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October 28, 2014

Kiran Manral’s Planned To Perfection

Illustration by Hemant Sapre

Marrying into a reputed family, the bride-to-be knows she will have a comfortable life and hence, endures the customary rounds of sari and jewellery shopping with a gaggle of ladies. In a short story written exclusively for Verve, author Kiran Manral gives the bridal tale a modern twist

She twirled the ring on her finger in distraction. The man draping the sari on himself – in front of her, her mother, her maternal aunts, her mother-in-law-to-be and her very disinterested sister-in-law-to-be – completed the draping of the sari they had shortlisted and posed prettily in it, one arm up in the air in an affected pose and the other on his hip. Her would-be sister-in-law took one look at him and snorted hysterically, doubling over with laughter and got yelled at by her mother.

“Why is everything so funny to you, can’t you be serious ever? And pay attention. It will be your turn next.”

The tone of her future mother-in-law’s voice immediately put her off the sari, gorgeous though it was. “Can we not have him drape something else?” she asked her aunt who had taken charge of this sari-shopping expedition given that she was considered the official authority within the family on all things regarding saris and sari stores, her sari collection being one open to raiding family and nieces alike.

“Why,” asked Neetu Maasi, concerned.

“He quite ruins the look of the sari, he’s no oil painting.”

Which was putting it politely. He was short and squat and had lips stained from incessant betel chewing and a ruddy face that split into half every time he smiled.
“Okay. But he knows how to drape it well. I’ll tell him to drape the shortlisted ones on you.”

She sat back and sighed. There was no escaping this. The rounds of sari stores for the collection of saris that would be carefully packed into her Louis Vuitton trunks as part of her trousseau, the inconvenience of traipsing down to Banaras and Kolkata, as an entire entourage to buy them.

It was the cacophony that was getting to her, she realised – her mother, her aunts, her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, her disinterested younger sister, who added the only touch of sanity to the proceedings by chewing continuously on gum and deciding to blow a bubble when she saw something she liked, which inevitably would be shot down by the older brigade with their penchant for traditional motifs and weaves and designs which could have come straight out of their trousseau trunks, fragrant with the moth balls and the slightly stale smell of fragrances and body odour that no amount of dry cleaning could eradicate.

This was what she disliked about getting married, she told herself, the shopping for things she did not care about. The saris she would not wear. The jewellery that would be stashed away in the family vault to be aired on occasions when she would need to be dressed up and on display to all and sundry as the bride of the family, and as a bride of a reputed family she was mandated to look shiny from every angle, whether from the reflected light off her diamonds or from the gota kinara of her anarkali.

Her phone vibrated in her hand. It was her fiancé. “What’s up?” he asked over WhatsApp. She bent her head down and replied, covering the screen of her phone with her palm in the off chance that anyone would glance across and read her complaining about the endless shopping she was being subjected to.
The ladies had a second round of cold drinks, with a couple of them opting for tea, before having some more saris unfurled for their perusal and approval. “It is such a pity her complexion is slightly subdued,” said her mother-in-law-to-be, preening in the knowledge that her own complexion, liver spotted and wrinkled though it might be now, had once been of the genre that went by milky white in the marital catalogues.  “If only she had been just a little bit fairer, we could have looked at so many other, brighter colours.”

Her would-be sister-in-law, also engrossed in her own phone, raised her head momentarily and gave her mother a stinker of a look that, if it had been made of steel, would have sliced open a jugular neatly. “Why don’t you let her choose what she wants to wear? It is her wedding after all, not yours.”

The gaggle of ladies went silent at this temerity. Young girls were not supposed to have an opinion, but since she was the groom’s sister, she was indulged. “We are showing her the ones we like, aren’t we, and letting her choose from them.” The bride-to-be continued WhatsApping her groom-to-be without paying heed to the debate on around her. After they had been through what seemed to 1,000s of saris, each more exquisite than the previous one, she finally selected – or was prompted to – select a few which suited the tastes of her mother, her mother-in-law-to-be, her aunt and her aunts-in-law-to-be.  She picked out a few which she thought she could bear wearing and left them to squabble over the best of her selection.

“I hate wearing saris,” she complained over WhatsApp to her fiancé.

“I hate saris too,” he complained back. “Too much fabric.”

She blushed prettily and looked up guiltily to check if anyone had noticed. No one had. Having completed the shopping for the bride, the ladies were now frantically shortlisting saris for themselves and were two steps away from challenging each other to knife fights over saris that more than one person had found interesting.

She looked at her to-be sister-in-law at the same time as she looked at her. They nodded at each other imperceptibly and rose, not that the older ladies were paying them any attention.  “I want a tissue sari for the sangeet, that one with the kairi booti,” her mother was telling the man who owned the store, and was hovering around wringing his hands in anticipation of the sales that would undoubtedly ensue.

She stepped out of the store with her would-be sister-in-law, who was the same age as she was, but already had the careworn air that older women, or women who have known pain and suffering, have. They stood against a wall in tacit understanding, and lit up a couple of cigarettes, safe in the knowledge that the ladies would not emerge until blood was drawn and the sun set low over the ghats.

A few passers-by looked at them curiously, not bothering to disguise their curiosity – they were not of the usual ilk that wandered these streets, in their skin fit jeans and crepe hand print shirts, the solitaires sparkling on their ears and fingers, their nails buffed to French manicured perfection, their hair tamed into behaving with serum and protein treatments. The drivers of the hired cars taking them around the city looked at them curiously. The sister-in-law exhaled the smoke from her cigarette with what seemed like a long shaky sigh, and turned to her. “What say we cut loose and get back to the hotel and smoke some better shit than this?”

They announced their departure to the women who paid no particular attention and took one of the fleet of hired cars back to the hotel.  They went into the bride’s room and carefully locked the door, before her sister-in-law pulled out a small packet from her handbag and rolled it carefully.  For a few minutes there was silence in the room, except for the sound of inhaling and exhaling, and the white noise of minds going limber into nothingness. Then they lay down on the bed.

An indeterminate time later, there was an insistent knocking at the door. They roused themselves out of the deep, dreamless sleep they had passed out into, arranged themselves back into presentability and opened the door, to the gaggle of ladies who swanked in, carrying only their handbags, the saris purchased would be picked up the next day, their blouse pieces hacked off, the fall-beeding done, ironed and folded, wrapped in tissue paper and packed into little cardboard boxes, before being taken out, and admired again.

“Don’t tell me you girls were sleeping all through the day?” her mother asked her. “What’s that funny smell in the room?” Her sister-in-law-to-be opened the windows to let out the fumes of the resident narcotic and let in the fresh air. She sat up, gathering her wits around her, wondering if it was the norm to be intruded upon by the family without so much as a by-your-leave.

The next morning they returned to Delhi, to continue with the wedding shopping.  She had a consultation with one of the best make-up artists in town for a quick tutorial on how to do her make-up as professionally as possible, tied up with a promotional offer with an international make-up brand for all the products she would need to get the right look. “You will need to accompany my son to all the high profile events he attends, you need to know how to do your face and your hair perfectly.”

They were also scheduled to travel to Punjab, to pick up the requisite Punjabi suits, the chudas, the kalirey, to visit the Golden Temple in thanksgiving for the wonderful proposal which had just dropped into their laps, without them even having put out the word that they were looking for a groom for their daughter. Not yet, she had always said when they asked, I want to study some more. But she had been a good girl, no boyfriends. No going out with mixed groups of boys, only some school friends she went out with or stayed overnight at their homes at.  In this day of girls going astray and parents finding emergency contraception in their handbags, she was the ideal daughter.

She was scheduled for a week of grooming school, a crash course to get her to sort out her dessert spoon from her soup spoon, and the art of making fine conversation.  One of the things her fiancé had liked about her when they first met was that she showed absolutely no interest in what he did for a living, and was only concerned about whether he could help her get out of the stuffy formal dinner they were at, without anyone raising any objections, not that he had been concerned about objections being raised. He had the insouciance of getting away with most things, including escaping from stodgy formal seating dinner parties with no explanation, no apologies. They had run out of the dinner, giggling like adolescents, before driving through the dark, deserted roads of the city, stopping only for some kebabs on the street. When he kissed her gently, formally, before dropping her off at her gate, she knew that it would not be the last she saw of him, even though she hadn’t given him a number for her, and he didn’t know her last name.

The formal marriage proposal arrived through a common family friend a couple of weeks later. “Pinkyji,” she told her mother. “You couldn’t have wished for a better proposal, your daughter is lucky indeed.” It was an old established landed family, with a thriving business in exports. The boy travelled a lot, they were told. “Your daughter will travel the world.”

The families met formally, the roka happened the next week, followed by the engagement ceremony the following month, and the small intimate function for only 200 close friends and family to celebrate it, and she had the strange sense of hurtling head on towards an oncoming train. The date for the wedding was set, and the wedding planners booked.

All that kept her smiling was the fact that she liked her new fiancé. He was funny, gentle, kind, and indulged her terribly.  So what if he was gay? At least he had been honest enough to tell her he was. The main thing was that she was marrying into a good family, and would have a comfortable life. It was the perfect solution. This arranged marriage. Her sister-in-law had arranged it all. After all, they were friends from back when they were at boarding school together. Perhaps, more than just friends.

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