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A Gift Of A Daughter

The day for Savithri’s departure to her in-law’s home in Kodungallur was finally determined in the month of Jun 1919. Savithri’s in-laws had sent word, asking Subbhu to bring Savithri to their home. Initially, Subbhu was a little mortified because tradition expected Swamy’s family to come and fetch Savithri. But then again, there was not much he could say since they had paid more than what was traditionally demanded of them at their son’s wedding. So the astrologer was consulted and an auspicious date selected. The meager dowry that Meenakshi could provide and the little bit that Subbhu could contribute were put together. Seetha very generously gave Savithri one of her own silk saris and insisted she wear it when she left for her in-law’s home. 

On the day before Savithri’s departure, Subbhu’s otherwise dull and somewhat bleak little home in the tiny, placid village was transformed into a hub of activity. It took every drop of energy in Meenakshi’s steadily waning body to make some of her daughter’s favorite foods. Tears constantly trickled down her face as she stirred the sweet concoction of milk, sugar, rice, ghee and fragrant spices that Savithri loved especially when it was made by her mother. Jars of pickles that Meenakshi had made some weeks prior to Savithri’s departure were tightly packed in wooden boxes. 

Seetha looked at the jars and half-teasingly, half-sarcastically commented on the amount of dowry that Savithri was taking with her. “Your daughter seems to be costing us quite a bit of money. I am glad you only have one daughter. I can’t imagine what we would have done if you had two or three daughters. We would have become beggars,” she said smiling tightly. “The son-in-law has sent money for Savithri’s journey. The vegetables that I have pickled are from our backyard. I have made a quite a bit and there is enough for us as well,” was Meenakshi’s gentle but firm response. The body was flagging but the resolve was not. 

Meenakshi’s lack of energy and health was a blessing on that day. It stopped her from breaking down in front of her daughter whom she might never see again. The destiny of a woman from an orthodox family and the ties that she maintains after marriage were entirely dependent on the philanthropy of her husband and his parents, his brothers and his relatives. Sometimes, even if the husband and his parents were generous there were always “well-meaning” relatives who would advise against giving their daughter-in-law too much freedom as she would only take advantage of them. Or, worse if they came across as too kind, their esteem would fall in the eyes of the daughter-in-law’s parents and her relatives and they would not give them the respect that they deserved. 

Rangan had carefully packed the sweets that his mother had made with the pickles and the rice crisps in a wooden box. Meenakshi had Rangan pack the few saris and the few pieces of jewelry that she could afford in another box lined with an old silk sari. Savithri refused to participate in the preparations and chose instead to sit in a corner to weep silently and sulk when no one took notice of her. Friends and neighbors dropped in throughout the day to bid her farewell. Some of the girls cried with Savithri, and Seetha shooed them away in exasperation telling them that they were making Savithri feel worse. Meenakshi refrained from displaying her sadness, preferring to give her daughter some last minute advice on how to behave in her in-law’s home, and later with her husband. “Don’t ask questions. Just do what they tell you to do. Win their love and affection with your patience and compassion. Your life is now with them and you belong to them now. You should not think of me as your mother anymore. Your only relatives are now your husband’s family,” she repeated a few times during the day and made Savithri break down in louder sobs. 

“Stop crying,” said Seetha not too harshly. Despite herself, Seetha felt a slight twinge of sadness at the sight of the sobbing child. “We all go through the same thing, child,” she continued, stroking Savithri’s head. “Your time with your parents, siblings and your own relatives is very limited if you’re born a girl. It is the life that you lead in your husband’s home that is permanent. You’re lucky you’re going to a good home. Think of all the girls who marry into families that treat them badly or husbands that are cruel and unkind to them. They all have to continue to live their lives, somehow. Soon you’ll have children and you will have to worry about bringing them up. You will forget all about us then because you will have your own family.” 

A few nights before Savithri left for her husband’s home, Meenakshi had sat leaning against the wall, vaguely listening to her children talk about what their lives would be like. Each one of them had wondered if this was the last time they could do this or even meet again. Scenes from her own life had flitted across her mind filling her with anxiety about what the future held for her daughter. The one question that had loomed large in her consciousness was what would happen to her child if something happened to her son-in-law, who was so much older? 

The lack of an answer to this question persistently pricked her with remorse. She had used one child to help the other. If her daughter had not married Swamy, how could Rangan ever get out of Chandrashekarapuram, this small village in remote Kerala? Who would have helped her son? What would he have done? He could have worked as a farmer on someone’s land but he would have never made enough money to buy land of his own and his life would have ended like his father’s. Surely her son deserved a little bit more than that. There was no other way for a woman like her to make a better life for her son. 

As Meenakshi sat watching her sister-in-law and daughter on the eve of her departure, the tangle of emotions that she had been feeling was gently shrouded by a quiet reassurance. The morning’s activities, her sadness at her daughter’s impending departure, and the sight of her daughter’s distress had exhausted her so much that she could barely breathe. She had not failed her husband; her children were going to be alright. She knew that Swamy would take care of Savithri and Rangan for as long as he lived and that her job was done. She pictured her husband’s strong, quiet face and felt the sudden need to hear his voice again. 

The morning dawned early for Meenakshi and her children on the day of Savithri’s departure. As soon as Savithri had had her bath, Meenakshi braided her hair and adorned it with jasmine flowers. She helped her drape the silk sari that Subbhu and Seetha had gifted her and put on the few pieces of jewels that she had as a finishing touch. Subbhu was to take Savithri to her in-laws home. The journey would take them the whole day and so they had to start out as early as possible, in order to reach before nightfall. Savithri sat on the little stone ledge outside her uncle’s home with her steaming tumbler of coffee as she watched the morning scene, as she had done on numerous other mornings since her arrival in her uncle’s home as a six-year-old. 

The early morning activities in the village that day were the same as they had always been. Women hurried home from their bath in the river that ran behind Subbhu’s home, chanting slokas, doing their best to avoid others who had not yet bathed and were therefore unclean and impure, while hanging on to their freshly washed saris that hung wet and twisted on their shoulders. Some other women who were already home bathed were drawing kolams outside their homes. Men made their way down to the river to bathe while others were already walking towards the distant fields to begin their day as farmers. As neighbors passed Savithri, they called out a greeting to her and wished her well. “Be a good daughter-in-law,” some said. “Take care of your health,” called out others. “Has your husband sent for you?” some others asked as they hurried on without waiting for an answer. “Be careful about how you behave with your in-laws,” said other well-meaning neighbors, especially women, as they walked briskly home to begin their morning chores. A cow that stood chewing cud somewhere in someone’s backyard mooed in agreement. 

Familiar smells of freshly brewing coffee mingled with incense, jasmine, and cow dung. Now and then, a faint fragrance of Yardley Lavender soap, an extravagance of the slightly more affluent villagers with relatives in the closest town, struggled for some notice. Savithri breathed in these all too familiar smells and watched the scene that she had for several years now. She already missed these people who had at some time or other shown her some kindness as the daughter of a poor widow. A tidbit here, a used skirt there, a meal after school; all of which had made her life in her ill-natured aunt’s home a little more bearable. Now they showed her some more kindness as a final gesture before she left the village, by sharing the wisdom that they had gained from their own experiences as daughters-in-law, wives, mothers, and mothers-in-law. 

Her mother had protected her all these years and shielded her from everything, including her aunt’s barbs about how Savithri may not make such a good wife and daughter-in-law because she sat watching people instead of helping out in the kitchen. Her status would change in her in-laws’ home as she was expected to behave like a woman. She would have responsibilities and there would be expectations and she would have to live up to them to be happy. The worst thing she could do for her mother was to fall short of those expectations and be sent home in disgrace. One of the daughters of the house, that was at the other end of the agraharam, had been sent home by her husband and his parents. Nobody knew what the reason was but Meenakshi had shaken her head sadly and mused, “There is nothing left for that girl now. Her life is over.” Savithri shuddered when she thought of that girl. What if the same thing happened to her? Her thoughts were interrupted by her uncle’s gentle voice. “Shall we leave now, child?” he asked. 

Savithri climbed into the cart carefully ensuring that she didn’t rip her sari. Any small mishap like that would have been seen as inauspicious, just as a lamp that was put out by a gently blowing breeze, a crow sitting on the ledge outside and looking directly at the house and cawing, a lizard losing its grip on the ceiling and falling on one’s shoulders, a lone Brahmin man walking down the street just as the daughter leaves or worse a widow coming face to face with the party that was leaving would have all been seen as ominous. Relatives and well-wishers anxiously looked out for all of these signs, especially when something momentous like a daughter leaving for her in-laws’ home was about to take place. So Rangan was sent out first to ensure that there were no bad omens in sight before Savithri and her uncle stepped out of the house. 

Meenakshi stroked her daughter’s head one more time before she let the cart go. Subbhu watched his sister, almost unable to hold back his own tears. A few neighbors had gathered around the cart offering some last minute advice and “Write to us often,” one of the girls called out. “She may not have time for that, silly child,” her mother chided. “She is going to her in-laws’ home. She will have lots to do.” “Be a good girl. Listen to your in-laws. Adjust to their demands. It may be difficult initially but you will get used to it. Earn their respect as a daughter-in-law. That’s really the only thing you can do for me,” whispered Meenakshi. 

The morning had exhausted her and the only thing that kept her standing up was her will to see her daughter off without incident. Savithri had started to cry again. “Wipe off your tears. Your husband seems like a good man. I am sure he will let you visit me some time,” consoled Meenakshi. “We should leave now before the auspicious time passes. We also need to reach before it is too late. It would not look good otherwise,” said Subbhu gruffly. Seetha patted Savithri’s head and said, “Be a good girl. I have done a good thing for you. Make me proud. Don’t worry, your husband said he will send for Rangan, and so your brother will be with you.” Subbhu asked the cart driver to start out and the cart jerked forward with a creak. The bullocks moved slowly and the bells that they wore around their necks as ornaments jingled wildly. Meenakshi squeezed her daughter’s hand one more time before she let it go.

As the cart laboriously made its way down the long path out of the village, stirring up swirls of dust, several villagers stood outside their homes watching and waving. Meenakshi and Rangan stood waving until they couldn’t see the cart anymore. When the cart disappeared the two of them slowly turned to go back into the house. Meenakshi chose to sit a while longer on the stone ledge where her daughter had sat. The empty tumbler from which her daughter had drunk her coffee was still there. She picked it up and held it in her hands tracing the remnants of the imprints of her daughter’s lips.

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