Friday, October 19, 2007

Tribulation Of An Arranged Marriage - The Setting

When I was younger, I had deadlines. Guy friends left at nine promptly; if I was out I needed to be home by ten, tell them where I am every 45 minutes and no car ever. Now if I’m with a PH (Prospective Husband Type) I get the car, no curfew and complete privacy. If I ever make the mistake of calling home, I’m told to hang up immediately as I was offending our esteemed guests. Sometimes I get the distinct impressing, if I was ever kidnapped by one of the PHs, my folks would take solace in the fact that he would get to spend some more time with me.

So when they put my profiles online, I was in trauma. I enjoy the occasional glass of wine. I enjoy photography, movies, theatre and museums. All of which was flatly ignored. I was portrayed as a “homely” girl who likes to cook, and doesn’t touch tobacco and alcohol. I should have realized the trouble I was gonna get in, from right there. I didn’t. I know better now.

The routine was simple. They look for a guy, they match horoscopes, if that matches then we talk on the phone, the parents come home, If the dude is in the same city, we meet, we see how it goes. If he doesn’t, we talk until we meet. If all’s well, we get engaged, If not, we say our shaloms to each other to each other, wish each other all the best and move on with out respective lives.

When the boy’s folks decide come over, there is an entire orchestrated exercise. My usually spotless abode then looks like the inside of a surgical ward at Breach Candy. The house is cleaned and recleaned with a feverish aggression. Every window grille washed, every corner dusted, AC’s serviced, fans cleaned, every single sheet of crystal polished, every little bit if glass was squeakily cleaned, first with a glass cleaner , then with newspaper, washrooms scrubbed till you can eat off them, TONS of food made, clothes folded and ironed, washcloths folded and ironed, bed linen upholstery and curtains all changed. The family pet terrapin, Nefertiti, would be scrubbed lovingly, her nails clipped, her shell waxed, her tub changed and she would be put in a small bathroom for the duration of the visit. My brother would be told to behave himself and sent off to get a haircut. Asha, our domestic help, usually well turned out at the best of times, ends up looking spectacular. If my mom had her way, they would have the apartment and the building repainted.

This was nothing compared to the wonders that it did for the Sachidanandan family life and it’s morale. The family, sarcastic and unintentionally amusing at the best of times, morph into shrill loud paranoid monsters. I would be asked to clean out my cupboard, drawers, refile all my papers, and rearrange all my books and DVD’s. After a long day of work, this particular set of chores is never on my list of evening plans. Result? War.

Clothes were an issue of course. I would want to wear jeans; my mom has set aside a saree for just this occasion and would insist that if I didn’t, I was even more ungrateful than she thought. Only tarts wore jeans when a boy came to see them. My question, why would a boy come to see a tart? This is also about the time that I would seriously start contemplating hiring a lawyer and getting emancipated from my family. Matricide was another option. My long suffering daddy would finally step in and we would compromise on kurta and jeans. Every single time. All this for a two hour visit.

By this time, my blood pressure is dangerously high, my tolerance levels dangerously low. I have a hatchet hidden under the bed (polished, of course) and I hope I never have to repeat this charade again.

But I do.
More soon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Wonderland, Interrupted

She walks in beauty. I noticed her at the Lakme Fashion Week and wondered how I could have forgotten she was going to be there. She has the characteristic stride of someone who has been doing this a while. I loved the way she held a pose and whipped around to walk back. But something had changed.

I loved a lot of things about her. I loved the way she swung her shoulders back confidently and sashayed down. I loved the expression in her light eyes because they were completely open and honest. Most of all, I loved the innocence in her face because I knew it was genuine.

I used to know her a long time ago. In a way, she and I kind of grew up together. Our fathers worked in the same place and they were close friends. So it was natural that I meet her at the occasional office party.

When we were younger, I would wonder about this light skinned girl who was always lost in her happy little world. A pampered spoilt child slightly older than i was, she was treated well at home even if the world took liberties with her. Her semi foreign lineage, white skin and frail figure got her noticed and college and at the grand old age of 17, she was a ramp model. With her globetrotting and mine, I hadn’t seen her for about ten years by then,

The next time I met her, I was a struggling junior journalist and she was trying to get a foothold in the industry. I was to interview her. She recognized me immediately and we got chatting. I remember her telling me that her becoming a model was one way of telling all the people who tormented her to take a hike. Why would people torment her? She was quiet, she was naïve and she wasn’t the bright spark in the class. Peers can be cruel. For them, she was just someone to tease all day, never realizing that the sheltered girl was sensitive and often went home in tears. Was she angry with them? Oh no. They were nice. She just didn’t understand the jokes and was scared of them.

I had a grudging respect for her. Although she wasn’t the best looker, she had managed a glamorous career. She was nowhere near famous but she had managed to stabilize herself in this fickle industry. She didn’t sleep her way to the top and the sudden fame and money had nothing to change her. As the token ugly ducking everywhere, I was in awe and just a bit of envy. But as the years went by, we lost touch again.

I was invited to her wedding but I didn’t go. I wasn’t in the country at the time. My folks were away too. She was marrying this foreign academician and was to have a lovely future. She was to move back into the country of her mother and start anew there. She was to be very happy.

A few months ago, I heard from the radar that she was back. Divorced and with a kid. Her husband has beaten her up repeatedly. I longed to call her and ask her how she was. But it had been 6 years since we’d spoken. I wasn’t sure if she’s recognize me if I passed her on the street. I was right. She didn’t.

I was standing outside the NCPA hall when she passed me. In full make up, she was obviously on her way somewhere. She swept up the stairs and bumped right into me. For one minute, she looked at me and I saw the spark of a sudden familiarity in her face. The I realised what had changed. The innocent had lost its openness, its warmth. They had acquired a hard steely quality which can only be described as ruthless. We stared at each other for a minute and then someone yelled out to her. She was due for hair. She apologized for bumping and went by. That well of innocence that had been inside that child was lost.

I saw her again that evening. She was walking the ramp for a famous designer. I thought about the guts that it has taken this fundamentally shy and naïve child to abandon a brutal husband and move back home with a child. Into a society that already judges her because she’s a model, that judges her because she’s divorced, that tormented her as a child. I saw her put away her hopes and dreams and start life anew. I saw her go home to her baby after a show and not stay to party with her fellow models. I saw all of those sacrifices.

As she walked, shoulders squared, pelvis pushed out, looking more beautiful than I have ever seen her, she looked straight in front. She held a pose, whipped around and strode back into the wings.

The child is gone.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Arrange Marriage Tribulations. The Beginning

(This one’s got several parts. Watch this space)

Apart from the complete mortification of admitting that you haven’t met someone by yourself and letting your folks find a guy for you, there is so much more to arranged marriages. More mortification. One of the subjects they should teach in school is how to nab someone and hold on to him. I'm sure this will save much trauma and therapy in later years. For the age old tradition of arranged marriage is seriously one of the most humiliating experiences in the world.

People you know and love end up making you feel incomplete, like you were born without a nose or half a brain. The family you adore looks at you with pity and compassion. The guys THEY pick out look at you like you’re a side of beef. The boy’s relatives look down laundry lists of dos and don'ts that the girl absolutely must posses. You look in the mirror and seriously wonder if there is something wrong with you that your loved ones have politely overlooked for so many years. In my opinion, the Indian woman who has braved the arranged marriage is a brave species. Nothing but nothing can surpass this intense misery. I wish I’m kidding.

For the uninitiated, here’s some background. I come from conservative south Indian stock. I have lived all over the world, I read, I write I travel, I watch movies, I don’t party much, I’m learning to dance, I’m into content management and I’m a aspiring writer. I have Masters in English Literature; I hope to attain a PhD and an MBA eventually. I have a business Diploma in German and I hope to learn other languages. I work in a fairly decent position in a very fancy company. I enjoy long walks, beaches, foreign movies, learning languages and food.

It all started when I turned 24. A good age generally, a bad age if you aren’t seeing someone seriously. I wasn’t.

Before they stared looking, we had a family conference. They asked me what I'd like in a guy. My needs were simple. I wanted someone presentable with not too much of an age difference, who had a nice job, was emotionally mature and financially secure, from a metropolitan, with whom I had at least one interest in common. Love for traveling is mandatory. I wanted someone who wouldn’t suffocate or restrict me. I didn’t want anyone with dietary or lifestyle restrictions. They carefully wrote all of this down and promptly disregard it to date.

Then it was my turn. They then told me what my shortcomings were.
A)I wasn’t professionally qualified, I wasn’t a lawyer, doctor, engineer or even an MBA (This coming from the people who REFUSED to let me do an MBA because it was time to get married) therefore I shouldn’t expect a fancy job or a moneyed someone.
B)I have all the trappings of someone who lived in Mumbai and abroad so I shouldn’t expect a looker, I have a sharp tongue and a sharper pen so I shouldnt expect somene kind or patient.
C)Not anyone rich as we're not rich. (My dad has enough stowed away to put three generations through Harvard and still live but thats another story)
D)I am a girl therefore I shouldnt have too many interests. If I don’t have interests then I can cultivate the interests that my husband already has.
E)People don’t have the time to read these days so nobody intellectual. So let’s just see what we end up with.
F) Also i may or may not be a manglik, which is another booboo.

One complacent step at a time, the beloved family meticulously the quarter of a century that i have lived. Sobering thought.

Then, the entire looking process happens. Quite a difficult task but my mom manages just fine. I think my mom actually enjoys looking for guys for me. After breakfast is done, my mom perches her glasses on her nose and starts looking. She enthusiastically sifts through thousands of photographs of “eligible” men and short list several hundreds a day. Online matrimonial sites, bureaus, references, you name it. Every evening come, I’m promptly given a list of encrypted codes and photographs. Photographs of all the people she has shortlisted on the basis of horoscope, family background, educational qualification and looks, in that order.

Now see, there is a huge problem right there. My mom’s idea of good looks is my idea of a hairy scary troll. In true Malayalee style, the man needs to sport a mustache, which for me is highly avoidable. Of course, looks aren’t the only thing to life. There are others.

Sure, he may have a fancy job but speaks really badly. He may speak well but will only want vegetarians. He may have everything i look for but will want someone who will sit in a remote village in kerala and take care of the family business while he works on another continent. (This actually happened) He wants someone below the age of 26 while he is running his mid forties. Another one wants to be "friends". (on a matrimonial site?)They all want beautiful", working, fair, and homely. Everyone but everyone"of them is committment phobic. If I complain about the attitudes of their profiles, I'm given a line that came right out of an 80's Hindi flick, that im a girl and shouldnt expect anything.

Like i said, we're a hardy lot.

Read on. More soon.