These were the most painful thirty minutes of Uma’s day. She absolutely hated what she did in these minutes, but did it nevertheless, six days a week. Her body ached like she was dying, her breathing was ragged, her throat would go dry in the first five minutes and she would sweat like a she was in a sauna.
“Don’t look at the timer constantly,” he said on that summer evening at the fitness center in Plainsboro, New Jersey. He, Jonathan, who also thought the hour he spent at the fitness center was the worst of his day, second only to the time he spent stuck in traffic on Route 1 some evenings.
“I’m sorry?” Uma pulled the headphone from her left ear and turned towards him.
“I said don’t look at the timer constantly. It makes it worse. I don’t look at mine,” Jonathan said with a smile on his face, pointing to the timer on his treadmill.
“Oh!” Uma looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“Let me tell you my trick. I count the cars that pass and look at the timer only after I count fifty. It makes this easier,” he said as he pointed a finger at the road outside the large window that was in front of them. “You are thinking about the cars rather than, ‘oh god I have twenty more minutes of this.”
“Thanks,” Uma smiled and quickly put her headphone back on. She wasn’t one for conversations with strangers. Where she came from, it wasn’t wise to talk to strangers, especially men. Uma had grown up in a small town in India and moved to the States at the beginning of spring. The IT company she worked for in India needed her help on a project for a pharmaceutical company in Princeton. The company had arranged an apartment for her in nearby town, Plainsboro. The town had all the amenities, except for a gas station, which did not matter to Uma. Her stay would be short, so she wasn’t planning to buy a car. She used a NJ Transit bus that not only stopped in front of her apartment, but also stopped at her office and the few other spots in the town she frequented. Plainsboro also had an Indian store and a few Indian restaurants, making it easier for her to adjust to the new country. Uma, who had lived with her parents all her life, missed her family terribly and called them every weekend.
Two weeks ago when she called, her mother had told her something that she already knew: Uma was too dark and too fat for the arranged marriage market in India. Of course, her mother didn’t put it that bluntly, but that was what she had meant. Her parents had been trying to arrange her marriage for the past few years. Uma, now twenty eight, had met fourteen men so far and was still single; a record that gave her parents sleepless nights.
“Why don’t you join a gym?” her mother had suggested. Uma reluctantly joined the fitness center nearby. When she struggled to complete her thirty minute cardio the first day, the trainer told her it would eventually get easier. After two weeks it hadn’t gotten any easier. “Maybe I should try counting the cars,” thought Uma. She lifted her eyes from the the treadmill to the road and started counting.
The movement of Uma’s lips brought a smile to Jonathan’s face. He had been watching Uma for the past few days and was thrilled he finally had an opportunity to talk to her.
When Uma was getting ready to leave, Jonathan walked up to her and asked, “So did it work?”
“Yes! Thank you.”
“I am Jonathan.” He Introduced himself.
Uma looked at him blankly.
“I said, I am Jonathan.”
“Oh!” she paused for a moment and then continued, “I am Uma. Nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine.”
Uma smiled in response.
“What do you do Uma?”
“I am a Systems Analyst,” she said hesitantly.
“Cool. I am an accountant. So…”
“I have to get going,” Uma interrupted. “Thanks again for your suggestion.” She quickly walked towards the door.
Jonathan was disappointed that the conversation had ended so abruptly. I don’t blame her, who wants to talk to a fatty, he thought as he looked at himself in a mirror next to the door. He had always been overweight and it had held him back when it came to women. Why should this be any different, he wondered.
* * * * *
Sitting in a local Indian restaurant at a table set for two, Uma wondered if things would be different this time. She was waiting for a man who could very well be her husband. She would meet him tonight for the very first time and if all went well, at the end of the night the two of them would call their parents and give their assent. They would then get married in an elaborate ceremony and live happily ever after.
“What?” exclaimed Andrea, Uma’s coworker, when she heard about arranged marriages from Uma that morning.
“Yes. That’s how it works,” Uma replied .
“You will meet him just once and get married? To a stranger? Just like that?” Andrea’s jaw
dropped. “That’s insane!”
“Not for us,” Uma smiled. “That’s how my parents got married. My cousins, my friends, they all had arranged marriages.”
“But you know nothing about him, Uma. What if he is lazy? What if he snores? Or sweats a lot?
There could be a lot of things.”
“Well, I am not perfect. I am sure there are things about me that he won’t like. We will have to make it work.”
“Is it that simple? He could be a serial killer for godsake!”
“Well, I don’t think so. My parents found him on a reliable matrimonial website. They met his family in India and did some checking on them and on the guy. Also, he graduated from a top school and works for IBM. I am sure he is not a serial killer.”
Vinodh, the IBM Systems Architect, showed up ten minutes late and didn’t bother to apologize.
“Hello!” he said, as he pulled out the chair across from Uma and sat.
“You look very different from the picture,” he said with his eyes wide open.
“Oh.” Uma didn’t know how to respond.
“You totally do!” He appeared frustrated. “You are not the only one. Most girls I meet through the website look very different in person. Why don’t you put up a recent, regular picture, like we guys do? Wouldn’t it save us all some time?”
Because looks are irrelevant when it comes to men, you fool. You could be ugly as hell but you would still want a light skinned, skinny, pretty bride, Uma wanted to yell, but remained silent. His frustration was understandable. Uma’s parents had hired one of the best photographers in town and had three photo shoots before they chose the picture to post on the website. Uma looked several pounds and shades lighter in that picture. After a few rejections, Uma had suggested that they change the picture to something simpler, but her mother had been adamant. “No. That’s not a good idea. Not many people will respond. You should use the herbal bleaching remedy I suggested for your skin. If you use it regularly, I am sure your skin will look lighter. That’s how Radha got her daughter married,” she said. Uma had learned not to take her mother’s comments seriously. She knew her mother was only telling her how the system worked.
“Look, shall we make this quick?” asked Vinodh bringing Uma’s attention back. “You are the third girl I have met since this morning and I have another to meet in Parsippany at eight. My parents want me to get married before I turn 30 and I don’t have much time left.”
“Ok. Sure.” Uma could tell he wasn’t interested.
They looked at the menu and ordered an appetizer. They talked briefly about their hometowns, families, and work. Just when Uma thought they might get into deeper topics, Vinodh got a phone call.
After the call he looked at Uma and said, “I am sorry I have to go.” He left cash on the table.
“It was nice meeting you.”
“It was nice meeting you too,” said a stunned Uma.
This meeting hadn’t been any different. Uma thought she had learned to handle rejection, but apparently she hadn’t. Suddenly she felt very weak. Her limbs trembled and her throat went dry. She realized she was going to break into tears. She quickly gulped down the water in the glass on the table and signaled the waiter for the check.
Uma’s phone rang when she was walking towards the bus stop. It was her father.
“How did it go Uma?”
“Dad, Why are you still up? Isn’t it past midnight?”
“It’s ok. I couldn’t sleep. Tell me, how did it go?”
“I don’t want to do this anymore Dad. It’s humiliating,” Uma’s voice quivered.
Her mother got on the phone. “What happened? Did he say no?”
“He made it very clear that he wasn’t interested. He left midway,” Uma said struggling to control the tears that gathered in the corner of her eyes.
“Wait a minute, did you use the bleaching cream last night?” asked her mother.
“You know what Mom?” Uma yelled. “You have a dark skinned, fat, ugly daughter. Get over it. I am so sick of this.” She hung up the phone and started to sob into her hands.
Her phone rang nonstop for the next few minutes, but she didn’t answer.
* * * * *
The next day as Uma was getting ready to leave the fitness center, Jonathan arrived.
“Hey Uma! How are you?” He smiled widely. “Did you have a good workout?” he asked.
“I did. Thanks.” Uma said as she picked up her bag from the locker.
“Hey! I was wondering…” Jonathan paused and looked at her. “I was wondering…”
“I was wondering if you would like to have coffee sometime,” he said in a shaky voice.
“What?” Uma wasn’t expecting that. Her face quickly turned red. “We don’t even know each other. Why would I have coffee with a stranger?”
Jonathan looked at her with puzzlement. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I find you very cute and thought I would ask you out.” He was clearly embarrassed.
Uma stormed out without responding.
As she walked towards the bus stop Uma realized she had been rude. What was I thinking? I could have been at least gracious about it, she was disappointed by her behavior. She had been caught unaware and hadn’t really known how to react. Her words replayed in her head: ‘We don’t even know each other. Why would I have coffee with a stranger?’ She paused and questioned herself. She had coffee with strangers all the time! In fact she had dinner with a loser just last night. He had no interest in her but stayed because it was required. At least Jonathan thought she was cute and wanted to spend time with her. She thought he was cute too. Then why shouldn’t she? Because Jonathan was a stranger?
Shridhar Sadasivan writes, blogs, and advocates on issues of gender, sexuality, feminism, and social equality with a focus on South Asia. His online blog posts include “Dharun and Ravi: Two Different Worlds,” published on Orinam.net (re-published by West Windsor-Plainsboro News) and “A Letter from the Girls of These Days,” published on Women’s Web. Shridhar lives in West Windsor and works in New York as a systems analyst.