It was way past early morning and the sun peeped through the window. As the bright yellow rays kissed her cheeks, she rubbed her eyes lazily, opened her mouth wide to give out a musical yawn and stretched her body. She lay on her bed for five more minutes, cozily tucked in the white linens, before crawling out in her pink shorts and camisole. The wall clock showed 30 minutes past 10, and the hustle bustle in the house confirmed, a sin had been committed by a young lady by waking up at this hour.
The kitchen had turned into a multi-cuisine restaurant. The females of the house were the celebrated chefs, busily moving the spatula in their much awaited north and south Indian recipes. The pungent aroma of spices emanating from the dishes caused a few sneezes here and there. This was not just any weekend. Today was special and the house was preparing itself for the arrival of special guests.
“Niharika, is this the time to wake up?” screamed her mother.
“I wonder what this girl will do after marriage. Her mother–in-law is going to curse me: What values have you given to your daughter?” Mrs Agarwal indulged in a tirade of soliloquy, while Niharika gave a long yawn, hugged her and paid no heed as usual. The warm hug cooled down the mother’s temper; a successful technique well-rehearsed by her beloved daughter, in all these years.
“Go get dressed before they arrive”, said her mother, moving her fingers gently through her daughter’s uncombed, early morning tresses.
“Wear the new salwaar kameez, I got for you the other day. It is an important day for you. You should look your best self”.
“But Mom, you know I don’t wear traditional attire. I’ll be more comfortable in jeans.” She said raising her eyebrows.
“Your father will not like it. You know him. These are his strict orders”, her calm voice became a pitch higher.
“Why do we always have to obey dad? It’s not that he’s right all the time.” She said, vainly attempting a cute expression and a wink, to ease her mother’s anxiety.
Her aunts chuckled, accustomed to her usual melodrama, while briskly moving the spatula in the gravy.
“No further arguments Niharika. It’s not good to be a rebel always and question everything. It has been decided. Now you better get dressed”.
“Uhh! My tactics are not working anymore. I’ll have to think of more convincing ways”. She thought to herself, stomped her feet and left the kitchen.
“Wow Didi! You are looking gorgeous. Like some 1960’s heroine“, teased her younger brothers.
“Get the hell out of my room, both of you. Now!” She ordered with the privileged authority of an older sister.
Niharika blushed as she looked in the mirror.
“Not bad!” She teased herself, smiling at her reflection.
Tables were laid with silk linens and new cutlery. Curtains were drawn and the house was lit with ceiling lights and chandeliers. The marble floor shone like a freshly cleaned mirror. Expensive show pieces and flower vases replaced the usual ones. The book case in the living room was replete with the hardbound books of renowned authors; their pages crisp and smelled of fresh print. The house was immaculately cleaned and decorated; everything in its perfect place.
As the black Mercedes screeched to a halt in the porch, the entire house turned into a military ground. Elders were commanded to attention position and the children were rushed to their rooms. Niharika peeped out of her bedroom window, trying to get a glimpse of the boy. Beads of perspiration ran down her forehead as she sat there as a plastic doll adorned in her glittering new attire. She kept fidgeting with her dupatta, turning her head in all the directions and stretching her eyes to take in whatever those black pearls could afford. All the twisting and turning was in vain as she got a glimpse of everyone from the family except the Boy.
“Relax Niharika. You are going to meet him in sometime now”, she consoled herself.
“Namaste, please come in”.
“Thank you. You have a beautiful house!”
“Ah! It’s nothing. You are embarrassing us.” Sophisticated adult laughter filled the room.
As the guests got comfortable and were served the first helping of the day’s delicacies, their eyes frantically searched for their future bride.
“Where’s Niharika? Please call her. I am dying to meet our little princess.” Jignesh’s mother squeaked, flashing her white teeth drenched in the Rosugulla’s sweetness.
Niharika’s heart skipped a beat, as the melodious call of her mother rang in her ears. Now was the time! “This day is going to decide my fate.”
She folded her hands and chanted her prayers like she always did before her examinations.
All eyes rested upon her as she climbed down the flight of stairs, brilliantly managing her nervousness and high heels.
“Namaste beta. Come sit with me.”
“You are looking pretty”
“Thank you aunty.”
“These cookies are very tasty. Did you make them?”
“No Aunty. This is mummy’s specialty. She baked these.”
Jignesh’s mother gave a meek smile while relishing the cookie in her mouth.
“Please try the cake, Mrs Shah. Niharika baked it yesterday. She’s very good at baking cakes.” Niharika’s mother intervened, enumerating the merits of her daughter.
“This is delicious.” Mrs Shah gently kissed Niharika’s forehead, giving a satisfied smile.
The men continued talks on business and politics. Occasional smiles greeted Niharika, as she humbly reciprocated and surveyed the room. Her future mother in law sat beside her. On the other couch was Jignesh’s father who was busy chatting with her dad, sitting across her. On the third couch sitting quietly, was Jignesh’s sister. Niharika’s eyes were now fixed on the restroom door, wondering if Jignesh was in there.
Her mother and aunt did frequent rounds of the kitchen and continued refilling their guest’s plates and empty stomachs.
“It would have been good if Jignesh was also here.” Niharika’s mother spoke reading her daughter’s thoughts.
“You know Mrs. Aggarwal, how it is. He is in London and burdened with work. He wanted to come but his leaves did not get sanctioned.” Jignesh’s mother clarified, taking a sip of the masala tea.
“He did not come! I spent hours dressing up for this boy and he’s nowhere! Didn’t he wish to see me, to talk to me?” Niharika thought to herself, as her instant rage gave way to disappointment and her rosy cheeks lost colour
“Our son is very obedient and holds us in utmost regard. He told me, Papa whatever you people decide I am happy with it. Even though he lives in London, he is very rooted. I can forget to pray someday but he visits the temple daily.”
“I have talked to Jignesh over phone and skype on a few occasions. I agree sir, he is well behaved and sensible .” Niharika’s father bolstered his guest’s opinion.
Niharika suppressed her anger, and commanded her tongue not to utter a word. But her thoughts went as their freewill. “Sensible and obedient! What is wrong with these people? He didn’t even show up to meet the girl he’s about to get married to! How does that make him sensible?”
“We have brought Jagriti along. She is close to her brother and knows his tastes. She is also the same age as Niharika. We are looking for a groom for her as well.” Jignesh’s mother chuckled.
“Beta, why don’t you and Jagriti talk to each other? You will be more comfortable in her company than mine, I suppose.” Jignesh’s mother insisted as she faked a smile.
Jagriti smiled at Niharika and initiated her first non-verbal communication. She shifted a few inches to make room for her new companion. Niharika forced a smile and did as directed. Her short lived anger gave way to a sigh of relief as she sat next to someone her age. They sat at a safe distance from elders to make their talks as private as possible.
“Do you always dress up in traditional attire?” Jagriti threw her first question at Niharika.
“No Yaar! I am usually in casuals. Today I was forced to wear this.” Niharika gave a sullen look.
“Ah! I get it.”
“And what about you? You were forced too?”
“No. I wear traditional attire when out in the society.”
The conversation was getting serious. Nothing like Niharika had imagined. She wanted to break the ice but all her attempts at smiling, making weird expressions and occasional pokes were going in vain.
“So, what kind of clothes do you wear at home?” Jagriti inquired like the HR of a Multinational.
“Well, it depends upon the weather. In summers I wear shorts and in winters I prefer full length warm lowers”.
“Oh! God what kind of conversation am I having? How is this even relevant? Is she really my age or is she going to be my mother-in-law and just wearing a façade? Can’t she have a normal girly talk with me! What’s wrong with her?” Niharika thought to herself while playing with her duppatta and frantically tapping her left foot on the ground.
“Are you all right?” Jagriti inquired, seeing her in a restless state.
“Yes I am fine. I was wondering, do you like to travel?”
“Yes my whole family does. I have been to almost all the states in India. We usually travel by our car. It’s safe that way”
“Wonderful! I once did the longest train journey from Delhi to Mumbai. It was my first solo trip and was so much fun!” Niharika’s smile filled her face. “Finally! Some normal discussion”, she thought.
“Solo trip! Your parents allowed that?”
Jagriti’s question was followed by an awkward silence and the two girls concentrated on munching the cookies.
“Let me brief you about our culture.” Jagriti straightened herself after taking a long sip of tea. For a brief moment she resembled the old school teacher giving out moral science lectures to kindergartners.
Niharika followed suit and gave her complete attention, trying to appear as serious as possible.
“Our family is traditional. We value our culture and hold it in high esteem.”
Niharika nodded as Jagriti continued.
“As for clothes, girls do not believe in showing off their skin so shorts are out of question.”
Niharika gulped as she imagined herself clad in clothes from head to toe on a hot summer day.
“After marriage, girls are expected to wear traditional clothes when out in the society. That looks decent, you see. Marriage changes a lot of things.”
Niharika’s smile was fading from her face, as the reality of being a married woman dawned upon her.
“Don’t worry! It’s not that you will be restricted. Girls are independent in my family. I know how to drive a car and my parents let me drive even the most expensive ones.” Jagriti’s eyes sparkled at the thought and her long lost smile appeared on her face again.
“Poor girl! What kind of life she is living. She must feel suffocated at her home” Niharika’s tender heart empathized with the damsel in distress, and she spoke out loud, “I feel sorry for you. I can understand it must be difficult to live with so many restrictions.”
Jagriti was stunned! For a minute she remained silent and carefully chose her next words in her defense, “I said, I am allowed to drive my own car. Ours is a modern family. Unlike my cousins, who are driven by chauffeurs or by the men of the family.”
Niharika’s eyes widened and she was totally at a loss of words. She felt it was polite and in the best of her interest to let Jagriti give further details of her family set up, without any interruptions. Niharika grew restless, shifting her position and occasionally pressing her belly.
“What happened? Are you alright? You seem disturbed” Jagriti inquired observing her odd stance.
“I’m fine. It’s just the period pains.
You know how it gets! It’s my second day today.” Niharika winced in pain.
“You what?” Jagriti was stunned
“Are you sure you baked this cake yesterday?”Jagriti stopped in the middle of gorging the cake in her hand.
“So you entered the kitchen?” Jagriti voiced her contemplation.
“Yes! I did. That’s where the oven is kept and all the baking material.
Why are you asking this? Is there something wrong? The cake isn’t good?” Niharika was growing anxious now.
“No, there’s nothing wrong with the cake. It’s delicious.”
“But there’s one thing I am worried about. I should have told you this before.”
“Yes, please go on.” Niharika tried to calm her anxious nerves as Jagriti continued.
“I was telling you about our culture… So there’s this thing.
During those days, girls in our family do not enter the kitchen. It’s considered inappropriate.”
“You mean during menstruation?”
“Yes I mean during those days. The girl gets a separate bed and the rest of the furniture.”
“You mean she is ostracized? But what is her fault?”
“No she is not ostracized. We have normal conversations and the days go as routine.”
“Don’t you feel embarrassed and weird about this? It’s like telling the whole family about something which is private to a girl.”
“What is there to be embarrassed about? Besides this tradition has its own perks. The girl does not have to cook or do any of the household chores. She gets complete rest. She even gets to eat tasty food brought specially for her from the outside.”
Niharika gathered the courage to ask one last question which was haunting her.
“Does Jignesh know about this? Does he approve of it?”
“Yes he knows about this. This has been our culture for ages and everyone follows it. No one questions, not even Jignesh Bhai.”
Niharika turned pale and her whole body felt numb. Either it was the physical weakness at the moment or something else, but she felt she was about to faint. She gulped a full glass of water kept beside her and kept silent for some time. All the words and the humdrum in the room fell on deaf ears. She did not want to be there, at that place, at that time. She imagined herself watching some movie. This cannot be her life. This cannot happen to her. What did she just listen? What is wrong with these people? Which world are they from?
“I cannot do this.” She mumbled to herself.
“Did you say something?”
“I liked the family. Jignesh is coming to India in December. Niharika can also meet him then.”
“Yes, the family seemed nice. Jignesh’s mother is also fond of Niharika. And she had a long conversation with Jagriti, I think they both will gel well.” Mrs Aggarwal’s eyes sparkled at the thought of their daughter getting married soon.
“The family is reputed and stable. Jignesh is already an MBA, earning good and well settled in London. Even if they decide to come back to India, Jignesh will have an established family business to take over. There cannot be a better match than this for our daughter,” Mr Aggarwal contemplated.
That night was the longest night in Niharika’s life. As she lay on her bed and retrospected on the day’s events, she grew anxious thinking about the big change her life was about to go through.
“How can I marry in this family? Will we ever be able to understand each other? We are so different! But then this whole world is so diverse and we all are still living together. Nikhil and I are so different, even though he is my brother and we fight so much, yet I am happy living with him. Then why am I scared to get married in this family? Is it the change that I am scared of or is it something else? I know I have to get married one day and my life is going to change. I am also prepared in my mind for that, so what is it that I am looking for? I have this feeling in my gut that something does not seem right but what exactly is it? I have to discuss with mom and dad tomorrow. Maybe they will help me sort it out.”
Niharika tossed in her bed as she kept thinking all night and waited eagerly for the sunrise. All that she wanted at the moment was to vent out everything in front of her parents, perhaps the only ones in this world with the answers to her questions.
“Good morning Papa”
“Good morning sweetheart. How is my daughter doing today?”
“Not very well. I have been thinking a lot about what happened yesterday and I am a bit confused.”
“What is the confusion? I thought you liked them? You had a long conversation with Jagriti.”
“Yes daddy. That is what I am worried about. They seem traditional and conservative to me.”
“What is wrong with following one’s traditions? Even we are traditional. Studying in a convent does not make you western.” Mr Agarwal’s cheerful demeanor now turned serious.
“Besides, marriage brings a lot of changes. Girls have to learn how to adjust. Even I adjusted. I did not even get a chance to meet your dad or his family before marriage. And look at us now, how happy we are with each other. You will also have a happy married life with Jignesh.” Mrs Agarwal spoke while serving breakfast at the table.
“But mom why do we have to adjust? Why can’t we be accepted for who we are? Nikhil and I are so different and we fight a lot yet I love him the way he is. I will never want to change him.” Niharika shouted, now almost in tears.
“Nikhil is your brother and we are your parents. It’s different with in-laws.” Mrs Agarwal retorted, now losing her patience.
“In that case I don’t want to get married. I am happy living with you all.” Niharika hugged her mother tight, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I am a good person mom and I am not doing anything bad, then why do they have to change me completely, even the way I dress? I love myself like this and I like the way I live. If I were wrong you would never let me be the way I am today, Would you?” Niharika tightened her grip around her mother’s waist and sobbed.
“My princess, this is our culture. I know it will be difficult for you in the beginning but I also know you are a strong girl. You will be able to adjust and win their hearts.”
“Why do they make it difficult for me? Nobody asks Jignesh to change or to adjust.”
“He too will have to adjust with your temperament once you both start living together.” Niharika’s dad retorted. “He too will have to change a lot of things.”
“Like what? Will he change the way he dresses or will he not enter the kitchen after having sex with me?” Niharika shouted in anger wiping off her tears.
“Enough of this nonsense, Niharika! Have you forgotten your manners? You are talking all crap” Mr Agarwal screamed at the top of his lungs.
The commotion alerted the entire family and everyone gathered in the living room.
“If it is about sex then it’s a hushed matter. But if I have menses, the whole family will know about it. I am not OK with it Dad. I am not OK with the encroachment of my privacy.”
Niharika gathered the courage to speak on topics never discussed in the family and she finally understood what kept her awake all night. Her words were followed by complete silence and the family was shocked at what had just been spoken.
“I want to marry someone who accepts me for who I am, the way I am. I want to marry in a family that accepts and celebrates diversity and not try to make me a reflection of theirs.” Niharika spoke her final words and broke the silence.
All eyes were wide open and all mouths were shut as Niharika marched towards her room. Her face was a mixture of tears, resentment and a newly found courage.
For hours together she lay on her bed, resting her head on her wet pillow. She had to make a decision and now there was no confusion.