“She is here!” I came running and clapping my hands. I tried catching my breath back.
Maai came outside the kitchen wiping her hands with the end of her sari. She and Kaki were busy cooking delicacies for last two days. Amma, my grandma, was making floral garlands to decorate the wada, our house.
“All the flowers are lying here and there. People are going to step over them. Amma, clean this up!” Maai was trying to check everything fell in place at this very last moment.
“What are you wearing, Megha? You are looking like a freak. Why do you wear this torn up jeans and yester year’s t-shirt. You dress up lady, wear something good!” Maai looked at me, joyously furious. I was sure she was addicted to chew over each and every activity that I would do and command me to change that. I hardly did what she said. I knew when to follow and when to ignore! ‘She has to move with times’, I had already concluded!
She took the decorated puja plate full of kumkum, haldi and a diya (lamp) and some flowers. There was a different plate full of sweets, in which I was the least interested. ‘Why do they not make Samosas and Kachoris on such auspicious occasions? What is this deal with ladoos and ladoos and everything else tasting exactly like the ladoos?’ I hated sweets. But my mother couldn’t resist making them.
The open yard in the middle of our wada was cleaned and the floor was perfectly levelled with the cow dung. The complete wada was dusted inside out. They even washed the trunk of the big huge mango tree near the entrance of our house. Every space, every area looked so clean and inviting. Since last two weeks there was so much work going on in our house, everybody was so busy that we hardly had time to breathe. I got a lot of chocolates and a rupee or two coins for doing all the donkey work, running here and there, transferring small things, dusting tables, serving water to people and going to other houses to invite people for puja and lunch that day. I was the youngest and heavily welcomed everywhere, so I had been assigned this task of communicating the day to all the villagers.
‘How can this woman check if all the things are in place in such a short time? Was there actually any need to panic? And would Akka really mind if something is not upto the mark?’ I was wondering!
Though it looked like Dussehra or Diwali preparations, it was just my elder sister, Anagha, returning home after successfully completing her graduation in architecture. It was not ‘just a graduation’, she actually stood first in the university and was the gold medalist for that year. She was the most loved student of the college, as we had heard her stories from my elder brother Mithilesh a.k.a bhau, when he came back from Mumbai last winter. Mumbai had knocked him off his feet, and he was at the loss of words when he used to describe the grandeur of the city. He was equally enchanted with his sister’s status in the college and the city’s lifestyle and facilities. He used to mimic the taxi walas and the roadside vendors, talking Mumbaiya Hindi like them and was thrilled to see the aircraft just above his head…so near, he would imagine he would jump up and touch it! I must admit, he was a weird being for all of us for a couple of weeks after his return, but who would refuse the charm of the city which never sleeps!
When my father, Baba, visited her, many of her friends came to meet him. They did not stop praising her and telling him how graceful his daughter had been for them. This February she flied to Delhi as her presentation was selected for a National Level Competition. Her college sponsored her travel and stay and Baba had gone to drop her to the airport. My father was as proud as a peacock to see her make the best of her days.
Bhau and Baba never stopped praising Akka and Mumbai. In fact, it was the characteristic of the men of our village to exaggerate anything, be it good or bad, and tell the experience in the way no human would have ever experienced!
So Akka was back to the village with a gold medal! ‘Did everyone gather to see her medal? Or did they want to see how a person who has traveled on a plane looks like? Or did they wanted to see if Mumbai actually makes a person fairer? Or they wanted to take suggestions from her for their children? In that case what is Rangutai, the oldest woman of this village doing here? May be they all were here to participate in our joy that my sister has returned. Were they just happy, like me? I was so happy that finally she was home, and we would be back once again as we were, back in old days!
She entered the house. Bhau and his friends were carrying her luggage. She was wearing a simple sky blue colored kurti, a dark blue leggings, a simple sandal with not more than an inch of heel and was carrying a decent jute purse on her shoulder.
“Aww, you got those spects Akka!” I was louder than usual.
“Shh..Stand still Megha! Let me do the aarti first (wave the plate full with kumkum and lamps in front of her)!” Maai reminded the priorities. After the aarti, she was looking like a victorious queen returning from a war, that big round kumkum on her forehead and a big garland of marigold around her neck! Rangutai hastily came forward with salt and water to remove any spell of evil eye that could possibly trouble my sister. This was so glamourous, I too wanted to go to Mumbai or any big, huge city and come back glorious, just like my Akka! I was sure every girl of our village must be thinking the same thing, that I was…to locate and follow my sister’s footsteps! Ooh!
‘My dear sister! Akka! I am so proud of you! I love you so much!’ I just wanted everyone to go away so that get some alone time with her, so that she can show what she has brought for me from Mumbai, I could listen to her stories and experiences from her college and about the dream city and I could tell her everything happening with me in my school, show her my trophies I won in the winter games this year, take her to our farm and climb the big, old mango tree and do a lot of things that we used to do before she went to Mumbai for higher studies. I could not still believe that she was totally free now, she was going to stay with us forever. I was on cloud nine!
“Wait, what is everybody still doing here? Why are they taking seats in our aangan (yard)? And where did Akka go?” I was so busy in my own dreamland that I missed the moment when Akka slipped into her room, probably accompanied with Maai and Kaki.
“Megha, go to the Bhatji (village priest). Tell him that everything is ready and everybody have arrived. People are waiting for him.” Bhau was so desperate.
“Bhatji? Now?” I could not relate.
“Don’t you understand what I am saying? It’s so late already. Go quick baby. We don’t have enough time!”
I was out of options and filled with so many questions! The second moment, I was running towards bhat’s house without putting on my slippers. His old, tiny hut was just beside the Ram Mandir, near the river, ten houses across the lane.
“Bhatji, bhau has summoned you, you should hurry!” I tried to put my words so that the bhat should understand it was urgent.
“Ahh, so they are here. Let me cross check the panchang. Girl, you go ahead. I will join you in less than 10 mins!” He already seemed to understand that the matter was important.
I returned home in hurry. But what I saw there was unexpected. Akka was wearing a saree(!), a bindi and bangles in both the hands! ‘Somebody needs to explain this to me. Now!’ I was horrified.
“What’s going on here?” I went to Akka and asked my question without any pause.
“A family has arrived from Pune to meet your sister and all of us!” Maai said pulling me aside.
“ To see her? As in for marriage?” I was loud and offensive. This time there were many heads turning towards me! All of the chaos suddenly stopped and everyone was silent, as if I said something sinister. It was awkward!
“For marriage?” I muttered so that only Maai would hear me.
I stumbled. This was not what I had thought up. I had to talk to my sister, before anything starts.
“Akka, I want to talk to you. Now!” I was about to cry. She understood my situation. She mumbled a line or two going near my mother and we went to her room, which was a little away from where all this drama was taking place.
“What is all this Akka? Did you know about this before? Did they ask for your consent? Did you see the boy’s picture? How can they do this to you when you just have returned after so many years? And that too with the medal?” I was agitated.
“Whoa! Meghu, you are such a darling! But you need to calm down. Everything is okay, it is under control. The boy, Makarand, is my professor’s, Patil sir’s nephew. I did not know about Patil sir’s intent before. But when Baba came to take me home yesterday, sir seemed to initiate the conversation. Makarand is returning back to States this weekend, so they wanted to see if this works out for us. I am not so sure about this. But Baba and Maai have assured that whatever I decide, they would go with it! The truth is we couldn’t bluntly say ‘no’ to my sir. That’s all!”
“Your professor? What a psychopath!” I was so angry. But I had to pretend to understand the situation, though I didn’t!
“Bah! You just say no to him! You understand!” I took her hand in my hands and assumed that everything was okay. We returned back to the people.
The guests had already arrived and were waiting outside the village. It was a convention to ask the probable groom to enter the girl’s house at a particular ‘Shubh Muhurat” (auspicious time). This time would be conveyed by Bhatji. It did not mean the matter was fixed, it was kind of a ritual to be followed by every boy’s family when they came to our village to ask for our girl’s hand in marriage. That was considered propitious for both the families if the matter was fixed.
“It’s time to call them. The next 15 minutes are the finest time of the day.” He could have told the exact time to me as well when I had gone to his house to call him. But people here knew how to maintain their stature!
The guests entered the house within 5 minutes. I quickly identified the boy. He was handsome, tall and fair. Akka too did not hesitate to look at him or his parents. The conversation started with ease. There were some questions asked by boy’s parents and a couple of questions from the boy. Akka answered each of them without any reluctance. She was cool and contained. Her professor, who was the mediator in this case, looked so happy. He knew her, he knew her good! She was more that perfect for his nephew! Everything looked in apple-pie order, just in place! “Anagha, do you have any questions for Makarand or any of us?” Patil sir finally asked Akka.
My sister smiled. “Yes, I do sir!” she said. “I have nothing but just one question for you, Makarand!”
“Yes, please do ask!” he said. It seemed that he liked her.
“How do you make Maggi?” she didn’t blink, neither she sounded funny. ‘Was she serious? Or is this a wicked question?’ I could not guess.
“Eh?” He looked confused.
“How do you make Maggi?” Akka repeated the question again. “I am just curious!” she added.
“Well, long back when I was studying in India, I tried making it once. I could do it somehow. But it was a disaster! My mom cooks a way better Maggi than me! So I never tried to cook it again. I can cook Sushi, rice and salads. But still, I could never beat my mom’s taste!” He looked at his mother lovingly. Everybody understood he was appreciating her and that looked so cute. Maai and Baba too looked happy with the answer. The boy seemed so loving and caring person.
“Thank you!” Akka smiled. “You are a good man!” All the people of the village were looking at both of them as they talked. This kind of conversation was alien for them.
Snacks were served. Everyone was sure that the marriage was almost fixed. After some time, when everybody was busy with the food, Akka got up and signaled Baba to accompany her. They went to backside of our house. I too wanted to know everything, so I accompanied them.
“If they are positive, tell them that we will convey our decision in a month or so.” Akka got straight to the point.
“After a month?” my father was confused.
“I need some time to think. You agreed to go with my decision.”
“You can think and tell us in a day or two. They might not wait for a month!” Maai appeared from nowhere and she looked upset as she really liked the boy and the family.
“Don’t be hysterical mother! They will wait. The boy is returning to America this week-end. They won’t be able to see many girls by then. Would they?” Akka looked at me and smirked!
My parents were disappointed. They had a notion that Akka might have liked the boy. But they were wrong. She wanted to explore more, she wanted more time!
We came back to the guests. I looked at Patil sir. He looked so relieved as if he was so sure about everything. ‘Be happy for some more time. Damn, you are not going to get her so easily’, I was so thrilled from inside.
The guests returned contended and were wise enough not to disclose their decision the same day. It was good for my father. Otherwise he would have to tell them my sister’s proposition face to face. That was hard! As they promised to call in a day or two, my father was saved.
We got the call the very next day. Their answer was positive, as expected! When Baba told them what Akka has proposed, there was a dead silence for a moment on the other side of the receiver. They hardly had any choice, but to pretend that they respect her decision. They promised that they will wait for her reply and hung the phone.
“Hurray!” That was it! Now my Akka was free again! I thought.
“I know you are worried for me.” Akka went near Baba. “Do you want to marry me off so early?”
“No, beta! I was not thinking about your marriage at all. You did good at school and college and I am sure you would like to explore more opportunities ahead. It was just like for a moment, I felt that the boy was perfect for you, well educated, from a good family, working in America! You could start your work there too!”
“Believe me Baba. I exactly know what I am doing. I am looking to be with someone who goes easily with me as I am. I had never thought about marriage before. But as time has come now, I need to work upon understanding me as a person and what should I look for in my partner.”
“Eh? How could you find that much in a couple of meetings?” Bhau was curious. “Do you already know someone?” he seemed losing his patience.
“Come on brother! I have never thought about it. Now as the time has come, I guess it’s necessary that I think for me. I am myself trying to figure out more about me, what am I exactly looking for from a new relationship and what kind of person I would like to spend my life with, definitely I will not say ‘an ideal one’! But better I could find someone who can make up with my virtues and vices! Isn’t that my right?”
Bhau had no words left to argue. That definitely was her right! He folded his hands and took support of the nearby pillar to lean over it, backwards, with his strong shoulders.
“Baba, can you help me with this perfect groom search? If there are any good proposals coming this month or next, let’s meet them. This may sound weird. But I need to do this. I don’t want play blind in this case, as finding a correct man would be so important for me!”
“Alka was telling about a boy from her sister-in-law’s family. He works as a Civil Engineer in Mumbai. The boy was born and brought up in Mumbai. Maybe, we can talk to Alka.” Maai was so quick to refer her friend’s acquaintance.
“I would like to convey some of my friends too that we are looking for a boy for me. They may have some good references.” Alka added.
It seemed Bhau too had some names in mind. Amma had a spark in her eye as if she too had some hidden jewel in the potli of her memory. Except me, everybody was suggesting one or the other proposals. There were so many applications for my sister already. They were piling up since last one year when people understood that she would be back completing her graduation in some months.
In two days, they came up with more than twenty probable references. That was indeed a huge list. My sister seemed to be monitored and liked by so many people!
In the coming week they shortlisted eight to nine suitable boys. The respective mediators were being called to find out if the suggested families were still interested to look out for an apt bride for their boy. They discovered that two of them were already engaged, but the remaining were so keen to get in on the act of discussing the matter further. As all of them were ready to come to our village, shortly, a distinct day was fixed to meet each one of them. I couldn’t imagine finding a match was such a huge deal, in fact, it was not true for Pinky or Sudha from our neighbourhood. But my sister’s case was different. She was a headstrong woman with an absolute clarity about what she was looking for.
So the course of the meetings began!
On the first day came Tanay and his parents. He was a distant cousin to Akka’s classmate Mrinal. He worked as a business analyst for a well-known multinational company in Mumbai. He had an average height, was an inch or two more than Akka, and was exceptionally fair. I could tell by seeing him that though not bald, he would start to look a little thin on the top in a couple of years. His type of questions and lingo showed that he was a realistic and sophisticated person. When it seemed that people were concluding their talk, Akka interrupted, “I have one single question for Tanay!”
“Okay.” He was quick to accept.
“How do you make Maggi?”
“Mmm…Maggi?” He seemed startled. He waited for a couple of seconds.
“Let me be true to you. I feel Maggi is not so good for our health. You too must have read so many things about Maggi and the harm it causes to our body. So I, actually, do not cook Maggi.” He was serious and sincere.
“You are absolutely right. It’s nutritional value is indeed questionable!”
‘Really?’ I actually loved Maggi. ‘They did say it is healthy and tasty too!’ I was shocked. ‘Well, who eats Maggi everyday to find out it’s nutritional value?’ I never wanted to agree to that answer.
When the guests left, everyone was looking happy. ‘Was this it? Did she like him?’ Baba looked at her. Her answer was the same as before! My father had no words as well as not a single clue what must have gone wrong!
“How should we make Maggi, Akka?” I wanted to know her answer to this itchy question.
“Why do you worry?” she smiled and quickly changed the topic. But in the following days, she asked this same question to each and every boy who visited us.
One of them answered he had never made maggi in his life while the other said “Who eats Maggi? Ahh, it tastes like shit! I don’t understand how can anybody eat it. Yuck!” That boy was so harsh.
I remember Alok’s answer. He told six to seven different ways how Maggi can be cooked. There was one recipe for sweet Maggi too. ‘Who could have imagined before that Maggi could be a sweet too?’ everybody was startled! Me too thought that he was the one, because he knew exactly how to cook the Maggi!
‘Maybe Akka wants to marry someone who can cook good’ I was sure by then! Alok was a MBA post graduate and earned a decent six figures income in Mumbai. His family too was from a small village like ours and it felt like he too was raised with the same love and honor as was our Akka. He was the only son of his parents and both of his sisters were married off years before. The only thing I couldn’t comprehend was how did their son, Alok, turned out so brilliant and multi-dimensional and their daughters did not make post high school. It was weird! I was not sure if my sister noticed this. But meeting so many families, looking at them, hearing their talks and my family’s post meeting discussions already had transformed me to a heavily judgemental person. I was now able to find out and put forth all the positive and negative traits of a particular proposal, what characteristic a particular boy lacked or what in their family was not good for Akka. Most of the times, I was ignored by other people as they too couldn’t digest that a twelve year old girl from a village could be so brilliant in understanding and guessing about the boys and their families. That was the information I was heavily subjected to these days, that was the experience I was gathering, so they should have agreed that I too knew a lot!
Well, Alok too tragically got the same answer. Though wishy-washy first, Akka quite liked him, she agreed! Her uncertainty might had let her convey the same answer as she did to others. ‘She will choose him once all other candidates are proven not so bright as compared to him,’ I was sure. ‘That is going to happen as he looks perfect till now!’
Now everybody was losing interest from this project as it was getting nowhere. Maai and Kaki were so exhausted making sweets and food every time some family was going to come for the meeting. As well, half of the village would gather for almost every meet to see and follow the happenings. They too needed to be served with food and sweets. For Maai it was definitely becoming intense, though she loved to cook and serve. She was gradually becoming angry and irritated as she already knew her daughter’s answer.
Niranjan was a literature graduate from University of Pune and he had written a couple of fictional novels too. His last one was a bestseller on a well known online book store. He had just got an offer for a post of visiting lecturer in his university which he happily accepted. He had to go to the university to conduct the lectures for a few hours in the week, and all other time he spent writing articles and penning his thoughts into words. He looked calm, neither anxious nor desperate as if he did not bother about his marriage and people liking him at all. He was observing each and every villager. In the course of his observation, he looked at me too. I was intrigued. First time, I felt that somebody was judging me. That was unnecessary!
He had one younger brother, they did unfortunately lose their mother to TB two years back. His father was a school teacher. His paternal aunt accompanied them.
As usual, the session of questions and answers began. The boy was not so keen in asking questions. He kept silent. ‘Maybe he is an introvert…like Swati!’ I thought. Swati was my bench-mate in school. She did not speak a lot and it was very hard to understand her. I concluded he was like Swati!
“What do you like to read?” I was in my thoughts when I heard a gentle manly voice. It was him and he sounded sweet.
“I like to read biographies and history. I am curious about different cultures and their rituals. Now-a-days, I have started reading a lot online as there are many good sites and books out there worth reading.” Akka said.
“What kind of books do you write?” She asked back.
Everybody, including me, was shocked. There was no Maggi question! Wow! I thought Maai might cry, as from the last couple of weeks she seemed haunted with the ‘Maggi’ word. Everyone turned their head to Niranjan, he did not have a slightest idea why.
“I usually write fiction, in fact I am planning to write a fiction revolving around Indian society in the medieval period. As it interests you a lot, you can help me with the relevant sites and books. Of course, if you have time!”
‘Hmm…maybe he likes her or maybe he flirts good!’ I thought.
She blushed. For a moment I could see my sister losing her glory to the wit of this man. But this was just for a moment!
“Yes, indeed. It would be my pleasure if I could be of some help. By the way, I have another question for you.”
There was a moment of silence.
“How do you make Maggi?”
Many of the villagers, including my father and mother, released their long held breath. Niranjan was amazed to hear so many sighs together. He could hear a couple of whispers too.
He looked into Akka’s eyes and replied.
“Fast foods have a tremendous potential to induce emotions and create memories, in fact create stories. On the top of those, Maggi is a very interesting fast food as I can see how it has influenced the taste buds of the teenagers and youngsters. So your question is about a very important product. Well, I make Maggi exactly according to the instructions written on the back of its wrapper…those 1-2-3 steps that come with the packet. The picture on the front shows some peas and carrot in it, so I did put them once in the boiling water. It tasted good too!”
“Hmm!” Akka was silent. I just thought this one was a cool and impressive guy, but with this Maggi answer he was out of the queue. ‘Rejected and shunned!’ He could have told some interesting story, how to make Maggi in some entertaining way, the way in which he had started the answer! But the core was so plain! Again, everybody did not know if Akka will like him.
Nobody even bothered to look at Akka while the guests left, as if they already knew the answer. The boy’s father was going to call in a couple of days with their decision. So Baba, as usual, turned to Akka for her thoughts.
“Anagha, what should I convey them once they call?” He was nervous.
“Did you like him Baba? Maai?” For the very first time Baba and Maai were hearing this question. They looked at each other and couldn’t hide their excitement!
“Yes!” both of them literally shouted. I was sure they didn’t think for a moment whether they liked him or not. I too was not sure whether I liked him or not! As usual, I had many positive and negative things that I had found out in Niranjan. But this time the discussion was different.
“He is good. I like him!” Was she turning scarlet? She definitely looked overjoyed and excited.
“She said ‘yes’! Did you hear Amma?” Maai was unable to control her emotions. The other moment she started to cry out of happiness. ‘Was that for her daughter getting married or was it because now she does not have to cook so much of food…’ I could not distinguish.
Nobody in the house could believe that the day had finally come and Akka had finally agreed to marry someone. It took an hour and half for my overwhelmed family to settle.
“Why him, Akka? I too can make Maggi like he said. There did not seem anything special in his answer!” I could not understand her decision as some of the other boys looked better to me. I wanted to know and I wanted to know at that very moment. Also I was awfully curious about the exact answer for that “Maggi” question! And what was so special about his answer!
“Meghu, the secret is, there was no particular answer to this Maggi question. But the way each one of them was answering was showing their attitude, their nature and their perspective towards a very trivial matter like ‘cooking Maggi’. Some of them were very strong opinionated where they questioned others’ likings or declared the popular food was a health disaster. Makarand didn’t care at all and wanted his mother to cook it for him as if he didn’t wanted to handle such a stupid, easy thing by himself! Do you remember Alok? He was so obsessed with it that he told so many ways to cook it, which definitely was not necessary. I wanted to marry a simple man who did not want to control others, as well who is not overwhelmed by such a trivial matter! People make and eat Maggi as it is so simple and fast to make, just in 3 steps and two minutes. If they had much time, energy and cooking talent, wouldn’t they cook something more delicious like Samosas or Kachoris?” she smirked.
I was getting illuminated!
“His answer was perfect because I wanted it that way. He seems to be someone who is not so serious about simple things but enjoys them at the same time. By the way, I talked with him on other subjects too. He looks able to me!”
I was clear, she liked him a lot!
Now we were waiting for the answer from the other side. First time it actually did matter.
The phone rang on the second day. My hands were shaking out of nervousness. ‘What if they say no’, it was so scary! I handed over the receiver to my father.
“We will be honored to have your daughter as a part of our family!” the voice on the other side sounded positive.
“We too would be!” my Baba couldn’t hide his happiness.
I was sure I had so much to learn from my sister in the coming days. And my new brother-in-law, Mr. Niranjan, too seemed promising in this matter!
“Maai, we are very hungry. Make some Maggi for all of us today!” Bhau could not hide his mischievous smile.
“Once in a blue moon, why don’t you make it, Anagha? Let’s see, how you do make it!” Maai got a chance to be playful too!
Everybody laughed loud and long!
This story is dedicated to my best friend and colleague Sanjeev Mishra who believes there is a writer in me and has been a continuous source of motivation and support and to my sister Tanmayee who is a creative inspiration for me and a regular first reader of my stories.
Featured Image Photo Credit : Regina As The Photographer