The entire house looked festive. The pavement in front of the gate was freshly washed and an elaborate rangoli was drawn on it and filled with red, yellow and green powdered colors. The top of the doorway was decorated with garlands of yellow marigolds and green mango leaves indicating an auspicious occasion.
Inside too, the house was swept, mopped and cobwebs dusted off. Pictures of assorted Gods and ancestors that adorned the walls had been dusted clean and window sills cleared of the dust that had accumulated for months.
The house was bustling with people and activity. There was great enthusiasm in the air.
Delicious smells of Upma being seasoned with mustard seeds, green chillies and Kari patta leaves emanated from the kitchen. The sweet, syrupy smell of Jamuns wafted around the house. My aunts and sister-in-law fluttered around in a flurry of activity; chattering, giving instructions, joking and laughing at the top of their voices.
They wore their best saris and white flowers in their oiled, fastidiously brushed and braided hair and were bedecked in all the gold jewelry they possessed to impress.
I sat in my room and listened to the sounds outside with a dreamy smile on my face.
My hair had been massaged by my mother with coconut oil after which I shampooed and dried it with scented sandalwood incense powder.
I draped around myself a deep green sari with flecks of gold paisley patterns and a wide gold border. The matching green and gold bangles that I wore made a pleasant jingling sound each time I moved my arms. My neck was adorned with an antique gold necklace handed over from generation to generation. My hair was neatly combed and braided and sweet smelling jasmine flowers fixed onto the back of the braid. There was a big red bindi in the middle of my forehead.
I was the center of attention today.
Mother came into the room and eyed me approvingly. She disliked ’lipstick’ and any kind of make-up. She tenderly caressed my hair, “Radha you look lovely.”
She took out a small box of kohl and a small pin and dabbed the end of the pin into the box ofkohl and artfully stamped that little dot on my chin. “That will take away the ill effects of all the malicious and envious eyes that will stare at you today,” she declared.
I was twenty-three and it was time for me to be married.
Today, a suitable groom, his parents, sisters and their husbands, and his aunt and uncle were coming to see me.
Marriages were not just between the bride and groom; it was a union of families.
If the groom and his family approved of me, my marriage would be fixed. My parents would ask my decision as a token gesture but the final decision would rest with them. Then they would celebrate in joy and relief.
A girl child was a burden and a great responsibility after she grew up. The girl’s parents had to shell out the entire expenses for the marriage, jewelry for the girl and the groom; diamonds if they could afford it, and gifts of expensive saris, shirts and trousers to both sides of the families and their close relatives.
They also had to arrange the marriage hall, food for hundreds of people for two to three days and none of the expenses were shared by the groom’s family.
There was also a tacit understanding that the girl’s family was to provide brand new beds, mattresses, pillows and the sheet sets for the newly-weds, kitchenware for their household and depending on how much they could afford; maybe a scooter or a car, and sometimes a dowry in cash if the groom’s family demanded it.
If the family was middle-class like ours, by the time they got each daughter married off, they were usually in deep debt and wrung dry like clothes in a drier.
The girl was also a responsibility since she and her chastity were to be guarded until she came of age and married off to a suitable man who would take care of her from then onwards.
Apart from my brother, cousins, uncles and sundry male relatives, I had not interacted closely with any other men outside of the family. I had studied in a girl’s school and a women’s college and soon after my graduation, I had to stay home and wait to get married. The topic of my working was not even a thought to be considered by the elders. Their duty now was to get me married; entrusted from my father’s loving hands to the responsible ones of my future husband’s.
Talking to any male outside of the family other than what was strictly necessary was taboo. Ours was a rigidly conservative and traditional middle-class family.
One of my cousins had had the effrontery to fall in love with a man who was not of our caste and had eloped with him bringing ruinous shame to her parents, her sisters and our families. Her parents stopped socializing, going to functions or weddings and cut themselves off from society. They had declared her ’dead’.
They could not bear the shame and humiliation of answering people’s questions. Their lives were destroyed and it was not easy for any of my cousin’s sisters to get married either, since their family name had been besmirched. Whenever grooms were suggested for them, there would invariably be questions from the groom’s family, “how do we know these girls are chaste?”
I knew my parents wanted the best for me and would find me an educated groom from a respectable family with a house or a property to his name. I did not feel compelled nor see any reason to go against their wishes.
My parents had named me Radha after the beautiful lover of Krishna.
My lovely name evoked visions of bewitching beauty and sensual femininity.
Cocooned amidst my family’s blind love and their commendation about my looks, my childhood skipped swiftly away. I bloomed into a woman and into awareness that the mirror disclosed a different story altogether. Nature’s plan had gone awry in the placing of my nose a couple of inches too wide and the eyes and mouth had gone astray. These trifling errors entirely changed the imaginary concept of the bewitching lover of Krishna’s Radha into the reality of an ugly one. I shunned the mirror more and more, unable to face the truth. The mirror would not lie no matter who did.
My parents had to do their duty. They spread the word around with relatives and friends that they were trying to find a groom for me.
This was a long-drawn-out process. The family credentials had to be checked first, then the groom’s background, job, education, property, wealth and then of course the matching of the horoscopes. That was of the utmost importance.
Every family usually had an astrologer they consulted who was treated with great reverence, and a declaration from him that the planetary alignment of the horoscopes of the bride and groom did not match, ended the marriage prospect between those two there and then.
There were supposed to be certain number of ganas and kootas that would have to match which would predict if the marriage would be happy or not.
Only after all this criteria had been fulfilled would the family arrange for the boy and the girl to meet at one of their houses with the parents and relatives hovering around.
If the man was modern in his thinking and liked the girl’s appearance, he would request the elders if he could talk to her in private for a few minutes. If not, just that one meeting was enough for them to decide to wed each other.
Today being the first time of meeting a prospective groom, I felt very nervous as I should be, my heart thudded loudly and I was filled with a strange kind of excitement and nervousness.
I could not exactly put a name to it but I felt shy and blushed suddenly with fleeting, tingling sensations that skimmed around in my body. My mind soared with day dreams. I felt a deep awareness of myself as a woman and unconsciously my hips swayed seductively from side to side as I stepped into the living room where the man, his parents and relatives sat with expectant faces waiting to see me.
My mother had given me the plate of sweets to be given around to the people sitting there which I dutifully did, at the same time stealing glances at the man who would be my husband if things worked out.
He seemed average, nothing extraordinary but that was fine, I would accept him as my husband I thought to myself and blushed again.
I sat in front of the eagle eyes of all the people examining me from head to toe. I felt acutely uncomfortable and squirmed in my chair.
After what seemed like hours, my father gave me permission to escape, “Radha, you can go inside now.” I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly left the living room.
Two days later, the letter came from the man’s father.
My father opened the letter excitedly while the whole family crowded around him with bated breath waiting to hear the results. His eyes darted to and fro as he scanned the letter. Then with a look of utter disappointment he sat down and read out the letter.
The letter was concise and to the point. “We regret to inform you that the looks of the girl did not appeal to our son and therefore we are not able to forge a relationship with you through marriage.”
I had walked into the living room to be viewed by the groom with great confidence, ready to conquer his heart; instead I came out the vanquished.
It was a big blow to my confidence and self-esteem. Somewhere deep inside me, I had had hopes that I was not that bad to look at or maybe I had grown used to my own bad looks by then. Perhaps people do get used to certain things if they are associated with them for a long time. I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself. I knew the limitations of my looks but it had not really occurred to me that I would be rejected because of that.
My mother consoled me, “Radha there will be another man. Every person created will definitely have a mate created too. This is the law of nature. The man who had come to see you was just not lucky enough to have a wife as warm and kind as you. You are brought up well in a respectable family and would have done the in-laws proud. You are a great cook and very adaptable. We will renew and double our efforts to find a groom for you and get you married within the year.”
Many years passed and I was still paraded like a puppet countless times in front of grooms, their parents and relatives. With each rejection, my pride and dignity sank a little lower.
My mother requested me impatiently these days, “Radha, can’t you put some powder on your face, brighten your eyes with kohl and redden your lips with lipstick when the grooms come to see you?”
Sometime ago, she had stopped stamping my chin with the kohl dot to ward off ’evil eyes’.
I think she had finally realized that with the kind of looks I had, there was no need for it.
That was the day my hopes of ever getting married died. Even my mother had given up on me.
My parents looked old and haggard with deep worry lines on their faces. Their eyes showed anguish and pity. They had failed in their duty to get me married. They loved me yet did not know how to console me. Their faces reflected guilt and defeat. My heart ached with compassion to see them worry about me in their old-age when they needed to be at peace. I was the reason for that and they would die with this distress on their minds.
They had not been able to find a life-companion for me who would take care of me after they had gone from this world, and they were not to see me revel in the joys of woman and motherhood.
I would have to spend the rest of my life under the care of my brother.
I watched helplessly the bewildered desperation in their eyes as their hope faded slowly away.
They had resigned themselves to the fact that I would remain a spinster.
My days were spent in waiting; waiting every minute, every hour for something to happen to change my life. But each day was the same as the next day and the next.
My nights were spent sighing and tossing restlessly with unknown desires coursing through my body. I ached without being fulfilled, without fully becoming a woman. I might be ugly on the outside but I was still a woman inside with all my womanly desires.
I always felt drained of energy and listless by the time it was morning.
Time was swiftly passing me by and I was getting older. Now closer to forty, I was not living, I merely existed because I had no other choice. I just had to exist until it was time for my breath to still.
I saw my brother and his wife lead their happy lives with each other and their small intimacies. They went out together to watch a movie or dinner. Out of kindness and pity, they would unfailingly invite me but I always refused. Their love for each other was too painful for me to watch and left me with a deep void.
I too longed for a husband who would take me in his arms and show his love for me.
I craved to feel life being created inside my womb, the bulging of my stomach and the little kicks from inside. My arms longed to hold a baby of my own. But even motherhood was denied to me because of my looks.
Sometimes I was bewildered and agitated by all these physical sensations assaulting me. It was unceasing. At those times I thought I would go mad. There was such a feverish restlessness in me that refused to calm down.
I yearned to escape my conservative boundaries and find a man to fulfill my flaming physical needs. Of those men there were plenty, the ones who cared only if I was a woman, as long as they could bed me and leave me without the commitment of marriage.
I remembered the scandal and shame my cousin’s family had been through after her elopement. After that, there were no more incidents of anyone having an affair or falling in love with someone other than the men or women their parents had chosen and arranged for them. No one had dared cross the limits or disobey the stringent rules that were set in stone. It was made very clear by the disdain and utter contempt the elders in the family spoke about the cousin and other people they knew, who had overstepped the boundaries of traditions, caste and arranged marriages.
Therefore, although no one mentioned the edicts, there was always this implicit and unspoken understanding that if any of the girls and boys in their family did any such thing; they would be forever ostracized and thrown out. Never would they be allowed to step into their homes again or see anyone from their families. This was a formidable price to pay.
Familial ties were most important; it was the foundation, deep-rooted, closely-knit and something one could always fall back on.
Parents and children sacrificed their own happiness for each other’s well-being or desires.
None of the youngsters wanted or dared to bring shame or embarrassment to the family, nor did they feel a need for it. It was much easier to conform to the rules and traditions and not displease any of the elders.
Then there was also the terrifying thought for the girls that what if the man they eloped with one day abandoned them, there would be no family to go back to anymore, no support system and they would become a piece of fresh meat to the sharks of society.
My maid who came to clean our house always spoke eloquently to me about her lover, “Akka, he is such a nice man, see he bought these bangles and flowers for me.”
“Kamala,” I questioned her, “don’t you worry about what your family, society or your relatives say about you not being married, yet having a lover. Doesn’t everyone know about it?”
“Akka,” she laughed, “we are the poorest of the poor in this society, anything and everything is accepted and no one cares and even if they do talk, I don’t care. My family has not made any effort in finding a husband for me. Nor can they afford my marriage or loss of my wages. Will my neighbors or relatives take care of me or get me married; will they show me the love and fulfillment that I am getting from my lover? I am happy with what I have now.”
I gazed at Kamala with jealousy and envy.
If only I too was born into that poverty and lower strata of society where rules and morality could be broken and flaunted and I did not have to worry about anyone except my own happiness. How lucky Kamala was! And what guts and courage to go ahead and do whatever she wanted to do.
One morning while I stood on my terrace hanging up clothes on the clothesline to dry, I noticed a good-looking young man in his early twenties standing in the adjacent terrace smoking a cigarette. He seemed to be staring directly at me and smiled when he caught my eye. My hair was loose and in disarray, the pallu of my sari had slipped and I saw his eyes skim down my body assessing its curves and a shock went through me and startled, I hastily fixed my pallu and rushed down the stairs to the safety of my room. My heart thudded loudly in my chest. My breath came rapidly.
“That man smiled at me!” I fidgeted nervously but there was no denying that tinge of suppressed excitement within me. It was the first time a man had looked at me hungrily like that and I blushed to the roots of my hair with that thought.
I wondered who he was; why I had never seen him before.
I decided to ask Kamala, who knew everything about the goings-on in the neighborhood.
When she came in later that day, I casually mentioned, “Seems like a new tenant has moved in next door.”
“He is not their tenant akka, he is their nephew who has come to town for a few weeks to write a bank exam; that’s what their maid told me.”
“Oh.” My heart skipped a beat.
All that day I walked around in a haze re-living the sensations that were created inside me when his eyes scrutinized me and my body. I could barely wait until next day to go up to the terrace to dry the clothes after they were washed.
As expected he was there smoking his cigarette and smiled at me.
“I’m Deepak. What’s your name?” he questioned.
This time my heart thudded with fright, what if someone inside my house heard him speak to me and saw us on the terrace!! I looked at the door of the stairway nervously.
He saw my nervousness and gave me a lop-sided smile, all the time staring at me.
“Radha,” I whispered.
His eyes quickly took in the fact that I had no mangalsutra around my neck.
“Beautiful name,” he murmured, “Radha do you come up on the terrace everyday at this time?
“Yes,” I replied, amazed at my own bravery.
I was talking to this complete stranger, a man; on my terrace when my family was just below us! If they found us together, they would come to the worst conclusion!
But I could not drag myself away no matter what the risk was.
The man seemed to be a mind-reader.
“Are you scared of your family?” he asked shrewdly. My entire behavior and demeanor was a dead give-away I supposed.
I nodded a ’yes’.
“Well, I come up on the terrace to smoke after ten at night too,” he said very casually and smiled at me. His eyes were alluring, inviting.
I did not want to linger any longer, did not want someone to come upstairs looking for me.
Without answering him, I turned and left.
The day went by agonizingly slow, I felt restless and paced up and down in my room.
I wanted desperately to go up on the terrace that night and meet him, talk to him, see his eyes linger on me, yet, I knew that if I did go, it would be my defeat and his victory since he would immediately come to know my intense need for a man; his company, and I did not know where it would lead and whether I had the courage to go where it led me.
My family always slept early by nine and I was alone in my room upstairs.
The next one hour was a tornado of thoughts in my mind. To go or not to go.
Finally, defeated, I made my way up the stairs in utter darkness and he was there waiting for me.
He turned as he heard me come and in the light of the full moon, he smiled triumphantly.
He had won!
We sat there talking, or rather he talked and I mainly listened. Even with my limited contribution to the conversation, he seemed to clearly grasp my situation.
He took a promise from me that I would come again the next day.
Against every shred of morality ingrained in me and fear of the family, I just could not stop myself from going upstairs to meet him every night.
A few nights later the inevitable happened and he took my hand in his and caressed my pulse point. Shocks of thrill went down my entire body. His fingers that were on my hand gently circled round and round and I watched it hypnotically.
“Come to my room,” he softly coaxed, his lips close to my ear, then gently touching his lips to mine.
I shuddered with delight and looked at him dazedly. All I wanted to do was have his arms around me, to explore, experience and satiate the obscure hunger surging through me.
I wanted to be a glutton and gorge myself on this food for my body.
“Radha,” my body ravenously clamored, “You are not likely to get married anyway, is this how you want to live the rest of your life? Don’t you want to feel the pleasures of the body; this is your life, your one chance to experience everything, step out of the family conventions and quench your hunger.”
But my mind warred with my body. These inner conflicts went on endlessly, renewing itself with new vigor and vitality when I felt his breath and lips on my neck and his hand touched my breast but when the moment came for me to get up and go with him to his room, my courage crumpled and failed utterly.
My mind protested, “Do you want to go to a man just for your physical needs without the sanctity and approval of marriage? Can you defy your family and your cultural heritage and barriers? Do you understand what the outcome would be if you were ever to do that? Would you be brave enough to face your family’s wrath and their shame and humiliation in society? Would you be able to explain to them why you felt this intense need to fulfill your physical needs without marriage? Would they even understand? Don’t you have the strength of mind to overcome all your carnal needs? It’s all in the mind Radha.”
Years and years of ancestral values, fear of society and traditions made my feet leaden and I could not get up to go with him to his room.
I shuddered at the very thought of standing up to my family and crossing the limits of societal and moral values.
If my family cast me out, where would I go, what would I do?
Society would be equally harsh and unrelenting and treat me like an outcast.
I would be prey for men who would consider me a ’prostitute’ or an ’unmarried woman desperate for sex’ the moment I took the extreme step of having any relationship outside of marriage and morality.
With an arctic heart and a burning body, I pulled my hand out of his grasp and fled inside my house.
I had made my decision.
I would never have the courage to step out of the boundaries. I would continue to live the life of a spinster and maybe one day there would be a man in my life who would see the beauty that existed inside me and wished to marry me.
With that tiny flame of hope, I decided to try and store all my desires in the deepest drawer in the recesses of my mind until I got married or until the desires extinguished themselves.
I did not go up on the terrace again.
A few days later, I heard from Kamala that the neighbor’s nephew had written his bank exam and left town.
Meera Kumar, a Kendall Park resident, reports that “growing up in India was like being in the midst of a long, never-ending TV soap opera or a Bollywood movie. There was no dearth of melodrama or theatrics. There was plenty to observe and soak in. Life was a riot of color, chaos, cruelty, noise, battles, laughter and tears. Life was a movie and I loved it all!” She adds that “there are certain unique cultural and social life situations in the East” that are hard to comprehend for others and that would probably never happen in the West. “Most of my writings are based on real-life happenings and I weave stories around them,” she says.