I was visiting my Mama’s (maternal uncle) house in the winter vacations. It so happened by coincidence that a few distant relatives of us were also supposed to come visit there that evening. There was a lot of hustle bustle and preparations going on in the house that day. They were actually coming to see my cousin sister, Ishrat, who was three years elder to me, as a potential match to their son for marriage. Since I was close to her right from our childhood, I was elated and excited to learn of this development.
I began teasing her and making fun of her. It was only after sometime in her room that I noticed she wasn’t in a good mood. When I asked her the reason, why she was being so dull, opening the old iron almirah she said, ‘This time too, people will come, eat, see me and leave. They’ll demand a big sum and an unending list of things in dowry.’ She took out a bunch of saris and laid it on her bed. The dampness in her eyes was clearly visible.
‘Abba won’t be able to afford all that and then we will never hear from them again. That’s it. That’s the same old story which is being repeated since last year. My colour is saanvla (dark), they say. But we all know what the main reason is.’
She said this with such an emotional voice that I actually came to realise that my Mama is indeed a poor man. A man in his sixties, even though married away his three daughters respectfully, was still bearing the burden of marrying an ageing daughter, with a small grocery store as his only source of income.
While taking out a makeup kit from the top shelf of the almirah she said, ‘On top of that, I have to get all dressed up in these saris, apply this stupid makeup and then go sit in front of strangers who stare at me and ask stupid questions. I feel like I am on a display, like an article put up in a showroom for the customers to buy.’
Her last sentence went straight to my head. I realised what all girls must feel when they go through this phase. I was about to open my mouth to say how sorry I feel about her, but she continued to pour out her heart while trying to select a sari to wear.
‘Even if Abba manages to arrange all the things, I still have to marry a stranger. I have to accept whoever is chosen for me. I don’t even have a say in it. They will ship me off to a stranger family’, holding a sari in each hand and observing them, she paused a bit to swallow a lump in her throat and then continued.
‘However, I have made up my mind for these things. I will crush all my desires and wishes for Abba’s sake. After all, he deserves it.’ She sat on the corner of the bed. A tear built up at the brim of her eye and rolled down at the blink.
It was such a depressing sight. I felt really sorry for her. My mind was in a very different state by now. This compromising nature of hers reminded me of my mother. There is a big generation gap between both of them but the problems seemed to be almost the same. I was now thinking about all the things that I haven’t before.
In a futile attempt to console her I said, ‘Don’t worry Ishrat baji, everything will be alright. Why don’t you speak about this to Mama? I am sure he will understand and at least listen to what you think about all these matters’.
Wiping her tears with a stole and trying to put a smile on her crying face, she said; ’you don’t have idea about anything, my sweet little bhai.’ I felt like I was Jon Snow for a moment there.
‘Things are very different for you boys and us girls. You live in a far away city to study; you have all the freedom granted to you by your family. I completed my graduation here with decent marks. No one even cares about it. Getting a decent job was never allowed to become my priority; it was always about getting a good match for the wedding. The picture has not much changed here since you left our hometown. And you think I haven’t tried explaining this to anyone? I talked about this to Ammi once, but instead of understanding my feelings and sympathising with me she lectured me on family honour, Abbas’s respect in the society, my sisters’ examples, what our relatives will say and hundred other useless topics.’
Whenever I hear someone’s problems I imagine myself being in their place and start thinking from their perspective. This has helped me a lot in understanding people’s problem. And so my thoughts ran faster than Dhoni’s running between the wickets.
What if I were a girl like Ishrat, staying in rural India? Would I have all the freedom that I have? Would I be forced to marry someone I don’t like? Why is there a bias of opinion for different sexes? When we say ‘mera desh badal raha hai’ (my country is transforming), does this actually apply to every village and town? Have we forgotten that real India lives in rural India?
My train of thoughts was halted by Ishrat’s slap on the back of my head. ‘Now don’t go thinking about it so much you fool, or else you’ll blame me for your receding hairline. I’ve made my peace with everything. Don’t you worry about me’, she said in a comforting way. ‘But there is one thing that you can do for me, will you?’ she said, with a seriousness in her voice. ‘Yes Baji, whatever you say’, I replied more seriously. ‘Could you please get the hell out of my room so that I can get ready?’ she said aloud with a pseudo anger expressions on her face, pointing towards the door. We both burst into laughter and all the tension vanished from her face.
She came back to her normal behaviour, but I emerged from that room with turmoil of thoughts in my head and words that made a deep impact on my mind.