Beautiful Girls

The churis clink together on my wrist, making that familiar, cheerful sound I love. But today I do not feel the usual joy. My hand is shaking. Under the heavy makeup, my real eyelashes are drooping from the weight of the false ones. This only seems to be making the nerves tightening in my stomach worse. Everyone in the family, from my mother to my little sister to several of my aunts and cousins, are moving about.

“Where are the sweets? Why are they not here yet?” My mother is sweating; she has not rested for one moment today. She is more nervous than anyone else. Today is the biggest day of her life. My father woke up at 6 AM today, had breakfast and left home. I have not seen him today except when he popped in to inform us that he has arranged the decorations, and the carpenter’s money has been paid.

I look down at my clothes. It matches my churi, the hem embroidered in beads. It is beautiful, possibly the most beautiful saree I have ever seen. My mother helped choose it along with me and my fourteen year old sister, Rodela. I can feel the weight of the many embroideries on my skin; father should not have paid that much money for it. My bindi is on the perfect spot on my forehead, too, and my female cousins are in my room for the final touch up when I hear a car’s horn outside. “They are here!” someone shouts. My stomach contracts, and I have the sudden urge to escape. 

Half an hour later, I am in our drawing room. My father and mother sit on each side of me while I look down at all times, as instructed. Facing me, sits a woman who’s come to see me with her husband. Their son is not in sight. When they arrived, they announced that they would not be  bringing their son to meet my family at first. They will see me first, and if I am worthy, they will set up another meeting with their son, having shortlisted me as their bride.

There is noise and laughter. Opinions are being shared across the table, strewn with all kinds of food one could imagine: luchis, roshmalai, dodha barfi, nodia sandesh and more (Bengali sweetmeats). Last night, I laid awake in bed, listening to my parents calculate the cost of each of the sweets they would buy to serve the guest. 

Small talk among both families about the recent weather, how long the drive took and the lady’s eyes roam the length of the room as she comments on our house being old. My parents smile from ear to ear. The knot in my stomach twists further while my neck starts to sting from being upright for too long.

The woman makes a comment on how fair I am, how very beautiful. She wonders aloud how beautiful my smile must be.

My aunt encourages me to smile; I acquiesce and offer one.

“No,” my potential future mother-in-law says sternly. “Smile with your teeth.”

I consider this for a moment, but then a thought occurred to me. She doesn’t care, how beautiful my smile is; she wants to see if I need dental work. I look down. This must not be going well.

After an aching minute of silence, the lady persists. “Why is your daughter not showing us her teeth? Is there something wrong with them?”

My mother immediately sets off to damage-control, saying that I am shy and never really speak much, I am such an obedient daughter.

She whispers to me with almost-hidden fear quivering in her voice. “Smile, sweetheart, smile with your teeth.”

In my periphery, I see Rodela has stopped playing around with our other little cousins. Isn’t it funny? Children may not know what is going on, but when the air shifts, when a storm is brewing, they know. Rodela looks up at me, her eyes shining. A bindi is on her forehead. I didn’t notice but someone put a bindi on her too. I must have been too busy.

Something churns in my stomach.  

The lady is talking louder now, more assertively.

My voice is clear, although it trembles. “No.”

A terrifying, resounding silence follows, louder than all the day’s bustling noise.

“What did she just say?” snaps the disapproving potential mother-in-law.

I realize at this point she is a winded rhinoceros; another wrong move and she will charge. She looks at both my parents, her head moving from one side to another, unbelievingly. The malai kofta that my mother cooked in the heat while we did not have electricity inside sits untouched on the lady’s plate.  

“I said no, because the state of my teeth is not your concern.”

There is no uproar that I expected. Neither of them is prepared with how to handle the situation; my parents argue that I am just a young girl, if we all just calm down and have some lebur shorbot (Lemonade), everything will be fine. 

However, everyone is now standing except for me. I stay seated while my parents figure out how to cope with the situation. Not much is said as the guests leave through the front door without looking back. My mother is at the threshold of the gate, trying to deliver some more apologies as my tears start to fall. 

My father re-enters the drawing room, after apologizing for the umpteenth time for my abysmal behaviour. He looks at me solemnly.

“That was not right, ma.” His eyes shine with tears he will not shed in front of me.

“I’m sorry, abbu.” 

He puts a hand on my head and whispers to me that I am and always will be one of his biggest blessings, before leaving the room.

Rodela comes running in and stands next to me. My feet are shaking, and I am positive I will be unsteady when I stand.

“The sweets were good though,” says Rodela, indulgently. 


We both burst into laughter.