The Wife Hunter
by Neelim Dundas
Format: Short Story | Genre: General Fiction
The fluttering in her stomach started at school when Brian scribbled Will you go out with me? on her textbook. It was Sunday now and the fluttering persisted. No one else was at home and she was glad since her mother could always read her every expression. No matter how hard she tried, concentrating on homework was impossible. As a distraction, she flicked through the latest Smash Hits magazine, detached the centrefold picture of Wham! and pinned it above her bed. Her response to Brian haunted her still.
I’m not allowed to see boys. My parents believe in arranged marriages.
“We could always go out in secret,” he had replied, raising his eyebrows. For him, it was a light-hearted comment but for her, the exchange had been groundbreaking. She always wondered what it would be like to go out on a date. Would she have the nerve to defy her parents’ wishes? The answer was no. She was disappointed in herself, but also excited because a boy was interested in her. It was a new development.
A dull thud came from the hall. It was the post, which included the wedding invitation that her parents were expecting. She picked up the cream envelope, perusing its programme of events, and couldn’t help but grin at the optimism of its precise timings – Indian weddings rarely ran on time. The bride’s and groom’s names appeared in garish gold lettering – Renuka and Richard. The ‘aunties’ – a term that covered every female Asian woman over forty in Northern Ireland – had been wrong about Renuka. They had said she was overeducated and independent, two qualities that would affect her marriageability. But after university, Renuka met an English boy. From then on, everyone stopped nagging her about marrying into a good Indian family. And even though this English boy’s genes originated far from the banks of the Ganges, it no longer mattered – Richard, her fiancé, was a surgeon.
Meena slapped the invitation onto her mother’s place mat in the kitchen, envious that the powers that be sanctioned her cousin’s love match. She took some comfort in the thought that at least her mother might forget to ask about homework when she saw the invite. Meena read Brian’s jagged scrawl for the umpteenth time. Images of a cohort of aunties interrupting a date with Brian flooded her imagination. She could visualise them demanding to know what was going on. After all, they considered all aspects of parenting to be in their domain. She shuddered at the thought. No guy would stay interested after that.
She felt breathless the next morning when her father dropped her off at the school gates. “Study hard” were his parting words. She doubted if her attention span would allow for that, but she blew him a kiss anyway. Brian was friendly in class, asking how her weekend was but he avoided the subject of dating.
It’s okay to remain friends, she told herself, feeling both relieved and disappointed. She had mentioned marriage with the word arranged in front of it after all. No wonder he’d decided going out with her was a bad idea.
On the big day, Meena waited outside the Glenview Hotel as her father Kanti parked the car. Most of the spaces were taken as the bride’s guests continued to arrive. Little boys and girls spilled out from cars in miniature Indian outfits although the invitations excluded children. The gold brocade on the cuffs of Meena’s salwar kameez grated her wrists, but she resisted the urge to scratch them. She watched through the ornate glass door as her mother Anita and her brothers joined the crowd in the reception area. Meena smiled to herself; guests from the groom’s side were already wilting. They had arrived at ten o’ clock, as stipulated in the invite. True to form, events were running two hours late. She shook her head. It was going to be a long day.
Once her father returned, they went inside and helped themselves to orange juice, set out in rows of wine glasses. She overheard the maître d’ say that everyone at the hotel had been looking forward to this event as Asian weddings weren’t that common. Meanwhile, his staff tried to maintain their professionalism despite the fanfare of colourful outfits and the loud hubbub of Punjabi voices. On the dais in the ballroom stood a structure with mirrored sections, decorated in bright geometric shapes. Meena saw it through the eyes of the staff: the mandap looked like an exotic adult Wendy house. She went over to them and explained that the ceremony would take place inside this area and there would be a ‘fire thing’ burning in the middle. They looked bewildered but nodded back at her. One of the waitresses informed her that this was where the DJs normally stood for the Irish receptions and birthday events.
Meena stepped back into the reception and squeezed past a small group of English guests who were all huddled together. She heard a thin lady in a flowery dress utter a few words in a clipped accent. Meena loved the contrast between the tailored dresses and skirts of the English ladies and the Indian outfits. She admired the craftsmanship and intricate embroidery of the lehengas, georgette saris and salwar kameez worn by the more fashionable aunties. The older, more traditional aunties had fished out their bright saris from old suitcases and teamed them with polyester or chenille cardigans. Auntie Sita looked weighed down by a bottle-green sari that was festooned with gold beading and interwoven with tinsel thread. Other aunties wore elegant silk saris in more muted colours. The nearest group of Indian ladies saw her looking over, and the youngest one waved at her.
Meena edged closer to her brothers Rajesh and Balwant. She didn’t want to be picked off and interrogated about getting married.
Suddenly, her mother pounced. “Have you said hello to Auntie Radha? She’s asking about you. Come!” Her mother led her to the other side of the room, and she stood awkwardly next to the auntie. “Go on, give her a hug!” Anita ordered. Meena stretched her arms wide to embrace her auntie’s girth and caught a strong whiff of perfume.
“So pretty!” Auntie Radha said. “Blue suits you, beti.”
“Thank you, Auntie Radha.” Then, her mother and auntie quickly reverted into Punjabi. Meena could make out one or two words but not enough to understand the context. It was only when her mother uttered the words ‘hot flush’ that she gained an inkling of the topic. But Meena was tired of listening out for the few words she understood. She slipped away without them noticing, tugging at her tight neckline.
The maître d’ appeared and cleared his throat loudly. “Ladies and gentlemen, could you all please make your way through to the ballroom? The ceremony is about to start.”
Meena sat near the back with her brothers; her mother sat near the front along with her friends. Facing the guests on the dais, the bride looked like an Indian doll, petite with fine features that remained immobile. The priest started to scold the noisy Indian guests. Out of the corner of her eye, Meena saw an older lady in a spinach-colored sari staring at her. She recognised the sharp-eyed face from previous visits to the temple and gave her a polite smile.
“Nine o’ clock, Wife Hunter! I know for a fact that she has a son she wants to marry off,” Meena hissed, leaning over to Balwant.
With a casual turn of his head, he spotted the Wife Hunter. “Ha! Subtle. She wouldn’t make a good spy, would she? Do we know her?”
“Well, we do,” Meena teased, nodding to Rajesh, “Since we go to the temple …”
“Yeah, Balwant, some of us have no choice.” Rajesh sneered.
Balwant rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well some of us work on Sundays. My boss wasn’t going to let me off today, so I said Renuka was my sister.”
An elderly uncle tapped Balwant on his shoulder. “In our culture, she is your sister, not just your cousin.”
The siblings raised their eyebrows at each other and went quiet.
The priest droned on in Sanskrit, his eyes closed in front of the ceremonial fire as the smell of burning ghee filled the air. It was time for the couple to walk around the fire together to become man and wife. Meena always wanted to ask her mother what each part of this ritual meant but was afraid of expressing too strong an interest. She drifted off. A series of tableaux formed in her mind where she was the bride, and a groom walked around the ceremonial fire with her. She couldn’t visualise Brian in these scenes, however. She came out of her daydream just as the priest asked Renuka to exchange seats with her new husband so that she sat on the side closest to his heart.
Once the ceremony concluded, the maître d’ reappeared. He asked everyone to return to the reception while his colleagues prepared the room for the meal.
“Asian weddings are more organised in London and Manchester,” muttered her great-uncle RK.
There was, however, a new feature: a seating plan. It surprised Meena that her extended family obeyed it. To her relief, the plan placed her next to her brothers. Rajesh pointed out the Indian mothers at other tables who squeezed uninvited children onto laps and fed them from their own plates. Once the waitresses removed the empty dessert plates, Great-uncle RK stood up. As the eldest person in the Indian community, the honour of giving the first speech was his. Her dad and uncles at the next table knew phrases from the speech by heart. Great-uncle RK’s son sat amongst them, looking sheepish.
“East is east and West is west and today, East meets West,” the men brayed just before their elderly relative reached that line in the familiar speech. Meena hoped their mocking tone could not be heard at the top table.
“East is meeting West a lot these days, don’t you think? The older generation can’t be happy, can they?” she ventured, avoiding eye contact with her brothers.
“It was bound to happen. What about you, Rajesh? Have you got a sweetheart at school?” teased Balwant.
“I wouldn’t tell you if I did,” came the reply.
After the speeches, people moved from their seats and mingled. Meena tottered over to the table where her mother was sitting with Auntie Radha. They talked about how well the groom coped during the ceremony and were impressed that one of his sisters wore a sari.
Then, Wife Hunter made her way over and launched into a volley of questions.
“Hello, dear. I’m Mrs Chopra. It’s Meena, isn’t it? How old are you? Sixteen? And can you make rotis? Did your mother teach you?”
In her peripheral vision, Meena saw her mother flinching. Meena answered the questions, trying not to stare at Wife Hunter’s hair. Under the lights, it had the colour and texture of a Brillo pad.
Her interrogator rearranged the folds of her sari.
“I have a son. He has a very good job in banking. Good-looking boy,” Mrs Chopra stated.
“My girl is good-looking too,” Auntie Radha chimed in.
“I will speak to my son. He will like you,” she continued, ignoring Radha. Then she walked off.
“I’ve never liked that woman!” her mother hissed.
“Who does she think she is? She didn’t even ask your permission, Anita, or your opinion! So rude.” Auntie Radha declared.
“She didn’t ask me if I even wanted to get married,” said Meena.
“Exactly,” Auntie Radha replied.
Meena looked at her mother, who was too angry to speak.
Meena went to join her father to avoid hearing a rant about Mrs Chopra. He hadn’t moved from his seat and was now talking to Great-uncle RK.
“Here comes Miss Bhandari,” said Great-uncle RK. “You brought her up very well, Kanti. I hear she does well at school.”
“She does, Uncle, thank you.”
“Are you enjoying the wedding, beti? Probably too dull for you. No bhangra dancing or Bollywood songs here like in England.”
“I don’t mind, Uncle,” she replied demurely.
“Here comes your lovely mother. Anita, you look upset. Are you alright?”
Her mother replied in Punjabi. Meena guessed that she fobbed him off as Meena couldn’t make out Mrs Chopra’s name in the response. Her mother gave her father a sideways glance; the journey home was going to be dramatic.
The wedding guests began leaving. By the time the family reached the car park, there were few cars left. Meena was relieved that her mother’s conversation with her father was in Punjabi. She closed her eyes in the back seat and thought of seeing Brian at school on Monday. The day had been a good distraction.
On Thursday evening, after the Bhandari family had eaten roti, the phone in the sitting room rang. Meena’s father answered it. Her mother leaned in, trying to listen.
“Thank you, ji. We brought her up as well as we could. She is still at school though. I see. Well, it’s just that she is very close to her mother. She’s still young.”
Meena’s mother flicked the drying cloth to get her father’s attention. “Who are you speaking to?” she mouthed.
Her father ignored her, clamping the receiver tighter to his ear. “We want our daughter to go to university.”
Meena turned to Rajesh. “It’s that woman from the wedding, I bet you,” she whispered. “She was so persistent. That’s why Mum’s pacing the floor.”
Rajesh rolled his eyes. The telephone conversation stuttered to an end and her father put the receiver back on its cradle.
“Who were you talking to?” demanded her mother.
“Mrs Chopra. She was telling me how wonderful her boy is.”
She glared at him as if he was responsible for the comment.
“I used every excuse I could think of!” he protested.
Meena’s mother let out a heavy sigh.
“Do you know what she asked me after that?” her father said.
“What?” her mother’s eyes narrowed.
“Does she have a sister?”
Rajesh and Meena laughed. Her mother shook her head, unimpressed.
“She must think we create goddesses!” continued her father, smiling at her.
“Meena knew what that woman was after,” Rajesh smirked. “She was looking at Meena the whole time. You had a lucky escape there, sis. Can you imagine if she was your mother-in-law? Bet the guy is a real mummy’s boy.”
“You mean like you?” Meena teased.
“Mean Meena,” he replied in a sing-song voice. Her mother lifted the receiver.
“Who are you calling now?” asked her father.
“She’ll broadcast this to everyone!”
“Good!” she said, flinging the cloth over her shoulder as she squinted at the phone and dialled. “Radha? It’s me. That woman, Mrs Chopra, phoned the house …”
In the silence that followed, Meena’s father sat down beside Rajesh and folded his arms.
“Really? Why didn’t she tell us that? How did you find out?” asked her mother.
“At least they’re talking in English,” whispered Rajesh.
“Yeah, but Auntie Radha is doing most of the talking.” Meena scraped the varnish from her thumbnail with her teeth.
Her mother ended the call and stared at Meena’s father.
“Well, what was all that about?” he asked.
“Radha asked around. The boy is an investment banker. She didn’t want to tell me after what happened with the mother.” She wrung the cloth tightly.
“But you don’t like her. What difference does it make?” said her father.
“He is very successful. He’s just been offered a job in America.”
“Beti, America – just think about it.”
“No way, Mum.”
“Shush, this could be a good union after all.” Her eyes gleamed. “Kanti, let’s ring Mrs Chopra back.”
“This has gone too far. Dad, can’t you reason with her?” Meena yelled.
Her father made a half-hearted gesture but said nothing.
“You have too many romantic ideas in your head, Meena. Daydreaming all the time! I fell in love with your father after marriage. It’s possible, you know.”
Meena stomped into her bedroom. She rammed her feet into her school shoes, grabbed a coat and slammed the front door behind her. When she reached the end of the street, she looked back. Her parents were standing on the porch. Her mother looked worried, while her father patted her upper arm to console her. Both watched to see what Meena would do. Frozen to the spot, her eyes shifted to the moving curtains in the living room, and Rajesh appeared at the window and beckoned her home.
Neelim Dundas is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by NVW Fiction Editors Tommi Sopenperä, Amanda-Marie Kale and Nicole Caratas, as well as Sonali Misra, Co-founder and Head of Fiction at The Selkie.
Beti – daughter or dear (a term of affection).
Bhangra – a type of folk-pop dancing music from North India and Pakistan.
Ghee – clarified butter, used in South Asian cooking and in religious ceremonies.
Ji – a term of respect, usually appended to a person’s name.
Lehenga – an ankle-length skirt, usually worn on formal occasions.
Mandap – a temple porch that is set up for weddings and religious ceremonies.
Roti – a flat round South Asian bread; also used to describe the evening meal.
Salwar kameez – a combination of traditional long shirt/tunic worn with trousers.
Sari – a garment consisting of six yards of fabric that is draped around the body.