The Absentee – by Rohini Manyam Seshasayee

by TBLM

Gauri sat nervously in the lobby of a high end salon, clutching the bridal package voucher that her mother had sent her with. A few minutes later, the receptionist let her know that the beautician was ready. Eyebrows would be dealt with first. The beautician held the ends of the thread in her mouth and hands, forming like intent scissors. Tears rolled down Gauri’s cheeks as her skin smarted and cooled her warm flushed cheeks. Thoughts of leaving her home and starting anew in another’s had fogged her mind with gloomy foreboding. A bride must look happier, the beautician joked. Gauri smiled, embarrassed. She felt better when hot wax was spread on her limbs, like jam. The repetitive stripping-off motion made her feel meditative and calm. Then the facial. They wiped her face clean and removed dead skin with a metal rod with a loop at the end of it. Then they scrubbed her face with a scrub they said contained salts from the Dead Sea. Yes, the Dead Sea, Gauri had to restrain her smile.

Krishna lay sprawled on the bed, his mind wandering to how far Gauri and he had come. Since the time they had met in college, it had been more downs than ups. And yet, they were finally getting married. When Krishna’s mother brought him coffee, he sat up and turned on the TV, to think of nothing. The house landline hadn’t stopped ringing since he had landed. All his friends wanted to meet up. Krishna groaned and stretched. He then went out to hang out with his friends.

Gauri’s head rested inside an apparatus that looked like an astronaut’s helmet. Except it was attached to a stand and did not touch her head. It was part of the Hair Spa. Gauri had straight hair that usually behaved itself, she wasn’t too worried. This was just part of the bridal process. Three hours in the salon, and she had read every magazine she could lay her eyes on. The beautician removed the helmet and smiled at her. The steam had made her feel really sleepy. She was escorted home by her cousin who had come to pick her up. ‘You look so beautiful,’ she said. Gauri smiled shyly.

Krishna relaxed sipping a cappuccino, a cigarette shortening steadily in his left hand. His old friends sat around him as they watched the IPL, just like old times. They were constantly in touch with a broker who placed their bets. Krishna had wagered two thousand rupees on Chennai winning the toss. He lost. What to do, man. It happens. “What is the next bet?” he asked his friend who was speaking to the broker.

New morning, and a puja. This puja now forbade her to leave the house until the time came for the wedding ceremony. Mehendi artists arrived. Gauri sat still as they started work on her feet first. Beautiful designs unravelled themselves halfway to her knee. The smell of henna was overpowering, but Gauri loved it. They drew the letters of her name and Krishna’s name on her arms. She had to find the letters, they said. Gauri blushed and looked away. Then they applied sugar water to help the henna redden faster and deeper. The darker the colouration, they said, the better her husband would be to her. She crouched on the floor with her arms placed carefully on her knees. Her mother fed her by hand, making Gauri tear up. Gauri’s friends made an appearance then. They apologized for not giving her the bachelorette she deserved. But they had brought a cake, specially made for her. They whisked her away into her room and opened the box. The cake was in the shape of a man’s private parts. All of them squealed as only girls can do. It was red velvet cake, and neither the shape nor the cake lasted very long. Gauri hugged everyone as best as she could, her Mehendi limiting her. Then the friends left. Gauri sat up till one in the morning allowing her Mehendi to dry. She then washed it off and finally went to bed. It was dark brown.

That evening Krishna enjoyed a bottle of beer with his friends. ‘You’re going to be a married man in 2 days, drink up now when you have the chance,’ they said. Krishna got home by ten, early by his standards, on his mother’s explicit instructions. His mother asked him if he wanted dinner. He said he had already eaten. He hit the end of his bed with his head. It hurt a little. He adjusted himself on the mattress and dozed off.

Gauri’s mother nudged her awake at four in the morning. The day of the Wedding and the Reception. Gauri did not want to get out of bed, it was chilly. But she had to. She looked outside her window, waiting to hear a bird chirp or rooster crow. She thought of all the trips Krishna and she had sneaked off to, and all the impossible fights they had had. She smiled, then sighed. Her mother was in the puja room, preparing her sari. They had rented a convention hall in an upscale hotel a few kilometers away from the house. Gauri washed her hair and put on old clothes, waiting for the beautician to arrive. She sat on her sofa and searched for the letters on her arm. The Muhurtham was at nine. The priest arrived at seven. The priest started the puja for Gauri and her clothes. The car arrived at seven thirty. Her mother called up the salon to find out where the beautician was. She would be an hour late, they said. Gauri’s mother’s blood pressure was now rising visibly. ‘We have to be in the hotel in less than two hours, and you tell me now that she’s going to be late?’ The beautician finally arrived, panting and sweating. She had brought along a few ‘No Madams’ and ‘Actually Madams.’ But Gauri’s mother was furious and in no mood to listen. She instructed Gauri’s cousins to prepare by themselves. Only the bride would get personal attention. There was just no time. The cousins sulked but understood the gravity of the situation. Gauri was wary of the fact that all the yelling would cause the beautician to botch up. So she jested to put her at ease.

Krishna put on his best aftershave and cologne. He wore a pristine white shirt and grey trousers and sat in the hall watching TV, while his mother arranged puja items in the kitchen. She packed the clothes to be handed over during the ceremony. She carefully placed Krishna’s white silk dhoti in the suitcase. They, the family, had hired a chauffeur driven car for the day. When they reached the venue they saw the stage decorated with arrangements of roses of all colours. Tulips flanked either side. The light in the hall was soothing yellow. Krishna’s family stood at the entrance, welcoming members of both families into the hall. Krishna’s parents made sure that the air conditioning was working smoothly. They queried the hotel staff on the lunch’s readiness. Krishna’s father got into deep business and political conversations with every relative he met. He also introduced Krishna, his son the NRI, to people neither of them knew.

The beautician put a band around Gauri’s face to keep her hair tucked away. She applied foundation. ‘Eye makeup or lip?’ she asked. ‘Eye,’ Gauri responded. The beautician then applied heavy mascara and eye shadow, smearing the lips with a light pink lip balm. Gauri was instructed to go pray to God and thank the Almighty for the new sari. The pink and cream Kanchipuram silk sari. She thanked God for it and brought it back to the room. The sari was unfolded. The blouse was put on. Thank goodness it fit. The beautician tucked one end of the sari into Gauri’s petticoat and turned her around. She then folded the other end of the sari to form the pallu. She pinned it up in a strategic location and asked a cousin to hold it. Then she formed the pleats of the sari, each pleat as wide as her palm. She then carefully pinned them together and inserted them as a bunch into Gauri’s petticoat. The Pallu was pinned on the blouse on Gauri’s left shoulder. Gauri itched all over. The sari felt loose and uncomfortable. She took one look in the mirror and screamed ‘I look like I have a paunch! I look pregnant!’ Her mother ran into the room and gave the beautician a look no caretaker of a bride on her most important day wants to receive.

Krishna sat on a wooden chair in the Kalyana Mantapa, holding an umbrella. The priest instructed him to pretend to leave. Krishna was more than happy to. He put on a mock serious face and started walking away. As per custom, Gauri’s father was present to cajole him to stay. ‘No,’ Krishna said, ‘I have decided to become a saint.’ ‘No,’ Gauri’s father said, ‘please marry my daughter.’ Gauri’s father washed Krishna’s feet and escorted him to the stage. Seated beside him were his parents. The crowd grew more restless. Where is the bride?

Gauri’s mother completely removed the sari draping and started all over again. Keep smiling, she instructed her daughter. No one wants to see a sour-faced bride. After three painful times and many ruffles of pure silk, the fourth time proved lucky. Gauri looked at herself in the mirror and allowed herself a smile. Everyone, especially the beautician, heaved a sigh of relief. With less than thirty minutes to go to Muhurtham, the beautician finally attached a wig to Gauri’s natural hair and began to braid them together. The effect was thicker and longer. The beautician then proceeded to pin ready-made flower bud arrangements onto every nook in Gauri’s braid. She pushed a dozen bangles on each of Gauri’s arms. Necklaces were placed around her neck and a belly chain went around the waist. She placed the final touch of Maang Tikka on Gauri’s hair.

The audience eased into pleasant chatter now that the suspense of the bride was broken. Yes, they look good together. The wedding ceremonies went on till four in the evening, thoroughly exhausting both the bride and the groom. But now the reception was due to begin in 3 hours. Gauri’s mother was required elsewhere, so she entrusted Gauri’s friends with the task of getting Gauri ready for the next show. Happy to keep the bride company, the giggling bunch walked up to the room allotted for the marriage party. Gauri took out her reception sari, a net ghagra type attire, from the suitcase and placed it on the bed. Her friends thought it was stunning. The blouse alone was beautiful with much embroidery and mirror work. The sari was even more beautiful with the net woven in and stones stuck in many patterns all over. Gauri picked up the blouse to put it on. And then the unthinkable happened. It refused to unzip. What in the world! Gauri thought. How could she put it on if it did not open in the first place? Her friends took turns in trying to pry the zip open slowly and gently. But everybody in the room was sure that the blouse could tear with even the slightest struggle .The tension in the room escalated, nobody daring to even breathe too heavily for fear of tearing apart the delicately woven netting.

Krishna let the hotel bed swallow him. He was exhausted. The homam smoke had gotten to his head, causing slight nausea. His mother came into the room looking for something. She asked him to change into the sherwani she had bought for him and left. Krishna nodded absently, sleepily. The pillows were divine. The air conditioning did not hurt either.

Finally the zipper gave way, rolling down smoothly. Time seemed to have started again, and the heaviness in the air defused. The entourage relaxed collectively and conversation lightened the mood again. Gauri rushed to the bathroom to put it on. Almost like it was the dramatic twist in a bad TV serial, the zipper refused to close again. Gauri closed her eyes, breathed deeply and rolled her tongue over her gums. Not again. She called her friends to help. The bathroom door was wide open when Gauri’s mother-in-law walked in with Krishna’s elder brother’s wife. What were they doing here? What would they think? There she stood, Gauri, with her arms raised while two people pulled on her blouse, their faces the picture of exertion. Her more present minded friends slowly closed the bathroom door. ‘What happened?’ the co-sister-in-law said, looking almost gleeful. ‘The dress material is not good?’ Gauri’s friends smiled dismissively. They now felt personally responsible and invested in making the outfit work. They hadn’t liked her at all, from the moment she had jazzed into the engagement ceremony, holding her whiny, snotty baby, like she was Queen of the World. It appeared that the mother and co-sister-in-law were searching for said baby’s feeding bottle. Just like them to leave it hanging around the bride’s room, thought Gauri’s friends. Her co-sister-in-law lingered at the door and said ‘Full flop no?’ Gauri’s friends bristled indignantly at the snide remark. But Gauri herself just smiled. She resolved she had more than a few words to say to Krishna later. The in-laws left the room. Gauri’s friends opened the bathroom door to see if there had been any success. Nada. Gauri sat on the bathroom counter holding her head in her palms. What would she do now? Her friends decided that the best alternative would be to wear her silk blouse with the ghagra sari. They were of the same family of colours anyway. Gauri complied. The beautician came back to redo Gauri’s hair into curls, one lock at a time.

Krishna washed his face and combed his hair. He thought the hotel bathroom lighting made him look stunning. His mother’s voice called for him. Ready in his sherwani, he did a little bow and kissed his mother on her cheek. He was ready to stand beside his wife and accept gifts. ‘But could I please sit instead?’ he asked. Krishna’s mother laughed and gave him the room key card and asked him to lock the room behind him. She was going back to chaperon more guests.

After days of playing dress-up, Gauri couldn’t care less about how she looked. Her friends had to constantly remind her that it was the biggest day of her life. Gauri no longer felt that way. She just wanted to sleep, for a week. The gang led Gauri out the room and started the procession to the reception hall. Gauri felt the strangest tingling south of her stomach. She had forgotten to relieve herself for more than twenty-four hours. Who had the room key? The girls, meanwhile, were reminiscent of the old days. They couldn’t believe they were already at a friend’s wedding. And what about that awful co-sister? They started devising plots to deal with her. Gauri had noticed that the groom’s hotel room door was ajar. She entered the room and called out to see if anyone was around. The room seemed to be empty. She closed the door behind her, for safety purposes, thinking of the strangers who could just walk in if she left it open. She wobbled into the bathroom. With great difficulty, she took off her 6-inch heels and held her entire ensemble up.

The reception throne looked like it belonged in a King’s court. It was high backed and painted golden. The seat cushion was deep red. Krishna, in all his sherwani glory, sat on one side of this chair, waiting for Gauri. Family members gathered around to congratulate him.

Gauri’s friends, so lost in conversation, realised two minutes too late that they had misplaced the bride. They scanned the entire floor looking for her. They went back to the room screaming her name – in hushed tones – but she wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Gauri was trying to open the bathroom door that had closed behind her. Who would hear her screaming now? She banged against the door and shook the knob hard. It came loose in her hand. Of all the things that had happened today, this had to take the cake. Dear God.

‘Where’s Gauri?’ Krishna asked his mother-in-law.

***