I'll come out and confess this: I am an abject failure. A bitter let-down to a proud tradition and lineage, one who failed after barely trying, who lacked even a pallid and watery version of a single attribute required for success.
Yes. I am a failure. As a maami, that is. And many is the idle afternoon I have spent scratching my head over this, asking myself over and over again, why, and how, did this come to be?
Let me explain. I have all the makings, you see, of a top-notch maami, the perfectly balanced package of finely distilled maami genes and the ideal environment in which to nurture them and ensure that they blossom. My mother, my grandmothers, my aunts - both those related by blood and those who dropped into the family pool after surviving the multiple-level filtration process that is the arranged marriage - all hail from long, proud and glorious maami pedigrees. Growing up, I was surrounded by the best maami role models any maami aspirant could hope for - top of the line, salt of the earth maamis, who could lock horns and beady eyes with the fiercest Punjabi mashis, nosiest Jewish yentas, most gargantuan Russian babushkas, and win their respect and be welcomed with open arms into their marriage-arranging, gossip-exchanging, daughter in law-hating, finger-pointing tribe. The tribe that I will never be a part of.
Through countless, hot, gossipy afternoons, sweaty weddings and mind-numbingly dull kolus, the keys to the maami kingdom were handed to me, nestled in silver trays along with with the kumkuma podi, the blouse pieces, the bananas and the hard knobs of turmeric. I heard it all: the daughter-in-law bashing, the meddlesome scandal mongering, the recipe exchanges (all always with a crucial ingredient or two missing, a game the maamis played with poker-faced glee), the pickle-and-palaharam benedictions with their ever-changing list of recipients, the deliberations and arguments over labyrinthine family trees, the detailed analyses of every pattu sari merchant on the planet, the pros and cons of Surajamal's diamonds, Vummidiar's sapphires, and that upstart, Prince Jewelers, and the soundness of his stone settings. This was child's play for them, this juggling of multiple elements. They made sure they had their fingers in every pie, that they were entangled in every loop, enmeshed in every web.
But where they truly shone, displayed the highest manifestation of the success of their calling, was in arranging marriages. And after years of observing them doing this, I have come to the conclusion that they employ a really very simple formula. All they have (in their minds) are two pre-sorted columns. Pre-sorted by caste, sub-caste, sub-sub caste (you get the idea), horoscope, gothram, age, height and other miscellany. The pre-sorting is an automated process for them, a matter of a few nanoseconds' work. Trivialities like interests, hobbies, opinions, likes, dislikes and personality types, have no place in the maami schema. The two columns are: Boy (Column A) and Girl (Column B). And when a match is to be made, all they do is pluck a pre-sorted Boy from Column A and a pre-sorted Girl from Column B. And voila! A match is made - in maami heaven. Trust me. I know.
I remember, many years back, I got a call from my aunt, Rukmini Chithi. She is precariously perched near the very top of the maami hierarchy of my city, a position earned by the number of marriages she has arranged. I say precariously, because there are any number of maamis nipping at her heels, threatening to upset the balance and the result of her years of relentless gossiping, eavesdropping and networking. The lengths of her Columns A and B are the stuff of legend. And the processing speed with which she picks out and matches candidates from the two columns has been discussed and dissected with jealous awe at the weddings, kolus and concerts that are the favorite haunts of the maami tribe. Add to that her serpentine list of astrologers, priests, wedding hall managers, caterers and flower merchants and you can see why Rukmini Chithi is a queen among maamis.
So any way, she called me, when I was idling away my Sunday morning with the newspapers and a cup of coffee. I was newly married then, expecting my first child, and I suppose Rukmini Chithi felt this was as good time as any to initiate me into the niceties of the maami methodology. Surprisingly, she came to the point right away.
"Bharathi Nagar 2nd Main Street Sudha Maami is looking for a girl for her son Vinod. You know him. First class boy. Excellent family. He studied in Harvard. I was thinking of that nice girl you mentioned in your office, Radhika from Nanganallur. He is 29 and she is 24. It will be an excellent match."
My head reeled. It processes information at a fraction of the speed that Rukmini Chithi's does, and it took me a few seconds to reply.
"Rukmini Chithi, are you crazy? That Vinod is arrogant and rude! There is no way he is fit to marry a sweet girl like Radhika!"
"What is this arrogant you are saying? Pah! He will do very well in life. He is a super catch. He is from Harvard! And he is five-eleven, perfect height!"
"Believe me, Chithi, he is a creep. There is no way that you can suggest that nice Radhika for him."
"His grandfather stood first in the ICS Exam and his cousin got the 6th rank in the IIT entrance exam and he is an excellent match! His athai's father-in-law's grandfather was Radhika's paati's father's classmate in Kollangode in 1865. And he is from Harvard. I am suggesting the best for Radhika!"
I knew Vinod. An MBA from Harvard who thought he was the cat's whiskers and was entitled to his nose-up-in-the-air condescension and overbearing conceitedness. Whose only topics of conversation were the Market and his stock portfolio. And I knew Radhika very well too. The sweetest young thing imaginable, who sang like a nightingale and was a voracious reader of everything under the sun - except the economy. They were like chalk and cheese. Oil and water. Not meant to mix.
But here is why Rukmini Chithi is the Queen of Maamis, and I, a failure. She has the Maami Vision, a shrewd and far-sighted perspective of the universe that ties together what happened in a remote Palghat village a century and a half ago with the mouthwatering potential for a variety of matches twenty five years down the road for the Vinod-Radhika offspring , the immense genetic possibilities of the Harvard business genes mixed with Radhika's music genes, the bounteous synergies from the merger of Bharathi Nagar with Nanganallur, and more, so much more, all these messy, disjointed elements, tangible and imaginary, past, present and future, conjoined and synchronised with Rukmini Chithi's magic touch. Whereas, all I saw was a complete mismatch. A nightmare marriage that would surely spread nothing but misery all around.
What can I say? Rukmini Chithi notched yet another successful match in her portfolio, secured her status at the very top of maami-hood. Vinod and Radhika have been "happily married" all these years, and are the proud parents of a top-of-Column A Harvard Boy.
Attempts were made over the years - by my despairing mother, disappointed grandmothers, baffled aunts - to shape me into the maami mold, but to no avail. They would have succeeded better in forcing a square peg into a round hole. They should have known that I was a lost cause and given up. Instead, I was forced to be a reluctant attendee at many a kolu, where the shortcomings of the sundal and the singers, the wretched tastelessness of the kolu doll displays, were pointed out to me in sibilant tones or hushed whispers, depending on who was being panned. I have lost count of the number of weddings I went to where my simple enjoyment of the food and festivities was marred by bombastic denunciations of everything from the hall to the food to the clothes to the family lineages of people whose antecedents I had no knowledge of, or interest in. The worst, oh, the abysmal depths, were the excruciatingly long-winded expositions, the interminable inspections, of jewelry and saris. I won't go into details. It gives me migraines just thinking about it.
I sent shock waves through my community, and Rukmini Chithi came perilously close to being toppled off her perch, when I bypassed the entire maami enterprise and chose my own husband. It took their breath away that I, timid, soft-spoken, plain-looking I, had managed to find an excellent husband - one who had somehow, miraculously, eluded their radar and escaped tumbling into their Column As - without their knowing a whiff of what was going on until I announced it to the world at large. It took them a while to recover from that. But recover they did, and resumed their efforts with renewed vigor.
A few years after the Vinod-Radhika wedding, I received a call from Rukmini Chithi one afternoon. My husband was posted in a different city far from where our families lived. I was happy in my career, and I now had a second child, a daughter, and my life was full and busy. The freedom to do as I pleased, away from the prying eyes of my hometown maami community, propelled me further away from their orbit and gravitational pull. Indeed, I had indulged in what would be counted as unforgivable blasphemy in the maami canon, by encouraging a mixed-religion marriage and pushing a friend's daughter to higher studies. I was truly doomed, as far as my entry into the maami rank and file was concerned. I had been given the keys, and I had dropped them into the gutter. But it takes far, far more to faze a maami as tough and hard-boiled as my Rukmini Chithi, and so it was me whom she called with an assignment.
It had come to her notice that Anita, a top-echelon Column B candidate in my city, was in the market for a husband. Who better than Column A topper Mahesh who was from MIT and was earning a seven-figure salary in the top consulting firm in the city? Rukmini Chithi had personally checked their backgrounds, and now all they had to do was to meet. I was given a two-part assignment. The first, to check out Mahesh personally and ensure that he had no vices like drinking or smoking. The next, provided all was fine, was to arrange a meeting between the two. Dinner at my house would be fine, I could make my Bisi Bele Bath that would taste better if I added some more tamarind and used better quality ghee, and set out the silver dinner set my mother had given me all those years ago and that she said I never used and I could wear the sari she gave me for Deepavali along with the Surajamal's diamond earrings which she had never once seen me wear.
I protested violently. I wanted no part in this, I told my aunt, I was too busy with my work and family, let her find someone else to do it.
And so it was that, a week later, Mahesh and Anita met for dinner at our home (Mahesh had crossed the first hurdle with flying colors a few days earlier; my husband and he had had a roaring good time over copious amounts of wine, after which he was proclaimed an excellent fellow). To demonstrate that I was in control, that I was not going to allow myself to be commandeered remotely by a phalanx of aunts, I made a Pav Bhaji dinner, not my finest culinary creation, but it was my choice, served in melamine serving dishes I had picked up at a discount store. I wore my standard outfit: baggy black pants and a cotton kurta.
The dinner was not a success. At least, not in terms of Anita and Mahesh hitting it off and deciding they wanted to get married. Mahesh showed up a little early, and he and my husband were just polishing off their first glass of wine, and settling into a heated and in-depth discussion of the Indian cricket team, when Anita arrived, prim and proper, and with a look of pursed-mouth disapproval of the spirited debate in progress. The cricket discussion was too interesting, there were so many angles to cover, and Mahesh could barely tear himself away from it and talk to Anita, which was the purpose of the whole evening. The second bottle of wine led to an even noisier argument on the elections and budget, with strongly worded and loudly expressed opinions thrown in on the goings on in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, Iran, Iraq and Russia. Decibel levels rose still higher with dessert and the after-dinner brandy and a whole slew of the world's problems, poverty, pollution, joblessness, crime rates and taxes were tackled and solved with gusto. It was a rollicking evening of scintillating conversation and laughter. But poor Anita sat in stiff silence throughout, and there was little I could do to direct Mahesh's interest towards her. She left, tight-lipped and huffy, soon after dessert, while Mahesh, who barely acknowledged her departure, stayed on for a good while longer.
The next morning, a furious Rukmini Chithi called.
"Why did you not tell me this fellow Mahesh is a drunkard? So loud and boorish he is, it seems, and very arrogant, he was very rude to poor Anita. I believe most of these MIT boys are like this. You have let me down very badly. This is a big humiliation for me! And you served some stupid Maharashtrian dish it seems, in old vessels. No jewelry you wore, not even a simple bangle, and dressed in your stupid black pant! You wear that black pant for everything, when you go to the gym, for shopping, for parties! What are they going to think about us?"
There was no stopping Rukmini Chithi, no point in attempting to explain anything to her. That enjoying an evening with good company and some good wine did not a make someone a drunkard. That Anita and Mahesh were ill-matched even beyond the maamis' generous and almost all-encompassing vision of compatibility. That I simply did not have it in me to boss two grown people around and tell them what to think and do. That I was a failure in my maiden attempt at being a maami.
My maiden attempt turned out to be my last attempt. After the Anita-Mahesh fiasco, my services as a maami were never again called for. Mahesh met a lovely, lively woman at work, and they are among our closest friends now. Rukmini Chithi managed to salvage her reputation by fishing out another cream of the crop Boy from her Column A for Anita. I was left alone, and I think we all breathed a little more easily as a result. I was spared the wedding and kolu gossip and jewelry and sari scrutiny, and they managed very well without me. I was still in the periphery of their gossip circle, and received a steady stream of tidbits of news, most of which I ignored or promptly forgot about. My own children were grown up now, and I had to regularly deflect the many proposals and inquiries that came my way. They were studying abroad, and we were lucky that they kept in touch with us regularly and visited us whenever they could. I was very proud of them. I was determined: they would not be snared by the maami net, they would pursue their education and careers, and when the time came, they would find their own spouses. That would show the maamis that my method worked, too.
And one day, my lovely daughter called me up, happy and excited. She had met the boy of her dreams! She had to work on a presentation with him at a conference, and they had hit it off wonderfully well. They had a few more years of studying to do, and then they would get married.
Who is it, I asked, thrilled for her. And she replied, you know that couple you talk about, Vinod and Radhika, he's their son. Aha! The Top-of-Column-A Harvard Boy!
When I told Rukmini Chithi, a big, warm grin spread across her face. "This is exactly what I had in mind when I arranged Vinod and Radhika's marriage twenty-seven years ago," she beamed. "And you thought that that marriage should not have taken place!"
What can I say? Maami Vision. I simply don't have it. But still, there's hope. Perhaps I'm a late bloomer, and my latent maami genes are only now stirring awake. For the other day, I saw the cutest baby boy, and I found myself thinking, maybe one day he will be a good match for my grand daughter.
(c) Kamini Dandapani