Just got back from Tara’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. She has put on some weight, not much. Not like Parul mashi who practically wheezes every time she takes a step. She is so full of ‘Tara and Aslam and their children’, these days. Not like that time – the time I always mark in my head as ‘just before the era of black and white TV’ – when she had barged into our lunch table weeping about ruining her caste and karma ‘on account of ungrateful progeny’.
The time the younger brigade had labeled as The Commotion.
The Preamble (to The Commotion) occurred when Tara, Parul mashi’s sole progeny, was caught kissing Anwar at the Saxenas’ tea party. Actually “caught” is misleading since Sharan aunty, the town’s most reliable gossip, had gone after the pair like a hound spotting rabbits and pulled them out like errant puppies from behind the deep maroon velvet curtains in the Saxenas’ living room.
The search for an “eligible” groom for my twenty-year-old cousin had commenced thereon to the delight of Myna mashi, my mother’s eldest sister who’d been married off rather young to Ashok mesho some fifteen years her senior by my unyielding Dida. An act for which Dida had never been forgiven.
At the previous year’s Durga Puja pandal Myna mashi had remarked rather loudly to Mookerji uncle’s second wife, “I hate the new felt bindis; makes one look so cheap,” as Tara walked past looking ravishingly lovely in her new chocolate-brown Kanjeevaram silk sari set off by a red self-stick bindi glowing ember-like on her forehead.
“Hey Tara!” Heads had bent over banana leaves during the Bhog ceremony turned towards Vanita, my eldest aunt’s highly affected progeny (gleefully re-christened Vanity) by the juvenile brigade.
“TARA! You are not even listening. Guess what! I read one of your articles in the Valley Times. You never told me you were freelancing.” The sneer was upturned to perfection.
“Which one?” Tara’s forehead was creasing.
“You actually expect me to remember!” The sunlight winking wickedly through one of the rear windows tossed its reflection on Vanity’s spare dome highlighting the scanty hair-growth with its wide parting in the middle.
Malicious giggles dampened the festive spirit at the table as Tara rose, folding the banana leaf with its half-eaten remains of the rice and potato curry, and pushing the bench with her knee.
If only Tara would pull up her socks and excel at Something. But no, it was always Vanity who passed her exams with flying colors and excelled at sports. Vanity acknowledged her unchallenged supremacy with a toss of her hemp-like curls. “At least you can sing, now that’s something,” she’d sniffed when Tara was asked to lead the school choir during their final year at St. Mary’s Convent.
The scandal of “that Rizwi boy” followed soon after the Bhog incident. It caused Myna mashi to tell anyone, just about anyone, who cared to listen catch her Vanita doing something as frightful as THAT. That too with a boy from a different community. And it caused Parul mashi to slump beside Amma every Sunday morning over the next three months on our bottomless lounge room couch and flip the matrimonial pages of the Times of India with grim intent.
Just anybody wouldn’t do. The groom had to be a Barendra Brahmin, the highest in the caste hierarchy. My aunt and mother assiduously weeded out an enormous pile of unsuitable prospects that either did not hail from the right caste or the right ancestry.
Finally a groom was located; a mechanical engineer from Kolkata and a Barendra Brahmin to boot.
Wedding preparations got underway with imminent urgency. From the selection of the bridal sari to the menu, every minor detail was bisected and debated ad nauseum. The burden of locating a Bengali priest for the wedding rituals fell on Amma who, with typical resourcefulness, unearthed not one but three erudite Brahmins – one evidently greedy, another thin and sour and the last cheerful and paunchy. The genial Bengali pot-belly was conscripted by consensus. He also had an endearing habit of nodding his bun-shaped head to an unperceived rhythm, rather like the burnished wooden dolls with spring heads I had seen in the last local annual fair held on Mela Grounds. He was addressed as ‘punditji’ for the rest of the occasion.
The wedding venue became Babuji’s responsibility. As predicted, he selected The Regency next door. The owner, being a bridge partner, had kindly consented to some heavy discounts. The menu, initially handled by Myna mashi, was quickly passed over to Sharan aunty who knew how to haggle. And haggle she did with Mahmud, the proprietor and head chef of Sunderlal’s Sweet House.
I didn’t see Tara till the day of the wedding in a ceremony called the ‘aashirbaad’. Amma said the ceremony entailed the benediction of the elders. One by one, relatives gathered around my morose cousin decked out in red Benarasi silk woven in gold to shower their blessings via monotonously chanted mantras and fragrance-filled white shiuli flowers. I had helped Amma sew those flaky pompons into fluid white garlands that morning. The snowy wreaths, lying limply across the portraits of both my deceased grandfathers, had thrown lacy, filigreed shadows on the verandah diffusing the dewy morning air with their heady fragrance.
Going up the rangoli-patterned staircase mid-afternoon I saw Amma with her sisters doubling up in merriment with the other female friends and relatives as they smeared Tara with a gooey yellow concoction. Amma said it was the fun part of the wedding called ‘gai halud’ or the mud pack ceremony where the bride’s female relatives get busy beautifying the bride.
“Don’t singe her eyes with the stuff, it’s quite potent!” barked Sharan aunty as Aunty Gadeok – old and arthritic – ambled up to the bride with the tawny smear on her palms. The bride, on her part, didn’t seem to care; she didn’t smile once during the fun-filled ritual or make eye contact with the revelers. The earthen pots beside the huge banana leaves set off by Amma’s chalky alpana patterns looked cheerier in comparison.
“What is that?” I asked Roopa pointing to the pungent paste everybody seemed to relish lathering on Tara’s face and arms as she darkly scowled at them. “That’s for beautifying the skin, for getting rid of spots and blemishes,” she replied not participating in the jamboree.
“It’s a marinade, a marinade for the lamb being led to the slaughter-house,” snapped Meeta, a distant cousin who had a broad forehead and wore no makeup and who, in defiance of family tradition, had gone past thirty without ever being married. Amma said she was a feminist whatever that meant. Vanity, clearly delighting in the smear game, remarked, “Slaughter house or no, it’s a good idea to settle down when you have nothing else going for you.”
The feminist cousin’s unrelenting denunciation was now focused on the unnecessary expenditure and fripperies. What were “fripperies” I asked Roopa who replied perhaps she meant the jewelry or the flowers. Myna mashi, overhearing, had laughed and said the “fripperies” were part of life. “Wait till your time comes,” she smiled her mouth tilting at the corners; a snake curled in see-saw.
What happened next weighed on my conscience for a long time although I managed to persuade myself – often quite successfully – over the years that I had never meant to eavesdrop. That I wouldn’t have paused next to the lounge-room door left slightly ajar had I not heard Amma’s voice thinning into a squeak so reminiscent of sickness or other ills in the family.
“What will you do now, Parul?” I could hear Amma pacing up and down in the lounge, her sari pallu swishing like a hedge caught in storm. “We can’t possibly let Tara know, you know what I mean?”
“Don’t be silly, Shivani. She’ll walk out for sure. She might have run away with that Rizwi boy if I hadn’t threatened suicide…”
“Shh… let’s not speak of it today of all days…but what are you going to do now? I too have only less than a lakh in the bank after the last installment on the house was paid off. What about Tapas, do you think…?”
“I’ve asked him. He’s already spent quite a bit on this wedding. I can’t expect him to dip into his provident fund savings. Then there’s Roopa’s education…”
“Why did they place demands at the last moment?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Remember Shreela?”
Shreela was the family dentist’s rather plump daughter whose marriage had been arranged to a Meerut-based businessman. The groom had walked out mid-ceremony with his old obese father wheezing at his heels following an unfulfilled dowry demand. Shreela was packed off to her uncle’s in Chandigarh the next morning to escape the ensuing scandal. I had heard from Tara the previous winter that the Indian government had made dowry illegal. She mentioned that the Times of India had reported at least two thousand dowry deaths the previous year.
Customary to pre-puberty confidence-swapping I could entrust the forgone exchange to just one person in the whole world. So I did and forgot it promptly, the whirligig of festivities and rituals begging immediate attention.
A slender breeze blew over the chefs’ tent brightening the flames in their ovens as I caught sight of the groom. Of average height and build he wore thick glasses over round inky eyes. The glasses covered most of his face making him look like a benign owl. He swung his ample hips while walking towards the cold drinks’ stall with his friends like some models I had seen at last year’s annual fashion show at the Doon Club. Anwar’s sprightly carriage and curly mop flashed across my eyes and I quickly switched my attention to the wedding festivities.
Above the chants, shehnai music and appetite-whetting odors, a drum-beat chatter sounded well into the evening. I must have been downing my fifth Coke sans elderly supervision when The Commotion happened. All I noticed, though, was Babuji pacing the alpana-hemmed boundaries of the wedding platform and “punditji” nodding his head to a faster rhythm. The prattle, thus far relaxed, had become restive.
The marriage did not take place after all. Murmurs reached a crescendo when Tara refused to wear the bridal sari from Zari Lal’s sari shop in Paltan Bazaar and smudged her pomade before locking herself in Babuji’s study. The study telephone extension must have been working for once since the police turned up in the next half hour. The Barendra bridegroom with his party fled the wedding site and town on the midnight bus to Delhi. This last nugget of information came from Roopa.
Tara completed her Masters in English from Dayanand College with a first division to Myna mashi’s dismay who declared “it’s only a local college after all” and joined Valley Times as its staff writer. As future Barendra candidates dropped out owing to the pre-nuptial scandal, the family voted in favor of “that Rizwi boy” and announced an “informal” engagement.
Late one evening during winter, stirring his tea with extra sugar, Babuji casually, so casually as the matter had become common knowledge, asked Amma, “How did Tara find out about Indranil’s family making that last-minute six lakh demand? Who could have told her?” He had stopped stirring his tea. I glanced from under my eyelashes at Roopa who’d shifted just slightly on the couch while (ostensibly) leafing through a Casper comic, color mounting her cheeks. I heard Amma reply, “That’s a mystery, Roopa dear switch on the backlight and don’t place that thing so close to your eyes and don’t move your leg – it is unladylike, I’ve said so before, child. No, I sometimes think she must have just guessed, she didn’t want to marry Indranil in any case. But who else knew besides Parul, you and myself?”
My little cousin continued to trace patterns idly on the floor with her big toe and staring into her comic.