The following is a short story written by Prof. R. Nagarajan (B.Tech/CH/1981) who is now the Dean of International & Alumni Relations. It was the second runner-up at the Mills and Boon India Short Story Writing Contest 2010.
On a Friday in July, Manasa‘s parents informed her that they had been looking for some time for a suitable boy, and had one or two in mind. They had the photo of the most suitable one at hand, and told her to take a look at it. Manasa, being all of 25 and very much of marriageable age by Indian societal reckoning, was indignant at first, but being easily amused, soon was giggling merrily at the silliness. Since her teenage years, she had considered love a prerequisite to marriage, and had assumed that love would precede her own. But here she was, confronted in her own home by an arranged alliance.
She glanced idly at the photo. The boy was typical of hundreds she saw everyday at work and on the road. The only features that registered on her were the crooked eyeglasses; they were slanting left to right. With a few more peals of laughter, she tossed it back to her father, who caught it neatly with the reflexes of a retired cricket coach.
Manasa drew her chair close to the sofa where her parents were sitting, and with great affection, informed them of her cherished belief that love was a pre-existing condition for married bliss. Her parents listened with equal care and concern, and her mother leaned forward after a brief exchange of looks between them. “Manasa,” she said, “you‘re quite right. Marrying someone you love would be terrific (though your father and I did have our marriage arranged, and look how happy we have been!). But you are 25 now, and haven‘t found love in all this time. What makes you think it‘s just around the corner?”
Manasa nodded in partial concurrence, but retorted, “True, Mom, but it maybe because I haven‘t been looking. There have been plenty of guys whom I liked, who seemed to be my kind, who were nice to me, but I never pursued them further, nor did I let them pursue me. Maybe if I gave them, or myself, half a chance, something will click. I have to give it a try, otherwise I‘ll regret this for the rest of my life.”
Mom and Dad exchanged another quick glance. It was almost as though they had scripted these exchanges. It was Dad‘s turn to speak: “Dear girl, you are right, as always. And we are right, as usual. I have a proposition for you. Take a month to look for a soul mate (that should be plenty of time, right, given that you have such a handy selection to choose from?) At the end of the month, if you haven‘t found Mr. Right, you put your trust in us, and go with our choice. Deal?” Now, Manasa had always been a sucker for a sporty ploy, as her parents knew only too well. One time, her little brother had got her to munch on a grasshopper by betting her that she daren‘t. Her parents were now playing the same game, but she didn‘t mind. Manasa felt a tingle of excitement; the next month would be fun.
The next day (Saturday, but unfortunately a working day for her IT employer) dawned sunnily and steamily as ever in Chennai. Manasa spent a little bit more time than usual on her dress and makeup. She knew she was pretty, since everyone said so, and mirrors don‘t lie. She was slim, bouncy, energetic, friendly, cute, gracious. She sometimes embarrassed herself with her compliments. But everyone around her thought so too. She had three dress codes: churidar when she was being practical, sari when she felt like dressing-up, jeans and T-shirt when the playful mood took over her. She normally used cosmetics minimally, just dabbing on some powder and eyeliner. That day, she added a touch of lip-gloss, and went with the sari. Her hips didn’t lie either; she was well-versed in how to enchant the guys with near-accidental glimpses of her shapely navel. Medium heels, rather than the flats she habitually wore completed the ensemble that she quickly approved on her reflection. She was ready to go hubby-hunting.
Manasa hopped on her two-wheeler, clipped her helmet on, and started to plan her approach to the eligible males in her life. Sudhir popped up first on her romance radar. The guy was a hunk, they had gone to college together, and wound up working in the same office after graduation. They always got along like sailors on shore leave, which, come to think of it, worried her a little bit. Had they gone irrevocably far on the pal-pal side? Then there was Madan, a couple of years older than her but her subordinate at work. She bullied him mercilessly but fondly, like an older sister. He was a little on the mousy side, but she wasn‘t sure if that was his true self. On the other end of the power scale, there was her boss, Chandru Sir, devilishly handsome, with a handlebar moustache to die for. They kidded around a lot, and she knew he was a playboy, but like all good women, she was convinced she could reform him. From her circle of non-professional friends, one or two hovered on the fringes of romance; at least, she could associate them with tender feelings, unlike the many boys in her friends & acquaintances circle who apparently thought of her as a gender-neutral source of mirth. She could ring up her vast network of girlfriends, and enquire about available brothers and cousins. Manasa figured she would need to tap all resources to fill the pool of potential grooms, and got down to it with typical efficiency and single-mindedness. She lined up lunch with Sudhir, tea with Madan and dinner with Sir. She thought of a bright idea – she snapped their photos with her cellphone so that she could study them later at her leisure. She was a great believer in her ability to read faces and judge character.
Lunch went well from a gastronomic viewpoint, but was less-than-satisfying on the romance meter. Sudhir was talking about girls, but clearly in a present-company-excluded way. Manasa finally asked him point-blank what he thought of her as a prospective girlfriend, and he almost choked on his gobi. But once he had the hang of it, the idea seemed to intrigue him, and he proposed future dates to explore the concept further. She took his photo, fortunately before the incident with the cauliflower.
Tea with Madan was a nervy affair to begin with. He was calling her “Ma‘am” and trying to figure out if he would still have his job next week. But as they eased into it, and Manasa let it be known that she was scouting him as husband material, his demeanour changed, with some macho inclinations becoming manifest. She clicked him, and promised to carry the tryst further the following week.
Her boss, Sir, whom she met at his Gentlemen‘s Club, was surrounded by a bevy of beauties, and the liquor flowed as freely as ever. You had to admit that the man loved women, a good starting point for any man-woman relationship. Once she announced her intentions to him, he became very circumspect in his behaviour, shooing away the girls (all except the sexiest one). He earnestly declared his amorous intentions to Manasa, and swore to give up (nearly) all other worldly pleasures if he could gain sole rights over her. She angled her camera shot carefully to leave out the girl dangling on his right arm.
Over the next month, Manasa‘s dalliances continued apace. Being a well-brought-up traditional Indian girl, premarital sex never reared its hoary head, and all her suitors respected that. As she met with some of the guys more than once, she started looking for that spark, that hint of something about to ignite. Sure, she had slapped Sudhir on the back when he was choking, but was that love? She would straighten Madan‘s tie before a customer meeting, but that was just business protocol, right? She knew her boss‘s every whim and fancy, and could cater to each, but that was just being a good employee, or was it more? The 28-year-old boy in their neighbouring house was always coming to her to vent his frustrations with a domineering father, and she would listen with sweet patience, but was that love in the offing, or simple goodwill towards a fellow human? Her best girlfriend‘s older brother had escorted the two of them to many a movie, and bought her pop-corn and soda, but of such small intimacies, is love born? Her own cousin, twice-removed, had the hots for her, and she had caught him peeking more than once, but wasn‘t that more like post-adolescent lust? Her photo collection was growing, and she started winnowing it after about 20 days. By the last week, she was down to about 8, and no, Madan was not one of them.
Manasa thought she had felt something when she once met her cousin for breakfast at Woodlands, but it turned out to be heartburn from the spicy sambhar. She flirted with the matrimony sites on the web, though her online forays mostly ended with her dissolving into guffaws. She admired these website honchos for their enterprise, but come on, if she wouldn‘t trust her parents to make her a match, why would she trust these internet kiosks? Manasa would rather find Mr. Perfect herself.
She spent more time with her shortlisted beaus, looking for that magical connect. She liked them all a lot, but that missing link bothered her. She knew she loved her parents and her brother, because of a certain way she felt when she saw them after an absence, and a different (connected?) way she felt in their presence. However, when she was with these strangers who were not her blood-relatives, nothing seemed to run as thick as the blood. If love flowed, it was a thin stream.
On the night of the 30th day, Manasa lay on her bed with the photos spread out before her in a smorgasbord. Sir, with the love-moustache; Sudhir, with the unruly cowlick; Madhav with the manic glint; Bharat with the beard; her cousin, with the perpetual leer; the neighbour boy, with the tilak on his forehead. She studied them intensely, trying to make a karmic connection. Then, like the sensible girl she was, she decided to sleep on it.
As she opened her eyes on the 31st morning, one image—clear, indelible, undeniable—floated across her mind. The good old subconscious had come through again. She smiled at the delicious irony, and went to find her parents with a light heart and a cheery gait. Those darned crooked eyeglasses, she‘ll take him to a good optometrist the day after they got married.