Bride and Child
Yaakob and older members of the church sent word to the agraharam that Balambal was with them and that she had somehow managed to escape from the clutches of her captors. When they did not receive a response for two days, they tried again. Finally, on the fourth day after they had sent the first message, a spindly, nondescript representative from the agraharam who was quite visibly no one of great prominence, came to the church. He informed Yaakob that the families of all the women who had been kidnapped had already performed the last rites for them. “As far as the agraharam is concerned, these women have suffered for their sins from their past lives. They are best left for dead,” said the representative without referring to Balambal directly. Standing stubbornly outside the church, he refused to accept or even acknowledge Yaakob’s invitation to enter the church to talk.
Yaakob was speechless. He insisted on going to the agraharam to speak with the village panchayat and to plead Balambal’s case. But the elders dissuaded him because it would only cause trouble. “But we can’t just leave her to her fate. She needs to be with her family at this time. What about her husband?” he appealed, his voice slowly rising with frustration. The spindly one said that it was her husband who had performed her last rites. “He is quite emphatic that he does not want her back. If anyone, it is her mother who may want her but she is an old widow at the mercy of the agraharam and her son-in-law. We can take care of her,” he said attending to an ear that had started to itch inside. Yaakob stepped forward in an attempt to make the man see some reason but a church elder quickly laid a retraining hand on his arm. Looking calmly at the spindly one, vigorously working on his ear, the elder just said, “It is alright. We will take care of her.” The spindly one merely shrugged and walked away, his boney arms swinging a tad wildly about him.
It was true that as soon as Alamelu had heard that Balambal was alive, she had wanted to see her daughter. But she had been stopped by her son-in-law and the rest of the village and had been threatened with excommunication. Alamelu, whose aggressive manner and acidic speech typically protected her and her interests because she had been cursed with an ineffective husband, was now shattered and silenced. Her only hope and redemption, Balambal, was destroyed. The entire village and her son-in-law were united in their refusal to let her see her daughter or even leave the village. “If you wish to continue to live here you cannot see her,” said the village panchayat. “Any association with a fallen woman like your daughter will sully the village and disgrace us. We sympathize with your loss, but it was your karma and hers and you have to accept that.”
Alamelu tried to appeal to her brothers but the response she got was, “You are dead for us, so what more your daughter?” Balambal would later learn that her mother had spent those days after her return, in isolation, in her room while her son-in-law, Balambal’s husband, had completely usurped all the property and just three months after the whole episode, had taken a new wife. Alamelu was relegated to a back room with just enough food to keep her alive. Luckily for her, she did not live very long after Balambal’s departure.
The church had no choice but to provide shelter for Balambal but it was in a dilemma. She was not a Christian and it would be controversial to ask her to become one. The church had coexisted peacefully alongside the agraharam for generations. There had never been any issues and the hope was that there never would be. So this whole issue with Balambal was now cause for concern as it could erupt into some sort of problem that could bring about resentment from the agraharam.
As for Balambal, alienated from the people whom she had known all her life, and living amongst people whose culture, religion, food, and customs were completely different proved to be more than traumatic. The isolation that she felt coupled with the memory of her horrific experience, made her spend her days mutely staring into space. She awoke every morning only to relive her nightmare. As days slipped uneasily into weeks, Yaakob’s perplexity about what to do continued as the church’s pressure on him mounted. It would have prolonged further if not for the fact that he discovered through the lady who was caring for Balambal, that the girl was pregnant.
Now Yaakob was completely confounded. He felt like he, and not the girl, was being tested. He knew that if the church elders came to know they would turn her over to some chattaram or poor house meant for the destitute and Yaakob could not bring himself to allow that. For some inexplicable reason, he looked at Balambal and felt like he was looking at a child that he had never had. But the church was firm in its decision about Balambal. She was an unnecessary problem that had to be resolved as soon as possible. She could not stay in the church.
After much deliberation and prayer for answers, Yaakob summoned George to his room. It was about a month before Christmas and there was a lot of activity in and around the church in anticipation of the festival. It was dusk and close to dinner time. Although it was much cooler than it had been throughout the day, the air in Yaakob’s room felt uncomfortably heavy and warm as he stood by the window, watching the disappearing sun that gently illumined the emerald green of the fields drenched by an impetuous rain. The receding golden sun lightly kissed the moisture that still clung to the evening air creating elusive rainbow colors here and there. “Like apsaras dancing to the tunes of their gandharva lovers,” thought Yaakob to himself, a hint of a smile hovering around his lips, as he stood watching the slowly fading evening. Damp earth mingled with hot air, exuding a fragrance which was at once both fresh and suffocating. He usually loved this time of the day as it brought back memories of his childhood, with his doting parents and grandfather. As the only male heir in the family, his grandfather, in particular, had adored him, until of course, he had decided to become a man of cloth.
Vakkachen, his grandfather would sit out in the open in their vast backyard and eat his dinner enjoying the warm evening breeze, while he, Yaakob would sit on his lap and eat the mouthfuls of dinner that his mother would feed him. “All these lands will one day be yours,” his grandfather would say. His mother would look on smiling indulgently and thankful that she could give her father a male heir. She had been morbidly afraid that her many stillborn children would mean that her father would be forced to accept the demands of his avaricious sister, Annamma in Kottayam whose short-lived liaison with an unknown man had produced a son. “My son may not be born out of a marriage but he is a son and he will be your heir since you don’t have a male heir and your daughter cannot have children that live,” she had said her eyes flashing whenever her son’s legitimacy was in question.
Vakkachen had been extremely fond of his grandson as his only male heir until he had realized that Yaakob was drawn more to religion than to riches right from about the time he was twelve. The harder Vakkachen tried to lure Yaakob into the business of moneymaking, the more he turned to the church. When Yaakob had finally decided to become a priest, his grandfather had merely grunted in condescension and their relationship had forever changed. As he thought about his grandfather’s last years, Yaakob watched the sun sink into the horizon and light hurriedly diminish and just then he heard George knock on his door. He was still standing at the window watching lamps slowly flickering to life in distant and darkening huts as George entered.
Yaakob turned to look at his young, serious nephew who occasionally smiled and very rarely laughed aloud. Sometimes the earnestness with which the handsome youth viewed the world worried Yaakob. He had tried talking to him and asking him to mingle more with people his own age but to no avail. He often found George either studying, or reading the Bible, helping around in the church or merely sitting, alone and lost in thought. Yaakob hardly ever saw his nephew simply chatting or having a game of something with friends. When he asked him about this once, George’s response was, “I have little in common with their lives. Besides, I don’t like their questions about my father.”
“You called, Ammama?” asked George, approaching his uncle hesitantly. He was aware of the pressure that the church elders were giving Yaakob and therefore prayed incessantly for some kind of resolution for Balambal’s plight. He had been shocked by her people’s rejection of her and had longed to be of some assistance but naturally timid, he was wary of incurring his uncle’s disapproval and anger. His uncle had asked him to stay away and he was mindful of that. But every day, thrice a day, he asked the lady who took care of Balambal, if she had eaten and if she was well. The lady, who was fond of George and his compassionate nature, fed him with a detailed report of her progress but kept Balambal’s pregnancy secret because of Yaakob’s strict instructions. George was simply thankful that Balambal was safe. In his mind, his prayers had been answered and he was completely ready to dedicate his life to the service of the church and God. At no point did expectations or hope cross his mind about his love for Balambal. He was sure that somehow God would change the minds of her people and alleviate her distress. So, what his uncle revealed and subsequently suggested, perplexed him, to say the least.
“I feel that the time has come for you to go to Malaya and make a life for yourself there. I can have you placed in one of the schools run by a church there and you could start your life afresh there,” began Yaakob, pausing for just a fraction of a second before adding, “…also, I would like you to take Balambal with you.” George who had just begun to absorb the first part of what Yaakob said, could not quite comprehend the second part about taking Balambal with him. His eyes simply widened. Convinced that his mind was playing games with him, he leaned forward before asking, “I am sorry Ammama, what did you say? I didn’t understand you.” “I am asking you to marry Balambal and go to Malaya with her,” said Yaakob looking steadily at his nephew. George stared in disbelief at his uncle who had just a month ago lambasted him for watching a married woman admiringly from afar. His uncle merely nodded in response before continuing. “There is no choice. Her family does not want her back and she cannot live here indefinitely. She needs a new beginning and only you can give that to her. Only you would understand that she is also with child through no fault of her own,” he said in a manner, which was slightly hurried but definitely matter-of-fact. George stared at his uncle with his mouth slightly open.
“Balambal is pregnant. Nobody knows about this except for the woman who takes care of her and she has promised to keep it a secret, at least for now. She is just an illiterate woman and before long, word is going to get out and then it would be scandalous. The church elders will definitely not allow her to stay here,” said Yaakob appearing to be completely unruffled by the mayhem that he knew he must be creating in his nephew’s mind. “Where can she go? We would have to find some temple or some poor house that will take in such women,” he continued. “But you know what her life will be like after that,” finished Yaakob, watching his nephew calmly. He silently asked God for forgiveness for almost leading his trusting ward by the collar to accept his will.
George’s voice had totally forsaken him. He just stared with his mouth slightly open. What he heard in fact, were no longer words that made sense but merely sounds that held him captive. He loved Balambal and had known right from the beginning that he could not love another woman as much. But he had not imagined nor desired in his wildest moments for his love to be resolved in this manner. George took a step back, stumbled on a low footstool that was behind him and would have fallen to the floor if his uncle’s steadying hand had not shot out to help him sit on a chair next to him. George sat quietly and continued to stare in disbelief at his uncle who was still talking, unfazed by his nephew’s face, which was wrought with bewilderment. “George, I know it is unfair to ask you to marry a woman who was once married to someone else, and then dishonored by some other men, and now pregnant with the child of a man who will forever remain anonymous. But all I can say is that she needs the compassion that only you can give her now,” said Yaakob in the same persuasive manner with which he had built his church from a tiny room with a congregation of about five to this large structure that it was now with a membership of almost a hundred. As he spoke, he felt like he was being driven by a divine hand to save this woman so that he could redeem himself for being an absent brother to his abused sister.
Mumbling something about needing some time to think things through, George stumbled back to his room and sat down on his hard bed with his face buried in his hands. As a sad lad of eighteen, who had never really been exposed to a world outside the little church in Guruvayur, he was inclined to cry but felt too numb to do so. His head was throbbing with conflicting thoughts and fears. The realization that his beautiful Balambal was pregnant with some hooligan’s child was hard but the possibility that she was unwanted by everyone and that the fate that awaited her was one where she may actually end up in some temple or home for the destitute, scrambling for one meal, was harder.
Contented so far with simply loving Balambal from a distance, George had not ever thought of marrying her since even getting close enough to talk to her would have been impossible. Now that she was safe in the church, he had imagined that her family would take her back and she would go back to her old life, happy and peaceful again. For his part, he was ready to set about fulfilling his promise to serve the church by becoming a priest, as his way of saying thanks for her safe return. So this turn of events was unthinkable to him. His first instinct was driven by the deep affection that he felt for Balambal. He wanted to accept his uncle’s proposal. However, his unadulterated village nurturing that lurked in the deep recesses of his mind, gnawed at him about marrying a woman who was pregnant with someone else’s child. He was so confused that he felt almost nauseous. He drew his legs close to his chest and hugged them while rocking back and forth, frowning, his eyes, tightly closed. There was no one thought in his mind that made any sense to him.
He vigorously rubbed his young, unlined face up and down with both hands. A deep frown had formed on his forehead and his thick, black eyebrows almost formed a single straight bushy line. Running his hands that trembled slightly through his thick hair, he looked around his austere room before his eyes settled on the only ornament that provided some respite, a photograph of his mother. An English missionary who had once stayed in the church quarters had taken the picture and given it to Eliamma and her son as a gift. His mother’s strong, composed gaze met his and gradually stilled his mind, while gently unraveling the answers. Perhaps she was also clearing his path to serve the church and God in a different way. Eliamma continued to gaze evenly at her son, gently nudging him towards a decision. George returned his mother’s serene gaze for a few minutes before he stood up and walked out of his room to the church. He decided to leave Kerala for Malaya as soon as possible with Balambal.
Yaakob set about arranging George’s departure by writing to some of his friends who were already in Malaya. While he waited for their responses, he had to talk to Balambal who had still not said very much. Certainl, she did not talk about the ordeal that she had suffered in the hands of her abductors. Balambal spoke only when spoken to and that too only to acknowledge that she wanted or didn’t want something. She hardly ate anything. Yaakob had made special arrangements to have her food cooked separately as he knew she would not eat at all if the food was cooked alongside non-vegetarian food. But she still didn’t eat and was now looking so emaciated that her dark eyes looked like saucers embedded in a colorless face. Yaakob’s worried inquiries made the caretaker resort to feeding her by her hand and cajoling Balambal like a child. Most of the time, the girl simply sat silently by the window in her room, a lone, thin, pale figure, her enormous eyes straining and searching, waiting for someone to come up that path to the church. Balambal desperately wanted to see her mother. Her people’s rejection of her had not sunk in and she could not understand why her mother had not come for her. Sometimes Balambal cried like a child and sometimes she whimpered in her sleep but she never said anything or answered any questions, choosing instead to wait for her mother to step in and make everything alright.
Approaching her and talking to her about his plan for her, was something that Yaakob dreaded. How was he to tell a traumatized, married woman from the agraharam that the best way for her to start afresh was to marry a Christian man and move to Malaya? How could he tell this terrified, confused young woman that she could never go back to her family because they did not want her back and that she would have to completely forget not just her ordeal but her life before that as well? Yaakob just had no words to begin his conversation with Balambal. Ironically, it was Alamelu, Balambal’s mother who made Yaakob’s task easier. She sent a letter to Balambal through the old servant who had helped raise her. The letter was tearful, tortured and contrite. Written in Malayalam, the only language Alamelu was literate in, the letter read,
I cannot express my gratitude enough to God for saving you and bringing you back alive. I cannot believe that you are alive. Somewhere, somehow I must have done some good to someone. But child, I cannot do anything for you now. Your husband and the people in the village will not let me, and we both cannot survive without them. Even your uncles will not support me. They have never helped me, you know that. Where can you, a ruined woman, and I, an old widow go? Your husband has taken all the property and money that we had because I trusted him. We now have nothing. Child, other than pray for you, there is nothing I can do. God will take care of you and lead you to the right people.”
Yaakob was never witness to the anguish that Balambal went through when she discovered that the single ray of hope that she had desperately clung to, had vanished without a trace. She simply lay on her bed, facing the wall all day in the darkness and refused to eat or drink anything or even leave the room. She did not respond when the caregiver spoke with her. The old lady, who sensed Balambal’s pain, simply sat with her stroking her hair. When Yaakob approached the girl later in the evening with his plan, Balambal agreed to become Mary by just remaining silent. Balambal, newly christened as Mary, married George on a cool Friday morning, about ten days before Christmas. As Yaakob blessed the newly married couple, the small congregation that stood around the subdued couple could hear bells in the temple in the agraharam ringing in the distance. A fleeting thought reminded Yaakob that it was Sankata Hara Chathurthi, the day on which Hindus believed that you could appeal to Lord Ganesh to remove all suffering with prayer and penance.
As soon as the spartan marriage ceremony was over, Yaakob breathed a sigh of relief. He had done his best to help this girl and her unborn child. No one would know that her child was illegitimate and he had made the woman who took care of Mary, solemnly promise to never ever reveal the truth. The woman nodded vigorously as he mildly admonished, “Think of her as your own daughter. I am sure you would want to protect your own daughter at all costs. Remember, God watches us all the time.”
Yaakob’s more practical self realized that as pious and devout as the woman was, she was still an uneducated woman who enjoyed an afternoon of gossip with the other church cleaners and helpers. He knew the best thing that he could do for Mary and George was to get them out of Kerala as soon as possible to begin afresh in a new land where no one would ever know anything about their past. Moreover, it was becoming difficult for him to keep the growing murmurs of concern among the members of his Syrian Christian community that had never really approved of Yaakob accepting responsibility for Balambal, and had wanted him to turn her over to some temple when her people had rejected her.
The community had remained silent out of respect for Yaakob. However, there were some who had begun to voice their reservations. One serious concern was that the people in the agraharam would be disturbed by the conversion of the girl. “We have lived in the same area for generations with the people in the agraharam. Why should we invite trouble for the sake of this one girl?” questioned Mathews, an old and prominent member of the church who had never really warmed to Yaakob for some reason known only to him. “We don’t want any trouble with anyone. You need to make some arrangement for that girl and George. They should not live here for long,” he had added decisively looking around at the congregation as if he had their unanimous approval of what he had just said. The others looked down uncomfortably. Clearly, Yaakob had no choice but to act quickly.
Thankfully, Yaakob’s prayers were answered about three weeks after the marriage. Yaakob’s old schoolmate, who had taken a priest’s position in Penang in Malaya, wrote to Yaakob “We need your nephew to come as soon as possible as our membership has grown and we need someone to be an administrator. He will be quite comfortable here, as we will provide him with housing as well, in addition to his salary. Please write back telling us when he can join us.”
The letter brought on a frenzy of activity from Yaakob, who did and bought everything he could on his limited salary as the priest of a small village church, to ensure that his nephew and his new wife would be comfortable on their journey to a strange land. It was only after seeing them off safely that he started breathing easily. He prayed for their safety first and then for Mary’s acceptance of George as her husband. He had not thought much about this during the preparation for their departure. But now that they were gone, it worried him that Mary would either continue to treat George like a stranger or react in a way that would trigger suspicions in the minds of people who met them.
After the marriage, George and Mary had shared a delicate relationship, one of awkward but tender smiles and vacant stares. George would smile shyly at Mary every time he ran into her, on her way to have her bath or if she were taking a walk and she would return his smile with a blank stare. They stayed in separate rooms with the caretaker still staying with Mary as Yaakob felt that she was still too fragile to be with anyone, especially since George was still a stranger as far as Mary was concerned. While George longed to hold her slender hands in his or touch her long, silky, black hair that hung like a thick rope in a braid behind her back, all he could manage was a smile or a look of hope when he did face her. Although Yaakob guessed what George was thinking, there was little he could do other than reassure the boy. “This is when your love for her should guide you. You need to win her over and only time can help you do that. Remember she was married before and then she suffered horribly. Right now, she will be terrified of anyone trying to get close to her. But things will change in time. You just need to wait,” he said kindly.
For George, who had never imagined that he would even speak to Balambal leave alone marry her, the marriage was a dream that wrapped him and her in a wonderful gossamer embrace. This was enough for him; nothing else mattered. The closeness that he felt with her, even without ever speaking one word, was much more than he had ever imagined. He was willing to wait a lifetime if need be. But like Yaakob he wanted to take her away from prying eyes that would soon see that she was with child and tongues would definitely start to wag as it would be clear that the child could not be his. As Yaakob shielded his eyes from the brightly shining sun in order to catch a glimpse of his nephew’s nervous but hopeful face on the slowly receding ship, he prayed silently but passionately that he had done the right thing.
As soon as he got back to the church, he made arrangements for Mary’s caretaker to take up a new position as a cleaner in a church in a village, which was about thirty miles away from his. “Your salary will be much higher than it is here and they are willing to employ your husband as a gardener. I remember you asking me for a job for him,” offered Yaakob and the woman accepted appreciatively.
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