The DNA-Out of Print short fiction contest: Editor's note
Thank you to all the writers who put so much passion into the work they sent in.
Any slight trepidation we might have had that running the contest so soon after the elections would influence the interpretation of the theme, ‘choice’ in narrow ways quickly dissipated. The range of issues was wide and addressed personal freedoms, societal pressure, social apathy. There are stories about cross-dressing, corruption, conscience, callousness, neglect, injustice, farmers, writers, colliery chiefs, postmen, gigolos, mothers, fathers, cruelty, rape, abuse, desperation, release, futility, death, love. All winners.
It wasn’t easy to identify the five finalists and we wish we could have included more among them. The choice of winning story was ultimately influenced by the clean direct simplicity with which the protagonist approaches the complex choice he makes, and the deceptive lightness with which the story is told.
— Indira Chandrasekhar, Leela Levitt, Ram Sadsiv at outofprintmagazine.co.in
‘She is thirty. It’s time she got married.’ Quiet mumbles.
‘Love? She can fall in love after she's married. With her husband.’
More quiet mumbles.
‘I know she's been focusing on her career. Look at you. You've continued working. You're a department director. If you can do it, why can't she?’
More mumbling. A sigh.
'I'd never force a marriage on her. She's my daughter, too, Babita. All this time, we've let her do whatever she wanted, thinking eventually she would choose to settle down. She hasn't. Perhaps it's time we chose.'
These words were part of a whispered conversation that took place between my parents two and a half months ago. I'm currently sitting on a settee near a large window of my hotel suite as wedding chaos reigns around me, eating homemade mishti doi out of a small pot, and you're probably confused. Let me back up for a second.
Roger and Babita Patil, my parents, moved from Bengal, India to California, USA in their early twenties. Several years later, I, Rosie Patil, was born. Being a first-generation born in America means my parents raised me, their only child, with an odd mixture of eastern and western thought. This means growing up vegetarian, except for eggs – those are something in the middle of vegetarian and meat, apparently – trying ballet classes and kathak lessons, growing up on Shahrukh Khan films and Meryl Streep movies, and celebrating Christmas with as much gusto as Diwali.
This also means that my parents understood the concept of dating but only allowed it once I was in my final year of university. Now, here's the problem with that: when you grow up observing the dating world, it's like reading a sociology book – you have the theoretical knowledge of human courting and mating behavioural patterns without practical application. That does not mean, however, that you agree with said observed behaviours. In fact, time spent listening to friends' stories of their love lives usually had me mentally shaking my head at people's stupidity. And there were many such stories and a lot of mental head shaking.
So, there I was at twenty-two with no dating experience whatsoever and already jaded by the dating world. I thought the boys around my age were idiots, every last one of them. They took dating as a game of winning and losing, chasing and being chased. I was over it before it even started.
This brings us to my parents' issue with my life – I am thirty and unattached. Correction: was. My parents found a solution to this predicament just a couple weeks after I overheard their whispers. Deciding they had had enough of my nonchalant attitude toward marriage, Roger sent Babita to emotionally blackmail me into consider 'meeting' the son of a friend of his. I was sitting at the kitchen table when the verbal attack on my conscience occurred, and the conversation went something like this:
Babita: Hi, beta. Are you hungry? You want some mishti doi?
Me: I'm always hungry for mishti doi.
Babita: *Sigh!* I remember feeding you this when you were little. Your face would scrunch up to take a bite and then you'd bounce up and down at the sweetness. If only I had a grandchild as cute and little to feed now.
Me: And someday you will, Mom. But it's not going to be anytime too soon, I assure you.
Babita: I won't be around forever, you know. I'm getting older now. Who knows how much more time I have? You know Anand Uncle just got out of the hospital after a heart attack. My co-worker, Julie, already has arthritis in her knees. How will I play with my grand children if I have arthritis in my knees and your father is in the hospital recovering from a heart attack?
And that was how I got suckered into meeting Arvin.
She even used mishti doi. Clever, Babita.
What I didn't know at the time, was that our 'meeting' would not just be us meeting. It was both of our families going out to dinner together. It was Arvin and I sitting at our own table-for-two some twenty feet away as they observed us to make sure nothing 'untoward' occurred. Needless to say, I was mentally preparing myself for the most awkward dinner date of my life. Of course, that did not mean I was prepared for Arvin.
Arvin is cute in way where you can’t quite pinpoint why. With appetizer, I found out he’s good at his job – a contract civil engineer – but talks a lot when he’s nervous and says too much. Which was how I found out that while he doesn’t watch Hindi movies often, he’s a huge fan of Nargis Fakhri because, well, she’s Nargis Fakhri. He also thinks Shahrukh Khan cries too much. He’s a baseball fan who never figured out cricket. Eventually, dinner arrived and conversation moved to our past dating lives and what the future may hold. He thought it'd be a good idea to get everything out on the table and I thought it was smart and agreed. Dessert went back to small talk, and we covered things like favourite authors, how he hates the gym while I adore that post-workout burn, and how he goes on a camping trip at least once a month while I can’t understand why anyone would leave a perfectly nice house to live in a plastic bag.
In short, he’s all right. I don’t find him amazing. In the short two months we spent getting to know each other, however, he made me laugh a lot, and somewhere along the way, pushed between the arthritis looming over my mother's knees and father's decidedly impending cardiac arrest, I decided that was potential enough.
Of course, that was two months ago, and all of that brings us back to today. The BIG day. Mine and Arvin’s wedding day.
I know they say some grooms get cold feet, but what about brides? Because here I am, sitting on a settee by a large window of my hotel suite, eating my homemade mishti doi, wondering what the hell I'm doing. Bridesmaids are running around looking for bobby pins and tossing and catching cans of hairspray and mousse around like professional football players. My mother is on the phone with my father who is talking to the priest to make sure everything is set up correctly for the ceremony. Since yesterday's prayer and haldi, it's like my mother has gone schizo. One second, she's relaxed and going with the flow and the next she's stressing over if we have enough flowers for the ceremony.
I turn away from the chaos and stare out the window and take another bite of sweetness. Guests are mingling in the hotel's courtyard under the tents that have erected for the occasion. The caterers have just arrived and are carrying equipment and trays of food into the hotel through a side door, likely headed toward a kitchen. My father and Arvin's mother are talking to the priest. The groom's side arrived not too long ago with music and dancing and flowers galore. I wonder if someone brought his shoes. My attention goes back to the caterers as I see them carrying yogurt. I smile as I remember my conversation with my mother.
‘Beta, don't you think mishti doi is too simple for a wedding dessert?’
‘You can have other desserts if you want, but I want mishti doi. It's my wedding day, mother...’ She'd acquiesced.
I take another bite. I love mishti doi, and not just for its sweet taste. I love it for what it is – easy, but requiring effort. If you just want to eat sweet yogurt, it's not that hard to spoon some into a bowl and stir in some sugar or honey. But if you want mishti doi, you're going to have to put aside the readymade yogurt and start from milk. You’ll have to have some patience, put in a little more effort, pay a little more attention to preparation and time and heat. For a recipe with so many possible shortcuts, mishti doi is a dish that requires dedication to the culinary tradition, the art, the taste, and the heart. It demands that you choose – do you just want instant, fleeting gratification or do you want blissful fulfilment?
I look up to see an overcast sky and let another dollop of sweet hit my tongue.
‘Rosie?’ My mother calls me out of my thoughts. ‘Beta, it's time to go.’ She smiles. I take my last bite, gather my skirts, and make my way down.
The bridesmaids, aunts, and my mother huddle around me and I feel like a celebrity as I exit the elevator and begin to walk to the double doors that lead to the courtyard. Just as they open the doors, it begins to sprinkle. At the threshold it's raining. I take a step outside into the courtyard, cousins and friends are scrambling to get some kind of covering to me. I ignore them, and my mother's protests, as I smile and walk purposefully toward the alter.
I feel drops fall on my face one by one, increasing in tempo. I look up as I walk toward Arvin with my eyes closed, raindrops rolling down my features – over my cheekbones, across my eyelashes, down the length of my nose, resting where lips met each other. I grin widely. My hair is drenched, and my dress ruined, but I could not give a damn. I look at the altar as I slow my steps down but continue toward it.
I can't do this.
It's a lie, a blasphemy that's been committed one too many times over the years by way too many a people who were too scared to let themselves recognise the truth for what it was. But I recognize this moment for what it is. Readymade yogurt.
Marrying Arvin would be like choosing to stir sugar or honey into yogurt. It’s easy and fine and you can learn to be content with it if you really try, but it's not satisfying. It’s not impatiently waiting at the restaurant when he’s late again. It’s not your heart fluttering when an arm settles around your shoulders as the two of you tuck in for movie night. It's not cracking half a smile when he surprises you with your favourite dessert as an apology after a nasty fight. That is what you get waiting for the milk to boil, for the sugar to caramelise, for the hours to pass and the sweet to set. That’s finding someone who is worthwhile to you. That’s waking up every day, starting from scratch, and choosing to love the same person over and over again. That's patience, dedication, and work. That’s blissful fulfillment. That's mishti doi.
I come to stand before him, and I know he knows. I expect him to be upset, angry even, but when I meet his milk-chocolate eyes, he just gives me a sad sort of smile and shrugs before playfully leering at one of the bridesmaids behind me. I giggle and shake my head, thankful to have become his friend. Then, he looks at me more seriously, brings his hands up to cup my face, and gently pulls me closer to him. Somewhere in the background noise, I hear the priest sputter something about young couples these days having no respect for tradition, confused chatter from our guests, and drops of water hitting the surface of what is supposed to be our wedding. But we pay no mind to the priest, tune out our guests, and drown out the rain, as he pulls me closer still. He gently brushes the apples of my cheeks with his thumbs, leans forward, kisses my forehead, and lets go.
About the author
Rachna Kiri was born and raised in San Jose, California. She graduated from the University of California, Davis with a BA in political science. She fell in love with words at a young age and remains an avid bookworm. She discovered her love for writing just before entering high school. As she grew, she found many causes she was passionate about and sought to understand government and went on to study political science at university. She is incredibly thankful to her family for always supporting her dreams and encouraging her ambitions while keeping her grounded and practical, and ever grateful to God for such blessings. Aside from playing with words, she enjoys cooking when she feels like it, singing to inanimate objects and anyone who will listen, pretending to be a dancer, binge-watching television shows, working out, and trying to play sports despite her athletically challenged status. You can follow her on Twitter @rachna1019.