It was a chilly December night when the family was over and they were all around the dining table talking. The men were drinking, the women were serving and after a point the conversation got so loud it would have brought the roof down but that was okay, for they were all happy.
It was late and the three sisters sat in one corner of the room and drank their beers through pursed lips; they didn’t like it. Though, drinking was more a custom and less a tonic for a heavy day. Their uncle would get angry if they didn’t keep up. The time of the day was never an issue. The beer was always out by ten and they were all meant to be pickled in alcohol for the rest of the early night. Ingesting crispies or fried somethings to line the stomach or other such breaks in their drinking schedule were signs of weakness and what self-respecting family could show off their women with their heads held high if they weren’t good drinkers? The oldest daughter despised alcohol, and took a good three hours to finish one; each gulp a shudder. The other two could still handle it and down a couple at best but she, she always had a hard time getting through her first. Their cousins didn’t help their case either; alcohol fell in the depths of their pits like Alice did. They’d down beer after beer and after a point it would get tiring to even attempt to keep up.
Slowly, the three sisters skulked out of the room and set their glasses down in the kitchen, the last of the beer down the sink. They went up to the room, keeping an ear or two if they could, on the going ons in the room below. Loud Punjabi voices shook the atmosphere with mirth and laughter. The uncle with the green turban put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and slurred as he told him – I have, I, I have found a match for my oldest daughter. Glasses were clinked and dances began to be danced around the table, with the index finger of every hand puncturing the air in equal intervals.
Three days later the prospective groom and his parents had come over to their house in Model house Colony in Ludhiana. Seated in the living room the conversation was mediated by the uncle who was sporting his green turban once more, except that it was a tinge lighter.
The groom sat in the middle of his parents and they watched the prospective bride walk in with a tray, like they all do. The mother’s hand shook as she took the cup; in India, the mother fraternity gets quite paranoid and nervous about their sons’ and daughters’ wedding. If whatever had transpired wasn’t enough movie-like already, their eyes first met as she bent down to serve the tea to the ruggedly fair man.
There was nothing, there was only silence. The entire room had stopped breathing to see what would come of this exchange. Ah, they were all disappointed because there was no definitive moment, no short circuit electric sparks. The uncles in the back of the room took another sip of their whiskey and shrugged. There would be more proposals. She was still young, she still had time.
It was decided, probably since the time the wedding business took up in India, that the young man and woman be sent to the other room to talk and hope they clicked. Talk about structured planning.
The young man was a pilot. He was the elder son of his parents; the obedient one. When they told him that there was a young girl in Ludhiana and he saw a picture, he knew what his answer would be. It did cross his mind, that a wedding proposal makes sense if it is accepted by both parties.
The young pilot ushered the young woman into the adjoining room and closed the door behind them. The first thing she noticed about him was that his turban was orange, a screaming orange. She had always loved the colour orange. At one point in her childhood everything had to be orange or else it was not worth having. Her room was orange, her clothes had to have something orange and even today she had to have something orange or else it wasn’t going to be a good day.
‘Will you marry me?’ asked the pilot.
The young woman knew that her father had taken a huge risk in sending her to college for her Master’s Degree. He knew what that would do to her chances of getting married but her family had always banked upon their women’s success; but, at home. Their women were the ones who ran the show. Professional qualifications were disapproved. “She works as a designer, even wears the short skirts,” said Dimpy Aunty had whispered, using her right hand to slice her upper thigh, skirts that barely managed to peek out from behind the top she meant.
This man in front of her wasn’t half bad at that. He had an orange turban, which was a good start and he was a pilot for Air India and he was extremely attractive as well.
She stood in front of him with her head bowed and her hands together and said, ‘Will you take me to the movies?’
The young pilot smiled and said he would.
The young woman returned the smile for that was her last reservation.
‘What’s your name?’ asked the young man.
‘Soon you’ll be Captain Aman Pal-Singh’s wife.’
She looked up. He was fairer than her, she noticed. She smiled again and held his hand for a second and courage wilted.
The uncles brought out the good whiskey and mouths were sweetened. The shagun ki thali was placed in the lap of the bride and there was some more dancing.
A month later the wedding procession left from Ferozepur and made its way to Ludhiana for the wedding. The lavish binge eating days of Aman Pal Singh there, were the best of his life, he would remember for years later. They even had a type of blue beer.
‘My uncle gave me a plot of land in Chandigarh’, said Heer.
‘That was generous,’ said Aman, taking off his turban.
‘There’s a problem. The land has been vacant for years and now the government will cease it somehow. They always do.’
‘Is it worth a lot?’
‘Quite a lot.’
‘Well, no sense in letting an investment like that go to waste. It is your land. What do you want to do with it?’
‘The location is wonderful. We could build a house there, nothing fancy, just a small one with a terrace and a sloping verandah.’
‘I’ll have to leave for Bombay in a week; my leave is almost up.’
‘Air India should give you the leave you need to keep your wife happy.’
‘But I thought my wife was happy.’ He moved towards Heer and rested his head down in her lap.
‘You still haven’t taken me to the cinema.’
‘It is funny you should mention this today.’ He rummaged in his pocket and removed two tickets to the late night show of Mera Naam Joker. She jumped, and dived for the tickets. She wasn’t in love with this man yet but she didn’t mind spending the rest of her life with him. He seemed good for it.
The movie experience can never be bad, for first timers. He explained the concept of a projector to her. “It throws light.”
Half way through the movie he turned to his wife and saw that she was crying profusely. ‘What happened!’ She shrugged. Ah, it was the damn shoes. Who goes to a movie in shoes? Well, maybe people do, but not when you are wearing a saree. Guilty of ruining of her first ever movie experience minutes before, he drove home in silence. It was a small thing, he shouldn’t have let his temper rocket at that.
She wasn’t crying anymore but she wasn’t saying anything either. Her orange handkerchief was stained with black blotches of kajal and he thought this was it. This was what was going to ruin his marriage. He parked the Ambassador and circled to open her door. He pushed her back softly, and asked for forgiveness, and said a one-liner on smiles that was doing the rounds of Jaipur’s airport.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, surprised and slightly embarrassed.
‘It was not my intention to hurt you.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I am not really proud of making a woman cry, making my wife cry.’
She began laughing and pulled him up off the ground. ‘You didn’t do anything. I was crying because it was a sad movie.’ He leapt up, red.
‘I don’t know anyone else who cries at movies.’ He looked at her, this is one intriguing person, he thought and added, ‘I believed those days are gone, nobody cries at the movies anymore.’
They retired to their room and spent the night getting to know each other, apart from trying to understand the mechanics of crying.
They arrived at the Ferozabad train station together and set their luggage down and looked at each other.
‘Go straight to my aunt’s house’, said Aman, ‘Do you have the address?’
‘Aren’t we going to talk about this?’
‘Call me when you get there.’
‘Will you come see the baby when it’s born?’
‘I can’t promise but I will try.’
He hugged her and kissed her forehead.
He said, ‘I know this is the first time you are travelling alone, but don’t worry. You’ll be fine.’
‘Don’t leave me alone for too long.’
‘I’ll try. I’ll visit as much as I can.’
‘Your train is leaving. Go fly it.’
‘Yours is too. Build your home.’
Aman put his hand on her stomach. Their eyes met and they fell in love with each other a little bit more than they did after the movie day; and now completely enough to finally trust the happy Punjabi uncles with beers in hand.
It had been eight months and Chandigarh was hot. The air was heavy with heat and it felt like one was inhaling water, instead of air. On a different note, Heer’s water had broken; it is true when they say the earth is balanced. She was wheeled in, even as Mr Pilot flew the plane at its average speed. Had he had a car, he could have oversped, cut across, and horn.
‘She’s beautiful.’ He said, holding his five day old daughter in his arms.
His aunt was in the room while Heer took a nap. ‘I think she has your father’s ears.’ She said as Heer stirred in her sleep.
Aman asked, ‘Did she tell you what to call her?’
‘You’re the man of the house. It should have been your decision.’
‘I want her to have the final say in the naming of her daughter.’
‘You’re the father. Act like it.’
‘What did she name her?’
‘I think that’s a beautiful name.’
‘It’s far too plain.’
‘Can’t you just be happy for us?’
His aunt raised her hands in resignation. If he didn’t want her opinion then he shouldn’t ask for it.
‘I’m sorry. I really do appreciate you letting her stay with you.’
‘Well, I couldn’t let her sleep on the street, could I?’
The house was built, richly, on the pilot’s salary, adorned with artifacts from countries she had never heard of, countries he had flown to and brought home, things she had never heard of. Mandira was two and as beautiful as ever. The latest Aamir Khan movie was out.
Heer didn’t cry this time. The same cannot be said for baby Mandira. She had taken after her mother and her father loved that about her.