A Daughter Only Till She is Wed
The sun gradually descended as the cart with Subbhu and Savithri advanced towards Kodungallur. They had stopped once to eat the lunch that Meenakshi had carefully packed for them. Savithri ate slowly to ensure that she savored every last bit of her mother’s cooking as more hot tears rolled down her reddened cheeks. Subbhu comforted her and promised that he would have Meenakshi write a letter that he would himself post every month. “You are a woman now. You need to be brave. What would your in-laws think if they saw you weeping like this? They might get the wrong impression. They might think that you don’t like their son. Come on. Pull yourself together. We don’t want to be too late. Besides you are wearing all your jewelry. It may not be safe at night,’ he scolded gently.
By the time the cart pulled into Swamy’s family’s village, dusk had stealthily cast her mantle over the landscape. The village was bigger than Subbhu’s and much more crowded. It was more like a small town. There was a temple dedicated to the goddess Bhagavathi, and there were houses all around the temple. Savithri looked around her in wonder as the cart moved slowly through the crowd as she had never been in such a crowded place. There had been just about a hundred people in Chandrashekarapuram and she didn’t quite remember Guruvayur her father’s town. Meenakshi and the children had never ventured too far outside Chandrashekarapuram after moving there. The farthest they had been to was the market place and that was just about a twenty minute walk from her uncle’s home. She had never seen so many different types of people. The people in her village had been largely Brahmin. She had never seen a white man in person before and here in this village there were so many of them, moving around in horse carriages. She stared about her, nervous but curious.
“We will stop at the temple and get the Bhagavati’s blessings before we proceed to your in-laws’ place,” said Subbhu before he asked the cart driver to stop outside the temple for a few minutes. The cart crawled towards the low wooden structure of the temple and stopped at the side. As there was very little light left outdoors, except for the dancing flames of the oil lamps inside, the temple stood in darkness. Savithri looked fearfully at the unfamiliar temple and its surroundings and hesitated before moving to get off the cart. Subbhu got off and helped Savithri off as well just as the evening puja began to the loud consistent ringing of the temple bell and the rhythmic beating of the chanda.
Subbhu and Savithri made their way to the well, which was situated within the temple grounds to wash their faces, hands and feet before they entered the sanctum. The priest was inside the sanctum sanctorum and just as they entered, he held up the deeparadhanai and the temple bells started to ring louder and faster than before and the man beating the chanda beat a frenzied rhythm. Subbhu smiled and was pleased as he saw it all as a propitious beginning for Savithri. “We have come at the right time. The goddess has blessed you. You will have a very good life, child,” he said patting Savithri on the head as he turned towards the Bhagavathi, the patron deity of the temple, with his hands held up in prayer.
The commonly held belief about the deity of this temple was that she was a young girl who had just attained puberty and was swinging on a swing inside a well, hidden within the temple. No one, not even the priest, could look inside the well. If anyone even tried, a terrible tragedy awaited him or her. Legend had it that a priest had once tried to look inside the well out of curiosity and had been immediately struck blind by some unknown force. Savithri looked around the ancient temple nervously and peered fearfully into its dark recesses. She felt a surge of renewed longing for the security of the village and everything else that she had left behind.
When Subbhu and Savithri left the temple it was completely dark outside except for the flickering lights that glowed inside homes. They had to hurry to get to her in-laws’ home. While asking for directions from various people, it became obvious to them that Swamy’s family was quite well known and respected. Subbhu could not help smiling with satisfaction to himself in the dark as the bullock-cart slowly made its way to the house “Even if Swamy is much older than Savi, it looks like we have done the right thing. They are a good family and Savithri will live well. My sister’s prayers and tears have not gone to waste,” he thought as he leaned against the wooden frame of the cart. He couldn’t wait to go home and tell Meenakshi the good news. His sister of all people deserved this good fortune. “Swamy’s family is very well-known and everyone in their village seems to speak of them deferentially,” he would excitedly say to his sister as soon as he reached home.
The house was a little away from the main village, a single large house standing alone in the dark surrounded by several acres of land. The bullock-cart slowly came to a halt in front of the large, heavy Burma teak doors. Subbhu and Savithri heard some voices in the dark as they got out of the cart with her meager boxes. “Who’s there?” called out a pleasant male voice. “I am Subharaman, your daughter-in-law’s uncle and I have brought her with me,” said Subbhu. “Ah! Yes! We have been waiting for you,” responded the voice. A lamp appeared and Subbhu could see a silhouette of a man and behind him appeared an outline of a woman. “Come, come,” said a friendly female voice. “We have been waiting since late afternoon. Did you stop somewhere? Is that why you are late?’
“We stopped at the temple so that the child could be blessed by the Bhagavathi. And, then we had some trouble finding your house in the dark,” replied Subbhu holding Savithri’s hand and leading her up to the house. The cart driver picked up her boxes, placed them close to the door of the house and stepped aside with arms folded and torso leaning forward deferentially, waiting for further instructions. “Tell your driver to go to the back of the house. He can eat and sleep with the rest of the workers tonight,” said another man’s voice in the dark, a voice that appeared to be used to commanding.
Subbhu gave the cart driver some money and asked him to do as the voice directed. “I will be leaving early in the morning. So please be ready by about 5 o’clock in the morning,” said Subbhu. “So soon!” exclaimed the female voice. “Why don’t you stay one or two days and see where and how your child is going to live.” The voice was mellow and kind. “I would like to but I can’t,” replied Subbhu apologetically. “I have to go to work and I only have leave for two days,” he continued. Savithri’s heart sank when she heard this. She had forgotten that her uncle was not going to stay with her. She could once again feel tears welling up in her eyes. “Besides, it is not proper for relatives of the bride to stay for too long in the home of her in-laws,” said Subbhu, laughing a little, a tad sheepishly.
The friendly female voice belonged to Mangalam, Swamy’s oldest brother’s wife. When she held up the arthi to welcome Savithri into the house, Subbhu and Savithri were warmed by the sight of her incandescently pleasant, smiling face and Savithri was instantly drawn in particular to Mangalam’s eyes that spoke of compassion and empathy. Mangalam’s kindness to Savithri during her stay with her in-laws and Savithri’s dependence on her would create a bond that would endure the years, even when they were apart.
Swamy’s family home was an old house, very large but old. There was a large hall and there were rooms all around this hall. In one corner of the hall were piled sacks of rice and in another corner were piled coconuts, both obviously from the family’s plantations. Savithri had never really been inside such a large house and so, felt completely lost. The darkness illuminated by the kerosene lamps that were placed strategically in all four corners of the house made the house look all the more unnerving to a thirteen year old who did not know anyone in her new family and was already terrified at the prospect of her new life. Shadows of things and people danced on the walls like sirens beckoning unsuspecting souls to their doom. Her eyes grew wide with anxiety as she looked around her and moved closer to her uncle.
Her uncle’s home had been a small one in a row of about thirty houses. One entered the house through a long dark corridor and came into a little hall that served as a sitting and dining room. There was a little kitchen beyond this room, a kitchen so small that only one person could stand in there at any one time. After this came a small airless room which Savithri, her brother and mother shared with the few sacks of rice that were delivered every few months from what remained of Subbhu and Meenakshi’s inheritance. It was not uncommon for the three of them to have mice as nocturnal guests that came to get their share of this inheritance. There was a large room upstairs, which was where Subbhu and his family slept. It was large because it took up the entire upstairs. It had a small window, which made it more airy and comfortable than the room that Meenakshi and her children shared.
When Meenakshi and her children had moved in, Subbhu had suggested that she share the room with his family upstairs but Seetha felt that it would be too crowded and that Meenakshi would be more comfortable in the back room downstairs. Over the years, Meenakshi and her children began to see the little airless room as their little haven where they could share their dreams uninterrupted by Seetha’s spite. Standing in this large hall in her in-laws’ home, feeling extremely lost and alone, Savithri thought of her mother and brother asleep at home in their little sanctuary, and felt an overwhelming need to bolt from this huge, gloomy house with these strange people.
“Come child, would you like to wash your face and hands and eat something?” asked Mangalam. Her husband had taken Subbhu to the back of the house so he could wash. Savithri nodded shyly and followed Mangalam to a little corner where there was large drum of cold water and where a portion of the stone floor had been cut through to create a sort of a sunken tub. Mangalam helped Savithri climb into it to wash her hands and face. Mangalam stood smiling on the side with a towel. “We hardly talked at the wedding. You were so shy and afraid,” she said handing Savithri the towel. “You have nothing to be afraid of here. This is your home. And if you need anything, you can always ask me,” she continued gently. “You can eat something and tonight you will sleep with me. I know how you feel because I felt the same way when I first came here. You will get used to it.” Gratitude overwhelmed Savithri and brought about a fresh tears.
By the time Savithri awoke the next morning, Subbhu was ready and waiting to leave. The house was a lot bigger than what she had imagined the night before. She had shared a room with Mangalam upstairs. It was a huge room with a large four poster bed in the middle. Savithri had not slept on a bed in many years and had felt strange initially. But it was nice to sleep on something soft instead of the hard floor that she was used to in her uncle’s home. The room had two or three windows, was airy and didn’t smell of sacks of rice like the one she had shared with her family in Subbhu’s home. As Savithri was unused to having open windows in her room, she had lain nervously watching the windows for a good part of the night, expecting someone or something to jump in through them. She had finally fallen asleep listening to a diligent woodpecker, out of sheer exhaustion.
When she woke up the next morning, she lay in bed for a few minutes just staring around the strange room, wondering where she was. Mangalam had obviously woken up, as she wasn’t next to her. She had talked a little bit to Savithri the night before about the different people in the family, and about her day to day life in the house of their in-laws. Swamy had two brothers. Mangalam was the wife of his oldest brother, Venkateshan. He had been the one with the pleasant voice in the dark. She had married when she had been about ten and it was now twenty-five years since her marriage and she still didn’t have a child. Even young Savithri could hear Mangalam’s sadness when she talked about the ayurvedic doctors she had seen and the temples that she had visited.
Swamy’s second brother was Hariharan. His had been the second voice in the dark and he was married to Godavari. Savithri had hoped that Mangalam would talk about Swamy but she hadn’t, choosing instead to fill her in on the rest of the family. The last thing that Mangalam had said had been,” Everybody is nice here as long as you know how to accommodate them. The good thing is that you won’t be living here for long. I am sure your husband will send for you soon.” She had barely spoken about their father-in-law, just mentioning that he had waited for Savithri and her uncle for a while and then gone to bed saying that he would see them the next morning. When Savithri came down in the morning, her uncle greeted her with a cheerful, “I was waiting for you child. I will be leaving soon.” Savithri stared wide-eyed at him, the realization dawning upon her that she was going to be left alone with this strange family. She wanted to cry out to her uncle to take her back with him but she couldn’t because her husband’s entire family was assembled in the hall and they were all looking at her.
“We wake up quite early here,” announced a not too friendly, stentorian voice. Savithri looked around nervously for the voice, and realized it was coming from a large, swarthy man with a shock of white hair and she vaguely remembered him from the wedding. He had been sitting next to Swamy throughout the wedding and chanting the marriage mantras loudly and determinedly with the priest like many orthodox relatives of the bride or groom sometimes are inclined to do. It was like they wanted to double the potency of the mantras while letting the priest know that they could not be fooled. Savithri realized that this man was her father-in-law, Seshadhari.
Seshadhari was sitting on a swing made out of a thick, heavy, well-polished piece of teak which served as the seat and four sturdy, iron chains that hung from the ceiling. The voice was serious with not even a faint hint of humor, and very loud. This was the one main thing that Savithri would remember about her father-in-law for the rest of her life. He had a booming voice that could be heard about a half a mile away, especially when he was angry. This voice coupled with his quick, hot-temper and a demeanor that was set in an expression that came close to a scowl, made him quite a formidable figure.
The workers in their fields were terrified of Seshadhari and so were his second daughter-in-law and his two sons who lived with him. Savithri would discover that her husband Swamy had chosen to live faraway because he had never really got along with his father. The only one who was not afraid of him and who could talk to him without stammering was Mangalam. She knew how to humor him with her gentle manner and Savithri would depend on Mangalam during the time she stayed in her in-laws’ home to act as a buffer between her and Seshadhari.
“We have to be up really early in this household because there is a lot of work to be done,” continued her father-law, swinging slowly and looking at her with dark piercing eyes. “It is her first day here. The poor child was tired last night and I did not wake her,” said Mangalam cheerfully, walking up to Savithri with a steaming tumbler of coffee. “Yes, but she needs to get used to being a married woman,” responded her father-in-law, still unsmiling. “She will in time. And there is no need for the child to get used to anything so quickly. Godavari and I can take care of everything for now. Let the child be for a while.” replied Mangalam smiling and looking at Godavari for support. Godavari nodded eagerly while smiling at Savithri.
Subbhu who had been watching this exchange, quickly and nervously jumped to his niece’s rescue. “Meenakshi, my sister has brought up her daughter very well. You don’t have to be concerned; Savithri will make a very good daughter-in-law. She is a very obedient girl, cooks very well and is adept at housework.” By this time, Savithri was ready to burst loudly into tears. The thought of her uncle leaving her alone in this house with these strange people and this harsh, hostile man who was her father-in-law was horribly alarming. She bit hard on her lip, forcing herself to suppress the tears welling up in her eyes. She looked down at the floor and refused to look up even when she felt her uncle’s gentle pat on her head. The emotions that she felt were choking her and she was afraid that they would explode from within and completely humiliate her in front of this family that was now newly hers.
“I am leaving now, child,” said her uncle kindly. “You take care of yourself and your health.” She could hear a slight quiver in his voice and she still didn’t look up for fear that the sight of him would be enough to make her crumble. “Your mother will write often and I will make sure of that. We will try and visit you when we can. You have a nice family here and they will take care of you. Soon your husband will send for you and you will be alright,” he continued. At this point Savithri could no longer contain her tears and they began to flow freely down her reddened face. She desperately tried to wipe them off her face with the back of her hand. When Mangalam put her arm around her and hugged her close, Savithri completely broke down, shaking and sobbing uncontrollably with her face buried in Mangalam’s shoulder. “I will take care of her. You don’t have to worry about her anymore. Savithri is my child now. I will make sure she is okay,” reassured Mangalam. “Please tell her mother not to worry about her anymore.” Subbhu heaved a sigh of relief and looked around at the other family members. They all returned his smile, albeit a little hesitantly while Swamy’s father merely nodded.
Subbhu picked up his little bundle and left. He wasn’t sure when he would see his niece again and wanted very much to stay with her a little longer but he could not risk breaking down in front of Savithri’s in-laws. The sight of the sobbing child was more than he could bear. This was the child that he had proudly held as his niece when she was born. In fact, if he had had a son he would have gladly married him to Savithri just so that he could have spared his sister the sadness of being separated from her daughter. He would have redeemed himself as an ineffectual brother at least in that one matter.
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