Friday, February 29, 2008

Pennukanal

"I don’t like this idea…you are asking me to make the most important decision of my life in half an hour. How do you think I can judge anybody in that much time? I cannot do it!”

“Oh come on, I don’t understand what the big deal is” The response came almost instantly from the backseat. “You can talk to her and find out if she’s good for you, can’t you? I really like her, she’s pretty, I mean pretty enough for you anyway. The family is good, and moreover your horoscopes match”. Her voice barely hid the exasperation. The subject had been argued to death at the dinner table the night before, but her twenty-six year old just didn’t seem to get it.

“Horoscope my foot!”, he muttered.

“Don’t you talk like that again Ram! It’s time you learn to respect your traditions!” this time it was an eruption from the back seat, and it smoked of indignation.

“Oops, she heard it” he said in his mind. “Traditions!!...Why? What for? I mean, we are in the 21st century here… How did she hear it?” He wondered on, as he found the fourth gear and manhandled the engine into it.

“Okay, okay, calm down”, the professor intervened, trying to suppress his discomfort at the shocking gear shift, “We are not asking you to make a decision today son, you just have to see her today, and talk to her. You don’t need to marry her if you don’t like her, okay. Nobody is going to force you into anything.”

“Hmm she looked good in the photo”, he thought to himself, “Maybe I should think positively about this. What if she is the right girl for me? And, in a way, this is so much easier. I don’t have to keep searching for a girl I’ll like, and then I don’t have to go through all the trouble of making her like me in return. And then I don’t have to go about getting clearance from every Tom, Dick and Harry in both family trees. Oh, and not to forget the matching of the religions and the castes and the sub-castes and the horoscopes. What a holy pain… This is so much easier, a lot of unnecessary overhead avoided. Hmm…bit of like the difference between buying a flat rather than buying land and building the house yourself…or installing pirated Windows instead of Linux and then getting it to play a song…”

”You know you suck at analogies, you should never try them again.” He remembered Prabhuda’s words. That was after one disaster of a technical presentation. “Yes, I’m bad at analogies, I shouldn’t try them” he said to himself with a tight upper lip.

“But hey! is this really how you want to do this? I mean, where is the choice?” he heard a dissenting voice within, the very same kind of voice that questioned his analogies that day, “Why am I letting others make choices for me? Of course they say it’s my choice in the end, but isn’t that all hogwash? It’s like saying that the President has all the powers. Ah, analogy again…”

“No, this is not right. This is my life. And this is my future wife they’re talking about after all. If I’m grown up enough to marry, then I’m bloody well grown up enough to choose who I marry. And I don’t decide that based on something somebody thought of writing into a horoscope, which I can’t read anyway…or a photograph on some matrimonial website. And this not America, where I can separate and remarry if I don’t like who I get. If I’m in, I’m in for life; this will be the end of me…if I commit, there is no rolling back…no...this can’t just be…I cannot do this…!!!”

“Arranged marriage is the dumbest thing you can ever do man, it’s like gambling man…, you either have to be really lucky or you have to be a genius at judging people, otherwise 99% chances are you end up a loser...” Prabhuda’s saintly words reverberated in his ears again. Prabhu Bhattacharya almost never talked sense while drunk (which by the way left very little spare time), but that one time, he had made a lot of sense, for he was a man speaking form experience.

The blaring horn of what seemed like a gigantic truck shook him out of the brainstorm. It seemed to be trying to pass him from the left. “Bloody moron, look at the nerve!” he thought to himself when he saw that it actually was an autorikshaw. He glared at the auto driver. The auto-driver glared back and topped it up with a few pleasantries as he passed. He thought of returning the good wishes, but quickly decided otherwise, realizing that his car was not exactly on the socially accepted side of the road.

“Okay okay.. I shouldn’t panic” he tried to calm himself down. “Breath Ram breath, slow…yes, you have to calm down...”

“Ram, do you want me to drive?” the professor asked. Ram kept silent.

“Okay, there is nothing in this to be so tense about, just think of all the things that you want in your wife, and then you go and find out if she fits all that, and then you marry her if she does. It’s simple son.”

“Ah that’s so simple to say, I can’t make up a list in ten minutes okay…it is difficult, it’s impossible; And just say I am miraculously able to come up with this list of criteria for my future wife, how am I supposed to see if she fits into this?”

“You talk to her and find out”

“What do you think I am? A psychic? What if she lies?” He was almost shouting.

“Do you really think she would lie to get married to you?” crackled an irritatingly husky voice from behind. Of late that voice had started to have an extremely grating effect on his ears.

“Will you shut up!!, or I’ll throw you out of the car!!” he shouted.

“Deepu stop it; don’t talk like that to your brother” mom tried to discipline her younger son who had his one ear plugged into his ipod and the other tuned in on the by now interesting conversation.

Ram continued, “Ok fine, I’ll see what I can do…but you got to help me here dad, Give me some tips…what do I ask her?”

“Sure son, this is simple. Let me explain. First, you need to figure out what her plans for the future is, I mean what her expectations from married life are, you know, and then based on that you can assess how well that fits with your plans. You know you needn’t have a perfect congruence of plans, but then, there shouldn’t be much of a deviation from the mean, if you know what I mean”

“Okay, then comes the question of assessing how nice a person she is. Of course you’d want her to look good and all, but trust me, there are more important things you need to make a marriage work. Well this is not so simple, but then again not impossible either. You can ask a few probing questions, and from her responses you can find about a lot about her personality.”

He paused for a while and looked at his son, to make sure he hadn’t fallen asleep.

“Yes dad, I’m listening, go on” Ram reassured him like a studious front bencher.

“Okay, to give an example of a probing question, ask her how important her job is in her life. If she says she is just doing the job for money then she’s probably too materialistic, and you’ll have a hell of a time taking her around shopping. If she says she doesn’t like her job but she wants to figure what she wants to do in life, then that means she is an intelligent, thinking woman. If she says she’s doing it to be on her own feet, then that means she’s a very responsible individual. If she says she loves her job, then that means she is a very happy content woman with very clear aspirations from life. Now what specific questions you want to ask should be based on what you want from your life partner”

“Wow dad, thanks” he said with a sparkle in his eyes, that said, “I’m proud of my dad”.

“You are welcome son” The professor went on. “It’s simple once you have clear expectations about your married life, you’ll automatically know the right questions to ask”.

***

“Hmm , so it all depends on my future plans” he thought to himself; he was slowly becoming aware of the root cause of his discomfiture. At length he said to his father, “You know dad… I haven’t really thought about this…the problem is that…well...I really don’t have…any specific plans for my future …you know..”

“What do you mean you don’t have a specific plan? You do have some concept of what your married life should be like, don’t you?”

“No…” he said, as the maruti jumped over an unmarked bump and then fell into an unmarked pothole.

“Did you have one when you married mom?”

“Well of course I did; oh come on everybody does, quick, think about it!”

He was reminded of that day in school when he realized minutes before the question paper was handed out, that it was Mathematics and not Moral Science.

“Okay let me give it a shot dad” he said trying hard to sound calm,

“Expectations…well…she should be good-looking…above average you know, she shouldn’t wear too much make up though, it’d be good if she could cook well you know, …and she should have a good sense of humor, she should be trustworthy…what else… she should be good to talk to, shouldn’t talk too much though.”

“In case you didn’t know, she is 60% trusty 70% cool and 80% sexy”, came a confident crackle from behind…

“Why is he in the car dad??!”

“And she’s clever and quick witted too…” the crackle continued

“Son, these are just preliminaries.” The professor continued after glaring the backbencher down to submission “You don’t need to ask probing questions to figure these out. And what if she does not cook? She can always learn can’t she? And what do you mean sense of humor? Trust me you’d be much better off if she doesn’t have a sense of humor”

“Ok, dad, I won’t get anywhere with this today by myself …you’ve done this right; just tell me what you asked mom”

“You want to know what he asked”, his mother replied half giggling; “he asked if I minded marrying a short tempered mathematics professor”

“What? Dad and short tempered”?

“Oh yes, you must have seen his tantrums those days”

“Aha now that’s interesting. But, is that all he asked? That’s all you asked dad? Come on, didn’t you ask her any other probing questions?”

“Of course I did, I asked her about her future plans, what she wanted to do with her life, and so on”

“And what did she say?”

“She said that she wanted to be an engineer, she was still studying then you know” he said looking back and winking.

“I also asked her whether she minded coming to Calcutta with me, because that’s where I worked back then”

“What else did you ask?”

“Well let me think, oh yes, and this was my deep probing question, I asked her how much importance she gave to money in life”

“Good one dad, and what did she say?”

“You will love this, what she said is - Money is important, but not as important as knowing exactly how important it is”

“Wow, that was great mom! That really was a profound answer”

“And that pretty much sealed the matter for me” the professor summed up.

“But tell me mom, how did you decide you wanted to marry dad?, didn’t you have any questions of your own?”

“Well, not really, I already liked him from the conversation we had. You know in those days we were not expected to ask that many questions any way. “

“So what did you say when he asked you to marry him?”

“I said if my parents agree and our horoscopes match, I will agree”

“Yes, that was about it, and we lived on happily ever after”

“Wow, that sounds so great”

“See that’s all there is to it son, it’s not as hard as you think it is”

“Thanks dad, I wonder why we never had this conversation before…”

***
“I’m feeling good about this now..” he thought to himself, “I just have to believe in myself…I can ask probing questions, I can judge her in half an hour”

“I mean it’s not like I’m a bad judge of people, I think I’m actually pretty good at it.”

“And when I think about it, actually I am the one making the choice, I mean, the President gets to ask questions doesn’t he? And don’t they need his sign and all before they do anything?”.

“Dad’s money question seems like a pretty good question to ask, I’ll start off with that, but I need a few more original probing questions. Let me think…how about asking her about her views on socialism….and capitalism, that way I’ll know if she’s a thinking woman…or would that be too over the top?”

***

“But, I have a doubt”, it was the husky voice from the backseat.
“She said she’ll marry you if your horoscopes match? Why? Didn’t you match your horoscopes before you went to see her?”

The professor looked back at the back bencher again. The professor’s wife did the same. The hairy fellow did make a point

“What? Why are you both looking at me like that? Didn’t you have the horoscopes matched before you went to see her?”

The professor did not reply, nor did his wife.

The car was moving slowly now, they were nearing a busy intersection.

Ram turned and looked at his father, the professor seemed to struggle to let through a gulp.
He then looked behind, the professor’s wife wore a very strange expression, as if she wanted to say something, but couldn’t make up her mind about it. Slowly, a halo of light seemed to settle on his forehead, and his eyes lighted up like those of a man who had just found a new religion. They turned back and looked at the being he considered nothing more than annoying pest till that moment, and proudly proclaimed “I’m proud of you bro”, the other pair of eyes winked and crackled back “oh, you are welcome bro”.

He remembered another one of Prabhuda’s gems “The secret my dear lad, is to ask the right questions, and at the right time. Trust me, there is no substitute to pure old fashioned logic “.

“So, where exactly did you have that conversation?” Ram asked, turning to the professor again, confidently shifting down to second gear.

***

The professor and his old mathematics student looked into each others eyes and time rolled back in front of them. Back then, twenty seven years ago to be exact; he used to be a very short tempered young man.

His young student was struggling with her calculus as usual. And the lecturer had lost his cool as usual. Her notebook lay on the floor where he had flung it in a fit of anger as usual. She sat there on the steel chair weeping in intermittent sobs.
“Look, I’m sorry, we’ll start over again”

“No! I don’t want to study any more” pat came the reply.
The lecturer picked up the book from the floor and sat down near her on the desk.

“Look I said I’m sorry, I have this problem, I get angry unnecessarily”

The sobbing continued.

“Well, this may not be the best time to bring this up...but…would you mind marrying a short tempered mathematics lecturer?”

She looked up, her eyes opened wide. The lecturer looked back, puzzled…was she crying or was she smiling…

“Oh, no, sorry, don’t cry, I just thought…, I would…, okay forget it, I never asked this okay”

He braced for the heartbreaking reply.

“I’d rather marry a mild mannered mathematics professor”, she said at length with a straight face, and continued without any change in her expression “but I guess I’ll fix you after we get married” and fled out of the room.

***

The lonely traffic cop let out a blood curdling yelp from his elevated garrison. Two Bajaj Lambies produced Doppler Effect on each other as they screamed narrowly past each other. The couple of cows that were grazing peacefully on the traffic island jumped out onto the road; crows cried out and flew scared from the electric lines overhead. The rest of the Sunday morning traffic halted for a second or two to get over the shock. And they all thought in one voice, “that is one hell of a U-turn”.

***
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