“One. . Two. . Three. . And heave.”
I felt every muscle in my body ache as we tried to push the stone aside. It had already been two hours since we found the entrance to the cave where we had evidence of the existence of a dinosaur fossil, a completely unique dinosaur which would be a ground breaking discovery in the field of Paleontology. But the wretched rock prevented our entry.
“Let’s make one last attempt guys. If it fails, we’ll call for an earth mover or something for help.” said my teammate Sandesh.
He and I were the only Indian people on the team. The six of us nodded our heads and got ready for a final push. The seven of us combined the last reserves of our energy and gave one final heave. This time, it worked! The huge rock moved aside, revealing a dark tunnel. It must’ve been here for ages but no one had discovered it for so long.
We moved in cautiously with our headlamps and flashlights illuminating the path. As I moved forward observing the limestone deposits on the walls of the cave, one of my teammates yelled, “Watch out Rahul you are on the edge.”
But it was too late; I stepped on some loose earth and lost my footing. Before I knew it, I was plummeting down into a huge fracture in the ground probably caused by an earthquake. As I wondered if I’d be alive by the time I touched the ground, I heard a bored voice from above.
“Dude, are you going to wake up or should I switch off the fan?”
I woke up with a start and gaped at the blurred form of my sister. “So it was just a dream.” I thought to myself. Damn, it felt so real! I rubbed my eyes and squinted at my sister and she came into better focus. I looked at her appearance and gaped at her.
“Woah, don’t tell me that we are going out for some marriage on a very short notice.” I said and smirked at her.
My sister, who was in the final year of her med school, was a person who rarely gave a damn about how she looked. It was only on rare occasions that she dressed up the way she did right now. She was wearing a red and white salwaar with heavy embroidery, a heavy gold necklace and bangles which she hated. Her shoulder length hair was straightened and looked sleek.
“When you find out why I’m dressed up, you won’t be so smug annayya.” She said as she gave me a twisted smile and walked out of the room.
This might be trouble, I thought. I looked up at the watch. It was close to eleven in the morning. The jetlag hadn’t worn off. I was home after a long time. Four years, I thought to myself. Finishing my masters, immediately getting a job offer from one of the best design companies in Canada, it was a dream run. It was after all these years that I was finally able to afford a vacation.
I twisted lazily on the bed, and looked at my iphone which was lying on the side of the pillow. The last conversation I had before falling asleep made me let out a weary sigh. My two year old relationship with my French girlfriend was facing a deep crisis.
Matters took a shitty turn when my father found out about it from some of my facebook conversations when I didn’t log off from the home computer after I came back home. That was a week ago. From then, it was a choose-between-your-parents-or-girlfriend situation for me.
Though Victoria and I agreed right from the beginning that we would take the next step only with the consent of the two families, it was hard to break away from her. One week of talking with my dad hadn’t yielded any result. He was very stubborn about the whole thing. It was unlike him. He was always a man who gave my views a good thought. That stubbornness was what alarmed me.
“If you try hard enough, we can convince your parents. It is not impossible.”
“But I don’t think your parents can ever accept me. I don’t want you to abandon them or fight them for me.” said Victoria. She was wavering between agreeing to break up and unable to leave me. She had a point.
“Even if you marry her, she can’t adapt into a family like ours. She’ll have a tough time adjusting to our traditions and customs. You may say all that can be worked out, she is ready to adapt and she’ll be ready to live with us. All this may sound good in movies. But I’ve seen too many relationships fail after marriage due to reasons like frustrations arising from fighting stubborn relatives and families who refuse to accept the couple.” said my dad. Coming from an ultra conservative family, he had a valid point too.
Unable to decide on what to do next, my vacation was being spent in utter confusion. I got up and made my way into the living room. The room looked neat and prim as usual. My dad was sitting in the farthest corner talking to someone on the phone. I noticed that he was dressed up too, like my sister. He was wearing a neat pant and shirt and not in the Lungi and Baniyan which he preferred whenever he was home on holidays. He looked at me and nodded his head. I nodded my head in return and walked into the kitchen.
My mother was there busy cooking. She was also dressed up in an elegant saree, cooking in bigger vessels. I noticed Pulihora and Paneer.
“Is anyone coming to see sis?” I asked her. There was no other reason why all of them were dressed up so nicely on a Sunday morning, especially my sister. But her expressions in the morning suggested otherwise. She meant I was in trouble, not her. But there was no chance that it could be happen without my dad telling me beforehand.
“You still didn’t brush your teeth? Look at yourself Rahul, you look all groggy. Oh my god, go brush your teeth and take a bath. What will they think when they see you like this?” she bellowed at me. She was angry that I still in my bed clothes and anxious for some other reason.
“Amma, what is going on?” I questioned in a firm voice. I needed to know what the heck was going on in the house.
The anger vanished from my mother’s voice and she looked apprehensive and started fidgeting.
“Dad got a match for you Rahul. They’re coming over for lunch today.” she said. She looked at me with tension clearly showing on her face. She was bracing herself for my violent reaction.
My body stiffened up at her words and my grogginess disappeared. I became alert and a fresh burst adrenaline started to course through my blood. My whole body started shaking with anger. I was in such a rage that words didn’t come out properly from my mouth.
“Why. . . Why haven’t you told me?” I managed to mutter, trying to keep my voice steady and from shouting at her in anger.
“They are just coming over for lunch. It’s nothing serious. Talk to your dad. It was his idea.” She said and turned back to her cooking. I could see her flinch.
I stormed into the living room. I was in such a blind rage, I wanted to lift something and break it against the wall. I felt mutinous. My dad was sitting in the same corner, his face obscured by the newspaper. I stood there until her shifted the newspaper to turn a page. He saw me staring at him, put the paper aside and motioned me to sit. I didn’t feel like sitting but under my father’s pointed gaze I always found it very difficult to shout. I was intimidated and I hated it.
“I know you don’t like it. I’m not trying to do this out of anger or out of an insecure feeling. I know how much you love us and I also know that you are trying to end your relationship because we don’t approve of it. Don’t think I don’t appreciate what you’ve done. Just meet the girl and talk to her. I am calling them over just for lunch. We won’t discuss marriage. I just want to you to experience how arranged marriage takes place. How we used to marry a girl after seeing her for a few minutes and talking to her for an hour or two. Now go and get ready. I am sure you want to present yourself decently.” he said in a calm voice without any sign of agitation or anger.
I opened my mouth to protest. But he sounded reasonable. There was no immediate threat. I could just pass it off as a meeting with some random friend of my dad and his family. For the second time in the day, I just nodded my head and walked off. I brushed and looked at myself in the mirror. I had a three day old stubble. Long experience made me learn that girls liked guys with a stubble rather than a clean face with no facial hair. I looked at my six foot frame. Not bad, I thought to myself. At 25, I was fair, had a weight well proportioned to my height, broad shoulders and thick dark hair which I kept short most of the time.
I took a head bath and wore a short length white shirt which I didn’t tuck in. I wore a slightly old pair of faded blue jeans. I wanted to look good, but I didn’t want to look like a person who was eager to please. As I finished dressing up, I heard a car pull up in front of our house. I came out of my room and came out along with my parents and sister to greet the guests.
Three people got down from a Ford Figo. The man was about my father’s age with conventional features for his age. He was of medium height with a gaunt face, slight paunch and with grey black hair which was receding rapidly. His wife was a short and plump woman with a cheerful face. The girl was the last person to get down from the car. She must’ve been my age I thought, probably a year or two younger. She was about five foot eight, tall for a girl, had a golden white complexion which was enhanced by a salwaar with a deep violet top and a white bottom with a print on it. She made her taste clear. She wanted to look elegant but not gaudy. She had long silky hair which crossed her shoulders and came a few inches above her waist. She was slim with a trim waistline and no sign of extra weight. She had deep set brown eyes. I looked her as she entered the foyer of the house along with her parents. She smiled pleasantly at my parents and folded her hands into a respectful Namaste. She gave my sister a friendly handshake.
“Smooth” I thought to myself.
She was not trying to overdo it. She looked calm and composed. I greeted her parents with a formal Namaste and shook hands with her dad. Our eyes met as we walked into the living room. Her gaze was calm and steady as I looked into her eyes and sized her up. I had a feeling that she was doing the same. She had a very piercing gaze. I found it hard to withdraw from the steady eye contact. I flinched slightly as she kept looking at me even after all our parents had settled down into the sofas and started exchanging pleasantries. She caught me flinching and smiled. I found myself smiling in return. She had a pleasant warm smile. It was a sweet smile neither haughty nor stupid. I felt dumb. This was the first time I had broken eye contact with a girl. All my life it happened the other way round. My sister, who was following the whole chain of events silently, looked at me with a smirk written all over face. I gave her a dirty look and she turned away trying to hide a grin.
We introduced ourselves to the family on the other side. I found out that her name was Sanjana and she was working as a charted accountant for a famous firm in Hyderabad. I was right. She was about my age just a year younger to me. I explained her parents about my job in Canada where I designed safety systems and improved the existing ones for automobiles. I also told them about my plans to leave the country after the end of the contract next year and settle here. From the look of it, they looked pretty impressed. After sometime, both the older women escaped into the kitchen discussing recipes while my father and the girl’s father immersed themselves in discussing current politics.
I found myself engaged in a three sided conversation with my sister and Sanjana; we talked about random things like friends and our respective areas of work. Sanjana had a sweet feminine voice which was neither too shill nor too meek. She listened attentively to my sister as she told her about her course and spoke with enthusiasm when she had to reply. She always maintained eye contact when she addressed me and talked to me with ease and confidence. Not a girl who can be intimidated, I thought.
“Rahul, why don’t you show Sanjana the floor upstairs? Said my dad after a while. My sister made a smooth apology and disappeared into her room. I was soon upstairs with her giving a tour of the recently constructed floor upstairs. She took in everything with enthusiasm, her deep brown eyes darting in all directions whenever I pointed to some painting or decoration and why we picked it up. Soon, we were sitting on a pair of chairs in the balcony.
“You have to know that I already have a girlfriend and she is French. Her name is Victoria.” I told her in a flat voice.
“Oh . . . That’s cool . . . How did you meet her?” She asked with no sign of emotion in her voice.
I told her about how I met her in the first year of my master’s course and how we have similar ideas and how much we liked each other.
“That’s very sweet . . . So, you people plan on marrying each other?” She asked, again, with no sign of emotion. But I could see that she was paying rapt attention. Her gaze never left my face as I spoke.
I told her about everything about my situation. How we decided on proceeding to the next step only if our parents approved of it, how my dad disapproved of the whole thing and how I was in a fix on what I should do next.
She listened to my ten minute long monologue and nodded her head but did not say anything in response for a long moment. I could see she was thinking. As a person who hated awkward silences, I had to say something to break it.
“So, how about you? Did you ever fall in love with anyone?” I asked her in a matter of fact tone.
She looked at me for a moment before answering and said, “Yes . . . I did . . . I fell in love with this guy who was my classmate used to work with me in my first job one and half years ago. It was all very good in the beginning, but soon he started imposing himself on me. He started getting insecure whenever I used to talk with other guys. Yes, he was very devoted and caring, but soon after my father found out, all hell broke loose and I found it very difficult to cope with his insecure feeling and the pressure at home about marrying a guy who is not of the same caste. I tried to fight and convince them, but one day I sat down and weighed my options. I decided it was not worth it. It was very traumatic for the next few months. But I got over it now. He is transferred to another place and it’s been a long time since we talked to each other. And yes, I do miss him, but I am ready to move on with life.”
Her calm voice and her honesty impressed me. I was not expecting such an honest account of life from a girl I’d met for the first time in my life.
“Why did you tell me all this? Don’t you want to make a good impression?” I asked her, looking into her eyes.
“I don’t know. . . Why did you tell me all that? You didn’t want to make a good impression either?” she said, boring her eyes into mine.
I was taken aback and kept looking at her face, feeling a warm feeling of intimacy growing between the two of us.
“I trust you. If you like me, I want to marry you.” She said suddenly.
I nodded my head.
“I like you too. This is the best first meeting I’ve had with a girl till date.” I said and paused.
What has gotten into me? I thought to myself. I met the girl an hour ago, I knew nothing about her interests, her hobbies, her likes or dislikes. But I had already started imagining marrying her and living with her. I am shallow, I thought to myself. Forgetting the girl I liked for two long years after talking to this girl for an hour. Was it because of a feeling of security that she could make herself a part of my family? Was it because of the feeling that she had a similar upbringing and could understand me better? Was it because I thought she could reconcile with my past and live with me comfortably?
As I kept looking at her, lost in thoughts, my mother shouted saying that lunch was ready and we went down to join them. Lunch was cheerful and filled with laughter and healthy conversation. Soon, they had to leave. I shook hands with Sanjana’s dad. She made a respectful greeting to my dad and mom yet again. She wished my sister good bye with another handshake. I could see that they had exchanged phone numbers.
We simply looked and nodded at each other. I came back into my room and lay down on the bed. I closed my eyes and replayed our meeting. I must’ve dozed off due to the heavy lunch when I heard a voice.
“Wake up dude . . . Screw your jetlag. . . Wake up. . . I need to talk you about something. . .” It was my sister yelling at the top of her voice.
I woke up with a start and looked around. The time was eleven and the sun was shining brilliantly. My iphone was lying on the side of my pillow and was not in my pocket as I put it last. My sister was dressed up in a t-shirt and pajamas, her hair in a knot on the top of her head.
“Listen, dad said that there is a family coming over for lunch. It’s a potential match for you. This is the picture of the girl.” She said and passed me the photo.
I looked the person in the picture and gaped. She was talking about something, but I didn’t quite catch it. I kept staring at the picture.