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       Mahashweta, p.3

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Anand was born five years into her marriage—the result of many pilgrimages and prayers for a male child. He was the apple of her eye, a fountain of joy in her barren life. She would smile when he smiled; and when he wept, gloom would descend on her. Even though they had several servants at home, it was she who fed and looked after him. Anand grew up in a sheltered environment. He was good at studies and extremely obedient to his mother. He always felt she was the person responsible for all his progress. Anand inherited his mother’s looks and his father’s intelligence.

  His sister Girija was born five years after him. She had been brought up like a princess. Good-looking and extremely arrogant, Girija behaved harshly with everybody, and nobody had the courage to remonstrate with her. Radhakka would always find excuses for her conduct, ‘Oh, she is only a child, after all,’ she would say. Girija was not good at studies, but no one bothered about it.

  Their house was named Lakshmi Nivas. It was aptly named in every way—it was a big mansion in a large plot of land. Every Deepavali, Radhakka would organize a big puja for the goddess Lakshmi, and the entire town would be invited for the celebration.

  Radhakka was extremely orthodox and narrow-minded. When her husband died, the thought that she was a widow made her feel very uncomfortable although she had no financial worries. With the death of her husband, she felt she could no longer celebrate the puja of the goddess, given the attitudes and conventions prevailing in the small town where she lived. She believed that only Anand’s wife could now perform the Lakshmi puja, and she was waiting for him to get married. Although he had won a scholarship to go to England for higher studies, Radhakka would not let him go until after his marriage.

  The village schoolmaster, Shama Rao,—Shamanna, as he was called—was teaching mathematics in the verandah of his home to a group of students who were all from well-off families. In keeping with the usual custom in the village, no money was paid to the teacher, but the children brought him coconuts, vegetables or other produce from their fields.

  Shamanna’s mind was not on what he was teaching. He was impatiently waiting to hear the sound of the village postman’s cycle bell. Since the small village was located some distance from the district headquarters, the postman came once a week. He not only delivered the letters, but, if necessary, also read them out and wrote the replies as dictated to him. He would stay at the village master’s house and leave the following morning for the next village.

  Vasudha, Shamanna and Sabakka’s daughter, was helping her mother in the kitchen. Though Sabakka was busy chopping vegetables, she came out every five minutes to see if the postman had come.

  The postman, Papanna, brought a pile of letters when he arrived. There were two letters for Shamanna. He opened one and began reading. The children noticed that he was occupied and started whispering among themselves, the whispers quickly turning into a quarrel. The noise distracted Shamanna. He was already upset by the contents of the letter, and this unruly behaviour angered him further.

  ‘Children, go home now. For your homework, write out the multiplication tables from twenty-one to thirty, three times each, and show it to me tomorrow.’

  The children behaved as if the doors of a cage had been opened, and they disappeared within moments.

  The letter Shamanna was reading was from the father of a boy who had come with a marriage proposal. Anupama, though the eldest, had told her father very clearly that she did not want to marry just yet as she wished to pursue her studies, or start working. She had also requested her father to go ahead with Nanda’s marriage. As Nanda was not interested in studying and was ready to get married, he had tried to arrange her marriage, and she had been ‘seen’ by a prospective bridegroom and his family.

  It seems your eldest daughter Anupama is doing her MA in the city. Our son happened to see her in a play and liked her immensely. If you do not object to it, instead of your second daughter, we would prefer an alliance with your eldest daughter. We do not expect any dowry. Whatever you choose to give will be sufficient. We will be very happy if you accept this proposal. Please do not misunderstand us. After all, marriages are made in heaven. We are sure Nanda will get a better match.

  ‘Oh, is there a letter from the Patils? It’s been a while since they came to see Nanda,’ Sabakka asked excitedly when she came from the kitchen.

  ‘Yes, the letter is from them. But they have not approved of the match.’

  The colour drained from Sabakka’s face. ‘That day they spoke as if they wished to go ahead with the alliance. What made them change their mind?’

  ‘Well, they have changed their mind now.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘The same old story. This boy, too, wants to marry Anupama,’ Shamanna replied hesitantly, knowing what her reaction would be.

  Sabakka was furious. ‘When did that fellow see Anu? We never even mentioned her name! Did you say anything?’

  ‘No. It seems he saw her in a play.’

  Sabakka’s anger knew no bounds, ‘This apsara won’t get married herself and insists on destroying my girls’ lives!’

  The sound of Nanda’s sobbing fuelled Sabbaka’s animosity towards Anupama. She went in and tried to console her heartbroken child.

  Shamanna started reading the next letter. When he had read it, he was overcome with surprise. He re-read it to make sure he had understood the contents correctly. He could hardly contain his joy and excitement as he called out to Sabakka.

  ‘What is it? I am busy.’

  ‘Do you remember my old school friend, Dr Desai?’

  ‘Ah! That famous professor. . .Will you tell him to find a good bridegroom for our daughter?’ Sabakka was desperate to see her own daughters married. She said, ‘I have two daughters to be married, and looking out for suitable alliances is no joke. You need not worry about Anu. She will always have boys chasing after her.’

  ‘Stop talking rubbish about Anu. She would never look twice at any boy. If the boys chase after her, it is not her fault. Dr Desai has written about a boy. His name is Anand. He is also a doctor. His father was Gopala Rao, a very famous contractor.’

  ‘We will never be able to match their expectations. Tell the doctor to suggest someone within our reach.’

  ‘That is true. But, Anand has seen Anupama and. . .’

  ‘And what?’ Sabakka’s heart skipped a beat. She fervently prayed that such a rich boy would not choose Anupama.

  But God was deaf to her prayers.

  ‘Dr Desai has written that Anand likes Anupama and has asked me to send Anupama’s horoscope to Anand’s mother.’

  Sabakka was silent.

  ‘What do you think?’

  ‘Anything I say will appear unkind. I am only her stepmother, after all. You are her father, so you decide.’

  Shamanna tried to reason with his wife. ‘You are her mother. Anu has always been respectful towards you. Why do you always find fault with her? If the boy likes her, it is not her doing. Tell me what you think.’

  ‘If you really want to know my opinion. . .don’t proceed with this match. There is no comparison between their financial status and ours. Marriage should always be among equals. What is wrong with my brother, Ranga? He might be a little dark but he has a diploma in engineering. So what if the age difference is ten years? He won’t ask for a paisa. Talk to Anupama, she will listen to you.’

  ‘No. He is not the right match for our Anu. As a mother, you should not suggest anything like that.’

  ‘I do not differentiate between Anu and Nanda. If Ranga agrees to marry Nanda, I will be all for it.’

  Inside, Nanda was gazing at the ceiling of the old house. There were cobwebs everywhere, and the sun was peeping in through the broken tiles. She told herself, Even if everyone agrees to this, I will not. . .She knew very well that Ranga would never approve of her dark skin and large nose.

  Shamanna did not talk until lunchtime. Sabakka took his silence as a positive sign. ‘Please think it over. Let us not proceed. We neither know w
ho these people are, nor what their intentions could be. Isn’t it a little unusual that such a rich and handsome doctor wants to marry our poor daughter? There might be something wrong with the boy that they have not disclosed.’

  ‘I want to send Anu’s horoscope to them. Desai would not have written to me without verifying all that. He knows we are not rich. This is a godsend to us. I will not be able to find a better match than this for Anu even if I spend my life searching for it. If Anu says no, I will convince her to agree; she is still young and does not know what the world is like.’

  Shamanna got busy copying Anu’s horoscope. Sabakka lit the lamp in front of the family deity and prayed that the horoscopes should not match. Nanda, on the other hand, silently wished that the horoscopes would be compatible, so that Anu would finally be out of her life.

  Unaware of the tornado brewing at home, Anupama continued with her studies.

  Radhakka was silently swaying back and forth on the swing in her home, Lakshmi Nivas. Her confidant and advisor, the family priest, Narayana, sat before her as if awaiting her orders.

  ‘Avva, what will you do now?’ Radhakka was ‘avva’ to everyone.

  ‘Narayana, do the horoscopes really match? How is the girl’s horoscope?’

  ‘Avva, the horoscopes match perfectly. The girl’s horoscope is excellent.’

  ‘Anand is my only son. What about children?’

  ‘Oh, her horoscope shows only male children.’

  Of all the horoscopes that had been matched with Anand’s, so far this horoscope was the most compatible.

  Girija walked in while they were talking. She was in her first year MA and had seen Anupama in the college. Radhakka asked for her daughter’s opinion.

  ‘Avva, she is poor but very good-looking. No wonder Anand likes her,’ she said.

  Radhakka was lost in thought. She could not think of any plausible arguments against this proposal. On what basis could she refuse her consent to this match? Anupama’s poverty was the only drawback. But she could not cite that as the reason for her objection; people would call her greedy. She wondered what stand she should take. If someone as pretty as Girija admitted that she was good-looking, which boy would not want Anupama? If Radhakka rejected the proposal, Anand would probably argue with her about it. What if he insisted on marrying the girl regardless of what she said? She would lose face, and that was the last thing she wanted. Then another thought struck her. What if Anand went to England without getting married and brought home an Englishwoman as his wife? The very idea made Radhakka break out in a sweat. The community gossips would say, ‘Look at Radhakka’s son, he’s brought home a foreigner for his wife. Serves Radhakka right for being so choosy.’ How could a woman from another land uphold the customs and traditions that had been handed down to them by their ancestors and had now become inextricably woven into the fabric of their lives? She thought of the family, the children, the inheritance, the grandchildren, and she shivered. Surely, it would be better to have a poor girl as her daugher-in-law rather than a girl from another community. She could not bear to think of the disgrace if that were to happen.

  Silently, Radhakka pushed the swing back and forth. She would have to make a crucial decision soon.

  If she agreed to the alliance, Anand would be happy. And it would earn her Anupama’s undying gratitude. People would praise her, ‘Look at Radhakka. . .how large-hearted she is! She has accepted a poor girl when she could have got a daughter-in-law from a better background.’

  Gently, she pressed her foot down on the floor and stopped the swing. Her mind was made up now. ‘Narayana, choose an auspicious day for the engagement and tell the girl’s father that I would like to see her once before that,’ Radhakka said wearily.

  So, Anupama is going to become my sister-in-law, thought Girija when she heard her mother’s decision.

  THREE

  Anupama was surprised when Shamanna turned up at the hostel unexpectedly. He did visit her once or twice a year, but only when he had some official work in the city, and he always informed her of his plans beforehand. He had never dropped in on her unannounced in the six years that she had been away from home. Anupama thought Shamanna looked more haggard than the last time she had seen him. Perhaps the worry of taking care of three daughters on his meagre income made him appear pale and careworn all the time.

  ‘Anu, I want to talk to you about something important. Let’s go out for a while.’

  Anupama took him to a stone bench under a big banyan tree within the hostel campus. On full moon nights, the hostel girls usually sat on the benches around the tree, and Anupama had often entertained her friends by singing songs late into the night.

  Father and daughter sat down and Shamanna explained why he had come. Anupama was surprised. ‘Appa, I cannot get married now. I am still in my final year. I want to take up a job and help you financially.’

  ‘Anu, don’t be foolish. You won’t get a better match than this. You have never been a burden to me. You have always studied on scholarships, and you’ve been sending me all the money you save. For my sake, please don’t say no to this proposal.’

  ‘Appa, these people are very rich. We cannot meet their expectations. If you take a loan, who will repay it? Nanda and Vasudha are yet to be married and there are still two more months to go before I complete my MA’ Anupama was taken aback by this sudden turn of events.

  ‘Anu, I have told them about my financial status. Don’t worry about Nanda and Vasu. I will get them married on my pension and I promise you that I will not take any loans. You can complete your MA after marriage. By the way, Anu, have you seen the boy? How is he?’

  Anupama did not reply. How could she describe Anand to her father? Could she say, I am Rohini and he is Chandra, I am Lakshmi and he my Narayana. He is irresistible, the very picture of Manmatha, and I fell in love with him the moment I saw him. . .?

  It was the day Anand was to meet Anupama, in the presence of the elders in the family, to complete the formality of ‘bride-seeing’. Even though the match was certain, Radhakka had insisted on first ‘seeing’ Anupama before agreeing to the engagement.

  Since Radhakka was very traditional, she felt that Anupama should not enter Lakshmi Nivas until after the marriage, and decided to ‘see’ Anupama in Dr Desai’s house. After all, Lakshmi comes in the form of a daughter-in-law and she must enter the house at an auspicious time, with her right foot overturning the measure of rice that would be kept on the threshold, in order to bring prosperity to her in-laws.

  Anupama had acted in many plays, but this was real life, and she was overcome with shyness. Pundarika was going to be her husband and her future would be linked with his life. Not in her wildest dreams had she thought that she would meet Anand in such circumstances. Anupama entered the room where Anand sat with his family, Dr Desai, Vasumathi and Shamanna. Since she had nothing appropriate to wear for such an occasion, Sumithra had lent her a brick-red sari. Her long plait, dark red bangles and small drop earrings made Anupama look all the more stunning. Anand’s eyes never wavered from her face as she sat opposite him. Was this the same Anupama who had sold him tickets and acted in the play? wondered Anand.

  Girija looked at Anupama enviously. She would now be a competitor for Anand’s affections. All along, Anand had been theirs. Now he would belong to Anupama and there was nothing they could do to prevent this.

  Radhakka had taken one look at Shama Rao’s threadbare coat and dhoti and immediately assessed his financial position. Noting the absence of the girl’s stepmother, she had shrewdly guessed the nature of the relationship between Anupama and Sabakka.

  Looking at Radhakka’s ornaments, and Anand’s Mercedes—symbols of a world totally alien to him— Shamanna had grown so painfully aware of his limitations that he had not spoken at all.

  It was Dr Desai who broke the silence, ‘Anand, do your want to say anything?’ he asked.

  Anand shook his head. After all, what could he say? This was hardly the time or place to expr
ess his love for Anupama or extol her beauty.

  ‘Anu, do you want to say anything?’ asked Vasumathi.

  What was there to say? Anand had long heard the song in her heart. . .noticed the glow in her face. Anupama sat without speaking, her head bowed, her eyes downcast.

  It was Radhakka who had the last word. ‘We have a very large circle of friends and relations, so we want the wedding to be held at our house and at our expense.’ Radhakka had carefully masked her disappointment. She was a practical woman and had realized that it would be impossible for Anupama’s father to conduct the marriage in a manner befitting their status. This was the only solution—after all, she had to maintain her standing in the community. Radhakka looked at Shamanna and continued, ‘You can call as many people as you want. Don’t bother about the expense.’

  Anand and Shamanna were surprised by her magnanimity.

  For the first time that evening, Anupama lifted her head and looked at her future mother-in-law with gratitude. There was no sign of happiness or warmth on Radhakka’s face, but there was a knowing gleam in her eyes. For a moment, Anupama shivered.

  The wedding was a grand event. Anupama felt as though she was in the midst of a fairy tale. From Anupama’s side of the family just twenty people attended the function. She had lost her mother when she was a year old, and so she had not had much contact with her maternal relatives; only her uncle attended the ceremony. As a child, Shamanna’s mother had taken care of Anupama, but she too had died within a few years. Sabakka had disliked her stepdaughter from the very beginning. The grand scale on which the marriage was being celebrated depressed her further. Anupama’s stepsisters, too, were taken aback by such opulence. Shamanna, on the other hand, could hardly contain his happiness and gratitude. He thought that the goddess herself had come down to earth in the guise of Radhakka.

  Almost all of Anupama’s friends from the hostel were present at the wedding, as she was very popular with them. Sumithra was constantly by her side, and the day before the wedding, she had asked her mischievously, ‘Mahashweta, do you want to talk to your Pundarika? If you have any message, your companion will go and deliver it.’ And both of them had burst out laughing .

 
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