Out of India: Love has a chance to flower in the botanical garden

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The Independent Online
UDAGAMANDALAM - Strolling in the Botanical Gardens at Ooty, I came round to the idea of marriage to a perfect stranger. Ooty, or, as it is known today, Udagamandalam, is a former British hill station in the Nilgiris. It has a Charing Cross, a hunt club and a magnificent public garden. With ornamental ponds, gingerbread cottages and topiary in the shape of elephants, the botanical garden is the place that honeymooners visit after their first night in bed.

Most Indian brides and grooms are utter aliens to each other. That's because more than 80 per cent of all marriages in India are arranged. Newlyweds may know each other's horoscopes, caste and family pedigree. The lucky ones may even have met a few times over nervous sips of tea under a chaperone's glare. But until the day of their marriage, they never have had occasion to flirt, or pretend that they are in love with this unknown person with whom they will be spending the rest of their lives.

Many honeymooners were easy to spot in the Ooty gardens by their fine clothes and their glassy, shell-shocked faces. The women were bejewelled, silken and had hands and feet freshly hennaed with designs of paisley. The men have moustaches (worn luxuriantly long in southern India), new shoes and shiny suits. I could spot right away which relationships would never work.

A day into the marriage and one husband was already reading the newspaper, ignoring his wife who fretted with her golden earring and was about to cry. Another man was so nervous that on entering the botanical garden gate he treated it as the start to a race, leaving his bride many strides behind. Other couples, schooled no doubt by their elders, exchanged shy pleasantries.

But a few were ecstatic, as though they had won the national lottery or had rediscovered each other after a previous, happy incarnation. These were the ones who made me think that, just possibly, arranged relationships can work as well, or as badly, as Western marriages. Indians argue that love, or at least attraction, can grow through familiarity, and that we in the West place love under a scrutiny that is destructive in its intensity. The couples I worried about, though, were the bashful ones. They moved up and down the hilly garden paths, side by side, like pairs of awkward wind-up dolls. Even today, in cloistered Indian society, few boys and girls get a chance to overcome sexual jitters by dating.

Rescue was at hand for some of these zombies. The next best thing to a marriage therapist that I have found in India is an official photographer in Ooty's botanical gardens. A battered Japanese camera around his neck, S H Basha, the portly doyen of the botanical gardens, sidled up to his would-be patients. 'Honeymoon snaps? We are having third best lawn in the world. So very, very green. Many famous films shot here,' said Mr Basha, who began to reel off the names of a few Indian classics.

Quietly, soothingly, and without being too insistent, the photographer wove his spell around the couple, conjuring up famous romantic moments from Indian cinema. At 65 rupees ( pounds 1.30) for 10 shots, they agreed and Mr Basha, unleashed, was no longer a timid hustler but a bold Hollywood film director. First, he posed them sitting beside a pond. 'No, no. Too stiff,' he ordered, placing the groom's arm on his girl's shoulder. 'That's better.'

Soon, the photographer had them giggling, holding hands in a meadow, playing peekaboo behind a cedar and humming pop songs. After a while the moustached groom even lounged dreamily with his head cradled in his wife's lap. The loss of their inhibitions was remarkable. 'Now, one shot only of kissing?', the photographer asked.

The couple sat upright and discussed the offer with hushed intensity. The husband was game; his bride was not. Finally the husband said, 'No, no. Our elders would not approve.'

Like a veteran flim director who has endured many a starlet's eccentricities, Mr Basha sighed, 'Ah, these ladies, so often they are the shy type. What can we do?' But as the couple left the gardens with their roll of souvenir shots, they seemed eager to go back to their hotel room and, at least, explore the photographer's daring suggestion of a kiss.