By 4 o’clock, the engagement party was under way. It was a modest event, with 10 guests and a platter of snacks. There was a nationwide transportation strike in Nepal that day, so neither set of parents could make it. Dhan Kafle, whom everyone calls Lalita, wore a flower garland on her head. Vermillion powder and betel nuts changed hands. It was over in an hour.
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Nil Prasad Ghumire, known to all as Krishna, says he would not have wanted it any other way. A humble event for a humble man. “I told her from the very beginning, ‘I don’t have money for a wedding. If you want a fancy event, find someone else.”
Krishna, a salesman of Ayurvedic medicine turned foreign worker in Israel, was nearing the end of his 35-day home leave and he was in a hurry. “My parents were saying ‘get married, get married.’ It was giving me a headache already,” he says.
Five earlier introductions during his visit, orchestrated by his relatives, had been failures. In two of the cases, he had rejected the women; the other three had rejected him. “They were very polite, and made up excuses having to do with not being ready or wanting to continue their studies, but everyone understood the code. I was not wealthy enough,” he says. And yes, it hurt.
“I had no house and no land then. If you want a nicer girl you need to have something,” he explains. He had been making money as a home aide, but it had all gone toward repaying his loan for his work visa and travel to Israel.
For Lalita’s family, he was good enough “My father was looking for an honest man. One who did not smoke or drink or gamble,” she says. “My maternal uncle short-listed some guys and he talked about them with his friends, discussing their qualities and backgrounds. He then presented me with Krishna.”
Krishna and Lalita’s daughter Nishma with a photo of her parents on their wedding day. (Credit: Danna Harman)
The first meeting
Lalita had been getting ready for school — although she was over 20, she was still a senior in high school — when Krishna, 10 years older, walked into her uncle’s home with his brother and some neighbors. Had she known he was coming to court her, she says, she would have prepared better, put on her best tunic perhaps or painted her nails red.
As it was, she made milky sweet tea and kept her eyes down. “I thought he was good-looking,” she says. “I was silent the whole time. Not one word.”
Krishna was shy too, and had his brother ask all his questions for him: He wanted to know the size of Lalita’s family and why she had to repeat 10th grade. He asked about a mole on her wrist.
He liked her forehead, he says: It was broad and made her face look open and bright. “I saw her and decided she was right to be my wife.”
Lalita had never had a boyfriend, and even now she giggles and covers her mouth with her hands at the thought. No holding hands. No kissing. “There were sometimes girls in class who had boyfriends,” she allows. “... but if their parents found out they locked them in the house.”
Krishna, in turn, had never had a girlfriend. “Even in Israel, where life is more free, I never wanted to say something wrong to any girl,” he explains. “I was scared she might misunderstand my intentions.”
An hour after the first meeting, Krishna said goodbye. Half an hour later, the deal was sealed, over the phone, with Lalita’s uncle acting on behalf of her parents. The sides discussed shoes and sari measurements. Following custom, the groom’s family would provide the bride’s wedding clothes.
Lalita’s phone number was passed along to Krishna, who says he called her several times in the coming days but she never answered. “I don’t know why,” he says. “I did not know her.”
“These days parents ask their children what they want. Back when I got married no one had any choice at all,” says Krishna’s mother, Tulsa Ghimre. “I got married at 15 and met my husband on my wedding day. He was 17 years older than I.”
“It’s compulsory to love your husband,” she says, focusing on the screen of the family laptop as she waits for the Skype conversation with her son, in faraway Israel, to reconnect. “Maybe it’s not exactly love. But it is like love.”
Krishna and Pnina in Israel, skyping with Lailita and Nishma in Nepal. (Credit: Danna Harman)
The bride always cries
The wedding took place, after a consultation with an astrologer, five days later at a Hindu temple in Sunsari, chosen because it was halfway between the families’ homes, Krishna’s in Morang District, in the Terai region, and Lalita’s in the hilly district of Sankhuwasabha. Both families came by taxi van, in Lalita’s case squashed up against furniture they had brought, following custom, for the newlyweds. After the reception, Lalita would move to Krishna’s parents’ home, returning to her own family only for festivals and, a few years later, to give birth.
For the ceremony the bride wore a red sari. Her hair was tucked into a bun and her wrists were stacked with gold bangles. The groom wore a V-neck T-shirt over a dress shirt. When Lalita’s mother moved to place a tikka, a red dot of vermilion paste, yogurt and rice between his eyebrows, as is customary, Krishna tried to decline. “He said, ‘No. In Israel we don’t put tikkas,’ recalls Lalita. “He was already touched by the Israeli wind.”
Today, six years later, Lalita dusts off her wedding photo and shows it to their 15-month-old daughter, Nishma. In it, her eyes are red and puffy. “If a bride in Nepal does not cry on her wedding day, people will say she is not nice,” explains Krishna. “She must cry on the wedding. That is the system.”
“It was a wonderful wedding,” he continues. There were prayers and party games, one of which involved Lalita’s parents washing Krishna’s feet and then drinking the bath water. At one point Krishna asked his bride if she was happy. “She said ‘Yes. You are better than I had thought,’” he relays. The party went on for nine hours.
The wedding night was less eventful, they both separately agree. “We were right next door to his parents and brothers and there were no doors,” says Lalita. “We did not know each other,” says Krishna. “There was too much pressure.” The next three days were filled with visitors and prayer. “All we wanted to do was sleep at night,” says Lalita.
Long walks on the Tel Aviv beach
Krishna returned to Israel and Lalita, like the approximately two million other Nepalis whose spouses work overseas, stayed behind, settling into her in-laws’ home.
At first Krishna and Lalita only spoke once a week. “There wasn’t much to discuss,” says Lalita: “‘Are you fine? Did you eat? How is the weather?’ It would be maximum five minutes.”
Lalita worried that they might be incompatible: “I would talk about one thing and he would not understand. And he would get angry if I was not in the house.”
Most of the misunderstandings, Krishna interjects, had to do with Lalita’s relationship with, and duties to, his parents. “Mothers are never happy with their daughters-in-law. I’m not saying it’s my parents, everyone in Nepal is like that,” he explains. If he sent money to his wife directly, and not to his parents, it would prompt an argument.
“It was a big balagan,” he says, using Israeli slang for “mess.
And then, two years ago, after Krishna’s employers gave Israel’s Interior Ministry a hefty security deposit, Lalita received a 42-day tourist visa for Israel and came for a vacation. That’s when things between the couple began to shift.
“Tel Aviv is a good place, and the sea is beautiful. Lalita liked it too,” Krishna says. They took long walks and went shopping in the market. They spent time talking about themselves and shared some ideas and a few dreams. Krishna made his wife fresh orange juice every morning. They conceived their child.
Lalita in Nepal - Skyping with Krishna in Israel. (Credit: Danna Harman)
‘Now I can say I love him’
These days they Skype daily, sometimes leaving their laptops’ cameras on for hours as the weak Nepali Internet connection flickers on and off: Krishna shuffles around the light-filled apartment on Gordon Street, in central Tel Aviv, making iced coffee for Pnina, his employer; Lalita is in her kitchen in Bhaktapur, where she is usually doing laundry or cooking Dal Bhat, a traditional dish of rice with lentils.
Krishna’s parents and his brother’s wives wander in and out of the room and the frame. Baby Nishma tries over and over to touch her father’s face through the screen.
“Now I can say I love him,” says Lalita; her mother-in-law sits near her, nodding approval. “He built us this new house. He takes care of us. And he has begun to show interest in my happiness, as I am the mother of his child. To me this matters a lot.”
Krishna chimes in from Tel Aviv: “I have no reason not to love her and she has no reason not to love me. We both have good hearts and we are satisfied. Life is not bad.”
Someday Krishna will return to Nepal for good. He wants to see his daughter grow up and give her the kind of education he and Lalita never had, he says. Lalita says she would like to have another child — maybe a boy, to take care of her household when she is old.
And who will their children eventually marry? “One thing is very clear, my children will be married off in arranged marriages,” says Krishna, adding that so-called love marriages are not a good idea. “Not in Nepal,” he stresses. “Anything can happen with a love marriage. You could fall out of love or even get divorced. But in an arranged marriage, that’s not an option. You do what is expected, and out of that comes love.”