Rishta: A marriage proposal
Namaste: Hindi word for Hello
Beta: Hindi word used to refer to son or daughter
Maa: Hindi word for Mother
Baba: Hindi word for Father
I sit on the edge of my bed, staring at the top of the dresser. My makeup is scattered — tubes of lipstick open, brushes scattered and my foundation with no cap in sight — arranged astray.
I wasn’t usually like this — disheveled and a nervous wreck. But today was a special day. Today could be the single deciding day of my fate. My hands trembled in anticipation, and my palms started to sweat. My dad’s friend’s son was coming to visit. To visit me specifically. This was my third rishta this week, the third guy coming to meet me and potentially ask for my hand in marriage. I was freshly 19, and a young girl like me shouldn’t wait any longer to get married. That’s what Maa had always told me.
“Kiran!” Maa shouted from a few rooms down. I jumped up, knocking my foundation down as a result, making it crash open and spill all over my ruby-red mat. I shook my head in disappointment but continued on my way because I couldn’t be late. Being late is bad manners, Maa had taught me.
I picked up my pace in the hallway as I walked into the kitchen towards the tray. Maa had left snacks for me on the counter. Cashew biscuits, chips and barfi on some of our finest china plates.
I picked up the tray and made my way to the living room, where he and his parents would be waiting. They’d be waiting for me to grace their presence, so that they could assess and analyze my every move to take mental notes of what to gossip about and pick apart later.
I walked slowly, looking down and consciously slowing down my steps just like Maa had shown me. I set the tray down on the table and finally looked up to see my potential suitor.
He smiled at me, and I noticed that the skin around his brown eyes crinkled as he did. His brown eyes were so beautiful, like freshly roasted chai.
“Namaste,” I greeted him, smiling warmly while not leaving his gaze.
“Namaste,” he greeted back, folding his hands. I couldn’t stop smiling as I sat beside Maa and looked down at my hands. I could no longer focus on my freshly painted pink nails or the conversation that was going on around me because I was too busy thinking about that smile of his.
“Maybe we should give the kids some time to talk,” Maa said as she nudged me.
My eyes widened because I hadn’t been listening to their conversation, and my stomach lurched with anxiousness. His parents nodded in unison as we both stood up to talk in private.
I walked in front of him to the terrace and then motioned for him to sit on the swing. From our view, we could see the whole neighborhood below: small, cozy houses and winding streets.
“Hi Kiran, my name is Sunil,” he smiled again as he extended his hand towards me for a handshake.
“I’m Kiran,” I replied, holding his hand in mine and then laughing at my dumb mistake.
“Oh, you already knew that. Sorry, I’m just nervous,” I said breathlessly as I finally let go of his hand because my palms were still sweaty from before. There was an awkward tension between us, and we both laughed to lighten the mood.
“That’s alright, why don’t you tell me about yourself? What are you studying?” he asked.
“Well, I just finished high school last year, and well… I really want to study Visual Design at Delhi University, but…Maa won’t let me.”
“Oh, why not?”
“She thinks that daughters should stay at home to prepare for becoming a housewife, I guess,” I sighed.
“Well, you could still study after marriage, right?”
“Yeah, if my husband allows it…but so far, whoever I’ve talked to hasn’t been very open to the idea.”
“I wouldn’t mind it,” he smiled warmly, and my breath caught as I blushed.
“That’s very sweet of you,” I replied.
We rocked on the swing for a while, letting the motion guide us. The awkwardness that clung in the air just moments ago seems like a far-gone memory, and a tender and comfortable silence settled instead.
“And what about you? What do you study?”
“Well, I just finished my graduation from Purdue University in America. I’m a mechanical engineer.”
My eyes widened at his answer.
He noticed my expression and smiled. “Why is there something wrong with that?” He laughed.
“Well…no, I was just wondering what you’re doing here then?” I ask.
“Well, actually, it’s my intention to get settled in America after I get married,” he said calmly.
“Oh,” I mumble. “But why?”
“I think I’ve outgrown India and its values. The people, the thought process, it’s all too old-fashioned, isn’t it?”
I pondered this for a moment. Is it really?
“Like I just want to get married in peace without having to spend so much money on an over-the-top wedding with 500 people that I don’t even care about.”
“Then what do you want instead?”
“A court marriage, if possible.”
I thought about it for a second. Living in Indian society and having a big fat Indian wedding was all I’d ever known and dreamed of. There were never any “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” about it. I’d never even given it a second thought because I didn’t think there was any second-guessing.
“I’m not sure, I’ve never really thought about it that way….” I start. “But I guess what you’re saying makes sense to me.”
“For sure, and it’s interesting, you know, the traditions of India. But I think it should be challenged and modernized because a lot has changed, hasn’t it?”
Yeah, I suppose it has, I thought.
I was still thinking about our discussion as I was cleaning up after they’d left. I smiled at the thought of it and everything we’d talked about. It felt like, for once, I was heard.
“Nahi bolona, Parag?” (“We’ll have to reject him, right Parag?”) I heard my Maa talking from the room beside me.
“What, why?” I interjected.
Maa’s eyes widened, surprised that I talked in between her and Baba’s conversation.
“Because… he’s not a good fit,” she said vaguely.
“What? Why not?”
“He’s too modern, and his parents, they’re so westernized.” she cringes at the last word like it leaves a bitter taste on her tongue.
“So what if they’re modern? Isn’t that a good thing?”
My parents shared a look, still surprised that I was talking so much.
“It can be a good thing, but once you forget your own values, it isn’t good anymore,” my Maa said distractedly, waving her hand in a dismissive manner. “That’s it, Kiran. I don’t want to discuss this anymore. Baba will tell Sharma uncle that it didn’t work out.”
“But it did, Maa. He’s perfect.”
“Kiran, 5-minute ke liya bhaat ki, ghar be basyaliya?” (“Kiran, you talked to him for 5 minutes, and you’ve already envisioned a future with him?”) My Maa said sarcastically, her tone slightly annoyed now.
“It’s not fair. I let you say no to all the rest of the guys. But Sunil — he’s different. I like him.”
Maa looked away from me.
“Baba…” my tone turns awry, edging on desperation. “You’ve known Sharma uncle for so long. How can you say no to him?”
“Kiran, beta, your Maa is not convinced. This is for the betterment of you.”
“And what does Maa know? She knows nothing.” I angrily spit out.
Maa grabbed me by the arm forcefully and looked at me with her warning eyes to shut up.
“Aaj bolna tho Maa.” (“Let me talk today, Maa”). I pulled my arm out of her grasp. “Mujhe job karni hae, Sunil mujhe karn dehga. Sunil mujhe America bhe lekha jayega. Issa aacha larka kha milega Maa?” (“I want to do a job. Sunil will let me. Sunil will even take me to America with him. Where will we find a boy better than him, Mom?”)
Maa put her hand to her forehead, exasperated.
“Kiran, you know nothing. Let me tell you, there is nothing better than staying at home and being a good housewife and having kids. Trust me, I should know beta”
“What, how is this good, Maa? How is staying at home and being Baba’s servant 24/7 good? How is never having gotten an education and getting married to someone ten years older than you at 16 good?”
Baba slapped me, and everything came crashing down. My Baba has never slapped me before. He took my hand, took me into the storage room, and forced me into it, locking me in and closing the light.
“Jab Maa ke liya koi respect hogi tab hi bhar nikelna.” (“When you have some respect for your Mom, you can come out”).
I start sobbing. Big, heaving sobs that make my whole body tremble. I lay my head on the cool floor, my sobs drawing out to lulled, uneven breaths.
Maa named me Kiran because it is the Sanskrit word for a ray of sunshine. Maybe it was to remind me that even in times of darkness, there is a ray of hope.
I sit up and take a few deep breaths, slow and steady.
You should always listen to your heart. Maa used to say.
I swipe away the tears with the back of my palms. So, now I guess it’s time to follow her advice.