The Engagement

by Rudy Ravindra

Mrs. Kaul asked her son, “Are you going to be in town next week?”

Satish looked up from his iPad. “Yes, Mom. Why? Are you planning something?”

Well, Parvathi is very keen on an alliance with our family. She wants you to meet her daughter.”

You mean her daughter and me getting married? I think I vaguely remember her. Isn’t she tall and lanky? I forgot her name.”

Mrs. Kaul smiled. “Her name is Padma, and she is still tall but no longer lanky. She blossomed into a real beauty. You must see her, beta. She is really drop-dead-gorgeous. And brains too. She is doing her Masters in electrical engineering at The Institute.”

Mom, please don’t start all that now. I want to focus on learning our family business. I want to help Dad..….he is working too hard. I don’t want to get married now.”

Ayyo! Rama! I’m not saying you get married tomorrow or the day after. You simply meet Padma……who knows if she is the right girl for you. That’s for both of you to decide. But it doesn’t hurt to meet, to….to…. to see if you guys have anything in common.”

It had been a few months since Satish returned to Bangalore, after completing his engineering degree in a neighboring state. Satish was learning the nitty-gritty of the vast fertilizer empire that his dad had built, and was accompanying him to meet the managers of their branch offices in different parts of the country. Satish hoped to gradually take up a few responsibilities, so as to eventually lead the entire conglomerate. He knew his dad wanted to retire, play golf, travel a bit and relax in the autumn years of his life. Satish was eager to focus on the business, and didn’t want the distraction of a wife. But when his mom insisted that he meet Padma, he had no choice. He was sure that this was just the beginning. Padma would be one of the long list of eligible girls that he’d have to m eet. And choose the right girl. Get married. Have kids. Now that he’d completed his education, there was no excuse, none at all.

* * *

Parvathi and Padma came to visit.

Namaste aunty ji, how are you? And Padma, you have changed a lot. You look very scholarly in those eye glasses!” Padma had her long dark hair in a single plait, down to her hips. She wore a Kanjeevaram silk sari with a bindi on her forehead, gold bangles, and a heavy gold filigree necklace and matching ear rings.

Parvathi said, “Satish, you have grown taller and put on some weight. It seems like the coastal environment did you some good. You were like a reed when you were young. How many years were you away?”

Ah, um… I think it’s about five years. I took an extra year to get my degree, I was doing a research project.”

After they had snacks and tea, Mrs. Kaul said, “Beta, why don’t you take Padma for a spin in your new car?”

Padma was impressed with his bright red BMW, “Wow! Nice car, yaar!”

This is my graduation present. It’s a fun car to drive. C’mon, hop in, Where shall we go?”

Oh, no place in particular. We are supposed to have a private chat, to see if we like each other. The typical Indian matchmaking saga, yaar. I hate this nonsense, all this pressure. I told my Mom when I meet the right guy I’ll know. What do you feel about all this?”

Relax, enjoy the ride. We don’t have to…… know….say yes or no.”

He drove past golf links and Raj Bhavan and took the road adjoining Cubbon park, and arrived at St. Marks Road, and parked by the side of Koshy’s, his favorite restaurant.

The waiter gave them a menu. Satish looked at Padma, “What do you like?”

An ice-cold UB.”

Satish told the waiter, “Make it two.”

After the waiter left, Satish said, “I didn’t know you drink beer.”

She laughed. “You are so old-fashioned, yaar…think girls shouldn’t drink?”

Oh! No, not at all. Somehow, I got the impression you are one of those traditional girls. Yes, a very traditional girl.”

She rolled her big bright eyes. “Yeah! I am traditional all right! Only around my Mom. She is so strict, yaar. Always telling me to wear a sari, bindi on my forehead, wear gold jewelry. She lives in the past, wants me to be the perfect bride-in-waiting. Waiting to be picked up by Prince Charming. I am so tired of it all, yaar.”

The beer arrived, and the waiter poured the cold golden liquid into their glasses.

She took a big gulp and sighed, “I really needed this, Satish. So much pressure. All I hear around my house is….marriage…..marriage…my mom tells my dad, heard there’s a suitable boy in Timbuktu, let’s contact his folks…blah…blah…blah….They don’t listen to me when I tell them that I’m not ready for marriage. I want to go to America, get my Ph.D.”

Seeing that her glass was almost empty, he signaled the waiter for refills.

Satish sipped his beer. “I agree with you. Marriage isn’t everything. I’m in the same boat…..Right now I don’t want any distractions. I need to learn our factory affairs………learn so many things, the stuff they never taught us at college. You know what I mean”

Yes, yes. I understand. There is a very big gulf between book knowledge and the real world. But, tell me something, why did you have to go to Andhra Pradesh to study engineering? There are so many engineering colleges here in town.”

My dear lady, not everyone is as smart as you. If only you knew the marks I got in my undergraduate courses! You know, I was never one of those ambitious fellows. Just went to school, got by, you know what I mean, my biggest achievement was…I never failed in any class. When I was doing my B.Sc., I think it was my second year, I’m not sure, I got this brilliant brain wave to study engineering. Since my marks weren’t that good, actually they were very mediocre, we had to find a college that would accept me. Luckily, my father has a good friend in Andhra who helped me to get into an engineering college. Also, my father donated a good bit of money to the college.”

Well, the important thing is you are happy. But, now that we have met, what will you tell your folks….I mean about me?”

He said. “I’ll say that you are hot, sexy and I can’t wait to sweep you off your feet.”

No, no, no. Please, I beg you……don’t do that. Once they hear such a solid endorsement, they’ll call the pundits to arrange an auspicious date for the wedding.”

Take it easy, Padma. I was just joking.”

I know that, yaar. In this dowdy outfit, even the most desperate man won’t find me desirable. But, my point is….actually….I mean…..this is so hard, yaar. It’s like this…..would you play the game…like we can tell them we enjoyed talking to each other, and like to get to know each other better before we make the final decision. What do you think?”

Satish doodled on the napkin. “So……….you want to buy some time…ha?”

Yeah, my mom will be off my back. I don’t have to meet any more boys….phew…that’ll be a great relief.” She made a show of wiping her forehead.

Satish said. “Okay. I like the idea. Let’s meet now and then for a drink or a movie to keep the old folks happy. And we have to make sure they know we are seeing each other. Let’s make a big show of it, shall we?”

* * *

Padma said. “I got admission into a Ph.D. program at MIT. We are in trouble, yaar. My parents think we should get married before I push off to America.”

They were drinking beer at Koshy’s, and Padma was in her casual clothes, a low rise denim cut off shorts with shredded detailing, a white T-short, flat white studded sandals, and a silver anklet on her right foot. He thought that these garments better suited her physique, compared to the shapeless saris that she usually wore. She put hair up in a ponytail and appeared to have lost her customary eye-glasses. And lipstick and mascara too!

You are looking very good, Padma! You go looking like this in the MIT campus, I’m sure many guys will be after you. Certainly very sexy.”

She was pleased. “Really! I thought you didn’t notice. But, seriously, yaar, what do we do now? We’ve been seeing each other for almost a year now, in my parents’ book that’s enough time. You know how it is, they are used to shot gun weddings…boy meets girl…boy’s well-placed…..girl’s good-looking…..comes with a good dowry…that’s it….tie the knot…..sooner the better.”

Yeah, yeah. Let me think. This calls for another beer, you know brain can’t function without proper stimulation, ha….ha….ha.” He signaled the waiter.

Taking a big swig, he sat back and smiled. “What if we tell our folks that we’d like to wait for about four years, until you get your Ph.D. Sort of a long engagement, eh?”

Padma sighed. “Do you really want to wait that long? You might meet someone you like.”

And you might fall for a tall, dark, handsome hunk in America. But that’s not the point, is it? Right now neither of us is ready for marriage. So, we postpone the decision. Seriously, it’s not easy to get into M.I.T. You should grab it.”

* * *

Mrs. Kaul was not all that happy, “Ayyo! Rama! why wait until she gets back from U.S.A.? Why not you get married now, let her go abroad and you can visit each other every six months or so. And once she completes her degree, Padma can return and settle down.”

That’s a good idea, Mom. But it might be distracting if we have to travel between the two countries every few months. I think it’s best if she’s left alone to pursue her studies.”

Mr. Kaul agreed, “I like the idea. Both of you are quite young and there’s no real hurry.”

Mrs. Kaul wondered, what’s with these young people? Why go off to those faraway lands where people are different, food is different, climate is different. And away from their loved ones with no one to care for them. No servants to cook and clean. She was so glad that Mr. Kaul was strong enough to resist the pull of the West, and decided to start a business in India.

Mrs. Kaul wanted to have an engagement party to celebrate the alliance between the two families, but Satish and Padma were against it.

Satish told his mother, “Padma is very busy with finishing up her research project, and then she has to go to Madras to get her visa. She doesn’t have the time.”

Beta, you must convince her to find time. What will people think about us? My only son is engaged to be married…..I don’t even give a good party!”

Mom, leave her alone. She is under a lot of stress right now.”

* * *

The day before her departure, the ‘engaged couple’ met, presumably to declare their undying love to each other, at least that’s what their parents thought.

You want to know something, yaar? It doesn’t matter how much I try to ignore my Mom’s relentless hints and jabs, sometimes it hurts me. She makes me feel guilty and selfish for going off to America. Most of my family members think you are a bloody saint to let me go off like that. In our culture a woman shouldn’t be ambitious. A woman should be bloody docile and dumb, catering to her husband’s needs, bearing children, devoting her life to raising them, cooking, cleaning and all the rest.” Her eyes became red and her lips started to quiver, she got up and excused herself, and went to the rest room.

They were sitting in the lush green lawn of West End hotel, a cool, quiet spot amidst the noisy, concrete jungle of Bangalore. He sipped his beer, and wondered how they got into this mess. He felt bad for her, felt bad for himself, for what they had to go through, the sham engagement, the trouble they took to please their elders. He fervently wished he hadn't agreed to this charade. Now it was too late to back off, he was neck deep in it. Not that he had anything against marriage. But not now, not when he was so busy with work. He saw Padma walking back from the other end of the lawn, and stared. She walked like one of those models on the runway, putting one foot in front of the other, swinging her hips in a seductive manner.

Satish wanted to lighten the mood. “You know, instead of an engineer, you might have become a model…..make more money. You are a natural, the way you walked back!”

She blushed. “Don’t make fun of me, yaar! That’s the way I always walk.”

Good to see some color on your face. Are you okay?”

I’m okay, yaar. I’m fine. I think everything’s getting to me. And I’ll miss everybody. I’ll miss this town. I’ll miss my parents, my brother and sister.”

I felt the same way when I went to Andhra. I was homesick for a couple of months. But slowly, studies and new friends helped me out of my doldrums. I’m sure you’ll be fine once you settle down. C’mon, let’s take a walk in the garden.”

The day was waning, and a shy half-moon was trying make its appearance in the horizon. Walking along the cobbled walkway, enjoying the cool evening, they admired the hotel’s famous rose garden, and stood under a huge arbor covered with aromatic jasmine flowers. He picked a few flowers and stuck them in her silky hair, and put his arm around her and kissed her. She kissed him back. One thing led to another and pretty soon they found themselves in a room in the West End. Exhausted and satiated, they looked at each other and laughed.

She wiped off the sweat beads from his forehead, “My God! Yaar! Why did we wait this long?”

He gently pushed back her lustrous hair and kissed her lips, her eyes, her cheeks and her neck. “I don’t know, maybe we didn’t want to complicate our friendship. It doesn’t matter. We had fun.”

* * *

Satish received frequent e-mails from Padma in the beginning. Gradually the e-mails dwindled to one or two every now and then to inform him of important milestones in her career, like when she completed her course work, when her first manuscript was accepted in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, when her presentation at an international conference was received with critical acclaim. He congratulated her, and wrote about his own progress, how he gradually won the confidence of the managers and engineers at the family enterprise, how he convinced his dad to branch out into manufacturing soaps and cosmetics.

After about four years, he got an e-mail that she was going to defend her thesis in a month or so and would be back in Bangalore soon. His mother was ecstatic, and started planning the wedding. Satish was at a loss as to how to tackle the situation. He was surprised that four years had passed so quickly and the dreaded day was about to arrive. He was happy with his work and the occasional fling with a willing wench. He didn’t want to complicate his life with any long-term relationship.

To his pleasant surprise, Padma called him a few days before her departure, “Satish, I’ll be in Bangalore next Wednesday. Shall we meet at Koshy’s Friday evening? That’ll give me enough time to sleep off my jetlag. Okay?”

* * *

You are looking good, Satish. As handsome as ever. I’m surprised you are still single.” Padma wore stone-washed jeans and a bright yellow blouse and looked like she just got back from a beauty salon.

You look great too, Padma. What’s with this new hairstyle! Is there a new man in your life?”

She laughed, “No, nothing of that sort, yaar. I needed some pampering, that’s what my mom said, she sent me to her beautician at Windsor-Manor. Well, anyway, how are you?”

Fine, fine. Everything’s fine. My Mom is planning a big wedding. I don’t know what to do.” He looked harassed.

Padma said. “It’s all my fault….dragged you into this mess.”

Satish patted her hand. “No, no, no. I agreed to this charade. Now it’s crunch time. Do or die and all that, ha?”

Padma gulped down her beer. “Satish, You’ve been a good sport. I need to tell you something…….don’t hate me…..whatever happens, we should remain friends…okay?”

Satish said. “You look troubled, Padma. Don’t worry about the wedding…..we can tell our folks that you met someone in America, or I can……say I fell for another woman……we can blame the long separation…….do you think it’ll work?”

Padma had a faraway look. “I don’t know. Look at these pics.” She gave him her iPhone.

He saw a little girl, starting from when she was a babe-in-arms, to crawling, to a toddler taking her first hesitant steps “I love her curly hair…..look at those big bright brown eyes…..she’s cute, who is she?”

She’s your daughter.”

What? Oh! My God! That one time at West End?”

Yes, Satish.”

Why didn’t you say anything all these years? Why keep it a secret?”

Because everybody, my parents, yours……they’d put pressure on me to return, get married. I couldn’t abandon my dreams. M.I.T. is all I wanted…that’s all I wanted. I just couldn’t….couldn’t……” She started to cry, tears streaming from her eyes, mascara running down her cheeks.

He held her hands. “I’m sorry….sorry, you were all alone. What’s her name?”

Natasha.” She wiped her eyes, and took a big sip of her beer.

I am amazed. How did you manage….bringing up a baby, your studies, must have been tough, ha….at least you’d have told me.”

I was very lucky, my advisor was really understanding. I guess she was impressed with my work and ideas. She used give me some industry projects…to make a little more money. You see, she was a consultant to a few big computer companies. And she made me a research assistant, paid more than the regular stipend. I used take Natasha to my lab and my lab mates used to play with her. But I had to work long hours, yaar.”

Let’s get married. Natasha needs a father.”

She smiled. “Satish! You are so predictable, yaar! We don’t love each other….I’m not sure that marriage is such a good idea”

Satish said. “Love will happen, Padma. Look at my parents, their marriage was arranged, they have been married now for about thirty some years. They love each other. I’m sure we’ll be fine. Okay, that’s settled. We’ll get married. That’s it. No more discussion. Now, let me meet my daughter. How are your parents taking it?”

She laughed. “There was this hullaballoo at the airport. My Dad is the stiff-upper-lip kind of guy….but I can sense that he is upset….of course my Mom is transparent…..she was crying…..they thought I slept with some guy in America……Ha….ha…ha. But eventually everybody calmed down. They have taken to Natasha, and spoiling her rotten….all those toys…..”

Satish said. “Shall we go to your house?”

On the way to Sadashivanagar, he said. “Now we need to face my parents. I’m sure they’ll be happy, once they get over the initial shock. But, Padma, we might have a small problem….Natasha is a foreign name……you know my Mom, she’s so orthodox…..pucca Hindu and all that.”

Padma laughed loudly. “Yeah, yeah….I can see auntie’s quizzical face. Actually, I didn’t have time to think. The people at the hospital wanted a name for the baby. So, I told them the first name that came to my mind. Those days I was a fan…..I still like her songs….I used to listen to Natasha Bedingfield a lot….you know what….I can tell your folks that I was planning to name the baby Nataraj if it’s a boy, you know it’s another name for Lord Shiva. Since I had a baby girl, I had to think fast and named her Natasha…….”

Satish started to hum, “Take me away, a secret place

A sweet escape, take me away

Take me away, to better days

Take me away, a hiding place”

Padma said. “You know that song! That’s my favorite, yaar!”

Rudy Ravindra attended the 2012 Iowa Writers’ Workshop summer program. He was born and raised in India. He lives with his wife in Wilmington, North Carolina.