Under the porch of a Manhattan high rise, I lit a cigarette, hoping it would signal the end of the date. The matrimonial date.
I quickly stubbed it out, and the man, who wasn’t quite sure of himself, or me, invited me to his apartment.
“I don’t know if you will see me again,” he said as I later left.
“Nice,” I replied, and he shut the door behind me.
Lame. His shirt, pink flowers on purple, and a coat that fell below his ankles. He spoke about multinationals, the Indian diaspora and his dream of settling down with a “good girl”.
End. Of conversations that didn’t happen, and of the little encounter. Of a lifetime of companionship we both came looking for, and found, instead, that we got weary of each other. We tried coffee in the Manhattan high rise, but while I stirred my black coffee, my eyes wandered. White stark walls. Minimalist. Reductionist. Cold. I felt the space choking me.
I like clutter. His room looked like nobody lived there. You’d be afraid to sit on the bed, in case it creased the sheets.
“He didn’t take me to a nice restaurant. You said ‘Choose the one who takes you to the better place’,” I said, driving the Lancer with the broken, taped bumper.
“Aren’t you going to fix that thing,” said one of the friends who’d accompanied me to the two consecutive dates. “No, I ain’t got no money,” I said and swung into the wrong lane, again. Late for the second meeting with another investment banker—or was it hedge fund manager? Settled, stable men.
I wasn’t even a writer yet. According to my family, I was living a volatile life, and if I married another aspiring writer, or a painter, I’d be headed for a lifetime of wants, and our children would attend schools in ghettoes full of gangs. Hardly the life of the rich, educated Indian immigrant.
While my two friends waited outside at Starbucks, I entered a Turkish restaurant. This one was splendid. Maybe I didn’t burn all that gasoline driving from Utica to New York City for nothing. The man was waiting, and he was wearing a nice coat.
He leaned over, and said nice things. About me, and my shoes. Stuff that makes you happy, even though you could detect a slight hint of a patronising tone. For what were we but perceived as those who indulged in ‘debauchery’ by men who had been in the best of institutions and presumed they had cracked the codes of the universe? We were the experimental sorts, who threw mad parties, wore flowers, and were usually broke, and talked a great deal of nonsense, but had no clue how things worked. This is what I assumed they thought.
I started talking—to deal with the awkwardness. Mistake.
He listened, and asked me about my views on LGBT matters. He had typed my name on Google and knew I wrote on LGBT issues at Syracuse University. That I was impressed would be an understatement.
“I love the parties at Rain Lounge (gay bar),” I said, “I think they are so misunderstood.” And to show I was passionate about the subject, I gave him a list of films he must watch. “Paris is Burning and Middlesex,” I said. “Bomgay and A Mermaid called Ida.”
He leaned over and looked at me, which I assumed was a show of unfaltering interest. “I think it is an anomaly of nature,” he said.
Maybe I could ignore this bit and still make it work. After all, he was an eligible bachelor from NYC, where all writers wanted to live, but couldn’t because newspaper salaries were too bad. Only if I could deal with this, I’d be wearing tweed coats and attending book talks. Maybe I’d be a writer because surely this marriage, if it happened, was going to bring a great deal of sadness. That may well be the trigger, the push I needed to be a writer.
Then we started talking about India. An anarchist then, I knew this was dangerous territory. How long can you go on being agreeable, demure? “My vision of the Indian state starts from Afghanistan and includes Sri Lanka and Bangladesh,” he declared, sipping his wine.
“Didn’t you study geography in school?” I asked. “Or history,” I added.
He looked peeved.
“Shall we?” I said. We walked out. It was snowing outside. I breathed in the air, and said I had to leave.
“What happened? He looked decent,” my friend said.
“Yes, but he talks like a fundamentalist,” I said.
And then the phone calls from home. “Political ideologies don’t match,” I said. “So? Since when did that become a marriage deal breaker?”
We spoke a few times over the phone, and met again in NYC, where he called a limousine taxi, and I felt like a loser. At $15 an hour as a reporter in a forgotten town called Utica, hailing cabs was an indulgence.
I was much younger then. Perhaps 28, and didn’t feel the urgency to impress for holy matrimony’s sake.
We nibbled a pizza at a seaside eatery, walked on cobbled streets and went to a Turkish place for coffee, then to another for absinthe. As I sipped on the liquor that burned my throat and set my mind on fire, I felt I was trading my freedom for some misplaced notion of marriage. Forget the limousines, the Turkish bars, the apartments with French windows and modular kitchens, and the exotic vacations.
What were we going to talk about? India’s geography, and his solutions for it, or were we going to discuss the LGBT case—choice or natural orientation? Would our children celebrate capitalism or would they turn out to be Che Guevera fans and celebrate Cuba’s resistance to the might of the US? Would they turn out to be writers who could laugh at themselves and make peace with failure, or would they turn out to be successful bankers with nice cars, sipping Martinis, hailing Chicago as the birthplace of capitalism? As one other man I met told me.
My parents paid thousands to get matrimonial ads into the largest-selling Indian dailies, pitching me as a fair, traditional and educated girl based in the US. His must have been about his salary, upwards of $100,000, a reputed family and his green card status or Ivy League affiliation.
I remember arguing with my family over my complexion. He wrote in a bio-data that was full of virtues about me that my skin was ‘milky-white’.
“But then the man will think we are a family of liars,” I said.
“Okay, then let’s put ‘fair’,” my aunt suggested.
“No way. Let’s do ‘wheatish’,” I said, striking a compromise.
That was years ago. I was young and lost. When I declared I wanted to be a journalist, they said since journalists earned little and were the rejects of other prestigious fields, I would need to find a suitable boy.
They found an eligible man, who had done Communications from an Australian university. His grandmother and uncle came to see me. They dressed me up in a gaudy salwar kameez. I held a tray with tea cups and snacks, and was asked about my hobbies, which I recited from the bio-data: “All house work. I love sewing and hemming.” Later, I figured I was giving up too soon. So, I dug out the statement of purpose he had written for Monash University, in which he said he ‘played with a handicap of 18’. I circled the ‘handicap’ and told everyone how the family had lied to us. They nodded, and it was off.
While scouting for eligible men, I found myself an MBA boyfriend. We spoke about escaping the tyranny that was India and we did go to America, only to go our separate ways. He didn’t like my friends, who spoke of the State’s failure and race issues, and I never managed to feel at home with his talk of mergers and acquisitions.
Back to the ‘birthplace of capitalism’. Those days, I hung out with leftists, the so-called bleeding hearts of America. We spoke about Cuba, watched movies about Fidel Castro, ate at a Cuban place in Syracuse where the chefs wore matted hair, and they smoked cigars. We felt we could denounce everything with the power of the pen and we spoke of changing the world order.
Kurt Cobain and Bob Marley were on our playlists. A Korean friend only drew the sickle-and-hammer, and I felt I had discovered myself in this strange American town. We sat with the homeless, profiled middle-aged strippers and judged girls in bright summer dresses who walked into the classroom with their Chihuahuas and Chanel bags.
When I got a job at a newspaper in upstate New York, I started writing about refugees, and spent my weekends watching world cinema on poverty and listening to rap music. I was so full of anger then. Then, the guy emailed. Wrong timing.
General introductions over, the phone conversations started. He suggested I fly to Chicago and he would show me the birthplace of capitalism. I worried about my friends—who were strugglers at other newspapers trying to herald in the new world order where a free press would bring in justice and equality—judging me for selling out.
“But I am socialist,” I said. “I can’t do this pilgrimage.”
Silence, and then some strange conversation about the weather. Weather was always the saviour. I complained about the snow, and he complained about windy Chicago.
By this time, my family was getting worried. My age was advancing and so were the chances of finding a ‘well settled guy’. “What is the problem?” I was asked, “He was from the Chicago Global School of Business. He was a good catch.” Maybe the ‘good catches’ just don’t want me. Plus, I am tired of men who think they’ve arrived in life.
Every year, my parents would change the age in the ads, and later they changed the location to ‘working at a leading newspaper in India’.
Others, too, wondered at my inability to find someone. But that’s another story. I did, but we didn’t last.
“Have you considered being with women?”
“I am 30. If I were interested in women, I’d know by now. For the love of God, I spent an entire semester covering LGBT,” I said.
By the time I hit 30, the suggested profiles were of sub-optimal quality. As my family scanned them, they said there were some ‘gems’ like an MIT-educated man who worked as a consultant in Boston. But his father wanted my photos in western clothes, and I was so irritated, I sent them a photo from a gay pride parade in Delhi.
By then, I had graduated to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and had given up on changing the world. But there were house parties, there were friends and there were ‘intellectual’ conversations where we spoke about Dalit emancipation and issues of social justice. We were happy in that circle where opinions were like cheap beer. They flowed freely, and were endorsed with Ivy League degrees.
Friends who were finding marriage unbearable told me how they loved my life. I didn’t know how to explain that I didn’t intend to be single.
“They like Narendra Modi, they probably like Hitler, and George Bush,” I would say. “Not those men for me.”
“You must compromise. You must find someone for social security,” my aunts would say. “Caste no bar. Why can’t you find a nice colleague?” I figured Delhi’s journalistic circles were quite incestuous. I couldn’t keep track of who was seeing whom and who was in which open relationship.
There were, though, the woes of getting old without finding someone. My friends from school were posting updates on what their husbands gifted them on their wedding anniversaries—Mercedes cars. They were living the perfect life in the US, laughing in all their photos, while I was writing away my life.
‘When are you getting settled?’ I hated this question. I was settled as far as I was concerned. Or was I?
I was paying my rent, and wasn’t taking money from my father. An editor who chose not to marry however said that sometimes, when she walked into her empty apartment and switched on the television, she wished someone was there for the heck of it, even making stupid comments. Or she wished someone would snore next to her.
Thoughts of being lonely, or leading a lonesome life. A strange challenge. I was doing okay by myself now, but what if I died and my body decomposed without anyone finding it?
I also started believing in some greater cause I was intended for. “I dedicate my life to journalism,” I announced. Laughter over the phone. And I figured I was just trying to escape the isolation of not having a guy to show off.
I just couldn’t explain why it didn’t work out with prospective candidates. Last year, a cousin suggested I meet his friend. “He is into hedge funds,” he said. “Give him a chance.”
“Oh, you talk as if he has become some Devdas in my love,” I shot back.
I was tired of being rejected by men who thought their success validated everything they said. Out of sheer curiosity, I said I’d fly to Bombay. While the hedge fund success was stuck in traffic, I ended up drinking wine with my cousin. By the time he showed up, I was ready to take on the world.
We were sent out for dinner at a decent restaurant in Bandra. “I am very particular about my wine,” he said. I replied that the purpose of wine is to make you feel good about life, and it doesn’t matter which wine you are drinking. Like cars, I said. The point is to get from point A to point B. Doesn’t matter if it is a BMW or Maruti 800.
He shot me a glance, and poured wine into my glass. Then he served me spinach, saying it was good for health. Then he spoke about Cuba, and in that happy state, I had a vision of us drinking wine in Havana. I still secretly liked Castro, but I reminded myself that I was in a sinking ship.
I saved his number as ‘Distressed Funds Manager’ and thought he could bail me out. He was, after all, an old hand at bailing out risky portfolios.
He walked me home and by then I had decided this was the man because he had served me spinach. He would be the anchor in my chaotic life.
Only that he told my cousin that I was like a “kid”.
I gave up, and started sending sari-clad photos to matrimony seekers, but when they sent their bio datas, I’d start to imagine the lame conversations I would have to endure.
One man asked me if I would like a long introduction or a short walk through his life. Whatever he felt like, I said. He ended up talking about aircraft for half an hour, finally checking to see if I was wondering why a manager was in a software firm dealing with aircraft. I said no, but he continued anyhow. Suddenly, I was looking at a lifetime of rehearsed conversations and aircraft details.
“They have these dating things in NYC. Just enroll,” I was once told.
“I am not indulging in this matrimony business,” I had retorted.
They say that in NYC, I was still young. I was ready to stay back, even become an illegal immigrant, to avoid all those ‘settlement’ questions.
Except that the hedge fund man called, and I suggested he should hook up with a friend of mine. She had graduated from an Ivy League institution, was making tonnes of money, but was looking for love. “You are hedge funds and she is hedge funds,” I told him.
“I work with hedge funds. I am not hedge funds,” he said, slightly amused. “And you were introduced to me.”
I considered marrying him, except I didn’t know if I was interested in the man, or if I was just trying to prove that I could do it too.
We met when I landed in India. Jet lagged, I was still going to make the effort. I had my hair blow-dried and dusted my face with Chanel glow powder, and I walked into the hotel thinking I was looking radiant. I was prepared to be the model matrimony seeker.
“Only Narendra Modi has the balls to do development,” he said.
“No comments. I have decided to be agreeable,” I said, looking out of the window. The conversation was about hedge funds. I tried nodding, but I sensed this was a lost battle. I left.
Later, when I was dealing with yet another bout of matrimony blues, I asked why he had given up on me. He wrote saying I had come across as completely ‘disinterested’.
We met again. In Bombay. For coffee. And he spoke about how he would like to move to the US, and how his apartment in a high rise should sell for more because it shielded one from the filth in Bombay’s streets. I said I was going to Kamathipura. “I wouldn’t want to come,” he said.
At 33, I feel like giving up.
My parents, too, aren’t queuing up at the classified section any longer. Still, I met a couple more men. But I guess I am tired of trying to be what I am not. A US-based doctor I had once met asked me how I would pass my time when he was away at the hospital. “I will cook and clean, and wait for you,” I wanted to say. “I’d go dancing,” I think I said.
Others asked me if I would move to the US since they wouldn’t move back to India. The inequality in India is so much in your face, too much noise, too much poverty, and too much India, I have been told. It is always about them.
Almost a decade of meeting ‘stable, successful’ men, here I am—happily single.