Even Less Than A Woman
Chandrashekarapuram, where Meenakshi and her children lived, was a very small and very remote village situated somewhere in the interior of a town by the name of Palghat in Kerala. The villagers of this village mostly owned small plots of land that they tilled or worked on land owned by some other villager. They worked from dawn till about four or five in the afternoon when their day was done. With work and dinner out of the way, they had little else to do or to distract them and so gossip was the most convenient and inexpensive leisure activity. The villagers watched everything, and the comings and goings of everyone became fodder for conversation during those long, hot nights when persistent mosquitoes made sleep impossible.
Meenakshi was just thirty-three and still cut a fairly graceful figure despite her drab clothes and shaved widow’s head. Those who remembered Meenakshi from her youth, with large dark doe-like eyes fringed by long lashes and set deep on an oval face, would talk about a quiet beauty that she once possessed. Unfortunately for Meenakshi, the villagers watched her a little closer because some of that understated loveliness had endured the years of hardship, sorrow and the smoke and heat of a poorly ventilated kitchen. It made her an ideal subject for idle chatter. But thankfully, the villagers’ hope that some scandal about her would emerge, never came to fruition as she kept to herself and rarely ever ventured out of the house, or even the kitchen of the house. She worked all day in the smoke-filled kitchen of her brother Subbhu’s small, airless little house that was one in a long row of houses in an agraharam, a typical Brahmin village.
The houses stood like two neat rows of peas on either side of a long dirt road, which was just about broad enough for a bullock-cart to pass. At least from the outside, each house was so identical to the other that it was possible for an unsuspecting outsider to mistake one for the other. The houses stood in such straight rows that if you stood at one end of the village, you could see all the way to the other end. The only things that could possibly interrupt your view would be the village wells, of which there were two, one at each end of the village, providing water for cooking and drinking purposes only. All other washing and even bathing was done in the river that ran at the back of the row of houses in which Subbhu lived.
A temple stood at either end of the village. At one end Ganesha presided, while at the other end Vishnu protected and it was customary for the villagers to first pay their respects to one deity in the morning and ask for his guidance in making the day a success, and then thank the other at the end of the day for his little blessings. Every few months, the sleepy little village would burst into a hive of activity by the grace of these temples. Some festival or other to felicitate one of the deities would come around and harness the entire village into one bustling community that worked hard to make it a success. Of course, other than these festivals there were weddings, engagements or celebrations for the birth of a child or even a funeral that would jolt the village that otherwise ambled along unhurriedly.
Meenakshi accepted her uneventful, isolated and work-worn existence with a resignation that was borne out of years of conditioning. Her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother had all lived the same way. All her life she had been nurtured to live in the shadow of a man. Men, fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, uncles, even nephews always came first. The meals that were cooked in the house were always catered to the tastes of men, and men always ate first.
“Women should not have strong likes and dislikes. In-laws don’t like women who have strong opinions,” her mother would say, as her mother had told her and as her mother’s mother had in turn told her. “A daughter-in-law with desires is seen as greedy and grasping, maybe even wayward,” she would scold if Meenakshi expressed a desire for something, even if it was food. “Don’t laugh so much and so loudly,” her grandmother would chide. “You will not find a decent husband.”
As a widow, Meenakshi was even less than a woman. She herself did not see her existence without a husband as a life that was worthy of much thought. Even in her prayers, she removed herself and asked that her children and of course, her brother and his family, be blessed. After all, her brother’s well-being meant that she and her children would at least have a roof above their heads. Meenakshi was careful to live the austere life that was demanded of a widow. She never came out if there was a happy occasion and was always cautious about not being seen by men, in particular, and of course the more fortunate. She herself, like the women before her, believed that the sight of her might cause people who are more blessed, some nasty misfortune.
Subbhu, Meenakshi’s brother, did his best to soften the harshness of widowhood for his sister by forcing her to lie on at least a thin mat. But his wife Seetha made sure that it was the most tattered that she could find. “People will talk if your widowed sister started living comfortably like the rest of us. A widow has to know her place if she does not want gossip about herself. I am doing this for her own good,” she would say, oozing sanctimony. Seetha however, had little to be concerned about as Meenakshi accepted her widowhood with a resolute stoicism that only enhanced her quiet dignity.
Meenakshi considered herself lucky because her brother had offered to take her in when her husband had died leaving her with two young children. Many widows found themselves reduced to penury. They either scuttled between the homes of relatives or between temples or lived in some poor house, just for a meal and a roof over their heads. Subbhu had immediately stepped up to help her despite subdued but clear protests from his wife when he had learned that her in-laws were turning her out on the streets.
Meenakshi’s husband’s parents had died and her brothers-in-law and their wives did not want her with them. She had had no money and nothing at all to support her. In fact she was pretty much destitute when her brother had turned up at her husband’s village to take her home. Her in-laws had allowed her and her children to stay temporarily in a small shed in their backyard while reminding her almost every day that she needed to find herself another place to stay.
Krishnan, Meenakshi’s husband had been the youngest of five sons of a large, moderately wealthy family in Guruvayur. Krishnan’s father Nambi was a great-grandson of Devi and Narayanan. The family had made a respectable living by exporting shiploads of cashew nuts and dried coconut or copra. Meenakshi had been chosen for her good looks and the fact that her father had once been a respectable diamond merchant in Palghat. Although Krishnan’s parents had welcomed Meenakshi into their home and treated her well, like they had all their other daughters-in-law, Krishnan’s uncles, brothers, and their wives had clearly not seen her as an equal.
A puzzled Meenakshi had accepted their treatment as her lot and had assumed that it had to do with the fact that her dowry had not been as large as the others. Her father had lost most of his wealth by the time she had married. The fact that Krishnan himself was treated with slight disdain and was often excluded from important decisions and gatherings was even more baffling for Meenakshi but she had remained silent as she was not accustomed to asking questions.
If not for these scarcely noticeable but still very real differences in the way they were treated, Krishnan and Meenakshi had generally led a peaceful life with their two children in his parents’ home, with enough to eat and wear, and no real cause for complaint. Meenakshi and the children had been the center of Krishnan’s world. He had worked hard all day for his family and in the evenings, he would take his family to the back of the house where he had had his quarters. There, the family would spend the evening, cheerfully away from everyone else. Although she had been hurt by her husband’s brothers’ treatment of him, Meenakshi had been contented.
She had loved the secluded quarters at the back of the house where she and her husband had built their own little world with their children. She had sometimes felt the urge to ask Krishnan to speak with her parents-in-law about Krishnan’s brothers’ treatment of him but had been too timid and doubtful of her own perceptions. “Women are often hasty in their judgment. They base their observations on their shallow and silly ideas,” her grandmother had always told her. However, one day the truth would come out, and Meenakshi discovered that she had been quite right about what she had seen and felt.
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