“I feel like a museum piece!” my fingers flew over the keypad of my mobile phone. “Chillax lil sis! We all go through this. It’s a normal part of ‘being Indian’. So don’t fret over it,” was my sister’s cool reply. “Yeah yeah! You are a fine one to speak. You married your childhood sweetheart,” I threw it in her face.

I promise I could hear her sigh in exasperation all the way from Mumbai to where I lived with my parents in Delhi. “Maahi! Will you stop being such a baby? The guy is Karan’s friend and I have met him on a few occasions. Just think, if you both like each other, and decide to go ahead with the marriage, then you and I will literally be neighbours!” texted di.

“Oh yes! Of course! As if I have never been to Mumbai and don’t know that the distance between your place in Bandra and this guy’s place in Mulund is not exactly ‘neighborly’,’ I texted feverishly. By now, our mother was on the verge of calling the fire brigade to break open the door to my bedroom since I had failed to reply to her!

“Coming ma!” I finally called out to her. Ma heaved a very audible sigh of relief upon hearing my voice. On hindsight, I realize she had been worried that I had run away from home in typical filmy fashion.

I took a final look at myself in the mirror and after setting straight my pallu. I opened the door. “What took you so long? Jay is already here,” she reprimanded me. “Come on ma! I am just being fashionably late,” I replied haughtily and began walking towards the staircase that led down to the living room.

Hey matarani! Kuch toh akkal dee hoti saddi beti nu!” exclaimed my mother. “Ab kee hoya? Why are you calling upon the goddess now?” I asked, looking up at her. “You are dressed in a saree and you are walking like a boy wearing shorts! Walk like a lady. The way they show in movies!” she advised.

I let out a sigh of frustration and slowed my gait, added a slight swish to my hips as I walked down. Achieving such a dainty gait while dressed in a long flowy saree was no mean feat for a tomboy like me, and I hoped this Jay guy appreciated the efforts I had had to put in just to please his parents and him. Much to my relief, my mother seemed to find my gait dainty enough and didn’t comment further.

As we reached the living room, I saw that Jay had come with the entire baraat! Wait! What was this? Why had he come with so many relatives? Did he think I was going to agree to marry him just because he was my jijaji’s friend? My mother pushed a tray of chai into my hands and told me to serve everyone.

As I began doing the rounds, offering tea to all the baaraatis, they began introducing themselves. God help me I can’t remember the name of my best friend’s brother. Did they really expect me to remember so many names and relations in one sitting?

During the round of my pretending to be the oh-so-docile Punjabi kudi, one guy stuck out his hand to shake mine. I was shocked. I had been instructed… no, warned by my parents that Jay’s parents were very conservative and in no case was I to shake my hands with any of them. I was to simply bow my head and fold my hands in greeting in typical Indian way and say Namaste ji.

It turned out that he was Jay’s cousin and was a second generation NRI settled where else, but sadda Kanedda. Where on the globe of the earth is this Kanedda you ask? Learn your geography well you people! Why, it is the country to the north of Amreeka. Finding no help forthcoming, I shyly shook hands with him.

The round of introductions continued unaffected. After some time, Jay cleared his throat and his elder sister Pammi told my parents that her brother wanted to talk with me before he could decide. HE could decide? Where was I in all this? I looked at my father for help, but he was busy discussing world politics with one of Jay’s many uncles.

After my mother acquiesced to Pammi’s request, I led Jay into the garden. As we sat across each other on the garden chairs, Jay smiled at me. “So Maahi, what do you do?” he asked. ‘Nice. This guy is actually interested in knowing about my life choices and career!’ I thought. “Well, I have done my Montessori course and…” I began. “Ok ok great! So you don’t work,” he interrupted. ‘Wait! What? I don’t work? I work in a primary school!’ I wanted to tell him, but he was least interested in letting me finish.

“You see, I work at a very important position in a huge multinational company and it has branches all over the world. So I need a wife who doesn’t work. I need someone who is not into all this new-age career-shareer drama,” he ploughed on, unaware that I was annoyed. “Ok, so that is first hurdle crossed. Let’s proceed,” he continued. I was seriously bugged by this time and was looking around for a means of escape.

“Do you know how to cook? Can you cook all typical Punjabi dishes? I mean rajma-chawal, chhole-bhature, naan, paronthe, moongdal halwa, and all? Yes?” he cheerfully continued, unmindful of the fact that I had nodded my head like a cow simply to get him to shut up. “And what about continental dishes? Pasta, pizza?” he posed. He saw my stoic expression and said, “Ok ok, no problem, we can always order those dishes till you learn them.” I would have thrown up then and there had it not been for the fact that it was my garden and I would have to clean up all the mess later!

“Hey! I hope you like wearing bridal chura. You see, I keep having a lot of social interactions with my colleagues from all over the world. And they are enamored by Indian culture. My impression in the eyes of my phirangi bosses would grow by leaps and bounds if we invite them over and offer them desi khaana  made by you. You could serve it wearing a typical salwar suit, replete with the chura!” he looked at me as if expecting me to applaud his eureka moment. In the meantime, I was wondering if this guy was for real, or if he had just escaped from an asylum for the mentally deranged.

Before I could say another word though, his cousins and siblings came out into the garden and joined us. “So, baat banee kee nahi? Is the wedding fixed then?” they pushed Jay and me together jovially. The deep red color of Jay’s blush would have put tomatoes and beetroots to shame. “Meri taraf se toh haan hai ji,” he said, informing everyone and me of his willingness to marry me. “Ohho!! Badhai ho ji badhai!!” they all shouted in unison. I was yet to be even asked my wishes.

If this is how the family was now, I was afraid how they would behave once they became my extended family. I was furious and kept looking in the direction of the door for a peek of my mother or father. Just then, we were joined by one more member of the huge khandaan.Isi kee kamee thi, wo bhi poori ho gayee!” I muttered to myself as the Canadian cousin walked over to join his family in congratulating Jay and me.

The cousin gave me a curious glance as he reached his cousins. After a few moments of the ruckus, he pulled Jay and me into a corner and asked, “So, you both arrived at a lifelong decision after five minutes of conversation?” “Yes!” replied Jay and I in unison. Jay looked at me and smiled. I didn’t smile back.

The NRI saw this exchange and asked Jay, “What did you like most about her?” “She doesn’t work, she can cook, she is gorgeous, and has a great figure!” replied Jay instantaneously. “Oh! So you want a wife who is dependent on you for every penny, a cook to satisfy your gastronomic fancies and a model to display as a trophy in your home?” was the NRI’s sharp comeback.

Jay was flabbergasted. He had probably never expected anyone to question his choices. “Well, uh, I…”. He got a taste of his own medicine when his NRI cousin, who seemed to have quite a bit of clout in his khandaan thanks to his elevated status as an NRI and that too second generation, interrupted him roughly.

“And what about you Maahi? You are happy with moving to a new city, with no friends or family of your own, no career, no money of your own? You would be okay with trying out new dishes in the kitchen, to be tasted and judged only by your husband and his equally misogynist colleagues, to be displayed as a museum piece in your own home?” the NRI asked turning to me.

I saw my opportunity and grabbed it. “No way! I never agreed to marrying Jay!” I replied firmly. I knew that my parents would have never given me the opportunity to speak up. After all, Jay was a friend of their son-in-law and they would never want to hurt the sentiments of my sister’s husband. I knew this NRI was my only hope and only he could and would help me.

“What? But you said yes when veerji asked you if you have arrived at a decision!” Jay had found his voice. “I said yes I have decided. But I did not say yes I want to marry you. My decision is no. I will NOT marry you!” I replied hotly.

By now, all his khandaan and mine had joined us upon seeing the commotion. “O-ji koi baat nai ji. Shaadi se pehle ye sab darr-sharr toh har kudi de mann mein honda hai ji! Hole hole sab settle ho jaana hai” said one of the many aunts of the huge khandaan. My mother was almost in tears at seeing her daughter rejecting the rishta of such a well-earning and well-settled boy.

“But what is the problem?” my father asked, ever the calm voice of reason. “Papa, Jay has no idea what I do, nor does he want to know. He decided he agrees to marry and that was it. He never asked me what I would like to do. Nor did he ask me if I agree to marry him. He assumed that I would fall in line with his decision!” I said, almost in tears myself.

My father was torn between his two daughters. How could he disappoint the husband of his elder daughter by rejecting the marriage proposal of the latter’s friend for his younger one? He shook his head and fell silent. I was defeated. I had been brought up taught that “Betiyan toh ghar kee izzat hoti hain!” I knew I would have to get married to Jay if my parents decided to stick by the choice of their elder son-in-law.

In a few moments, the story changed. Just as my would-be sasuma brought out the shagun, the NRI stepped in, “Unbelievable! This is worse than slaughtering an animal!” This girl here is clearly stating her refusal to marry this guy, and yet, every single one of you is pushing her into matrimony with the very same guy she has refused? Even her own family cannot stand with her on this decision for fear of hurting the sentiments of their elder son-in-law? “Waah re mere desh kee naari! Teri maaya hee niralee!” he cited some lines from some film.

“Then what to do, beta? You know our quandary,” said my father. “If you don’t mind, may I talk with Maahi in private for just two minutes?” asked the NRI. Seeing as the NRI was my soon-to-be jethji, my father agreed.

We went into a corner of the garden. “What is it? What monkey dance do you all want me to perform now?” I asked him angrily. “Maahi, I am very sorry for the way my entire family has behaved with you. I am asking you, what is it that you wish to do? Other than not marry my stupid brother, of course,” asked the NRI.

“Well, for one, I love my job and I dream to open my own Montessori and day care centre one day. A lot of working women have to leave their jobs because of unsatisfactory day care. I want to open such a centre that will not only mind and feed the children, but also keep them constructively and happily occupied all day,” I stopped when I saw the NRI smiling.

“Welcome on board, Maahi!” he said. “What do you mean?” I was puzzled. “Well, I own and run a large chain of educational instituted in Canada, and we have been hunting for a person like you. A person who not only understands the need of children, but is also passionate about fulfilling those needs!” said the NRI.

“Thank you, but what use is it now?” I asked him miserably. “Well, you could do all this if you join us, me, as a partner,” said the NRI. “How? Your cousin doesn’t even know that I work in this field. You think he will let his wife work?” I questioned. “What he and his wife is their concern, I don’t care much about that,” he retorted. “I don’t understand” I was now completely confused.

“Look Maahi, I would love to have a wife who understands my passion for education and the need for daycare. If she should wish to join me in my field, it would be an icing on the cake. But whether she wishes to join me in my work, or do something else that her heart desires, or wants to manage home, is entirely her choice. I will always support my life partner in her decisions, and would love to have her support in mine,” he said passionately. “Wow! Then whoever you choose as your life partner would be very fortunate indeed,” I replied, a tad jealous of whoever would marry this NRI.

“Maahi, you would make me extremely happy if you accept to become my partner – for life,” he said nervously. It took me a moment to understand the true meaning of his words, but when I did, I was stunned. I had never in my dreams expected to have two boys of the same family propose marriage to me. “Take your time to think. Ask me any questions you wish to. And yes, before you decide anything, my name is Arth,” he smiled.

“Arth, I need no further time to think. I know what my answer is. You are the answer to my questions. I say yes!” I squealed in delight. Now it was the turn of my family to run towards me upon seeing my tears of two minutes ago change into a delightful smile. “What is the matter, beta?” my father asked me as Jay ventured possessively close, behaving like I was his property.

Damn! I had completely forgotten about Jay! What a mess! I told my parents that I wanted to speak with them in private. I was not very comfortable discussing such a delicate matter in presence of Jay and his khandaan. Arth nodded pleasantly at me and pulled his cousin Jay away from the crowd of their family, while I walked into the kitchen with my parents.

I told them about Arth’s proposal. “What have you done?” my mother shouted! “You have spoiled our reputation. Now neither Jay nor Arth will marry you. And there in Mumbai, your jijaji will vent his anger on your di. You could you do this Maahi?” my mother wailed. “Excuse me aunty,” said a voice from the door.

Three heads turned to the door to look at the owner of the voice in shock and suspicion. It was Arth. “I am sorry, but I could not help overhearing your conversation. I promise you that I will marry your daughter. Not only that, while you were conferring in here, I had a quick talk with my family. I have convinced them that Jay and Maahi cannot be happy together. Jay has agreed to step down.” Arth gathered his courage when my father did not react angrily.

It was then that I saw what Arth was holding in his hand and I was once again shocked by his sensitive gesture. He was holding a phone in his hand and the screen was lit. Even from that twisted angle, I could see that the phone was in call. Arth brought his phone forward and handed the phone to my father. “Uncle, I called up my parents in Ontario, Canada and they wish to speak with you,” said Arth respectfully.

My father accepted the phone and held it to his ear. He was silent for a long time, but the digital squeaks coming from the phone speaker told us that it was a one-sided conversation. After a while, my father got up and left the room, the phone still glued to his ear. He came out of his bedroom after about half an hour. The half an hour was one of my longest ever, and Arth looked positively blue with nervousness.

When my dad came out, he was smiling like never before. His huge grin told us everything we needed to know and Arth got up and hugged my parents and me. What transpired between my then would-be in-laws and my dad, I will never know, but I assume that both parties were putting the fears of the other to rest.

Arth and I got married with blessings of our families. Much to my surprise, my jijaji was very happy with the match and did not seem upset about my rejection of Jay at all. On the wedding day, the biggest surprise of the evening for us all came when Jay came in accompanied by a very beautiful girl on his arm. He introduced her to us as his colleague Rosy. She looked poles apart from the typical desi Punjabi kudi he had talked about during our meeting.

After a few months, Jay announced to us that he was marrying Rosy. By then, Arth and I were at home in Canada and we were unable to attend Jay’s wedding at short notice. After a few years and a few babies, Jay finally felt comfortable to admit to me that he had been seeing Rosy when he had come to meet me, and fearing his family’s wrath, had decided to marry a desi kudi to appease them. He says he would have stopped seeing Rosy had we gotten married, but I have never ventured into thinking about what ifs.

That night, after Jay’s confession, I snuggled into the arms of my loving husband and he patted my huge pregnant belly. I would probably have been stuck in a forced, loveless, infidel marriage had Arth not come along as a Godsend that day. I was happy.

 

This short story is entirely fictional and completely filmy. Happy reading!!