“We are good people,” my boyfriend says, his voice laced with hurt and just a pinch of anger. “We haven’t even asked for a dowry.”
I nod. I agree, they are, and they haven’t.
I am staring at the plate of half-eaten Hakka noodles in front of me. My fingers are busy making tiny shreds of the thin paper napkin that had been a part of a swan’s plumage till very recently, till I had cruelly plucked it out and decided to desecrate it. It’s something I do when I am upset, destroy things.
We have been sitting at the back-of-the-room corner table of New Bengaluru Qwik Eatz for over an hour now. I took the afternoon off from work in order to make it to this lunch date, even though my manager made sure that I understood she was displeased. She’d just had a baby, and she didn’t see why anyone else should be taking time off work when she wasn’t. She’s right, I should be more mindful. We can’t let the work pile up and delay the customer deliveries. I make a mental note to WhatsApp Amit later, after this fight-but-not-really a-fight-we’re-just-discussing-the wedding-details is behind us, that we should probably try to keep our dates for evenings and weekends only. The traffic in Bengaluru made sure that there was no way for us to make a quick lunch trip, and because last time he had driven all the way to the restaurant near my office, it was my turn to make myself available at some place convenient for him. It is important for me that we split this burden equally.
“I know babu,” I say. I try to make my voice sound like I am trying to be apologetic about implying that he has made an absurd demand. “I am not implying that you are making an absurd demand. The girl’s family always pays for the wedding, that’s how it is, but you said we’ll split the costs. It’s really not so much about the money as it is about the gesture, really.” I realize my voice is still hard as I say this, so I rest my head on his shoulder to take the sting off — we always sit side by side when we dine out so that we can hold hands more easily so that when I feed him with my spoon I don’t drop food on the table so that our bodies touch without looking like we are trying to touch each other.
He deflates a bit. My touch always seems to have that effect. I know it’s hard for him to manage both sides of the expectational equation. His family is disappointed in him for choosing his own wife, that too a non-Gujarati. They haven’t said no to the wedding, which is really much more than we could’ve expected, what with our kundalis being only moderately compatible, and our mother tongues being so wildly different. What, are you going to speak in English with each other, his mother had asked, aghast at the prospect of not sharing a language with your significant other. She’s right, of course, it’s absurd to love in a language not your own.
He doesn’t speak but makes a noise that sounds tired. I unobtrusively try to adjust my bra strap, which I realize has slipped from under my pink-and-blue kurta because I feel the weight of stares from people around us. I’m trying to think of all the wins — his cousin, the one who is studying at the New College of Engineering for Girls, had friended me on Facebook and had told me how inspired she was that we’re fighting this out. It can’t be easy with your darker Bengali skin, she’d said. The only saving grace is that we’re both Brahmins. I don’t think we could’ve managed to win the caste fight. But then, if we had been from different castes, we would not have fallen in love in the first place. Why make life difficult for oneself if one can avoid it?
Amit picks at his chicken biryani. We’re both supposed to be vegetarian. That’s a big win. We have already decided not to cook meat at home. That’s really the one thing my family had insisted on, unusual, as it is among Bengalis to be vegetarians. We trust you to find a good man for yourself, from a well-educated family like ours, but no meat-eaters, please. Oh, and no Bihari boy. Those philistines don’t know their Tanpura from their Tolstoy. I hadn’t known about the Bihari clause when I had been dating my ex; I would never have agreed to go out with him had I known. He is a sweet kid; he likes to paint and play the guitar. Only English rock songs though. That wouldn’t have impressed my father. But Dev hadn’t been marriage-material, anyway. It’s not as if I could’ve married someone who was planning to leave his stable bank manager job to try making money off his art. My job at the manufacturing company didn’t pay enough for such luxuries, what with Bengaluru’s rising costs. Amit, on the other hand, has already paid the deposit for a flat in Marathalli and secured a house loan. It’s one of the things that had impressed me when we first met. Besides, I want kids, and artists are too temperamental to make good fathers.
I lift my head up from Amit’s shoulder and feed him some of my veg Hakka noodles. He tries to feed me some of his biryani, but it’s Tuesday today. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Sundays are fine, but the rest of the days I don’t eat meat. I am full anyway; the tight band of my jeans is digging into my soft belly skin. I need to lose about eight more KGs before the wedding. Can’t have my 30-inch tummy show through the saree. But maybe I’ll wear it Gujju-style, with the pallu draped back to front, flowing like a bright sapphire waterfall over my shoulders and hiding most of my stomach. Technically, since the wedding is organized by the bride’s family, it should be conducted the Bengali way, but out of deference to his family — he’s the boy after all — I have agreed to be open-minded over the minor matters of dress and jewelry. A firm decision has not been reached yet; it can go either way, I am sure.
We seem to have reached a silent agreement to table the wedding-costs argument for later. He is holding my left hand to his lips, his large manly hands cupping my small, soft ones. He makes me feel like a woman. He’s a good man — he hasn’t asked me to leave my job after marriage. He even plans to cook on the weekends. Hell, he hasn’t even asked to have sex. Don’t let this one go. You have a tendency to self-sabotage, Neha, my best friend from college, had said when I had called her last weekend to complain about the whole wedding-costs thing, and about him not letting me get a pixie cut. Do you know how hard it is to find a decent man nowadays? All these guys want is sex. Plus, he doesn’t seem to mind that you are darker than him or that you’re heavier. And really, man, pixie cuts may look cute on those anorexic bitches, but come on, you have too much boobs to pull it off without looking slutty. I hadn’t been happy to let the whole pixie cut thing go, but thinking it over, I concurred. Besides, it’s probably too feminist a haircut. I wouldn’t want to brand myself.
The waiter arrives with the bill without having us wave him over. Amit drops my hands hastily. I blush, wondering if the waiter has noticed our little display of public affection. He holds a straight face, so maybe not. I make a show of reaching for my purse, but Amit glares at me. Don’t even think about it, his eyes say. It’s a little game we play. The only time we’ve ever split the bill was that time he had forgotten his wallet and only had had like fifty rupees in his shirt pocket. He leaves the coins for the tip. Ten rupees, I count. I scowl at his over-generosity, but he smiles at me and whispers, come on Tanushree, we’re good people, no?