The sky was grey in the twilight of the monsoon day. A damp wind blew fitfully as the sky spat raindrops from time to time. Lamps were being lit in houses as darkness moved in on the shoulders of massive, low-hanging clouds.
Tulasi walked home with a light heart. Balanced on her hip was an old, clean tin in which she habitually carried her mouth-watering murukku, chakkuli, nippattu and cheedai; empty now, thanks to good sales. Today, her small home business of making snacks for the local stores was going to a new level. The owner of the largest store in the village had placed a sizeable order, promising to give her the flour, spices and oil at cost. No longer would she have to go from petty shop to tea stall to sell her snacks.
Moving down the muddy path, Tulasi ducked into the hood of her drab saffron-coloured sari that covered her shaven head, to avoid the curious gaze of a passerby. Her beautiful long hair had been sacrificed on the tenth day of her husband’s death, along with clinking bangles, aromatic turmeric and big red bindi. Years ago, she had been a lovely young girl with large eyes the colour of midnight sky, a straight nose and lush lips.
But when the pallu of her dull saffron-coloured widow’s sari was raised over her shorn head, the shadow that fell over her face had erased her features, until she resembled a shrouded lantern. She had to eat less, spurn spicy food, and fast often to dampen the passions in her body and mind. From then on, no man had ever touched her, and no woman had wanted her inauspicious company. Married at 12 and widowed at 16, she had been condemned to the living death of widowhood, sans society or hope of happiness. During the first few months, she had felt bereft, but the feeling had passed, thanks to the joys and challenges in bringing up her daughter, Lalitha, whom she affectionately called Lalli.
Tulasi’s mouth twisted in a bittersweet smile as she thought of her 18-year-old daughter… her beautiful, intelligent, playful girl… a bride two years ago, a widow within a year thereafter. Another life destined to remain barren.
“Why is my family cursed?” wondered Tulasi, shivering as the wind cut through her body, billowing out her pallu on its way. Cold raindrops mingled with hot tears, and ran lukewarm down her cheeks.
Absently, she wiped them. What was the point in dwelling on the past? What was meant to be would surely happen. Nobody could prevent it. But she had faith; God always showed her what to do. Look at how her skills at making savoury snacks was helping her make a living. One day, she had given some murukkus to a child playing on the street. He had shared them with his father, who owned a store in the bus stand. Next day, the man had placed an order for 100 pieces of the snack and her business was under way. Yes, God always showed her a way.
“I am so lucky to live in such enlightened times,” she thought, her mood lightening again, as slimy mud, the consistency of idli batter, squelched between her toes with every step she took. Independence had finally come to the country, and 10 years later, a poor widow like herself could actually earn some money and make an honest living. Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. In the old days, a widow who had no family to support her had to beg at the temple for food! She could have suffered through it, but she didn’t want that life for her Lalli. Lightning flashed at a distance and, seconds later, thunder growled in reply.
“Arjuna, Arjuna …” mumbled Tulasi. The name of Arjuna, the son of the God of lightning, would protect a person from lightning strikes. Her mother had taught her that as a child.
The rain strengthened into a drizzle, making ripples in the puddles that were permanent fixtures during the monsoons. She delicately negotiated a careful path between two huge ones, holding her sari up at mid-calf with one hand, the tin balanced on her hip with her other hand. Once she had crossed the muddy area, she let down the folds of her sari and automatically adjusted the hood over her shaven head.
Within sight of her home now, Tulasi’s steps quickened. Her tiny hut with its thin mud walls and mossy tiles sat far enough away from the village that the miasma of ill luck that hung over her family wouldn’t touch anyone else. By the time she reached it, Tulasi was wet from the steady drizzle and shivering a little from the chill in the air.
Lalli opened the door. The sight of her daughter in a pale mauve sari the colour of brinjal flowers, with her hair caught up in a bun, warmed Tulasi. Looking at her face, a reflection of her own, she shivered again, this time in empathy.
“‘I am glad I didn’t let her head be shaven,” she thought. Poor girl, she was already
condemned to a joyless existence, why destroy her looks too? As for her wearing colours, she hardly ever went out. Where was the harm if she wore them indoors? None of the villagers ever ventured as far as their remote hut.
Tulasi washed her feet with the water that Lalli had brought in a little pot. She had to rub them against the rough edge of the wall to get all the mud off. Her feet finally clean, she stepped on to the sacking placed on the floor just inside the door of the hut to dry them.
Lalli had lit the oil lamps set in twin niches in the walls of the hut. They shed a warm glow upon the small one-room dwelling and gilded its meagre contents. To the right of the door were the sleeping quarters with rolled-up mats, sheets and pillows, as well as two small iron trunks of clothes and other possessions. The left ‘wing’ housed the puja area and living quarters in the front. Lalli had become a voracious reader these days, and her books were arranged neatly in a small shelf in the corner there. The kitchen with its earthen stove was at the rear. There was also a small pot set near the wall to catch the drip from a gap in the tiles, an inevitable feature during the monsoons. A flimsy piece of plywood opened out to the back yard where there was a bathroom and outhouse, and a few plants that constituted their garden.
Tulasi closed the plank door behind her. Instantly, the smell of overheated cooking oil that lingered in the air enveloped her in its invisible arms. It also reminded her of the day’s events.
“Lalli, I have some good news for you! Linganna has asked me to make snacks for the festival season, and we will actually make a profit this time! Also...”
“Yes, I know. Linganna already sent the oil. But I have to talk to you, Amma!” In the golden glow of the lamps, Lalli’s lovely face looked pale. Immediately, Tulasi tensed, her shoulders hunching. “Kusu (Child), are you sick? Have you eaten at all?”
Lalli waved away the concern. “Amma, your cousin’s son, Vasu, came by today. He said
he wanted to ask you something.”
“Really?” Vasu was a nice young man with a good job in the city; he was the one person who visited them often and seemed to genuinely care for them. But just then, Tulasi’s mind was on preparing dinner. What would Lalli like? “What does he want?” she asked absently.
“He wants to marry me.”
Tulasi dropped the snack tin. It clattered noisily to the floor. However, she took no notice of it, walking over to her daughter and taking her hand. “Child, you know that part of your life is over.” Her daughter’s youthful and pretty face held a wealth of sorrow. “Fate has given us this burden to bear, and we must live by its dictates. Trying to fight it only brings misery. Trust me when I say that it gets easier with the passage of time. I managed, and so will you!”
Lalli snatched her hand back. Her face was stormy. “But you had a child to bring you some joy, Amma! You had me! But what do I have? Nothing! Day after day of sitting inside this bare little hut that always smells of hot oil, watching people live their lives around me, without even a shred of happiness. No, I’m not going to take it anymore.” Her voice quavered, then firmed. “Vasu says it is okay, legally and morally. He and I are going to elope tonight. We’ll get married in the city and live there.”
“No, you won’t!” Steel rang out in the older woman’s tone. It sounded strange coming from such a frail body, but there was no mistaking the strength of the negative response. “I refuse to allow you to make a mockery of society’s rules. You are an intelligent girl, and you have to understand this. Widows do not get married again. They live in austerity.”
Tulasi found herself on the mud-plastered floor without knowing how she got there. The roughness under her hands felt real, but nothing else did. The words buzzed in her head, making her feel sick. The single room that was her home swam before her dazed eyes.
Who was this young woman? Was she really the cheerful and innocent little child Tulasi had given birth to and raised? Who had taught her the deviousness and deceit? When had she become this clever? Under ordinary circumstances, remarriage would have been out of question. So, Lalli had shrewdly changed the circumstances.
Lalli was still speaking. “I’m sorry, Amma! I couldn’t see any other way. We both truly love each other. He is a good man and he will look after me.”
Vasu was a good boy. She couldn’t have chosen better for her daughter. And, there were truly no other options left. Tulasi took a deep breath, but it didn’t help. The tight band squeezing her chest remained. It took immense effort for her to speak. “All right. What is done is done. Now go and get your things together, while I make something for you to eat before you leave.”
After standing stunned for a second, Lalli squealed with joy. “You are the best mother in the world. Vasu should be here any minute, so I’ll go and finish packing.” Tulasi’s hands were busy making rice porridge in a pot. But her mind was busier. Thoughts of all kinds ran through her mind like rats panicking in a fire.
Lalli would be leaving any minute now. Her little girl would soon be gone, and she would be alone. She’d never lived alone. What would she do?
The family’s honour was tarnished, their good name blackened forever. But why should it be so? Why shouldn’t Lalli have a life, a family? What could be so wrong about such a young girl remarrying? After all, she hadn’t killed her husband. Had God actually ordered that widows should be punished for His own actions?
“Narayana, Narayana!” Tulasi shook her head, dislodging these sacrilegious thoughts. Society knew best, and who was she to demur? It had deemed it wrong for widows to marry again, and with good reason. God put the husband’s life in the wife’s hands. If she couldn’t keep him alive, she was cursed, and not to be trusted with another man’s life. She had told Lalli all this, but the girl hadn’t listened.
She, Tulasi, had made a big mistake. She herself should have been strong mentally. She should have shaved off Lalli’s hair as soon as her husband had died. Then Lalli would have recognised the inevitability of her future. However, without any tangible evidence of her widowhood to stop her, she had rebelled, and in doing so, she had thought nothing of offering her own mother up as sacrifice.
Shudders ran through Tulasi’s slight frame when she thought of the consequences, once news of Lalli eloping spread through the village. It was just a matter of time, in the hamlet with only about 200 people. Her hands trembled so much that she had to stop stirring the porridge. The local society would take out its punishment of Lalli on Tulasi herself. It would become a matter for the panchayat. The villagers would excommunicate her. They would revile and shun her, even more than before. They wouldn’t do business with her anymore. She would starve to death. They would throw her body to the dogs, laughing while they did so. All because of Lalli’s thoughtless and selfish actions!
Tulasi shook again, but this time with rage. Her mind was blurring, compelling her actions. She shoved open the back door and went into the garden, striding up to the arali (nerium) bush with its golden flowers. When she came back in, she had some seeds in her hand. Hastily, she ground them up and put into the bottom of a large steel glass. She was pouring porridge into it, when Lalli came up, her eyes bright.
“Vasu is here.”
Oh God, it was already happening. “I’ll talk to him,” Tulasi answered automatically. Meanwhile, something niggled her mind, something she meant to tell Lalli.
“You made porridge! Can I have some?”
Aah, that was it.
“Yes, I’ve put it in the glass for you. Drink it before you go.” When Lalli went this time, she wouldn’t return ever. Nobody ever came back from the city.
“But I’m not very hungry. You are the one who hasn’t eaten in a long time.”
“You will be hungry soon enough. Don’t worry about me, there is some left in the pot! Now, go on.”
There was something wrong with the porridge, wasn’t there?
When Tulasi saw Vasu waiting nervously, tears of anger and frustration rose in her eyes. Everything was going too fast for her. What was happening? She stood there staring blindly, listening to his apologies and promises of eternal fidelity to her daughter. In no time at all, Lalli was back, wiping her mouth.
“Hmm, the porridge was a little bitter, but it still had plenty of sugar.” She gave her mother an exuberant hug. “Amma, thank you so much for letting me go,” she said, picking up the bundle of her things. “As soon as we settle down, we will send money for you to join us, all right? You will come, won’t you?”
Now Lalli was concerned about her mother? She forced some words out. “Foolish girl, of course I will. Where else would I go? But, hurry up. The bus is coming.”
With a breathless goodbye, Lalli went off to meet her future.
Tulasi watched the red taillights of the bus disappear into the rain. Then, she tottered into the house. She was panting as if she had run a mile. Sweat poured down her face and tremors quaked continually through her body. The enormity of her actions was just beginning to solidify in her mind.
Had she had poisoned her own daughter? God, what had possessed her? How could she have done it? And what should she do now? A rancid taste filled her mouth. Was it the taste of madness, or of vengeance? How long before the arali seeds began their deadly action? She didn’t know, but it wouldn’t be too long. Then, there would be no more Lalli, and no more baby. What should she do now? Her wild, staring gaze skittered around the tiny dwelling… and stopped short. Cooking oil tins and a stack of dry firewood lined the wall. They had been delivered so that she could start work on her snack order. She had her answer.
On the bus that was travelling through the wet darkness, Lalli put her hand on her stomach and winced. With the alertness of a new lover, Vasu looked at her. “What’s the matter?”
“My stomach is cramping a little,” she answered. Instantly, he was concerned. “Did you eat something bad?”
Lalli laughed. “It’s because I’m starved. Amma made a lot of porridge for me, but I couldn’t bring myself to drink it. Poor thing, she was out all day without any sustenance. So, I drank just the bit left over in the pot and left the big glass for her. The porridge was a little burnt, so it was slightly bitter. But, it was also hot with lots of milk and sugar, just the way I like it,” she said wistfully.
Vasu gazed at her with affection. “How considerate of you!” he said.