It was my 23rd visit. From having exact specifications like the centimeter thickness of the hair, I've drastically expanded my category to any female above 23 and below 28 years of age. I am thirty-one, with a diploma degree, a house under my name, some killer mechanic moves, and a brand new car that came second-hand thanks to the December Chennai rains. To modern standards, am more than qualified for a good looking town girl from a middle class who has completed her 12th standard or better, has a college degree. My parents started the bride hunt almost two years back, and it was all fun and frolic in the beginning. I remember my mom rejecting the first ever girl saying she had a crooked nose. From then we've gone through fat, small eyes, yellow teeth, no money, no own house, not enough jewelry and every other damn thing we could ever cook up. I laughed along with her back then. Not anymore. My cigarette gang started receding rapidly and last of my patience left me when my friend the bald headed Vinayagam got married. For God's sake, I still had hair on my head.
I drove my car through the empty road, deeply lost in thought, not bothering to look at the lush green fields that engulfed the surrounding area, or listen to constant chatter that happened between my mom and sister in the back seat. I chanced a glance at them through my rear view mirror. They're nowhere close to the definition of beauty that they had in mind, whenever they judged a strange woman. I could see a small crook in my mom's nose and a very visible belly on my sister. But why didn't it stop me from loving them? I wondered.
I took another right towards a narrowed lane and stopped my car in front of a lone palm leaf cottage. I turned towards the marriage broker for confirmation.
"This is the house of the girl, thambi!" The broker gushed, with a senile smile. I turned around just in time to catch a glimpse of my mother's haughty stature and my sister's displeased twist of lips. I saw them adjusting their silk sarees and jewellery that somehow elevated their arrogance and ugliness. Just then, a simple elderly woman came out of the house and started rushing towards us. She welcomed us all with a bright, warm smile and led us towards the house, through the neat pathway that led us to the house. I walked along with them, vividly absorbing my surroundings. The pathway was adorned with perfectly trimmed little hibiscus shrubs that looked like a hybrid version. To the right side, I could see a beautiful green patch of land with splashes of bright reds and dark purples which I later realised were tomatoes and brinjals. On the left, I could see flowers of many different breeds and varieties and a quaint looking well that had a shining brass bucket placed on its wall. There was a vast expanse of fields and plantations on the background and the little cottage looked picturesque and perfect. I could imagine my kids coming here for a summer vacation. "Bend and come thambi, the ceiling is low" I heard the elderly woman guiding me and I bent my down obediently. And that's when I saw her feet.
A pair of dusky feet with perfectly filed nails peeped through a light green silk saree. Before I could have a second glance, they hurried behind a cardboard partition that completely blocked the view beyond the neatly arranged chairs in front of us. We sat down, while the elder woman sat on the small stool behind besides us. "I have two daughters" she started, "The younger one is in school, studying seventh class. The elder one went to college. Bright girl, but I had to stop her education with the first year because her father died". She looked at us, expecting questions, seeking validation. My mom started "Is this your own house?", my sister piped in asking "Does she know to cook?" and I ended up with "what did she start studying in college" Her mother started answering my mom first. "Yes, this is our own house. The three grounds of land behind this house also belong to us. We wanted to build a house, but her father passed away before we could. Kayal is very good at cooking, she cooks non-veg very well" the woman said. "She studied something with plants thambi", she said looking towards me. "Something called po...po.. potheny... what is it called Kayal ? She shouted at the cardboard barrier. "Botany" came a sweet voice from the other side of the barrier. I smiled.
My father nudged my mother and she said aloud "Can we get some coffee?" And Kayal's mother followed cue. "Kayal! Bring the coffee and snacks "I heard her anklets rush away. It came back in small measured steps, and seconds later a hot cup of coffee was held in front of me by a pair of long dusky hands. I lifted my eyes to see a captivating pair of dark eyes, small nose and big prominent cleft in the chin. She smiled a small smile, walked back and stood beside her mother. My parent spoke formalities while both of us remained silent. "How much jewellery can you afford?" My mother asked in a blunt tone. "I have around 5 sovereigns saved for my daughter." Kayal's mother said with a slight tremor in her voice. "Where is the bathroom in your house?" my sister asked from her side. "We don't have a bathroom, it's just the fields." the old mother said with hesitation. My mother stood up. "We will write a letter to you after getting bac.," she said and marched out. Everyone followed suit me being the last in the line. I chanced a glance back at Kayal. There was dejection etched all over her face. She glanced at me one last time and went back inside behind the cardboard barrier.
"What place is this? " My mom shouted at the marriage broker. "They look filthy poor and they don't even have a bathroom" "Yes, Uncle! " My sister chipped in. "What if my brother wants to come and stay here for two days? What we can do if the house doesn't even have a toilet to pee" "And the girl is not that good looking. She's black and has an ugly cut in her chin". "She is ugly than the rest of the girls we saw" my sister added as she thrust a pack of biscuits in front of me. I looked at her dark hands and sighed. She was two shades darker than Kayal. Does colour really matter? I questioned myself. A question that I didn't have the courage to voice out loud.
I stood smoking in my cigarette stand when I saw Vinayagam getting out of an auto. He started walking towards me, as I dropped the burning butt and stepped on it. "Yes da?" I questioned him with a quizzical look. He handed me an envelope and smiled.
"My wife has her Bank exam today. I am taking her to the center. Can you please give the leave letter to the manager?" I got the letter from his hand.
"She is writing bank exam?" I was stunned. I didn't expect his wife to be qualified beyond tenth standard. That is what my parents would have done. "Oh, you haven't met her right?" Vinayagam said, "Come let me introduce" He dragged me towards the auto. His wife got down from the auto and I froze with shock looking at her form. She looked very fair and beautiful and nowhere in the same standards compared to my bald friend. It is then I noticed her feet. They were curved at odd angles. It took a moment to hide my shock but Vinayagam saw it.
"I'll give him the details and come back Lakshmi, please wait in the auto". He said to his wife and turned back to me.
"Come with me da" he dragged me back to the shop.
"What happened to the last bride visit?" "Ummm... Parents rejected!" I whispered. "Why?" he asked. "They did not have a bathroom in their house." I said. And he burst out laughing. It sounded weird even to me when I said out loud. "Listen to me Babu" vinayagam said, "I was at the same place you are today. Lakshmi was the 37th woman I came across. She was such a bright young woman who couldn't pursue her education after college because she had to take care of her family. Look how beautiful she is. But men rejected her because of her legs. I rejected many women over the years and tables turned once I started losing my hair. It hit me then. Appearances never tell you the real story Babu. It's their character that tells you that. Each day is a blessing for me, with Lakshmi by my side. If your heart tells you it is fine, go ahead and do it". He said and walked away towards his smiling wife.
Five months later:
Kayal came into our bedroom clad in a petticoat, her hair dripping wet, her dusky skin glistening with water droplets. I dragged her onto the bed. She leaned lightly onto me resting her head on my chest. "How was your shower bath?" I asked with a small tease. She lifted her face to look at me and I was touched by the tears that kissed her cheek. "Enna ma?" I asked, holding her close to me. "Thank you!" she whispered. "Thank you for helping me build this house, thank you for the comfortable toilet and bathroom, thank you for the college application, thank you for marrying.... I closed her endless thanks session with my mouth. "Thank you for making me a father" I said as I lightly touched her belly. "Thank you for the wonderful meals you cooked! Thanks for the love and care that you shower on my parents" I whispered as I trailed kisses through her cheek to her ear. "More importantly, thanks for showing me the exhilarating fun of Pump set baths", I murmured as my lips captured hers again.