Daughters of Destiny and A Bastard Son
Krishnan’s father, Nambi and his brothers had a sister by the name of Alamelu, a headstrong, beautiful girl, used to getting her way. Unfortunately for her parents, this stubbornness that their daughter displayed in all matters was made worse by the fact that their choice of husband for her had turned out completely wrong. Duped by his good looks and wily relatives, they had not realized that he was just a weak-willed man with little or no education until it was too late.
Alamelu’s parents had not seen Balu, Alamelu’s husband, before the marriage. They had received a proposal from his parents through a marriage broker who was known to Alamelu’s parents. He had successfully arranged their older sons’ marriages and so they had had no need to distrust the man. He had come with the proposal, singing praises about Balu’s good looks and education, claiming that Balu was a highly educated Sanskrit scholar. Alamelu’s parents had been impressed by this and since Balu lived in a distant village, and since the marriage broker was trusted, the need to see and meet the bridegroom had somehow been overlooked. As much as Alamelu’s parents had adored her as their favorite child, they had ironically decided to leave Alamelu’s destiny to Providence.
On the day of the marriage, Balu had arrived and had been met with all the pomp and fanfare that reasonably wealthy families reserved for a desirable bridegroom. Expectations had been high and so the disappointment that had quickly set in was hard to bear. Firstly, Balu had been a lot older than Alamelu’s parents had expected. He had looked a good fifteen years older than Alamelu, who at the time of her marriage had been about twelve or thirteen. He had been silent for the most part and so his lack of education had not been immediately obvious. But during the long wedding ceremonies, Alamelu’s parents had been further dismayed by the fact that Balu had barely been to school. He had stopped going to school after three or four years because he had been struck by some sort of a fever as a child, as a result of which he was weak and underdeveloped. His family had been anxious to get him married because some fortune-teller had convinced them that he would miraculously be normal and healthy after marriage and so they had resorted to lying and cheating.
Alamelu’s parents had been shattered. Their trusted marriage broker had wept and sworn that he had known nothing of the cheating and that he too had been tricked by Balu’s family. He had then made a passionate vow to give up his profession, and had really kept his word, for a while. Despite their devastation at being taken for a ride, Alamelu’s parents had had no choice but to proceed with the wedding as the arrangements had been made and the whole village had turned up for the occasion. What was worse was that the bride of a wedding that was stopped or stalled for some reason, rarely found another bridegroom. She was typically seen as ill-fated and forever relegated to the life of an unwanted daughter. Alamelu’s parents had preferred that she be a bride to an undeserving man than to be shelved forever as an unlucky daughter.
Alamelu never forgave her parents and her brothers for their decision to proceed with the marriage. She held it against her family for as long as she lived and became particularly embittered when her husband deserted her when a baby was born to them, twenty-five years after their marriage. Much to the embarrassment of Balu, his family and Alamelu and her family, a rumor floated around that Balu had little or nothing to do with her long awaited pregnancy and that the real father of the child was a long distant, orphaned cousin of his who had lived with Balu and his parents and for some reason had remained a bachelor all his life. Distressed and disillusioned by the taunts, Balu had taken off to the Himalayas claiming that he wanted to distance himself from everyday life and its issues.
Angry and humiliated, Alamelu took it out all the more on her family for having found the wrong match for her in the first place. Her chance for revenge came soon after her husband had left her with her infant daughter. Her father and her brothers suffered losses when a whole shipload of their cashew nuts and copra was destroyed at sea due to a storm. In order to save their home and lands from lenders, their father had transferred all their property to Alamelu, since he believed she was his daughter and would do nothing to deceive him despite her anger about her unhappy life and marriage. He had been completely wrong because she had refused to return anything and the long drawn court case that had ensued had only served to further impoverish him and his sons. Betrayed by his daughter and maligned by his sons for his poor judgment, Nambi’s father had finally suffered a stroke and died of a broken heart.
When the family had lost almost all their property to Alamelu, Nambi and his brothers and their families had moved to a small house that the family owned on the outskirts of the village and worked on a small plot of land that had somehow escaped the clutches of Alamelu. Krishnan had gone to work on land owned by one of the villagers as his uncles and brothers had not asked him to join them. And, it was at this time that Meenakshi had learned that Krishnan had really been the illegitimate son of her father-in-law, Nambi’s youngest sister, Neela who had died at childbirth.
One of Krishnan’s brothers had blurted out the truth when Nambi had asked that Krishnan be allowed to work and make a living on the last bit of land that they owned. “There is no room for bastards when there is no money for legitimate sons of the family.” This revelation to Krishnan had devastated Nambi who by then had already become a sickly man. He had died soon afterwards. His wife, who like Meenakshi had never asked questions nor expected much from life, died about six months later. Krishnan had displayed no emotions about the truth of his parentage, and if he had felt anything, Meenakshi had not seen it. He had gone about his life in the same characteristic calm and quiet way that he always had.
Krishnan’s real mother had been one of two daughters among six brothers. Nambi, the man who had adopted Krishnan as his own was the oldest of these six brothers. Of the two daughters, Alamelu, the embittered and revengeful daughter was much older than Neela, Krishnan’s mother. As the youngest in the whole family, Neela had been thoroughly indulged by her parents and her brothers and her every whim had been met no matter how unreasonable. Little did they know that it would be one of her whims that would bring about her ruin.
The dancer of a traveling dance and drama troupe had caught her fancy one year and she had wanted to learn sadir attam, a traditional form of dance. It was unheard of for girls from orthodox homes to even think of dancing leave alone learn the art form. In fact, by this time since she was twelve or thirteen and old enough to be married, her parents, intent on doing better than what they had done for Alamelu had begun looking for a suitable husband for her. They had in fact put off looking for a bridegroom for Neela because of their disappointment with Alamelu’s match.
However Neela, used to getting her way, had tried cajoling her parents into looking for a dance teacher for her and when that didn’t work she had resorted to tantrums and sulking. But that hadn’t worked either. Her parents who had given in to all her other demands had been firm on this one. No daughter of theirs was going to dance. Neela would never find a husband from a decent home if they had allowed her. They had let Neela sulk for days and had set about sending out feelers for suitable bridegrooms. They had ignored their daughter who had now taken to crying all day and rejecting food. She had locked herself in a room and refused to come out at mealtimes. This had worried them a little but the thought of Neela demeaning herself and them by dancing was enough to strengthen their resolve to not give in to her stubbornness. One morning, Neela had simply disappeared from the home of her parents.
Nothing as shocking as this had ever happened in the village or in their family ever before. It was unheard of for a girl from a respectable and orthodox family to run away and so the pain of Neela’s parents’ disgrace had been unbearable. In fact, their devastation had been almost complete given the fact that they had never really recovered from their older daughter’s unhappy marriage. No one had seen Neela and no one had known anything that could have led to her discovery. The only thing that was obvious was that the traveling dance and drama troupe that was visiting the village had something to do with it because they had disappeared too. This made everything worse because Neela was now beyond redemption. The village elders would never let her come back and what was worse was that her family stood the risk of being excommunicated from the village.
Fortunately, the more prominent members of the little community had decided against excommunicating Neela’s family on compassionate grounds, provided the family disowned Neela. Her brothers, all hardworking and responsible members of the community, had immediately publicly denounced Neela’s actions and rejected her as their sister. Despite this, the stigma of Neela’s thoughtless actions had remained and continued to remain with the family through the years. Every time anyone spoke of the family, they would refer to them as “the family of that runaway or wayward girl.” The daughters of the family had a difficult time finding suitable husbands and many remained unmarried. So the anger that was built against Neela and her offspring was strong and permanent even among family members who had never seen them.
The story of Neela and her disgrace was passed down and around with rich details added, changed and removed, depending on who was telling it. Every young girl who was ready for marriage and who showed some reluctance at the thought of marrying was reminded of it with sufficient embellishment to create fear and foreboding. For example, at some point, Neela supposedly hadn’t just disappeared but she had been seen leaving, and a few people had sworn that they had seen her climb the back wall of her house and run off into the darkness with a young man. Soon this vague man had begun to have a clear description. He had been tall, thin and dark and with curly, long hair, maybe even a large mustache and he had been seen with the dance and drama troupe.
Some even thought that his name had been Kittu. Some swore that he had been some kind of a goblin, a creature created by enemies of Neela’s family just to disgrace them. And so, the story grew and shrank depending on the imagination of the storyteller. What was clear was that the family of Neela had suffered so much humiliation for her actions that they could not even have considered forgiving her. The only one who had secretly missed his impetuous and willful little sister was Nambi, the oldest of all the siblings.
Fifteen years older than Neela, Nambi had thought of Neela more as a daughter than as a sister. She had been his pet and beloved baby sister and the thought of erasing her from his memory, as his other brothers had done, was something he had just not been able to do, as angry as he had been with her. She had disgraced the family and had brought about their ruin in the eyes of the villagers but she had still been his baby sister. He had spent nights sobbing silently, thinking of the hardship that she may have been going through because of her thoughtless actions, with his wife as the only witness to his agony.
Lakshmi, Nambi’s wife, not unlike the other women she had known all her life, had seen her sole purpose in life as being a supportive wife and a dutiful daughter-in-law. So she had gone about her life in her husband’s home with a poise that had endeared her to her in-laws. The fact that everyone in her husband’s home had liked her and respected her, had added to her husband’s image as the oldest brother and the rest of the family had looked up to them as their role models. So, it had come as quite a blow to the family when Nambi had decided that he was going to help Neela, when she had reappeared in a neighboring village some seven months after her disappearance. What was worse was that she had had no husband with her, had showed no signs of having had one but had been heavy with child.
A pregnant, worn and hungry Neela had walked several miles to reach a village neighboring her own. Her life had been a tumultuous whirlwind for the seven months that she had been away from home. The dancer from the dance and drama troupe that had been visiting her village had promised to teach her dance. Completely fascinated by the dancer’s costumes and jewelry, Neela had not even thought for a minute about the consequences of her actions. When she had failed in her attempt to convince her parents who had been steadfast in their decision to get her married, she had talked to the dancer who had in turn goaded her into running away from home. “Once you are a famous dancer your parents will forgive you and even welcome you back,” she had reassured Neela. Neela had been terrified of the prospect of leaving everything that she was familiar with and hurting her parents but her enchantment with the idea of being a dancer had emboldened her and she had agreed to run away with the troupe.
On the night of her escape, the dancer had arranged for some fellow artistes to wait for her in the dark, just outside her home and Neela had waited for everyone to go to bed before she had sneaked out of the home and run off with two men who had been sent by the dancer. The darkness into which she had run had engulfed her life from that point on because she had learned that the dancer had had no intentions of taking her with her or even teaching her dance. In fact, unknown to Neela the dance and drama troupe had left earlier in the day. The two men who had turned up for Neela had been from the troupe but they had not been a part of it anymore. They had been enamored by Neela’s good looks right from the first day they had seen her and had coaxed and paid the dancer to lure Neela into a web of deceit. Neela had been completely oblivious to the dancer’s treachery until the day after she had run away from home. The two men had fooled her into believing that they were going to join the dance troupe but it had soon dawned on Neela that they were not going anywhere in the direction that the troupe had taken. The images and memory of the subsequent horror that she had undergone while captive, had tortured her till her last moments.
One morning she had found that both the men had disappeared without a trace, leaving her in the hovel all by herself. This was when she had found her way back to the village near her own. The men had robbed her of the gold jewelry and money she had carried. All she had left were the anklets that had been given to her by the dancer as a gift, the one kind gesture that the older woman had accorded her. The dancer herself had received the anklets, pure silver with serpent heads covered with rubies and emeralds and with the distinctive markings of the royal household, as a gift from one of the cousins of the Rajah of Cochin.
The men who had robbed Neela had been afraid that if they had tried to sell it somewhere they would have been caught because the anklets would have been recognized immediately. The dancer who had belonged to the devdasi community had been a courtesan of this member of the royal family until she had fallen from favor for an indiscretion. When the dancer had been thrown out of her patron’s palace one evening she had been allowed to take her own belongings and the pair of anklets, which she had then presented to Neela on a whim, perhaps as a tool to entice her. Neela would later insist that Nambi take these anklets, and he in turn would give them to Meenakshi just before he died, as the only legacy left for her by her mother-in-law.
Distraught with terror, guilt and fear, Neela had sent word to her family in the hope that someone would come to get her. The only person who had turned up, on the quiet with his wife, had been her oldest brother, Nambi. He never once said that he had forgiven her but he had been willing to help her despite the fact that he had been appalled by her pregnancy and the uncertainty about the father of the child. Nambi had not taken her back into their village, choosing instead to keep her in a house just outside the village. As soon as Neela had given birth, and then died because of the strain of her extreme distress, Nambi and his wife had taken the child home, claiming to the other villagers that they had found the child abandoned in a temple.
Nobody had really believed them but Nambi was so well-liked that people hadn’t had the heart to reject his story. So, the child that Nambi had named Krishnan after his father, much to the chagrin of his brothers, had grown up as a nasty reminder of betrayal, disgrace and loss of family honor. Krishnan had grown up as a shadow of his brothers and cousins who had barely tolerated him. Nobody had overtly treated him badly but nobody had really included him in the family. While growing up, Krishnan had been treated like an unpaid errand boy.
In order to make up for this indifference from the other sons, Nambi and his wife had gone out of their way to treat Krishnan as one of their own but this had only incited everyone in the family and had made them alienate Krishnan all the more. Only Alamelu had liked Krishnan because she herself had been childless when he was born and had actually nurtured a soft spot for him till the end. Although she had hardly ever visited her parents’ home except to pick a quarrel with them or to lament her fate, she had taken the trouble to visit just to see the newborn. She had even offered to adopt him as her own to fulfill her own desire for a child.
Her brothers had thought that her fondness for Krishnan had been based in a vengeful way on their embarrassment about him. This was probably true too. She had relished every opportunity to needle them and remind them of the mistake that they had made in finding her an unworthy match. In fact, when she had thrown the rest of the family out, having won the long drawn legal battle for their familial wealth, she had been willing to give Krishnan alone, some land and money. Although Krishnan had stood firmly on the side of his brothers and uncles, her offer had incensed and driven her other siblings and nephews to despise him even more, enough to blurt out the truth about his origins to his face.
Although Krishnan’s uncles and brothers had completely turned their backs on him after the death of Nambi and his wife, life had been quite peaceful for him and his family. Krishnan had worked hard for his landowner and actually had been far more content than he had ever been. His days had revolved around work and his wife and children, Savithri and Rangan, as he no longer had to be at the beck and call of his uncles, brothers and their wives. Their lives would have continued in that blissful way if not for the typhoid that had swept through the village and had claimed half the lives that had existed there including that of Krishnan.
Rangan had been ten and his sister Savithri had just turned six. With Krishnan’s death, Meenakshi’s secure and perfect little world had come crashing down. She had had nowhere to go and had no one to turn to except Krishnan’s family, but they had not accepted her and so she had turned to her own brother who had taken her in much to his wife’s dismay. The usually more obedient Subbhu had been admirably unyielding at this time, perhaps the only time when he ever resisted his wife’s edicts. “I promised my parents that I would be there for Meena. I will be cursed if I don’t keep my promise. She has no one except me,” was the only explanation that he would provide for a fuming Seetha.
Soon, a sense of security and stability had gingerly settled on Meenakshi and her children in Subbhu’s house. Meenakshi had made certain that no one especially Seetha had any cause for complaint about their presence there right from the beginning, by literally working herself to the bone. Neither she nor her children ever intruded into her brother’s family in any sense of the word. She kept her children in the kitchen and the backyard and never made an appearance or allowed her children to come out in front of guests or visiting relatives unless someone asked for them. She remained a shadow that hovered in the background, always quiet, always withdrawing and always very conscious of the fact that she was a widowed mother completely dependent on her brother and his family’s charity.
After Meenakshi’s arrival in Subbhu’s house, the work in Subbhu’s house constantly increased for some unknown reason. While always appearing to apologize for the amount of work, Seetha, Subbhu’s wife ensured that Meenakshi was kept on her feet from dawn till nightfall. “If not my for my health I would do everything that you are doing. It pains me to see you working so hard but what can I do? Sometimes I am unable to even lift my head off the pillow. I can’t bear to see the sister of my husband working so hard for me.” Meenakshi’s response was always the same, “Why should you worry about this when I am here. I am thankful that you have given me a roof over my head. Please don’t think about it.”
Seetha’s aches and pains would however, miraculously disappear when a neighbor arrived with some interesting news or gossip about someone else in the village or when there was a wedding or some such celebration in the neighborhood. Obviously, Meenakshi was never invited to these festive events as she was a widow and decorum would only allow her to be a distant and silent observer. And so, she was grateful when sometimes her sister-in-law was kind enough to take Meenakshi’s daughter along to these functions. Her daughter, who was gradually approaching marriageable age, had to be seen by interested parents.
Meenakshi constantly worried that her daughter would never marry, as there was no dowry for her. Meenakshi could not look to her brother as he had two daughters of his own. All she had were the few pieces of jewelry that had been given to her when she herself married and even those were now with Seetha. As soon as Meenakshi had come to live with her brother, Seetha had told Meenakshi to give her the few pieces of jewelry for safekeeping. “You never know these days, you can’t trust anyone. Everybody knows that you are a helpless widow. What if someone swindles you and takes everything away?” In Seetha’s eyes, Meenakshi’s jewelry was given to her by Subbhu’s father, who was her father-in-law, and so they rightfully belonged to her, Seetha, and her own daughters. A widow had no use for jewelry anyway. And, as for Savithri’s marriage, well, Seetha decided to deal with the matter when the time came.
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