Anju wants a husband. Equally important, her entire family wants Anju to have a husband. Her life in Bombay, where a marriage can be arranged in a matter of hours, is almost solely devoted to this quest, with her anxious mother hauling her from holy site to holy site in order to consult and entreat swamis and astrologers. As Anju’s twenties slip away, she’s fast becoming a spinster by her culture’s standards, so she moves to New York City to work in fashion.
For Matrimonial Purposes is the hilarious story of Anju’s journey, her quest for love, and the choices that she must make while trying to remain true to herself and satisfy her family and tradition.
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Kavita Daswani has been a fashion correspondent for CNN, CNBC Asia, and Women’s Wear Daily, has written for the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune, among many other publications, and has been the fashion editor for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
The normal religious marriage was and still is arranged by the parents of the couple, after much consultation, and the study of omens, horoscopes and auspicious physical characteristics. . . . While a husband should be at least twenty, a girl should be married immediately before puberty.
My grandmother was married off two days shy of her tenth birthday.
My mother found a husband when she was twenty. I thus reckoned that if every generation increased by a decade the acceptable age for marriage, I should have become a wife by thirty.
But at thirty-three, I was nowhere close to being married. And it was this that brought much consternation to all, tainting the joy and inciting hitherto-suppressed family politics, at the wedding of my twenty-two-year-old cousin, Nina.
I was at a family wedding in Bombay, the city where I was born and had spent most of my life. My parents and two brothers still lived here, in the same house that I knew as a child, a house conveniently located just minutes from major temples and hotels. Which was a good thing, considering how much time they spent at such institutions, attending weddings just like this one. It was always, of course, someone else's wedding and never my own.
Nina had "jumped the line" as they all liked to say. She was much younger, and marrying before me. But then, as Nina's mother pointed out, how long could everyone wait?
I forced myself to smile and look happy. It wasn't that I was unhappy. It was just that, on this steaming May evening, I was hot and flustered, conscious of the damp fog-gray semicircles formed by droplets of sweat on the underarms of my sari blouse. I had to press my limbs down against my body so they wouldn't show against the light-colored fabric. Both the sari and blouse were creamy whipped pink, like the pearly sheen of the inside of a seashell, or of little girls' bows. Six yards of the fabric were wrapped, nipped and tucked around my body, making me look-in my estimation-like a blushing eggroll. At least that was what I told anyone who complimented me. I had been fidgeting all evening with the flowers in my hair. They were "faux," bought off a wooden stand on a Bombay street corner, papery and the size of half a fingernail, about a dozen of them pinned into my upswept coif. Not exactly my idea of understated chic. But my hairdresser insisted: "Your cousin is getting married! You need some decoration!"
Mercifully, understated wasn't the order of the day here at the Jhule Lal Temple. Nina was about to become a wife in the presence of three hundred people, most of whom she had never met. I felt self-conscious standing there on the sidelines, the older, unmarried cousin, aware that people were glancing over at me-yes, to see what I was wearing, but mostly to detect any hint of pain or jealousy on my face as yet another younger cousin married. I closed my eyes for a second, inhaled, found my center-the way they taught me to do at my Wednesday-evening hatha yoga class. Then I lifted up my smile and made it stay.
"Your turn next," said Aunty Mona, my mother's second cousin, who was standing next to me. She grinned, revealing a space between her two front teeth the size of East Timor. That gap was considered a sign of good luck. Any Indian face-reader worth his chapati dinner knew that the wider the space, the greater the fortune. "Don't worry, beti, it will be your turn soon," Aunty Mona consoled, patting me on the back. "God will listen to your prayers. It's all karma. Tsk tsk."
I allowed her to comfort me, as I had learned to do all these years, and noted how miraculous it was that my self-esteem wasn't completely annihilated by now. Since arriving in Bombay a week ago, I had been on the receiving end of many things-advice, sympathy, concern. But mostly, it was pity and consolation. Now, coming from Aunty Mona, these sentiments were delivered with the same gravity as a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease. My relatives never thought to ask about my interesting and independent life in New York, what I did there, who my friends were, or whether I'd scored a ticket to The Producers when Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane were still in it. Instead, it was incessant: "Why aren't you married yet?"
I turned towards Nina, who really was the sweetest thing, looking a dream in her wedding sari. This was pink too, but a celebratory pink: deeper, richer, embellished with thick gold, a bridal bonus. The top of her gleaming black hair, parted down the center, was covered with the same fabric, her smooth white forehead dotted with tiny flecks of red paint in an arched design spliced in the middle by a gold-and-diamond bindi. Her hands, lavishly hennaed, reached up to push back a wisp of hair that had fallen into her half-closed eyes. Nina was praying, and blushing, swooning from the heat. She and her groom were sitting in front of a small bright orange fire, both sets of parents by their side, deep in their own thoughts as our family priest, Maharaj Girdhar, uttered thousands of
Sanskrit words that no one but him understood.
The ceremony was about done, and now came my favorite part-when the groom slipped his finger into a pot of sindoor and traced it down his new wife's hair-parting. The gesture seemed to say, "You're mine now. We belong to each other." He looked at her with something that appeared to be pride mixed with awe. While it might not yet be love, the happiness seemed real, born of gratitude.
He also seemed relieved. He had done it-found the perfect bride. Now the fun would start. Later, they would spend their first night together, and kiss for the first time.
The groom had won Nina's heart without really trying. She'd fallen for his looks, his height (five-foot-eleven), his casual, easygoing demeanor. It was an arranged match. They had met twice and then gotten engaged. That had been five weeks ago.
The couple stood, poised to garland one another and exchange rings. Nina bowed her head before her new husband, who looked upon her excitedly, like an archaeologist who had just stumbled across some rare artifact and couldn't wait to examine it. Within seconds, they were surrounded by waves of well-wishers who hugged, kissed, shook hands and leaned in to see up-close just how big the necklace was that Nina's parents had given her. Everybody wanted to know the precise carat weight of the marquis diamond her groom had placed on the slender ring finger of her left hand.
It was time for me to make my way through the pack of people towards the couple. En masse, they smelt of sweat, turmeric, paan leaves and Pantene hair oil. I could detect here and there a whiff of Charlie perfume that I knew had been sitting in someone's metal Godrej cupboard for fifteen years. I winced for a second, but when I reached them, summoned up all my warmth and goodwill and embraced them.
"You look gorgeous, honey, I'm so happy for you. God bless," I said, kissing Nina's smooth, warm cheek.
"Didi Anju," she whispered, taking my hand. I loved how she always referred to me as "didi"-big sister. "I said a prayer for you while I was walking around the fire taking my vows. You'll be next. I asked God, and God always listens to the prayers of brides."
The pure sweetness of the gesture made me want to cry, but tears here would be misconstrued as a sign of longing and sadness, so I pinched them back. I turned to the groom and looked up at him.
"Congratulations, sweetie," I said, reaching up to hug him. "You look after her."
I became, as the word didi implied, the generous, solid, single, big sister.
That duty done, I turned and wove my way through the clusters of chattering people who were shuffling out of the hall to a large dining room below. I found my parents in one corner and padded, still barefoot, over to them. Next would come the horror of trying to find my shoes in the pile outside. Bombay weddings were notorious for shoe theft, and I began wondering-belatedly-how good an idea it had been to wear my Dolce & Gabbana mules today.
"Okay, come, let's go downstairs and eat," said my mother, as she automatically adjusted the part of my sari that was coming undone.
My father was mopping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.
"Too damn hot," he said. "Let's go downstairs. Maybe it's cooler there."
The large air-conditioners rumbled away, blowing frosty air on the long lines of people forming at the buffet table. My father put away his handkerchief and picked up a plate.
"Okay," said my mother, turning to me. "Have you seen anyone here you like? Any nice boys?"
"Mum, I haven't really been paying attention," I replied. "I wanted to watch the wedding ceremony properly."
Again, my mother sighed and looked around. People carrying plates piled with spicy eggplant and vegetable biryani were starting to fill up the rows of plastic chairs that had been set out.
That's when she spotted him.
"Who's he?" my mother asked, a finger pointing at a stranger in black across the room. "The boy talking to Maharaj Girdhar."
"Mum, stop pointing! And how am I supposed to know?" I was getting testy. This was inevitable, this scouting around for available men at a family wedding. But I was hot and tired, my sari felt like it was coming unwrapped, and, a day away from getting my period, I just wasn't in the mood. My psychic, had he been there, would have said that I was experiencing a mild form of resentment at Nina's new matrimonial state, that it had brought up my worst fears about my own future. Because he had been right about such reactions in the past, I decided on the spot that from now on I'd save the money I'd spent on him for shoes.
But the Great Official Husband-Hunt, as I had come to call it, was well underway. I had been here for several days, and there had been some talk of this boy and that. Tonight, my mother had spotted a real-life prospect.
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