It was late morning when I woke up. I stretched my left hand on its side and slit the curtain to see if my wife’s car was gone. Yes, it was. I made ginger tea for myself, ignoring the tea in the flask that she had prepared, and settled down in my recliner with a paper. I didn’t mind drinking tea without brushing my teeth; after all, it was a weekend. Weekends meant freedom for us, from each other, not that we were always together in weekdays, but the act of bearing with was dodged. I had been married for two months then and it seemed like an eternity already. Ours was an arranged marriage; my father and her father had a common friend who initiated the talks that ended in this exigency. She wasn’t beautiful, but was kind of cute and I was over thirty. Given my age, it was difficult to find a suitable Indian match for me who met all my mom’s conditions: good family, rich, educated, earning and height above five-foot-six. So we had settled for her. I didn’t really know her reasons in this settlement.
When I had exhausted the newspaper, I went downstairs to lock the house from inside. Then I wandered off to my wife’s study; it was a well ventilated huge room with windows the size of walls. The red velvety curtains were drawn to either side of the windows and secured by a lace that it looked like a school girl’s pony. There were paint boards all around and brushes of various sizes, some soaked in colour, and some dried out like a neglected piece of bread. The finished arts were neatly arranged at one corner of the room. I walked across to them, careful not to disturb the chaos that will reveal my presence. She called her work abstract art: art that did not require understanding to admire them. She had adorned our new house, a dowry from her father, with her paintings and art works. They disturbed me because they reminded me of what a worthless fellow I was; I didn’t have hobbies and I didn’t have a passion for anything. The most disturbing of her paintings was the one that hung on the wall behind the head-side of our bed. It was a woman made of shattering pieces of glass, her mouth wide open as if she was screaming from the bottom of her stomach, turned to her right side as if in flight from the hand, which looked like a male’s, that touched her left shoulder. The background was a pitch black.
* * *
I first met her at her home amidst her family and mine. She was thin, tall, structured, and wearing a blue-green silk-cotton saree. My parents had already seen her and liked her, too. She had small eyes, sharp nose and soft, brown skin. Her hair was thick, uniform, straight, and flowing like a waterfall. Unlike the other girls I had seen, she was not shy and had an air of confidence hanging about her. Her charisma was palpable. She was an artist and made a living by selling her work. She was a public speaker, theatre artist, barathanatiyam dancer, and social worker. “Why not?” I thought. During all the time her parents boasted about her, she sat there like a serene laughing Buddha, smiling and winking from time to time. I was just a boring engineer turned manager; there was nothing more to say about me, although my mom tried hard to flaunt my six digit salary. I felt overwhelmed; she was the kind of person who would look after herself—independent and clear headed. She wouldn’t need me, and this scared me.
Later when my mother asked how I liked the girl, I said I didn’t. This set her off. To top it, I couldn’t give a reason why I didn’t. The previous week, that jealous neighbour lady had asked my mother, “Is everything OK with him? I mean… you know what it is… or is it because you are not getting him married? Is he in love with someone from another caste?” She was terribly upset—I was already thirty two and people were annoying her with questions on my marriage. “I have a duty,” she said, “to get you married before I die.” She cried and refused food until she was hospitalised. I didn’t have a choice but to accept. If not for anyone, at least for her. Sweets were distributed, announcements made, fates sealed. Thanks to Mom’s meticulous plans, before a month had gone by I was a married man. A man who had to buy milk and curd every evening, vegetables every weekend, provisions every month; who had to come back home on time, eat only at home, pay the bills, and share his bed.
She brought with her a huge dowry: a fully furnished apartment in the heart of town, with a built-inswimming pool, gym, black Series 3 BMW, one kilo gold, fifty acres of land, and a honeymoon ticket to Veronica in the coming month.
I truly doubted if she liked me, let alone loved.
* * *
My stomach growled with hunger. I made my way to the bathroom and brushed and washed. Lemon rice, plain rice, rasam, brinjal poriyal and carrot sambar were neatly lined up in the fridge. She cooked very well, but considering the fact that she was multitalented, I wasn’t surprised. It was boring to eat alone, that too after marriage. At home, Mom would have made a chicken dish and murukkus. Here, I was all by myself, eating lemon rice with brinjal. She’s a pure vegetarian, not by custom, but by principle. She didn’t like killing animals for food and didn’t like people who killed animals. I loved chicken-65. This was how our conversations ended: in silence, owing to avoid arguments.
On the first night of our marriage, when I nervously sauntered into the room, leaving behind teasing and laughing cousins, she was sitting on her side of the bed, her head tilted towards the screaming lady painting. When I couldn’t muster the courage to say anything, she asked, “Do you know what this painting signifies?”
“No” I said.
“Domestic violence.” I didn’t know what that meant and I told her that.
“It means violence and ill treatment at home; though it is a gender neutral term, here in India, it usually denotes violence against women at home.”
“Oh!” was all that I could say. Why would anyone talk about domestic violence on their first night?
“Even sex without mutual consent in married couples comes under this category. A girl’s body is hers—only she can decide when, where, and to whom she gives it. In India, this is the problem: you teach girls that their body is a sacred temple and make them conscious of safeguarding it and then suddenly, one day, you lock them up with a man they barely know, just because he tied a yellow thread around her neck that morning.”
She might have well said, “Don’t rape me.” I didn’t so much as touch her.
* * *
I watched two movies back to back. It was already five o’clock and she was not yet home. I couldn’t blame her though—in the weeks after marriage, she did stay at home, but we had nothing in common to talk about. I watched movies, she read books. I guess she was also forced to marry me; in spite of her sweet talk, she struggled to play her part as a wife. I could see it in her eyes, her indifference. I have always wanted a girl who would immensely depend on me—financially and emotionally—who would ask me to pick her up and drop her at her office, fight with me if I’m late, ask me what I wanted for dinner, tease my dressing sense, oil my hair, plead not to be taken to the doctor, lean on my shoulders and fall asleep, and become nervous when I’m angry. It makes a man feel good, in control. Her characters were more masculine than mine. Maybe she wanted a different kind of guy, too.
I was jolted out of my reverie by a call from an unknown number. It was from an international dating agency; I had registered with them three months back. There was an event to be held the next day. As usual, the attendees were all verified to be rich, decent, and sophisticated. Oddly, I remembered paying quite a huge sum to register.
“You are invited sir. It would be a pleasure having you,” said the sweet female voice.
I didn’t tell her that by the time they found a slot for me in their calendars, I had become a married man. I missed the thrill of being a bachelor, being free to look at any girl and imagine stroking her hair and elsewhere without feeling guilty or ashamed. Even my friends had stopped calling me out for weekend street-cricket matches and movies. I could not discuss my unhappiness with my family as the discussion would only increase my mother’s distress. I felt alone and boring. If not for anything, at least for the sake of the huge registration fee, I told myself. In case I happen to meet someone who knew that I got married, I’ll tell them that I had registered earlier and came over to inform them and collect my cash back. It was not a believable lie, but had that gum of doubt sticking around. That would do.
I found myself browsing funny things like “how to impress a girl” and “how to strike up a conversation with a girl.” One thing led to another and I started to search the web for relationship advice on solving problems between couples. Some had a theory that childhood traumas and depression could cause this kind of cocooning. The more I read about it, the more convinced I was. A heart-to-heart talk and counselling were the suggestions. And then I remembered something: her diary. Unlike me, she wrote every day; I wrote only on days that had been most disturbing and gloomy. Her diary might shed some light on her. I quietly sneaked up to her study. I didn’t want to switch on the lights as it can be seen from outside; if my wife pulls up into the drive way, she’ll see. I used the light from my mobile and the streak of light from the next room to find the diary; it was on her table, bookmarked by a pen. I brought it to the hall and started reading it without disturbing the bookmark. She called her diary AAA. I didn’t know what that meant. Her first entry was last November:
Today had a really big fight with my parents; they are pestering me to get married. As though I don’t want to! I just don’t like the guys they bring; nor do I find any other guy I know attractive. Even if they are handsome or rich, they don’t seem to have the charisma. They are the kind of guys who want their wives to be submissive; they can’t respect their women for their intelligence, nor can they stand it. They look so meek and terrified of me!
I’m tired of this whole business AAA. I sometimes feel like running away. Is this what I’m worth? How can they even expect me to marry such guys? But I can see that they are losing patience with me. This December I’ll turn twenty seven, the oldest unmarried girl in our community. And by that day, my period of choice comes to an end. After that, I have to marry any guy they choose.
Today’s state: Hopeless!
I flipped through the pages. They were mostly about the arguments she had with her parents, her work, how much they sold for, and what kind of guy she wanted. Her state of the day was mostly ‘hopeless’ or its synonyms. If someone had appreciated her work, the state was ‘happy’; if she had sold her work for a good price, then it was ‘elated’; on the days she took a lonely drive to quieter ends of the town or the artists retreats, it was ‘bliss.’ There were other serious things, too. She had problems with her parents—she hated them for their ignorance and their desire to control her life. She felt very lonely but liked being alone. As an introvert (she had mentioned in one of her entries), she had only two close friends. Both of them were married and were busy with their lives. I remembered her telling me that one of them couldn’t even attend our wedding because she was in her first trimester. There was also a strange thing that she kept writing about, without mentioning what it was, like in this entry:
I did it to myself AAA; and I’m still doing it. I cannot resist it. I know it is bad for me and it is totally wrong. But I just can’t stop myself. I wonder how I’m going to tell it to my husband and how he’ll take it. I won’t be surprised if he takes me to a psychiatrist. But if at all he decides to discuss it with my parents, I’ll hang myself. That’s for sure.
Today’s state: Fraught
I’m going to stop doing it. This time, I’m serious. It is very hard but I’ll win.
Today’s state: Determined
I did it again!!! I’m chiding myself to no avail. God, please save me!
Today’s state: Broken
I couldn’t guess what it could be. I frantically went through other pages. I had to read as much as possible and save the analysis for later.
I attended Meena’s marriage. It was great and she was happy. Her husband is a good man. When we left her at his house and told our goodbyes, she cried. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and held her tight. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the two of them. I’m wondering what it would be like to know the love of your life. Awesome? Bliss? Extreme happiness? Will I feel that way? Will he feel that way about me? What will we talk about when we first meet? By what name will he call me? Will he carry me about? How much I long to see his face! His eyes, the shape of his nose, his stubble, the hair of his ears, his muscular arms and strong legs, the feel when he touches me, the grace with which he’ll carry me about… When will I meet my guy AAA? When will I be a Mrs.?!
Today’s state: Dreamy
When our parents left us at the house, two days after our wedding, we waved at them, each aware of the other’s indifference and their own. We arranged our things with little small talk, like two strangers put together in a hostel room.
Bad day. Met a guy and actually liked him. But he didn’t like me. His mom had told the broker that he was looking for someone fairer. Am I only what I look like AAA? Why do guys not see what I am inside? My intellect, my heart. And these mothers! They choose fair and plump girls with little or no brains and later when she chases them out of the house, they cry and blame their sons!
I want a guy who feels that I’m beautiful as I am. Someone who sees through me and loves me for all that I am and all that I am not. The wait is killing me.
Today’s state: Glum
Today is my birthday and I’m fucking single. My parents are so happy; will you believe me if I say that a guy is coming home tomorrow? His parents had visited a few days back. I thought they were Dad’s friends. I’m terribly nervous. If the guy likes me, they’ll get me married in no time. My mom is so picky even about small things like my sari and jewels. I can only hope he turns out to be good or if he’s not, then he shouldn’t like me.
Today’s state: Numb
I’ve got news! The guy’s mom called today: he likes me. There is celebration at home. His mom wants the marriage within a month and my parents are more than happy to accept it. Ok, he was tall and handsome; graceful and charming. He had a charisma I had seen in no other guy. I liked his curly hair and broad shoulders. But he looked very detached. I doubt if he really likes me or being forced into marriage like I am. I’ll know it only after marriage.
Today’s state: Tired
I’m going to get married tomorrow. No bliss, no awesome. Only fright. My friends tell me that men will want to have sex on the very first night—especially Indian men. All they do in their years of being single is imagining up this night of how they’ll lose their virginity and rob their new wife of hers. It is their fantasy come true. They’ll never miss the chance or be patient. What if he…
I heard the gate swing open. I glanced the state:
Today’s state: Scared
I rushed to her table and placed the diary as it was. I sat back quietly on the sofa pretending to browse on my tab. When she rang the bell, I opened the door trying hard to mask my anxiety. There she was, with her red cotton sari hitched high above her ankles, her hair in a neat bun and a tired smile on her face.
“Sorry I’m late. Master cancelled classes tomorrow, so we had a few extra hours today,” she said apologetically.
“No problem,” I mumbled wondering if she liked me now.
“You look—” I started to say.
“Mmm?” she said, turning to me.
I wanted to say “beautiful,” but settled for “tired.”
“Yeah, I am tired. Three hours of continuous dancing and I’m drained.”
I had to tear my attention away from that diary. I offered to help with dinner, but she said she didn’t like help in the kitchen. Fair enough. There was no other change, no sudden romance, no coyness, and certainly no sex. I decided not to attend the event; I was determined to do whatever I could to make sense of the mess we were in. The scene from our first day kept playing in my mind: her serene face masking the nervous girl inside, praying I wouldn’t like her. The next day I suggested we go to a movie, to which she agreed. This was the first time we were going out together. On the way to and from the movie, we talked of things—ordinary things, everyday things: best mall of the city, petrol price rise, slipshod politicians. We got a popcorn bucket and shared, at times our hands touching in the faint light from the screen. We had lunch at a high end restaurant, agreed upon what to eat, and shared a dish. I ate a few mouthfuls from her plate to taste the starter that she ordered. I was burping on the way back and she teased. We went to the department store near our house; I pushed the cart, walking alongside her as she piled it up with the month’s supplies. I made tea, of course, after pleading her. She said it was nice; a little sugar was not enough, and I added too much milk, but she smiled it off. We watched an old classic Tamil comedy and laughed till our stomaches ached. She asked if Chappathi would be alright for dinner. I said yes. While she cooked, I sat on the kitchen slab and told her stories from my childhood. She laughed her head off. During dinner, she elucidated her family tree for me. “Confusing,” I said. We slept.
As I was getting ready for work the next morning, she asked me where I had my lunch.
“Would you like to take lunch packed from home?” she asked hesitantly.
“If it is not a trouble for—”
“No, it is not a trouble for me.” That was quick.
“I would love to have lunch packed.”
“Then buy four Tupperware boxes and a decent bag for them.”
She smiled. I smiled.
She called me in the evening to remind me of the Tupperware. “Why four?” I asked. “One for rice and poriyal, one for rasam, one for sambar and one for curd.” I imagined her counting out her fingers. “Yes ma’am!” I said. She giggled. During dinner, she asked me if I could come home early the next day.
“Yeah ok. You have any plans?”
“Is it ok for you to come shopping with me?”
“It is always ok to come along with you. I mean, it’s great. I would love to.”
“You sound like an idiot.” And I did.
“I’m trying, yeah. Give me some time. You’ll see my flirting abilities.”
We giggled like seventeen-year-olds.
And this was how we fell in with each other, in tiny ways. Saying good morning and goodnight, waving while I left for work, writing her name on my car’s dirty back window, packing lunch, helping her with dinner, watching movies together, taking a walk at night, doing our laundry together in our huge washing machine, buying a ring and a rose for valentine’s day, eating from each other’s plates, holding her hands while crossing the road, sleeping closer at night. We called ourselves friends and shared stories and jokes. I asked if we could change the painting in our bedroom; she replaced it with a Radha-Krishna painting: Radha and Krishna curled up on their sides to watch the moon over the distant mountains. She said she always wanted to ride in a bike with her guy. We did a research on which bike to get, had arguments, and settled for a Bullet. She had an accident in ninth grade, when riding with her brother. She had no major injuries, but her brother had four surgeries. So, she was naturally afraid of two-wheelers. She wrapped one hand around my belly and the other around my shoulder blade, tightly. When I broke, she clutched. It was bliss.
By the time we were preparing for our Veronica honeymoon, we were more than friends. I never read that diary again. I didn’t have the need to. It still beats me how we became intimate in just a month; my clients abroad were shocked to know that I had an arranged marriage. “How can you marry someone you hardly know?” Well honestly, I don’t know. Indian marriages are a one time affair, and, barring a small percentage, arranged marriages are here to last. Maybe it’s the celebration, the countless rituals and ceremonies before and after the wedding that creates an unforeseen yet rare bond. Maybe it’s not only about the bride and the groom, but also the family, parents, and values we long to cherish. Maybe it’s that he or she is the chosen one by God.
I grew fond of her and knew she had of me. And there was this bond—knowing each other’s priorities and wishes without having to state them. My guess was right. She didn’t need me, but she wanted me. We held hands, kissed in darkness, and cackled over silly things. Initially, it felt awkward and perverse, but soon we fell into a rhythm of sorts and looked forward to every day and night. We knew things about each other that nobody else knew and always said the right words that left the other amused.
* * *
Our parents came to the airport to see us off on our honeymoon. We had planned our dresses for the fortnight and packed them together. On the plane, I admired her father’s generousness for the business class ticket.
“Yes, babes?” (Yeah, I called her that, and she called me Hon!)
“I’ll feel sick when the plane takes off. It’s a problem I’ve had from childhood.”
“Do you want to hold my hands?”
“No?” I asked in mock disbelief.
“I want to hold the whole of you.”
It was lovely; she wrapped her arms around mine and leaned in. We were in mid air, cutting through air and clouds.
“Will you… will you hate me if… will you hate me if you know I’m a little mad?”
That rang a bell.
“No. I will not. You can tell me anything and nothing will change between us.” I said it with all sincerity and slowly stroked her hair.
After what seemed like a quiet quarter of an hour, she sobbed and whimpered, head buried in my chest.