Story 1: Arranged Marriage

The clerk sitting behind the counter looked at Varsha with dull, uncaring eyes. He handed her a yellow card and said, ‘Down the aisle, cubicle number four.’ And almost immediately, his gaze shifted to the next man in the queue.

Varsha stepped away, looking down at the card. There were no instructions on it; just her passport number and a blue flashing light next to it. This was her third visit to the Bureau and, if the statistics were to be believed, should probably be her last – for the time being.

She was dressed in the same light green sari and blouse that she had worn on the last two occasions. She had considered wearing a singlet and jacket over jeans today, but it was clear from his father’s stern look that he was not going to have any of it. ‘You don’t wear such clothes when you go to meet your future husband, Varsha,’ he had said.

She had no trouble finding the corridor marked ‘Marriage’. As she walked down the aisle she heard whispery bits of conversation from both sides. She stopped at the fourth cubicle and considered the half open door. She knew he was inside. She could hear his restless pacing.

She entered and closed the door behind her.

‘Hi,’ he said.


* * *

She had first met him under almost identical circumstances exactly a month before. On that day too she had been shown the aisle and the cubicle by the clerk. On that day too there had been whispers all around her. On that day, though, he had not been pacing. When she stepped in, he was sitting on the couch, humming a tune she did not know.

He was an inch or two shorter than she was, but his eyes were sprightly. He had an egg-shaped head with an already receding hairline. His white shirt was neatly tucked in. The silvery buckle on his belt, which was evidently wound nice and tight to keep his pants from sliding off his paunch, gleamed in the low, fluorescent light.

It was only when he smiled at her that she noticed the beaky nose and the set of yellowish but well-formed teeth. Overall, he looked a bit like Humpty Dumpty who had had a lucky escape.

‘Forgive me,’ he said, glancing into the side mirrors. ‘I look a bit like Humpty Dumpty today.’

‘No,’ Varsha said in her most pleasing voice. ‘Of course you don’t.’

He patted his stomach and chuckled. He held up his card. ‘I3A?’

She nodded and waved her card at him. ‘I am Varsha,’ she said.

‘Gagan.’ He broke into a smile again; a crooked but strangely endearing smile.

* * *

That ‘Humpty Dumpty’ comment should not have come as a surprise to her. Now, looking back, she thought it was the most natural thing he could have said. The Computer had matched them with an emotional compatibility of ninety-four percent – the highest ever recorded.

The Computer had not said it in as many words, but it was understood that they would complete each other’s sentences.

She took a step closer to him and held out her hand. He took it. They stood looking at each other for a moment.

She said, ‘Have you thought about it?’

He nodded.


* * *

‘Varsha comes from Gagan,’ he said.

She smiled. The more she looked at him, the more his eyes seemed to sparkle. They had only been talking for fifteen minutes, and already the balding head and the bulging stomach were beginning to recede in her mind.

She said quietly, ‘That was corny.’

‘Yes. Yes it was. I realized it as soon as I said it.’

‘It’s all right. I like corny.’

He looked up at her. ‘Of course.’

She could guess the meaning of that ‘of course’. They already knew, from what the Computer told them, that they would be very much like each other. But discovering the extent of the similarity was thrilling in itself.

‘It’s like meeting a long-lost twin,’ he said.

She made a face.

‘Oh, no, no, I don’t mean – I – oh, god.’

‘I am just teasing. I know what you mean.’

‘Thank god.’

She saw a black circle on his wrist. He caught her gaze and turned his forearm around so that she could see the mark properly. It was a familiar pattern. Almost everyone she knew had at least one of those.

He said, ‘Yes, I was imprisoned – twice – for Probing.’

Probing, she thought. It was the Computer’s term for breaking into the mainframe and trying to track down one’s biological family. Almost everyone who had reached the age of seventeen had probed at least once – and failed. Most gave up after one or two trials, but there were some men who refused to admit defeat. Irrespective of how many times they got caught and how badly they were tortured, they dove right back into the system.

There was a lot being done to try to control Probing; rehab centres had been set up, training programmes had been introduced at all school levels; punishments had been made more and more severe – but in spite of all that, it refused to go away.

She lifted the ends of her sari and showed him her shins. ‘I was too,’ she said. ‘Four times.’

* * *

‘It is not going to be easy.’

‘It is not.’

‘Not just for us, Varsha,’ he said.

She nodded. ‘I know. I have thought this through.’

‘Our – our baby – god, that sounds so – strange –

‘Our baby,’ she said. ‘There, I said it.’

He looked at her. ‘He will be – inferior to the others.’

‘He will be ours.’

* * *

‘What is the rating of your mate?’

‘You’re not allowed to ask me that, you know,’ she said.

It was true. In a society where it was customary for people to pretend that they did not know how to spell that dreaded three-lettered word, enquiring after the rating of a person’s mate was highly offensive. There had been a bill in Parliament just the previous year to make the discussion of sex and sexual mates a legal offence.

‘Mine’s a C7,’ he ventured.


‘Oh, so I suppose you are allowed to ask me that.’

‘I am a lady. I am allowed to ask you anything.’

‘Ah, of course. We’re not heavily compatible, but we’re not bad. Sixty-four. We started off on seventy-eight.’

‘Yes.’ She nodded. ‘That is not bad.’ Sexual compatibility fit what the Computer called a diminishing curve. Put simply, it meant that the longer a person stayed with the same mate, the higher the likelihood of a rapid decrease in harmony levels.

Emotional compatibility, on the other hand, was the reverse.

Varsha said, ‘Mine’s a B2.’

‘I guessed as much. You are very beautiful. You deserve a B2.’

She shrugged. ‘How many have you had?’

‘Oh, two. She is my third. We’ve decided that once it drops below sixty –’

‘I’ve only had one mate so far. Our compatibility never dropped.’


She thought of Abhay. She thought of his taut, well-lined lips and his straight, chiselled nose. She thought of his black, silky hair and his toned, athletic body; of his flawless posture; of his eyes – soulful and innocent, but forever puzzled. She thought of the words they blew into the air when they were together; neither catching what the other had said.

She leaned back against the wall and turned to look at Gagan. His eyes looked luminous to her now. His nose, which she had first thought podgy, now appeared delicately-curved. She wondered, idly, what it must be like to share a bed with this man. It wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it was with Abhay; but more fulfilling, perhaps? Did that even make sense?

‘Yes,’ she said simply. ‘Lucky.’

‘Well!’ he said, making an effort to change the subject. ‘I am thinking no kids for at least three years.’

‘Fine by me.’

In three years, then, they would come back to the Bureau, both of them, looking for potential biological mates. They would go to the Computer again and ask to be shown a selection of people whose genetic profiles matched theirs. Then they would apply for a relationship with one of them, and if the other party agreed to their proposal, they would have a child with them.

His sperm would be fused with an egg that it was genetically compatible with. Her egg would be fused with a sperm in a similar fashion. Both embryos would then be added to the National Embryo Bank, from which, in due course after an application had been lodged, they would be randomly assigned an embryo.

The rule was that you became eligible to apply for a child only after you’d made a contribution to the embryo bank.

‘Yes,’ she said again, tonelessly. ‘Three years is fine by me.’

His face became grim. ‘Are you okay?’

‘No, I am not.’

‘Neither am I.’ After a moment’s silence, he asked, ‘Do you read history?’

* * *

That night, curled up in her bed, she watched her fingertips draw light circles on the monitor of her reader. It was a book she had found in a remote corner of an old bookshop when she was eight. Watching her lie down on the dusty floor on her stomach with her head buried in the book’s pages, the bookseller had said to her, ‘Take it home and read it, my dear. It’s an old book. Nobody will miss it.’

She turned the pages back and stared at the title. Arranged: Evolution of marriage in Industrial India.

She had recommended the book to many of her friends, but they had either read it with quaint amusement or had politely criticized it as outdated. She had not known one person who felt like she did – until today.

It was not something he had said. She had seen it in his eyes. He knew what she had been thinking, and he did not feel she was crazy. That was a good start. All these days she had felt lonely, thinking she was the only one who thought the way she did. But now, she had met Gagan. If there was one, there could be – must be – more. And that meant that she didn’t need to conform. She could – they could – fight.

She picked up her phone and touched a number.

‘Abhay? Yes…no…I don’t want you here…I just wanted to tell you something…no, wait, listen…I am going to the Bureau tomorrow…I am applying for annulment…yes, I have had fun with you…no, it’s not you…it’s just that I have someone else in mind…yes, think he might too…thank you, well, good luck to you too…I am sure you will find someone else…Great…Bye.’

There, that was done. She had not sensed anything beyond idle curiosity in Abhay’s voice, and she was sure her own voice had been no more than strictly conversational. She wanted to feel more. She wanted it to have meant more to her than it did. But it didn’t. It was the natural thing; it was the expected thing; mates were not meant to feel anything emotional for each other. It was, in a manner of speaking, even healthy.

But she could not shake off the feeling that it was, somehow, wrong.

She knew what her father would say. ‘Varsha, It’s that book you have been reading.’

It was their second meeting. They wasted no time in pleasantries. She walked into the room, took her seat and said, ‘I have to talk to you.’

‘Yes, I see.’

‘Do you know how marriages used to work once upon a time?’ she asked.

He nodded. ‘So you do read history.’

‘Not as a subject. I am just interestedin how they used to do things in the old days.’

‘I know how marriages used to work once upon a time,’ he said. ‘But it was inefficient. Do you know how many marriages failed? Do you know how many people lived tortured lives because of that system? Do you know how many children suffered miserable childhoods because of it? Do you know how many children died because of just the wrong genetic combination?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I know all of that.’

He continued. ‘Now we have the highest success rate in marriages in the history of mankind. Yes, there is the odd failed marriage, but when you compare it to the times back then, Varsha –’

‘People lived lives back then, too.’

‘Yes, but we cannot always live in the past. Back then, they used to live in caves. Are you suggesting we should do the same?’

‘No,’ she said.

‘Look, Varsha, back then people did not know better. There was no chromosomal mapping available. There was no emotional and sexual profiling, let alone matching algorithms. But now we have advanced to such a state where we can throw two people together and predict – almost with certainty – whether they will be compatible or not.’

She left her seat and started walking up and down the room. ‘But don’t you think something is wrong, somewhere?’

She saw hesitation creep into his eyes. But he said resolutely, ‘Why do we have to leave anything to chance? Human beings have three needs from companionship – sexual needs, emotional needs, and genetic needs. By separating the three, we have created a society which has –’

‘Which has no freedom!’

He did not look up to face her. He looked away.

‘Yes, you have thought of this before too, haven’t you?’

‘But what’s the use?’ he said.

‘What’s the use?’ She walked closer to him and stood by his chair. ‘Have you ever thought of what it might be like to have your own child, Gagan?’

He looked up at her. Their eyes met. She saw first confusion in his face. Then little by little, his brow cleared.

She said, ‘You seem surprised. Once upon a time, all of us used to have – and rear – our own children. Not some randomly selected embryo from the bank!’

‘But they were – they were –’

‘Yes.’ She sat down. ‘They were imperfect. They were full of flaws. But they were ours. Do you know what that means?’

He did not reply. He merely blinked at her.

‘Once upon a time, people lived with only one person. You married a person, you had sex with the same person, and you had kids with the same person.’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes I know. But that was then.’

‘What has changed now?’

‘But the Computer –’

‘The Computer has divided our pleasures into three discrete fields, Gagan. It’s a machine. It cannot help but do that. But have you ever wondered why it is that sexual compatibility drops with time? Have you ever wondered why emotional compatibility rises with time? Have you ever wondered why, in spite of so many laws that the Computer has framed to prevent us from doing so, we still risk anything to find out who our biological parents were? Have you ever wondered why we sub-consciously resent being a society of surrogates?’

He did not answer her questions.

‘I will tell you why, Gagan,’ she said. ‘It is because more than anything else, we want to know who we are. Of all our needs, a need for belonging is the greatest. A Computer will never understand that.’

He looked down at the floor. ‘They won’t let us.’

‘They can’t stop us. I will stop using birth control. Once the kid is born, what are they going to do? Take him away from me?’ She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes. ‘And I know there will be more like us. There has to be!’

He ran a hand over his scalp in thought. Finally he said, ‘You really want to have this child, don’t you?’

She levelly held his gaze. ‘I want to – with you.’

‘Let me think about it.’

* * *

She felt his fingers tighten around her palm. ‘Well,’ she asked.

‘What if it doesn’t work?’

She understood the feeling. In a world where there were no certainties or compatibility figures or computers, people had to rely on their own judgement to decide if a marriage was going to work. She felt it too.

‘We will make it work,’ she said.

‘We are not sexually compatible. We are not genetically compatible.’

She smiled. ‘It’s okay. In spite of the incompatibilities, we will make it work. It can be done. They used to do it all the time.’

‘Our kids – they will be different to their peers.’

She placed her hands on his chest and smoothed his collar. ‘They will be ours.’

‘We will be outcasts.’

‘We will be together.’

‘The Computer –’

‘You know what, Gagan?’ she said. ‘Screw the Computer.’

He started to say something, and stopped. He simply nodded.

The little beeping light on the flats of their cards almost simultaneously turned a solid red, signalling their time in the cubicle was up.