Brides are not for Burning
by Eva Bell
It was the year 1978. Though the elections were three months away, the excitement and preparation had already begun. Slogans and symbols were painted on every upright surface. Loud speakers blared at all times of the day, and khadi clad aspirants mouthed election promises they never intended to keep.
My brother once a much-sought-after criminal lawyer, had forsaken the courts lured by the dazzle of Politics. He had a personality that charmed the very soul of the devil. So, first as a lawyer and then as a politician, success had come to him easily. Now his sights were set on a Ministerial chair in the State Government. But there were problems. The campaign was costly and the party contribution was miserly. His own resources were small. Bharat always lived in style. His tastes were extravagant and his entertaining lavish. Yet on the political podium he posed as a champion of the poor, his khadi-clad figure deceptively docile – the very soul of frugality!
I was then working in Bombay. I had a decent salary and a flat of my own, furnished with all the bric-a-brac that could make a bachelor’s life comfortable. Whereas Bharat was dynamic and extroverted, I was shy and incapable of social niceties. My group of friends was small. However, as many a young lady remarked, I had a handsome face that could set the female hearts aflutter.
Keeping the girls at bay became a major problem. They would sidle up to me on various pretexts and throw me into confusion. Seeing my discomfiture, one of my friends suggested that I should have a steady girl friend who would keep the rest away. And so, Katy took on the roll monopolizing me during my free time, much to the distress of the others.
I had never contemplated any deep commitment to Katy. I knew that when it was time to marry, Bharat and my uncle would select a suitable bride with good connections, who would bring in a reasonable dowry commensurate with my status in life. After all, my younger sister was still to be married, and this could be used towards her dowry.
With the passage of time, I did grow fond of Katy. She was kind and selflessly undemanding. She gradually drew me out of my cocoon of shyness until I could hold my own against the female species.
But the summons for marriage came with such shocking speed that I was unprepared for it. Bharat and Uncle had selected a very fair and beautiful bride for me I was told. This was not an unusual custom in my community. So I didn’t even insist on seeing my bride. Bharat’s tastes in everything were impeccable, and I had confidence that he would have found for me only the best. There was some talk that the dowry was considerable and the family connections good. My attitude was as yet an impersonal one, as though this was an obligation I had to fulfill. It didn’t even bother me that I was the principal actor in this play that had been so lovingly put together by my family.
The wedding of Bharat’s brother had to be conducted in lavish style. Our family prestige demanded it. The Town Hall which could seat over a thousand people was packed and overflowing. Almost half the hall was taken up by politicians from all over the district. The shenai and tablas were beating out the usual wedding tunes.
Through all this confusion, I moved around like one in a daze. For some reason, my thoughts briefly turned to Katy. She had taken the news in her stride. No tears or tantrums! Only as she wished me a happy married life did I detect a faint tremor in her voice. It was not as if I was going away forever. I would be back at work soon, and we would continue to be good friends.
The bride’s party had arrived with much fan fare. The women from our side went forward with trays carrying perfume, sandal wood oil, rosewater and kumkum. My elder sister symbolically sprinkled water on the bride’s feet. Then she was led on to the dais and made to sit on a couch beside me. Her face was well concealed by a veil of sweet smelling jasmine. The ceremony in our community is quite different from other communities. Here, the priest has only a secondary role. But our respective maternal uncles carry out the actual marriage. My bride’s hand was placed palm upwards on mine. I felt a thrill shoot through my body as her warm hand touched mine. Was this really happening to me? A copper pot with a coconut wedged in its mouth, a few mango leaves and a spathe of areca flowers was placed on our upturned hands. The uncles brushed the vessel three times with their hands. This was the hub of the ceremony. With the linking of hands this girl was mine to have and to hold forever. The uncles pelted us with rice and pronounced us man and wife. We were now to garland each other. My hands were poised to grace the neck of my bride with a garland or marigolds, when someone disturbed the veil of flowers over her face. The ghastly apparition that greeted me sent shock waves through my spine. The garland fell from my trembling hands. I dashed down from the dais sobbing like a child.
Bharat was right behind me.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “This is not the girl whom they showed us. She was good looking. They have cheated us. But the marriage must go on. The actual ceremony is over. You are already her husband.”
“I won’t,” I cried, “I can’t live with that creature.”
My uncle came in panting.
“My son, remember you cannot spoil the good name of our family. We can’t let them down. They are influential people and they could ruin our lives. You have to put up an appearance. Later we shall see.”
“And what of my political career,” asked Bharat. “Will you see me ruined? Will I be able to hold my head high again? Don’t you know how desperately I need the money for my campaign?”
In the end, I was led back like a lamb to the slaughter, an unwilling partner in a performance of convenience. My short absence was explained away as a temporary indisposition, and the party went on right through the day.
No words can describe the agony of that day or the ones that followed. More than cursing the crookedness of my brother and uncle, I reproached myself for my stupidity. What a coward I had been! For all my education I was nothing but a willing pawn in the hands of skillful manipulators. Even at that late stage I could have walked out but I lacked the nerve. I left for Bombay the next day sans the bride. It might have created inconvenience to both parties but I was past caring.
To Be Continued.- Part II