This is a simple, short short story for those of you still reeling from the Mr. Narayana Murthy saga.
While the story that follows is purely fictional, the kind of events depicted were probably quite common in 18th century and early 19th century India (I cannot speak with any authority on how things were carried out before that). I have vague memories of my great-grandmother talking about how her marriage was arranged in a manner very similar to that described in this story: she came home from school one evening to find that her future had more or less been decided. All that remained was for her to be "seen". Without further ado, onto the story:
It was a stiflingly hot night. To make matters worse,
the electricity had gone off a while back. The old lady shifted in her
bed, groaning softly. The whir and whine of the slowing fan had awakened
her. She now lay on her back, too stiff to bat away at the mosquitoes, which
buzzed boldly all over her. The pain was the worst it had ever been, and
her stiff limbs felt like they were carved out of granite. There was a
clock in a shadowed corner of the room, but she would not be able to see the
time until the early hours of the morning. Outside, it was dark and
completely silent. She sighed and stared up at the ceiling, praying for
daylight to come soon, so that the mind-numbing boredom of the night would end.
On a mat across the room, old Paati, her maid, snored steadily, twitching and grimacing through her dreams, not bothered by the heat or mosquitoes. Old Paati had been particularly annoying that day. She had not closed the water tap properly in the morning, and the sound of the steady drip, drip, drip of precious water, spreading like an inkblot on the bathroom floor, had maddened the old lady. She had exhausted herself shouting for Paati to come down and close the tap, but of course, Paati, conveniently deaf at moments like this, was too busy gossiping with the other servants. When she finally came into the old lady’s room, she simply stood there with a vacant grin on her face, while the old lady railed on about water shortages and the danger of slippery bathroom floors. It was so difficult to find decent help these days to look after an infirm old lady. You just had to put up with whoever was willing to work for you….
The old lady tried to hypnotize herself back to sleep with the rhythms of Paati’s snores, but only got more and more irritated. She wished she could reach across and give her a good poke. She imagined doing that. Poking Paati. With a sharp stick. No, that would be too harsh. Just an ordinary one would do – her cane, yes, her cane. She could nudge Paati with that to stop her infernal snoring. It would work, yes, but only for a few seconds. Paati would just turn over and resume snoring.
The old lady listened to the steady tick-tock of the clock. A song came to mind, which matched the rhythm of the clock. She whispered the words to herself – Sri Gana-natha Sindhu Ra-Varna tick-tock tick-tock Karuna Sa-gara…..The words took her back many years, to a hot, dusty day in pre-monsoon Madras.
She was an ordinary looking little girl, just past her ninth birthday. Thin, with bony black knees and elbows, two tight oily plaits which skipped and bounced off her back, brown skin the color of rich coffee with a dash of milk. But there was something in the sparkle in her eyes, her smile and her effervescent cheerfulness, which set her apart from the rest of her gang of giggly girl friends. They were playing hide and seek that day. She and her best friend Girija were hiding underneath Murugan’s ironing cart, which was parked in the shade of a drooping, dust-laden mango tree. She was giggling so hard that spurts of urine stained her underwear. She would have to be very careful that her skirt did not get wet, or else she would be teased mercilessly.
The evening’s fun came to an abrupt end when the air was shattered by her mother’s voice bellowing, “Parvathi, oi Parvathi! Where are you? Come here at once or I will slap the living daylights out of you!”
Parvathi made a face at Girija, and crawled out from under Murugan’s ironing cart with a sigh. Now what? She had filled the water pots, not to the brim as Amma demanded, but close enough. She had collected the ironing clothes from Murugan… what could Amma want now? She walked gingerly towards her home, holding her skirt away from her urine-soaked underwear.
“PARVATHI! Where are you!” screamed her mother again. Urine stain be damned. When Amma yelled like that, she meant business. Parvathi picked up her skirt and ran down the street to her home.
When she entered the cool darkness of the house, she came to an abrupt halt. Many pairs of chappals and sandals were neatly arrayed just outside. Unfamiliar voices – lilting female and deep male ones – came to her ears. Before she could wonder any further, her mother came bustling out of the rarely used drawing room. This must really be an important occasion, for the drawing room to be opened up. Amma glared at her and hissed, “Chi, look at you, such a filthy mess.” Spitting into the palm of her hand, she rubbed Parvathi’s face, her calluses scraping the tender skin. Before she could protest, she was pushed into the drawing room, which was filled with strangers, all staring at her.
Parvathi stared back, swallowing hard. She sensed instantly what this was all about. Her sister had got married last year, and a similar scene had taken place.
“Come here, let me look at you.”
An ancient woman, older than her Ammamma, and seated on the best chair in the sitting room, beckoned with her finger. Parvathi stepped up to her, very conscious of the urine stain, of the mud on her knees and clothes, of the crop of baby pimples shining on her forehead.
“Mmmm, quite thin she is,” muttered the ancient one, “but maybe she will fatten up when she becomes a Big Girl.”
Parvathi knew what Big Girl meant. Her sister had entered Big Girlhood last year with tears and moans, and bloody soaked rags.
A middle-aged man sitting next to the ancient woman told Parvathi to stand in front of him for inspection. She did, feeling eyes boring into her from every angle. She kept her hands behind her back, hoping they would cover the wet stain. The middle-aged man, however, pulled her hands free, and studied the lines on her palm.
“Looks like she will be good for her mother-in-law,” he proclaimed and then continued in the same breath, “but quite dark. Our Suresh is quite fair, so this one’s complexion is a problem.”
Amma hastened to explain. “No, no, she is naturally quite fair-skinned, but she spends too much time playing outside in the sun. Does not listen when I tell her not to.” This was picked up at once by a middle-aged woman, who was sitting next to the middle-aged man. She was resplendent in a very expensive silk sari, and was decked up in what was probably her entire jewelry collection. “Oho, so she does not listen, is it? Our Suresh, he is such a good boy. Always coming first in class. So respectful to us.” Parvathi held her breath. How would Amma counter this? Before Amma could marshal a response, there was a shriek from someone behind Parvathi. She wheeled around. A young woman, quite the most hideous looking person Parvathi had ever seen, with narrow eyes lined with too much kaajal, flaring nostrils and a generous mustache, was pointing at her, a look of delighted malice on her face. “Look everyone, the girl has wet her pants! Chi, chi, at her age! Is she bed-trained?”
Parvathi wished she could turn into a wisp of smoke and
disappear into thin air. Amma came instantly to the rescue. “No,
no, she has been collecting water from the well, she slipped and fell on a
puddle and wet her back. She is a good girl, very helpful around the
house, does a lot of work for me.”
There was a moment’s silence around the room. Clearly, no one believed this tale. The mustachioed one opened her mouth to challenge the story, but the ancient woman, who had other priorities, saved Parvathi. “Hey, girl, can you sing? Sing something for me.”
Parvathi took a deep breath and sat down on the mat in the middle of the room. She faced the ancient woman, and the middle-aged man and woman. Closing her eyes, she sang the last song she had learned, the geetham in Malahari raagam…..Sri Gana-natha Sindhu Ra-varna Karuna Sagara……It was a simple song with a simple rhythm, and Parvathi sang it beautifully. She had a high, sweet voice, clear diction and an excellent sense of rhythm. The ancient woman beat the rhythm on her knee and swayed to the tune with a smile. Amma saw that smile and relaxed. Parvathi’s skinniness, dark skin and other flaws would not matter so much with such obvious musical talent. When she finished her song, Parvathi hung her head low. Nobody spoke for a few breathless seconds. The mustachioed one pursed her lips, displeased with the way things were turning out. Then the elderly lady spoke, sealing Parvathi’s fate with her words. “Not bad, not bad at all. I think she will do for our Suresh.”
There was a click, and the fan began to swirl, slowly at first and then gaining speed, rattling and vibrating noisily. The electricity was back. The mosquitoes dispersed in scattered confusion.
A smile played about the lips of the old lady. Sleep covered her like a gentle blanket, and in a few minutes, her snore added a counter-rhythm to Paati's.