Published: March 31st 2008March 31st 2008
This is a Love Marriage, not an Arranged Marriage
I spent my junior year abroad in the Indian city of Madurai, located in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Whereas in America my dirty blond hair and unspectacular looks often made me feel unseen, in India I stood out. Every time I walked down a crowded road children and adults alike would stop and stare. I was an outsider; no matter how much I tried to fit in, I was a “Vellicari,” a rich white man.
In Madurai, I learned Tamil, took Indian cooking lessons, and prayed to Indian Gods at Indian temples, but I knew, as many immigrants must, that I wasn’t fully assimilating. For the first time I felt my race, my class, and my ethnicity. I also realized that as a Westerner, I saw myself as an individual first and, in contrast to the culture within which I was embedded, I believed in the world altering power of love.
A couple months in, when I had just come to accept the fact that I would never be fully intimate with Indian culture, I met a girl who changed everything. Her name was Sahaya Mary and she worked in a one room tailoring shop across from the bus stand. She had sad, dark eyes like a bottomless well and a lone beauty mark on her left cheek. From the second I lay eyes on her in Angali's dosai stand next door, I knew that she was unspeakably special.
From that day on I spent every afternoon with her at the shop and, through her patient instruction, learned enough Tamil to converse. We laughed, we drew pictures, and we silently watched the traffic go by, content to simply be together. She would regularly insist on treating me to tea, even though the ten cent cost was half of what she made in a day. Her older sister Sesu Mary spent her days bent over a pedal operated sewing machine, while Sahaya Mary distractedly stitched saree blouses. Whenever I arrived at the shop, Sahaya Mary’s head would pop up, revealing an excited smile. She would put the fabric to the side, and not pick it up again until I had left hours later. Often, she would hold my fair hands in her cracked dark palms and paint on henna so that we could, for a fleeting instant, feel the touch of our flesh.
Over the course of the year, it became apparent that hers was the poorest family that I had met in India. Her father had died seven years prior and after the oldest daughter was married, they had no money for the next four daughters’ dowries. The following two, Sesu Mary and Reggina Mary, 32 and 30 respectively, never married. Sahaya Mary, aged 23, had no money for a dowry and, since her family barely made enough to eat, they couldn’t save. The entire family slept on the hard concrete floor of a one room hovel in the city’s worst slum. They had few worldly possessions, but I never once heard anyone in the family complain.
I was taken with Sahaya Mary. All of the time we spent together was simply electric. And whenever Sesu Mary was not in the tailoring stand, the vibes went through the roof. During these times alone Sahaya Mary asked me about former girlfriends, stood close to me, and found more excuses to touch my hand. These were the happiest days of my life.
One day, after Sahaya Mary had been alone at the shop for three straight days, she looked gravely up from her stitching and said to me in Tamil, "You should marry me and take me to America with you."
At that moment I was thinking that exact thought. I repeated what I heard in my broken Tamil just to be sure.
“Yes,” she assured, looking like she was revealing a secret, “that is what I said.”
While I had in passing thought about marrying her, until then it had been mere private fantasy. That night, I called my two best friends, Shane and Emiliano, and my mom, and told them everything about this magical woman. They heard me out fairly and then agreed with me that, on balance, it was impossible.
At the end of the year, I had arranged to meet Shane and Emiliano for a month in Spain. From there I would return to Madurai to take a flight back to America. Before I left for Spain, I took out all of the money in my bank account (about 2500 dollars), put the notes in a shoebox, wrapped it up, and gave it to Sahaya Mary with shaking hands, telling her not to open it until I left. That's that, I thought. Now I am done with her.
Not so, for in Spain I spent sleepless nights talking Tamil to myself, telling Sahaya Mary I loved her, and asking her to marry me. A month later, I arrived back in Madurai, and I couldn’t picture a life without Sahaya Mary in it.
I had decided to surprise Sahaya Mary at the store, but as I appeared from behind the bus stand I saw, no more than a dot in the distance, Sahaya Mary waving to me. I was trembling with fear. I took a deep breath and set out determinately across the clearing, but before I had gotten far, she set off running in my direction, and jumped into my arms, right there in the middle of the road in front a crowd of gawking idlers. I will never forget the way her body melted into mine and felt like one. Tears flowed down her cheeks like a waterfall, and she shook her head from side to side in awe. It was if she was breaking apart. She composed herself to say through sniffles, "You told me you were coming back the 23rd, but I knew just then that you were coming around the bend. That’s why I was waving, because I knew you were coming just then."
The next two days her family insisted that I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them, refilling my plate against my pleas until I was nearly sick. Whenever Sahaya Mary and I were alone for even a second, she would touch me tenderly on my hip, or put her hand in mine, all while looking longingly into my eyes, only to pull back upon hearing footsteps.
On the fourth night I was sitting on the floor of my friend's apartment when the image of Sahaya Mary holding me in the middle of the street flooded my mind. Instantly, it happened. I broke apart, curled up on the floor crying, unable to stop until there were no more tears to cry. What I experienced then, days after her, was the overpowering beauty of knowing you have found the most special person in the universe. I decided I would marry her.
The next day I called up my parents and ecstatically described to them how when I was with her, colors were brighter, people more beautiful, and problems miniscule. I must have been convincing, because without having met her, they told me to marry her. I knew that I had found the woman with whom I would spend the rest of my life. I envisioned Sahaya Mary holding our baby and speaking English. I saw myself asking the family for Sahaya’s hand in marriage, and watching them cry tears of joy, repeating, “You’ve saved this family, you’ve saved this family.” I set out for Sahaya Mary house in my head already a married man, and feeling very, well, Indian.
Yet her family, who had taken me in like a son, said no. They complimented me with every positive word I could understand in my limited Tamil, yet ended each tribute with “panpaadu adiham viteshamana,” (culture too different). I was crushed.
I looked desperately up at Sahaya Mary, who sat frowning on a brick across from me, looking away. "Sahaya Mary, how do you feel?" I asked frantically.
Lord Mary, the oldest sister cut her off curtly. "In this matter if we say yes, it is yes. If we say no, it is no. Culture too different."
Wildly replaying her words in my head, I gathered the strength to make one last push and in my broken Tamil nearly screamed, "This is a love marriage, not an arranged marriage." Everyone besides Sahaya Mary began laughing uncontrollably. It was so inconceivable to them that it was funny. And I knew right then and there, that it could never be.
In Tamil, there is no direct translation for our “love.” The closest word is “caatal,” but its meaning is closer to infatuation, and is primarily reserved for the cinema. Real love, is more like what one feels for the Gods, or your family, or your community, all bonds that last a lifetime.
Now, almost a year later, I find myself agreeing with them more and more. Back at Ithaca College, the bar scene within which I used to feel so comfortable now seemed a debaucherous mess. When I turned on the television, I saw shows like VH1’s I Love New York and Tila Tequila’s A Shot at Love make a mockery of such a powerful idea. In a culture where sterile one night stands are not only acceptable, but laudable, we become so numb to each other that we miss the small glimpses of beauty. Although I never once kissed Sahaya Mary, the mere brush of her hand against the back of my arm was enough to send shivers coursing down my back.
With Sahaya Mary, I experienced a depth of connection previously unimaginable, which I know unavoidably shapes my expectations for all my future relationships. In September, three months after my return from India, I was ready to date again.
In one of my first conversations with my present girlfriend, an Indian adopted by American parents at the age of three, I told her the story of what had transpired with Sahaya Mary. From the beginning, my experience with Sahaya Mary was an inescapable weight on our relationship, one that my girlfriend, Abolee, likened to “going out with a man whose wife recently died."
Our current relationship resides in an entirely different realm from the idyllic, forbidden one I had in India. If there is one thing that I have learned over the past six months with Abolee, it is this: relationships take work. If proper attention is not paid, a relationship’s fire will consume itself. All living, breathing relationships are a walk on the razor's edge; on one hand we are called to meld with our partner in pure love, while on the other hand we must impartially consider the relationship's viability.
I have now come to a place where I can accept that Sahaya Mary's family was probably right. Our love was overshadowed by unworkable practical concerns, but at least I learned about pure love. And as for Sahaya Mary, her family continues the search for a good Tamil man for her to marry.
This is what I submitted... the process was worthwhile regardless... what do you think?