[RuthAS: Nadi International Airport (1971)]
The Boy Who Liked Mango Pickles Too Much
It started drizzling as soon as the plane landed. Fiji. Again. And this time for a wedding. I’m already dying. The last time I had been here was two years back. I didn’t want to come back. But for the past seven months, my parents had continuously reminded me that I have to be here, or else, what will my relatives ‘think’. That the only younger brother of the groom can’t even attend his brother’s wedding? Unacceptable, but I suppose that will make a wild fantasy of a gossip session for my Indian aunties.
I stand up to take my hand-carry luggage from the top compartment of the plane. This is what I hate the most. Why does everyone have to stand up all at once? Hello, there is only one exit door. Petty humans. I hear my name being called out from the back of the plane. Even before I turn, I know it’s my mother’s voice.
“Ashneel, don’t move. I’m coming for you.”
“Mum, I’m not a child anymore.”
“Are you talking back to your mother?”
Well, at least the people in the plane know who I am. But I guess my mother had already found a few distant relatives of her. I think it’s my mothers, sister-in-law’s brothers, aunt’s son’s, neighbour’s grandfathers, brother’s wife. My mother told me she is my fua. My mother is sitting next to my dad, brother – the groom, and this “fua”. My mother tried to sit next to me while boarding the plane in Auckland but I managed to convince her that the plane is full and as a dutiful son I must sit somewhere else, so that she, dad and my brother can sit together. I’m an evil genius.
Finally people have started to move out. I hate anywhere that has more than 20 people in the same room, well in this case, the same plane. People make me uncomfortable. People are weird and nice. I don’t like weird or nice. As soon as I exit the plane, a gust of 10am's hot westerly winds hits my face. After an hour of my father deciding which “duty-free” liquor should he buy, and my brother frantically trying to put in a Vodafone Fiji sim card in his phone, so that he can talk to the “love-of-his-life”, even though this is an arranged marriage, we finally exited this horrendous airport.
I see my Kaka (my dad’s younger brother) has come to pick us up. After eyeing the liquor in my dad’s hands, he decides to give my dad a big friendly hug. Next it is my turn to get a bear hug. I stand like a statue while he publically violates my personal space. This was normal. The thing that was not normal was the sloppy kisses he tried to give on my cheeks, and then continued to make a sexual joke to my brother about his honeymoon. After ten minutes of greetings, and my mother’s unnecessary tears ("I can’t believe my son is going to get married. He is all grown up now. Haaaye my son") we got to his pick-up truck. Great, only two passengers can sit in front. With eight luggage bags, my brother and I were made to sit in the open deck area of the truck. Great. A perfect start.
The real trouble began once we reached the venue for the wedding. Well, Fiji-Indian weddings lasts up to a week. There are tons of functions to attend, hundreds of clothes to wear and thousands of relatives to meet and greet. As soon as the truck entered the compound, someone blasted a typical Hindi wedding song, and my parents relatives rushed outside to greet us. Two hours later, I’m hugging my mother’s cousin sister’s mother-in-law who is crying on my shoulder.
“Areh beta, you came! Do you recognize me?”
“I used to change your nappies when you were a baby”.
“Doesn’t your mother feed you anything? Look how thin and feeble you are? Now that your brother is getting married, your turn will be next. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I’ll find a good Indian girl for you. Don’t you dare get married to some white girl in Nujiland”.
“Have you brought some choclat for me?”
After half an hour of this continuous drama, finally my fua (the long lost relative from the plane) rescued me. She told me to freshen up, and then we’ll be going to meet some relatives of hers. I told her I’m tired and need to sleep for a bit. She pretended she didn’t hear what I said, and pushed me to the bathroom, for me to shower and dress up in “nice clothes”.
After showering, and changing four outfits (because my fua said it’s not “nice” enough), me, my mum, dad, brother, and fua departed our place to meet this relatives of ours. I still have no idea why I was going. Isn’t this my brother’s wedding? Shouldn’t he be the centre of attraction? Why am I being dragged everywhere? I came here to have a good time, not visit relatives. If I wanted to see my relatives, I would’ve skyped them.
As soon as we reached this relatives place I heard someone yell out “they are here”. Nice, I like a grand entry. My mother and fua frantically started putting baby powder on their face, and comb their hair, and put perfume on their clothes. I just roll my eyes. Women. No matter where you go, they don’t change one bit. I don’t want to get out of my fua’s car because there is a dog barking right at my door. Suddenly this burly man with no shirt on come’s outside the house and yell’s out “Sweety stop. Go away Sweety.” Suddenly the dog sprints away. I realise Sweety is the dog’s name. I suppress a laugh.
I get out of the car. This burly guy comes forward and tries to hug me. I pretend someone is calling me on my phone to avoid his hug. I don’t want him to touch me. I had just seen him picking his nose 2 seconds ago. I presume him to be the owner of the house. After hugging my dad and my brother he escorts us in the house. I see there is a crowd. This guy, I know now is my fua’s neighbour’s brother. He introduced us to the rest of the people in the house. There’s his wife, his daughter, his son (he is quite an eyeful), his mother, his sister and her husband and their three kids, his boss and his wife, and his friend from work. I wonder what the occasion is.
As soon as we sit on the sofa, a tray full of fizzy drink, another with hot milk-tea, and another three with saina, murku, gulab-jamun, jalebi and bhajia (all Indian snacks) is put in front of us. Now I really am confused. What is all this about? My mother politely complains they shouldn’t have made all these for us even though deep inside I know she is feeding her ego, that she is a really important “non-resident Fijian-Indian” (NRFI). I’m hungry so I decide to stuff all that I can, or until the moment my tummy starts hurting. I don’t take much notice of the elder’s conversation. I just can’t be bothered.
I had just put a bhajia in my mouth, when suddenly the wife of the burly man, Shanti Aunty, asks me what I was studying at ‘school’. Like a deer caught in headlight, I found 13 pairs of eyes of me. After 20 seconds of uncomfortable silence while I tried to gulp down the bhajia, I told them I’m studying Bachelors of Arts at Massey University in Auckland. There was ooh’s and aah’s as I returned to eating my snacks. Shanti Aunty spoke again – I’m seriously starting to dislike this woman. Can’t a guy eat in peace? Shanti Aunty introduced me to her children – Ashmita and Avneel. Ashmita must be 20 years old and Avneel 22. Avneel was quite handsome and cute. I felt butterflies in my stomach.
Shanti Aunty told Ashmita and Avneel to take me to their bedroom. I was surprised that I didn’t know these people, why are they sending me to someone’s bedroom. What if they are cold-blooded murderers? What if they molested me? Though I wouldn’t mind doing the hanky-panky with Avneel, if you know what I mean. There was this nagging feeling that I’ve seen Ashmita somewhere, but I couldn’t put a finger where. I did end up going to their bedroom after numerous protests. These three kids of the boss of Shanti Aunty’s husband also followed me. I don’t like kids. Kids are full of questions. I don’t like questions unless it’s “Do you want food?” or “Do you want money?”
The first thing that Ashmita asks me as soon as I entered her bedroom was, if I liked Fiji? I reminded her that I was born here. Avneel sat quietly on the bed, and started texting someone. I gave him a look, he suddenly looked up, and as soon as his eyes met mine, he jerked away and went back to tying on his phone. I wonder if he likes me. Ashmita starts asking me questions.
“What do you like?”
“I like mango pickles… a lot”.
“What phone do you have?”
“Samsung Galaxy S6”.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Avneel raises his eyebrows when I said no. I ask Ashmita if she had a boyfriend. She started giggling, and said no. I ask Avneel if he has a girlfriend. He looks at me for a bit and hesitating for a bit, say’s ‘Yes’ without breaking his stare. Well that just broke my heart. Thank you Avneel.
Trying to look anywhere apart from Avneel’s direction, I suddenly notice that Ashmita’s hand is bandaged. I ask her what happened to her hands? If she is all right? Very quickly she replies “everything is fine”. Too quickly for my liking. Trying to change topics, I ask Ashmita what she is studying. She tells me “Tourism”. I wait for her to explain further. When I got no reply, I ask her “what in tourism” and she replies again “Tourism”. I conclude this girl is dumb. There still is this feeling that I’ve seen this girl somewhere, but I can’t seem to put a finger where.
Ashmita then goes on to tell me a long story of one of her friends who went to visit New Zealand. I pretend to listen, while giving sideway glances at Avneel. Ashmita tells me she always wanted to visit Auckland. She asks me if it’s true that one can get unlimited refill of coke at McDonald’s. I tell her only at some stores. She looks at me in amazement. Then she continues to tell me how much she wants to ride on a train, eat at McDonalds and take a selfie at the Sky-tower. I smile politely at her.
Having decided that I’ve drunk too much milk-tea, I needed to go to the toilet. I ask Avneel if he can show where the washroom is. He stares at me blankly like I’ve asked him for a kiss or something. Either this guy is homophobic or genuinely dumb. After grumbling for a bit, he stands up and starts to leave the room. He stops once he reaches the door, and turns back and looks at me with his right eyebrow raised. When I don’t say anything, he spits out “Don’t you want to go to the washroom?” I realise how stupid I look and walk behind him and no I was not looking at his tushy, though I did give a glance or two. Well alright, more like six or seven times.
He stops in front of the toilets. I go inside, and carry on with my business. After washing my hands, I open the toilet door to go outside. I stop. I see Avneel is leaning at the wall in junction with the door, his attention on his phone. He is unconsciously blocking my way. I clear my throat. He still doesn’t move. I give it no thought and getting impatient, I decide to just cross him. Moving my body to a sideway, I try to squeeze past him. As soon as I put my one leg outside, and come face to face with him, Avneel raises his eyes. I freeze.
I’m captured in the trance of his eyes. Violins start playing in the background, a slow gust of wind blows my hair, everything freezes, and it’s just me and him, forever. Suddenly he leans forward, I close my eyes. He comes close to my right ear, and bites it softly. He whispers “I know you like me”. I blush. He is way too close to me. I can even hear his breathing. One step forward, and our lips will meet. I get goosebumps just at the thought of it. He again whispers, this time the words I was dying to hear.
“I like you too.”
And just like that he is gone in a second. I opened my eyes, flustered. Did this really happen, or was I dreaming. I return to Ashmita’s room. I see Avneel is again sitting on the bed typing on his phone. I look at him intensely. He ignores me, pretending nothing happened.
Ashmita brings out a laptop. “Are you on Facebook?” she asks me. I lie and say “No”. She continues to open her profile and to show me her pictures. I’m certainly not interested. I turn to tell her I don’t want to see her pictures, when a picture grabs my attention. Ashmita is wearing a yellow salwar-kameez. And suddenly it hits me, where I had seen her. My friend Maneesh was dating her online. Things went a bit crazy, when Maneesh broke up with her. Ashmita had cut her hands to write Maneesh’s name and posted it on Facebook. Now I realise why her hands was bandaged. She was trying to hide her hands from me. I wonder if her parents knew.
I stand up quickly. I want to get out of here. As I cross pass Avneel to go to the sitting room, where my parents was sitting, I sneakily try to see who Avneel is texting to. The screen of Avneel’s phone shows that he was checking out my Facebook account. I get all warm and giddy inside and give him a knowing smile. He just stares blankly at me. I rush back to the sitting room. I see my mother is still trying to make family connection with Ashmita’s dad’s boss’s wife. Classic mum.
As soon as I try to open my mouth to tell my parents to let’s go, Asmita’s dad stuffs a gulab-jamun in my mouth. He is smiling weirdly at me. He asks me if I liked Ashmita. I tell him Ashmita is a nice girl. I sense that the whole room has gone quiet when I’m giving back my reply. Suddenly everyone is beaming and smiling at me. I’m starting to get creeped out. I tell mum, that I want to leave. She looks at me as if I have said the most vile things I person can muster. When I don’t falter in my stance, she gives out a sigh and says to the hosts that “we really must leave now for there’s a lot of preparations to do for Sonu’s (my brother) wedding”.
And then the repeat telecast begins again. Again I’m bear-hugged from everyone. Shanti Aunty starts crying while hugging me, telling me to be a good boy, and that I should listen to my parents, and make them proud of me and that I should visit them again. I agree politely to all her wisdom words while internally groaning and berating myself for agreeing to come here.
After hugging everyone twice or thrice, Ashmita and Avneel come forward to say their goodbyes. Ashmita just waves at me, smiling shyly. She really is weird. Avneel puts his hands forward for me to shake. I look at him and then at his hands. He is giving me this intense stare. I shake my hands with him, and feel something between our hands. I try to disguise my surprise and he pretends to clamp my hands in a friendly bro-fist handshake, while securely putting the piece of paper in my hands.
The first thing that my fua asks me as soon as we board the car is if I like Ashmita. I realise there is complete silence in the car. I figure out something is wrong. I ask my mother what is happening. She again asks if I liked Asmita. I tell them No. Everyone’s face gets gloomy. After giving my mother the death stare, she finally succumbs. She confesses slowly that we came here to see Asmita.
“For you to see her.”
“For you… uhmm… you know… uhmmm… get married.”
“WHAT? I’M NOT GETTING MARRIED, MOTHER!”
“Because I said so. I want you to call them right away and tell them I’m not getting married to Ashmita. Not now, not never.”
I can’t believe they brought me all the way here for me to see this girl. I’m not getting married now. And certainly not an arranged marriage. Though it would be different if it was Avneel. I glare at my fua continuously as she makes an uncomfortable phone call to Shanti Aunty. I suddenly remember the piece of paper that Avneel had sneaked to me during our handshake. My hands shake as I open the paper. It’s his phone number. I smile to myself. Well I guess this trip won’t be so bad after all.
© Ashneel Jaynesh Prasad