By Vibha Akkaraju
I’ve forgotten the could-be’s name, but remember all too well the feelings that this “date” elicited in me: achy discomfort, disconnection, a self-consciousness to the point of paralysis. I sat across the table at the Chinese restaurant from him, trying to focus on the task at hand: to get to know him, to maybe begin a two-month courtship that would be lovingly monitored by our parents, and then agree to marry, to everyone’s great relief. But all I could think about was how to act nonchalant.
This was not the way I had imagined I’d find my life partner. Sure, when I played with dolls as a child in India, I arranged marriages for them. I set up two households and negotiated the marriage between the boy and the girl dolls, while the dolls themselves sat quietly in their separate corners. In our little town in Haryana, arranged marriages were the only way people got married. Love marriages launched sordid scandals, something a good girl would never do.
But somewhere along the way, maybe it was in Middle School, soon after arriving here from India, where I first saw occasional boys and girls holding hands, or in High school where the stirrings in my own heart flirted with thoughts of premarital love, my idea of “normal” started to change shape.
I started to imagine that one day I would just trip over a soulmate, fall in love, and never look back. That was certainly the paradigm all around me. But I was never one to fall completely for the Disney promise. Even 20 years ago divorce rates were about 50% – making the outcome of a marriage seem like a coin toss. I had seen plenty of happy marriages that started out arranged and plenty of miserable ones that were born of love. And the other way around.
In fact, on an intellectual level, I thought arranged marriages a lot more sensible than the “free range” variety. My parents could filter out the noise of youthful biases and focus on stuff that really mattered: like education, family, economic compatibility. They could save me from my own hormone-skewed perspective. We keep our wits about us when buying cars, houses, even shoes (well, maybe not shoes) – why hang them up when finding our life partner? Rationally, I knew it all added up, and I had seen that love usually follows contract.
But it was hard to entirely relinquish the Disney dream. It certainly offered what seemed like an easier path to marriage. My parents saw me teeter between their way and the American one, and hoped I would land upon the perfect compromise: find a nice Indian boy before I finished my masters, do touchless dating for 2 months, and get married. My compromise was that I would try to source my own spouse, but if I failed, I’d let them introduce me to prospectives.
As college years slipped past, and as mummy papa got jumpier, I made a couple of encounters of the boyfriend kind. But these relationships were doomed before they started: the bar for the hapless saps was nearly insurmountable. I knew that as soon as my parents got a whiff of my dalliance, all ears would stand on alert, anxiety would reach fatal levels, and calls would be made to relatives in India: start sari shopping. I knew that to put myself or a nearly-innocent bystander through the roaster, I would have to have leather-thick skin and ironclad conviction. He would have to be the one. I was down to the final semester of grad school, and no one had come even close.
So one day, increasingly pessimistic about a chance encounter with Prince Charming, I gave mummy papa the green light: go ahead, introduce me. I could get over my discomfort, I thought. Just mind over matter. A week later, the boy was sitting at the kitchen table, chatting up a storm with them. Medium height, well mannered, gainfully employed — he was probably a perfectly good option. But the situation made it impossible to find out. I could listen in, but every word out of my mouth felt awkward, deliberate, and unnatural. When I made a joke, it fell flat. When I spoke in Hindi, my vocabulary failed me. Even English seemed foreign. If the boy suffered the same, he hid it well. All the while, mummy beamed and papa looked satisfied. I tried deep breathing.
Anticipating my hypoxia, my cousin had offered me a getaway plan: a party at another cousin’s house. Never much of a partier, I had accepted nonetheless, knowing it might be a much needed antidote to the “party” at home. The meeting over, I went. It was exactly the kind of gathering I hated: it reeked of a meat market. Boys were tripping over themselves to out slick each other while girls pretended to be oblivious to their performances. I had escaped a trunk show of a mating exchange to land in a veritable flea market. And I was getting the hives.
But among the dozens of guys I met that night, there was a quieter, more aloof fellow. He didn’t try to corner me or any other girl into a conversation, or even to smile too much. In fact, he seemed out of place at the party, much like I felt. We exchanged introductions – his name was Srini – and both of us were in grad school, though his (M.D., Ph.D. in immunology) made mine (M.A in literature) feel like a Sunday walk.
“I’m surprised you have time to come to parties,” I said.
“I don’t. I should be back at the lab dealing with the mice.”
Gross, I thought. But I was curious. “What do you mean ‘mice?’ What do you do with them?” Most people would have been sorry they asked.
There ensued a lecture on B cells and T cells and proteins and triggers. There were descriptions of the immune system and of the ultimate dilemma he was spending his years exploring: “Why do our bodies sometimes attack themselves? And what keeps them from doing that all the time?”
I was left cross-eyed by the cellular details, but charmed by his deep interest in the subject, so deep in fact, that it never occurred to him that he may be coming across as a complete nerd. Or that this very nerdiness — and his disregard for his image — would be, for me, his biggest appeal.
Both of us too shy to actually exchange phone numbers, and in the neolithic times before Google tracked everyone’s coordinates, we parted, leaving a repeat run-in to the stars.
Back at home, I told my parents I would hold up my end of the bargain. The boy they had brought to meet me had braved all of us on our turf. The least I could do was go out for dinner with him. Give him a chance.
So a few days later, we sat across each other at that Chinese restaurant, the boy and I, each measuring and weighing our words before testing them in the gulf between us. We both tried to be engaging, funny, likeable. But as in the initial meeting at our house, the whole situation was too artificial. How do you act, what do you talk about, when you know everything will be a test of your suitability as a life partner? Do you discuss your life philosophy? That seems too grandiose – besides being a moving target. Do you talk about your day? Too petty. Reading habits? Too risky – you can come off pretentious (do I admit that I love “The Canterbury Tales”?) or too bone-headed (I also inhale “People” magazine.) Nothing fit the occasion.
We muddled through dinner but I decided I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go through the rigors of an arranged marriage. I told Papa that I’m sure the boy would make a fine husband for someone, but he was not for me. “But why,” papa asked, completely incredulous. “Give me a concrete reason.” He knew I was generally the rational sort, and would soon see that billions of people have gone through this process. Why not me?
Maybe all I needed was a little more time with him.
So he announced to me the next Saturday evening that he had invited the boy back to our place for a second visit. I saw mummy cringing.
“I had told you very clearly, ‘no’,” I said, “plus I have other plans.” This time I was furious.
“Just spend an hour with him, Vibha.” he said, trying to sound reasonable.
Another painful dinner, this time laced with guilt of leading on the poor guy, and burnt to a crisp with my anger at my dad. I didn’t last the full hour. Forty five minutes into it, I left. (I still feel bad about that.)
I went to another college party. Some of the same characters from the previous one were there. A guy in tight black jeans and snake skin boots asked me to dance. I obliged for a couple of minutes, but then begged out. Another one tried to start up a conversation. I kept walking, in desperate need of fresh air.
In the parking lot, I saw Srini approaching the party. We stood there and talked. And this time, we exchanged phone numbers. Almost 20 years later, I’m still glad we did.
*This article was originally published in the October 2014 edition of India Currents, Northern and Southern California editions.