The story of a bride that imagines and fashions her movements, views and life after the characters in the Hindi TV serials, and religiously sticks to the rituals and traditions shown in them in the conduct of her two-member household (but in the spirit of a large joint family, leaning “towards the hyperbole in her imagined role as a wife”) and in the treatment of her groom … of all places in Miami, where she had accompanied him from India… Ed.
The large moon lugged her way up the roof and sat there awhile, beside the ghost cat, breathing heavily, turning ruddier, the tops of cypress trees sketching night breezes on her brow, as though chiding at her tardiness. She sighed heavily at the constant demands made of her, billowed the pallu1 of attendant clouds and resumed her climb, brushing off the needles, leaves, and breezes. She wrinkled her brow, deepening the ravines and shadows, contemplating the long sky and the night journey ahead, raised her large, un-sleepy eyes up to the heavens for pity, and gathered in the moon-glow for courage.
The cat, of course, ignored the moon’s histrionics, perhaps used to them, perhaps failed to register the clear night. But that didn’t quite matter, since the cat was more insubstantial than the moon-glow, and if one wants to be considered at all, one needs to be more solid. Gargi twitched her long braid back so it hung down her spine like a snake and checked the bindi2 one more time before swishing her way down the stairs in her special silk sari, the one that was Avi’s first gift to her. She inhaled deeply, holding the gardenia bush under her breath, promising her shrine of deities some fresh blossoms before the evening meal. The altar twinkled back contentedly at her, benignly, and she imagined the gods properly appeased. She clucked for the cat, leaving out a saucer of milk for her, wishing no one to go hungry on a night with such a huge moon.
Avi drove along the long road, and tiredly sighed at the prospect of the festive night awaiting him, mirroring the moon’s mood, earning a shiver of sympathy from her. This straddling the worlds was exhausting him. He thought himself a simple man, wanting little more than his cup of ginger chai3 and kurta4-pajama of rough, homespun cotton, once the day at the office was done. He liked the predictable and could not find within himself to share the need for the dramatic that had Gargi wrapped in it since their wedding more than a year ago. He lived in fear that his young wife would soon catch on that he was a stodgy, boring creature of habit, unimaginative, as monochromatic as his ward robe of blues and browns.
It was with relief that he had packed away the sherwanis5 and other finery attendant to grooms, pleading the need to conserve the special day, an argument he’d known would appeal to Gargi’s worldview. He did not know how to handle her almost formal welcome every evening, and concentrated on praying that she had refrained from trying to woo him with one of her creative fusion foods. He yearned for just some bhaakhri6 and moong7 dal, perhaps a raw purple onion sliced up with some lemon and a bit of achar8; nothing exotic or adventurous.
Of course, Avi realized, tonight was not to be such a night. Gargi had to have gone above and beyond her usual efforts, and his stomach somersaulted. He thought of white sheets waiting for him at the end of the evening, the moon cooling them, making them more fragrant, and he imagined his comfortable, loose white kurta-pajama, his body finally getting horizontal. The image spurred Avi on and he winced as his feet unconsciously pressed the accelerator, pinching his toes in the narrow work shoes. He swallowed and thought of his comfortable home slippers.
Gargi checked on the cooker for rice, prepared herself to wait for her husband, in a conduct befitting a proper bahu9 from the afternoon serials she never missed. No one would say that Gargi Mehta starved her husband, kept an unclean house, or failed in any duty a mother-in-law would expect from her perfect daughter-in-law, had Gargi had a mother-in-law. But then, she supposed, no mother-in-law would understand the non-festive rice cooked in yogurt that she had planned to feed her husband, forgoing a more elaborate menu in deference to Avi’s latest indigestions. She worried that the rice might be too simple for the fast day and had arranged a centerpiece of a salad, with painstakingly cut carrots, tomatoes, and radishes, more garnishing than food, a plate she knew remain largely untouched. Ever since Avi had noticed a propensity for acidity, he had avoided uncooked vegetables, fearing germs.
All her life, as she was growing up, Gargi had wanted a large joint family to marry into, with a gaggle of sisters-in-law who would squabble playfully over her saris and bangles, plead her to join them on film outings, in endless card games, and mercilessly tease her. She had imagined herself presiding over these girls with a maternal indulgence, keeping them safe, both from the eve-teasers prowling the street corners and from their mother’s harried wrath. She had even thrown in a couple of rambunctious young boys in the role of brothers-in-law. Her household was to mirror Tulsi’s, from the TV serial. She had imagined her mother-in-law’s crossed brows as she looked down on her, of the many small ways Gargi would use to win her over, of the endless chai she would brew for an absent minded father-in-law. All through, she, Gargi, would be perfectly groomed, with an ever-fresh mogra10 garland in her hair, the house keys on her waist jangling in tune with the payal11 anklets on her henna colored feet. She had a plethora of timeless songs that played in the background for these visions.
All through these visions, never did she see a husband’s face clearly; he was a necessity, of course, and properly adoring, but absent, away, at work and she had an entire rainbow of soul-kindling-separation songs to befit the situation of the adoring away-husband.
And all had gone right as rain, except, of course, for the extended family. Her father’s colleague had met Gargi at a rare office picnic, and had recognized a prospective alliance for his lonely son in the lonely American swamp that, everyone knew, was Miami. The wedding had been a hasty affair and before she knew it, Gargi was on a flight with her husband, the cynosure of her girlfriends’ almost envies in an almost satisfactory way (after all, it wasn’t as though she was going to some place really U.S., like New Jersey or Chicago). She had insisted on maintaining her wedding finery throughout that first month, swishing her sari, swinging her hips to jangle the key rings, prancing to sound the anklets to their full advantage. Once in Miami, she had refused to take off her rose-tinted glasses, easing her acceptance of the dingy one bedroom loft apartment, less than five miles from the bank where Avi worked as a loan manager.
Avi, resigned by nature, had been properly impressed with Gargi’s outgoing, chirpy personality and considered himself blessed. An entire year of being with her had not tarnished his feelings, and in fact, caused him to appreciate her adaptable, agreeable nature. So if she leaned towards the hyperbole in her imagined role as a wife, he was tolerant of it, and even, on occasion, tried to participate and play the doting husband to the extent that he could imagine such a being would behave, and still be convincing.
The year had been full of firsts, first Navratri, then first Diwali, many such firsts as Gargi faithfully marked her Panchang12 calendar with various fasts, feasts, full moons, ninth lunar days, eleventh lunar days, and holy hours dedicated to various deities. Avi wondered at her being able to keep track of it all and supposed that the life of a wife was crowded with many obligations from all seven of the mortal worlds, all seven levels of underworld, and all seven heavens. He could not imagine having to keep track of the whirling cosmos in addition to his responsibilities at work, and was grateful that Gargi relieved him of those duties, keeping the planets harmonious and aligned for them. He, for his part, ensured that he earned enough so that she never had to worry about non-cosmic, trivial matters.
Gargi’s friends proclaimed Avi an indulgent husband on Facebook and she giggled and clucked her protests on Skype, as she described the menu for the evening, recounting colorful adventures in her quest for fresh-fresh curry leaf, her failure to snag the best hing, and her longing for the fire-engine red, flavorful (not spicy-hot) chilli powder, all to win and keep the affections of her indulgent husband. The same stories kept the dinner table lively, as Avi tended to be quiet in the evenings.
Today the moon was the largest. The humid, suffocating Florida monsoon had finally passed and right after Diwali, the year had heaved in relief as the evenings cooled down. It was Purnima13, the full moon fast, a much filmy sized, celebrated occasion for wives, who fasted for the day (praying for their husband’s well-being, what else?), spent the day praying to Vishnu, and broke their fast after moon rise. Avi sighed anew. This was not usually celebrated in the Mehta family, or if his mother did observe these Purnima fasts, he was too young when she passed away to remember them. He was unsure about the proper behavior of a doting husband and wished fervently that it did not involve sherwanis. It had been an especially trying day at the office, during which he had had to approve a foreclosure and officially let go of two of his staff. He glanced at the moon and felt that she was sympathetic, so he again wished for nothing more than his kurta-pajama and the cool white sheets.
The air was moist and Avi felt his shirt scratch his back as he shifted in the driver’s seat, weaving the car slightly. He was late and the large moon attested to that. He had stopped at the Indian Store in Coral Gables to get a fresh mogra garland for Gargi, knowing of her fondness for them. The fragrant, white blossoms waited patiently on the seat next to his, like stars of promise. He half smiled as he imagined her surprise and hoped the mogra garland did not go against the grain of fast and rituals.
He had just pulled out onto Sunset Blvd when he felt electricity crackle the air, causing static to jump around, like mustard seed in hot oil. Avi shifted to accommodate the slight burning in his middle, not unlike rumbling thunder. He shifted again, his seat belt suddenly too tight. He began counting seconds, swallowing short breaths in between and somehow succeeded in controlling the speed and projectile of his journey towards his wife, but by the time the car turned into his street on Almeida, his heart burn had loomed into a night being, dancing on his chest. Avi fought to keep his vision clear, though he began to see improbable colors and lights as his breath hitched, entangled in his ribs, unable to find its way out. The burning in his middle melted the boundaries between organs: stomach, heart, lungs, diaphragm, all screamed in a single conflagration, almost, but not quite, stealing consciousness. He understood that he was not going to be able to command his hands and feet in the required coordinated movements to make it to the parking spot assigned to their apartment, but he was too busy concentrating on the feverish, urgent roiling that his body had become, which had effectively detached him from the situation outside of it.
The car weaved madly and the ghost cat, busy blending in lawn, was glad for the full moon, and leaped out of the way of the too fast headlights bearing down, crashing into the huge ficus, upsetting the hammock, shuddering to a crash.
Gargi raced out into the moonlight, her anklets tinkling in rhythm with Avi’s labored, wheezing breaths. Through a nightmare millennium, her fingers raced and fumbled on her cell phone, screaming for help, in outrage. She never remembered if her fingers finally worked because all she could see were Avi’s wild, rolling eyes and knew her own angry weeping because she could not wipe the sweat pouring down his brow, angry at the moon for her betrayal.
The red and white pulsing strobes of the ambulance seemed to mock Gargi’s wedding sari, an anomaly in the clear, pure moonlit air, spreading a slight smell of antiseptic and sulfur, confusing a strain of crushed mogra jasmine blossoms that wandered, peaked, and faded away, a lost song, a prothalamion in a ghost town.
Finally, finally a neighbor dropped them off, a little after midnight, six hours later. For a while, they stood fumbling at the dark threshold of their apartment; then Avi remembered his keys in the car and sat down on the step, waiting for his wife to collect them, open the door, and lead him inside, upstairs. Gargi, her bindi gone, her braid forgotten, clutched, like a life line, the prescriptions the Emergency Ward had sent with them, as she manipulated the keys and Avi’s weight with her free hand. Neither remembered to eat and break the Purnima fast, but they were both aware of a knee-dissolving gratitude they offered to the twinkling altar, that the horrifying heart burn that had toppled their cosmos was precisely what it looked like, that the demon had not grown extra claws or tentacles, that it remained familiar.
The moon had climbed as high as she was going to climb, her generous girth wasted away by her labor, her golden hue faded to ghostly silver. Avi, clad at last in the kurta-pajama he had been fantasizing about all day long, lay on his favorite sheets, the heart burn conquered, abated, like a drowned wolf, a monster Avi would to carry on his back now. Gargi would spend many years worrying about the tales it would whisper in her husband’s ears, but that was not for today.
The old, tired moon smiled maternally through their open window; she had lived the night with them. She nodded approvingly as she heard their quiet voices weighing their forever-changed world, adjusting compasses, inventorying resources, drawing up blue prints; her wrinkles deepened and settled as she watched yet another honeymoon finally end, yet another life finally begin.
Only then did she descend into the milk saucer and ripple away as the cat lapped contentedly at the offering of the full moon left for her on the back porch.
1. Pallu: The edge of a sari.
2. Bindi: Decorative dot worn on the forehead by women; also a sign of a married woman.
3. Chai: Brewed tea with spices
4. Kurta: Loose shirt.
5. Sherwani: A groom’s wedding outfit, specifically a long jacket, elaborately embroidered.
6. Bhaakhri: Whole-wheat flat bread, a staple.
7. Moong: A kind of lentil.
8. Achar: Indian pickles.
9. Bahu: Daughter-in-law.
10. Mogra: A kind of jasmine.
11. Payal: Anklet with little bells.
12. Purnima: Full moon.
13. Panchang: Lunar calendar for the Hindus, marked with moon phases, fast days, and festivals.