The Manmarziyaan of India’s Many Small-Town Rumis

Bollywood

The Manmarziyaan of India’s Many Small-Town Rumis

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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nurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan begins with a red-haired Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) emerging from her room in the early morning light of Amritsar in a tight Patiala salwar-kameez. In that moment, she feels like the Everywoman of a small town – the one to whom no agency is afforded by her surroundings and yet who walks away with it, like a cat between her teeth. When a peacock-haired wastrel jumps over the roof and Rumi wraps herself around him with a practiced familiarity, do our assumptions get confirmed. Rumi is that woman discussed in hushed whispers in every small town.

As I watched Rumi spit an expletive at her unsuspecting family in the film, I was reminded of a potty-mouthed friend from Allahabad. Everyone, even our parents, avoided speaking to the Rumi from my hometown, fearing she’d drop the M-bomb. Rumi’s red hair was a short story unto itself. I still remember the first girl to get highlights in the neighbourhood and how we branded her “proudy” and “tez”. These Rumis occupied our folklore as valkyries, upstaging the status quo with their bold indifference.

Manmarziyaan’s plot is simple: A girl dumps her commitment-phobic boyfriend to marry a well-heeled man. It’s a story as old as time – a narrative that spans the breadth of nameless mohallas and then lives on for decades thereafter. In the real world, the Rumis, Vickys, and Robbies change names and faces, smatter the story with religion and class, fake their deaths, slit their wrists, and even create drunken scenes at their friends’ houses at midnight. But the climax remains the same – every Rumi lets go off her pehla pyaar and becomes a stranger’s wife. Her legacy is bequeathed in the anecdotes she leaves behind, which become fodder for gossip for the town.

I remember a conversation I overheard many years ago, on a winter afternoon. When we kids were napping, an aunt who married the first man her parents picked for her, leaned into her friend who married choice number three, and hissed: “Arré, have I told you about that Rumi who went to college and came back like this!” A swift motion of a convex sphere around the stomach conveyed what words were not allowed to – that she had sex and had come back pregnant. But it was also swiftly followed up with a mildly contrite, “But she’s now married to that nice guy Robbie, the one in construction. Settled down.”

But the intensity of their capers aside, most of the Rumis you knew, did not cry when their men developed cold feet at the prospect of marriage.

There are rumours like that of the pregnant Rumi which take a life of their own and there are real scandals, discussed as passionately as Bofors. One evening, when grandfather tittered about how pungent the cardamon in the tea was, grandmother set her cup down and spoke of his third cousin. A Rumi who’d had a torrid affair with the student politician whose opium addiction was the talk of the town. Rumi fell in love with him, ran away from home, and was brought back from the train station after he did not show up. Her aghast parents refused to marry their daughter to that Vicky, and he in turn, refused to commit to her. She was married off to a pharmaceutical representative within the next three months. And with the end of that sentence, grandmother smacked her lips, and said, “She never looked back, good for her!” Grandfather seethed into his pungent tea-cup, commented on her good fortune, and Rumi was brought up yet again the next time the family ran out of things to discuss.

Before your own adolescence, you assumed that these Rumis are outliers because of the sheer audacity of their indecisions. You’d band with your friends and drop little pebbles on couples while they were in the throes of passion. A few years later, when the clock struck 14, you’d realise your folly as new Rumis emerged with their band of guy friends and an air of precocity.

When I was growing up, the entire school waited for new Rumis to “sin” like a pack of hungry wolves. We would revel deriding them on the outside, even while fervently hoping to catch that strain of mutiny which led to such ecstasy on the inside. The Rumis on the other hand, roamed free of such baggage. They would lose their virginities in the backs of cars with tinted windows, be caught by their mothers while making out in derelict corners of the town, and if they were too gutsy, cheat on one Vicky with another, riding the wave into the slut-shaming hall of fame.

But the intensity of their capers aside, most of the Rumis you knew, did not cry when their men developed cold feet at the prospect of marriage. There was simply no point. In a land of limited choices, crisis turned them into survivors. A marriage, the option of an education, or their father’s posting in another part of the country, was an out and they took it.

Manmarziyaan

A friend once recalled a time when her own cousin metamorphosed into a Rumi. She asked her boyfriend to marry her but he dilly-dallied.

Image Credit: Colour Yellow Productions

A friend once recalled a time when her own cousin metamorphosed into a Rumi. She asked her boyfriend to marry her but he dilly-dallied. The cousin uttered an, “Okay then,” and married another man within the next month. The boyfriend gatecrashed the wedding, threw stones at the bridal party. But the cousin never looked back. None of the Rumis do.

At the end of the day, every Rumi knows that her Vicky might not be husband material. She knows her relationship may not sustain the test of time. Yet she’ll go ahead and fall into the arms of a Vicky with hopeless abandon. Because every Rumi knows that the life ahead may be full of sacrifices and compromises. And they may get just one shot at Fyaar.  

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