By Amanda Mander
“Stay away from my son,” his father said as we stood alone on the balcony. Tears were threatening to burst through my barely-calm exterior when I noticed Kirin, my fiance, listening from inside the Bombay apartment. His warm, brown eyes pleaded with me to hold strong against the force of his father’s words.
Kirin’s father clutched the balcony railing as if to crush it, his brown skin stretched tight over his knuckles. He looked at me with determination, his graying eyebrows set straight across his forehead. The humid, late afternoon air wrapped around us, causing beads of sweat to dot his forehead and stick his white tunic to his wide chest. Though city life continued below—noisy cars, yelling street vendors, and drifting smells of curry—I found myself frozen, struggling to absorb what I’d just heard. Ganesh, my Hindu talisman, remained in my pocket, pushing against my hip to remind me of his presence.
Ganesh was an endearing creature—a boy with an elephant’s head, a perpetual smile, and six arms. Hindus revere him for his wisdom and pray to him to remove obstacles to their happiness. Kirin and I were counting on Ganesh to do the same for us—to squash anything that got in the way of our marriage. Ganesh went everywhere with me.
After one last withering look, Kirin’s father stormed inside the apartment. His sandals scraped the concrete floor as he closed the glass door behind him. Alone again, I looked out over the city. The view I’d found so beautiful when I first arrived in India now confronted me with its sharp angles, grimy streets and palm trees limp with rain.
I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t what Kirin’s parents wanted. They wanted dark, long hair and I had frizzy blond. They wanted slightly brown skin and I was pale as a surrender flag. They wanted a Hindu and someone who could speak their language. Still, Kirin believed his parents would love me like their own daughter, given some time. “After all,” he’d remind me, “It took awhile for your parents to accept our marriage too.”
It was true. Ganesh had been working hard on my parents and their objections to our relationship for about six months. They’d worried our mixed marriage would expose our future children to the ugliness of prejudice. They worried that marrying into a traditional Indian family would limit my opportunities. But, for Kirin’s father, our marriage wasn’t just a concern; it was an assault on centuries of cultural traditions and expectations. Considering I was the first Western woman to be invited into his home, I feared that Kirin’s father would never accept our relationship, even with Ganesh’s intervention.
I looked back at Kirin through the glass door, which was now sprinkled with new rain. How I loved him—his long lashes, the way his bangs caressed his forehead. I loved his tall sinewy body and the dimple on his chin that deepened when he smiled. I loved his laugh—like the deep notes of a marimba. I longed to hear it now as drops of rain mixed with the tears I could no longer keep inside.
When Kirin and I met two years earlier in the lunchroom of the software company where we worked, we were both 25, drawn together like the irresistible force of magnets. During increasingly long breaks at work, he told me mystical stories about Hindu deities, introducing me to Ganesh. He helped me with difficult work assignments and taught me to listen to my inner voice. “You don’t find your bliss,” he’d say, “You follow it. Listen to what makes you happy.” I’d always viewed life as something to tame and control but Kirin encouraged me to see it as an adventure.
I did things to be with Kirin I never imagined I’d do. I snuck out at dawn from my parent’s house, where I lived temporarily, drove to his apartment and crawled into bed with him. I carried a heavy backpack high up a mountain and slept under the stars. I swam in a glacier lake with red-bellied salamanders. I travelled halfway around the world—to India.
From my exile on the balcony I willed Kirin to join me. Longing for his touch—even just a finger placed secretly on my hand—I needed reassurance that all would be okay. But he’d turned his back to me and was speaking to his mother. I could see them discussing the beautiful hand-sewn shirts she’d made for him to bring back to California, where we now both attended graduate school. Her many bangles slid up and down her arm as she pointed out the buttons.
I knew intellectually that Kirin couldn’t confront his father for telling me to stay away. It would’ve been enormously disrespectful. I knew he couldn’t burst onto the balcony and take me in his arms to console me. That would’ve been unseemly. But in my own culture, these were acceptable behaviors and so, in my heart, I felt abandoned.
Seeking comfort, I took Ganesh from my pocket and held him in the palm of my hand. He was heavy for his small size, made of clay, and painted with vivid shades of purple and yellow. His graceful elephant trunk swayed past his arms to a plump belly. The rain, falling harder now, splattered his body with shiny, wet dots. He seemed to gaze at me with reassurance—or maybe this was just wishful thinking.
Kirin joined me on the balcony. “Love, what are you doing out here? You’re getting all wet.” Ever so slightly, he caressed my arm, sending a shiver up my spine. “Come inside. The taxi will be here soon.”
We were leaving on an overnight train to New Delhi and Jaipur for some sightseeing. Finally, we’d be alone after two weeks of sleeping in different rooms: he with his father and brother in the living room and me with his mother in the only bedroom. I knew this was culturally necessary, but I ached for us to be ourselves again—holding hands freely, feeling close.
Half an hour later, we boarded the train surrounded by chattering families. A jumble of arms and shoulders pushed past me as we searched for our seats. Most of the compartments held four bunks, but when we arrived at ours, I was happy to find space only for two. I wouldn’t have to share Kirin with anyone tonight.
Kirin grabbed my hand as I sat down next to him.
“Finally, we’re on our own,” he said, twirling a disobedient strand of my hair around his finger.
“Don’t worry about what my dad said. He knows he’s losing ground. That’s why he spoke so directly to you.”
“How can you ask me not to worry? He hates me.”
“He just needs some time. He’ll come to love you as I do. I promise.”
I curled up under Kirin’s arm, breathing in his musky smell and enjoying the feel of his soft cotton shirt on my cheek. “You’re sure?”
“Absolutely. It’s our destiny to be together. I know it’ll all work out.”
As the train zoomed toward New Delhi, I could hear Kirin’s stomach rumble beneath his cotton shirt. I looked up to see him gazing at me, his eyes bright.
“Your stomach’s trying to tell me something,” I whispered in his ear.
“Oh yeah, what’s it saying?”
“I need some chai and chapatti.”
“You sound like a true Indian!” He smiled, the dimple on his chin in full glory.
We unpacked the snack his mother had prepared for us. She’d carefully wrapped a stack of chapatti bread in green cloth napkins decorated with white lotus flowers. Several etched glass jars contained pickle, raita—a yogurt dish—and cut up mango. We ate with our hands, using the chapatti to gather the sensuous tastes into our mouths. Feeding each other, we laughed as pickle oil dribbled down our chins. The chai would come later, on a rattling metal cart wheeled by a young boy. Its cardamom fragrance would linger long into the evening.
As night descended, the voices from the nearby compartments quieted. We set up a single bunk to sleep in and I placed Ganesh by the window. Lights from random towns streaked past as I climbed into our bunk and wrapped my body around Kirin’s. His hair, shiny like rocks in tide pools, flowed through my fingers as we silently made love. Only a thin curtain, stretched across our compartment, protected us from the outside world. Ganesh, I imagined, smiled and politely averted his eyes.
In the morning, I looked out the train window onto a New Delhi street and absorbed the scenes of Indian life. A group of schoolgirls held hands sweetly, shaking their identical long, dark braids with their giggles. Crouched on the curb, a bare-chested old man guided his shave with a broken piece of mirror as a camel walked by. An unexpected modern woman—grey suit, high heels, and short hair—ran past to catch a bus. People grabbed the bus wherever they could, like bees swarming a hive. Modern and ancient, young and old, traditional and cosmopolitan converged on one street corner. These were the sights and sounds of my future. Imagining myself here as a young mother, a career woman, a wife, I wondered whether I would wear my western clothes or a sari.
As we exited the train, travelers, hawkers, and beggars swarmed around us, making it difficult to move toward the street exit. One beggar demanded money, aggressively shoving me aside to get closer to Kirin. Kirin ignored him but, as the crowd quickly carried Kirin away from me, I panicked. “Leave us alone!” I shouted.
Kirin turned to hear the beggar say in perfect English, “I don’t take orders from women—especially Western women.”
“Kirin, tell him to leave us alone, for God’s sake,” I yelled across a dozen heads.
Kirin worked his way against the tide of people and said something in Hindi to make the beggar leave.
“Why did it take you so long to say something?” I demanded as I scrambled to reach him.
“Because it’s best to just ignore these people or they’ll never leave you alone.”
“But he wasn’t leaving us alone.”
“He’s gone now, love. He was just a silly beggar. Don’t let him get to you. They‘re like the gypsies who accosted us in Italy—remember? Come on, the Bazaar is just around the corner.”
But he wasn’t like the gypsies in Italy. On that trip, to visit my mother’s family, I’d taken charge as the gypsies surrounded us. Knowing the danger we were in, I held Kirin’s hand and yelled at them in Italian to attract attention and make them leave. I had the power to protect both of us. But with this beggar I felt powerless—completely dependent on Kirin to manage the situation.
At the time I didn’t understand why this episode rattled me so. Later, I realized it was a snapshot of what I feared my life would be like in India: complete dependence on Kirin, a feeling of unworthiness due to my foreign status and—worst of all—Kirin’s back to me when I needed him. The beggar revealed the truth: to survive India, I’d have to recede into the fabric of this culture. But as a Western woman, could I? Did I want to?
In the last three weeks I’d come to realize how much India demanded of me. She reeled me in and forced me to participate—to question my priorities. “Who are you?” She asked. “Will you be a good Indian wife, or a troublemaker with your western values?”
She challenged me to feel the extremes of life by enticing me with beauty—colorful untied ends of women’s saris floating amid tabla music; then by assaulting me with horrendous scenes of leprosy, stumped limbs like leather-covered bones and street children with pleading eyes. The exquisite beauty coupled with the intense suffering made me feel faint. But then I’d notice the children smiling and the leprosy victims sitting in the shade conversing, as if they’d accepted what life had handed them—their destiny. I wondered if I was accepting mine.
Despite his father’s words on the balcony, when we returned to California, Kirin and I slid back into the Bay Area pool of tolerance. Surrounded by our multi-cultural friends, immersed in our graduate studies, Kirin’s family lost their grip on us. For a while, I ignored the itch of trepidation I’d felt in India and Kirin turned a blind eye to the expectations of his family and culture. We returned to ourselves: holding hands in public, making love in the middle of the day, and setting up the apartment we shared. Over the next two months, after many tense international phone calls, Kirin’s parents relented and gave us their blessing. Ganesh sat contentedly on my nightstand, enjoying the victory.
But India hadn’t forgotten us. She arrived in our new apartment several months later, in the form of Kirin’s younger brother, Ravi, who’d come to live with us. Dumped head first into American culture, he became a constant whisper in Kirin’s ear. Caught in between two worlds, Kirin struggled with his loyalties to his brother and me.
“Kirin, we never have any time alone anymore.”
“You’ve got to be patient. My brother needs me now.”
“But we’re with him all the time. Can’t we have some time when we do things on our own?”
“We will eventually. He’ll only be here for another four months.”
I began to understand my feelings of trepidation. When Kirin and I were alone, we had a shared culture, created by the two of us. But, when India was nearby, she dominated our lives, requiring obedience. It was impossible to resist her.
If I wanted to be with Kirin, I had to accept all of him, including his cultural obligations. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I could. Could our love carry me through the times I’d feel abandoned by him when he chose his family’s needs over mine? Could our love support me in my growing independence and career ambitions? Could our love sustain me if we made India our home?
As I questioned the framework of our future lives together, our relationship unraveled. I spent more time at school and with my friends. Kirin spent more time with his brother. Sensing the chasm growing between us, Kirin became more demanding, less empathetic, and he pushed me to marry.
“I’m just not ready to get married yet,” I protested. “Can’t we change the date?”
“We’ve been together for three years. You either love me or you don’t.”
I did love him and so I continued with wedding plans. Six months before the wedding day, a date chosen by Kirin’s family guru, my best friend Sonia and I were visiting possible venues for the church wedding that was to follow the ceremony in India.
Sonia put her arm around me, “What’s wrong? You look like you’re planning a funeral instead of your wedding.”
She was right. Instead of happiness, I felt dread. At that moment, I realized I couldn’t go through with the marriage. I just wasn’t sure I could make the compromises that might soon be asked of me. In the end, the obstacle Kirin and I couldn’t overcome wasn’t our parents or his brother. It was me.
When Kirin and I separated, a black depression engulfed me. I felt tremendous guilt for breaking both of our hearts and put Ganesh in my closet to avoid his recriminations. Instead, it was my inner voice—the voice Kirin had taught me to hear—that reassured me that I’d done the right thing. To have a successful marriage, we would have needed to put each other first, no matter where we were living or who was living with us. It was something neither of us was able to do. Love wasn’t enough.
I keep my memories of Kirin in a jeweled box deep in my heart. I’m grateful for the many gifts he gave me: a profound love, spiritual growth, and a transformative education about worlds beyond my own. It was through his unwavering belief in me that my spirit awakened. I came to understand that for me, our relationship was about accepting these gifts rather than creating a marriage.
Today, 20 years later, Ganesh relaxes on a shelf in the house I share with my husband of eighteen years. He sits next to other precious statues in our living room: a sculpted ceramic head of my first baby, painted pottery created by my children, and a glass vase given to me by my husband.
I wink at Ganesh. We both know the truth. Ganesh didn’t abandon me those many years ago. He succeeded in his true purpose. The obstacles he removed were not the impediments to my marrying Kirin, but the barriers that kept me from being true to myself.
Amanda Mander has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Computer Science. She began writing poems and fiction during college. She is currently working on a memoir in between chasing after her husband and four kids and working as a designer in the high tech industry. She lives in the Pacific Northwest where she makes sure to walk on a beach every day.