He trembled as he moved his hand to touch her. Sitting on his new bed, wearing new silk nightwear and not a lot of makeup, his bride looked prettier than he ever imagined he could have. He had been dreaming of this moment for about nine years now. Not about having sex. He wasn’t going to have sex on his wedding night anyway. But ever since he turned 19, something changed inside him and he became convinced that he would find everlasting, unconditional love in a marriage, and not in any other relationship. It is going to be an arranged marriage, he had decided, since he believed it would displease his God if he ever fell in love. A big risk, he knew, trusting the choice of his family, but he was prepared for it. Part of his elaborate preparation was a questionnaire, one written down, which he had insisted be given to the bride before he even meets her, so that he gets to know her well and does not make the horrible mistake of marrying someone incompatible with him. He had always feared the heartbreak of a failed marriage, although he had never been in a relationship, let alone a failed one.
He pulled his hand back. He couldn’t do it, he decided. He could not touch a stranger’s face, no matter how softly, and no matter that the stranger is married to him now. He decided to just sit beside her and talk. Show her the wedding photos clicked in his phone by his siblings. That way, he thought, he could ask her what he really, badly, impatiently wanted to ask her – how does he look?
He had been obsessing with the way he looked for many years now. His brother scolded him for asking about a nose job – have you totally lost your wits or what, he had asked. He still was going to go for it, but decided to let his nose be not-so-taut after the surgeon told him it will hurt like hell and could even lead to lasting complications. ‘Your nose is absolutely fine. Why would somebody as good looking as you want any cosmetic operation done?” the doc had asked.
Gym time had been his most gruelling part of the day. The first time he had stepped into the gym, he walked out unsatisfied, calling off his membership within four days of joining the neighbourhood fitness centre. That was different. Back then, he wasn’t happy that his siblings were getting physically fit and strong while he was the butt of all ‘soft skin’ and ‘jelly belly’ jokes. Four days into weightlifting, he had decided it was no fun. It’s not worth the effort, he had said to himself and many others. But this time, when he joined the gym two years before his marriage, he was clear on his goals – look spectacular. “I want to look so good that my wife would never need to look at any other man,” he had told his brother, a wise-ass of a fellow, who laughed him off saying, “women don’t ‘need’ to look at ‘other’ men – they just do.”
“You look nice,” she told him in a voice that could have passed as a whisper. She never wanted to marry a stranger – she didn’t trust men, she was never treated well by them, she thought, but she had to marry because, well, she wanted to be loved after all, but more importantly because her family wouldn’t have it otherwise. Realising that not the whole marriage is in control of her, she had decided she will be her best self, and if the guy happens to like me for that, he will love me, unconditionally. Of this she was uncertain. What if she gets stuck in a loveless marriage? Did she have it in her to ask for divorce? What if she fails to find love any which way, even after securing a divorce from a husband who wouldn’t love her?
“Nice?” he asked her, his tone suggesting he was taken aback by her answer. Nice was an empty word, he thought. Anything could be nice. You say nice when you have to be nice but don’t really mean to be. You don’t think he’s handsome, but you can’t say that to him, so you say he looks nice. A more convincing answer would be specific. You look handsome. You look awesome. You look hot. You look like a million bucks. Or, as his brother had told him after he was all suited up as the groom, much to his chagrin, ‘you look tall’.
“Yes,” she said, now much more nervous but not knowing what else to say. This was the first time she was sitting so close to a man who was not sharing her blood. But, here she was, sitting with a total stranger, in a bed, inside a dim-lit, locked room – the whole thing is so absurd I just cannot understand why we do it, she thought, but we do it anyway. What does he want me to tell him, she wondered, knowing well that he is looking for some kind of approval, but how could she tell him what she really felt? This was only the first time they were together, the other and only time being a pre-marriage group conversation with families of both.
He decided not to pursue the matter, as his brother had advised him. ‘Don’t pester her to talk and open up on the first day itself. Girls take some time to open up, and you must make her feel comfortable. Be patient,’ he had said. Not that his brother was married, but he had been in a long, committed relationship, so he must know well about women, he had presumed. Later, as he did his own ‘research’ on ‘what women want in men’, he realised that his brother knew the heart of only a chunk of women, while there are many who don’t fit the description he makes. He told his brother as much. ‘You don’t know all women. There are many women who are just like me,’ he told him proudly, happily. ‘Maybe,’ his brother answered, ‘but you may have to live many lives to find one like you.’
She felt relieved when he stopped looking at her questioningly, and focused on his tablet-like phone again, telling her about the different people in the pictures, what relationship he has with them, and what their names are, although he admitted to not knowing the names of many of his relatives. Okay, she thought, at least in this matter, he is just like me.
“I didn’t know what else to say,” she texted her friend the next day, as her friend chided her for not saying something better.
“You could have said he looks handsome. That would have been a decent start to a long flirting season,” her friend scolded her.
“I don’t know. What if he thinks I am too frank or flirty a girl? I don’t want him to think me a flirt. I am not one,” she texted her friend back.
The two had been friends since school, and now, living in two different countries, both married, their stories couldn’t have been different. She was a shy, timid sort of a girl, while her friend was as in-your-face as it gets. She had told her parents she liked no boy and that they would have to find him one, but he would have to be someone who would respect and love her for who she is, and not expect her to be a ‘normal girl’. How can we know that in advance, that is something you’ll find out only after living with the person, they told her, but she had insisted that they do their homework well. She had devised plans to make sure the guy she’ll marry will be just the kind she wants – somebody sensitive and extremely loving. After all, she was getting married only because she did not want to disappoint her parents by living alone the rest of her life. Otherwise, she had no interest in marrying, neither in men. She thought the male species unintelligent, uncaring and most of all, the major reason for the world’s worries. If the world had more women leaders, it would have been a much better place, she always thought. The only person she resented in her family was her father – all her three siblings were of her gender. As a child, she used to openly complain to her mother that her father didn’t love her. As an adult, she knew better; she only dropped subtle taunts.
“I just don’t care about how men look. It’s the mind inside I’m worried about. Had he asked me what I think about him as a person, I would have tried to start an honest conversation. But he asked me about his looks, and I couldn’t care less about it,” she texted her friend.
“I know that, but how many times do I have to tell you that you must now adapt to what he cares about, and not just be stuck with what you care about,” her friend texted back.
“But, why should I change myself for him? If he cannot love me for who I am, I do not want his love,” she texted, and her friend almost gave up on persuading her.
Lunch was prepared, and her mother-in-law called her. She told her friend she’ll catch up later and hurried off to join her new family for lunch. The night was long and the wedding dinner heavy, so nobody bothered to wake up for breakfast. This would be her first meal in her new house. She prayed she does not come off as too hungry a girl, but her stomach was hurting for want of food by now. One glance at her husband on the dinner table and she could tell that he’s lost in thoughts. Have I married a philosopher kind, she wondered, and hoped that isn’t true. They had told her that he is fun-loving, and not really quiet, but is shy around new people nevertheless. They had said he takes time to make friends, but sticks with his friends for long. Most of his friends are carryovers from school, they had said. ‘They’ were her in-laws. She fervently hoped they weren’t lying. Hoped that he’s as talkative and caring as they told her he is. That he’s not the quiet, reserved and loner kind they said his brother is. She couldn’t take silence for more than a second or two.
He dropped a bit of curry, but that didn’t bother him. He usually dirtied the dinner table, and got chided for it, but it never bothered him much. He had two major worries for now. What if she doesn’t like the way I look? And, what if she doesn’t like the way I love? It never occurred to him that she could also feel annoyed at his not-so-neat way of eating food, his leaving piles of smelly clothes on the bed, his wiping his mouth and hands with new curtains. Whenever he was told that he would disgust his to-be wife by his dirty habits, he would be shocked. ‘What?’ he would ask. ‘Can anybody care about such trivial things? My heart is inside of me, not inside of my cupboard,” he had told his brother when the wretched fellow told him that his wife will run away seeing his mess-of-a-cupboard.
She didn’t notice him drop the curry. If she did, she couldn’t care less. In fact, she wouldn’t even think it is something silly, wrong, impolite or unmannerly. Who cares about manners, she’d always say. It is the heart that matters. How can people be so selfish as to judge others based on their superficial appearance, etiquette, knowledge, qualifications and income? For me, she would always tell her friends and siblings, it’s the person inside that is important – nothing else matters. She would be teased often when she said such things. Her mother once asked, ‘What if he is a sweetheart but poor? Will you marry a man who cannot provide for you?’ The question had annoyed her to no end. ‘Of course, I will!’ she had retorted, clearly anguished, appalled at how her mother could ask a question that suggests such a great measure of selfish materialism. But, the next moment, her mother burst her bubble of anger and disgust, and told her something she would never forget. Something that changed the way she used to think, in a small but significant way. ‘Okay, then. I’ll find a noble-heart mechanic guy for you. I’m sick of hearing your father whine about how every car mechanic is a thief and steals from his car.’
Later in the day, he was treated to an intense lecture on manners and ethics by his brother, for his unmannerly lunch, and it instilled a deep fear in him this time. He usually always dismissed such ‘gyaan’ from his brother, or anybody for that matter. This time though, his brother was clearly disturbed, and selflessly so.
“Look, man, do you care about your marriage or not? Why do I think you care only about yourself and how much you want to be loved? Does it not matter what the poor girl thinks or likes? What kind of person would not be grossed out by your show of curry-dropping prowess? Look at me, hah! I am so dirty, I am what I am, love me or not what do I care… Is that all you are capable of, man? Come on! I expect better from you. You must understand that the world does not exist for the sake of your pleasures and that the girl may very well be unlike you and still be a devoted, loving partner if only you don’t put her off from day one! God! I am so pissed at you…”
He argued with his ‘neat’ brother for an hour or so, and tried, vehemently, to deny any significance to his arguments at first, but eventually he was poked too deep that nagging question — what if this idiot is right? He took a deep sigh and gave up.
“Okay, man, I guess you are right. I will try to be more like you. I will pretend to be all neat, clean and organised. If pretending is what it takes, let it be so. But, later, when I have enough money, I am getting a maid to do all the cleaning up for me, okay?”
“We already have a maid. We are only missing good sense here,”
“Screw you and your good sense, man”
A wave of hand. Consul dismissed.
These relatives, I tell you, he told himself. Keeping my wife away from me. What right do they have to come over and take from me this precious time I am supposed to have alone with my wife? And for what? For asking how are you and how do you feel? She’ll feel something if you just leave her alone, duh! And what do they have to justify this untimely intrusion? A box of sweets! How ridiculous!
Now he really was close to a state of panic. Sheer chaos in his mind. She is so lovely, he thought, so careful in the way she moves and talks, so stable, so graceful and elegant. She seems far more mature than me, he thought, and hoped that it was true. And the problem with these ‘mature, sensible’ kind of people is that they usually care a lot about neatness and all that nonsense. Oh, my my my! What would I do? Will I ever be able to behave like my mother, brother? How do they keep so neat? How does it even cross their mind to put the god damned towel back in its place after shower? What is its place anyway? Or, maybe, he thought, the problem is with me and they are normal. Maybe my brain does not have that part that processes such information, you know? Like it just doesn’t see why the dinner table has to be neat and clean, free of all food morsels at all times? It’s the dinner table, woman, not the study table! Aaagghh! What will I do? I don’t want to lose her. I don’t want her to think I am a loser. I am already falling for her, and all I need to know is what she thinks of me, and then I will give her all my love, all of it that I had been stuffing inside for all these years. Wait, would that be too much? God damn it! This love thing is a lot harder than what they show in movies…
He saw her phone on their bed. Ooooh! Her phone! Should I? Of course, I should not. What was I thinking? Hey, she’s my wife now, I can snoop in a little, no? I mean, look, if she wants to see anything, anything in my phone, she can just go ahead okay? So how bad is it if I take a little look? Huh?
Ping. A text message. Who could it be? Ah, it could be anybody. No, I am not going to doubt my wife’s fidelity on day one of our married life. But, hey, I’ll just take a look at her downloads, you know. If she sees all my downloads, I am screwed. But, she’s a girl. She won’t download any porn, now, would she?
Ping. Another text.
Okay, who the hell is it anyway?
There is no lock on the phone. She’s secure enough in her conduct that she does not need to lock her phone, he thinks, impressed. He could never do that, he thinks, ashamed. Okay, WhatsApp. A friend. Female. Asking after her wellbeing. Is everything okay sweetie and all that. None of my friends texted me to ask, he thought, how rude!
And then, he scrolled up, up, and up into his doom.
“I just don’t care about how men look.”
“He asked me about his looks, and I couldn’t care less about it.”
“Why should I change myself for him? If he cannot love me for who I am, I do not want his love.”
And that sinking feeling again…
“Can we talk? I think we should talk,” he told her, surprising her a little, as she walked in from a decent meet with her new relatives. Aunts, uncles, new sisters, all of them seem to be caring and sorted people, she thought, I haven’t come across a single person like my father in this family, well, yet.
“Why did you marry me?”
She sighed a deep sigh after what felt like a lump of air stuck in her throat. She was afraid this man would just ask her this silly question.
“I guess we all have to marry someday.”
He cringed. He had made a list of answers she could give him, and this one he had marked ‘I hope not’.
“That’s a really sad reason to get married. Are you sure you want to spend the rest of your life with me? I mean, you don’t know anything about me!”
Okay, she thought, if he wants a heart-to-heart, he’ll have it. If I say something that offends his sensibilities, well, he asked for it.
“That is not true. I do know you somewhat. I asked my family a thousand questions about you, and in turn they asked your family a thousand questions about you. Whatever I learnt about you, I liked. Otherwise, yours is not the first marriage proposal that came to my door.”
He felt a part of gloom leaving his body in this moment. It was as if he could see some sad little man inside him give up and walk out. So, mine was not the first proposal. She has rejected several, like I have done. She asked a thousand questions about me, like I did about her. So…
“So, you can’t trust new people?”
“God, no! How could anybody possibly do that? Never! Do you?”
He laughed a little at her surprise question, asked so innocently.
“No, me neither.”
“Well, I don’t think my family would have been that much honest with you about me. I’m sure there are so many terrible things about me that they chose not to tell you. I would like you to know everything about me, though.”
“I think so too. I mean, your family may have been completely honest with mine. But, yes, we should talk about the worst things first.”
As she said this, a small but visible small formed on what he thought was her painfully beautiful face. Painful because he hadn’t touched it yet.
“Yes, right. I’ll go first. Look, I don’t know how to put this across politely, but I’m very dirty. I mean, I bathe every day, but I just can’t put the shoes back in the rack, you know? I make a mess when I eat, as you may have certainly noticed at lunch…”
“What? No, I didn’t notice. But, why would that worry you? I make a mess too. I just cannot understand why the towel can’t be left on the bed after its wet. My sister says it stinks if I do that. I never smell the stink. How does she always smell the stink? Look, I don’t think we need to discuss such trivial matters, you know…”