Okay, on popular demand, here is my short story ‘The Marriage Market’ published in the September issue of Verve magazine. Yes, I know my website is finally back up after one year (yes ONE YEAR and a million thanks to genius Ankush Thakur for that) but we’ll chat about the hows and whys of that later. For the moment, here goes. And the illustration is courtesy Salil Sojwal for Verve.
“So, what are your hobbies?”
I stare at him, dumbstruck. Is this a joke? Because no grown-up man with his marbles in place would say that. Right? He is grinning expectantly at me, the toothbrush moustache barely stirring, his curly hair parted neatly to one side. I think I am seriously expected to answer.
“Ahem,” I clear my throat. I haven’t answered this question since I was six. Or maybe eight, at most. I decide I’m going to shock him. That’s the only way out.
“Men,” I say flatly, staring straight at him in the hope of gauging a reaction. Amazingly, there is none. “Men, partying, and alcohol,” I add for effect.
“Really?” he says, enchanted. As if I have just said “gardening” or something equally benign. “How interesting.” His fingers are neatly interlocked over his crossed knees and he is gazing at me as though I am divine.
Alright then, let’s milk this situation for all its worth, I say to myself.
“What are your hobbies?” I ask him, fluttering my eyelashes coquettishly, like a yesteryear Hindi-movie vamp. I have now adopted a persona, one that will help me get through this mind-numbingly ludicrous interlude.
“Gardening,” he replies, making me choke and nearly spray him with Diet Coke. “Really?” I contain myself and say with a saccharine smile. “How absolutely fascinating.”
“You think so?” he is thrilled and I am evidently a competent actress. Now, what do I do? “Can you grow cannabis or poppy?” I ask, wiggling my Nike Airs.
He shrugs gleefully, smug with himself, and says, “I guess so.” I realize he has completely missed the point. We sit there at his proudly proclaimed “study table” in silence for a few moments. I am searching for a cue to my next dialogue. He speaks up again before I do.
“Would you like to see my garden?” He stands up with a flourish, clicking his neatly polished shoes together, stretching up all the way up to his five-foot five-inch frame. The powder-blue v-neck sweater that had been tested to its elastic extremes while he was seated now hangs a little less taut, recuperating from the sheer effort of containing his lard.
Would I like to see his garden? I can barely believe the inanity of the situation without being reminded of Bollywood metaphors for sex – the ubiquitous nodding and coming together of red blooms in lush gardens of Srinagar.
“Sure,” I quip for want of anything better to say or do. Stepping out into the sunshine might not be such a bad idea after all. Anything would beat sitting in his neatly arranged antiseptic bedroom, where the numerous tomes are stacked alphabetically and then too, by size. It is enough to make me feel nauseated and some fresh air could do me some good. Maybe it will even eradicate the bright neon signs that are flashing in my head, saying “Run, Natasha, run!”
We make our way down the carpeted wooden stairs, past half a dozen exquisite Russian folk-paintings. I know good art when I see it and I am genuinely impressed. This well-appointed house holds enough top-notch art to give South Delhi galleries a run for their money. As we descend back into the living room, my mother and Mrs Khanna are animatedly chatting with each other.
“There’s nothing we wanted more than a traditional yet highly educated and evolved Punjabi family,” my mother is looking heaven-ward as she says this, as if already thanking God for her incredible fortune. “And our search has definitely ended with you.”
I want to throttle her.
Mrs Khanna smiles politely at her and then looks up at me over the brim of her gilt-edged tea cup. She is sizing me up and down. My naive and earnest mother has no clue that the Indira Gandhi look-alike sitting across the Persian rug from her could have her for lunch if it ever came down to an argument or worse.
“So, you kids had a nice chat?” she asks me politely, carefully pencilled-in eyebrows rising up in a sharp arch. Then her gaze turns to her son and instantly her eyes are awash with unbridled pride and satisfaction. What a fine specimen he has turned out! She is evidently congratulating herself. I realize everyone is waiting for me to answer the question, undoubtedly in the affirmative.
“Yes, we did,” I manage to mumble, sticking my hands into the pockets of my grey Reebok hoodie. “We’re stepping out to the garden now,” I add quickly, lest we are ordered to sit among them again. I have already endured a quarter of an hour of that and nearly perished from boredom.
“Oh, what a wonderful idea,” says Mrs Khanna sounding as contrived as it is humanly possible. My mother looks a tad worried and starts involuntarily tapping the wooden arm of her plush sofa-chair. What does she think he’s going to do to me in the garden? Pounce on me? I nearly laugh out loud at the thought and rush out of the room, not bothering to allow him to lead the way.
Outside, I sincerely appreciate the veritable haven of greenery that the Khannas have created in the centre of the city. It is a picturesque, verdant and distinctive garden with no formal lines, but rather, a dense amalgamation of shrubbery, rocks and water carefully designed to resemble a natural forest. It is breathtaking.
“This is so beautiful,” I turn to him and gasp, in all honesty. “Is this all your handiwork?”
He simply blinks in a confirmatory manner, with a pert little nod of the head. I think he suspects if he opens his mouth he might explode with pride. I get a bit worried and steal a sideways glance around the garden to ensure we are not being spied upon by our over-enthusiastic mothers. There doesn’t seem to be anyone other than the two of us. I can hear parrots squawking in the gulmohar tree that casts speckled shadows on us, and the merry sound of running water emanating from the mouth spring of the water feature. I wonder if I should just be straight with him and not lead him on. He does seem like a nice enough guy, albeit an inhabitant of Planet of the Geeks.
“Do you like me?” he stuns me out of my benevolent reverie.
“Excuse me?” I demand, slack-jawed with surprise. Perhaps I haven’t heard it right. He hardly seems the type who would shoot as straight an arrow as that.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he says, as if reading my thoughts, grinning. He takes a step closer to me. I panic that he is going to attempt holding my hands and I deftly clasp them behind my back. “I like you, a lot,” he says, his lips quivering. Nerves, I tell myself. Because it can’t be emotion just yet. Please God, let it not be emotion. Or worse, lust. He continues, “I hope you like me too?”
I am so incensed with his pointed question that all intention to break it gently suddenly evaporates. I can’t believe his gall – I’ve known him for all of thirty minutes and he wants to know if I like him enough to want to spend the rest of my life with him? Is he retarded? I strain to hold onto my temper. “Look, we’ve just met,” I mutter through clenched teeth. “Don’t you think it’s a bit premature to ask me that? Or even to decide that for yourself?”
He looks crestfallen. “But that’s the whole purpose of our meeting,” he protests, incredulous. As if I’m the one who is missing something here. I am distracted by his questioning eyebrows, because they are almost as thick as his moustache. “If it’s yes, we meet again,” he explains the concept to me, just in case I haven’t got my basics right. “If it’s no, we meet the next one.”
I cannot believe people from my generation are willing to put themselves on the market like this, willing to make a complete mockery of themselves. And the realisation makes me murderously angry with my mother for having badgered me into this. Well, first and last time for sure.
“So if I say no, it’s cool, right?” I ask him.
Now he looks as though he might have a heart attack. His pasty white face is turning red and I think some cholesterol-laden artery has finally squeaked and surrendered. I don’t want to stand trial for manslaughter so I hastily try to remedy the situation. “What I mean is, I can’t make up my mind so soon. You’ll have to give me a day or two to think about it,” I plead. He begins to breathe again. “And honestly, I don’t even know if I’m ready for marriage just yet,” I add truthfully. The colour starts rising in his cheeks again. This yo-yoing heart attack business is tricky and I cannot deal with it anymore. “Shall we go back in?” I suggest.
Wordlessly, we return to the large and airy marble-floored living room with the imposing double-storey vaulted ceiling. Antique brass ceiling fans stare down us from the height of the dome, adding to the charming Raj-reminiscent décor of the entire bungalow. I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life in this house. If only a man wasn’t part of the deal; least of all this one.
My mother and Mrs Khanna are beaming at us like you would at your pet dog after it has successfully jumped through the hoop. Attaboy! Never in my life has my mother radiated such warmth at me. Not once during twelve years of school when I unfailingly topped my class every single time. Not when I successfully completed the Mumbai marathon and not even when I started a promising PR company. But today, when I finally succumbed to her relentless haranguing and agreed to ‘meet a boy’, she is looking at me with love in her eyes. She is satisfied that I am finally bowing in deference to my karma and my dharma – which according to her, for any Indian woman over the age of twenty-five, is marriage.
“So, my dear, are you planning to continue working after marriage,” Mrs Khanna asks of me, her tone the equivalent of artificial sweetener. Now I seriously begin to panic. A peculiar feeling is rising inside me, similar to what one feels when all the questions in an exam paper seem incomprehensible. It is like being in a nightmare, where you can hardly believe what is happening to you.
“Well, I run my own company, so of course I’m going to continue to work after marriage,” I retort sharply, not even bothering to conceal my irritation anymore. “. . . whenever that happens,” I add, in an attempt to drive home the point. I don’t want to embarrass my mother but I am reaching breaking point. I need to get out of here real fast because tears are threatening to sneak up on me. Run Natasha, run!
“Do you feel you’ll be able to manage as demanding a career as yours, along with home, husband and eventually children?” She is not asking me, she is implying. I am seething with rage and my eyes are beginning to burn. Even His Royal Nerdiness seems a little taken aback at his mother’s obtrusiveness. I swallow a lump in my throat and say, “That’s really not my concern at the moment.”
I turn to my mother and flash my eyes so she understands that we need to leave, and pronto! She looks undecided and distinctly uncomfortable. She is aware that I am on the verge of snapping and knowing me, she is fittingly alarmed, as is evident from her bug-eyed expression. But she is also uncertain whether or not a sudden departure will come across as rude. Another minute and I know I will erupt like Mt Vesuvius, so I stand up and announce that I am late for a work meeting. I hope that drives the nail deeper into the coffin.
Mrs Khanna reluctantly rises, instructs us to hold on for a minute and disappears into the kitchen. Lard Ass is gazing at me like a lovesick puppy and I cannot for the life of me comprehend what is wrong with him. After the way I have behaved, he should want to avoid me like the plague.
Mrs Khanna returns with what can only be a box of sweets and I hear alarm bells ringing. Because I have a horrible suspicion I know exactly what is about to happen here. Before I can blink, she is holding a laddoo up in front of my nose.
“I don’t eat sweets,” I stutter, my eyes begging for mercy like a death-row inmate staring up at the executioner.
“Oh, come on,” she urges. “This is a shagun, we are going to be family now.”
I stumble backwards, my world in slow motion. This cannot be happening to me. This is not real. I shoot a quick glance at my mother, who is watching like a spellbound spectator. I spin about and make a mad dash for the door and catch my mother peeking apologetically at Mrs Khanna, even as I race out into freedom. Down the driveway and past the front garden, I run like the wind to the silver Maruti Esteem, leap onto the seat and slam the door shut. Ensconced in the safety of my father’s car, I realise I’m actually trembling with rage. My mother has had it.
I can see her now, waving tentative and awkward goodbyes to Mrs Khanna and her son at the white wrought-iron gate. He looks like a child whose candy has been snatched. Everybody is trying not to look in the direction of the car, pretending I did not just escape like a captive monkey from a zoo.
I am looking the other way, out of the window as my mother slides into the car, her formal silk sari rustling against the leather seats. Champak, the driver, starts the car and I realise I have been holding my breath.
“What is wrong with you!” my mother startles me by speaking even before I can. I cannot believe her audacity.
“What is wrong with me?!” I screech, jumping up and least bothered about the chauffeur’s presence. “What the hell is wrong with you? How can you ever, in your life, think that I will agree to marry a guy like that? Is that how poorly you think of me?”
“What’s wrong with him?” she asks, completely dumbfounding me. I am unable to speak. “Huh?” is all I am able to utter.
“What’s wrong with the boy?” she says again, her eyes nervously shifting from Champak to me, “He’s from such a good family, earns several lakhs a month, and is so well behaved and cultured. He’s a catch, I tell you.”
I am incredulous. She couldn’t possible mean that. Because if she does, she has undoubtedly lost the plot. How can my own mother undervalue me so much? Why is she so desperate to get rid of me? I live on my own, have started a thriving business and am perfectly capable of carrying on an independent life without being a parasite. Then why this desperation?
“At least tell me what you didn’t like about him?” she asks, catching onto my thoughts.
“Are you crazy? Are you blind?” I scream. I am literally tearing my hair out in frustration. My mother needs an asylum, or an optician at the very least.
“He’s fat, he’s short, he’s ugly, he’s boring,” I shout, gesticulating manically with my hands and nearly thwacking Champak’s head off. “How can you possibly think I will say yes to him? Are you completely insane?” Tears are rolling down my cheeks now, stinging my skin.
“How shallow you are,” she says to me, all holier-than-thou. “You’re only seeing that he is fat and short and things like that.”
“I have eyes, and so I can see!” I bellow at her. I cannot believe her – would she have married him?, I ask her.
“Don’t worry, we’ll make him slim down after marriage.” She is not kidding. I stare at her at a loss for words, my mouth agape. Then she continues, “That is my responsibility, I promise. I’ll come and stay with you for six months and make him jog every day.” This has now gone beyond infuriating and transcended into the realm of the ludicrous.
“What are you going to do about that idiotic moustache?” I demand, suddenly on the verge of giggles. “Shave that for him?”
“Why not? We can convince him.”
Okay, now this has progressed to officially lunatic. “And what about the fact that he is only two inches taller than me? What do you propose to do about that?” I cannot help a little chuckle. Champak keeps glancing nervously in the rear-view mirror. He thinks I’m the one who’s lost her mind.
“You get insoles with heels. Even Aamir Khan uses those.”
I am laughing now. At least the situation has turned comic and I no longer feel like crying or killing my mother. She, however, means every word that escapes her mouth before her brain can form a rational thought.
“I could not talk to him for two minutes without dropping dead of boredom. He is such a goddamn nerd!” I tell her, clarifying that I am not entirely shallow.
“Well, you both are busy people, you’ll hardly get much time together,” she says, now desperately rummaging about to find any reasoning that will mollify me. I laugh so hard I have to double over.
“And what am I supposed to do during the few hours that we do end up around each other?”
“Just lounge about in the bathroom for as long as you can and then go to sleep,” she says, with a shrug of the shoulder. I am splitting my sides laughing now. “Then what’s the point?” I yell at my mother in between guffaws. She has me gob-smacked. But by now she too has begun to giggle. Thank God the inanity of the discussion is finally dawning upon her. I say again, “If I have to spend my entire life hiding from my husband in the bathroom, what’s the bloody point?!”
“He’s a great catch, you don’t realise it now, but you’ll regret it later,” she shakes her head as though disappointed, but is stifling chuckles. “When you find yourself left on the shelf.”
“Past my sell-by date you mean?” I laugh. “I don’t mind going bad.”