Opening chapter of the book:  Chapter 1

I open my eyes. I can’t see anything. Either I have gone blind or it’s just pitch dark everywhere. I feel I have been hit by something on my head. It is hurting badly. I want to run away from here but I can barely stand. I am feeling dizzy. I wave my hands around in an aimless way. I can only feel the walls. It is claustrophobic. I am scared. I touch the walls again. I realize, it’s a corridor… a dark corridor. I am confused. Should I step forward? But what about the monsters that this darkness veils! What about the traps that have been set! But, I shall move. I shall survive. I shall reach the other end of the corridor.

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My Patiala salwar swished in the air as I stepped in the room wearing a pale blue, cotton salwar kameez; my waist length hair tied in a tight plait. After greeting the guests in a polite namaste, I sat next to my mother on a red plastic chair in our lower middle class drawing room in Patiala, a small town in Punjab. My mother’s brow wrinkled when she saw me in old faded clothes, and not the bright magenta salwar kameez set especially stitched for such occasions.

“Leela is an excellent cook; besan ke ladoo is her specialty. She couldn’t cook anything today because she had gone to college,” Mummy said in a fabricated tone. I was being sold.

I frowned in disgust; I didn’t even know the ingredients of the ladoo!

I felt like a piece of furniture in the market. The prospective customers came; sometimes they didn’t like the colour, sometimes the design was faulty, and sometimes it just didn’t appeal to them. The rejections didn’t bother me. I was probably just a manufacturing defect, I giggled to myself. The entire world seemed to be obsessed with milky white skin and extra slim women.

What was I doing here? I asked myself. A bubbly, broad-minded girl of nineteen should be in college studying or having fun with her friends, and not sitting in front of probable suitors. I lifted my chin up and gazed at my father sitting opposite me, on a diwan next to the boy’s father. With a deadpan expression, Daddy ji slurped tea from the borrowed bone china cup, making a sucking sound each time the cup touched his lips. Every time a suitor came to see me, Mummy would borrow a bone china tea set from the neighbours to serve tea to the boy’s family. I looked at my father, his cold composure sending shivers down my bones. Daddy ji’s eyes were fixed on the deep red embroidered tablecloth covering our fourteen-inch black and white television set. I couldn’t hide my fear or run away from the fact that my father could do anything he wanted; even if it meant marrying me off to some old, lecherous man or a dead corpse. No one would say a word. My mother didn’t have a voice of her own and even if she did, she never opened her mouth in his presence. Otherwise a cheerful, talkative woman, she bowed down to the dictates of my father – the self-proclaimed emperor of the house.

Daddy ji, home, and my elder brother Sanjay were the nucleus of Mummy’s life. I was last in her list of priorities. My parents never argued, never fought because my father ordered, and we all obeyed. My mother was a woman of the nineteenth century, she believed whatever her husband did, was for the good of her. Sometimes I wondered whether she ever thought of herself as a separate entity. I didn’t want to live a life like my mother’s, mutely suffering a husband’s dictates.

I knew that like the others, this one, too, would reject me. My dark complexion, ordinary looks, our dingy two-bedroom house, my father’s cycle with a loud bell on which he commuted to work; there was nothing remarkable about me that could lure potential buyers.

Leela, my name, was my first stumbling block; it made me feel like an old spinster, and not a girl of nineteen. I grew up hating my name. When I was born, I was named Leelavati, after my great grandmother, but my parents decided to do away with the suffix ‘vati’ in my class ten certificate. And as if all this was not enough, I was a manglik, which meant I had flaws in my horoscope, making it hard to find a suitable boy for me. According to Pandit ji, a manglik girl could marry only a manglik boy.

Haunted by the thoughts of an unmarried daughter, Daddy ji started his search for a groom early, believing it would take him five to six years to find a match – the way it had taken for Mummy’s sister. In the last six months, Pandit ji had brought three proposals: one was twenty years my senior, the other was a widower with a two-year-old baby. Another proposal that had come a month ago was almost finalized, but the boy’s family backed out after saying yes.

Despite all the negatives in my life, my one asset gave me hope – my distinctive voice. Warm and friendly, it is exactly the kind of voice radio announcers have and I was proud of it. All my classmates and even the senior girls of our college used to say, I have a smiling voice; that is when I speak, it sounds as if I am smiling. I had always wanted to be a Radio Jockey for as long as I can remember.

Once, an RJ from a radio station in Chandigarh came to Patiala to record a live show. People thronged from even the neighbouring towns to hear her live. The stadium was crowded, with people jostling and shoving each other to get a glimpse of the RJ. The people were expecting to see a woman who would have a beautiful face like her voice but she was just the opposite. She was short, and had honey coloured skin. In spite of not being a ‘svelte beauty’, she had an aura about her. The realization that the entire stadium was waiting on the words of that one woman gave me a heady feeling. It was thrilling to experience the power of one person’s popularity on unknown people. That RJ remained the talking point for the people of our town for months after the show. I was ten years old then and didn’t know about the Radio Jockeys, but I decided that day that I wanted to be famous. I didn’t know what it would take to become an RJ, I didn’t know what qualifications I would need to acquire to get there, I only knew that RJs spoke nonstop and had to be knowledgeable about music. I was already very talkative; I just needed to learn about music! From then on, my tiny black transistor radio, playing the latest songs from Hindi movies, was my constant companion. But how the hell was I going to ward off the dark clouds of marriage hovering over me?

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“Come, sit here.” Breaking my reverie, the boy’s mother called out to me, pointing to the chair next to her.

Vishal, the boy in question, was thirty years old, 5’ 11”, heavily built, and didn’t look that bad. He was an engineer, and worked as a senior executive for a pharmaceutical firm in Delhi. His mother was the headmistress of a school in Delhi, and his father, a professor in Aligarh. His younger sister was married and lived in the US. Vishal was a seemingly perfect match – tall, fair, the only son, from an educated family who owned a house and a motor bike. The fact that a high profile family like theirs had agreed to come to our house to see me had lifted me in the eyes of my parents.

“Vishal is planning to start his own business,” his mother announced proudly.

His father nodded in affirmation as the mother spoke smugly about their son’s achievements. I kept my gaze down, focusing on the plate of ladoos on the table; they all were of different shapes, some were round – the perfect shape, some egg shaped, some tiny and some big. Vishal looked everywhere but not at me. He didn’t ask me anything except how I did in my exams.

“Fine,” I replied and kept my eyes downcast, fixed on the plate. Only one, the most imperfect shaped, was left on the plate now.

Like me, Vishal was a manglik, and according to Pandit ji, our horoscopes matched perfectly. Vishal’s parents had been looking for a bride for their son for many years. Initially they rejected girls who were manglik, but didn’t fit into the description of a perfect bride. With every passing year, their patience and hope waned.

“Her stars are very lucky for her spouse’s career and health,” Pandit ji said, reading from my horoscope. “He will reach the zenith of success. With her stars, he will make a name and fame for himself, go abroad in his thirties, and have his own flourishing business. She will also be very lucky for his family and will have good relations with her in-laws.” Pandit ji looked up at the visitors, then back at the horoscope. “It’s one in ten million cases that all characteristics match one hundred per cent,” he said earnestly.

This was the same Pandit ji who had condemned me as an inauspicious child when I was born. “Wherever she goes, she will bring misery and doom to those around her,” he had declared ominously. Pandit ji’s prophecy came true when my younger brother died of pneumonia at the age of one. The loss of a child shocked my mother, sending her into a shell. She recovered after many years. After the death of my little brother, my parents stopped loving me; my father remained furious all the time.

My parents never admitted this openly, but the thought that I was unwanted and unloved was etched in my mind. My desires always took a back seat in comparison to Sanjay’s quirky demands. Wheatish complexion, light brown eyes, long eyelashes, black hair, Sanjay looked exactly like my mother. My father too was a handsome man. I was the only odd one out in the family.

“Your daughter looks so different,” people would say. By different they meant, dark, ugly and unattractive. My brother was four years older than me but fought with me for every little thing; and my parents always supported him. This preferential treatment at home had sown the seeds of sibling rivalry between Sanjay and me.

I craved to hear words of appreciation from my parents, but they were so absorbed in pampering their son that they sometimes forgot that they had a daughter growing up in the house as well. The only time I was ever given special care was when I fell sick. The ‘special care’ would mean food served to me in bed and a glass of milk at bedtime. How I wished I would get sick more often!

“Leela is ours now; we will talk to our Pandit ji and fix an auspicious date for the marriage,” Vishal’s mother said, putting a crisp five hundred rupee note in my palm. She dished out a one-rupee coin from her clutch purse and placed it on top of the note. She then shoved a small piece of burfi in my mouth.

Mummy and Daddy ji stood there with their mouths open; they could not believe their luck; their search for a manglik boy had ended sooner than expected and with a prize catch like Vishal to boot!

“What about my studies? I am yet to complete my graduation,” I said. I was startled at the sudden turn of events. I had expected this boy-see-girl drama to continue for a few more years. Hadn’t it taken almost nine years for Mummy’s sister to find a match?

“You can appear for your exams privately,” Daddy ji said stroking my hair lovingly. “And why are you so bothered about your studies? You don’t need to work after marriage; Vishal is earning a very good salary.”

This was one of those rare occasions when my father showered love on me.

“The boy is very tall, very good natured and his mother is so polite… very cultured family. Our daughter is very lucky; I knew she would get a good boy,” Daddy ji rattled to whoever cared to listen.

I closed my eyes wearily. A shadow crossed over my face. How could I get married at nineteen?

But you wanted an escape and you are getting one, my inner voice told me. I feared that if I didn’t agree to this alliance, my parents would tie me to whoever else was willing to marry me. Then my dream of becoming an RJ would remain just that – a dream. I told myself that Vishal was an educated man, unlike the good-for-nothing loafers of Patiala. Any girl with a background like mine would jump at such an opportunity, instead of deliberating over it. This alliance would provide me an opportunity to make a life outside a small town.

I daydream:

Vishal drops me off at the radio station early in the morning. I am dressed in a T- shirt and jeans, just like any other girl in a big city. My schedule is very hectic but I love it. My show is the most popular one on the radio. ‘Good Morning, Delhi,’ I begin the show in my cheerful voice. My mother-in-law tells everyone, ‘You know, this is my daughter-in-law speaking!’

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My wedding was the most talked about affair in Patiala. The entire circuit house was booked for the groom’s party. Huge loans, caterers from the city, an expensive trousseau… everything had to match the status of the groom’s family.

The narrow by lanes of our town were the star attraction for Vishal’s NRI sister, Kiran, and her husband Navin.

I cried because all girls are supposed to cry when they get married and leave their parents’ house but my tears dried as soon as the yellow and black cab carrying me to my marital home started moving, leaving my family behind. With dreams of a new life in the City of Opportunities, I closed my eyes as I sat beside my ‘engineer husband’ in the back seat, his mother occupying the front seat next to the driver. No one really bothered about his father; he was probably with the rest of the relatives in the bus. Noticing me doze off, Vishal rested my head gently on his shoulder with a brush of his hand. This was the first time I had come in close physical contact with a man who was not a relative. His body odour mingled with the lingering, strong scent of his cologne and the fragrance of roses in the car. I immersed myself in the smell of the man who had come into my life as a Messiah to uplift me from a nondescript life to a meaningful one in the capital of the country.

Life, here I come.