Madhavi’s parents had long decided that they weren’t going to buy her a husband. Her father said, “I didn’t take a pie to bring a woman home. The children number eleven now. If I start buying sons-in-law, won’t we have to pick up the begging bowl?” Her mother said: “The times! Wasn’t I swooped up before I turned fifteen? We don’t need a fellow who’s looking for cash. He may sell her in the end! Let her be here, when the times and her karma turn, won’t someone arrive as if dragged here with a rope?”
But then whole years began to move past and Madhavi’s times and karma did not relent.
Totally unmindful of their parents’ worries, Time began to induce aesthetic transformation in the bodies of Madhavi’s sisters too. That house now had four girls past the age of fifteen.
Wise old women say that if a girl ripe for marriage stays stuck at home, the house will catch fire. Madhavi’s parents, however, realized through experience that the blaze was not on the house, but in their very hearts.
In these circumstances, their original resolve now melted into an admission that a small sum may be given. But in the friction between their two hundred and the two thousand demanded by interested parties, many proposals continued to wither and disappear.
In the end, when Madhavi had turned twenty-three, a deal of five hundred rupees came around. The broker got fifty.
He had negotiated skilfully and fixed the deal well before the bridegroom’s came to look up the girl. A sumptuous feast had been readied to please them. It was Madhavi who served it to them, obeying her father’s command and praying that her livelihood would open up at least that day. After that, her father went over and saw the bridegroom; both sides were satisfied in all ways.
Because it was the wedding of their first daughter, they spent as much as they could for the feast. Three kinds of prathaman and the wedding-pavilion were novelties in that village. And to top it all, a written wedding felicitation, read out by the bridegroom’s friends.
In the felicitation which began with the statement ‘Weddings are made in heaven’, fancy words like ‘The Nectar of Love’, ‘The Tree of Bountifulness’, and ‘the Flower of Heaven’ were used to smashing effect. The bride and groom, who had never even seen each other, and were bound purely by commercial ties, were even accused of ‘charging into the Bower of Conjugality fired by the Passion of Love.’
That night, in her husband’s home, even as the golden letters of the felicitation-scroll mounted on the wall danced bright in the dim light, Madhavi passed from the heaven of the wedding-pavilion into the lived reality of the marital bedroom.
But her life-experiences did not cease there. That it was hell that followed heaven and the earthly world, she got to experience, thanks to her mother-in-law.
To this woman who had her husband and son under her thumb, the daughter-in-law was puny prey.
Think of it, her quarrels were not entirely unjustified. Hidden from sight, she had overheard Madhavi’s father, who had arrived on the third day after the wedding, ostensibly to inquire after his daughter’s well-being, but actually to ask her discreetly to hand over most of her jewels. You may take your daughter along with the jewels, she had declared, as she came out of her hiding place. The old man blanched, flagged, and quietly sagged down in his seat. The daughter did not come to his rescue, filled as she was with the desire to strut around bedecked.
The old man fell into sheer misery, unable to take back the burden he had just set aside with considerable effort and as much cash, or face the neighbours whose jewels he had borrowed for the wedding.
But when he went back home and told his wife all that had happened, he felt somewhat relieved. Let feminine shrewdness match up to feminine guile, he hoped.
Four or five days later, Madhavi’s father and mother went to see her again, this time together. The mother made her take off the jewels she wore as mother-in-law kept a watch, and put new jewels on her.
And when they were about to leave, her parents placed their hands on her head, and making vows to very many temples, whispered: “If only you would give birth soonest, with God’s grace! Even if the daughter–in-law is heartily hated, if she has a child from her son, mother-in-law is likely to be very fond of it. And then she won’t be able to get rid of its mother.”
The knot in the cord of marriage is well-tightened not by the strong hands of the couple but by the tender fingers of an infant! Of course!
After a few days, Madhavi went over to her parents’ home with her husband for the return-feast. Her sisters insisted; she had to stay there that night. Her husband returned to his house the next morning promising to pick her up the next day.
But eight or ten ‘next days’ rolled on and there was still no sign of him. When two months elapsed thus, Madhavi’s parents panicked.
It was then that they got to know that a truly awful accusation- of impersonation – cheating – had been raised against them. They strongly refuted the charge: it accused them of having shown the groom’s family members a beautiful girl instead of Madhavi when they came to look her up. Besides, they raised a counter-charge, that this was a ploy devised by the mother-in-law to extract even more money from them.
Gradually, the case grew big; controversial. Some respectable gentlefolk –neighbours- decided to mediate so that it wouldn’t be dragged through the government’s court.
The mediators decided that the case should be considered in a special court which should include representatives of both sides. They decided that Madhavi alone need be examined, and fixed a day.
Madhavi’s mother saw her off to the examination, praying for mercy to every single deity that she had ever chanced to meet. The very prospect of her failing had given them all the most terrifying jitters. Given that it was hard to hook a permanent owner even for unkissed blossoms, what to say of a newly-blessed woman, with a dew-drop in her womb? She told her daughter: “If we win here, we have escaped for sure. Nothing to fear even about all the covered-gold ornaments I gave you. You can just say that crafty hag filched all the good ornaments and replaced them with cheap stuff. People will believe only us.”
Fifteen people, besides Madhavi’s parents and in-laws, sat in a circle in the front-veranda of that house. Ten representing the groom, and five, the bride.
The president of the assembly began to question Madhavi. He asked her how many people had visited their home to look her up as part of the bride-viewing party before fixing the alliance. “Three,” she answered. The members of the assembly ordered her to point the three out.
Madhavi cast her eyes on everyone there once. One of the visitors that day was the groom’s father. The other two, she had not seen later, not even at the wedding. But she managed to pick them out in that big group.
The view that this was sufficient to issue a judgment in her favour was opposed. The examination continued. The next question was whether she had noted anything peculiar about the three visitors that day. A gentleman who was representing the bride raised an objection to it. In that decisive moment touching one’s life, when one stood a-tremble before selectors, more agitated than a girl student in an exam hall, no one would notice peculiarities, he argued. No one supported him, and so it was overruled. But in fact, it needed no support.
But when Madhavi replied, they were all astonished by her sharp memory and keen sense of observation.
She pointed out that the old man sitting there with a light-bordered puliyilakkara neryathu on his shoulder and chewing betel leaf had worn a gold-bordered shawl that day. He admitted that readily, feeling rather proud. He’d secured that shawl with great difficulty for just that day from his wife who had received it as a gift from a distant relative in return for her help during this relative’s birthing- labours. But when she also recalled that a small bulge had been visible on his neck around which the shawl was wound, his face fell. The on-lookers took that dimness on his face as evidence for an admission.
Just then, another old man who was feeling neglected, asked, “Don’t remember anything of me?”
“Yes,” she said, “you were wearing a pair of spectacles.” And proceeded to give a description of those. The spectacle-frame was tied to one end of a metal wire placed on the ear. The knot was thick enough to render this mostly invisible, and she had noticed it only while bending down to serve rice.
The owner of the spectacles regretted asking that question. Though not even the party representing the bride had shown any interest in the other man’s contusion, now all fifteen members of the special court insisted that he pull out those spectacles from his pocket to let them look closely at the instrument. He was even made to wear it. The truth of the rest of Madhavi’s statements became evident to them now.
When that query was satisfied, the puliyilakkara-man asked her, “Did something unusual happen during lunch?”
Madhavi’s memory did not slip even there. She gave an elaborate account, in close detail, of how she had ladled egg curry on all three banana-leaves laid out, and how one of them had to be replaced for him since he was vegetarian.
Then someone poked the spectacles-owner and asked, “What about him?”
Madhavi took a look at the questioner. She felt that the question had been raised with deliberate malice. Then she looked at the source of the question. Her expression was not threatening in the least; at most, it was one of slight pity.
But that man was in dread of this girl with her razor-sharp memory.
Madhavi clearly recalled how this man had gestured to her with his eyes to serve more rice and curries, and then pretending that she had spilt them all on his plate out of sheer carelessness, got her father to scold her. Though she sensed her father’s anxiety that the proposal would peter out if he made her look shoddy before her future father-in-law, she did not try to establish her innocence by exposing his greed. She had nothing but pity, then and now, for this ravenous man who tried to fill his belly without denting his honour in front of others. Don’t I too wear this disguise to fill my belly, she might have thought.
Anyway, her sympathy produced a similar wave of sympathy in the old man’s mind. He turned towards the groom’s father and in a tone of anger concealed in seriousness, asked: “If you don’t have the money to support her, can’t you just say that straight, instead of humiliating a perfectly good girl? It’s clear from her face that there’s no guile or cunning in her! Take her back, with whatever honour you have left, right now!”
He then turned to look at the others. Seeing that his judgment was unanimously accepted, he turned triumphantly to Madhavi’s father: “It’s a shame I ever agreed to this feckless business! I have never seen a girl with such a sharp mind and clear memory. You’ve wasted her! If only you hadn’t set out on this dirty beggarly business and had sent her to study, how honourable that would have been? She’d have come first in every class!”
As she turned to go inside, relieved that she had got her living breath back, Madhavi’s eyes fell on the wedding-felicitation mounted on the wall. “Marriages are made in Heaven”, the letters glinted still.
[Vivaham Swargathil Vacchu Nadathappedunnu]