Binnoo was dressing up elaborately. Why?

Because Lallan mamaji had found a likely match for her – a good-looking, capable, educated and cultured boy from a decent family of Gaudh Brahmin stock. Armed with these celestial virtues, the boy was coming over to take a look at Binnoo – which was why she was dressing up.

Occasions for this elaborate toilette came her way five or six times a year. It had been so for the past few years. The boy in question was always a capable, well-born, cultured catch, and Binnoo did the honours for his reception every time.

She would be ready as the good-looking, cultured, capable boy showed up with his parents, uncles, nephews, chums, hangers-on, or any company with the spare time to join him on a pleasure trip. They would examine Binnoo minutely, as if she were a pot they just might buy, before vanishing from view.

Yet, a renewed hope accompanied the preparations each time, as the broken-down chairs of the sitting room made way for a sofa borrowed from the neighbours. A pink sari was unpacked. In the family’s joint opinion, Binnoo looked pretty in this sari, paired with its matching blouse of puffed sleeves and a mirror-work neckline.

On such a day she was permitted, even instructed, to “do some cream–powder”, considered a crime under more routine circumstances, and which could earn Amma’s rebuke: “Keep clear of fashion, Binnoo. Mind you, don’t disgrace us with the caste fraternity.” It was commonly held that cosmetics ruin the skin, besides bringing dishonour to the family, just as a girl with an eye-catching hairdo was bound to be a shameless flirt.

It was another matter that despite these adversities Binnoo always did manage a pretty-ish arrangement for her braid, and to get some touches of make-up on her face. Far from ruined by these attentions, her skin was glowing marvellously, and the sight of it strengthened Rammu’s hope and resolve to make a grab for her at the first chance he got, by night or day. This Rammu, who grew ever more committed to carrying out his programme, was the son and heir of the Bania Gurcharan, their neighbour.

Binnoo rehearsed (hummed) a bhajan as she dressed. Mamaji invariably asked her to sing a bhajan for the boy’s party. They would learn that the girl was much given to singing, especially devotional and religious songs, and that god had blessed her with a sweet throat.

Binnoo was a competent enough singer. She could get within striking distance of the tune and never went entirely flat. Her own tastes ran to film songs, and these tastes were indulged in her moments of solitude, especially when she was alone on the terrace. From his terrace, Rammu would listen to her.

The lyrics, packed tight with allusions to the dark night and faithless lover, parting, estrangement and reunion, the bed, the pillow, arms, bangles, sultry nights, inner courtyards and pulsating youth, left him all the more committed to his one-point agenda of making a grab for Binnoo some day.

The drift of the bhajan-like song on her lips at this moment went somewhat like this: Preserve my honour, O Lifter of the Mountain; this grieving woman leans into your keeping. The lines poignantly conveyed the wish that the Lifter of the Mountain, shortly to arrive lurching up in a tonga towards this grieving woman, would be overcome by the combined force of the borrowed sofa, the pink sari (and its matching blouse with the puffed sleeves), the siren call of her song, and that the cocktail of these attractions might prove sufficiently heady to make him choose Binnoo for his bride.

While we are on the subject, it may strike some naïve soul to wonder if Binnoo did not mind this routine of prinking herself for repeated viewing. The concerned onlooker may expect that even if she was not angry, she might have lost heart by now, succumbed to deep depression. But such was not the case.

To Binnoo, these proceedings were inseparable from the fact and destiny of being born a girl. Since childhood, she had seen girls of her family, neighbourhood and acquaintance go through this rite of passage. Truth be told, the dreams that leavened her transition from girl to young woman were rich in such scenes, which Binnoo rewound and played in her head over and over.

There was one where she, demurely holding a tray, served tea to the entire assembled khabbu team of the boy’s people; then one in which a tonga stopped in the lane and from it alighted the prince of her dreams, on lotus feet, minding his lotuses as he stepped over the drain at the entrance to the house. In another, her prince, now seated in the refurbished drawing room, accepted a cup of tea from Binnoo, surreptitiously touching her fingers.

In one scene, Amma, demented with joy, burst into the inner courtyard, the aangan, shouting out the news that our Binnoo had pleased the boy’s people and they had accepted her. It may be worth adding that Binnoo’s dreams had for the most part been realised. The boys who paid these state visits ensured that virtually every scenario of the fantasy came to life. Only the final link – involving Amma’s demented sprint – remained to be secured.

Binnoo continued to dream without tiring of it. That another boy was coming to look at her today was a point of some reassurance. She knew no small number of Binnoos in other homes, whom the boys no longer came to see, or whose exhausted parents had called off the search for a groom and settled for cursing fate and their girl instead. Amma never taunted Binnoo. And if hope glowed yet in Binnoo’s and Amma’s hearts, its flame was stoked vigilantly by Lallan mama.

Binnoo felt a deep gratitude for Lallan mama. He was a retired employee of Indian Railways, and matchmaking for the boys and girls of the caste fraternity remained his sole mission in life. Within the family, every match was of his fixing, or so he liked to boast. Indian Railways had served him unstintingly in this project. With a clear sense of his standing as a former employee of the giant public sector outfit, he was eternally catching trains and disembarking without spending on tickets.

The railway might have been his dad’s property; nothing in his behaviour suggested otherwise. Up or down, all the trains were his to ride. He simply took the first “up” leaving and returned on any ‘down’ available. If he wasn’t back, you could be sure he had found a comfortable railway retiring room for the night.

With him went a tin trunk that held a true almanac, a book of magical spells, certain weathered tomes of rites and rituals, the latest number of Manohar Kahaniyan, an issue of Jasoosi Duniya and, aside from the Asli Kokshastra and certain other salty titles, an absolute trove of horoscopes of eligible youngsters from the caste fraternity; also a fat and sectioned diary with detailed accounts of the marriageable, the addresses of such parties, their situation in life, demands and expectations, and so on.

The trunk was opened at the slightest pretext and any ten-minute conversation on a railway platform or train could end with a fellow traveller’s name and address noted in the diary, followed by the promise of a visit some day from Lallan mama. Thanks to Indian Railways, Mama kept his word too.

Every ten days or so, he touched down at Alipura, each time with news of a possible match for Binnoo. Once he’d got the niece hitched up, it would be the turn of his four unmarried nephews. He was determined to do well by them all. Lallan mamaji was alive to his responsibilities towards his widowed sister and committed to meeting them.

The load on Amma would lighten once Binnoo was off her hands; to this end, Lallan – whom Amma called Bhaiyyan, or little brother – did not spare himself or Indian Railways. He flogged its trains mercilessly across the terrain of Bundelkhand, matching horoscopes at one place, beating down dowry demands at another, waving the standard of his deceased brother-in-law’s glorious issue wherever he went – but a “setting” to plant the flag has eluded him so far.

There are two problems. One, that Binnoo’s complexion is “somewhat subdued”. Well, neutral voices flatly maintain the girl is dark. The other snag is a question: What sort of dowry can four fatherless boys arrange for their sister? This is where the talks with potential bridegrooms and their families start turning sticky.

For all that, Binnoo is dressing up once more. Humming her tune and billowed by dreams and hopes, she gets ready. Attentive to the latest command of fashion, she teases out a carefully careless fringe across her forehead – a tasselled arrangement, like keys on a ring – smears a generous quantity of cheap cream over her face, wears the gold earrings and chain given by Amma, and is stuffing the pleats of the pink sari into her waist when the chain on the door rattles.

Excerpted with permission from Alipura, Gyan Chaturvedi, translated from the Hindi by Salim Yusufji, Juggernaut Books.