A Rearranged Marriage


May 2018

Shortlisted for NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2018


        Word limit: 2000
        Genre: Romance
        Subject: Bait-and-switch
        Character: Housewife

    Parvati stood before an altar of garlanded statues at midnight and allowed herself to cry. She had smiled all day and her mouth hurt. Her knees came undone and she collapsed into prostration. The choir of cicadas that filled the small suburb of Mumbai were joined only by the gentle sound of her misfortune.
    She rose from a puddle of tears on the floor and looked to Lord Vishnu. She had not prayed in earnest since she was a child.
    “O Lord, give me courage.”
    The carved detachment on his face gave her a moment’s calm before reality resurfaced. She was to be married the next day and had not yet met her life’s companion.

    Six months earlier, her parents and the parents of a boy named Ravi had perched themselves on sofas to Parvati’s left and right in her father’s study. The four elders were all sipping tea in perfect unison and glancing over at her. Their symmetry was unnerving.
    Her mother placed a picture on her lap.
    “Why won’t you look at his face, babu?” she said. “He’s very handsome. He could be an actor!”
    Parvati kept silent, eyes fixed on the ceiling fan.
    Adjusting her sari, her mother turned to their guests.
    “She must be a little shy.”
    Parvati had been in this situation many times and usually found a way out of it. She would whisper the likes of “mama, he’s too short” or “papa, he has no prospects” and her parents would quietly nod and bring the interview to a close. This time it was different. She sensed a terrifying eagerness about them and a foreboding sense of contentment with this Ravi. The fact that he was presently in the UK for his medical training had been stated a number of times with varying tones of emphasis. Ravi and Parvati both happened to be finishing their studies at the same time, an apparently divine coincidence that could not be ignored.
    She managed to steal a glance at his face and, to her despair, the young man looked much like a film star.
    She did not care if the man looked like Hrithik Roshan, she had no desire to become housewife to a stranger. Parvati was secretly of the modern opinion that she was capable of choosing her own partner. The only issue was that she could not bring herself to disappoint her parents.
    That afternoon, she had not said “yes” and neither had she said “no”. She had sat there and smiled at everyone like the obedient daughter they prayed she would be. They took her silence as a signal to immediately begin making arrangements for the marriage. It would take place in August, as soon as Ravi and Parvati had completed their studies.

    Ravi was to remain abroad until three days before the ceremony. She had his email address and he had hers but months passed without a single exchange. She chose not to dwell on this for she would soon have to waste a lifetime of thoughts on this man.
    As was custom, Parvati had very little to do with preparation. The powers-that-be worked tirelessly on her behalf. Her mother haggled over the phone and her father crunched numbers in his study. This suited her. Whenever it was required she would be present, mind elsewhere, to wear the appropriate smile and choose the appropriate shade of red.

    One evening, a week before the marriage, Parvati was offered a glimmer of hope in the form of an email.

Dear Parvati,
I’m sorry.
I wish you a life of happiness. I look forward to when our paths cross one day.

   She did not reply. Instead, she rushed downstairs hoping to detect a tremor of bad news. Her mother was deep in conversation with a vaguely familiar aunty and did not take notice of Parvati. Her father was asleep on the veranda.
    Hearing his daughter’s step, heavier than usual, Mr. Sharma woke up with a “what’s that?” and watched his newspaper fall to the floor.
    “How is everything, papa?” said Parvati in her calmest voice.
    “Everything? That’s a broad question, my dear,” he said with a facetious twitch of his moustache and his daughter immediately lost interest. “I only know that which is within my realm and even here there are many mysteries I may never understand. But from this limited perspective… Parvati?”
    Parvati had hurried back upstairs to reread the email. She could not make sense of it but one thing was wonderfully certain: tragedy was to befall this marriage. She would simply wait for the news to break.

    In the days following, relatives flooded the house and pinched her cheeks, strangers offered her clothes and jewellery and an astrologer assured everyone that the match generally aligned with the stars. Bright orange flowers hung from every corner and entwined every pillar. There was not a single sign of misfortune and this worried Parvati. Her mother, looking ghostly, informed her that there had been issues with flights and her groom was to be arriving on the day of the marriage. A weight sat firmly in her stomach.

    “I found her!”
    Parvati opened her eyes. Her cousin Anita was was standing over her, shouting through a phone.
    “She’s at the temple! Come quick!”
    What are you doing here, Parvati? Everyone is looking for you. Have you forgotten? You’re getting married today!”
    Parvati sat up with a start. She had fallen asleep on the temple floor. The sun had risen not long ago.
    Her mother rushed in, picked her up and led her to the house without a word.

    An hour later, Parvati was in the car, under the weight of a thousand earrings and bangles, with a hand rested on her mother’s lap.
    “I did not even look at your father until we arrived home on the night of our wedding,” her mother was saying. “I decided to cook for him the only dish I knew how to cook. Daal and rice. I watched him eat it all up and he told me it was the best daal he had ever tasted. He was lying, of course.”
    Parvati tried to smile but whimpered instead.
    “Mama, I’m scared.”
    “I know, my dear. Today you will feel scared. Terrified. But it will not last. Happiness will take its place. I promise you.”
    The car stopped. They had arrived.
    A riotous procession of friends and family escorted Parvati along a pathway to the main hall. At the entrance, she could make out the figure of the man she assumed to be Ravi. His face was concealed by flowers that hung from a headpiece.
    They approached each other. Parvati, genuinely shy, kept her eyes on his feet.
    “The groom and the bride may now garland each other,” said the amplified voice of a priest.
    Parvati’s groom adorned her with flowers. She was handed a garland and at last looked to his face. Behind the flowers, she found a pair of unfamiliar eyes.
    There was a cheer and a flurry of drums.
    “Our couple have now acquainted themselves!” said the priest. “Please tie the bride’s sari to the groom’s kurta.”
   An assistant to the priest carried out the order.
    “Good,” said the priest. “Now they cannot run away from each other even if they tried!”
    There was uproarious laughter.
    The priest became serious. “It is now time for them to make their way to the havan where they shall seal their union.”
    With encouraging shoves from the crowd, the couple were guided to the fireplace by which they would sit. The ritual began.
    Their cheeks hot from the fire, Parvati and her groom followed the priest’s instructions. They repeated ancient vows and mimed rituals that neither of them had rehearsed. She could not help but feel a connection with this man.
    At last, they were instructed to stand and walk around the fire to complete the ritual.
    “The marriage of Parvati Sharma and Sanjay Dhakde has reached its fulfillment,” announced the priest to an uncertain round of applause.
    There was confusion behind Parvati’s veil.
    “May they enjoy a blissful union for as long as the earth is rich with mountains and-”
    “Who is this Sanjay?” Parvati’s mother had stepped forward, enraged. “Where is Ravi?” she approached the groom. “Remove your headpiece!”
    The groom did as he was told. He revealed a face different to the one that had haunted Parvati’s dreams for months. This man’s face was kinder, she thought.
    “I knew there was something wrong here!” cried her mother. “Who are you? Explain yourself, young man.”
    It was clear that the young man was as confused as his accuser.
    “Aunty, why are you angry? Ravi is my brother. Have you forgotten that I had taken his place?”
    There was an uproar among Parvati’s relatives.
    “They have scammed us!” shouted a distant cousin.
    “We will not accept your chubby little replacement!” said an authoritative voice.
    “What are your credentials, boy?” demanded an uncle.
    Her mother had charged over to the Dhakdes and was now in a furious discussion.
    Sanjay and Parvati turned away from the crowd and stood face to face. Parvati laughed and Sanjay joined in. They felt safe.
    “Had you not been told?” asked Sanjay.
    “Not exactly,” she replied. “What happened?
    “My brother had fallen in love with an English girl and called off the engagement.”
    “I should have guessed!”
    “My dad asked me to replace him two days ago.”
    “You mean he forced you to replace him.”
    Sanjay smiled. “It was more of a demand. I hadn’t even given marriage a thought.” He looked over at his parents and threw his hands in the air. “I thought they had told you. I guess they were too ashamed to admit you were getting married to Ravi’s ‘inferior’ little brother.”
    “What difference does it make to me? I didn’t know Ravi as much as I don’t know you. Where do you live?”
    Sanjay appeared to blush. “Here. I’m studying journalism.”
    “Thank god.”
    Trumpets suddenly filled the room and a voice began to sing an upbeat village song. It appeared the wedding band had not been paying attention.
    “Someone shut them up!” cried an aunty.
    The couple watched as the musicians were promptly dismissed.
   Sanjay put his hand on Parvati’s shoulder. “Would you like to go and sit somewhere?”
    Parvati gestured to the literal knot that tied them together. “Do I have a choice?”

    That evening, Sanjay had driven Parvati back to the apartment his parents were renting out for them. The couple had announced that they were to move ahead with the marriage on the condition that they could leave early. Their parents were overjoyed and declared a celebration was to ensue, with or without them.
    They had shed the weight of their wedding attire and were sat opposite each other on the dining table.
    “Would you like me to make some daal and rice?” she said.
    “Are you crazy? I have never been this full in my life.”
    “I was hoping you’d say that. I can’t cook.”
    Sanjay laughed and she delighted in the sound.

Photo credit: Shan Shan Lim