It was a Friday evening that I met the sorriest man alive. Before I saw his face I saw his comb-over. He was short, stout, and bald for the most part but for that hideous comb-over. He was dressed in a pair of high-waist black trousers and a bright green shirt. And he was in my living room when I came home.
Flanking him were two people I assumed were his parents – the mother was bony and had a thin-lipped smile which gave her the appearance of a Disney villain; the father short and stout like his son, but with a head full of white hair. Hair loss, I assumed, was the heirloom of the mother. My father sat across from them, silent and his head bent. For all I knew, he was watching ants marching on the carpet.
I noticed Veena aunty sitting by the bony woman’s side. I smirked at her. She patted the empty seat next to her on the sofa. “Come, sweetie, come,” she said in her raspy voice. Rolls of dough-like fat that hung from her arms jiggled.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my trousers and took the seat. Veena aunty smelled of jasmines, burnt sugar and alcohol. She must have had an eventful day in the kitchen. Veena aunty is known for her matchmaking. She is responsible for half the marriages and therefore all the divorces this side of the city. I guess the statistics indicate she matchmakes as terribly as she cooks.
“This is Rajneesh,” Veena aunty said. Her hoarse voice made her sound breathless all the time, as though she had just attempted a physical activity. “He is a manager in a financial firm. You two should get to know each other.”
Comb-over boy aka Rajneesh glanced sideways at me. Beads of sweat glistened at the end of his bulbous nose.
“Mr and Mrs Joshi are very liberal people,” Veena aunty continued. “They are willing to let you work even after you get married. Though maybe not in these clothes.” She fingered the collar of my shirt.
I resisted the urge to flick her finger from my collar like I would a spider.
“Send them in, give them some privacy,” Mr Joshi said. “I want them to talk.”
“Oh yes, good idea,” my mother said, who had just appeared in the living room. “Show him your bedroom.”
There are times when parents of a girl child are uncomfortable and wary of having a strange boy in their daughter’s bedroom. This was not one of those times.
My mother shooed us inside and shut the door behind me. “Uh, sit,” I told Rajneesh, trying not to sound like I was giving a dog an order. He sat at my desk in the farther corner of the room. I stayed where I was, leaning against the door. He scratched his belly. I noticed the buttons of his shirt straining around the waist. He snivelled and looked straight into my eyes.
“How religious are you?”
He was not one of those men who wasted time asking about my job, or what I did in my spare time, or which books I like to read or how much I drink on the weekend. Some men are like that. They want to know the frivolous details of your life. They want to know why you like collecting stamps when you could be watching television. They ask you if the new Rowling book is as good as the Harry Potter series. They might even cock their head to the side and say, “You know, you’re funny,” or “You’re pretty.” Rajneesh does not deal with this kind of small talk. No, he goes for the big questions. He asks, “How religious are you?” on your first meeting.
“I… uh… I’m not sure how… ermm…” I mumbled.
“Do you follow a religion?”
His voice was sharp and high. I had a fleeting image of him dressed in drag. He was Mamata Banerjee.
“I suppose so,” I said.
“The same religion your parents follow?”
“Yes. Unless they’ve changed their minds and haven’t told me yet.” I smiled at my own joke, weak as it was.
“Are you very religious?”
“Well, we’re not the fire-and-brimstone kind of people. I don’t think someone will go to hell if they don’t fast on Tuesdays or eat onions on Friday.”
“So you’re not strict. Good. Very good.” He smiled. I noticed he had the same thin-lipped smile as his mother. “I ask because I am quite religious you see. I believe there should be full disclosure before two people marry.”
He crossed his legs and put his hands on his knee. “In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you about my religion. I don’t have the same faith as my parents.”
“You see, their religion is all about worshipping gods that are half human half beast. I find their beliefs rather irrational.”
“They worship something that is another man’s fantasy. I, on the other hand, worship something that is real.” He paused, presumingly for dramatic effect. “I worship crows.”
There were seconds of silence between us before I realised it was my turn to speak. “Sorry, I think I misheard you. Did you say you worship crows?”
“Yes. Crows. You did not mishear me.” He scratched his nose.
I did not know how to respond to that.
“I see you are confused. Let me explain. Crows are great black birds.”
“I know what crows are.”
“Let me finish. Crows are great black birds in all cultures.”
I had a vision of a pink crow with a blue beak flying over the rings of Saturn.
“They are scavengers and hunters that eat animal remains and discarded items,” Rajneesh plodded on. “They clean our environment of scum and ask nothing in return. They are highly intelligent creatures that were once used to send letters before the postal system was invented.”
“I think pigeons were used, not crows.”
“No, that’s wrong. Pigeons are stupid birds. I wouldn’t trust them with my letters.”
“Nobody trusts them with letters. People just use email.”
“Crows recognise faces and places. Do you feed the crows every day?” he asked me suddenly.
“It’s not in my schedule.”
“That’s sad. But once you marry me, you will adapt to my ways.” He scratched his neck. “I feed crows every day and I can prove that the same crows come to me day after day. What’s more, they show up at the same time. They know when I lay out their food.”
He rose from the chair and began pacing the room. He reminded me of one of my tutors from college. Comb-over hair, portly body, sweaty pores – they both have that in common. Not the compulsive scratching, though.
“The purpose of worship is to hold dear a higher ideal or a higher intelligence that inspires us. The crow has all the qualities I admire – intelligence, resourcefulness, fearlessness. I see no reason why the crow should not be worshipped.”
He looked up at me, expectant. He wanted me to agree with him. All men are like that. They want to be told, “Yes, of course you are right,” and “You are so smart!” and “I agree. I wish I had thought of that.” Rajneesh is that kind of man too.
“Interesting,” I said. “But I want to know where you are going with this joke.”
His features transformed. His nostrils grew wider and his mouth stretched in a thin, straight line. “This is not a joke,” he said softly. “Do not mock my beliefs.”
I crossed my arms. “Funny you should say that, just after you mocked your parents’ – and mine – before launching into your crow story,” I said.
He walked towards me. “It is not a story. When we are married, you will know the truth of The Great Crow in the Sky.”
If I were a gymnast, I would have done a back-flip. And then another one. “The Great Crow in the Sky? Okay, now I know for sure this is a joke. Are you playing a prank? Are my parents in on it?”
Rajneesh shook his head. “The Great Crow will punish you for this slight. Take it back before He strikes you with tragedy.”
“Who came up with the script for the joke? Did it take you a long time to memorise your lines?”
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” He scratched his forehead and reached out to grab the door handle.
“Are there hidden cameras too in the bedroom? Are you from MTV?” I called out behind him as he exited the bedroom.
“Had a nice chat?” I heard Veena aunty’s raspy voice. “When is the wedding?”
I followed Rajneesh into the living room.
“We’re leaving. I want to leave,” he said brusquely to his parents.
My mother looked at me pointedly. “What happened? What did you say to him?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I just turned into a giant crow and pecked his hair off… or whatever was remaining of it.”
Rajneesh gave me a look of pure venom before marching out of the house.
Veena aunty hurried behind him and his parents. “Sorry about that Mrs Joshi. She is usually not like this. Forget about her. Come, I’ll take you to the next girl’s house.”
I slammed the door shut behind them and looked at my father. A slow smile spread on his lips.