Mishti was lying on her side of the bed, huddled under the duvet pulled up to her chin. No matter what she did, she just couldn’t get warm. It was as though the cold had seeped into her bones and settled there, since the first day she arrived in Ireland. Since the first rain soaked into her socks, right through her shoes. She’d tried everything: She wore thick woolly socks, thermals under her clothes, wrapped herself in the Kashmiri shawl she’d received as a wedding present. Nothing worked.
She’d been suffering a perpetual case of the sniffles for the past five years, and it left her feeling constantly hungry.
Mishti was born in Calcutta, to parents who she believed had really just wanted the best for her. The best came in the shape of Dr. Parth Guha. His first words to her, at their arranged meeting, were, “I am a medical doctor, you should know.”
He was primarily an academic, with a doctorate in psychology and no inclination for humility. While he lived and worked in Ireland, he was well aware of his value as a groom in India. His parents advertised him to potential brides on the market as a catch, and they weren’t exaggerating. He was taller than the average Bengali male. He had established himself at a relatively young age in a Western country, where he was paid well. They reported his exact salary like shares on Wall Street. He came from good stock, and the stamps on his passport did most of the talking for him. If he were a house, and his parents the sellers, then he was a property worth millions, in a prime location with unparalleled views. Mishti’s parents couldn’t believe their luck that they were even in the running along with the other eager bidders. All, with their heads bowed and hands joined in gratitude, presenting their daughters, to be accepted with a shrug or rejected without a second glance.
Mishti and Parth first met at a restaurant in Calcutta that was advertised as an authentic American diner. It had plush leather couches in booths surrounded by Plexiglas and served milkshakes, fries, and hamburgers made with ground chicken. Their parents arranged everything, including the time and the venue.
It was all decided for her, including what she was going to wear (jeans, to show they were progressive, with a more traditional kurta instead of a blouse, to make the right impression of the kind of family she belonged to, that she was capable of maintaining traditional values in his Western setting), what she would order (just a burger and maybe a milkshake if he insisted; too full for dessert, to be polite), and a list of talking points (his academic achievements; the weather in Ireland; what he missed about Calcutta; most important, let him talk about himself).
It wasn’t like the old days, when you didn’t meet your husband until the final moment, when the veil was lifted and you were bound in marriage forever. Now you were given a chance—several chances, in fact—to meet and get to know this person you were going to spend the rest of your life with.
Mishti didn’t think she stood a chance. She had never been abroad, and she wasn’t interested in psychology. Her English was good enough to teach class-one children at an English-medium school, but she spoke with an Indian accent and had trouble with prepositions. Unlike a lot of the girls she knew from school and some of her cousins, Mishti never had any interest in settling abroad. She was happy where she was: in Calcutta, with her family and students, in the comfort of familiar company.
Parth had looked her up and down before they were seated. It was the same way her mother had looked at her before she left the house. They were both assessing her proportions, her suitability. How much to charge per kilogram.
She thought he was too handsome for her, in that broad-shouldered, clear tan complexion kind of way some Bengali men have about them. It makes them sort of ageless. Maybe also because they can’t grow thick beards and have full, childish cheeks but masculine shoulders. Parth wore his hair swept to one side and had long fingers and quiet hands. She imagined his handwriting to be precise and neat.
Parth was a man of few words. He had a lot to say when he was required to speak: for instance, when he commanded an amphitheater of eager students, she imagined. When he sat across from his clients, though, he must have been excellent at letting them do all the talking.
He was only interested in answering questions when she asked about his work, but when she veered toward his social life, he checked the menu or looked past her.
“I work long hours, I don’t have time for fun,” he’d said, examining the dessert list.
“Of course. Your work is important.” She was pleased with her response, could picture her mother smiling.
“I do important work. Nobody in India cares about mental health. Depression is as much an ailment as having a bad back or being diabetic.”
She was surprised by his tone, because he sounded angry.
“That is fascinating. I would love to learn more about what you do.” Her mother would have clapped with joy at that.
Parth put the menu away and looked around, trying to catch a waiter’s eye. When he wasn’t successful, he put his arm up like he was flagging down a taxi.
“When I’m home, I don’t like to discuss work. You’ll have to do your own research.”
Mishti clammed up—she’d run out of good responses; instead, she just stared apologetically at Parth while he complained to the waiter about their slow service.
When Mishti returned home from their first meeting and was informed by her mother that he was interested in the match, she’d laughed. It seemed a ridiculous idea to her. What would they talk about for the rest of their lives? She didn’t say this aloud to her mother. Her parents had never spoken much to each other either. Her mother would have taken it as an insult.
They were married quickly, because Parth didn’t want to make another trip to India for the wedding. He’d already selected his bride.
Mishti barely had time to consider the proposal, let alone time to reject it. She was intimidated by him and her future with him, but everyone else had already made the important decisions.
“Your father’s gone to book the reception hall,” her mother told her, the morning after her first meeting with Parth. That evening, she was being measured for blouses and petticoats for the wedding saris. When she had a moment to herself, she tried to make sense of what Parth had seen in her but couldn’t come up with anything.
After a weeklong honeymoon in Darjeeling, Parth returned to Ireland. He left Mishti behind to await her spousal visa. He was still a stranger to her but the only man who had seen her naked.
Friends and family congratulated her on the prized groom she’d landed. She spent the next several months in his home, with her new in-laws. She went to sleep in his childhood bed, alone, staring up at the slowly rotating ceiling fan. There were nights when she wanted to sneak back to her parents’ home, to sleep in her own bed, to wake up to her grandfather humming in the bathroom while he shaved.
She had been hopeful, pining to begin her new life with her new successful husband. Instead, she was living with his parents in Calcutta, just a bus ride away from her own home, which she couldn’t visit because her mother-in-law had decided it was too soon. That she should be immersing herself in her marriage. A marriage where her husband was living in a different country.
When Mishti was allowed to use the landline and call home, her mother lectured her to view it as an opportunity to be initiated into the family and their ways, so she’d be well prepared to make a good home for her husband when the time came. His mother instructed Mishti on how he liked his daal and lamb curry; his father lectured her on Parth’s exemplary successes, tracking his progress from when he was in kindergarten. She heard all the stories, but her new husband had called her only twice in their months apart. He rang his mother every Sunday.
It wasn’t until she finally arrived in Ireland that she understood why he’d picked her, when he could have married anyone he wanted. A more worthy candidate from an affluent family, with a better education, who had holidayed abroad, with a sense of personal style and the confidence that came along with all that.
Parth had wanted the exact opposite. A blank slate.
Mishti turned over to watch him sleeping beside her now. He had fallen asleep with the bedside lamp switched on, and she didn’t turn it off. His shoulders rose and fell with every soft snore. She stared at his profile, at the way his fingers sometimes quivered where they lay splayed on his chest. His Adam’s apple stuck out of his narrow throat, bobbing up and down like a buoy. She had no idea what her husband was dreaming about. Did anyone?