The normal religious marriage was and still is arranged by the parents of the couple, after much consultation, and the study of omens, horoscopes and auspicious physical characteristics. . . . While a husband should be at least twenty, a girl should be married immediately before puberty.
- A.L. Basham, The Wonder that was India
My grandmother was married off two days shy of her tenth birthday.
My mother found a husband when she was twenty. I thus reckoned that if every generation increased by a decade the acceptable age for marriage, I should have become a wife by thirty.
But at thirty-three, I was nowhere close to being married. And it was this that brought much consternation to all, tainting the joy and inciting hitherto-suppressed family politics, at the wedding of my twenty-two-year-old cousin, Nina.
I was at a family wedding in Bombay, the city where I was born and had spent most of my life. My parents and two brothers still lived here, in the same house that I knew as a child, a house conveniently located just minutes from major temples and hotels. Which was a good thing, considering how much time they spent at such institutions, attending weddings just like this one. It was always, of course, someone else's wedding and never my own.
Nina had "jumped the line" as they all liked to say. She was much younger, and marrying before me. But then, as Nina's mother pointed out, how long could everyone wait?
I forced myself to smile and look happy. It wasn't that I was unhappy. It was just that, on this steaming May evening, I was hot and flustered, conscious of the damp fog-gray semicircles formed by droplets of sweat on the underarms of my sari blouse. I had to press my limbs down against my body so they wouldn't show against the light-colored fabric. Both the sari and blouse were creamy whipped pink, like the pearly sheen of the inside of a seashell, or of little girls' bows. Six yards of the fabric were wrapped, nipped and tucked around my body, making me look - in my estimation - like a blushing egg roll. At least that was what I told anyone who complimented me. I had been fidgeting all evening with the flowers in my hair. They were "faux," bought off a wooden stand on a Bombay street corner, papery and the size of half a fingernail, about a dozen of them pinned into my upswept coif. Not exactly my idea of understated chic. But my hairdresser insisted: "Your cousin is getting married! You need some decoration!"
Mercifully, understated wasn't the order of the day here at the Jhule Lal Temple. Nina was about to become a wife in the presence of three hundred people, most of whom she had never met. I felt self-conscious standing there on the sidelines, the older, unmarried cousin, aware that people were glancing over at me - yes, to see what I was wearing, but mostly to detect any hint of pain or jealousy on my face as yet another younger cousin married. I closed my eyes for a second, inhaled, found my center - the way they taught me to do at my Wednesday-evening hatha yoga class. Then I lifted up my smile and made it stay.
"Your turn next," said Aunty Mona, my mother's second cousin, who was standing next to me. She grinned, revealing a space between her two front teeth the size of East Timor. That gap was considered a sign of good luck. Any Indian face-reader worth his chapati dinner knew that the wider the space, the greater the fortune. "Don't worry, beti, it will be your turn soon," Aunty Mona consoled, patting me on the back. "God will listen to your prayers. It's all karma. Tsk tsk."
I allowed her to comfort me, as I had learned to do all these years, and noted how miraculous it was that my self-esteem wasn't completely annihilated by now. Since arriving in Bombay a week ago, I had been on the receiving end of many things - advice, sympathy, concern. But mostly, it was pity and consolation. Now, coming from Aunty Mona, these sentiments were delivered with the same gravity as a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease. My relatives never thought to ask about my interesting and independent life in New York, what I did there, who my friends were, or whether I'd scored a ticket to The Producers when Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane were still in it. Instead, it was incessant: "Why aren't you married yet?"
From For Matrimonial Purposes, by Kavita Daswani . Copyright (c) June 2003, The Putnam Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc, all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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