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Of Marriages and Concealers

Of Marriages and Concealers

An Assamese Bride

Bobbing along in the current of social gatherings and weddings, typical to the Indian culture, Monica Bhattacharya attempts to dissect the dire state of gender relations vis-à-vis the social construct of the idea of beauty and marriage.

Years ago, I had attended a distant cousin’s wedding in Assam. The summer heat hadn’t been kind to us, not even to the elderly khuris and jethais who, over the years, had come to ditch the heavy cakey makeup and high heels to settle for pump shoes and comfortable attires that covertly heralded the arrival of mature years, of newfound freedom from the insatiable need to doll-up for another.

The armies of standing and ceiling fans made a foray against the sinister heat but in vain. The snacks and the beverages were doing the rounds, almost as quickly as the careless whispers of the latest gossip and ‘hot news’. In social gatherings such as these, the samosas of people’s character are dipped in the ‘chutney of infamy’ with equal ease.

The overused shehnai music made its usual appearance but did little to break the languorous spell over bored waiters and overworked aayaas. Young boys and girls operated in cliques all through the day, in the hope of making and receiving overtures of young love. I noticed that the most content faces among the guests were of those who had just finished their lunch and were sauntering into the wedding hall. For the neophyte to the wedding business- post-meal loud belches and greasy yellow lips are almost always the ultimate signifiers of a satisfied customer/guest.

I had managed to steal a few moments away from the humdrum of small-talk common at weddings and had decided to meet my cousin-sister before she made her ‘journey to the unknown’ with a man she barely knew. We had never been close and I felt no sense of personal attachment to her. A shared biological history of being a woman did nothing to forge a bond of solidarity between us. We were so different, so diverse in our outlooks on life, our beliefs, our upbringing, our schooling, and even our sense of style.

She had a quiet demeanour that she believed was an echo of the silences that haunt the small towns of a big state. She grew up in a conservative home in upper Assam, where her silent protestations took the form of filmy iconography and cut-outs of her favourite superstars posted on her equally muted but vibrant distemper walls.

Seeing her on her wedding day evoked no distinct sense of joy or sorrow in me. I was as indifferent to her as the lizard that was glued to the glaring tube light in her room, focused on its next meal of fleas and insects. I was sitting on the bed next to her dressing table in the hotel room when I noticed the beautician pump a dollop of foundation and concealer on her palm and then smear the concoction aggressively onto the part of the bride’s back that had been granted social approval to be exposed by virtue of being draped in the ‘mekhela of tradition’ instead of the ‘backless top of western evil’.

What caught my attention was that the foundation used to ‘embalm’ her was at least four to five shades lighter than her gorgeous, dusky skin tone and the choice to settle for a vanilla colour was a calculated move, a surgical strike to demolish any trace of her dark colour. I was intrigued, even astounded, by the sneaky penetration of the imperial and patriarchal agenda that had once again found a way to colonise, this time, my cousin’s back; a way to arrogate, this time, the well-intentioned thoughts of a hard-working beautician who put in her best efforts to coat the veneer of white masks unto black skin.  It wasn’t just a physical transformation but an attempt to apply concealer on her soul, an attempt to camouflage all the shame she must feel for being ‘dark’.

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It was now late in the evening. With roses adorning the headstone of a hairdo, lips sealed in bright fuchsia, and every safety pin in place, my cousin was ready to leave the room, joyless but nervous, carrying the honour of her family and community in every pleat of her sador mekhela.

As the bridal entourage reached the wedding hall in the hotel, I took my place next to the bride’s sister. Fulfilling every feminine obligation to be beautiful and dutiful, I saw my cousin transition from her natal home to her husband’s, with dainty steps walking away from the home that thought of her education as a hobby and being married as the main vocation, to her new home that would impose on her, what economist Sendhil Mullainathan calls a ‘hidden tax’ of “annoyance and misery” for every independent choice she would henceforth be making as a married woman pursuing a career.

Meanwhile, seated on his throne, buttons undone, with the chutzpah of a small-time maharaja, unfamiliar with the ‘terrain of surveillance’ that his bride was so well accustomed to, the dora (groom) perspired copiously under his silken sherwani. His unkempt hair, and hollow cheeks speckled with a scanty greyish stubble were silent markers of an obvious power dynamic. No one felt the need to ‘conceal’ the dora.

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