The two girls giggled as they waved the five crisp hundred rupee notes in the air. First cousins, and just six months apart, Neerja and Shonali were thick as thieves. They never lost a chance to meet. Their mothers remembered very clearly the days, when as toddlers, the two girls would just squabble and bicker over the same set of toys. Everyone dreaded those days of family gatherings as it also meant inevitable tears and quarrels between the two children. But as they grew up, things changed and slowly Neerja and Shonali started looking forward to the occasions when they could spend a day together. Eventually they became partners in crimes and left everyone wondering about the change in their equation.
Today was one such occasion. It was their eldest cousin, Anurima’s wedding. The air was abuzz with activity and excitement. It was after very long that there was a wedding in the family. The elders were vacillating between the elation of the auspicious occasion, and the anxiety of hoping that all the ceremonies went off smoothly. The mehndi or henna ceremony had been held the evening before and Neerja and Shonali were very happy with the beautiful rust tone that the mehndi had taken on, on their slender hands and wrists. Standing on the edge of turning sixteen, both the girls revelled in the thought of the opportunity to dress up. They had taken great care in deciding their dresses for the various ceremonies and had managed to come up with looks which were coordinated, but at the same time distinct in reflecting their individual tastes.
The wedding ceremony was this evening. The morning was to be dedicated to the haldi or turmeric ceremony. The haldi ceremony involved application of turmeric and sandalwood paste to the bride. The haldi came from the bridegroom’s side in a very ceremonious way. Placed in a decorative bowl, it was also supposed to be accompanied by gifts. In the Bengali community, the fish is considered very auspicious and tradition said that the haldi paste be accompanied by a pair of fish. A pair of raw fish. The pair symbolised the bridal couple. Similarly the bride’s family also send a similar bowl of haldi and sandalwood paste to the bridegroom’s side for an identical ceremony.
Anurima’s fiancé, Rahul, lived about 20 minutes away. Around 11am, his cousins and aunts arrived with the haldi. There was a lot of chattering and laughter as the women went to take a quick peek at the bride to be. The women in Anurima’s family also started making preparations to begin the haldi ceremony. the bride was dressed in a crisp, new,white saree with a red border, and made to sit on a raised seat. Five married women started singing songs handed down over generations, and started applying the turmeric paste on her arms and calves, and on her cheeks, praying for a fulfilling married life. Once they were done, the rest of the women, her aunts, siblings, cousins, and friends also applied the paste on her. Once the ceremonial bit was over, it was a free for all. Haldi paste was applied on everyone’s cheeks amidst a lot of shrieks, giggles and jibes.
Anurima’s grandmother finally had to admonish them into remembering that the haldi paste from the bride’s side had to reach Rahul’s home in order for them to carry out a similar ceremony. It was decided that Neerja and Shonali would accompany their two aunts to present the haldi. Both being very creative, they had taken the effort to wrap the two fish in bright fabric. They had used red brocade on one to signify the bride and stuck a cigarette in the other’s mouth to represent the groom. Feeling very important, the two girls got into the car.
On the way to Rahul’s home, they both realised that surrounded by relatives most of the time, Rahul and Anurima had not got any scope of communicating with each other. Dependent solely on the telephone, it had been over three days that they had spoken to each other. Neerja and Shonali hit upon a plan. Hunting in her handbag, Neerja found a notepad and pen. Writing just five words on a sheet she folded it neatly and put it back in her bag.
When they reached Rahul’s home they handed over the haldi and the fish. Rahul’s parents insisted on serving them some refreshments. While the elders were busy talking and eating , Neerja signalled to Rahul that he meet them in the balcony where no one could see them. When all three of them gathered in the balcony, Shonali announced that she had a very important message for him from Anurima. Deprived of any contact with his bride-to-be for the past three days, Rahul was very eager to hear from her. Shonali added that since they were delivering a note which they had to smuggle out under the vigilant gaze of their grandmother, they were entitled to some compensation for their efforts. After a lot of haggling, a deal was struck. Rahul handed them five hundred rupees in exchange for the note.
Neerja and Shonali scooted to the other side of the room before Rahul could open the note. As they were at the door with their aunt, bidding Rahul’s parents goodbye, they could see Rahul opening the note on the other side of the room. They just caught sight of Rahul’s highly irritated look before they made their escape, giggling away. They knew he would not take so kindly to be made a fool, to part with five hundred rupees for a note which said, ’See you at the wedding’.