By Rheea Mukherjee
I got married when I was 20 because I was homesick.
Although, ‘homesick’ is arguably a complex matter when it comes to my past.
I’ve overused my upbringing on resumes and statements of purpose for college. I always start with this: I was born in the US and lived there for a decade. When I was 10, my parents moved us to Bangalore where I completed high school. Then when I was 18 they moved back to the US where I started college.
By then America had left me. The accent, the food, the endless highways, and my memories of Mrs. Smith cleaning up lumpy phlegm from my T-shirt in 4th grade — all gone. I had forgotten the coldness of New York and the stick insects that stuck to the nets of our porch in suburban Florida. Eight formative years in India had rendered me a quintessential Bangalore girl. I resented being back in a now-foreign America.
I thought the resentment would be temporary. After all, I had the same resentment at 10 when I was first thrown into Bangalore. Back in the 90s, Indian schools weren’t used to adjusting to kids from other countries into the Indian system. I was the weird one who talked ‘smartly’ but failed in math, science, and Sanskrit every year. But that slowly changed. I made new friends and joined a theatre group in high school. I was in love with the city by the time I was 17.
So in 2002, when I moved with my family to Colorado, I was confused, scared and homesick. My parents lived two hours away from my college. I was thrown into a world of roommates, mac and cheese, and candy-sweet peppermint liqueur. For the first time I was acing my exams. I was studying things that I loved: psychology, social policy, and biology. But an overwhelming sense of dread and non-belonging poked holes in the beauty around me: the bright Colorado sun, the vast mountains surrounding our campus, the sense of liberation that comes from living away from your parents for the first time. All the cool new things to study, all the wild dorm parties — nothing soothed the sense of loneliness.
It was fall when I first met him. The trees lining our campus had turned burnt orange. A crisp sturdy coolness most Indian cities never know, the kind of coolness that lets your mind and body hum in that precious pocket between summer and winter. I had just been told there was an Indian Student Association Meeting at the Student Centre. It was music to my ears. I rushed over. A large group of Indians, all wearing overly dramatic jackets for October, huddled around fading blue couches.
My heart leapt. The familiar accent, the Hindi jokes, and tickle of garam masala that radiated from their coats thanks to the lack of ventilation in American student housing. Us cozy Indians. It was perfect; I was with my people.
I met him here when I was about to turn 19. A 25-year-old engineering grad student, I’d marry him one year later.
He was from Rajasthan, a city that American tourists go to ride camels in.
He was everything I would not have been attracted to had I been living in India. He was from a more conservative family, not half as globalised as my friends who lived in India. He was adorably patriarchal — adorable only because the power and confidence he exuded made me feel less helpless — and sung Hindi songs for me.
He was ‘older’. My American friends thought it was cool. I never spoke Hindi on a regular basis in Bangalore, but with him it was all I spoke. It was charming; it was a substitute. He would have to do, because I knew so little about myself. Because I didn’t know what I wanted, but I did remember DDLJ and he could sing all of those songs.
The warning signs were in bold and in red. I was oblivious to them.
Very early on in our relationship, he had pulled out a picture of Priyanka Chopra on his computer. I talked about a few movies she had done recently. He nodded along, then said, ‘It’s like her mouth was made for a blow job, like she is begging for one’. Then he laughed, knee-slaps and everything. And I giggled because I was outstandingly foolish, naive, and idiotic. I laughed because he was older, so it must be okay to say that, right?
It didn’t matter. Because he loved me. “I am gonna make you my wife,” he said. I thought it was precious.
He had a pressing need to marry an American citizen. Like many engineering students who flooded the country for a master’s degree, he too had the American dream. Ironically, I was the one with the US citizenship, impatiently waiting for any opportunity to go back to India. But I was stuck there. I had no autonomy to make my own plans. He made it sound good: Me, a mere college student had the ability to keep an older man in the country by simply marrying him.
“I’ll have to go back to India otherwise.”
This threat was too painful for my idiotic self to bear.
I told my parents about him. I said, he was the one and I must marry him. They told me I had to finish college. But I pleaded, and I convinced them to at least consider my marriage a year later.
But one year is too long — my boyfriend needed his visa. He got a job on a temporary, one-year internship visa. It was in Texas; he left my University town. It was the time when Avril Lavigne’s ‘I Am With You’ was on the radio. I cried to it with Bollywood-like glory. The separation with the added possibility of him having to leave the country was crushing. I couldn’t see past him. My inability to cope in America was tightly condensed into the love I had for him. Love by proxy.
He called me to Virginia where he was on a client’s project. I was secretly getting married and no one knew. My boyfriend flew me to Virginia. I felt scandalous, rebellious, alone. The man at the marriage bureau was blonde, balding, and had his belt cinched around him, forcing his pot belly to bulge to the world, like it was a muscle. He had earphones on, half-listening to the radio as he helped us fill out the paperwork.
“Alright folks, you ready now, do you have a ring for her, sir?”
The boyfriend laughed sheepishly. I smiled with vacuous confidence: you see we’re above materialistic things like a ring. We must be. Why else had he (we?) not thought about that?
The man proclaimed us ‘husband and wife’ under the Fairfax County of Virginia with the enthusiasm only an inanimate object could exude.
It was done, we were married. I went back to college and pretended I was just a regular sophomore like everyone else. The good thing is that everybody was too drunk to notice. I was too drunk to notice I was married. And because being a functional alcoholic in college is normal, it’s easy to blur the line between emotional pain and the social requirement that was Thursday night binge drinking in someone’s dorm room. The pain was different every day. Sometimes, the crassness of my double life exhibited itself in silence and tears. Other times, it showed up to parties where I faked accents with friends, pretending we were from countries we had never been to.
He called from Texas often enough. He kept making sexist comments about women, but they were supposed to be funny. The realisation that my sweet nostalgia for Bollywood was not the same kind he had was numbed by candied peppermint shots and beer pong. He went to strip clubs and told me about it nonchalantly. We fought.
But it was all undercover when it came to my parents. To them, I pretended that he was the greatest fiancé in the world. So a year later we got ‘married’ again in India. My friends and some family members were alarmed. I was too young. The guy was weird. Are you sure? But they proceeded with the festivities.
I was in my in-laws’ house for 10 days in transit, before we were to go back to America as a ‘married’ couple. The family recreated 90s Bollywood with aplomb. They glorified things like the bahu cooking and feeding the family for the first time. I felt special.
Then, in the kitchen I tore a piece of roti from the tava and chewed on it. My mother-in-law, already squeamish about the fact that I am an ‘American Indian’, cleared her throat. “Iss ghar mein, pehle mard log kahte hain [in this house, in our culture, our men eat first].”
For some reason, I was smart enough to take offence to this. I tattled to my husband. “Don’t take it seriously; she doesn’t mean it. She is just trying to tell you more about our Indian culture.”
I wanted to tell him that I lived in India too, that Indian culture can mean 101 things to 101 people. But I barely knew myself at 21. I barely understood who I was in context to the world. Although, it didn’t stop me from glorifying my intercultural abilities on cover letters for applications to part-time jobs in college. I drowned in my own contradictions in the house by playing dutiful bahu. I smoked cigarettes and had recent memories of doing street theatre in Bangalore. Even though my goals could hardly have been described as domestic. I had no urge to have children. I wanted to write, act, and be a psychologist. I was edgy and bold, that’s how I wanted to think of myself. Wasn’t I an endearing mix of traditional and modern?
By the time we left for America as a married couple, 10 days later, my husband agreed that I was indeed too young to have a child. “OK, you can wait till 25 to have one,” he said, grinning at his own sense of broad-mindedness. I nodded my head vigorously. Twenty five sounded so far away. What a compromise.
I moved to Texas with him, transferred to a new college, abandoned my social work degree, and switched my college major to theatre. Just to make sure that my husband was ‘cool’ enough to have a wife who studied theatre.
In my new home, we’d watch movies together, sit around and drink with his friends. Everything was warm-cozy-NRI. What a life. His friends liked to “get laid” but wanted arranged marriages as well. Years later, all of them would give up their strip clubs and foreigner-dating to settle down with mom and dad’s choice.
It was only two months later when I realised that my husband was somewhat of a porn addict. I caught him switching screens on the computer when I entered the room. Sometimes, he showed me a page of Bollywood stars in skimpy clothing — “See, this is not porn. This is just, halka se sexy, that’s all.” But there was porn too. Lots of it. And it didn’t matter if I was in the next room cooking or doing homework.
He said ugly things if I asked about it too much. “Why don’t you tell your father to take care of you, pay for you? Go back home if you feel the need to keep questioning me.”
But his mood would realign soon enough. Manic smiles with Bollywood song humming and dance moves. He’d blare the speakers on — a feisty item number — and pull me up to dance with him. I’d dance too, but every new dance felt increasingly lonely.
I’d call my friends in Bangalore, miss all the cool things they were doing. I’d ask if they had seen the latest Hindi movie. They hadn’t. Because India wasn’t all about Bollywood. It was just the closest thing I had.
My parents, especially my mother, had told me she wanted me to be financially secure before I ever got married. Now their voices haunted me and it was all my fault. I had willingly boxed myself into the most anti-feminist of situations. I was too scared to say anything to my parents.
My mother-in-law called once in while, never asking me about college, but always asking me what I had cooked. She told me not to call my husband by his name. ‘Ji’ would be the worthy replacement. I laughed it off. My husband laughed it off too, although he never took the trouble to tell his mother why it was, at the very least, an outdated thing to say to me.
Six months into the marriage, we had another one of our endless fights about his comments on women and porn. This time he slapped me. I was speechless. He tried to make up for it, cooing songs, taking me to dinner. He told me to quit pestering him about it, and to relax.
I took long drives in the evenings, excusing myself from the house on the pretext of grocery shopping. My own rebellion had caught up with me. I lay my head on the steering wheel in empty parking lots and wept. The months were scattered with more fights, and more hitting that were dismissed as human reactions ‘in the heat of the moment’.
To fix my sadness, I started chatting online with a friend from Colorado. I fell helplessly in love with him. We plotted, like two idiotic teenagers, a way out of this terrible marriage. But I was still too scared to do anything. So we just typed furiously into the boxes of Yahoo chat. My isolation and depression, slowly manifested into an epic imaginary love online.
One day, I confronted my husband about the visa, asking him if that was the only reason he married me. I also brought up something that had twisted my stomach: the month before my mother had come to visit us for Diwali, I had caught him watching porn when my mother was in the next room.
This time the reaction was blunt. He hit me twice, then threw me onto a glass table.
I guess you could say this was the turning point. That moment where you know you can either live your life like this or you can swallow the bitter pill and acknowledge the mistake you made. I was 22 by then, and reeling from the thought that many others will say ‘told you so’, and how many others might try to convince me stay in that marriage. After my first marriage was over, my public credibility was at an all-time low. This only set me up for more failures as the years passed by; the pressure to recreate my image was far too intense. But that old cliche is more goddamn true than you think. You’ll never become who you are if you keep thinking about what people think. You have two choices: fearlessly get to know yourself or care about what other people think.
I told my parents. I went back home, started college again and completed my social work degree. My husband had gotten his green card. I felt no vengeance to try to contest it. I had danced to his foolish song.
In the next couple of years, I’d work in a domestic violence shelter and see women come with stories 20 times more horrific than what I had experienced. I saw what could have been. The most ‘modern’ of us women are filled with internalised misogyny. I was educated, global, had a supportive family and amazing friends. To the world, I’d be voted least likely to have suffered domestic abuse. But I did.
I fell in love with other men. Men who would love me in different ways but couldn’t see all the scars. I’d make many mistakes along the way.
I’d have nightmares about my ex-husband. Those dreams eventually faded with the years. I’d move back and live in India and be the writer I wanted to be. I’d have to hurt and confuse others because of this man. Because finding yourself again is never an overnight journey.
And to recover, it would take another decade and years of mistakes. I am not done with mistakes yet, but I am starkly aware of who I was, what I have become, and what I stand for. Now, at 33, one thing I’ve become is a storyteller, one that had to become fearless and unapologetic in telling her own. One who still knows all the songs in DDLJ.
Rheea Mukherjee co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore.