A man remembers his first marriage
By Rudy Ravindra
After I had completed my PhD and was getting ready to leave for America, my parents tried to arrange my marriage. When they told me their plan, I became concerned that I might end up like my father’s younger brother — Uncle Ganesh. At the time of his arranged marriage, Uncle Ganesh was seeing a girl who belonged to a different caste. When my grandfather heard about Ganesh’s romance, he was perplexed. He could not comprehend how a Brahmin boy could ever be happy with a girl from a different caste. To uphold the family’s reputation, and save Uncle Ganesh from a bad match, he ordered my uncle to stop seeing the girl and mobilized relatives and friends to search for a suitable Brahmin bride.
Ideally, in India, the families of a boy and girl united in marriage should belong to a similar socio-economic class. The bride’s family should be in a position to shell out a substantial dowry and, most importantly, the horoscopes of the couple should match. The horoscopes are drawn by an experienced astrologer who would take into consideration the couple’s time and date of birth, and compare the planetary influence on their astral chart.
With these constraints in mind, my weak-willed uncle was forced to meet many girls. Each prospective bride would be dressed up carefully by a coterie of aunts and “presented” to the groom’s party. The couple was allowed to talk to each other, although, most of the time, not in private.
As much as I detested it, I was expected go through the same process. Back in the privacy of our home, my parents would look at me anxiously and ask if a particular girl from their list of eligible young women appealed to me. I tried to look serious and thoughtful and said that with so many well-qualified and beautiful girls it was hard to pick the right one. I remained noncommittal. Luckily, I was saved from further agony when my visa papers for the United States arrived. But my parents weren’t giving up so easy and asked me to return to Bangalore in a year or so to resume the bride viewing.
My research work in that small university town in Idaho was very exciting. My colleagues were a sizable group of postdocs and graduate students also from India. During our free time, we would get together to watch Bollywood movies, go to picnics and drive to nearby scenic towns to sightsee. We had a perfect balance of work and play. For the first time in my life I had more money than I could spend. The cost of living in the early eighties was reasonable, and I was able to save more than half my paycheck most of the time.
Even though I was enjoying my work, I couldn’t help but be shocked at the public displays of affection of the many canoodling couples I saw. It wasn’t unusual to see a girl and her boyfriend walking side by side in the middle of an animated discussion suddenly pause right in the middle of the road and kiss, as if it couldn’t wait until they got home. The girl’s hand would slide into her boyfriend’s shorts to fondle his butt. And then there was what I perceived as the brazen attire of the Idaho girls. In the summertime, they would wear skimpy shorts and tank tops while they strived to get a tan. Those sun worshippers laid on their beach towels all day long reading, eating and drinking. One day, one of them spotted me and waved, “hey, come on down, join us”. I was embarrassed to be caught staring.
I was envious of this open and free culture, this nonchalant attitude toward the body and sex. I wished I had not been born and raised in such a straight-laced society. My desires and fantasies began to surface. I, too, was eager for a little roll in the hay, but I was just a nerd who didn’t have the good looks of Dev Anand or Gregory Peck. I wondered, at that time, if this lack of charisma might condemn me to a celibate life. With a head full of curly hair, I was merely what some girls called cute, but, in my book, cute meant babies, puppies and kitty cats. I wished I was tall, debonair, dashing and ruggedly handsome. Nonetheless, and to my surprise, notwithstanding the paucity of these desirable attributes, a few girls befriended me: a sultry South Indian girl invited me to partake in some hot and fluffy idlis; a merry Mexican asked me to a Latino book club; and a vivacious Venezuelan asked me to the movies. I was obtuse and timid, I didn’t have an astute antenna for signals and I foolishly passed up these golden opportunities.
While I was still struggling to adjust to American culture, I bumped into the beautiful and bubbly Sara—her full name was Saraswati. Born and raised in America, she was the daughter of emigrants from Bangalore (my hometown). She was also a student counselor. We had met several times and compared notes about our parents and siblings. I loved spicy food while she preferred bland dishes. She was into football, baseball and tennis. I, on the other hand, was a bookworm and a little athletically impaired. I loved Bollywood songs and was frugal. She was an avid fan of western classics and a spendthrift.
I desired her, but I was too scared to make a first move. If it was wholly up to me our relationship might have remained prosaically platonic. She understood that I was repressed and naïve, so ultimately she took the initiative. She invited me to dinner at her place. After we had eaten (bland turkey casserole and baked potatoes), she led the way to the living room where we sipped whiskey and enjoyed the warmth of a roaring fire. In due course, she undid the top buttons of her blouse, complaining of how hot it got near the fireplace. She then took off her sandals and began wriggling her perfectly pedicured toes, which were painted red. I told her that her feet were sexy while I massaged her big toe. She laughed saying that at this rate it would be a very long time before I reached first base let alone hit a home run (at the time, these baseball metaphors went way over my head), so she pulled me to her and kissed me.
That was my very first time. I was too eager and lost it too soon. I was embarrassed. She said that it would get better with time and suggested that I do pushups and belly crunches to improve my stamina and staying power.
The first few weeks were simply superb. I couldn’t keep my hands off her, and took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy her ample charms. I was bothered, however, by her prior experience with men and couldn’t help picturing her with all those guys she had been with. I was, of course, convinced they were all better than me in the sack. When I asked Sara how many men she had slept with, she was shocked and said the question made her feel like a whore. She went on to say that in American culture, the past stays in the past.
However, one rainy evening we were marooned indoors and she became quite loquacious after a couple of glasses of Asti Spumante (she loved it, but I could never bring myself to drink that sweet stuff). A little tipsy, she told me that she had dated a few white guys and they all “test drove” her . She told me that she gave everything to those relationships, but there had never been a diamond ring, or a proposal. She wondered what had gone wrong. Did she give away too much, too soon?
During our time together she deployed her considerable arsenal of techniques (the kind of stuff I had only read about) in order to transform me from a bumbling beginner to a lusty lover. She did justice to her name — Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge — her knowledge was encyclopedic alright. Although I eventually improved, I could not help but resent her previous exploits. Did she kiss her boyfriend(s) like she kissed me? Did she caress and fondle them in a similar manner? Did she do this? Did she do that? The very thought of these things drove me crazy and made me wish I wasn’t a novice. I ended up wishing she was a virgin, a blank canvas to splash my unique brand of colors all over.
It was unfortunate that I had never had the chance to sow my wild oats. My life in India was about getting the best possible grades. I had never had a girlfriend; not even a friend who happened to be a girl. At college there were very few girls, and almost all of them were the touch-me-not types. A few of them had boyfriends while the rest weren’t interested in anything but their studies. The only women I had to dream about were the pictures of Zeenie baby and Parvin Babi (the Bollywood bombshells of yesteryear) pasted on my dorm room walls. I spent many a wonderful moment fantasising about those sex-citing sirens.
Surprisingly, after his whirlwind courtship with Sara, we actually got married.
Not long after we said “I do”, She began to correct my English pronunciation. I had, and still have, an Indian accent, but she tried in vain to teach me to speak with an American one. I even had to learn to use cutlery in an American way.
Although I took two showers a day at the time — one in the morning and the other in the evening — my scalp maintained a funny smell, so Sara gave me a bottle of ridiculously expensive Eau de Cologne. My clothes from India were not fashionable in America, so my wardrobe was overhauled with brand name items. My Bata shoes, also from India, were deemed inappropriate, so I switched to Allen Edmonds. My used Ford Pinto was declared unsafe and I was told to purchase a better car. The list was endless and expensive. All of my savings were wiped out.
In addition to all this, Sara was bothered by my mouthful of a name (Rudravajhala Ravindra), and wanted me to change it to Ravi R. Vajala. While it was true that my name is a bit confusing, what with my surname being used as the first name and the last name being the real first name, it did not bother me. I tried in vain to enlighten her about the Karnataka custom where the surname (derived from an ancestral village or a family deity) was always written first to be followed by the given name (first name in America). I felt it was unnecessary to change the sequence. In any case, many years later, I became Rudy Ravindra (which is another story all together!).
In short, she wanted to erase all my Indian traits and change me into an American. She threw herself into it with such missionary zeal that at times I felt as if I was Eliza Doolittle.
Our marriage was short-lived due to my irrational jealousy as well as her relentless efforts to transform my very identity. I knew she genuinely wanted the marriage to work and did her best to bridge the wide gulf between us, but, alas, she made me feel like second, third or even the nth best.
Looking back now, after about three decades, I cannot help but feel guilty and remorseful. Sara meant well. My insecurity and pig-headedness marred our union and dampened the relationship. I wish I had had the wisdom that I have now. But one can’t turn back the clock. It was sometime before I picked up the pieces and married again. Thankfully, it was not an arranged marriage and it lasted much longer than the first. Nevertheless, it was hard to forget my first love. Her face and figure came to my mind for some time afterwards, and at the most inopportune moments.
I don’t know where Sara is today and I am not sure that I want to rehash the past. But wherever she is, I wish her the very best.
Rudy Ravindra’s prose has appeared in Saturday Evening Post online, Waccamaw, The Prague Revue, Bewildering Stories and others. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.