I found the lemon several years later stuffed in the back of my cupboard. It still had the needle in it, pierced through the flesh to ward away the evil eye. Indian weddings are steeped in ritual, and two weeks leading up to my wedding, I had to carry this lemon with me at all times, one of the many rituals that were supposed to make sure our marriage was blessed and protected. To lose the lemon was very bad luck. I found it nestled behind my green Kitenge sari. The one I had worn only once, that day of The Crying Ceremony.
It was my favourite time of day, when evening seeps into night and the air has a viscous feel that whispers endless possibilities. Njeri sat on my left, with a box of tissues on her lap, anxious. Her job was to wipe my tears. To make sure that as a bride, at no point was I allowed to be seen with rivers of mascara running down my face. As a bride, it was my duty to always look beautiful. Njeri had seen me cry before. She knew, when I cried, there was nothing beautiful about it. My now husband sat on my right, bemused. He had been warned about The Crying Ceremony, and had been gleefully looking forward to this unabashed display of Indian melodrama.
Perversely, this was the part of the wedding I had also most been looking forward to, the day after the wedding ceremony, the real moment when I was given away. When my role as a daughter shifted from my father’s household to my father in law’s household. You see, in Indian tradition, marriage is rarely about the actual couple, but more a union of families. Perhaps this is why that haunted look had not left my father’s eyes. I was marrying an Irishman. The rules were different.
One by one they came. Extended family first, and then those closest to me. They dipped their finger in the turmeric dyed milk, and painted a dot on each of our foreheads. Tumeric for fertility. Then they popped a smartie in our mouths. So the couple would always be sweet to each other. The good bride, daintily spits out the smartie into a neat little hankie. Bugger that, in times of stress, women need chocolate, dammit. So I furiously sucked on each smartie, taking pleasure in the way the chocolate melting on my tongue, distracted me from the tide of emotion welling up inside. Then, they would take a handful of brightly coloured rice and throw it up in the air, so it scattered over our heads, pitter pattering on the ground. Rice for prosperity. Coloured rice, because Indians are bling that way. They would hug me close and whisper words of wisdom in my ear, before bursting into the appropriate amount of tears. Appropriate, because the outpouring should be directly proportional to how close the relationship is. Too many tears, and eyebrows are raised. Too few tears and tongues are clicked.
As darkness fell, the fairy lights lit the garden up, and the trees stretched out over a family saying farewell to their daughter. And so the hugging began. Each hug has its own language, carries its own message. My sister hugged me close, our bodies used to the nearness of each other. Atifa. Her name means the sympathetic one. She has the gentlest of touches. She squeezed me tight, telling me that she loved me, and making me promise I would not disappear from their lives. My big little brother’s hug was stiff, self-conscious, nonchalant, graciously indulging me my tears, and hiding his own. My mother’s hug was wise, strong and unconditional, for isn’t that the greatest gift any mother can ever give. Then came Ndungu, him with the killer Biriyani, the man who had nurtured our family for the last two decades. He clasped both of my hands in his, his toothy smile betraying a sense of pride. He looked me in the eye, and said ‘now I want my grandchildren Aleya, don’t wait too long”.
Finally, my father. Papa is not a hugger. He isn’t really a toucher of any sort, not openly affectionate in any way. If he had his way, he would probably have cocked his imaginary hat, and said ‘so long grasshopper, I finally got rid of you eh.’ But he pulled me into his arms, and whispered in my ear that he loved me. That his heart had broken a little bit, and that he would now take delight in coming into my home and leaving all the lights on, like I had done for years. And just like that the electricity went out, and we both erupted into a mess of snorting laughter and sobbing tears.
As my aunts fussed over lighting candles, I snuck a glimpse at my husband. His look of bemusement had given way to an uncomfortable anxiety, and I could see the vein in his neck throbbing. Having had to swear individually to over 200 members of my extended family that he would take care of me, he had a new understanding of what he had taken on. Marrying an Indian girl. I laced my fingers into his, taking comfort from the way my small hand fit into his larger one, squeezing and silently thanking him for indulging me in this tradition. Loving him more at that moment than I ever had before.
The only person left for me to say goodbye to was my Grandmother. Matriarch of the family. She was brought out in her wheelchair. She had worn her favourite sweater, the white one with the pearl buttons. As if on a throne, her soft silver hair forming a halo around her head, and her gorgeously wrinkled hands crossed on her lap. You got the sense she was soaking in the drama of a grand entrance. Everyone waited with bated breath. Mama had been affected by a touch of dementia, to put it politely. No one ever knew what she was going to say, and without the filter of propriety, she often came out with the most deliciously wicked statements. We knelt by her side, waiting to be blessed. She opened her mouth, and she sang. She sang loudly, every now and then, her age betraying her voice. She sang the age-old song that is sung when the daughter leaves her father’s home. Everything else was silent, and the candles flickered in the dark. As she came to a close, and my sobs turned louder, she raised my chin up and said, ‘Well you didn’t really think you would live in your father’s house your whole life, did you!”, and like that, we all erupted again into a mess of snorting laughter and sobbing tears.
I closed my eyes, and tried to store the memory in my soul. I buried it away somewhere deep that only I could get to, somewhere that when the time came, I would release for my own daughter, and their daughters, and their daughters after that. At that moment, I felt bound to all the women before me in my family, who had savored this exact moment. The generations of women before me, who had gone through this very same ceremony. What had they felt when it was their time?
My mother performed the final blessings, and cracked her knuckles against our heads. The air resounded with a loud crrrick, and we all burst into laughter. For months my mum had been practicing, day and night, hoping her knuckles would not fail at that moment. The smile spread across her face. She was born to be the mother of a bride. The loud clap signified that she was taking away any sorrow from us. As I walked to the car, I grabbed handfuls of rice, throwing it over my shoulder, symbolizing a journey from my past. I could feel the lemon I had tied to the inside of my sari, knocking against my thigh. A reminder. A coconut was placed under the wheel of the car, and my brother gave me a silver tiffin filled with nuts, which were the first things we were supposed to eat as a couple. I was not to look back until we reached our new home. I clutched the tin in my arms, and sobbed into my husband’s arms as we drove all the way to our new home. Tears drenched with the ache of cutting ties, heavy with the significance of the evening, soaked in the joy of feeling truly loved. I did not look back for even one second.
The lemon felt hard in my palm, shriveled and dried up. I wondered what would have happened if I had not lost the real lemon. If I had not had to furtively pierce a new lemon with a needle, rubbing it against the floor to make it look worn. If I had not kept it a secret. If today would be different. I shut the door on my what-ifs, and closed the door of the house firmly. My heart aching, I walked to my car and drove away, leaving behind the last remnant of me in my marital home, the fraudulent lemon.