I’m on an overnight train from Indore to Ahmedabad with Ma to meet with a prospective suitor. We sit in the general compartment, in the dark, until the generator can kick in and we can move to our reserved compartment three stations down. This trip was not planned like some of the others, with Ma doing months of research and planning to set up a meet with a potential match and his family.
I am not taken with the suitor’s photo—mustache, big glasses, and he looks forty, but his biodata says thirty. He works for a software company in America. I am tired of meeting and rejecting men—disappointed with their personalities, attitudes, expectations—though the last one rejected me, so there is that. I am tired of watching Ma worry about my unmarried status as a twenty-six-year-old. I am tired of being lonely. I am tired of feeling claustrophobic in my hometown, surrounded by relatives, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins.
Reluctantly, I have agreed to go meet the suitor, because Ma said, “What if he is the one?” and my younger sister said, “His photo doesn’t look too bad if you take away the mustache and the big glasses.” A boy cousin contacts a friend, who know a friend, who gets us reserved sleeping berths on the Friday overnight train, where I sit with Ma, silent and distant.
In the morning, Ma calls her niece, my girl cousin, from Ahmedabad station and asks her for her address so we can take a rickshaw to her house. She has no idea we were planning to visit, and we had no idea we’d be visiting, but she guesses, correctly, it must be something to do with an arranged match. On the way to her house, the radio news on the rickshaw announces the kidnapping of actor Rajkumar by the bandit Verrappan and George W. Bush’s presidential nomination.
We rest at my cousin’s house, take a shower, eat lunch, and get ready. The meeting is at 4 p.m. I wear a salmon-pink salwar kameez that Ma packed the day before, a pair of gold studs, tie my hair in a pony tail. I pointedly avoid eyeliner and lipstick. My cousin fusses, “You are dressed for the shops—not to meet a suitor.” She offers me some lipstick, which I refuse. I’ve been meeting suitors for the last four and a half years, approximately one every two months. In the last four months, since moving to Indore, my hometown, I’ve met three. I doubt tinted lips will change the outcome of this meeting. Behind me, Ma beams in the mirror.
Swayamvara (Sanskrit): Swayam = self + vara = groom.
Definition: In ancient India, swayamvara was the practice of choosing one’s groom from a group of assembled suitors. Sometimes, tests of physical strength were set up to find a worthy suitor.
Example: In the Hindu epic Ramayana, princess Sita marries prince Ram from amongst the gathered princes and kings of neighboring kingdoms and principalities because he was the only one who could lift and string the Shiva Dhanush, Shiva’s bow. Or in the Hindu epic Mahabharat, princess Draupadi marries prince Arjuna, because he is the only one to pass the archery test, piercing a mounted fish’s eye with his arrow by looking at its reflection in a pool of water.
One of the first suitors I met lived across the street from my aunt’s house. I was twenty-two. I had a bachelor’s degree and a job at Usha Martin Telecom. I was thinking about another diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication.
My aunt and uncle had known the young man since he was a kid. The meeting had been arranged for four o’clock in the afternoon. Shortly before that, I changed out of my jeans and dressed up in a pale blue salwar kameez, the color of spring sky, a yellow dupatta that reminded me of mango juice dripping down my fingers during hot, sultry summer days. My mother insisted I put kajal in my eyes, my aunt offered ruby earrings for my ears, and my cousin loaned me her gold necklace. Surrounded by my parents and aunt, bedecked in shiny metal chains, eyes stinging with black eyeliner, the salwar bunching around my legs, I crossed the street.
It was a two-story house, the first floor rented out, for “extra income” according to my aunt. I looked up at the steep narrow steps leading to the second floor and sighed. My uncle decided to join our entourage at the last minute. Ma, Pappa, me, aunt, uncle. We climbed the steep, seventeen stairs to the landing where the parents stood, the mother with graying hair, her husband with his hands behind his back, an untucked striped shirt, baggy pants. They’d seen my photograph, but I sensed the mother’s eyes boring into my face looking for imperfections, checking to see if the photo matched the girl in front of her. I felt her eyes checking out my outfit, my braided hair, my accessories. I heard the father invite us in. We walked in behind them in a living room filled with potted plants, an explosion of green in a sunlit room.
My aunt and uncle introduced my mom and dad and chatted with the suitor’s parents. They talked of politics and favorite TV shows and shared neighborhood gossip. I sat on the edge of a chair, restless, wishing to be anywhere but here. The prospective suitor was nowhere to be seen. My uncle finally asked, “Where is Manish?” The parents looked at each other. “He’s resting. He’ll be out in a minute.” The mother got up hastily.
She went through a curtained door and came back with a tray—six cups of chai and a plate of sad-looking Parle-G Glucose biscuits.
Everyone sipped their chai noisily. Nobody picked up the biscuits. I gulped the saccharin brown sludge and fought the impulse to throw up. I saw movement behind the curtain. A tall shape was moving around in what was possibly a passageway connecting the kitchen and bedrooms. I heard the tap running over a sink. And then a loud, “Aaaaaaachccch.” The tall man behind the curtain had expelled phlegm lurking inside his throat, probably since morning, because the “aaachch” took forever. He had to know we could hear him outside. He was clearly not trying to make an impression, or he didn’t care to make an impression.
“He has a little congestion,” his mother piped up in between the phlegm expulsions.
She went in to check on him. We could hear angry whispers. He followed her a little bit later, a lanky man with a wide forehead and a full head of hair. He sat in a corner, a sullen look on his face. I spotted a fleck of spittle on his mustache. His white crumpled shirt had been tucked in hastily in his pants. We sat and talked awkwardly. I left quickly.
Six months later, my aunt told Ma that the “Phlegm-Boy” was arrested by the police on charges of harassing and stalking. Apparently, he had been making obscene phone calls to his elementary school teacher.
As Vedic religion evolved into classical orthodox Hinduism (ca. 500 BC), parental control of marriage seems to have emerged as a mechanism to prevent the intermixing of ethnic groups and castes.1 This system, for the longest time, took away a woman’s autonomy in choosing her spouse. Marriage and family alliance became synonymous with maintaining social and caste structures. A family friend or a Brahmin, who knew a family whose daughter or son was eligible for marriage, would act as an intermediary. Introductions were made, horoscopes matched, families united. It was never about the boy or the girl, the bride and the groom. It was all about families coming together through the younger generation. If the families were compatible, the marriage was compatible. Until it wasn’t.
After India’s independence in 1947, with expanding social reform and female emancipation, particularly in urban areas, parents became more open for marriage-ready sons and daughters to meet with multiple potential spouses with an accepted right of refusal.2 By the time I came of age, it was matrimonial magazines and marriage bureaus, expanding into matrimonial websites five years later. Names of prospective brides and grooms catalogued by age, education, caste, and language.
By the time I turned twenty-three and moved to Bombay for work, Ma had put my name down in matrimonial magazines that sent her twenty-page booklets filled with boys’ vitae: age, occupation, education, income, caste. She’d scour them, look for possible matches: Not too old, not the same age, never younger, at least a master’s degree.
She’d communicate with the mother, father, or guardian of the suitor. One time she found out the guy was married with a kid on the way (his family had forgotten to update his marital status and take him off the bachelor list). After days, weeks, months of correspondence, a meeting was arranged, for the two families and for me and the suitor. Sometimes, we’d travel to their city, other times, it was at an aunt’s house or in a restaurant.
Sita chose Ram because he passed the test. But Ramayana also says she was destined to marry Ram because he was Vishnu’s incarnation and she was Laxmi’s. They are bound together for eternity, in every lifetime.
Sita left behind her father’s home, the kingdom she grew up in, to live with Ram in Ayodhya. She followed Ram into the wilderness when his father banished him from the kingdom for fourteen years. She lived on berries and wild game, cooked and took care of him, while they moved from jungle to jungle, hermitage to hermitage. When the Lankan king Ravana kidnapped her, he followed her trail to the end of the Indian subcontinent, raised an army of monkeys, and crossed the Indian Ocean to rescue her.
In Ahmedabad, I sit with the software engineer—who lives in America and is on leave for three weeks—in his older brother’s bedroom, the door to the wide balcony open. A sun-bleached curtain printed with birds and flowers blows in the warm breeze. He looks thirty, not the forty of his photo from three years ago, when he was twenty pounds heavier. He wears a navy-blue shirt and khakis, silver-rimmed glasses, no mustache, a warm smile. He sits on the edge of the bed. I sit across from him on a steel foldout chair. A ceiling fan whirs tiredly above us. Ma and his family—parents, two older brothers, their wives, two kids—sit in the living room, talking, drinking chai.
The two of us have been at this game for so long, we start comparing notes.
“How many girls have you met so far?”
“Um… every time I visit, at least two dozen, give or take, over the last four years. What about you?”
“About a dozen, every year, for the last four years,” I say.
We both chuckle. I tell him I never thought I’d be in an arranged marriage. Me too, he says.
I feel my reserve melting away for the first time since boarding the overnight train. His easy, unassuming manner puts me at ease. I tell him marriages are a matter of fate. He counters, tells me it is a lazy excuse for not striving towards what we want. I know better, though I don’t tell him that. It’ll have to wait for another day, another time.
We go back and forth, arguing like old friends. His sister-in-law parts the curtain on the bedroom door and says it’s been forty-five minutes; were we done talking or did we need more time to get to know each other? Yes, please, I want to say. But he is nodding his head, “I’m good,” and looks at me. I’m good.
Later, back in my cousin’s home, I refuse to tell them anything about the meeting. I don’t want to jinx it. I want my destiny to be linked with the bespectacled man I left behind on the edge of that bed.
My attempts to find love:
1990: I’m in tenth grade. He’s five years older than me, a high school dropout who dresses well and brings me bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate. We meet under street lamps, he on his motorbike, me walking back home from tuition or market, and later, in coffee shops and restaurants. It’s an ephemeral, tenuous relationship. I can’t remember why he liked me. I break off the relationship because my family moves back to Indore, and the thread connecting us isn’t strong enough.
1994: He is the out-of-towner who lives in a rented room, the oldest in my group of college friends by two years, soft spoken and mature. It is an attraction fueled by hanging out together in street-side chai shops, movie theaters, and study sessions. He is in love with his childhood sweetheart and his best friend is infatuated with me. It’s a clichéd love triangle, not even that. We are sexually frustrated eighteen-year-olds feeling attracted to those in our proximity. By the time we graduate, we are all on different career paths, scattering to different parts of India, parting as good friends.
1996: My first job at Usha Martin Telecom, a pager company. We are accounts executives, a fancy name for taking messages over the phone and sending them to Motorola pagers. He is part of the sales team and asks me out. I am ambivalent but decide to go out with him anyway, because I am twenty-two and bored. I feel I will never meet the kind of guy I want to settle down with. I like someone fawning over me. I break it off after a few months because it isn’t fair.
1998: I’m in metropolitan Bombay, single, lonely, and working as a journalist for Screen, a Bollywood magazine. I meet him by accident at a film awards function. He is from Indore, an out-of-towner like me. We know each other through mutual friends. We have a connection, forged by weekend dates, dinners, movies and bike rides, daily phone calls. I realize I’m falling in love and puzzled why he won’t say it when I can feel he feels the same way. Eventually, after a couple of years, he tells me he is engaged to a girl in another city. That’s the end of that.
When the Ahmedabad boy’s parents call four days later, I know I want to hitch my life to him. Ma and my sister aren’t so sure. After all we haven’t done the usual background checks and referrals, and there is the question of him living in America. My younger sister is in tears: “Why do you want to go so far from us?”
Just the day before, on my way back from work, I had been thinking of sending him an email. I’d like to be your friend, I was planning to write him. At twenty-six, I was deeply aware that strong connections—like the one I felt with the soft-spoken, gentle, unassuming man who argued with me about destiny, sitting on the edge of the bed—did not happen often. Like Sita, I wanted to follow him to the unknown of America. Eight months later, after we were married, I asked him if he’d have replied to my email. “No,” he said.
By the age of twenty-five, I had rejected almost all the suitors that came my way. A worried Ma asked my grandfather, Baba, to study my horoscope.
He said, “Her stars are aligned such, she will never stay close to her parents, her birth place, her hometown.”
Ma did not tell me this until after I got married and moved to America. I am ambivalent at best about astrology and horoscope predictions.
Now, sitting in a foreign land, two oceans away, I wonder.
On a humid Saturday afternoon, I sat in the living room of my cousin’s apartment talking to a young man who was there to meet me. The thin, nasal tones coming from the bespectacled man made me drowsy. I excused myself to go in the kitchen for a sip of water. I couldn’t remember his name. Amit, Amar? Who cared? Not only did I not like the way he looked—tall, thin, pale sunken cheeks, beady eyes—I also didn’t care for what he was telling me.
He was a software engineer who wanted to save up enough money to buy a farm and retire to a remote village by the age of forty. I conjured up an image of me living on a dusty farm, tending cows and picking vegetables. I was twenty-four years old, a rookie journalist with one of India’s leading Bollywood magazines, living an exciting life of interviewing actors, covering movie shoots and music recordings. I enjoyed working in the big city, away from family, living an independent life. And now this guy, whose name I couldn’t remember, wanted to marry me and retire to a farm and buy a tractor. I entered the living room to tell him what I thought of his retirement plans when he asked me if I’d like to go out for a cup of coffee. I didn’t want to, but my cousin said, go. “You don’t have to marry the guy just because you have coffee with him,” she said. Hers is a marriage of love. She’s never had to go through the rigors of an arranged marriage. I suspected she vicariously enjoyed seeing me go through the options, picking and choosing and rejecting.
The wannabe-farmer and engineer was the son of a family friend, so for the sake of propriety, we headed out to a coffee shop two bus stops away. I remember the slight incline we walked to reach the bus stop as he droned on about how he disapproved of workplace romances and social outings of men and women in his office.
“I mean, can you imagine all these young men and women going to the movies and restaurants after work, sitting in a dark theatre?”
I could imagine. I had plans to go out with some friends later that evening to watch the latest Bollywood blockbuster.
By the time we reached the bus stop, I had tuned the ambitious, old-fashioned farmer out. The city bus came to a screeching halt a few meters ahead of us. As he boarded the bus, I lingered behind two men chatting on about cricket scores. The wannabe-farmer was looking for a seat in the bus and turned around to find me. I stood glued to the pavement, my feet refusing to get on the bus. He looked out from the bus window and saw me standing at the bus stop, looking at him. The bus started moving. His eyes were two giant saucers behind his glasses as I raised my hand and waved a slow-motion goodbye. I watched the bus disappear around the corner, then turned around and started walking back to my cousin’s apartment. I don’t remember if I was smiling.
The Boy-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Bed and I are engaged, a week after that first forty-five-minute meeting, three days before he leaves for America, six months before we will get married. I’ll email him almost every day while we are engaged: tell him about my day, ask about his. He will reply once to my four emails. He will call me once a week and we will talk: about his work, my work, about our families, movies. Bush v. Gore presidential election is gearing up in America. I read up all I can about it, so I have another topic to discuss when he calls. He remembers my birthday and calls. I remember his birthday and call.
On the morning of my engagement, I sit patiently in front of the henna artist piping intricate designs—paisleys, circles, curlicues, a discreet Om—on my hands and think of my paternal grandmother who caught a glimpse of her betrothed, my grandfather, from the upstairs attic window; of my maternal grandmother who eloped with my grandfather; of Ma’s three sisters who had marriages of love and Ma, who had an arranged marriage; Papa’s two sisters, my aunts, in marriages of love and his youngest sister, whose arranged marriage ended in divorce. Except for her, most of them are happily married, or so it seems. They are all, certainly, in stable, long-standing marriages.
The arranged marriage wisdom is: love comes later, you learn to love the person you are married to, a marriage is built on love but also compromise and adjustment, give and take. I have tried finding love and come up empty. I will marry and find love, because this is the closest I have felt in a long time to giving it another try.
Arjun and Draupadi, walking down the street, he disguised as a Brahmin, she, a princess, bedecked in silks and jewelry, trying to keep up with him as he hurries through the dusty streets of her city. She has no idea she has married a Pandava prince in disguise, one of the heirs to the throne of Hastinapura, till his older brother Bheema comes up from behind, calling for Arjun to slow down. They reach the small mud and thatch hut outside the Brahmin quarters.
Arjun calls out to his mother, “Ma, look what I brought home today.” His mother is busy cooking in the house. Without turning, she says, “Distribute equally amongst your brothers.” A mother’s word is sacred. So, the five Pandava brothers decide an equitable distribution of the new bride. One year for each brother, the older brother gets to go first. Under the stipulation, she must go through a fire purification ritual, so she can lie down with the next brother, pure in mind and body, but mostly virginal is the subtext. She gets to sleep with Arjun in the third year.
When Draupadi asks Krishna why she should be fated to marry the five brothers, he tells her in her previous life she did penance for the perfect husband. “You asked for a handsome, wise, skilled, powerful, articulate husband.” Since no man is accomplished with all these qualities, in this life she gets her wish, for each of the brothers embodies one of the characteristics she desired.
Three days before our wedding, the day my fiancé lands in Ahmedabad, an earthquake of 7.7 magnitude devastates much of Gujrat, his home state, killing twenty thousand people, toppling buildings and collapsing schools and houses, disrupting communication and travel. I hope the earthquake is not a foreshadowing of our married life to come. I am twenty-seven. He is thirty-one.
After the wedding, our first night is spent on the overnight train to Bombay to apply and obtain my American visa. I stand in line for a couple of hours outside the embassy, on the pavement with other newly married brides, students, parents, all seeking visas, all seeking a new life, a new direction, a reunion. He stands across the busy street till I go inside. When I come out a couple of hours later, he is still there, waiting patiently. We have been married for twenty-four hours.
That evening, after I get my passport back, with the American visa stamped, we call his family, in Ahmedabad, and my family, in Indore, to tell them the good news.
A few hours before, he told me he’d very much like it if I stay with his family for a few months, to get to know them, before joining him in America. I am too tired from the marriage festivities and the train journey and standing in line for the visa to argue. I want to tell him I very much would like to know him first before I got to know his family, but I don’t.
His family tells him to book my ticket on the same flight as his, if possible, because it’s not safe in Ahmedabad. The aftershocks of the earthquake are still being felt after a week. They’d very much like for him to take his new bride with him to America.
I am too tired to feel angry or sad or mad or happy, or to fight on the first day of our married life.
After Ram defeated and killed Ravana he went to see Sita in the garden where she had been kept prisoner. The two hugged each other. They had been apart for almost a year. But their love was stronger for it. When they returned to Ayodhya, the city celebrated by lighting oil lamps. Ram sat on the throne of Ayodhya as the rightful king, with Sita by his side. The tragedy of Ram abandoning a pregnant Sita in the forest doesn’t apply to this story.
Both of our families come to see us off at the airport. It is a sweltering February afternoon in India. The air is hot and stifling. I feel the sweat trickle down my back, hips, thighs, and legs. I long to be in the cool, air-conditioned air of the terminal—to escape my stagnant career, the dirt and the garbage in the streets, the disillusionment of trying to find love in a metropolitan city. I desire to be alone with the Boy-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Bed I married, to get to know him, live with him, in a foreign land where no one knows me but him. If I was apprehensive of living with the Boy-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Bed in a foreign land, I don’t remember it now.
On the day of our engagement, I asked him why he chose me. He said I was the only girl whom everyone in his family liked unanimously. “They said you smiled a lot.” He is not good at compliments.
We have a thirty-two-hour airplane ride ahead of us. The two of us, exhausted from wedding festivities and visa procedures and endless stream of visiting guests, two marriage receptions, one in Indore, one in Ahmedabad, sleep the first leg of the journey.
Later, we talk on the plane (me in the middle seat, he on the aisle) about his friends, my friends, his favorite newspaper columnist (Harsha Bhogle), my reading habits, his music (Dire Straits, Eagles), and sleep some more. As far as I can tell, from this conversation, and the countless other telephone calls we have had before, we don’t have much in common. He loves sports, watches and follows cricket, golf, baseball, football, soccer, basketball. My sport affiliation doesn’t go beyond one-day cricket matches. I like to read fiction, he likes nonfiction. He is into yoga, I’m into cardio. He is a pessimist, I’m an optimist.
“Our differences will balance each other, keep us on an even keel,” I say.
“Or we will fight, a lot, over every little thing,” he says.
Draupadi became accustomed to her five husbands. She ruled over them, with her beauty, her charm, her anger, her wile, her cunning. She was the catalyst for the bloodiest, deadliest war in the history of India, the Mahabharat. Some say she loved Arjun the most out of her five husbands. Some say she always loved Karna, the estranged bastard brother of her husbands. I believe she loved all of them and none of them. I believe she loved herself the most, was proud of herself the most, honored herself the most.
When we land at Dallas International Airport, the temperature is in the forties with a twenty-degree wind chill. I stand in the cold sunless afternoon, in the passenger pick-up zone with my husband and hug my inadequate leather jacket. An icy wind whips at my legs through the thin fabric of my salwar. I look at the bleak concrete parking garage, the antiseptic airport terminal and the silent cars pulling up the curb to pick up passengers. I think of my family, my siblings, my friends, my career, that I’ve left behind in my birth country to set up a new life in a new country with a man I hardly know. I long for the heat in India, the sweat trickling down my legs two days before.
The car his friend picks us up has heaters on full blast. I sink back in the plush leather seat. My tired eyes observe the curlicue highway ramps and barren trees lining the streets with a mixture of sadness and hope.
As I step on the shag carpet in the hallway of our small apartment the heater kicks in. A warm hum fills the bedroom. I am home. I open my suitcase and breathe in the aroma of home ground spices I have managed to smuggle through customs. A bead of sweat trickles down my back.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.
1. Johann Jakob Meyer. Sexual life in ancient India: a study in the comparative history of Indian culture. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1989, ISBN 978-81-208-0638-2.↩
2. Patricia Uberoi. Freedom and Destiny: Gender, Family, and Popular Culture in India. Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-19-567991-5.↩