By Parini Shroff
Ms. Priya Kapoor
Mr. Kevin Slater
Request the pleasure of your company
At their marriage
On Saturday, October 16, 2004
At St. Georgia’s Church, Aurum
Naina Mathur closed the invitation with a frown. The card was not a surprise; she had known all through the fittings for the bridesmaids’ dresses — the hideous ones with far too much blue lace. She had known when Priya dragged her to the flower shop to pick reception table centerpieces. She had known when they’d looked through endless catalogues, trying to design the perfect invitation, the perfect seating chart and the perfect menu. It had been easy enough to help Priya with the awkward preparations; receiving the invitation they’d slaved over together was an entirely different matter.
She sighed and slipped the card back into its ornate envelope. The edge of the stiff paper bent as it went in. She got up and stirred the dahl simmering on the stove before throwing instinctive pinches of cayenne pepper and mustard seeds. The key turned in the lock, and she didn’t bother looking up as she heard muted feet on the living room carpet and the television being turned on.
Naina reached for the cooling cup of tea she had prepared and made her way into the living room. Aman was stretched across their sofa, the remote dangling from his fingers, his other arm hanging limply across his abdomen. He didn’t sit up to accept the cup and saucer, so she set the tea on the table in front of him. Her bare foot kicked something hard as she turned to walk away and she winced.
“Aman, how many times do I have to ask you to take your shoes off at the door?”
His eyes were trained on the glowing screen. “Sorry,” he said automatically. His replies were always in English.
Naina bent over to pick them up and place them by the door. She spoke to him in Hindi as she walked, reminding him of Priya’s upcoming wedding. By the time she came back to where Aman lay, she was silent, waiting for an answer.
“Aman?” she prodded.
“Priya ki shaadi?”
“I know. Sunday.”
“Saturday, Aman.” She shook her head when he did not respond. He rarely listened anymore; it was as if hearing her speak Hindi was a cue to tune out.
The phone rang, cutting through the canned laughter of the sitcom he was watching. Naina walked back to the kitchen to pick it up in the middle of its third ring.
“Naina!” She held the phone away from her ear as Priya’s exuberance startled her. “Listen, I’m in deep shit. The tailor needs me to run in and try on my dress one more time. Can you come with me?”
She took the phone with her as she turned off the stove and stirred the lentils once again. “Of course.”
“God, the flowers are taking forever — I don’t understand why florists have to be such assholes. I swear if those rose arrangements don’t arrive in time, I’m going to kill someone. And the caterer is screaming about what wine goes with the vegetable lasagna-” she cut herself off and switched thoughts. “But thank you, Naina. You’re saving my ass here. I’ll pick you up at noon?”
Was it her imagination, or had Priya’s voice gotten much shriller since the engagement had been announced?
Priya had always been the loud one. When they had sat in her darkened living room as children, sharing a Hershey’s bar and watching the Indian actors in reverent awe, it had always been Priya who sang along or freely gave her critique of everybody’s dance skills. Naina had been content to appreciate their movie nights in silence, chewing her chocolate in slow deliberation. But despite their different reactions, their adoration for their chocolate and movie nights was identical, as were their mutual sighs of appreciation for the Bollywood heroes. Their dreams had been the same, too. Fantasies of being swept away in a romance, where happily-ever-after was a guarantee.
“Priya’s family had jumped right into Western culture; Naina had seen this in everything from the way they dressed to the fact that there was no small shrine to Krishna in their home like there was at her own house.”
Their real life-heroes had taken on entirely different shapes. Naina consented to marry a suitor her parents had met through her aunt’s in-laws’ friend. Word had it he hailed from a good family and came with high recommendation. Aman and Naina agreed to the wedding after a brief meeting consisting of stilted conversation while both their parents listened with bated breath in the adjoining room.
Naina was never sure how her parents felt about Priya and her family. A bond had been forced between them as the only two Indian families on their block. Priya’s family had jumped right into Western culture; Naina had seen this in everything from the way they dressed to the fact that there was no small shrine to Krishna in their home like there was at her own house. It had never bothered her, but her parents had been somewhat taken aback by the Kapoors seemingly complete removal from their homeland. It had never truly hurt their relationship or the friendship between their daughters until one year after Naina’s wedding.
Naina had always known Priya dated American men. Priya’s own parents were fine with it as they knew it was normal for teenagers in America to date, but Naina had kept the tidbits of Priya’s love life away from her own parents, not willing to take the risk of them frowning in disapproval at her best friend. It was not exactly lying, but it was enough of a deception to keep her nervous and praying that Priya would find a nice Indian boy.
When Kevin entered the picture a few months before her marriage to Aman was arranged, Naina did not think anything of it. Priya had various relationships, but she made sure none of them were too serious, something Naina would not have normally approved of, but since the boys were white, she figured it was wiser for Priya not to get too involved. When the relationship with Kevin progressed, however, Naina felt sharp edges of uneasiness gnaw at her. And when Priya called Naina out of her house one afternoon for a spontaneous lunch, Naina knew before she even really wanted to.
Naina blinked. Her forkful of salad paused for a brief moment between the plate and her parted mouth, then continued on its way. Naina chewed the bite deliberately, knowing her silence would make Priya squirm in her seat.
“Well, say something.”
“What would you like me to say?”
” ‘Congratulations’, maybe?”
“Am I to assume you accepted?”
“God, I should have known you’d do this,” Priya shook her head, waves of dark hair falling to frame her exasperated face.
Naina’s brow rose in an expression of innocence. “What? What am I doing?”
Priya’s hands fluttered to gesture around the other woman. “This. This…this-whatever this is.” She leaned forward in her chair, lowering her voice. “You can’t even pretend to be happy for me.”
Naina put her fork down. “Priya, I want what’s best for you.”
“And you don’t think that’s Kevin,” Priya said darkly, narrowing her almond-shaped eyes.
“Priya, you are both very different.”
“No. We’re not. You and I were born and raised here as Americans, Naina. We’re practically white.”
“No,” Naina said quickly, her voice sharp. “We are not. We’re Indian.” She held up a hand as if to ward off whatever comment Priya was prepared to interrupt with. “I know you think you love him, but mixed marriages are extremely difficult.”
The pulse at the base of Priya’s throat thrummed. “You know I think I love him?” she seethed. “I’m not a child, Naina. Kevin and I do love each other.” She yanked the white napkin off her lap and slammed it down on their small table, ignoring Naina’s wince at the volatile action. “You know, I didn’t say one word when you agreed to marry Aman.”
Naina’s head jerked up at the mention of her husband’s name.
“You copped out, Naina. What happened to waiting for love? You got scared and just agreed to the first offer that came around.”
“Those were a child’s dreams. Things like that don’t happen in real life, only on movie screens.”
“Not for me. I’m marrying the man I love. You’re just damn jealous you didn’t have the patience to wait around and do the same.”
Anger amplified Naina’s voice. “Marriages aren’t meant to happen like that!” She continued, “You trust your parents to find a suitable match for you and then love grows out of respect and understanding.”
Priya snorted, “You want to leave such a big decision in the hands of other people from another time?”
“They’re our parents, Priya, they’ll choose a life that’s best for us.”
“If that’s such a great way of life, why don’t they do that here?”
“Because they’re Americans. They’re allowed to do whatever they please — we’re Indian, we have tradition and honor and culture to consider.”
Priya’s face grew placid, then piteous. Naina stopped short. “We’re Americans,” she began slowly. “And if you don’t know that by now, I feel sad for you, Naina.” Then she got up, kissed her friend’s cheek and left the restaurant.
” She pleaded with Priya to be allowed to come in a sari, and even suggested that Priya could select it herself, but the bride-to-be said she would die if Kevin’s family ever saw her side decked out so inappropriately.”
With Priya’s animated joy over her wedding plans, she found ample reason to call Naina later that week and start discussing dates and plans as if nothing had happened. They had never been able to stay angry at each other for long anyway. Naina, never one for confrontation, had been relieved enough to let the matter drop. Logic told her to prepare for a white wedding, but when she accompanied Priya in search of the perfect wedding gown, the reality of what her best friend was doing slapped her hard and cold.
She sat for endless hours, rejecting dress after dress while Priya fell in love with every other one. They had finally settled on one that Priya loved so much it didn’t matter that Naina hated it. As Priya’s reluctant matron-of-honor, a title Naina had accepted with a mental cringe, a dress for her was mandatory. She pleaded with Priya to be allowed to come in a sari, and even suggested that Priya could select it herself, but the bride-to-be said she would die if Kevin’s family ever saw her side decked out so inappropriately. Naina kept her mouth shut and secretly hoped her friend would wake up one day with all her senses restored.
The weeks passed by and now Priya’s wedding day loomed on the calendar, ominously circled in a thick, red marker. Naina could think of a hundred things she’d rather do tomorrow than see Priya squeeze into that damned dress for the umpteenth time. And, as she looked at the blaring, red circle on her calendar, she could think of a million things she’d rather do four weeks from now than watch as Priya walked down the aisle in her white dress toward her white groom.
Aman called out to her from the living room, and she immediately replied, “It’s ready now.”
She scraped vegetables onto his plate and slid three thin rotis next to the steaming food with one cautious finger. He tore at the flat bread, scooping the potatoes and cauliflower with it. Standing near him while he ate in silence, she made certain his plate never lacked for buttered rotis or vegetables. When he was done, she leaned forward to push mounds of white rice onto his plate. He raised one hand as if to stop her.
“It’s okay. I’m full.” Aman shoved his empty plate forward and stood up, the sudden motion causing his napkin to fall to the kitchen floor – a tiny, white mountain rising from the blue tiles. She stared at it for a long moment before picking it up, folding it, and placing it near his discarded plate. She ate alone in the kitchen, leaving the now tepid pot of dahl untouched until it was time to wash the dishes. She watched the brown liquid slosh along the sides of the steel sink before disappearing down the drain.
Priya arrived at her house earlier than Naina had anticipated. She had been in the middle of cleaning her bathroom when the doorbell rang and Priya bounced in, insisting they leave immediately.
One hour later, Naina flipped through yet another mundane magazine as she waited for Priya to come out of the dressing room. She sat up straighter when Priya paraded in, the glistening white satin of her dress swishing as she moved about, craning her neck to appreciate the dress from all sides.
“It fits,” she declared proudly as she stood before the angled mirrors.
“Great. Shall we get going?” Naina’s eyes flickered down to her watch.
Priya didn’t hear her — or chose not to. She continued to admire herself as she muttered. “Mrs. Priya Slater.” She paused. “Mrs. Kevin Slater.”
Naina’s eye twitched once more. “So you’ve decided to take his name?” she asked tightly, forcing herself to flip another unread page with a casual air that belied her stringent posture.
Priya turned away from the mirrors to look at Naina’s stiff frame awkwardly bent into the plush chair. “Yes,” she said, planting her hands on her hips and raising her chin, daring Naina to say another word. “I have.”
A silence stretched between them until Priya blew out her breath and gave in.
“No reason. It just sounds…awkward.”
“It does not.”
Naina arched her brow, but she remained quiet. Her gaze lowered to the magazine. Priya let out a noisy sigh before leaving to change out of her dress.
Naina thought about this in church three weeks later, as she stood in her blue lace duds while Priya paced the dressing room. She shifted uncomfortably in the material, the air in the room very still. She heard Priya’s gown rustling with the woman’s restless motions. She slipped outside when she heard her name being called.
“Any word?” she asked, her voice a carefully maintained whisper in deference to the distraught woman a door’s breadth away.
Priya’s mother shook her head somberly.
“What time is it?”
Mrs. Kapoor didn’t have to look down at her watch. “Ten ’til five,” she answered grimly. She wrung her hands and excused herself when someone called her name.
“Have they all left?” Priya had ceased her circles on the carpet. She was sitting in the chair placed before the vanity mirror, encased in the white bubble of her dress. The mirror reflected her deflated posture, displaying a drawn, olive face amidst a sea of tulle and satin.
“Let’s give him some more time,” Naina spoke to the other woman’s reflection as she walked up behind her, picking at the stiff material of her headdress. “There might be traffic.”
Priya snorted, the sound vicious as it cut through the reverent air of the church hallway. Her mother had escaped the stifling heaviness of the room long ago under the pretense of appeasing the guests. “His best man’s here, Naina. What the hell kind of traffic could he be in?”
Naina did not respond, and instead busied her hands with the unnecessary job of fluffing the tulle of Priya’s veil.
“Stop,” Priya said, her voice tired. When Naina’s hands continued to work, Priya’s spine straightened. “Stop!” she barked, flinging her arms up to tear off the headdress, simultaneously pushing Naina back with the force of her outburst. The invisible pins that fastened the expensive piece to her scalp tore out strands of her long hair as she yanked, causing bright tears to prick her eyes.
“She swallowed and thought of Aman. Reliable, suitable Aman with his respectable job and steady income.”
She tossed the veil across the room and it bounced against the opposite wall before landing on the carpeted floor in a pitiful white mountain. She turned away from the sight and stared up at Naina from the mirror.
“He’s not coming. You can tell them all to go home.” Dullness swept over her features as she sat motionless, her hands clasped loosely upon her satin-clad lap.
Naina remained where she stood, frozen as Priya’s face twisted into one of raw rage. “Get. Out.” Priya enunciated, her full mouth gritting the words out. She jerked her head to the side, effectively breaking the contact they shared through the mirror before them. Naina blinked before tearing her own gaze away and leaving. Her last glimpse of Priya before the door shut was her angrily swiping at her eyelids, trying to brush away tears before there was any trace of them having fallen at all.
She returned a few moments later, a brown rectangle tucked into the palm of her hand. Dodging questions from the few curious, straggling guests who were still wandering about, she ran into Aman. After he muttered an impatient desire to go home, she stared at him for a long moment. His dark skin contrasted with the pale blue of his shirt. She ignored him only to run into Mrs. Kapoor, who told her that Priya refused to leave the church. The expectant looks they both gave her followed her as she left them behind.
She crept into the quiet refuge the room offered. The silence was a welcome change from the incessant buzzing of the others outside. Priya did not acknowledge her return and Naina walked toward the white bundle, searching for the small face that seemed to have disappeared behind the satin panels around it.
She sat down next to her, holding out her hand mutely. Priya stared at it for a long while before sniffing quietly and accepting the offering. She broke the silver foil with her fingers, the crinkling of paper filling their ears as she bit into the large chuck of chocolate, handing it back to her friend as she chewed.
Naina took a smaller bite, peeling the foil back further before passing it back to Priya’s waiting hands. As she tore off another piece of candy, a small crumb fell down the front of her bodice, streaking the material with a thin line of dirty brown. They both stared at the smudge in wide-eyed shock before the pitiful hilarity of it struck them both.
Priya was the first to laugh, but the humorless sound only lasted a short second before abruptly cutting off into stifled sniffs. Naina’s laughter ceased the moment Priya’s eyes welled.
“You can say it,” she said after a brief moment. The tears brimming on her lashes had yet to fall and to stave them off, she swallowed more chocolate. “Go ahead.”
“Say what?” Naina’s brow furrowed in genuine confusion as she lifted her eyes from the brown stain up to Priya’s liquid brown eyes.
“I told you so.” She sighed. “I’d say it.”
“I didn’t know — didn’t think….” Naina trailed off and looked down at the candy bar dangling from her hand. She suddenly felt very useless and the unfamiliarity of it made her shift in her seat with unease. “I’m sorry, Priya.”
“Aman would have never done this to you.” Priya laughed once more, the sound dry and brittle. “That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? If I had only let my parents find a suitable, Indian boy…” She gestured wildly to the empty room, the abandoned headdress, herself — the jilted bride. “I wouldn’t be here.”
Naina stared down at where the headdress lay in an unwanted, used heap. She swallowed and thought of Aman. Reliable, suitable Aman with his respectable job and steady income. She thought about discarded shoes, discarded napkins, discarded wives. Her gaze landed on Priya with the stained gown and desolate eyes.
“Sometimes,” she started slowly, playing with the garbage the chocolate bar had become. “It isn’t about Indian men, it’s just about men.” She smiled wryly. “You might be where you are today whether it was a Kevin or a Michael or even a Rahul.”
Naina cocked her head to side and winked once, the movement seeming to indicate,
“Come on, let’s get you home.”
“Fat lot of luck we got with our heroes,” Priya said tiredly as Naina helped her up, dress and all.
Naina shrugged. “Well, you’re still waiting.” She rolled up the silver foil into a ball and threw it away as they left.
“Yes,” Priya replied. “I’m still waiting.”
About the Author:
Parini Shroff is a third year studying creative writing at the University of Southern California. Originally from Northern California, she enjoys writing, reading and is currently competing on USC’s Bollywood Dance Team.