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The Bride Wore Red
Tales of a Cross-Cultural Family
By Robbie Clipper Sethi

Chapter One: The Bride Wore Red

You've stayed with Deshi because he is the only man you ever wanted who did not require a wife to play dumb to make him feel smarter. Though you are rather small, he is not much bigger, so in this relationship the big man's impulse to protect the little girl has been minimal. More: you've always thought yourself exotic, the one who didn't belong. When you told the boy next door that you were marrying an Indian, he laughed and said, Sally, I always knew you'd end up with a foreigner; you never could stand the typical American boy. Now you're with the man you've always wanted. In a place you don't belong.

As you step off the plane, in front of Deshi but close enough so that they'll know you are together, you are confronted by a sea of swarthy faces peering through the chain links of the runway fence. Saris flash color in the yellowish airport lights; turbans bulge on the heads of several bearded men. You cannot guess which ones belong to Deshi. You turn to him for reassurance. He's lost, forcing half a smile, the rest of his face appearing as bewildered as you feel. When you turn around again a woman behind the fence is hanging limp in the arms of two bearded, turbaned men. "Oh, my God, she's sick," says Deshi, and that's the last you understand as he rushes you into customs. He speaks to an official in a language you don't understand. You regret that you have not learned the language of his childhood.

People are jostling and shoving for their luggage. You have never seen bigger suitcases in your life. Skinny boys wheel them in from the tarmac. Thickset men, thin men with paunches straining against their silk shirts, round--tripped, greasy-haired women drag the bags across the dusty, concrete floor. The airport smells like a cross between the subway on a summer afternoon and the spices Deshi uses when he cooks for you.

You've been awake for forty-seven hours. Your eyes burn. Your arms and legs ache, craving both movement and inertia at once. It's three o'clock in the morning, Delhi time.

You and Deshi separate to go through customs. An official silently checks your papers. Beyond customs stand the same two men who had held up the falling woman at the fence. Their stomachs stick out comically, as if they had been successfully implanted with embryos. The woman, not so thin herself, is still struggling with them, crying. Deshi doesn't have to tell you; she's his mother. He says something to the customs agent in his line; the official looks over his shoulder and turns back to Deshi's passport with a nod. Deshi runs to his mother, stoops in front of her, and puts his fingers on her feet. Passed into customs, you take a few steps toward them. The older man--Deshi's father--makes a show to lift Deshi off the floor. When Deshi stands, the woman pulls him toward her chest and sobs. Over his shoulder, with her eyes tightly closed, she makes kissing noises, but her lips make contact only with the hot, dusty air. The men wait. You are not sure who the younger man is. His beard is not as gray, and the flesh on his face is not pulled so tightly by his beard, which is slicked down with what looks like mustache wax and hair spray and tied beneath his double chin. Deshi introduces you without telling you who either of them is. The younger one stretches his arm around your shoulder and you smell his sweat. The old man tries to catch his wife again as she falls to the floor.

Deshi bends over her, speaking softly in Punjabi. The old man pinches her nose; the young man only touches her ankles and she straightens out her legs. A customs official joins you and shouts something in Hindi. He pushes you closer to the prone woman. She opens her eyes, looks directly into your face, and closes her eyes again.

Though you have finished medical school, Deshi does not ask for your advice. You've seen people faint, you've seen them die. This woman isn't dying; she hasn't even fainted.

The men pick her up and walk her out of customs through the double doors, filthy with finger marks, into the waiting room. As the doors close behind them, you see that the lobby is even more crowded than customs. You see the faces of women, leaning over to look inside the door. You see children straining at their mothers' saris, screaming. You'd like to scream yourself at this hour, in this mess. "Does she have a preexisting medical condition?" you ask.

Deshi says, "She's just a little over' emotional."

Your own mother, to your knowledge, has never fainted. The only time you ever saw her cry was the day that Kennedy was shot. You came home from school and saw her watching a replay of the Dallas motorcade, a tissue to her eyes. You were baffled. She didn't know this man. He was a politician; he had run against another politician; a politician had run with him; there were millions of politicians ready to take his place.

You have been accused of coldness, but that was only by a roommate who took your love life more seriously than you did. That was before you met Deshi. He's his calm, collected self as he leads you to the luggage.

"I wish I'd brought my blood pressure sleeve," you say.

"It's just the shock," says Deshi.

You know what he means, but you don't say anything. For weeks you tried to convince him to write a letter to his family explaining that he and a woman he had known for several years were planning to be married and that she was coming with him on his first trip to New Delhi in ten years. He procrastinated until it was too late to write. Finally he telephoned, but only to tell them what time the plane was landing. At the time, you asked, "Why didn't you tell them you were bringing me?"

"They wouldn't understand."

Now you understand. You wonder where you'll spend the night, and with more than a little relief you realize it's too late for bed. By the time your luggage gets through customs, nothing illegal, nothing to declare, it is four A.M. You squeeze through the waiting crowd and feel around your shoulders the cool, wet arms of a plump woman. Your first impulse is to shake them off, but you force yourself to return a little squeeze. When you were a baby, your mother has told you, you refused to be cuddled. When she tried to hold you, you screamed. The woman abandons you just before you scream and smiles through the lipstick caked on her crackling lips. "I am the sister," she says.

I am the wife-to-be, you want to say, but you say, "Hi. I'm Sally."

Another woman grabs you, thinner than the last. You recognize the name of a third sister. Then sister after sister embraces you, all of them short and busty like Deshi's mother. By the time they're through, you feel like you've been gangbanged by a pack of virgins.

Deshi's mother looks at you and goes limp again, while a sister shouts at her in Punjabi. Another sister lunges for the body; so many sisters crowd around, it's a wonder she can breathe. Someone pinches her nose, straightens her legs, and she moans. "Mummy's little bit upset," a sister says smiling.

It's then that you see the small children clinging to the sisters' saris and baggy pants. "What are you doing?" one says. "Say hello to your auntie."

You want to tell her you're not married yet, but you're afraid someone might faint if you so much as mention the M-word.

The children cry. One of them turns her face into the sister's leg. It occurs to you they would be cute if they were a little leaner. Some of them are wearing earrings; some you think are boys have long, braided hair.

You drag yourself out of the airport while Deshi, his father, and his brother-in-law guide the mother outside. Boys in khaki with rifles stand guard. One opens the door of a taxi, and for a moment you're afraid all of you might squeeze inside. Someone pushes you in. You sit between Deshi and one of his sisters, your thighs pressed between her soft flesh on the one side and his bony muscle on the other. One of the children, sitting on her mother's lap, kicks your knee repeatedly while she sucks her hand. You used to like children. But four years of college and three years of medical school have removed you thoroughly from them, and you are not looking forward to your pediatric rotation.

Deshi's mother is moaning in the front seat. Deshi is trying to smile. You smile back, feeling no joy. When his mother starts talking, he loses the smile. "Translate," you say.

He says no.

"She is worried that my brother is so thin," the sister says.

You have always suspected that as a child Deshi was force-fed. His fear of overeating borders on the pathological. But you like that. Every other man you've ever had expected to be fed twice as often as you even thought of food. It occurs to you too late to block the thought that Deshi's sister might be lying to cover up a more devastating comment. Either that, or she's trying to make you feel guilty for starving her brother. In spite of your better judgment, you feel guilty.

At five o'clock in the morning the airport road is thick with cars and buses. Men in army blankets walk along the weedy shoulders, long staffs in their hands. You are reminded of the plodding multitudes in the Bible. A little scared, you stare, dying to get out of the car and see India. As the taxi approaches the city, traffic increases, especially pedestrians. You drive around a circle. Billboards as big as drive-in movie screens advertise fabric, film stars, baby formula. Well-fed, made-up faces stare down at you, a third eye dotted on their foreheads. Deshi's sisters wear the same red dot above their eyes, smudgy from their sweat. On the morning of your wedding they will paint a dot on your forehead too, pink because you are so white. But before they consent to your marriage, Deshi's mother must faint a few more times. Every time she looks at you.

That afternoon you try to take a nap, but it's cut short by people talking, shouting, even singing just outside your door. When you stumble into an enclosed courtyard in the back of the house, you realize that the talking has been coming from just outside your room. They quiet down when you walk in; the mother faints.

Deshi, who's been up for two days and looks it, asks you if you'd like a drink. You accept eagerly, thinking that even grain alcohol wouldn't be strong enough to get you through this. You whisper, "I'm sorry I came."

"Are you kidding?" he says. "My sisters love you. They've been on the phone all morning. The wedding's set."

You're not sure their plans console you. Deshi pours some beer into a stainless steel cup, explaining, "My aunts are coming over. It wouldn't do to let them know you're drinking."

As you drain your cup and hold it out for more, it occurs to you that Deshi hasn't asked about wedding arrangements. "I don't think your mother wants you to marry me," you say, tempted to give in to a little hysteria of your own.

"She's insisting on it," Deshi says. "She thinks we're already married, and she wants to get us to the temple as fast as possible, so that we'll be married in the eyes of God."

"Tell me about God again," you say. You've never had much of a god yourself. You think maybe her god might console you.

"The Sikh god," your lover says, "is truth."

The truth is, you spend every spare moment in the bathroom, the only place you can be alone, and every time you look at your remarkably white face in the mirror, you burst out crying. You don't have the solitude to figure out why. There's only one bathroom. You don't even have the time to wonder what would happen if you washed your face, combed your hair and walked confidently into the family circle with the painful announcement that you have decided not to get married after all because you don't want children, Deshi already has a green card, and you've been enjoying connubial bliss just fine without the approval of God, the family, or the IRS. But you've come this far. You've got to get it over with before you go back home, because you don't know when you're coming here again.

But before you can get it over with, you have to buy the sari. When Deshi's mother has recovered from her fainting spells, she sends one of her daughters into the bathroom to get you. "Come," she says, not telling you where you are going. You trail along, hoping you will see something of India. They walk you around the comer where an old black taxi waits to drive you through the crowded streets. The masses of pedestrians, the reds, blues, oranges, and yellows of their clothes, the cows, the three-wheeled motor scooters, rickety old trucks, and boxlike cars turn your neck to rubber by the time you reach the shop, where you sit on the floor while a well-fed Sikh throws yards of fabric over your knees, chattering in Punjabi and smiling as he hurls out another six yards. A young boy brings you tea, staring through not only your Western clothing but also your white skin. Finally Deshi's mother stops the steady stream of fabric. Her knobbed and gnarled hands smooth a piece of vermilion silk dotted with golden flowers. You don't know what she's saying, but it's the most upbeat tone she's used since you met her. You wish the mood would last, but she looks at you and says something glum that makes the shopkeeper and her daughters laugh.

You venture an inquiry.

A daughter translates, "She says you are so thin that only half a sari will cover you."

You're flattered. You have been fighting the superior American diet all your life to maintain a twenty-two-inch waist, and now you will be showing off your midriff just like Deshi's sister, whose tires of flesh pour out from under her sari blouse as if she didn't know that people were starving in India.

In and out of cabs, on the way to sari shops and jewelry stores, you see the starving. Wizened faces stare at you like children, begging hands approach your face. You spend most of your time in the house, exhausted by the shopping, wondering where Deshi is while people you don't know drop by to inspect you. In front of the house, three steps down from the veranda, beggars congregate, having heard that there will be a wedding. Your future relatives, afraid that envy might destroy your chances to have sons, throw pennies to the ragged.

On your wedding day Deshi's sisters part your hair in the middle. They insist you line your eyes with kohl, though the black smudges look like bruises under your blue eyes. They smear your lips with sticky red lipstick. It smells like the kind you used to steal from your mother's dresser, and it occurs to you that the last time you wore lipstick you were nine years old and dressed in your mother's white peignoir for a game of "here comes the bride." After they have squeezed your breasts into a blouse so tight that you can hardly move your arms, so short it does not cover all your ribs, you step into a long cotton petticoat, and one of the sisters ties its drawstring top so close that you fear for your circulation. Tucking one end into your waist, they wrap the six yards of vermilion silk around you so that you cannot walk without stepping on the spun-gold border. You cannot free your left arm. They bring out a bowl full of bangles soaked in milk and brush-bum your knuckles forcing them on. The room is filling up with chattering, laughing women. To the bangles on your wrists they tie gold ornaments, larger versions of the Hindustani earrings with which you used to load down your earlobes in high school. Now you are ready to be married.

You don't know where Deshi is until you get to the temple. Even there, you're not sure they haven't brought another little guy in his blue suit, because they've stuffed his head into a red turban and covered his face with a veil made out of marigold garlands and golden fringe. "So no one will give him the evil eye," a sister says, as she draws the end of your sari over your forehead. At least in India the groom gets to wear the veil, you think, grateful that this foreign ceremony has freed you from the hypocrisy of wearing white. You are relieved that your parents have opted out of the celebration. The confusion would give your mother a heart attack. And you have always promised your father that, since he shelled out thousands for your education, when you were ready to get married you would elope, paying for the license from your own pocket.

A harmonium is playing. You try to walk down the aisle, but you have had to leave your shoes outside--platforms, because in 1975 in India they are the latest thing--and now you have four more inches of hemline than you counted on when they measured your sari from your waist to the floor. The end of your sari is pinned to your hair. Your head must stay covered, they tell you, out of respect for the book. You are not entirely unfamiliar with this concept of book worship, as your Protestant ancestors risked persecution just to read the Bible. But you have never bowed down and thrown paper money at a book.

You are standing next to the man you left America with five days ago. As his father takes off the veil that has protected Deshi's face from envy, you wonder who he is, the son of these book worshipers, or the man who paid for your vodka gimlets between dances and agreed that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, that the direct pursuit of pleasure is ultimately self-defeating, and that extremism in the pursuit of democracy is still extreme. You stand awhile. You sit down. They get you up again. When they want you to move, they push. It's all so easy. You don't have to know the language. You walk around the book. At some point in the ceremony, Deshi's mother, who hasn't fainted once though it's hotter than hell in the temple, becomes your mother-in-law, and the congregation showers you with rose petals. Hallelujah. Out in the courtyard, where you can put your shoes on again, everybody eats, and your mother-in-law, who hasn't eaten in public since you arrived, makes a big show of feeding you seven spoonfuls of a dessert of carrots and evaporated milk. You suppress a gag. You wonder how you ever got into the courtyard of this stucco and gold temple, wrapped up in six yards of red and gold fabric that hides your feet but leaves your midriff bare. Your mother-in-law has wrapped a veil around her head, and every now and then she wipes her face with it and mutters to anyone who will listen. You understand only her eyes. She had to bear the births of all these daughters before she made a son, and with a man she'd never seen before they were married for life. She gazes at her son like a lover. He hasn't disappointed her a bit. You have. She looks at you through a veneer of resignation. Her eyes glow; her lower lip is barely trembling. And well she might fear you. Her son has defied her to risk this marriage between East and West. And isn't that what you wanted in a man all along?

© 1996 Robbie Clipper Sethi

Bridge Works

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