Anu could not sleep that night. A combination of mosquitoes and her parents' marriage plans for her made her restless, her mind wandered back to her college days at Bangalore when she had no worries and had the best times of her relatively short adult life - days and nights spent chatting with friends, hanging out at Blue Moon's Cafe, cutting classes and going to the movies, and so on. But now, fear possessed her. Can her life change the next day?
Anu was beautiful and charming, and a typical South Indian Iyer girl - God-fearing, Karnatic music singer, well-educated with an interest to pursue her Masters. She had just graduated from college with a BDS degree, and shifted to Mumbai where her parents were working. She had landed a job as an assistant at a Dental clinic, to a dentist couple, near her house.
New to the place, and with no friends, she was disillusioned with her life. Things got worse on her 23rd birthday, when her mother, with the sole intention to get her eldest daughter married before she saw her next birthday, had presented her with some matrimony profiles of 'nice South Indian Iyer boys'.
At her mother's insistence, she had agreed to talk to an IIM-B graduate called Krishnan, who was working with an IT firm in Chennai.
'What is your dependency level in a relationship?' he had asked her. His first question had put her off and he had followed it up with so many more similarly asinine questions. 'I feel like I am in an interview,' she had later protested to her mom.
The next time she spoke with Krishnan, she had made her point to him, and he had asked her whether she had attended an interview before. She had replied that in her line of work, experience mattered most. He would not agree to that and said, 'Life is an exam. You have to answer certain questions to know where your path lays. I want to make you more comfortable.' After innumerable questions that followed, she had ended the prospective alliance with a polite 'not interested', saying their wavelengths did not match.
A week later, her mother had come to Anu with yet another potential alliance, despite her daughter's complete disinterest in marriage. 'You should consider this profile, Anu. The boy has a BE degree from BITS-Pilani and an MBA degree from USA.' Anu had been very hesitant after the 'Question' Krishnan debacle, but curiosity and her mother's constant badgering had gotten the better of her and she had given her the go-ahead signal.
A week later, her mother had told Anu that the horoscopes matched, and that the boy's father had suggested a meeting between the boy and the girl. She then read his matrimony profile and some words stood out - Caring, traditional yet modern, interest in music...assured...works in Mumbai! That's good. And, he looks okay, she thought, 'much better than 'Question' Krishnan!' And so, there she was - tossing and turning on her bed, the night before the meeting, filled with nervous excitement and apprehension. And, the mosquitoes in her room did not help her cause either; they were constantly buzzing near her ear. As she lay wide awake, listening to the buzzing of the mosquitoes, she wondered whether the mosquitoes were singing. It seemed a bit melodious.
What raaga is that? She tried to make sense of the buzzing. After a sleepless night, her nervousness exponentially increased as the day progressed. She excused herself early from the clinic the next evening, and got dressed up. She was to travel to the Meenakshi Temple at Kanti Nagar with her parents, where she would meet the boy.
It was five past seven, when they entered the temple. Anu's roving eyes scanned the Friday crowd for the guy she had seen in the photograph on his matrimony profile. She saw an affable-looking fellow approaching them, and then it hit her. That's him! He introduced himself to her parents and said a quick 'Hi' to her. Feeling a bit shy, she took stolen glances at him as he continued to talk to her parents. He looks much more smart and handsome in person. Her nervousness had given way to excitement, as she suddenly started to feel the chillness of the evening air.
'So, how do you like Mumbai?' She stood transfixed to her spot for a moment, still coming to terms with the fact that he was addressing a question directly at her. 'Mmm…yeah, I don't have friends here, so I am bored during weekends,' she mumbled, and immediately realized she shouldn't have said that. What if he thinks I am a very boring person? He then continued to talk to her parents. After a few more minutes, her father turned to her and said, 'You can go ahead and talk to him. We will go and have a darshan.' Even though she badly wanted to check him out, she was still hesitant to raise her head as she walked alongside him to a corner of the temple. He smiled at her, and asked her a question - 'how was your day?' She looked at his face and answered truthfully, 'Day was okay, night was bad though.' Again, too quick to respond. Think and answer! He chuckled and asked 'Mosquitoes?' 'Yeah,' she smiled. 'I know,' came the reply. 'I also had a sleepless night yesterday thanks to the constant buzzing of the mosquitoes in my ears. In fact, it got up to a certain point when I began to wonder what raaga they were buzzing in.' Anu looked into his eyes for the first time, and gave a hearty laugh. And, that was the moment she knew he was the one.
* CHAPTER 2
Prem looked at his cell phone as it kept vibrating. He did not want to speak to his father, or his grandfather, both of whom had been desperately trying to reach him. Prem was a typical Iyer boy from Chennai - quiet, introverted, studious, well-learned, and a respectful person who had reached an age when elders realize it's time to take out the horoscopes and photos and hand them out to strangers.
Prem had just returned from the United States, after completing his MBA and had been working at a consulting firm in Mumbai. He had been living alone, enjoying his work at his new firm, and spending weekends watching movies and TV shows on his laptop. While he was not averse to the idea of marriage, he also knew it would mean his whole life would drastically change - a new person to take care of, no more movies when he wanted, and the unavoidable and meaningless conversations. He had noticed how his friends changed completely after marriage, their whole life and activities dictated by their spouses. I will lose my freedom, he thought. And I will lose my friends. He had seen a few prospective alliances come and go by. Either the horoscopes did not match, or his parents couldn't come to a mutual agreement.
In one instance, when Prem had given his consent for a prospective alliance to proceed further, the horoscopes were matched and the parents talked with each other, however, the girl suddenly and inexplicably decided to pursue her higher studies. Alarm bells were not ringing then. Now, they were. His father and grandfather had colluded to organize a meeting with a girl who had done her BDS and was working in Mumbai at a Dental clinic. Her horoscope matched with his, and her parents had visited his father and talked about proceeding further. Prem had initially suggested that his mother, brother, and sister-in-law be there when visiting the girl. But since each one was in a different city, it was decided that he would initially meet her and her parents at a temple in Mumbai itself. If the alliance was to proceed further after the meeting, the two families would meet later. He was not very keen on a meeting without his parents or relatives with him, and knew that this meeting was arranged in total secrecy, lest his mother would put her foot down to such a meeting. So, his father and grandfather forced him to go and meet his potential life partner in two days.
Prem told his close friend Vijay of his predicament, when he caught the latter online. Vijay advised him to keep an open mind about it, and not think too much, "Let her do the talking. Be a good listener. That's what has worked for me in the US, while I picked up girls at bars. But I am not sure how it works over there in India." His cousin Karthik advised him, "You gotta act cool man. Don't be all softy softy. Wear a nice T-shirt and Jeans, and a big, cool watch on your right hand. Show an attitude." Prem laughed and replied he wouldn't put up an act, and that he would rather be himself. He couldn't sleep well the night before, and the mosquitoes were just adding to his insomnia. The next day at work progressed rather fast, and he hurried back home.
He dressed up nicely in a formal shirt and trousers, and wore his Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt. He took an auto to the Meenakshi Temple at Kanti Nagar, feeling the chillness of the evening air. He waited at the temple for some time, trying to find a party of three. Then, he noticed them. He went over to girl's parents and introduced himself to them and said a 'Hi' to her. He noticed she was rather shy. He talked to the parents for a while, while waiting for their cue to let him talk to the girl alone. "So, how do you like Mumbai?" he asked her, noticing her awkwardness at not being involved in the conversation. She replied, "Mmm…yeah, I don't have friends here, so I am bored during weekends". Wow, I feel the same way too, he thought. He then continued to talk to the girl's parents. After a few more minutes, her father turned to his daughter and said, "You can go ahead and talk to him. We will go and have a darshan.
"His heart began to beat fast as they went over to a corner and started to talk. He checked her out. He could sense her shyness as she did not look at him directly for more than a couple of seconds. He smiled at her, and asked "How was your day?" She looked at his face and answered, "Day was okay, night was bad though." Same here, he thought. He chuckled and asked "Mosquitoes?" "Yeah," she smiled. "I know," he said. "I also had a sleepless night yesterday thanks to the constant buzzing of the mosquitoes in my ears. In fact, it got up to a certain point when I began to wonder what raaga they were buzzing in." He noticed that she looked into his eyes for the first time, and she gave a hearty laugh. He noticed that her smile lit up her face and accentuated her beauty a hundred times over.
Back home after his meeting which lasted for an hour, Prem realized he really liked her. Is she the one? Prem still wasn't very sure. Little did he realize then that evening's meeting would set in motion a series of extraordinary events that would result in drama and emotional turmoil for all parties involved.
* CHAPTER 3
'Doctor? Are you sure you want to marry a doctor? Doctors only marry doctors.' 'Amma, she is a dentist. There's a huge difference. And, she seems really good.' 'But how could you not tell your own mother you were going to see that girl.' It was the day after Prem and Anu had met at the temple.
Uma was still upset with the fact that the meeting between her son and the girl had gone ahead without her knowledge. Prem had managed to calm her down after a lot of talking over the phone, and said he had been forced to meet the girl by his father and grandfather. 'Good that at least you met her in a temple. Tell me one thing, does she believe in God? Does she go to temples?' 'She told me she does. Are you happy now?' 'But she is a dentist. She will have to force her hand inside people's mouths. Are you okay with it?' 'Amma, dentists wear gloves, and they also wash hands.' Uma was still not convinced. 'Will she have time to cook? I know you. You cannot stand hunger, and you like to have food in a routine manner.' 'Dentists usually do not work at odd times, unlike other doctors.'
'Don't tell me you have already said a yes to her. I will have to personally see her and talk to her parents before any approval.' 'I am sure you will like her and the family. They seem very nice people.' 'I did talk to the girl's mother this morning. I told her how our family is very orthodox. She seemed nice over the phone, but then they have to visit Chennai and meet your father and me. That's the way it should be done.' Prem hung up his phone, and thought about Anu and the conversation he had with her the previous evening. He had liked her instantaneously, and he had a sense she liked him too. But he felt guilty about not informing his mother about meeting up with the girl, and he really wanted her to meet Anu and her family.
* Anu felt really nice waking up the next morning. She really liked Prem and hoped this alliance would proceed further without any hitch. And, that was until she talked to her mom an hour later. Jaya told her daughter, 'I spoke to the boy's mother earlier today. That maami says she is very orthodox and religious. I told her my daughter was brought up liberal but she can adapt well. But I am not really sure.' She looked at Anu. Anu was taken aback when she heard her mom's words, and said, 'Amma, don't worry about me, I can adjust wherever I go. I can learn all those things.' 'I don't know Anu. You can hardly wake up at even 8 o' clock. And that maami talks about putting kolam early in the morning. What do you even know about 'madi' and 'aachaaram'?' 'I can learn those things, Amma. Seriously. Believe me, I can wake up early in the mornings if needed,' Anu protested.
Jaya noticed the sudden change in her daughter. Only a few days back, Anu had objected to getting married. Jaya smiled at her and said, 'I think someone likes that boy.' Anu blushed and replied, 'I spoke to him for less than an hour! Yes, he is very nice. But I hardly even know him, Amma. I have no problem if this alliance doesn't work out, but do not give up just because that maami is very orthodox.'
'You know what,' Jaya said, 'Whoever gets married to that boy is very lucky. He was talking so courteously to me and your father. He was so respectful.' Anu really hoped she would be the lucky girl.
* As soon as Prem came home after a tiring day at work, he got a call from his father. His father said, 'I think you should call your mother and get her to Mumbai, to talk to the girl and her family.' 'Why, all of a sudden? I am coming to Chennai in two days, let's talk about it then.' 'Your mother is talking about another alliance, while this Mumbai alliance is still in discussion. I personally like this Mumbai family. And, I would like to fix up your marriage soon.'
'Why are you in a hurry? Everything takes time. Amma will meet them, maybe week after next. I will ask her to come to Mumbai.' Prem later made a call to his mother and spoke with her. 'Amma, why don't you come to Mumbai and meet this girl and her family?' Prem knew his mother would never leave Chennai, and she told him so. She continued, 'There's one more alliance for you. I have checked the horoscopes and they match exceedingly well, according to our astrologer Krishnakumar mama. He gives a rating of 90 out of 100 and says the girl is very honest.' Prem tried to interject but his mom kept talking. 'They belong to Bangalore, the girl Sai Priya works in Wipro.' 'But Amma, you don't like girls in IT. You keep telling me they work long hours and hardly ever cook for their husbands.' 'Yeah, but the family is good.' 'So is this Mumbai girl's family. I don't want to hear anymore. I will talk to you in detail when I come to Chennai on Thursday.'
* Sitting in her bedroom, Anu was perturbed by the conversation her parents were having in the living room. 'They have not confirmed anything,' said her mother. Anu could sense her mother's uneasiness over the alliance. 'Maybe they are looking at another alliance,' her father said. 'I was speaking to the boy's father a few days back, and I felt he hinted that his wife was interested in one other alliance.' 'Are we just wasting our time on this? But then, Anu really likes the boy. And, you know how opposed she was to marriage before meeting him.' 'What are we supposed to do, sitting here in Mumbai? Do you want to visit them in Chennai? What if the alliance doesn't work out? It'll just be a complete waste of money and time.' 'My main concern is that maami is very orthodox. And when I spoke with her, I got the feeling she did not seem too enthused about this alliance. And anyway, I am not sure Anu can adjust, how much ever she thinks otherwise. I think we should call this alliance off.' Anu cut a disconsolate figure when she heard her mom's last sentence.
* Prem received a call from his mother. Uma told her son excitedly, 'The Bangalore girl Sai Priya's mother just called me. They would like to come and meet us this Sunday morning. God willing, we can fix up the alliance.'
* Jaya came over to Anu and said calmly, 'Your father and I think it's best to call this alliance off. You don't worry though. I have another potential suitor lined up for you. Kamala Athai's distant relative. His name is Shreyas, runs his family business, and he is also a graduate from BITS-Pilani.'
* CHAPTER 4
'Amma, you have to call it off.' 'How can I? It's not courteous to do that.' Prem had flown down to Chennai for his cousin's wedding later that weekend. And, he made it clear to his mother that he was not willing to meet Sai Priya and her family from Bangalore. Uma was disconcerted at his stand, but however continued, 'How can you tell them not to come, after they told us they would?' 'Alright. Let them come. You and father meet them, but I won't.' 'But they want to see you. What will they think of us, if you are not here?' Prem was beginning to get irritated. 'Okay, I will meet them. But I will say no to them because I have already made up my mind about the Mumbai girl Anu.' 'Okay, just meet the Bangalore girl. Maybe, you will like her as much as you liked the other one.' 'No, I won't,' hollered Prem and stormed off.
* Anu still felt sad and distressed at her parents' decision. She came back from her clinic earlier than usual that day, and went to the Ganesh temple near her house. And, she prayed. She prayed with all her heart.
* Prem wanted to meet Anu again before making a decision. And, he also realized he couldn't look at another girl while he knew that the Mumbai alliance was still not dead. He decided to take one last shot. Prem went to his mother and said, 'I think you should call the Mumbai family up and invite them to Chennai. 'I already did that but...,' Uma retorted. 'Invite them for a formal ceremony where both families could meet and talk.' Uma's cellphone rang but she ignored that and continued, 'But what about the Bangalore family? They too are coming.' 'Yes, you can meet them and say I am not interested.' 'It'll be rude if you do not meet them.' 'Okay, I will meet them but you invite the Mumbai family too.'
* Anu felt better when she came back from the temple, and the temple visit had filled her heart with some hope. Somewhere deep down in her heart, she knew she had to try and convince her parents, give it everything one last time. She went to her mother and said, 'I think you should call Prem's mother up and talk to her.' Jaya was taken aback. She felt for her daughter, looked into her eyes, and said, 'You still cannot forget that Prem?' 'I think his mother was just unhappy she was kept in the dark about everything. And maybe, that's why she was not very enthusiastic.' 'I don't know. Are you still sure you can adapt to their orthodox family setting?' 'Yes, I am. Please give her a call.' Jaya reached for her phone and called up the number named 'Prem's Mother.' 'She is not picking up her phone, maybe she is avoiding us.' 'No, maybe she is busy now. Please try again after a while.' Jaya's phone suddenly rang. Anu hoped fervently that it was Prem's mother and listened to her mother as she talked. 'Hmm...okay, sure...Glad to hear that...We'll fly down to Chennai....no problem...thanks.' Jaya cut the call and then turned to her eager daughter and said, 'We are flying to Chennai to meet Shreyas and his family on Monday. Horoscopes have matched very well at their side. Now, they want a proper bride-viewing ceremony.' Anu was speechless as her eyes welled up.
* 'They say another marriage gets fixed while one is in progress,' said Uma to her husband and her son as they traveled in the Maruti Swift to Anna Nagar where Prem was told the Bangalore family was temporarily put up. Prem looked bored, and asked his mom, 'I am telling you once again, I am going to say no to them.' Uma smiled and said, 'I am sure you'll really like this girl.' Prem did not reply.
* A solemn-looking Anu was being dressed up by her grandma. Jaya came in to the dressing room, removed a 10-sovereign gold chain from her neck and put it around Anu's. Anu's grandma smiled at her well-adorned granddaughter and said, 'You look so beautiful. No sane guy will say no to you.' Anu spoke softly without looking at her mother, 'Can I say no if I do not like that Shreyas guy?' Jaya replied, 'Don't talk like that. Go with an open mind.'
* Prem and his parents got out of their car, and walked towards the address Uma read out from a piece of paper. Uma knocked on the door, and an old man opened the door for them, 'Vaango, vaango...I am the bride's grandfather. This is my son and daughter-in-law, you talked to them before over the phone,' and introduced the bride's parents to the visiting family. Uma and her husband exchanged pleasantries with their counterparts, as Prem still tried to hide himself behind his parents. Uma forced her son to the front and Prem looked at his prospective in-laws.
* Loud noises in the living room suggested the arrival of the bridegroom’s family. Anu's grandma came in hurriedly and said to her, 'It's time to meet the guy. He looks very handsome. You are a lucky girl.' Anu tried to control her tears as she walked into the living room, staring at the ground. She did not dare to look at anyone, even when she heard a faint 'Hi', which she assumed came from Shreyas. Even his voice reminds me of Prem! Anu's grandma said, 'She is not usually this shy.' She raised her voice a bit and sternly said, 'Anu!'
* Anu slowly lifted up her face, and her heart skipped a beat as she saw a beaming Prem, seated a few feet in front of her. Prem himself had not realized he had been played all along by his mother until he came face to face with Anu's parents just a few moments back. His mother whispered to him that she had spoken with Anu’s mother after the Bangalore family had cancelled their trip because the girl’s father had contracted dengue. Prem had never felt so thankful for mosquitoes. And his heart was pounding in his chest as Anu walked into the living room. Prem noticed Anu's face brightened the moment she looked up at him, and couldn't stop smiling. Anu became totally oblivious of the rest of the people who had stopped talking and started staring at her, and she continued to smile at Prem. Prem felt butterflies in his stomach as he saw a heartfelt smile on her beautiful face, and did not take his eyes off her. She is the one! As Anu's watery eyes stared into Prem's, she felt as if his eyes spoke a thousand words, and time froze.