As the dawn broke into Ramadh, the sun rays crept in from beneath the clouds onto the roof of the Iyers. As they spread across the house it gave the house a magnificent orange tinge. It gleamed in all its beauty.
Not very far, one could hear the temple chants and the bell. These chants filled the air with feelings so deep and mesmerising, one could just sit there forever lost in the divine power. Mrs. Iyer stood inside the temple with her eyes closed in prayer, each chant from her mouth felt like it came from deep within her. She often got so lost in her prayer, someone had to gently touch her arm to bring her back to reality.
“Amma, shall we go. Appa must be waiting.”
“Oh yes”, she said as she ran her hands through her face. She bowed in all humbleness in front of Durga Ma and said “let’s go.”
Mrs. Iyer was draped in a maroon cotton saree which had a gold pleat running all through its edges, she had a big round red bindi, dark kohl in her big bright eyes. Even at 52 she looked no less than a goddess. Her face always seemed so much at peace, one always forgot their worries for a moment when they looked at her.
As Mrs. Iyer walked into her house, which was a few steps from the temple. She saw her aunt-in-law. She handed the pooja Basket to her daughter and touched her Athai’s feet to seek her blessings.
“I see Durga every time I see your face Shantha, it’s as if she is living in you.” Her Athai said as she blessed Mrs. Iyer.
Shantha just smiled “I am just her devotee, and she my mother. A child is always a shadow of their mother, that’s why you see her in me.” Shantha said as she smiled holding her head down.
She handed her Athai the prasadam from the basket.
“I will take your leave, it’s time for his morning coffee.” Shantha said as she walked into her home.
“Sari Ma, go, God bless you”, her aunt said as she had her prasadam – pongal on a banana leaf.
Shantha walked into her courtyard which boasted of its lovely potted plants which stood on one side of the porch, it had a tulsi plant which was perched right in the middle of the courtyard. The courtyard had a bench made of red brick on one side, upon which beautiful handmade earthen pots were placed.
One could see the whole house standing all around the courtyard. It had a porch which ran in a square shape, which led to the rooms around the courtyard. The porch was of blood red colour with a black line running along its borders. It had magnificent round pillars all over which were thin at the top and widened as they touched the ground. The room doors stood slim and tall with intricate wooden carvings in all of them.
Shantha had built this home brick by brick. Her soul resided in this house. She took care of it like it was her own child. She walked towards the tulsi maadam and offered her prayers. She went to the kitchen to prepare coffee for her husband and mother in law. As she walked in, she saw a lovely strand of jasmine flowers wrapped in a banana leaf on top of the counter. She smiled to herself as she pinned the flowers in her hair. The fragrance of the flowers filled her heart with pure joy. Mr. Iyer every morning would religiously keep jasmine flowers for her and she would adorn it like a newly wed.
She had a lovely marriage and even lovely two kids. Her son Arvind had grown up so soon, Shantha felt it was almost unfair she did not get to live his childhood enough. He was a handsome young man now, pride of his mother and father. He had gone on his father on so many things, his looks, his boldness, his strong sense of what’s right and wrong, his sense of responsibility towards the family. But had taken on his mother when it came to compassion towards other people, deep respect and affection for his family.
Shantha folded her hands in prayer to God and thought “Ma, this is all your blessings. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Amma, I will take the tray”, came in Avni as she took the tray from her mother’s hand. She was the second child of Shantha, very vibrant and caring.
“Okay Ma, go and here take these snacks as well.” Shantha said as she handed her the snacks.
Shantha walked towards the dining hall behind her daughter trying to figure out the list of things she had to do. Navratri was starting from tomorrow. She had so much to do.
Every year she would add new Bommai Kolu dolls and paint them personally, her daughter since recent years also started to enthusiastically sit with her mother and paint them for the Navratri. But this year the Navratri was even more special as she had finally found the perfect girl for her son.
Her name was Nandini, she was beautiful, very simple, demure. She would add to the grandeur of the Iyer family with her simplicity and innocence, Shantha thought.
“Oh Shantha, I don’t understand you. Why are you after us seeing this girl?” Her mother in law had said when she showed her Nandini’s photo.
“She looks like she comes from such an ordinary family. Don’t you realize we are amongst the most prominent families of Ramadh. Arvind is your only son. The sole heir to all of this.” She said spreading her hands.” We should get a girl from a rich and illustrious family, someone from our stature. Besides my grandson deserves a good amount of dowry.” She concluded in pride putting her hands on her hips.
“Ma”, Shantha said politely. “I know what you mean, but dowry is not what I want, class is not what I am looking for in my future daughter in law. I want a girl who can hold this family together with her utmost dedication towards her family, who can uphold the name of our family with her values, who can love and care for our son and their future children with her compassionate and caring nature.” Shantha had spoken to her mother with her head held down. She had folded her hands, “Forgive me Amma, but I want a girl from a simple family, one which is rich in its culture, traditions and values.” Shantha said.
“Sometimes, the things you speak! I marvel at myself as to how young you are to us yet so much more sensible.” Her Athai, her Amma’s elder sister said as she had walked in. Her mother in law just grumbled to herself.
Shantha knew her mother in law was not happy with the proposal, she however knew that Nandini would soon win over Amma’s heart. Her husband had said “I believe in you Shantha, I know the family too, though I too like Amma wish you had looked at families of our stature but I also know that you always think well for the family. If Arvind is happy, who am I to object.” He had said to Shantha nonchalantly looking at his phone.
Shantha knew her son would have no reason to say a no to her when he would see her photo. Nandini’s beauty was like a ray of sunshine that lit the darkest of the rooms, her eyes were so beautiful and mesmerizing, one could get lost in them. There was innocence written all over face, one could not help but smile when they looked at her.
“Amma”, Arvind said as he held the photo. She could see his eyes widen, his face go red and suddenly his face broke into a smile. Shantha knew he could never say a no to her once he looked at her.
“When are they coming Shantha? Have you got everything ready?” Mr. Iyer said as he sipped his morning coffee and had his murukku.
“Here, have some idli. Amma, Arvind, Avni come sit.” Shantha said as the caretaker bought hot idlis from the kitchen.
Mr. Iyer looked at Shantha and asked” when are they coming ma?”
“Oh sorry, they would be here in three hours time.” Shantha replied looking at the wall clock. “I have so much to do, please excuse me.”
“Shantha”, Mr. Iyer said “sit here and have your breakfast first.”
“But I have no time..”
“I don’t want to hear that, you will eat first and then go, else you will overtire yourself and faint.” Mr. Iyer said as he took the newspaper in his hand and drowned himself in it.
Shantha sat down obligingly.
Mr. Iyer was a man of few words, he never knew how to show how much he loved and cared for Shantha, yet he did in his own ways. Shantha knew that even though he was really busy with his rice fields and coffee plantations, Shantha was always there at the back of his mind.
It was almost time, she had made all the arrangements for their arrival. Shantha was now anxiously waiting for Nandini’s family to arrive at the gate with the pooja thali in her hand. She was wearing a lemon green silk saree which had a beautiful maroon border, even at this age, no matter what colour Shantha wore, she looked beautiful in it, her big red bindi just added to her grace. Her son and husband were dressed in their white and gold Silk veshti and shirts. Her Athai and her daughter too were beside her waiting for them with equal excitement.
As the car arrived at the gate, Shantha could hear her Amma mumble something under her breath as she got up and went inside.
Nandini’s mother walked towards them with her husband. She was dressed in a baby pink Cotton saree with a thin golden border. Her husband had worn a veshti. Shantha finally noticed Nandini walking behind them in full nervousness. She was playing with her hands vigorously. She looked every bit gorgeous in a red and blue Pattu davani.
Her parents handed over the sweets and fruits to her Athai, and greeted all off them with their hands folded. Nandini who was right behind them, touched her Athai’s feet, then Shantha’s and Mr. Iyer’s.
Shantha’s heart filled with so much joy. She just held Nandini by her shoulders and hugged her, with moist eyes.
“Venka..take their luggage upstairs.” Shantha said to her house caretaker.
She had invited them for the Navratri. She wanted Nandini to see how Navratri was celebrated in their household and the importance it held in their house.
As she took them inside the house, Nandini’s family looked around in wonder.
“I have heard so much about this house, but now I know it’s truly marvelous.” Nandini’s mother said as they sat in the hall.
“Thank you so much for inviting us”, her mother said with her hands folded to Shantha. “We first of all can’t imagine our good fortune that you want our daughter for your son.”
“No please”, Shantha said as she held Nandini’s mother’s hands. “I can’t imagine my fortune to have your daughter as my daughter in law.” Shantha said. “And please you don’t have to fold your hands this way, we will be family soon.” Shantha said as she put her hands on Nandini’s mother’s shoulder.
Mr. Iyer just sat in a corner listening intently to every word, but he did not look like he wanted to be a part of the conversation, he had his own reservations regarding the choice of family for his son’s marriage, yet he knew Shantha would never take a wrong decision.
Shantha saw her son eagerly waiting by the hall door.
“Yes Arvind, what are you standing there for?” Shantha said looking at him.
“Would you mind showing Nandini around our house and the farms?” Shantha said.
Arvind looked at his mom with glee and nodded.
“If you don’t mind?” Shantha said as she turned towards Nandini’s parents.
“Uh..Oh..Well, if it’s okay with you?” Nandini ‘s father spoke this time. “Don’t go very far”, he said looking at Arvind.
“Yes, yes”, Arvind said as he looked at Nandini. “Shall we?” Arvind asked.
Nandini looked at her mother who said “Go Ma..Go”, patting her on her shoulder.
Nandini stood and followed Arvind out.
Two three days had passed, Shantha felt like Nandini was already a part of the family, without uttering a word, she already knew of everyone’s needs and wants in the household. She reminded Shantha of her old self in so many ways.
One day Shantha was sitting in the pooja room, preparing for the pooja, when Nandini came and stood by the door.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
“Yes, of course.” Shantha said looking up.
“Can I help you with something?” Nandini asked playing with her hands.
“Yes, oh I would love that.” Shantha said holding her hands. “You don’t have to be nervous, this will soon be your home.”
Nandini just smiled sheepishly.
“Okay, let see.” Shantha said looking around. “Here you can help me with this”, Shantha said as she held out a yellow cotton bag which had their family name on it. “You can take this and fill these”, Shantha said pointing out to an array of things which included bettle leaves, nuts, a pile of small cloth of silk and in a corner were kept a bunch of silver coins. “Can you do that?” Shantha said looking at her. “Yes of course, there are so many things to give out, are these for those who will come for the pooja to the the Bommai Kolu dolls?” Nandini asked as she took a bag. “Yes they are. We will of course add some fresh flowers, but we will do that as we are heading these gifts out”, Shantha said.
“Wow, you do it so well, all the arrangements for navratri, the whole of Ramadh talks about the Bommai Kolu dolls of this house.” Nandini said as she filled the bag with the contents one by one. Shantha just smiled to herself. “would you like to paint some with me, I add a few every year.” Shantha asked excited at the thought.
“Oh no, your dolls are so beautiful, how will I be able to do justice to it?” Nandini said looking up. “I know you will make lovely one’s.” Shantha said. “I trust you, that’s is why I have decided to have you in this family. One day eventually you will have to take care of all this.” Shantha said holding Nandini’s hand. “I wanted someone just like you, and I know my son, he is very nice, kind and gentle. I assure you, he will keep you very well.” Shantha said this time putting her hand on her head. Nandini just smiled with her head down. “This is our house now, in fact I would love it if you help me with decorating this house for the pooja.” Shantha said.
Nandini had the very next day very religiously sat and weaved lovely garlands of marigold flowers, which she hung all over the house. She made the most wonderful kolam in the courtyard with rice flour.
“Oh wow, Nandini this is so beautiful.” Avni had exclaimed waking up one morning to a house full with flowers all around. She saw Nandini had made four strands at the bottom of each strand of marigold flowers to which four lemons were attached.
“What is this?” Avni asked.
“Oh this is for warding of all evil eyes towards this house and the family.” Nandini said smiling at Avni.
“Will you teach me how to make this kolam?” Avni had asked looking down at Nandini making a lovely one in the center of the courtyard by the tulsi plant.
“Of course, here come take this.” Nandini had said pointing out to the rice flour she had kept in a bowl.
Avni sat down beside Nandini to make the kolam.
Shantha was looking at both of them from behind the pillar. She was so content with herself for finding someone like Nandini for her house. As she looked around the decorations, the fragrance of the flowers filled the house and Shantha’s heart.
However Nandini always faced the cold behavior of Shantha’s Amma no matter how hard she tried. Nandini even made a special concoction of oils for Shantha’s mother in law when she heard of her knee pain. She had even offered to massage her knees every night till she was here to which Amma had vehemently declined “No, no need. Shantha will do it.”
One strange morning, a dear friend of her’s from the village came to visit Shantha. “Oh Nandini is so beautiful. The whole of Ramadh can’t stop talking about her.” She had said sitting down.
Shantha smiled to herself. “Arvind is really lucky, he is already taking such good care of her.” Shantha said recalling how her son took care of all her needs from time to time.
“Shantha..I..I need to talk to you..Umm..”, her friend Rajaswi hesitated as she spoke.
“What happened?” Shantha asked getting worried. “You can share anything you want with me”, she said holding Rajaswi’s hand.
“I..Oh god..Okay I saw Arvind and Nandini the other day. There was something wrong with the way Arvind was talking to Nandini. He was I think shouting at her. I thought I should tell you”, Rajaswi said putting her head down.
“Shouting? No no you must be mistaken.” Shantha said as she refused to believe it. “Arvind would have never done that.” Shantha said.
” Well, I really wish I was. I just wanted to let you know that’s all. I will take your leave now, it is time for the pooja”, Rajaswi said as she got up to leave.
“Sari”, Shantha said as she walked into her house.
“Arvind can never do that”, Shantha thought to herself. She had not brought up her son this way, she thought.
In the evening, as she walked up to the mandir where her lovely Bommai Kolu dolls were kept in steps, she put fresh flowers in front of them. Every year she would wrap the Kolu dolls in the newspaper and safely pack them in a wooden box. She wouldn’t let anybody else handle them. These dolls were very precious to her.
The whole family soon assembled for the aarti, throughout the aarti she kept stealing a glance at Arvind and Nandini. He was just smiling at her and she was engrossed in devi ma’s pooja. Its all well Shantha thought assuring herself .
After the pooja as she went around giving sundal and lemon rice as prasadam to everyone, she saw Arvind showing his eyes to Nandini as if he wanted her to come by his side and stand. Nandini seemed torn between him and her family. She however after a while quietly came and stood beside him. He opened his mouth clenching his teeth but as he saw his mother approaching he kept quiet.
“Arvind, what happened?” Shantha asked.
“Nothing Amma, nothing at all.” Arvind quipped.
Shantha thought she mistook him clenching his teeth at Nandini or did she? but why would he do that? No she was just overthinking, subconsciously Rajaswi’s talk had etched in her mind and it was playing on her now. Arvind is a kind and a decent boy Shantha thought as she continued giving prasadam.
The next day, as she was offering her prayers to tulsi, she felt Nandini standing behind her with her hands folded.
Once she was done, she turned “yes Nandini.”
Without saying a word, she touched her feet.
“God bless you with all the happiness in the world.” Shantha said. She suddenly noticed a red mark on her hand.
“Oh dear, what happened?” Shantha said holding Nandini’s hand. She saw Nandini going red.
“Oh this, I was walking by yesterday, I didn’t notice and a tree branch scratched me.” She said looking down, now her ears too had turned pink.
“Are you sure?” Shantha asked.
“Yes,I am.” Nandini said.
“Come, I will apply some haldi paste on this”, Shantha said as she took her in.
Nandini felt horrible for lying to Shantha but she had no choice. She tried telling her mother, but her mother had said “Nandini, I don’t care about that, you have to realize this family is very prestigious. You are very lucky to be going into this family. If you say anything, it will tarnish your father’s image and mine.” Nandini for the sake of her parents kept quite and lied to Shantha.
As Shantha took her in the kitchen, she applied ghee and haldi paste. Half her mind wanted to, but half of it did not. She still couldn’t resist and asked “Nandini, is there something you need to tell me?” Shantha asked looking into her eyes.
Nandini looked down and shook her head.
“Are you sure? I am like your mother, you can tell me anything.”
Nandini just shook her head in silence.
Shantha did not want to make much of her silence. If she said there was nothing, there was nothing. She had the most lovely daughter in law and her son would look after her like a queen and she knew it. He was her son, a ardent worshiper of Devi Ma, he could never think of harming a woman in any way. They were perfect for each other, Shantha knew it, her heart knew it.
Shantha had got up very early that day, she was preparing mango rice as prasadam for the pooja.
She had ordered a beautiful kanjipuram silk saree for Nandini for the Saraswati pooja today and a matching veshti for her son. She would have them exchange rings today. She couldn’t help smiling to herself thinking about it.
It was really early and everyone was still sleeping, the sun hadn’t come up yet so Shantha had time before her morning prayers.
Suddenly she heard some noise, it went away, then it came back again, only it became louder this time.
Shantha worried ran out of her kitchen. She could hear someone pleading “please I am so sorry.”
As she closed in, she saw two figures standing at a distance by the porch, there were diya’s lit in the diya stand – kuthuvilaku, which were tied to the roof of the porch. Through that light she saw her son and Nandini.
“What are they doing there so early?” Shantha thought.
“I am your fiancée and you dare disobey me”, Arvind said in a firm tone holding Nandini’s hand.
“Please, you are hurting me.” Nandini said. “My mother has a headache, I need to be with her, I can’t come with you”, she said as she tried freeing herself.
“No! I am going to be your husband now, you will do and act as I say. Do you not realize who I am, whose son I am, what privilege you are getting to be wed to me, still you have the nerve to talk back to me”, Arvind said holding her hand even harder.
“In my family, women do as they told by men”, Arvind said twisting her hand as Nandini whimpered. “Please, please leave me, stop hurting me. Let me go.”
Shantha stood there in complete shock. All this while she kept telling herself her son could never mistreat Nandini in any way, yet he was standing there talking things which was utter balderdash. She couldn’t fathom those words coming out of her son.
“I hadn’t brought him up this way. Where did I go wrong?”
Those words rang inside Shantha’s head, the more it did, the more her blood boiled, a rage so bad begin to build up inside her as Nandini pleaded to be let gone, her son raised his hand to hush her up. Shantha shouted at him with all her might.
Arvind and Nandini turned around, it was dark as the sun hadn’t come up yet. Through the diya’s light they could see a lady standing at the corner of the porch, her hair was open and came uptil her waist, her eyes were wide with anger, her face was red with indignation, as she came forward, they both saw her face. It was true as her Athai had once said, Durga Ma resided in Shantha, only today she came out in the form of kaali Ma.
Shantha always looked so peaceful, however if someone had seen her today, they would have realised what Ma looked like when she was angered, her face, her self wasn’t at peace anymore.
Shantha was irked, and she was very angry. Something very wrong had happened and she had to set it right.
Arvind took one look at his mother and left Nandini’s hands in fear. It was a look he had never seen on his mother’s face. It scared him beyond words.
Nandini curled up into a corner.
“How dare you?” She said walking towards Arvind.
Hearing her voice everybody came running into the porch.
“What do you think? Shouting at my grandson this..”, her mother in law stopped halfway as she she saw Shantha’s face.
Shantha slapped Arvind so hard, he was thrown to the side. Everybody stood in shock.
Shantha was no longer in her right senses, she was furious, very furious and she wanted to teach him that women can’t be treated like objects.
She was such a true devotee of Ma that she too felt a part of her residing in herself, so today her anger was not vented out at Arvind but as Ma she wanted to come to Nandini’s aid who too was her true devotee.
Mr. Iyer ran and caught hold of Shantha as she walked over towards Arvind. When she did not stop, he came in front of her as Shantha raised her hand to slap her son again.
“Leave.” she shouted.
“No Shantha, Shantha please stop.” Mr. Iyer said holding her by the shoulders.
“I said, leave me.” Shantha screamed with her hands raised.
Mr. Iyer had no other choice, he took Shantha in his arms and said “No, I won’t let you go till you calm down.”
For a while Shantha just kept wriggling in his arms until she finally stopped shaking.
Mr. Iyer could hear her breathing heavily now against his chest. “It’s okay, breathe.” Mr. Iyer said.
As Mr. Iyer held her, she tried to calm down, the rage inside her began to die. She tried to relax.
Shantha sat down on the floor panting and sweating.
“Avni, water.” Mr. Iyer shouted.
“Here Appa, I have got it already”, Avni said holding out the glass to her father.
He took the glass towards Shantha who took some water in her hands and splashed it on her face as her face was now burning. She then drank some water.
As she came back to her normal self with Mr. Iyer holding her, She looked around and saw Nandini curled up into a corner, Shantha ran to her.
“I am so sorry, please forgive me”, Shantha said as she broke down.
“What happened?” Her Athai asked as she walked up to Shantha.
“Arvind, my son.. I saw him mistreating Nandini, he twisted her hand and was almost going to hit her. I saw a red mark on her days back, I had asked her also but she did not say anything.” Shantha cried.
“Oh, for this, you created such a big scene”, her Amma said as she helped her grandson get up.
“He is my grandson, he is the man of this house. So what if he spoke to her a little harshly?” She said.
“Your son never spoke to me like that”, Shantha retorted hugging Nandini who was crying in her arms.
“Oh I wish he had, you wouldn’t have dared spoken to me like that.” Amma said in resentment.
“Amma please”, Mr. Iyer finally spoke up. “I have never mistreated Shantha nor do I expect our son to. No woman will be disrespected in my household”, Mr. Iyer said looking at Arvind. Usually he never spoke, but today one could sense the anger in him too.
She just grumbled under her breath and made Arvind sit by the bench.
Nandini’s mother stood sobbing in a corner, Shantha walked up to her “I am sorry but I can’t let this wedding take place now. It’s not your daughter, it’s our son. He isn’t deserving of your daughter. I will not get him married till he doesn’t learn how to keep a wife.”
“Amma”, Arvind spoke holding Amma’s hand.
“Don’t you dare!” Shantha shot back. “I have worshiped Ma all my life, I will not tolerate a woman being ill treated in this house. If you can’t learn to respect one then you can stay single all your life”, Shantha said with her eyes going red again.
She turned back to Nandini’s mother who said “Every one knows about them, who will marry my daughter now?”
“She is my daughter now.” Shantha said. “Her marriage is now my responsibility not yours”, Shantha said as she held Nandini’s mother by her shoulders.
“Forgive me Devi Ma”, Shantha thought to herself. “I was going to do such a big blunder, my blind love for my son would have ruined her life. I see you in her, I see you in her eyes, in her mannerisms, in her simplicity. I see you in her devi Ma, that’s why I wanted her to be a part of this family, but nevertheless if not as my daughter in law, she will now be a part of this house as my daughter.”
Thanks a lot, Keerthika for bringing me closer to the culture to write this story.