Essay: Arranged Marriage

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oonjal_sf

This essay appeared in Centered: The magazine of personal stories in 2019. It is an excerpt from my work in progress memoir.

Standing in the living room where I rented a room in Jeevan Bima Nagar in Bangalore, I tried to process what was happening. My father declared, “We are coming this weekend.” What is the hurry? I wanted to scream into the phone. It hadn’t even been a week since my last rejection as a potential bride. Instead, I asked what time their train would arrive.

The older couple who owned the two-level home where I rented a room upstairs were my friend’s parents. Over the course of the few months I lived with them, they had become surrogate parents. The maami would be up before me in the morning. She poured her love into food, like mothers do. She stayed up late for me, sometimes waiting for me to join them for dinner. Most nights, the two of us would set out for a walk around our peaceful, leafy neighborhood.

Amma enna sollara?” maami asked.

So, I spilled everything I knew. Amma and appa had placed a classified advertisement under the matrimonial section of The Hindu on Sunday.

Wheatish, tall, brahmin girl. Kaushika gotram. Age 24. B.Sc (App Sc). Working for MNC. 4.25 lacs per annum, read the sparse advert, hawking my salable features. Traditionally, brides are described as fair and beautiful. Since those terms really did not apply to me, my parents decided to focus on the things that could work. My salary, at that point, was the envy of my family. In contrast, my friend, an engineer with a master’s degree, made half what I made working at a multinational company.

On that Sunday, amma and appa had been inundated by phone calls and impromptu visits by parents of grooms enamored by my salary. Appa had visited one family on Monday after a phone conversation with the potential groom’s father who impressed upon him that the boy was presently in India and God willing, should things go well, he was looking at a quick engagement and a wedding shortly thereafter.

The problem with following up on leads for men living in the U.S. was that it often took months for the in-person meeting to happen. And if everything worked out well, the engagement and wedding took longer owing to the distance and limited amount of times in a year the men could travel back and forth from the U.S. The fact that the boy was in India meant the engagement could happen quickly, with the wedding shortly thereafter. In fact, it was not unheard of for weddings to be arranged in a month or even weeks.

Upon their meeting, the said boy’s manners favorably impressed appa. In a day, horoscopes had been deemed matched and the groom’s side was ready to come visit me in Bangalore to see if I would be a good fit for their family. Indian marriages and South Indian marriages specifically placed a big deal of importance on the matching of natal charts also called jadagam. They were also used to reject potential matches without hurting sentiments.

Even as I poured out the story, I realized how ludicrous it all seemed. Maami, however, seemed optimistic.

Kovil pogalaam. Ellam nalla padiya nadakkum,” she pronounced with the faith of someone who saw the world through rose-tinted glasses.

I wished I had her faith that all it would take was a trip to the temple for everything to fall in place, but I held my tongue.

I tossed and turned that Thursday night, hardly worked the following day, and obsessed over the details amma had sent in her email, and my responses to her. The boy lived in Philadelphia, and he worked with databases. One of two brothers, the mother had passed away during the previous year and the father was retired. I didn’t know what he looked like. Amma asked if I wanted her to scan and send a photo.

“Put a donkey in front of me, and I will get married to it,” I snarked.

Our conversation ended on that note.

Saturday night, my parents arrived with a single suitcase. Savories and sweets from Grand Snacks lined the table. My purple mysore silk and matching blouse with a silk in-skirt sat in the suitcase, neatly pressed under their clothes. I refused to look at the said boy’s picture, but the rest of them passed it around remarking that he looked chamathu, the all encompassing term for a “good boy.”

The groom’s party was to arrive Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. The food I ate for lunch roiled and threatened to come out as I got ready. My saree flowed as I draped, pinned, and tucked away five meters of silky material over my generous frame.

“Powder potuko,Amma insisted as I looked in the mirror.

I dusted powder as she looked and promptly wiped it away the minute she was out of sight. Kajal lined my eyes and a string of jasmine scented my hair. I like to think I looked sweet and simple.

They arrived in two cars, a jumble of them pouring out, gloriously loud and rowdy. I watched through the window before I was pushed upstairs by maami. I sat on the stairs leading to my room, hearing the voices and trying to figure out which voice belonged to whom. The groom-to-be, Kannan, his father, his brother, his aunt, and his newly married cousin all crowded into the living room. My appa and maama made conversation while amma and maami hurried to and from the kitchen bringing out snacks, sweets, and coffee.

A clear voice rang out asking amma and maami to please sit and talk; the food can wait, it insisted. I later learned it was Kannan. Maami beckoned to me, thrusting a plate with over six tumblers of coffee arranged on it. I entered, a demure picture. I paused for a few seconds, taking in the room. Kannan’s father sat across from me, his youngest son next to him. Kannan sat all the way in the corner, my appa and maama in between him and his father. All the women sat on the bright colored diwan, their eyes appraising me.

I decided to start with Kannan’s father, walking around the room counter clockwise until the women were served. I had this routine pat, my eyes glued to the floor, my mind trying hard to still my trembling hands as I handed out each tumbler. I could feel Kannan’s eyes on me as I handed him his tumbler. I lifted my eyes and was startled by the warmth in his.

“Namaskaram pannu,” Appa instructed, and I prostrated at the feet of the older gentleman in front of me.

My cheeks burned, I picked myself up and retreated back to the stairs. It never got old, this sense of humiliation as I fell at the feet of strangers. Tears threatened to fall. I blinked back and tried to focus on the conversation in the other room.

“Ponnu paiyan oda pesanum nu nenekara,” I heard maami’s voice.

There was a chorus of responses teasing me for my request to meet with Kannan alone. The raucous laughter irritated me as Kannan made his way up the stairs to my bedroom. I perched at one corner of the bed in an already tiny room while he sat at the other and tried to make himself comfortable. The irony of the setting was not lost on me.

I looked at this man sitting across from me in a blue silk shirt and neatly pressed black pants. His hair, oiled and parted to one side, reflected the natural light in the room. His glasses were oval, almost rimless, and framed his large eyes. His large forehead was beaded with sweat. His lips looked tender for a man, his nose rather large for his face. He was clean shaven and clearly waiting for me to start the conversation.

I held out my palm for a handshake as I introduced myself. His grip was firm, his palms soft and warm to touch. After an awkward pause, I decided to get to the crux of why we were meeting.

“Do you have anything specific you want to talk about?”

“No” he responded.

“Good! Because I have a lot to talk about, ” I said.

I launched into a forty-five-minute spiel on what marriage and partnership meant to me. I talked about equality, sharing, friendship, and my identity as a working woman. He listened. His eyes were warm and sympathetic, and they never strayed from mine. He was definitely interested. When I was done, I asked if he had anything to say.

His voice was tentative as he asked if I would be open to relocating back to India as he did not see the U.S. as a permanent home. I asked if we could discuss that after I had a chance to experience America to make an informed decision. He nodded agreement, and we decided there was nothing left to speak about.

With that we rose and made our way downstairs. We had not talked about kids. Neither had we discussed films, books, or other interests because I had been laser focused on conveying what meant the most to me. I sensed he was overwhelmed at the amount of thought I had put into the institution of marriage.

Kannan and his family, his aunt, and his cousin all left as abruptly as they had come, sucking all the cheerful effervescence out the door with them, leaving the house cloaked in silence. I changed into comfortable clothes and decided to stay in my room instead of dissecting the afternoon, parsing the visitors’ body language and comments for indication of interest like we usually did.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was nearly 25, the oldest unmarried girl in the family, the only one who had the reputation of having called off an earlier engagement. It all weighed on me. I realized I could not do this anymore; this charade of appearing before people, talking about my future with strangers, and dealing with the uncertainty of waiting for others to deem me worthy (or unworthy) of marriage.

Appa stopped by my room upstairs to ask me if I liked Kannan. He stood by the doorway respecting my need for space. I could see him torn between the responsibility that weighed him down and a need to set me free from this continual charade. The veshti from the morning now looked crumpled. His eyes were weary. I longed to hug him, to ease his burden, to reassure him that all will be okay, even if this boy did not like me.

“I do.” I said simply, indicating the conversation was over.

I was not even sure I had a choice. It had been five years since I had agreed to an arranged marriage. I had been part of a dozen or more bride viewings. I also had a broken engagement to my credit. I was getting to be a harder sell with each iteration. I honestly did not know how much longer I could subject myself to the matrimonial scrutiny that now felt like a form of torture. The single life looked more appealing than ever.

I could not nap. I lay on the bed listening to snatches of conversation filtering upstairs. Time slowed down as it does when you want it to hurry up. The four adults sat in the living room waiting for the phone to ring. I refused to think about the outcome, focusing my energies on my parents leaving so I could go back to my single, working-woman life. Just as the clock struck 6 p.m., the phone rang, startling all of us. I heard my appa’s voice murmur a whole lot of yeses and hang up the phone. There was a brief silence before congratulations rang out from below. Amma and maami called out to me.

Ponnu pidichu irruku sollita. Kalyanam dhaan!” (They like the girl. It’s a wedding!)

It must have been relief I felt for I sank down and sat on the steps and cried. I cried for all the times I had been rejected. I cried because I could see how happy my parents were. I cried because I knew between this day and the day I eventually got married, my family would brace themselves hoping neither Kannan nor his family changed their minds.

We celebrated by eating mysorepak, a sweet made from chickpea flour fried in ghee with copious amounts of sugar added, and then walking to the nearest temple to offer a coconut for Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. The sweetness of the mysorepak was cloying, its sugar overwhelming everything in my mouth and my head. I thirsted for water, for something to wash down the taste and how artificial it all felt.

Amma and maami went inside as if on a mission, buying coconut, betel leaves, betel nuts, a string of jasmine, and a bunch of bananas for an archanai, an offering to Ganesha. They stood in line to get a ticket for the archanai while I stood a little to the side, away from the madding crowd, a desperate effort to claim a moment to process what had happened. The people around me jostled, their eyes searching for the Supreme, their collective bodies an automaton, throbbing, moving, searching, and yearning for divine release.

The priest reached for the ticket in maami’s hands, and amma indicated for me to join them. I walked over, and the priest seemed happy to hear of the impending nuptials. It seemed like the prayers were extra long. Even the God himself seemed to smile benevolently on me. I closed my eyes and said thank you and woke to the feeling of holy water being sprinkled on me. Clutching one half of a newly opened coconut, one banana, and a string of flowers, I followed amma outside.

I spied a roadside vendor hawking elaneer, the refreshing water from tender coconuts, just the antidote to the lingering sweetness in my mouth. I urged the rest of them to walk ahead, taking my time to drink and get my thoughts in order. One day at a time, I repeated to myself.

During the next day, my parents prepared to return to Madras. Their minds were already planning the nischayadartham, a gathering of the families of the bride and groom to formally solemnize the engagement. The groom’s side of the family arranged the nischayadartham, but my amma and appa had to buy a golden chain for the groom and possibly a diamond ring for him. They also had to buy an elaborate silk saree for me and clothes for the sambandhi, the family of the groom.

Maami and maama plied them with food and ideas on what to do once they arrived home. I think, for once, being away from home helped amma and appa relax before what was bound to be a busy few months ahead. They left, carrying their single suitcase, climbing into an auto, and waving until I could see them no longer. I felt an impending sense of change seeping into me.

I eventually received Kannan’s email a few days later. We chatted briefly about our engagement date, set for two weeks later on February 28 in Madras. I persuaded him to visit me the weekend in between. Our first meeting had been arranged, but I wanted to get to know him while he was still in India, where I was sure of my footing.

That weekend we ate out and walked around town, careful not to get too close to each other. We sat across from each other in the sprawling campus of ISKCON in Bangalore and talked for five hours straight. We talked about my battles with body image, and his rapidly greying hair. We talked about friendship and our friends. We talked about our taste in music and movies. He liked Tamil music and Ilayaraaja. I preferred English music and pop songs. He urged me to be physically active. I urged him to read my favorite books.

We held hands on the way back home.

We got engaged in a small ceremony in front of our families. Our parents exchanged ceremonial plates with new clothes, gold jewelry, and flowers as they made a formal commitment to proceed with the marriage. Kannan and I exchanged flower garlands. We stood for pictures afterward wearing matching maroon silks. We look tired in the pictures, but I know I was happy. The wedding was set for June, with Kannan returning to the U.S. in between.

I travelled to Madras every weekend while he was still there. We watched movies and walked along the beach. He pinned flowers to my hair, and I held his hand possessively as we sat in the auto going back home.

I spent the next three months wrapping up work, polishing my resume, and shopping for my wedding trousseau. Sarees, nightwear, lingerie, salwar kameez, jeans, and tee shirts filled my shopping bags. I left Bangalore for good at the end of May with seven boxes that carried my life of five years as an independent working woman.

In the two weeks leading up to the wedding, I walked with amma along Pondy bazaar buying steel cookware and picking out matching accessories for my sarees. I bought my first ever pair of sneakers, Adidas, the brand I had eyed covetously when my brother left for the U.S. to earn his master’s degree a couple of years back. The branded sneakers represented to me opportunity, a gateway to things I previously had marked untenable in my head.

I met friends daily and indulged in ice creams and snacks. I tried to pack in as much of Madras and India as I could by way of memories in my head.

The wedding itself was a grand affair spread over three days. My cheeks hurt from the smiling and my scalp from all the elaborate hairdos. My girlfriends stuck to my side and advised me on everything from makeup to my wedding night.

Kannan tied the mangalsutra, the wedding chain, around my neck to a crescendo of nadaswaram and thavil beats. My family smiled with relief, while his cried remembering his mother.

Six years from the time my mom first pulled out my horoscope, finally married, I was excited about starting my new life with my new husband in a new country.

6 comments

  1. Aww so sweet … I remember going through the whole drama of arranged marriage, getting rejected till I finally put my foot down & parents(mainlymom) threw her hands up in air saying I was difficult, too independent & never gonna find a guy…

    Oh well.. life has been good and no complaints.. I would have probably killed the guy had I settled for any of em (not that I had a choice then)

  2. The travails of most Indian girls, stifled between their own dreams and desires and happiness and pride of parents is so well captured Laksh. Glad you found the right match after all those rejections. You definitely look happy in the picture.

    I have been a secret reader of your personal essays, and really really love the creative use of words and warmth in your writing. I see myself in you when you sit back, look at your life as a third person and write about it.

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