This story was part inspired by an American colleague of mine. I had the good fortune of working with him several years ago, and also meeting his Indian wife in the process. It amazed me to see him greet her grandfather at the airport by touching his feet. Here was a man who was happy to become a part of an alien culture, for the sake of love.
Ironically, I am now reading ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. The depth and breadth of his magnificent novel is mind boggling. My humble little story pales in comparison. However, here it is:
AN UNSUITABLE BOY
It has been said, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
Not that I would know. I have never had the occasion to fall out of love with my wife. Yes, we’ve had our fair share of disagreements and arguments. There are times, that I’ve suspected, that she hasn’t viewed me too kindly. And three children have certainly taken their toll on our nerves, bank accounts and waist lines. Through it all though, I have loved her with a solid, some might say, stolid steadfastness.
The first question most people ask when they meet us the first time is a probing, “So how did the two of you meet?” It’s not a polite conversation starter. It is a wide eyed, genuinely curious query. It irritates my wife no end. More often than not, she snaps, “At University”. And that’s the end of that. Woe betide anyone who tries to go further.
Now, if it is me they ask, they get a different answer. The romantic in me rises to the occasion each time. I love telling our story. I love retelling it too. And since you’ve asked….
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
To me, Sudha was as exotic as a rare bird. She was fiercely intelligent but with none of the emasculating stridency of her American contemporaries. Her kohl lined eyes, her sun kissed skin, her long lustrous hair hinted at an eroticism that all the perky cheerleader types in their too tight tops and mini skirts couldn’t even hope to emulate. I followed her like a helpless fool till she condescended to the first date. She told me then in no uncertain terms that it would not work. It could not work. She was Indian. I was Jewish American. The twain would never meet.
It took two years to get the first kiss. It took another one to get her to stay over. Not once did I doubt, though, that it was worth the wait. I pined for her, I dreamt of her. She was my reason and my drug.
She laughed at my fancies, and called me a fool. Then one day she didn’t laugh. Instead, she took my hand in hers and asked if I was ever going to make it official.
So, there I was on an Air India plane heading to New Delhi to meet the family of the girl I wanted as my wife. As per custom, I would ask her father for her hand in marriage. So far, so foolhardy.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I woke up with a jerk.
“Pompy!”, screeched the woman behind me, “Sit down and stop pulling that man’s hair!!”
I half turned my head and tried to smile conspiratorially at the woman and her little monster. She ignored me while the child clambered onto the lap of the hapless man on the aisle. The cabin lights had been dimmed and Sudha slept peacefully by my side. I tried going back to sleep, then with a sigh plugged in my headset and turned my attention to the overhead television monitor. A voluptuous, gyrating vision swam into view. I watched fascinated as she and her moustachioed partner performed the most acrobatic of dances. Three songs and several dramatic, albeit incomprehensible scenes later, I finally nodded off, secure in the knowledge that all would be well. Indian movies always had happy endings, Sudha had assured me.
I awoke as the seat belt sign was turned on for landing. The plump, unfriendly stewardess tartly told us off for having our seats still reclined. Chastened, we prepared ourselves for landing. Sudha’s grip on my hand tightened, and I could tell that she was nervous. Very very nervous. I gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. How bad could it be?
Nothing could have prepared me for the mass exodus from the aircraft. I was shoved and buffeted, all six feet of me, while my tiny, petite Sudha seemed to disappear into the throng. She reappeared at the door,smiling at my confusion.
The immigration officers were brusque but quick.As I waited for Sudha to clear from the Indian side of the never ending queue , I became aware of the “the stare”. I would encounter it wherever I went in the next ten days. “The stare” was frank and appraising, openly curious and curiously engaging. That’s because you’re a foreigner, Sudha explained as she joined me. I tried hugging her in relief but suddenly she seemed stiff and unyielding.
“Adam, you can’t touch me in public!”, she hissed.
“But why not? We’re a couple. And I was only giving you a hug?!”
“This is India. PDA’s are frowned upon here.”
Really? I thought sourly. Who would have known it…with a population of nearly a billion people!
She chivvied me outside. The heat, the dust and the multitude of people instantly assaulted my senses. I felt quite faint and was glad I had the trolley for support.
“There! There!! I see Baba”, she squealed excitedly, running towards a grey haired man who beamed widely at her. Immediately she kneeled and touched his feet. He blessed her and they hugged for what seemed like the longest five minutes I churlishly noted.
Then his eyes met mine, and Delhi’s heat plummeted to an Arctic chill.
“Baba, this is Adam. The…uhh…friend I said I was bringing…”
” I thought your friend was a girl “, he spat out and turned on his heel.
I followed gamely, with the trolley careening wildly over the potholes while, Sudha shamefacedly tried to explain.
When we got to the car park, I could barely believe my eyes. There were three members of family waiting in the car for us. Sudha’s mother,grandmother and younger brother. Where would we fit?
This is India, Sudhir, her brother whispered into my ear as I sat with my knees attached to my chin. Sudha sat squashed next to the window, while her flatutlent grandmother sat Buddha like between us. There was pin drop silence in the car, although the noise outside more than made up for it.
Horns blared as three lane traffic somehow morphed into seven lanes. Cows sauntered in the midst, chewing cud blissfully, while cars, bicyclists, motorbikes and scooters veered off course to prevent a collision. Holy, whispered Sudhir again, nodding at the bovine creatures. Hawkers peddled all sorts of interesting paraphernalia at the traffic lights. Beggar children ran amok at intersections, supplicating alms with an alarming efficiency. The landscape shifted and billowed from one bewildering scene to another.
We finally arrived at Sudha’s house and I unravelled myself out of the car. Our luggage was carried inside by their watchman.
I was shown my room by her unrelenting father, and asked to “freshen up” and come back out for a chai.
The chai sat waiting with a thin film of cream, that I surreptitiously tried to push aside with my spoon. Sudha sat red eyed in their midst. Her mother kept dusting all the surfaces in the room with a manic ferocity. Only Sudhir and the grandmother seemed relaxed. One with the careless nonchalance of youth, and the other with the selfish disregard of the elderly.
“Meghna, sit down”, the father ordered and promptly the mother sat, squirming uncomfortably,looking askance at me.
“How – how long has this been going on? “, her father waved vaguely in our direction.
Sudha’s eyes flashed a warning to me.
“Ummm…..we’ve been seeing each other for roughly two years sir. ”
“And what are your intentions,my good man?”
“Yes, yes”, he nodded impatiently, “Why are you here? What do you want??”
My head swam with fatigue, and I felt as though I’d unwittingly wandered into a Victorian melodrama.
” I, well, uhhhh, I’d like to marry your daughter sir.”
“Marry?”, he exploded. “What do you Amreekans know of marriage? Marry one minute, divorce the next! Meghna and I are married for twenty nine years. My Amma (he pointed to the old lady) for fifty years before my Baba died. We marry for life. Not for two minutes.”
” Sir, I appreciate that, and I very much hope that our marriage will last as long as all of yours.”
“Hope? What is that?? I want guarantee. Can you give me?”
I looked at Sudha helplessly. She stared back stoically.
“Hrmmmph”, Suddenly he tired of the conversation and waved us off to our rooms.
A bone crunching, mind numbing fatigue overcame me, and lulled me into a sleep so deep and long that Sudhir had to shake me awake for the evening meal.
“The wolves are baying for your blood”, he remarked cheerfully, as I sat up in bed disorientated. “They are all out there. They want to see this firang Sudha didi’s brought home.”
Enter Exhibit A. I stood a foot taller than most of them. They muttered and exclaimed under their breath, but refused to acknowledge me.
Dinner was an uncomfortable affair. I tried a few jokes to break the ice, but my American sense of humour sailed right past them. Her dad glowered at me, and Sudha sat subdued. All in all, a colossal failure.
The food was good though.
The next few days seemed to be an orgy of food and family. Relatives, even obscure ones, climbed out of the woodwork, to gasp at this pale giraffe. The unwelcome resident of the Agarwal household. The foreigner who had the temerity to ask for their child’s hand in marriage.
I took to walking around the block for a bit of fresh air and freedom. Invariably, I’d get followed by a gaggle of kids. They’d laugh and yell, “Eh gora Amitabh!” I figured out soon enough that they were comparing me to their onscreen idol Amitabh Bachchan. Another tall, gangly unremarkable looking actor whom all of India worshipped as their celluloid hero.
Evenings I’d spend in the company of the old grandma. She’d sit and crack her betel nuts and I’d try and read my research papers.
Sudha and I had had little contact since we’d arrived. It was almost as though (not so) mysterious forces were conspiring to keep us apart. Sudhir would intermittently deliver messages that began with, “Didi (elder sis) says that….” but even these I had begun to believe were censored.
Ahhh well….as was my wont, I submitted to it all genially. My faith in Sudha or our relationship never wavered. But this little side trip to India was certainly teaching me a lot.
For one thing, there were no absolutes in India. Her father, who, for all intents and purposes, hated my guts, would deign every evening to share a glass of whiskey with me while listening to old Mukesh songs. Her mother, who’d never spoken a word to me, would have my clothes laundered and ironed daily. Her numerous relatives would send various food items, sweetmeats and sundry gifts for me.
Sudhir, who’d offered his services as a tour guide, showed me the other side of India. The poverty, the wretchedness that co existed in apparent harmony with the opulence and extravagant wealth and waste.
A beggar would charm a rupee off of you with a cheeky dance. A snake charmer would proffer his snake as a trophy. A rotund priest would stave off a skeletal shoeshine. Land of contrasts. Land of vagaries.
Our time in India was coming to an end. I seemed no closer to an answer. Sudha seemed so lost to me, that for the first time I wondered a bit fearfully, if she had changed her mind.
An evening conference was called on the eve of our departure. There must have been twenty of them together in the room. Sudha looked small and scared. I felt like taking her in my arms- world be damned!
But propriety did not permit. So, I just leaned awkwardly against the bookshelf – awaiting the verdict.
Sudha’s dad cleared his throat and then addressed me,
” Adam, you are a nice boy. We like you. But you cannot marry Sudha. Sorry. You must go tomorrow. Sudha will not come with you.” He shook his head sorrowfully.
I stood dumbfounded.
There were a lot of mutterings till suddenly Sudha stood up. She walked towards me and held my hand.
” Baba, you have all had your say. I have listened patiently. Now please listen to me. This is the man I love. This is the man I will marry. I hope to get your blessings.If I can’t, I will leave here without them. But leave I will.”
” Sudha….”, her father’s voice roared.
“Raj”, an older, quieter voice from the corner, interjected.
The old amma said only a few lines. I understood none. However, the import of them was not lost on me. She silenced her son and quelled all opposition. She ended with a loud fart. No one dared say a word or breathe. Amma had spoken, from both ends.
Our big fat Indian wedding was six months later. The tailor tut-tutted over my sherwani. Sudha looked divine, even as she was weighed down by vast amounts of jewellery. The locality boys danced energetically led by a high-as-a-kite Sudhir. And Amma belched contentedly throughout.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Is that it? you ask. Of course that’s not all!! Marriage isn’t easy, let alone one that has differences of culture and height… More especially, when you decide to relocate to a country that is alien in every way except that it has planted itself so securely in your heart that you have no choice. So you learn to get used to “the stare” till it doesn’t bother you anymore. You learn that “privacy” is a word that doesn’t exist in this lexicon. You learn that when Amma speaks, you nod and smile. You also learn of values, of love, of kindness, of respect,of largesse and of the tiny tiny threads that weave you into a family so inextricably that even if you tried, you couldn’t leave. Not that you’d ever try.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sudha is losing patience with me.
“Adam, stop boring the poor child with that story again! Everyone has a story. Ours isn’t that special.”
“Oh, but it is”, I chuckle, “It is to me.”
Now, where’s my chai?