By S. P. Venkat
/ Fiction /
On the day of my wedding, I realized I didn't recognize my husband-to-be. He looked like a lazily picked stunt double of himself. The broad outlines were there, but none of the details matched. And there was the problem of his complexion. He looked distinctly green.
I signaled my mother over. “Don’t you think he looks weird? Like, greenish?” I whispered. She stopped and gave me an incredulous look.
“Now is not the time. He looks like he always does.” she said sternly. But then softened, “Don’t worry - all of us have had these kinds of thoughts on this day. He looks fine,” she concluded firmly.
Then, as if to appease me, she studied Mahesh’s face. I saw her blanch for a millisecond but then she straightened. Then she turned to me. “This is what happens when you ask your cousin to be the makeup artist. We could have hired a professional.”
“She is a professional!” I protested, defending my cousin, Shalini. But my mother ignored me.
“Who asked her to put powder on his face? These days you young people are too much. Making everybody look like wax,” my mother tsked. “I’ll ask her to bring tissue paper to fix it.” she said and walked off with purpose.
A few minutes later, my mother reappeared with Shalini in tow.
“What is it?” Shalini asked with concern.
“Can you blot some powder off his face?” I said as I inclined my head towards Mahesh. “You’ve done too much.”
Shalini drew back surprised. “What are you talking about? I didn’t! I did your makeup, not his!”
She frowned as she examined his face. Then, she walked over to his side of the dais and whispered in his ear. Mahesh's expression remained frozen as he reached his hand out to her.
Deftly, my cousin grabbed one of his fingers and easily pulled off a fingernail - as if pulling a sticker off its backing. Mahesh didn’t flinch in pain or anything. He barely registered what she’d done. His gaze remained on the empty spot where Shalini had de-nailed him, but his hand had flopped back quietly into his lap.
In the chaos of the ceremony, the bustling priests, the distraction of the ceremonial fire, and the relatives milling around, nobody else noticed what she’d done, but I caught it. I looked up to see Shalini staring right at me. She quickly walked back to me and whispered in my ear.
“Don’t worry about what you just saw,” she said calmly, “Your outfit change is coming up in a few minutes. I’ll explain everything there.” But I noticed, after my cousin stepped off the dais, she ran off in a hurry.
* * *
A few minutes later, I was herded into a room backstage, where Shalini was waiting. Within a couple of minutes, her assistant, Radha, burst into the room with a large cloth bag in her hand.
“What was that?” I asked, as Shalini and Radha started unpinning my sari. I needed to change into the sari that Mahesh’s family has provided. It was an extant symbol of me, bride as chattel, changing hands. These days, it was an excuse for the groom’s family to perform their good taste and outdo the bride’s original outfit.
Radha watched Shalini expectantly, waiting for her to answer my question.
Shalini stopped fussing with my outfit and took my hand in hers. She looked at me and said, “I’ve seen this at a few weddings like this now.”
“Weddings like what now?” I asked impatiently.
“Like yours, where one or both of the couple has been working overseas.”
I looked at Shalini with confusion. Mahesh did work overseas, but what did that have to do with anything?
Shalini took a deep breath. “Nivi, what I did to his fingernail, you saw that right?”
“You saw how he reacted right?”
“Right, exactly.” Shalini said. “Look, there’s no good way to say this. He is,” she paused, studying my face to see how I received the information, “he’s a zombie.”
My expression collapsed. I started to laugh then I stopped myself. I feel tears pushing forward.
“The signs are all there. The green skin, the listlessness. The fingernail has become my foolproof test,” Shalini said.
I glanced at Radha who nodded vigorously in agreement.
“She knows?” I ask incredulously.
“We see it at a lot of weddings," Radha offered, nodding sympathetically. “It’s very normal.”
“She’s right, it’s very common,” Shalini added. “People go abroad to work, and they get infected. And then they come back …like that.” Shalini pointed her thumb at the doorway as if Mahesh was there. I turned back to check, just in case, half expecting to see him lurking in the doorway.
“Listen, have you heard the term, ‘brain drain’?” Shalini continued. I nodded. Of course, I had. That’s what they said about us leaving to go work somewhere else. That’s what they called us learning everything we had to over here, but leaving to earn money over there.
“What if I told you,” Shalini continued, “that brain drain is not a figure of speech?” I looked at her in confusion.
Just then my mother entered the room, in a fluster. “What’s taking you so long?” She saw me still wearing the blouse of the previous sari. “What are you doing? Get changed! We will miss the auspicious time!”
Shalini and the assistant started bustling me into the new outfit.
“Listen,” Shalini hissed, while holding 2 safety pins between her teeth, her hands busy pleating the fabric, “I know how this sounds. But you must leave.” Taking her cue, Radha brought over the bag and held it open. I looked inside. A machete!
“What!” I shouted.
“No Miss, it’s just in case.” Radha tried to reassure me.
Seeing my look of incredulity, Shalini continued to explain, “I know about this stuff because I’ve started getting more and more calls about this type of work. I don’t look for this work it, finds me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked my cousin. I felt a little hurt. I thought we were close.
“Look, I don’t exactly lead with the information that I handle zombies. How do I put it, I need to have a receptive audience before I can share this information,” Shalini explained.
I understood that by receptive audience, she meant me. This morning, I would have laughed her out of the room, if she had started talking about zombies. Now I still had my doubts, but I was more, as she put it, receptive.
Shalini swiped open her phone and thrust it in my hands. She showed me an Instagram account featuring weddings. At first glance, it looked like a wedding planner’s account with streams of videos of brides and their grooms. One by one Shalini pointed out what I’d been seeing in Mahesh. Green skin, and loose fingernails and teeth. One, if not both, members of the couple are lumbering around in a catatonic state. Shalini asked me to read the comments on the posts.
“I had to leave!” Read the text of a post.
“Good for you!” A commenter replied.
“Slay, girl!” Another one encouraged.
“Asking for a friend, did you use fire?” Another replies.
“🔥 🗡️ 🔥 🗡️” the last comment read. (Alt text: fire icon, sword icon, fire icon, sword icon)
I kept scrolling and the comments didn’t stop. Many of them desperately asking about loved ones slowly morphing into whatever it was Mahesh had also become. The images were hard to refute. I had to accept - whatever it was Mahesh was going through, as the assistant had said, was not that rare.
But did I really have to take matters into my own hands? I thought about the cloth bag and shuddered.
By now, I was draped in the new sari and ready to head out for the second half of the ceremony. As my mother walked me out of the room, I cast a glance back at Shalini and her assistant. They were deep in discussion.
* * *
Back on the dais, I sat down on the floor next to Mahesh. The ceremony continued, my presence incidental. For a few blessed seconds, I stared into the fire, zoning out.
Suddenly, Mahesh leaned over and whispered in my ear, startling me. “You will come with me, won’t you?” His breath felt cold on my ear.
“What?” I asked, startled.
“You won’t leave me, right?” he asked morosely.
I turned to look at him directly. His face was expressionless, but a single tear rolled down his left cheek.
“I know you know,” he said. Another tear rolled down his cheek.
“You know what’s going on?” I whispered back to him. He nodded slowly. All his movements had become very slow.
“Who did this to you?” I asked as a tear rolled down my face. I knew Mahesh was still in there, somewhere in this shell of a person.
Mahesh shook his head slowly and blinked a couple of times. “I should never have left,” he said sadly. “They hired me for my brains. And that’s what they took.”
My eyes widened with horror. “They took your brains?”
Mahesh paused for a long while. He seemed to be considering the question. Eventually he spoke. “Have you heard of the term ‘brain drain’?”
“Not you too!” I huffed in exasperation. “Just tell me, did they hurt you?”
Mahesh shook his head to say no. “They didn’t touch me. But they hire us. And we go there, and we are just,” he paused and choked on a sob. “We are just these resources to them. They use us.”
“But you get paid, no? There’s something in it for you. For us.” I said. Surely, he was aware of the benefits of it all.
“Yes, I benefit. You will benefit too when you come with me.” Mahesh said, sadly. “But do you like what I’ve become?”
I had so many more questions but realized that now was not the time to ask. I had to figure out what to do. Mahesh and I, we are practical people. We don’t make grand statements. The love is felt, not performed. But in that moment, I knew that words had to suffice where actions could not. At least, not yet.
“I love you,” I said, as I reached for his hand. He clasped my hand in his. Another fingernail fell off. Mahesh stared at it and then slowly shifted his gaze up to see what I would do. I picked up the nail and threw it over my shoulder. Then I gave his hand a squeeze. This one gentler, to keep the remaining nails in place.
Before the moment could go on much longer, we were both distracted by an elderly man approaching us. Presumably to wish us well as others had done intermittently during the hours-long ceremony. He stumbled up to the stage. This uncle wasn’t young. Probably in his seventies if I had to guess. But the way he staggered up to the stage didn’t seem to be a frailty thing. I watched him perplexed. Perhaps he’d had a stroke?
Leaning over the edge of the raised dais, its wall supporting his abdomen, he reached out a hand to shake mine. An odd gesture. Usually men of that generation did not shake hands with women. Most of them preferred to tent their fingers in a proto-namaste and leave it at that. A modest show of respect.
I thought it was weird, but who was I to judge? I reached out to him when out of nowhere, his hand was batted away. I looked up to see Radha standing there pretending to reach for something between us. I took a closer look at Uncle and I realized he was a zombie too.
“Miss, the whole hall is like that now,” the assistant said, waggling her eyebrows at the uncle. The entire wedding hall had been infected! Most of the guests were zombies.
“Where’s Shalini?” I asked. My voice rose with anxiety. Radha shrugged.
I scanned the hall. The infestation had spread. I saw that guests were staggering around or numbly sitting in their seats. A gentle pitter patter echoed through the hall. I realized it was the sound of teeth and nails hitting the tile floor.
But I also noticed there were pockets of safety. Some groups weren’t infected. Most children seemed to be safe. Same with the roving factions of sullen teens. Even a few adults here and there.
“How come some of them are safe?” I asked.
“I'm not sure, but I have my ideas.” Radha said. “The ones who are capable of thinking for themselves, are fine.”
“But the kids? They are too young to think independent thoughts!”
“Well, you are a little correct. They don’t know anything. But they have random thoughts. Oh, and some of them don't think at all, so it's fine.” The assistant explained.
Just then a child zombie lurched by, singing to herself.
“What happened to that one?” I asked with interest.
“Oh, it’s usually the parents. Given that it’s singing, my guess is music lessons. Music is a big headache. It makes some of them immune, more alive than ever, and others fall harder. Undead at such a young age. Poor thing.” The assistant said sadly.
Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see Shalini standing there with a large, old book in her hands. Its pages were yellowed, and its spine was cracked. Several sheets had fallen out and were stuffed back in loosely.
“What is this?” I asked, gesturing at the book.
“It’s a book, Miss” Radha offered unhelpfully.
Shalini waved off the assistant. “This is how we get you out of here,” she paused and cast a quick glance at Mahesh. “If you want to get out of here, that is. I know many who choose to stay,” she gestured broadly at the teeming hall.
“You mean, people choose to be a zombie?”
“No,” Shalini said as if I was being deliberately obtuse. “They don’t choose to be zombies. They choose not to leave all that they know and love.”
“So”, I asked tentatively, “I get a choice?”
“Go with it or what?” I was afraid to hear her answer. I thought of the bag again.
“Of course, you can use what’s in the bag,” Shalini hesitated, “But there's another more difficult option.”
“What's that?” I asked
Shalini thrust the book at in my hands. I pushed it back at her. Was I supposed to read my way out of this?
All this while, I was still sitting next to Mahesh on the dais. We were two hours into a four-hour long ceremony. That seemed like a lot of time, but really, it wasn’t. We were minutes away from the muhurtham, the pivotal point of the ceremony. The one that sealed our bond and made us man and wife. My actions in the next few minutes would decide if I ended up single, a widow or a zombie.
By now, Mahesh was a deep shade of green. I couldn’t believe he’d really turned this color. And without thinking, I reached up and brushed his cheek. The small patch of skin that I touched, easily came off in my hands. And where his cheek was, was now a glistening wound, oozing a dark grey slime-like substance.
Somehow, I managed to paste the small patch of skin back in place. The slime serving as a sort of glue. Time was running out.
“Give me the book.” I said, holding my hand out to Shalini without looking back. She placed it on my palm.
I flipped to the contents page and found a chapter heading that read, “Reversing a zombie.”
I flipped to the chapter.
“Finding out that someone you love has become a zombie, can be a frustrating discovery.” It started. Well, that’s one way to describe it, I thought to myself. I paged through as quickly as I could, but all its solutions required equipment I didn’t have, like metal swords, stakes and potions. And a lot of the ingredients seemed more readily available in early 19th century England. Where was I going to find a toad now?
“Not to sound ungrateful,” I said,” but couldn’t you have picked a book from our culture?” I asked with derision. This whole situation had me feeling annoyed and I was taking it out on Shalini. But both she and Radha stayed maddeningly calm.
“Funny you should mention,” Radha said, “but did you know that our ancestors, even as recent as in our grandparents’ generation, would conduct funerals for people when they left to seek their fortunes elsewhere.”
“So?” I scoffed.
“They knew.” Radha said, “about what happens when you leave.” She raised her eyebrows at me expectantly. I think she wanted me to praise her. I was not in the mood.
Instead, I slammed the book shut and looked out at the hall. Nobody was looking at me. Well, people were looking at the stage, but most of them were zombies and they seemed to be looking through me. “I’m a big baby banana!” I shouted, as a test, at the top of my voice. Barely anyone nobody noticed. A few children heard me and laughed.
I hadn’t thought about Mahesh for the last few minutes. I turned to find him exchanging pleasantries with an auntie. She was also a zombie.
Auntie had managed to get on to the dais. It probably hadn’t been hard. When an elderly woman turns up at the center of an event, everyone assumes they are meant to be there.
This one, I was learning from the little I could eavesdrop, just wanted to chat. She droned on about her children who were also working overseas.
“So, you have a nice long break here before you go back?” she asked.
“Yes,” Mahesh said and smiled softly. An expression! The thought of a break had made him behave like a human.
“This is a big deal!” the assistant whispered loudly in my ear. “I’m going to tell Shalini!” she said and walked off returning with Shalini shortly after that.
“Did he really smile?” Shalini asked me, incredulous.
Shalini frowned, lost in her thoughts.
“Is this the answer?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” Shalini said. “We need to probe.” She thought for a moment and said,
“Ask him something else about staying here. Or maybe ask him something about his flight.”
Looking back, I could have asked a better question, but in the moment, I thought I was being pretty clever.
“Mahesh, when is our return flight?” I asked loudly, deliberately, so that Shalini would hear the conversation.
Mahesh turned noticeably greener. He coughed and another tooth fell out.
“Oh dear.” Shalini said. “He’s getting worse. Ask him the opposite! Quick”
What would be the opposite of asking for a flight schedule? I tried to puzzle it out when Radha, fortunately stepped in.
“I heard your return flights are delayed due to strikes next week.” Radha said in a stage voice. Shalini, Radha and I, all three of us stared in disbelief as the green noticeably faded. He was reversing!
“It can really happen!” Shalini said excitedly as she grabbed the assistant’s shoulder. The women spontaneously hugged. I guessed, correctly, that this was new to them too.
There are moments in your life when you don’t want to witness an expert learning something new. During a medical procedure being performed on your body, is one example. This was another. But I had to let it go. We had struck upon the solution. But I was embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t totally sure what it was.
“So what? Do we just tell him that he doesn’t have to go back there?” I asked. Shalini considered my question.
“It can’t just be that,” she finally answered. “Look around you, there are plenty of zombies out here too. For sure, it’s something do with going back, but I don’t think it’s a location thing.”
I only had my instincts to trust, but I was sure that the number of zombies in the hall was increasing. Right at that moment, a young woman, I would guess in her early twenties, walked by briskly. She kept looking over her shoulder as if checking if she was being followed. A quick look over in that direction revealed the source of her discomfort. A small group of older zombies were pursuing her. Pursuing was a strong term. They were lurching purposefully in her direction.
I believe it’s ok for me to say this as I am Indian too. The zombies seemed to be cut from the same cloth. They were older and dressed grandly in traditional clothes as was appropriate for wedding guests. Their saris were in vibrant deep colors, saffron, magenta, emerald. Without exception they all wore heavy, traditional gold jewelry.
The young woman quickly lost her pursuers as she hitched up her sari and ran up a flight of stairs. The zombie aunties, unable to climb stairs, waited and bobbed on the spot.
But what little relief I felt for that young woman quickly dissipated. At some point, she would have to come back down those stairs and then what? Even if she managed to find an alternative exit, eventually she would have to go home. Looking at the familial resemblance, I figured these aunties knew where she lived.
“What will they do to her?” I asked Shalini. I was afraid to hear the answer.
“They will eat her.” Shalini said, plainly.
“Miss, it’s not like in your movies, all blood everywhere and screaming and shouting,” the assistant offered helpfully. “That is all added masala because something has to happen in two hours, no? If not, for what are you watching a film?”
I waited to hear more. “It will happen slowly. They will eat your prana,” the assistant explained. Prana is our life force. Shalini could see my confusion.
“So, they will eat my life force?” I scoffed.
“Yes. And then they will eat you.” The assistant offered, matter-of-factly.
I looked at Mahesh. “You mean he will…” I trailed off, unable to believe it.
“Yes, he will!” The assistant declared. “First, he will ask for little things like your time, or your energy. Then when you are weak, he will ask for more. Some flesh. Maybe a finger. And then, all of you.”
Surely, he wouldn’t, I thought. The assistant read my expression and called, “Look here!” She grazed her finger over Mahesh’s mouth and he clamped his jaw down on it, but she was quick and pulled her hand away. I screamed in horror. By now, he was staring blankly into the fire, as if he had not just attempted to eat the hand off a living person.
“He has turned more than I thought,” Shalini said seriously, looking at Mahesh. “I thought he’d be one of the mild ones that go trailing along for years. We must stop him, or he will take you. You don’t have a choice anymore.”
The assistant, without prompting, brought over the bag. The one with the machete in it.
“You can do this, or you can push him into the fire. Or both, to be doubly sure,” she offered.
I looked at Shalini for guidance. “What about that talking to him thing? Couldn’t I try that a bit more?” I asked.
Shalini shrugged. “Your choice,” she said. “Maybe don’t stand close when you talk to him, just shout at him from here.” She said, indicating a spot a few feet away.
I swallowed and made a first attempt, “I love you!” I shouted. Hearing my words, Mahesh turned to look at me and then slowly gnashed his teeth and attempted to stand up from his cross-legged seat on the floor.
I realized that that probably made him hungrier, knowing he had that hold on me. I decided to try the opposite, “I don’t love you!” I shouted. Mahesh turned a shade greener. I looked at Shalini and the assistant in confusion.
“You can’t break his spirit like that Miss, it turns him even more into….” the assistant trailed off pointing at the green man that was supposed to be my husband.
I decided to stick with what I knew. “Your flights are delayed!” I tried. Mahesh’s expression visibly brightened, and the skin became less green.
I had hit on something! “We can live here! You don’t have to go back!” I shouted, but he started turning greener. This was getting tiresome.
I thought back to what would give him his life back. What could it be that would make him not want to consume another person’s life? My mind raced. He had turned green in the last few weeks. What had we been doing in the last few weeks? Preparing for the wedding. Is that what was turning him?
“We don’t have to get married!” More green.
“But we can be in love!” Less green!
“Let’s take some time to figure it out!” A lot less green.
“Let’s just be us. Like we used to be.” Even more green dissipated.
That was it! He didn’t like being put on the path. Nobody does, but I guess some really don’t.
Shalini and the assistant stared mouths agape. “Oh my god she did it!” the assistant shouted at nobody. A strange thing happened. It’s like the people could sense our breakthrough. Slowly but surely, everyone in the hall turned to us and slowly started coming towards us.
“Run!” Shalini shouted as she shoved the assistant towards the back wall of the stage, which led to an emergency exit.
“Move it!” she barked at me before grabbing Mahesh by the hand and dragging him along with her. We ran for our lives while half-dragging Mahesh out. All the while I kept providing assurance that we would live as we wanted, so his body would stay intact.
“How come you guys have never been infected?” I asked as we hustled out of the hall.
“Haven't you noticed? We like rescuing people from zombies. This stuff makes our hearts sing.” Shalini said, as she adjusted her rapidly slipping grip on Mahesh’s arm.
“Hundred percent! Working with the undead makes us feel alive!” Radha chimed in.
Before I could process their words, Shalini interrupted my thoughts with a shout. “Stop dreaming! Pay attention! We’ll have to carry him; he can’t walk fast enough! Radha, grab the right leg. And you,” she said, at me, “grab the other leg. Let’s go!”
Suddenly, I felt a tug on my shoulder. Something was pulling me back. I turned around to see my mother-in-law, her face a deep shade of green, holding the pallu of my sari with a death grip. “Shalini! Help me!” I screamed.
Out of nowhere, Radha came charging at us, bellowing with all her might, holding the machete above her head.
“No! Please!” I screamed, but it was too late.
Radha brought the blade down with all her might, on the fabric that Mahesh’s mother was holding. She’d chopped my outfit! My mother in-law was left holding a handful of gold zari on fuchsia silk. “Oh no…this is designer silk,” she moaned, before trudging off sadly.
“Quick, don’t stop now”, Shalini grabbed my elbow and pulled me to the exit. We made it to the doorway but turned back one last time where I caught sight of my parents standing balefully at the dais with arms outstretched. “No,” my father lowed. I paused for a second considering if I could go get my parents as well, but Shalini and Radha stopped me.
“It’s too late,” Shalini said as they pulled me out the door. They were right. I knew it even then. I had to choose my future. My parents were my past.
“I’m sorry,” I mouthed at my mother and father as we left the hall. After that we never turned back. Shalini took us back to her apartment where we locked Mahesh in a room. We tried to continue the pep talks, but the results were too mixed to be reliable. After more consultation with that book Shalini had, we eventually set him on a diet of books and music that he loved, as well as conversations with people who knew him well and he managed to work his way out of the undead state.
For a while I was worried what people would think about me escaping from my own wedding. I especially worried about what my parents would think. But they’ve never asked about it.
Of course, I’m sad that they are zombies, but they’ve found their own peace. I just have to be careful not to let them take over me. I want to help them, but there’s only so much I can do. Every now and then, I take them to crowded places like music concerts and other weddings so they can have a meal.
Mahesh and I, we are back in society now. We try to avoid zombies, but that’s impossible. And what we cannot avoid, we try to be careful about. Our aspirations for freedom are well and good, but we still live in the real world, you know?