Family Eminence: K Saraswathi Amma

 

 

The clouds of dusk had already turned the fine sand in the front of the house to gold.  As soon as she reached home from the printers’, Kamalamma pulled off the neryathu, brooch and all, and threw it on the clothesline before she ran to her mother. “Wretchedly tired from composing,” she said, “lots of material had to be printed urgently today – can I have gruel and whatever’s for dinner right now, Amma?”

Placing before her a tender coconut she had just scooped, Kamalamma’s mother replied, “Here dear, drink this – and do me a favour. Heard that Gauri’s potty-addyam[1] is returning to Mangalapuram by tomorrow’s mail train. Let’s not be blamed for clinging to pet hates in times of need – so-here- drink this, and go over there.”

Kamalamma drank up the tender coconut and asked her mother, “What’s happening in Mangalapuram?”

Potty-addyam is going there for good. Won’t they all want to die near their own wives and children?”

Kamalamma began to say something, but a piece of tender coconut got stuck in her throat and made her cough a few times. She gulped it down, and frowned, “So are Gauri kunhamma and her children not his own?”

“Of course! Just look at your father – we don’t even know if he’s dead or alive now. No matter what, their love is going to be for the wife and children of their own caste!”

“Uh! And all these people were daggers drawn when Chechi refused that old fogey of a Brahmin! Won’t family distinction turn to vapour if we don’t find husbands who run off to Mangalapuram and Madurai in their old age! Wretched business! Chechi was a bright one, and so she lives well now. But she’ll have to watch if her husband’s not going to run off to his caste-fellows …”

“Yes, yes,” Mother sounded blank. “She was so bright, her mother can’t show her face anywhere in this world. Wasn’t it you who let that happen? God! Such a hallowed line! And she sullied it!”

Mother was too upset to speak more. How could the girl, born of her womb, elope with that fellow? Leave alone the fact that his family had prospered leaning on her family through generations. What greater insult than sinking in the caste hierarchy? A virgin of a family that had known only sambandham with Brahmins, now in an Aasari family, in the lowly carpenter caste? Even though she had severed all ties with that daughter, relatives still put her down. She was still afraid to face them.

Wiping her tears, she said, “When Gauri and I came of age, do you know how many men pursued us? They wanted no money, just a girl from this family. Uncle, who was aware of how high-up our line is, threw them all out. Have heard that they became Magistrates and Tahsildars – so what? Does that rub off the shame of caste?”

“Not bad,” said Kamalamma sarcastically, “Good that they were all driven out. Otherwise how would it have been possible for us to convert this whole place into a veritable colony of Brahmins every night! Sad! It’s baffling how you don’t see the shame of this, Amma.”

“Your head is turned, Kamalam! Do you know, the well-bred may be dying of hunger, but they still won’t let down the family’s honour!”

“Uh-ho! And so we are so highly valued by other people of the world! I heard our manager say the other day that sensible Europeans value people who rise by their own effort!”

“The reform-headed types can only think that way! It’s the Age of Kali, isn’t it? Whatever, please do not tell Gauri – she’s a hot-headed sort. Just go there, show your face, stay silent, come back.”

As she started to leave after finishing the tender coconut and throwing the upper garment back over her shoulder, Kamalamma asked her mother, “The poor thing – what is Aunt Gauri now going to do with those eight children? Really, if that man had a trace of humanity in him, would he do this? Why did he have to have a wife and children here if he had a wife there?”

“You are dumb,” Mother was amused. “Can he go to that wife in Mangalapuram every so often?”

“But then why should he, when there are women here who think that rented-wife-status will hold up their ancestral greatness?”

The mother did not respond to her daughter’s biting sarcasm.

Gauriamma’s house was a door away from Kamalamma’s. After the Nair Regulation and individual partition of joint family property, only that piece of land had survived the squandering karanavars. Each member received some ten or fifteen cents of land and so small houses came up in those plots, with fences dividing them. One of them, a woman whose husband whose caste did not match up to pristine Illathu Nair-quality sold her share to a Muslim and  wreaked revenge on her uncooperative relatives, and so there was a Muslim household living in the house between Kamalamma’s and Gauriamma’s homes.

When she reached Gauriamma’s house, Kamalamma saw a thin, dark, shriveled-up child with yellowed eyes playing next to a thriving coconut sapling. She sat down beside him and asked, “Where’s everyone else?”

“Acchan took them all to the Chalai market. He’ll get me a bugle!”

Gauriamma was on the veranda repairing an old torn palm-thatch basket. Hearing her, she raised her head, and annoyed at seeing Kamalamma, said to her son, “Hey, Harikrishna, come here. Don’t talk to this whore who dresses up in the morning and sets off to prattle and coo with men!”

Kamalamma could not help laughing at her rebuke. Many had told her by then that a woman living independently was not a mark of good breeding. She stood up, took the child’s hand, and went over to Gauriamma. As she was about to step on the veranda, Gauriamma leapt up in anger. “Chhi! Don’t you dare step on my veranda! In my house, Asari females must stand down there.”

For a second, Kamalamma went pale. She let go the child’s hand and said, “Oh, I didn’t remember that this was the Brahmin woman’s house.”

“Brahmin woman? When did I become that?”

“But you called Chechi an Asari female?”

“Hey wench, be careful about what you say! I am not a woman who lives with some low-caste fellow!”

“I just got to know that a potty Brahmin from Mangalapuram is the same as an Illathu Nair!”

“Chhi, are Brahmins and Asaris alike?”

“No for sure. That Brahmin sends everything valuable to his own wife and throws whatever’s left to the Nair wife! Aunt, do you know how royally off Chechi is now?”

“Bah! Royally off! A whore can be even more royally off!”

The amused look on Kamalamma’s face disappeared. And what to call the woman who makes a temporary husband of a fellow who left his married wife back home, she wanted to ask. She said in a serious tone, “Aunt, do remember. If you talk too much, I’ll do the same too.  I won’t bother to remember that you’re my aunt.”

“You can say whatever you want,” Gauriamma sat down on the veranda like before and took up the basket again. “On the fourteenth day after that girl left, we performed her last rites and cut her off for dead.”

Kamalamma continued in a friendly tone: “We too have cut our ties with Chechi. We’re not even going there, and she isn’t visiting either.”

“But you like favours from him, uh?”

“But haven’t you too accepted plenty of favours from him, Aunt?”

“Think before you speak, girl. He’s helped as a dependent, not as a fellow married here.”

Kamalamma mocked: “I haven’t ever heard that accepting favours from a dependent is the very mark of unsullied aristocrats! Let no others hear this! Times are different!”

“You can jabber a lot, for sure. Chhe! Imagine, a girl, born in a taravad that received the honours of the veerasringala from the Royal House! However rich he may be, can he change his caste? If things were so hard at home, why not just die? Simply poison oneself? And on top of this, we’ve been hearing that you’ve been playing younger sister to her and going to the printing press? Wasn’t it better to just get a length of rope and use it for a noose? And who’s your master there?”

“An elderly Ezhava man,” said Kamalamma, knowing fully well Gauriamma’s obsession about caste.

Gauriamma leaned back in alarm, staring at her in astonishment.  When she calmed down, she said, “Well, it is rather a good match that the Chechi’s little sister is going around with an Ezhava! Ayyo! But how, how could you take wages working under a low caste man? Does he have a wife?”

“Yes,” Kamalamma smiled, “and children older than me.”

“That’s the best thing about being the old man’s little wife. He’ll look after you. And of course, when you think of the caste difference, too, no doubt about that.”

“But that’s not your experience, Kunhamma. If he’d cared for you so much, would he have fed you with this dried-up rice alone? And now, he’s leaving! What will you do with all these children now?”

“Hey girl! You’ve gotten this far with your blabbing?” Gauriamma got back to her feet, her face blazing with anger in a way Kamalamma had never expected.” Insult me first, and then insult the man who brings me the rice? Get away, not one of you should be seen anywhere near even if I am on my death-bed! Is there a worse crime in this world than finding fault with superiors in caste, age, knowledge? If you moisten anybody’s throat when they are gasping in the throes of death, that soul will surely end up in the seventh hell! Didn’t I tell you to get out, NOW!”

Gauriamma lunged forward. The child who was sitting at the edge of the veranda drew back scared, and fell down. The woman pulled up the child who couldn’t even get up on his own and thrashed him till her anger dissipated. …

The next day morning, when Kamalamma was eating the left-over gruel, her mother said, “Did you know about Gauri? God is merciful! The potty-addeham found a Brahmin Saami[2] for Gauri and brought him home last night – he got them together before he left this morning! Now there’s nothing Gauri need fear – the house is blessed only when it has a master!”

Kamalamma’s tongue was frozen for a while. In the end, she asked: “Not a single member of our family finds this objectionable?”

“What for?” he mother was surprised. That Saami’s job is in the Fort premises, near the Padmanabha Swami’s shrine, cooking rice or something! Very lucrative! Now, are you convinced that potti-addyam was a good man? What a mild man he was, see? That thriving coconut sapling in Gauri’s yard, he was really fond of it, so he took it along with him to plant it there!”

“That he forgot some other things that he gave life too must also be a result of his goodness of heart?” As she said that, Kamalamma saw in her mind the pathetic image of that child under that sapling, from the day before. “Kerala would’ve been saved if a Parasurama was indeed born to annihilate the very lineage of women who forget their Womanliness and protect ancestral pride! Aunt says that she’s ashamed to admit that we are relatives! My firm faith is that I suffer no greater insult than the fact that I am part of her ancestry!”

His mother stared blankly, wondering how such a huge difference of views had opened up between her and her daughters. What was good for her was insult to them, what was pride to them, in turn, was …

Eight months passed with no change in the relations between the two families of that taravad.

One day, when Kamalamma returned from work, her mother told her worriedly, “Did you know? It’s been two or three days since Gauri’s been in labour. Today, after noon, the municipal midwife came around to check – will she relent without a bribe! The Umma[3] next door just told me. She says that the midwife’s reassurance is false and that she’ll die if she’s not taken to the hospital … that’s what I could gather from what the Umma said …”

“What’s her new husband up to since things have gone this far?” asked Kamalamma.

Saami has not visited in the past few days.” Without a tinge of guilt, Kamalamma’s mother said, “Saami’s wife is also about to deliver. The father will of course pay more attention to the birth of the child who’ll perform his last rights, won’t he? And besides, it isn’t clear whose child this is. If it were, then Saami would have helped at least a bit, for fear of God!”

“Terrible! These are the stuff of your pride!” Kamalamma was quiet, lost in thought. The she said, “Amma, let’s do something – this isn’t the time to remember what she blabbered then. Even if we go over to help we will still be outcastes. But you must go over. I’ll run down to Chechi’s house, and get her husband to hire a car. He knows many important people. And has the money for hiring a car.  How else are we to manage?”

Within half an hour, a car arrived at Gauriamma’s door. When she was carried to the car, she cast her eyes about and they fell on Kamalamma’s terrified face. Her words were unclear, “My children …”

That night, Kamalamma locked her own house, set aside her pride as false, went over to Gauriamma’s house to take care of her children, and spent the night not on the veranda but inside the house. Until dawn, the face of the pregnant woman contorted in pain stayed right between her eyelids and sleep. The man – and the human beings – who ought to share that pain cared nothing of it, living happily in their own homes. What cushy husband-hood!

The next day, she fed the children and set off to the hospital, filling her own belly with cold water. When she reached her aunt’s cot in the delivery ward, her mother said, “Twins! No wonder it was so painful? He’s had to spend a lot. But it’s just luck that the mother and babies survived!”

Under the influence of the dreams of conjugal love spun by her youth, Kamalamma asked, “Didn’t the babies’ father come?”

“Oh! Will Saami come to a place like this hospital? When she gets well and returns home, he’ll come there.”

Hearing someone sob somewhere behind, Kamalamma turned around. An Anglo-Indian woman lying there was talking to her husband tearfully. “I suffered all that pain, thinking of the Lord. I forgot all that pain thinking of how your face will be when you see the baby, darling! And now …”

She broke down weeping, remembering her stillborn child.

“No, darling, don’t cry!” Merging his sorrow and his tears quietly with hers, the husband said. “The Lord acts for our good always. Our time to hold a baby is yet to come. But, my Lord, I could not even see it!”

Kamalamma’s eyes drifted from that scene to Gauriamma’s babies who lay on either side of their mother. Seeing those two innocent creatures who were denied their father’s love just because they happened to be born in the womb of this mother – and whose paternity itself was in doubt – she said to herself, “Ancestral pride! This time it’s not one, but two, babies who fix it! The very gift of the family deity, pleased by such diligence and dutifulness! People are going to laugh now – one for the memory of the potti, and the other, of the pattar! Those who don’t see that caste superiority is dead and gone find nothing pitiful in it! A blessing indeed!”

 

[Kulamahima, 1946]

 

[1] Potty- addeham – a respectful way to refer to a Brahmin male.

[2] A Tamil Brahmin male – swami.

[3]  A common way of referring to a Muslim woman.

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