Twist time’s arm behind its back and see me as I was by moonlight. Roof warm (and forbidden) beneath me, the night air still. I am listening to the wheels of the bullock cart trundling down the road as I chew on my horoscope chart. Planets and constellations slip down my throat. Taste of faded ink on aged yellow paper. I am twenty-three years old and swallowing my destiny in an ingenious attempt to avoid it. They will not be able to match my horoscope with any man’s now.
In the morning my mother, who is given to much hand wringing and disaster prediction, has a merry fit. “What kind of girl eats her horoscope?” she asks me, her eyes wide with horror and fascination. My mother married my father two weeks after their horoscopes were matched. They had spoken to each other only once and in the presence of both sets of parents. My seated father had cleared his throat and addressed the border of my standing mother’s sari where it touched the floor. “Do you like music?” he had ventured to ask. And she had tilted her chin towards her hidden toes and whispered, “Yes.” And on the basis of that slender, innocuous interaction they were married the very next auspicious day on the priest’s calendar, even though my father is about as musical as a coffee grinder. “What shall I tell the people who are coming to see you?” my mother asks sorrowfully.
There are always people coming to see me. I am asked to braid my hair, put on a sari, gold necklace, bangles, and a humble expression. I try staring at the perfect red dot between my brows. “Tell them your daughter is cross-eyed,” I say, “and that she has a marvelous talent for street dancing.” My mother fills her eyes with tears and sharpens her voice to broken-hearted viciousness, “The trouble with you –”. The trouble with me, she is going say, is that I don’t understand reality. This may be somewhat true.
The last time reality was introduced to me it came in the form of a photograph. Of a 6 foot 2” anesthesiologist from a small town 250 kilometers away. A town best known for putting its women and children to work in firework factories where every once in awhile there are unfortunate explosions. Such a decent boy, they told me, no bad habits and from a good family. The only thing he is looking for is a tall girl. The questionable nobility of that particularity leaves me underwhelmed. I am a tall girl. But I am also just waking up to the wild beauty and adventure of life that lies just beyond the purple horizon and I intend to hitch my wagon to a star, etc. Not the mild-eyed young man in the photograph with his uninspiring mustache and his professional talent for putting people to sleep.
When they told me he was to come with his parents to see me once our charts had been matched, I put on a demure expression. Not something I consciously cultivate, it seems to have grown on me of it’s own accord. It is a convenient thing to have in these parts. But that was the night, out on the roof, the white-hot moon as my witness, that I ate my chart.
My mother summons my father from the depths of his newspaper. He is a perpetually preoccupied man and a Physics professor. He works very hard, speaks very little and looks to my mother to define his paternal responsibilities. “ You talk to your daughter,” she tells him. So my father clears his throat, wipes his brow with a folded white handkerchief, stares at the ceiling for a brief moment and then tells me, that this is no laughing matter and it is high time I settled down.
Settle Down. The phrase sets a stallion pounding along the shore of my heart every time. A stallion that shies impressively, with tossed mane, powerfully flailing forelegs and a whinnying cry of rebellion. None of my friends seem to have such stallions within them. They drop into marriage like flies one by one. Settling down as if life were some sort of sediment belonging at the bottom of someone else’s glass. Settling down as if life were a bargain and you at the raw end of someone else’s deal. That night my mother announces with chilly formality that they are proceeding with the prospective bridegroom’s family. Chart or no chart. There will be a “bride-viewing” day after tomorrow she says, in a voice tender as a slammed door.
I am an unmarried girl of marriageable age and as such I am answerable not just to my parents, but to society at large. An elderly woman on the bus the other day wearing a large nose ring and a solicitous expression poked me in the ribs, “Not married?” she rapped out the question sharply and I involuntarily straightened in my seat, assumed an appropriately guilty expression. “No Auntie.” Well you are not getting any younger she informs me. And then, “You know this is the age to have issues.” She is referring of course to the sort that enter the world through the womb.
Masticating one’s planetary charts is a decidedly dramatic gesture. I must hasten now to tell you, that under normal circumstances, I am not a girl given to dramatic gestures. Not because I object to them, but largely because I am too lazy to be bothered. I admire the passion and intensity other people seem to be able to summon up at will, but have never aspired to that kind of fervor. Curled up with a book I have generally been content to let the world wag on as it chooses. Until now.
The next day I consider my options. Jumping off the roof might do the trick. I can, without difficulty envision myself stepping gracefully off the ledge. Poised, courageous, ready to prove my point. But then I see my parents stricken faces. No. I will not do that to them. And besides, I like being able to use my legs, and I do not do well at the sight of blood. Perhaps I could ring up the prospective bridegroom. With a false and cliched confession. Tell him I am madly in love with the boy-next-door, and plead with heartbreaking eloquence for him to call off the visit. But what if he tells his parents (he looks the sort), and they tell the town? Things would get rapidly and tiresomely complicated. I am not clever with webs of deception. What else then?
I could always disappear tomorrow. Pack a few bananas and steal away before dawn. I could catch a bus to one of the obscure villages a few hours away, and spend the day posing as a cultural ethnographer. I could interview men and women for a fictional thesis on, say, the differences in their child-rearing philosophies. I entertain this possibility for awhile, fleshing out the details. The warm welcome and too-sweet cups of coffee the women will give me as we sit cross-legged together on mud floors. The reserved suspicion of the men, before my well-practiced air of deference and well-mannered charm dissolves them into loquaciousness. I will love listening to all of them, and I will be loved for listening.
It is then that my mother walks into the room. Her shoulders are squared, but not for combat. I have seen women with shoulders set like that when they are carrying heavy loads on their heads. Their matter-of-fact elegance always moves me. They are not over-thinking their burdens, but just doing what needs to be done with Zen-like simplicity. Chopping wood, carrying water, tending home fires and one very wayward daughter.
“We called it off,” she says quietly, reaching out with both hands to tuck my hair behind my ears. “We told them not to come.” Wonder breaks over me like a wave. It is pulling me into an ocean. One that I have lived alongside all my life and am yet somehow surprised by. The curious feeling of sands shifting beneath my feet, a vast tug that I am powerless to stop. I am flooded by a sense of how small I am in my smugness. And how little I know of love’s deep waters. A strange enthrallment settles over me like a spell.
“What did you tell them?” I ask, and my voice is as hollow as someone speaking in a trance. “I told them my daughter is cross-eyed,” says my mother, “and that she has a marvelous talent for street dancing.”