the healing muse

Volume 11, 2011

Apartment 5B

Antara B. Mitra

            Maya scanned through the matrimonial classifieds in the Sunday newspaper to find her ad. It was a sea of newsprint that required a magnifying glass to view. The city was teeming with young men and women looking to find mates.
            “Are you sure they printed it?” Maya asked her mother who sat beside her in a wicker chair.
            “Oh, give me that.” Mrs. Chopra leaned forward and snatched the newspaper, the chair creaking ominously under her shifting weight. “It’s right here, in the center.” She jabbed a stout finger at the newspaper.

Homely girl, 22 years, college graduate, works in local dance school.
Can cook, sew and knit. Only child. Pleasant temperament.

            Maya peered at the classified, creasing her forehead as she read.
            “Don’t frown, nobody will marry you,” Mrs. Chopra said.
            “Homely! Nobody will marry me now in any case,” Maya wailed.

            Maya and her mother, Mrs. Chopra, lived in apartment 5B of a modest apartment building, imaginatively named Paradise Apartments, in a middle class neighborhood of Delhi. It was one of many in that particular area, where the government had earmarked land for the construction of residential high rises to alleviate the housing crunch in the capital. The result was a crop of buildings, thick and plentiful, like mushrooms growing in a dank forest. The buildings were large monolithic structures, distinguished only by superficial architectural details like arched doorways or neoclassical columns. They were built to maximize the number of units in each building while keeping costs to a minimum. There was no relief from the grey of the buildings to the grey of the streets, crowded with the teeming thousands who lived here.
            Until a few months ago, apartment 5B had also been the abode of Mr. Chopra, who had succumbed to a long-standing heart ailment brought on by smoking and his favorite evening snack—deep fried pakoras. On the death of her husband, Mrs. Chopra proclaimed that she only had one more thing on her to-do-before-I-die list—get Maya married. To that effect she placed an ad in the matrimonial classified of the leading newspaper of the city.
Mrs. Chopra gave Maya a look that was one part kindness and three parts pity. While Maya had no disfiguring facial feature like buckteeth or a bulbous nose, she could hardly be called pretty. She had the charm and innocence of youth but could not hope to attract any man based on her looks alone.
“Now, now Maya. Homely is not that bad. See, so many other girls are homely as well,” she said pointing to the newspaper. “The real problem is your shyness. Nobody wants to marry a wallflower these days. I wish you had more personality. Like me,” Mrs. Chopra mused loudly. “Why, even Mrs. Mathur, from 7B was telling me that she could never imagine any daughter of mine could be so dispirited. I don’t know what will happen to you.” Mrs. Chopra shook her head in the most melancholy manner.
            Maya shrank beside her mother. It was true she thought. She had no identity of her own. She was Mrs. Chopra’s daughter to everybody around her. Even at the dance school, most of the students did not know her name. They just called her “didi or “aunty.” Maya felt like a speck of dust, tumbling through the crowded streets, swerving to avoid the cars and buses and rickshaws, and retiring at the end of the day into one of the thousands of tiny apartments that lit up the night sky as numerous as the stars in the Milky Way and much more anonymous. “Who would want to marry me without looks or personality or any talent?” she wondered as she got into bed later that night. She hugged the bed sheets and looked around the room where she had grown up. She hated the thought of leaving, but the thought of being a spinster was even more terrifying. She crept under the covers to muffle her sobs.
            According to Mrs. Chopra, the only way to secure a good husband was through a good dowry. Mrs. Chopra worried incessantly about the peculiar Indian custom of dowry. Though dowry was banned—a criminal offense—and civil people, the kind she wanted as in-laws for Maya, would never ask for dowry, it was customary for the bride’s parents to present the bride and groom with expensive gifts—a car, a house, furniture or at the very least a motorcycle. But even without these gifts, weddings were expensive events, and Mr. Chopra had left behind only a small life insurance policy and an even smaller pension.
            Mr. Chopra had no family surviving him that Mrs. Chopra could appeal to. Mrs. Chopra, an only child herself, had few cousins and other distant relatives but nobody she felt comfortable asking for help. Instead she turned to her friends and neighbors who all graciously decided to help her host the wedding in the courtyard of their apartment complex to keep the cost to a minimum.
            But the question of dowry remained. The only gift Mrs. Chopra had to offer was apartment 5B. It was a modest nine hundred square feet apartment with two bedrooms, a living cum dining room, a compact kitchen and a small balcony off which one could hang clothes to dry. It faced west and received the full glare of the afternoon sun which made it rather uncomfortable to sit in the living room after 2 p.m. The apartment building was only thirty years old but looked considerably older. The maintenance was not what it should have been, and the walls were in need of paint. But the neighbors were friendly, and it stood a mere two blocks from a busy and well-connected intersection where one could hail a bus to most parts of the city.
            To Maya’s pleasant surprise, the laws of physics work as well in marriage markets as they do in the depths of an atom. For all the “homely” girls there are an equal and opposite number of “homely” boys looking for life partners. And despite all the concerns of parents, and the contrivance of astrologers and matchmakers, marriages, as the old adage goes, are often made in heaven and everything falls into place.
            His name was Manoj. He was a mild mannered postal worker at the district post office. He would have been considered a great catch if not for his meager salary and an unfortunate case of acne in adolescence that had left deep craters on both cheeks and forehead.

            Manoj saw Maya only once before the wedding. It had been an unfortunate meeting in many ways. Mrs. Chopra had drawn the curtains in the living room to keep out the harsh afternoon sun. As a result the room had been rather dim (but no cooler for Mrs. Chopra’s efforts). Somebody had seated Maya to his left in an attempt to allow for conversation. But Mrs. Chopra had sat directly opposite him, dominating the room and the conversation. It had been an awkward angle to turn and talk to Maya who had kept her head bowed the entire time out of confusion and shyness. Manoj had not been able to get a good look at her.
            But despite the unsatisfactory nature of the meeting, Manoj had agreed to the match. It seemed the least offensive of all the other proposals he had received so far. There was also the future inheritance of apartment 5B. But he couldn’t shake a nagging doubt made worse only by Mrs. Chopra’s determined efforts to keep him from meeting Maya again before the wedding.
            Finally, the wedding day arrived. Apartment 5B was festooned with mango leaves strung across the main entrance while colored powders decorated the floor. The groom’s wedding party threaded its way through the narrow lanes towards Paradise Apartments. Manoj felt a slow churn in his stomach that had started when he had mounted the horse to make his customary entrance as a groom. As Paradise Apartments drew near, the butterflies blossomed into crows battering their wings against his stomach. He felt a cold fear grip him. He could not remember Maya’s face.
Some body thrust a bottle into his hands. It smelled of cheap country whisky.
            “Drink up, for the night ahead,” his brother slurred from below.
            “I need to talk with you,” said Manoj pushing the bottle away. “I . . . I don’t know if I can do this.”
            “That is what we all feel, little brother, hence the need for this,” said his brother thrusting the bottle towards Manoj once again.
            “Are you happy?” asked Manoj. “Would you get married again if you had to?” Manoj asked his voice straining to rise above the din.
            The answer was lost in the cacophony of noise that some called music.

            Manoj found himself being seated in a maroon upholstered chair in the courtyard of Paradise Apartments. The chair had a high back and gilded arm rests, much like the thrones of kings and queens in mythological tales. Somebody had strung garlands of marigolds in the back along with some twinkling electric lights. Manoj nervously wiped his sweaty palms as he sat waiting for Maya. Future neighbors lounging on their balconies looked down at him. Some children ran up to where he had been seated and stared at him. When he smiled, they scowled and ran away.
            Finally Maya emerged, dressed in a red bridal sari edged with gold. She was flanked on either side by two women who gently guided her towards the covered canopy. Maya’s head and face were veiled in the tradition of Hindu weddings and so the first thing Manoj noticed was her feet. She was barefoot and her feet were covered with intricate henna designs. She had on silver anklets and her toes were painted to match her sari. She had dainty feet and Manoj was captivated by each step they took—the rise and fall of the arch of the feet accompanied by silver bells. A rhyme stirred in his memory about bells and toes, but it had been many years since he had been in school. He could not remember the rhyme.
            He noticed Maya had the same henna patterns on her hand. He knew from his cousin’s wedding the previous summer that it took hours for the henna to be applied and many more for it to dry. The henna when applied was a black, wet paste that slowly baked with the warmth of the body and left behind a deep rust color. According to folklore, the deeper the color of a bride’s henna, the greater the love of her husband would be. Maya’s henna was very dark. Her mother must have been pleased—a good omen.
            Somebody prodded him and brought him out of his musings. By now Maya was right in front of him. She stood head bowed, garland in hand, ready to commit to a life together. Her face was still partially hidden by the veil. Only her chin and the lower thrust of her lip, outlined in red, was visible. The priest was chanting in Sanskrit and indicating that the bride and groom should garland each other. He saw Maya’s lips tremble. This was the moment of finality. He felt a spasm of panic. What if Maya had not got a good look at him either that day? What if she saw his acne ravaged face now and refuse to garland him?
            Slowly Maya raised her head. They looked at each other for a moment, and Maya smiled. Manoj’s fears vanished. He had never seen a woman so radiant and alive. The warmth of Maya’s henna reflected in her eyes. Maya stood before him, in all her bridal finery, proud, happy, content. Manoj wondered how he could have been so blind to her beauty before. He told her that night that she was the most beautiful woman alive.
            “You’ve been watching too many movies,” she told him. “Or maybe you need to wear glasses.”
            He shook his head. He could not explain it, but Maya seemed transformed. She was no longer the shy girl he had met briefly that hot, uncomfortable afternoon but was now a mature confident woman.

            In a few days they moved into apartment 5B. Maya took down the now brown and shriveled up mango leaves that still hung across the door and swept up the remnants of the colored powder used to decorate the floor. Manoj took down the Chopra nameplate and placed an order for a new one. Life returned to normal for the residents of Paradise Apartments with the exception of Mrs. Chopra who cried bitterly all the way to the railway station. She had been persuaded by Maya to take a long vacation and visit all the pilgrimage sites she had ever wanted to see before returning home.

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