AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Q is being held, as I am yet to read an author with the surname Q.

A story-flake instead.

“You can read this if you like,” I handed her the file that had taken me a decade to compile. It consisted of printouts from various times and places so far away that they appeared to be scenes not from the past but from other lifetimes, the paper fresh towards the beginning and fading and yellowing within. At the end of certain stories, I had randomly added a few lines by hand, when I had revisited it after years. I had filed away these memories for no other reason except that they might go into a story someday, a story that I was yet to begin to write. But right then it was all I could think of keeping her distracted. I may not be able to dissuade her from her life decisions, but there was no way I was going to let her pop those pills while she was in my house. I sat down next to her and opened my laptop, resolving to drag the conversation through the night as in our college days. Come daybreak and I would send her safely away.

“You should write a book about this, Purna. Really. Everyone likes to read about marriages, so much nicer than all that heavy stuff about spirituality and philosophy,” she said as she turned through the pages slowly at first and then hurriedly. I was rewarded by the way the darkness on her face melted as she turned the pages, and was replaced with an innocent greed for gossip as her eyes pierced the lines, filing away bits and pieces in her own mind.

The Robotics Lecturer

An unpleasant surprise. The encounter with the robotics lecturer could be summed up in three words. He had a name, of course, a commonplace name. Call him Ramesh, Suresh, Naresh or Rajesh for he could have been any of them, yet another twenty-six-year-old Madras boy of his generation. I refer to him as the robotics lecturer, for his profession alone distinguished him from the stereotype that he was in every other way. I was repelled by the way he sat at our dining table, full-sleeved shirt buttoned to the collar, oily hair combed carefully over balding pate, wearing baggy trousers that barely hid a slight paunch and the smug expression of the ‘ideal boy’ as pictured in primary school textbooks.

His mother pushed a plate of cashew nuts to his side, and periodically gestured him to eat, her growing boy. She was dressed in what seemed to be her wedding sari, an antique Banaras silk in deep indigo with a silver border, and outdated jewelry that must have fit her once, but now squeezed her plump neck and wrists, creating small bulges of powdered flesh on either side of the dull gold.

The only thing that must be more tedious than making social conversation at a bride viewing, is to listen to it. I strained to keep my eyes from glazing or worse, dozing over while the fathers pontificated loudly about how marriages were the union of two families and not two individuals, and the mothers talked in artificially refined tones about the rising prices of gold and the difficulty of getting good maids.

“Purna loves to keep a tidy home. Last week she cleaned the rooms and even cleared the cobwebs off the ceiling when the maid was on leave,” my mother simpered. I was glad she did not say I had personally prepared each of the snacks on the table with my own hands.

The woman in indigo silk inclined a gracious double chin towards me. I noticed that she had extended her eyeliner to make two short lines at an angle of thirty degrees on either side of her eyes. The fish-eye style must have been popular in her college days. Come to think of it, she was carefully and stylishly dressed from head to toe, except that her style was about thirty years old.

“Our maid stays with us. She has been with us for fifteen years, wants to retire now,” she gave a tinkling laugh. “I’ve promised to let her go, as soon as my daughter-in-law comes home,” she said to my mother, looking at me significantly while uttering the last part of the sentence. The look caused an unpleasant fluttering sensation in my stomach.

Thunderous laughter from the fathers and uncles shook the carved wooden partition which separated the dining and living rooms. I wondered if men employed loud laughter as a tactic to announce their powerfulness. Good girls were not supposed to laugh aloud, my parents had said while shushing my schoolgirl’s laughter a hundred times, driving me to forget the skill for the rest of my student years. When I started to work, the first thing I bought was a little library with which I built a wall around me, and within the safety of those paper walls I had taught myself to laugh once again. There was plenty to laugh about life, like the comedy that was playing out around me now. This occasion was likely to change the rest of my life but no one seemed to care about what I thought of the whole setup. I had returned from the office that evening, tired to the bone, to face this, and me an independent Indian woman in the twenty-first century. 

“I suppose we should let the children talk now,” someone said and soon I found myself sitting next to the robotics guy on the garden bench.

“So, what are your hobbies?”  He asked me after looking around for a few minutes, just when my eyes began to close again.

I had hardly expected an original question from him, but that clichéd opening line killed any possibility that might have grown from that conversation. Stifling a yawn I began to tell him politely about the books that I loved and the poetry group that I was running at the British Library, while he listened with a polite, interested face. As I talked, scenes of life with him played out in my mind. Sitting there, hardly an hour after I first met him, I could predict every single thing that he would say, and do. I could even imagine what and how, he would think. Some people conform so much to convention that they remain unaware sometimes until the end that they have morphed into stereotypes, and live their parents’ lives all over again.

I declined him because I did not dare to risk any chance of happiness that I might finally find in the future, if I moved away from the plodding, painful path upon which most people around me seemed so contented to walk.

In retrospect, he was a good man, kind-hearted, a gentleman. I could see that from the way he lowered his eyes respectfully from time to time, the mild tone of his voice. With time I found not all clichés are bad. Like springtime and sunshine, the silence of the night, like the beauty of changing seasons, and the sight of stars in the sky. Even life is a cliché when you look at it.

The Silicon Valley Architect

The chief impression that I retained of the unusual encounter with the Silicon Valley architect (SVA) was the sense of entitlement that came through from him and every one of his family members. While a display of arrogance from the groom’s side is one of the many accepted traditions of a Tamil Brahmin wedding, SVA’s family took this attitude to new heights. For one thing, he refused to fly to Madras for a face to face meeting. He was too busy with work and can come only for the engagement, his parents said at first, and later that he could only come for the wedding.

They lived in a palatial bungalow in a prime Adyar locality, set within an acre wide garden of flowers. The house had been originally built for some officer of the British Raj, and was later bought by his great-grandfather, the Diwan Bahadur ___ from whom one of the famous streets of Madras takes its name. His family flaunted their riches, most of all they were rich in extended family and friends. He was the youngest of four children, three of whom were married into equally wealthy and powerful families, whose members were well known within the state, the country and some, even internationally. When they heard of the proposal, some of our relatives murmured with a sour look that they could afford to be arrogant, having condescended to an alliance with the likes of us.

But it was his horoscope that charmed my parents. Nine out of ten celestial aspects match perfectly, the astrologer had claimed, comparing the planets that stood around his horoscope with those of mine. It was a rare occurrence. This marriage, he said, if it happens, will be most auspicious and favourable. Why the element of doubt, my parents asked him worriedly. Because this marriage is likely to take place only if the boy and girl actually see each other, he said enigmatically. My parents sighed with relief. Of course they would see each other, they mused, how could a wedding in 2004 happen without the bride and groom having seen each other? But as much as I like to say that all astrologers are old frauds, he was right. I never saw SVA, even though I was engaged to him for about one hour, the longest hour of my life.

By then, I had grown used to unannounced bride viewings. On returning from office and finding SVA’s family descended in droves upon the living room, I reluctantly dressed in a sari and went out to meet them. Parents, sister and husband, brothers and their wives, a flock of children, and a few aunts and uncles, everyone except the man himself were present. The subtle elegance which masked the richness of their clothing, the perfect creases in their handloom silk-cotton saris and dhotis, and the sober sparkle in the diamonds upon them, all of which exuded a formidable aura. The excitement in their voices filled the room with a pulsating energy that overwhelmed the strong fragrance of several kinds of expensive perfumes, which was making my eyes water and my head throb in the combined, cloying odour.

The younger children clambered over me, calling me Purna Auntie and prattling about their SVA Uncle. I calmed myself by silently reciting sonnets from the book that I happened to be reading those days. I imagined that it was all part of a story, and I was watching a scene unfold before me. Someday I thought, I would write with great joy about these characters, including the apathetic cow who watched indulgently as her four-year-old devil caught my sari pallu smearing it with the remains of a ghee-soaked sweet from his greasy paw, her husband who looked like a politician satirised in a cartoon strip come alive and perhaps, even the mysterious scion of this genteel circus who trusted them enough to let them choose his wife.

The sounds of mantras came from the living room. I peeped and caught a priest squatting on the carpet. “On such and such epoch and era of time, to the South of the Meru mountains in the land of Bharat, in the spring season of the such and such month and day (a number of archaic names were mentioned in between all of which went over my head), it is decided by the elders that the immortal youth SVA and the auspicious maiden Purna are to be united in matrimony on …” Too shocked to process what he said next, I managed to walk into my room without screaming aloud. My mother followed me.

“How could you -?” I had intended to whisper, but I could not suppress the shrill cry that escaped my throat, which was lost in the buzz of multiple conversations that filled the house.

“We thought it was better to formalise the engagement so that the alliance does not slip away. Such respectable people, so elite, so wealthy. Imagine, you will be part of one of the best Madras families!”

“But I haven’t even seen him!”

“Purna, Purna! Where is the girl, let us have the couple talk!” A loud voice came from somewhere, as though on cue.

My mother refused to meet my eyes as she shoved me into the living room. The coffee table was weighed down with the ceremonial silver trays of fruit, flowers, and coconuts, along with baskets of exotic fruit (lychees, assorted berries, peaches) and boxes of imported chocolate.

“He is on the line. Here” his elder sister thrust her mobile phone into my hands. There was sudden silence in the room as everyone’s eyes turned to me, even the kids were staring.
“Speak!” my mother hissed.

“Hello?” I managed to say into the phone. Someone giggled.

“How are you Purna?” Filled with rage, I was ready to hate. But it was a friendly voice at the other end.

I muttered my way through conventional answers.  The twenty-odd people in the room resumed their conversations and I suddenly found myself alone in the crowd, speaking with someone I had never seen but who was no longer supposed to be a stranger.

“You look very pretty in the brick red sari,” he said.

“When did-“

“In the photograph.”

When had they sent that to him?

“How is the Madras weather?” He persisted with banalities that go into kindling and stretching a conversation. He talked easily, with the poise and assurance of someone who was confident of being heard. He talked about life in the Silicon Valley, the healthiness of Japanese cuisine, his remarkable work-life balance. 

“Tell me, are you excited about moving here?”

“I just read this book about Silicon Valley yuppies,” I said suddenly warming up to the conversation.

“Not impressed,” he responded cheerfully.  “I only read magazines on flights, and the odd business book.”

That did it for me. “I did not say that to impress you. I have no intention of impressing you,” I shot back, “I am not impressed with you either,” I handed the phone to his sister and retreated to my room. I did not walk away in a huff, or slam the door, but the coldness in my tone was enough to cast an immediate chill upon the rest of the room. Half an hour later when I came out, they had all gone, having politely decided to revoke and hold the engagement plans until he was able to come down later, a euphemism for canceling the alliance. I was pleased to find that they had taken their baskets and boxes with them.

My parents glared and turned away when they saw me for the next few days. Thus marooned, I washed up on the shores of the British Library where I discovered the oeuvre of Hrishikesh Datta and his twenty-four novels about life in a little coastal town. 

Much later still, my parents found out why SVA’s family insisted that he did not come before the wedding. Nothing serious or sensational, he just happened to be an ugly man who had been engaged earlier and rejected by the girl, once she saw his face. Years later, I saw his face on my Facebook feed, cast there by some cyber acquaintance who tagged or liked his photograph. I did not find his features too repulsive, but his eyes were commonplace like his conversation and the expression on his face was devoid of intelligent thought. I shuddered. It had been a narrow escape.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
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