Desperate as he was, Kuldeep felt his heart sink as he shook hands with his future bride. This middle-aged Polynesian woman, tall and very fat with a mass of frizzy hair sitting on her head like a basket of feathers, engulfed his wrists in her podgy palms, giving him a toothy grin. Kuldeep shuddered.
For the next year, she was going to be his legally wedded wife. Kuldeep cast a bereaved look at his friend DK who was busy negotiating with an equally huge man, the woman's husband. Immigrants undertake all kinds of fraudulent methods to find a permanent home in foreign countries, Kuldeep had only read about it and today he found himself in the same boat.
He was entering into a marriage contract: quite simply he was buying a 'spouse' to get his permanent residency in this 'haven' called New Zealand. Like many young Indians, he had arrived with elusive dreams of finishing his studies and applying for residency. It would be all straight forward even though it meant spending too much money, which Kuldeep's parents had given him after selling their apartment in the city. He was their only child.
But even in his most depressed moments, the idea of such a farcical marriage had never arisen. A fake marriage and that too with a woman twice his age and already married. DK had sold the idea to him and Kuldeep had no choice but to go for it. His present visa was expiring in a fortnight, he had no job offer and no way he could request for an extension. Going back was never an option. You didn't go back after having had a grand send off to a rich, foreign nation where you were expected to earn dollars in millions, and look after your family back in India. He didn't even have a foreign watch to show for and was still wearing his school-days watch, made in India, gifted to him by his Dad. His parents would die of shame.
The woman sat on a big sofa and said something to her husband in a loud, bellowing voice. This was followed by howls of laughter between the two. Kuldeep was sure they were discussing his height and colour, two physical traits of his that always caught people's attention, and not always for admiring glances. He was short, very thin, with a skin colour best described as a puddle of mud. Although not unduly bothered by his lack of good looks, Kuldeep became acutely conscious of his short stature in front of these two big, tall and strong Islanders. To them he must have looked like a piece of drying taro, best eaten before it rots.
The woman turned towards him and asked, "Wanna cuppa of tea or a beer, mate?" It was only ten in the morning. Kuldeep was ready to catch the next flight out. DK couldn't hide his smile at his friend's horrific expression.
"Tea sounds great," he answered. Kuldeep seemed to have lost his voice.
"Listen you fool, don't sit there looking as if you've seen ghosts or monsters. These people are ready to strike a deal for much less than the Indian woman who wanted $10,000. So, cheer up and for god's sake look pleased!" DK said all this in their native language.
Kuldeep tried fixing his face with a smile, but was convinced it looked more like a dead man's grin. DK was fluent in Island languages and the Polynesian couple took an instant liking to his smooth-talking, suave friend, quick with compliments and ever so attentive. DK was essential to the deal.
Kuldeep decided to give it a go himself. Turning towards his future wife he tried making small talk. "Do you like watching TV? My favourite programme is Home Improvement. It's quite funny." Even to himself this sounded idiotic. The woman sat staring at him and then suddenly burst out in her loud laughter. "Home Improvement? Is that a garden show or what? I don't watch all that garbage. I only have time for soaps and rugby." She informed him of her clever recreational taste.
This time he decided to try food, something this woman would surely be interested. "I make very good Indian curries. All my kiwi friends love it, especially butter chicken. I can make it for you if you want." He rattled on like some chef at an Indian restaurant. The woman listened with rapt fascination and declared, "My favourite is rogan josh, can you make that?"
"Oh yes, but not as good as chicken," Kuldeep stopped. Suddenly this entire conversation sounded weird to him. Here his life was in an upheaval, his future unknown and all he could think of was the virtues of rogan josh versus butter chicken. He wanted to laugh aloud.
DK seemed to have finalised the deal and turned towards Kuldeep.
"Everything is final. We are paying only 3000 dollars, lucky you." He sounded very pleased. DK was only doing this for him and wanted Kuldeep to have the same secure permanent residency in this country, just like he had. "Now we have to think of a good story for your parents, because even though this is only on paper, we will need to host a wedding reception, take snaps and have some things over at your place to show the immigration authorities."
Kuldeep's only thought was for his mother, who had woven many dreams of marrying her only son according to all the tradition and fanfare. How was he going to explain this 'detour', if only on paper? His mother had given him a tight hug as she bid him farewell. "Please be safe and don't give me any surprises," were her parting words. This was more than a surprise, marrying a woman her age and already married, too.
Meanwhile his future 'wife' lifted herself from the sofa and lumbered to the table where DK and her husband were shaking hands. DK came towards Kuldeep with a satisfied smile. "Lets go, it's all settled, he'll move into your place from this weekend and on Monday we can go for the wedding at the registrars' office." He picked up his bag and turned towards the couple.
Kuldeep would have just gone like a zombie when suddenly he shrieked, "He! What do you mean, 'he'!" Who's the 'he' here? What's all this about?"
"Shut up. Do you want everything undone, you idiot!" snapped DK in their native tongue. "I don't care. Why is he moving in with me?" Kuldeep turned towards the man. "Relax, it's only on paper. The woman wanted double the amount we offered, so the husband came up with this idea and negotiated for his son. He's gay and doesn't get on with his parents but obviously needs the money. They want to be rid of him. Why do you think it's so cheap? Come on, at least he's younger than you," came DK's winning line.
Gay? A homosexual moving in to be his 'wife'! Spouse!
Kuldeep didn't think anything was amusing as he saw DK hide a smile.
"Forget it! I am not marrying a gay or anyone else. I am going back. This deal is off. Are you crazy? What will become of me if I marry a gay who moves in with me? Even the idea is repulsive to me. No!"
The man looked suspicious of their heated argument and sat talking to his wife in low tones.
"Kuldeep, you promised you'd stop at nothing to get a residency here. Think of your parent's loss sending you here. Anyway, the guy is going to just stay with you for a few weeks. Once the immigration has checked out, he'll leave and the divorce papers will be signed straight after the marriage. You'll get out of this in 6 months. Don't spoil everything at this crucial time. In fact, think how lucky you are to be in a country which recognises same-sex marriages."
DK's argument was absolutely irrefutable. The case was closed. What would he tell his mother now? "Hi, mum. I have just married a man and he's going to be your daughter-in-law. Please, give us your blessings." She'd die of shock.
On the weekend Kuldeep's 'spouse' arrived with a duffel bag and chewing gum.
"Hi, I am Tim. It's a pleasure to meet my future 'spouse'." He offered his hand with a wide smile. The guy was quite likeable but Kuldeep reminded himself of his strange preference and merely nodded.
"I am Kuldeep and I am not a homosexual, so don't even think about it," he said frostily.
Tim burst out laughing. "Man, you're funny, just as Mum told me. Don't worry mate, I'm only here for the money, my boyfriend lives on the coast and you won't see me often," said Tim.
Kuldeep felt a bit foolish but decided it was better to talk straight in case the fellow tried something.
"So you are from India? Tell me doesn't your country have homosexuals?" The chap had some gall. "Just curious, because you seem to be outraged, mate," smiled Tim.
"No, in my country we don't have gays, and even if there were, they'd live on the fringe of society. They dare not try to live openly as you people do here," came Kuldeep's cold reply.
"Funny place. Well, you take it easy, brother. I have no plans to bed an Indian, they are too damned Victorian," said Tim, winking at him.
Was he being sarcastic? Kuldeep couldn't quite decide.
Disgusting. To be a legally wedded spouse in a homosexual matrimony. Nothing could be worse for him. In India such a relationship would be blasphemy, absolutely unthinkable. What if someone found out at home? He shuddered to think of the consequences. Not a single Indian girl, even from a poor family, would be available to him in the marriage market. Kuldeep always knew he would settle for an arranged marriage, a partner selected by his Mum and Dad. At 26, Kuldeep was still a virgin, and took a quiet pride in maintaining his chastity for his equally chaste bride. And now this!
If only he had a decent job and enough money to go back. He would never ever enter an alien world again. A world devoid of any shame, believing in reckless living and self-loving. If only there was money to be made in this country. DK was right, it was just a matter of enduring all this for a few months and then with his residency confirmed, he would enrol in a master's programme and fulfil his parent's dreams. He was their only son after all. Life didn't look too bad after this comforting thought.
He had just finished cooking a prawn curry, a favourite of his and DK's, who was joining him for dinner soon. It was dismal and boring to eat alone. The bell rang and Kuldeep opened the door to his 'spouse' and another man with long hair and pale skin.
"Don't you have a spare key?" he asked Tim, unable to hide his disappointment at seeing them and not DK.
"Hi, brother, I do have a key somewhere, but seem to have lost it. This is Ross, my partner. Mmm, something smells great." Tim was already near the pot of curry.
"DK was coming over so I made Prawn curry," said Kuldeep sullenly.
"I love prawn curry. Indian food is my favourite," chirped the partner shyly.
Oh no, this was going to be one big, family meal.
"Don't worry, we won't be staying long. We have a show tonight," said Tim, perhaps catching Kuldeep's distressed expression.
Kuldeep felt guilty and quickly invited them to stay.
"Some other time, mate. Anyway, what's the hurry? Now we're married you can cook all these delicious meals for me," teased Tim, leaving him angry and spoiling his evening. The pair went inside the bedroom and closed the door behind them. Kuldeep sat at the table feeling like an intruder.
How sick these people are, without shame or guilt about their unnatural behaviour. They don't have any regard for family, social norms, or others' discomfort. Their sole aim is self-gratification. How utterly soulless, thought Kuldeep. So deeply engrossed was he in his thoughts, he was startled when the door flew open and Tim's partner came rushing out. Soon he heard the sound of a car starting and zooming off. Tim followed from the bedroom looking equally upset and ruffled.
"You couldn't give me a lift to the city, could you?" he asked lighting a cigarette.
"No, you disgust me. Go to hell," thought Kuldeep but kept his mouth shut. One look at Tim's face and he couldn't refuse.
He hated being a part of this very maudlin lovers' tiff. Taking the car keys, he went outside without a word.
"I really appreciate this, mate," Tim said softly during the ride. Kuldeep responded with a stubborn silence and cursed his fate, the day he was forced to 'marry' this gay.
The phone was ringing persistently. Only calls from India came this late. Kuldeep woke up with a start and fumbled for his glasses. The digital radio clock showed 1:55am. As he reached for the receiver Kuldeep had a strange thought, how precise the time was, and how luminescent in the darkness of his bedroom.
"Hullo? Yes. Hullo? Yes it's me, Kuldeep." His voice sounded full of sleep.
"Kuldeep, your mum, well she's in the ICU. She suffered a stroke." His father sounded vague, faint.
"Oh, my God. When was this? I am catching the next flight out." Sleep vanished as Kuldeep sat stunned.
"Yes. Yes, I think you should come before it's too late." Again his father sounded unreal, so far off and scared.
As he put the receiver down, Kuldeep realised his hands were shaking. Please, God, please let her live. He had to see her. Suddenly it struck him. He had no money to buy a plane fare. All his money was gone, to pay for this contract marriage. He could ask DK but knew that it was futile. DK had just bought a car and finished his savings. He felt trapped and claustrophobic. He wanted to fly home right now and see his mother. He must find a way but how? If only he hadn't gone into this ridiculous marriage.
The lights were suddenly switched on in his room as Tim stood there rubbing his eyes.
"Hey, brother. Is anything the matter? You look pale," he yawned.
Kuldeep didn't want to talk to this person at this time. It was all because of him that he was stuck now. This ungodly creature standing here in this hour of grief and turmoil.
"Go away." Kuldeep was almost in tears.
"C'mon, maybe I can help?" Tim came close to him.
"Yeah, sure you can help. Can you give me $2000 right now so I could fly to India and see my dying mother? No, you cannot. So, just leave me alone."
"I can", replied Tim
"You can what?"
"I can give you the money, so that you can leave," came his calm reply.
For a moment Kuldeep thought he had heard him wrong.
"You really can?" he asked again.
"Yes. Now, stop all this moaning, you mama's boy and get packing. I will drive you to the airport."
Tim was already out of his room. Kuldeep sat there drained and numb. He could not believe what he had just heard. This person with whom he barely maintained a civil posture, whom he detested due to his sexual preference, and who was merely a means to get his residency, this strange creature, had suddenly come to his rescue without any conditions.
At the departure lounge, he couldn't meet Tim's calm looks.
"What's the matter now, Mr. Saint? Stop weeping. You're on your way. Things will be okay." Tim never lost his gentle, teasing style.
All at once tears came unbidden and Kuldeep sat down holding his head.
"Tim, I am so sorry for my disgusting behaviour. I don't deserve a friend like you. How can I ever repay your generosity and support?" Kuldeep caught Tim's hands and clutched at them.
"Oops. Watch it. You're in danger of being labelled a gay, holding my tainted hands," Tim joked.
"Why, why did you help me?" Kuldeep wouldn't let go. Gently disengaging his hands, Tim looked at him with piercing grey eyes.
"I did what I had to do for a fellow human being. And also because I found your virtuous style very refreshing, although a bit ridiculous. You are a straight bloke, naive and untainted. They don't make your type anymore. You want to repay me, then try doing this: Learn to accept differences with grace not resentment. And now stop all this melodrama or you'll miss your flight, brother. See you soon and take care." Kuldeep couldn't resist giving him a hug.
Just yesterday, he wouldn't enter the bathroom Tim had used before cleaning it with disinfectants. He feared he'd catch AIDS, living with this homosexual. Yesterday was ancient history. As the flight reached for the clouds, he said a silent prayer and made a promise to himself.
His family would know the truth about his marriage. Tim had quite simply broken all the walls down for him. He felt a curious lightness, almost weightless after a long, long time. It was not cabin pressure, of that he was definite.