Excerpt from Sarita Sarvate’s memoir Leaving the Cuckoo’s Nest

What is in a Name?

By

Sarita Sarvate

Middle aged South Asian woman with a large shiny golden necklace and a burgundy top standing in front of a fig tree and a fence in a yard.
Author Sarita Sarvate

It is my wedding day! And I am sitting in the inner sanctum of the wedding tent worshipping goddesses I feel no affinity with. It is 1973 now and I am studying for a Ph.D. in Physics. Why then am I following such antiquated rituals?

Through the wooden grill, I watch the activity in the wedding canopy. 

Dressed in a dhoti and Nehru shirt, my father Dada rushes to the entrance. Behind him, aunts line up to sprinkle guests with rosewater. My mother Aai stands in a corner, making no attempt to help in the preparations. Since her nervous breakdown over a decade ago, she has mostly been bedridden.

As I face the goddesses I strain to recall my fiancé’s face. I can only remember him as a blurry figure at the end of the parade of men I was exhibited to during the last year; the dressing up in my finest sari, the bringing of the tea tray to the in-laws, the visitors’ inquisitions about my education, but more importantly, about my housewifely skills.

Am I getting married just to avoid the humiliation? 

Flanked by his brother Vasant and sister-in-law Savita, my fiancé Sharad walks into the wedding canopy. His parents, brothers, and sisters follow. 

This is my husband, I tell myself. But he does not look like a man who could be my husband. My body does not stir at his sight.  

A few months earlier, Sharad’s brother, Vasant, had arrived at our gate. “I asked for the smartest girl in the locality,” he said. “And everyone gave me your name.” He was an executive civil engineer in Bhopal, he told us, and had just returned from a sabbatical in the US. His aunt lived in our neighborhood. His younger brother, who worked as a textile engineer in Mumbai, wanted to marry an intelligent girl and go to America as soon as possible.

It all sounded so very exciting. 

He asked about my Ph.D. and about my debating competitions. He did not talk of rolling chapattis for a hundred people or matching astrological signs.

A few days later, Dada and I traveled to Bhopal and stayed with a cousin. The following evening, we walked to Vasant’s flat and sank into a sofa, facing an American TV, which, in 1973, still awaited transmission.

Dressed in a nylon sari and a sleeveless blouse, Vasant’s wife Savita brought the tea tray in, bearing a Mona Lisa like smile.

The boy, Sharad, entered the room. He had a sharp nose, thin moustache, and trim figure. In a full-sleeve white shirt and brown slacks, he looked appealing. I could not gauge his physique but I was counting on meeting him again. 

He talked of the textile research he was doing at an institute in Mumbai. I wondered why I was meeting him here under the watchful eyes of his relatives instead of in Mumbai where we could have gone on a date.

“Are you interested in going to America?” he asked. 

What a silly question. Who would not want to go to America? 

Sharad’s father was a humble man in white pajamas and a khadi shirt. “You should have a registered marriage,” he said to Dada. “No need to spend money on a wedding.” 

Dada beamed.  

“See what good people they are? They don’t even want a dowry,” Dada said as we walked back. “The boy has a company flat. You won’t have to bother with the in-laws. He might even go to America. But you shouldn’t count on it.” 

But I was counting on it. Everything was falling into place, I thought. 

Holding a chrysanthemum garland, I walk to the bohla -the wedding platform – and stand behind the saffron-colored wedding cloth two priests are holding up. I can sense Sharad’s presence on the other side of the fabric. 

Aunt Shobha nudges me forward. I bow. Priests chant the mantras. I am about to link my destiny to the man standing on the other side of the cloth. I would be his, not only for this life, but for the next seven incarnations.  

The trouble is, I can’t quite recall the exact moment when I agreed to the marriage.

After we returned from Bhopal, Sharad’s aunt, who lived in our neighborhood, arrived at our door. Circling an oil lamp around my face, she said, “You’re engaged,” and put a sari in my lap.

I was taken aback. I could not quite recall the exact moment when I had made the decision to marry. Rather, the decision seemed to have been made for me.

“You’re arranging Aruna’s marriage to a boy I haven’t even met?” Aai said to Dada after the woman had left. Aruna was my birth name.

“I want to see him again,” I said, wondering why Sharad hadn’t attended the engagement in person. I planned to go to Mumbai for my Ph.D. work in any case and could easily meet him there. 

Dada wrote to Vasant. He replied that Sharad would be in Madras for a technical conference and would not be able to meet me.

 Returning from Mumbai, I found the house buzzing with wedding preparations. “Didn’t they ask for a registered marriage?” I asked. Dada explained that his brothers had pressured him to have a formal wedding.

The next day, a letter from Sharad arrived, asking for the dowry of a scooter. Dada paced the yard, up and down, up and down, his cheeks hollow, his eyebrows furrowed. “Where am I to get a Vespa now? I will have to pay at least six thousand,” he said.

 “I don’t want to marry a man who asks for a dowry,” I said.

 “The boy’s family’s spending nothing,” Aai said, coming out of the kitchen and sitting on the divan. “They asked for first class train tickets for twenty people. They asked us to print two hundred invitations too. Who ever heard of the bride’s father printing invitations for the bridegroom?” 

 “Dada doesn’t know how to play the power game,” Prakash whispered in my ear.

“If we say no now, people will think the boy rejected you,” Dada said. “They will malign your character. No one will marry you.” 

“I don’t want Aruna to marry into such a family,” Aai said.

“I have invited all of my relatives,” Dada said. “How can I back out now?” 

“He is spending all his savings on the marriage and the scooter,” Aai said. “He will be retiring in February. What will we live on then? Prakash hasn’t even finished college.”

Dada raised his palm to indicate shut up.

Something snapped inside me at that familiar gesture. “Don’t ever do that again,” I said. “You repressed her all of her life. And now you are repressing me. You care more about what people think than what I think.”

Dada stared at me.

“You say you support women’s liberation. But you don’t. You like controlling women. You are controlling me. And you controlled your wife all her life. Which is why she went crazy.” 

Dada crumpled into his chair. “You don’t know anything. You don’t know what struggle it was for me to keep you and Prakash alive after your mother’s breakdown. So many times I thought of leaving her. But I felt sorry for you kids.” 

My arms and legs, my whole body, began to shake.

“And now you think of me as a dictator? You, whose tiffins I filled and uniforms I washed?”

Holding his face in his hands, he began to sob. 

The universe seemed to crumble around me at the sight of his tears. I had never seen Dada cry. He had been the one person who had always stood by me, who had tended to my every need.

I reached out to take his hand. “I will marry whoever you want,” I said. “But please don’t cry.”

Kuryat Sada Mangalam, the priests sing the finale. People throw colored rice on our heads. The holy cloth is removed. I peer into two timid eyes. This is the stranger who asked my parents for a ransom. His downward gazing eyes and slack demeanor do not compute with the hostile act he has perpetrated. How do women surrender to husbands who have demanded dowries? I cannot. My heart and soul are rebelling against this man. Every cell in my body is asking me to run away, like Walmiki, the ancient sage, who, after being coerced into an arranged marriage, had fled the wedding tent, and after taking refuge in an Ashram, become a seer and a scribe. 

The only flight I am capable of is a flight of the soul. It leaves my body now, and sitting on a wooden beam at the top of the canopy, watches the wedding rites. 

Aunt Shobha nudges me forward. The shehnai breaks into a merry tune. I put the chrysanthemum garland around Sharad’s neck. He puts a garland around my neck. Everyone claps. Sharad takes my hand and we begin the saptapadi -the seven circles – around the holy fire. 

The bridegroom’s palm, I note, is soft and clammy.

In Hindi films, the heroine circles the holy fire accompanied by the villain who has coerced her into the marriage. But just as the bride and the groom are about to take the seventh step, the hero appears, shouting, “Stop the wedding!” 

Is there a precise moment at which a Hindu wedding becomes irrevocable, I want to ask the priest? Or is it a myth that Bombay filmdom has concocted in imitation of Hollywood, where the lover invariably makes an appearance before the bride says I do? 

I take the seventh step. I gamble away my life. I am married, forever and ever. To a man I do not love.

Female cousins arrange banana leaves on the floor and draw colorful rice powder designs around them. Guests sit down. But no one eats. It is customary for the bride to initiate the feast by putting the first morsel of food into the groom’s mouth while rhyming his name in a lyric.  

“Say it in English if you want,” Vasant says.

Sitting by Sharad’s side, I pick up a piece of jilebi from his plate. “Smashing the atom and unleashing the particle is no miracle compared to the marriage of Aruna to Sharad the oracle.” I thrust the sweet into his gaping mouth.  

I have never felt more foolish in my entire life. 

Sharad and I sit on a sofa, accepting gifts. “What a good looking boy you have found your daughter,” someone says to Dada. I look sideways at Sharad. With his sharp nose, pointed chin, curly dark hair, my husband is handsome I suppose. Why then does he stir nothing in me?

As evening approaches, I brace myself for the farewell ceremony. Brides throw their arms around their mothers and sob hysterically during this ritual. Weddings become funerals. Even men weep.

Aai stands catatonically in a corner, her lips moving silently to some inner voice. Dada hovers at the edge of the canopy. My parents have never embraced me. They would not begin now, in public. Prakash stands among a group of friends, staring at me with large sad eyes. He would have to cope with our fragile parents single-handedly from now on.

But I cannot react to his plight. I cannot afford the luxury of emotion.

I sit down to face a plate of rice grains. The bridegroom will now write the bride’s new name in the rice. In our community a bride is given, not only a new surname, but a new first name too. Like a Mafioso in the witness protection program – Mario Puzo’s Godfather has recently hit the bestseller lists – her identity is completely erased.

Sharad scribbles a word in the grains.

“Sarita,” the priest reads.  

This morning, I woke up as Aruna but tonight I became a Sarita.

More about Sarita Sarvate and where to find more of her writing here: http://new.saritasarvate.com

4 thoughts on “Excerpt from Sarita Sarvate’s memoir Leaving the Cuckoo’s Nest

  1. Excellent! Compelling to read. I’m ready to read more too. Wow. What a start to your marriage though. I don’t know how you came up with the separating particles but it was Clever!
    Thank you for sharing it.

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