She kept staring at the mardani (henna) stained hands. People were laughing around her talking in a language all so familiar, but the sense didn’t come through in all din. She looked up into the mirror to see a pretty Brahmin bride adorned with brightest of jewels, a face that should have been smiling but yet looked lost. As she looked around the room the only other quiet faces were that of her sisters and mother. She felt the prick of the tears start.
Vimala’s life’s road was planted long before she was even born. Her father , Rajan went against his family who mostly consisted of engineers to join the Indian defense academy.His grades weren’t the greatest , but he was sure he would see the world. What he managed to see were some villages in Bihar, Orissa and Karnataka with a final posting in Kerala. That’s where, when he out buying some illicit liquor, he chanced upon a young pretty Catholic girl called Martha. Their romance was everything a Indian movie was made of. Shy first glances, gallant interventions and finally parents objections. At least her parents objected, his disowned him. To Martha it was a way to get out of the small town she lived in and to visit places, that she heard Rajan describe - Vienna, Rome and New York. She was so captured in the imagery that she didn’t realize that Rajan had never ever been to these places either. It was love of their imaginations, which brought these two together. After marriage imagination dissolved into reality. Rajan was thrown out of the army , when he was helping the local bigwigs access the army’s liquor cabinet. With no experience and barely a degree , he managed to get a sales job. Which left Martha to tend to their four children, Vimala being the eldest. So Vimala’s youngest days were spent listening to her mother hum Amazing grace and hear the snatches of stories from the bible. As the years grew, so did Rajan’s regret over his split from his family. He hated the fact that he was now an outsider, not only to his family but also to his community. He started to press upon his children the traditions he had grown up and the strict guidelines that his parents had asked him to follow. Funny how the thing that he hated most growing up became his support and cane in his later years.
For Vimala, her years were spent listening to the quarrels of her parents, tending to her younger siblings and vehemently promising herself she would never fall in love. She felt torn between the two religions. Though she loved the temples and churches equally, for her family the formed the battleground in which her parents were the generals. As she looked at other families celebrating Diwali or Christmas together, she made her life’s resolution that her children would belong to one community. They would follow one path of traditions. This feeling was further fortified when she met her cousins, as she and her sisters were always treated as the unwanted ones , never part of the inner circle.
Vimala worked hard through out her life. Her background gave her the strength to enter any arena and find a way there. It helped her get into a good college and later employment. 6 months into her job, she was flown to New Jersey as part of an implementation team. To walk around with people from different walks of life influenced her more. But she knew, that this was just a phase, she had to go back to the community laden structure back home. That’s when she met Prashant. A team leader, he was easy to get along with and seemed to understand her view point more than any one she ever met. He listened to Chopin with her , at the same time liked dancing to the Indian tunes playing on one of the websites. When she had to go back to India, he asked her to marry him and she asked him to talk to her parents. Vimala’s dad was overjoyed at the prospect of a groom from his community. Martha was however more apprehensive. She hugged her daughter , but was worried about the brick bats that may fall due to Vimala’s upbringing. Rajan went alone to meet Prashant’s parents. Even though they were resistant initially, Rajan’s charm and Vimala's income information won them over. The marriage was conducted in June on a hot summer day in Chennai.
As the day drew closer, pressure seemed to start closing in around Vimala. Prashant was distant (for appearances , he assured her).His mother subtly stated that she wasn’t the daughter in law she was looking for and his sisters just smiled condescendingly at everything she said. “Her language wasn’t good enough, her gait too fast and her mother was not our community !!” they shuddered. “How did Prashant, like this horse” was the house opinion.
As the subtle insults and hints starting coming her way, Vimala tried putting it off thinking it was bridal jitters. The boiling point came when she saw her mother being insulted by Prashant's mother , her hackles raised she was about to give it to her in-laws but before she could say anything, her mother pulled her to the side. As she looked at her elder daughter radiating anger
Martha said “Chellam (Sweety) , its ok. Prashant is a good boy, he will look after you, that’s what matters”
“But Amma, how can you let them say that?” asked Vimala
“Remember child , stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me and if they are nasty turn the other cheek like the bible tells you to, I taught you that as a child and that is what you need to cling to now. You will face a lot of obstacles, but adjust . That’s what all good wives do"
As Vimala’s mother kissed her cheek saying that the first solitary tear fell.
The wedding was one of the worst days of Vimala’s life. She was constantly pulled , pushed and shoved into various sarees, ornaments and objects .Told to smile , to laugh and to sit on cue and worst of all she couldn’t even say a word to her family the whole time. When Prashant tied the mangalsutra, the photographer asked the bride to look up but wished he hadn’t because the sadness in her face shouldn’t have been captured on camera. As she now was escorted to her in-laws room for the Grihapravesh (House Warming) ceremony to symbolize her new start in life, her hands seemed to indicate the intricate patterns , which were now flowing through her mind. She looked at her mother and sister, mute in their speech but their eyes conveying every emotion that ran through her like a river .
Staring at the calendar, Vimala realized it would be another month to her third anniversary. She had followed to a T what her mother had told her. When her sister in law laughed at her inability to draw a kolam constantly, she has smiled and complimented the other kolam around her. Or when Prashant’s grandma had told her she was too heavy , she promised she would drink Grass juice for a week and she did. Prashant had sympathized with her initially . During the first few months of marriage, when she cried to him at night he would pat her down and say “They will adjust. They don’t know you yet”. She believed him and tried her best to become the perfect daughter/sister in law the last two and half years. She had tried but she knew she failed.
The insults had just accelerated over the years. The taunts less subtle and the digs even more deliberate. Prashant seemed to be content in life. He had a home , which he had bought based on their joint income and a new Ford which he could take his parents around in. He knew that his family disliked Vimala, but she had to live with that. He knew he couldn’t change their minds. So his refrain had become “You have to adjust dear, they are set in their ways”. He really didn’t care what happened within the house as long as Vimala brought in her paycheck every month.
Vimala felt a piece of her dying every day. She had stopped listening to any type of western music, bibles and church activity was banned in the house and between the cooking and office work, her reading non existent. As the pressure started to build around her for a child, she became ready for that too. At least the child will be part of a family, a community she thought. No more outer circle for the next generation and maybe just maybe she will be accepted then.
As Navrathri festival and her anniversary drew close, the entire house was humming with Bhajans and prayer songs. After a lengthy prayer session, as she bent down to pick up the mess , Prashant’s aunt was giving his mother a list of prayers to be said for the next morning. As Vimala drew closer, the aunt pointedly looked at her and said
“She still cant chant anything, can she Pankajam ?. I don’t know what type of a girl grows up without saying Lalitha Saharanamam everyday. It’s a mothers duty to teach their daughter. I’m sure Prasant’s daughter also would be like her mother unless you teach her. Don’t let her grow up to be another Vimala”
As the ladies moved away, Vimala felt she had been struck by a bolt of lightening. Nothing would ever take away the imaginary mark on her and that mark would be passed on to her child. Any small mistake on the child would be blamed on Vimala and the child resented for it. Her baby would always be in the outer ring in this family. Also her child will never know the joy of twirling to Vivaldi or see the colors that flowed through the stain glass window in churches. As Vimala, sat that night and sobbed on the terrace feeling all alone, Kamakshi mami (aunty) came upstairs. She had always been the kindest to Vimala in her years there.
“Its Navrathri and your crying , is everything ok ?” She asked
“Mami, My life is so puzzling and miserable, that I can do nothing but cry”
“Child, do you know why we celebrate Navarathri?" Not waiting for an answer mami continued
“It celebrates every aspect of a woman’s life – the giver, the protector, the playful and the most terrifying of them the destroyer. Like Lakshmi, we woman on this earth get to play different parts of the goddess through out our lives. Most times it’s the giver but sometimes it has to be the destroyer. Durga killed Mahishasura in a battle that raged 9 days which symbolizes the nights of navarathri. We don’t get that type of time, our battles rage over months ,years and sometimes our whole lives”
As Vimala listened dumbstruck at what Mami was implying , mami continued
“You have to change roles my dear. I have seen you take insult and abuse over the years. If you stay quiet, one part of the goddess in you dies. The fighter . Do you want to let that happen? “
“But Mami, I can't disrespect them, they are his family”
“You don’t have to my dear. Every battle need not be about words and weapons. Sometimes walking away gives you the strength you need to come back whole. A battle may not be about destroying others but just saving yourself” saying that Mami pressed a small picture of 9 faces of goddess Lakshmi in her hands and moved away.
As Vimala gazed at the temple lights that blazed along with the church steeple that shone. She did realize then , that her family were never the outsiders, they were the special ones. The ones who were able to connect to different religions, but still understand that God was one. It did’nt matter how you followed him, but you did follow in good consciousness. As she rose again and stared at her hands, now hard and callused from the years of work, she smiled. Tommorow she would be moving in a new direction, if Prashant were to follow her that would be nice, if not she knew she would survive. She needed to let her inner goddess live, every one of them and even subduing one would kill all of them as a whole. Her smile seem to join the lights that lit up the dark during navarathri that evening.
PS:This story is does not detail the life of any one woman. Considering Navarathri is a festival celebrating the power of Woman, I felt a sense of sadness, when I see woman across strata facing emotional and physical abuse on a daily basis. So I dedicate this to all my sisters, who have been insulted or assaulted by their so called loved ones.