Geeta had cultivated a strange habit that befuddled her friends. As was wont of her posse, she frequently indulged in lengthy monologues fraught with much feeling and little matter, but this was not strange. In midst of such emotional expostulations, she had taken to blatantly exposing her carelessness about the person she was performing for, sprinkling her eye-rolling and deep sighing with “This One!” inserted where, normally, the audience’s name would be more appropriate:
“Oh what can I tell you about Keshav! He actually showed up and all! Yeah! Him and his silly blue Honda! Yeah! I tell you, This One! Mad only after me he is, no! It was only yesterday, must be around, what, 4 or 5 in the pm, when my Mashiba is usually at the temple after tea, no! I felt so, so, so STRANGE, This One, offering to make tea and all! What to tell you, This One!”
Mona and Kavita discussed this trait in great detail and at great length during their regular forays at Kalyan, the fast food eatery frequented by college students. They often had discussion sessions about assorted matters, their class mates, teachers, administrators, and peons, always huddling over in fear of eavesdroppers. These discussions were not fraught with emotion, and if any feeling pervaded over their table, it was a generalized sort of disgust, blanketing the yellow laminate table, spotted with ineffectively rubbed spots of ketchup and tea rings, bittering their samosas-and-chai, bubbling over with a stale, a yellow sort of smell that alone would have kept away the stray eavesdropper. Even the Chhokras, the boy-servers who attended to the customers, kept away from their table.
Of course, if Mona and Kavita were asked, they would insist that their discussion sessions were more an exercise in critical thinking in real life, than an indulgence in venomous gossip. They would have pointed out that the objects of their discussion sessions never knew of these sessions, nor was any extra gossip released because of them. After all, no one had heard about a peep about that nasty business with Sanjay and that Muslim girl, and THAT was something the two had had several discussion panels about, as was to be expected, considering the complexity of issues involved. . . .
And EVERYONE agreed about the strangeness that was Geeta, didn’t they? And a habit as toxic as forgetting whom one is talking to? It was so catching, like a nylon sari touching a lit match! Phhht! And you’d be hooked, find yourself doing the very thing and no way to cure it! Why, one day, you could do it during a seminar, or when talking to relatives at a wedding reception! Such a thing needed to be addressed and diminished, so it could be filed away.
The following day, Mona and Kavita, taking a breather between classes on the front lawn of the Arts Faculty, saw Keshav. Kavita nudged Mona on her shoulder, directing her attention to all that was unfolding right in front of their eyes, right there, beneath the Dome, near the Faculty Gate. They saw Keshav run up to that no-good Heena and their antenna began whirring: what business did he have in Arts? Wasn’t he with Commerce or Engineering or something? All the same, they saw Keshav go up to Heena, who simpered rather noisily when she saw who was watching, and they exchanged some notes, it seemed, at any rate, some papers with writing on it. It was too far to see whose writing it was, but the two friends exchanged their look: Keshav absolutely did not look besotted with Geeta or anything like that, if he was laughing and exchanging notes-and-what-all with Heena, of all people!
The yellow laminate table at Kalyan seemed clouded with an extra nimbus that evening, when the two good friends repaired to their favorite haunt to dissect and speculate upon what on earth Keshav could want with Heena.
Except the obvious, of course.
It was commonly known that Heena was THAT kind of girl, you know, the kind with money enough for really tight jeans and 3 a.m. soirees and London-Paris every other year. Thoroughly unlike a straightforward, temple-frequenting boy like Keshav! The talk was that many boys claimed to have slept over at her house, and the imagination fumbles at what else could have transpired under those circumstances.
But who knows whom, now-a-days, no? Today, sab chalta hai, everything goes!
* * * * *
Geeta studied her face in the bathroom mirror, on the third floor of the Arts Faculty building, the one with the broken window shutter that had once been green. Ever since last year, after that ceremony when she had turned 18, it had been happening with increasing frequency: she would often find herself quite distracted, even in the middle of a sentence, forgetting where she was, the language she was using, whom she was speaking to. No matter what else her Mashiba told her, it HAD been a wedding, and ceremonies of that import shifted things within a body, she supposed.
When her Mashiba, her dead parents’ honorary sister and her guardian had heard of the contents of Geeta’s star chart, her kundali, she began her worrying and clucking in a flurry of activity, searching for and ultimately finding a cure, a way out.
The kundali claimed that Geeta’s first husband would die within a decade of their wedding. So Mashiba spent long hours at the temple, conferring, listening, cajoling, flattering, and bribing various crones, priests, and visiting Pundits. She had taken to making quick fixes for Geeta’s meals in order to better concentrate on her quest.
Geeta found herself being erased in her guardian’s eyes, until she could scarcely remember to tend to herself. She took to ignoring the hastily made meals and waiting for Keshav or Mashiba to return to her from whatever world had swallowed them.
Geeta was astounded when Mashiba had told her of their plan to wed her to a tree as soon as she arrived at a decent marriageable age. Incredibly, she had gone on to inform Geeta that no one, but no one outside of the family must know of this, not even her bosom girlfriends, especially those two gossipy hens, Mona and Kavita. Mashiba had held her wrists in her own, insisted on looking into her eyes, and said very slowly to ensure understanding,
“Now this is important, Geeta! You CANNOT tell those two about the tree. You know how they talk!”
Geeta could only blink in response. It seemed that Mashiba did not really understand.
Geeta, who was never much good at keeping secrets, had been trying to tell her friends about her affair-and -soon-to-be-betrothal in a circuitous manner, only to be slapped down and told that the whole thing was in her imagination, that Keshav absolutely did not show any signs of preference for her company. In fact, so good were they at arguments, so much better than she, that had she presented indubitable proof, it would still be proven as merely circumstantial.
As things stood, Geeta had no doubt that Mona and Kavita would absolutely not understand her position and so she did not allude to her tree-wedding at all, an easy enough thing to do, since such a topic would not crop up in their usual conversations about film-star affairs, latest manicure styles, and best ways to snare proper grooms.
It wasn’t as though Geeta’s friends were not superstitious. When they were all in 10th standard, Mona, whose family was from Goa, had brought a foreign teenage girl magazine to one of their sleepovers. Then, she had proceeded to read aloud the ritual to summon a spirit in the mirror, which involved spinning around seven times, a moon phase, some spitting, and a candle taken up the stairs once Mashiba was asleep and the house dark. This spirit would show the girl her future husband beside her reflection in the mirror. Geeta and Kavita, clutching each other and squealing in delicious terror, promised NEVER to do these things, but all three had, of course, done the candle-and-mirror bit in hopes of a glance at their husbands, giggling half in adolescent madness, half in seriousness. The following day in school, they had pinky-promised never to talk of what they had seen in the mirror, not even to themselves.
Geeta had felt especially close to Kavita and Mona after that night, even though they had seen nothing extraordinary in the mirror and no ghouls or visions haunted them. Since Geeta was the youngest by three months, she was the more indulged, if taken less seriously, which she didn’t mind in the least. She would tell them all her heart’s desires, if only they would believe her, which should have reassured Mashiba.
All that had changed last summer, when Geeta had finally turned 18, a decent marriageable age, even by today’s modern standards, and Mashiba had dragged her to her ancestral village to be wedded to a young banyan sapling, presumably her first husband.
Ever since that ceremony was sealed, Geeta had felt herself more foliage than flesh. She could no longer see herself but canopied by her husband’s green. She even imagined a sort of vague, maternal warmth for the squirrels, the koels, and the monkeys that would inhabit the grove, once the tree was older. If the tree survived, he would be a lean one, with hard, sour berries, being deprived, as he would be, of the fertilizers and pesticides the other trees would be normally given. He was planted in a shade, so he would fight for every bit of sunshine for each of his leaves, and given minimum water, he would learn to hoard it and steal it by stretching his straggly roots to the well, almost a meter away.
Geeta imagined the tree righteously angry and she conceded to herself that it was not fair, being planted for the sole reason of being slowly killed to avert an inconvenient piece of someone else’s bad luck.
When they returned from the village, all routine returned, and Geeta’s days began to fill up with the intrigues and rushing of her college life, and her nights with dreams of Life with Keshav. But something was not the same anymore. Now, she felt a little faded away and no matter where the sun, her face remained shaded. Mona and Kavita, her best pinky-promise friends (who still knew nothing of her newly wedded state), claimed that Geeta must have had a grand old time during the summer holidays, running around all day long in the fields like an urchin and thus had tanned her skin irreparably, very un-bride-like. They suggested sleepovers featuring face packs of yogurt with haldi (turmeric) and besan (chickpea flour). Then, maybe (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) a certain K-person would find her mesmerizing.
Geeta almost cackled hysterically at this, almost burst out that the haldi-besan was a tad too late: she was already married and had no immediate need for the traditional bride-smearing of haldi-besan. And as far as Keshav was concerned, he wouldn’t notice it she were covered in a thousand face packs or none at all, or for the shades haunting her visage; he knew and didn’t care.
Her friends noticed nothing about her that bothered them much. Yes, there was that annoying habit she had picked about forgetting people around her and sprinkling her exclamations and protestations with “This One,” but that’s what’ll happen when people forget the difference between what is and what cannot be.
Geeta saw another Geeta in the mirror, a bride to a flourishing tree, and mouthed to the mirror, “This one is married!” She worried what it would mean to her husband and to Keshav.
* * * * *
Keshav, furious at the persistent headache, bounded up the stairs to the fourth floor of the building to his next class. He had missed lunch to meet Heena, who had promised to convey their rendezvous venues to Geeta during Economics class. He knew he couldn’t miss his class, no matter what he told his cronies, Surinder and Aslam, no matter what they would think of him when they would find out that he had failed to bunk class, again. He considered himself a man now, and the dolls’ play he had played with Geeta had stopped being the dream stuff of childhood games; they were to be engaged now, both families having agreed on an alliance.
Of course, a thousand things could go wrong, and Keshav, being the cautious kind, had insisted on a strict silence about the upcoming nuptials, especially in college, where an unkind word could destroy destinies. He had a Plan and he spent many hours explaining the Plan to Geeta, who, he suspected, didn’t quite get it.
He had stood awkwardly around, during the awkward, farcical ceremony when she was being wedded to a tree. It had been a somber affair and he vowed his own wedding would be raucous with laughter, music, lights, and colors. There had been no prothalamion or any music at all; even the mantras recited were mumbled, all as though in apology for the whole affair.
Keshav had stood behind Geeta, fuming silently, vowing to study even harder to liberate himself and his future family from the dark, superstitious, medieval world. He had tried to focus on a particularly knotty part of computer code he had been trying to unravel, and that helped some, but at dusk, when the clay lamps and lanterns were lit for the evening meal, and he sat cross legged next to his parents, on the hard dust beneath the charpoy, he found himself choking on claustrophobia and could not swallow even a mouthful of rice from Geeta’s wedding dinner.
Back in the logical world with electricity, college classes, and tarred roads, Keshav felt closer to Geeta again and they resumed their secret meetings behind the General Auditorium, during which he continued his endeavor of explaining the Plan to his soon-to-be-betrothed, while she would sit bare-footed on the grass, silently worrying a tendril from a nearby willow. Everything looked the same as before, but ever since her strange wedding, Geeta had begun to seem distracted, as though she didn’t connect his sentences in her mind, as though she were faintly surprised at finding herself where she was.
Keshav firmly believed all this distraction was caused by Geeta’s continued association with gossips like Mona and Kavita. He just knew that they had filled her head with all manner of nonsense, which billowed as the fog in which his words got lost. He felt that Geeta was the kind of girl who was easily swayed by the people around her, and every time he remembered this, he would feel violently protective of her, his need to shield her flaring fiercely. At such times, he found himself in a rage against his parents and her Mashiba for believing in palaver like kundalis, against Mona and Kavita for using Geeta to fuel their need to belittle and cackle, against Surinder and Aslam for their complacency about their future, against Geeta herself for being the vortex of varying, contradictory winds.
And it wasn’t as though he didn’t know what they were saying about Heena and him; he had not missed the sly glances and brittle smiles when he had gone to Arts building to meet her. This further enraged Keshav, that anyone talking to another of the opposite gender was slandered! Heena, bless her, had just laughed and said she didn’t care, and maybe she didn’t, maybe she even enjoyed it all a little, but still! Even Aslam, who should have known better, had nudged his elbow in knowing laughter as he had begged Keshav for his secret to juggling two-two girls with such panache. The unfairness of the whole situation disgusted him. It made his head hurt and his eyes ache, just to think of it.
He sighed at Geeta’s downcast head and quietly began talking about the time his family was expected for lunch that Sunday, and discovered that she had no problems with coherence on that topic.
* * * * *
Much to Kavita and Mona’s disbelief and amazement, the following winter brought Geeta’s wedding to Keshav. They had stared unbelievingly at the invitation card, when she had gone with Mashiba to formally invite them. They were both vowed to not marry until they were successful lawyers and had assumed that Geeta would grow out her girlish dreams and follow in their footsteps. They asked her why she had to marry before finishing her degree, and she had mumbled some gobbledygook about kundalis and constellations that had more amendments, by-laws, exceptions, and mandates than the Constitution!
Mystified but resolved to enjoy the whole ceremony of three days, they had both arrived in finery and taken residence at Geeta’s house, much to Mahiba’s head-shaking annoyance and Geeta’s delight. Unlike her first wedding, she was resolved to enjoying this one, and she wanted to be feted and envied by her girlfriends for being a bride.
It was a grand affair, all loud film music, garba evenings, henna nights, and the kind of raucous dancing Keshav had imagined earlier, even though it all gave him a blinding headache. The wedding was the talk of the college for a whole semester, about how the two lovers surreptitiously conducted their private affair in clear sight of all, and everyone exclaimed over their discretion and dignity of their deportment. Many Freshman Arts students since pursued or were pursued by many aspiring software engineers until being in Arts College and Software Engineering blended with a vague notion of high romance that almost stank with a promise of marital bliss.
* * * * *
Geeta held Keshav’s hand as they looked at each other in the full length mirror that reflected them in their bridal finery, later that night, in the upstairs room in her ancestral house, by light of an oil lamp, since 24 hour electricity was unheard of in the village.
Geeta softly told Keshav about her girlhood foolishness, searching the mirror for her husband.
Keshav laughed softly in response and asked, “What do you mean you didn’t see me in that mirror? We have been playing this game since we were kids!”
Geeta, remembering, shifted her smiling glance, drinking in the sight of the bride with her newly wed groom, until she saw the flourishing banyan tree with its hard, bitter berries standing guard over her, behind them, and she dropped her eyes to hide the worry. She silently thanked the spirit of the mirror for showing her true husband beside her, and imagined that the mirror twinkled and winked in acknowledgement of her thanks.
What the spirit in the mirror also showed, but what Geeta failed to see was inside her new groom’s head, where a hard, bitter berry had taken root and would find soil fertile enough to flourish and avenge the unfair blow dealt to all husbands.
Indian Review | Author Profile | Shefali Shah Choksi teaches Literature and Composition at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She has an M.A. (English) and M.Phil (Women’s Studies) from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara (Gujarat, India) and has lived in Florida since 1988, when she first immigrated to Miami from Mumbai.Her collection of poems Frontier Literature, as she says,”draws heavily from her internal landscape populated with two major texts, fairytales from the Grimms collection, which come to me from my maternal grandmother, a first generation immigrant from Germany to India, and the Mahabharata, which I have imbibed by osmosis, inhaled with the air of my land of origin. These are set against the very real, very contemporary landscape of South Florida, which is my adopted home.”
– photo credits mizukagami