Hello and thank you for reading.
If you follow me on tumblr (HazlenutMacchiato) then you already know I've been kicking around the idea of an Indian Everlark story for a while. It's inspired in part by my own immersion in South Indian culture and interracial/intercultural marriage (I've been with my hubby for nearly 8 years now and I speak enough Telugu to know when I'm being spoken about). But, this story is a work of complete fiction. Suzanne Collins made the characters, I just mess around with their ethnicities and make them have sex ;)
Thank you to MockingJayFlyingFree for helping me brainstorm and generally being the best beta a girl could ask for. Thank you to Chelzie for helping me name Peetha. Thank you to Passionately_Curious for prereading and helping me work out plot issues that come later in the story. Lastly, thank YOU for joining me on this journey. This'll be another long one :)
"Oh my child. This sacred thread is purified and will lead you to a knowledge of the absolute."
Rydvic removes his Nehru collared shirt and smiles as he hands it to me. I accept it, folding it properly, and watch as he readies himself for the ritual. He's freshly bathed, his head shaved completely bald. The white cloth of his new pancha is wrapped around his waist, exposing his chest. His feet are uncovered as he finds a seated position on a cushion on the floor.
"You should try to relax," he says quietly. He runs his hands through over his now smooth scalp before bringing them to settle in his preferred Anjuli, with his palms pressed together and his ring fingers down.
I shake my head at myself for adding to the tension. Today is Ry's upanayana, not mine.
"I'm fine," I lie. I am nervous. I'm just not sure why. Maybe it's because despite being eighteen years old, I'm not yet a man among the people I love the most. And I won't be until I've had my thread ceremony. It's an important rite of passage that every young man must go through. Right now, it's Ry's turn. "This is your day." I hesitate to get dressed, holding an ornate blue button between my fingers, and try not to sigh aloud. The brightly colored lungis never appealed to me. I'd prefer to dress in beige.
But, Amma insisted.
The upanayana ceremony is simple enough, especially when it takes place here in Queens. The temple is small, but beautifully decorated with large sculptures made of soap stone dotting the hallways and brass twisted into Ohms adorning the walls. My parents have invited the usual guests: friends they grew up with back in Andrah Pradesh, and their children the same age as us. There are a few random people in attendance, of course, such as investors in my parents' restaurant. They're here, mostly interested in the opportunity to attend a traditional Hindu ceremony. I always find their presence off-putting, since they have no idea what's going on. I barely understand it myself.
Amma knocks on the door and doesn't wait for a response before entering. She's wearing a blue sari, the shade nearly identical to what I'm wearing. The corners of her eyes wrinkle slightly and she smiles just a little as her eyes fall on me.
"Are you ready yet? Come." She enters the room and steps towards Ry.
He peels himself from the floor and leans down, letting Amma hold his face in her hands. He's at least a foot taller than her, so it's an awkward motion. "So handsome." She smiles proudly and nods her head.
Ry takes after our father, who was born and raised in a small village in Andhra Pradesh. His eyes are a chocolate brown and his skin a caramel color. I favor mother, who is half Nepali, but still Brahmin (or Bahun, as she calls it) and is of Pashtun ancestry. We have the same fair skin and light eyes and our hair is a golden brown that only gets lighter when we're out in the sun for too long. Which, of course, we never are. The countless hours we all spend running the family business rob us of sunshine.
"The Chopra family has arrived," Amma tells Ry, still looking into his eyes with awe.
Newly on the guest list are the parents of Ry's betrothed, Saloni. She's 22 years old, and arrived on a student visa. But, she'll require an American husband to stay in the country. Since Ry and I were born here in New York City, this gives us an advantage in our 'eligibility.'
Amma did consider postponing his ceremony to tie it in to the wedding. But, Ry's already 24 years old and as a Brahmin, a member of the highest caste, there are expectations. Besides, this ceremony gives her an opportunity to show off her party planning skills for her new family members.
Ry goes along with whatever Amma wants. I do, too. Mostly.
Amma turns to me, a suspicious look in her eye. "Saloni has a little sister. You should dance with her later."
I don't want my mother to fix me up. I'm a freshman in college and I just want to... date. Not that I haven't dated in high school. I did, technically. But they were all arranged by Amma.
"Maybe." I shrug my shoulders, not committing to anything.
Amma releases Ry's face and is quickly in front of me. "When are you going to find a nice girl, like your brother?" She gestures to Ry and I stifle a groan.
Not this again. "When I meet one."
She shakes her head disapprovingly at me and turns away. "You think I don't know what you do with those girls you see at your school?"
I don't answer. I'm not a virgin. So what? What Amma doesn't know is that the first girl I slept with wasn't an American in college, but one of the "nice girls" she set me up with in high school. And I wasn't that nice girl's first.
"Come now. The priest is ready to begin." She's out the door without another word.
I sigh in relief when she leaves, but tense up again as I feel a hand on my shoulder. "You do want to get married. Don't you, Peetha?" Ry's voice is filled with concern.
I take a deep breath before answering. "I think so. Maybe. But, I want to finish college first." Ry furrows his brow. "And I want to try to find a wife myself." Try? I sound like such a fucking pansy. My hand comes up to rub the back of my neck. "Why... Why are you letting Amma pick your wife?"
He smiles at me. "I'm not. I'm picking."
"But she introduced you."
"Yeah, she did. She introduced me to a lot of girls. This one happens to makes sense."
I shake my head. "That sounds so impersonal."
"It has to be a good match for both of the families."
"What about what you want?"
"What I want?" He furrows his brow, confused, and I nod my head, encouraging him to speak. "I want... Stability... I want fidelity..."
"And you think you're going to get that from a stranger?"
He shrugs a shoulder. "We're only strangers in some ways."
His words carry weight for me. Whoever I marry, whether I meet someone on my own or my mother arranges it, that person is a stranger to me today.
The golden statues surround the room, draped with fresh flowers. The room is brightly lit and smells of sandalwood. I'm in my proper place, kneeling beside my mother as the priest says his prayers. Her eyes are closed as she listens to his words. My father is on the other side of her, stoic through the ceremony, waiting for his cue. Sometimes I think he finds it all as over the top as I do.
Ry is unmarried, so the priest places a single thread, a jenoi, split into three strings on his head. Each string represents Ry's debts, his burdens. The prayer continues, a mix of Hindi and Sanskrit, that I don't understand. But, I know what's happening.
It's Ry's turn to speak. He repeats the priest's word promising to be a good boy, promising to learn, accepting the full weight of his varna, his obligation as a Brahmin. Ry is now twice-born, a full member of the religious community.
His future in-laws nod their approval.
I turn my head to the side and my eyes find Delhi, the daughter of my father's business associate, among the guests. She's wearing a brightly colored punjabi suit and her hair is pulled back into a tight bun. She looks so different than she does on campus, when her curls are loose and her smile is wide. I didn't know she'd be here today, but I'm not surprised by her presence either. We grew up together, after all. And she's at NYU now, same as me. I rarely see her though, unless it's at one of these events.
When she smiles at me, I return it.
Her gaze doesn't linger, and neither does mine.
The ceremony is over before I get lost in thought. As Ry stands, I watch him walk over to Saloni and greet her. They don't kiss, or embrace. No, that wouldn't be proper. I don't expect anything different, but it's their awkward exchange of smiles that gets me thinking. Ry seemed so confident, so sure of his decision before the ceremony. And now... I shake my head as I try to make sense of their interaction. They're barely acquainted. And yet, they're choosing to build a life together. Sure, they have the same expectations of marriage, but is that enough? What about the things the doctrine has no way of preparing you for?
I wonder if Ry's making the right decision. I wonder if Amma knows best.
"You're next, boy!" Uncle's voice rings through the air.
He's not really my uncle. He's another friend of the family, a respected member of the community. At least he used to be. He's a known alcoholic, and his once prestigious reputation is now tarnished. At this point, I think he just shows up to these things for the free food. Like Amma, Uncle Haymitch's skin is fair. Unlike Amma, his eyes are gray.
"I suppose I am," I agree. And it could be the truth, if I allow it. Should I let my parents arrange a marriage for me, that is.
"You don't sound sure of that," he comments.
I shrug my shoulders. I'm not sure. Will I spend years searching, unhappy and alone if I resist them?
I just don't know.
"I'm not sure," I echo my own thoughts.
Haymitch nods his head. "You know, boy. This ceremony is supposed to grant you with the knowledge of the absolute." He lets out a hearty chuckle. "But in all my years, I find it's the humble man, who can admit there are things he doesn't know, that is the most knowledgeable."
I smile at his words. He still sees me as a boy. But, maybe that will soon change.
Amma beckons, nodding her head in the direction of the Chopra family. I decide to go along with it.
At least for now.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Peetha!
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