Authors: Anjali Banerjee
“Do you have a promise of love?”
Raja Prasad asks.
I stumble over my sari, but regain my balance before falling on my face. I guess he hasn't heard about my phantom engagement. “I'm uh â¦ holding out for my dream man. Or maybe I'll never get married. I don't know. What about you? Are you married?”
“I would not be walking with you here if I were. Although I'm considering prospects.”
“You're looking for a wife?”
“She must be an excellent cook, hardworking, willing to care for children and my mother.”
I smile while I tuck my heart away for safekeeping. Oh, horror. How could I have thought this man could be perfect?
“My wife must be willing to shoulder many responsibilities with grace.”
“What if her shoulders are weak? Maybe she doesn't lift weights.”
He chuckles. “Perhaps she also has a sense of humor.”
“She'll need one.” I clamp a hand over my mouth. Why did I say that?
“A pitch-perfect romantic comedy that is also a completely
hypnotic, artful read.
reminds us all that the
âlit' in chick lit comes from literature.”
âTara McCarthy, author of
Love Will Tear Us Apart
New YorkÂ Â LondonÂ Â TorontoÂ Â Sydney
Publication of POCKET BOOKS
|DOWNTOWN PRESS, published by Pocket Books|
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New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and
incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons,
living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2005 by Anjali Banerjee
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce
this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue
of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Imaginary men / Anjali Banerjee.â1st Downtown Press
trade pbk. ed.
p.Â Â Â cm.
1. Young womenâFiction.
2. Bengali AmericansâFiction.
3. San Francisco (Calif.)âFiction.
4. Conflict of generationsâFiction.
5. Imaginary companionsâFiction.
6. Marriage brokerageâFiction. I. Title.
PS3602.A6355I47Â Â 2005
813â².6âdc22Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2005048441
ISBN-10:Â Â Â Â Â 1-4165-0943-7
First Downtown Press trade paperback edition October 2005
10Â Â 9Â Â 8Â Â 7Â Â 6Â Â 5Â Â 4Â Â 3Â Â 2Â Â 1
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I'm grateful to my amazing editor, Maggie Crawford; her assistant, Mara Sorkin; Tara McCarthy; everyone at Pocket Books; and my intrepid agent, Winifred Golden. Thanks also to my astute critiquers: Dotty Sohl, Skip Morris, Jan Symonds, Janine Donoho, Kate Breslin, Lois Dyer, Pj Jough Haan, Rose Marie Harris, Sandra Hill, Sheila Rabe, Susan Plunkett, Krysteen Seelen, Julie Weston, and Rich Penner.
A heartfelt thank-you to my cousin Kamalini Mukerjee, for describing the Brahmo Samaj wedding ceremony and for reviewing the manuscript. Thanks also to my cousin Sayantoni Palchoudhuri, for information about Bengali wedding rituals. Thanks to Bethel for setting me straight about the Tivoli.
Thank you to Susan Wiggs, for your advice and support, for believing in this book, and for critiquing scenes at the last minute.
Much love and thanks to my parents, Sanjoy Banerjee and Denise Kiser, for their thoughtful input. Thank you to my wonderful husband, Joseph, for your love, your encouragement, and for bringing me meals when I'm working so hard that I forget to eat.
Imagination is the highest kite one can fly.
Everything you can imagine is real.
'm allergic to India.
I snort and sniff through my sister Durga's wedding, my eyes watering from Kolkata pollution, not because Durga is marrying the Bengali version of Johnny Depp. Not because I'm the eldest sister, twenty-nine and still single.
Sweat seeps through my
shirt, and in this bright turquoise sari, I feel like a giant blueberry. I stand squished among dozens of relatives in an Alipore courtyard at the city's south end. This is Auntie Kiki's home, a two-story mansion in the British colonial style. A hundred guests dressed to the hilt, the women in saris, the men in traditional
long-sleeved silk shirts with loose trousers. A few bachelors prowl in ill-fitting suits, hair slicked back, cell phones plastered to their ears. I keep my gaze averted. I won't talk to any of these geeks.
Bengali Brahmin weddings often last for days, but Durga's ceremony is Brahmo Samaj, a progressive, secular form of Hinduism that rejects the caste system, child marriages, and the worship of idols. I thank my great-grandparents for embracing the Brahmo Samaj, or I'd be yawning through a thousand rituals.
The scents of coconut oil and sandalwood incense fill the air. Through the crowd, I glimpse my parents sitting near the dais. Onstage, the happy couple exchange garlands as the
, the priest, chants in Sanskrit. The groom wears a cream-colored punjabi shirt and
threaded with gold. Durga is a vision in the red bride's sari, red and white bangles, a heavy gold ring through her nose. Red dye,
, stains her fingers and toes. Black kohl rims her eyes, making her resemble the great Hindu goddess Durga, after whom she was named. She gazes demurely at her feet and pretends to be a shy virgin.
Beside me, Auntie Kiki, all gray hair, uneven yellow teeth, and smiles, lets out a loud sigh and elbows me. “Ah, Lina, you're next, nah? Big Bengali wedding?” She winks, and I wonder, in mild horror, what she has planned.
“I don't know, Auntie. I'm not ready.” Men have been nothing but trouble for me, but she won't understand.
“Oh, Vishnu! Nathu dead two years, and still you're not ready?”
“There aren't any good bachelors in California.”
She pats my cheek. “You're nearly thirty now. Hadn't you better stop being so picky-choosy?”
“I'm not picky and choosy. I'm discerning.”
. Good.” She nods her head sideways in the Indian style. “We'll find you a husband tonight. I know this.”
My insides turn somersaults. What does she mean,
I know this?
What secrets hide in the folds of her sari? Auntie's actually my great-aunt, the eldest of my father's aunts. Her youngest sister, my father's mother, died just before I was born. Because she's the eldest of the female relatives, Auntie Kiki's decisions carry the weight of a queen's formal decree.
“What if I don't want to marry an Indian?” I say.
“What's the matter with Indians? Nathu was Punjabi, nah?”
“Nathu grew up in America. He learned to take out the garbage and make his own bed. He wasn't like traditional Indian men who expect their wives to do everything for them.”
“Perhaps it wouldn't hurt you to learn a little tradition.” Auntie's lips tighten into a thin line, pulling her cheeks inward.
I'm up to my push-up bra in tradition tonight, I want to say, but I grit my teeth and smile. I know only a few words of
Bengali, and I don't practice Hinduism. What would a true Bengali man think of me? He'd label me damaged goods, spoiled by American decadence.
I glance around the courtyard until I spot my other sister, Kali. I frantically wave at her.
Please, rescue me from Auntie
Kali grins and rushes over. “Doesn't Durga look
“She's beautiful,” I say.
“When I find the perfect shagadelic guy, I want a true
wedding, Indian in every way.” Loosely translated,
means “of or from my country” in Hindi. Kali's obsessed with the homeland, but she also loves Austin Powers, Man of Mystery. She's young, blooming like a lotus flower. Not that I'm chopped liver, but I don't dress the way she does, all cleavage in a tight-fitting
shirt. She manages to make a sari look like lingerie. I prefer not to draw attention to myself at these shindigs.
I whisper in her ear. “Aren't you seeing a practicing Catholic?”
“I can shop around if I want.” She gives me a sly look. “I met someone tonight. His name is Dev. He has mojo. I think I'm in love.”
“Kali has no problem meeting bachelors,” Auntie says. “It's Lina we must worry about. She's a matchmaker in California and still can't find herself a suitable husband.”
“Maybe I'm not looking!”
“We've all been waiting for you to find someone,” Kali cuts in. “You're so good at it. You hooked up Durga with her hubby, didn't you?”
“That's different. It's easy to match up other couples.” I specialize in hooking up American-born Indian women with their princes. I have an uncanny ability to see connections between potential mates, like silvery threads. But I haven't seen a thread between any man and me since Nathu, and I don't expect to see one tonight.
“Settle down, and you'll not be all the time running around and working,” Auntie says. “Why are you so determined to remain unmarried?”
“I'm not determined. I'm
. Besides, I
working.” I sigh in exasperation. She's talking to Kali about how they have to help poor Lina, the elder sister.
I'm a hopeless case and a disappointment to my family. So what keeps drawing me back to India? Maybe a touch of the exotic, I think as a servant lights flaming torches around the perimeter of the courtyard. Maybe the humid summer climate on the Bay of Bengal. Maybe my Inner Princess expects a mythical prince to gallop through the smog and sweep me off my feet.
Auntie points into the shadows. “There, Lina. Look. Did you meet Nikhil Ghose when you were in Kolkata last?”
One of the suit-clad bachelors appears out of nowhere,
grabs my hand, and squeezes. “Lina Ray? What a complete pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise, I'm sure.” I pull my hand away as politely as possible. I'm staring into the hopeful face of Pee-wee Herman on steroids.
A large woman in a gold sari, stomach folds rippling, barrels toward us. In India, belly rolls are still considered sexy. “Nikhil, son, where are you off to?” she shouts.