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The Price of Fortune is a Daughter

When Meenakshi left Adiyodi’s little hut that afternoon there was a small smile that appeared almost hesitantly on her lips. Anyone who knew her, and not many did as she was merely Subbhu’s widowed sister, would have been a little surprised. Events merely whirled around Meenakshi and subjugated themselves to her solid impassive world in which every emotion lost its meaning. There were no happy or sad occasions for Meenakshi; only incidents through which she had to live. So a smile on her face was indeed rare. 

Meenakshi walked as fast as her legs could carry her. She had been out of the house for more than two hours and her sister-in-law would be wondering about her absence. Meenakshi had told Seetha that she was going to the temple as it was Rangan’s birthday. The smile that appeared on Meenakshi’s face when she set out from Adiyodi’s house continued to cautiously linger. She could even remember a song that her mother had taught her as a child and hummed it almost silently to herself as she hurried. Despite the humidity that hung heavy, the air smelled clean and fresh after the rain. Meenakshi’s smile broadened just a tad when she heard the koyals whistling their repetitious little tune and a faint memory of trying to imitate them as a child emerged. 

A new burst of energy helped Meenakshi walk a lot faster than she usually did. Generally, she found movement to be increasingly difficult because a persistent cough that plagued her every night had weakened her. She had tried all sorts of home brews but nothing had worked. Her brother who was aware of her cough had bought some “English” medicine, as he called it but it had not helped much. He had promised to take her to the doctor at the end of the month when he got his salary. He had said that the month before as well but there were always expenses that needed his attention first. Perhaps next month she could see the doctor. But in the meantime, her health steadily deteriorated and she grew thinner every day. The one thing that gave her the strength to wake up in the morning and attend to the ever-increasing chores in her brother’s home was the hope that she could somehow give her children a better life. Her visit to the fortune teller had given her a shot of temporary relief. 

Meenakshi was completely breathless by the time she reached home, having literally run all the way. She was almost fainting when she staggered into the house, which was thankfully empty except for her children. She could barely contain her happiness at the sight of her son. She hurried into the kitchen and scooped up a handful of sugar and fed it to both her children who were by now completely aghast by their mother’s odd behavior. They rarely saw their mother smile leave alone as happy as this. “Everything will get better,” she cried tears streaming down her face. “We will be okay,” she continued wiping her face with the end of her sari. 

“What is going to be okay, Meenakshi?” asked Seetha entering the kitchen unnoticed by sister-in-law. Meenakshi immediately became subdued and looked down for fear that her sister-in-law would dampen her happiness. “Nothing, just talking to the children,” she mumbled. “Why? Are the children unhappy here?” asked Seetha uncovering the pots one after the other, looking to see what Meenakshi had cooked for the day. “You haven’t started cooking today?” Seetha continued without bothering to wait for an answer to her earlier question. “I will start now. I was a little held up in the temple,” said Meenakshi and hurriedly set about her task. “I would have done it myself. But I was having a headache this morning and so I couldn’t get out of bed, “said Seetha as she stepped out of the kitchen. “If it is too much for you let me know. I wouldn’t want your brother and people in the village to think that I am making you slave in my house just for some food and clothing,” she continued turning her back on Meenakshi and walking out of the kitchen without expecting an answer. “Oh! No! I don’t do enough here for what you do for me. Please don’t think that way. I am very grateful to you for giving my children and me a shelter. I will start cooking now,” Meenakshi hastily responded. 

There was too much joy in her heart to notice the subtle sarcasm that her sister-in-law always reserved for her. Her son would soon save her and her daughter from this drudgery. In any case, people in her position had no choice but to be humble. “By the way Meena, we need to talk when your brother comes home. I have something important to tell you. It may even be some good news,” said Seetha half turning around to look at her. Meenakshi’s heart skipped a beat. Could her fortune be improving so soon? 

As soon as Subbhu came home that evening, Seetha hustled him upstairs into the only bedroom in the house and shut the door behind them. Meenakshi knew they were discussing her and her children but continued with her tasks. She was excited about what Seetha had to say but she was also a little nervous because she was aware that her sister-in-law saw her and children as liabilities and was totally capable of coming up with some scheme to get rid of them. The thought of having to leave the security of her brother’s home was always nagging her. 

The day darkened and the crickets stirred as Meenakshi went about lighting the lamps in the house looking furtively every now then at the closed door at the top of the stairs. Finally, Seetha and Subbhu emerged from the room and came downstairs. Seetha looked pleased while Subbhu looked miserably uncertain. The flames of the lamps teased by a gentle evening breeze created shadows that danced in an eerily comic fashion, like unruly ghosts, on his face. Meenakshi continued to go about her task of lighting the lamps while doing her best to steady her trembling hands. The task helped to calm her. Not used to initiating conversation with either of them, Meenakshi felt a slow tightening around her chest. Although she loved her brother deeply and she knew he loved her like a daughter, they rarely spoke with each other, especially in the presence of his wife. 

Subbhu watched his sister as she went about lighting the lamps, thankful for the darkness that hid the guilt in his eyes. Her once jet black hair all gone, she was emaciated and pale, a ghost of the sister he had known in his youth. She had a persistent cough that he had an inkling was something serious but there was little he could do to help her because of a lack of funds. The local native doctor had done his best but there was no sign of her getting any better. In fact, she seemed to be getting thinner by the day. This was his sister, his only living relative and all he could do was to watch her slowly waste away. Giving her a place to stay was all he had done to keep his word that he had given his parents. 

Seetha walked up to Meenakshi beaming. She grabbed her hands and held them tightly in her own and said,” Good fortune is coming your way Meena, finally.” Meenakshi didn’t display a hint of the deep sense of foreboding that gnawed at her but merely looked at Seetha with the dignity that poverty sometimes bestows on people who have once seen better times. Subbhu appeared extremely uncomfortable and it was obvious that he did not share his wife’s enthusiasm about this sudden stroke of luck for Meenakshi. “Come, sit down for a minute, Meena,” said Seetha leading Meenakshi by the hand to a bench and patting the space by her side but Meenakshi continued to stand by the bench, resting a shriveled hand on the back rest for support. “You work too hard. But thank god you are not going to have to anymore. You are going to be able to sit down and rest and have three or four servants at your beck and call,” Seetha continued, smiling a little too widely. By now, even Meenakshi felt a slow excitement creeping through her veins. The fortune teller’s words were coming true after all. It was all happening now, so soon.

“Savithri is getting close to marriageable age,” began Seetha. At the mention of Savithri’s name, the smile and that had begun to hover carefully around Meenakshi’s mouth instantly froze since she had not even thought about Savithri’s marriage. Meenakshi glanced at Seetha quickly and looked at the floor. “Savithri is only thirteen. She can wait a year or two. It would be good for her to go to school for a bit longer,” she said softly. “But you don’t understand Meena. Goddess Lakshmi does not come knocking on the door all the time. Turn your back on her one time and you have insulted her for life,” insisted Seetha, undaunted. “Listen to what I have to say before you decide,” she continued, refusing to allow Meenakshi to dampen her zest. 

“Kamala, our neighbor, was just talking about a boy who is settled in Malaya. His family is looking for a bride for him and Kamala says our Savithri would be perfect for this boy. He is working in a big British company in Malaya and earns a big salary. His family is here, so Savithri would not be bothered by in-laws and all the problems they usually cause. So Savithri will literally be the queen of her household there in Malaya and who knows, maybe her husband will help Rangan get a job in Malaya too,” said Seetha, all in one breath, as she sometimes did, to ensure that the listener had no time to think about what she was saying. 

Meenakshi’s ears pricked up at the mention of Malaya. Perhaps this was Rangan’s opportunity to leave this village. But, why didn’t Kamala suggest Seetha’s daughters? Seetha had two daughters and both were older than Savithri. Seetha had been looking for bridegrooms for them for about two years now but most people who came to see them preferred to ask for Savithri’s hand although she was much younger. Savithri was tall for her age and an extremely pretty child. In fact, many offered to wait till she was ready for marriage but the problem was always the dowry. Everyone knew that Meenakshi had no means to provide a large dowry and Subbhu’s wealth was almost entirely his wife’s. Seetha, who was always lamenting the fact that she could barely scrape up a dowry for her two daughters, was willing to provide some basic expenses for Savithri’s wedding but nothing else. 

The fact that Savithri, Meenakshi’s daughter was pretty and desirable despite being poor was a sore point for Seetha and it added to her irritation at having to support Meenakshi and her children. “You’re lucky Meenakshi. You only have one daughter, and you have a son, which is even better. Look at my two daughters, both not half as pretty as your Savi. I will have a big problem getting them married,” she would frequently carp. Under her breath and to her devoted neighbor Kamala she would always grit her teeth and say, “I need to get rid of that girl as soon as possible or my daughters will forever remain with me.” Unfortunately, this was true as Seetha’s daughters were tall, lanky, very plain, and at sixteen and seventeen, getting a little old for marriage. Every time families came to see them as prospective brides for their sons, the scene was almost always the same. 

Meenakshi would prepare all the usual delicacies with steaming coffee served in the silver tumblers that Seetha had brought with her as her dowry. Subbhu’s daughters would come out to meet the guests when he called for them while young Savithri would stand peering out from behind a wall close to the kitchen. Somehow she would catch their eye and they would ask for her as the bride instead. This happened so often that Meenakshi took to remaining deep in the kitchen with her daughter not wanting to offend her benefactors at any cost. But this didn’t work either. 

Families of prospective bridegrooms often had prior knowledge of Subbhu’s beautiful niece through the village grapevine and they would ask for her. Subbhu took it good-naturedly as he was, after all, responsible for Savithri’s well-being too. “She’s not my niece. She’s my third daughter,” he would say. But he was well aware of his wife’s steadily growing impatience. Every night, when everyone had gone to bed, Seetha would keep Subbhu up by nagging him about their daughters’ growing older without any wedding in the horizon. Her constant complaining began to affect him and he too slowly started to worry about them. The worst thing that could happen to a father is to have two unmarried daughters living with him in his old age. It was a fate worse than a premature death. 

Subbhu had slowly come around and had agreed with his wife that Savithri had to be married. Relatives and neighbors would talk because it was unusual to get a younger daughter married when she had two older unmarried cousins living in the same house. But there appeared to be no choice in this case. Hence, anyone who could help, relatives, friends, neighbors, well-meaning well-wishers or even nosey observers had been informed and asked to look out for a prospective groom for Savithri. 

Meenakshi worried incessantly that her sister-in-law would get Savithri married to someone completely unworthy just for the sake of getting rid of her but obviously she could not say anything, given her situation. She knew that despite the fact that Subbhu too felt that her daughter Savithri was too young for marriage, he was completely powerless against Seetha’s zeal. Meenakshi simply prayed for her daughter. 

There had been many proposals for Savithri and some of them had come from really reputable families that had been impressed by Savithri’s good looks and Meenakshi’s parents-in-law. However, the lack of dowry had been a big deterrent. Most families who had shown some interest in Savithri as a bride for their son had felt that her lack of dowry would be embarrassing during the wedding. Usually, parents of bridegrooms settled for brides who were very poor or disabled if there was something wrong with their son. Most parents with healthy, eligible sons did not want to run the risk of having their friends, relatives, and neighbors wonder about the physical and mental health of their son by choosing a poverty-stricken bride. 

Even those who had been attracted to Savithri’s good looks had lost interest when they had discovered Meenakshi’s true situation and that Subbhu was not in a position to do much. All this interest and subsequent multiple rejections of Savithri had only succeeded in making Seetha more desperate, as all she could get was compassion for her hapless sister-in-law but not a bridegroom for any of the girls in the house. So when Kamala, her neighbor brought a proposal, it was more than timely. Seetha pounced on it gleefully. 

When Seetha had brought it up with Subbhu he had at first vehemently, rejected the proposal. “How could you Seetha? You have daughters too! Savi is just a child and she is younger than our daughters. How could you even think of something like this? The man is old enough to be her father! Aren’t you afraid that you might be sinning?” he had whispered furiously in his room afraid that his sister might hear them. “Why not one of our daughters marry this man?” he had challenged, his voice growing hoarse with anger. 

“Why? We have money to marry our daughters off well. What is stopping them from getting proposals is your sister’s daughter and so she has to go. I don’t mind us spending some small amount for her wedding but we can’t be spending on her dowry,” Seetha had replied, refusing to be perturbed by Subbhu’s anger. Subbhu was very aware that there was little he could do for his sister’s family on his head clerk’s salary. The extra money that they had for his daughters’ weddings and their dowries was actually Seetha’s. Seetha had brought with her a reasonable dowry from her father who had been a wealthy man at one time. She had been the only child produced by the late marriage of a well–educated man to an unhealthy woman who had died young. Seetha had ended up marrying Subbhu, a clerk with little or no career prospects, mainly because her father had lost most of his wealth to drink and women by the time she had been old enough for marriage. 

“If you can find some good boy who will accept her without a dowry, by all means go ahead. But you haven’t found anyone. And our daughters are getting older every day and this girl is not getting married. I can’t wait anymore,” Seetha had insisted intensely. “This is the best we can give her. Anyway this bridegroom is not as bad as you think…” “But Savi is only a child and she deserves better!!” Subbhu had burst out in a loud whisper completely beside himself with impotent fury. “Sure. So, what of it?” Seetha had calmly continued. “What you deserve and what you actually get are two different things in life. You can’t have everything in a marriage. You need to be rich for that. He is well-settled, he has money, he will take care of the girl and her family, and Kamala says that he is willing to take her whole family to Malaya with him. Maybe your sister’s luck has finally turned for the better. Just think, Rangan can get a job in Malaya and they can live there comfortably.” If anything, it was that last argument that had made Subbhu succumb. 

Subbhu’s sense of helplessness and his sheer anger at his own ineptitude had descended on him like a sack of stones and he had sat down heavily on a chair by his wife with tears streaming down his face. “She is just a child,” he kept repeating, shaking his head. “You stop crying like a child. We can’t change your sister’s fate and neither can we change the destinies of her children. We can help to improve their lives a little bit and that’s what I am trying to do. Don’t forget that you are a father and your children are your first responsibility. So this is the best thing we can do for your sister. Just think Savithri can live well in Malaya. She can take her mother and brother there and start a new life. We all know that women make these sorts of sacrifices for their families. It is Savithri’s duty to her brother. Yes, the man is old but she will get used to it,” Seetha had declared as she had started to go down the stairs to speak with her sister-in-law. 

“See Meena, the groom is from a very good family and is earning very well in Malaya. He has a huge bungalow with servants.” gushed Seetha, completely unmindful of her squirming husband and agitated sister-in-law. “You will not get an opportunity like this again. In fact, few people will even come close to getting this sort of a chance to go abroad. You are truly blessed. God has heard your prayers and felt your tears. All your suffering will be wiped away if you agree to this match. I will gladly marry one of my own daughters to this boy if his family had asked.” She silently thanked God that they hadn’t. “But since Ponna and Annam are older, why not get one of them married to him. Perhaps his family is not aware that Savithri has two older cousins?’ asked Meenakshi softly. “Um… that won’t be good Meena. They asked for Savithri and we should respect that,” said Seetha quickly, casting a warning glance at her husband who looked like he was about to say something. 

“But why did they ask for Savi when everyone knows that I am poor?” continued Meena, her curiosity increasing as Seetha gradually grew impatient. She was not used to a Meena who asked so many questions. “Well, money is not an issue for them. The groom is very well settled. It’s just that no one wants their daughter to marry him because of where he lives,” said Seetha, her lips settling tightly together in a straight line as if sealing her mouth to stop herself from telling the real truth. Meenakshi looked at her sister-in-law first, and then her brother who hurriedly looked away. A growing fear gripped her heart. She felt like a trapped animal scrambling to escape. She began almost in a whisper “What exactly is wrong with the boy..?” “He is not a boy! He is a man – 36 years old!” cried out Subbhu loudly, throwing up his hands in exasperation. 

Frowning, Seetha shot a cross look at Subbhu and dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “Be quiet! You always look at the negative side of things. Think of the good things. Yes, he is 36 years old. But he is well-settled and doesn’t require anything in dowry. His family is even willing to pay for a grand wedding. Of course, we will do our best for the wedding, so that we don’t look bad in the eyes of our neighbors. But just think of your Savithri living like a queen in a bungalow, with servants and everything she could possibly want for a good life. The groom is willing to take your son to Malaya and find him a job and you could join him there. Of course, I won’t let you go because I want you to live with me here till the end. But, if Rangan wants to go or your son-in-law and daughter insist on taking you both to live with them in Malaya, who am I to stop them? Remember, I am always praying for your troubles to be over,” said Seetha, looking at Meenakshi earnestly and speaking loudly and quickly, almost like she was earnestly trying to stamp out every single misgiving in Meenakshi’s mind. She had to drum up as much enthusiasm as possible as she was not going to have this situation slip out of her hands. She needed for this marriage to take place. Her daughters were two years older than Savithri and if they stayed home any longer she would die with two unmarried daughters staying with her. She could not imagine a greater humiliation for herself and her entire family. 

The large, dark pools that Meenakshi’s eyes had become due to her illness and her fatigue, filled with unshed tears. Her Savithri had just turned thirteen. Yes, she was poor but there must be some divine hand that could protect the child from this sort of injustice. She looked at her brother again who looked at the floor, consciously avoiding his sister’s desperate gaze. “I know I can’t afford a dowry but surely there must be some younger match for Savithri. This man is almost old enough to be her father, surely you know that Manni,” she pleaded. “I know Meena but without a dowry, you are not going to be able to find a good boy who is also earning well and who is also able to take care of you and your son. You want to do something for Rangan, right? After all, Savithri is a girl, she has to make some sacrifices for the sake of her brother’s well-being.” Seetha was using the only weapon that she knew would make a difference and force Meenakshi to yield to her persuasion. Meenakshi could not deny that the alliance with this groom would benefit her son, and Seetha knew how anxious Meenakshi was to see her son well-settled in life. 

Meenakshi licked her dry lips and closed her eyes. She was trapped and there was no use struggling. Savithri was a girl and girls had to sacrifice their lives and their hopes and dreams for the well-being of menfolk. She, Meenakshi, knew that all too well. Savithri was a child who was going to be a woman in a few short years. She had to learn to give up for her brother first, her husband after marriage and her sons when she had them. Meenakshi had done it, her mother had done it, and her grandmother had done it. So it was decided that evening just as the sun bowed out that thirteen-year-old Savithri would marry Swamy, the thirty-six-year-old man, for the good of her family, namely her brother. 

“After all we live on the charity of others. We can’t ask for more. It would be one less mouth to feed for my brother. And, in any case, Savithri is going to a better life,” was her reply to Rangan’s angry questions whispered in the darkness, as all three lay on their mats in the back room of the house. Rangan and Savithri could not see the silent tears that trickled down Meenakshi’s worn cheeks in the dark. Her brother had done his best, and he always knew what was best for her as her father and then her husband had known, and later her son, and even her son-in-law, Swamy would know.

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