WITH ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY SWATHI
I wiped the black soot and the beads of sweat decorating my face with the unused corner of the already dirty cotton rag. What colour it had once been as a part of one of my old saris, I can’t think; but I was sure it could still be of some use as there were one or two less dirty places available in it.
I closed the aluminium vessel cooking the day’s ration of rice, and stood up to leave the kitchen and go to the shady backyard where the ‘city woman’ was waiting to interview me.
The one plastic chair we owned was positioned for my seating, while the chic woman sat opposite on one of the stone blocks we used to wash our clothes on. She was making ready a big black camera that sat atop a three-legged stand beside her. On her lap were a notebook and pen. Pinned to her breast-pocket was a circular insignia with the words ‘Centre for Action and People’s Development’ cribbed together at the centre.
‘Thank you for agreeing to this conversation,’ the lady’s face radiated, her gratefulness very evident. My mother-in-law, after putting on the clothesline the last wet sari from the iron bucket, turned round to get into the house. On her way, she gave us each a disapproving glance; the more intense one was surprisingly targeted at the other lady. Surprising as it had gone to another person even as I was there to uncomplainingly receive it.
The lady across me, unreceptive to the frigid look of my mother-in-law, crossed her leg and picked the pen. Without taking her eyes off me and with the smile on her face intact, she tucked a few strands of her hair behind her ear and then adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses. These trivialities brought to the forefront of my mind a very recent memory – of the personal discovery of my own modest beauty… only a month ago. Though before this period my eyes had many a time chanced upon the hazy mirror in the hall, I had rarely taken in and acknowledged the ‘look’ of the woman in it. But this one month had been very different. I was unable to discern the new feminine changes stirring deep within me. Yes, I had looked into the mirror scrutinisingly in my early adolescence, but they had only been curious examinations to measure the rate at which my hips curved and breasts developed, and vainly to find out why I felt strangely insecure even in the same environment I had been living in for 12 years. They were not, to put light on the matter, objective assessments of myself through the simulated gazes of the opposite sex. This one month had been very different.
‘Can I have your name?’ The lady brought me back into this world.
‘Kaveri,’ I caught myself uttering the word I had long lost touch with. No one in the house now called me by my name. A wave of a hand or, at times when I had probably seemed of some importance, a ‘You!’ would be my summon.
‘Your date of birth, please?’
‘September 20, 1990.’ Possibly the worst crime I had committed during my long intolerable existence was my birth, maybe also bearing the unluckiest of birthstones. Not because I had unapologetically killed my mother while coming out of her, but because I was born a girl in this society (the place being Manachanallur, Trichy), which had as its punishment for girl children not the relatively acceptable female infanticide, but this crueller inveterate notion of child marriage. My father brought me up with the little motherhood he was allowed to assume, to bestow on me the little packets of happiness I was lucky to receive, only to be robbed of everything on my sixteenth birthday.
A gush of wind blew past me. It rustled my hair, and I thought it also brought to me the scent of his sweat. The lady, looking up at me from her notebook, resumed her questioning. ‘How long have you been married?’
‘I was married for three years, until my husband died in 2009.’
Maybe I had made the lady uncomfortable, because the smile was now receding, and the tucking of the strand of hair was unsteadily done. ‘I am sorry. I didn’t know –’ she blurted out.
‘Uh – you… can you tell me about your education?’ She asked, clearly intending to change the topic.
‘I have studied till tenth standard at one of our local schools here.’
I still vividly remember the day I was told I had ranked first in school in my HSC examination. I came home, walking on the one-foot broad pathway and showing all my teeth at the appreciatively nodding rice crops, to share my great news with father, but he had news of his own for me. I was to get married soon to a man twice my age. I had realised very early in my life that I was meant to become a teacher. The interest I had for helping out my peers at school, and the lady teacher who continuously encouraged me to take up higher purposes had cast their shadows upon my reality. Until that day, I didn’t know I was harbouring unrealistic dreams, unsuitable for women to even subconsciously dream.
‘Can you, if you don’t mind, tell me about your early married life?’ The question was obviously hesitant.
I smiled in return. I didn’t know if it was because of my uncertainty in replying, or if I was masking a trace of snigger at the inexperienced, unworldly woman sitting opposite me.
‘The extreme effort on my part when in my own house with my father was to sit by the working cooker and keep count of the whistles while he was shortly away. But once I entered this house, with a millstone round my neck, I was expected to do all the household chores with the utmost perfection. When something went wrong – which was often the case – living in the house became difficult for me. And by the time I could adapt myself to what I had been pushed into, the man I was married to died, thrusting on me undeserved blame, and around me an ominous air for the society to smell wincingly. The millstone got heavier.’
Silence prevailed, only to be later broken by the strident sound of a metallic object hitting the stone floor inside the house. It sounded more intentional than strident.
I tried to recover the distracted woman with a question. ‘Have you stopped child marriages?’ She gave me a few exemplary cases and highlighted in them all her organisation’s timely intervention. She then returned the question and added, ‘You must be very cautious after what happened in your life. Always meaning to stop the injustice served to you.’
The question took me on a journey via many memories, but I kept returning to the memory I shared with him.
I came to know that Manimekalai – a girl who had only crossed her fourteenth milestone – was to be married to a merchant from the next village. With courage that had by then become familiar and a newfound determination, I set out to do what I had done on a couple of other occasions. I dialled the government helpline and informed them of the proposed ritual. It was duly stopped by authoritarian intervention, and when enquired as to the informant, the officers maintained the case of anonymity for my benefit. However, the family on the girl’s side was strongly bent on finding out the Samaritan responsible for their failure to get their daughter married into a monetarily undemanding house. They eventually succeeded.
Karikalan – a man I had scarcely known until then – came to my rescue, and into my acquaintance, during the confrontation with the family of wounded honour. It was patently clear from his supportive arguments that he understood my case well. And as far as I knew, he was the only person in this small but terrible world to look at me as a life. His compassionate sight was welcomingly new.
Karikalan had come to my village only a few years ago. He moved in, with his blind parents, to the dilapidated house at the end of our street. The word was that he had completed his diploma in some branch of engineering from the town college, and that he was going to work for the sugar mill that had recently come up in our village. His skin – I noticed when he first came to our backyard carrying a sack of raw mangoes for my mother-in-law – possessed a dark tone. His exposed torso was muscular, and very uncomfortably, to my morality, admirable. He displayed a warm smile when his eyes first met mine. I immediately bent my head down and rushed to the kitchen. There, within the smoky, smothering dark walls, I clicked my knuckles, repeatedly asking myself what possible charm that man could hold to my irrevocably damaged, monotonously routine life. I trained my senses, my mind importantly, to ignore the substance of his presence in my small, terrible world.
My training reined me in well until the day he raised his voice for me during that seemingly inextricable, but ultimately futile confrontation a month ago.
‘Have you ever thought of starting a new life?’
The question caught me unawares.
‘You don’t really have to spend the rest of your life this way. We can offer you any help towards your moral and social upliftment… you need only ask.’
All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am becoming.
The street I was taking was moonlit (the streetlamps worked only occasionally on their own temperament). A bright little star was coming into view from behind a dark monsoonal cloud. Everything around me suddenly seemed hopeful and no longer intimidating. Maybe the ‘city woman’ had a hand in this, in my decision. Because after her departure at lunchtime, I was immersed in a cascade of thoughts, mental conjectures, and their possible consequences, only to come out anew a few minutes back. Yes, I was heading to Karikalan’s house.
A stray dog snarled at me from somewhere in the darkness enveloping my surroundings. I walked with my head straight and chest high. A couple of men crossed me from their trip to the local liquor shop, their unsteady eyes were disbelieving about my external presence. I walked with my head straight and chest high. I passed the house of the head of the village Panchayat; he was sitting on the pyol chewing betel leaves, with his grown-up daughter reading a chick lit. The completely bald man narrowed his eyes and stuffed me with his silent dogmatic questions. I walked with my head straight and chest high.
I entered Karikalan’s house.
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