An arranged marriage brought her from India. But that was the only old‑fashioned thing about her. She Traded a Sari for a Suit
September 17, 2000
By Amy Finnerty
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Name: Sona Mehta
Coming from: India
Looking for: Assimilation
Sona Mehta's apartment is impressively clean, considering that the 30‑year‑old never had to lift a bottle of Windex in her life until last April. That's when she moved from her mother's servant‑filled house in India to live in Queens with Pranav, her new husband. Theirs was an arranged marriage, in the time‑honored Indian tradition, and Sona left her close‑knit family in a monsoon of bittersweet tears.
Pranav, a soft‑spoken physician at Metropolitan Hospital, had lived in the city for eight years but had never dated. Last winter, Pranav flew back to his native Bombay to meet a woman he'd seen only in a snapshot sent by his parents. "His family was looking for a good girl, an educated girl," Sona explained as she offered a tray of samosas and Ritz crackers. "My husband is my brother's best friend's cousin." The matter was decided over lunch in Nasik, Sona's hometown.
Sona earned a master's degree in human resources in India; she speaks Gujarati, Hindi and German in addition to English. But since her abrupt landing here, she has been relearning the rudiments of everyday life, all while taking a prep course for the G.M.A.T. She has tackled the household chores that, back home, would be the lot of dhobis and sweepers and, as she puts it, "maid servants." Even buying groceries was a new experience.
Despite such exertions, on a damp evening in Queens, Sona was the picture of serenity in a silk salwar kameez, an everyday outfit consisting of a long top over narrow trousers. She hadn't neglected the venerable Hindu mark of a married woman, the smudge of red sindoor powder in the parting of her hair. It tends to be obscured by her bangs but, she says, "I know it's there."
Pranav, dressed in Western clothes, had taken off his shoes. The apartment was a combination of Indian touches and American newlywed décor. Sona had chosen the "Italian Ivory" furniture at a local Seaman's. The carpet was thickly piled and pastel blue. A gem‑encrusted Hindu deity sat on a side table beside a sparkly Cinderella figurine. Stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls were in abundance. Pranav, 31, smiled tolerantly as he told me, "Sona loves the Disney Store."
Sona described their first encounter. "After our families ate lunch, I sat with my husband" ‑she always refers to Pranav as "my husband" ‑ "in the family living room and talked for about 30 minutes. We knew that this was what we were looking for. A bell went off somewhere." The match was made and, just like that, Sona was bound for New York. The plane ride here, which followed a lavish wedding in Nasik, constituted the longest period of time that Sona and Pranav had ever spent alone together.
The couple's first home was Pranav's small dorm room, whose prize furnishing was a television (bachelor size); they had to rent an extra room in the dorm just to accommodate their four huge suitcases (Indian size). "I was missing my family terribly," recalled Sona. "I cried that night and many times in the first few months."
But Pranav was devoted to pleasing her. After a short‑lived inclination to accompany him to the hospital and wait for him, Sona took Pranav's advice that she make the most of this precious first year, before children and business school. Soon she was exploring Manhattan with the eagerness of an Outward Bound initiate.
She was drawn to all that is most sunny in today's safe‑as‑the‑suburbs New York: the ESPN Zone in Times Square, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, blockbuster exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum, "The Lion King." As the months passed, she grew used to sights that once seemed exotic: street‑cleaning machines ("Doing the work of 10 men!"); fat people ("Even some children are obese!"); gay couples ("In India, when men hold hands on the street it's because they're brothers or cousins!"). Although Sona still cooked Pranav's breakfast and prepared a box lunch for him most mornings, she was anything but an isolated immigrant wife. She was the one getting to know America.
Sona Mehta: She likes her husband and she loves New York.
Pranav took her to a different restaurant almost every night. "My husband wanted me to learn to eat pizza" ‑ Sona pronounces it "PIT‑zah" ‑ "so we tried every kind. My favorite is Pizzeria Uno on 86th Street." They sipped virgin strawberry coladas at Windows on the World.(Observant Hindus, neither drinks alcohol.) To help Sona face New York's brutal winters, Pranav bought her a leather jacket along with what she describes as "weather‑protection gadgets -scarves, gloves, hats, Timberlands."
Last fall, the Mehtas moved into a river‑view apartment in Astoria. From their living‑room window, Sona can just make out Pranav's hospital across the river. "Poor fellow," she sighed one afternoon. "My husband has to spend his days working, while I have all this time to have fun."
One July day, we sat by a fountain near Rockefeller Center drinking Snapples, hemmed in by lunch‑hour sunbathers and tourists. Sona noted that she probably wouldn't have idled alone in such a spot in Bombay. "People might wonder, How strange that she is sitting there alone." But in New York Sona had acquired a taste for anonymity. "You can just be yourself," she said, "because nobody knows you."
Sona didn't quite blend in yet with the Midtown crowd. She was wearing three fat diamonds in each ear, slacks and a bright pink blouse with a Tweety Bird figure embroidered on the pocket. “I like to express the happiness in my heart by wearing pink and yellow." In India, she wore salwars to work, but here she loved shopping for American casual. At Calypso on Madison Avenue, Sona ran her hand along a pair of silk pants, but she frowned as she figured the price in her head. "Seventy dollars. That's 3,000 rupees. I could get them in India for 1,200."
Pranav encouraged her to buy whatever she wanted, and Sona admitted that she'd gone from being a coddled daughter in India to being spoiled by an indulgent husband here. "My husband says his purpose in life is to keep me happy. Last night I was standing in front of my closet crying. We were going out and I said I had nothing to wear, even though I have a closet full of clothes for every season. My husband said: 'Throw it all away. I'll fill your closet again in eight days.' He knew there was something else bothering me and he asked, 'What is it?' I told him, “I am missing my mother.'"
Sona found reminders of her hometown in Jackson Heights, a predominantly South Asian neighborhood in Queens. There, she could haggle over prices in shops or have her eyebrows "threaded," an alternative to waxing. She and Pranav made offerings at the Ganesh temple in Flushing on auspicious occasions, like the day they closed on their apartment. But Hinduism isn't generally congregation‑based, and they hadn't met other couples there. To combat homesickness, Sona e‑mailed her family constantly and watched Hindi videocassettes. But her desire to assimilate was as strong as her sense of nostalgia. She became a fledgling Knicks fan and never missed New York 1 in the morning. Her favorite show, she said, was "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
Over a recent lunch, Sona talked excitedly about her future. She described her vision of New York women: "They're dressed in black and in so much of a hurry. I want to become a part of that." She said she hoped to begin an M.B.A. program somewhere in the New York area this fall, and that she wasn't worried about the double shift of housework and homework.
"I think a woman can be a corporate executive and manage a house, and the laundry, and attend to the phone, without ever showing it on her face," Sona said confidently. "When I see those women rushing on the street, I think, 'I could do that, too.' I look at my husband and he sees the look in my eyes and knows what is going on in my head. That I could do that, too. And that's what I plan to do."
Amy Finnerty is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine.