My sister-in-law Gauri is very pretty. She has what they call a heart-shaped face, with a small chin, full cheeks, and lips that are naturally red, and her skin is the exact combination of white and gold that all women love to have. She doesn’t wear a pinch of make-up but you’ll never see a single blemish on her face, and her eyebrows – you can tell she’s never plucked them – curve strongly over her deep-set eyes, which are large and dark brown and filled with the light of goodness, friendship, and trust. She’s shy without being coy, has a glorious smile that she uses often, and thick, brownish hair that she usually wears hanging straight down her back like a swatch of silk. Gauri’s hair is so smooth and fine that it never knots, never looks messy. Sometimes she piles it all on top of her head and fixes it skillfully in place with invisible pins, and when she does this, she looks very glamorous.
I first saw Gauri when I visited Rahul’s house one April afternoon many years ago, soon after his parents and mine had finalized our marriage. I took an auto-rickshaw to his bungalow from my own house in a far-off suburb, the forty-minute ride tangling my hair and coating me with so much dust that when I ran my finger down the side of my sweaty nose, it came away pitch black. To my consternation the whole family, Rahul, his parents, and Gauri, was standing on the veranda when I arrived, Rahul’s mother at the head of the little group in a green chiffon sari, her bony face inscrutable. From what I’d seen of her, from all the times she’d come to my house to discuss our alliance with my mother, I knew she could be petulant and picky. I felt like a fish in a bowl, a rabbit in a cage. I thought I saw doubt cross her face when I stepped out of the rickshaw, disheveled, trying to manage my clothes and tame my hair – it’s one thing to see someone indoors when they’ve just dressed up and done their faces and another to see them outside, in a blare of sunshine, when they’ve just been traveling for an hour.
Gauri was standing behind Rahul, in a bright pink salwar suit with small silver beads at the neck and wrists, her hair rippling and flowing behind her like a river. I took one look at her and felt a vicious tug of jealousy. “Oh, God,” I thought, “I’m going to be forever compared with this beauty.”
But she came running up to me immediately and hugged me tightly. “I was looking forward so much to meeting you,” she said. “I’ve heard so much about you.” Rahul’s mother brightened visibly at that, relaxed and even smiled. I wasn’t surprised that Gauri’s reaction had reassured her: I’d already figured she was the kind of wealthy Mumbai lady who still clung to tradition, the kind of lady who needs her son’s wife to be a little mother to her daughter. Then, out of nowhere, I felt the sharp prick of another thought: they’d only picked me for Rahul because I couldn’t hold a light to his sister. I bent my face quickly into Gauri’s shoulder so they couldn’t see I wasn’t smiling.
That afternoon, after the initial period of greetings and scrutiny the family dispersed. Rahul’s father, who’d made a lot of money in stockbroking, cleared off to his room to watch TV. He had the attitude common to older men, breadwinners, that he could do exactly what he wanted in his own house. Rahul’s mother took a nap on the sofa, which was perfectly located so she could keep on eye on everything even when she was asleep. Rahul chatted awkwardly with me for fifteen minutes then went off “to meet a friend.” I already knew he was a quiet sort, he hadn’t spoken much the other times we’d met either, at a coffee shop and on the terrace of my house (it’s common nowadays, even in arranged marriages, for the boy and the girl to meet alone before they get married). He worked in finance, too, like his father.
It was Gauri who kept me company all afternoon. She seized my hand and pulled me into her room, and made me sit on her cozy bed with my feet up and my back against her silk pillows. She asked me all kinds of questions about myself, and said how much she’d been dying for Rahul to get married so she could get a new sister and finally have company. For a moment I thought of correcting her and saying sharply, “Adopted-distant-cousin-sister-or-something-in-law, if you please,” but of course I held my tongue.
Gauri wasn’t Rahul’s own sister. His mother had revealed this to mine the second time they’d met, the fathers absent. During a pause in the conversation, she’d cleared her throat and said that Gauri was the daughter of a distant cousin whom she’d been raising since she was ten. She said just that one tantalizing thing then drifted off on other subjects. I was in the kitchen at the time, all dressed up, laboring to make the most impressive cup of tea ever made (I’ve always felt everything I do has to be superb to compensate for my looks). I had my ears bent to the drawing room, of course, and pricked them up when I heard this. Usually bridegrooms’ families like to behave superior and don’t say a word more than they need to. They like to seem remote and difficult and don’t volunteer information. What was the story, I wondered, who were Gauri’s parents? Were they dead? If so, why not say so, unless there was something suspicious about how they died. If not, why had they given her away? And why had Rahul’s mother told us this even though they had the upper hand over us in every way: money, position, property? The very fact that she’d mentioned it made the tidbit more important, as if she wanted to be sure she’d disclosed everything. I mulled over the twist furiously for days, but ultimately decided it wouldn’t affect me personally. In fact, I thought it might even lessen the proverbial annoyance of the younger sister-in-law. But this was before I saw Gauri.
In the months before the wedding, Rahul’s mother had me come to their house frequently, her idea being that I’d already be like family. Gauri was always at home – she’d just graduated from college and was quite free – and we sat in her room all day where, tucking her hair behind her shell-like ears with a graceful movement, she’d show me photographs and tell me little things about everyone, or hold her clothes against me and tell me what colors suited me. All the while I felt horribly conscious of myself. It didn’t matter if I’d spent an hour in front of the mirror before coming – which I had to do every day: when I wake up I’m almost ugly – I still felt clunky in her presence. We always sat on her bed, the wall opposite which was covered with a mirror. I couldn’t bear to see myself reflected next to her in it. I compared her fair delicate fingers with my big-knuckled ones, her delectable feet with my spade-like own (I’d once caught Rahul’s mother covertly inspecting my feet when I took my sandals off, for flatness, I supposed). I was inches shorter than Gauri and my shape was square. My nose was long and my skin was blotchy. I was only a year older but looked like her aunty. Seeing myself next to her I felt fresh disbelief that Rahul had agreed to marry me. I imagined myself decked up at the wedding, a chicken in peacock finery, imagined the guests whispering amongst themselves, astonished at the family’s selection. I worried that the daily contrast between us would make Rahul and his parents change their minds about me, heave a sigh of relief at their narrow escape and go snag a fair beauty.
I hadn’t believed it at first when Rahul’s mother called us with their decision to marry me. I’d pressed my fist to my lips to keep from crying, kept my fingers crossed all day, and didn’t talk about it for days for fear it would unravel. I used to worry constantly about what would become of me. I supposed I would get married – takers could be found for even so-so girls – and end up with a life with few good things in it, scratchy towels and tiny TVs and plastic tablecloths. And babies. I supposed I would get a job, and that work, commuting, and dust, dust, dust would drain me and turn me old quickly. The city had a way of eating away at everything. Marrying well seemed the only way I could escape but I wasn’t exactly eye-catching. So when Rahul’s family unexpectedly chose to come and see me, I made a superhuman attempt to be cultured and knowledgeable yet humble. My performance and the fact that I was educated at the best college in the city must have impressed them.
Gauri made me feel less happy. I felt her like a pebble in my sandal, a hair in my eye. That she was goodness personified didn’t help. She loved children, for example, she could make a crying baby quiet in seconds. Rahul had many relatives in Mumbai, and one or other of them was always at the bungalow to see me or glean information about the wedding, often with their brood in tow. Gauri would get down on her knees with the kids, and play Ludo and hopscotch and ball, and sooner or later, everyone would stop talking and watch her, fond smiles on their faces. But the attention meant nothing to Gauri – I could tell she was doing it for pure love of the children.
One afternoon, a family friend came over with her three-year old boy and Gauri spent hours playing with him, endlessly rolling balls and piling blocks in the middle of the living room, the smile on her face never wavering. Naturally, at the end of all this, the boy became so attached to her he didn’t want to go back to his mother when she was leaving. He just hollered and clung to Gauri while she gently smoothed the tears from his cheeks. The friend laughed and said, “You’re a born mother, Gauri! You should get married soon and have your own babies!” Gauri reacted very strangely to this innocuous comment. She went red and let the smile slip from her face, picked up the little boy and dumped him in his mother’s lap, and ran upstairs. It was very unlike her to be rude, and I stared after her, alert. But the meaning of the incident didn’t become clear to me until months later.
Rahul and I were married in August – he was already twenty-eight, to my twenty-three, and the family hadn’t wanted to wait much longer – and I slowly settled into my new life. My biggest priority was, of course, to gain my mother-in-law’s trust as soon as possible, so I shut my mind to everything else and devoted myself to her. I went everywhere she went, to the shops, kitty parties, and matinees, and did everything she told me to, fetched her bag and her pills and a footstool, and within just weeks she seemed softer. I didn’t give myself all the credit though. The relief of being done with the wedding must have played a part. It was also possible that, in my early apprehension, I’d thought her fiercer than she really was. She napped a lot, two hours on her sofa every afternoon, at the end of which I’d wake her with a cup of tea, kneel and watch her awhile before shaking her shoulder with a soothing murmur. Close up she looked older than her age, her fine skin creped and sagging, her flesh soft and giving. Unmoved, I wondered what could possibly make her look like that, so old and sad, in her air-conditioned bungalow and her silk pillows, surrounded by tiptoeing maids. I thought how easy it was for people to lose perspective.
The days were a blur. The family was very hospitable and friends and relatives were always dropping in. Most evenings turned into impromptu dinner parties during which I hovered behind people at the massive dining table, jumping to hand someone a dish or fill a glass. There were maids to do the main work but I knew it befit a daughter-in-law to pitch in. I kept my head and listened a lot, and tried to figure out what each of them liked and didn’t.
There were many rules. Mealtimes, in particular, were sacred. There was an order in which we had to eat: Rahul’s father got to start, then Rahul and Gauri, then my mother-in-law, and only when she was halfway through her meal could I put a bite in my mouth. There had to be a certain minimum number of dishes at every meal, two dry vegetable dishes, one gravy vegetable dish, a yogurt dish, a dal dish, a rice dish, and rotis. They never drank cold water or ate cold fruit, and recoiled in horror from cold food and old food, which their sensitive palates somehow identified right away. Meals always ended with paan made fresh and delivered by a renowned vendor. Everyone had even their underwear ironed, and sheets were changed every day. Maids, drivers, and gardeners traipsed about the house and garden all day, their faces waxwork-stiff, their eyes unseeing.
I pinched myself often (proverbially), and could hardly believe where I’d ended up. I grew up in a helter-skelter way, didn’t go to school until I was eight, then skipped school whenever I liked. We thought nothing in my house of sharing threadbare towels, using them until they stank and someone couldn’t bear the smell anymore. I’d never had a birthday party. But I’d always perceived the value of having rules. Families that had rules and customs and ways of doing things had them because they had things to protect: money, position, class. So I went by all the rules in Rahul’s house, even the ones that irked me, like eating last and not napping. I figured it was temporary – surely I could ease up after some months?
While I became my mother-in-law’s shadow Gauri dazzled like a rainbow. While I trailed behind my mother-in-law, bearing her bags, Gauri went shopping and to movies, her slim, white feet encased in jewel-encrusted sandals. She adored clothes and had a new set made every week, which she would then model for us, pirouetting down the stairs and across the living room in something pastel and gauzy. The way she behaves, I thought cattily, it’s as if she’s always lived this sort of life. Somehow I was sure her prior life had been worse though I’d learned nothing more about the circumstances behind her adoption. There was no way for me to. I couldn’t very well ask someone – I didn’t have the standing for it (yet) – and there were no clues in photographs or phone calls or visitors. In one thing at least we were like each other, I reflected: we’d both migrated up. The difference was I had planned my own ascent and would never become complacent.
“Isn’t she lovely?” said Rahul’s mother.
And I, Gauri’s little mother, having resolved to defer everything to later, said, “Oh, yes, so lovely! The image of Aishwarya Rai! Tell me, why isn’t she in the movies?”
One afternoon, some months after we were married, my mother-in-law sat watching one of the boring TV shows she liked to watch before her nap. I sat next to her, and let my mind wander. I stifled a yawn and wondered whether I’d been a model daughter-in-law long enough and could begin asserting myself a bit, maybe take a nap instead of pretending to watch TV. It was hard work being perfect. I was perpetually sleepy – I woke up at the light of dawn and went to bed last all to impress my mother-in-law. I couldn’t nap or I would be considered lazy. I couldn’t laugh or even join in the talk at the dining table. I couldn’t sit in my room by myself, it was considered odd to want to be alone. I reflected that all over the country, in cities and towns and villages, there were daughters-in-law of every class and community, being dutiful. Did they all resent it as I did? Or were they content to be decorous and bloat and fatten, were they content to let their minds go soft with submission? My eyelids burned with the need to sleep. I forced them open and pondered the iron bands with which tradition restrained me. What if I rose and went to my room, closed the door, and took a nap? What stopped me?
Suddenly Rahul’s mother clicked the TV off, sighed, and asked if I would help her with something. “We’re having trouble finding a boy for Gauri,” she said. “I don’t know if Rahul told you. We didn’t expect it. She’s so lovely and such a good girl. We inserted a matrimonial in the paper when she turned twenty-one, and got many responses. Many boys came to see her and all of them followed up, but she refused them all. Then we started working on Rahul’s marriage and had to stop the effort on hers. But I think I should begin again.”
I whipped to attention, elated that she was talking to me about a matter of such importance. Rashly as it happened, I thought, “Why not delicately put out some feelers about Gauri to the grand old lady? If I’ve made it with her, she’ll tell me. It might even help me figure out how she feels about me.”
So I said, “Has Gauri’s mother’s left the matter of her marriage all to you then?”
My mother-in-law looked at me sternly. “I’m Gauri’s mother,” she said. “We must never speak of Gauri as anything but my daughter. Don’t you ever forget that.”
I realized I’d made a big mistake. I hadn’t advanced with her as much as I thought I had. Things were still tenuous. Would always be, this was the stuff of which mothers-in-law were made. You could ply them with tea every hour of their whole lives but you couldn’t win them over. They would forever keep their prerogative to play hot and cold, as their own mothers-in-law once did with them, as I would, one day, to an unfortunate girl not yet born, all of us grim players in an intergenerational game of payback. All I could do was look forward to my own day.
“Of course, of course, sorry,” I said, hastily. Thankfully she calmed down, heaved herself off the sofa, went to the cabinet, and took out an envelope that turned out to contain several 8×10-sized photographs of Gauri, full-face and profile, in salwar suits and jeans, with her hair loose and in a bun, looking serious and perky.
“I’ve placed another matrimonial ad for her,” she said. “She seems more willing now. Can you look at these photos and say which are the best?”
I put away the photographs and waited until I had a length of time by myself to study them, which I usually got only when I went to bathe. So the next morning I sat down at my vanity after my bath, placed the pictures in a pool of light, and methodically compared Gauri’s face with mine, feature for feature, trying to find either a flaw or the reason for her perfection. I could stare freely at her face there, in the privacy of my room, and I did: how, when we had the same set of features, did her assortment end up so alluring? My eyes were bigger than Gauri’s – this was the only thing in my favor – but they were too big, they bulged out of their sockets, their surfaces wet and glistening. Her lips looked soft and red while mine were a blackish-purple shade that I had to coat obsessively with lipstick even when I was in the house. My face was angular, with sharp corners that echoed the sharpness inside me. My cheeks sloped broadly, coarsely, from cheekbones to chin. My nose was long and large, my nostrils flared like funnels.
I felt sick. She was perfect. Why did people look different from each other? Other varieties of animals didn’t. Maybe they smelled different but smell was easily masked (I did it routinely, drenching myself in J’adore). The only reason physical appearance varied from person to person was to punish and mortify, put in place and brand. The more I stared at Gauri, at her thick lashes, at how her smile didn’t even crease her face, the more I felt myself shrinking, consumed by my jealousy. There was no point scolding myself to behave better. I wasn’t going to change. I alone, among all the daughters-in-law in the world smoldered thus, I alone bore constant ill feeling. “But you must be loyal to yourself, you poor ugly duckling forever,” I said to myself in the mirror. “Who else cares about you?”
Something caught my eye then: it was the way Gauri dressed in the photos – I’d been so focused on her face that I hadn’t noticed it before. Gauri wasn’t usually inhibited in the way she dressed and happily wore sleeveless tops and tight clothes,but she’d dressed very conservatively for the photographs, in dull colors and long, loose T-shirts, and covered her entire torso with her dupatta. It was as if she was trying hard to look bad. Trying to avoid getting married? But a girl like her was made for marriage, made to be adored. Had she somehow been scarred by a man in her previous life? Unlikely – she didn’t seem that troubled. But I had no idea where she’d lived before, and the country certainly could be a terrible place for females. I found it hard to keep my mind from grazing on awful scenarios.
Obviously it would be better for me if Gauri got married and left but I didn’t want her to find an adoring husband and complete her paradise, didn’t want to listen to girlish confidences about loving husbands. I hardly ever saw Rahul. He was a workaholic, passionate about nothing but his work, the sort who left early and came back late and worked on Sundays. I could see why – finance was booming and he was in the thick of it – but we were never alone except at night, we hadn’t had a conversation of more than ten consecutive sentences since we were married. I wondered: if I’d been beautiful, dazzling, willful, capricious, if my personality had been iridescent and slippery, would he have become wrapped up in me? Would he have come home early, changed into natty clothes and taken me out? Would he have opened doors for me, stuttered in anticipation of the coming night? I didn’t think so. How he behaved was a combination of his personality, which was dry, and the family culture, also dry. With sudden, crushing clarity, I thought: he picked me because he knew I would be grateful just to be picked. He picked me so he wouldn’t be plagued by a demanding wife. He picked me because he wanted to live austerely.
But, especially after our last exchange, I had to prove my usefulness to my mother-in-law. So I reported back quickly. I said the photograph in which Gauri wore jeans and a blue top and one in which she wore the green salwar suit were the best. They were a great mix, I said. They showed she could be both traditional and modern, and the light made her glow, not that she needed light to glow.
“I also thought they were the best,” said my mother-in-law, and I knew she’d forgotten my slip. She showed me the advertisement she had placed for Gauri in the Times of India, prominently highlighted in a red-bordered, blue rectangle, which went something like:
Very respectable, high-status Brahmin Mumbai family seek alliance for their extremely beautiful, slim, fair, college-graduate, 23/5’5” wonderful natured daughter. Only tall, good-looking, professionally qualified, high-income boys from Brahmin families need apply. Send bio-data and photographs.
Responses began pouring in right away at the rate of three to five a day and, soon after, my mother-in-law, Gauri, and I could be found in the afternoons sitting around the dining table and sifting through the fat envelopes. We were very methodical. First my mother-in-law would review the contents of an envelope and either dump it in the bin or hand it to me. For every envelope I was handed, I recorded the boy’s name, phone number, and address, and the date in a little notebook passed it on to Gauri who, listless but docile, looked carefully at everything and promptly threw it on a discard pile. I watched her face for flickers of interest. There were none. The ad ran every day for three weeks, at the end of which Gauri hadn’t picked even one boy.
Around that time a friend of Rahul’s, Niraj, called for him one evening, and Rahul announced that he would come by after dinner. I’d met Niraj at our wedding and knew he was one of Rahul’s oldest friends. He was working on a second Master’s degree in the U.S., and was in Mumbai for two weeks for his spring break. Niraj rang the doorbell at nine-thirty p.m. and, after he’d greeted my parents-in-law, Rahul took him to the side veranda for drinks. Then my in-laws retired to their room. Gauri had disappeared upstairs long ago.
I didn’t usually stay to talk to Rahul’s unmarried friends so, after pottering about for a bit, I made my way towards the stairs as well. To my surprise I heard the tinkle of bangles and saw Gauri tripping down the stairs, all dolled up, looking absolutely ravishing in a white chiffon churidar suit with sheer sleeves and delicate gold embroidery, her arms piled with bangles and bracelets. She looked as if she was going to a wedding reception. I knew the dress was brand new; she’d modeled it for us just a week ago. Churidars were back in style then, and suited Gauri’s slim figure beautifully. I’d got a set made for myself too but my bottom looked enormous in them. In fact, the first – and only – time I wore it, my mother-in-law had grabbed a section of my hip fat that bulged out of the tight-fitting bottoms, and laughed and said, “What’s this? Getting fat, it seems?” She was like that, insensitive, though she didn’t mean harm. All three of them were like that, except Gauri.
Gauri blushed when she saw me. “I didn’t want to sleep yet,” she said.
“Rahul’s still with Niraj,” I said. “They’ve known each other a long time, haven’t they?”
“Ages,” she said, and went out to the veranda.
Impulsively I decided to go out too. I stepped up self-consciously, expecting Rahul to look stunned but neither man so much as looked up when I sat down next to Gauri. Rahul, in particular, didn’t even turn his head but continued to chat and eat peanuts. His indifference was vastly reassuring. I wondered: had I been imposing unnecessary constraints on myself because of my inferiority complex, my fear of doing wrong? What a waste of time, if so. I felt a rush of pleasure sitting there, opposite the two men, with no critical eyes on me. The darkness on the veranda helped me not think about how I looked.
Soon I started talking. I asked Niraj about the university system in America, the freeways and groceries, the election campaign and the economy. It had been months since I’d spoken about anything other than domestic matters. I knew a lot about a lot – everyday I’d steal the newspaper into the bathroom and read everything in it. Finally, I could air my knowledge. Niraj responded animatedly, Rahul piped in, and soon we were having a heated debate about the perennial brain-drain question: Why do all the clever Indians leave the country for America?”
Poor thing. All evening Gauri tried to get Niraj’s attention. She had nothing to say about anything, and only made her earrings swing like mad and refilled Niraj’s glass whenever he took even a little sip. She served him sev and barfi, and arranged and rearranged the diamonds into complex patterns on his plate. But he cared nothing for food. He was a short, stocky man, with alert eyes and curly hair. Even sitting down he exuded energy and confidence. I could see what Gauri saw in him. I could see him in a few years, an up-and-coming executive in Intel or Microsoft. Gauri hardly got a word in and when she spoke, it was so softly that no one could hear her. She couldn’t tear her eyes from Niraj’s face. She looks at him, I realized, the way I look at her, furtively so no one will see her fascination. She looks at him as if he’s impossibly beautiful.
We played cards. Rahul and I were partners (naturally), and Gauri was Niraj’s. The two of them lost every round because of Gauri, who kept dropping her cards, giggling, and making terrible decisions.
“What a dope you are!” Niraj said, and slapped her on the back and pummeled her as if she was a male pal. “You’ve never played cards before or what? When will you grow up? It’s because of the dumb movies you watch and the shopping you do. What did you buy today, huh?”
He turned to me and said, “Don’t be shocked at how I talk to her. I’ve known this kid a long time.”
After Niraj left, I paced about downstairs for a long time, unable to sleep from excitement, while Gauri went upstairs with speed. The next morning, she came down late, refused breakfast, and moped about. When Rahul’s mother and I settled down with the matrimonials in the afternoon and looked at her, she said she had a headache.
“I already need a break from this junk,” she said. “Can I please have a break?”
So the envelopes piled up unopened on the sideboard the entire time Niraj was in Mumbai. He came by a few more evenings but didn’t pay any more attention to Gauri than the first time. Then one evening, he said his goodbyes and went back to Boston. That night I heard Gauri crying in her room at night. (I suppose I was listening for it to have heard such a soft sound).
I knocked on her door.
“Who is it?” she said.
“It’s me,” I said. “Can I come in?”
She sniffled and padded to the door and opened it, her face telltale puffy, her lips quivering.
“I won’t ask what the matter is,” I said. “I think I know.”
It was the kind of talk she’d understand, dramatic, filmi, that filled the movies she devoured.
“What do you mean?” she said, then did exactly what I thought she would do, grabbed my hand and squeezed it and said, “Please, please don’t tell anyone!”
“I won’t,” I said, squeezing back.
“I like him so much,” she whispered. “I always have, I always will.”
“I know how you feel,” I whispered back.
She was being childish and immature, had inserted herself into one of the tragic, arty films they were making then. I recall one, in which a boy and a girl, played by superstar Aishwarya Rai of course, meet on five separate occasions over a decade. Each time they just talk to each other listlessly, looking exactly the same as the last except with longer faces. Nothing else happens, and the movie fades out on Aishwarya Rai listlessly waiting for a train, a faraway look on her face.
There was no reason for Gauri to hide her interest in Niraj. He was the right age and caste and was known to the family. It was just that Rahul and his parents weren’t the sort who noticed anything. They were practical and down-to-earth, blind to nuances of behavior and mood. If Gauri had told them she liked Niraj, they’d have been fine with it. Did she not feel close enough to them to tell them? Maybe. I’d recently noticed, wondering why I hadn’t before, that Gauri called Rahul by his name, not “Bhaiya” for brother. I’d also noticed how formal she and my mother-in-law were with each other, they never touched or cuddled in mother-daughter ways though Rahul still got his cheeks pinched and food popped in his mouth. I had wilder and wilder thoughts: was Gauri illegitimate? (Rahul’s father was awfully staid, but who knew?) Were my in-laws somehow responsible for Gauri’s parents’ death? I was dying to find a delicious secret I could suck on slowly, like sour candy.
Seeing Gauri so vulnerable, her face wet, her hair tumbled, my anxiety about her abated but now I was really afraid of what I might do – I behave so much better when constraints are imposed upon me. It would’ve been easy for me to drop a word in someone’s ear about Niraj but I wasn’t going to do it.
Gauri was lethargic for days after Niraj left, not bothering to even put on nice clothes. She just sat in her corner of the living room, playing childish video games and reading Archie comics. One afternoon, after some prodding by my mother-in-law, she agreed to resume looking at the matrimonial responses and we sat down with a foot-high pile of envelopes. This time she didn’t dump them all on the discard pile. Instead she set aside five.
“These guys look okay,” she said. “I don’t mind meeting them.”
She’d chosen well. They were the best of the lot, boys with polished, even features reeking of refinement and education. One of them was even from Chicago. (I had visions of Gauri gadding off to America and coming back looking better than ever. People didn’t age there, there was something about the air. Women had multiple babies, yet came back younger, glowing as if they’d dipped their bodies in pots of cream.)
Suddenly Rahul’s mother became galvanized into action and started making lists of things to do.
“You call them,” she said to me. “You’re good at talking to people. You speak English much better than me.”
“I’m so glad you’re here to do this for me,” Gauri whispered to me.
“I am, too,” I whispered back.
That’s how I became very important and busy. I made calls, sent information and photos, scheduled meetings with the five parties, and huddled with my mother-in-law – who couldn’t do a thing without me any more – to plan what would happen when the prospective grooms visited. The plan was the same for all: Rahul and his father would greet the party and lead them to the living room, where my mother-in-law and I would be waiting for them. The maids would bring in water and sodas, and we would all chat awhile. After some time I’d rise and escort Gauri in, my right hand gently supporting her left elbow. The maids would bring in samosas, cardamom tea, and sweets. We would chat some more, then I would ask the young people if they would like to talk privately and take them to the side veranda.
I remember only the first visit clearly. The boy was notable for a few reasons: he’d come all the way from Chicago, and his contingent was immeasurably odd – tiny, consisting of just himself and his mother. But what a mother! I could tell she was very refined simply from her lack of girth. Further the only jewelry she wore was a pair of 24-carat gold drop earrings and a ring turned towards her palm to hide the stone. When a woman hides the stone in her ring you can be sure it’s very expensive, or very cheap. In this case, I was sure it was the former – and who tries to hide wealth but refined people?
My poor mother-in-law. How her jaw dropped at the sight of her svelte opposite number. She knew what she knew: how to control her maids, where to buy the best towels, and so on. Everything else stumped her: travel, technology, good English. Substitute “trading floor” for maids and towels and you pretty much had my father-in-law. It was left to Rahul and me to keep up the conversation. Me really. (And this was how it was with all five meetings.)
“Good afternoon!” I said smoothly. “I hope you’ve had time to get over your jet lag? I’ve heard it’s so much worse when you travel from the west to the east.”
What did I get out of impressing total strangers? I woke myself up. I began to think that looks weren’t everything. Logic, sharpness, and skills of observation and conversation could substitute for looks, were better than looks, because beautiful people usually thought being beautiful was enough. For evidence of this theory, I had Gauri.
“What?” she said to the Chicago doctor, fiddling with her earrings. “What do I like to do on weekends? That’s a hard question because every day is a weekend for me. Right now, anyway.”
“Gauri’s passion is to explore the city,” I said. “She knows every lane and alley, every sight and sound, every shop and store.”
When they were leaving, the svelte mother complimented my mother-in-law on me, not Gauri. “What a generous, accomplished girl you found for your son,” she said. “You are so lucky.”
As soon as they were gone, Rahul’s mother turned to me. “What do you think of him?” she asked, deferentially.
“I liked him,” I said. “But don’t you think he was a little … effeminate?”
“Didn’t you notice his walk? It was very odd,” I said. I really had noticed something odd about Chicago’s walk: he was markedly pigeon-toed. “We can’t be at all sure about these U.S. boys. Haven’t you heard the horror stories where the boy is already married and marries an Indian girl just so she can be their maid?”
“Don’t be silly, Renu,” Rahul said. “The man has an M.B.A from the University of Chicago.”
But both Gauri and my mother-in-law sided with me. (It’s funny how negative opinions always seem more thoughtful than positive ones. And especially with respect to marriage, people prefer losing a possibly good match to accepting a possibly bad one.)
“He’s out,” said Gauri. “Renu doesn’t like him.”
“Well, okay, then” said Rahul. “There’ll be others,” and he stepped away from us and was soon talking business on his phone. There was no way he would have been so passive if he really cared about Gauri. If he had cared about her, he could have overruled me, he could have used his phone to call the boy instead.
I noticed something wrong with the four other boys too: if one wasn’t ambitious enough, another was too ambitious, the third’s father had male-pattern baldness, and the fourth was dandyish. So Gauri said, “He’s out then,” four more times.
Over the next year we reviewed the contents of two hundred envelopes and met twenty boys. The net result was nil.
Rahul’s mother began performing an ancient procedure every week to eliminate jinxes. She had Gauri sit on a low wooden stool in the kitchen, filled her fists with rock salt, mustard seeds, and red chillies, crossed her arms, and rotated them about Gauri in a complex pattern, then cast the fistfuls on an open flame. If sparks flew sky-high it would have proved that Gauri was afflicted by the evil eye. Sparks always flew sky-high. But the evil, supposed to be thus exorcised, never departed.
I do have a sense of justice though it’s one some people might consider odd. For example, when I was in college I’d often go out with a group of out-of-town girls who lived in the dormitory. If I owed one of these girls money I would return it to another of them and consider myself even. Gauri had been given something priceless that no one could ever take away from her. She had made heads turn all her life and would make them turn for many more. She would never have to worry about the color of her skin or the size of her feet or the shape of her nose. On top of that she had had a huge piece of luck by landing in Rahul’s house. So what if she found it a little harder to get married? It balanced the scales. It made it fair.
One evening, after Gauri turned twenty-four, Rahul announced that he had received an email from Niraj saying he was going to get married to a girl from New Delhi soon and was going to live in Seattle after his wedding. He had a job with Microsoft. That night, for the second time, I picked up with my sharp ears the sound of Gauri sobbing in her room. But I didn’t knock on her door. I wouldn’t have known what to say.
Some months later Gauri told us that she had been looking at job ads. She wanted to try teaching she said, somewhere else, away from Mumbai. It would help everyone to get a break from the matrimonials. She didn’t want to live just to get married. It was very unusual for girls in Rahul’s family to work and live by themselves but no one came up with a good argument against it.
Gauri found a job as a kindergarten teacher in a school in Bangalore and made preparations to leave. She was going to take the train there: she didn’t like planes. I felt nervous when we went to the station to see her off, as if I had done something enormously wrong. I kept telling myself it had never been up to only me: three other people were involved. She wasn’t even twenty-five, she would probably meet someone in Bangalore. Still, I kept her away from where Rahul was fussing with her luggage, as if I was afraid she would suddenly say, “I forgive you,” upon which Rahul would ask, “For what?” and she would say, “For making sure I won’t be happy.”
But she only looked at me sweetly and said, “Now when you have a kid, I’ll be able to teach him.”
To my embarrassment my eyes filled with tears. “Maybe marriage isn’t so great,” I said. “Maybe you’re better off, working and independent.”
“I’ll write to you,” she said. “Take care of yourself. At least Rahul’s a good person even if he doesn’t talk a lot.”
This was quite a while ago. Gauri never married. She settled in Bangalore, taught for years, then started her own school, in connection with which the Mumbai Mirror published an article headlined, “Young Mumbai-raised entrepreneur starts first Reggio Emilio school in Bangalore.” We already knew about the school from Gauri of course, but the article is important because it startled my mother-in-law into sudden confidence, which in turn triggered this whole reminiscence.
“It’s odd how things happen,” my mother-in-law said. “I never told you this. But Gauri isn’t my cousin’s daughter. She’s the daughter of the jeweler in my hometown. My family had a relationship with his for decades. Then he and his wife both died in a train accident, when they were coming back from Shirdi from all places. Gauri was just ten and so sweet and lovely. I’d seen her grow up. I couldn’t bear to leave her to her relatives. Rahul’s father was wonderful about it and we decided to give her a home. I had to keep it hidden. People might have found it odd because she wasn’t family. I’ve had such a difficult time, told so many lies. Even after all that I’ve never felt as if Gauri was really happy here. Maybe she was too old when she came here to mix up with us. Now see how she went into business in the end?”
So it turns out, not that it should surprise anyone, that my in-laws are terribly good people and I’m just a small-time schemer. But I would rather think that, if it weren’t for me, Gauri would have been just another married woman.
Anu Kandikuppa worked as an economics consultant for many years before she began to write fiction. Her short stories have appeared or will appear in The Florida Review, Salt Hill (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), The Normal School, Juked, and other journals. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.