Rajappan looked at his brother-in-law with an expression he tried to pass off as a mixture of annoyance and sympathy. But the expression failed to be either as what he truly felt was the kind of sadistic relief one feels when a relative-by-marriage makes a grave mistake. Nevertheless, he tried to hide his true glee by reaching across to the Ramesh Iyer’s chair and placing a consoling hand on his knee. He said, “I hate to be the one to say ‘I told you so’, but had you listened to me then, then at least the money could have been set aside for her dowry.”
Ramesh could hear all the words, but he was not really listening. His mind was numb. He thought about the day when Rajappan had told him there was no point sending a girl to college. “Why, Ramesh? If they become too independent, they will not respect their husbands and in laws. Imagine if your Tulsi does that! You will have no respect in the community.” But Ramesh Iyer had thought otherwise. His daughter was no beauty. In a country obsessed with fair skin, she was brown as a nut. He had replied, “But Rajappan, just look at her. Her complexion – it is so… if she goes to college, at least I can mention her degree on matrimonial sites and later print it on the wedding card. Whether she wants to pursue a job or not will not be my headache. Once she marries, her husband will decide that for her. Mostly he will say ‘no’. Then she will know who the boss is and there will be no question of disrespect.”
Ramesh Iyer did not know that Tulsi had been standing behind the curtain near the sofa where the two men were discussing her.
And now here she was, with a degree in hand, insisting that she wanted to pursue a career before giving marriage a thought. Insisting also that she wanted to go far away from her hometown, to a city, like Chennai, Cochin or Bangalore. And worst of all, according to Ramesh Iyer – she did not want to be a nurse at all. She wanted to start a cupcake bakery. All the money he had invested in her education, without once asking though what it was that she wanted.
“And Appa, one more thing,” she announced before walking off, “if I ever decide to get married, I sure as hell won’t let you print my degree on my wedding card.”
Ramesh Iyer opened his mouth to retaliate, but Tulsi had already turned on her heel and walked away. He couldn’t help thinking, cupcakes! His daughter wanted to cook for strangers! If she wanted to cook, she must do so for her husband, for his parents, for children they would have. Why for strangers in a strange land?
Tulsi sat in her little bakery and thought about her father. They hardly spoke to each other. She knew he must be secretly proud that her cupcake shop was flourishing and she also knew her uncle, Rajappan would probably be dying of envy. Sure, his son followed all the rules and was now a software engineer in Chennai. With a family-oriented, neat and pretty wife who had popped out two kids in quick succession. Unlike Tulsi. Tulsi, the “bad egg”, the “rebel”, the “girl who walked out”, the girl “not worth a husband”. But Tulsi, the girl who dared to live the life she wanted. And as for a husband, yes, that was why she was thinking of her father today.
Tulsi had met Kabir a few months after she had opened her bakery. It had been difficult at first. She did not have a lot to invest in, considering she had only a few savings from the time she had been a trainee nurse, plus a little something she earned by doing night shifts at a non-profit health centre. But she felt her struggle had been worth it, and the reward was her own little bakery.
Kabir had come in one evening, looking a little lost. He had asked for a cookies-and-cream cupcake. He came in the next evening also. And the next. He would always sit at the same table by the door, slowly eat the cupcake and leave. One day his table was occupied by some students. The other table was free, but there were no chairs. Tulsi brought him a chair from inside and he mumbled a “Thank you”. She began a conversation with him. And then there were more conversations. Every evening.
One evening, Kabir announced that he had won an award at work and was allowed to bring a guest to a celebratory dinner. He invited Tulsi. “Me?!” she laughed, “You would be embarrassed with me next to you.”
Kabir looked offended. Tulsi explained to him, hesitantly, about her complex of having always been called dark and ugly. And her need to hide in shadows because of this. Kabir sighed. Then said, “The grass is always greener on the other side! Most Indians think I am albino or I have some other terrible skin disease! How do you think that makes me feel? You, on the other hand, are one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. Your eyes are so bright and your smile is so friendly. You’re funny, and always know the right words to cheer me up. And you make the best cupcakes in the world! So, I am asking you again. Would you please do me the honor of being my guest during Saturday’s dinner?”
Tulsi had agreed. A year later, Kabir proposed to Tulsi. At her bakery, in the presence of other customers. On one knee!
Tulsi said yes.
Tulsi said yes.
Now, Tulsi thought how to broach the subject in front of her father.
Persuading her father had been no easy task. For along with her father, was the army of relatives who still insisted of finding a match for her, while disdainfully clicking their tongues saying she was too old (at twenty four!) and too “educated” to find a good husband. A few men even approached her father, some stating they want no dowry, provided she stops “preparing cupcakes” post marriage, while others unabashedly demanded a car or a house, and the end of her career. Tulsi put her foot down and said she was marrying Kabir whether they liked it or not but would appreciate it if her father gave them his blessings.
“She was always the brash and rebellious one, that Tulsi!” Rajappan whispered to anyone who lent an ear.
After a lot of convincing and arguing, coaxing and cajoling, Ramesh Iyer agreed. But there was one more thing Tulsi wanted to do.
“Appa, I want to share the wedding expenses with you.”
Her father was stunned. He tried to explain to her that if he took money from his daughter, he would have to hang his head in shame. He said he was not short of money, and could take care of everything. Besides, even if he couldn’t, there was no way he was going to let his daughter lend him money for her own wedding!
“I am not lending it to you. I do not expect it back. Had I been a son, wouldn’t you have taken money from my salary? Then why not from me? Do I not earn enough or is my money tainted because I am a woman? I know people are calling me a rebel behind my back, Appa. But I hope you would see it that respect is not just serving a husband and in laws. Respect is also earning one’s own money and supporting one’s parents. Why can’t you be proud of that?”
Ramesh Iyer kept quiet. Tulsi said, “Oh, and one last thing, Appa. Dark isn’t ugly.”