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The Daughter-In-Law

Savithri spent the first two days listlessly in the room that was given to her. Mangalam slept with her at night and she was grateful for this. She had never slept alone and the thought of sleeping alone in that large room with the numerous open windows was alarming to say the least. Even with Mangalam sleeping next to her, she spent the larger part of the night simply staring fearfully at the windows. In addition to this, she missed her mother and her brother terribly and cried silent tears at the very thought of them. She even missed Seetha and her two cousins with whom she had never been particularly close because Seetha had craftily kept the cousins apart. She had told her daughters, Annam and Ponna, that she didn’t want them getting close to Meenakshi or her children because they were needy and poor. The girls had often been contemptuous and disrespectful towards Meenakshi and her children, especially when their father was not at home. 

No one in her new home except for Mangalam went out of their way to make her feel welcome. Godavari was friendly but timid and lived in mortal fear of her father-in-law and her husband. The menfolk were not home for the most part, and when they did come home they paid little or no attention to the women. Mangalam was the only one who really spoke with them without fear and so they told her what they wanted communicated to the other two women, Savithri and Godavari. 

Mangalam was easy to love, completely motherly and very amiable. She never had a harsh word for anyone, not even the servants who sometimes used her good-nature to their advantage. When she found that one of them had been stealing she would say, “They are poor and sometimes poverty drives you to do bad things.” Everyone liked Mangalam and she liked everyone. Everyone pitied her childlessness but no one made her feel it because they just didn’t have the heart to do so. Savithri warmed to Mangalam immediately and soon felt the pain of separation from her mother a lot less because of this. In fact, in just a few short weeks she was able to talk about her home, her brother and mother to Mangalam without crying. 

Mangalam would talk to Savithri about the family and what each person was like when they went to bed at night. “Don’t be afraid of our father-in-law. He just sounds very strict but he is really quite a nice man. If you impress him with your behavior and cooking, you will be able to win him over very easily,” she said her voice, soothing and lilting in the dark. “You must understand that he has no daughters and so does not really know how to talk to women. Our mother-in-law was a very timid and an extremely orthodox woman. She was married to our father-in-law when she was five years old and came to live here when she was eleven. She was a lovely woman, very kind and generous but extremely afraid of her husband. She would never ever disagree with him. She would always say, “Our husbands are our deities on earth. We should never talk back to them or behave in a way that would upset them. This is the only way you can have a happy marriage.” She spoiled him and so he is only used to women who agree with him and treat him like a god, “continued Mangalam with a little laugh. 

Savithri couldn’t stop a smile in the dark when she compared her father-in-law to her uncle who was always afraid of her aunt and was often frustrated by his inability to stand up to her. All Seetha had to do was to raise her voice just a bit and he would throw up his hands in exasperation and say, “Do what you want. You always do that anyway.” She then thought of her brother who already took his responsibility as the only man of their small family very seriously. He was keenly aware of his mother’s hardship and her struggle to make a life for her children.

Rangan was in many ways just like her father, quiet but strong, dependable and protective taking his role as a son and brother very seriously. He was always conscious of his mother’s hardship and did his best to lighten her load. Seetha was very careful about how much Meenakshi and her children ate or partook of the daily rations. So when what the two children got to eat was really not enough for two, Rangan was more than willing to give up his portion for Savithri. Memories of little incidents like these about her mother and her brother brought on fresh tears and painful stabs of loneliness. This would be when Mangalam would come and sit with her and talk to her. 

Initially, Savithri was a little shy and reticent about herself and her family. But before long Mangalam was able to draw her out of her shell and have her talking about her life in her uncle’s home. Mangalam herself had come from a poor family. She had come to live with her in-laws even before she had attained puberty because she had been orphaned six months after her marriage. Both her parents had fallen prey to a deadly fever that had claimed several lives in her village. Since there was no one else to take care of young Mangalam, her in-laws had taken her to their home. Her mother-in-law had doted on her because Mangalam was the daughter she had always wanted. This also explains why her father-in-law, who was otherwise a crusty old man, loved Mangalam more like a daughter than as a daughter-in-law. 

Mangalam’s husband Venkateshan was a quiet, scholarly man, extremely well-versed in Sanskrit and highly educated in the Vedas. He was also a well-known classical singer and teacher and was away performing in neighboring towns and cities quite often. He could often be heard practicing in the backyard of the house in the early hours of the morning. Godavari, Savithri’s other sister-in-law was a shy, always nervous young woman whose husband Hariharan was the complete opposite of Venkateshan. 

Hariharan was not educated and was not inclined towards scholarly or cultural activities. He had gone to school for about four years before dropping out because he had found it too difficult. He was, however, very good at farming, and so Seshadhari favored Hariharan over his other two sons. “Hari is exactly like me,” he would repeatedly say with pride, much to the irritation of Venkateshan and Swamy. Both were slightly patronizing towards Hariharan because of his lack of education and polish. He was loud like Seshadhari and often abrasive in the way he spoke. He made enemies easily and was not one to engage in social niceties, much like his father. 

Seshadhari would always say that Hariharan was the only son who understood him and listened to him because he like him was close to the land. He was condescending towards Venkateshan because he was a scholar and was well aware of the fact that Swamy did not like him because of his manner. Seshadhari would often mock Swamy calling him a white man in dark skin and sarcastically refer to him as the “gentleman”. Savithri initially did not know what this meant as she hadn’t heard the word. When she asked Venkateshan because he was the most learned in the family he had merely laughed and said, “Ignore my father. He is just an angry old man.” 

What Seshadhari did not realize was that Hariharan was not as simple and straightforward as he thought him to be. Many years later he would, without anyone’s knowledge, coerce Seshadhari to will most of his wealth to him, and leave just the family house to Venkateshan and Mangalam. He knew quite well that the big house would eventually come to him and his family anyway as Venkateshan and Mangalam did not have any children, and nothing was left to Swamy and his family because they were in Malaya. In fact, they were not even informed of Seshadhari’s death until about six months after his demise. Interestingly, Hariharan treated Godavari exactly the same way his father had treated his mother, in a loud and rough manner. Godavari was terrified of him and would almost run to him when he called out to her. Savithri watched with amazement once when Godavari threw down the pot that she was holding in her hands when she heard her husband calling for her. Savithri had then nervously asked Mangalam what Swamy was like and Mangalam had laughingly said, “Your husband is truly a gentleman. He is nothing like these men here. That is why he hated it here.”

The family was well respected by the villagers and the workers that worked on its land. Savithri realized this when she went to the temple with her sisters-in-law. The people around them always stepped aside to let them pass, and everyone deferred to them. Savithri was wide-eyed by all the preferential treatment as she had never experienced anything like that all her life. She thought of her uncle’s house where she lived in the backroom with her mother and brother and ate in the kitchen after her uncle’s family had eaten. Her cousins often behaved like she and her family were invisible, often not even responding when she asked them something. Savithri was used to wearing her cousins’ hand me downs, which were sometimes faded and ripped in some places but sewn up by Meenakshi, and Rangan wore his uncle’s clothes, which were of course always too big for him. 

Here in her in-laws’ home, Mangalam insisted that Savithri only wear silk or the finest cottons during the summer. Mangalam also told her that married women should always wear some amount of jewelry. “Never serve your husband without wearing bangles”, Mangalam would say. The day after Savithri had arrived in her in-laws’ home, Mangalam had given her a small jewelry box filled with her mother-in-law’s jewelry. “This is your share of our mother-in-law’s jewelry.” Savithri had stared at the gold jewelry in complete amazement. She had never seen so much jewelry in all her life. Her mother had given her one chain and a pair of bangles at her wedding, and she wore them all the time. They had belonged to her mother and so were a little tarnished and the bangles had lost their shape. Seetha had given her a pair of earrings, which had really belonged to Meenakshi in the first place. 

When Mangalam had first given the jewelry to her, Savithri had refused. “I don’t need this, Akka. I am used to not wearing any jewelry,” she had said. But Mangalam had insisted saying, “Silly child! They are yours. It belonged to our mother-in-law, and when she died our father-in-law divided all her jewelry equally and gave me yours for safekeeping. You have to take them whether you wear them or not. But you should wear them as married women should always dress like the goddess Lakshmi. Only then will your home be prosperous.” Savithri had very reluctantly accepted the jewelry and had at first hidden it under all her clothes in her trunk. It wasn’t until three or four days later when Mangalam had asked her about them that she had worn some pieces. Savithri spent most of her time in her in-laws’ home either helping Mangalam in the kitchen or listening, fascinated, to her brother-in-law who started to teach her to read and write Sanskrit when she expressed an interest. As ironic as it was, considering the apprehension with which she had approached her in-laws, for the most part, Savithri’s stay in her in-laws’ home was probably the most unhurried and also the most educational in her entire life. She did not see much of her father-in-law as he rose very early to work on the fields. 

Hariharan and Seshadhari would leave at about 5 am in the morning, and return at about 3 or 4 pm in the afternoon. The women usually took a nap around mid-morning before lunch. When the men returned in the afternoon some sort of tiffin had to be ready for them and then dinner, which was early. They typically went to bed by about 7:30 or 8 at night. Usually, after dinner, Savithri and her sisters’- in-law would sit chatting. Some evenings, she would go to the temple with her sisters-in-law to watch TolPava Kuthu, a form of shadow play in the Bhagavathi temple. 

Savithri’s homesickness gradually ebbed leaving behind a pleasant comfortable feeling where she even began to forget that she had to join her husband in Malaya. She felt the absence of her mother and brother most when she received news about her family every month or so, through letters from her mother or Rangan. Time seemed to slowly but surely meander along in her leisurely life and soon it was six months since her arrival in Seshadhari’s home. By this time, she could even stop herself from disappearing into the kitchen when he came home. He too had begun to curtly accept her as a part of his household.

One morning Mangalam said to Savithri, “Pack a few clothes. We are going to stay in the ‘small house’ in the fields.” Intrigued by this, Savithri had responded, “What do you mean, Akka,” she asked. “What house in the fields? And, why?” “Well, this is the one time of the year that the women of the family have to go down to the fields to personally watch the workers and ensure that the rice is properly harvested and the work involved is completed. The men will be too busy to watch the workers closely and so we need to help them,” responded Mangalam as she packed some food and clothes in a box. “I will stay with you one night and then you and Godavari will stay there for the next two nights. I need to come back here to ensure that the work here gets done properly.” 

Savithri and her sisters-in-law set out for the fields after lunch. The coconut, jackfruit and cashew nut plantations stretched out for miles in front of them before they actually arrived at the rice fields. Overawed by the fact that her husband’s family owned so much land, Savithri stared about her wide-eyed at the graceful coconut trees and the jackfruit trees, that stood laden with heavy, thorny fruit and covered by the dark green vines of pepper. “Does our father-in-law own all of this?” she asked timidly. Mangalam smiled at the question. “We owned much more. But in the last few years, our father-in-law sold some of it because they couldn’t manage all of it. Our husbands have not shown any interest in managing the lands and so the whole burden fell on Hari.” 

The sun, a flaming orange ball at this time of the year, beat down mercilessly on the land and the already deeply tanned and glistening bare backs of the workers. As the women’s bullock-cart slowly made its way through a path that ran alongside the fields, the workers who were bent over their tasks straightened up to watch its progress. It was a rare sight to see the women of the big house in the fields, especially when they came out altogether. 

The sickeningly sweet, fruity smell of ripening jackfruit hung heavy in the air, overpowering all the other subtler fragrances of a fecund land while ripened paddy asking to be harvested, gently swayed in the whisper of a hot afternoon breeze. The women of the big house looked around them happily chatting as they absorbed the activity and the slowly germinating sense of expectancy. There was always a feeling of excitement and anticipation when the harvest was about to take place. Landowners felt a sense of achievement and workers felt a sense of joy and elation at the prospect of increased income. The atmosphere was palpably one of exhilaration, and the women loved being a part of this. 

The cart slowly made its way to a small hut like structure in the middle of the cashew nut plantation. It was very rudimentary and had some very basic facilities. The women were going to spend three nights there with some plantation workers as guards. Seshadhari could not stay there because of his age and Hariharan would be busy ensuring that that harvest was properly loaded and sent off for sale and distribution. Savithri was slightly apprehensive about spending the night in the middle of the plantation with only some strange men for protection. Mangalam quickly reassured her that the men were the trusted workers of the house and that they had been with them for many years. “In any case, Hari will be around as well, not in the hut but in the plantation, sleeping out in the open with the workers. He will hear you if you call out to him. I will send your meals from the big house.” 

At nightfall, Savithri was fascinated by the tranquility that settled on the fields. It was completely silent as the workers, except for the ones who acted as watchmen, had all gone home. The only sounds that could be heard were that of the swishing coconut fronds, the insects, the owls and the other hundreds of unusual sounds of a night in the open. Savithri could also hear the watchmen walking around and calling out to each other while hitting the ground with their staffs to put off potential intruders. It was the most critical time of the year as thieves could make off with the harvest or damage crop ready for plucking. The three women stayed up later than they usually did just taking in the sounds and smells of the night and listening to Godavari talking about harvest season in her own village.

Godavari had married at the age of twelve and Hariharan had been eighteen. Hariharan was two years younger than Swamy. Godavari came from a reasonably wealthy but large family. Her father was a landowner himself. Her own mother had died when she was just about five years old and her father had then married her mother’s younger sister. It was not unusual for men to do that to ensure that their children from the first wife were well looked after. It was believed that sisters would take care of their own sisters’ children better than some strange woman, and this was generally true. Savithri got to know Godavari quite well during the two days alone in the hut with her.

Godavari had several siblings. Some of them were her own and some of them were children of her step-mother but they were all close and shared a happy relationship. She, in fact, had an unmarried step-sister by the name of Parimala often stay with her in the big house. Godavari was a giggly and fun loving girl when her husband was not within earshot. She was quite simple in her wants and was content to be the kitchen help that she was, most of the time. It was unsaid but it was common knowledge that although Mangalam was very maternal and loving towards the two younger girls most of the time, her hold on her position as the oldest daughter-in-law of the family was subtle but steadfast. She decided the menu for the day, dealt with the servants, handled the cash in the house, and was their father-in-law’s confidante. 

Seshadhari rarely spoke to his other two daughters’-in-law except to rebuke them about something he felt they should have done. When that happened, Mangalam would smoothly step in and protect them against the full blast of his anger and sarcasm. This way the girls were also always grateful to her and always accepted her decision in all matters. Mangalam decided what the other two daughter’s in-law should wear every time they went as a family to any function. In fact, she kept the keys to the closet of all their expensive saris. Her reason for this, although neither one of the girls ever asked, was as she said, “I know what our mother-in-law would have wanted us to look like. I have known these people all my life.” 

Even the servants regarded Mangalam as the only one to turn to if they needed instructions or if they needed anything. They knew that only she had the real authority after Seshadhari and Hariharan. Everyone knew Mangalam’s husband Venkateshan was a gentle man whose only interests were music and learning. He seldom got involved in the farming activities. When Venkateshan did get involved, Hariharan would brusquely say, “You don’t know what is going on and it takes more time to teach you. Manni knows what to do and she knows how to get the servants to work. Why don’t you go back to your singing? Earn some money that way at least.” At this, Venkateshan would half-good-naturedly and half-annoyed retort, “Yes, Hari I know you know everything around here, you make sure you do anyway.” Hari’s actions a few years later made one wonder if he had given Venkateshan ample warning of what he intended to do. 

Both Savithri and Godavari were happy to let Mangalam hold the reins as it took their father-in-law’s attention away from them. “You tell us what you want, Akka and we will do that,” they would say for everything, happy to follow her instructions and do exactly as she said because both came from backgrounds where assertion of individuality was neither encouraged nor possible. Although Godavari came from a reasonably wealthy family, she was one of many siblings. She was not used to having things done her way or having too much of a say in anything. She was also used to wearing her older sisters’ hand me downs. As for Savithri, convinced that her life could not be any better, she was simply grateful to Mangalam for everything. 

What she did feel however, was a growing consternation about her husband. She prayed every day that he would not be like Seshadhari or Hariharan. Too ashamed to ask Mangalam as women were not supposed to doubt their husbands, she was tormented by a tightening knot in her stomach. She dreaded the day when she would have to leave the security of Mangalam’s presence to live in a faraway land with a strange man who was also so much older than her. When the letter from Swamy asking her to join him in Malaya did arrive about a month after Savithri’s stay in the little hut, she could not help but break down in tears much to Mangalam’s amazement. 

“What on earth is wrong with you child?” asked Mangalam stroking Savithri’s head. “Why are you crying when you should be overjoyed? You are going to join your husband after all this time.’ “I don’t want to,” burst out Savithri. “Please! I really don’t want to go. I don’t want to go to Malaya and I don’t want to join him,” Savithri cried. She still could not bring herself to refer to Swamy as her husband. Mangalam’s eyes widened with shock. “You’re lucky no one is around to hear you,” she reproved mildly. “What would people think if they heard you say this? What would our father-in-law say? He would have brought the roof down.” Savithri continued to sob uncontrollably. 

“I don’t want to be married. I don’t like being married,” she said between sobs, shaking her head. “I don’t want to live in fear like Godavari, she continued. It was then that Mangalam understood Savithri’s fears. She held Savithri’s red and tear-stained face in her hands. “Silly girl, are you afraid that your husband will be like our father-in-law and Hari?” Savithri merely looked down, sniffing, refusing to meet Mangalam’s gaze. Mangalam looked at Savithri kindly and patted her on the head. “Your husband is actually nicer than mine, and that is the reason why he does not want to live here in this house. He does not like the way our father-in-law and Hari behave and treat women. Even my husband can be like them sometimes. It’s just that you have not seen it. Yes, he is a nice man and he is almost always gentle but there have been times when he has hit me because of some small matter. One time it was because the food was cold by the time he came to have his meal. It’s just that it does not happen too often and I am also careful to not share such things with anyone. I would have never told you but you have become a daughter,” said Mangalam quietly. 

“My husband is a good man. But he is a man and he grew up in this household so he would have picked up a little bit of his father’s behavior. But your husband left the house a long time ago. And he was always more modern, always standing up for me, Godavari and his mother. He did not approve of the way his father treated his mother, and that was part of the reason why they did not get along. You have nothing to worry about. Swamy is a very good man who will treat you very well. You will see when you get there. You will forget all of us here and you may even forget your own family.”

It took Mangalam quite a while and several anecdotes to console and convince Savithri that Swamy was nothing like his father and brothers. In any case, there was no choice, Savithri was married. “Anyway child you have no other option. Your life is with your husband in Malaya whether you like it or not or whatever he may be like. I am quite certain that your mother would prefer death to having you back to live with her in Chandrashekarapuram. All mothers think that way and you and I will too if and when we have daughters, no matter how much we love them.” This was the final message that Mangalam left her with before she asked her to start packing her things. 

There was a silver lining to this whole thing. Mangalam promised to talk to their father-in-law to let her visit her family before her departure. What was better was that one of Subbhu’s daughters, Annam, was getting married and she could go to the marriage while visiting her family. Mangalam could not promise that Savithri would be allowed to go because the last time Godavari wanted to go to one of her sibling's marriages, Seshadhari had said no because the harvest season was in full swing but these were different circumstances. Savithri was leaving the country, and who knew when she would return. Surely he would let her see her mother one more time. 

The prospect of seeing her mother and brother again was like music to Savithri’s ears. She rubbed the tears of her eyes and face with the back of her hand and the sobbing slowly subsided. “When will you ask him, Akka?” she asked, looking eagerly at Mangalam. “Well, the letter says that Swamy wants you to come to Malaya at the end of this month. So you would need to go to your village sometime at the end of this week. Only then can you stay for at least two weeks before you have to leave on your journey to Malaya,” replied Mangalam. “I will ask him tonight. In the meantime, you should start packing your things. And I have to start packing some food. I can do that even while you’re gone to your village.” Savithri looked at Mangalam, her eyes filled with gratitude. She would miss this woman very much. 

Seshadhari would not give a definite answer when Mangalam asked him. “She just came from her home. What is the need for her to go now?” he asked. “She is going on a long journey and we don’t know when she will ever come back. Also, her cousin is getting married. It is not nice if we don’t send her for the marriage. We will look very bad if we ignore their invitation especially since they were very nice to us during Swamy’s marriage. Savithri’s mother is also always unwell. Remember Subbhu, Savithri’s uncle said this when he was here. Who knows what will happen when Savithri is away. We should send her at least one time to her home before she leaves,” said Mangalam calmly as she went about serving the men their dinner as the other two girls handed her the different dishes from the kitchen. 

Savithri suddenly felt a stab of fear as she helped in the kitchen. She could not imagine a world where her mother did not exist. She had never thought that her mother would die. The thought that her mother lived somewhere, even if it was not with her, gave her courage. In fact, she was hoping that her husband would be a kind man who would send for her mother as soon as she arrived in Malaya. She knew that he had mentioned that he would send for Rangan. Savithri always reassured herself that her mother would come to Malaya with Rangan and they would all live as a family again and her life would go back to being as it used to be with her brother and mother. She could not yet think of herself as a married woman who would have her own children and family. When she went to bed that night, Savithri closed her eyes tightly and prayed as hard as she could. She repeated all the slokas that her mother had taught her again and again, pleading with God to make her father-in-law send her home. She wanted desperately to see her mother again.

The next morning, Savithri woke up early and hurried to help Mangalam in the kitchen. Mangalam smiled when she saw her and said, “Your prayers have been answered. You can leave tomorrow morning. My husband and I will come with you and leave you at your uncle’s house. We will stay for the marriage and come back while you can stay on with your mother for another ten days. You will have about ten days to get ready to leave for Malaya after you come back.” Savithri could barely contain her joy and excitement. She literally ran around completing her tasks and getting her things together for her journey back home. Mangalam selected the clothes and jewelry that Savithri would take back with her. It was important that her family knew and saw that their daughter was well taken care of and did not want for anything. At the same time, Mangalam was well aware of the fact that Savithri’s family was poor. They should not feel even a tinge of envy towards Savithri. 

It wasn’t Meenakshi or Rangan that Mangalam thought about since they would only want the best for Savithri. Mangalam was more concerned about Seetha and her daughters. She was well aware of Seetha’s avarice and her desire to see her own daughters better off than Savithri. Mangalam had seen that during the wedding when Seetha had dressed her own daughters better than the bride herself. And hence, Mangalam had to be very careful about what she allowed Savithri to take with her. It had to be enough to show that she was comfortable but not so much as to draw the notice of evil eyes. Savithri could barely sleep that night. She sat up almost all night making a list of all the people she had to see and all the little places that she had to go to in Chandrashekarapuram. She was going away to Malaya and she wasn’t sure if she would ever return since it depended on a husband that she did not know. More than anything, she wanted to spend as much time as possible with her mother. They would be a family again, just she, Rangan and her mother. It did not matter to her that her room now was about five times the size of the little storeroom in which she had slept with her mother and brother in her uncle’s home. That little room was still the home that warmed her heart every time she thought about it. It would be the home that she would forever yearn for whenever she felt alone. 

The next morning, Savithri was up and ready before daybreak. Seshadhari brusquely told her to return as quickly as possible as it was more important for her to prepare for her journey to Malaya. He also reminded her that she was a married woman and that she had to behave as such. Savithri kept her eyes on the ground as he spoke while Mangalam smiled benignly. “She is a good girl, and more than that, her mother is a really good woman. I am sure Savithri will be just fine,” said Mangalam. “We will be going with her and we will be back in three days. I have left instructions with the servants, and Godavari will take care of everything.” Seshadhari merely nodded before leaving for the fields.

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