The cook listens. He is attentive. He can see that as successful as you think your first Rishta party went, it wasn’t quite what you expected. He knows that in hindsight you’re questioning yourself. He can sense your unpreparedness and naïveté. He isn’t dismissive of you. He has seen it all before. While you’re rambling, he’s listening. He wants you to reach your own conclusions. He hates this process and he hates that it reduces girls to show pieces but you’re not his to save.
“I mean it went okay. I did carry the tray exactly how you showed me and how my mom showed me. I did drop a few samosas but no one noticed”
“I don’t think anyone did”.
“Oh are you sure? Because one of the women did mention to my mom how clumsy I looked”.
” I think you were more poised than all those women put together”.
” I think so too. Thanks for saying that. I’m not sure why Mom looks upset”.
“May be she expected you to get a proposal out of this”.
“Well they said no”.
“I heard that”.
“Honestly I’m relieved. I didn’t like it that they would be viewing me like an animal in a zoo. They could’ve had a more relaxed get-together and……”
You don’t know how to say it. You don’t know why it is so hard to say it when it’s about your future and your whole life. You don’t understand what’s so perverse and sexual about asking to have the guy present at this meeting.
“And they could’ve brought their son”.
“Yeah! I mean eventually he and I are the most important people here. Why would they not think that?”
“Why do you think they didn’t bring him?”
You can see the cook’s narrowed eyes and the wisdom in his forehead. He may be young but he looks like he has seen a few girls going down the rabbit hole.
“I think they wanted to see me first so they could say no. If he liked me and they didn’t then wouldn’t have wanted to break his heart and would’ve had to accept me. I think they wanted to have a little power”.
“But why is this a power play at all? I’m a very nice person and have never harmed anyone. I would marry anyone who would take me. Even if he is a monster”.
The cook looks alarmed. You feel his arm shooting out to grab you and then withdraw just as convulsively. May be you imagined it. He looks perfectly collected like before.
“Why would you settle for a monster? Do you not think you deserve an upright, honest and loving man?”
“I’m not pretty. Just did my high school and then decided to learn making dresses. I’m actually pretty good at it. My parents have money but not much. Who would take me? I don’t have a choice in this. I’m kinda like a Rishta beggar and therefore I can’t be a chooser.”
You start to silently weep. It’s enough that he’s being so nice and gentle but the fact that your mom and sisters didn’t come to ask you about how you’re doing is killing you inside. They could’ve come to you and said they were sorry that you were rejected so blatantly and ruthlessly. But they’re sitting in the living room, filling in your dad of the happenings.
The cook patiently waited for you to cry your embarrassment out. He handed you a napkin. You take it. He sits down across from you.
“I have three sisters”.
You lift your head up. Oh God! You don’t want to hear this story now.
“I saw my oldest sister going through this. It was tragic, brutal and with time became a routine. She never got matched. Then the one next to her started to get proposals and the same ordeal happened. She wasn’t so strong. She tried to kill herself”.
You gasp. He continued.
“We are very lucky that we could save her. But she’s a different person now. She’s not the sister I grew up with. She doesn’t talk or meet people. She cries a lot. Our oldest sister became distant also but a nice man finally proposed to her last year and she accepted. He was a widower and had five kids”.
“Oh I’m so sorry! Why did she marry him?”
“Don’t be sorry. Hear me out! She’s happy. Very happy. She doesn’t have kids of her own but she has his kids from his first marriage. She loves them. They love her. She has seen so much rejection that when those kids embraced her, she became their mother. They call her Mama.”
“What happened to your youngest sister?”
“She was probably the smartest so found an easy way out of the whole Rishta process. She eloped with a guy twenty years older than her, who gave her four kids in five years and is an addict. If we had helped her take a responsible decision, she wouldn’t have jumped at the first guy who would have her. You remind me of her”.
“But I’m not your sister. I would never do that”.
“You don’t know what constant display does to girls and women. It breaks their spirit. It drives them to self-doubt and self-hate. Women who are a victim of the system were strong women until they weren’t. Don’t think you’re stronger than the system. It’s a vile, malicious system”.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I’m making an offer to you now. I like you. You are a very self-aware person in an unaware way. You are different and can hold your own. I want a strong woman in my life. Will you marry me?”
What?????? Oh my gosh! This is practically sexual misconduct in the eyes of your parents. Talking about marriage with a guy. You shut your eyes to open them again and see if this is really happening. Sure enough he’s still there, smiling slightly but serious in his eyes.
“I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask my parents. For now it’s going to be a……..”
There is honesty in this guy. Forthrightness and uprightness. He didn’t ask you to spend a few thousand bucks before coming with a proposal. He proposed over the breakfast table while you were blowing your nose in a napkin. He brought no shenanigans. And best of all, he liked you and helped you. And secretly, you like him too.
The cook gets up and senses your answer. He makes it towards the door. He looks slightly dejected and forlorn. Like a broken bird.
“Wait! I can’t have someone say “no” twice in this house in the same day. But………….. I won’t eat tofu chicken”.
He turned, smiling from ear to ear.
“For people who can hold the tray like you did, I only make real chicken………with real chicken”.