Like most second-generation Indian-Americans, I’d dismissed arranged marriage as a ridiculous and antiquated custom. Tying oneself to a man one hardly knew, and pledging lifelong love and fidelity on top of that?
“For a modern woman it’s nothing short of insanity,” I’d mocked many a time. But after reaching adulthood and realizing that everybody in my big South Indian Telugu family was married in that fashion and looked utterly content, except for my uncle Srinath, whose wife was suspected of being a hermaphrodite, the concept didn’t seem so absurd. I figured I’d even give arranged marriage a try. That is, if I could find a man to marry me --- and it was a huge if.
So far, I’d acquired an Ivy League education and moderate success as a big-city attorney, but I’d come up empty in the marriage department, perhaps because I’d distanced myself from the madness of the dating scene.
If it weren’t for the fact that I really and truly wanted to get married, I wouldn’t have ventured into the old-fashioned Indian form of torment called bride viewing. Fortunately it wasn’t as bad as it was in India, where girls were often put on display and expected to tolerate their potential in-laws’ scrutiny like cows at a cattle auction.
Here in the U.S. it was just a matter of boy meeting girl and family meeting family in an informal setting. There was generally no undue pressure exerted on either party to marry. But convention required them to be polite and respectful of each other. However, the system was biased in our male-worshipping culture. The respect shown by the girl and her parents to the boy and his family often bordered on sycophantic.
At the moment, standing before the oval mirror in my elegant bedroom with its honey oak and pastel furnishings, I gave myself a once-over. In spite of the clever use of cosmetics, the face staring back at me seemed rather plain --- ordinary nose, full mouth, curious eyes fringed by dark lashes, tweezed eyebrows. Nothing beyond plain Miss Soorya Giri. Being the potential bride in yet another bride viewing was hardly pleasant. The mild fluttering in my tummy was gradually escalating into an anxiety attack at the thought of meeting one more eligible man.
With a damp palm pressed against my belly, I waited for my bachelor and his family to arrive. I stood in my bride-viewing finery --- the whole nine yards --- or in this case, six. The sari happened to be six diaphanous yards of silk --- soft, glossy, South Indian silk.
My suitor and his family were coming all the way from Kansas City, Kansas, making the occasion all the more unnerving. Looking outside the picture window, I contemplated if I should make a quick and silent escape into the backyard.
The weather was perfect for lounging around our kidney- shaped swimming pool, shimmering like a sheet of turquoise glass in the balmy afternoon sun. Mom’s lovingly tended zinnias, marigolds, and impatiens were fat and bursting with vigorous colors. The copse of pine trees in the distance looked cool and darkly forbidding, but no more forbidding than what perhaps awaited me in the coming hour.
Fleeing was tempting, but I couldn’t summon the courage to do it. In fact, I’d never had the stomach for it. Good Hindu girls didn’t indulge in blatant disregard for convention. Conformity and duty to family above all else were deeply embedded in our DNA. All the Americanization in the world could not eliminate what was intrinsic to the Hindu psyche.
Although Indian-American kids are often branded as “coconuts” --- brown on the outside and white on the inside --- girls and boys like me can talk, eat, party, work, and think like Americans during the adolescent years, but once we’re no longer teenagers, our Indian-ness starts breaking through the brittle plastic façade.
I had discovered I was a dark Telugu-American some ten years ago, no matter how much imported-from-India Fair & Fabulous bleaching cream I rubbed over my skin. Besides, our community was small and close-knit, and rumors of my wayward behavior would spread fast, humiliating my parents, my grandmother, who happened to live with us, and me in the process.
I could picture Dad frowning down at me with his enormous arms folded across his equally enormous chest. “Soorya Giri, I am appalled at your behavior. Did you have to ruin the family name in such a reckless manner? If you weren’t interested in meeting the young man, you should have told us in the first place. We could have saved those folks and ourselves a lot of grief.” Mom would put on that wounded basset hound look, with her head tilted to one side and her big eyes blinking. “Baby, did we do something wrong? Is that why you are behaving in this strange manner?”
My paternal grandmother, Pamma to me (short for Papa’s Amma), was too deaf to know what was happening around her most of the time, but even she would have a seizure at my shocking behavior. “If I do this kind of nonsense things when I was a small girl, my father squeeze my throat and throw me in river,” would be her reaction. Then she’d remind me that in my next life I’d have to pay very dearly for bringing such shame upon the family. “God always watching, baby. You do bad-bad things in this life, you get bad-bad things in next life.”
Taking into consideration family honor and dignity combined with bad-bad karma in my next incarnation, running away was definitely not an option at this time.
The doorbell chimed downstairs, sending a mild ripple through my system. Oh God, they were here.
“Soorya, they have arrived,” Mom announced from below, confirming my thoughts.
I listened while my parents welcomed the visitors and ushered them into the living room. After a minute I quietly tiptoed down the stairs and slipped into the kitchen. I would wait there until the time was right for my planned and practiced entrance. There was an established procedure. The pistachio-colored kitchen curtains looked fresh and crisp from a recent wash. The appliances gleamed and I could literally lick the smooth, waxed hardwood floor if I had a mind to. A garland of fresh, turmeric-yellow marigolds was strung around the picture of Lord Balaji in its silver frame. The mildly pungent odor of ammonia cleaner combined with sandalwood incense and spices lingered in the air.
Everything looked warm and welcoming in the sunlight filtering in through the towering sunburst windows, down to the multicolored roses arranged in the Waterford crystal vase on the sill. Mom, the perfectionist, didn’t leave anything to chance.
Voices in the living room were clearly audible and the thick Telugu accent unmistakable --- each R rolled around with relish and the dialogue flowing in the present continuous tense. “We are coming for the first time to New Jersey. Do you always have so much traffic congestion here or what?” asked a male voice. Always sounded like aahl-vays.
A few other voices, including my parents’ and grandmother’s, came to mingle with the man’s. Pamma spoke mostly Telugu, although she knew a fair amount of English. The old lady conversed with me in English, read the New York Times each morning, and rarely failed to watch the evening news on TV.
My father’s accent was a shade less pronounced as he proceeded to respond to the honored guests’ comments. “Newark Airport and the main highways are naturally congested, but our vicinity is quiet --- no apartment buildings and condos.”
Dad loved to throw that in --- the fact that we lived in an exclusive area of New Jersey. Bergen County bordered New York and was more like an upscale suburb of New York City. God forbid we should have apartments within a ten-mile radius.
Catching my image in the smooth surface of the stainless steel refrigerator, I couldn’t help but adjust the pallu of my sari, the loose end that goes over the left shoulder and cascades down the back. The green sari with red border embellished by gold thread or jari had me looking like a Christmas tree decorated with tinsel, but Pamma and Mom had convinced me that green and red were auspicious colors.
My lips still looked glossy. My shoulder-length, iron- straightened hair looked salon-perfect. But the gold thread abraded and itched where it touched my neck. I scratched at the three ugly welts that were getting larger and redder by the second. Good thing they weren’t all that visible on my dark skin; there was no reason to panic yet.
The wet stains on the underarms of my red blouse were a different matter. My industrial-strength antiperspirant wasn’t performing so well today.
Mom came prancing in from the living room, a hundred-watt grin lighting her face. She approved of the family from Kansas. “They seem like nice people, Soorya. And so cultured,” she informed me, then went to the oven to inspect whatever was in there.
The aroma of fried food came at me with a whoosh as she pulled on her pistachio green oven mitts, deftly removed a loaded pan of goodies from the oven, and placed it on the beige speckled granite counter. Whatever lay on that pan continued to sizzle for a few seconds.
I offered no response to Mom’s statement. I preferred to reserve my comments until after I met the folks from Kansas. Instead I discreetly scratched my hives and inhaled the curly wisps of aromatic steam traveling toward me.
“Don’t scratch, Soorya. You know it leaves scabs.” Mom threw me a stern look, or at least as stern as she knew how. My dear mother didn’t know what stern meant. “You remembered to take your antihistamine?”
“Yes, Mom. Don’t worry, I’m fine.” Honestly, I wasn’t all that fine.
After countless times, I should have become a pro at this. But no such luck --- I was still reduced to a nervous glob of dark, pudgy female at the thought of being on parade before people whose names I didn’t know. Oh boy, I really didn’t know. “Mom, what did you say their name was?”
“I told you the other day, dear, Vadepalli.”
Vadepalli --- a nice, old-fashioned Telugu name, pronounced Va-they-palley. My mother had a knack for discovering them --- families that had similar backgrounds to ours in terms of language, religion, and culture.
“The Vadepallis are good people with healthy genes according to your auntie Prema. And you know Prema is very smart in these matters.” Mom opened the refrigerator and retrieved a crystal bowl covered with plastic wrap.
“Yeah, I know. She’s arranged the marriages of no less than thirty-two people.” I was kept abreast of Prema’s impressive record on a regular basis.
“It’s thirty-three now; she arranged one more last month. Every one of them with healthy genes,” Mom boasted.
“No kidding!” My aunt’s idea of healthy genes included most anyone who wasn’t dying of advanced tuberculosis or AIDS. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, hypertension, Parkinson’s, and even lunacy were considered minor ailments and were to be overlooked, especially when the lack of marriageable young men was bordering on dire, as in my case.
“First you get married; afterward you discuss all those unpleasant genetic things,” my aunt had said to me once, after having lectured me on the advantages of marriage.
I couldn’t imagine how such grave genetic health inquiries could be put off until after marriage, when it was way too late. But I wasn’t in any position to argue with my aunt, who was like a runaway steamroller when it came to arranging a match. Thirty-three was an impressive number, though.
I watched Mom carefully lift the hot snacks off the metal pan and arrange them on a sterling silver platter --- a variety of spicy fried delicacies that smelled divine and had acquired a perfect golden tint --- crisp lentil vadas, onion pakodas, and vegetable samosas.
The crystal bowl filled with bright green mint-coriander chutney sat in the center of the arrangement. I knew how it would taste: tangy and fiery hot --- pungent enough to strip the top layer off one’s tongue. Beautiful and oh so enticing! My mouth watered.
A carved silver bowl held luscious-looking gulab jamuns --- the round, dark brown orbs of fried pancake flour that resembled chocolate Munchkins floating in rich syrup. I eyed them with longing. They were a definite no-no on my latest diet: the Red, White, and Green Vegetarian Diet --- anything that didn’t fall within those colors was not even to be looked at.
I lived on salads, red and green fruit, select cooked vegetables and sprouts, skim milk, Diet Sprite or diet cherry soda, and plain nonfat yogurt.
And damn if brown, yellow, black, and everything in between didn’t look and smell divine. “Mom, is my sari still all right?” I cocked an eyebrow at my mother, hoping to force my attention away from the food. Mom had patiently wrapped the sari around me in the traditional style with lots of safety pins to keep the complicated folds and tucks in place. Once or twice she’d had to yell at me to stand still and not wriggle.
I didn’t know how to wear a sari any more than I knew how to steer a fighter plane. The fabric was like an endless bolt of interconnected bedsheets. But no South Indian girl worth her blood would find herself at a bride viewing in anything less than a Kanjivaram silk sari.
At Pamma’s insistence, I wore the traditional diamond earrings and necklace, too. Several twenty-two-karat gold bangles jangled along my wrists. The red dot on my forehead was nice and big to suit my face.
Her own purple sari with a saffron border slightly askew from her exertions, my nearsighted mother blinked and studied me critically for a moment. “It looks fine, dear. But try not to fidget with it too much.” Then she offered me a warm, reassuring smile. “You look nice, baby, really pretty.”
“Yeah, right, and Mars is inhabited by little bald men, Mom.”
My wry comment earned me a tight frown from Mom.
Laughter floated in from the living room. Dad was doing his part in keeping the Vadepallis sufficiently entertained while Mom took care of the food. He could be quite a lively host, especially when it came to impressing important people --- like potential in-laws.
Gregarious and witty, Dad was often the soul of the party, especially after consuming a couple of stiff martinis garnished with his favorite pearl onions. But there was no liquor on this afternoon’s menu. What if the Kansas folks were teetotalers? Worse yet, what if they frowned on alcohol? One had to be politically and culturally correct in such delicate matters.
Mom placed the platter and bowl on an oblong wooden tray alongside the rose-pattern Lenox plates and pale pink cotton napkins. Then she filled the silver coffeepot with South Indian coffee --- strong and thick, with loads of frothy whole milk and sugar. “Be an angel and get the matching cups and saucers, dear,” she said to me.
I gathered up the necessary items and stacked them on the tray set aside for the coffee service, then took a deep breath. Another minute and I’d make my grand entrance.
At least the previous bride seekers had come from within the tristate area --- near enough to make a hasty exit and drive home when I didn’t measure up to their standards.
Excerpted from The Full Moon Bride © Copyright 2012 by Shobhan Bantwal. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.
The Full Moon Bride
- paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Kensington
- ISBN-10: 0758258844
- ISBN-13: 9780758258847