The Narrator

  

                                                                        

                              EIGHTEEN

 

 

    My marriage with Neha was arranged.  Since I had never dated anybody, nor had any girl-friends, my parents thought it best to take things into their own hands.  The word was spread in our circle of relatives and acquaintances in Pune and Bombay.  Neha was located through the good offices of Sriram Pujari of the

Lakshminarayan Mandir in Pune.  Our family had always relied on his matchmaking skills.

    This is how the system worked:  those who were interested in brides/grooms gave their names to the pujari.  He would note down all the details such as age, sex, appearance, income, status, and expectations from the other person, in a large, red, cloth-bound register.  Others would come to his office in the temple premises

to check the names in the register.  If interested, they would leave word with him that they wanted to pursue things a bit further. If the "match" was made, the pujari would get his fee.

    When my name was entered in the register, we had a response quite quickly from two or three families.  Of them, the Mehendales, seemed to have the girl most suitable girl for me--or so my parents and elders thought.  The Mehendales were a respectable, middle-class family in Pune.  The father was an officer in a bank.  His father had been a Professor at the Law College and built a nice, solid house, the kind which has twelve-inch thick walls, on Fergusson College Road.  Everyone

knew the family.  The girl, Neha, was the elder of two sisters. She'd done a B.Com and followed that up with a computer course. She was twenty three. Her younger sister, Lekha, was studying medicine at Nasik. Mr. Mehendale was getting somewhat anxious about Neha so he practically jumped when we said, "Yes."

    Of course, Neha's partents had also placed a matrimonial advertisement, which we both later laughed over:  "Wanted:  a suitable match for a good looking, fair, Maharashtrian, Chitpavan girl, 23/160/2500 [age/height/monthly income!] daughter of bank officer, skilled in housework, and of pleasing manners, from a

professional/government servant of comparable family and status. Reply, with photograph and details to Box 1243, Times of Indian, Bombay."  This ad. continued to attract responses much after we were engaged.  To my alarm and Neha's amusement, some of the applicants were even "better" than me.  Later, after being well

and truly married for years, whenever we fought, Neha would say, "I wish I had married that Chitale from Connecticutt instead; at least I would have been riding to work in a Toyota Camri, and not on this lousy scooter!"

    Neha wasn't bad to look at.  Above average in height, she was quite fair and had typical Chitpavan looks.  Which means slightly chubby cheeks, round face, hair curling at the forehead, and light eyes.  She was already a senior clerk in a bank and was writing some exams for her promotion.  If she got through, she'd land up as a officer at the Reserve Bank, which was a very good job indeed.

    Neha seemed to be the earnest, no-nonsense, straightforward type of person.  When we were introduced, the first thing she said was, "You must understand that I am a very practical person..." She paused when she saw me frown.  I knew what "practical" meant when middle-class Maharashtrians used the word. It meant unimaginative, limited, boring.  "But," she corrected herself, "I do read.  I like music.  An occasional film.  That's about it.  You can't expect me to be very intellectual or get into your literature-biterature stuff."  Fair enough, I thought. She was at least honest about her limitations.

    Our marriage was solemnised in one of those Karylayas in Pune.  There were guests from both families; gifts were exchanged; photographs taken.  The women dashed about self-importantly in their heavy silks, laden with jewelry. While they performed their duties, they looked out for prospective brides/grooms for their children.  There was a lot of long-term planning and speculation involved:  oh, so-and-so's daughter looks so pretty; she'll look even more beautiful when she's

twenty; so-and-so is studying medicine; he'll finish his course in another four years; and so on.  The men wore suits, but there were some old-timers with dhotis and topis.  The young people were dressed to kill and flirted with each other openly.  There was a lot of innocent fun.

    The final ceremonies were simple as they were solemn.  After all the preliminary rites, a silk curtain was held between the bride and the groom.  The brides' party sang the wedding song, each of whose verses ended with that moving cry: shubhamangala savadhan--harken to the solemnising of this auspicious wedding!

The song described how this beautiful, obedient girl, Neha, the darling of her parents, the light of their eyes, had been raised with such tender, loving care; how she was now grown up and had reached the privileged estate of womanhood; how she had accepted this most worthy life-partner, chosen for her so carefully by her

elders; how she was now on the threshold of a new life, bidding farewell to her family and friends; how, therefore, the gathered assembly ought to bless her, pray for her safe passage; how the Gods should send their benedictions on her wedded life, according to her and her husband, health, wealth, and prosperity; how to

this end, to the furtherence of her dharma, she was now being given away..., and so on, and so:  shubhamangala savadhan. Everyone had tears in their eyes.  People showered the couple with rice, marked with turmeric and vermilion.  Then the curtain between Neha and me was lifted. We exchanged the varamalas or

garlands.  Neha looked at me with such a shy pride that I felt blest.  After than we sat down again for the Vedic rites, which ended with our walking around the sacred fire seven times, swearing mutual loyalty and allegiance.

    In the meanwhile, the little kids, decked up in all their finery, ran about, playing and screaming.  There was a happy chaos everywhere.  We descended from the stage to seek the blessings of all the elders, bowing low to touch their feet. "Aayushyavan bhava, sukhi bhava," they said, wishing us long life and happiness together.  Then there were endless phote sessions with relatives and friends from both sides, who came up to congratulate us and give us gifts.  Two senior aunts were

specially deputed to supervise the receipts and safeguard the envelopes full of money.  Finally, quite exhausted, we collapsed onto the two throne-like chairs on the stage, reserved for us. 

   Then a delicious, vegetarian lunch was served.  Guests were seated according to their seniority in boy's or girl's respective families.  At last we got to eat.  There was a ritual when Neha had to say my name for the first time.  This was symbolic of her entering the exalted status of wife; now she could call me, her husband, by name.  But only this once; it was not auspicious for a wife to utter her husband's name because it was believed that it reduced his lifespan.  The husband, on the other hand, did not have any such restrictions; in fact, traditionally, he was even empowered to change his wife's name upon marriage! Of course, we were not about the observe any of these obsolete customs, but the ritual "name-calling" at the wedding feast was hard to get out of.

    First, it was Neha's turn.  She made up the following couplet:  Phulat sarvat chan gulabacha phul/ Tasach, purushat majhe Rahul!  Just as the rose is the best of flowers,/ My Rahul is the best of men.  I was impressed with her couplet because she made Rahul rhyme with "phul--flower in Marathi--which sounded just like "fool" in English, a trans-lingual pun which Neha underscored by giving me an arch look.  I wasn't sure what I said in return, but I got over the ceremony somehow or the other. Then there was another ritual of feeding each other:  I put a piece of jalebi in her mouth and she stuffed half a laddu in mine.

    We went on a honeymoon to Ooty.  We had a frank discussion about sex on the way.  Both of us thought it was too early to have children.  Neha suggested that I use a condom to begin with and she would get on to the pill later, after a proper medical check-up, if I wished.  Though she knew all the facts of life, she was very much a virgin.  We had a lot of clumsy sex in the two weeks we spent at Ooty, but we also had some great times. We went on long walks togehter.  The mountain air brought a glow to Neha's cheeks.  She looked so happy and content that I couldn't help smiling to myself.

    There, Baddy, it isn't so bad to be married, is it?  There was no answer.  And I felt like a married man, at last.

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape