“Madam, I have draped the sari like mermaid! It is giving you very young and slim look!” The beautician bent down to fix Bittu Kumari’s sari pleats, pleased with her work.
“I am young! I am 26!” Bittu Kumari frowned.
“Oh! I thought you must be in 30’s! Was wondering why you are still bachelor!”
“I am not! A bachelor is a man who is not…”
“Bittu, you are still not ready! The boy’s family has arrived!” Bittu Kumari’s mother stormed into the room. She looked at her daughter from head to toe. “Shabnam, I had asked you to make her look thin!” she said disappointed.
“Aunty Ji, I have given her slim look only! This is mermaid style sari! My world-famous style in Saharanpur! She is little healthy no, what can I do!”
“Leave it! No time now!”
Bittu Kumari was dragged to the living room. A lean, dark, young man, his mother, father and possibly his brother who looked like a rounder replica of him were seated on the three-seater sofa. Opposite to them, were Bittu Kumari’s father – Mr. Mishra, and his teenaged son, Sonuraj. Mrs. Mishra’s sister and husband had also been invited for moral support. Bittu Kumari sat next to her brother.
“Mr. Pandey, this is my daughter, Bittu Kumari! She has completed M.A. in English literature. She teaches English in St. Mary’s high school! Convent! And herself educated in English medium convent! Throughout topper!” added the proud father.
“That is great!” said Mr. Pandey with an approving nod. “Lallan also wanted to do B.Com. But after Matric he joined my business. He completed PUC through correspondence.”
Sonuraj giggled. Bittu Kumari was horrified. She looked up to confirm if she had heard correctly. Her eyes met Lallan’s. Lallan smiled at her, beaming.
“All that is okay! Doesn’t matter!” Mrs. Pandey seemed to have read Bittu Kumari’s thoughts. “For a boy, what matters is how well he is earning. Our business is flourishing. Lallan is handling it single-handedly now! And what matters for a girl is how she looks!” She paused, giving a sharp stare at Bittu Kumari’s bulging stomach which Shabnam’s Rs 1500 mermaid style draping could not hide. “My elder daughter-in-law Chhaya is so pretty! Even after having two daughters, she has maintained herself like a stick!”
Bittu Kumari raised her head again to look at Lallan’s brother’s paunch, trying to imagine him with his stick-like wife.
“What does Chaaya do?” asked Mr. Mishra, visibly annoyed.
“She is a housewife!” Mr. Pandey stepped in. “We wanted a working girl for Lallan. Actually, we wanted a housewife. But Lallan wanted a working girl.”
“Working, not working is not main criteria! We want a fair, slim, beautiful girl.” Mrs. Pandey clarified. “Your daughter is very healthy. At this age, she is healthy! After a child, she will bloat even more!”
Mrs. Mishra shifted in her chair uncomfortably. Her fear came true. This was the fifth time the boy’ side had rejected her daughter for being “healthy”. This time, Bittu Kumari did not look up. The words seemed to have pierced through her heart and created a hole. How is it possible that for all these years, she had heard it all – healthy, fat, moti, bhais, elephant, yet it hurt her each time? Shouldn’t she be immuned by now?
“Mrs. Pandey, I think you should let Lallan and Bittu Kumari talk once. They are the ones who have to get married! Let them decide.”
“We would have let them talk, Mr. Mishra. We are very modern. That is why we got Lallan. He was keen on your daughter’s profile. But… sorry to say your daughter looks nothing like her pictures. You must have edited them and sent to us. She seems 20 kg more than we had expected!”
Mr. Mishra looked at his wife accusingly. She had gone to the biggest studio in town to get her daughter’s pictures photoshopped. What was she supposed to do? Those who saw Bittu Kumari’s real pictures rejected her even before meeting her. She had to give her daughter a fair chance!
“If she was slightly healthy also, we would have tried to adjust. But she is obese! Young girls exercise! She is probably lazy too! Or maybe she has some illness. And moreover, daughter-in-law’s beauty determines the looks of the children also. If we get an obese daughter-in-law, she will give birth to obese daughters, and then we will have to worry about their marriage also!”
“Ek minute Aunty, you have gone too far!” Bittu Kumari finally spoke up. “Who said I wanted to marry your son!”
“What! Then why did you all call us!” Mrs. Pandey frowned.
“We were deceived too! We thought your son had completed B-Com. But now we know he never went to college. I did not know I was signing up for a college dropout! Just like you did not know you were signing up for a fat daughter-in-law. But you know what Aunty, fat women make completely decent homemakers. Look at you!”
“Such a shameless girl! Doesn’t know how to talk to elders! And I am fat now! When I was your age, I looked just like Hema Malini! Come Lallan, let us go.” Mrs. Pandey got up, grabbing her son’s hand. Her elder son and husband also got up almost in a reflex. “We don’t need a fat and proudy girl.”
“It is proud Aunty, not proudy!”
Lallan looked at Bittu Kumari. He paused. He wanted to say something. But his mother pulled him away.
And just like that, the entire Pandey family was gone. Mr. Mishra put his hand on her daughter’s head and smiled. “Bittu beta, we don’t need them! You are a diamond. These people don’t know your worth.” Mrs. Mishra went back to the bedroom to pay Shabnam who was locked up in the bedroom, waiting for the boy’s side to leave. Mrs. Mishra’s sister and brother-in-law left rather unceremoniously. Everything went back to normal.
Two days later, Bittu Kumari received a text message.
‘Hi Bittu Ji. I am sorry for finding your number. Got it from the school. I am sorry for the way my mother talked to you. I know how you must have felt. Four girls have rejected me because I am dark! One was educated and English-speaking, and did not want someone like me. I know my profile says that I have done B.com. If talks would have progressed, I would have told you the truth. My brother had edited my profile so that people at least express interest. I may not be that educated, but I do manage to run my business well. I may not be good-looking, but if you give me a chance I will take care of you. I know what it is like when people judge you without getting to know you. I really liked you. Would like to be friends with you, if it is okay with you.”
Bittu Kumari was shocked. No man had ever showed such interest in her. Without telling their parents, Bittu Kumari and Lallan started chatting. Bittu Kumari realized that Lallan was no different from her. He was also looking for a decent partner, while struggling with his own insecurities, and cruel judgment of random people. He was running a growing business, with hard-work and sincerity. He was not as stupid as she had expected. Rather, he was quite intuitive and witty. He was also very sensitive and mature. She grew quite fond of him.
Bittu Rani and Lallan have decided to get married. Mr. Mishra is insisting that Lallan completes B.Com from distant learning. Mrs. Pandey has agreed provided Bittu Kumari loses 10 kgs. Mr. Pandey is happy for the children. Sonuraj is preparing a solo dance performance for the wedding.
Mrs. Mishra is grateful. To Shabnam. And to the photographer.