Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Look (A Short Story)

On 13 March, at six ‘clock in the evening, all the wedding guests gathered together for the mehndi ceremony of the bride. The earthly smell of freshly prepared henna mixed with spicy scent of fried samosas and the sweet rose-like aroma of juicy gulaab jamuns and rassgullas. It was the mingling of such luxurious scents that provoked excitement in the circle of women. In bright yellow, purple, blue, green, and pink saris, the older women observed their daughters clad in similarly colorful, flowing lehnga-cholis. Jewelry glittered brightly in the golden light of the marigold-garland-covered living room. At the height of excitement and anticipation—some ladies had glided towards the food tables, while others had formulated into small conversation groups—a hefty lady, Mrs. Rajan, in a parrot-green sari stood atop the small harem-styled platform that the bride-to-be and her close friends sat on.

“Ladies, let us begin the naach-gana for our dear, peyari Suhaani’s mehndi. Come on girls, let’s get dance!” Dismounting the platform with some difficulty, Mrs. Rajan began to gather young ladies around her. With Bollywood movie songs blaring on the stereo system, the girls—who would in one or two more years be getting married themselves—began to twirl their long skirts to the modernized Hindi wedding songs. Adding jingling sounds of bracelets and small ankle bells to the music, they filled the room with enhanced sounds of celebration.

Suhaani’s aunt’s cousin’s daughter, Pooja, stood behind the “aunties,” unpleasantly tall, skinny, and not-so-fair. Despite her flawless, almost militaristically done makeup, she didn’t look the part of a twenty-year-old daughter of a prominent businessman; she looked more like a wealthy farmer’s daughter. Pooja watched the other girls—close to her in age—flutter about freely on the makeshift dance floor.

“Look at our Suhaani, kitni khush lag rahi hai, you can just tell from that beautiful smile.” The aunties around her had just begun a new conversation.

Haye Raam, it seems like just yesterday that our daughters were still learning to walk. They grow up so fast—”

“Oh Mrs. Sharma, have you tried the samosas? I definitely must get the recipe from Anju. She is simply an amazing cook, Mrs. Patel is so lucky to have a daughter-in-law like her. I will surely send my daughter to her for cooking lessons. Just imagine, she will win her in-laws’ hearts in a matter of days if she can cook like this.”

The lady named Mrs. Sharma replied, “That reminds me Behanji, my husband’s nephew is an NRI, very well-settled in New York. Haye Raam, he is such a sweet young man. Should I recommend your daughter to his family?”

Getting bored of the talks of these elderly society women, Pooja wandered to another corner. Here, she stood behind giggling girls. Somewhat less civilized than the older women; they teased each other about crushes, discussed the latest movies of Shahrukh Khan, and analyzed the hottest trends in clothing. Pooja moved on to where her mother was immersed in an important discussion. She stood there and partially listened with complete disinterest. Not getting any notice from her mother or the ladies with her, Pooja decided to go for a stroll in the garden.

Just as she reached the door, a whirlwind of boys stormed in. Turning to look behind her, she could see how much excitement this stormy entry had caused on the dance floor. The guys, in their black, tan, and white sherwanis and jet-black hair done carefully to look carefree, added a heavy contrast to the previously glittery and soft atmosphere. Pooja decided there was no way she would come back inside. She had come because this was meant to be a ladies-only event, there weren’t supposed to be any men around to enhance the discomfort of such a large social gathering.

Pooja turned around and left the room. With the heels of her white, polished sandals, she crushed every fallen leave as she walked. The evening wind graciously showered her with fresh flower petals; she trod upon them as well. Although Pooja had attended many such pre-wedding ceremonies, she assumed that aimlessly touring the garden would allow her escape from the society that threatened to suffocate her. Crushing leaves and petals, Pooja was startled when she crashed into a tall figure in a black sherwani.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered as his light brown eyes searched hers in extreme confusion. Gently placing his hands over her bare arms, he guided Pooja out of his way. Leaving a trail of the soft aroma of cologne, his well-built figure disappeared into the guest-filled house. Pooja stood watching, unable to think, still lost in his wonderful, bright, confused eyes.

Finally snapping out of the daze that the mysterious stranger had left her in, she rushed back into the house. Full of joy, excitement and ambition, like the other girls, she let her eyes search for her stranger, her ajnabi. The samosas suddenly appealed to her previously hidden craving. She quickly piled a plate with tasty sweet and spicy delectable goodies; after all, they were meant for her on this very special day. Lost in the search for her ajnabi, Pooja never realized when her plate became empty and when she got pulled onto the dance floor. Even though she had been labeled as a behanji, sister and type by all the guys she had known in school and college, her behanji status seemed irrelevant at the moment. Pooja found herself dancing in the mixture of young men and women. She observed and analyzed them, but even the drop-dead representations of Bollywood celebrities couldn’t make her heart flutter as the ajnabi had.

This only happened in the movies, but then again, it wasn’t completely impossible. No doubt he was a cousin of either the bride or groom, perhaps a friend. In his hurry to get inside, his path had accidentally clashed with hers. This was highly probable, but she still looked for him as if he were a long lost love.

All night long, as she surveyed the many young male faces that had crashed the civilized ladies-only get-together, Pooja’s mind kept asking, “Who is he? Where is he?”

Even though the guy in front of her had similarly styled hair, his lack of light brown eyes and an excess of body building made the very sight of him repugnant to her. Mentally, she was taking in every single male face, trying to mix and match everybody’s distinct features to reconstruct the short-lived glance of him.

After most traditional mehndi ceremonies were completed on the sidelines of the dance floor, guests began to trickle out of the house and to their own mini-mansions. Good nights and see you tomorrows were exchanged as ladies embraced each other in farewell. For the first time, Pooja wanted to come back, to see Suhaani’s wedding ceremony through the end, and to give her love a chance at fulfillment. She exited the door in devastation. She knew she couldn’t come back, the wedding would be in Singapore and she was only a distant relative.

On the drive home, Pooja kept thinking about her wonderful ajnabi. Like a television screen, scenes of the night played and replayed in her head, scenes of the possible future also teased her. With her head leaned against the car window, her last waking thoughts were of meeting him again, loving him, spending her life with him. And her dreams showed her the same tantalizing scenes.

The car screeching to a halt in front of their three-story bungalow made her lose the feeling of warmth she had sensed in her dreams, but the joys of what had happened, refused to let any annoyance enter her singing heart. Following her mother, Pooja decided that she would share this with her. She would surely understand and perhaps even help.

“Ma,” she called following her mother into the drawing room. “I have to tell you something.”

“What is it? I’m very tired, hurry up.”

Seeing the exhausted and uninterested expression on her mother’s face, Pooja cast her eyes down and with head bent low, went upstairs to her meticulous room walled and furnished in bright white. In the mirror, she looked at herself and wanted desperately to see her ajnabi standing next to her. When she finally slept, she dreamt dreams full of color and visions of the mysterious gentleman whose one look had changed her entire world. Her nightly dreams began to bring her breathtaking bridal dresses in deep shades of red, pink, maroon, and golden. The presence of her ajnabi transformed her into an intoxicating, sensuous beauty. Each image that she luxuriated in would shatter with daybreak and she would be left to dwell on the rapidly dissolving memory of the night he had looked at her.

Many times, on the pretense of going to the library, Pooja would drive past Suhaani’s house. If he were a cousin, she would surely see him there again, she told herself. Every drive would refresh her memory. The garden, the pathways, they were all the same, but they had changed her life forever. Driving past the house that housed her most prized memory, she would begin to question whether the way he looked at her was mere confusion.

Even though it seemed more like a fantasy, she knew it happened to everyone. Even in an arranged marriage culture, love was surely one of the things that none could avoid. What had happened to her was normal, nothing extraordinary or strange. Convinced of the normalcy of her experience, she felt safe in her predicament.

On 13 October, finding her mother in the kitchen after returning from her drive past Suhaani’s house, Pooja decided to talk to her. “Ma, you know, at Suhaani’s wedding, something very special happened to me.”

“Really?” Even though she could see that her mother was busy, Pooja narrated the entire story to her.

“That’s nice honey. Get me the phone; I need to make a very important call.”

Handing her the phone, Pooja waited around the kitchen. Her mother was calling one of the many aunties she claimed to be close to. After listening to gossip that appeared to have no visible end, Pooja decided to retrace her steps to Suhaani’s house. The entire outskirt of the city appeared to be asleep today. Through her open car window, she could hear the sounds of traffic miles away, but nothing close enough to give her company in the silence that she could feel creeping into herself. Tree leaves were falling. Even though Pooja longed to catch those falling leaves, her car rushed past them, sending them flying far out of sight. She could see Suhaani’s house ahead on her right, she also saw people. Slowing down her car, Pooja saw Suhaani’s nieces and nephews, dressed in gray and white school uniforms, chasing two tiny white puppies. The kids squealed in delight while the puppies playfully began to dig up the garden. Unaware that she had stopped driving, Pooja continued to watch as the garden transformed into a playground for children and their dogs.

Pooja looked on at the joke her life had played on her, but she couldn’t find any laughter to brush it aside. “Love doesn’t happen like this and dreams aren’t always realistic,” she thought. Regaining an awareness of her surroundings, she drove back home, back to her white room.