“The poor thing. Did you see her face?”
“I know. Very sad”
“Paavam. And she isn’t even married yet!”
On April 27, 2014, while bicycling to work in Bangalore, I felt a jolt from behind me. It resulted in me losing my balance and my face bashing against the pavement. I never saw the person who hit me. In the following days, I needed surgery to wire my upper teeth in place, fix my facial scars, stitches for the insides of my lower mouth and a cast for my broken wrist. Four of my teeth were fractured and jagged. I would require several more dental surgeries in the months to come, and very painful physiotherapy for my hand. I couldn’t open my mouth. I couldn’t eat anything solid.
To well wishers and visitors, I joked that I looked like a zombie, keeping up a brave face despite what had happened to mine. Quietly, I was devastated. I was angry at life. Every mirror I looked in was haunted by my own inability to recognise myself.
During this period, I had a stream of visitors. People I knew from work, from Bangalore’s cycling community, from the running community, from college. Family, friends, family friends. I was moved by their various displays of support.
But despite their unending love, it was also a time of extreme personal pain and insecurity.
Some comments, stemming from places of deep love and sympathy, stung sharper than the fall itself. “At a time when she should be getting married, this happened.”
I was reminded constantly that not only had my body failed me, but I had failed in my duty as a woman.
As if the true tragedy was that I got marred before I got married.
For most of my life, I knew marriage was an inevitable part of my future. My sister and I were raised by working parents in a Tamil Brahmin household where a premium was put on education. But I knew I had to marry by the time I hit my early to mid-20s. My world expected it of me. My grandmother often told me she wanted to see me get married before she died. She died when I was 21. My school in Chennai taught electronics and woodshop skills to boys and home science for girls. While graduating, my all-girls college conducted a seminar that taught us skills on dealing with mother-in-laws and husbands. Our principal promised my classmates that every girl graduating from my college was in “great demand” by unwed men. We were studying journalism but were taught matrimony.
You study hard. You get a job. You get married. Simple.
But I stumbled.
What seemed to come easily to my peers didn’t seem possible to me. At 24, I wasn’t mentally ready for marriage, so I didn’t even broach the subject. Quickly, it became an “issue”. My mother started encouraging me to scope for potential suitors. My parents, always liberal, reassured me that they didn’t care about caste but they did want to see me with a companion, a boy of course, before they were gone. The threat of mortality always loomed large over the idea of my marriage. Find a boyfriend, I got nudged. And then marry that boyfriend before we die.
During my recovery, many visitors came prepared with the same script.
“When are you going to tie the knot?”
“We know an excellent boy settled in the US who has done both engineering and an MBA.”
“The second your face heals, we will find you a husband.”
“The accident might delay her marriage. What will people say?”
I was asked if I was “in the market,” like a commodity to be sold off before rotting. If I waited too long, I was told, I wouldn’t look young in my wedding photographs. I may have to settle for a – gasp! – bald man. (I didn’t understand the outrage – I have never known my own father with a full head of hair.)
I began to have a recurring nightmare where I, in full bridal get-up, jumped out of a window and ran away from an anonymous groom. Night after night, an entire wedding party chased me into wakefulness.
In our culture, heartaches are endured in relative silence. We speak openly about failed relationships and unrequited love with friends, but are vague with the details to our parents. We get scared that they might panic lest our heartbreaks delay the marital bliss we were reared for. We confide in cousins but under a tacit agreement that our secrets remain contained in our generation. The parental network in the Tam-Brahm universe is strong and swift. News travels fast and across oceans.
After my accident, there was a period of time when I couldn’t shield myself from my own insecurities or the comments made by others. Everything was amplified, cut deep. Since I was bedridden, I couldn’t escape. Any negative word immediately took root and caused me pain. I have never been fair or tall. I once cringed when a crush jokingly recounted how his grandmother told him not to marry a South Indian girl because South Indian girls are dark. My hair isn’t silky or straight. I am petite. And to add real insult to literal injury, my face was now a failure. I stayed up nights as angry tears stung me, figuratively and physically. I cursed at the universe for its unfairness and for my own. I began to second-guess my own decisions. Had I been wrong in putting off marriage? Had I waited too long? Were they right?
During this time of confusion, I was also acutely aware of my privilege. As a woman from an educated middle class household, I have been shielded from the prejudice and abuse piled on millions of girls in India. Did I really have the right to complain?
Now, it’s been a year and half since my accident. My scars have healed and quietly disappeared. I look pretty much the same. Some even joke that I look better now. People have discreetly asked me for my plastic surgeon’s contact details. I returned to cycling and running. In many ways my life has gone back to what it used to be and that means the question of marriage still looms large. And I still have no answer.
There are days when I feel lonely. Those days I blast Taylor Swift and I dance. I take comfort in the friendship of other women, both married and unmarried. We have created our own support system that is free of judgment. I have come to learn that even the married women are in no way spared from the patriarchal expectations of Indian society. But thanks to this sisterhood, I know I am not alone. In that sense I feel settled. And as far as marriage goes, I want to marry someone I love and respect. Someone who loves and respects me. And if that takes me a lifetime to find, so be it. Time has taught me patience.