Continued from here:
The day of the departure for the wedding arrived. The weeks leading up to this day had been strained and quite peculiar, to say the least. Sumi loved weddings. Memories crowded her mind about all the weddings she had attended during her growing up years.
A full week before any wedding, her mother would unlock the steel cupboard in which she kept her daughters' best silk saris. Sumi loved sitting on her parents' bed with her sisters while her mother carefully unfolded the saris from their delicate tissue-paper wrapping. She loved the scent of mothballs, which wafted into the air when the saris, in brilliant hues like peacock-green and fire-orange, were shaken out on the bed. There would be arguments and quarrels about who would wear what sari. She loved going to the bank locker with her mother and sisters, carefully screened behind a thick curtain, while her mother took out the precious necklaces, bangles and earrings she had made for her daughters. And best of all was the day of the wedding itself. For most of the weddings she could remember, one sister or another of Sumi's had been the "Eligible One", the next in line to be married. Sumi's mother would fuss over that sister the most, leaving the others to get ready on their own. There would be fights, arguments, tears and laughter. One sister would want to try a non-matching blouse because that was the fashion that year, another one tried to get away with tying her sari a scandalous four inches below her navel..... Sumi's mother would bustle about, miraculously getting all her daughters ready to her satisfaction, on time.
Last year, Sumi had been the Eligible One. A special peacock-green sari with gold dots had been draped on her slim figure, and her grandmother's diamond set had adorned her ears, arms and neck. At the wedding, while the priests droned on and the wedding couple sweated by the fire, Sumi was introduced to her future mother-in-law. She had obviously passed this inspection with flying colours, for, at the wedding lunch, she was made to sit next to Kannan, her future husband. It had been a most uncomfortable lunch. Flanked by her mother and Kannan's mother, with an entire phalanx of aunts pressing close, watching and listening with unmasked curiosity (yes, Aunt Lakshmi had been one of them - she had elbowed her way into sitting right next to Kannan's mother), Sumi could hardly eat, leave alone make enticing conversation. It didn't help that she knew that her sisters would be watching behind her back, giggling and making cheeky comments. The next wedding Sumi had attended had been her own, and now, her first as a married woman, would be Malini's.
Yes, the last few weeks had been strange, completely lacking in any pre-wedding fervor. There had been no anticipatory laying out of saris and jewelry. No gossipy speculation about Malini's husband-to-be's job and salary. No wondering whether the cooks would dilute the payasam to the scandalous degree they did at Aunt Lakshmi's son's wedding. Daily life had continued in much the same way it had always done. Yet, there was something in the air, a don't-touch-me-or-I'll-bite touchiness that seeped in like an invisible poison. The spirit of Malini's wedding was everywhere, a malevolent ghost that flitted between Sumi and Aunt Lakshmi, whispering things that Sumi dared not say aloud.
After that afternoon when Sumi had told Aunt Lakshmi about Malini's wedding, the topic had never again been mentioned. Once the travel arrangements had been made, Sumi timidly informed Aunt Lakshmi of their departure and arrival details. Aunt Lakshmi appeared to be barely listening. She started a vigorous discourse on the price of idlis through the years the moment Sumi finished talking. Sumi felt miserable and homesick. She picked out her sari and jewelry herself, tears streaming silently down her cheeks as she remembered the happy, lively days with her sisters. She cursed herself for being a coward, for being nervous about simply asking Aunt Lakshmi if she needed any help with her packing, anything to remind her that the departure date was fast approaching. But Sumi need not have worried so much. On the morning of their departure, Aunt Lakshmi was packed and ready. Her jaw firmly set, she fired off last-minute instructions to Dhanam about what to cook for Kannan while they were away.
The train journey was actually fun. It lasted two days and a night and throughout, Aunt Lakshmi was in a rollicking good mood. Seeing her like this, exactly like her old self, Sumi began to relax and enjoy herself. No invisible poison choked the air; no whispering ghost marred the conversation. Aunt Lakshmi settled right away into the business of finding out everything about her fellow passengers. They were in the Ladies Compartment. The absence of men and the knowledge that they would in all probability never meet again loosened the tongues and inhibitions of the passengers. From Aunt Lakshmi’s deft probing emerged stories of impotent husbands, unbearable mothers-in-law and problem children. At night, after dinner had been shared and eaten, the door was locked and the windows shuttered. In the dim blue light the stories became more intimate, sometimes positively raunchy, and Sumi felt herself blushing as she covered her mouth with her sari and giggled. She felt safe in this rattling cocoon, and she wished this journey could go on forever. For two days and a night she managed to dismiss the sense of dread about what lay ahead. But now the journey was nearing its end. The cold, clammy fist of doom twisted her stomach and thudded on her heart.
If only she knew. If only she knew what Aunt Lakshmi would do at the wedding, what she would say to her son, daughter-in-law and Kanakambal. If only there were a script all written out with everyone playing their part, she could deal with it. Sumi was a meticulous planner and organizer. She liked her day systematically mapped out, with no room for surprises and unexpected happenings. Even as a child, she would write out hour-by-hour schedules for her father whenever he went out of town on a business visit. She would carefully research all the sightseeing spots in whatever city he was going to, and plan an itinerary that wove in Options B, C and D if Option A did not work out. When he returned, she would demand an equally detailed account from him, smiling with pleasure when she saw that he had faithfully kept to her plans. As a grown-up, she knew that she must allow more spontaneity in her life, just step boldly into the unknown without all this scenario analysis and mental preparation. Marriage had been a huge leap into a vast, blank, unmapped territory. How she had wept and clung to her mother the night before her wedding! She was tearing herself away from the only home she had ever known, from comfort, security and a certain routine, from a place where she was adored for what she was, crazy imagination and all. As it turned out, her parents had chosen wisely. Kannan was kind and considerate, with a sense of fun and a love for risks which took her breath away. But with him at her side, she felt safe. She was a happily married woman. Her husband adored her. He saw strengths and rare qualities in her, where she only saw weaknesses and flaws. Now however, she was on her own. No Kannan, and no telling what Aunt Lakshmi might do. In her calmer moments, Sumi told herself that she really had nothing to do with any of this. She just happened to be the person Aunt Lakshmi decided to stay with. There was nothing wrong with that, was there? Aunt Lakshmi was surely capable of fending for herself… but, Sumi felt curiously protective of her.
Journey’s end. Faces were washed and powdered, hair combed, saris changed. The compartment was a flurry of activity. Many emotions mingled in the hot, grimy compartment. Excitement, despair, indifference, grief, depending on what lay ahead. The spell was broken. The feeling of camaraderie and intimacy, of traveling in a bubble, shielded from in-law troubles, husband troubles, children’s troubles, from life itself, was gone. It was time to face the facts.