2005: Babita Persaud, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
3/29/2005
ASNE Staff
Award for Diversity Writing
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Diversity writing


Babita Persaud

Articles

A Husband for Vibha
Dec. 19, 2004

The match game
Dec. 22, 2004

The boy next door
Dec. 26, 2004

Article list

A Husband for Vibha

December 19, 2004

Arranged marriage has been a cultural tradition for generations of Indians, including the family of USF student Vibha Dhawan. But what happens when a modern woman agrees to an ancient ritual?

Vibha Dhawan fidgeted in the back seat of the family car, her body wrapped in a beaded Indian tunic. Up front, her father drove. Her mother sat beside him, complaining about a book someone had borrowed.

Vibha tuned them out. Her mind was filled with images, photo after photo of the eligible bachelors her parents had shown her - the kind of young men they thought their daughter should marry, if only she would let them arrange it.

"When is Vibha getting married?" her mother chimed almost daily.

In the white Monte Carlo, they were headed down Interstate 4 toward Orlando, 30 miles from their Deltona home. Vibha looked out the window and watched the traffic flowing past: families bound for Disney World, truckers barreling toward Tampa, teenagers looking for something to do on a Saturday.

Vibha's parents were taking her to see a Hindu priest. He would use astrology to predict when she might get married.

She never guessed that she would be the kind of woman to even consider an arranged marriage. In her mid 20s, strong-minded, a feminist, she hoped one day to sit at the head of a boardroom table.

Born in India, Vibha came to the United States with her parents at age 2. She grew up in Florida, an American girl who was Indian too.

Now she was at the University of South Florida, savvy enough to organize a charity basketball game, poised enough to stand before her peers with a microphone and talk about the importance of community involvement.

Vibha looked at her mother and father in the front seat. The couple, who treated driving as a collaborative venture, were debating a lane change. Thirty years ago, they were like her, alone, until their families put them together. Was an arranged marriage to be her destiny too?

Vibha adjusted the long shawl draped over her shoulders and stared out the window.

+++

Her world was a swirl of sociology term papers, Dr. Kaplan's Racism in America class, midnight movies at University Mall, dinners with friends at Sawatdee Thai's all-you-can-eat buffet.

This was the fall of 2000. Vibha was just months from completing her bachelor's degree and would soon enter graduate school. She worked for USF parking services, dispatching jumps to cars with dead batteries, while juggling midterms and juvenile delinquency projects. Bulletin boards advertised keg parties. But even 110 miles from her Volusia County home, Vibha could hear her mother's high-pitched voice.

"College doesn't mean party. College doesn't mean fun."

"Parents didn't send you to college to go find a boy and sleep with him."

"Don't give boys a chance to cross the line."

Boys and dating had been off-limits to Vibha, the only child of Devindra and Promila Dhawan, who came from the Punjab region of India. In high school, when her American girlfriends lengthened their lashes for evenings out, Vibha stayed home.

Rules were firm in the Dhawan house. No parties. No racy movies. No HBO.

She had grown up in Daytona Beach, a few streets from U.S. 1, but caught only fleeting glimpses of spring break. Vibha worked at a Baskin-Robbins her senior year, scooping ice cream for college students in swimsuits. When her family visited friends who owned motels near the beach, she saw the crowds gathered for MTV concerts.

Vibha's mother kept her away from all that. MTV wasn't high on Promila's list. It taught that there was nothing wrong with nudity, nothing wrong with drinking, nothing wrong with sex before marriage.

Vibha was permitted male friends, but no boyfriends. She went to her high school prom with four other girls. She wore a powder-blue sleeveless dress with matching high heels. Her mother told her to put on a jacket to cover her arms. Vibha didn't.

At the Adam's Mark hotel under a stars-and-moonlight theme, Vibha danced to fast songs in a group and sat out the slow songs.

After Vibha moved to Tampa and into a USF dormitory, her mother would call late at night to make sure she was in her room.

Vibha did not always adhere to her parents' wishes. They wanted a medical career for her. Her father was a pharmacist; her mother, a hospital lab technician. But in her sophomore year, Vibha made social sciences her major. She was interested in people and society.

Vibha plunged into campus life. During India week, she passed out bumper stickers that beckoned, "Kiss Me I'm Indian," but kissed no one. She started the Organization of Hindu Minds: OHM. The group drew mostly from the vegetarian, toe-ring set, many non-Indians. Vibha caravaned to Clearwater Beach with friends. She saw Jon Bon Jovi at the USF Sun Dome, her first concert. With her friend Monica Bassi, a fellow Punjabi, she went to the Hindi movies brought to campus each week by the Students of India Association.

Growing up, Vibha had spent many a lazy Saturday afternoon with her mother watching Indian movies rented from the local east-west grocery. The movies almost always had an arranged marriage.

A sari-clad mother would announce to her daughter, "Beta, I found a boy for you." The young woman would throw herself on the bed weeping.

A long-haired beauty learned to love the stranger she married.

A hero secretly pined for the love he could never have and sang about his heart breaking like glass.

The Hindi movies of Vibha's childhood were made in the 1960s. There was no kissing, no couples disappearing behind closed doors.

Marriage remained a leading theme in the Indian movies shown at USF. But now the female actors showed their navels and danced provocatively. Still, Vibha noticed: no kissing.

She went to few college parties. On weekends, she drove her Hyundai Elantra home to Deltona, near Daytona Beach.

It was during those visits that Vibha, who was about to graduate, noticed talk of arranged marriage seeping into her life. Her father would see a young man sitting cross-legged on the floor at the Hindu temple and nudge Vibha: "There's our future son-in-law."

Her mother would slip the topic into conversation at the dinner table. "When you graduate from college, we'll get you married," she would say.

Vibha let the comments evaporate.

Arranged marriage was born of the caste system. Around 1500 B.C., a tribe of Aryan herdsmen from central Asia crossed the lower slopes of the Himalayas into northern India and settled alongside the darker-skinned natives.

A caste system evolved. In the top tier were the priests or Brahmans, mostly Aryans; in the bottom, laborers or Shudra, mostly natives. At first, marriage was permitted among the top tiers, but in time a more rigid social structure emerged. The community you were born into became your marriage pool, your support system during hardship, your identity in a nation of villages.

To keep the community intact, parents arranged the marriages of their children. It ensured harmony in houses shared by extended families. Parents ruled. Children obeyed.

The practice of arranged marriage survived thousands of years, virtually unaltered. Through the Gupta dynasty and the invasion of the Huns. Through the Turko-Afghan chieftains, the Moghul empire and centuries of Muslim rule. Through European trade and the arrival of the British.

In the past century, Indians have fanned out around the globe seeking a better life. More than 1-million Indians now live in the United States. For customs to survive, the arranged marriage had to evolve.

"Bengali father invites alliance for his 33/5'9" handsome son," reads the ad under the Wanted Brides column of the Indian newspaper Desi Match, based in New York. "Father owns a jewelry showroom in Texas. Seeks only U.S. citizen, educated, beautiful girls below 30 years from respected family. Contact with photo."

Hundreds of dating sites dot the Internet: marryindian.com, indiasoulmate.com, suitablematch.com. On Shaadi.com, a New York accountant posts her profile: "Fun loving and happy, from a family who are an impressive blend of traditional and modern ideologies."

Each year, Gujarati parents - originally from western India - gather their children for the three-day Charotar Patidar Samaj, commonly called the Patel Convention. North Carolina hotelier Ravi C. Patel and his brothers started the convention in 1989. They had noticed that in suburban Charlotte, marriageable Patels weren't meeting other Patels, a proud family name.

Today, the convention attracts thousands from across America and has fierce competition from a half-dozen similar gatherings.

The conventions are typical of singles socials, with lots of mingling and ice-breaking games.

"Name five things you would need if you were stranded on a desert island," said the host at the Patel Convention in Orlando two years ago.

At table 54, the discussion was lively:

"Unlimited booze."

"A genie and a magic lamp."

"Matches," suggested a young man.

"You going to start a fire?" teased a smiling young woman.

While the 20-somethings joked - If you were a dessert, what kind would you be? - parents sat in an adjacent ballroom, arms folded.

One father was near tears as he spoke of culture lost: "My son doesn't even know how to pronounce my hometown."

"They have not accepted as their culture the arranged marriage," said another father.

Parents discussed proms and dating, and talked about what to do if a daughter-in-law, a meat eater, used their vegetarian pots and pans to make chicken curry.

One mother worried aloud: What if the children didn't know how to cook Indian food at all?

Back in Deltona, Vibha's parents worried, too. Was their daughter Indian or American? Would she accept an arranged marriage?

At USF, Vibha thought she was doing fine on the relationship front without any help from home. She was dating young Indian men she met at school. Not all the guys were Punjabi or Hindu, as her parents had wished.

Vibha went to college networking conferences where young Indians discussed world affairs and exchanged phone numbers. But she disliked the meat-market atmosphere of those gatherings. The dates were always disappointing. The young men "wouldn't look at me seriously the way I was looking at them seriously," she said.

Vibha was in her senior year at USF the next time her parents brought up arranged marriage. The tone was more serious. Her mother showed her a photo of a young man, a doctor who lived in Punjab. He was in his late 20s, a friend of Promila's family in India.

Vibha looked at the photo and wrinkled her nose. The doctor had a mustache, which Vibha didn't like, and his hair was thick, what she liked to call "Indian-guy-hair-from-India."

"Don't go just on looks," her mother said. "Write to him."

Vibha stalled for weeks.

She knew exactly what she wanted in a husband. Someone who wouldn't hold her back from her goals. Someone secure. The sort of man who wouldn't mind if she kept her male friends. A man who wouldn't expect her to be home cooking every night. An understanding guy.

"I wouldn't have to feel like I had to hide things from him," she said.

She wanted a modern man. Not someone from an ancient system.

An arranged marriage had been the fate of females in Vibha's family for generations.

Vibha's grandmother, Kamlavati Khanna, was wedded at 10, before puberty. Her parents gave her up as a young virgin to please the gods and to end years of misfortune.

Kamlavati was shrouded from head to toe in a red sari for her wedding. No man saw her face, not even her betrothed, who was 10 years older. The child bride paraded around the sacred matrimonial flame behind him, the two connected by a small cord tied to her sari.

After the ceremony, Kamlavati returned to her family's house. When her first period came, at 14, she was sent to live with her husband and his family.

Kamlavati raised 10 children in Amritsar, an industrial city in Punjab state. The youngest of her four daughters was Promila.

Promila's sisters quickly married after high school. Promila didn't; she wanted to go to college. Her brothers objected, telling her it was no place for girls. Finally, one brother yielded and Promila became the first woman in her family to attend college. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India.

Promila was a caring daughter, caring for her mother after her father's death, cooking for her and keeping her company between college classes.

At 26, Promila was still unmarried. She wanted to be independent. She wanted her own job, "my own everything," she said, "because then you don't have to bear the stupid behavior of a man."

One day in 1972, when Promila's mother was in the hospital diagnosed with liver cancer, a cousin came to visit. He saw how Promila cared for her mother. He saw her prettiness.

When Promila left, the cousin told Kamlavati about a man he knew. His name was Devindra Dhawan and he had just come back from college in the United States. Do you want me to arrange a meeting, the cousin asked.

Kamlavati relayed the offer to her daughter. She wasn't interested.

One night soon after, while Promila was massaging her mother's head, Kamlavati gave her a talk she would never forget:

"I know you don't want to get married, and I wish I could fulfill that wish for you, but now God has a new plan and I am dying. In two or three days, I will not be alive. I am not forcing you to get married, but I don't want you to live alone. Nor do I want you to live with your sisters or your brothers. They are going to use you like a servant. You are so giving. You are going to lose your dignity and your self-respect, which I don't like. So better you get married and have your own life."

Days later, Kamlavati died.

Promila's sisters pushed her to meet Devindra. He had a doctorate in pharmacy from the University of Florida and was working as a drug inspector for the Indian customs department. His family's background was not Punjabi, but Devindra grew up in northern India and was familiar with Punjabi customs.

Promila agreed to meet Devindra. The meeting, at a friend's house, was brief, and Promila never once looked up at him. Devindra spoke first, expressing sympathy for Kamlavati's death. Then, he became blunt.

"I have to tell you, I am a smoker," he said. "I am a chain smoker. I drink and I go out, and I am not going to live in India. I am going to move back to America."

Promila's head stayed down.

"After marriage, you can't say, "Why you are smoking? You didn't tell me. Why you are drinking? You didn't tell me.' Well, I'm telling you now."

Promila could see Devindra's profile in a mirror on the wall. He had on a tie, maroon jacket and blue shirt. She wore a sari, with two petticoats underneath to add volume to her bony body.

"Do you have any questions?" Devindra asked.

Promila shook her head.

"You are going to answer me? You want a few days?"

She didn't respond.

Her sisters came into the room. "I want to go now," Promila said.

Two weeks later, she still had no answer for Devindra.

Then, the doorbell rang. Promila opened the door to find herself face-to-face with Devindra for the first time. He was a large man, visibly older. They were alone, which was inappropriate.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm passing through. I thought I would see you. Have you decided on marriage?"

Promila was shivering. She asked him to come in and offered him a soda.

"Looks like you are under pressure," Devindra said. "I don't want to force you. Whatever your heart says, you have to go with that."

"I will let you know," Promila said, expecting him to leave.

Instead, he asked her to go for a ride. He was on his way to a work luncheon and had a driver waiting. Promila telephoned her older sister for permission. "Be careful," her sister said.

The trip lasted four hours. Devindra was very polite. He didn't pepper her with stupid questions. Promila enjoyed his company.

That night, she lit a candle by a small altar in her home and prayed. "God show me who is the one," she said, closing her eyes.

When she opened them, she saw an image of the Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer, and by his side, the goddess Parvati. They were exchanging garlands, a ritual in marriage.

Promila didn't have a picture of either god on her altar. She usually prayed to Mata, a North Indian god. Yet, there before her were Parvati and Shiva, a younger woman and an older man, just like she and Devindra. It had to be a sign.

The next morning, Promila told her sisters, "Go ahead with marriage. God has a plan."

When Vibha was born to Promila and Devindra in a Madras hospital on Sept. 24, 1977, her hands were wide open, her arms stretched out. The doctor remarked to Promila that the child would not stay in India. "She is reaching," the doctor said. "She will take you far."

The night Vibha came home from the hospital, a letter from U.S. immigration authorities was waiting. Devindra's papers had come through. The family had a passage to America.

Promila looked at her college student daughter - hair long like a Hindi film star, nose pierced on the left, but so American on the inside. Promila knew Vibha dated at USF, and that not all the men were Punjabi or Hindu. What if Vibha married a non-Indian? What would become of customs, of all that was important to her parents?

Promila had always strived to make her daughter as Indian as possible. She toted Vibha to poojas, Hindu prayer services, held in the homes of local Indians. She enrolled Vibha in Hindi classes and cooked lavish Indian dinners.

She stressed Punjabi culture, which has roots that date back 3,000 years. Punjabi people sacrificed much for India, Promila told her child. During Partition in 1947, it was this northern region that fell divided between a Muslim Pakistan and a Hindu India. Thousands of families were uprooted amid riots and bloodshed, Devindra's family among them.

Promila told Vibha stories about Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, summoned before all ceremonies, including marriage. At bedtime, Devindra would play cassette tapes from the Hindi film singer Lata Mangeshkar.

But Vibha was not always receptive. She found Indian food too spicy. She wanted pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers, a taste she developed in the cafeteria of Holly Hill Elementary School near Daytona Beach. She spoke limited Hindi, with an American accent.

When Vibha turned 13, Devindra and Promila decided to send her to India for a year to learn more about her homeland's culture. Even before she walked into the boarding school in Jaipur, 165 miles from New Delhi, classmates were gossiping about "the American."

Vibha felt like a foreigner. She fell behind on school work, especially in her study of Hindi. In class one day, the students had to recite a prayer. Vibha said the prayer as best she could. The headmistress stopped at her desk.

"Vibha, say that again," she demanded.

Vibha's pronunciation was mangled. Her classmates burst out laughing.

But she returned to the United States with newfound interest in her heritage. She started to like being Indian, being Punjabi. When American friends asked her, "Why so many gods?" she knew the answer: Hindus believe in one god, but a god who takes different forms. A figure like Ganesha was symbolic.

She grew to love Indian food, dal and pepper-laden curries. She bought mounds of eye-catching Indian clothes and dazzling jewelry. She wore metal bangles up to her elbows and rhinestone-studded bindi dots between her eyebrows.

With Vibha in her 20s, Promila felt she was standing at a crossroads. She felt a burden. Family traditions, thousands of years old, were threatening to dissolve in just one generation in America.

A Punjabi husband could help Vibha carry traditions to future generations.

Years ago, Promila herself had resisted arranged marriage. Now, she knew better. It was a necessity.

Promila had one agenda. Vibha's girlfriends at USF had another.

Monica Bassi, a Punjabi born in Toronto, was adamant. "I don't want you to have an arranged marriage!" she said. "You will meet someone at the right time, whenever it happens. You can't force these things."

"You need to find someone that fits the lifestyle you want," said Sheetal Dharia, a member of the Organization of Hindu Minds.

Vibha had tried the American way of dating. She went to parties and met boys and realized that it was hard.

"I get attached very easily," Vibha said. "I don't know how to disconnect."

Would the Indian way - having her parents as a go-between - be better?

The arranged marriage had evolved, changed even from her parents' time. Her parents were dutiful, holding hands to help each other up the stairs or out of the car. Could it hurt to have their help in the search? To have a shepherd? A protector?

Vibha had great respect for her parents. Her father lived with a handicap, the shortness of his left leg. Her mother was strong, not at all submissive. Promila's motto: "Always put your hand in your own pocket; never put your hand in someone else's pocket."

Vibha doesn't remember exactly how she arrived at her decision. Only that she did.

"Okay," she said somewhat out of the blue during a weekend trip back to Deltona. "I will give the boys you find a chance."

Vibha had one condition: She wanted veto power. Her parents, seated in a living room filled with framed family vacation photos, agreed.

Months passed before Vibha heard anything more about marriage. She became caught up in preparations for her December graduation. She knew her mother was planning a trip to India and assumed it was to see family. Then Vibha noticed a stack of photos of herself and a list of her clubs and activities at USF.

Vibha realized: Her mother wasn't going to India just to visit. She was crossing the globe to find her daughter a husband.


Article list

The match game

December 22, 2004

The television flickered with the faces of blonds and brunets, their hair flat-ironed, their evening dresses stretched over pushup bras.

"Who will go home broken-hearted?" the voiceover said.

Vibha Dhawan was watching The Bachelor on a 13-inch Magnavox in her dorm room, feeling anything but elegant. Her room was a wreck, clothes strewn everywhere. She studied and ate at the same cramped desk, her textbooks piled on the floor.

On TV, the bachelor, a Harvard graduate with a fondness for snow skiing and Italian food, stood before his harem of beautiful women. Arranged marriage, American style. A tray of long-stemmed red roses awaited the bachelor's whims.

"The first rose goes to. . . ." He paused hard before giving up a name.

Lipstick smiles froze in anticipation until one rose was left.

"The final rose goes to . . ."

The camera flashed to those without flowers. The discarded. The disappointed. Love was never easy, not even on television.

+ + +

Promila Dhawan telephoned friends and relatives in India who might know a suitable young man. Once Vibha's mother had a name, she called the man's parents, or, sometimes, an aunt, and listened to how they spoke. Were they educated? Overly boastful? Did they seem interested in Vibha?

She phoned neighbors and friends in India who might know the family. "How do they treat people?" Promila asked. "What kind of business do they have?How are their children growing up?"

Vibha was at the University of South Florida, trying to stay calm. She had picked up her cap and gown for winter graduation. She had agreed in principle to her parents' wishes.

"The arranged marriage is all about duty," she explained to her girlfriends.

But at the same time, she told her mother, "There is no way a boy from India would understand me." What did an Indian man know of American ways? Would he let her be a feminist? Have a career?

Her mother was adamant. She wanted a Punjabi boy from India. Indian boys in America were too Westernized, hardly spoke Hindi, knew little about Indian culture and Hinduism.

"What will you teach your children?" she asked Vibha.

In late December 2000, just after Vibha's graduation, Promila boarded a plane for India. She had five interviews lined up. Vibha stayed at home in Deltona with her father.

After flying 8,700 miles to Bombay, her mother traveled 1,500 bone-rattling miles by train to Delhi, then Jaipur and her hometown of Amritsar in Punjab.

Back home, Vibha baked brownies from a box for her dad. In India, Promila sipped hot chai tea in living rooms and quizzed prospects: What do you do for a living? What do your parents do? What are your plans?

Every few days, Vibha got a phone call from her mother. Bachelor No. 1 was off the list, Promila reported. He kept making excuses and didn't want to spend time with Promila.

Another call: Bachelor No. 2 had a girlfriend. "You can't drink milk with a fly in it," her mother told her.

Bachelor No. 3, who had told Promila he was 6 feet 6, turned out to be 5 feet 9. "He was lying, one after the other," she said.

No. 4 was looking for an easy passage to the United States: a green card. Vibha was not about to be used as a one-way ticket to America.

Then came the doctor with the mustache, the one whose photograph Vibha had seen. Promila asked about his plans. He would stay in the United States for five or six years, the young doctor said, but then he would return to India.

"My daughter doesn't want to leave the States," Promila told Bachelor No. 5. "She is an American."

Ten days after leaving, Promila flew back to Florida. Vibha was waiting at Orlando International Airport. Her mother was finished with India. The entire nation of 1-billion had been stricken from her list. She told Vibha, "None of those boys were good enough!"

Vibha felt relief.

But other countries dotted the map. And her mother still had steam.

Maybe an Indian from the United States really was better-suited for her daughter, Promila decided. She had tried tradition. It was time for modern magic: the Internet. Promila assembled a report known in Indian matrimonial circles as a bio data. On a computer, Promila typed:

VIBHA DHAWAN

DOB: September 24, 1977

Height: 5'5"

Social: President of the Organization of Hindu Minds

Promila listed sports - softball, volleyball and bowling, among them - but, deliberately, did not list Vibha's weight. In Promila's mind, her plus-sized daughter needed to slim down.

With the resume came a cover letter.

Vibha was born on September 24, 1977, at 10:30 p.m. in Madras, India, to Dr. Devindra Dhawan and Mrs. Promila K. Dhawan. She is an only child that comes from a big family located in Punjab, Delhi, Mumbai, Surat, London, Canada, California, New York and Illinois.

Her relatives' professions range from doctors, scientists, lawyers, engineers, to the P.A. of the prime minister of India. Even though she has lived in the United States most of her life she hasn't forgotten her traditional values and religious practices.

Vibha graduated from the University of South Florida on December of 2000 with a B.A. in Sociology and Communication Sciences/Disorders. She is currently working and studying toward her M.A. degree in Political Science and Communications. Her future goals are to live a successful life with her family and to become a politician or news broadcaster.

One could say that she is a sincere, social and open-minded person with a warm heart. She is looking for an independent individual with similar futuristic goals for a prosperous life.

Sincerely,

Promila Dhawan

Vibha flipped through albums looking for a photo to accompany the bio. She chose one of herself smiling from a cream-colored sofa. She was wearing an earth-toned salwar kameez, tunic and draw-string pants, with a Bindi dot between her eyebrows.

Vibha, instructed by her mom, posted the bio data package on punjabimatrimony.com, whose home page offers "eternal bonds" and "everlasting relationships."

Responses poured into Promila's Yahoo account. "The computer is magic," Promila marveled.

Vibha, now in graduate school, checked the account from USF's computer lab between classes. She poked fun at the guys' names, creating unflattering rhymes. If a guy couldn't spell, if he wasn't careful in the way he wrote, she didn't take him seriously.

"We would like to have the latest photograph of dear Anita," stated the note from Beavercreek, Ohio.

"Who's Anita?" Vibha said to her mother, and they both burst out laughing.

Promila evaluated the responses. She noted height; she wanted a tall man for Vibha. She noted age. Six years older was out.

She did not make an issue of caste, which could be confining given the smaller pool of single Indian men in the United States.

If the e-mail stated, "I am looking for a girl who knows how to cook and clean" - and some did - Promila zapped it into the trash. She knew Vibha was not domestic.

Promila responded to likely prospects by e-mail, asking for the young man's horoscope - date, time and place of birth - so that she might compare it with Vibha's. Ancient Hindus used astrology to launch battles and unite kingdoms. Promila believed the stars held the messages of God.

Despite the deluge of responses, the first Web posting netted only one prospect: Anil, 24, a chiropractor from California.

He telephoned once. Vibha discovered she didn't know exactly what to say to a man. At least not this man.

"What's up?" she tried.

Anil filled the dead air, raving about California's sunny weather.

The two did not click.

Her mother was impatient. It was June 2001. Six months had passed since the trip to India. Promila decided to take Vibha to see a Hindu priest - a pandit - near Orlando. Pandits advised on the physical - marriage, death and birth - and the metaphysical, the will of God. Maybe he could tell them something.

In a community center used as a temple, Vibha sat cross-legged on the bare floor, next to the pandit. He seemed young and bony to her. A piece of cloth the golden color of turmeric draped his chest. In front of him was a chart of the stars and the moons.

"When is she going to get married?" Vibha's father asked eagerly.

The pandit looked at his chart. "The guy will come into her life after September," he said. "He will be someone she already knows."

Vibha searched her mind. Who could that be? Faces popped up. She pushed them aside.

"The boy will live in the United States," the pandit said.

Her mother seemed pleased.

"He will be into computers, well-off," continued the priest. "You will have nothing to worry about."

He turned to Vibha. "You're going to get married 18 months from your birthday coming up."

Vibha did the calculation in her head. She would turn 24 in September. Eighteen months from that would be March 2003.

That was awfully close, she thought. She sat silently. While her parents obsessed over when, Vibha worried about who.

"I'm not that desperate!" Vibha fumed.

She was at home in Deltona one weekend in January 2002 when she noticed a pile of envelopes in the living room. Responses to the bio data usually came by e-mail. What was going on?

Promila confessed. She had placed an ad for Vibha in India Abroad, a weekly newspaper offered at U.S. markets frequented by Indians. Vibha had been revealed to the world as a Punjabi girl, 24, with a wheatish complexion, well-educated and from a good family, who was seeking a Punjabi boy.

"Embarrassing!" Vibha said. She had agreed to the India trip, the bio data, the Web posting. But a classified ad? What was she, a car?

Promila was not only fielding the responses, she was scanning the other ads in India Abroad's matrimonial columns. One day the words "tall" and "attorney" caught her eye.

Without telling Vibha, Promila answered the ad. A few days later, an e-mail arrived from California.

Thank you for your response to the ad I had placed in India Abroad for my son, Sandeep. I am attaching Sandeep's photo and bio data to this e-mail. If you could kindly respond with a photograph and bio data of your daughter, it would be much appreciated.

Sandeep was north Indian, 29, 5 feet 10 and 195 pounds. He had been in the United States since he was a baby and was a lawyer in Los Angeles.

Vibha was on the verge of scolding her mother for again snatching the reins when she examined Sandeep's photo and bio data. He was tall and smiling, with thick hair. She liked that he listed both Indian and American hobbies.

She gave her mother the go-ahead, and Promila sent off Vibha's bio data. Within days, Vibha got an e-mail.

Hi Vibha,

This is Sandeep. I got your e-mail address from my parents who got it from your parents. Where in Florida do you currently live? Besides going to school, are you also working, or are you a full time student?

I live at home with my parents, and we live in a suburb of Los Angeles called Porter Ranch. I have a younger brother and a younger sister.

Your parents also gave my parents your cell phone number. Would you mind if I called you?

Take care

Sandeep

Vibha was impressed. He was casual and nice. Plus, no spelling mistakes.

Hey Sandeep,

How are you? I go to school full time and I work full time on campus. I have no problem with you calling my cell phone.

What type of attorney are you? Personal injury? Corporate? What do you do for fun? Do you travel? Have you been to Florida?

Take care,

Vibha

That weekend in February 2002, Vibha hooked her cell phone to her purse and toted it everywhere. She was having lunch with a girlfriend at Perkins Restaurant & Bakery on Fowler Avenue when a strange number flashed on her caller ID. She kept getting calls meant for a real estate office. Expecting yet another, she answered rudely: "What?"

"Hi, is this Vibha? " a deep voice said. "This is Sandeep."

Vibha sat up. "Oh, hi." The moment wasn't private. "I'm having lunch with my friend," Vibha said. "Can I call you back?"

Forty-five minutes later, she did, catching him in line for a ride at Disneyland.

"So how have you been?" he asked casually, as if Vibha was a lifelong friend.

"Fine," she said.

"How was your week?"

"Fine," she said.

Pauses filled the air and Vibha could tell the timing was not right.

"Can I call you tomorrow?" he asked.

The next day, Vibha waited for his call at an indoor racquetball court at USF. She rarely played racquetball, but thought it would make good background noise. Perhaps Sandeep would think she was athletic and slim.

For 10 minutes, they talked about the weather, before moving to geography.

"Is Tampa east or west of Orlando?" he asked.

He told her he had traveled to Hawaii and Las Vegas. He liked to gamble.

Oh, Vibha said.

Sandeep named some fast-food restaurants he liked.

"I stopped eating beef in 1996," Vibha said. "I eat seafood."

"I can't stand seafood," Sandeep said.

"Oh, that's another thing we have in common," she said, and they both chuckled.

The next call, Vibha initiated.

Should she tell him the truth? That her bio data photo was dated. That she had gained 30 pounds.

"I'm not, like, a size 5," she said.

He didn't get the hint and went on gabbing about movies and dating.

"Do you think we should meet?" he said.

It was only their second conversation. Maybe he did get the hint.

The Indian celebration of spring, called Holi, passed. Vibha's midterm exams passed. The conversations with Sandeep continued, lasting an hour, then two.

She asked him the husband questions she had been rehearsing in her mind.

"If a girl cooks, will you do the dishes?"

"Yes," he said.

"When you were 14 and your baby sister was born, did you change her diapers?"

"Your questions are weird."

She remained silent until he gave in.

"Yes, I changed her diapers."

"Did you help your mom? Did you cook for her?"

"Are you one of those girls who believe in 50-50 all the way?"

"No, I believe in 51-49," Vibha said. "You for the 49."

They laughed.

He asked her, "Do you get lonely, being an only child?"

"All the time," she said. "I always feel lonely."

She liked the question. It showed sensitivity.

Promila was cautious about Sandeep. She noticed his ad was still running in India Abroad. But Sandeep's mother sent Promila a list of the family's summer travel plans. They wanted to meet Vibha.

Vibha told her mother to stall, hoping to buy some time to lose weight.

"Eat more broccoli," Promila nagged. "Lay off the bread."

The musical chime on her cell phone went off while Vibha was in her dorm. Sandeep wanted to fix a date to meet - urgently.

It was May 2002. Almost four months had passed since their first e-mail.

She asked him to pick two numbers. Twice, he chose seven.

"Okay, I'll meet you on July 7," Vibha said. "I'll come with my mom and dad."

"Will they let us be alone?" Sandeep asked.

+ + +

She had already gone to bed when he called one night not long afterward.

Somehow the conversation turned to sex. Sandeep asked Vibha how she felt about sleeping with her fiance if she got engaged.

She was stunned. Her upbringing taught her such subjects were private.

"If I get to a point where I feel comfortable, then I will have this conversation with you," she answered, "but you shouldn't expect it."

For weeks, Sandeep didn't call. Vibha sent him an e-mail birthday card in June, when he turned 30. His response was brief and completely ignored their last phone conversation.

For the first time, Vibha felt she couldn't talk to Sandeep. She didn't answer his e-mail. He didn't call.

July 7, 2002, came and went, and Vibha was still like a girl on The Bachelor, waiting for her red rose.

Vibha's mom threw more bio data packages her way, including two men from Houston, both named Manish. Manish One and Manish Two, Vibha dubbed them.

Her bio data was now posted on another popular site, shaadi.com. Promila updated the photo: Vibha in the sleeveless, powder-blue dress she wore to her high school prom.

In Russia, a young Punjabi named Ashu noticed. He e-mailed her on Feb. 25, 2003.

I am ambitious, caring, friendly, possess good sense of humor, family values, professionally sound, dedicated hard worker. I have lust for life, don't let people be sad around me and don't want to hurt them with wrong deeds and action.

Vibha, under Promila's tutelage, had become more demanding.

Dear Ashu,

Your description of yourself sounds vague, could you tell me some of your flaws?

March 2003 arrived. Vibha was still single. The pandit had been off in his prediction.

The search was in its third year. It reached all the way to New Zealand.

A friend of Promila's knew a Punjabi woman whose nephew was studying there. "Very tall and handsome," the woman said. His name was Rahul.

Rahul e-mailed Vibha. His first note was short and sweet, which Vibha liked. He ended it with "Be good!"

They set a date to meet - on the Internet - where they would trade instant messages. Online, Vibha waited for an hour. It was as if she had been stood up at a bar. Finally, a message popped on the screen: Sorry. I had something to do.

She didn't ask. He didn't volunteer.

+ + +

Vibha moved out of the USF dorms and into the nearby Excellence Apartments. Anand Warude, a fellow graduate student, lived at Excellence with five roommates who took turns cooking, and Vibha often went to his apartment for dinner. While Fear Factor played on the TV and the friends squirmed at the outlandish stunts, they joked, talked about their day, their professors, USF politics, India.

Vibha particularly enjoyed the stories about India that one of Anand's roommates, Shantanu Shevade, told. Like Anand, Shantanu had grown up in Bombay, and, like Anand, he had come to Tampa to study engineering at USF. Shantanu entertained Vibha and his roommates with tales of the stricter climate at Indian colleges. You couldn't bring food into classrooms, he said, or even a soft drink. Yawning in class was out, too.

Shantanu was nice, Vibha thought. She had thought he was a bit scruffy when they first met, in need of a shave, but she noticed right away that his eyes were hazel - shimmering like pennies - not pitch black like most Indian eyes.

Then, in an instant one evening, he became just another male disappointment.

It had been a long day at school and work. After dinner, Vibha dozed off for a few minutes on Anand's couch. When she opened her eyes, her friends were huddled around the computer, looking at something that made a loud, gasping noise.

"What is that?" Vibha asked.

"That's you snoring!" one of them announced.

The villain was Shantanu. He had recorded Vibha while she slept, much to the amusement of the others.

She left the apartment embarrassed and with Shantanu crossed off her list.

The online relationship with Rahul had improved after the awkward start.

Toward the end of summer last year, Rahul's aunt in Pittsburgh phoned Promila. The aunt wanted to meet Vibha.

With Rahul in New Zealand and his parents in India, the aunt had become the point of contact, typical of Indian matchmaking.

Promila was pleased. She liked Rahul's family. Vibha felt some excitement, too. After three years, she was finally going to meet prospective parents.

Vibha wore a fancy Punjabi outfit for the meeting in Pittsburgh, which was held in an Indian restaurant that Rahul's family owned.

The aunt greeted Vibha warmly. "How's school?" she asked.

She raved about Rahul, his good looks, his hobbies. "He might be coming to America soon for a visit," she said. "Maybe you two can meet."

As Vibha and her mother boarded the plane for the flight back to Tampa, Promila took up Rahul's cause.

"You should talk to Rahul more," Promila told Vibha.

In her mind, Vibha was running through the gallery of faces the long search had produced.

The candidates from India were out, or were they? She knew her mother still kept in touch with Bachelor No. 5, the doctor. Promila liked his family.

The Manishes from Houston also came from good families. Manish One was always complimenting Vibha, but was he sincere? Manish Two was worldly and liked to describe at great length the places he had visited, but his monologues sometimes turned Vibha off.

Ashu the Russian wore his heart on his sleeve and was convinced that he and Vibha were destined for each other.

Rahul was kind and liked to cook, but he didn't always share Vibha's sense of humor.

Yet, as Vibha fastened her seat belt, her mind was far from muddled. She didn't let on to her mother, but the picture was becoming clearer. One man was starting to stand out.


Article list

The boy next door

December 26, 2004

Vibha's cell phone went off. It was Shantanu.

"You want to get something to eat?" he asked.

For weeks after Shantanu recorded her snoring, Vibha vowed not to talk to him. Then, her girlfriend Athy Fitos persuaded her to give him a second chance. Actually, Athy confided, he likes you.

Vibha offered to drive, and slipped on nice jeans, a frilly red blouse and strappy heels.

"You're all dressed up," Shantanu said when she knocked on his door.

"Oh, I just threw this on," Vibha said.

He was in shorts. It was June 21, 2003, a sunny day in Tampa. Shantanu wanted to dine outdoors.

Vibha knew a place in Hyde Park. In her Hyundai, they drove down Kennedy Boulevard. Vibha became lost. Where was the turn for Old Hyde Park Village?

On Howard Avenue, she spotted TC Choy's Asian Bistro. Not exactly alfresco, but Shantanu said okay.

A waiter dressed in black took their order for California rolls and fruity drinks. A laughing Buddha statue stood in the corner while a sushi chef rolled rice onto seaweed at the bar. This would be a great date place, Vibha was thinking.

After dinner, she had an idea. "Want to see my favorite house?"

They drove to Tampa's grandest street, Bayshore Boulevard. Vibha slowed in front of the Mediterranean mansion of RV tycoon Don Wallace.

"It's my dream house," she said.

"Wow," said Shantanu, imagining the price tag.

He looked beyond the balustrade of Bayshore Boulevard to Hillsborough Bay. His hometown of Bombay is near the Arabian Sea.

"I want to go near the water," he said.

Vibha knew just the spot. They drove through downtown and across the bridge to Harbour Island. She felt like a tour guide, introducing Shantanu to a Tampa he had never seen.

It was almost 9 p.m. when they sat down behind Jackson's Bistro, on the brick steps along Seddon Channel. Shantanu was an arm's length from Vibha, two steps above her. For the longest time, they just sat there, looking at the skyline across the channel and at each other.

"You're so good," he said, breaking the silence.

He was teasing her, just like he often did at Anand's.

"You don't know me that well," Vibha said.

She wanted to prove she wasn't goody-goody. "I dare you to kiss me," she joked.

"Oh, I dare you to kiss me," Shantanu said.

Vibha wasn't sure if he was joking. Or was he challenging her? She was not one to back down.

"All right," she said. But she did not move.

Minutes went by. Should she do it?

She scooted closer to him and kissed him on the cheek.

"See," she said, smugly.

She was feeling playful.

"I dare you to kiss me, too," she said.

And he did.

She could hardly pronounce his name at first and had to think it through phonetically: Shan-TAN-oo. She asked what it meant, and he explained: One who heals.

Like a doctor, Vibha thought.

He had seeped into her life. She had met him the year before. He was a friend of Anand's and a graduate student. Vibha would go to Anand's for dinner and Shantanu would be there, along with Anand's girlfriend and many other people. Then, when Vibha moved into Excellence Apartments, Shantanu was there with Anand to help.

He would tease her about being ABCD, American Born Confused Desi, a term for Indians confused about their identity after years in America. She joked he was FOB: Fresh Off the Boat.

She began to notice little things about him. He never raised his voice. He helped with the dishes after meals and told her he did things 50-50. In his eyes, men and women were on equal footing.

Perhaps if she had seen his bio data, she would have dismissed him for some superficial reason.

Perhaps, he might have dismissed her, too. At first sight, Shantanu thought Vibha was plump, but soon he was noticing the shine of her hair and the delicacy of her nose. When his car broke down, it was Vibha who canceled her movie plans to pick him up.

Before coming to America, Shantanu Shevade had never left India. He lived in a suburb of Bombay, the country's financial capital, which was renamed Mumbai in 1995 as politicians sought to break away from India's colonial heritage. His mother, Maitreyee Shevade, taught Sanskrit in a high school. His father, Sudhir Shevade, was a retired computer manager for the State Bank of India.

Shantanu chose mechanical engineering as his career. It fit with his fondness for airplanes and engines. He went to Mumbai University and got a job at a software company, but he was not happy. Why not try graduate study at USF, his childhood friend Anand suggested.

Two hours after arriving in Tampa in August 2002, Shantanu was wading in the swimming pool at Campus Walk apartments. Five hours later, he was at the Greenery, the campus hangout.

The next year, he moved into Excellence Apartments with Anand. His building was just 100 yards from Vibha's.

Her mother had searched the Earth for a husband for Vibha.

Vibha found Shantanu next door.

The e-mails from Rahul, the student in New Zealand, ceased not too long after the trip to Pittsburgh. He and Vibha fell out over a joke Vibha made that he did not get.

Ashu the Russian didn't have a college degree, Vibha discovered. Her mother gave her permission to stop responding to his e-mails. Calls from Manish One and Manish Two of Houston faded with "I'll call you later." Vibha did not follow up. Neither did they.

The others faded. But not Shantanu. He and Vibha became inseparable in the summer and fall of 2003. It was Vibha who brought up the subject of marriage. Shantanu didn't shy away from the suggestion.

Vibha's mom knew nothing.

Would Promila approve? Vibha realized Shantanu didn't meet several of the standards her mother had set. He didn't have a steady job. He didn't even have a green card. He was younger than Vibha, by a year.

And there was another problem.

"Ma." Vibha was talking to her mother on the cell phone, on her way to pick up Shantanu. They were going to Ybor City.

"Remember that guy who helped me move into the apartment?" Vibha asked.

"No."

"The one who assembled the bed?" Vibha said.

"No."

Vibha pushed ahead. "Well, I think he likes me," she said quickly. "I think he's the one."

Vibha filled in the silence. He's from Bombay, she said. He's a graduate student at USF, getting his master's and eventually his doctorate.

What was her mother thinking, Vibha wondered. She didn't know. But she plowed on. There was one more thing she needed to say. She knew her mother wanted to keep Punjabi customs alive in America, to pass them on to future generations.

"Ma," she said, "he's not Punjabi."

Shantanu came from the western state of Maharashtra. At home, he spoke Marathi, a regional language. He ate different foods than Punjabis. He worshiped a different god, Lord Ganesha, rather than Mata, the North Indian god Promila worshiped.

There were different wedding customs, too. Maharashtra weddings take place in the day and the bride wears green bangles and a 9-yard sari. In Punjabi weddings, typically held at night, the bride traditionally wears red.

Promila wondered whether infatuation was clouding Vibha's judgment.

She summoned her younger sister, Poonam, who lives in Mumbai, to investigate. Poonam met Shantanu's parents and reported: The mother was friendly with Punjabis. She and her husband were highly educated.

Promila spoke to Shantanu's parents on the telephone. They were polite, she quickly discovered, but would they demand a dowry?

Some Indian families still followed the ancient custom, which was outlawed in 1961 in an effort to stop the suicides of young women seeking to spare their parents the financial burden. Promila believed her daughter was gift enough.

The Shevades did not ask for one.

Promila spent weekends with Vibha and Shantanu. They went to poojas - prayer services - at the Hindu temple near Orlando. They watched Indian movies on satellite Zee TV in the living room.

Promila noticed at dinner that Shantanu fixed his own plate of food.

"If he was a Punjabi boy, maybe he would sit there and say, "Get me a glass of water,' " she said later.

But Promila was still cautious. And so, one evening after dinner, while Vibha was in another room, she launched a cross-examination of Shantanu.

"My daughter, she wants a 50-50 relationship," she said, "but it might more be like 60-40. Is that okay with you?"

Shantanu said yes. He was willing to do more than his share.

"My daughter, she is not Marathi. She is not from India. Doesn't your mother want a Marathi girl for you?"

He said his parents would accept his choice.

Promila asked about Shantanu's degrees. He was applying to the Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering at USF.

"What about a job?" Promila asked. She did not want them to depend on Vibha's paycheck alone.

Shantanu felt his education would land him a good job in the United States.

The questions went on and on. Finally, Promila asked: "Why do you want my daughter? She doesn't cook. She doesn't do housework. What do you see in her?"

Shantanu did not freeze.

"She has a good heart," he said.

And that was when Promila knew Shantanu was the husband for Vibha.

Vibha knew exactly the kind of wedding she wanted: a full five-day Punjabi wedding, with an opening ceremony, two days of bridal preparation, an all-night wedding, a reception the next day. And she wanted it in India.

Promila was ecstatic. Her daughter was sticking to tradition. An auspicious wedding date - deemed special by the gods - was set by the family pandit in Mumbai. The priest weighed the moons and stars and determined the lucky number for Vibha and Shantanu: nine.

They would become engaged on Jan. 18, because one and eight added up to nine.

The wedding in India would be June 27.

Shantanu was a modern man from a modern India. His friends dated. He liked Western music and he had seen Bryan Adams in concert in Bangalore.

He told Vibha he didn't want to wait for the wedding in India to live together. They should move in together, he said, after the civil ceremony they planned at the Volusia County Courthouse Annex in Daytona Beach. A civil wedding would streamline immigration for Shantanu; it was a step many Indians took.

Vibha's apartment lease was almost up. She wanted to live with Shantanu, but she didn't want to upset her mother. You ask Promila, she told Shantanu.

He waited until he was alone with Promila one day in the den of the Dhawans' Deltona home. Shantanu started his preamble.

"Do you think a court marriage is a marriage?" he said. "I think it is."

Promila opened her mouth, as if to say something, but Shantanu kept on talking.

"I want to move in with Vibha, " he said.

Promila couldn't believe her ears. There was marriage in the eyes of the law. Then there was marriage in the eyes of God. To live together without Hindu sanction conflicted with tradition.

But moving to the United States had taught Promila this: Adaptation was part of life. She had cut her hair when she first arrived. She had let her American friends call her "Pam," and now she was allowing her daughter to marry a non-Punjabi.

Promila listened to Shantanu. His plea wasn't coming from an American. It was coming from an Indian.

"Okay," she said.

Vibha was stunned at her mother's approval. But not Shantanu.

"She is very open-minded," he said.

On Jan. 18, 2004, Vibha and Shantanu exchanged rings in Deltona in front of relatives. Two days later, they were married in the hallway of the Volusia courthouse. Only nine people attended, plus a small crowd of bystanders who were at the courthouse to pay traffic tickets: a woman in an embroidered lighthouse sweater, a man holding a motorcycle helmet, a woman with long acrylic fingernails who admired Vibha's lavender sari.

From a red folder, the deputy clerk read words born of another culture's traditions: "For better and worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and health . . . I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."

But there was no kissing in front of relatives.

Rose petals fell upon the two.

"You happy now?" Vibha's father whispered to her.

"Yes."

On Valentine's Day 2004, Shantanu and Vibha moved into a two-bedroom apartment off Fletcher Avenue in Tampa. The newlyweds had a roommate, Promila's sister Poonam, 63, who was visiting from Mumbai.

In the evenings, Vibha and Shantanu held hands and hugged in front of Poonam. When bedtime came, Shantanu headed north down a narrow hallway to a room with a twin bed and a huge Shelby Mustang poster.

Vibha headed south to a room with clothes everywhere. Poonam followed. In a queen-sized bed, Vibha slept with her aunt.

Vibha stepped off the Delta flight with her father, exhausted from nearly 24 hours of traveling. She knew immediately she was in India. Frail women wrapped in saris swept the floor of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai with short straw brooms.

Vibha's formal wedding was 16 days away. Her mother and Shantanu were already in Mumbai.

Would his family like her, the Indian girl from America? She had worked out for weeks before the flight and was wearing cream pants and a black top.

"You look good," Shantanu said, greeting her.

Vibha searched the airport crowd for Shantanu's mother and spotted a woman smiling. Maitreyee Shevade looked exactly like her photo.

"Namaste, mammi-ji," Vibha said, "Hello, my dear mother."

She gave Maitreyee an American greeting, a hug.

Shantanu's family surrounded Vibha: his brother, cousins, aunts and nieces. Vibha glanced over at her own mother, who stood alone, and wondered if she felt left out.

Outside the terminal, as Maitreyee was about to step into the car, Vibha gave the Indian greeting. She knelt to touch Maitreyee's feet.

"Why don't you come over to our place?" Vibha asked her new family.

The U.S. dollar stretches far in India and Promila had been able to rent a three-bedroom apartment for the family's monthlong stay. She had also hired a car and a driver.

Vibha hardly knew what to say to her in-laws in the car. She showed them her engagement ring. She told them things about her mother and father that she knew they already knew. She sat silently for the longest time.

At the apartment, Vibha put the fan on high and served her guests tea and water. She made small talk and hugged them when they left.

Later, Vibha called Shantanu.

"What did they say about me? What did they think," she asked.

There was nothing about her weight or clothes, Shantanu said, none of the things she had worried about. His relatives were impressed that Vibha still had enough energy after a long flight to serve them tea.

Vibha slept that night on a floor mattress. She awoke to noise, the clattering of dishes and Hindi. Aunties and uncles hugged her. A 12-year-old cousin with a short bob and dangling earrings wouldn't let go of her hand.

At the Gandhi Market, three-wheeled scooters - autorickshaws - whizzed by, their horns buzzing like swarms of bees. Vibha climbed over boards and litter, maneuvered around chickens and dogs and a beggar with one leg. The smell of diesel fumes and dung burned her throat. Her clothes stuck to her skin in the 100-degree heat.

One of Vibha's first stops was Friendship Sarees, to pick out her wedding attire. A sign hung above the door: No bargaining, fixed rate. Mats covered the floor, as if the store were a gymnastics studio. About a dozen salesmen sat on cushioned benches. All were barefoot. None smiled as Vibha entered.

At the manager's instruction, vibrant fabrics were draped over the salesmen's arms and across their chests, as if they were bullfighters. Vibha sat on the floor. Color after color appeared in front of her: azure, then garnet, then saffron lined with mossy green and champagne, then wine. Vibha ran her fingers over the beadwork, flecks of mirror and sequins.

"I like this one," she said. "I don't like this one."

Her final choice was not red, as is Punjabi tradition, but fashionable fuchsia and plum.

In one shopping spree, Vibha and her family spent 100,000 rupees, about $2,200, the sum an Indian might earn in a year.

She was an American in India, hiding behind sunglasses. Her fancy Indian outfits - bought at the best stores in America - seemed out of place.

Vibha complained endlessly about the heat. She retreated for hours to the only room in the apartment with air-conditioning.

Language shut her out. Shantanu's family spoke Marathi. Vibha would turn to him for help: "Translation?" She barely understood the formal Hindi the TV news anchors spoke.

Even her name sounded different. In America, friends called her "Veebs." With a heavy Indian accent her name came out "Veeb-HA."

She couldn't go out after 10 p.m. She wanted to go to a nightclub with Shantanu, but her relatives did not approve. Dating rules are strict in India, even for engaged couples. It was easy to forget that, back home, the two were already married.

From India had come the Kamasutra, but displays of public affection would draw glares.

She and Shantanu settled for outings to coffee shops, like many young Indians. No alcohol. No dark corners. Yet, still intimate.

Shantanu didn't take Vibha to his old hangouts, worried she might find them too dumpy. He didn't want her to make a face, as she did that day in the rickshaw. The monsoon rains had begun, and the sweltering air was giving Vibha a headache. Shantanu flagged down a rickshaw and Vibha hopped onto the seat, only to find it was wet and torn.

"Gosh," she said to Shantanu, "if you are going to stick me in a rickshaw, at least stick me in a nice rickshaw."

"A rickshaw is a rickshaw," Shantanu said.

In India, Vibha acted very American. Shantanu was right at home.

There was one place they could hold hands without fear.

Vibha had never been to the Taj Mahal, the symbol of everlasting love built near New Delhi in the 1600s by emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite queen.

On June 21, the one-year anniversary of their first kiss, Shantanu and Vibha made the pilgrimage. They posed on a bench made famous by Princess Diana and felt the coolness of the stone under their bare feet.

The sun was starting to set. With the marble dome blushing pink, Vibha and Shantanu strolled along the reflecting pool of the Taj, hand-in-hand, as lovers had done for centuries.

A string of marigolds was tacked to the door of the Dhawans' apartment in Mumbai. The wedding's five days of ceremonies were about to begin that day, Thursday, June 24, with a pooja - prayer service - to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.

If a wedding was to take place without hurdles, Lord Ganesha had to be consulted and appeased.

"Pray to God. Listen to God's stories," said the pandit in Hindi.

Vibha and Shantanu sat inches from the priest on the apartment's bare floor. Agni, the fire god, flared from a stone pot. He was the most destructive force known to ancient Hindus. To bring him on the couple's side meant nothing could stand in their way.

Marigold petals and leaves were tossed into Agni's mouth. Twigs and branches, too.

Two hours later, the pandit stood - wearing the loose pajama pants, dhoti, popularized by Gandhi during his fasting days - and rang a small brass bell. Everyone sang the hymn that Vibha grew up hearing in Daytona Beach.

"Om Jaya Jagadeesha harey Swaami Jaya Jagadeesha harey" It began, "Salutation to Thee, O Lord of the universe . . . "

Their voices escaped through the open window, past the bird-filled neem trees and into the warm evening air.

The next day, the scent of menthol filled the apartment.

Vibha was having mehendi applied to her hands and feet by two female artists. They hovered over her, creating intricate tattoos that would last a week. It is said that the goddess Parvati would crush the leaves of the henna plant and make such intricate designs on her body that her consort, Lord Shiva, could not look away.

Vibha sat for four hours while the mehendi artists squeezed the brown paste from cone-shaped tubes. Vibha's hands looked as if she were wearing lace gloves. Among the swirls, the artists drew a drum, a peacock, a groom with a turban and a bride with a nose ring. Shantanu's name was written among the designs.

"He has to find it!" said the aunts gathered around Vibha.

"Then, he gets a gift," they giggled.

"What?" Vibha asked.

"A kiss!"

Wedding day dawned. Vibha bounced out of a hotel bed, still reeling from a party there the night before. In two hours, her body would be purified for marriage.

Then she heard her mother's voice. Promila sounded alarmed.

"Vibha, " Promila said, "come in the car."

Vibha's father, Devindra, had collapsed at the apartment. An ambulance had taken him away.

At the hospital, in a room separated by curtains, Vibha saw her father lying on white sheets.

"I had a mild stroke," he said softly.

Vibha could see he was weak. "When are you coming home?" she asked.

The doctors said they needed to run more tests. Vibha's wedding was at 7 that night. Would he not be there, she wondered.

Promila spoke. She told Devindra he had better give his blessing to Vibha now.

Vibha knelt beside her father's bed and felt his hand on her head. Her sobs filled the room.

When her aunties dabbed turmeric onto her forehead, she thought of her father. When they slipped the red wedding bangles onto her mehendi hands, she thought of him.

Her body purified after being rubbed with turmeric and her hands adorned, Vibha was ready for marriage in the eyes of God, prepared to walk in front of Agni and pledge to be true to Shantanu. But she didn't want to get married without her father.

Maybe the hospital would allow him to come for an hour, Promila said. She would talk to some of Devindra's relatives who were doctors.

Her aunties and cousins didn't agree. Why risk it, they said. Let him stay in the hospital. Best to have him healthy and alive.

Vibha felt selfish and called Shantanu for advice.

"I want him there," Vibha said. "Is this bad?"

Shantanu, whose body was also being purified with turmeric, didn't side with the aunties. Nor was he wishy-washy.

"I think your dad should be there," he said. "If you think he can be there, I think you should fight for him to be there."

Vibha thought about Shantanu at that moment, the husband she had picked on her own.

"I knew I made the right choice," she said later.

Under a half-moon, the wedding of Shantanu and Vibha began with the beating of steel drums and a procession. Shantanu, a turban on his head, rode a white mare decorated in sequins. A veil of pearls covered his face. His relatives skipped and danced around him. Firecrackers popped.

The parade left the Dhawans' apartment and headed down a busy road to the Delicacy Restaurant. In a back room of the restaurant, Vibha was having a last-minute press-on nail crisis. So many aunties and cousins were helping assemble her beaded veil and shawl that she resembled a Hindu goddess with many hands.

When the procession reached the restaurant, Shantanu's cousins - in turbans and double-breasted suits - shouted "Jai Maharashtra!" which meant "Maharashtra warrior!"

Rickshaw drivers tooted their horns. Passers-by cheered. Even in India, the Indian wedding fascinates.

"Treat Shantanu like a king!" the cousins shouted.

The restaurant's glass doors opened and Promila appeared in a sari the color of Florida oranges, her arms wide open. She separated Shantanu's veil of beads and allowed his face to show. She hugged him. He had been welcomed, symbolically, into her family.

On the red-carpeted stage, Shantanu took his spot on a gold and red velvet throne.

Minutes later, Vibha emerged. Her fuchsia and plum lengha - floor-length skirt and blouse - glittered under the chandeliers. A medallion necklace, the rani haar, shimmered from her bodice. Golden charms hung like wind chimes from both wrists, to make music over the heads of those who would be next to marry.

When Vibha's grandmother, Kamlavati, married, her face was completely shrouded. On Promila's wedding day, a sari's edge obscured her eyes and nose. Vibha showed her entire face, with a row of bindi dots on her forehead for glamor.

Vibha and Shantanu exchanged long Indian jasmine and rose garlands.

"How are you feeling?" the groom's side shouted in Hindi.

"Great!" replied the bride's side. "We're getting married!"

And with that, everyone headed for the food line, where vegetarian curries steamed in chafing dishes.

It was nearly 11:30 p.m. when the matrimonial ceremony began.

Shantanu took his seat by the pandit, beneath pillars and marigold vines, for the blessing. Vibha sat quietly in the audience, her eyes forever checking the restaurant door. Would her father make it?

Then, at three minutes before midnight, a feeling came over her. She felt as if her father had already entered the room. She glanced at the doors again. One started to open, then the other.

She ran toward the doors. If it was him, she wanted to be the first person he saw.

Devindra had a bandage and an intravenous tube on his left arm. Abu, the family's driver, helped him through the doorway.

"Look Pa, what do you think?" said Vibha, crying and showing off her wedding sari.

He looked at her and smiled weakly. It was all Vibha needed. As a child, she used to cling to her father by his fingers. Tonight, she held his hand firmly until he was safely seated. She hugged her mother in appreciation.

Vibha joined Shantanu under the canopy of marigolds, in front of the potted flame. The pandit dotted their foreheads with red powder, the tikka, a symbolic dot representing the mind's eye.

He knotted a red string - holy thread - twice around their wrists for good luck, long life and happiness. He called out to Lord Brahma, the creator, so that the couple would enjoy good health, and to Lord Vishnu, the preserver, so the couple might avoid calamities.

The wedding was running late. The restaurant staff started to clean up, stacking chairs, but the pandit kept chanting.

Vibha and Shantanu, clinging to a single pink sash, stood and circled the sacred fire. First Vibha led. Then Shantanu. Then both, side-by-side.

The wedding's finale was the ancient ritual of sindoor. Shantanu sprinkled a red powder onto the parting in Vibha's hair. She lifted her head to reveal a marked forehead, the stamp of a new wife.

Weeks later, after a honeymoon at a resort outside Mumbai, Vibha and Shantanu were back in Tampa. Shantanu returned to his classes at USF, working on his doctorate in mechanical engineering. Vibha started her new job as a speech pathologist's assistant at Foster Academy in Seminole Heights.

They were building a life together, piecing together a household: a ladybug welcome mat, a vacuum cleaner, a 32-inch TV. On weekends, they drove to Deltona to see Promila and Devindra, who was recovering well. They honored the Indian custom. Forty days after her wedding, Vibha slipped off the red bangles and wrapped them for safe-keeping, as is Punjabi custom.

One afternoon, Vibha popped open her Dell laptop to clean out her mother's little-used Yahoo account. Amid all the spam, Vibha found a response to one of her postings on the matrimonial Web sites.

The e-mail was from a young man. He wrote that he was looking for a woman from a good family, and he included a link to his bio data Web page. If Vibha was interested, she should contact his brother.

Vibha did not click on the link, but she did reply. Her note was not long. She thanked the young man for writing and then gave him her news.

I recently married in India.

There was something more she needed to say. She typed one last line before hitting send:

Good luck in your search.

ABOUT THIS STORY

St. Petersburg Times reporter Babita Persaud followed Vibha Dhawan's search for a husband for three years. The private nature of some of the events recounted - for example, the night Vibha and Shantanu sat on the steps outside Jackson's Bistro - meant they had to be reconstructed later from interviews.

Persaud and photographer Stefanie Boyar went to India for Vibha's wedding. Explanations of Hinduism were provided by Sudarsan Padmanabhan, who teaches the subject at the University of South Florida.

The Times wishes to express its thanks to Vibha and her parents for agreeing to be the subjects of such a personal story.

Stories copyright 2004 St. Petersburg Times. Reprinted with permission.

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