Bikaner Bahu

 

The first time I entered the beautiful city of Bikaner, it was as a new bride, some 23 years ago into a culture I didn’t understand, where the folks spoke a language I couldn’t make head or tail of and to a city I had never been before.

With all the unknowns and with trepidation, that new brides of yesteryears will understand, I stepped into the city, complete with a bowed head, armful of jewellery, and no voice.

Draped in a heavy जरी साड़ी, loaded with jewellery from head to toe, (yes actually), wearing heels, I followed my MIL into those city roads where no four-wheeler had gone before. Now these lanes are small (stretch your arms and you can probably touch the boundary), pot-holed, like all lanes across the country, disgustingly smelly with open drains and overflowing with cow dung. Amidst the dung, move the two and three wheelers, and alongside walk the Homo sapiens (at their own risk) and dogs and cows and bulls and carts and more, coexisting on the treacherous roads. A person like me needs to be insured just to walk there.

So there I was, all decked up, one hand holding up the साड़ी all the way up to my ankles, (Ha, what did you think), other hand fiercely holding the पल्लू on my head, which I was told never to let go, (hence no hands free to hold a purse and thus I learnt how the art of storing money in twin lockers beyond purses originated. And no, I am not explaining this further) looking at the road for spots where the foot could be placed safely without being soiled, and looking out for dangers lurking around nooks namely four legged creatures and motorised vehicles. Vehicles were the easy ones, in Bikaner, they are quite used to blind people like me walking around. And I always thought people coming to big cities from small towns faced hurdles! But the real menace were the bulls and cows, who are around in plenty, all seemingly eyeing me disdainfully, and being dead afraid of them, I was forever ready to flee in the most unladylike manner, with no regard for the erstwhile stated पल्लू. Many a times I was saved by the folks used to saving damsels in distress in those lanes.

And what was I doing there? I was being led to meet my husband’s extended family that resided in such locations and I was paraded around being the latest acquisition. Some of the older generation ladies would make me sit next to them, take my arm and minutely examine every piece of jewellery I wore. Ask me details about who gave it, how much it was worth and I was completely lost. But my MIL passed with flying colors; she had done a good job. And they would utter in their local tone “छोरी पुटरो से” meaning girl is good looking (experience gaveth the verdict).

Some of the more experienced बहूs I met on these trips were tired looking girls with covered head forever looking downwards, following their सासु around, obeying instructions and getting rid of their घूँघट as soon as they were out of surveillance. I asked them why did they cover their head if they had such a big issue with it and they looked at me like I had descended from Mars, you don’t know nothing, you come from a different culture, we will see how you fare in a couple of years (the last with a knowing smirk). I wondered what their life was like, being stuck forever beneath the covered head and small town mentality, with no hope or desire to do anything beyond cook, clean and obey. And snapping at their snotty kids with one finger up the nostril and one scratching the bottom.

And then there also exists that class of people who took offence with me simply because (as far as I can make out) I was born in a different caste, was educated and didn’t understand the traditions. They always tell me (even today), I am too focused on earning (नोट गिनती as they call it), not on family, I never make time for relatives, never call them and generally pull me down by what is termed as ओलबा in the local dialect.  And not breaking the घूँघट clad बहू genre, I listen, feebly protest and finally shut up, I cannot win the argument anyway, and leave teary eyed at times.

When I got married, I was made to sit with a hall full of Marwari women, all dressed in bright red, head covered, stomach visible (which reminded me of a term we had coined in college O-cube-C, which meant, now don’t laugh, one open one covered, and you can easily guess what I mean in the context of a साड़ी), singing the local lullaby called गीत, whose words were difficult for me to decipher, laughing, touching my clothes and jewelry and doing what most females do when in a group, talk. Since my Marwari vocabulary was close to nil, I sat with a permanent smile pasted on my face as folks took off my घूँघट, looked at me, made some remarks I didn’t quite get, laughed and fed me लड्डूs, one after other, till I was in bursting and ready to puke. Much later I learnt that you were not supposed to eat them, just take the smallest bite and keep it down again. Or take a bite and feed the rest to the fellow torturing you thus. Nobody told me that at the right time.

Bikaneri food is the probably among the most awesome in the world, but not when it is stuffed in your mouth. In this city, people show their love for you is by force feeding you; they believe in the past 24 years of your life, you have not mastered the art of eating. You cannot do “अन्न का अपमान” and you have to devour around 6 meals a day, breakfast, morning snacks, lunch, high tea, evening snacks and dinner, all at different relatives abode, who felt I had come completely undernourished and unfed from my पीहर and they had to funnel stuff in my mouth till my पेटीकोट नाडा was about to break. My MIL taught me, don’t eat anything on your own, just eat what you are being fed and you’ll survive to tell the tale.

Funny incidents apart, I was welcomed with open arms by people who lived in this small town and had hearts big enough to shower love and blessings on this bong girl without bias. Even after couple of decades, I continue to be surprised at the way this place strives to maintain the traditions as the next generation gets married while I still struggle to speak the local language and get a handle on expectations.

 

 

 

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Before we lived happily ever after

Logically speaking, I should start with how I met and started flirting with my current husband. But that is for another time. Today I want to talk about some of the hilarious events leading to the inter-caste-marriage that we had. Remember that 90’s was a conservative period for the smaller towns in India and divorces and love-marriages were spoken in shushed-tones.

Once upon a time in 1988-89, Anuraag and I decided, we will get married. To each other. Some day. We did not talk about it at home, of course. Who does that? My mom, being a die-hard Bengali and strongly influenced by her peer group, when I was in III year, decided that it was time for some prospective grooms to meet me. I know there were people who helped influence her judgment about the girls-growing-up-and-getting-out-of-hand (and whose daughters wanted to do nothing in life except marry and settle down).  I thank such interfering bees from the bottom of my shoe, who have nothing better to do than match-making for all kids in the block.

Well, to continue the story, some ill-meaning neighbor brought a “रिश्ता” and I was asked to meet the guy. I, as expected, said NO. But maybe not loudly enough, because the family turned up officially to “see me” one evening. My mom begged me not to create a scene so I complied. This guy was tall and broad, his wrist was probably twice mine (remember you are supposed to keep your eyes demurely down- all you get to see is the hands and the lower anatomy of the fellow). Having decided his fate a priori, I went and say Hello and sat down to talk to him. No, I did not wear a sari, or take a tray-full of samosas and tea. My parents and his parents, delicately left us alone and went to the bedroom to talk. Though I could bore anyone with my incessant conversation, I was tongue-tied for a while and we made some formal talk, what do you do, where do you study, what are your hobbies kind. Then he asked me what do you want to do. And I saw light. I told him I wanted to be the prime minister of India followed by an 5 minute extempore of why I believed  I was right for the job (the gift of glib came handy).  After my nonstop nonsense, I never quite figured out why he was in such a hurry to leave.  My parents were so happy that we had so much in common to talk about- little did they know how I scared him away.

With that safely out-of-the-way, life continued sedately for a while. A few days later, I heard another name, someone else was again coming for the same ritual. The day is etched in my mind. My dad was shaving. Mom was laying out breakfast and said they were going to come in the evening. And I burst out- I am not interested. I don’t want to meet anyone. And she asked- why? In 80’s 90’s the standard question was whether I had a boyfriend and not if I was gay. I said I have someone else in mind.  My mom asked- who, Anuraag? So I said yes. And then the slow motion B rated Hindi movie scene started.

Dad paused his shaving for an instant and continued as if nothing had happened. My mom, sat down heavily, not knowing what to say. I left for college. By the time I came back, mom was in कोप भवन. Her first and strongest reaction was “How can you marry a non-Bengali?” In her mind it was clear that there were only two classes- Bengalis and the rest of them. And of course, Bengalis are the elite ones, how can anyone even think of competing with Rabindra Nath Tagore and Uttam Kumar, Shuchitra Sen, the literature and एकला चोलो रे and the rich history? How could I stoop low enough to give up the cultural heritage and other such blahs for matters of the heart? When I said it doesn’t matter to me- she could not believe her ears- are you my daughter? Is this the संस्कार that I taught you?  Her next problem was “he is so dark, your kids will not be fair” Really ! She refused to eat for 3 days, I was crying in my room, she was crying in hers. My dad was mediating and cooking dishes trying to cool and feed both of us. Mom actually told my dad- she can’t go to college any more. And my dad laughed- you can’t do that, she is studying engineering. In next 3 days I tried several ways to get her to see reason- listing all the pros of my to-be-husband, why Bengali-panti was irrelevant to me, how I intended to survive without माछेर झोल, finally the only thing that worked was – I promise I am not going to run away to get married. I will only marry with your blessings and then she broke her fast-unto-whatever and started eating. After a few days, things became quite normal at home, except for some taunts that came out of nowhere, which I did my best to ignore. Little did I know what was brewing in her mind.

When Anuraag broke the news at his home, his mom’s reaction was even more lame “नमक लाना हैं तो माँ से पूछता हैं कौन सा , चला हैं लड़की पसंद करने” and finally- right now focus on studies, we will worry about these things later- which was probably the sanest thing to say.  Her only issue with me was thatI came from a non-vegetarian family. Interestingly the fathers on the both the sides were very pleased with the liaison from day one – maybe it saved them some hard work of finding a suitor.

This episode I came to know much later – few years post marriage. My bro had come home for a week. He got all the juicy details from my mom, with her local flavor added. The whole family conspired behind my back and my big bro – decided to intervene to save the इज़्ज़त of his younger sister and मान-मर्यादा of the family. He went over to the Jodhpur court to meet Anuraag’s mom. (She was working as a judge). Her version of the story.  She got a note that Jhilmil’s brother wants to meet her. She came out, a trifle apprehensive. And my bro gave it to her straight “आपके बेटे ने मेरी भोली-भाली बहन को फसाया हैं”. She responded in kind – “तुम्हारी बहन ने मेरे बेटे को फासा हैं” Corny dialogues of the same genre flew back and forth till they did not have anything more to throw. Finally they mutually agreed to find ways to keep us away from each other (the fact that we were classmates in college did not help them at all). My bro came home, exhausted with the outburst, but since they were fellow conspirators, he also added “But they are a pretty decent and educated family. Maybe we should really think this through.”

It took the families next two-three years to think things through. I left for my post grad. Anuraag took up a job somewhere in Rewari. Both parties were perversely  delighted- now that the kids are away from each other- the infatuation will go away. They don’t know till date that Anuraag came every weekend to meet me at Delhi. After waiting unsuccessfully for a year for us to have a breakup, they finally yielded and the rest is history. Polite perseverance and determination worked wonders.

Ps. Some expressions only make sense in the mother tongue, hence I resort to it from time to time. Like आपके बेटे ने मेरी भोली-भाली बहन को फसाया हैं- is not at all the same as- your son is luring my innocent sister. Qed.

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