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“I can’t believe how beautiful this place is!” I exclaim later, for what feels like the hundredth time. The lavish décor doesn’t cease to take my breath away. Reds, oranges, and yellows project onto the ballroom walls, reflected off the glimmering sequined tablecloths. A giant four-tiered wedding cake sits on a table in the middle of the dance floor, complete with an Indian bride and groom as cake toppers.
“Looks like everything the Nanduris have to do with is beautiful,” he says smoothly. He’s flirting with me! James’ face flashes through my mind for only a second before it’s replaced again with Nishanth’s.
We must beam at each other like we’re in our own world. When I glance away, my eyes settle on Indrani, Anisha, and Sophia, whose friendship is already cemented over pop stars and their latest antics. My parents, three tables away, immerse themselves in conversation with Nishanth’s parents, and when Amma and I make eye contact, her gaze shifts between Nishanth and I with a decided glint.
“Do you think you would want a love marriage or do you think you’d go the Nakul route and get a semi-arranged one?”
“You mean we have a choice?” I ask, playfully.
“I guess that means you’ve been fed the arranged marriage stuff your whole life, too.” Nishanth chuckles. “But let’s say it was completely up to you.”
“I’m not sure yet, to be honest. They are both wonderful in their own ways. How about you?”
“Me neither.” He shrugs. “I was hoping you had a better answer.”
“I wish! I think it’s kind of complicated for kids like us.”
“I completely agree.” He throws his hands up in surrender. “We have to be as Indian as the people in India and as American as the Americans. We can’t win.”
His dimples create valleys in his cheeks, and I would tell jokes all day to keep them there.
Being asked the same question twice in a few hours makes me consider my answer more seriously. Anisha’s sleepy pronouncement replays in my mind. You always did follow the rules. Anisha and Nishanth may have asked me what I want out of curiosity, but having a choice was never part of the bargain.
In the western world, arranged marriages are seen as ghastly or inhumane. In India, it’s the norm. In ancient days, women and men were married as business transactions. Betrothals during infanthood occurred to further interfamilial ties. Nowadays, the process has changed to something called semi-arranged. Basically, it’s the idea that the parents set you up on a blind date. For progressive families like mine, that means if your date tanks (like the time Mohini’s suitor stared at her cleavage all night), you can say it’s silly to continue onward, and the next match is brought up. There are so many factors to be considered in these pairings, it’s almost easier to allow parents to choose a potential mate and then test out whether the chemistry works. It is how Mohini and Nakul met. They dated for a full year after being set up.
“Isn’t that weird? Having your parents choose someone for you?” I’d asked Mohini over a holiday reunion.
“No.” She had smiled. “It’s easy. You don’t have to worry about someone being wrong for the family because that part is taken care of. Then it’s just you two, figuring out your compatibility.”
“But compatibility and love are two different things, aren’t they?”
“One can always grow into the other. You’ll see when your time comes, Nithya.” She spoke with the wisdom of a guru.
I told myself it was because Mohini spent her younger years in India, but after seeing the wedding today, the two families interacting like they’ve been related the whole time, I wonder if she’s onto something.
My parents still laugh about their first encounter. My dad and twelve of his closest relatives came from my dad’s city of Hyderabad to my mom’s birthplace in Vijayawada. They all crowded into her living room and interrogated her about her interests and how well she could cook.
“Amma!” I had exclaimed when she first told me the story. “That is the most unromantic thing ever. How could you have said yes to a match like that?”
“Oh, it was typical back then! I impressed them enough, and they all approved unanimously. I knew what I was doing!” she replied with a wave of her hand and a confident jut of her chin.
My dad tells another story. After the Guantanamo Bay interrogation Amma endured, Nanna asked her to go on a walk, thinking they could take the pressure off and talk on their own. My mom had shyly acquiesced. Halfway through their walk, just as they were beginning to break the ice, my dad happened to glance behind him. About fifty feet away, skulking behind them, was Amma’s younger brother.
“That’s terrible!” I had cried.
“It was the way things were,” Nanna had shrugged. “A woman’s virtue was paramount, and they needed to be sure I wasn’t taking advantage of her... though I did think I was a nice boy, and they overreacted.” He had been amused by my outraged expression.
Years have passed, but some things don’t change. My family and I haven’t had many conversations about marriage because I’m only twenty-one. We don’t need to. My parents had a semi- arranged marriage and so did all the other married people in their generation. My grandparents imply it when they discuss the search for marriage matches. The message is clear when my mom complains that I need to learn how to cook Indian meals so I can blend in with my husband’s family. As my cousins start to marry, the tradition continues. The conversations will inevitably start once I graduate. I don’t look forward to it. Perhaps it is because I have been raised in the United States. I still tear up when I watch western couples reciting their vows, or when I hear about a friend whose significant other has gone down on one knee. Love marriages are beautiful in their own way. Regardless of how I want to find a husband, however, I do know my family will always come first. I guess my future is sealed.
The DJ announces that we’re ready to begin and introduces the parents and finally the happy couple themselves. The crowd is raucous. Mohini and Nakul sway to their first dance, a slow Indian love song I’ve never heard before, likely from my mother’s age. Indian weddings tend to be productions–carefully choreographed events where the hosts put on a show and the guests serve as a willing audience. Mohini’s and Nakul’s gazes haven’t shifted from each other’s faces since they started dancing. Perhaps the idea of falling in love, dating, and making your own decisions is overplayed. Maybe love grows. Maybe it isn’t something that exists from first look or first kiss. Maybe, just maybe, the end justifies the means.
Dance performances follow the couple’s first dance: siblings, cousins, and friends have choreographed performances to entertain the crowd. When the music takes up again after dinner, Indrani, Anisha, Sophia, Nishanth, and I are the first on the floor. We all dance, scream the lyrics in each other’s faces, and cheer on the dancers around us. We laugh as drunken guests slip on the wooden floor and act gangster when the rap songs come on, as if we have any idea what it’s like to grow up in the ghetto. Our bodies pour sweat, but we don’t stop. We take shameless selfies of ourselves with my camera. Under the lights, our skin is dewy, our smiles are brilliant, and our photos look full of fun and hope.
My parents, at a nearby table, surround themselves with family members and Nishanth’s parents. They are the center of attention, completely comfortable. My dad cracks a joke, and everyone around him bursts out in loud hysterics. Tears stream down my mother’s cheeks from her belly-busting giggles. We’ll pull out these pictures a month from now, and us five kids will look like we’ve known each other our entire lives, and our parents, who have, will look complete. James, school, and all the miles of detours my mind has taken lately have vanished.
In this moment, I don’t care how any of this plays out in my future. I just want this. A big Indian wedding with colors, people I love, and tradition. It’s all I need.
The Rearranged Life Synopsis:
Nithya, a vivacious, intelligent and driven college senior has always known what she has wanted: a successful career in medicine and the love of her family. She's even come to terms with the idea of an arranged marriage, a tradition her conservative Indian family has held up for thousands of years.
When a night of partying puts her on a collision course with danger, Nithya's entire life changes.
Enter James St. Clair, the smart, challenging and heartbreakingly handsome American.
As Nithya and James fall in love, she questions the future she and her parents have always planned. Now, Nithya has a choice to make: become a doctor and a good Indian bride, or step away from her family and centuries of culture to forge her own path.
The decision she comes to takes her on a journey that transforms how she sees her future, her relationships with loved ones, and how she learns to put herself back together when even her best-laid plans fall apart
Buy links: Amazon // Barnes and Noble
Annika Sharman Bio:
Annika Sharma was born in New Delhi and brought up in the United States, where she moved with her parents as a baby. A proud alum, she graduated from Penn State University with dual degrees in Biobehavioral Health and Neuro-Psychology, and minors in Biology and Human Development and Family Studies. She received her Master's degree in Early Childhood Special Education before pursuing her dreams of becoming a writer, landing her agent Stacey Donaghy of Donaghy Literary Group while daylighting as a preschool teacher. The Rearranged Life, her first novel, was written in the month before graduate school.
Annika, a Gryffindor and Scorpio, spends much of her time dreaming of adventure, working on her next book, going on Starbucks runs with family and friends, shopping online and watching superhero movies.
The Rearranged Life, will be hitting shelves on May 15th, 2015, published by Curiosity Quills Press.
Social Media links: Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads
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