She looked cute, I’ll hand you that.
Slightly built, she sat at the edge of the bed, her hands clasped on her lap, like they had nowhere to go. She slipped her ghunghat (veil) off, reached up and carefully undid the pins holding up her slightly messed up hair. It cascaded down in curls, over her shoulders.
Her gaze went back toward the floor, unsure of what she must do next. The bed covers were strewn with rose petals but she seemed oblivious to them.
For the moment, she was trying not to pass out, under all that bridal finery and the oppressive heat. Slim jhumkas (traditional Hindu ear rings) peeked out from under the curls. She had on, the bridal ‘mangal sutra’ that I’d tied round her neck an hour or so back, at the ceremony – a yellow string, coated with turmeric, with a tiny gold pendant, flanked on either side by black beads.
I recalled the wedding. The mangal sutra had been handed to me open ended, with knots on both ends, so the beads wouldn’t escape. As I had slipped my fingers behind her neck to tie the two ends together, she repeated after the priest, in a soft but distinct whisper, “You are the reason of my existence. With this thread around my neck, I shall pray that may you live long.” As her lips formed the words, for a brief moment, she lifted her eyes to search into mine, “Who are you, Robindranath Dey?” they seemed to enquire.
The 3-day ceremony was now over and here I was, my butt on the opposite edge of the bed, still in my sherwani, kurta and churidar, the air conditioning hardly able to drive away my discomfort at the May humidity. Goddamn, why the heck does May have to be the auspicious month for marriages. Wish I had my bermuda shorts on.
Bermuda shorts reminded me of the last time I wore them, the Saturday before I left for India. It was at the ball game, NY State vs Ohio. Vicky Tannenbaum had come along and as she sat next, her left arm loosely draped over my bare thigh, her hand had snuck further in, unnoticed. While 10000 guys cheered the NYS team on, she’d suddenly dug her nails in playfully.
“Ouch, watch it, will you? I only have two of those” I’d shouted out, with pain mixed with sudden pleasure. She’d giggled, nuzzling her red head against my chest.
“Take me to your dorm, Robby” she’d whispered into my ear. Back in my room, we’d torn at each other for the rest of the day. That night had been our last together and Vicky knew it. It didn’t bother her even a bit. She was attractive, on her way through med school with a straight-A average. Her parents had an already well established medical practice which she would simply walk into, after she got her MD. And she was cute as a button. There were lots of other fish in her pond.
When we were finally done, she lay across my chest, her red curls tickling my nose and me on my back. And as she slowly wrapped her legs round my thigh and lazily rocked herself back and forth, her wetness rubbing up against me, she mused, “You’re off to be married, to a Bengali country girl in a saree and my Dad will probably like to see me wed one of those orthodox toads in a Yarmulke, with those payots hanging from either side of his head. Well, I’ll teach Mr. Yarmulke a thing or two about putting those two side locks where they tickle,” she’d giggled.
And now once again back in the present, the thought of Vicky started up a stirring within, as I found myself facing that almirah with mirrored doors, by the wall. From where I sat, perched on the opposite edge of the bed, I could see my bride in the mirror clearly, facing away, at an angle.
Her anchal (the end of the saree that’s slung over the left shoulder) had fallen and lay like a wreath round her, on the bed. She had a ‘nath’ (nose ring) on one nostril and a bala (wrist band) on each soft hand. They looked like they’d been handed down, from her mother . Her hair was still flecked with all that sprinkly, shiny stuff they chuck at you in a wedding. Her feet were beautiful. Pink, bordered by ‘alta’, a vermillion dye that Hindu women have on, after marriage. Pretty toes, some with rings on them, peeped through her slippers. Payals, probably of imitation silver, transformed her ankles into the loveliest I’d seen. Yellowish-brown mehndi lines adorned both feet as well as her hands.
Don’t know how long we just sat there, facing away from each other, on either side of the bed but it was she who broke the ice first. She brought her gaze up to me, “Shunoon, ei biye ki aapnar moter birudhdhey hoyeche?” (Did this marriage happen without your acquiescence?)
I straightened and walked to the barred window that looked out on Hazra Rd. An ice-cream wallah was pushing his cart down the sun baked lane, his head covered by a wet gamcha (wash cloth made from a thin cotton fabric), knarled feet in torn flip-flops. “Kwaliteee!” he cried plaintively.
I turned back toward her and lifted my eyes to hers’, in a slow and excruciatingly painful effort. “No,” I replied and I quickly turned back to stare out the window. The ice-cream wallah was gone, but I could still hear his cries faintly in the distance, “Kwaliteee!” By now a bunch of stray mongrel dogs had decided to give him harmony. Every time he cried out, they barked and bayed at him, shuffling a few paces behind.
Just a minute had passed, when I felt her soft hands on my shoulders. She’d risen and come round the bed, to stand by my side, a little behind, away from the window. I shivered at her touch. I didn’t turn but continued to stare blindly at the scorching pavement below.
“Then why don’t you speak with me?” she reached up and held my cheeks in her palms and turned my face so I was looking down at her beautiful face, “I left my home, my parents, my sisters and my little brother. And I have made this my home…..” her voice caught and I noticed that those long eyelashes were brimming with tears.
I gently grasped her two wrists and lowered her palms from my cheeks, till her hands were by her side. And I moved away just a bit. Don’t know why, but her touch was electric. I felt safer a couple of inches away. I was more comfortable with English. But she didn’t know a word of it. So Bengali it had to be, “And you? Was this with your approval?”
She nodded, dabbing her eyes with her anchal. “My father’s decision is my decision,” she said simply, “And now, your wish is mine. Forever”. QED- Theorem and corollary, I thought. With that simple statement, she leaned against me, and broke down into silent sobs.
I reached out and pulled her to me, gently holding her small body in my arms. After a while her sobbing subsided and I could feel her even breath on my chest, when all of a sudden, she wriggled out of my grasp, saying, “Wait, I’ll show you something.” She went up to the whatnot in the far corner and took out an ornate box made of brass. It was a ‘paaner dibey’, a small container normally used for betel leaves, nuts and zarda (chewing tobacco).
She ran her fingers lightly over the box. “My grandma used it when she was alive. Now, it’s mine.” She opened it carefully. Inside was just one photo. It was me, striking a pose in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The one I’d sent through Baren when he came to India on his match-making expedition. “I spoke with you every day, ever since Barenda left it with us. I said to God, “Dear God, keep him safe”.
She left the box standing on the whatnot and turned, her young breasts squeezed up against my chest. An incredible warmth spread through us like wild fire, as I gently tilted her face up by her chin and said in mock severity, “My wish is yours. hmmmm. Do you have any idea what my first wish is?”
She smiled at that, feeling me harden against the pit of her stomach. Then, with mock helplessness, she said in a whisper, “No, why don’t you show me?”
It is 48 years now, since that first magical night. Madhu still has that box. She likes to call it her ‘treasure chest’. It has a few additions in it. Pictures of a young man, his American wife, Betty and daughter, Sona. And a young woman, with her banker husband, Tod and journalist son Michael. And one more picture. A very young guy, much slimmer then but still recognizable now, posing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.