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The Perfect Match
I knew who I was going to marry when I was ten years old. My mother told me Papa had arranged the matter with his old school chum who had a son a few years older than me. Aneil Singh was seven years older in fact. The best part was that he was a Canadian citizen. When I was old enough, we would get married and I would move to Canada and have a better life. What more could a mother and daughter ask for? We would be the perfect match.
I was only ten. Marriage was such a distant event. I told my mother, "If you are happy, Mama, then I am happy." I remember thinking, if I am going to move to Canada, I should pay more attention in our English class. So that was what I did. My teacher, Mrs. Graywal recommended I read to improve my vocabulary and watch English television shows.
By the time I was just becoming a teenager, I was well ahead of my peers in terms of my grasp of the English language. Marriage was still far from my mind, but finding love was not. I already knew who I would wed so I imagined how we would meet, what we would say, and what we would do. By the time I was thirteen, I was already reading classic romances written by Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, and of course, Shakespeare. I was so pathetic, I even wrote letters to Aneil, although I never mailed them, and imagined the loving and witty letters he would write back.
The summer before I turned fourteen, my entire village was in an uproar. You see, my father had plenty of people trying to gain my hand in marriage with their sons, their nephews, their whatever. I do not flatter myself that I am some great beauty or an Indian Helen of Troy. Although my eyes were an unusual colour of grey so some must have liked the oddity compared to the standard brown-eyed Indian girl. The offers were made because we were rich and people wanted that money. So that summer my father told everyone how his school chum, Avtar Singh was coming to finalize the marriage agreement. It also meant that my father was going to throw a huge party and the entire village would attend.
Weeks and weeks of preparations culminated to a week we, both families and the entire village, would never forget. Those weeks of preparation whizzed by in anticipation, a flurry of shopping—I loved the gorgeous outfits that were made for me—and chaos in general. The week the Singh family resided with us was an agonizing whirl of emotions—confusion, shock, anger, and mortification.
When I first saw Aneil, he was downstairs with our parents having tea. I was upstairs, peeking from the gallery. I was relieved when I saw him because my friends had put all kinds of doubts in my head. He must be ugly, they said, Or else he would be marrying in Canada. And if he is not ugly, something else will be wrong. He will be a drunk, or a mamma's boy, or old-fashioned, or have some kind of character defect that led his family to resort to an Indian bride.
Mama told me they were just jealous and I should not heed their crazy ideas, except it did not seem crazy to me, it seemed… logical. Why wasn't he getting married in Canada? So while I was relieved he was not ugly, I remained anxious. The anxiety was not solely based on wondering what his character defect was, it was also wondering what he would think of me.
He was seven years older, an insurmountable age gap, it seemed to me. I would soon be fourteen, but he was already twenty-one years old. He had a lanky build, but his shoulders were broad—the body of a male on the verge of manhood. His hair was cut in a fashion that must have been popular in Canada, for in India it screamed foreigner. So did his clothing, scruffy jeans and a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, neither had been ironed.
I, on the other hand, was dressed in a traditional Indian suit, consisting of a heavily embroidered kameeze and salwaar. Mama insisted I wear pink since it was the closest colour to red, which traditionally is the colour of an Indian bride's lenga. A lenga consisted of a top and long skirt and was usually completely decked out with embroidery and crystal stones so that in sunlight, an Indian bride could give Edward Cullen a run for his money.
Despite the elegance of my clothes, underneath was the body of an insecure preteen. I considered stuffing my training bra because it was not as if the bra actually had something else to hold, but decided against it because surely my parents would kill me. After they finished their tea, of course.
When I entered the room with my grandmother, I saw the approving once-over looks from Aneil's parents, but from Aneil, there was only a cursory glance and brief, polite greeting. This was when confusion settled in. When he and his family retired to their quarters to rest before dinner, I slipped into my grandmother's room.
"Dadi-ma, did you notice anything odd right now?" I asked in Punjabi.
"Odd? Don't be silly, child. You must remember Aneil if Canadian. Children from the West are soft. He was probably too tired to react properly," she assured me. "He'll behave properly after rest."
I left my grandmother far from assured, for she had confirmed that Aneil's reaction was not as it should be. By nightfall, my stomach was sinking with dread. There was no doubt that something was wrong. Muted arguing could be heard coming from the Singh family's quarters and Aneil did not show for dinner. His parents did, but their expressions were strained and they did not meet my eyes. After a mostly sleepless night, my mother came into my room and confirmed the worst.
I had heard most of it throughout the night while Aneil argued with his parents. Apparently Aneil never knew about the marriage that his parents had arranged for him. Upon finding out, he had vehemently refused to an arranged marriage. He would especially not marry me, whom he referred to as a child. Besides, he already had a girlfriend in Canada and he did not care that she was not Indian. If his parents did not accept his girlfriend, then they would lose a son, he had threatened. There were no words to describe the tension in the house the following morning.
I slipped out to escape the tension, to escape my mother and grandmother's coddling, and the contrite looks of Aneil's parents. As I walked through the village, the familiar faces of the villagers had unfamiliar expressions on them. Pity. They pitied me as one would pity a jilted bride because that was what I had become in their eyes. A brave few patted me on the back and cursed the useless, Canadian son of good Indian parents. Some just cursed him period. The need to escape my house had expanded to the need to escape the village.
I left the village and headed towards fields. I was not supposed to go to the fields by myself. Depending on where the farmers were working, stretches of the field were isolated. As a young girl of rich parents, there was always a distant threat of rape or kidnapping, but today, I needed to cry in isolation, so I went where I was not to go. I suppose I still sought some protection from ill will because I found myself at the Rakhri tree, which roughly translated meant protection.
According to legend and superstition, a few centuries ago, a young woman and her family had been traveling when attacked by footpads. The girl's family had been killed and although she had been seriously injured, she escaped. The footpads pursued her. Unable to go further the girl collapsed in the middle of a field and prayed to God for a miracle to save her from the footpads whom she suspected wanted to use her body in the basest of ways. Her prayers were answered. Her soul was freed from her body and her body disappeared into the earth in front of the footpads' astonished eyes.
Where her body disappeared, a sprout appeared. In the following centuries, a mighty tree grew and remained. Whenever someone attempted to cut down the tree, their machinery broke down before a single cut could mar the tree. People realized the tree was no ordinary tree and either begged for forgiveness or suffered a fate that ensured they would be unfit for another attempt. On top of that, it was believed that the Rahkri tree would help other women in need. So the village women went to the tree for their problems ranging from infertility, passing exams, abusive spouses, or getting a visa to a foreign nation. A single blossom from the tree meant their prayers were answered, Men stayed away from the tree fearing retribution since the footpads were of their gender.
The sight and smell of the tree, which was a kachnar (orchid) tree in full bloom, drew me in and under the tree I sobbed openly as I could not—would not—do at home. Afterward, I felt worn out. Occasionally my eyes filled and overflowed with tears, leaving warm salty tracks down my cheeks, but the violent sobbing that left one breathless, hiccupping and their head aching from the torrents of tears letting loose was over. I was left wondering what would be now that the future that had been designed for me lay shattered on the ground, sharp jagged pieces that drew blood whenever I thought about it.
I saw him before he saw me. Aneil walked along the path that intersected with the one that led to the tree. His head down, hands in his pockets, and a grim expression on his face. I stilled and made not a sound, hoping that he would walk past and not notice me. The fates decreed otherwise for as he passed, he glanced at the tree. I knew when he saw me, sitting by the trunk of the tree, hugging my drawn knees because he flinched. His steps faltered as if he was unsure whether he should stop or keep on walking. I wished he would keep on walking, but clearly there was no point in me wishing for anything since the opposite came true.
Aneil turned onto the path and stopped when he was under the shade of the tree yet still a few feet away from me. There was no way that he could not see the fact I had been crying. He looked frustrated and ran a hand through his hair. He stood there a few moments looking up into the branches of the tree. I was not sure if he was looking for answers or hoping I would breach the silence first. Since I did not oblige, perhaps he found the answers in the tree because his dark eyes met mine.
"This is not about you personally," he declared, his voice gentle, but firm.
I considered my words carefully and replied, "It feels personal to me."
"Look, I'm sure you are a great girl, but you're thirteen. Where I come from, I'd be branded as a pedophile and locked in prison," he stressed.
I stared at him steadily. I wasn't sure what a pedophile was, but it must have had -something to do with our ages. "We would not be married now. I would be older."
Frustration briefly flashed in his eyes. Did he think I was going to make this easier on him? "I have a girlfriend. I am in love with someone else."
I wiped the remaining wetness off my face. "See now that is another matter entirely."
I guess he thought I was crying again because he made a frustrated, grunting noise. "Do not try telling me that you are in love with me. We met for the first time yesterday!"
He was starting to annoy me. "I have known about the arranged marriage since I was ten."
I accomplished my mission. He opened his mouth to say something only to shut it again a couple of times. Finally, he managed to strangle out, "Was I the only one who didn't know about it?"
"I do not believe your gauri knows about it yet," I replied back innocently. Gauri was Punjabi for white girl.
He straightened. "So what, you've been in love with me for three years?"
I was not in love with him. I really was not. I was in love with the imaginary Aneil in my head, not this man. But the truth was pathetically close to what he had said and reminded me that other people would think I had been in love with him. I had become, through his rejection, an object of pity. I might have been just some young girl from some village in India, but in Kanech, I was someone. I could be haughty enough to put Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice to shame.
So I gathered my tattered pride around myself like it was the finest cloak and stood. With my spine erect and chin proudly thrust upward, I managed to look down at him although I was a foot and a half shorter than him. "Do not be ridiculous. I was never in love with you. I was in love with the idea of going to Canada. You were one option of getting there, but I have other options."
One side of his mouth quirked into a half smile as if he knew what I was doing and why. "So you'll go to the next name on the list of guys you can marry to get to Canada?"
This time I looked into the branches of the tree as if looking for an answer. "No," I heard myself say, "I'll get to Canada and become rich and successful on my own. Then I'll marry for love." The wind blew and the tree branches swayed. I was staring at Aneil, challenging him with my eyes to say something discouraging and because of that, I did not notice the orchid blossom fluttering toward me until it brushed against my face. I caught it in my hands and forgot about Aneil. He was saying something, but I paid him no heed because there was an orchid in my hand. An orchid from the Rakhri tree.
I heard nothing but the pounding of my heart, blackness was creeping into the edges of my vision, and I was trembling slightly from head to toe. It was the closest I had ever come to fainting. The sensation faded and everything returned to normal. I glanced up at Aneil, but he had not noticed a thing. He was looking off in the distance with a silly smile on his face. I realized he was saying something along the lines of when I fell in love; I would know how he felt about Mary, who must have been his gauri.
I rolled my eyes and started walking back to my house. He fell in step with me. "So, you're dad is pretty pissed."
I looked at him in disbelief. "Are you seriously asking me that? Put yourself in his shoes. He made a deal with his best friend. My father upheld his part of the bargain. Your family is not holding to their part. Everyone is going to know about this. You get to leave. We live here. We will never live it down."
"That's not my fault." he protested.
"It is not our fault either," I replied softly.
He let out a breath. "No, it's not."
We walked in silence the entire way home. When we entered the house, my mother looked at us and looked more closely at my face. I nodded to let her know I was okay. She shook her head softly to let me know she saw through my lie, but would pretend if I wanted to pretend. I did. My father stepped out of one of the rooms with his hat on his head. If my father was wearing a hat, that meant he was on his way out.
He stopped next to me. "Jasmeen?"
"I am okay, Papa," I assured him.
He nodded stiffly at Aneil because as much as my father hated him, he took his role as host seriously too and it was bad form to ignore your guests. It was also bad form to rip off their heads, which was probably what Papa wanted to do.
"Where are you going?" I asked, thinking maybe I could escape the house again.
My father stared at Aneil as he replied, "I no longer feel in a festive mood. I have to go argue with the venue owners, the caterers, the decorators and do a hundred other things to cancel the party schedule for later this week." Aneil stared back, holding his ground.
I remembered the orchid, cradled in my hands."Papa, don't cancel our orders. Try to push them back a week or two."
"What difference does it make?" he asked me.
I glanced behind me to make sure Aneil's parents were not within earshot. "Wait until Aneil and his parents leave, then we will celebrate my narrow escape from a disastrous marriage."
Both my parents stared at me. Aneil was fighting a smile, so apparently he was not offended. "Well, it is better to do that than have everyone pity me."
My mother nodded, her sympathy compelled her to automatically agree with me. My father stared and the smiled, probably for the first time since last night. He pulled me into a hug. He did not say anything more, but his proud gaze said more than words could. Aneil had disappeared to his quarters. My father was about to leave when I stopped him again. Taking him and my mother to my grandmother, I showed them the orchid.
"Is that from—?"
"Jasmeen, how did you—?"
So I told them. Papa sat down hard next to Dadi Ma. For a few moments, I worried. Was there more to the legend that I did not know? Had I erred in some manner? Then Dadi Ma told my mother to take the flower and put it someplace safe. She then turned to my father, "Well, Tara, the Rakhri tree has spoken. It is time you stop looking for a husband for your daughter and start planning a move to Canada."
Papa left the room, looking slightly dazed. I sat down in his place and then leaned over to rest my head in Dadi Ma's lap. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, child," she assured me. "You just fashioned your own future, but you held fate's approval in your hand. Now you will have to work hard to achieve that destiny." I nodded. She continued. "It would have been easier if you left things to your father. You would have married, had babies and taken care of those babies and then taken care of your grandbabies. Your future has changed. It will be much harder, but when you achieve, it will be for you, not anyone else."
That did not sound like such a bad thing. I felt better. I was confident I could work hard and get what I wanted. I would have never felt as optimistic as I did if I had known how hard it would be.