When Your Future Feels Controlled by Others

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It was February in New Delhi. Spring had just begun, and the weather was warm. I sat in my maternal grandparents’ living room, having taken my place perched on the edge of an awkwardly large love seat. Dressed in a traditional churidaar-kurta, my hair undulating to my waist, a bindi dotting my forehead and a diamond chip adorning my nose, I felt appropriately pretty. I kept my hands folded and gaze demure, wanting so much for this suitable boy’s family to appreciate me and choose me for their own.

It was a scene straight out of a Bollywood flick. One in which an arranged marriage inevitably turned to romance, and romance to eternal family bliss. 

“One or two teaspoons of sugar in your tea?” my mother asked our guests. Sounds of spoons clinking against teacups, and the exchange of sweets and pleasantries filled the room.

I was a freshly minted architect living with my mother and brother, raring to move on to a grown up life. Nobody was pushing me into a union. I had been the one to ask for a match. My friends were either marrying their romantic partners or heading abroad for further studies. There was no boyfriend in my life and a foreign university was out of the financial question.

At home, I’d sometimes lie in bed and envision my future—covering myself head-to-toe with a blanket, hands on my heart, absolutely still in the darkness. I called it my comatose pose—an escape pod providing solitude. I’d imagine my life as a self-sufficient woman, employed, living in her own apartment, and happily in a relationship. I could maybe find this freedom in America, I’d muse.

But, as my mother often reminded me, India was our homeland and where we belonged. Why on earth would I ever want to go back to a country of foreigners, even though I had been born and partly raised there?

The sounds of china and chitchat continued. My mother, her parents, brother and his wife sat to the sides. The suitable boy’s parents sat directly across from me. To my right, sharing that big love seat, was his sister. 

She sidled up beside me and smiled, “So my dear, I was very impressed to learn that you are an architect. But … tell me,” her question carried a lilting cadence, “what are your hobbies?”

I smiled warmly at this complete stranger, eager to please. “So nice to meet you,” I said. “I love Indian classical dance, especially Odissi. I have learned a bit and I really love to watch recitals. I have started a wedding card business, I make glass paintings and design handmade stationery products as well.” That should open a nice conversation, I thought.

After a moment’s pause, she leaned in a little closer and probed more pointedly, “Ah! But … what about the kitchen?”

Aren’t you like, my age? I wondered as I made an effort to hide my surprise and be diplomatic. “Right now, my mother is queen of her kitchen at home,” I replied. “When I have my own kitchen, I will be queen too.”

She sipped her tea and pursed her lips. Either she didn’t like what she tasted or she didn’t like what I said. I sat with my hands tightly clasped, grappling with the insinuation that a lack of interest in homemaking could be a mark against me.

I was 23 at the time and had spent the past twelve years working hard to assimilate and embrace my Indian heritage. I’d proven that an American kid could come to India and graduate at the top of her competitive high school class, achieving a 98% score in Sanskrit and 99% in math. I had earned the admiration of my peers and elders and had finished college with distinction. 

Arranged marriages, however, come with outsiders who pride themselves on finding fault. I glanced to my left at the suitable boy himself. He sat a bit arrogantly, surveying his surroundings. He must have sensed my look because he leaned across his chair to acknowledge my presence with a nod. Perhaps he is uncomfortable with all of this, I considered. 

But his demeanor was deadpan and his eyes were critical behind his glasses. “Ya. Hi. So … what do you do in your spare time?”

I’d selected this gent’s biodata from the many that were faxed over in response to my matrimonial ad in the Hindustan Times’ Sunday edition. Nestled within a sea of bridal classifieds, some bigger than others, was my deceptively simple ask: 

Beautiful, fair-complexioned, 5’-1”, Punjabi girl. 23 years old. Professional. B.Arch. Seeking groom with professional credentials. Caste no bar.

I chose his profile because he was a UK-returned engineer and therefore an eligible professional who might understand my U.S. upbringing as well as my career aspirations. 

To answer his spare-time question, I once again rattled off the list that I’d shared with his sister. At least he will appreciate all the cool things that I’m up to, I figured. 

But instead, pat came his dry assessment, “So you have no spare time.”

Did you want me to say that I knit for fun, you moron? I retorted in my head.

From the time he’d arrived, his lack of personality had let me down. His appearance did not help either. Though not heavyset, he slumped and seemed to be missing a waistline. Though he was of average height, he seemed to be compensating with thick-soled shoes. Yet here he sat in judgment of me for my full life because society had granted him the audacity as a man to have the upper hand. 

Self-respect gripped my bones. You are second to no one, my gut growled. That’s when his father stood up, straightened his ill-fitting safari shirt and turned to my grandfather. “Sir,” he said. “Let us step outside.” The two heads of family took their conversation to the garden, an air of importance hovering in their wake. The rest of us smiled sheepishly and nibbled on those sweets and a few additional savories. We all knew what was transpiring on the other side of the screen door. A conversation on the realities of my life as a child of a “less-than-suitable” family—the social stigma of divorce smudging the halo that I’d tried so hard to keep steady over my head. 

She comes with compromises, I could imagine them weighing my case. But the girl is very intelligent and a professional. Our family comes from generations of people in high places. The girl is a U.S. citizen. 

The screen door clattered shut as the patriarchs rejoined our group. “It is time for us to take our leave,” announced the suitable boy’s father. Everyone obediently rose to their feet, politely saying namaste and shuffling over to the garden gate. I waved goodbye with mustered cheer as our guests departed. My family returned in silence to the living room, each deep in thought, the screen door again clattering behind us as we stepped inside.

I couldn’t imagine anyone in this room believing that the match was made in heaven.

“Good people,” established my grandfather. “The boy is well-educated and the family is respectable. Let us see what the boy has to say about his interest in her.”

The fans whirred rhythmically above us, stirring up some much-needed sound and circulation. It was my grandmother who spoke first. “You are placing a frog before a princess,” she jested in Punjabi, attempting to at once speak her mind and bring some levity to the mood. 

Through most of her life, my mild-mannered grandmother had suffered the tyranny of her caustic mother-in-law. She had been forced to change her given name. She had been made to stand aside when her daughter, my mother, was married away at the age of 19. She bore many indignities through the years with kindness and joviality towards others. She also single-handedly taught me to read and write Hindi when I was twelve.

On this day, she spoke up for the potential she saw within me. I think she might have been my hero.

My grandfather asserted with authority what he believed to be the cold, harsh reality. “What is wrong with him? What better options could she possibly have? This is as good as it gets, if she’s lucky enough to get it. She has no other choice.” He posed this directly to my mother and grandmother while I hovered behind them, a bystander to my own fate.

There it was again. She has no choice. Was this to be the forever refrain of my story? I felt a rising fury against life as it was and a fire for life as I wanted it to be. I looked across at my mother and my grandmother, seeing their lives, each held at the mercy of other people’s diktats.

The promise of my best years was still ahead of me. It was my turn. Yet one wrong decision and it could all pass me by. 

Ever since the move back to Delhi, I had not moved from the straight-and-narrow. Was my only viable choice to lean on a husband for purported safety and stability?

The phone rang, calling us to attention and a sooner-than-expected verdict. The call from the suitable boy’s father lasted not more than a minute. “A very good result,” my grandfather beamed towards me as he shared the news with satisfaction. “Their son would like to take you out to dinner. They want to see whether you two can hit it off.”

Which risk is greater? Leaning on a husband and defining life by his family’s standards? Or leaning solely on yourself with nothing but potential in your pocket?

I knew myself in that moment. I stood up. Strong on my own two feet. What I was about to do would take courage and would come with consequences, possibly failure for me and embarrassment for my family. I’d be tested not only in that moment but in the many moments to come.

I stepped forward, knowing full well that my grandfather was not used to any form of defiance. “I am going to earn my way back to America,” I pronounced as respectfully as I could. “I am going to find a way to get there and survive. Self-belief is going to be my safety net. I will take responsibility for myself and take my chances.”

It felt good to challenge myself out loud. I hoped that the universe could hear me.

Also published on: Have you ever felt as if everyone had control of your future, except you? — The Leela Collective

Sunaina Mehta is a Global Brand Marketing and Customer Insights leader.

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When Your Future Feels Controlled by Others

It was February in New Delhi. Spring had just begun, and the weather was warm. I sat in my maternal grandparents’ living room, having taken my place perched on the edge of an awkwardly large love seat. Dressed in a traditional churidaar-kurta, my hair undulating to my waist, a bindi dotting my forehead and a diamond chip adorning my nose, I felt appropriately pretty. I kept my hands folded and gaze demure, wanting so much for this suitable boy’s family to appreciate me and choose me for their own.

It was a scene straight out of a Bollywood flick. One in which an arranged marriage inevitably turned to romance, and romance to eternal family bliss. 

“One or two teaspoons of sugar in your tea?” my mother asked our guests. Sounds of spoons clinking against teacups, and the exchange of sweets and pleasantries filled the room.

I was a freshly minted architect living with my mother and brother, raring to move on to a grown up life. Nobody was pushing me into a union. I had been the one to ask for a match. My friends were either marrying their romantic partners or heading abroad for further studies. There was no boyfriend in my life and a foreign university was out of the financial question.

At home, I’d sometimes lie in bed and envision my future—covering myself head-to-toe with a blanket, hands on my heart, absolutely still in the darkness. I called it my comatose pose—an escape pod providing solitude. I’d imagine my life as a self-sufficient woman, employed, living in her own apartment, and happily in a relationship. I could maybe find this freedom in America, I’d muse.

But, as my mother often reminded me, India was our homeland and where we belonged. Why on earth would I ever want to go back to a country of foreigners, even though I had been born and partly raised there?

The sounds of china and chitchat continued. My mother, her parents, brother and his wife sat to the sides. The suitable boy’s parents sat directly across from me. To my right, sharing that big love seat, was his sister. 

She sidled up beside me and smiled, “So my dear, I was very impressed to learn that you are an architect. But … tell me,” her question carried a lilting cadence, “what are your hobbies?”

I smiled warmly at this complete stranger, eager to please. “So nice to meet you,” I said. “I love Indian classical dance, especially Odissi. I have learned a bit and I really love to watch recitals. I have started a wedding card business, I make glass paintings and design handmade stationery products as well.” That should open a nice conversation, I thought.

After a moment’s pause, she leaned in a little closer and probed more pointedly, “Ah! But … what about the kitchen?”

Aren’t you like, my age? I wondered as I made an effort to hide my surprise and be diplomatic. “Right now, my mother is queen of her kitchen at home,” I replied. “When I have my own kitchen, I will be queen too.”

She sipped her tea and pursed her lips. Either she didn’t like what she tasted or she didn’t like what I said. I sat with my hands tightly clasped, grappling with the insinuation that a lack of interest in homemaking could be a mark against me.

I was 23 at the time and had spent the past twelve years working hard to assimilate and embrace my Indian heritage. I’d proven that an American kid could come to India and graduate at the top of her competitive high school class, achieving a 98% score in Sanskrit and 99% in math. I had earned the admiration of my peers and elders and had finished college with distinction. 

Arranged marriages, however, come with outsiders who pride themselves on finding fault. I glanced to my left at the suitable boy himself. He sat a bit arrogantly, surveying his surroundings. He must have sensed my look because he leaned across his chair to acknowledge my presence with a nod. Perhaps he is uncomfortable with all of this, I considered. 

But his demeanor was deadpan and his eyes were critical behind his glasses. “Ya. Hi. So … what do you do in your spare time?”

I’d selected this gent’s biodata from the many that were faxed over in response to my matrimonial ad in the Hindustan Times’ Sunday edition. Nestled within a sea of bridal classifieds, some bigger than others, was my deceptively simple ask: 

Beautiful, fair-complexioned, 5’-1”, Punjabi girl. 23 years old. Professional. B.Arch. Seeking groom with professional credentials. Caste no bar.

I chose his profile because he was a UK-returned engineer and therefore an eligible professional who might understand my U.S. upbringing as well as my career aspirations. 

To answer his spare-time question, I once again rattled off the list that I’d shared with his sister. At least he will appreciate all the cool things that I’m up to, I figured. 

But instead, pat came his dry assessment, “So you have no spare time.”

Did you want me to say that I knit for fun, you moron? I retorted in my head.

From the time he’d arrived, his lack of personality had let me down. His appearance did not help either. Though not heavyset, he slumped and seemed to be missing a waistline. Though he was of average height, he seemed to be compensating with thick-soled shoes. Yet here he sat in judgment of me for my full life because society had granted him the audacity as a man to have the upper hand. 

Self-respect gripped my bones. You are second to no one, my gut growled. That’s when his father stood up, straightened his ill-fitting safari shirt and turned to my grandfather. “Sir,” he said. “Let us step outside.” The two heads of family took their conversation to the garden, an air of importance hovering in their wake. The rest of us smiled sheepishly and nibbled on those sweets and a few additional savories. We all knew what was transpiring on the other side of the screen door. A conversation on the realities of my life as a child of a “less-than-suitable” family—the social stigma of divorce smudging the halo that I’d tried so hard to keep steady over my head. 

She comes with compromises, I could imagine them weighing my case. But the girl is very intelligent and a professional. Our family comes from generations of people in high places. The girl is a U.S. citizen. 

The screen door clattered shut as the patriarchs rejoined our group. “It is time for us to take our leave,” announced the suitable boy’s father. Everyone obediently rose to their feet, politely saying namaste and shuffling over to the garden gate. I waved goodbye with mustered cheer as our guests departed. My family returned in silence to the living room, each deep in thought, the screen door again clattering behind us as we stepped inside.

I couldn’t imagine anyone in this room believing that the match was made in heaven.

“Good people,” established my grandfather. “The boy is well-educated and the family is respectable. Let us see what the boy has to say about his interest in her.”

The fans whirred rhythmically above us, stirring up some much-needed sound and circulation. It was my grandmother who spoke first. “You are placing a frog before a princess,” she jested in Punjabi, attempting to at once speak her mind and bring some levity to the mood. 

Through most of her life, my mild-mannered grandmother had suffered the tyranny of her caustic mother-in-law. She had been forced to change her given name. She had been made to stand aside when her daughter, my mother, was married away at the age of 19. She bore many indignities through the years with kindness and joviality towards others. She also single-handedly taught me to read and write Hindi when I was twelve.

On this day, she spoke up for the potential she saw within me. I think she might have been my hero.

My grandfather asserted with authority what he believed to be the cold, harsh reality. “What is wrong with him? What better options could she possibly have? This is as good as it gets, if she’s lucky enough to get it. She has no other choice.” He posed this directly to my mother and grandmother while I hovered behind them, a bystander to my own fate.

There it was again. She has no choice. Was this to be the forever refrain of my story? I felt a rising fury against life as it was and a fire for life as I wanted it to be. I looked across at my mother and my grandmother, seeing their lives, each held at the mercy of other people’s diktats.

The promise of my best years was still ahead of me. It was my turn. Yet one wrong decision and it could all pass me by. 

Ever since the move back to Delhi, I had not moved from the straight-and-narrow. Was my only viable choice to lean on a husband for purported safety and stability?

The phone rang, calling us to attention and a sooner-than-expected verdict. The call from the suitable boy’s father lasted not more than a minute. “A very good result,” my grandfather beamed towards me as he shared the news with satisfaction. “Their son would like to take you out to dinner. They want to see whether you two can hit it off.”

Which risk is greater? Leaning on a husband and defining life by his family’s standards? Or leaning solely on yourself with nothing but potential in your pocket?

I knew myself in that moment. I stood up. Strong on my own two feet. What I was about to do would take courage and would come with consequences, possibly failure for me and embarrassment for my family. I’d be tested not only in that moment but in the many moments to come.

I stepped forward, knowing full well that my grandfather was not used to any form of defiance. “I am going to earn my way back to America,” I pronounced as respectfully as I could. “I am going to find a way to get there and survive. Self-belief is going to be my safety net. I will take responsibility for myself and take my chances.”

It felt good to challenge myself out loud. I hoped that the universe could hear me.

Also published on: Have you ever felt as if everyone had control of your future, except you? — The Leela Collective

Sunaina Mehta is a Global Brand Marketing and Customer Insights leader.