An excerpt from the book, The Monsters Still Lurk by Aruna Nambiar.

Mum interrupted me, but in a calmer tone. ‘This is how things work in arranged marriages, Vivek. The family is good, the horoscopes match, people we know have spoken highly of the girl and the family, what more can we do?’

‘At least let me meet her a couple of more times,’ I said.

Mum was silent for a while. ‘Okay,’ she said finally.

So my parents called up her father once again and it was decided that I should take her out for a movie. I pored over movie listings as though they were client spreadsheets. I ruled out Runaway Bride—no girl was worth that kind of torture—and much as I wanted to watch Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, I settled for The Matrix. Later, she would tell me that she almost rejected me on that count alone.

But at the time, I was blissfully unaware, and enjoyed the afternoon in the darkened theatre, her hand brushing against mine on the armrest, our fingers briefly touching as we plunged into the popcorn we were sharing. By now I had learnt that she was fond of seafood, so, afterwards, I took her to a five-star hotel—I was looking to impress, and could write it off on my expense account—and watched as she dipped sannas in Mangalore fish curry and dug expertly into crabs with those long fingers. I remember telling her that I should take her to Mahesh back in Mumbai for their butter-pepper-garlic squid, and before either of us could dwell on the implications of such a statement, I started feeling queasy. An image of a suspect prawn I had taken a bite out of a short while before trembled before my eyes; not wanting to seem coarse by spitting it out hastily as would have been prudent, I had let a coy delicacy get the better of me and had swallowed it whole, resisting the inclination to gag. The rest of its companions I had hidden on other parts of my plate under curry leaves and a decorative rose made of carrot, and had continued talking as though nothing was amiss. Now, halfway through the gajar ka halwa, the prawn appeared to be waging a lone mutiny somewhere in my nether regions and was threatening to forge a way out, one way or another. I only half listened as she prattled on, and gestured for the bill as soon as I could.

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‘Do you think I could get your number?’ Malini asked. ‘I’m tiring a bit of having to fix our meetings through our mummy-daddies, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, yes,’ I said, now sweating profusely from the effort of not being sick. ‘Of course.’

I scrawled my number on the back of a paper napkin and handed it over. I fought back an upsurge of bile.

‘Listen, do you think I could drop you off at an auto stand?’ I said weakly. ‘I just remembered I have to be somewhere urgently.’

‘Oh, okay,’ she said, and even in my food-poisoned state I could make out that her tone was flatter than usual, and patently more icy, but to her credit, she didn’t throw the napkin back in my face. We had talked of visiting Tipu Sultan’s summer palace after lunch. It was hidden between markets and hospitals in an old quarter of Bangalore, and Malini had gushed about teak pillars and Indo-Islamic architecture and assured me that it was something I had to see.

That was not to be. After evacuating her unceremoniously at a corner, not even waiting to see if she was able to hail an auto, I sped back home and, for the next seventy-two hours, was very, very sick. I ignored the doorbell and the telephone and got out of bed only for multiple visits to the toilet. Somewhere around Hour Fifty-One I realized I had forgotten to ask Malini for her number in return and wondered what she must have thought. I threw up nervously.

‘Where have you been?’ shrieked my mother, when I felt strong enough to answer the phone. ‘I’ve been trying you for two days!

She piped down when I told her. ‘Oh. Are you better now? What medicine did you take? Swallow methi seeds whole and eat half a bun after that, it will stop immediately. And don’t eat bananas—that’s for constipation, not diarrhoea or vomiting. You’re drinking a lot of water, I hope?’ After ascertaining that I was better, she continued. ‘So I visited the astrologer, and he’s given me a couple of possible dates.’

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‘What?’ I asked, still a bit disoriented.

‘The marriage dates! One in December, the other in March the next year. They are also okay with it.’

‘What?’

‘What “what, what”? Are you really okay?’

‘You fixed the marriage date? And told Malini’s family? Why? I never told you to.’

‘Aiyyo, if I wait for you to tell me everything, Malini will marry someone else and have three children by then! Two days I’ve been trying to reach you! And why are you acting so innocent and all? You only told Malini you are going to take her to Bombay to eat at Mahesh! If you didn’t want to marry her, you wouldn’t have said that, no?’

This stumped me. How did she know that? Had she employed someone to plant bugs on my person? Or perhaps hide under the tablecloth? At this point, it didn’t seem impossible.

‘And she asked for your number! What more do you want? That means go forward, no?’

I didn’t know what to say to that. I tried to protest about the unseemly haste with which things were going forward, the way my mother had taken things into her own hands, how, although Malini seemed like a nice girl, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to actually marry her, in that forever-after, no-turning-back kind of way. And she did say ‘haitch’ for ‘aitch’. I was met with a barrage of don’t-be-silly-you-can-never-be-sure, no-not-even-after-ten-years-together, what-will-I-tell-her-father and don’t-worry-everything-will-be-okay-the-astrologer-said-so.

Image Credits: Rupa Publications/Aruna Nambiar

Excerpted with permission from The Monsters Still Lurk by Aruna Nambiar, Rupa Publications.

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