An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2002

A wedding

Bharati Mukherjee
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Bharati Mukherjee, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1993, is a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. A citizen of the United States born and raised in Calcutta, India, Mukherjee has published a number of short stories and novels that concern her Indian heritage and also the immigrant experience. The winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, for The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), Mukherjee has also written several nonfiction works, including (with her husband Clark Blaise) Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), a pioneering examination of postcolonial identity. The story in this issue of Dædalus is an excerpt from the first chapter of her newest work, “Desirable Daughters,” to be published by Hyperion in March of 2002.

In the mind’s eye, a one-way procession of flickering oil lamps sways along the muddy shanko between rice paddies and flooded ponds, and finally disappears into a distant wall of impenetrable jungle. Banks of fog rise from warmer waters, mingle with smoke from the cooking fires, and press in a dense sooty collar, a permeable gray wall that parts, then seals, igniting a winter chorus of retching coughs and loud spitting. Tuberculosis is everywhere. The air, the water, the soil are septic. Thirty-five years is a long life. Smog obscures the moon and dims the man-made light to faintness deeper than the stars’. In such darkness perspective disappears. It is a two-dimensional world impossible to penetrate. But for the intimacy of shared discomfort, it is difficult even to estimate the space separating each traveler.

The narrow, raised trail stretches ten miles from Mishtigunj town to the jungle’s edge. In a palanquin borne by four servants sit a rich man’s three daughters, the youngest dressed in her bridal sari, her little hands painted with red lac dye, her hair oiled and set. Her arms are heavy with dowry gold; bangles ring tiny arms from wrist to shoulder. Childish voices chant a song, hands clap, gold bracelets tinkle. I cannot imagine the loneliness of this child. A Bengali girl’s happiest night is about to become her lifetime imprisonment. It seems all the sorrow of history, all that is unjust in society and cruel in religion has settled on her. Even constructing it from the merest scraps of family memory fills me with rage and bitterness.

The bride-to-be whispers the “Tush Tusli Brata,” a hymn to the sacredness of marriage, a petition for a kind and generous husband:

What do I hope for in worshipping you?
That my father’s wisdom be endless,
My mother’s kindness bottomless.
May my husband be as powerful as a king of gods.
May my future son-in-law light up the royal court.
Bestow on me a brother who is learned and intellectual,
A son as handsome as the best-looking courtier,
And a daughter who is beauteous.
Let my hair-part glow red with vermilion powder, as a wife’s should.
On my wrists and arms, let bangles glitter and jangle.
Load down my clothes-rack with the finest saris,
Fill my kitchen with scoured-shiny utensils,
Reward my wifely virtue with a rice-filled granary.
These are the boons that this young virgin begs of thee.

In a second, larger palki borne by four men sit the family priest and the father of the bride. Younger uncles and cousins follow in a vigilant file. Two more guards, sharp-bladed daos drawn, bring up the rear. Two servants walk ahead of the eight litter-bearers, holding naphtha lamps. No one has seen such brilliant European light, too strong to stare into, purer white than the moon. It is a town light, a rich man’s light, a light that knows English intervention. If bandits are crouching in the gullies they will know to strike this reckless Hindu who announces his wealth with light and by arming his servants. What treasures lie inside, how much gold and jewels, what target ripe for kidnapping? The nearest town, where such a wealthy man must have come from, lies behind him. Only the jungle lies ahead. Even the woodcutters desert it at night, relinquishing it to goondahs and marauders, snakes and tigers.

The bride is named Tara Lata, a name we almost share. The name of the father is Jai Krishna Gangooly. Tara Lata is five years old and headed deep into the forest to marry a tree.

I have had the time, the motivation, and even the passion to undertake this history. When my friends, my child, or my sisters ask me why, I say I am exploring the making of a consciousness. Your consciousness? they tease, and I tell them, No. Yours.

On this night, flesh-and-blood emerges from the unretrievable past. I have Jai Krishna’s photo, I know the name of Jai Krishna’s father, but they have always been ghosts. But Tara Lata is not, nor will her father be, after the events of this special day. And so my history begins with a family wedding on the coldest, darkest night in the Bengali month of Paush—December/January—in a district of the Bengal Presidency that lies east of Calcutta—now Kolkata—and south of Dacca—now Dhaka—as the English year of 1879 is about to shed its final two digits, although the Hindu year of 1285 still has four months to run and the Muslim year of 1297 has barely begun.

In those years, Bengal was the seat of British power, Calcutta its capital, its cultural and economic center. The city is endowed with the instruments of Western knowledge, the museums, the colleges, the newspapers, and the Asiatic Society. The old Bengal Presidency included all of today’s Bangladesh, the current Indian state of West Bengal, and parts of Assam, Bihar, and Orissa. A reconstituted Bengal Presidency today would have over 330 million people and be the world’s third most populous country. China, India, Bengal. There are more of me than there are of you, although I am both.

The eastern regions of Bengal, even before the flight of Hindus during the subcontinent’s partition in 1947, and its reincarnation as Bangladesh in 1972, always contained a Muslim majority, though largely controlled by a sizeable and wealthy Hindu minority. The communities speak the same language—Muslims, if the truth be known, more tenaciously than Hindus. But for the outer signs of the faith—the beards and skullcaps of the Muslims, the different dietary restrictions, the caste observances, the vermilion powder on the hair-parting of married Hindu women—there is little, fundamentally, to distinguish them. The communities suffer, as Freud put it, from the narcissism of small difference.

The Hindu Bengalis were the first Indians to master the English language and to learn their master’s ways, the first to flatter him by emulation, and the first to earn his distrust by unbidden demonstrations of wit and industry. Because they were a minority in their desh, their homeland, dependent on mastering or manipulating British power and Muslim psychology, the Hindus of east Bengal felt themselves superior even to the Hindus of the capital city of Calcutta. Gentlemen like Jai Krishna Gangopadhaya, a pleader in the Dacca High Court, whose surname the colonial authorities lightened to Gangooly, and who, on this particular winter night, squats with a priest in a palki that reminds him of wagons for transporting remanded prisoners, was situated to take full advantage of fast-changing and improving times. He spoke mellifluous English and one high court judge had even recommended him for a scholarship to Oxford. Had he played by the rules, he should have been a great success, a prince, and a power.

Jai Krishna’s graduation portrait from the second class of India’s first law school (Calcutta University, 1859) displays the expected Victorian gravitas and none of the eager confidence of his classmates. He is a young man of twenty-one who looks forty; his thick, dark eyebrows form an unbroken bar, and his shadow of a mustache—an inversion of prevailing style that favored elaborately curled and wax-tipped mustaches—reveals a young man more eloquent with a disapproving frown than with his words.

For ten years I kept the graduation photo of Bisbwapriya Chatterjee, my husband—Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur—on our nightstand. Last icon before falling asleep, first worshipful image of the morning. The countries, the apartments, the houses all changed, but the portrait remained. He had that eagerness, and a confident smile that promised substantial earnings. It lured my father into marriage negotiations, and it earned my not unenthusiastic acceptance of him as husband. A very predictable, very successful marriage negotiation.

Had Jai Krishna been a native Calcuttan, or had he come from Dacca, Bengal’s second city, he might never have suffered the anxiety of the small-town provincial elevated into urbanity. In my mother-language we call the powerful middle class “bhadra lok,” the gentlefolk, the “civilized” fold, for whom the English fashioned the pejorative term “babu,” with its hint of fawning insincerity and slavishly acquired Western attitudes. The rest of the population are “chhoto lok,” literally, the little people. Jai Krishna Gangooly lacked the reflexive self-confidence of the bhadra lok. In his heart, he was a provincial from Mishtigunj, third son of a village doctor whose practice included the indigent and Muslims. He felt he’d been lifted from his provincial origins because of his father’s contacts in the Calcutta Medical College. He was not comfortable in the lawyer’s black robes and powdered wig.

And so, the story of the three great-granddaughters of Jai Krishna Gangooly starts on the day of a wedding, a few hours before the palki ride where fates have already been decided, in the decorated ancestral house of the Gangoolys on the river in Mishtigunj town. The decorations signify a biye-bari, a wedding house. Beggars have already camped in the alleys adjacent to the canopy under which giant copper vats of milk, stirred by professional cooks, have been boiling and thickening for sweetmeats, and where other vats, woks, and cauldrons receive the chunks of giant hilsa fish netted fresh from the river and hold the rice pilao, lamb curry, spiced lentils, and deep-fried and sauce-steeped vegetables, a feast for a thousand invited guests and the small city of self-invited men, women, and children camped outside the gates.

The astrologers have spoken; the horoscopes have been compared. The match between Jai Krishna’s youngest daughter and a thirteen-year-old youth, another Kulin Brahmin from an upright and pious family from a nearby village, has been blessed. The prewedding religious rites have been meticulously performed, and the prewedding stree-achar, married women’s rituals, boisterously observed. To protect the husband-to-be from poisonous snakebite, married women relatives and Brahmin women neighbors have propitiated Goddess Manasha with prescribed offerings. All of this has been undertaken at a moment in the evolution of Jai Krishna from student of Darwin and Bentham and Comte and practitioner of icy logic to reader of the Upanishads and believer in Vedic wisdom. He had become a seeker of truth, not a synthesizer of cultures. He found himself starting arguments with pleaders and barristers, those who actually favored morning toast with marmalade, English suits, and leather shoes. Now nearing forty, he was in full flight from his younger self, joining a debate that was to split bhadra lok society between progressives and traditionalists for over a century.

A Dacca barrister, Keshub Mitter, teased him for behaving more like a once-rich Muslim nawab wedded to a fanciful past and visions of lost glory than an educated, middle-class Hindu lawyer. Everyone knew that the Indian past was a rubbish heap of shameful superstitions. Keshub Mitter’s insult would have been unforgivable if it hadn’t been delivered deftly, with a smile and a Bengali lawyer’s wit and charm. My dear Gangooly, English is but a stepping-stone to the deeper refinement of German and French. Where does our Bangla language lead you? A big frog in a small, stagnant pond. Let us leave the sweet euphony of Bangla to our poets, and the salvation-enhancement of Sanskrit to our priests. Packet boats delivered Berlin and Paris papers to the Dacca High Court, along with the venerated Times.

The cases Jai Krishna pleaded in court often cast him as the apostle of enlightenment and upholder of law against outmoded custom, or the adjudicator of outrages undefined and unimaginable under British law. The majesty of law was in conflict with Jai Krishna’s search for an uncorrupted, un-British, un-Muslim, fully Hindu consciousness. He removed his wife and children from cosmopolitan Dacca and installed them in Mishtigunj. He sought a purer life for himself, English pleader by day, Sanskrit scholar by night. He regretted the lack of a rigorous Brahminical upbringing, the years spent in Calcutta learning the superior ways of arrogant Englishmen and English laws, ingesting English contempt for his background and ridicule for babus like him. He had grown up in a secularized home with frequent Muslim visitors and the occasional wayward Englishman. In consideration of non-Hindu guests, his father had made certain that his mother’s brass deities and stone lingams stayed confined in the closed-off worship-room.

On the morning of Tara Lata’s wedding, female relatives waited along the riverbank for the arrival of the groom and his all-male wedding party. The groom was Satindranath Lahiri, fifth son of Surendranath Lahiri, of the landowning Lahiri family; in his own right, a healthy youth, whose astrological signs pointed to continued wealth and many sons. Back in Dacca, Jai Krishna had defended the ancient Hindu practices, the caste consciousness, the star charts, the observance of auspicious days, the giving of dowry, the intact integrity of his community’s rituals. His colleague, Keshub Mitter, to be known two decades later as Sir Keshub, and his physician, Dr. Ashim Lal Roy, both prominent members of the most progressive, most Westernized segment of Bengali society, the Brahmo Sarnaj, had attempted to dissuade him. The two men had cited example after example of astrologically arranged marriages, full of astral promise, turning disastrous. The only worthwhile dowry, they’d proclaimed, is an educated bride. Childmarriage is barbarous. How could horoscopes influence lives, especially obscure lives, in dusty villages like Mishtigunj? Jai Krishna knew these men to be eaters of beef and drinkers of gin.

“I consider myself a student of modern science,” Jai Krishna had explained, “and because I am a student of modern science, I cannot reject any theory until I test it.” And so far, the tests had all turned out positive. His two older daughters, seven and nine, were successfully married and would soon be moving to their husbands’ houses and living as wives, then as mothers. They were placid and obedient daughters who would make loving and obedient wives. Tara Lata, his favorite, would be no exception.

In the wintry bright hour just before twilight blackens Mishtigunj, the decorated bajra from the Lahiri family finally sailed into view. The bride’s female relatives stood at the stone bathing-steps leading from the steep bank down to the river as servants prepared to help the groom’s party of two hundred disembark. Women began the oo-loo ululation, the almost instrumental, pitched-voice welcome. Two of Jai Krishna’s younger brothers supervised the unrolling of mats on the swampy path that connected the private dock and Jai Krishna’s two-storied brick house. The bajra anchored, but none on board rushed to the deck railings to be ceremoniously greeted by the welcoming party of the bride’s relatives. The bridegroom’s father and uncles had a servant deliver a cruel message in an insulting tone to the bride’s father. They would not disembark on Jai Krishna’s property for Jai Krishna and his entire clan were carriers of a curse, and that curse, thanks to Jai Krishna’s home-destroying, misfortune-showering daughter, had been visited on their sinless son instead of on Jai Krishna’s flesh-and-blood. They demanded that Jai Krishna meet them in the sheltered cabin of the bajra.

Jai Krishna ordered the wedding musicians to stop their shenai playing and dhol beating. His women relatives, shocked at the tone in which the servant repeated his master’s message to Jai Krishna babu, the renowned Dacca lawyer, had given up their conch shell blowing and their ululating on their own. For several minutes, Jai Krishna stood still on the bathing-steps, trying to conceal at first his bewilderment, then his fury, that the man who was to have full patriarchal authority over his beloved daughter had called her names. Then he heard a bullying voice from inside the cabin yell instructions to the boatmen to pull up anchor.

“They’re bargaining for more dowry,” muttered one of Jai Krishna’s brothers.

“No beggar is as greedy as that Lahiri bastard!” spat another brother.

Two boatmen played at reeling in ropes and readying the bajra to sail back.

“Wait!” Jai Krishna shouted. “Whatever the problem, I’m sure we can work it out!” He raced down the gangplank and boarded the bajra.

Members of the bridegroom’s party, strangers to Jai Krishna, ringed him on deck. Their faces were twisted in hate or grief.

“Tell me, I beg of you,” Jai Krishna pleaded, “please tell me what pain we have inadvertently inflicted.” He stood, hands pressed together in a gesture of humility, among the hostile men entitled to his hospitality. “What discourtesy have we committed? How may I right whatever is currently wrong?”

Surendranath Lahiri stepped out of the cabin, as if on cue. Hammocked in his outstretched arms lay the limp body of a lifeless boy.

“What. . .” Startled, Jai Krishna took a step back. The bridegroom’s relatives closed in on him, cutting him off from his own people, who remained, mute, aghast, on the riverbank.

“Your happiness-wrecking daughter is responsible.” Surendranath affected the dazed calm of a man beyond grief and outrage. “May she die as horrible a death.”

“Better a barren womb than a womb that produces such a luckless female!” someone shouted behind Jai Krishna. Others added their hostile counsel. “Hang a rope around her neck!” “May she have the good sense to drown herself!”

“How did . . .” Jai Krishna couldn’t finish his question. He could guess the answer from the pain-stiffened expression on the corpse’s young face.

“Snakebite,” a man in the groom’s party screamed at him.

“When we were transferring from carriage to bajra,” another, kinder, man explained.

“You had no light? No lamps and torches?” Jai Krishna demanded, the implications of that fatal snakebite for his daughter suddenly foremost in his mind. He imagined little Tara Lata, wrapped in a bridal sari of scarlet silk embroidered with heavy gold thread, weighted down with gold jewelry, sitting on display on a divan laden with dowry gifts in a room in the women’s quarters. She’d be nervous, dreading the imminent inspection of the groom’s party. The groom’s folks were bound by custom to be even more critical of her appearance and her dowry than were the neighborhood women. They’d make loud remarks about her being too skinny, too dark, too fidgety. They’d complain about the dowry furniture, speculating viciously that it was not built of best-quality Burma teak. They’d scoff at the weight, quality, and size of the silver dowry utensils that filled a deep, wooden chest. The poor child had no idea that already she had been transformed from envied bride about to be married to a suitable husband into the second-worst thing in her society. She was now not quite a widow, which for a Bengali Hindu woman would be the most cursed state, but a woman who brings her family misfortune and death. She was a person to be avoided. In a community intolerant of unmarried women, his Tara Lata had become an unmarriageable woman.

Around him elegantly dressed men were screaming. “There must have been augurs and signs!” “You didn’t disclose what you must have known, Jai Krishna babu!” “You fancy city men, you have no respect for Hindu traditions. Some rite must have been omitted!”

He heard a reference to Manasha, the goddess who causes or prevents snakebites. “The goddess must not have been sufficiently appeased,” someone accused. “You Westernized types think you are stronger than our Hindu deities!” Admonition swelled into vengeful judgment.

Jai Krishna assured them all rites had been faithfully observed.

“Why should we believe you when it is well known that all lawyers prevaricate?”

“You have my word,” Jai Krishna said.

An elderly man in the groom’s party came forward, pulling his embroidered shawl of fine wool tightly around his shoulders. “When the stree-achar rites were performed, some woman must have been unclean. You can deceive judges, but you cannot fool goddesses.”

“The goddess exacts payment in mysterious ways.” Others took this up as a refrain.

Jai Krishna Gangooly, the fiery-tongued pleader, had not thought of Manasha or any village goddess for that matter, not even Shitala, the goddess associated with smallpox, in decades. He’d defended Hindu tradition, with all its inflexibility and excess, against the scorn of progressive colleagues like Keshub Mitter as much out of his lawyerly love of debate as conviction or religious faith. Now he wondered about the lessons embedded in Hindu myths and folktales. The snake had not been charged to kill the thirteen-year-old bridegroom by a goddess enraged at having been defiled by a menstruating devotee. The snakebite had occurred to remind Jai Krishna and Surendranath how precarious social order and fatherly self-confidence are. He had thought himself smugly in command of the wedding night’s arrangements.

Finally Surendranath Lahiti, still holding the body of his son in his arms, spoke. “You will arrange posthaste for the dowry cash and the dowry gifts to be brought on board, Jai Krishna babu. What you do with your wretched girl, the killer of my son, I make your business.”

And that was the moment when Jai Krishna Gangooly felt his wounded consciousness began to heal. The stars had been repositioned. The pleader knew Surendranath’s claim to the dowry was untenable, nakedly greedy. But the reborn Hindu knew the working of fate was more complicated than English law and cared nothing about life and death, even of innocent children. His daughter’s true fate, the fate behind the horoscope, had now been revealed: a lifetime’s virginity, a life without a husband to worship as god’s proxy on earth, and thus, the despairing life of a woman doomed to be reincarnated.

“The marriage did not take place,” he said, his voice lawyerly, loud, authoritative. “Therefore, there is no question of dowry giving.”

“His son is dead! The boy has been murdered!”

Jai Krishna turned his back on the avaricious man who would have been Tara Lata’s father-in-law if fate hadn’t intervened. “I will see my daughter married to a crocodile, to a tree, before you get a single pice! I give dowry only to one who does not demand it. There will be a wedding tonight, the auspicious hour will be honored.”

And with that, Jai Krishna Gangooly, who would soon reclaim the ancestral name of Gangopadhaya and embark on a second lifetime of wondrous adventure, walked down the gangway to the dock. The women on the riverbank, uncertain of what had happened on board the bajra, began their ululation once more. The shenai players led the procession back to the wedding house. When the procession reached the walled compound, Jai Krishna himself threw open the front gates and welcomed in the assembled beggars and gawkers. At nightfall, the naphtha lamps were lit, the bride and her sisters were gathered up and placed inside a palanquin, and the marriage party set out, on foot and in palanquins and sedan chairs, to find a tree suitable as a bridegroom.