“Sarasu” (Shortlisted for the Little Magazine’s New Writing Award)
“Akka, this oddiyanam is all of twenty sovereigns!1 Kamalam pati says so.” beamed Sarasu, “But I am not to wear it before the wedding – not even to see if it fits.” As a rule, I didn’t like oddiyanams much. Moreover, this one seemed ridiculously heavy for someone as fragile as Sarasu. I smiled diplomatically, looking enthusiastic for her sake.
I could feel my migrane coming on. It was the guilt, I think. The combined weight of all that knowledge… They were closing in on Sarasu. The wedding was almost upon us. What stung me most was my impotence. My job as a teacher, the modest income it gave me, the fact that I was respectably married and older than Sarasu by almost a decade – none of these things mattered. I was not part of that complex web of familial relationships that had suddenly sprung up around the wedding and around Sarasu. Sometimes, I found myself wishing I could do something truly awful – laugh hysterically for a full minute perhaps or badmouth Sarasu’s in-laws to their face – just so that they would look at me. I would have preferred their wrath to their polite indifference.
Kamalam pati was my mother-in-law’s second cousin. When her niece and her husband had died in a freak accident, Kamalam pati had surprised everyone by offering to adopt their orphaned daughter. And so eight year old Sarasu came to live with her. The child’s father – Raghavan – had had a flourishing business in silks. Raghavan’s will clearly stipulated that Sarasu would be able to access the bulk of his wealth and property only after she was married. He had nominated his eldest brother- Kunju periappa – as his daughter’s guardian.
On the first of every month, Kunju periappa would dutifully send Kamalam pati a money order for one thousand rupees – a princely sum in those days. My mother-in-law had recently aired her suspicions about Kunju periappa to me, “It is true that he was regular in sending Kamalam the money for Sarasu’s upkeep. But no one quite knows what he has done with the bulk of her fortune. Whenever Kamalam or I question him, he claims that it is all safely put away in bank F.Ds. But just tell me, where did he find the money for that huge palace that he has gone and built?” I felt deeply sorry for the innocent Sarasu. I thought of the flourish with which she always said, “Kunju periappa is like my own appa. He always buys me a dress when he comes to see me. You know, he says, ‘You will be a rich woman Sarasu when you get married. You will remember your Kunju periappa then, won’t you?’ As though I will ever forget him!” And now, it seemed that Sarasu would be in for a shock once she was married. If my mother-in-law was to be believed, the several crores of rupees that should have been hers, had dwindled to a measly couple of lakhs.
Sarasu was a rather plain looking young woman. The heavy glasses she wore did little to dispel this first impression of plainness. Sarasu had once lost a pair of contact lenses in the rough and tumble of a kabbaddi game. Kamalam pati had deemed her too careless to be trusted with anything so fragile and expensive. Somehow, it didn’t matter that the child had enough and more money in her name to throw away on a thousand other pair of lenses! Kamalam pati was deeply conservative and set in her ways. Wastage, she always declared, was not to be tolerated. Why spend so much money on a pair of contact lenses that couldn’t withstand a strong gust of wind when glasses would do just as well? In a way, I suppose, it was a relief to her that the boys left Sarasu alone.
Sarasu was an indifferent student. The basics of algebra always evaded her. She could not string five words together without flouting some rule of English grammar. As for history, Kamalam pati explained, she simply did not have a `memory’. Sarasu had struggled through school somehow, repeating a couple of years in the process. Kamalam pati and Kunju periappa had then urged her to register for a correspondance course in English. English was the `easiest’ subject after all. But Sarasu had already gone and failed a paper thrice! “What to do, akka? I have no interest in studying,” she said to me once with a characteristic toss of her head. I was struck by her nonchalance then – to fail in an exam was somehow unthinkable for me. But then Sarasu was like that – unfazed by any disaster that came her way. Even as a child, she had quietly accepted the fact of her parents’ death. She had made the transition to the stern Kamalam pati’s care with unusual grace. By now, the old woman was almost fond of her. It was easy to like Sarasu. She was affable and openly affectionate. She made friends easily. She was a person with no boundaries, no hard and fast rules. This scared me sometimes – her capacity to like everything and everybody.
Equally indiscriminate in her choice of clothes and jewellery, Sarasu would sometimes sport the most bizarre stuff. “So, you are in fancy dress again!”, I would tease her often and she would laugh. I vividly remembered the day she draped a nine yards saree around herself. It had belonged to her dead mother and had smelt strongly of moth balls.
Sarasu’s groom was a squat ugly looking man who worked as a clerk in a bank. I didn’t trust him – he was too shifty-eyed. His parents were aware of course of Sarasu’s sizeable fortune. But this hadn’t stopped them from insisting on a cash dowry of Rs.50,000 and on a hundred sovereigns of gold. They had also hinted strongly that they would expect Kamalam pati to look after her during her delivery. Kunju periappa and Kamalam pati had consented almost at once. The demands seemed fair enough, they said later, for a groom with a permanent job. “The girl may have money. But she is an orphan. There is no one to look out for her. Moreover, she is nothing much to look at and will never earn anything. It is best this way. At least we know this family and the boy does not appear to have any bad habits,” Kamalam pati and Kunju periappa had argued at the time. Secretly, I blamed them for caving in so soon, for literally choosing the first boy that came along. Maybe, Sarasu was not a beauty but she was lively and youthful. This boy, on the other hand, was distinctly ugly – I couldn’t help feeling repulsed by him. Would Kamalam pati and Kunju periappa have acted in such haste if Sarasu had been their own child? How different Sarasu’s life might have been had her parents been alive!
Soon, various aunts and uncles descended at Kamalam pati’s house. They came from all over the state and were seemlessly absorbed into the life of the wedding. Noticing my lost look, Sarasu’s aunt (on her father’s side) directed me to stuff mounds of haldi and kumkum into tiny plastic bags. As for Sarasu, she had disappeared into the maelstrom of “bride- making”. I heard someone say that she was getting her mehendi done at the moment.
On the day of the wedding, I overslept and consequently, missed the lakshmi pujai. I rushed to the mandapam in my second-best kanchipuram silk. Sarasu was looking strangely fragile that morning. She was wearing a rich purple gold brocade saree, a few dozen chains and necklaces, a pair of vankis and the oddiyanam. Several mozhams of jasmine adorned her hair. Through the smoke and the crowds of relatives pressing about her, she spotted me and waved. I waved back. I wondered how our relationship would keep after her marriage. Would we be able to meet occasionally and talk of this and that as we always did or would her domestic responsibilities swallow her up entirely? Would she be devastated by the knowledge that Kunju Periappa had not been entirely honest, that he had not carried out the trust that her father had placed in him? Would she be disappointed in the ordinariness of her husband? Would her father-in-law’s crass materialism shock her? Would the ruthless routine of domesticity destroy her vitality?
The sounds of “Gettimelam! Gettimelam!” filtered through into my consciousness. The nadaswaram and the tavil had suddenly burst into life. Like someone in a dream, I aimed a few grains of rice at the bride and the groom. Sarasu was now a married woman!
Sarasu’s sister-in-law was fussing with her tali when Sarasu started weeping. She wept with a force that astonished everyone. It was as though she was weeping for all time: for the bleak future that awaited her, for her dead mother whose softness she still carried in her heart, for her warm-hearted father who used to call her his rani, for the truth about Kamalam pati and Kunju Periappa that she had somehow intuited, for her own terrible vulnerability…
And as suddenly as she had begun, she fell silent again. In the stillness that ensued, everyone started talking – louder than ever.
1A heavy ornament worn around the waist.