The overnight Raj express from Varanasi winds its way through a purple sunrise, past fields of dhal and houses made from sun-dried mud. I wake suddenly to the jingle jangle of ruby red glass bracelets. Instinctively I reach under the covers. Phuh! My valuables are still there, clutched between my thighs.
The bangle-studded arm belongs to a man dressed in a green sari. He stands inches from my head, clapping his hands in a way that make the large loops of gold in his ears dance. I am tempted to touch his hennaed hand, to make sure that this is not part of a dream. But, to my surprise, the sari-clad man is not interested in me.
I watch, fascinated and relieved, as all around me Indians in various states of disheveled wakefulness hand over crumpled notes in return for another clap of hennaed hands. This transaction obviously only works amongst Indians.
“Hijra, bring luck to baby,” explains a thin man opposite me with a wide smile, pleased to help this clueless foreigner understand the subtleties of the subcontinent. “If not give money, he bring bad luck to baby.” “But why is he dressed like a woman?” I want to know. “He not woman and not man, he hijra, can not marry, can not have family.”
Pradep Chajed, a 35 year old electronic salesman from Bangalore in a polyester suit that he now carefully brushes down, doesn’t actually have any babies yet, nor a wife for that matter. “I give money to receive good fortune, good wife.”
Pradep has been on this train for the last 36 hours. Most of that time he’s been asleep on the bunk across from me. Suddenly he is wide awake, chatting cheerfully about his impending wedding. “Has a date been set?” I want to know.
“Well,” he says, realizing that I have no idea how things work around here, “that depends when a good wife will be found.” His mother and father are very busy trying to find him a wife. He pulls a tiffin lunchbox from his satchel. His mother is clearly also very busy spoiling her son with home-made treats that he proudly offers to share with me.
We munch on cold pakoras and thin, stringy mushrooms that taste like seaweed. I expect him to hit on me any minute, but this electronic salesman doesn’t indulge unrealistic expectations. “I am old, too old to be without wife.” But his father determined that he needed to follow his horoscope and wait until Mars is in the right position. “Otherwise we will be separate, so I have to wait until after 30 years of age to getting married,” he says offering me home-made candy from his tiffin box.
Pradep has very specific criteria for his bride-to-be: She needs to be a graduate, have a good heart and be a full vegetarian, preferably a Jain like him. What about looks I want to know. Wouldn’t it bother him if she is short, or fat, or ugly? “Madam you see, if you marry a wife because of her beauty, what happens if she looses her beauty because of an accident. Like maybe she burn part of her face. Will you no longer lover her? For me beauty not important.”
I admire his pragmatism and wisdom. Things can be that simple. Why on earth are we all so hung up on looks? But of course things aren’t that simple in Pradep’s world either. A good wife, he says, insisting I take the last cardamom flavored semolina candy, must get on well with the rest of the family, especially, of course, the mother. A good wife will be a good cook, she will learn his mother’s way of preparing his lunchbox and one day take her place in the kitchen.
My new friend gets ready to go. Suddenly he’s all businesslike, the electronic salesman from Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, where things are changing rapidly, but some things clearly remain as they always have been.
He smiles satisfied and hopeful as the train pulls into the chaos of Delhi station and I realize that I forgot to ask how he knows whether a woman has a good heart.
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