When I first met Anjali, our biggest concerns revolved around who got the longest go on the Nintendo perched proudly atop their imported larger-than-anybody-else’s Sony television. The television itself was a curiosity of sorts. It was like gravity, appearing to dictate the relative positioning of every other object in Anjali’s living room, from the plush black leather couch we liked to launch our virtual armies from to the hastily drawn stick figures that inexplicably adorned the walls of the room. Neither of us shared Anjali’s mother’s appreciation for what she called the ‘arts’, but we agreed we could have probably drawn more convincing pictures of scrawny men grappling with equally emaciated women.
Ours was a curious friendship, strangely formless in its make-up, bereft of any solid definition. We’d bump into each other at school, or at Ambrosia, where our respective cliques spent Saturday afternoons munching on burgers and guzzling milkshakes in a grotesque parody of American life, a third world trait that is just about endearing in adolescents. Anjali and I wouldn’t so much as acknowledge each other’s existences during those accidental bumpings-into’s. Come Saturday night however, and we operated on a different dynamic- our families would congregate in one of our houses, and Anjali and I would spend the night exchanging insider information on our peers and telling anecdotes of such potent situational comedy that they could only have occurred in our own imaginations.
The years wore on, we moved cities and countries, and- save for the occasional bout of Facebook-stalking and congratulatory ‘liking’ of each other’s status updates- we remained largely incommunicado. I can’t say I missed her in any real sense of the word; and if that were the case, I was certainly not aware of it. My parents would update me on her whereabouts every now and then, or ask me if the two of us had talked lately, and I would shrug non-committedly on both counts- a conversational trait my parents somehow interpreted as meaning: matrimonial dynamite. So it was that Anjali and I came to be downing rum-and-cokes (her: diet; me: not) under our assigned table at the Renaissance Hotel, Cochin, fourteen years after we last met.
Arranged marriage is no less an archaic concept to me than it is to your average twenty eight year old urbanite. Having said that, the prospect of arranged marriage has always hung over me like the sword of Damocles; the most probable outcome if I didn’t find a partner to settle down with and ease myself into a well-paying but secure job by whatever age is deemed appropriate. I knew it was a possibility. I just hadn’t known I had hit rock bottom yet. My parents had finally given up on all hope of a woman ever being attracted to me and wanting to spend her life with me off her own volition. And after due consideration, had decided that it would be less embarrassing to be rejected by friends of the family, rather than strangers.
The plan was to have both Anjali and I meet without inhibition, catch up on old times, all under the watchful chaperonage of the rest of our families seated a few tables away, and later hit us over the head with Life-long Commitment when we were isolated. Truly ingenuous. Except Anjali had overheard her parents talking, and found out just a little more than even my parents knew, and was more than happy to make me privy to the skinny on our doomed alliance. Just like old times. Once finding out my parents were trying to fix me up with a woman established a permanent but distinguished dent on my self-esteem, there was no looking back. I wanted to know much more. About everybody. Divorced under duress, rumors of tumor, semblance to senility, patronage of the parish priest, I wanted to know it all.
But the information rampage would have to wait. Because Anjali has just made a shocking revelation, and it’s kicked my fallen ego in the face. The shared feeling of superiority of being a step ahead of our parents, the excitement of buffering fourteen years of disconnect without missing a beat, had all gone out like a light and in their place was a simmering dark disquiet. Maybe I had misheard.
“What do you mean your parents wouldn’t want me to marry you anyway?”, I ask.
“You’re a freeloader,” she says.
“A freelancer,” I say.
“Same thing,” she says with a laugh, “you’re not arranged marriage- material.”
“That’s a relief,” I say, meaning exactly the opposite.
“Liar,” she laughs, “what kind of work do you do?”
“I write mostly,” I say, “but what I really want to do is draw full time.”
“What, like Mom’s stick figure paintings?” she says.
“Exactly like your Mom’s stick figures,” I smile.