So this was it? This had spawned a million love songs and romance novels? This clunky coming together was meant to make bells ring and angels sing in time with the awkward mashing of pelvic equipment? I could hear no angels or birds. From the street below our window rose the sounds of tooting auto-rickshaws and the pitter-patter of tourist feet, off to a pagoda or casino, the oblivion of their choice. And inside our room, there was no celestial music either. All that could be heard above my rising inner voice was the gritting of teeth (mine) and the revolting slap of flab (his) against firm flesh (mine). Not what I had signed up for at all!

Looking into the faux French mirror across the room I had been resolutely avoiding, my stomach lurched. I had been averting my gaze with good reason. At twenty-three, I didn’t have to worry about what I’d see of my body in the looking glass. My tiny frame was taut and mocha-brown. I wouldn’t make it to any centrefolds but there was nothing to embarrass me either. The problem was that I couldn’t look myself in the eye.

Nor did I dare look at him. I worried that if I caught sight of his body wobbling in the mirror, it would weaken my resolve to go through with this. But then a treacherous little voice whispered in my head, isn’t that what you really, really want? You don’t want to do this, you don’t want to be here at all! I squirmed unhappily. Though not much squirming was possible, pinned down as I was.

This was love, I told myself sternly, and while right now wasn’t pretty, we’d had our moments. With that, I resubmitted myself to his bucking and heaving and getting nowhere.

It was the fear of getting nowhere that had brought me to this room in Kathmandu, at the roof of the world, that lurid evening. Puce man, mocha woman, purple mountains and chintzy pink hotel room. Pretty colours that didn’t work in the mix. Where does it come from, not the colours, but this overwhelming fear women start entertaining at the age of twenty-something, that life is passing them by?

From that reliable source of good advice and intentions: society (aka Narrow-minded Tattlers and Nosey Parkers ‘R’ Us), of course! The clock is ticking, we’re told. Get on with it, we’re urged. If you haven’t snagged a man and bred a brood before you’re thirty, you’re a failure, they warn. And while the age at which you hit haghood may have changed, the pressure to marry and breed has not. You may be allowed a few more years before the shrill cries to couple dog your every step, but dog them they will. Ain’t it a bitch.

But because they start later, they feel a greater sense of urgency in hammering the message home, so you still get the same blackmail-derision-anxiety onslaught but in a stronger, concentrated form. Like gin, they slowly reduce the sweeter tonicky element as you get older. But gin is good for you (made of berries, right?), which nagging born of a parochial worldview could never be.

Truth is, the nagging was never about getting women on the baby train at the right time.

It’s about ensuring society controls women’s sexuality (knock ‘em up early and they won’t sleep around), careers (knock ‘em up early and they’ll never wrest power) and peace of mind (keep ‘em panicky and they’ll never focus on no.1). The world wants you tied up in knots, matrimonial and otherwise, before you can do any damage to the established order of things. So, you have to saddle yourself with a man, any man, regardless of whether he’s right for you. A man is a man is a whole man by himself. A woman is a pathetic part-person without her “better half”.

At twenty-three, I was doing exceptionally well at my chosen career of broadcast journalism, having achieved regional head status when many others my age were still fetching their seniors’ chai. But I was forever being reminded that I didn’t have a man in my life. “Tomar toh keu neyi, na?” asked a friend’s mom, dewy-eyed with concern. “Um” I said, ‘I have family and friends. Did you mean...”

“A man! I meant a man. You haven’t found one like Sona has.” But, but Sona answers the phone in a dingy front office and has nothing else to do, I was tempted to say. Still, Sona was a friend, though for how much longer I couldn’t say. But the Mother of all Nags (and Sona) wasn’t finished. “Ma ke bolo chhele khuje dite. From a good phamily and phaine shkool. Engineer hote hobe, topper hote hobe...”

I knew that list by heart anyway. With minor variations, it was the same for every Indian woman “of marriageable age”, which is anything less than thirty. The man doesn’t have to be young, of course. He doesn’t have to be kind or responsible. Or even bright. It doesn’t matter if he’s lost his hair or teeth and acquired a pot belly. All he has to do is bring home the paneer.

Paneer and not juicy, meaty, delightful bacon. And not even all of it, because the wife’s go a pull her weight too (and then some). Why is his earning potential all that matters when he’s unlikely to be the sole breadwinner? It may have been the most important quality at one time but not anymore.

And the woman, though often reluctant to reconcile herself to as little as society would like, really doesn’t expect the earth from her man. Women, you see, have something called sense. Of course, they want their men to possess qualities they consider important! Some of my friends desired kindness most of all. I was not so mature; I wanted a connection. I needed a guy who’d “get” me. Not too much to ask for, surely? But men. Sigh. Men want their women to be a long, long list of unlikely things that few mortal women are. And never all at once. Men are encouraged to make these outrageous demands. Because in India, if the woman falls short, her parents may be persuaded to cough up some dowry.

The usual demands then, in order of importance:

  1. Light skin: We take light and dark very literally, the Vedic sages that we are. And which good woman has ever had dark skin? Oh, only several million Indian women, but never mind, we will still demand the impossible and drive our women to chemically alter their skin.
  2. Long, straight hair: Hair should look like a jet waterfall. Just like Indian women have generally dusky skin, they also tend to have wavy hair – billows of beautiful, dark hair that’s rarely dead straight. Also, it must be kept long. It’s a vile rebellion to shear it off. Unfeminine. Un-Indian. You could just as well be throwing your vagina away. So I have. Not the vagina.
  3. Tall: The lady’s gotta be tall, though the average Indian man is 5’4. No matter. We will keep asking for unattainable things so we grind her self-esteem into the ground and maybe snag a dowry from her grateful parents, relieved we are taking their undesirable daughter off their hands.
  4. Beauty: All of the above are absolutely essential to beauty, naturally. Who ever heard of a small, short-haired, dark-skinned beauty? Now that’s an oxymoron. And a laugh. We are not content with the above though. We want a face of pearly symmetry. The slightest quirk might confer character on it, see, and we’ll have no truck with character. Also, not a single one of our beauties have that symmetry we keep pretending they have, not even Aishwarya with rounded face and the slight hook to her nose, but we will turn our noses up at our long-nosed, short- chinned, limpid-eyed beauties all the same or if they are fair-skinned, we will claim their faces harbour no imperfections. Confused? We are not. We never are. We are Indian and can’t be wrong.
  5. Domestication: Like dogs, this is essential in women. Women who don’t cook, sew or clean up after you are hardly women and cannot be considered for marriage (phew, right?).
  6. Uncomplaining, accommodating, obedient: No man should be questioned in his own home. Least of all by the Little Woman (little in terms of her mind. We know she has to be tall). She should hang on to his every word, follow every instruction and what’s the occasional slight or insult as long as she’s allowed to grace his home? Or his parents’ home, as the case often is.
  7. Exam topper, big earner: She should be all of that too. It’s absolutely necessary she study science at university but not that she have a rational bent of mind (god forbid). In fact, she should pay close attention to what god forbids and pray to him twice a day. That is, when she’s not throwing herself at her godlike husband’s feet. Actual intelligence is not important because (and in this I agree), she’d only show him up. And she doesn’t need it anyway to earn the big money that will keep her husband and his family in style.
  8. Tagore-ability: This applies only to the Bengali community but is an absolute must for them. If you don’t spout Tagore, or rant ad infinitum on how he’s best in the world at everything, just everything, then you don’t have a hope in hell of snagging your own Kobi Guru. Because that’s who your Bong bloke thinks he is, though he can’t write, is tone deaf, and hasn’t an ounce of T’s vision. He has a scraggly beard and that’s enough. And you? You better make sure you like wearing saris with red borders, flowers in your hair and out-simpering your man.

This list is much longer.

Just eight asks on a man’s list? How could you even think that was all? No, this is just a taster and that’s all I needed, because I’ve failed miserably. Fulfilling not even one of the above criteria (Oh, OK, I was a big earner for a while). So, no IIM/IIT-topping Ganesh-lookalike for me. I may be allowed to dredge for the dregs, of course (but are they the dregs? Are they? Or does Indian society have a cockeyed way of valuing people; women as well as men?).

But if I refused to settle for the little I was told I could expect, who should I hold out for? Who, after all, is Mr Right? Is he that dashing, handsome and chivalrous dude from books and songs and films? Even Mr Darcy was flawed. So, if I was ready to find someone, I was ready to compromise a wee bit too. My body told me to. And when it wasn’t, the meddling mausis did. But there are compromises and then there are compromises. I still wanted something outside the box. Whoever heard me obviously thought I meant too big for a box. So I got Duncan.

He was Kiwi. Flightless, as it turned out, like the bird.

Excerpted with permission from Memoirs Of My Body, Shreya Sen-Handley, HarperCollins India.