Urmilla Khanna and Darice Jones

The Match outer photographs and collage by Darice Shatteen-Jones (model: Teondre Newman)

Response

 

Excerpt from Boundaries of the Wind a memoir by Urmilla Khanna

Inspiration Piece

The following week, Pramilla and I left for Dehradun.

Dehradun is a small town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, home to an army base. My brother Satish, then a colonel in the army, and his wife, Sita, were living in a spacious bungalow allotted to them by the military. After welcoming us to their home, Sita-bhabhi got busy organizing for the event. She scurried around commanding her servants to bring out the bone china and the silver tea servers. She wanted to impress our guest not just with our riches but also with our Western upbringing, our convent education, the pseudosophisticated elite society of which we were a part. “He must be very rich and sophisticated since he is coming from America,” she said. “We should not fall below the standards of this ‘America-returned gentleman.’”

I was now being indoctrinated not just by my sister but also by Sita-bhabhi. Having gone through an arranged marriage herself at a tender age of twenty-two, she now played a maternal role. “Be yourself. Stay relaxed. Do not talk too much. Be polite. Keep your eyes down. If he asks you a question, be brief, and play shy. Girls should be seen and not heard.” She pitter-pattered all day long as she moved from room to room supervising the servants.

Finally, it was 5:00 p.m., the time for his arrival. I was doing exactly as I was instructed. Decked in a turmeric-yellow silk sari, I waited in the bedroom. Sitting at the edge of the bed, I kept raising my eyes and glancing at the window. I got my first glimpse. The America-returned gentleman was not as rich as we had imagined. He had not come by a taxi or a limousine. He took a rickshaw, dispensed the rickshaw-wala at the bottom of the hill, and was walking up the long driveway, an umbrella in hand. His older brother accompanied him.

I kept looking. Short in stature! There goes my dream of tall, dark, and handsome. Fair complexion, that’s good, a much-desired quality in the Punjabi community. I was already making judgments. I had to remind myself to pull back, no emotions to be attached.

While I waited inside, the rest of the family went to the front porch to receive the guests. There were handshakes between the men, gestures of namaste, and then loud bursts of laughter. My heart was racing and my mind wandering. Here is my chance to “marry and leave.” I will go away to America and distance myself from the tumultuous raging fires at home. I will be able to start a new life in a distant land. I will be happy.

Do not leap so far ahead, I reminded myself again. Do not make emotional attachments. Isn’t that what Pramilla had instructed you?

After a very long half hour of sitting and waiting, I was led to the drawing room by my sister. There were formal introductions again and more namastes. I took the chair closest to the entrance from the dining room, a rehearsed arrangement. The chatter that was going on went above my head. I was not listening. I was concentrating on my own personal needs in life. If those were met, will this marriage still come through? There is such a long chain of events for an arranged marriage to work. My liking him, his liking me. My family liking him and his family. His family liking me and my family. Then, finally, the priest’s input and the matching of horoscopes. Anything could go wrong. Again a reminder to myself—don’t waste your energy. Don’t get attached. So I sat quietly musing and tracing the intricate patterns on the silk kashmir carpet and the delicate carvings on the legs of the octagonal center table. As my mind was wandering, I could not help but look at his shoes. The brown shoes were an awkward contrast to the well-tailored pinstriped black suit. Can he be my dream man, an America-returned hero?

Sita-bhabhi’s request stirred me from my reverie. I got up and poured the tea, taking the first cup to him. Not in the least bit shy, he stared right into my face as I handed him the cup. There was a penetrating tenderness in those eyes. My heart thumped so loudly that I was afraid my sari-palloo would fall off my shoulder. At the thought of such embarrassment, a smile escaped from the corners of my lips. He smiled back, and our eyes locked. I saw that he was very relaxed, not at all conscious of his shoes. I returned to my seat and rested my eyes blankly on those shoes. The desire to have another look at him surfaced again, and I raised my eyelids. He was still staring at me, and our gaze met once more.

After the short visit, Kris and his brother left. A chatter of excitement resonated in the drawing room. I left the room, returned to the bedroom, and undid my sari. I sat staring into the void and … found myself in a pool of tears. I had finally met the man I cared for both from my heart and from my head. His smile stayed with me. No one that I had met so far had smiled as he had. They had all looked at me as though I was a specimen in a zoo. This is the man I would like to marry, I thought. That is, if he will marry me.

Pramilla walked in with bubbling enthusiasm. “He is so nice. Did you see his face? No worry wrinkles; no creases whatsoever. Mr. Mehra is right. This is the man for you,” she said. Then, seeing the kohl of my eyes smudged all over my face, she said, “What’s the matter? Why are you crying? You have reservations?”

I looked at her, saying nothing. My tears were private, too complex to explain.

She asked again, “Do you have reservations?”

I had to say something. I ended up saying, “He does not even know how to match his shoes to his suit.”

The joke of the sophisticated America-returned prospective groom presenting himself in a black suit and light brown shoes—and more importantly, the prospective bride picking up on it—stayed with us for a long time. As the story developed over the years, we learned that in the two-hour bus journey from Amritsar to Dehradun, Kris’s black Florsheims had been stolen. He had taken them off in the bus and dozed off. When he reached Dehradun, the shoes were gone. He had to rush to Bata Shoes, the only shoe store in town, and buy whatever was available in his size.

“We can fix that.” My sister’s laughter was hearty and all embracing. “I know it has all come about too abruptly. It will take some time for the whole thing to sink in.”

The following day, Pramilla walked to a nearby pay phone and rang up my parents. I accompanied her and waited in the booth with her while the operator connected the phone lines. In an hour or so, the call came through. “Hello, Mummy, I have good news,” Pramilla started. “Everything went off very well.” Then, in hurried fragments, “Yes, Pita-ji, he seems very nice, self-made man. Yes, hardworking. Paid his own way to America. Yes, Mother, down to earth, not arrogant. Handsome, Mummy, I am telling you, handsome.” The allotted three minutes were over, and the call ended.

We walked back to Sita-bhabhi’s in silence. Pramilla’s phone conversation with my parents echoed in my mind: self-made, hardworking, down to earth. The only thing that had stayed with me was his brown shoes. Whatever it was, I felt the tension in my shoulders melting.

 

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