(Continued from here)
“I’m glad you behaved,” my father grinned. “Aunt Rosie’s sister, Dotty, was there.”
How young men and women giggled about the community’s match-maker, plump, comfortable Dotty, and her little red Domesday Book with every possible vital stat about every Mangalorean girl or boy who was anyone (well, giggled until they needed her services).
Then parental whispers in corners, and Dotty’s much-quoted gnomic Delphic utterances: “Tell her to lose weight.” “Tell him to get a green card.”
Dottie D’Sa did not charge–“It gives me something to do; I like to help”–but, at weddings, she was a guest of honor, the bride’s family gave her costly silk lavishly gold-embroidered Kanjeeveram sarees, and–oh, nothing was too much–as the couple stood before the altar, beaming at each other with tenderness and wild hope, fully prepared to live happily ever after (which, surprisingly often, they did). And then the new couple rode off into the sunset with pleased punchy Cheshire cat smiles, as if it had all been their idea, in the first place.
The dragon-guarded strait path to bliss: destiny hinged on luck, as well as on character. Two small town sisters or cousins: one might marry a successful physician or entrepreneur in the U.S., say, and file among the world’s spiffiest tax returns; her kids are successful. The other’s spouse stays put, never realizes his ambitions, loses his “small job,” his health, drinks, drifts. The matchmakers had enormous power, though, of course, character also catalysed success.
And as the matchmaking process got underway, parents accepted a realistic compromise between the ideal child-in-law and a realistically achievable one. Generations of family laundry, clean, dirty, were exhumed from communal memory.
Serpentine whispers of doom: “His mother drinks.” She’s “a little…” a discreet tapping of the temples. Drunkenness, retardation, instability, and insanity were genetic, everyone knew; let the chattering classes chatter about heredity and environment; nature and nurture; Edwards and Jukes.
Desiderata: in “a boy”, good family, money, an upwardly mobile career, “a sweet boy.” In “a girl”: family, money, then (in that order) fairness and beauty; sundry accomplishments; “very sweet.” Those with the most desirable attributes married their counterparts. Which is probably what would have happened, though less scientifically, had the young people had been left to their own devices!!
Dowry, receiving it, giving it, was banned by the Indian Supreme Court in 1961. Sure!! “The boy’s family had all the expense of educating the boy; he’ll look after the girl. Why shouldn’t the girl’s family contribute?” people said. “But the girl’s educated too!”
A snort, a shrug. That’s the way things are.
No fixed figure. While Ms. Plain-Jane’s parents might, as she neared the last-chance late twenties, in desperation offer a farm, in the seventies, it was an assortment of jewelry and money and the “4 F’s”, phone, fridge, Fiat, flat for starters (now videophones, medical clinics, resorts). There were blatant blandishments: my father told of a jeep ride through estates with his bride-seeking brother: “This will be yours, and this.”
However, “the marriage market” was a human transaction, not sheerly a matter of the stock market, or stock-breeding, and so the best stocked apple-carts of mother-in-laws and matchmakers gang oft agley. An infatuation with a long-lashed Adonis, or with a girl’s beauty or bubbliness, might prevail despite the best advice. A double standard: as is universally true, plainness, or downright ugliness was more of a handicap for a woman.
Our friends, the Domingoes, sent their daughter Odile to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford to have her harelip corrected before she entered the marriage market. Her father, escorting her, had the surgery at the same time, though his had never mattered: he was an engineer.
Here, as elsewhere, a woman whose face was her fortune married “up,” and a rich woman did better than if her face had been her fortune. A few, as I did myself, side-stepped the whole thing, and had “love marriages.” And “he was caught,” everyone says bitterly.
Unlike Hindus who seek their true love through horoscopes, classified ads, the grapevine, and through their entire sub-caste and language group, Mangalorean Catholics have pretty much married Mangalorean Catholics, local or diasporic, since they were converted in the early sixteenth century.
What’s more, they marry (often their own cousins) within their own pre-conversion Hindu caste, and snobbily defined class, within which individuals, my husband and I, say, can trace multiple relationships. My Mangalorean husband and I, for instance, for related in multiple ways. This carefully engineered eugenic mating over centuries–artificial selection in Darwin’s terms–has, as intended, disproportionately strengthened desired traits: the coveted lighter skin and good features; intelligence; and the ingenuity, doggedness and flair which produces wealth.
And there was an accidental, inevitable consequence: a community in which “the mad woman in the attic” was not just a literary stock character. “Look up discreetly,” my father murmured as we passed the mansion of an old, wealthy, respected family.
“Who was that Pa? She wasn’t wearing anything…”
“Ssh. Maisie’s daughter, Margaret. She never mentions her daughter. Neither does anyone else. Though everyone knows. She keeps her locked up, though sometimes she gets to the window and…you saw.”
Outwardly, the moonlight slept sweet upon the bank, and in the soft stillness and night, there was sweet harmony. Outwardly. But often, even in the snootiest families: a missing child, insane like Margaret (whose mother, cutting flowers, alerted by the gaping of passersby, ran upstairs); or mildly retarded or autistic, or multiply disabled, euphemistically called “spastic,” the fruit of genes bruised by five hundred years of a small, much-pooled gene pool. These disabilities were attributed to “birth traumas,” so as not to prejudice the marriage chances of the siblings.
* * *
Almost every old genteel Mangalorean extended family had their Peter Pan, called Baba or Baby into middle age, for whom the twentieth century proved too much: a coddled son or daughter, once of great promise, the community’s pride, who, unable or unwilling to grab the trophy spouse, the trophies, still lived with Mummy in the bomb shelter of the family home they would eventually inherit. There were, here as elsewhere, sad spinsters and wistful bachelors who somehow missed “two for joy,” and square pegs who slipped through cracked round holes, whose Medusa reflection parents and “well-wishers” brandished in a burnished shield before the rare eccentric. Beware. Beware.
I too have seen some of the best minds of my generation destroyed. Mario, my cousin, famous among the nuns and priests of India, prayed for by many religious orders of nuns and priests, subjected to every quack and craze, Charismatic healer, yogi, positive thinker, transaction analyst; to Gestalt, psychiatry, psychotherapy, inner healing. A chess champion, a proclaimed genius, as the promising young often are; achieving the highest average in the State school-leaving exams, but with one misstep, a failure in compulsory Hindi, which meant a re-take, which never happened. Instead, drugs, theosophy, a fling at being a rishi in an ashram, the occult; deep open-eyed trances; some swore he levitated. He looked like Death-in-Life, like one possessed, as he stared out of terrible, blighted eyes, hearing hissing Furies as his mind’s circuits blew, and the plagues piled up–frustration, violence, institutionalization, suicide.
And, in Jamshedpur, the gentle, androgynous Mangalorean, Ozzie, on whom every girl had a crush, long-fringed, long-haired, long-lashed like Paul McCartney, like the Beatles, whose songs he sang, twangy-voiced, strumming on his guitar, who went to England on a Commonwealth scholarship (where, adding to his small town fame, he met the Duke of Edinburgh), who dabbled in drugs (for the impressionable, the Beatles, drugs, rock and roll were all one, while the cannier adopted the music, the hair-cuts, the batik, the cool until they took their place among the elders at the city gates). Drugs, adulterated?, excessive, which whispered words of wisdom, let it be, let it be, destroyed his mind and the fiber of his character; now study, work, a steady job became pipe dreams.
So like others kept afloat by their parents’ guilty broken hearts, he vanished behind his newspaper, lived with them until they died, their ironic silver lining, his immense good nature still evident on his blighted lost-boy face, whose fine features had grown flabby, for, eventually, character tells its tale.
Once orphaned, he floated around town, a middle-aged wraith, chain-smoking, chain-drinking tea in grimy dhabas, finally growing so disheveled, shaggy, unwashed, sun-charred, that, when he tried to visit my parents, the guard would not let him past the gate.
And I think of another sixties refrain: Joan Baez, And there but for fortune, go you or I, mmm, mmm.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000 words
Words per day Goal—535 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 36—19814 words (19 extra)