When you turned twenty-two your future became the business of every athai and mami who descend on your house with a stack of potential boys’ horoscopes; to drink coffee, eat amma’s tiffin, to peer at you through the top of their glasses which might as well have been microscopes, to comment freely as if you’re not even there, as if you’re just an object they’re considering buying. Or selling.
“Why is her hair like that? Is that the fashion now, to have it like a bird’s nest?”
“She’s so thin; could gain a couple of kilos.”
The same athai, after Hema’s wedding, skewered her for gaining a couple of kilos, making her cry at every post-wedding visit to relatives’ homes.
“Oh, don’t you use Fair & Lovely? Face looks dull”, says Sushi athai holding up your chin. She is your father’s sister. That entire side of the family is obsessed with white skin.
You smile politely, ask about her children. “Settled in Wisconsin. So much snow where they are. Children are so fair and tall.” You wonder what snow has to do with anything. You also wonder how foolish they must be to think desi kids born in America will be “white”.
Amma instinctively knows where your thoughts are going and gives you the evil eye, you bite your tongue and make appropriate admiring noises.
Your patti talks up your cooking skills.
You roll your eyes.
“But patti, I always overcook the rice.”
She shushes you. “1000 poi solli oru kalyanam pannalam, ponney! It is alright to tell a thousand lies if one wedding comes out of it.” Patti is proud of her very short educational career (fifth standard) and convent-English, and often translates her statements in English that are grammatically perfect yet sound like Tamil.
Even though you are terrified of marrying a stranger, you really have no justifiable reason to say no, and your silence is taken as approval to proceed.
Boy #1 comes to see you on a rainy day. The boy’s family devours the traditional plantain and potato bajjis and sojji swimming in ghee, chasing them down with filter coffee. Amma made you wear the mango yellow Mysore silk. You and the boy go to the backyard where the nithyamalli blooms, perfuming the space. You are intensely aware of his eyes over your body and coming up short of the 34-24-36 benchmark. You only hope this works in your favor. You sit on the washing stone; he sits on a folding chair placed there by your father. Two days later, a telephone rejection: boy thinks girl is too skinny.
In your office, every new programmer trainee is assigned a mentor. You shush your jumpy heart when you find out you’re in his team. He is a Malayali Christian. You are a Tamil Brahmin. You know it’ll never go anywhere. You can already see amma crying, calling you selfish for not thinking about your sisters’ future. He’s handsome, soft-spoken, different from the men in your family.
Boy #2 is a banker, tall, quiet. It’s easy to reject him; he’s a smoker.
He stops by your cube often, joking with you, giving little pep talks when you have trouble with the code. You have no illusions about your looks; you know he’s just being kind. But you can’t help wondering what it would be like to be with someone like him. He is the first male who’s given you any attention. It’s intoxicating. When he invites you to lunch, you hesitate only a second. He sits across from you at the restaurant, drawing you out of your shell and asks about your interests. He charms the waiters.
Boy #3, whose mother, when you mentioned details of your IT job, smirked. She jokes to amma: “should we talk about mixie grinder and masalas, mami?” Nobody is fooled, except maybe your father. He guffaws. You know her type: eyes lowered in public, saree respectfully covering her shoulder in the presence of men. She waits her entire life to get a daughter-in-law so she can treat her just like how she was treated. You wonder if her mean streak is inherent or has developed over a lifetime spent in the kitchen amidst pots of disappointment and spice jars filled with expired opportunities. Amma smiles awkwardly, politely, shoots you a warning glance. You rejoice inwardly; you know they will reject you then. Boy #3’s mother is the kind who wants a maidservant for her house and a sex toy/baby making machine for her son’s bedroom. She will despise any girl who dares to step outside the kitchen, who speaks as an equal to men. You are relieved when they call the next day to inform appa they settled on another girl.
He takes you out to lunch again, this time sitting next to you in the booth. And takes your hand in the dark of the restaurant and looks at you. You’re keenly aware of his perfume. This is the moment to step back from the vortex into which you’ve looked. Blood suffusing your face and neck, you let him kiss your palm. You squash the guilt about ruining your sisters’ futures. Later, you list your justifications: it’s the twentieth century; interreligious marriages are not unheard of; other than being from another religion and being non-vegetarian, they can’t find a single thing wrong with him; besides, he’s charming and will easily win over your family. You never, not for a single minute, imagine his family not accepting you.
Boy #4 has no faults. His family seems decent. You panic. He asks to speak to you. Back to the washing stone. You whisper. “I’m in love with someone in my office. My parents don’t know. Please say no to this proposal.” He looks stunned; appa gets the call two days later with a vague rejection.
Your sister looks at you suspiciously as you dress for work with extra care, commenting “you seem happy that proposal fell through.” You shrug. He has asked you to go to a movie that evening. You tell amma you’ll be working late, project deadline, everyone in the team is staying late.
At the movie, when he puts his arms around you, you snuggle and ask him if he’s talked to his parents. He says he will, that weekend. When he kisses you in the darkness of the theater, you don’t resist.
Boy #5 is arranged by your athai in Bangalore. You take the morning train, the Shatabdi. Your cousin picks you up at the station. After a shower, she takes you out for your favorite street foods—pani puri, pav bhaji, the famous Sreeraj lassi bar—on her moped. You’re having so much fun that you almost forget the reason you’re in Bangalore. That evening, you dress in a simple salwar kameez. The boy is tall, with an easy smile that lights up his eyes; he has applied to American universities for his MBA. You tell him you love Chennai too much. You discover he’s a reader, like you, the only person you know who has read To Kill a Mockingbird and loved it; you both love the music of Bread. He manages to make you laugh despite yourself; despite the other face that hides in your heart.
He has been avoiding your eyes. You catch him by a conference room and demand to know what’s going on. He tries to evade, saying let’s talk this evening. You call amma and say you’ll be home late again, too much work for the project. You ignore amma’s sigh.
As the sun sets on the Bay of Bengal, the two of you sit, a good two feet of sand between you. The waves are more exuberant today. You wonder if it’s a full moon day. The little boy selling sundal out of a tin can comes hopefully, walking sadly away when he dismisses him with an absent wave. The old lady selling flowers is similarly turned away. He doesn’t look at you, focusing instead on the horizon. His mother said no. No to a Tamil-speaking girl. No, religion isn’t an issue. No, he still loves and cares about you, he always will. It’s the language. If only his mother had said yes…
You don’t ask: did your mother say it’s okay to kiss Tamil girls, have your fun with them, but settle down with a good little Malayali girl? You kick up as much sand as you can while standing up. He begs you to let him give you a ride to the bus stop on his motorcycle, one last time.
You board the crowded bus. You squeeze in, holding on to the metal bar, try to see if he’s still waiting. People follow your eyes, notice him looking at you, leaning on his motorcycle. The bus reeks of sweat and judgment. A young girl’s virtue is everybody’s business in the nineties Madras.
The irony of being rejected by a man who taught you COBOL for not speaking his mother tongue hits you, making you laugh out loud in the crowded bus, turning heads. The man standing next to you mutters “karmam!” hitting his forehead in a gesture that speaks volumes of his disgust in the younger generation. The bus lurches forward, diesel fumes obliterating his image in swaths like a giant eraser: motorcycle wheels, black trousers, light blue shirt, face.
Srilatha Rajagopal lives in Florida with her husband of thirty plus years. She was born and raised in Chennai, India. She loves to read, write, cook, garden, experiment with her iphone camera, and watch birds in her backyard. She was an IT Project Manager and a software programmer in a former life. She has a recipe/cooking website at rasaala.com which is used heavily by the kids of her immediate and extended family. Her work has been published at Off Assignment and Tree and Stone Magazine, which nominated her story for Best of the Net.