THERE was a hush at the dining table when Sumita, my cousin, announced that she was going to marry a Frenchman. She said it calmly, almost casually, as if there was nothing unusual for a Bengali girl to marry a foreigner.
It was a Sunday. We had all assembled, as was customary, for our weekly get-together lunch. My grandmother had ruled that come what may, the entire family must have the mid-day meal together on Sundays. She herself presided over the table as a venerable deity, but would keep herself a full two feet away from the dining table, lest some particles of food, especially eggs and chicken, fell on her.
We, the teenagers, stared speechless at Sumita for her audacity. The youngsters gaped with open mouths. The elders were too stunned to speak. But after a pregnant pause, all hell broke loose. There was utter pandemonium when everyone spoke but no one listened. My aunt and uncle were almost berserk with anger. The children, visibly enjoying the family scene, joined in the chorus.
In that melee, sanity was restored by grandmother, who had not uttered a word so far. Sternly, the grand old woman asked Sumita whether she meant what she said or was trying to pull a fast one on the family. Unabashed, Sumita confirmed her statement. Then, the usual questions were fired at her: Where had they met? What did he do? What was his family background? Apparently, he was an engineer working on an Indo-French project; she had met him at the local centre of the Alliance Francaise, where she also was a student.
The next week was really gruelling for Sumita. But no amount of pleading, cajoling or threats would weaken her resolve. Grandmother was the first to relent. She said she would like to meet the sahib.
On D-Day, we were all agog with excitement. Just as our patience had reached its limit, Sumita entered with him. He was immaculately dressed in a spotless white dhoti, like a Bengali bridegroom. He was tall and lean. Our attention was drawn to his eyes. They were intensely blue and large with black lashes and arched with very dark brows. Needless to say, he had instantly captured our hearts. Slowly, he surveyed us all. Then, with a dignity which was very attractive, he walked up to grandmother, bent down and touched her feet. He asked in fluent Bengali: ‘Bhalo achen, thakuma? (are you alright, grandmother?).’
She was clearly bowled over. She forgot to step back as she usually did when someone suddenly touched her. Stupefied, we watched her putting her care-worn but still lovely hands on his head and murmuring, ‘Beche thako baba (long live my son).’ This happened 20 years ago. Sumita and her French husband went on to have three sons.
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