CHAPTER ONE

 

Maya Patel lived in constant fear of the Orange Sadhu who once told her she would never find happiness in marriage. She would prove him wrong. Today, she planned to change her destiny and she wouldn’t let the gray door discourage her. Maya resisted the urge to fiddle with the zipper of her puffy coat and squared her shoulders. She had practiced answers to all possible questions and rehearsed how to be deferential to Sita auntie while not letting her intimidate Maya. It was going to be tough.

Maya focused on the goal. This was for herself. Even her parents didn’t know about this meeting with Sita auntie.

With a deep inhale and a silent prayer of Ohm Namah Shiva, Maya pressed the glowing disc of the doorbell. She’d been in this house hundreds of times, running in and out of the garage since she’d been four. But Sita auntie’s instructions were perfectly clear. This meeting was not because Maya was a family friend or even a fellow Gujarati. Maya was granted this meeting for business.

And marriage was business.

Maya was glad for that. No more relying on wishes. No more wallowing in the pain of a long-ago broken heart. No more praying and fasting for God to bring her the perfect husband. The curse was real. Now, the Orange Sadhu was about to meet his match. Mrs. Sita Desai was one of the most successful and exclusive matchmaker in their Gujarati community, and she was terrifying. 

“Maya.” Sita held the door open. “You are late.”

Maya stopped herself from shuffling her feet. Sita auntie always made her feel like a little girl hiding behind her mother. Maya forced herself to meet Sita auntie’s eyes. The woman stood stern in front of her, dressed in a meticulous silver-gray sari. Every pleat, perfectly creased. “The e-mail said four pm.” Maya stepped into the warm foyer and took off her ankle length boots. They didn’t go with her lemon-yellow sari, but strappy sandals didn’t mesh with January snow.

“I expect candidates to arrive at least ten minutes early to get settled in so as not to waste my time.” Sita walked through the short hallway.

Maya followed Sita’s broomstick straight posture to the back room off to one side of the family room. She took in the dark, wood-paneled office. For all the times she’d been in this house, Maya had never been in this room. The nerves settled into her stomach as she took off her coat. Not knowing what to do with it, she clutched it like a binky-blanket on her lap.

“Since you are late,” Sita sat on the other side of the large ebony desk. “We will skip the form I have my candidates fill out.”

“I’m happy to fill it out.” Maya dug into her small silver clutch purse and pulled out a pen. “I’m really fast at forms.”  Maya winced. Fast at forms?

“It will not be necessary.”

“I can do it after,” Maya said. “I am not usually late. I try to be early. I thought maybe you would be busy and I didn’t want to bother you until exactly four. I waited outside for at least five minutes before I rang the bell.”

“Yet you did not show initiative in ringing the bell,” Sita said.

Maya frowned. Sita auntie had known her for over twenty-years and while she wasn’t the warmest person, Maya had never seen Sita auntie act this cool towards her. “I’ll be sure to be early for all of my meetings with potential candidates.”

“Do not get ahead of yourself.” Sita leaned forward in the high-backed, brown leather chair. “I am very selective in taking on a candidate. It would be presumptuous of you to assume that simply because I am acquainted with your parents I would treat you differently.”

“I didn’t think, I mean, maybe a little,” Maya said. “You know me. You’ve seen me at gatherings and functions and you know I am highly suitable. I am always helping my mom and the aunties in the kitchen. I know how to make a full Indian dinner and I am respectful of our culture and traditions.”

“Are you? Respectful?” Sita said.

Maya was at a loss. She had imagined this conversation going differently. Sita auntie acted as if Maya had somehow offended her. There seemed to be an angry edge to her comments. Maya couldn’t understand why. She took a breath, decided to reset and say what she had practiced in her bedroom mirror. “I will be a very good wife to any one of your candidates. My mother trained me on many of our Indian traditions. I know all of the Hindu customs and what to do for what holiday.” Maya would not to let the fact that Sita auntie wasn’t writing any of this down deter her. “I’m really more Indian than American.”

“Your list of qualifications is no different than the fifty or so other girls I have in my files,” Sita said. “In fact, you must be aware that you’re fairly unremarkable.”

Maya caught her jaw before it dropped.

“Perhaps you assumed I would overlook your averageness because of your connection to my family or your friendship with my son.”

Everything in Maya’s body tensed. Her bare toes pressed against the hardwood floor. Maya pulled her hair over one shoulder and resisted the urge to braid and unbraid to calm her nerves. She’d broken the habit in college but now she felt the pull of comfort that came with repetitive movement. She sat up in the leather chair. “I’m here because you are known for making good matches for traditional Gujarati families. That is what I am looking for.”

“Very well,” Sita said.

Maya exhaled. This was harder than she had expected, but Maya came here to become one of Sita auntie’s candidates. She would win Sita auntie over. Maya had spent the last two years becoming the perfect traditional Gujarati woman who would make someone an excellent wife. Everything depended on this meeting going well. “I am so looking forward to this. I hope to be matched with someone who is family-oriented. It doesn’t matter what his career is but I would prefer to marry someone who doesn’t work long hours as it wouldn’t be suitable to raising a family. And he should want a big family with at least three kids. As you know, I have a brother and sister and I want the same for my children.”

“You are getting ahead of yourself,” Sita said.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Maya winced as she reflexively apologized. “It’s just that I am very eager. I know you have a one-year cap on your clients but I don’t think I will even need that long. A few weeks or possibly a few months would be enough to decide.” Maya didn’t want to date the matches for a long time before deciding. It was one of the things that appealed to her about Sita auntie’s service. The candidates all had to agree not to linger or put off the decision. Maya preferred it this way. She did not want either her or her match to be emotionally attached before marriage. First marriage, then love. She had heard her mother say that over and again.

After Nirav, she no longer wanted to lead with her heart.

“Whatever your requirements or your time line, I will not be able to match you with anyone,” Sita said.

“What? Why not?” Maya squeezed a hunk of her puffy coat in her lap.

“You are unacceptable to me.”

“Because I came on time instead of being early?” Could Sita auntie be this cruel? Or was the Orange Sadhu’s curse so strong, even an arranged marriage could slip out of her hand because of punctuality?

“Because you are not someone I would take on as a candidate. You are not qualified.”

“But I’m young. You do not take anyone over 30 and I’m only 26. I have a Doctor of Pharmacy. I am a devout Hindu and I respect my parents and our culture.” Maya heard herself pleading as the future seemed to slip out of her grasp once again.

“None of it matters,” Sita said.

Maya bit her lip to keep from crying. She swallowed once, twice. This felt personal. Maya had been sure if she’d turned herself into he kind of Gujarati girl that met Sita auntie’s standards, and this interview would have been a mere formality. Sita auntie had made over fifty successful matches. Maya had met a few in their social circle and they were happy. She knew if she found a good man, Maya would do everything to make sure they had a happy marriage. “Please.” Maya couldn’t hide her desperation. “You are the best at what you do. I will do whatever you need me to so I can prove to you that I am acceptable.”

“You are better suited to have your mother or your family try to find a match,” Sita said. “Or even those online places where the common folks go. You should be able to find someone on there.”

Maya sat back against the chair. Rejection and confusion turned into heartbreak. Different from two years ago. This time it wasn’t her innocent belief that she was loved. This was the loss of another kind of future, one she’d believed she had control over. “I don’t understand.”

“It is exhausting for me to keep repeating myself. I told you your options. You are wasting your time and mine,” Sita said.

“Did I do something to disappoint you or offend you?”

Maya felt Sita’s glare. The anger coming from the older woman caused goose pimples on Maya’s arms. She wanted to shrink further into the chair even as she hunched over while clutching her coat.

“In a way,” Sita said. “It no longer matters. You are not the right caste. You’re not Brahman. I only make matches within the highest caste and I would never ask any of my candidates to accept someone beneath them.”

Caste? In the twenty-first century in America. It was still a thing, she wasn’t naïve enough to think it wasn’t, but she didn’t know it would be an issue here, with Sita auntie. There had to be something else. Sita auntie was cold and sometimes terrifying, but Maya had been one of the few people Sita auntie would talk to at Indian functions. This felt like Sita auntie was punishing her for something.

“You can show yourself out.” Sita stood.

It took Maya a few minutes to register it was over. Sita left the room. Maya fumbled as she put on her coat and rushed out. She didn’t even zip up her boots, just slid them on and ran out of the door.

Though she lived only a few blocks away in the same development, Maya had driven over. She sat in her freezing car but couldn’t start it.

Two years ago, she believed she had overcome the curse and she’d learned the true cruelty of the Orange Sadhu. Maya had purposely avoided looking at any framed photos as she’d walked through Sita auntie’s house because she didn’t want see a glimpse of him. Nirav. The man she’d believed had broken the curse. She had been proud of herself for coming here, of all places, to get help from Nirav’s mother, Sita. She believed she needed the Sita auntie’s strength to fight the curse.

Except Sita auntie would not help her defeat the Orange Sadhu.

Disappointment warred with determination. It couldn’t be over. The curse was strong and, once again, she would need to be stronger. 

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