Gauri looked like a flash of lightning that had taken the shape of a woman. It was slightly after her attaining puberty. Menarche makes a young woman begin acquiring the grace of the glorious female. She was at her brightest with the freshness of womanhood.
The turmeric-smeared face brought the yellow an irresistible glow. Perhaps arriving at the threshold of a new awareness, with a sparkle her eyes radiated mirth and playfulness. Her cheeks looked like those done by a painter who had discovered for himself the secret of the ruby’s radiance. Manohari realized for the first time why poets always compared the cheeks with mirrors. She was lost in thought looking at the maid.
“I’m grown up, a married woman now!” her manner appeared to proclaim with the vermilion mark on her forehead. The chamantis in her bun appeared to declare that yellowness was their exclusive possession. The love locks on her ears, and the anklets and toe rings brought her a dignity of their own.
“Why little mother why do you stare at me like that?” Gauri couldn’t bear the searching sharpness in her little mistress’s eyes.
“How’s the honeymoon, Gauri?” Manju asked mischievously translating the English term literally as honeyed moonlight.
“What is that, little mother?” asked Gauri a little perplexed.
“That is the word for going on a pleasure trip with your hubby after marriage. Didn’t you go to that temple town on the hill, Simhachalam, where your man took you after the ceremony,” explained Manohari, Manju’s elder sister.
“You always cut jokes with me. We are poor people. What do we know about honey and things like moonlight?”
True, thought Manohari. As long as one has that joy at heart was it not moonlight all the way!
The mischievous Manju too thought that the radiance in Gauri’s eyes defied prosaic quantification. Sighing she said to her sister: “Akka! It is not fortunate to be born rich. Look at these people, how happy they are! No doubt it’s all hard physical work for them, but they have the joy of contentment in that. Her marriage was fixed in less than a week and performed in a few hours. For the same to happen to us, it takes months and years all beginning with a big hunt.” Turning to Gauri, she asked her “Gauri, does your hubby go to English movies?”
Manohari kept looking absent-mindedly at Gauri. Noticing that their mother was making her appearance on the scene and casting a glance at her sister, Manju slinked out of the room.
The lady of the house saw her daughter sitting lost in some deep thought or total absent-mindedness. She was rather cross with her daughters, in a general way. “Well, Manoo: they’d be here any moment now. Why do you sit mooning? Get ready and put on a little make up too.”
“If I don’t, do you think they won’t take me? Are you afraid I won’t find any taker?”
Manoo was almost in tears.
“I don’t understand the ways of these youngsters now. Education has corrupted them. We were certainly not like this in our time. Perhaps ‘higher education’ is filling them with gloom. My dear, at least would you get into a fresh sari? Your kaki has come to ‘deck’ you up. She’s been waiting downstairs.”
Meanwhile the kaki herself entered saying: “We’ll come down soon. Go.”
Manohari’s mother sighed and went down to look after the eats for the visitors.
She had been bothering her husband Kameswara Rao for quite some time to negotiate this particular match. Rao made a good name and saved considerable amount of money to marry off his daughters. His class fellow, a highly placed official in the Education Dept. told him of a suitable groom for Manohari. The young man, who had been for some years in the US, the son of an Education officer, was coming to select a bride with the intention of getting married in a month’s time before his leave would expire. He was the only son and the parents of the groom were highly educated. Rao’s wife too suggested the same alliance: “Arundhati is not a stranger. We had been ‘bench mates’ right from our school days. We had been neighbours. Arundhati loved studies and went up high. In the weddings of our close relatives we have been meeting often. Her husband started his career as a lecturer and came up to a high position. The boy has studious habits and after studying for a career in engineering he went abroad. As for Arundhati, she’s tradition bound like us and, what is more, she liked our daughter whom she saw from a distance recently. Whatever dowry they may ask, we can happily give. She’d be happy with them.”
Manohari, listening to her mothers from a distance became anxious - more to see the lady than to see the groom to be.
When she heard that the young man had been working in the US she suddenly remembered Saraswati. Poor thing! With Manju she had a discussion sometime earlier. Manju who took nothing seriously spoke rashly. “She looks like a gunny stuffed with cotton. So well educated, wasn’t it her duty to look after her figure, in the first place? It was not her beauty: the fellow fell for her riches!”
“He did marry her, didn’t he? Having approved of the match and married her is it fair to say now that she’s fat? He too has sisters to marry off. If he discovers that his wife is ugly when he reached the US what should she do now?”
“Why do you bother about her? Not all grooms would be alike. This young man’s mother, Mom says, is a perfect mother-in-law for you. Perhaps he’d approve of you.”
“But … If it turns out that like Saraswati …”
“Isn’t she happy now, going to bhajans every day and holding school for little children at home?”
“Manju, you make fun of everything. How easily did you dismiss the tragedy! They paid a huge dowry and spent a lot of money on the wedding. They brought her up so decently. Is it only to do bhajans? Did you ever imagine her misery? When they discovered that he got his marital status in the passport entered as unmarried, how miserable did they feel? Such a renowned doctor, is it fair on his part? Would he do such a thing if he had an idea of what a Hindu marriage is! What else do you expect the poor woman do other than turn to bhajan for solace? Instead of spending a joyous life with all the wealth she needed around, she’s is dragging her life searching for the Absolute with an unripe mind.” Manohari’s voice faltered and she stopped to wipe a tear.
Arundhati stood before the huge mirror giving a finishing touch adjusting the bunch of flowers in her hair-bun. Two society ladies alighting from an expensive car entered the room. Seeing Arundhati spraying perfume behind her neck, one of them asked: “We hear you are going to select a bride for your son, is it true?”
“You yourself look like a bride to be, so cute and enchanting!” said the other pinching her cheek affectionately.
“Joking apart, Madhumati, you haven’t told me the reason of your whirlwind visit,” said Arundhati looking at herself in the mirror.
“Not anything you don’t know. That Collector is coming today and we have to finalize some things. At least four of our people have to get jobs in that Super Bazaar. This responsibility we are placing on you. We have the list and you are free to choose from among these. I don’t think this is hard for you.”
“Sudha, the convent educated, promised to come along with you, to make things a little easy. She talks English very fast and with ease too,” said the other visitor.
“The car is ready.” said Mr. Narayana Murty to his wife from the veranda.
“Who’s that lady?’ Manju asked the maid Gauri, who took a tray of tiffin plates into the room.
“The groom’s elder sister! But her kid is the very devil.”
Manju was itching to get in but then the instructions of her mother were that she shouldn’t be ‘seen’ by the visitors. Perhaps it was the old fashioned fear that the groom may prefer the younger sister. Or, perhaps it was the fear of Manju’s tongue. She spoke whatever came uppermost in her head and never cared for the consequences.
“The groom is O.K., though his face couldn’t be seen for the hair on his forehead up to his cheeks!” Manju said, but Gauri didn’t say anything.
“Gauri, how would that lady look in jeans? Oh, Gauri, I’ m asking you!”
“You ask me and I cannot lie to you. Like a drum.”
“Good shot! What are those two, mom’s friend and her daughter, what do they say?”
“All about cinemas and all in ‘ingleech’ or ‘indee’.
“They feel, Telugu films are only for people like you. What does the young woman say?
“She speaks like a maharani. Says the kid would die if there is no phanta. When kok was withdrawn it became impossible for her to wean him from her breast.”
“Gauri, I’d teach you alphabet. I’m sure you’d make a great novelist spinning out a yarn every fortnight. Mother must be gaping at that woman in wonder.” Without the medium of Gauri, Manju went to the wall to overhear what was being said in the other room.
“Isn’t that perfume a little crude?” asked the one going to become her sister’s sister-in-law.
“Why do you add honorifics to my name, my dear Arundhati, after all we have known each other for decades,” Mom was saying.
“Excuse me, ever since I joined this social service I thought that it is proper to call even a tenth-class girl as garu: it is part of culture,” Arundhati was saying.
Manju felt a little dizzy.
“Gauri, what is that young woman’s hubby?”
“An officer over all those police jawans.”
“Oh! Now I can understand her ‘speed’. They begin their day with whiskey. Any perfume is bound to be crude for this woman. The old woman should have taken to writing. Perhaps she is one already with her ‘culture’. Gauri, how’s it that akka’s voice is not heard at all?”
“That babu took her upstairs for a word in private.
“Akka has already changed a lot!” Gauri told herself, clicked on her tape recorder, and went to the window to have a view of the sea.
Rao stood looking around in Manohari’s room. Manohari allowed him some time to take in all he wanted to and after a while showed him a chair and asked him to sit down.
“Who painted all these?”’
“Are you a devotee of Meera?”
“I love her, admire her and adore her. I like fine arts.”
“Your name is beautiful.” Rao kept to his English.
“I’ glad.” She stuck to her Telugu.
“Do you watch English movies?”
“Not by any principle, but I don’t see many. I don’t understand.”
“Is it the pronunciation….?
“Not that alone.”
“You have a Master’s in English?”
“It needs that taste too.”
The dialogue got stuck.
“I hear you are all members in the club. Do you dance?” he began again., after a while.
“No. It feels odd. How long was it since you’d been abroad?” She asserted her command over the interrogative.
“Don’t you like staying abroad?” She asked avidly.
“Your not knowing dance. Three years.”
“Thirty-one. I like the way you talk. Were you ever in love? Did you love anybody?”
“No. Did you?
“With two I’ve been close … thought of marrying the second but by then, stupid woman, she was gone with ….”
Manohari regretted probing his past.
“Would pre-wedding interfaces be like this in the US?”
“They meet somewhere and know each other’s interests. After they like each other …”
“Would they examine each other like this with questions?”
“Not like that exactly, but they understand …”
“As if it’s easy. So their marriages are the individual responsibility on either side. Elders …”
“Silly! Why should elders poke their nose in this very personal matter? Manohari, I like you! Come, happily, freely…. What’s your blood group?”
“Would they want that too there?”
Rao rose from the chair and was about to take her into his arms. In a moment she jerked herself into action and withdrew.
“Do you have a virginity certificate with you?” She was about to ask but bit the question between her teeth, since she never knew whether men could obtain such.
In a minute she rallied herself around and said “T”.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m glad you don’t. T is for traditional. That ‘s my blood group. In three years what could have been your treasure has been obliterated. You have no feeling left for motherland.” She burst after having controlled herself for that long.
“Mr Rao. According to times, it is true that life styles change. It is natural. But you have gone out plucking your very roots. I’m sure you can’t take root there. One day you’d rue your decisions and find your actions downright stupid. Forgive me. I can only hope you’d understand me only after some years if it were to be given you by God. The male friends I have are not like your women friends there. I’m glad you liked my name. Goodbye.”
“It’s all right.” Rao wanted to say. But like a boy scolded by the Sanskrit teacher for uttering words faultily, he turned red. His face fell and he remained speechless.
Manju saw her sister enter her room and thought that she’d be cross for her playing her tape recorder so loud. Noticing that she was not angry asked her: “How does he look, akka?”
“. . . . ”
Isn’t he like the one in the song being played?
“. . . . “
“Tears! In your eyes? Akka! Sorry!” she said and switched off the system.
“Leave it alone. Let it be. After all it is not the fault of the record player.” Manohari switched it on again.
Hiccups in the heart
The pond’s water sweet, like coconut milk
“Whatever has happened, akka? Did he hurt you in any way? If you don’t like him tell me. For getting a wife, a life partner like you, he must have earned merit in the previous birth too.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then why tears? Are they tears of joy?” asked Manju back in her element.
“I wonder where we are heading! He took me into the room and went on asking questions if I knew dance, if loved anyone, what my blood group is.”
“You lost an opportunity: you should have told him that you knew Rock-n- Roll, Thumba, Rhumba , Cha. Cha., etc.”
“Yes, I could rave misled him. But, when he knows the truth? We know Saraswati, don’t we? For a few chips of gold we are going abroad and in its enticement we are uprooting ourselves from a great culture, selling our souls in the bargain.”
“I tell you what it is. Our culture hasn’t gone deep into our blood, thanks to materialistic Westernization. Our education has become such and so the ways of our very living. How many know anything about Anasuya or Arundhati nowadays, thanks to our convents and colleges? It is your good fortune that you still sing the praises of Sri Anjaneya in the age old composition.”
“Manju! How much have you grown! But then, why those bell bottoms, those jeans and that haircut?”
“My dearest sister! All this is different. You take everything seriously. I only played a bit from our Telugu Madam’s routine harangue. Let that alliance go: it’s all for our own good, as the saying goes. Don’t ever let tears come into your eyes. I can’t bear to see you downcast.” She concluded and broke into the film song about the lusty piercing-sharp rose-thorns of a bachelor’s eyes.
“Not rose-thorns. For the beautiful rose even the thorns are lovely and we know they are there. But this is not so: it’s a paper one: no thorns and no fragrance, no beauty or anything worthwhile. Only it’s paper.”
(First published in Andhra Prabha Wkly21st Jan 1981; “My Story I liked’ Yuva, Nov.1984)