Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
Our aunt Meterling stood over six feet tall, a giantess, a tree. From her limbs came large hands, which always held a shower of snacks for us children. We could place two of our feet in one of her sandals, and her green shawl made for a roof to cover our play forts. We loved Meterling, because she was so devotedly freakish, because she rained everyone with affection, and because we felt that anyone that tall had to be supernaturally gifted. No one actually said she was a ghost, or a saint, or a witch, but we watched for signs nevertheless. She knew we suspected her of tricks, for she often smiled at us and displayed sleight of hand, pulling coins and shells out of thin air. But that, said Rasi, didn’t prove anything; Rasi had read The Puffin Book of Magic Tricks and pretty much knew them all, and was not so easily impressed.
What was interesting, and never expected, was that Aunt Meterling married the littlest man she knew. He was four feet seven, dapper, and jolly. The grown-ups were embarrassed and affronted, for like Auntie Sita said, it was bad enough having a freakishly tall woman in the family. Yet, they were all relieved that Aunt Meterling found Uncle Archer and he, her.
The wedding was a small enough affair as weddings go, but the bridegroom rode to town in a white baby Aston Martin decked with garlands of roses and basil, and the first marriage rites took place at dawn.
Someone said how sad it was that Meterling’s parents could not be at the wedding, but neither could Archer’s. I wondered what Meterling’s father had been like. He had named her, after all. Who had he been? A man smitten with the German language, it seemed, for her name sounded German, and smitten, too, with his family. A man who died, with his beloved wife, in a car accident, all those years ago. A man who loved his daughter enough to name her something special. A man who must be still alive in Meterling’s heart, I thought.
And her mother? A small, sweet woman who must have loved her daughter, even as she might have seen something in her that marked her for a fragile future. Also absent, also loved, also missing the wedding. I could comprehend Meterling’s longing for her family, because my own father and mother were in America, land of dreams and snow. But lose a mother and a father—no, that was impossible! I could only imagine so far.
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, straining to see if my aunt would change somehow after the fire ceremony, the part where she walked seven steps hand in hand with Uncle Archer, but she kept her eyes downcast, as became a modest bride, while the priests chanted all around her. She wore a reddish-pinkish gold sari from Kanchi, with twelve inches of gold jhari on its border and thirty-six on the paloo; she had mendhi on her hands and feet, aglow from a bath of turmeric and sandal. In her hair was jasmine, rose, and tulsi. She wore an engagement ring, and during the ceremony she’d get a gold ring on her third finger, left hand, and a ring on her toe. Uncle Archer would get a ring as well. He wore a white pajama suit of heavy material all the way from Bombay, a pink tie, a boutonnière, and sandals. That he was wearing a suit instead of a formal dhoti was radical enough, whispered the aunts, but to hold hands before the ceremony was too much. We knew something was afoot but were not quite sure what the problem was. He’s being intimate, giggled Sanjay, stamping his feet while Rasi and I pretended not to know him. We just shook our heads as our aunts did—we were smart enough to know that rules were being broken left and right, and didn’t need Sanjay to tell us, even if it appeared that he did know more than us. Afterwards, Auntie Pa (her real name was Auntie Parvati, but Sanjay started saying Pa when he was two and could not roll his r’s, and the name stuck) said that she had had a funny feeling in her heart that something was not right, but at that moment, when they were simply standing at the ceremony and later at the reception, everything was fine and there was plenty to eat and drink and toast the couple’s happiness. He was now our uncle. Auntie Pa smiled and playfully tugged Sanjay’s hair.
But no one could have predicted what happened next. One minute Uncle Archer was laughing and dancing with the littlest cousins, and then he took Aunt Meterling out to the dance floor. She had gone to Western dance classes, whispered an aunt, just for this moment. No one doubted Uncle could dance; he was born to wear a suit and tails—in fact, he bore more than a striking resemblance to the Monopoly man, with a full white mustache and a round tummy. A Western waltz was struck up, and everyone left the dance floor. Some of the elders among the guests frowned and turned away, because touch dancing was severely looked down upon, even though we lived in town. As my grandmother would say, this was not Delhi, not Bombay, but Madhupur, a town on the island of Pi in the Bay of Bengal: a place as sweet as honey, where people lived decent lives. Touching was meant for procreation, nothing else. Once, we had looked up “procreation” in the Animal Encyclopedia, but didn’t learn much except about the mating habits of the stickleback fish. But there she was, Aunt Meterling, swathed in gold tissue silk, and there was he, monocled and marvelous, and the music from the hired band began. One turn, two, three, and he was down. Uncle Archer was on the ground. A flurry of activity, then a scream, and we children were pushed aside. The youngest of us didn’t understand but started to cry anyway. Rasi, Sanjay, and I didn’t really understand, either. When it was all over, no one had any appetite for the plates of round halvah and sugared grapes.
We were stunned into silence. We had not been paying attention. We never would have believed it if someone told us. We grew still with shock. We were eleven, nine, and ten. Plus all of our other cousins. All of us kids. It was the worst thing we had seen, or nearly seen. He had died in an instant.
There was not even a chance to see where exactly he came up to measure against her, someone said, in a half-giggle or cry, whether to her knee (“That’s silly,” said Rasi), her elbow, her chin. In truth, most of the guests hardly knew him, had only seen him once or twice, and mostly from afar. And it was hard for us to see much during all of the ceremony, because Sanjay started chasing Mani, who had swiped his spin top, and Rasi joined in to help Mani, and she dragged me with her. Mary Angel from two doors down called to us to share her caramels. We forgot about Mani and Sanjay as we ate the caramels. Rasi said we had to avoid her schoolteacher. She did not look so menacing to me when I saw her, a perfectly nice woman with her husband, who smiled broadly, making me think Rasi hadn’t done some schoolwork, or had skipped out on a class. All in all, we hardly saw them wed.
But their love was palpable, like a color that was visible, almost heard. Their arms reached for each other with the sweetest sigh. Fingertips touching, swish of gold, monocle flash. One step, two step, three, gone.
Meterling sobbed in a corner. She sat right down, three feet of her against the wall, another three and more stretched on the floor. Her crying was fraught and unabashed, and no one seemed to know what to do. No one had ever seen her cry, because her height made her seem protected from whatever ill might befall ordinary women. Grandmother, no slouch, sharply spoke to anyone who said “It’s too bad,” and gave them work to do. The other aunties crowded around; some, you know, were waiting for a moment like this, because Meterling, that awkward fish, had landed a man before they did. But others, like Nalani, just burst into tears for the loss and grief.
The marriage hall quickly cleared, and they took Uncle Archer’s body away. Uncle Darshan and Uncle Thakur ushered Aunt Meterling out. I looked back at the decorated hall, the garlands of pink, white, and orange flowers trailing from the ceiling, and those crushed on the floor. A funny feeling filled my stomach as I stared at the trampled blooms. A handful of cooks and cleaners began to clear up the food and sweep up, while a priest continued to pray, and there was a loud murmur of voices all at once as we exited. Outside, the musicians bowed their hands to our grandmother, offering condolences.
We gathered on the veranda that evening, not sure what to do. In an instant, our house had gone from celebration to mourning. The family doctor had been a guest, and now she was in charge of the body. Was it a heart attack? An attack on the brain? All we heard was the muffled crying of Meterling, which made Auntie Pa want to have us stay with neighbors, but my grandmother decided we should stay home and not cause trouble.
Our family is medium-sized. I used to wish for sisters and brothers, but really, having Sanjay and Rasi and all our other cousins was enough. My grandmother had four daughters and one son: Rema, Parvati, Jyoti, Chandra, and Tharak. Rasi and Sanjay are my cousins closest in age. We all lived in Grandmother’s house, along with Auntie Meterling and Nalani. Rasi’s father, Uncle Thakur, is usually in Dubai or Singapore for business; but her mother, Auntie Pa, lives in Madhupur. Uncle Darshan, Sanjay’s father, lives nearby, a few districts over, and is a college professor. His wife, Chandra, who was also the sister of my mother and Auntie Pa, died giving birth to little Appam, so Sanjay practically lives with us as well. Appam stays with Uncle Darshan’s sister and her husband, who have no children and are looking after him like a mother and father would. Rasi (whose real name is Rasisvari) has two sisters who are much older than her, both already married and living in India. Nalani (who we call just Nalani, not Nalani-Acca, or Elder Sister, because she is still unmarried and young) says there are enough kids for everybody. She is the daughter of my mother’s sister Rema, who died with Nalani’s father, both of them on a hiking trip in Ooty, while Nalani was in school, long before Rasi, Sanjay, and I were born. Meterling is the daughter of our uncle Tharak, my mother’s brother, but we still call her Aunt even though technically she is our cousin. My mother and father are Jyoti and Jai, both in America, working on their PhD’s in astrophysics and organic chemistry. I’m Mina, and at the time of the wedding I was ten, Rasi was eleven, and Sanjay was nine.
We had heard snatches of their story before, of how Meterling and Archer met at a party thrown for a local nawab, minutes before Meterling was to leave to go home. A Cinderella story, only they didn’t live happily ever after. And no glass slipper. Instead, Archer and Meterling spoke, captured each other’s hearts without intending to, and went home determined to meet again.
“He wore funny socks,” said Meterling. “Imagine wearing socks in this heat.” Meterling had worn yellow and looked like a radiant flower, said Grandmother.
They met at the train station next, where they nodded hello, and Archer asked Meterling to another party. This was a more awkward situation, because Meterling was, despite her height and name, a proper girl of specific caste and region, and Archer was an unknown. Marry an unknown to a known, and who knows what the net result might be! But marriage wasn’t in anyone’s head, merely social edification, so Meterling was sent to the party—a reception, really, for one of our neighbors who came back from the States with a degree. The grumbling was minimal, more or less, but two chaperones were provided, just in case. Meterling was twenty-eight (too old already, according to our town’s standards) and as such was ripe to marry a fat fifty-year-old from a neighboring town, Mr. Govinda, but as fate would have it, she fell in love with Uncle Archer, who was only Archer at the time, fat enough himself and close to forty.
At the second party, the hostess had decided on a theme of jellyfish to honor the local marine biologist, and served vegetable cutlets with ketchup and multicolored badushas. Meterling stood in front of a punch bowl full of seashells, and looked for something to drink. Archer offered her a cup of something sea-green, tasting like a little of this, a little of that, with the tiniest kick thrown in between.
“Vodka?” she wondered out loud, before accepting.
He shook his head, saying, “Seven-Up with food color.”
Meterling had never tasted such a fizzy drink before and immediately burped. Archer let one out too, to save her embarrassment, and that’s how their fate was sealed. They decided to go outside to see the roses. Mrs. Mohan’s roses were famed all over the district; it was rumored she ordered them direct from England. They were large, immensely fragrant, and individually named.
“How complicated it must be to live here as a foreigner,” she said.
“How hard do you think it is to grow roses?” he asked in reply.
Riddles, they both thought, feeling awkward.
Then Archer looked away a bit.
Then he held her gaze.
She felt embarrassed, and wondered if anyone could see. Who was this man anyway? A footfall prevented intimate conversation, and they went back inside.
In the American films we were not allowed to see, couples fell in love at first sight. In fact, they did in Hindi films too. One of my grandfather’s friends fell in love when he saw a girl on a bus, and married her within a week. My aunt did not fall in love with Uncle Archer so quickly. She said he made her laugh, but she could not take him seriously at first. In fact, only when the entire family had fallen in love with him could she entertain the notion of marriage.
He was easy to love. He came to our house bearing small, funny gifts, and flirted outrageously with our grandmother and Auntie Pa. He complimented them on their saris, spoke knowledgeably about market prices for potatoes and string beans, and knew the words to old filmi songs. He made them smile. With Uncle Darshan, he was more reserved, but only in the beginning. He soon cheerfully played and lost game after game of Parcheesi and cards, and sometimes he and Uncle Darshan retired with glasses of gin.