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I’m meeting my mother-in-law. This means I hold a quarter-inch of hair between my thumb and forefinger; a boundary my stylist’s shiny scissors are not allowed to cross. “That’s it?” she asks. “After you get married you’ll beg me to chop it all off!” I imagine myself with bangs, wispy layers around my face; a style opposite the equidistant tresses which tumble from my scalp, past my shoulders and dangle at the base of my spine.
“You’re getting married in India?” Her raven-dyed locks sweep across a tattoo of three cupcakes on her bicep. “How long is the flight?”
“Hope you’re not afraid of flying!” She says and snip, snip, snips.
“My doctor’s prescribing an anti-anxiety tab.” I don’t mention my fear of elevators; claustrophobia confines me to stairwells.
“Is his family cool with it?” Sprays of hair float to the floor. “You know, letting their kid marry an American?”
I smile, focus on a shopping list taped to the mirror in front of me: envelopes, detergent, chardonnay, and oranges. Lists remind what’s not to be forgotten. A few years before Prashant and I eloped in Las Vegas, my mother-in-law called with a list of her own: two girls in California, one in New York. Brahmin, Brahmin, Brahmin. Qualified. Interested. Approved. If he wanted a “modern” girl, she told him, there were plenty working in America, he could take his pick. Chicago was full of Indian girls with shiny, waist-long hair, kohl-lined eyes and mocha-kissed skin. They wore pant suits and toted briefcases; gold hoops adorned their delicate earlobes.
But Prashant never made a list of potential brides, voiding the need for additional lists: cities to visit and level of interest, from most to least desirable. When her son confessed his plan to marry an American my mother-in-law didn’t cross-hatch suitable girls’ names on paper; she let tears mark each loss.
I’m meeting my mother-in-law so I take my salwars to the dry cleaner for alterations. Ordered online from Ahmedabad, the tailors were too generous with the chest and legs. Pinned armpit to calf, this tailor suggests sewing together the vertical slits which define a kameez. His request, I imagine is a craving for the familiar; to return to the shapes of his native Korea. Extra stitches find themselves in the cloth despite my instructions. The chest is too tight and the bottoms too short. Worn with jeans, the top could be passable but I only pack ill-fitting salwar suits. In India jeans are not appropriate, I am told. Jeans must never be worn in front of my mother-in-law. I don’t pack jeans. I leave them at home.
I’m meeting my mother-in-law, which is why I wait at JFK for three days: London is buried beneath a 100-year snow. Our tickets are canceled. We’re told to go home. But I’m meeting my mother-in-law. The airline has to pay for our hotel until we can be re-booked. Getting re-booked, we’re told, will take two weeks. Families, trios, couples, push carts of freshly packed Samsonites through double-doors, into taxis, buses and parking-garage elevators. For them, the adventure has ended. Someone must return to work. Someone’s vacation will be up in five days; why waste it inside an interminable terminal?
On the fourth day, two things collide at the counter: my tears and an airline representative named Priya. She locates our reservation. Sixty-five people are ahead of us on the waitlist. “Please help us.” I beg. “We’ll have to cancel our wedding!” Her eyes light up. Her fingers stab furiously at the keyboard. She will book us to London. “You should know,” she says in a tone reserved for the most unfortunate of deliveries, “there are no available flights from London to Delhi. You’ll have to negotiate a ticket from London.” Prashant leans on the counter like he’s ordering a milkshake. His dilated pupils betray the calm lines of his forearms. My frame bends toward him as if the ground beneath me has shifted: no available flights. Do we fly into the lion’s snow-packed den? What if we’re stranded in London without a flight to India, a return to Chicago or even a bed to sleep in? My husband, my mother-in-law’s youngest child, doesn’t say a word. I nod and our itinerary prints to paper.
My mother-in-law declares: Her name will be Krishna. Once, I typed C-r-i-s-t-i-n-a into a program which generates the Old English equivalent of your name. It came back Carol. Carol was my aunt’s name; perpetually depressed, she ventured off her couch only a few times a year. I could never be a Carol. Can I be a Krishna? Will a name make me more religious, more cultural—more daughter-in-law-ish? Give an American girl an Indian name and await transformation. Everything works in theory.
We exit Heathrow’s immigration and cross an outside courtyard to our airline’s terminal. We’re stopped at the doors by a uniformed guard. “I need to see your tickets.” he says. “Only passengers with confirmed tickets are being allowed into the terminal.”
I look him in the eyes. “Sir, do you see the dork behind me?” I nod toward Prashant. “We’re getting married in India. We have to get there.” Prashant gives a sheepish grin. The guard’s face softens, “Alright, I guess you can give it a try.” Inside, the equivalent of 20 Sam’s Club’s worth of weekend shoppers hunker over suitcases. We don’t have Business Class tickets, but I smooth my greasy ponytail with my fingers and file behind the two other passengers in line. At the counter, instead of handing the young man in the crisp white shirt and long navy coat my ticket I ask, “Can you get me to my wedding?” Six hours later, as we taxi down the runway, the reply stirs my heart, “I’m not supposed to do this—but getting married in India is once-in-a-lifetime. You’re leaving tonight for Delhi.”
Terrain changes to mountains; we’re somewhere over Afghanistan. The rocky land is absolutely still. Soon we’ll be on a continent that has spun endless daydreams in my head. We land in Delhi and hop another flight to Bangalore; the city where Prashant’s brother and sister-in-law, Usha, reside. Once we arrive I have my sari blouses stitched and henna applied to my hands and feet. After three days in Bangalore, Prashant and I fly to Visakhapatnam where we spend a night at the Green Park Hotel. In the morning, Prashant’s eldest sister (Didi), brother-in-law, and niece will escort us to Annavaram; the place where our marriage will be performed. Prashant’s parents and younger sister will come by train from Bhilai to Annavaram. I won’t meet them until the day of our wedding.
Today, I am to meet my mother-in-law. Didi and her family meet us in the hotel lobby. We exchange hushed pleasantries and load our bags into the back of a hired car. Factories give way to open fields of palms and women with wares tucked neatly onto their heads. Ninety minutes later we arrive. A crowd approaches our vehicle as we pull into our hotel at the foot of the Annavaram temple. Prashant’s youngest sister, Gudia, greets us, followed by her husband and son. Let’s go inside, someone says, your mother-in-law has been waiting anxiously to meet you. My father-in-law appears on the stairs before me. I bend and touch his feet three times. He doesn’t speak. Prashant has already told me his father is a quiet person. The crowd sweeps me into a dining hall filled with guests from other wedding parties. An auntie looks up from her thali and gasps, “Foreigner bride!”
My mother-in-law sits at a table; her eyes, the size of harvest moons, scan my face, my torso, then back to my face. Her chest rises and falls in quick, shallow breaths. Someone nudges me toward her. I bend and touch her sari-covered feet. A chair is placed in front of her. Someone motions for me to sit. My palms are damp. My head spins. Her eyes examine my hair, my forehead, my nose, my jaw, my lips, and my throat and shift back to my eyes. Dozens of people; relatives, friends, ladies in elaborate saris speak excitedly.
The lift of a brow, the sweep of a hand; a constant stream of words my English vocabulary cannot interpret.
Outside, I’m placed next to my mother-in-law and I watch as Prashant (now dressed in a dhoti, kajal smeared under his eyes) walks away from the hotel under an umbrella. My mother-in-law doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t speak. Gudia stays close and assures me with smiles and tilts of the head. She takes me inside where she, Didi, and Usha wrap my five-foot-nine frame in a red sari. More rituals occur: Didi and her husband assume the role of my parents, exchanging clothing with Prashant’s parents. Every time a camera flashes my mother-in-law looks longingly at Prashant. I do not know if her sadness is the loss any mother feels when her son marries or if she’s pining for what will never be: a daughter who can speak her language and flawlessly execute the customs of a Brahmin woman.
At the temple, two other marriages are underway beneath the dark sky. Our auspicious timing will occur at nine p.m. Devotees spy a white woman and follow our party to the top terrace where priest and wedding band await. I’m guided through the sprinkling of powders and holding of leaves. My voice booms as I repeat mantras before family and a large group of onlookers who’ve gathered at the foot of our procession. They lock their eyes on me. Their faces express a mix of mystification, curiosity, and bewilderment. This magnifying glass has another victim: my mother-in-law. She’s endured an examination of her own; assumed responsibility for a son who went against his upbringing and culture. Her pain is what I feel when I meet these gazes. How many times has she had to explain her son’s decision? How many times has she been shamed? A hand comes to rest atop my head. I know from the smiles which spring from each observer that the hand belongs to my mother-in-law. My sorrow slides through my shoulders and out through my feet where it evaporates into the night. Later, when flipping through our wedding album I’ll see the photo taken at that moment; my face a rose in bloom, my mother-in-law blessing me with the grace of her hand. At the reception in Bhilai my mother-in-law’s face glows while a hundred guests, some silently and some with exasperation, express their opinions of her son’s marriage to a foreigner.
My mother-in-law asks me to call her Atta Garu. (Telugu for mother-in-law.) She gives me complete freedom in the house she’s lived in for 35 years—feeds me until I cannot move, sneaks me kishmish from a secret stash in her wardrobe and asks me to snap her photos in the courtyard while neighbors raise their chins above cement walls for a glimpse. She ties chains of jasmine onto my braid and presses daily dots of kumkum between my eyes. She lets me choose my mangalsutra from cases of black bead and gold necklaces at her favorite jewelry store. When our visit nears its end, she asks questions through her son: Do you like it here? Will you come back? When will you come back?
At the airport in Raipur we sit in the lobby until an announcement asks all passengers to proceed to the security gates. My mother-in-law stares at the floor and pulls at her pallu. Without looking up, she cries out in Hindi. Tears streak down Gudia’s face, “She says to take care of yourselves, call often, and come back soon.” Tears well in my eyes, but if I start to cry I won’t be able to stop. My mother-in-law squeezes my hand. Her tears splash onto the tile. A final announcement drones through the terminal. My father-in-law, mother-in-law, and their youngest daughter watch as Prashant and I wheel our bags through the gate. We turn to wave but a rush of people obscures our view. I recognize the border of my mother-in-law’s sari and whisper, “Mera naam Krishna hai” before turning and disappearing behind the wall.
Cristina Chopalli’s blog can be found at http://www.cristinachopalli.com.