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I STILL can't believe I agreed to an arranged marriage. I, Sharmila Sen, a thoroughly modern, thirty-two-year-old Chicago-style woman. I wear a power suit by day and teach aerobics evenings in skin-tight Lycra that my sari-clad mother says are both shameful in the eyes of the gods. Oh, my looks are Indian, all right. You know, big eyes, full mouth, shoulder-length black hair, and a slender body. But to someone like me, a second-generation American who speaks broken Hindi with a Midwestern accent, India is pretty much a mystery. I'm almost the last person I'd expect to marry an up-and-coming young executive in New Delhi, ten thousand miles from Chicago's Lake Shore Drive.
At Indira Gandhi International Airport, I shuffle robot-like in a line inching toward a distant immigration officer. It's seven-thirty in the morning New Delhi time, an ungodly hour by my internal clock. I took this flight only at the insistence of my mother, so I'd arrive in time to meet my betrothed at an hour declared auspicious by her astrologer. He recommended that my first encounter with my future husband take place at a time when the planets are in proper alignment to ensure good fortune in our life together. I've never believed in astrology, and to this day it is beyond me why Mother would consult him about the best day to start a journey, move to a new house, or schedule an important meeting, let alone when to meet one's future husband. But I remind myself that she was raised in an environment where the position of the stars and planets determined important matters such as when to plant the rice, whom the king shouldmarry, or when to declare a war. So I say to myself, If it'll make her happy, what do I care?
Just ahead of me in the line is an Indian man in an Eddie Bauer jacket—an expatriate from the Minnesota address on his luggage tag. He grins as he babbles to the immigration officer about how ecstatic he is to be setting his feet on his native soil once again. I envy him. Will this feel like a homecoming for me? Suddenly I'm plagued with doubts. I am here nine weeks before my wedding, to get acquainted with my future husband and make the transition to life in a new city. It all seemed like an adventure back in Chicago, but now I must confront the consequences of my choice—and all the changes it will bring. I chew the inside of my lip nervously.
The immigration officer raises his head from my passport and says, "Ah, an American." The starched white shirt, well-pressed fir green trousers, and an impassive face lend him an air of official dignity. "How long do you plan to stay here?"
My reply corresponds to the length of my visa. "Six months."
But I know I'll stay here indefinitely. Because of his many business interests abroad, my future husband Raj has expressed a desire to split his time between here and the States. For me that's ideal. I'll polish my Hindi, study Indian art, and try my hand as a graphic artist, all the while learning my parents' tradition. At the same time, I'll have plenty of opportunity to visit my family and friends in Chicago, to keep up on things in the States, and to retreat to my cabin in the California Sierras whenever I want. How could I lose?
With an authoritative flourish, the officer stamps and signs my passport, then slides it back to me.
The walk to baggage claim takes forever. Eyes bleary, I finally arrive at the luggage carousel, aware of a musty smell. Flickering fluorescent tubes cast waltzing shadows on lime green stucco walls. A soldier in khaki saunters by, carrying a rifle that looks like it was made a hundred years ago.
Ours wasn't the only jumbo jet to land. Hundreds of other passengers, all as exhausted, irritable, and filled with anticipation, crowd the baggage claim area and jostle for position around the carousel. Almost immediately, an argument breaks out in some Indian language that is strangely familiar yet incomprehensible. I fling my purse over my shoulder and stand on tiptoe, searching for my luggage, fearing every moment that I'll be hit by someone's trunk. Time slows to a crawl, and the wait seems interminable. I see a suitcase that looks like mine and reach to grab it, only to have an elderly Indian man with an accusing look in his eyes snatch it out of my hand. I mumble an apology, then spy my three suitcases lurching along the conveyor belt. I heave them onto a luggage cart and take my place in a ragtag line forming in front of the customs counters.
The customs officer, a man with blurry eyeglasses and a stony expression, orders the Indian woman ahead of me to open all her suitcases. I hear him saying, "Ten watches! Four cameras! Three alarm clocks!"
"Coming home after five years, sir," she says, opening her palm to expose a crumpled hundred-dollar bill. "All those nephews, nieces, and cousins, you know ..."
Without appearing to look down, the officer relieves her of the money. "Very well." He waves her through.
Ah, a case of greasing palms, of baksheesh giving.
I'm still trying to formulate a suitable excuse for the amount of luggage I'm carrying when my turn comes. Another customs officer has taken the post, this time a bearded young man, jovial and not bad-looking. He moves his gaze up and down my body, finally directing it at my luggage. "Any Playgirl magazine?"
His crude remark causes me to stiffen. He snickers at my discomfort and waves me through. I gather up my luggage, along with my poise and what's left of my sense of humor. I've traveled to Mexico and Europe on vacation, but this trip is already becoming more difficult. My parents would have accompanied me, but Dad couldn't leave his practice until just before the wedding, and my excited mother has already spent a good two months here attending to the wedding details. She returned to Chicago a week ago for some last-minute shopping, leaving her cousin Mistoo, who lives in Delhi, to handle the remaining formalities.
My next destination is the passenger reception area, filled with screeching sounds of rolling luggage carts. People are milling about searching for loved ones in the crowd. More than one head of hair smells of coconut oil. My eyes look for Raj. I know I won't have any trouble spotting my prospective groom. I've committed his photograph to memory. His voice will be familiar from our many phone conversations.
I flip to the second time zone of my watch: Chicago time. It's still evening there. The lights will be on in my parents' condominium. Mother is probably standing in front of the fireplace, looking up at the clock above it, kept permanently set to Indian standard time. It's now striking eight-thirty a.m. If her astrologer's prediction is correct, this very minute on this very Wednesday, November 20, is the most auspicious moment for me to lay eyes on my future husband.
My watch says eight thirty-one. I know I've set it a few minutes ahead, but can't remember how much. Did I somehow miss the most important moment of my life?
Butterflies do a fox trot in my stomach and all along my extremities. Retrieving a compact mirror from my purse, I study my face: jaws tensed, lips parched, temples tight from stage fright. I force my facial muscles to relax, draw the lipstick across my mouth, and dust a little powder on my nose. Then, with a few strokes of my comb, I smooth my shoulder-length hair. Finally I check my clothes. The long, straight print skirt was a good choice—the fabric looks fresh even after twenty-one hours of flying. Yes, I'm as ready for Raj as I can be under the circumstances.
As I fumble through my purse, my fingers brush against a soft blue aerogramme: Raj's letter. The edges are frayed from many readings. I open the letter and the neat handwriting bespeaks an organized mind. Fine pen, blue ink, ample blank space between the lines.
I still remember the day my mother handed me your photograph. I couldn't toss the picture aside as another "tall, fair, and educated" bride my mother had picked for me. There you were in front of the Chicago Art Institute. A lovely face, a brilliant smile, eyes that held a dream. As I looked and looked at it, the picture seemed to come alive. It was as though you walked toward me and stood so close that I could touch a wisp of your hair. At that moment I knew my bachelorhood was over.
I'm not a philosopher. I can't discuss fate, destiny, or coincidence with you. I'm a businessman with but a few poems in my heart. I just know you're someone I shouldn't let go.
Day by day, minute by minute, I await your arrival. My mother is taking care of the practical arrangements for the wedding, but I've entrusted myself with the courtesy of meeting you at the airport. In my own humble way, with all the affection in my heart, I'll welcome you to New Delhi, to my home and to our new life.
I fold the letter and put it back in my purse.
A man steps forward, a pole-mounted placard in hand. The bold English letters, carefully constructed in black, say: SHARMILA SEN.
"Are you ...?" he asks in a hushed, deferential tone.
I nod a gentle yes, but a violent quaking has started inside. If this is Raj, he's several inches shorter than the hunk in the family video that was sent. He has a pleasant bearing, is dressed simply in white slacks and shirt and a V-necked navy sweater, and appears to be in his mid-thirties. Absent are the waves in the hair, the prominent jawbone, the bushy eyebrows that framed the face in the photo.
Have I been deceived? I decide quickly that I'll not embarrass him, or me. I force a bright smile.
The man joins his palms together at his chest in salutation. "I'm Prem, your driver." The soft voice, the quivering lips, and the rounded shoulders convey a hint of apology.
I thank all my mother's gods silently that this is not Raj. "I'm pleased to meet you, Prem."
"Raj-babu will be here shortly. He had to make a phone call. It is possible he will have to fly to Mumbai on business today—an unexpected situation."
My prince charming will yet be here. In the meantime I'm just happy to be met. Automatically I proffer a friendly hand in greeting. Prem looks away uncomfortably.
Of course. I withdraw my hand and edge back a pace. In my disoriented state I'd forgotten that in India a woman doesn't greet a man by shaking hands. Not knowing what to do with my rejected hand, I stroke an earring and wait for the awkward moment to pass.
A tall figure emerges from a clutch of people, a suitcase in one hand, a bouquet of vibrant pink roses bound by a matching silk scarf in the other. He approaches me with a self-assured stride, a light aroma of cologne about him. This is definitely Raj. I'd have recognized him anywhere. Suddenly I'm face to face with the stranger who has dominated my thoughts, worries, and dreams for the past several months. I pull myself up straighter, and my body tingles. I forget that we're standing in a busy passageway and focus all my attention on my flesh-and-blood fiance. He regards me with a delighted expression, his commanding dark eyes pulling me in.
"Sharmila ..." Raj sets his suitcase down. "I'm sorry I'm late." He offers me the bouquet. I glance at its delicate beauty, inhale the faint rose fragrance, and smile with genuine appreciation. "Oh, Raj, how lovely. Pink roses are my favorite." I notice the visible relief in his eyes as he realizes that I am not angry over his tardy arrival. Then to fill the silence, "I was just getting acquainted with ..." The chauffeur's name escapes me.
"Oh, you mean Prem."
Both of us turn to look. Prem has moved off to a discreet distance. He's screened by a huddle of people, and only the top of his head is visible. I'm glad for the privacy. I smile at Raj.
Abruptly he grabs my elbow, pulls me roughly to one side, his face taut with alarm. Quickly I glance over my shoulder and spot a huge pile of luggage rolling at me at great speed.
"Sambhalo!" Raj yells. Watch it.
The young porter pushing the iron trolley jumps to the command and swerves his load barely in time to avoid hitting me.
We move back and away from all the comings and goings, and find ourselves next to a wall lined with textile art and travel posters. From the tea stall that just opened a few feet away comes the brisk, pungent aroma of steeping tea leaves. I take a deep breath and gaze at Raj in relief. He radiates an aura of vitality and intelligence.
"You can't go through a day in Delhi without one major collision." Raj grumbles in annoyance, though his eyes twinkle.
"Well, I've just fulfilled my quota."
Raj's face breaks into a boyish grin, then quickly becomes grave. He shifts his weight. "My mother wanted very much to come to the airport to welcome you, Sharmila, but she has come down with a bad cold."
It's just as well that his mother didn't come. I'm enjoying having Raj all to myself. He's attentive and caring, but not overly so. I can see how easy it'll be to fall under his spell.
Raj's eyes never stray from mine as he continues, "I've put Prem in charge of taking you home and escorting you around town until you adjust to the rhythm of life here. He and I have been friends for years, and I trust him. He'll be available whenever you need him. You'll find him a superb guide and a pleasant companion."
We've only just met. And now to be separated again? I'd imagined he would at least take the day off. How can he treat me like this? The next moment I realize that this is perfectly acceptable in Indian society. My father goes on business trips leaving my mother behind without a second thought. No doubt the hectic preparation for this journey, coupled with the jet lag, is making me over sensitive. A hot bath and a soft bed is what I really need. Everything else can wait. "Prem told me you're flying somewhere on business. Where are you off to?"
"My boss is sending me to Mumbai. We have an office there."
"For the day?"
"Actually, for the next several days. I'd much prefer to be home. In fact, I'm extremely disappointed. But our business there has picked up considerably of late. We have an opportunity to close a really important deal." A gloom deepens his eyes. "Can you forgive me, Sharmila?"
"Yes ... of course." I break eye contact.
Oh, yes, I'm disappointed, even a bit angry. My gaze falls on a framed travel poster behind Raj's head. A Hindu temple, a mosque, and a Buddhist pagoda juxtaposed, examples of Delhi's architectural treasures. After all, this "modern" capital of thirteen million people dates back to 1000 B.C when it was called Indraprasthra, the abode of god Indra. I convince myself there'll be plenty here to occupy me while Raj is away.
"I can't tell you how happy I am to see you here." There's a tinge of yearning in Raj's voice. "These last three months have seemed terribly long. At least now you'll have my family to rely on."
Staying with one's future in-laws is not a common Indian custom. Though social changes are taking place, many families still consider it improper for unmarried people to live together. I'd have moved in with my mother's cousin Mistoo, but she lives in tight quarters with her invalid mother and two brothers. Raj's mother suggested that since the Khosla apartment had plenty of space and servants, I'd be able to adjust to my new way of life in pleasant surroundings and get to know my future husband better before the wedding. We never had one of those family-arranged meetings that normally precede a conventional marriage. The only other alternative would have been taking a room in a hotel by myself, but that would have gone against tradition. "Chee, chee," Delhi society matrons would whisper. Shame, shame. "That Sen girl stuck in a hotel. How can her relatives be so inhospitable?"
My mother, after considerable thought, had consented. So now I tell Raj, "I'll probably spend the next two or three days getting over jet lag and getting acquainted with everyone in the family."
"I'm so happy to hear that." Raj looks at me with wonder. "But, remember, Sharmila, just be yourself. I don't expect you to behave like an Indian woman. I've lived in the States, I know how different things are over there."
I find a hint of comfort in the deep, resonant voice, his obvious empathy, and in the protective way he leans toward me. I reply with an appreciative smile.
An internal alarm seems to go off. Raj looks at his watch with a start. "Oh, I barely have time to go to the domestic airport and catch the flight. You'll be okay?"
"Don't worry. I'll be just fine."
"You are very considerate, Sharmila." Raj spins around. "Take good care of her, Prem."
Prem has materialized and is standing a few feet behind Raj. It's apparent he's anticipated his employer's wishes.
Raj's wistful eyes hold mine a long second. "I'll return to you in a few days, Sharmila."
"Thanks for the flowers," I murmur, clutching the bouquet to my chest as if to keep a part of him with me. I watch him disappear into the milling crowd, eyes pinned to the back of his charcoal sports coat, taking note of his slim neck, his powerful walk. His abrupt departure leaves me with an empty feeling, and once again the doubts collect. How did I get into an arranged marriage? I've traveled more than ten thousand miles to put my fate into the hands of a stranger. I suppose the seeds of my current situation were sown many years ago.
Posted February 6, 2000
I am a 21 year old student, born and raised in Texas. Additionally, I have never been to India (my parents were born and raised in Africa and themselves only visited India for the first time 5 years ago). My family is religious and holds to many cusotms, and are also considered 'westernized' by some standards, but Kirchner's book opened my eyes to a land of customs and traditions I now know I have witnessed little of. Stories of arranged marriages are always circulating through social circles, usually in attempt to convince those that wish to have love marriages that arranged is the only way to go. ALthough it runs rampant behind closed doors, nothing is ever said about the infidelity, abuse, and betrayal that Indian women must suffer through. Sharmila exhibits a strength and courage many women wish they could muster, but can't because of ghosts from the past that haunt them. The only negative comment I have of the book is the abrupt ending. Two pages is not enough to tie everything together. It left me dying to know what becomes of all the characters and personalities in the book. Could it be though, just a laying down of a cobblestone walkway to a sequal perhaps? (Hint, hint!)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.