Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
This story is not called the Long Story for nothing. It is long. Really. Do consider reading it in parts. I’ve tried to insert breaks in all the appropriate places. Hope it helps. And thank you for reading!
It is hard to tell when exactly it happened.
It could have been when He turned and looked at her, sitting in the back seat of the car, resplendent in a bright, parrot green chudidhar and a large, round bindi. It could have been when She spied him walking up to the car from a distance, tall and self-assured. It could have been an hour later, already deep in conversation, when He suddenly said, “I don’t even know your name. What’s your name?” It could have been four hours later when neither of them had stopped talking, chattering nineteen-to-the-dozen, nearly completely ignoring the three other people in the car, racking their brains for the next thing to say even before the last thing had finished being said. It could have been six hours later when She chirpily said goodbye, her heart sinking at the thought of never seeing him again; when He waved a despondent goodbye, under the watchful eye of his father, knowing fully well the journey had ended.
Four months passed. There was nothing to do but let them pass. He did not know where She lived. She vaguely knew where his family did, but did not know if he lived with them or worked in some other town. Something told her He did not live in the house he got off at. She thought of him fleetingly, once in a while. Wondered, sometimes, what He was doing right that minute. That was how far She allowed herself to go.
He must have thought of her too in those four months, because one fine day he was riding past her college (He knew this was her college because it had come up many times during those six hours and He knew one of the subjects She studied) and on a whim, He decided to give it a shot. To see if He could find her. The girl that talked non-stop. That’s how He thought of her. The girl with the dusky skin and the shiny hair.
He parked his bike outside the college wall and looked in. The watchman eyed him warily. This was an all-girls college. He was already getting stares. Not a few giggles twittered his way. He shrugged them off and scanned the entrance to the college. Then his eyes lit up. In the crowd, He spotted someone He knew. A familiar face! He waved his arms wildly and called out, “A!”
A turned at the sound of her name and saw Him. “What’s He doing here?” she thought, but ran up to Him. He was her brother’s classmate and friend. “Hey, what are you doing here?” “Hi, A. I’m looking for someone. Her name is She. She studies Microbiology here. Do you know her, by any chance?”
A mulled for a minute. “She, studying Microbiology. Hmmm. Sorry, I don’t know anyone by that name. I’ll ask some friends if you want. Do you want to wait?”
His shoulders slumped for a second. This was a long shot, He knew. But his hopes had soared when He he’d seen A. But now he said, “No, never mind. I was hoping to find Her, but I know it’s difficult. I’ll try again sometime. Tell D I said Hi!” Then He got on his bike and rode away. He promised himself he’d try just once more and then he would have to give up.
Meanwhile, A walked into college and ran into a classmate, M, also on her way to class. “Hey, do you know a She studying Microbiology here? A friend is trying to find her.” M did know a She, but she wasn’t sure what her subjects were. “I know one She. Come, I just saw her on near the stage, playing table tennis. Let’s go ask her.”
So A and M went down the steps to the stage and there She was. M did the introductions and then A asked, “Do you know a He? He was just here looking for you.” She stared at A and M, confused. He? Was here? At college? Her mind tried to pull the two worlds together, but they seemed so far away. The long car journey so many months ago, and here and now, this auditorium, filled with the chatter of a hundred girls.
“Yeah, I know a He,” her voice tentative, a million doubts swirling in her head. It couldn’t be him. This was some other He A and M were asking her about. Surprise, excitement and then confusion already giving way to disappointment. A continued, “He was my brother’s classmate in engineering. He’s working here now, He said.” She knew He has studied engineering in the same college as A’s brother. The rising swell of disappointment withered in the face of this new information. It was him!
“Where is He? Is He still outside?”
“No, I told him I didn’t know anyone by the name of She. And He had to go.”
“Do you have his number?”
“No, sorry, he didn’t tell me his number. After college He and my brother don’t keep in touch much. They’ve moved to a new house here. So I don’t think D has his number either.”*
She had never ridden in a roller coaster before, but She was beginning to think that she knew exactly how it must feel. Her insides roiled trying to keep up with her feelings. Of all the emotions She felt in those ten minutes she was left with the worst of the lot – dejection – for the rest of day and for all She knew, for a while to come, until She figured out a way to get over it.
*It was not the age of cell phone, e-mail or Facebook, as you might have guessed.
Days turned into weeks as She debated what to do. Should She try to reach Him, somehow? How could she reach Him? She had neither a telephone number nor an address. She did not know where He worked. And days turned into weeks as He debated what to do. Should He try going back to that college again? The possibility that He would run into Her seemed so remote. Perhaps He would give it a few more days before he made a fool of himself again.
In the meantime, life played on, as if in a parallel universe. There were weddings to attend, family gatherings to plan, project deadlines to meet, exams to take. They had roles to play. Daughter, son, sister, brother, pal, colleague, classmate. But the edges were a just that little bit shinier, the colors just that little bit brighter, voices just that little bit sharper, the air just that little bit nippier, every little … thing … pregnant with the possibility of a possibility. Possibility of what, though? Neither knew.
A few more weeks later, resolution seemed like a good thing, something to be desired and welcomed. To see if there was really something to this enlivening of the senses, something to the feeling of anticipation that filled every activity. But She was still unsure. Not knowing where it would all lead was not a comfortable feeling, not a sensation She was used to. As She waffled and wondered what, if anything, She should do, She received a call. From an acquaintance who would know His contact information. In that instant, She thought She saw very clearly what was intended for her. In Her state of not knowingness, this is precisely what She needed. She seized upon it as a signal (a sure sign of weakness, if you ask me). With a vague sense that Her worlds were about to clash – how or why She could not put her finger on, but She knew – She swallowed the knot in her throat, grabbed the reins of the future in her hands and asked. “Do you have His telephone number?” No, he didn’t. Dang! “But I have an address. Do you want that?”
The deed was done. She did have control of something! Whatever it was, it would become apparent soon enough. He, by trying to find her and She, but trying to reciprocate, had set the ball rolling. She hastily wrote down the address and at the next available opportunity visited a greeting card shop. She picked a blank card, scribbled a – nonchalant – note to the effect that She had heard that He had tried to find her and that could be found at this address. She inserted the card in its Book-Post envelope and mailed it. Book-Post. The implication of that hyphenated word did not register at all.
But of course, the effect was felt somewhere else. The seemingly innocuous card arrived at His house. His mother thought it was an invitation and opened it.
(Wanted to stop here, but decided to continue.)
When He returned from work later in the evening, the card sat on the dining table and a worried mother sat in the living room. The inevitable questions followed, which He answered as minimally as He could and rushed upstairs to read it in peace. Two days later She found a letter from Him with a telephone number.
Yes, a telephone conversation happened. Yes, a meeting happened soon after. You didn’t expect anything else after all the trials and tribulations up until that point, did you?
The question is, was it worth it? Had that lone encounter from so long ago taken on a significance completely out of whack with reality? Had the sense of anticipation and the one step forward two steps backward nature of the interceding months imparted a blinding halo around their meeting? Then there was the further question – what next? So what if they met? What did either of them expect to happen a day after they met? A week after? A month after?
The cloud of uncertainty followed each of them through the daily grind. Anticipation, sure. But uneasiness and anxiety too.
What neither of them had accounted for was the awkwardness. Make that shyness. It was a strange situation for both of them. Talking nineteen to the dozen with other people around them was one thing. Being left to their own devices, that too after a gap of months in which their actions amounted to an acknowledgement of each one’s interest in the other, quite another story.
But a bumpy beginning was just that – a beginning. After the initial period of broken phrases and nervous giggles, conversation flowed as before. The anxiety and uncertainty dissipated. What each of them remembered was not a mirage. What each of them had built up in their minds was genuine. Without actually saying it aloud, they knew they would meet again.
I know this seems too swift a resolution to the build up, but in the grand scheme of things, actually seeing each other again and figuring there was something to their relationship pales in comparison to the difficulty of finding each after that first time they met. And it is diddly squat compared to what was in store for them right around the corner.
This is a good juncture as any to say this – they stood now at the cusp of the old and the new; on the line that separated a child from an adult, the past from the future. The only thing is neither of them thought of it that way – neither of them actually thought about what consequences their feelings and actions might have for the larger units to which they belonged. Nary a concern that all the other pieces of their lives would not fall in place, that the line they were about to cross was, in fact, a rapidly widening crevasse.
All they saw was the shiny outline of a future they wanted to grab a hold of. A promise of a certain way of life.
Yes, you can tell this in the span of a few hours – over a shared meal, in the space of a few conversations, in the demeanor and carriage of a person, in a glance so open and honest it lets you peek way into the past and into the realm of the possible, in the ready laugh, in the pathetic jokes, in the keen mind that can keep a banter going no matter the topic, in the sage eyes that tell you they are listening.
So, happy in the strength of their instincts, relieved that their minds had not played tricks on them, secure in the knowledge that the hereafter had just taken on a pleasing shape, they went home and told their parents.
If certain phrases in the story so far had implanted in you a sense of foreboding, I must reluctantly say it was for good reason.
Because – pardon the expression – the shit hit the fan.
She just couldn’t tell which of the emotions in her father’s eyes got to her the most – the sadness, the disappointment, the anger, or the defeated look of a man who’d been blindsided. She just couldn’t look at her mother’s drawn, pinched face. This was not something her parents expected even in their wildest dreams. They thought She knew and understood never to put them in this predicament. They thought She knew that ‘love marriages’ were just not done in their family, that when the time was right, they expected her to meet prospective grooms – carefully screened, whose horoscopes would have been studied by the family priest, whose family background matched their own – agree to marry one of them and live happily ever after.
He looked at his parents and all He saw was determination. Determination that whatever this was, was not going to go any further. It simply would not do for their family. He was the eldest child, theirs was an orthodox family, given to traditions and adherence to rituals. The expectation was that when the time was right, they would find a suitable bride for him – through the traditional channels of friends and family connection – and that he would be married with the blessings of the family elders.
If, so far, I’ve used the word ‘family’ repeatedly, it is because family takes precedence over everything else. Marriages are a family affair, in every sense of the phrase. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and distant cousins tap into their formidable networks of family and friends and feed the parents of boys and girls of marriageable age with the names and contact details of prospective in-laws. After a preliminary consultation with the family priest who will tell the parents when according to the boy or girl’s horoscope they should proceed with seeking alliances for their child, parents start calling the numbers on their list.
“So and so gave us your telephone number. We have a son/daughter who we want to get married. She/he is ___ years old and she/he has done [fill in area of study and degree]. We understand you have a son/daughter and you are also looking. If you want to go ahead, we can exchange horoscopes and may be a photo.”
Soon the horoscopes and photos and ‘bio-data’ (containing details about height, complexion, interests, studies, work details) are exchanged, these days by e-mail. Then back to the priest to have him study the horoscopes and make sure that the traits of the boy and the girl match. I’m not really sure about this, but at least 16 out of the 64 traits in each horoscope are supposed to align. If not, the horoscope is summarily rejected.
It is mind-boggling how many potential alliances fall apart at this stage. Either the horoscopes don’t match or the height difference between the two is too much or the photographs are not too pleasing. The reasons are many.
Once these hurdles are crossed, then it’s time for the boy and girl to meet, in either house, with usually entire families present. Everyone sits around while the boy and girl look everywhere but at each other. The atmosphere is oppressive as far as they are concerned. There’s good-natured banter, teasing, cajoling the girl to sing, and finally, it is some one’s turn to suggest that the boy and girl go to another room or to the garden to speak privately.
When the visitors leave, an impromptu summit takes place in which everyone pitches in with their opinion of the boy/girl and the family. The family then seeks the opinion of the boy/girl. If it’s a ‘yes’ then they wait for a couple of days to call the other family and exchange notes. If it’s a ‘yes’ from them too, then the families meet again, agree on a betrothal ceremony a couple of months down the road so the boy and the girl get a few more opportunities to meet and talk to each other (usually with chaperons) and then the planning begins in earnest for the actual wedding ceremony. If it’s a ‘no’ from either the boy or the girl, then cue the whole process to begin anew with another prospective alliance.
All these events may not happen these days, but they are still prevalent enough to be called the norm. I’m telling you all this only to give you a view from the parents’ perspective of the matter of the marriage of their children. How important it is for them to have the involvement of their own elders – older brothers, sisters, perhaps even their own parents. There is unfathomable joy in the intricacies of putting together an alliance. It is a happy occasion, one that every relative, far and near, has a hand in. There are umpteen rituals to plan, day long shopping sprees to go on, jewellery to be picked, gifts to be bought, gift bags to be stuffed, innumerable snacks to be prepared, a marriage hall to be hunted down, invitations to design, distribute and hand out personally to the important invitees. The marriage ceremony itself might last two or three days, but it feels like the festivities start much earlier and end much later than that.
Then there is that intangible feeling, an emotion you just cannot describe when you carry out a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation. At a very base level, you revel in being part of a tribe. That sense of belonging is powerful. You follow what your ancestors have done for generations and you feel complete.
Sure, traditions are tweaked as each new generation adopts them to their time and place. But to have to give it up entirely? It just disturbed Her parents and His parents so deeply that they could not see a solution beyond having their children not continue down the path they had misguidedly started on.
If ever there was a mirror which reflected entirely opposite images to the parents and to the children but their reactions to those different images were exactly the same, then this was it. Everyone of them had expectations – of how their children would behave, expectations of how the parents would react. And every one of their expectations was unmet. So what?, was His and Her question. So everything, was their parents’ response. If her parents were sad and disappointed, then She was equally so. She could not wrap her mind around the fact that her parents could not look beyond tradition and orthodoxy. If his parents were determined that He not continue down this path, He became was equally determined to continue seeing her.
The scene was set for a battle of wills of monstrous proportions.
The more He and She saw each other, the more they realized that a life together was a dream neither wanted to give up. Their minds could not grasp how or why their parents could not set aside tradition for their sake. There was nothing wrong with either of them. If the parents went through the regular channels of setting up alliances, they were convinced that their parents would have no reason to object to the relationship.
If you are familiar with that image they use in the movies to show passage of time, the one where you hold a thick calendar in your hand and flip the pages rapidly and days turn into weeks, weeks into months and months into years, this would be a good time to recall it.
Because that’s what happened. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months and months into years during which essentially the same events transpired. The parents expected this budding relationship to have stopped growing, but knew, perhaps, in their heart of hearts, that that was not the case. Their children expected their parents to understand their agony and come around any minute, but knew deep down inside it would not happen. As you can imagine, this was not a good atmosphere for warm familial relationships. Hearts hardened. Each one got angrier by the day. And sadder and more determined.
Right about now is a great time for a twist in the tale. What do you think?
He, who had planned and prepared to go out of the country for continuing his studies, finally received his admission papers. So two years and five months and four days to the day they first met, in the middle of a crucial chapter in the story of their lives, time zones and distances only traverse-able by planes were all set to occupy the space between them.
She sat on the steps near the entrance to her college building and wrote a long letter full of details of her day. Seemingly inconsequential details, such as the weather, such as the funny twirling motion in which the leaves fell all around her, such as how crappy the food was in the canteen, such as the hilarious accent one of her professors had.
Days later and thousands of miles away, all alone in a foreign land, He devoured its contents. They were his connection to the life he’d left behind, to the future he still hoped to have. As long as the letters came regularly and they brought to him words with warmth and a whiff of her silliness, He was OK.
Two months earlier He had left. It was a strange parting, deeply unsettling, their minds swirling with unknowable things. But when the time came, neither had the time or the inclination to be morose, wanting and choosing instead to feel hopeful. Neither of them knew the how of it. It is one of those things that you can only ascribe to youth – when you haven’t lived life for too long, you think you have the power to shape it. It was this, perhaps, that prompted him to ask a friend if He could write letters to her address so He would have a way of keeping in touch with Her. (I know. ‘Keeping in touch’ is such a euphemism to describe what He was trying to accomplish but at a very basic level, that was what it was. A way of maintaining contact.)
The idea that this was morphing into a ‘long-distance relationship’ was not something that crossed their minds. Simply because it was not something they’d heard of before. And so they were not aware that distance not only made relationships more difficult but was also notorious for destroying them. As far as they were concerned, the parting was just an annoying wrinkle in the already complicated patchwork of their existence.
He wrote letters of his new life, of a full load of classes, of working hard to pay the bills, of rents and fees and food expenses so incongruous with the life he had known before. He wrote of his first winter with snow, of his roommates, of his delight in finally being able to afford a small music system for his room. She read every word and tried to imagine his brand new experiences, tried to live them as best She could in her mind, feeling slightly less bereft with each new letter.
In this age of instant messages and cell phones and e-mails, it is perhaps easy to imagine that writing letters by hand, waiting for days for it to reach the other person and waiting some more to receive a reply might have been, at best, arduous. But ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes. They just did not know any better.
One day, however, about six or seven months after He had left, when He was in the middle of his shift at work on campus, an insane thought seized him. He had to hear her voice. So, before the thought left him, he turned to a friend, told him he was in charge and ran the entire distance through the freezing cold from his workplace to his apartment. He nervously dialed her number, just imagining her face at the other end of the line, his mind not willing to countenance other possibilities.
The phone rang at the other end, He heard the sound of the receiver being picked up and a female voice said, “Hello”.
His heart thumping, He said, “Hello. This is He. May I speak to She please?”
“She’s not here.”
“Oh. Could you just please tell her that I’d called to wish her a happy birthday?”
Feeling sick to his stomach He hung up the phone. Not only had He not talked to her, He may have gotten her into trouble.
When She got back home later that evening, her mother did tell her. Then they just looked at each other. All that was unsaid in the last so many months hung in the air between them. What was going on? Was She still seeing him? Why did He call? Was He not in town? Where was He?
She had not said anything when He had gone away. She had just had no inclination to bring up the topic if She didn’t have to. She had gone along with the attempts to set up matches (as He did too from his parents, via long distance phone calls). She had posed for the photographs. She had prepared herself for the visits from families of prospective grooms. She politely answered questions. And She secretly reveled in the failure of the process – either the horoscopes didn’t match, or the groom was too short or there was something else wrong that her parents were not told of before, or it stalled because it would take a while for the families to meet.
Finally, now, faced with the fact of the phone call, She told her mother about where He was. The relief on her mother’s face was quickly banished by something else – sympathy. Her mother understood what She was going through. Her daughter had been reduced to a ghost of her former self, a haunted look on her face as She struggled, trapped between the consequences of her actions, wanting to be a ‘good’ daughter, and her firm conviction that She was in the right. But her mother also knew how tough the situation was. She just did not see a way out of this that would make her daughter happy. So she did the only thing she could have at that point – she took her daughter to the temple and told her to pray. And pray they both did.
Life settled back into this absurd normalcy for a few more months. And then it became clear. They could not go on like this forever. There had to be a resolution. For every body’s sake. They had to make a final push to convince their parents. If it did not work…they dismissed the thoughts from their heads. They had to convince their parents because they were not willing to go any further without their parents by their side, without their blessings. He planned to visit his family for a few days. They would try their damnedest to make it work.
A year and a half after He had left, two days after He had arrived, He sat at the dining table with his parents. Once their initial excitement at seeing him after so long and his craving for his mother’s cooking had abated somewhat, the discussion turned to the topic of marriage. His parents did not know when He would be able to visit again so they saw this as a good opportunity to settle an alliance for him. His mother had painstakingly collected contacts for numerous prospective brides. They could arrange to have the families meet him and He them over the next few days…
“I want to marry that girl,” he said, baldly.
They knew exactly what He was saying and who He was talking about. Only they were not prepared for it at all. They had fully expected it to be a problem of the past, something his long absence to have cured. The silence hung heavy as their minds raced, each of them worried in their own way, worried about the same problem but about the diametrically opposite solutions.
In that silence was planted a seed of a thought. What if? And there were many what ifs. What if they really had no idea of the depths of his determination? What if they hurt him so much that He was turned off? What if he really loved this girl? What if they gave it a shot and agreed to see this girl? What if it really turned out to be OK? So what if this was just not done in their orthodox family? Would it really be so bad? What would be so bad?
Of all the angles to this problem, they had been most worried about the relationship failing. They fretted that a relationship based on impetuous feelings, not one based on the tried and true method of two families coming together on the backs of tradition, would fail in the face of the next impetuous tide of emotions. If they did not have control of how the alliance came together then they would have no say over its disintegration.
But what if? What if they were wrong? What if He and She could really make the marriage work?
Perhaps it was the fleeting nature of his visit that helped crystallize every one’s thoughts. But wanting to follow tradition and stick to known methods did not balance out a combination of not wanting to hurt and turn off their son and wanting to be practical in the face of how long this had dragged on apparently.
So that evening, when he came back from visiting his friends, they sat him down and told him to arrange for a meeting with her family.
I know. You feel like whooping and cheering. But hold your horses. Remember this is only one half of the equation.
For the two days since He had arrived, She had been walking on egg shells. How was She going to tell her parents? What would She say? What would it do to her parents? What had they done to deserve this can of worms? She longed for the simpler days when all She was was their daughter, a sister and a happy-go-lucky whirlwind of energy.
Her parents went about their activities, unaware of the storm brewing in their daughter’s mind. They had been looking forward to a dinner with their friends for a while. So She decided She would talk to them once they were done with that engagement. She did not want to spoil their day out, She told herself. But perhaps She was trying to put it off.
Time marched on, relentless as usual. The dinner came and went. The next day dawned. Just before breakfast her mother heard the call of the vegetable vendor on the street and went out to get some tomatoes. This is it, She thought. She did not want to involve her mother in this discussion if She could help it. This was between her and her father. She did not want her mother to be a buffer any more.
She went into her parents’ bedroom. Her father was shaving. Yes, She wore all the classic symptoms of panic – dry mouth, pounding heart, heavy tongue. She swallowed a few times and blurted it out, “Dad, I want to tell you something.”
Her father turned to her, his razor raised mid-way and said, “Is this about your affair?”
She started open mouthed, confused. His face did not match the words. The words were supposed to come out stern and angry but he was smiling. She managed to nod, Yes. What he did next startled her even more. He put his razor down into his mug, with half his face still caked in foam, walked over to her where She stood quaking, put a finger on her cheek and said, “If you really want to marry him that much, go ahead. I’ll arrange it.”
The minute the words fell out of his mouth and She thought She understood what they meant, She wanted to pick them up and thrust them back. Through the fog of her swirling emotions She saw what was happening.
Her father was setting aside his most cherished convictions, his idea of what it meant to be a father, his notion of his responsibility to his daughter, his simple desire to do for his family what generations had done before him, and yes, his pride. Her father did not really know who He was, as a person or his family, but all he knew and believed in were traditionally arranged alliances. He had blinders on and was afraid of the unknown.
In those few minutes She saw these layers peeling away and She saw the core of him. She had come fully prepared for what She did not even know. But this was not it. What knocked her off her feet was that unlike in her mind’s eye he really did not seem to be falling apart. There he was was, whole, happy and even excited about the whole mess, looking forward to the impending celebrations. “Call your mother. Where’s she?”
Her mother came back in to find that nothing short of a paradigm shift had occurred in the ten minutes she’d gone out. Gears had creaked and moved and adjusted themselves and the cosmos had been rearranged, just that little bit. The air was different, the light was a little brighter. Her daughter was floating on cloud nine. Her husband looked a changed man. She swung wildly between awe at her daughter’s gall in raking up the issue again, unfathomable relief at how it had all turned out, giddiness at the bushels-full of happiness that would visit the house again and just plain old joy.
Two days later He came to visit her house.
One day later her family went over to visit his. Every one laughed like giggly ten-year-olds, relief palpable in every look and word.
Two weeks later they were engaged.
Five months later they were married.
One year later they still could not believe they were married.
Six years later they grew their family and had children. Their families grew to have affection for each other and their parents took great joy in their grandkids.
In the meantime, they had spectacular fights, misunderstandings of galactic proportions, threw tantrums at the tiniest hint of disagreement. Of course. They were married, for heaven’s sake! But in their minds and hearts lived those two young kids – the ones that had the courage of their convictions, had faith in each other and in their dreams of a future together, and had faith in the love of their families. And in the darkest times, it was the memory of those two kids that gave them heart. They were proud of the fact that they came through that period, their love and joy of life intact and knew, somewhere deep down inside, that nothing would chip away at them.
On the 10th anniversary of the day they met, He sent her flowers to her office. She was floored – that He remembered.
Twenty-one years later they still take pleasure in recalling and recounting the story of how they met.