored the strength of a brood.
The chandeliers of bright red Gulmohar swayed with the breath of wind, splattering showers of blooms on the procession of cars that stopped outside her house. “Yeah, let’s get cracking with the grand Indian welcome of the boy’s side. All that is remaining now is the vermillion on the forehead, aarti and a garland.” She muttered, flouncing inside.
“Dadi is warming up to Mihir’s charms. Most likely, she’ll give you the green light,” her sister pranced in her room after a short period. Vishakha sighed. Mihir had kept his side of the bargain. Now it was her turn to tread the boards.
Tucking the stray hair behind her ears, she retouched her eyes with charcoal-colored liner.
She was fifteen when she had watched her nineteen-year-old sister marry a man she barely knew. The cattle parade for the benefit of the groom’s side, the ubiquitous chai ceremony, and the detailed scrutiny of the physical features; her sister had done it all. Prospective mothers-in-laws had nitpicked her sister’s personality — magnifying and pulling apart her flaws — chipping at her confidence.
How naïve was she to think she could escape it?
The onerous task of making her choice and telling her family about Mihir wasn’t enough. She had to jump through many more hoops. Her stomach knotted at the thought of being sieved and sifted by strangers.
“Didi come. They are calling you,” her cousin peeped.
Ah, the moment of reckoning! She groaned, and with a pounding heart, ambled out.
The dining table was crammed full of North-Indian delicacies. A potpourri of smells — the spicy aroma of kachoris and the sweet notes of Gulab Jamuns tickled her nostrils. She walked to the womenfolk, threading her way through a maze of little children darting back and forth, pulling down the flowers and décor.
Scores of eyes scanned her face, scrutinizing her. As suggested by one of her aunts, she channeled her inner doe—keeping her eyes glued to the ground, her shoulders slouched, and her hands pinned in her lap.
“She has topped the college this semester. Both the children have secured excellent offers from on-campus recruitment,” Mihir’s mother said.
Vishakha’s eyes twinkled. She could do it, she thought to herself; Mihir’s mother was on her side. The next question, however, made her realize she couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Beta Ji, we know all about your academic achievements. Let’s discuss the expertise one really needs to run a household. Tell me something about your cooking skills.” Bua Ji angled her chair towards her.
“I can manage my way around,” Vishakha mumbled.
“So, Beta Ji, let’s discuss a situation. Say, for example, you’re alone, and a few guests arrive at your home. You open the refrigerator. But you find that you only have a handful of tomatoes and onions at your disposal. My question to you, Beta Ji, is what dish would you serve your guests?”
Wh-what? Bua Ji’s remark threw off Vishakha. Her mind went blank. Was it for real? She hadn’t prepared well enough for this line of assessment.
Her thoughts darted off in all directions, at the speed of light, raking through all the possibilities. But nothing came up. How she wished she could google.
The rest of the ladies had stopped their banter and fastened their eyes on her. Minutes crawled at a snail’s pace. Tears pricked Vishakha’s eyes, and her lips trembled. Six months of cajoling and convincing were going down the drain.
A hand rested on her shoulder, and she turned to find her sister standing behind her.
“Bua Ji, households like ours never face such a shortfall. Aren’t we always overflowing with provisions?” her mother countered. Treading the fine rope that would appease Bua Ji, her mother was trying to defend Vishakha.
“Here comes the tea. You must try the samosas, Behen Ji,” her Chachi chimed in, attempting to divert the conversation.
The trick question had begun to seep in, however. It had become a trick situation. The longer she sat feeling sorry for herself, the less sorry she felt. It’s called a reverse something or the other. There isn’t time to get into that now.
She looked up. The Matriarch’s eyes drilled into her; a stony smile lit her face.
Tomatoes and onions? Huh? What an appropriate yardstick to measure her eligibility and compatibility! Why not fluid mechanics? Robotics and motion? Weren’t the subjects of her last semester equally important?
She balled her fists, lifted her chin, and straightened her back. Tomatoes and onions? She could think of a few things she could do with them. Foremost in the list was to pelt Mihir with the said tomatoes and onions for subjecting her to this humiliation.
Vishakha swallowed hard.
She couldn’t do this façade anymore. She was done.
Just when she was about to divulge her La Tomatina, the Spanish tomato festival, inspired plans to Bua Ji; she heard her grandmother stepping in.
“Behen Ji, what a lovely question.” her grandmother addressed Bua Ji. “Just the other day, I heard someone on TV saying that cooking, cleaning, dusting and ironing are no more wife’s skills but life skills—a must-know for any adult. Mihir Beta is older and more experienced in the ways of the world than our Vishakha. He is her senior in college and has grown up under your capable guidance. I am sure he can come up with a splendid answer. Let me call him; he can enlighten us all.” With this, her grandmother gestured towards Mihir.
Vishakha gawped at her grandmother, her mouth agape.
For a moment, the two grey-haired ladies held each other’s stare. Chin up, glaring, challenging—throwing daggers at one another. It was plain for everyone to see that battle lines had been drawn and the rivals had taken their position.
“Dadi Ji, did you call me,” Mihir’s voice cut through the strained air. “Is anything the matter, Bua Ji,”
This amused her grandmother, for a smile returned on her face, and her eyes sparkled.
Minutes trickled in.
After a while, Bua Ji’s face relaxed, and the hard lines around her jaw yielded. She exchanged a taut lip smile with her grandmother and nodded first to Mihir and then to his mother.
Ah! Bua Ji was not going to risk Mihir answering the trick question. It was only meant for her, Vishakha reflected.
“Nothing beta, Bua Ji just wanted to tell you how much we love Vishakha,” Mihir’s mother filled in for Bua Ji.
Mihir’s eyes widened, and he turned to Vishakha; a radiant smile erased the creases between his brows.
Later, when Mihir and Vishakha stood together for a photograph, her sister whispered, “You two are the perfect combo—just like tomato and onion—equal in all aspects. Never let the other ingredients dull your shine.”
Vishakha tilted her head downwards, hiding a smile that reached her eyes. Her grandmother had handed her the perfect recipe for her future married life.
*Gunas- For approving a Hindu marriage, there must be not less than 18 Guna matches between the bride and the groom’s horoscopes. A best match ensues when 26 to 32 Gunas match.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Jane De Suza, whose books combine humour with thought-provoking insights, which have got them onto award lists and Amazon’s and Nielsen’s bestseller charts. Flyaway Boy (shortlisted for The Times AutHer Awards, PeekaBook and Neev Lit fest awards) and When the World went Dark bring hope to issues like death, grief and stereotyping. The Spy who Lost her Head and Happily Never After are of special interest to women, and the SuperZero series and Uncool for children. The Midnight Years, out soon, takes on young adult mental health.
The cue is from her latest book When the World Went Dark.
“The trick question had begun to seep in, however. It had become a trick situation. The longer she sat feeling sorry for herself, the less sorry she felt. It’s called a reverse something or the other. There isn’t time to get into that now.“
Image source: a still from the Hindi film 2 States
A Radiologist by profession, Supriya Bansal, spends most of her day inhabiting a monochromatic world consisting of different shades of grey ranging from black to white.
She is an active member of many online writing read more...
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(SPOILERS AHEAD. Please read after you watch the movie if you are planning to)
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