(A chapter from my nonfiction book/memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’)
November 2005, Kolkata, India
A young man and a woman dressed in plain, unassuming Bengali clothing, stand at the banks of river Ganga facing the holy shrine of Dakshineshwar. A dhoti-clad priest at the temple offers assistance in an extremely simple ritual of flowers, minimal offerings to the God and the bliss of vermilion, a ritual which this young couple, consumed in want, has taken as their marriage vow. The man looks into the beaming stars in his new wife’s eyes, the fresh salt of her happy tears smudging her carefully applied kohl, as he readies his camera to take a few shots of this moment of short-lived bliss. In his robust arms, he wants his love to make her way to the island of his newfound love, brushing past the mist, haze and darkness that had caught them, united them.
The new bride, dressed in a beige colored cotton sari with scarlet borders she has secretly bought for this occasion, a small, shining nose stud and a cheap pendent of stone hanging between the folds of her sari, smolders. While the priest looks into both their eyes, she wistfully remembers her old ties and old promises of love, buried under the merciless sands of time.
Here, standing in front of her is a new tie, the touch and intimacy of new hands that squeeze and stroke hers, corroding the geographical distance between continents. She stands in the brink of a life marked with the forces of her sadness, and takes a deep, meditated plunge. She commits herself to a relentless act of finding her way back to a world of sanity that had evaded her for long.
The guy standing in front of her, taking pictures of her is a real man, emerging out of the dusty memories of virtual rendezvous over the phone and on the internet. The guy, dressed in a milk white, embroidered kurta pajama she had bought for him in anticipation and glory of this moment, is more real and tangible than her first real date, her first tears of love and its consummation, the string of crashes and thuds of her heartbreaks which she had latched on to, for years. Getting married to this guy, or any guy that her family would have chosen for her, for that matter, she knew, would mean an endless pandemonium of Bengali wedding rituals, a reception bringing in flocks of people chewing on scrumptious food and admiring the bridal wear and jewelry. People, she was sure, would know nothing of the serenity and pain that gave birth to this communion. Both of them had to surrender to all of this lavish display of festivity and the endless shackles of Bengali wedding rituals for ensuring peace within their respective families, at the end of which the bride would find herself stranded in a suffocating 5’ by 7’ room in the old, narrow alleys of Calcutta. Her man would be flying away ten thousand miles, to the everyday occurrence of their crazy, long, untimely, distant calls and correspondences.
The man and his wife marry secretly, ardently in one of the most brief, unceremonious occurrences in their lives. Together, they watch the crimson rays of the setting sun on the bank of the river, hand in hand, as this sacred day devoid of all grandeur and lavishness passes away into a mist of oblivion. This twilight moment that has blossomed in their lives will soon be eclipsed by a world of flesh and bones, a world where the power and beauty of such an unassuming day wouldn’t matter anyway.
“How do I look with the sindoor in my head parting?” The new bride asks her groom.
“Like my new princess, pure, demure, serene.” He replies, walking along with her, down the stairs that led to the shrine of Goddess Kali. The priest had given them the prasaad offerings, which he had touched at the Goddess’ feet and nodded his head with an all-knowing grin, ‘sanctioning’ the union.
The new bride feels the ardor of the crimson hues of vermilion in her forehead, a moment of pride and temptation in its simplest form, as she rubs the color of love off her head parting in a cotton towel.
“Did I rub it off well? It’s not showing now, right?” She asked, wanting to confirm. Back at home today, she would still be the unknowing, seemingly innocent spinster, stumbling over a herd of curious relatives. Should I care less? She contemplates. Since when had she had started becoming a conformist? She laughs, then shrugs her shoulders.
She thinks of this simple fairy-tale of her life a fairy-tale in which she found peace and salvation which no prayer could offer her. She rubs off the traces of vermilion and the first, tensed, unskilled kiss of her man planted on her cold, shivering lips on her way home and prepares herself for a string of Hindu marriage rituals to follow in which parents, relatives and friends would intervene to solidify her union with this man. The dragons of the archetypal Bengali festivities of give and take, the smoking fire and wood and the holy Sanskrit chanting of the priest would testify the purity, validity and permanence of their union. In her mind, she is the mermaid, her fins and tail set deep in the ocean of pure, unabridged trust in this ordinary day of communion, while with her hands and upper body, she struggles in the sandy crag mire of customs and traditions she has grown up on. The trembling, sincere hands of her man leaves hers on the verge of returning home, where they will soon be devoured by the frenzy and sights and sounds of their “ayeeburobhaat”, their last grand meals as a bachelor and a spinster.
The mermaid and her man of the land see off each other as their eyes contain both the sea and the land. Three days later at their nuptial bed decked with flowers, they tried to find their true selves in each other’s eyes, where they discovered themselves, unbound, whole and true. They unzipped themselves, when at the end of all festivities and a lavish dinner party, the wicked grins and hush-hush of young and middle-aged women in the family reeked of sanctioned sex and proximity.
A not-so-young woman wipes the thin grains of dust accumulated in the body of a wooden picture frame that lovingly locks a picture collage of their wedding and reception in Kolkata, India. She looks into the separate images of their big fat Bengali wedding day with her draped in expensive bridal clothing, jewels and the bright scarlet glory of henna adorning her hands and feet. She looks into the smiling, victorious face of her man dressed up in a dhoti, both their foreheads and cheeks painted with the sacred sandalwood paste; she looks in awe at the robust arms that held her close in Dakshineshwar as he applies the vermilion once more to the head of his new bride.
An elder cousin sister holds her veil and covers her head with an extra piece of ensemble to preserve the chastity and modesty of the bride. Tucked in the extreme left of the wedding collage, the young woman, pure and demure in her simple beige color sari with scarlet borders, in her shining nose stud and cheap stone pendant looks out at the setting sun and the rays of love that settles in his eyes. He, to whom she silently said: “For God’s sake, hold thy tongue and let me love”, he, with whom she has dived along.
Parents, relatives and friends routinely wish them “a happy anniversary” every year, trying to hold on to the sanctity of the day which held them together, in fire, rituals and festivities. All of these years, love has held itself in words and in silence, in indifference and in recognition, in estrangement and in reunion, in silly late night bickering and in the sillier moments of surrendering. Do the man and the woman, now seeped in their habitual comfort zones, ever stop to walk in the heavenly sky of the day they became man and wife, when no ritual, no aura of festivals surrounded them? Somewhere, deep in the ocean, the mermaid and her love of the land pull at each other and dive deeper. Never wary of the crashing waves, they build a world in the turquoise blue waves of the ocean. They float in the ocean, enjoying their liberation from the burning embers of fire and the chanting from the Vedic scriptures that had locked them in a ‘holy’ matrimony.