“Don’t worry, I am in no hurry to get married. And think about it, if I move out, you will be left alone with Pappa. Do you want that?”
Her mother made an expression of mock anger. Her father was out of earshot, back in front of the television.
“Is this because of that wedding card? I had rather remain single than marry a monkey.”
“That monkey is a chartered accountant. That monkey just bought a two-bedroom flat in Vile Parle.”
“And he is off the market.” A sly smile. “So what do you want me to do?”
Her mother hesitated. “If you have a friend, you can tell us.”
“I have many friends. Orso, Vasudha, Anjali, Aman. You know them.”
“You know what I mean. And if you don’t have one – uh, a friend – why don’t you look among the people you work with? If he’s a journalist, he will understand your odd working hours, the outstation trips. It will be hard for a normal boy to adjust to your job.”
“You want me to find someone abnormal?”
Her mother looked exasperated. She did not enjoy this jousting.
“Okay, let me find someone I work with.” Ira paused, as if to think. “Will a BMC contractor do? Most are in their forties or fifties, but they make a lot of money. All black money, but so what? Or how about a chapraasi? I count many BMC peons among my sources. That way, I’ll also get every scoop in the municipality – reserved exclusively for Ira Kamat, daughter-in-law of the BMC. Wow, what a great idea!”
Her mother tried to purse her lips in disapproval, but her mouth cracked into a smile. “My life has become a comedy show. We might as well disconnect the cable and save some money, no?” She looked towards the living room, where Ira’s father was switching channels, jumping from one cloying advertisement to another at a too-loud volume.
“And live like Pappa’s only ally, Professor Rajwade?”
“Can you imagine that – going back to only watching Doordarshan on TV? No way! But promise you’ll tell us,” her mother pleaded, “if you have a friend.”
Ira’s mother was not aware of the friend she had recently parted ways with, or the ones before. Her mother had been right about her odd working hours; the outstation trips, however, had been spent not at work but in the company of these friends. Her parents would have liked Vinay, the boyfriend she had broken up with three months ago. He was the perfect match. On paper, that is.
A year older than Ira, he worked at a foreign bank and his family owned a flat in Mahim.
Most importantly, he was, like her, fair-skinned, Konkani-speaking and of the same caste.
Goud Saraswat brahmins, GSB to themselves, were brahmins who had originally settled on the banks of the river Saraswati in north India. Upon its mythical disappearance, they had moved eastwards to Bengal and then south to Goa before slowly fanning out along the western coast of India, the Konkan coast.
Behind them was a long history of migration and escape, from persecutions of nature and man: famine, drought, forced conversion. Once high priests, they now ran Udupi restaurants, managed banks, set up schools and colleges, became worker bees in the service economy. They bowed, among countless other deities, to the god of commerce.
They were the insular sort when it came to marriage, as many communities tended to be, but with time, like loosening a belt through a big meal inch by inch, the emphasis on Goud Saraswat brahmin matches had been relaxed, first shedding the goud, then dropping the saraswat, and for those who called themselves broad-minded, even the brahmin became optional, any upper-caste Hindu match was suitable. These radical changes aside – and perhaps because of them – a conventional GSB match was a prize catch.
She and Vinay had dated for a year, but she had mentioned him to her parents only once, and had to watch the tight coil of tribalism spring to life.
“Vinay Prabhu? That’s a GSB surname. Did he say what his native place was?”
“I think he said Kumta.”
At the mention of her hometown, her mother’s eyes began to shine.
“There was a Prabhu in Kumta who owned a chemist shop. Is your friend related to Srinivas Prabhu? No, wait – all his sons are settled abroad.”
“My neighbour’s wife in Hubli used to be a Prabhu from Kumta, married to a Shenoy,’ her father chipped in. ‘Her family had a hardware shop opposite the church.’
“That must have been Shashgir Prabhu”s oldest. But he only had daughters, so no, cannot be him.” Her mother tapped her forehead, a ritual of recollection. “There was also a Suresh Prabhu who lived behind the post office. I’m sure one of his sons moved to Mumbai after college. When did he say his family came to Mumbai?”
“He didn’t say – because no one from our generation talks about all this nonsense!”
A half-lie. There were other forms of tribalism, other signs of allegiance they searched for. For example, the brand of your jeans, the fabric of your clothes, the party you voted for, how you pronounced tomato, whether you said Bombay or Mumbai.
“You can ask him next time.”
“He is Vasudha’s colleague, I just met him once. How will I see him again?”
Ira was more indignant than she needed to be. She was going to have coffee with him the next day. Ira had met Vinay at her friend’s birthday party, and asked him a harmless question about how he liked working at a foreign bank. He had launched into a confession: he had been trying to immigrate to America till the previous year, but had finally given up and taken a job at an American bank.
The work culture was better than that at the Indian ones but he did not believe it was as good as the real thing. Just like the censored American television shows on Star TV, watered down. That is why he went to Lamington Road every month to pick up CDs of the originals, even the ones not on Indian channels yet. He had watched every TV serial of note, he said with pride. His friends even called him Christopher Columbus, he told her, for bringing America to the shores of their lives.
“My mother thinks I was born in the wrong country,” he said. “I tell her it was the right country, just a few years early. At least the economy is now open. Think of our poor parents – they wasted their youth in a rotten system with none of the comforts we are already beginning to take for granted.”
It was then that she noticed he was dressed in brands from top to bottom, a lemon-yellow polo t-shirt with a tell-tale crocodile, tucked into blue Lee jeans, black-swooshed sneakers, and peeping from his pocket, black-and-gold Ray-Bans. His hair was combed neatly to one side, he was clean-shaven and had bright, white teeth.
Vinay wore an earnest, good-boy look which, to her surprise, she found herself drawn to. They chatted for an hour and made plans to meet again. Ira found an undemanding comfort in the conversation. That palliative was exactly what she needed at the end of a stressful period at work: for three months, she had worked with a corporator from the opposition party to expose a multi-crore scam in the buildings and factories department of the BMC, an exhausting investigation for which she had received a bit of acclaim in the journalistic community.
The coffee was followed by more coffee dates, then dinners, and more. His company continued to be undemanding and comfortable. There were times when she found him trite, or felt that he was contradicting himself but, for the most part, she was happy. It was in their time together that she began to realise that she was ready to marry. Perhaps what had drawn her to him was a particular idea of a husband.
With him, she could slip into speaking Konkani at a moment’s notice. He was caring and patient, an attentive listener. Vinay had no political views beyond believing that Power Corrupts and that every politician was a scoundrel guzzling the taxpayer’s money, so hearing about her work, her investigations into corruption pleased him greatly. They confirmed his world view and he lapped them up, little nuggets to be repeated: trust me, this is how bad it truly is.
Each time his eyes brimmed with excitement when she told him about her work, she could see the appeal of spending a lifetime with him. Her friends liked him when they met him in large groups. Ira suspected that they too had adjusted their expectations of her romantic prospects.
A shadow on the relationship was that Vinay was an eager but lousy lover. When they kissed, he sipped at her like a kitten. He insisted on going down on her – she imagined he prided himself on participating in what he saw as a bold, Western act – but in this department, much like Columbus, he had trouble telling apart India from America. She did not think this was a deal-breaker.
Ira met his parents for the first time at a restaurant near his house. His mother said that inviting her home was out of the question because his grandparents lived with them.
“Vinu’s grandparents don’t understand this love-marriage business, they are quite old-fashioned,” she explained, “but you can come home after we meet your parents to make things official.”
Ira learnt that Vinay’s father did not speak much, and that his mother’s preferred conversation topics did not go far beyond her family, but she tried to talk to Ira about her job as a senior reporter.
“It is important for a woman to keep her brain sharp,” his mother said with an air of benevolence. “I devoted myself to the family all my life and it’s only now that I am dabbling in the stock market. I know I don’t have to worry about my children anymore, Vinu’s sister is married, and he has found someone to look after him.” Vinay and his father laughed. “Let”s order? We could get butter chicken and one vegetarian dish. I love their baingan bharta – we must get that.”
“Aunty, do you mind if I order the bhindi fry? I don’t like brinjal.”
“You’ll like this dish, trust me.”
“I have never liked brinjal, sorry.” Ira made a helpless face.
“Oh, I see.” She appeared concerned. “Three dishes might be
too much for four people, no? Do you not like brinjal at all, Ira?”
“Brinjal, eggplant, aubergine. One vegetable, so many names,” said Vinay’s father. It was the first sentence he had spoken.
Might it be a coded plea to his wife, Ira wondered.
“Never mind, Aunty. I’ll have the chicken. There’s no need
to order bhindi.”
“No, no, if you like bhindi, we”ll get the bhindi fry. I just
hope it’s not oily. Vinay has a slight acidity problem—has he not told you?”
“Really, the chicken curry is enough.”
When the food arrived, his mother insisted that Ira try the baingan bharta, but Ira did not like brinjal at all, so she politely refused.
The next day, Vinay told her that his mother had been peeved at Ira’
s refusal to even taste the dish. She had read into it a too-strong will, an aversion to any compromise.
“Why did you have to be so stubborn, Ira?” He sounded exasperated.
A few days later, he appeared even more worried. His parents were not convinced she was a good fit for their family, so they were planning a trip to their family temple in Goa, where they would pose this question to the deity. They would place flowers on both arms of the idol, he explained, and the one which fell first would indicate the god”s preference; it was like a divine coin toss.
“Don’t worry, I will meet them again,” she said to comfort him. “I am sure they will change their mind.”
“Why didn’t you just eat the fucking brinjal when you had a chance?” he cried, losing his temper at her for the first time. The night, after Vinay’s parents left for Goa, Ira could not sleep. She pictured the temple, its carved wooden pillars, the idol dressed in silk and gold, a single flower on each arm, a priest chanting, his parents with their hands folded and heads bowed, their hearts exploding with a single question: should their son marry the girl too pig-headed to eat brinjal even
when asked repeatedly?
In that moment, she hoped and wished and prayed for the right flower to fall off, the one that said no, the one that screamed no. Abso-fucking-lutely NO.
The next morning, she broke up with Vinay, telling him she did not want to be a source of strife in his family. He put up no resistance. She suspected the deity had already delivered its verdict.
Excerpted with permission from Milk Teeth, Amrita Mahale, Context.