Arrangement of Love (excerpt)
They echoed like a heart pounding in a hollow cavity, loud and rhythmic.
Two beats then a pause. Then, two more beats.
Ela flinched at the sound of each knock, quietly and desperately avoiding the intrusion.
“Come on now, behta. It’s nearly two o’clock. Have you forgotten who is coming today?”
The blanket beneath her was oppressively warm against her skin and she shoved it off the bed. The sheets underneath were lighter and thus cooler to sit upon. Though it was December in Gujarat, well into India’s winter, it was still too hot for her during the day, when the sun’s beams were as concentrated as lasers. If only the heat had worked in her favor, made her brain lazy enough to forget.
Her mother rapped against the door once again. Her knuckles must’ve chafed at this point, her persistence victorious over Ela’s resolve to ignore her. It was obvious that Ela couldn’t hide forever, but an overarching angst within her made her want to try.
“Mummi, I’m resting, okay? Just a few more minutes.”
She couldn’t understand her mother’s sense of urgency. The suitor from New York, Abhay, wasn’t coming until five. They had plenty of time to prepare.
“But I need to iron your dress. Can you at least pick one?”
“Choose whichever you want,” Ela told her. In truth, it wouldn’t make a difference. Whatever color, whatever fabric and cut, she would still be bare in front of him.
With the final decision landing in her hands, Ela’s mother seemed pleased. Ela found a moment of relief as she listened to her mother’s feet plod down the hall into her own room. Her mother’s closet was filled with both hers and Ela’s Indian dresses, and there, she’d ponder two or three designs before finally selecting one. For the next twenty minutes, she would make sure to iron every crease and wrinkle to perfection.
Alone in her bedroom, Ela knew that she’d eventually have to stop hiding and begin the process she’d started with six suitors over the past two weeks. But after the nondescript set of gentlemen she’d encountered—men with kind families, fair looks, and careers ambitious enough to support a wife and several children—she was discouraged from trying so hard for number seven. All of these men were parents’ dreams, born and raised with to behave a certain way, to value certain things, but she worried they wouldn’t share the ambitions and ideals she’d procured outside of the scope of her upbringing. They would not care about all-consuming love or even lust, searching only for a woman who could fill out their lives the way a good internship fills out a CV. Unlike Ela, who was swept up by colors and art, moments of inspiration, they followed paths set for them and avoided even daydreams.
Still, she shouldn’t have been so pessimistic. This was the process. She’d witnessed it firsthand when her elder sister Kavya had navigated the path to marriage nearly a year ago. Kavya had met with twice as many suitors, unsure of each one until she finally landed upon Dev, a man who proved to be more intriguing and convincing than any of the others. Perhaps it was evidence of fate, or maybe just a triumph of body chemistry, pheromones released into the atmosphere at the opportune moment to seal the deal.
For Ela, each encounter was excruciating; her nerves were constantly revved up and scraped raw at each introduction. Anticipation and preparation combined to be exhausting. She wished for this part to be over quickly. At the same time, she feared that what came afterward might be even worse, and that maybe the best strategy was to drag this process out for as long as she could and delay the imminent change that would accompany engagement and marriage.
She forced herself off the bed and unlocked her door. After shutting herself in for hours—confined to her room since after breakfast—she needed air. Out in the hall, she smelled hints of coriander and incense wafting from the kitchen downstairs. Dressed in a casual blue tunic top with light thread embroidery and a pair of old jeans, Ela followed the scent, knowing she’d find her mother there as well.
“Finally.” Her mother looked cross, her lips pursed and thin. She surveyed Ela. “You haven’t even done your hair.”
“We still have hours. No need to rush.”
“You think that now, but then when the time comes, you won’t be ready,” her mother said, shaking her head as she’d often done over the course of Ela’s life—before birthday parties, dance festivals, weddings. Always, even as her own hair grayed, her mother emphasized the importance of looking appropriate, being ready.
Three hours would be plenty of time for Ela. She’d never been able to fuss over herself for too long. She enjoyed wearing makeup, but only the basic things like powder and kohl to line her eyes. And her hair was never a problem; she’d pull it back the same way she always had, tightly into a low bun with her hair parted down the middle. For now, she left it in a messy ponytail.
The kitchen was cluttered with snacks and utensils as her mother removed a set of dishes, bowls, and spoons from the cupboards. Her anxiety manifest itself differently than Ela’s. It was frenetic and task-oriented, whereas Ela’s was diminishing, often leaving her disengaged instead of frantic and attentive.
“We need to set the table,” her mother said. Ela began to take the dishware in her hand, but her mother stopped her. “Not you. I can handle this. You just go and get ready.” Ela walked away, confused. Who else did she mean by we?
The intense behavior that characterized her parents this week was beyond anything they’d demonstrated with the other suitors. Even her father, who planned to come home from work early today, appeared overly perturbed and irritated in reaction to the simplest things. The set of labels that Abhay had shared through his bio-data—American, New York City, businessman—instantly transformed the way her parents regarded him. Suddenly, he was superior, someone whom they didn’t know but whom they already desired to impress and please.
Instead of doing as her mother told her, Ela went out into the backyard. As soon as her father came home, the situation would escalate but for a few more minutes, she could keep the chaos at bay. Walking with bare feet onto the small patch of grass that filled out their yard, she sat amidst the jasmine bushes that reminded her of childhood. The old, creaky porch swing was an artifact from her father’s youth that he’d transported from his parents’ home nearby in Rajkot following his mother’s death two years ago. His father had died years before that. Pumping her legs, she pushed and pulled the swing, back and forth, higher and higher, remembering the story her father told her about summer nights spent reading with his father on the swing. With the mystery of her parents’ youth and courtship ever-present in her mind, she let herself sink into the thin cushions lining the bench as she sailed through the air. She wondered if her grandfather would’ve shared with her stories of her parents’ courtship, illuminated beyond the obvious what it was like and if they were anxious or scared, as she was.
Without any notice, her heart began pounding inside her chest. Her thoughts were overpowering and she could feel the tangible elements of anxiety overtake her. Even when Kavya had been immersed in this process, Ela had failed to fully understand the elements at play, how much pressure she’d feel from her parents, from the suitors and their families to make a decision. In the modern world of India, love was still a shock and not a blessing, but she couldn’t help but wonder how much differently she’d feel if she’d fallen for a man of her own volition, in a relationship propelled by romance.
The patio door creaked open and her father stuck his head outside. Smiling as soon as she saw her, though her own expression was strained, he was unusually tender as he approached. Sitting down beside her, he took her hand in his. “How is my lovely daughter?” he asked.
She smiled. Every now and again, he knew exactly what she needed. In this moment, it was his gentle voice and soothing touch that pulled her from her worries.
“Just relaxing. Mummi wouldn’t let me help.”
He laughed. “You know how nervous she must be. Let her do what she needs to. You don’t worry about a thing.”
They swung together for a couple minutes, basking in the heat. Though he’d removed his shoes, her father still wore the button-down shirt and black trousers that he’d left for the office in early that morning.
“I remember this feeling,” he told her, “Same as I have now. The day I met your mother, it was this way—so much stress but then also a sense of peace, of calm.” He turned to her, “You never know, behta. This businessman, he might be the one.”
Still so young and inexperienced with men, she wouldn’t have known how to meet a man or pursue him on her own. This avenue was a logical choice for her. It had worked for millions of others before her, her own parents included. Though her parents weren’t head-over-heels in love, they were happier than most. Maybe this was the right thing for her. Who was she to question what had worked for generations of women past, for everyone in her family, including her sister?
The salwar kameez her mother had laid out for her on her bed was constructed in a curious mix of cobalt, magenta and white, the hot new color combination for the fall according to every Kala Niketan from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. It was impossible to stay abreast of such fleeting tastes; fashion in India was as fickle as a toddler during mealtime. No trends ever stuck, forcing innovation in the form of off-kilter color schemes that would be offensive in most places: bright oranges and hot pinks put together in the same outfit, grass green mixed with turmeric, black paired with bright red. In other places, these dresses would be labeled costumey or tacky, but here, they were celebrated for their vibrancy. In fact, it was a lack of boldness that was most often criticized and shunned.
She would’ve been excited to wear the outfit to another event—a party for friends or a garbawhere she could dance among others dressed in hues just as commanding. But today, its loudness was crushing; too heavy was the burden of appearing beautiful in it, of being the personality that fit with brightest shades, shamelessly calling for attention.
“It’s too much,” she informed her mother. They stood across from each other in Ela’s bedroom, at odds once again.
“Don’t you want to be seen? New York City is like Mumbai, behta. No one notices the plain girls.”
It wasn’t meant to be insulting, but Ela felt a tinge of shame. Her designer’s eye sought out exactly these outfits that were full of contrast and challenged the conventional combination of colors and cuts. But in this situation, she did not carry the confidence demanded by this dress, which would be scrutinized as an extension of her and her potential prowess as a wife.
“If it’s what you want me to wear, I guess it’s fine,” she said, spent from their discussion. “Give me some time to get ready. I will come out when I’m done.”
“Don’t forget the jewelry I left on your dresser.” Her mother continued to stand in the doorway. Ela pushed the door slowly closed as her mother backed into the hallway, still calling out suggestions. “You have to have something around your neck and in your ears. It’s more feminine,” she said.
Ela nodded. “I will. I promise.”
Her mother finally relented, as Ela pushed the door all the way shut. Of course it was out of love that her mother extrapolated on each and every detail, but it left Ela feeling like a work-in-progress instead of capable or beautiful. Ela’s looks, her manners and mannerisms, all of it now was a commodity she had to market in a certain way in order to make the sale, and her mother was hot on her trail, eager for her portion of the commission.
As Ela dressed, tugging the tunic top over her head, she pondered how quickly the quest had progressed. In all other cases—when she’d chosen her major or even where to go on vacation—there had been discussion and debate. In this situation, no one dared to ask whether or not she and the American would be a good fit or whether it would be wise for her to consider a man who lived so far away. No one questioned whether they would have fun together and keep each other happy in twenty, thirty, or forty years from now. The deliberations they’d centered on were of more trivial concerns: earrings and hairstyles, the types of sweets they should serve, and which room would be best to host him in.
Ela pushed her arms through the sleeves, which were prohibitively tight. Perhaps the anxiety was a necessary part of it. If it worked out with Abhay that evening, maybe months from now, her face would glow like her sister’s had when she walked around a fire pit full of rice and recited the Sanskrit words that forever bound her to her groom.
As Ela fastened the back of her top, she acknowledged the absence of her sister, resentful that Kavya had gone through this first and, now married, was miles away from Ela when she needed her support the most. Nerves worked on her insides like hungry crows on a dead carcass. She knew that no man—whether Indian or American—was automatically superior because of his occupation or his background, but she couldn’t shake the fear that an American-born Indian would be impossible to impress. Her insecurities provoked her, reminding her that he would have dozens of options to choose from, parents begging alongside their daughters for him to bring new opportunities into their lives, new wealth into the humble homes that they were normally proud of and in his presence deemed inadequate.
The pace of her heartbeat hastened, and her body was hot and moist as she realized that this could be the last time she had to dress up for an unknown suitor. This meeting might stand out among those past and Abhay, a friend of a friend’s son from New York City, might soon be her fiancé.
With her salwar now tied on, the drawstring pulled tight around her waist, she pulled her cell phone off the nightstand. She dialed her sister’s phone number, desperate for the reassuring words of experience and not the forcefulness of her overly involved mother.
Kavya’s voice was jubilant on other end, her tone playfully inquisitive. “Ready for the big meeting?”
“Not yet,” Ela grumbled, so sick now from the thoughts her mother had planted in her head. It was all too important. More than she could live up to. “Getting there.”
“I wish I could’ve come to help. It’s hard to visit in the middle of the week.”
“I know. I understand.” A part of Ela felt fully petulant, eager to fulfill the younger sister’s stereotype. However, the maturity she’d learned over the years contested her petulance. She knew her sister hadn’t stayed away on purpose. Life moves forward and goes on. It evolves and changes and isn’t always fair. If she had been the older one, it might’ve been the same situation reversed. In that case, she would’ve hoped for Kavya to understand her absence, not use it against her.
“Then again,” Kavya said. “I wouldn’t want to come help you impress Mister America,” Kavya continued. “You wouldn’t leave me, sister, would you?”
“You left me,” Ela said. She couldn’t help let it slip, despite the voice inside telling her to let it go.
“I didn’t leave. You know that.”
The mood had fallen flat, and Ela was responsible. Kavya was trying her best to stay involved and be supportive, even while two hours away in Surat and preoccupied with work and a husband.
“So what are you going to
wear tonight?” Ever the older sibling, Kavya swallowed the blow and shifted to a more pleasant topic.
“Something Mom picked out. Not exactly my taste. Too flashy.”
“Why didn’t you pick out your own dress? You’re the fashion expert. You’ll have your own line some day.”
“I doubt that,” she said. “Anyway, it was easier to just let her have her way.” And it was easier, in this moment, when she was so rattled with uncertainty, so unsure. But picking out her own gorgeous red and white sari to be married in had been a frequent daydream. If things went well, she would take full control of her wedding day, a fashion moment she’d fantasized about for years.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. You’ll look beautiful in anything. And don’t be so nervous. He’s just an American. No need to worry about this one,” she said, giggling as if it were an inside joke that Ela wasn’t yet in on.