Blue jay by Naomi Subotnick
Pretty Shoes with Tassels
You have to meet the boy and his family. The panditji deems your match astrologically harmonious. The date, day and time of his and your birth are appropriate for your matrimonial union. Your interests and his? Not sure. Your values and his? Not sure either.
Your mother stresses over the appropriateness of the number of pleats in your sari. The first impression must be the best impression. Maybe the extra five pleats add too much volume. That may make you come across as a painted woman. No, the oddity lay in the yellowness of the sari. You change and wear your older sister’s pink one. Your mother tells you not to wear red lipstick; that’s too bold. Only a slight tinge of rouge to the cheeks. A tinge is a tinge.
You go downstairs. Your mother hushes you into the kitchen. They are coming soon; you are to prepare tea. The tea has to be good for solely the taste of the tea will dictate whether there would be a follow-up meeting. It would define whether you are truly worthy of the boy or not. Because the skill of adding tea leaves, sugar and milk to boiling water was an irrefutable determiner of your character, compatibility and intellect. Your mother has already taken out her fanciest china. The one she refused to let you use when your boss came over for dinner. She has turned on the AC in the drawing room and arranged the cushions and the photo-frames. The frames today only adorn your pictures. There are some from your older sister’s wedding, but she’s not in any of them. Others are from the day of your graduation and award ceremonies. You’re disgusted at the ostentation. But she’s your mother and you have to love her and all her actions because they are always in your best interest. The chandelier is turned on. The curtains are drawn back. You see your dog napping outside on the grass that’s been recently planted. In the plants that line up at the back of the garden, you spot a single yellow flower. As you gaze into the flower, you see the greenness around fade away. Soon, you’re staring too hard, focusing all visionary energy on that yellow flower. You see black and red vortex rings swimming around as all forms and figures wane. You sense your eyes strain until they start to water. Your dog sits up, startling you. You look away and retreat into the kitchen.
The bell rings. Instrumental “Jingle Bells” blares through the small speaker that notifies the house of a visitor. You’re embarrassed at the sound. Your older sister hated the ringtone, you hate the ringtone and your younger sister doesn’t seem fond of it either. But it’s still been ringing, everyday, no one bothering to change it. You instinctively head towards the door. Your mother stops you and points towards the kitchen. You must wait.
“Don’t come out until I tell you to. Taste the tea before serving,” she says. You know what she means is don’t flub it up. You are 24 and you should want this match to work out as much as she does. She looks at you intently, taking you in, your face, your hair, your attire. Before leaving the kitchen, with her finger, she dots the back of your ear with black kohl that is lining her eyes. It’s for good luck, to prevent evil spirits from nearing you. You suddenly recognize how real this is. You shiver even though it’s the month of June.
You hear your father open the door and greet them. You cringe to hear his voice dripping with blandishment. Your mother joins him and welcomes them into the house. You try to peep covertly from behind the kitchen door. Your younger sister jocularly smacks you, gesturing with her eyes to concentrate on simmering the tea. She’s helping you in its preparation instead of studying for her high school exams. You’ve never been culinarily adept. You wonder if she’s thinking about your older sister in that moment. She acquired all her epicurean skills from her.
You hear soft chit-chatting through the kitchen door. You strain your ears to get a whiff of what’s happening. There seem to be three, no, four people. Your mother comes and tells your younger sister to carry water outside. The smile pasted on your mother’s face dies out in a jiffy and her serious, anxiety-ridden face resurfaces. She eyes you and untucks a strand of your hair from behind your ear. She examines you from head to toe another time, now frustrating you with her pedantry. This is your cue too. You pour the tea in the cups, arrange the cups in the tray and wait to carry the tray into the living room. You must perform well.
Your sister returns; it’s your turn now. She winks at you naughtily and nods in approval. She likes the look of the boy. That’s a good start. You’re almost excited but you remember what your older sister told you a few months into her marriage. Hide till you can. Be invisible. Bend. Lay. Crouch. Bow. Anything to last longer. Be boring. Be somber and submissive and subdued. Smile. Only a little. Don’t to show your teeth. Make small talk. If asked.
You take a deep breath, nod at your younger sister and go to the living room. The moment you enter everyone pauses conversation and looks at you. You gulp. You hate being under the spotlight. All the world doesn’t have to be a fucking stage all the time, you think. You stretch your lips awkwardly. You hope it can be read off as a smile. You try not to straight up eyeball the boy. He’s almost good-looking. He’s got dark, soft-looking hair, fair skin, a short, almost inviting stubble, clean finger nails and expensive cufflinks. He shouldn’t be like your older sister’s man, you wishfully think. He’ll probably care for you too like he seems to care for himself. Salon appointments and the like.
You observe the rest of the guests. He’s come with his mother, father and sister. The sister is younger to him and beams brightly at you. You immediately feel lighter and release your breath. You place the tray on the table and take a seat across from the boy’s family. The mother and father return your namaskar, the boy nods kindly at you in acknowledgement.
As you sit silently, aware of all your actions being inspected, you wince inside. You know each twitch of your muscle, every micro-movement of your body is watched closely, conspicuously. You think maybe you should have told your father about your older sister, Sarika’s man. About what her man used to do to her. Maybe things could have ended differently. Maybe things could have ended with her alive. Maybe you wouldn’t have had to fake this family of four. Maybe you wouldn’t have been forced into marrying a stranger too. Or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Maybe guising Sarika’s miscarriage as accidental was okay. Maybe your mother, who still continues to overpass her daughter’s truth, is right in doing so. Maybe not telling your father or anyone else did save, in a messed up world, the family name. Maybe you could tell your father now. About the lies and the beatings, the fights and the molestation. About Sarika’s 3 a.m. silent phone calls whose conversations consisted of nothing but her pounding heart and shallow breathing for tears could be too loud. About her man’s abrupt changeovers from cooking dinner for her to banging the vessels. About that accidental miscarriage which was not an accident. Maybe he did know. Maybe he, too, condoned it with silence like your mother.
Maybe you should stop thinking about gory things.
Even after you place the tea tray on the table no one gets up to take it. They wait to be served. You are supposed to serve, you realize. Everyone drinks the first sip in silence. You’re surprised to feel your heart beat faster. You’re anxious. You want them to like the tea even though you want nothing more to do with them.
The boy’s father says that it’s in perfect accordance with his taste. You bless your younger sister in your mind. You watch your mother’s lit-up face. You know that she is already foreseeing the wedding festivities. You did well. She’s happy. She’s happy after a long time.
“Rhea cooks very well, despite being a working-woman. You should try her aate ka halwa. It’s mouth-watering!” she says.
You try to appear shy and look down at your folded hands in your lap, fervently curbing your urge to tell your mother not to lie. The elders continue to talk. About weather and work and politics, anything, surreptitiously trying to verify the information panditji provided the two families with.
“Have you known panditji for a long time?” the boy’s father asks your father.
“Yes, it has been many years. He has made lots of matches in our family in the past. Someone I can blindly trust,” your father answers.
Yes, so blindly that he blinds you, you think.
“So, you have a logistics business, right? My cousin is also in that industry. Garvit Anand, you wouldn’t know of him, would you?” the boy’s father asks again.
“No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. It’s quite an expanding industry today; many new entrants are crowding it. Especially with Modi’s new governance and the GST, you know,” your father says.
“Oh, you’re quite right. So, have you all always lived in Delhi or--?”
“My wife and I shifted from Lucknow after… uh, right before Rhea was born,” your father responds. He doesn’t say after your older sister was born.
You bore into your cup of tea; you want to block this irrelevant chit-chat out. You think of you. You shouldn’t make conversation with the man you may end up marrying in the next few months. That will make you more visible. And you have to be invisible, your older sister said. You feel him watch you. You try to sneak a peak of him while sipping the tea as inconspicuously as you can manage. You see him do the same. There is a frisson. You avert your gaze immediately, ashamed and embarrassed. You see him smile and continuing to look on unabashed. You want to play the game too. But you must be somber, submissive and subdued. As you look down you notice his shoes. They’re pretty shoes, shoes with tassels. Tassels, especially on shoes, have always fascinated you. But in a dark, eerie sort of way, like a foreboding. Your younger sister always thought there was something evil about tassels. Now you’re annoyed at her for making you think this way. You don’t want to think of tassels as evil. You want to like tassels. It’s easier that way.
Both pairs of parents address the boy and you. They look satisfied with each other. It means that they’ve liked each other. It means that the marriage is happening. Your father’s smile is less broad than everyone else’s. It means that he has to bear the entire cost of all the wedding celebrations. Again.
“You can show Abhimanyu around the house, Rhea” your mother says, indicating caution in her eyes and hiding excitement behind reservation in her tone. That’s your cue for act two.
He stands up as you stand up and straightens his coat and shakes his wristwatch. You walk him around the first floor.
“That’s the kitchen. That’s the TV room. Outside is the garden,” you speak minimally, in short sentences. Despite yourself, Sarika’s instructions play in the background.
“It’s a very pretty house. The interiors are decorated so tastefully. Have you travelled around a lot?” he asks looking at the elaborate Egyptian masks hung on one of the walls.
Sarika had brought these when she visited Egypt on a trip.
“No,” you say. “Those were a gift.”
You feel tensed; the masks always make you nervous.
“I could show you upstairs,” you say, already pointing towards the staircase.
You walk one step behind him even though you’re leading. As you walk, you notice his gait. It’s confident but not in an imposing, condescending sort of way. Even as he walks in front of you, he walks front-beside you. That’s a good thing, you think. Maybe for once the panditji did a fine job at match-making. Or maybe the boy just didn’t know where to go. You like to think the former.
“This is my parents’ room. This is the prayer room. This is the guest room,” you continue upstairs. You smile at the end of each statement so as not to seem rude.
“This is my bedroom; I share it with my younger sister. There is a balcony inside.”
You walk him into your room. He looks around – at the picture frames and the paintings hung on the wall. They are mostly of you and your younger sister and both of your friends. There’s one with Sarika but you don’t mention her. This is what your mother’s cautionary glace was about. You are a regular family of four, not a family of four and a dead girl.
He admires the paintings and asks if you’ve done them. You unsuccessfully stifle your laugh at ‘done them’. He stares back un-humored.
“I… Yes, I have,” you say and walk to the balcony.
You two gaze at the road. There are cars and scooters parked, dogs running about. The breeze makes your sari flutter. You know he is appraising you. You feel conscious but you don’t dislike the appraisal. You’re glad your mother pulled out that strand of hair. To ease yourself, you consider it a partition between you two.
“So,” he says.
“So,” you say.
“So, what do you like to do for fun?”
You’re confused by his question. It is more than a yes and no question. It is an open-ended question. It is a real question. Sarika always said it would never be about you, that you should never try to make it about you, that you must ensure it’s never about you. But this was about you. And you like things being about you. What do you like to do for fun? Maybe it’s a trick question. You want to say your job. Your job because it gets you money and the independence and self-sufficiency are magnetic. Because it’s helped you grow as a person, and there is no more pleasure than in knowing you’ve helped someone up the professional ladder. Because you genuinely think it’s fun.
“I like to cook, paint and sing,” you say mechanically. Even though your younger sister bangs at the bathroom door when you croon in the shower.
“That’s great. You’ll love my sister. She’s likes to sing too. She’s trained in Carnatic music, in fact.”
You smile and nod. You show your teeth a little bit this time. He’s growing on you. He must be a loving brother. He must also be culturally aware to know about the different types of classical music.
“Is there a certain kind of music you like to sing?” he asks.
You hesitate. You’re caught off guard again. You want to say pop. You want to say Beyoncé and dance-y Punjabi music.
“I like Indian folk music,” you say. Punjabi music could be folk music, couldn’t it.
“Aunty mentioned something about your work?” he asks again.
You’re astounded now. Happy astounded. He calls your mother aunty. He’s asking about your work. He either read your biodata thoroughly or paid full attention to your mother. Both mean he’s great. Fucking tassels don’t mean anything. He isn’t like Sarika’s man at all. He couldn’t be posing so many trick questions. You think it’s okay to drop the façade now. You don’t have to continue to be somber, submissive and subdued.
“I’m an HR consultant. I help people get jobs by connecting job-seekers and organizations with vacancies. I quite like it, the work, even though it takes up a lot of my day.”
No one at home really understands your obsession with your work. You’re excited that the man you may end up marrying in the next few months is interested in your work.
“In fact, I got a message in the morning saying they’re promoting me to Director at the Delhi branch,” you go on unthinkingly.
His face visibly drops. He’s not wearing the smile he was while talking about Carnatic music. You think something is wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t have said the director part. No one likes a show-off.
“Good,” he says curtly. “It’ll be difficult to balance everything after getting married though, right? With all the household chores and all. You should just help with my sister’s music practices, you know, and leave the rest to me.” Then he adds with a pause and the most ill-intentioned smile, “Let me care for you.”
You’re hit right in the face.
You stare at him. You stare hard and you’re not somber, submissive or subdued about it. The breeze becomes stronger and blows into your face, loosening your hair. You shake your head. You’re not going to be another Sarika, you decide. You decide that you’re not going to be invisible because you like visibility. You don’t want to lay or bend or crouch or bow.
“Right,” you say, taking in what he just said. You laugh. It’s not a pleasant laugh. It’s an I-told-you-so laugh, I-so-fucking-told-you-so.
You see his eyes bug out in surprise, squint in confusion and then his eyebrows furrow in fury. You continue. You laugh boisterously and brusquely, the echoes ringing in your ears, his ears.
You hear your mother call you downstairs. Both of you walk back in silence. You don’t walk behind him this time; you walk a step in front. You see opened boxes of Indian sweetmeats. You’re officially bride-to-be. Maybe that kohl didn’t help much. Your decisions of visibility and invisibility don’t matter. Because decisions are never going to be yours to take anymore. Those tassels, those fucking tantalizing tassels, you think. Maybe Sarika felt the same way.