Where my family comes from, arranged marriages are still very much the norm. It’s really not what most people think when they hear “arranged marriage”; it’s more like going on a blind date set up by people (usually your parents) who know you, love you, and have your best interests at heart with a very clear endgame. My parents always said that my opinion would be the only one that mattered in the end and that I could say no to whoever they brought home, no questions asked. A love match also wasn’t entirely off the table, even if it wasn’t their ideal choice for me.
I watched my brother go through the process, and then my two older sisters, and in each case, they said Ma and Papa had done well for them. They all seemed genuinely happy, so the idea of a traditional marriage didn’t frighten me despite my western upbringing. I was confident that my parents would find a man with whom I could form a lifelong, loving partnership, just as they’d done for my siblings and their parents had done for them.
I was twenty two when Ma came home in flurry, an anxious smile on her face.
“Amita, come sit.” She said, pushing me towards the kitchen table. “I need to tell you something.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, no, you worry too much! I have good news!”
I waited expectantly while she settled in her seat and grabbed my hands in her’s.
“I have found you a husband!”
My heart fluttered into my throat while I processed what she had said. I had known this day was coming, my parents had made it known almost a year before that they were seeking an eligible bachelor for me, but it still felt very sudden in that moment.
“Aren’t you happy, bityaa?” Ma asked when I didn’t immediately respond.
“Yeah, of course.” I said, giving her hands a squeeze. “Who is he? Do I know him?”
“No, but you know Aunty Chanda and Uncle Raj.”
I nodded. They were close friends of my parents’ from back in India. I’d only met them a few times when I was much younger, but I’d heard my parents speaking to them on the phone and knew they visited with them whenever they went back.
“They have a son about your age. Your papa and I have spoken to his parents and to him and everything seems perfect. He’s smart, handsome, he comes from a good family. He is everything we could want for you.”
“Does he have a name?” Her enthusiasm warmed my cheeks and the fluttering sank down into my stomach.
She spent the whole evening telling me about him, how he was a 26 year old MIT grad with a degree in engineering, his love of travel and photography, what she remembered of him as a child. We shared similar life goals and expectations about what marriage would mean for us. The more she spoke, the more I felt like he really could be a good husband for me. By the time I saw his photo, which showed a handsome man with a slightly crooked, but charming smile, I knew I had to speak to him.
Ma set up a supervised Skype meeting between us and our parents a few days later, and when I saw him on screen, flanked by his traditionally dressed parents, I found myself feeling shy and awkward. Our parents did most of the talking, but he did ask me a few direct questions about myself and provided his own answers when I failed to ask him the same.
Instead of being put off by my sudden onset tongue tiedness, he was patient and warm and I was a giddy, blushing mess by the end. It was very unlike me, but it seemed to seal the deal in my parents’ eyes.
“He’s a good boy, bityaa.” Papa said once the call had ended. “I think you will be happy.”
“It’s a good start.” I conceded, not wanting to get too ahead of myself after one meeting, but Papa just pat my cheek and smiled knowingly.
Things progressed quickly, which was exciting and scary and overwhelming. We had a few more supervised “dates” where we got to knew each other a bit better and then one secret call between just the two of us.
“I want the decision to be yours, Amita, not our parents’.” He said.
Usually Madhu was lighthearted and laid back, but now, when discussing our future, he was so serious, so intense, and it made me like him more.
“It is my decision.” I said. “This is what I want.”
“Then it’s what I want, too.”
We smiled at each other through the screen, both confident, assured, and, perhaps, just beginning to fall in love.
It was the last time I saw Madhu before the wedding.
He and his parents stopped the video chats, teasing that they were spoiling the bride too much, and we were made to communicate through emails and handwritten letters. I couldn’t help but notice that something had changed in the way Madhu “spoke” to me; sometimes he was far more formal, other times, he was overly familiar. He was still sweet, still warm, but the ease with which we’d come to talk to one another seemed lacking.
I mentioned it to Ma, who clicked her tongue and waved a finger at me.
“Men aren’t so good with words, especially when it comes to putting their thoughts on paper. Your father is hopeless at expressing himself in writing! Don’t worry, when he is here, you will see he is the same Madhu that you have come to know.”
I hoped she was right.
A week before Madhu’s arrival, his mother, Aunty Chanda, flew in to help prepare for the wedding. We had hundreds of guests coming, an elaborate party to plan, important ceremonies to ensure were performed perfectly, and only a little time left to prepare. Her extra hands were a blessing and I was surprised to find that she treated me so well. I had grown up hearing horror stories about mother-in-laws, but it appeared that I had lucked out.
And all this was only for a single day event! It was daunting to think that this was the “small” ceremony. I could only imagine what the proper, days long wedding was going to be like when we held it in India a few months later.
With only days to go until the wedding, Aunty Chanda invited me to sit with her while she looked at a photo album of Madhu’s life.
“He was such a sweet boy.” She said and I saw tears forming in her eyes. “He’s always taken such good care of me and his papa.”
“Aunty-ji? Are you ok?” I got up to grab a box of tissues and set them in front of her.
“Yes, yes,” she hid her face in a tissue and laughed in embarrassment, “it’s just hard for a mother to say goodbye to her son.”
We looked at pages and pages of Madhu growing up, all the way to a recent picture of him on a motorbike with a helmet tucked under his arm. At seeing his smile for the first time in over two weeks, I felt that familiar flutter start up again.
“You will be a good wife to him, won’t you?”
She had grabbed my hand and was squeezing it so tightly that I cried out in shock and pain. She released me immediately, but repeated the question with the same urgency.
“Yes!” I said and she started to sob into the photo album.
I excused myself pretty quickly after that and ran to my room, unsure of what exactly had just happened.
When I saw her the following day at breakfast, she acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired and treated me as she always had before. Somehow, that just made the whole encounter even stranger.
The morning of my wedding arrived and I had no time to give my soon-to-be mother-in-law any thought. My female relatives flooded the house and from the time I got up, I was passed around like a dress up doll for mehndi and hair and makeup. Once I had my red and gold saree on and was allowed to look in the mirror, I almost burst into tears. I had never felt so beautiful before.
The rumors started quietly, in whispers behind hands and only when they thought I was out of earshot. My family was starting to look confused, their enthusiasm was waning, and I caught more than one person shooting me a pitying look. It got so bad that if I came into a room, they would stop talking completely and avert their eyes. I tried to ignore it, tried to focus on all that still needed to be done, but it was digging deeper beneath my skin with every passing moment.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I dragged my mother into her bedroom and shut the door.
“What is going on, Ma? Why is everyone acting weird?”
Ma busied herself in front of her mirror and touched up her lipstick, careful to avoid eye contact. “I’m not sure. It’s just people talking. Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about what?” My frustration flared and I couldn’t help but raise my voice.
“It’s nothing, really.” Ma said unconvincingly.
“Hush now. We need to go.”
“The car is here, get moving!”
Usually I would have been accompanied by my numerous bridesmaids. Usually the parking lot outside the temple would have been overflowing. Usually there would have been a swarm of people milling about, shouting blessings and greetings.
But I was alone in my limo except for my sisters and, when we arrived, there were only a few cars and no one was outside. The balloons and flowers stuck out bright against an all too quiet and still backdrop.
“Do you guys know what’s going on?” I asked my sisters, but they looked away and didn’t answer.
My father met us outside the temple and took me by the hand.
“Do not worry, bityaa.” He said. “Do your duty and then it will be over.”
“Papa, please, what is going on? Where is everyone?”
He led me inside with heavy, but steadfast steps.
The temple had an odd smell; some choking combination of overly sweet and pungent. The cloud of incense and perfumes that had been used burned my eyes and I coughed harshly into Papa’s shoulder. Beneath it, there was something much worse, some terrible mix of an unwashed toilet, rotten eggs, and garbage. The further in we walked, the thicker it became, until I could feel it coating the back of my throat and inside my nose.
I could barely keep myself from gagging.
The lights were dimmed, so much so that the sacred fire over which Mahdu and I would hold our hands burned brightest of all. It’s flames sent flickering, skittering shadows across the walls and cast a dark mask over my father’s grim face.
Our footsteps rang hollowly around us, each one a louder reminder than the last that the temple was almost empty. Where was my family? Where was his family? The music and laughter and joy? There wasn’t even a priest. This didn’t feel like I was walking into my wedding. It felt like I was walking into a tomb.
Madhu was seated with his back to me and made no move to rise. His parents stood off to one side, watching me with anxious, nervous expressions and wringing their hands. My mother and sisters were hanging back behind me, I could feel their eyes on me, burning into my back.
Nothing about this felt right.
We were almost at Madhu’s side. Papa’s fingers tightened on my arm and I glanced at him, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. Something buzzed by my head and I found myself following the progress of a fat fly lazily making its way to my fiancé. It landed on his shoulder and I expected him to brush it away and finally turn to look at me, but he didn’t move.
The smell was so strong I started to become light headed and swayed dangerously. I tried to breathe only through my mouth, but it did nothing to lessen that awful stench. I could taste it, I could almost feel it, like a greasy sheen on the air. Beside me, Papa was starting to dry heave and it made me do the same.
And Madhu just sat there.
I pulled away from Papa and, despite his protests, closed the distance to my future husband.
Madhu had been very handsome the last time I’d seen him, that night on Skype when I thought that we might actually be as much a love match as an arranged one. Now he was barely recognizable.
His skin, green and white and stretched taught where it was still attached, had sloughed off in chunks, leaving him with barely half a face. Now there was no slightly crooked grin, only yellowed teeth and cracked, swollen lips. His eyes were bulging and milky in their sockets, ready to pop.
They couldn’t fit his wedding attire over his bloated stomach and had cut it up the front to slip it on. The smell that they had tried so hard to cover was coming from him, from his rotting flesh and liquid organs that threatened to burst from his overextended belly.
He was pregnant with all of the gasses and decay of death.
I reeled back, my hands over my mouth, and I looked to my parents in horror.
“There was an accident a few weeks ago.” Uncle Raj said sadly. “A truck hit him while he was riding his motorbike. We were the ones who kept sending letters after, so you might still marry him. It’s so important to be wed. I’m sorry….”
“You made a promise to be a good wife.” Aunty Chanda said shakily, cutting her husband off. “You will fulfill your duty to my son.”
“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “He’s dead!”
“It’s only symbolic…” Papa tried to say.
“You would let him travel through this life and his next with no one to care for him?” Chanda’s voice was getting higher and more frantic. “You are to be his wife!”
“How could you agree to this?” I whirled on my parents.
“We didn’t know until this morning.” Ma replied quietly. “The cooler your aunty had shipped over, the one she said had meats for your wedding…”
I glanced back at Madhu in time to see a fly vanish into his drooping mouth. “You froze him and had him brought over?”
“It was only symbolic.” Papa said again. “For your aunty and uncle’s sake.”
“It was for him! He needs his wife!” Chanda said.
“He needs to be cremated!”
“You can’t let him go into the next life alone. You were meant to be together!”
Uncle Raj tried to quiet her, but Chanda pushed past him.
“You were promised to each other!”
“Chanda, this was a bad idea.” Ma said. “We shouldn’t have allowed it.”
Chanda was beyond hearing though. She charged across the room and grabbed me by the hair with a vicious shake.
“He will not be alone!”
I screamed and she yanked hard, pulling me towards the metal vessel where the sacred fire burned. The others were frozen in place, horrified and stunned, but I struggled against her surprisingly strong grip.
“He will not be alone!”
I could feel the heat pulsating off the flames. She was trying to push my face into them, trying to burn me so that I would either be too disfigured to ever marry again or join Madhu in our next lives. The end of my hair sizzled and singed and the acrid smell of it burning mixed with the rot.
My family finally snapped out of their shock and sprang upon Aunty. They pulled at me, at her, tried to get her to release me, and all the while she screamed that Madhu and I were meant to be, it had all been perfect, I couldn’t abandon him now.
In the scuffle, someone knocked into the vessel holding the fire. It teetered, unnoticed by most, and then fell.
All it took was a single, hungry spark.
Aunty Chanda’s horrible screams, these deep, guttural howls of agony, filled the temple. The fire leapt up her saree, searing it to her skin, feeding on the cloth first and then the flesh beneath. Her arms and neck and face bubbled and blistered, turned black and cracked. She clawed at herself and spun this way and that.
We all looked around, trying to find something to douse the flames, but they were consuming her so quickly and spreading up the nearby flowers, the garland I would have been joined to Madhu under. Raj was ripping at his hair, shouting and yelling, helpless while his wife burned.
Papa grabbed him and dragged him back, yelling for us to run outside to safety. Ma pushed my sisters into action and took me by my upper arm.
Aunty Chanda, entirely ablaze and gurgling wetly now that she could no longer scream, stumbled in a few small circles and then flung herself on Madhu.
His body immediately burst beneath the weight and heat.
We turned and fled after my sisters while the fire took hold of the temple behind us.
We watched the flames grow with tears in our eyes. Even after the fire department arrived, it burned long and bright and vicious.
Aunty Chanda hadn’t wanted Madhu to pass into his next life alone. It granted me little solace when I remembered the pain that I had seen in her eyes, the grief that only a mother who had lost her child could understand, but I hoped that, just maybe, now he wouldn’t have to.