by Deepthi Krishnamurthy
On their flight to Chicago, Apu tried to make sense of the puzzle that her situation had become. It was a large knotty ball of wool staring back at her. The man who was now her husband slept throughout the journey while she tugged at strands of the wool to see where they led.
A yawn here, a cough there, a baby crying in the front somewhere, the practised politeness of an air hostess – all the sounds emerged in absurd patterns against the white noise of the plane’s movement. Now away from the hundreds of people, the deluge of advice and the care given to appearances, she realised there were voices inside her head. She tried to stretch her jaws to pop her ears but the voices only became clearer.
The air hostess served a watery liquid when Apu asked for coffee. The first sip disgusted her but by the second, she gargled and gulped it down. She closed her eyes and clamped her ears but the voices persisted. Her mother’s voice was grumbling ‘Sitting on a plane and sipping this thing, are you? What will you do when you get home? Do you even know how to make coffee?’ She shook her head vigorously hoping to shake off the voice.
The next thing she heard was her husband’s aunt saying, ‘You are really a very lucky girl.’ She had said that at their wedding reception. In the middle of her sing-songy, emphasized Kannada, she used the English word ‘lucky‘ as though it were a technical term. The seemingly affectionate remark had seemed almost genuine in that moment. But now as the aunt’s voice repeated it over and over again in a loop, Apu wasn’t sure anymore.
She had first noticed the large aunt waiting in line to wish the groom and bride at the reception.
With pursed lips, she had fixed her gaze high on the wall. From a distance, she looked like a heroine from the 70s whose makeup routine hadn’t changed with the times. But as she came closer, it felt as if a Yakshagana character had come down from the stage, too close for comfort. Layers of makeup and the dazzle of gold were tricking the eyes away from the yellowing teeth and sagging skin. In her lime green and magenta Kanjeevaram, the aunt raised her chin and squinted at Apu’s necklace like a pawnbroker. ‘You are really a very lucky girl,’ she said. Apu watched as the aunt left the stage – hair dyed black, wrapped in a bun at the top, gold chains connecting the earrings to the sides of her bun. Apu did not know what to make of the bizarre play.
She had smiled all through the reception, not to smile too much lest she reveals her slightly longer canines, but just the way she had practiced before the mirror. The relatives were all there, standing in a line leading to the stage. A photograph and half a minute of video would document their presence. The whole event was a well-defined template, the grand formula into which you throw in the specifics of each family, and lo and behold – you have a ‘respectable’ marriage.
A priest’s voice now boomed in her head saying, ‘Hold the coconut properly.’ He seemed to be the promising young protégé of the enormous old man overseeing the ceremony. How did it matter how she held the coconut? Was this satellite transmission that you had to hold the coconut like an antenna, pointing a specific way for marriage to happen and Doordarshan to magically emerge on a television set somewhere? Could there be a failed ceremony, like a failed heart operation? Could the priest gather the relatives and squeezing his hands, say ‘I’m sorry but this ceremony failed.’ As she sat there, restricted in her movements by the obligation to be graceful and the oppression of the wedding finery, something else worried her. What if the ceremony was about to be ‘successful’? Was a lightning going to pass through their bodies announcing a cosmic bond between them? Had she been taking the whole marriage thing too lightly?
The vaalaga and mridanga were picking up pace and the music threatened to culminate into something final, something permanent. The swarm of relatives had thickened around them – his aunt from Bombay, her uncle from Mysore, a cousin of her mother’s who she only saw at weddings and death ceremonies. A hand full of bangles approached to wipe the sweat off her face, another pinned the hairdo and yet another pulled her saree away from the fire. She felt watched by a thousand eyes and was no longer sure of what she felt. Most of the people around her had been up since 3 am, getting ready for the the 6 am muhurtha, tucking Kanjeevarams into cotton petticoats, pinning jasmine and kanakaambari into hair, tossing silk shalyas over shoulders, sipping hot filter coffees and gently breaking the soft idlies. She found it a little hard to digest that they were all there that morning to mark a life event – an event in her life.
Amid all that, her mind had only wanted to be occupied with trivialities. As she and her husband-to-be went around the fire, she behind him, she thought it could well have been him behind her but for the way their clothes were tied. She thought of how pitiable these thoughts were and how weak her hold on life was. She vaguely remembered a refrain from a song her grandmother sang at weddings. A bride’s mind, the words of the song went, is torn between something and something else, Apu couldn’t recollect the words. But the definiteness of the emotions in the song seemed like a luxury she longed for. As they walked, she had gazed blankly at a large dark mole on his back. Her focus was fixed on it, blurring the hall full of people – relatives, friends, hers and his (his, who, in minutes, were going to become hers). She found herself sucked into the mole as if it was going to make the obligation of looking happy or sad go away. She was holding onto it with her eyes like a drowning person clutches at a straw. But its unfamiliarity, and the unfamiliarity of the shape of the back it was stuck to, disappointed her.
Before she knew it, three knots had been tied and she waited for something to change, maybe she would instantly become someone else, someone able to deal with all the things that needed dealing with. Maybe she wasn’t closing her eyes tight enough, she tried harder and all of a sudden a thousand grains of rice were showered over her.
‘We don’t want you to end up like Sharada aunty, that’s why,’ her father’s voice was now informing her, in its rare, high-volume glory. ‘What is wrong with being like Sharada aunty – she is single that’s all. Why do you speak of her as if she is a pitiable cripple?’ Apu had argued. She had looked towards the bride’s room and found her relatives consoling her mother. Her uncle had his arms around her father as though he were an old person not quite able to stand by himself. She saw Sharada aunty, sitting by herself on a chair in the front row. She sat with her hand covering her mouth and in a matter of seconds, Apu saw her eyes welling up in unexpected spontaneity before she quickly left her chair and disappeared.
Apu felt like standing up on a stool to announce to everyone that they need not give into these stereotypical emotions, that they could allow themselves to smile normally and exchange pleasantries. But the moment had conspired and left them all sadder than at her grandmother’s death. When her grandmother died, Apu had sat staring at a delicate mole on her dead grandmother’s face. It had lived above the upper lip somewhere where her cheek began. These same relatives had been pacing up and down the verandah making phone calls. Even as the cotton in the nose and rice grains over the face had made her grandmother unrecognizable, Apu had kept her focus on the mole.
All of fourteen, Apu’s grandmother had run off with friends to watch the shooting of a film. When they needed an extra face, she volunteered and appeared among the heroine’s friends for about 15 seconds in the movie. When an anonymous admirer had dared to write to her saying she was his Marilyn Monroe, her parents became furious. They hoped nobody would notice her in the film and quickly got her married off before anyone could find out. Her grandmother always spoke of it as if it were an altogether hilarious episode, a joke on the sort of times they were back then. Apu wondered what her grandmother thought about during the rituals of her respectable wedding all those years ago. Did she too worry about unfamiliar moles? She willed her grandmother’s voice to say something. She had a feeling that her grandmother’s face, her voice and her mole must all be buried under a deluge of rice grains. Slowly, Apu heard the white noise of the plane’s movement creeping back into her ears.
Picture from https://www.flickr.com/photos/pratiphotography/