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October 26, 2007

I Married a Total Stranger

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My parents were ecstatic, and truthfully, I was pleased to be the reason for their joy. One week later, his mother called my mother, and by the end of the phone call, we were engaged. Shouts and hugs were exchanged throughout the neighborhood — you'd have thought I'd won an Olympic gold medal.

A wedding date was set for six months later, the venue picked, and a guest list of a thousand finalized. As the preparations began and wedding invitations were hand-delivered, I visited with friends and said my good-byes. Of course, I was anxious about being shipped halfway across the world to the U.S. I was giving up my cultural identity and lifestyle: Indian monsoons; colorful saris; conversations in my mother tongue; the inquisitive neighbors, cousins, and aunts; and most of all, the food.

But on the other hand, it was nice to finally be engaged. And the very fact that I was getting hitched to an Indian living in America made me royalty.

Traditionally in India, the bride's father pays for the weeklong ceremony. He also provides a "dowry" — cash that accompanies the bride from her old home to her new one and serves as her financial security — sort of an ancient prenup. In today's urban India, it's couched in a package of fabulous parties, elegant saris, and, of course, heirloom jewels that mothers have cleverly been amassing since their daughters were born. My future in-laws, however, insisted on sharing the financial burden, setting the stage for an equitable and very modern marriage.

For months, my 16 aunts slaved away, putting together a trousseau of the wildest, boldest silks. My mother became the conductor of this grand orchestra, giving orders and coordinating schedules. The days when the preparations felt overwhelming were actually the ones when I was least afraid of my future. In America, I wouldn't be governed by in-laws, nosy neighbors, or relatives checking on whether I was following tradition. I imagined freedom. Relief. Independence.

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