The cacophony of clamouring cars, inching and nudging slowly forward assaults my ears. Poised pluming tendrils of dust and diesel fumes lurk in wait for any exposed airways. I pull the edge of my sari tighter across my nose and mouth, then flick it over my head to cover my ears. An arm snatches out, grabs my elbow, and yanks me sharply backwards away from the barrelling lorry, horn blaring, tattooed in garish yellow-red-blue paisley prints, sign in three foot letters announcing its ownership.
I gasp-hiss my relief and turn to see my saviour. A young man, suited and booted, pitch black hair Brylcreemed neatly into a wavy bouffant, ink-black eyes bracketed by long luscious lashes, smiles back at me. His perfect teeth shimmer their whiteness against his dark face, and I realise that his long fingers are still locked on my elbow. I feel the heat rising from my chest, across my throat and flushing into my cheeks at the impropriety of this illicit contact. I’m grateful for the modesty of my sari pulled protectively across my face.
“Th..thank you,” I stammer as I bring my hands together in a namaste, and cast my eyes demurely downwards with a slight bowing tilt of my head. Ma would be pleased with that effort. She and my aunts have redoubled their efforts to mould me into a suitable bride in the six months since my eighteenth birthday. There’s a harsh urgency to their lessons now, as if time is slipping too quickly away, as if I were closing in on my expirey date for an arranged marriage.
He has caught me without my chaperone-aunt whom I have cajoled into letting me buy a frozen sweet from the street vendor by myself, while she and the other clucking matriarchs go into the sari emporium. They are haranguing the beleaguered salesman to unfurl yet another gold embroidered silken length now. I steal a quick upward glance at my rescuer without lifting my head, a technique I have perfected after months of being paraded before potential suitors.
“Come with me now. What do we have to lose?” he breathes so softly that I am sure I have imagined it. His dazzling smile does not waver, his expression remains inscrutable. The merest hint of a cloud passing across his eyes is the only clue that he has even spoken.
“What? No. How? The preparations are all made… My parents…” I reply feebly looking beseechingly at him now.
He drops his hand from my arm, his face sets stony and firm. Once more the distant stranger, the serendipitous saviour, he bows slightly and turns on his heels. My blancmange heart quivers its protest, but my lips remain sealed as I watch him stride away, each step another nail hammered into our fates.
I turn back to the ice candy man, the sari emporium, the waiting matriarchs, my chosen life. I set my face, pay for my frozen sweet, and walk determinedly towards my future, leaving shards of my heart scattered like rose petals in my wake.