The night before Christmas, Raina usually fell asleep feeling warm and fuzzy, looking forward to meeting her big extended family. But not this time. Raina had a restless night. She knew her parents would talk to everyone about keeping a look out for a potential husband. What a disastrous Christmas! Everyone prodding her about things she did not want to think about.
Two months ago, Raina had broken up with Naveen, after an eight year long relationship. They had been together since Raina was 18. But a year of long distance had taken it’s toll on the relationship. Naveen was working at the London office, of his father’s travel agency. He was eager to prove himself to his dad.
Deeply engrossed in his work, he had little time for Raina. Raina was eager to start a family, and Naveen did not think this was feasible for him in the foreseeable future. Conscious of her ticking biological clock, and the growing distance between them, Raina decided to break up with him.
Raina talked to her parents, and they all agreed that it would be best for her to have an arranged marriage, so she could put this pain behind her, and move on to build the family she really wanted. Raina’s parents wanted to give Raina some time to deal with her pain. They decided to wait until Christmas to break it to the extended family, when they would all be together.
Raina woke up bleary eyed. But, soon she and her parents were busy with tidying up the house, finishing up the cooking, and generally preparing for the arrival of the guests. For a short time, Raina forgot about her problems, and it was like every other Christmas morning.
The relatives all trooped in, cousins, uncles, aunts, great aunts. There was an exchange of good wishes, hugs, kisses and of course gifts.
Helping himself to his first scotch of the morning, Anshul uncle announced "Rohan is getting engaged in the second week of March, so better clear your calendars. I'll let you know of the exact date soon. I expect to see you all, no excuses."
Everyone congratulated the beaming Anshul uncle and Anisha aunty on their son's upcoming engagement. That's when Meena aunty said "Hey when is Raina getting married? I haven't got my invitation yet."
Raina’s mother took the opportunity to briefly inform the family of Raina’s break up.
Every one said how sorry they were, and asked Raina how she was doing. Raina tried to answer them politely but briefly. She really wanted to get past this part.
Anshul uncle went on to say that "Naveen was a no good bum. He was too smooth and polite. It all seemed like an act. No genuine warmth and emotions. I should have known there was something wrong with him. Never mind sweetie. It's better you found out that, he is not right for you, before you got married."
Anisha aunty agreed whole heartedly, nodding along, as she always did with everything Anshul uncle said. In spite of being upset, Raina could not help but notice her glass of wine moving up and down in sync with the nodding and it made her want to laugh.
Feeling some of the tension drain, Raina had just turned to pick up something to eat from the little coffee table weighed down with Christmas cake and other home made snacks, when she heard her cousin Rachna ask "Raina what are you going to do now?"
Rachna was all the way across the room, holding a steaming cup of tea, and her clear loud voice caused everyone to stop chatting for the moment. "I know you have always been scornful of arranged marriages, but do you really have an option?" She sneered. "Well, I suppose you could wait till you find love again, even if that does take another 8 years." There clearly was schadenfreude behind this outburst.
Rachna had an arranged marriage just two years ago. At that time Raina had been insensitive. "I can't understand how you can want an arranged marriage. How can you agree to a lifelong commitment to someone you know so little? It's crazy. You are ruining your life." She had lectured. But now she could see how hurtful her words were to Rachna, when she was stepping in to an uncertain future.
Raina's mother ignored Rachna's comments. She said, "Raina is considering an arranged marriage. If any of you come across a suitable candidate please let me know." Then she fell into conversation with one of her sisters-in-law.
Raina knew she owed Rachna an apology. But as she looked up she saw Rachna walking towards her. She hoped Rachna would not make apologizing difficult. To her surprise, Rachna said "Raina, I really need to talk to you. I am sorry about what I just said. It was hurtful, and I of all people should know better."
Raina was puzzled "What do you mean by that?"
"Two years ago, when I chose to have an arranged marriage, you made it sound like I was suicidal. I know you didn't mean to hurt me, and you sincerely believed I was making a bad decision. Your words fueled my own insecurities, and I came to really resent you."
Raina's eyes widened as she entered her room. "You were insecure? I thought you really believed in arranged marriages and scorned the idea of romance and love."
"Of course not silly. That is just what I said, because boys never seemed to like me. It was easier for me to pretend that romance was silly, than admit guys did not find me attractive. I was jealous of Naveen and you. Everyone in the family thought you were the perfect couple." Rachna was unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She sat on the old bean bag which had always been her favorite perch in Raina's room.
"Hold on. You were jealous of me? I can't believe that. All my life, I have been jealous of you, because you were so much better at school work and my mom thought you were the angel child."
Rachna looked around Raina's room and smiled mischievously. "Yeah. When we were really young, I milked that, but only when we were really young."
Rachna looked at raina again. "Anyway I was very nervous about having an arranged marriage. But what other option did I have? I think you understand my situation better now. I hoped that you would comfort me and tell me that my family was always there for me. I know you did what you thought was right, but that was not what I needed. I felt defensive, and I lashed out, saying those things about romance being shallow and worthless."
"I can't presume to imagine what it feels like to have lost Naveen." Rachna scanned the empty spots where Naveen's pictures used to be. "But I can imagine what it feels like to decide to have an arranged marriage in this family. I used to curse my luck. Most Indians of our generation, either had arranged marriages, or fought tooth and nail to have their parents accept love marriages. Why did my family have to be atypical? Most of our cousins had love marriages, and there was this unbearable look of well meaning pity in their eyes, when I decided on an arranged marriage. So, knowing what you were going through, I should have been sympathetic instead of vengeful."
Raina was embarrassed. "Yes, I was just thinking that I had no idea then how much I hurt you. It is easy to have strong convictions when they are not being tested. Rachna, we used to tell each other everything, but since you got married we have hardly talked. How are you doing?"
Rachna was unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "Raina that was your choice, not mine. I tried to keep in touch but you started sounding very awkward and formal in our conversations and you stopped calling."
"Yes, I know. More of my preconceptions. I assumed that you could not possibly be happy in this arranged marriage. I also assumed that you would not admit to being unhappy. So I did not expect to be able to have an honest conversation with you." Raina stared down at her hands, embarrassed beyond words.
"It's nice to know you had such a high opinion of me. No, never mind. I wont be angry. I had plenty of insecurities when I made the decision. Several times I came close to changing my mind. You often hear dating someone and living with them is not the same. And in an arranged marriage you barely date for a couple of months before getting married. But that is exactly the point. Whether or not you dated before, probably does not matter too much. There is little to be learned from dates about the challenges of daily life. Being in love, may help overcome these challenges, but then again it may raise expectations and hamper the process of adapting to married life. I think, what really matters, is that both people in a marriage, love or arranged, are sensitive and considerate and respect each other."
"Rachna, honestly, are you happy with your marriage? Do you love Nishant?" Raina snatched up a bar of hazelnut milk chocolate. She paced, her emotions scattered. Absently she offered half the chocolate bar to Rachna and bit into her half.
Rachna accepted the chocolate. "Yes I am happy. I wont deny that I was lucky, in that Nishant is open minded and patient, and he has taken the time to understand me. We actually started living together like room mates and friends, and slowly got to know each other. With time our conversations became more personal and we felt comfortable expressing our vulnerabilities to each other." Rachna smiled as she reminisced the early days of her marriage.
"Nishant is very encouraging, and some how he made me feel confident." A small shy smile crossed Rachna's face making her look 10 years younger. "And sexy. Something I had never felt before. Soon I was really attracted to him, and I could tell he felt the same. We felt giddy in love. Finally, I was able to feel all that I had heard my cousins -- including you -- talk about. In some ways being married made it better. We had already secured the long term thing. So we were able to fully indulge in the moment."
“That is amazing Rachna. I am very happy for you.” Raina’s eyes sparkled with joy she felt on her cousin’s behalf. But then her face fell as remembered her own pain.
“What is it Raina?” Rachna asked.
“It is true that I miss Naveen, but what I am most disappointed about are my shattered dreams. I really wanted to start a family, and have kids. I miss the future I had fantasized about. It was so close and then it was gone. I still can't believe it." Raina blinked back her tears.
"Raina.” Rachna came up to Raina and put her arm around her. “You will have that family life. It's not that your life is destroyed, it's just taken an unexpected detour and sometimes detours can a good thing."
Raina nodded. “I hope so. I really do. I have missed you Rachna, and yes, I know it was my fault. I have missed confiding in you. We have always been honest with each other, but perhaps, we are now old enough to be sensitive and empathize as well. Will you forgive me?”
"Of course. Here is to being friends again!" Rachna said and the cousins shared a heartfelt hug.
“You know, you are right. This detour has already taught me to be open to other perspectives. It has also brought us back together. We were best friends for twenty years, long before I ever knew Naveen. So I may have lost him, but at least I have you back. With you back in my corner, I think I can be cheerful and optimistic again.”
Rachna smiled. She had missed Raina too. She was almost certain, that she was pregnant. Now, more than ever, she would need her best friend.
PS: I wrote this story a long time ago, as a part of a novel that did not work out. Author, Maria Schneider, then, helped me improve the story and taught me a lot about writing, and publishing. Thanks Maria for all your help.