I've made good friends with this seventeen-year-old Indian girl named Tulsi. She works with me scrubbing the temple floors every day. Every evening we take a walk through the gardens of the Ashram together and talk about God and hip-hop music, two subjects for which Tulsi feels equivalent devotion. Tulsi is just about the cutest little bookworm of an Indian girl you ever saw, even cuter since one lens of her "specs" (as she calls her eye-glasses) broke last week in a cartoonish spiderweb design, which hasn't stopped her from wearing them. Tulsi is so many interesting and foreign things to me at once--a teenager, a tomboy, an Indian girl, a rebel in her family, a soul who is so crazy about God that it's almost like she's got a schoolgirl crush on Him. She also speaks a delightful, lilting English--the kind of English you can find only in India--which includes such colonial words as "splendid!" and "nonsense!" and sometimes produces eloquent sentences like: "It is beneficial to walk on the grass in the morning when the dew has already been accumulated, for it lowers naturally and pleasantly the body's temperature." When I told her once that I was going to Mumbai for the day, Tulsi said, "Please stand carefully, as you will find there are many speeding buses everywhere." She's exactly half my age, and practically half my size.
Tulsi and I have been talking a lot about marriage lately during our walks. Soon she will turn eighteen, and this is the age when she will be regarded as a legitimate marriage prospect. It will happen like this--after her eighteenth birthday, she will be required to attend family weddings dressed in a sari, signaling her womanhood. Some nice Amma ("Aunty") will come and sit beside her, start asking questions and getting to know her: "How old are you? What's your family background? What does your father do? What universities are you applying to? What are your interests? When is your birthday?" Next thing you know, Tulsi's dad will get a big envelope in the mail with a photo of this woman's grandson who is studying computer sciences in Delhi, along with the boy's astrology charts and his university grades and the inevitable question, "Would your daughter care to marry him?"
Tulsi says, "It sucks."
But it means so much to the family, to see their children wedded off successfully. Tulsi has an aunt who just shaved her head as a gesture of thanks to God because her oldest daughter--at the Jurassic age of twenty-eight--finally got married. And this was a difficult girl to marry off, too; she had a lot of strikes against her. I asked Tulsi what makes an Indian girl difficult to marry off, and she said there are any number of reasons.
"If she has a bad horoscope. If she's too old. If her skin is too dark. If she's too educated and you can't find a man with a higher position than hers, and this is a widespread problem these days because a woman cannot be more educated than her husband. Or if she's had an affair with someone and the whole community knows about it, oh, it would be quite difficult to find a husband after that . . ."
I quickly ran through the list, trying to see how marriageable I would appear in Indian society. I don't know whether my horoscope is good or bad, but I'm definitely too old and I'm way too educated, and my morals have been publicly demonstrated to be quite tarnished . . . I'm not a very appealing prospect. At least my skin is fair. I have only this in my favor.
Tulsi had to go to another cousin's wedding last week, and she was saying (in very un- Indian fashion) how much she hates weddings. All that dancing and gossip. All that dressing up. She would rather be at the Ashram scrubbing floors and meditating. Nobody else in her family can understand this; her devotion to God is way beyond anything they consider normal. Tulsi said, "In my family, they have already given up on me as too different. I have established a reputation for being someone who, if you tell her to do one thing, will almost certainly do the other. I also have a temper. And I'm not dedicated to my studies, except that now I will be, because now I'm going to college and I can decide for myself what I'm interested in. I want to study psychology, just as our Guru did when she attended college. I'm considered a difficult girl. I have a reputation for needing to be told a good reason to do something before I will do it. My mother understands this about me and always tries to give good reasons, but my father doesn't. He gives reasons, but I don't think they're good enough. Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing in my family because I don't resemble them at all."
Tulsi's cousin who got married last week is only twenty-one, and her older sister is next on the marriage list at age twenty, which means there will be huge pressure after that for
Tulsi herself to find a husband. I asked her if she wanted to ever get married and she said:
"Noooooooooooooooooooooo . . ."
. . . and the word drew out longer than the sunset we were watching over the gardens. "I want to roam!" she said. "Like you."
"You know, Tulsi, I couldn't always roam like this. I was married once."
She frowned at me through her cracked specs, studying me with a quizzical look, almost as if I'd just told her I'd once been a brunette and she was trying to imagine it. In the end, she pronounced: "You, married? I cannot picture this."
"But it's true--I was."
"Are you the one who ended the marriage?" "Yes."
She said, "I think it's most commendable that you ended your marriage. You seem splendidly happy now. But as for me--how did I get here? Why was I born an Indian girl? It's outrageous! Why did I come into this family? Why must I attend so many weddings?" Then Tulsi ran around in a frustrated circle, shouting (quite loudly for Ashram standards): "I want to live in Hawaii!!!"