Paro and Manju, bosom friends, had a common love interest: Shahrukh Khan. The epiphany of their love happened as they watched Shahrukh’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge at Lakshmi Talkies in the district headquarters of Datia. It was mutually professed on the tractor-trolley ride back to their township of Bhander.
Since Shahrukh lived far away in Mumbai and was already married, the two girls decided to settle for husbands who resembled the Bollywood star as closely as possible. Now, in their small town a man was considered an eligible bachelor if he could feed a family and count his earnings. The necessary resemblance was therefore watered down to two specifications – that he should wear a jeans pant and should not have a moustache. The two friends made a secret pact to look only for such husbands.
One would expect a pact like this between two starstruck teenage girls to be soon forgotten, but nothing like that happened. Three years later, when the families started looking for grooms, the girls fervently prayed for a groom like Shahrukh.
The final decision rested with their parents, and their views would likely not even be heard, let alone considered. Yet the girls assiduously studied the facial hair and sartorial sense of the bottom half of their prospective grooms.
Driven perhaps by their inseparability and the fact their parents always made an example of the other friend’s behaviour, their friendship was not without a generous dose of competition. There were no absolutes in their life; all that mattered was how each fared against the other. It did not matter that both failed the Class 10 math exam – Manju was the less aggrieved because she had failed only by three marks compared to Paro’s five. Paro completely loved the new churidar-kurta her father got her for Diwali until she laid eyes on Manju’s embroidered ghagra-choli. Her fondness for her new dress evaporated instantly.
While the rest of the world was unaware of their ongoing competition, the friends knew that the last race was the one that mattered – their grooms. The winner, of course, would be one with a groom closer in appearance to Shahrukh Khan.
Both went through the rigours of arranged marriage with much anticipation. Every time a rishta was brought to either’s family, the girls’ ears would be perked, out of sight, to catch any words emanating from the baithak. The groom’s job, his family’s financial status, etc – on which the elders pondered most – were irrelevant to them. Their checklist had just two items.
Unfortunately, neither criterion figured in the list of the parents. The girls were left with stealing a glance with downcast eyes while serving tea to determine the fact. Fervent silent prayers followed if the facial hairs were absent and jeans pant present, even more fervent prayers if it was the other way round.
Manju got betrothed first. Raunaklal was from the neighbouring village, the son of a moneylender. He drew fame from his father’s wealth and notoriety from his own drunken stupors.
Raunaklal was not only cleanshaven and wore the desired nether garments; he even sported Shahrukh’s hairstyle and continued to wear his fashionable shades in the poorly lit baithak. Manju’s hands trembled as she served him tea, noticing the trousers first with her lowered eyes, followed by a furtive glance to confirm item number two further up his physiology. Their eyes met, and she quickly lowered hers, a shiver running down her body. She almost spilled tea on the denims. The girl bolted out of the room, her heart pounding wildly.
While her parents were still weighing the pros of a wealthy party versus the character of the guy, Manju had already offered the Toriya-wali Mata a handsome bribe of fifty-one laddoos if the alliance was fixed.
Although her parents were a little reluctant to marry her to a known alcoholic, it was none of Manju’s doing that influenced the decision – not counting the bribes to divinity. The baniya’s wealth had always been a pragmatic consideration. The final straw was the argument that always clinched such matches – that the guy would ‘settle down’ after marriage.
Chaos ensued in the days after. The only muhurat remaining for the year was in the next thirty days. The frenetic activity that followed saw everybody in adjacent households pitching in for the wedding preparations. On the appointed day, Manju was married off and, after many tears were shed with her family and Paro, departed with her groom.
A sense of loneliness engulfed Paro after Manju’s vidaai. She grew pensive and reserved. Her parents attributed this to Manju’s departure. Little did they know that Paro’s preoccupation was as much due to her worry about keeping up with Manju as it was about missing her.
Paro’s parents redoubled their efforts in groom hunting. The fact that Manju was six months younger than Paro played heavy on their minds. Her dad and uncles were often absent: gone to wherever the next prospect happened to be. Several leads were followed, but none of them were fruitful.
‘I have lost count of the number of cups of tea I have served by now’ – Paro wrote to Manju, the only way they kept in touch – ‘but all of them turned me down. Mostly it is the demand or the horoscope, but one family thought grey-eyed girls are cunning – now I can’t change the colour of my eyes for them!
While Ma and Babu-ji are worried sick, I am relieved – why would guys not bother about fashionable trousers and cover their faces with that odious shrubbery?
I have started fasting on Pradosh too now, besides Mondays. But looks like Bholenath, the simple one, isn’t so simply pleased after all.’
Desperation and the distances her father and uncles travelled grew as the days passed. After one visit to a nearby village, the brothers did not return by the usual evening bus. Worry had morphed into anxiety by the time they returned late in the night.
‘What took you this long?’ Paro’s mother asked as she handed a towel and a jug of water to her husband. No reply was forthcoming as he wiped his hands and face dry and then took a long draught of water. Half a dozen pairs of eyes followed as the brothers finally sat down on the cot laid out in the aangan.
‘We have fixed Paro’s marriage’, the eldest brother announced eventually.
The family couldn’t digest this! Everyone began talking at once. The brothers filled in the details when they got a chance to speak. Paro stood a little aloof and could gather scant details from the tumultuous conversations.
The boy was in the army and was leaving for his post the same night. His sisters had been a part of Manju’s baraat and had seen Paro then. The horoscopes were a match, and the soldier’s family were willing. Also, the family did not demand a dowry and only wanted a decent reception for the baraat.
The brothers conferred for a while and decided that not only did they find the groom suitable, they also did not want to wait for another six months – the earliest the soldier thought he would be able to get his next leave. They bought the customary sweets and fruits for the boy’s side and finalized the betrothal. The wedding would take place depending on when the boy could get a break from his duty.
They did not have a picture handy, but the boy’s family would send one in a few days. The brothers could not stop praising the groom and found a keen audience in their household. The matter of Paro not meeting the groom came up, but her father settled it with finality, observing that even the groom had consented without having seen Paro. He praised how tall and smart he looked in his uniform.
Paro, though hanging on every word of the conversation from behind the door, did not join in – it wasn’t polite for her to be inquisitive. Her hopes sank as she heard more.
‘I am sure you will agree that we can discount the jeans’, she wrote to Manju. ‘Didn’t we swoon over Shahrukh in his vardi when he starred in Army? My hopes are sinking over the moustache, though. You know how soldiers favour facial hair – even Shahrukh had one to begin with in Army – until Sridevi shaved it! I know what you will be teasing me with – ask your Shahrukh to shave his too – but you know the reality. Here I am, marrying without having seen a photograph. I so wish I could ask Babu-ji about the moustache at least, but he will just laugh and shake his head off. I am missing you so much Manju, no one else understands my turmoil here….’
The groom’s family approached Paro’s before the week was out, and it wasn’t about the much-awaited photograph. The soldier was to leave overseas with UN Peacekeeping Mission in fifteen days and was to be gone for a year. Either the wedding had to happen in the next ten days, or they would have to wait until he returned. In this less-than-ideal situation, Paro’s father chose to marry her off immediately. Everyone got busy with the wedding preparations, and Paro’s anxiety went unobserved. She so wanted Manju around to share her agony, but Manju was expecting, and her in-laws forbade travel in first trimester.
It was finally the wedding day. Paro’s home, that had already turned into a war zone, became the battlefront. Her mother ran in and out, tallying the contents of Paro’s suitcase with a list and worrying that she had still forgotten something. Her aunties tried to keep the kids away from the sweets, and relatives and friends in droves kept coming in and out of the home.
Paro watched all this with a studied silence and now and then passed on a smile to conceal her real emotions. Half a dozen ladies fussed over getting her ready for the wedding. The buzz heightened as someone saw the baraat approaching. Not much later, Paro was escorted to the mandap.
Paro had made up her mind that she didn’t care about the moustache any longer. Still, she tried to steal a sideways glance at her groom. Unfortunately, the chameli sehra covered his face. All she managed to see was his freshly shaven cheek and nothing more.
The wedding went off as weddings go – there were the usual rituals; the last-minute rush for forgotten stuff and one-upmanship between the priests from either party meant that it was almost morning before the rituals were finished. Between the vidaai and more ceremonies at her in-laws, Paro barely got a moment to breathe. Before long, the ladies there were preparing her for the first night with her husband, whose face she had yet to see.
The little breather she got while taking a quick wash and changing brought the thoughts back. By the time she was ready, she was trembling a little – nothing unexpected of a bride. Not long after, she was left alone in the room, awaiting her husband.
Paro was seated on the bed facing the door. She clasped her hands together to still her nerves. She would finally see her husband’s face! Fearing the worst, her heart pounded. She dreaded the moment when her fears might be confirmed, yet she wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
Finally, the groom entered, latching the door behind him. The Gods weren’t done with their games, and this time the flower decorations on the bed obstructed her view. He walked slowly, but instead of approaching her, he moved across the room to where a table stood. He began to remove his watch, the garlands that he still wore, the customary kirpan – and put them all on the table. All the while, his back was towards Paro. Then he filled in a glass of water from the jug there, took a small sip and waited.
‘You might be wondering how I agreed to marry without having ever seen you. But so did you’, he said, placing the tumbler down on the table. He slowly walked to the nearest edge of the bed and sat there. Paro’s eyes remained downcast, befitting the demureness of a new bride.
‘My sisters. They had seen you during another wedding and told me about you.’ Taking a long pause here, he cemented his thoughts into words. ‘You might find it weird, but I always wanted to marry somebody with grey eyes…like Aishwarya Rai’s.’
And she looked up.
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