By Debu Majumdar
The yelping of the street dog drew my attention; a food vendor must have given it a vicious kick. Then I saw my eldest sister, Jaya, walking down the street from the train station. Her long braid swung against her slim back. I recognized the bright sari she wore, the one she had bought when she graduated from college, against the advice of our mother, who thought it too garish. What a commotion the family had been in during the last few hours because we hadn’t been able to locate her! We had thoroughly searched our apartment and called her friends, but she was nowhere to be found. She had just vanished after breakfast.
My mother and my middle sister, Mejdi, two-years younger than Jaya, had been very busy right after breakfast, spending several hours sweeping, cleaning, and tidying the apartment. They had organized the shelves in the room where we received guests, arranging the books and our few display items nicely. I was around to follow orders. As instructed, I had bought a bunch of long-stemmed tuberoses. Mejdi put them in a tall vase in the corner. Those tubular snow-white flowers, always used for weddings, perfumed the room. My mother dragged a trunk from under her bed and took out a beautiful, thick, golden bedspread and put it on the single bed in the room for guests to sit on. The gold color lit up the room like the fabulous Mughal emperor’s court my 8th grade teacher had described. Wow! My mother had transformed the mundane room into an opulent salon, like the ones rich people had in Calcutta. This would impress anyone.
Our father paced back and forth in the corridor. He read the paper twice, cover to cover, with a pensive look on his face. He came to Mother and said, “They will come at 3. And only three people: the parents and an uncle. The marriage broker said they are a well-to-do family.”
“I know,” she quietly replied and took down a set of fine bone china plates and cups from a shelf above the window. Hand-painted on the borders with tiny pink flowers, I had seen them there for as long as I could remember, but we had never used them. She went to the kitchen and opened a Lakshmi-brand can of ghee bought especially for the occasion.
“We’ll cook luchis with ghee,” she told Mejdi.
Luchis are a delicacy in Bengal—puffed-up, deep-fried, round breads made with fine white flour and served only on very special occasions, such as when a new son-in-law arrives for the first time.
I was watching with fascination, having never seen my mother and sister so enthusiastic about entertaining guests.
My sister took fine white flour out of a canister and mixed it with ghee. She made a dough and kneaded it for a long time until it was very smooth. I saw two packets of sweets from Rajbhog, the famous sweets store in Central Calcutta, that father had brought home the day before.
“Where is Jaya?” mother suddenly asked.
“I haven’t seen her since breakfast,” Mejdi said. “She’s a little bashful. Probably reading a novel on the roof.”
“Let her alone. We will dress her around 2:30.”
After the food was cooked, Mejdi went to talk with Jaya, but couldn’t find her in the apartment. Where could she be? She asked me to search the roof. I went up the spiral stairway, but the flat roof was deserted. The house looked so beautiful and mother had cooked such wonderful food. All for Jaya’s sake! For settling her marriage! But where was she? I leaned on the roof wall and gazed at the coconut palms in the distance.
This was to be Meye Dekha, “viewing the girl,” an age-old custom in Bengal, a first step in arranging marriages. Members of the boy’s family come to the girl’s place and meet her in order to decide if she would be suitable for their boy. It is uncomfortable for the girl’s family, as their daughter is being judged, but that is how it is done; society provides no alternatives.
Mejdi knew Jaya didn’t like the candidate that her father was considering for her marriage. The marriage broker said the boy had a graduate degree and had a good position with excellent prospects in the Bata shoe company. When Mejdi pressed Jaya, she only said, “He has a degree in leather technology. Can you imagine, he works in a shoe manufacturing company! Making shoes!” They both knew that people who worked with leather were not highly regarded by society; this man’s family belonged to the industrial ‘owner class,’ but the taboo was indelible.
“Won’t it be better than marrying a clerk who slaves in a government office?”
“Many will find this man worthy,” Jaya agreed, “but not me. India has been independent for 20 years! Isn’t it time for us to throw off these antiquated customs?”
“For the family’s sake, please go along with it,” Mejdi had cajoled her. “You can reject the boy later.”
Mejdi had thought she had convinced her sister. Now, she had no choice but to report the conversation to her mother. She confided to her that she had underestimated the intensity of Jaya’s objection to arranged marriages, and this one in particular.
“Does she have someone in mind?”
“No. But she wants to take charge of her own life.”
“This is our way—good or bad,” her mother lamented. “I went through the same thing. My father did what was best for me. My family could not wait for a dream bridegroom to come along. My mother was also similarly married off. And her mother. We learn to love the man we marry.”
“Times have changed, Ma.”
“It’s been this way for generations in India.” After some time, she said, “Fate! We can’t avoid what’s in store for us.”
“I understand, but the guests are coming in half an hour.”
“Your father is a good man, but he is not a salesman. You don’t know how hard and how humiliating it is for him to find a bridegroom for his daughter. He feels as though it is begging. He placed anonymous advertisements in newspapers and contacted several marriage brokers. This candidate was one of the best. Jaya is already 24. The most attractive girls in her age-group are already married. An unmarried girl is a blemish on us. If we cannot get her married off, what will happen to you?” Mother started to cry. She wiped a few tears away with the end of her sari. “What am I going to tell your father?” She slapped her forehead several times.
Father’s voice rang out, “The guests have come.”
Mother quickly changed her sari, combed her hair, and made herself as presentable as she could. Then she told Father that Jaya was nowhere to be found. He stared dumbfounded at his wife.
“She didn’t like the idea of being presented for marriage and has walked out.”
His face blanched; he was speechless, but there was no time for discussion anyway. After the guests were seated and introductions were made, Mother went to Mejdi. “The guests have reason to be angry; they will spread nasty gossip about us. We will be humiliated.”
“Are you angry with Jaya because she protested this way?”
“I feel sorry for your father. It breaks my heart.” Then she looked at Mejdi and said, “There is one way out, if you are willing.”
“They do not know Jaya. You go in her place and answer a few questions. That’s all you have to do. Afterwards, we’ll reject the proposal.”
Mejdi stared at Mother for a few moments. “I guess we have no other option.”
“It will save your father’s honor.”
“What will I say if they ask me to sing?”
“Say you love Tagore songs, but cannot sing before an audience.”
Mejdi got up and went to her room to get dressed.
Mother informed Father, lifting his spirits.
Everything went smoothly. The guests were extremely happy; they would let us know their decision soon.
I was worried Jaya might have left us forever, but as I saw her on the street, my heart lifted. I ran to her. “Jaya Didi, I’m so happy. You are alive!”
“Why wouldn’t I be alive?” she pulled me closer. “Now tell me what happened at the house.”
I couldn’t tell her that I felt her action was like Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, like the Salt March—a non-violent protest. I simply described how Mejdi had saved us.
Jaya and I entered our apartment with our hearts fluttering. She kept her head down, but there was no fuss and no one blamed her. Everyone understood. Her complaint was against society; she longed for change. Mejdi took her to the roof to talk. And I vowed that I would never let anyone humiliate a girl for my sake.
February 20, 2018
Debu Majumdar’s novel Sacred River: A Himalayan Journey won first place in the 2016 Chanticleer Somerset literary contest and was one of three finalists for the 2017 Nancy Pearl Award. Arranged Marriage was published in Resistance, Whatcom WRITES 2018 Anthology of stories and poems.