My Minda returned home from her first day at Shri Krishna College and discovered that Subji-Auntie had spent the day with the newspapers, with The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, even The Delhi Times, scouring matrimonial ads. She had snipped them, Subji-Auntie did, the ones she found most promising, and arranged them in a delicate jigsaw puzzle on the dining table for Minda's parents to review.
The puzzle puzzled my Minda as she entered from the street, flushed with the excitement of her initiation into college life, and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. The little scraps of newsprint made a pattern on the table. She bent over and discovered what they contained and understood at once. She was surprised only that there were so many eligible ones--not ideal, not really possible, many of them, but eligible.
By that evening the puzzle had disappeared, but Minda's mother looked at her over the dinner table, worried and silent. Subji-Auntie did not look at Minda at all during the meal, but she ate a great deal of dal and purred at her fingers, licking them clean like a satisfied cat.
Every day for two years Minda returned home to discover a fresh puzzle spread accusingly across the table. "Some very nice boys are looking for young brides," Subji-Auntie says, not every day and not to Minda, but to Minda's mother. "Young brides."
"I am a writer," I say to Minda, "and you are studying history. Together we can create the solution."
I have a plan.
My brother Alok suggested it.
Even so, it is a brilliant plan.
Minda and I met at a poetry reading, students from different colleges gathering at the South Campus of the University. What matters is not that we talked and we had coffee, that we walked together and met, when we could, when we dared, every week for more than a year. It does not matter that we fell in love, or it matters only to us. What matters is that her family are Brahman, Maithili Brahman, not terribly wealthy or ambitious, but Brahman nonetheless and they will marry her only to an auspicious candidate.
I am that candidate. My family is also from Mithila. We are Brahman as well. My family has known her family since Prince Rama came to fetch his bride Sita. Our family name, Misra, is the same name; we are even related, cousins, but not for more than seven generations and that is all that matters. It is not chance that Minda and I met at the poetry reading; it is chance that we did not know each other all of our lives. I am the auspicious candidate.
Even so, we must make it seem not a love match but a match arranged in the stars. And so it is in truth. If our parents, hers and mine, had known each other, if it had occurred to them, they would have made the match without our--assistance. But, but. If we approach through a matchmaker now it will be impossible. Family honor would sniff out the taint of our affection, our planning. There is another way. Subji-Auntie's way.
Alliance invited for educated young man with great prospects as writer. Age 21, 5'7", 60 kg. Looking for educated girl with creative abilities, modern views. No dowry. Must be Maithil Brahman. Write Box 4777.
Minda shakes her head, bites her lip as I smooth the sheet of paper before her with my hand. She is already ahead of me, knows at once what I am suggesting. No pleasure allowed me: no surprise, delight, admiration for my craft. "Educated girl," she says. "That's all? My family will be offended--your family must insist on more. Beautiful. Definitely must include beautiful." She winds her dupatta disdainfully around her throat--a beautiful throat.
"Sure," I say. "Naturally."
"And you don't seem much of a catch. Great prospects. What are they?" Flicking her hand, she glances away, annoyed with me. "Great prospects mean nothing. What about the salary you must have? And you mustn't tell them you're a writer--that will kill it right off, Misra or no Misra." She gives a quick, dismissive shake of her head.
"Great--see what a team we are? You helping me be more creative this way."
But she isn't through yet. "You must impress them, Vijay. Let them expect you to be bigger--they will not realize when they see you. Make it five eleven and seventy kilos."
"Make him a real dreamboat, why not?"
She snaps me a quick look, blushes.
Alliance invited for educated, affluent young man with career. Age 24, 5'11", 70 kg. Looking for beautiful, educated, talented girl. No dowry. Must be Maithil Brahman. Contact Box 4777.
Even so, it doesn't happen right away. Hawklike Subji-Auntie, Subji-Auntie who doesn't miss anything, she misses the ad. Three days in a row Minda comes home and studies the puzzle of the day and it isn't there. Her third year of college, and to make Mummy and Daddy happy, to keep Subji-Auntie at bay, she pretends closer attention. She considers the puzzle as if everything is now possible. They are waiting, her family. I am waiting, too. The stars must come together.
What I have not anticipated is that other letters will arrive. The box I gave--this, was I thinking?--is my parents' post box. Every day now, beginning with one, then two or three, each day more, the letters arrive. Mama is puzzled. "Alok--what is this about?" she asks my brother.
He shrugs. "Must be wrong box, wrong advert, Mama. You don't find me putting ad in paper."
But Babu, he has been searching and now finds it in the paper. "Look at this ad. If if isn't you, it seems to be you. Right height, right post box, right family even. Alok, what are you not telling us?"
Again my smooth brother shrugs innocently. "Maybe you placed ad for me, Babuji? Trying to trap me at last, are you?" He laughs, delighted with his joke, prying a toothpick between his teeth. Back in his chair he leans, laughing, flashing his brilliant teeth for all the world to see, even if it is only the family to see. He is practicing.
So many Maithili girls. I had no idea. Even so many Misras, cousins beyond cousins I never heard of. They must think I'm the Maharaja of Darbhanga, they're so many, they're so eager.
On the seventh day Subji-Auntie breaks down and presents the ad, one among an extraplentiful puzzle. Minda studies the riches carefully, oh no, not giving anything away. She doesn't hurry. Maybe, she thinks, she will not even notice today. The ad, if we are patient, will surely show up again. It will throw Auntie off the scent of scandal. But no, Minda finally taps her finger on the gray little scrap. "Hmmm," she says, tapping. "This one is interesting. What do you think, Mummy?"
One father writes to the other. A photo of my Minda is included. Yes, she is beautiful. She had no need to remind me. Her ears are not quite in alignment, it is true, and in this photo her chin seems very sharp. But Babu studies it seriously, one among several, and passes Minda to Alok. "And this one?" he asks.
"Bit of a dog, she seems to me," he says, with a bite of toast. He is heading out the door to his new scooter dealership. The suit he wears cost more than a college lecturer earns in a term. "But you are being so choosy already, Babuji--might as well have a look."
I hate my brother.
I have spent my life invisible, my brother's shadow. No, too small even to be his shadow--it would fit him only at midday. Cricket he played and soccer. So fast, such a star, so stupid--in school he did nothing. No, not true--he smoked, he smuggled bottles of beer with his friends.
School I could make my own. The life of the mind! The life of a writer--someday!
Babu arranges the visit for Thursday. Minda will come with her father for inspection. My mother spends Wednesday cooking and cleaning, harassing Subji-Auntie, who in turn harasses our servant. The house reeks of mango pickle, of ginger and peppers, of bathroom disinfectant and fresh mosquito coils. Mama will work herself up, exhaust herself, annoy herself at universal imperfection, all the better to be severe--a serene, dispassionate judge. As she picks clean the rice--this, only she can do--yet another notion occurs to her, and she raises her head. "Vijay, you will come too and see what you think," she calls
loudly, a generous afterthought.
Astonished, I manage not to snort through my nose. Then I do not want to laugh at all.
I grab Alok when he comes home for lunch, smug with selling still more, ever more scooters. "For you they are matchmaking," I tug at his arm. "You don't want a wife, Brother. You always say so. Tell them the match is for me," I demand angrily. "Tell them it was your idea. My Minda is coming."
"But this isn't you, Vijay Brother. Read the ad you wrote. Twenty-four it says. Five foot eleven, yes? Who is this if not me? It is your ad--you wrote it--but this is me you describe. Am I not right? Everything will be ruined without some care. Her father will be furious to find deceit. He will cancel everything. No, my advice--we must carry this through a little while."
Minda arrives with her father. She is all shyness and blushes, her dupatta spread modestly over her hair. Its tail, clutched in her fingers, conceals her sharp chin. I signal her, I wave and bob, but she does not see.
A match made in the stars they all agree. Mama is put out only that she cannot find more fault. Alok is casual, condescending. He sits on a cushion and smokes, gazing in appraisal at Minda through haze and half-closed eyes. Minda squirms self-consciously and says nothing.
I am invisible again. I tear at my hair. I stomp along the walls of the room and no one sees. "This is impossible," I say aloud--I think I say aloud--but no one hears.
Outside her classroom at Shri Krishna next day I catch Minda by the arm. Other students look on in alarm as she snatches herself free. "Stop it," she cries.
"But Minda--this is crazy. All of it. Crazy."
"What can I do?" she pleads with a stubborn shake of her head. "There is nothing for me to do. It is arranged. Settled. For once I graduate."
"But this is all craziness," I cry again. "This was to be for us, for you and me."
She shrugs. Nothing to be done, she says without saying.
Suddenly I stop short and peer at my Minda, disbelief and horror rising like a crashing surf about me. Shame, too--that I did not suspect before, that I was too slow. I snatch at her arm again but she tears free. "Did he do this? Was this arranged all along with his idea? And you? You and Alok?"
She is looking over my shoulder. "It was all in the stars," she says firmly and turns away.