Kari is an intelligent young woman living in the India of the late seventies. In danger of being held hostage for her parents’ political engagement, she reluctantly accepts an arranged marriage to Aravinda, who is a surgeon working in Northern Ireland. She is about to discover many unexpected things about her family, herself and her sexuality.
“…So I said well, of course, if you can promise me that the guest of honour will be a real, live cabinet minister, I’m certain my daughter will be only too delighted to perform a striptease.”
“Fine,” Karishma muttered. Today’s chess puzzle in the newspaper was harder than usual, so she allowed her mother’s voice to float by her. Then the words sank in, and her head shot up in shock and disbelief. “What? What did you just say?”
“Welcome back to the world, Kari dear. I’m sorry, but I had to say something dramatic to drag you back to reality,” her mother said. “I just wondered how outrageous I would have to be to get your attention. I’m going to hold you to sorting the laundry, though.” “Laundry? I said I’d do that?” Karishma groaned. “You did. Thank you for volunteering to do your ironing this afternoon, too.”
“Blast. There’s a maths lecture I wanted to go to.”
Her mother sighed. “Why couldn’t I have produced a nice, girly daughter whose passions run to shopping and pretty clothes? Oh no, not me. I get stuck with a tomboy, who loves to charge round the hockey field like an avenging angel, terrorises the rest of the family over the chess board and seems to be happiest solving a maths problem.”
Kari’s father stuck his head round the door and interrupted his wife. “Did I miss any of your clichés? Molly, my dear, you’re starting to sound like a cracked record.” He ducked back out as the cushion hurled by Kari’s mother bounced off the door. The interruption had given Kari time to organise her response.
“I can’t do anything about my genetics,” she said. “Blame Daddy’s side of the family. He told me Papa-ji and Mama-ji used almost to come to blows across the chessboard. The sport? I’ve no idea. I just love to chase after a ball. Mama-ji said I must have been an Afghan hound in a previous existence.” She missed her grandmother, who had been an important fixture in her early life. With a mother who was a lawyer and a father who taught at the university, Kari knew she’d been fortunate to have Mama-ji around to bring her up.
“Now that I have your attention,” her mother said, “there’s something you and I need to talk about that is even more serious than chess.” The look on her face said she wasn’t joking.
“Is it Daddy?” Kari asked, anxiety visible on her face. She was used to her father’s being in conflict with the administration of the university. His protests about his students being beaten up and arrested by thugs supported by the army and police during the eighteen months of the crackdown had been duly noted. India in the late 1970s was not a place where opposition to the régime was tolerated. Things had changed, but the in-fighting in the current government didn’t give much hope for its survival. If, or more likely when the previous rulers got back in, Kari’s father would again become vulnerable.
“In a way, yes. But it also concerns you. His enemies are just waiting for the moment to strike. Your place at the university is likely to be withdrawn.”
Kari’s face blanched. “They can’t. I was top in the second-year exam by a mile,” she exclaimed.
“Irrelevant. They can do it. But that’s not all. We need to take precautionary measures, and you aren’t going to like what your father and I have decided.”
“I don’t get a voice in this?” Kari’s voice betrayed her anger. “I thought we were, quote, a modern Indian family, unquote. Your words, I think, Mama?”
Her mother sighed. “This is hurting me as much as it hurts you, Kari. I can’t see an end to the uncertainty, and you’re an obvious target for those who wish to strike at your father and me. It would be helpful if we can get you out of the country, at least for a while.”
“And go where? To Auntie who was thrown out of Uganda and is struggling to rebuild a life in London?” Kari’s tone was bitter. “I don’t think so. Her situation is no better than ours.”
“No. Not to London, but to Ireland.” “They won’t let me in. I’ve no connections.”
“There is a way. There is a man. A friend of friends…”
“A man? What man? Who is this man?” Kari spluttered.
“He’s a doctor, a surgeon, in fact. He works in Belfast, which is in Northern Ireland.”
Kari puffed out her cheeks in exasperation. “I did study geography, Mama. I know that. And?” Karishma’s mother took a deep breath. “He’s offered to marry you, which will allow you to live in Britain.”
Her daughter’s face went purple. “You are not serious, Mama. An arranged marriage? The threat can’t be so great.” “I wish it were not. Please, Kari, consider it, at least.”
“I don’t need to. It’s no, no and no again.” Her mother stood, tears in her eyes. “I told your father it wouldn’t work. But you’re all we have and I’m terrified for you.” Kari got up and hugged her; she could feel that her mother was trembling.
“Let me talk to Papa-ji,” she said. “He’ll tell me how bad it really is.”
When she rushed into Papa-ji’s room, it was no surprise to find him engrossed in a crossword. He flinched as his granddaughter flung herself on him. She was at least a head taller than he was. “Easy, girl,” he admonished her. “I’ve been feeling rather fragile lately, so try not to break me, please.”
“Oh, Papa-ji, I’m sorry, but I’m so unhappy.”
“Not half as unhappy as you’ll be when they lock you up for being your father’s child.”
The cool response took Karishma by surprise and she took a step backwards. “They can’t,” she said.
“Those who lurk in the shadows can do anything they want. I still have contacts who tell me what’s in the pipeline. This government will fall. Then, next time you’re in a protest, you’ll find yourself being held as a hostage for your father and mother’s future silence and co-operation. It’s all arranged.”
Kari sat down with a thump. She’d been aware that things were precarious, but not quite how dangerous her own position had become. An hour and much internal argument later, she concluded that she needed to sleep on the subject before making the decision that she knew was the best…no, the only solution. The following morning, she lay in bed, hands clasped behind her head and pondered. She shook her head. Stop chewing on it, Kari. It’s inevitable, even though the idea of an arranged marriage, even one of convenience, sticks in your throat. For the sake of the rest of the family, you have no option but to accept.
“You look lovely, Kari,” her mother said. A week had passed. Now I understand the expression that time flies. Karishma was wearing her best sari, to honour the visit of her fiancé. If she were honest, she had to admit that she liked how she looked when she was formally dressed. The shalwar kameez that was her usual, slopping-around-the-house outfit was comfortable, but when she put on a sari, especially one of the antique ones she’d inherited from Mama-ji, she felt elegant. She knew that she stood taller and walked more gracefully when she wore a sari. She was a twentieth-century student, happy to focus on a mathematical or chess problem for hours, but she was also the daughter of a distinguished academic family, and she knew how to behave in a correct and traditional way when needed. She’d chosen today’s sari with care. It had to be fifty years old, but the dark-red silk shone like new. She straightened it a final time and walked into the living room to meet her future husband. Husband in name only, she was reassuring herself as she opened the door and stopped dead.
The man who was standing up to greet her was godlike. He towered over Kari’s five feet eight. He has to be at least six feet three. His hawk-like nose and deep, flashing eyes gave him the looks of a film star. He had to be over thirty, she’d worked that out from the fact that he was a surgeon. Kari was looking at a male specimen in the prime of his life. Kari swallowed, aware that she was staring in a quite unseemly manner. She gathered her scattered wits and shook hands with him.
“Aravinda, this is Karishma, my daughter. So…” Kari’s mother said. “Right. I’ll leave you two to talk,” Her face didn’t look at all relaxed as she closed the door behind her. Karishma and Aravinda sat for a minute or more in silence.
“I’ve heard a lot about you.” Aravinda began at last. “People who know you said never play Karishma at chess, she’ll slaughter you. They told me don’t play cards with her, she’ll ruin you. The one thing nobody mentioned was that you are beautiful.”
“Don’t be silly. This is a business deal. You don’t have to flatter me,” Kari responded.
“Business or not, you’re a very attractive woman, Karishma. I speak as I find.”
Kari felt herself warm to him. It isn’t his fault that the circumstances of this meeting are so strained. “Sorry to be prickly,” she said. “You’re offering my family a very big deal. I intend to accept your offer, but as friends, nothing else. Can you live with that?”
Aravinda shrugged. “I’m happy to help out,” he said. “And to have you around, even as just a friend, will be a pleasure. I’m part of a very small minority where I live.”
“That’s settled, then. We’d better tell the parents.” Kari stood up and went towards the door.
“Wait.” His voice was urgent. Kari stopped, her hand grasping the doorknob. “In fact, I’m a small minority within a small minority,” he said. “I’m gay,”
Kari looked at him, puzzled. He didn’t look especially full of fun.
Then Aravinda gave her a wry smile. “Sorry. I suspect it’s a meaning of gay that hasn’t reached India yet. I’m homosexual.”
Kari’s mouth dropped open. For her intended husband to admit to being homosexual wasn’t something she could have ever anticipated. People didn’t just announce things like that. The two boys she knew of in her group of friends kept their feelings for each other well hidden when in public. “So why are you about to get married?” Kari blurted out.
“In the UK, life will be a lot simpler for me if I have a wife, especially a wife who is as attractive as you. People won’t ask awkward questions about why I am still a bachelor.” That wry smile came again. “It might persuade the nurses to stop pursuing me, too.”
“So, I can see what the advantages are for you. Thinking practically, what do I get, other than that my parents cease to worry that I’ll end up behind bars?”
Aravinda was silent for a moment. “I can promise to be a friend who will care for you,” he said. “Someone who will provide somewhere to live, of course, who will finance your studies in the UK and who will offer you an adequate lifestyle. Who won’t ask questions about your sex life either, as long as you remember to be discreet.”
“Then I agree,” Kari replied, without turning around. Sex wasn’t a major priority for her. Studies came first. Of course, she enjoyed a good orgasm and flirting was fun, but she hadn’t felt the need to involve anyone else in her life thus far. “Let’s do it.”
While she was getting ready for bed that night, Kari was about to have a shower when it crossed her mind that Aravinda had called her lovely. Ridiculous. She grinned. It reminded her of when she had asked her best friend at school why nobody asked her out on a date. They couldn’t have been more than fourteen. They were in knickers and bra at the time, getting changed after playing hockey. Narina stood back and examined Kari. You’re far too tall and far too clever, Narina pronounced. Any boy who’s tall enough isn’t clever enough, and any boy around here who’s clever enough is staring straight at where your tits ought to be. And your eyes. Grey? What colour is that for eyes? All wrong. Your skin isn’t even the right colour. Just look at you, all pale and washed out. You, Kari, are undatable.
Narina was, like many of Kari’s schoolmates, a rich chocolate brown and already had a magnificent bust. Kari was hurt, but only for a moment, until Narina added: I’m only joking. I will keep my eyes open for a suitable victim. There has to be a tall genius with bottle-bottom glasses and whose taste is all in his mouth somewhere. In retaliation, Kari walloped her friend’s bottom with her wet towel and their mock-fight continued until the arrival of the teacher and the imposition of one hundred lines each for unladylike behaviour.
Kari decided it was now time to look at herself objectively. She undressed completely, then turned and faced the long mirror. The reflection showed a tall, slim young woman. Her milky-coffee skin, her grey eyes and her height made her stand out from many of her friends at the university, as much as had been the case at school. Her long black hair shone, showing reddish highlights under the neon tube. Her classic oval Indian face featured big eyes and a curved nose. It was something of an effort to evaluate her body. Kari was uncomfortable examining herself in this way, so she started with her feet. Her long legs had good calves and she’d escaped the big bottom that was the trademark of Mama-ji, from her father’s side of the family. Luxuriant black curls hid her sex from sight. Her waist was slim, which made her breasts seem larger. She cupped her hands experimentally under them. They felt firm but heavy. She had to wear a bra with good control when she played hockey. Lovely? I suppose I wouldn’t frighten the horses, as Mama-ji would have said. It doesn’t matter anyway. It doesn’t change who I am.
“Karishma,” her mother called. “Can you drag yourself away from your book for half an hour or so? We need to talk.”
Kari’s heart sank. Again? Whenever her mother used her full name, it meant that the discussion would be a serious one. “Coming, Mama.”
In the sitting room, her mother was enthroned on the sofa. A large leather-bound photo album lay closed on the coffee table in front of her. She patted the cushion beside her. Kari sat down and waited.
“Since you’re going to be married, we ought to have the mother-daughter discussion,” Kari’s mother began. She held up her hand as Kari showed signs of being about to protest that it wasn’t necessary. Kari subsided.
“You went to the same boarding school as I did, Kari, so I know you’ll have been told about sex by the other girls. I certainly was. Some of it even turned out to be accurate.” Kari’s mother smiled. “I suspect that, as also happened to me, school will have provided some first-hand experience of what gives a woman pleasure.” She raised a questioning eyebrow at Kari, who blushed.
Hot and humid summer nights in the dormitory, when even the lightest of night attire felt like too much clothing, had been the scene of some sexual experimentation, it was true. Kari hadn’t been as active as some of her classmates, but she’d participated willingly enough when the urge struck her. The idea that her mother had done just the same came as a shock, though. She was still getting over that when her mother nodded understandingly and went on.
“How else were we supposed to practise kissing, when there were no boys anywhere around? I’ll never forget your father’s face when I told him that. It’s the only time I have ever seen him speechless.” She smiled again.
“Time for a change of subject, I think, Kari. How much do you know about your grandparents from my side of the family?”
Kari suppressed her sigh of relief. “I know they died a long time before I was born, so not very much…let me think. Because of a badly-ventilated heater? I also know my grandfather worked for the railways. But he had been a British soldier, hadn’t he? He was Irish. That’s where you and I get our grey eyes from, and the red glints in our hair, and why you’re called Molly. Grandmother was from Chennai, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, except they called it Madras, then. Do you know how it happened that they met and got married?”
“No. It can’t have been so usual back then, I imagine.”
“It certainly wasn’t. They were a remarkable couple in many ways.” Molly cleared her throat and took an envelope from under the album on the table. “First, though, I’d like you to look at this.” She handed a six by four photo to Kari, who looked at it and gasped. The black and white image showed a full-length, full-frontal nude…of herself.
“That’s impossible…I’ve never… Nobody has…” Kari jabbered. How can this be? The idea of having such a photo taken has never crossed my mind. If it was stolen without my knowledge, why am I smiling straight into the camera lens? And I’ve never worn my hair like that. The photo had clearly been posed. Kari stared at it. She was holding the photo as she’d been taught, by the edges, and the inadvertent pressure of her fingers made the stiff card flip out of her grasp. She just managed to catch it before it fell to the floor. It had turned over in its flight, and now Kari saw the inscription on the back.
“It’s not me, it’s you.” she exclaimed. She looked again more closely. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you, Kari, dear,” Molly said. “It is indeed a picture of me and if you think I am beautiful, then so must you be. As you noticed, it could easily be you in this photo.”
“Who took it?” Kari asked. “And why? And why am I seeing it now?” Her friends had often commented on how much her mother resembled her, but it hadn’t sunk in that, as this photo proved, they were alike enough to be sisters.
Molly sat back. “It was taken when I was just a bit younger than you are now, in nineteen-forty-seven. The photographer was your great-aunt Ushma, and she took the picture because I asked her to.” Kari’s mother paused. “And you’re seeing it now because it’s time for you to learn about your family’s very private history. Just as that photo proves that I was young once, so were my parents.
Let me tell you the story…