Papa sent word from work instructing Ma to fix something special for the suitor meeting that evening. This I got from Naani after Ma scurried out to shop. What suitor meeting, Naani couldn’t say. Had Papa told us, and had I simply forgotten?
I wanted to be sure senility wasn’t getting an early start on me, so when Vinita came upstairs, I put the question to her. She looked as blank as I felt.
‘Perhaps it’s better this way,’ she said. ‘Not knowing in advance what’s going to happen. Like being hung. They march you off to breakfast, but you wind up at the gallows instead. Only a couple of minutes of anxiety.’
I wasn’t sure I wanted to associate a hangman’s noose with a suitor meeting, but she had logic on her side. It wasn’t as if we needed practice, either.
When Ma returned, we asked her. Ma sighed. ‘Brothers Kansara.’
‘No one told us,’ I said.
‘I thought your father told to you about them, but what’s the difference? If they are like the usual, just reject.’
‘We were afraid we might not have our prettiest outfits ready,’ said Vinita.
Ma looked suspicious, but Vinita kept a straight face.
‘Go one step more, reject whole marriage idea,’ said Naani.
Ma ignored Naani. ‘I asked to some teachers at school about suitors, but no luck. Most have boys already married or too young to marry.’
That left us with the prospect of the brothers Kansara.
The front door opened. Damini and the American cousins entered, loaded down with bags and boxes.
‘Whoa,’ said Amber, dumping her purchases on the dining table. ‘You can, like, score some killer DVDs for peanuts.’
The suitor problem must have registered on my face, for her exuberance changed to concern. ’Something wrong?’
‘A couple of boys are coming by this evening,’ I explained.
‘Oh, dates. Well, that’s cool.’
‘No date!’ said Ma. ‘Nice boys with interest in marriage.’
‘Means you must wait for them to die to enjoy living,’ muttered Naani.
Ma started to object, but Naani bustled off.
‘You two are getting married?’ said Lauren. ‘Since when?’
‘Since the beginning of time,’ said Vinita. ‘At least it feels that way.’
Lauren looked baffled.
‘Indian suitors arrive at the first meeting talking marriage,’ I explained. ‘It saves a lot of time.’
‘I could go for that if I ran into Ian Bartel at the beach,’ said Amber.
‘Yeah,’ breathed Lauren.
‘He goes, “Nice bikini, baby. What say we get married this evening?” So I go, “Let me check my activities calendar, Ian.” Check, check. “Okay, I’m cool with that.”’
The cousins laughed, while Ma radiated disapproval, even though what Amber described wasn’t that far from a typical Indian courtship in terms of time frame.
‘Who’s Ian Bartel?’ I assumed he was a movie star who wasn’t on my very limited name-recognition list.
‘A golf pro at the club,’ said Lauren.
‘Super hot, and not gay,’ added Amber.
I couldn’t imagine meeting a super hot man. To me that was like the world’s largest diamond. I knew it existed somewhere, but I would never wear it.
‘What do we know about these suitors?’ asked Vinita. That sounded like interest on her part, but I knew she just wanted something to put into what we laughingly called our romance album, filed under ‘data.’
Ma retrieved a piece of paper from next to the phone. ‘The family name is Kansara. Wholesale electricals business, not so big. Boys are Pintu and Bunty. Both MBA. Age twenty-six and twenty-seven. Wheatish.’
‘Wheatish?’ said Lauren.
‘Not what you would call white, but a far cry from the garbage woman,’ explained Vinita. ‘Nisha is a shade or two lighter than wheatish. If a woman is darker than wheatish, she’s swimming against the tide.’
Ma, who was a couple of shades darker than wheatish, wasn’t amused.
‘That again,’ said Lauren.
‘It’s not the only thing,’ continued Vinita. ‘The suitor is investigated to determine character. Even a light-skinned suitor is unacceptable if he’s committed crimes outside of business and politics.’
‘So Uncle Rasik hires an investigator?’
‘Papa can’t afford an investigator,’ I said. ‘He relies on horoscopes.’
Ma read from the paper. ‘“Horoscope says very good match for both girls.” Whatever.’
No one disagreed with Ma’s assessment, so all we could do was wait for the invaders to arrive at the gates. That Papa wanted Ma to offer them something special told me he thought highly of the family. Or perhaps the family business. Possibly their being brothers was a consideration. Getting rid of both daughters in one fell swoop would appeal greatly to Papa.
‘There’s something odd about two sisters marrying two brothers,’ said Vinita. ‘Hypothetical situation, of course.’
‘To marry brothers is the good idea,’ said Ma. ‘Better when your sister-in-law is your sister. No need to make adjustment to a stranger.’
I had a vision of Vinita and me as withered octogenarians, her chasing me with a walking stick, telling me my makeup made me look wanton. Could a stranger be any worse?
Perhaps Vinita had an equally negative vision of our future together, because she looked at me and said, ‘There are more important things in life than a sister-in-law.’
‘Yeah,’ said Amber. ‘Like a hot guy with a Porsche.’
I would have put a mansion ahead of a car, but perhaps that was a cultural difference.
‘They all want beautiful girls, anyway,’ said Vinita, sounding bitter. ‘Handsome men, ugly men, it makes no difference.’
Amber laughed. ‘If an ugly man’s got lots of money, he isn’t ugly. If an ugly woman’s got lots of money, she’s still ugly.’
Damini stopped typing on her laptop. ‘Money and beauty are not primary concerns for those who have evolved. Inner beauty is what one seeks.’
I didn’t know what she meant by evolved, but perhaps it was synonymous with emigrated. A bride with outer beauty was a given then, so such men might turn their attention to inner beauty. ‘I’m sure most will settle for outer beauty and a fat dowry.’
‘Dowry?’ Lauren sounded incredulous. ‘You still have that?’
‘Yes and no.’
‘For what it’s worth, the law prohibits the demanding of a dowry by the groom or his family,’ explained Vinita. ‘But it doesn’t stop the bride’s family from offering one.’
‘To sweeten the pot,’ I said.
Vinita snorted. ‘To move a stale daughter.’
‘You’re not going to offer anything, are you?’ asked Lauren.
I decided the inheriting of the house wasn’t exactly an offering, so I left it unmentioned. ‘Fortunately, we’re too poor for that.’
Ma gave me a dirty look. ‘Better you both get ready.’
Vinita and I dragged ourselves down to the basement, followed by the cousins. Unaware of our suitor-foiling strategies, they took the whole matter seriously. They watched as we made feeble attempts at grooming in preparation for the meeting. I gathered my hair into a ponytail and Vinita set about redoing her plaits.
‘You’re not gonna meet the guys looking so, like, everyday, are you?’ asked Amber.
‘It’s how we meet all the suitors.’
Amber studied me. ‘Y’know, with a little makeover you could be hot. Okay, maybe not hot, but not bad.’
I was about to tell her that was the whole idea, to come across as unappealing to the men Papa tossed at us. But I had never done anything with my hair except brush it, and curiosity about the process got the better of me. ‘I don’t know anything about styling my hair. I’ve never been to a beauty salon.’
Astonishment on Amber’s part. ‘You gotta be kidding.’
That made me feel special, like a three-thousand-year-old mummy. ‘Ma always cuts my hair when it gets too long. Papa says there’s no need to pay someone to do it.’
Amber took on the look of a zealous missionary determined to introduce civilization to the savages. ‘Wait one sec.’ She hurried out of the room and up the stairs.
‘Papa won’t approve of this,’ said Vinita.
Amber returned with a blow-dryer and a can of mob-defeating hair spray. The ‘sexy’ in the brand name unnerved me – I couldn’t imagine that term applying to me – but I gave myself up to her.
She untied my ponytail, shook my hair free, and began combing it out. ‘Nice hair.’
‘That’s because it hasn’t been toasted and tinted on a weekly basis,’ said Lauren.
‘Some are now, some are then.’
I deduced that if Lauren was ‘then,’ I was mired in hair fashion’s prehistoric past.
‘We will bravely go where no style has gone before,’ announced Amber, setting about bringing me up to date.
She was good at hair styling. I could tell, in spite of my total lack of experience, just by the confident way she handled my hair. I imagined groups of American girls gathering to doll each other up. To become ‘hot,’ or whatever. I soon relaxed, closed my eyes, and enjoyed being fussed over.
Minutes passed, then Amber shut off the dryer. ‘All done. Take a look.’
I turned to face the mirror, and gasped. Amber had magically created a lot more hair than I was used to. ‘I look like a model or actress on TV!’
‘Well ... you look a lot better.’
‘Yeah, it looks great,’ said Lauren. ‘But you really should get your hair professionally cut.’
Backhanded compliments, but I was willing to take what I could get. Better than what I would get from Vinita, which would be all backhand, no compliment. I turned to her anyway. ‘What do you think? Why not let Amber work on you?’
Vinita recoiled at the suggestion. ‘You know we’re expected to look like proper girls.’
‘Dorky,’ said Amber in a low voice.
‘What’s wrong with looking proper?’
Amber sniggered. ‘Yeah, guys really go for the proper look.’
‘Maybe guys in India do,’ said Lauren. ‘We don’t know, so we can’t judge.’ Having put Amber in her place, she turned to me. ‘Now you need some make up.’
‘No, no, no,’ I said. ‘Papa doesn’t let us wear make up.’
‘I bet even the Pope lets his daughters wear a little lipstick,’ said Amber.
Lauren sighed. ‘The Pope doesn’t have any daughters.’
‘Well, if he did.’ Amber looked at the door as if a demon lurked on the other side. ‘Must be like living with Hitler.’ I had never thought of it that way. I doubted Papa would have made a good dictator. It was too easy to laugh at him. On the other hand, his heart would have been in it.
‘Have you considered moving out and living your own life?’ asked Lauren.
‘Single women can’t live alone in Ahmedabad,’ explained Vinita. ‘They’re suspected of being promiscuous.’
‘Promiscuous!’ said Amber. ‘For having your own apartment? This place is so medieval.’
‘Hardly medieval,’ corrected Vinita, always a stickler for historical accuracy. ‘In fact, it hasn’t been all that long since societies in the west thought that way. A hundred years or so.’
‘So if I come back in, like, a hundred years, India will be cool?’
I was well aware of the rosy forecasts for India’s future, but I wasn’t sure if the prognosticators’ idea of cool would be Amber’s. Or mine. ‘We might have to wait to find out.’
‘Let’s hope for reliable water, at the least,’ said Lauren.
I would drink to that, but at the moment it would have to be something bottled. At any rate, I had more important things on my mind. I felt like a new woman – if not an emancipated one – so I went upstairs with the others to see what reaction I would get from the rest of the family. Hopefully along the lines of, ‘Nisha! You look so pretty! We would never have recognised you.’
Papa saw the new me first, and he definitely misread his lines. ‘What you did to your hair?’
I shrank back, newfound confidence nipped in the bud.
‘I styled it for her,’ said Amber. ‘Do you like it?’
‘She is looking like the loose woman.’
‘Better than looking like a nun.’
Papa started to puff up, but Naani intervened. ‘I think Nisha looks nice. Anyway, no time now to change hair.’
Ma further distracted Papa by asking him to give his verdict on the snacks she had prepared.
‘Don’t feel bad,’ Lauren whispered to me. ‘Your hair really is very pretty now.’
‘Really. You could attract some nice-looking men.’
I felt myself beaming.
‘You should try it out on Jay. See what reaction you get.’
Nice hair. The better to drag you with. Then I realised there was an unplanned downside to my newfound glamour. Along with the new look came considerable loss of suitor repellent. The charm of the game lay in giving the suitors serious reservations about me, then rejecting them. Not unlike having them apply for a lowly street-sweeper job, then turning them down. If my rejections hurt, I could hardly imagine the effect Vinita’s snubs had on her victims. Now she would have to take up the slack for me.
Damini and the cousins assembled at the dining table, while the rest of us took up positions in the living room, leaving the best settee and chairs for the guests. The clock showed we had five minutes to wait before the boys arrived, assuming they would be on time. The ugliest ones always were. I felt a little depressed, in spite of my new hairstyle.
From outside came the sounds of voices quarrelling in Gujarati. At first we tried to ignore the disturbance, but it was more interesting than our own conversation, so we got up and went to the window. We were soon joined by our guests.
A rough-looking rickshaw was parked in front of our house. Four people stood near it, arguing with the driver over the fare. The driver, a man with Chinese-like Assamese features, had a relatively weak voice, and so was at a disadvantage.
‘They has come,’ announced Papa, rather grandly, as if we were viewing a limousine disgorging foreign dignitaries.
With the exception of Damini, who was expert at ignoring conflict, we went out into the yard. Most of the noise was being made by a heavyset, middle-aged woman – apparently Mrs. Kansara – as she berated the driver of the rickshaw. Two young men chimed in from time to time, while an older man remained silent. The shouting match was drawing a crowd, including Gita.
Mrs. Kansara’s voice became even shriller as she shifted from arguing about the fare to questioning the paternity of the driver.
‘What’s she saying?’ asked Amber, sounding eager.
‘She’s calling him a lying, cheating bastard. She says his mother must have been a one-eyed whore who...’ My voice rebelled, for Mrs. Kansara had gone into territory no nice girl would recognise. ‘Anyway, she’s upset.’
‘I guess,’ said Amber. ‘What a mother-in-law she’d make.’
My stomach twisted at the thought.
Mrs. Kansara broke off and looked around at the neighbours who had gathered. For a moment I thought she might turn her guns on them, but she saw Papa and addressed him in English. ‘Rasikbhai, look at this driver. He says fifty rupees. Fifty rupees! When I knows this distance is no more than forty!’
‘Thief!’ barked Papa, waving a clenched fist.
Amber whispered to me. ‘They’re arguing over ten rupees? That isn’t very much money.’
‘A little over twenty cents American. But people will argue over ten paise, which is, I think, less than nothing American.’
‘Two paise, if Papa is involved,’ added Vinita.
The driver produced his metre card and held it aloft, showing those assembled that the fare he was charging corresponded to the points on his metre. ‘Look! Metre is not lying. Almost fifty-one. I charges less!’
‘Crook!’ shouted Papa. ‘Everyone is knowing metre is fixed.’
‘The metre is incorrect!’ screeched Mrs. Kansara. ‘These drivers, they does something to the metre to make it runs faster.’
‘They are all being cheats,’ said Papa. ‘All out to fool you. Don’t be paying him a rupee more than forty.’
Backed up by a second opinion, Mrs. Kansara thrust two twenties into the driver’s hand, snapped her purse shut and walked away. Unfortunately, into our yard and toward the house. The driver shook a fist at the Kansaras, then drove away.
We escorted the suitor family inside, while Damini and the girls left us to our misery by heading for the backyard. The combatants filed into the living room, where Papa beamed at the visitors and Ma put on the smile she saved for suitor meetings.
‘Good you didn’t give in,’ said Papa to Mrs. Kansara.
Mrs. Kansara looked pleased with herself. ‘I knows how to deals with these peoples.’
Papa was all approval. ‘Yes, we can’t lets them to get away with it. These low class people will be cutting our throats if we lets them.’ He moved on to the introductions, where I learned we were dealing with Freni Kansara, her husband Anil and, of course, Pintu and Bunty.
Various murmured greetings followed. The guests seated themselves and partook of the snacks Ma offered. I noticed both the suitors studying me. Or parts of me. Pintu appeared to have focused on my chest, and Bunty was fascinated by my feet for some reason. Vinita went unmolested.
I gave them a more general appraisal. Bunty was short and soft-looking, with thick glasses and a receding hairline. Pintu was tall, very lean, and although he wore no glasses and had plenty of hair, he had a bad case of acne to make up for it. I decided a girl could flip a coin and lose either way.
Preliminaries over, Freni and Papa got down to business.
‘What we are looking for,’ said Freni, ‘is two good girls. None of these fancy modern misses, all lipstick and high heels. Two homely girls who loves cooking and looking after the house.’
‘My girls is very homely,’ Papa assured her.
I was glad Lauren wasn’t within earshot. She would no doubt have condemned Papa, not understanding that homely meant domestic in Indian English.
‘Both my girls are very good cooks,’ said Ma. The truth was that Ma had long since been forced to see me as a disaster in the kitchen, and Vinita as something worse. That would hardly impress, and Ma believed that if a lie was to be told, it should be a big one, one that would yield maximum benefit.
‘They love cooking,’ she continued, indicating the snacks and implying that Vinita and I were responsible. It would have been blind luck had we so much as arranged them artfully on the tray.
I waited to see if Freni would match that with a claim that Bunty was a captain of industry and Pintu a budding Bill Gates, but she just nodded. ‘We wants girls who can adjusts to life in a joint family. None of this recent bakwaas about the wives forcing the husbands to moves out of the family home, abandoning the parents.’
‘My girls are very old-fashioned,’ Ma assured Freni.
Well, that much was true. We weren’t allowed to be anything else.
Papa spelled it out. ‘Both girls is making the good daughter-in-laws. Obedient and respectful to olders.’
‘Good,’ said Pintu. ‘I’m looking for the wife with the good Indian values, not the strong-headed type who gives no respect.’
‘It was so different in my days,’ said Freni. ‘Women was docile and submissive. No, Anil?’ Anil sat there, eyes glazed. ‘Anil!’
‘Ah! Yes, of course,’ said Anil.
‘They hardly opened their mouths in front of their in-laws, the girls. You read that article in yesterday’s paper? Daughter-in-laws is now ordering about their mother-in-laws. The young girls is now educated and has careers, so they don’t take orders. Can you believe it?’
‘My girls gives no orders,’ said Papa.
‘Homely, obedient. This is good. No, Bunty?’ No answer. At first I thought Bunty took after his mouse-like father, but then I saw he was still staring at my feet in that odd way. Lustful, perhaps? What was going on here? Then I remembered reading about men who fell in love with shoes. Or perhaps it was really the woman’s feet, with the shoes serving as something akin to skin-tight jeans. If so, Vinita was in luck. She had perfectly good feet.
‘Bunty!’ said Freni.
He looked up with a guilty start. ‘Ha?’
‘I was asking you a question,’ said Freni. ‘Isn’t it good that these girls are obedient, as well as homely?’
Bunty looked confused, as if an obedient wife was the last thing he wanted. I wasn’t sure what it was he wanted, but I suspected I could drive him wild by whispering my shoe size in his ear.
A moment of awkward silence was broken by Papa. ‘My girls is not only homely, but has talents. Vinita is very smart in mathematicals.’ There was no easy way to demonstrate this, so he shifted his attention to me. ‘And Nisha knows singing.’
The rest of the family grimaced, and with good reason. After I had failed at classical dance – I would have done as well with one leg – Ma had forced me to take singing lessons. That was an error she readily admitted. Only Papa thought I sounded good. Or even bearable. In a less tolerant society, the neighbours would have hung me.
Papa’s boast didn’t have the guests begging for a display of my vocal ability, but lack of consensus never stopped him.
‘Sing something, Nisha,’ he said.
It was not a request. Reluctantly I stood and began to sing a classical Hindi song. The Kansaras were clearly suffering even before the melody climbed into the high register. My voice soared like that of a myna bird being electrocuted. Just as I hit the highest note, I was cut off by the loud sound of glass breaking. I turned and saw a window pane had shattered.
I was impressed. I hadn’t realised my voice was that potent. Then I saw a fist-sized stone lying on the carpet amidst shards of glass. It wasn’t my voice that had broken the glass after all, although I could imagine it being the reason for the stone throwing.
One shard had struck Bunty, drawing blood and girl-like wails. Freni began fussing over him. I rushed out of the house to catch sight of the culprit, but all I could see was a familiar battered rickshaw driving out the gate.
I returned to the house, entering to a string of curses. This time it was Pintu who was X-rating the atmosphere with purple Gujarati. His mother had been a good teacher.
‘It was the rickshaw driver,’ I said, when Pintu paused for breath. ‘He must have hung around until it was safe for him to throw the stone.’
Freni turned to Papa. ‘I am sorry, but this must be the sign that a match between our families would be the disaster.’
‘The sign?’ echoed Papa. ‘Rickshaw-wallah attacks because you don’t pays ten rupees. Now I has to be paying more than hundred rupees for new window. Your family is the disaster.’
At this, Pintu started yelling. His mother joined him, while his father bawled for a doctor to be called. Papa shouted back, returning the abuse with interest. Bunty howled and thrashed around on the settee.
Ma cried out, ‘He’s bleeding on the settee! My cover will be stained! Get him off!’
Anil tried to coax Bunty off the settee as both sides raised the altercation to new levels.
Drawn by the ruckus, Amber appeared at the entrance to the room. The sight of her stunned Pintu into momentary silence, but there was still noise enough to go around.
‘Please, please,’ said Anil. ‘We can be parting friendly.’
Ma decked him with a hearty swing. Freni rejoined the battle, bulldozing Papa up against a wall. The portrait of Ganesh fell down, impaling itself on Freni’s head. Through it all, Bunty wailed like a two-year-old.
‘Harmony, people, harmony,’ said Damini, who had appeared at the entrance with Lauren, but that didn’t impress anyone.
‘All right, break it up!’ commanded Lauren in a drill sergeant’s voice. The scuffling stopped. Pintu, still combative, took one look at an angry Lauren and shrank away.
‘Out!’ said Naani who had returned by then, ‘Out of my house!’
‘Happy to be going,’ said Freni, removing the picture from her head. With one hand she lifted her fallen husband, and with the other dragged Bunty off the sofa. She herded her family out the door, turning for a parting shot. ‘I knows better garbage ladies.’
Then they were gone. Vinita and I went to the window to watch them leave the property, and were joined by Lauren and Amber.
‘You entertain your suitors in style, don’t you?’ said Lauren.
‘We try,’ I said. ‘We can’t always guarantee a brawl.’
Outside, Freni continued to raise a fuss. I could hear her telling all within earshot what manner of girls lived in our house – and that audience included Gita. Then Papa and Ma appeared in the front yard, shooing the Kansaras toward the society’s gate.
‘At least you know they won’t be back,’ said Amber.
‘Maybe no more suitors will be coming,’ said Naani.
‘To lose the reputation is very bad. Soon Gita will be telling whole Ahmedabad.’ I wondered if I could secretly change my name and leave my devastated reputation behind. Vinita looked as if she were contemplating axe murders, which would be another solution.
This extract is adapted for Out of Print from Vidya Samson’s novel Indian Maidens Bust Loose that is available on Kindle.
Vidya Samson grew up in Bahrain and returned to India to do her B A and M A in English Literature. A coming-of-age romantic comedy set in Bahrain and titled The Baby Game, a political thriller set in India, co-written with James A Thomas are both available on Kindle.and