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The falling snow caressed my long brown hair as I fought to enter my front door. I flung the door open and hurried into the sauna-like warmth. As I took off my jacket, I heard laughter and music coming from the living room. The delicious aroma of spicy food filled the air. What is going on?
My mother came out of the kitchen holding a tray of teacups and butter biscuits. “Ma!” I whispered. As she looked at me, relief spread across her face.
“Aruhi, oh Jai Sri Ram! Thank God you are finally home! The Sharma family is here to see you. Go to your room. I put out a sari and some jewelry. Quickly put them on, and oh, do something about your hair.”
“What do you mean a family is here to see me?”
“They are here to see you for marriage. They brought a proposal!” My mother nudged me toward my room. “Kunal Sharma is 36, a paleontologist, makes lot of money, good chara-”
I stopped. “I told you I don’t want an arranged marriage! I don’t want to marry a stranger. I don’t care how much he makes … and 36?”
My mother widened her eyes. “Aruhi, we are not having this conversation again. You are getting married to a man of my choice, and that’s it. He is a good ladka, and he will make you happy.”
“Mother-” I started to protest.
“No, I will not hear anything else. Get changed and meet us in the living room immediately.” She pushed me into my room and slammed the door.
I found the sparkly teal sari and matching jewelry laid out on my bed.
An arranged marriage proposal? Was my mother serious? Fury ran through me. They wanted to see a traditional, well-behaved girl, huh? Well, I would show them one. Wrapping the long piece of clothing around my body, I prepared myself for the performance of a lifetime.
Leaving my room, I was greeted by my mother, who beamed and shoved a tray full of samosas and chai into my hands.
“Go in there and make a good impression. Remember they have to choose you.”
“Don’t I have a choice?”
She heaved a sigh. “Aruhi, how many times do I have to tell you,” she cupped my cheeks in her soft hands. “That’s not how things work.”
I entered the living room and all eyes fell on me.
“Oh good. Here is Aruhi,” my grandmother said, beaconing me into the room. “Put down the tray and serve the chai,” she said.
I looked at the crowd of strangers in my living room. The bachelor’s parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and various children were sprawled across the couches. I searched for my “future husband” and found him in the corner of the couch, squeezed between overweight aunts.
He was staring at me like a hungry predator. His face was shaved except for a pesky little mustache, which at that moment twitched. His forehead was shiny and a bald spot peeked out.
As instructed, I put the tray on the coffee table and served tea to each family member. When I had finished, the father cleared his throat. “Namaste beta.” He gave me a small smile.
“Hey, how are you?” I replied with a grin.
He and his wife exchanged looks.
“My wife and I would like to know a little bit about you.”
“Well, I’m in my junior year in college-”
“College?” the mother butted in. “Do you plan to continue studies after marriage?”
I looked at her as if she spoke Russian. “Of course.”
Mrs. Sharma looked surprised. “I mean, it’s going to take time away from your household duties.”
“Listen, Mrs. Sharma, I am not going to drop out of college to clean my own house. I plan on becoming a lawyer.”
She gaped at me. “Why do you need a degree? Once you get married, Kunal will support you. What you need to do, as a woman, is maintain the household.”
Her words, like tinder, fueled the fire that was burning inside me. I clenched my fists. “I am very capable of earning a degree and having a career to support myself.”
My grandma started to fan herself, her eyebrows furrowed at me. The Sharma family were shifting uncomfortably and murmuring among themselves.
Mrs. Sharma glared at her husband and turned to me. “What can you cook?”
“Can’t cook?” She turned to look at my mother.
“What are you saying, Aruhi?” my mother said, giggling nervously. “I taught you to cook.”
“You did try, Mom. I was the one who couldn’t learn.”
Mrs. Sharma put her hand on her forehead. “Oh devi maya! What girl does not know how to cook? Who is going to feed my Kunal?”
I looked at Kunal who was eyeing me sheepishly. “Kunal, do you not know how to cook either?”
Mrs. Sharma answered for him. “What nonsense! What would he be doing learning how to cook?”
I raised my eyebrow at her. “Oh? So it is not necessary for him to learn how to cook, but for me it’s mandatory?”
She looked at her husband, who was listening with a peculiar expression on his face.
“Well, because he is a man. Once he is married, his wife will serve him.”
“Excuse me, serve him? Would I be his wife or his servant?”
“Aruhi!” my mother said in a hushed whisper. “Stop this!”
Mrs. Sharma was getting annoyed with me. A little wrinkle had formed between her bushy eyebrows. “Okay, moving on. After the marriage, when you move into our house, how do you-”
“Wait a minute. Move into your house?”
“You have a problem with this too?” she said, exasperated. “Aruhi, since your mother did not teach you …” She shot a look at my mom, who looked away quickly. My heart sank a bit, she was ashamed because of me. “… I will explain it to you. In our culture, when two people get married, the girl leaves her old life behind and moves into her in-laws’ home, starting a new and wonderful life.”
I scoffed. “What? You mean to tell me that the girl has to sacrifice everything, leaving her family, education, and career behind, for a stranger, and the man stays in the same house, continues with his career, and gains a wife-servant too? This is utterly ridiculous!”
“Ridiculous?” Mrs. Sharma said, her eyes flashing and her arms flying up. “You cannot cook, you reply to a namaste with ‘how are you,’ and you plan on continuing college and becoming a lawyer!” She laughed bitterly. “A woman lawyer – now that’s ridiculous!”
I shot up from my seat, my hands trembling and my breathing rapid. “The fact that you think that a girl cannot become a lawyer just shows how shallow and narrow-minded you are. It’s the twenty-first century. Take a look around. Women are in the government. They are doctors and engineers, not just housewives who agree with everything their husbands say.” I took a deep breath. “Apparently you are too old to understand that times have changed.”
Mrs. Sharma’s mouth dropped. “Did you just call me old? What a disgraceful girl. I did not come here to be insulted! We have plenty of well-mannered young women waiting in line for Kunal.”
Mrs. Sharma stood to leave. Everyone else stood. Mr. Sharma was looking at me with the same peculiar expression.
As Kunal’s family filed out, Mr. Sharma approached my distressed mother, who was shooting death glares at me. “We will call with our decision,” he said.
I knew what the answer would be. No traditional family would want their son to marry a young woman with such a strong will and sharp tongue. They wanted a quiet, submissive bride who wouldn’t ask questions.
After they left, I expected my mother to erupt like a volcano, but she said nothing. She went into her room, and I heard the lock click. She didn’t come out for the rest of the night.
The next day, I was getting ready for class when the phone rang. I heard my mother’s footsteps as she went to pick it up. I stopped curling my hair. This might be Kunal’s parents calling to say they weren’t interested. I snickered.
Suddenly, I heard a loud clatter and my mom’s heavy footsteps hurrying to my room. She burst in.
“They said yes! Your marriage to Kunal has been arranged!”
I listened quietly then turned, reached into my closet for my suitcases, and began to pack.