A WOMAN OF NO CONSEQUENCE
Tulsi-mai stepped out into the hot dusty air and turned to walk down the main street of the village. The uneven stones of the unpaved road were hot to her feet as she walked carefully, picking her way through the clumps of cowdung. A bullock cart came down behind her, the driver calling out to his animals who trotted jauntily, the bells on their horns ringing in rhythm. Tulsi-mai stepped aside to let them pass and acknowledged the greeting from the cart driver.
Everyone in the village knew her. Even though now widowed, she had not lost her status or the people’s respect. Her husband had been a small landowner, but the family had lived there many years. The Nayak family was one of the old settlers from a village nearby. Selling most of their rice fields, they had settled down to trade in Karkala which was on the main road that connected Mangalore and Udipi, an important temple town and place of pilgrimage. There was talk of improving the road and introducing motor traffic – an exciting prospect for the villagers for, though they had heard of motorcars, most of them had never seen one.
Tulsi-mai was preoccupied. That morning she had received a letter from her eldest daughter Padmavati, giving her the news of her granddaughter Tara’s pregnancy. Her first great-grandchild! There was excitement and joy at the prospect. She had asked her son to read the letter to her a second time. Not having had any formal schooling, she relied on her elder son to read out her letters and write her responses for her. She had dictated her reply to her daughter, asking when she should send her the herbal oils for massage, and the nutritious preserves that were a traditional dietary supplement for expectant mothers. These would all be made at home with fresh ingredients according to recipes handed down in the family.
Lost in her thoughts, she found she had reached the end of the street and the steps of the Padmavati temple, the goddess after whom she had named her daughter. Her visits there were frequent, for she enjoyed a few moments to sit in the peace of the temple courtyard and relax, away from the constant coming and going in her house. It was easier now for her to get away from her household chores as her daughter-in-law, of whom she was very fond, managed the house and the hospitality for the many guests that came in daily. The young girl had learned her duties, she thought.
When her husband died, Tulsi-mai withdrew from social life, shaved her head, and wiped from her forehead the large red kumkum mark she wore when her husband was with her. Her saree was a dark maroon cotton, with no decoration. The end of her saree was wrapped around her bosom and over her shaven head. She wore no blouse. She removed all her jewelry. Only a single gold chain remained on her neck, on which she hung the key to her small box of clothes and personal things. All other keys, and with them the responsibilities for running the house, now were vested in her son and daughter-in-law. Nevertheless, they still consulted her, and in her own quiet way she made most of the decisions of the family and the property that gave them their small income.
Tulsi-mai walked up the temple steps. The carved wooden door was open. Ganesh smiled benignly from his niche above the lintel. As she walked across the small courtyard to the shrine she heard a sound, the rhythmic rasping sound of a grinding stone. Pausing at the shrine, she looked at the small image of the goddess and admired the decoration – the red and gold saree draped and pleated like a fan across her seated form, the garlands of fragrant jasmine in loops carefully arranged to frame the idol.
Folding her hands in silent prayer, she asked for Her blessings, recalling the letter and the news she had received. Please, Mother, let it be a boy! Keep Tara safe and in good health.
She reached up to ring the bells hanging above the doorway to the shrine and stepping back, turning to her left, she started to walk around the shrine in the ritual pradakshina or circumambulation. Even as the sound of the bells ebbed away, the other, harsher, sound of the grinding stone reached her ears. On an impulse, she left the courtyard and climbed the two steps of the verandah leading to the rooms where the priest and his family lived.
Stooping to enter the dark rooms, she walked through them to the outer courtyard and the temple wall, where in the sunlight she saw a young girl seated on the ground at the grinding stone, one leg stretched out before her, the other folded across as she bent over, swaying in a regular rhythm, her hand grasping the wooden handle as she turned the stone. With her free hand she poured fistfuls of grain into the central hole in the stone and watched as the flour spilled out from between the wheels. As she rocked back and forth, her hair came undone and cascaded in dark waves down her back, touching the ground.
Tulsi-mai felt her heart contract in pain, tinged with worry. Unconsciously she reached for the saree covering her head, feeling the prickle of her shaven head, the drops of sweat, as she pulled her saree over her forehead tucking its edge behind her ears. The girl stopped to knot her hair, twisting the ends around, she realized there was someone behind her and turned quickly. Her face was transformed by her smile of recognition as she rose to greet the older woman.
“Sit down, child. Where is your father? He is not in the temple.”
“He must have gone to the well to fetch water for the pooja,” the girl replied.
“I’ll find him. Don’t let me stop you from your work.”
“Can I get you a glass of milk?”
“No, thank you. I don t take anything at this time of the morning.”
Tulsi-mai turned and walked back to the courtyard. As she came down the steps, she met Krishna Bhat with a pitcher of water on his shoulder. He set it down and greeted the older woman respectfully as she sat on the edge of the verandah, indicating she was ready for a conversation.
Adjusting her saree over her head, she asked him directly, without any preamble, “What are you going to do about Kamala? She is almost nineteen, a grown woman, she cannot spend the rest of her life grinding grain to pay for her keep!”
The expression in the priest’s eye changed, his eyes dropped as he looked at his feet where he stood, unable to answer.
Kamala had been married when she was eight years old. According to the custom at the time, girls were married before puberty. When a girl reached the age of fourteen or fifteen, she left her parental home to consummate the marriage, to join her husband’s family as daughter-in-law and housewife. Kamala’s marriage lasted only six months. Before she was old enough to join her husband an epidemic of the plague swept the area, and her young husband was one of those who died. She did not remember him, his face or his voice. She did not understand what had happened, as she saw the shock and grief in her parents, a feeling she could not share. She continued to help in the house, play with her sisters in the little coconut grove behind the temple. The girls enjoyed the mornings when their mother helped dress them, oiling and braiding their hair. They would pick the flowers and they learned to tie jasmine into garlands using the dried fibre from the banana tree. There was disbelief and hurt when her mother refused to put flowers in her braided long hair. Her two younger sisters married and left home. By now, the growing girl had understood the implication of her widowhood. She could not participate in her sisters’ marriage ceremonies, as she was considered unlucky and inauspicious. Her father, unable to give voice to his grief had, however, adamantly refused to shave her head. He could not bring himself to do this to the daughter he loved, and listened silently to the criticism from members of his caste. Kamala realized she was a burden to her parents, a financial as well as an emotional one. She started to grind grain for women of the village, and the few coins she earned were dutifully given to her mother, as her father withdrew into his shell, not saying anything to her, unable to accept the money. The sound of the grinding stone gave her a peculiar joy – it lulled her by its monotony, allowing her thoughts to float beyond the palm trees stroking the sky, into the hills beyond, where the monolithic statue of the Jain saint Gomateswara stood tall and rigid, looking out, unseeing and aloof, where perhaps the stone-blind eyes turned those thoughts into dreams, some as empty as the clouds that could not weep except when the monsoon warmth allowed them to vent their tears. Then rain came in torrents, bringing fertility to the rice fields, the seeds ripening into grain, but some seeds were infertile, some could only have unfulfilled dreams. So, back to the grinding stone.
Tulsi-mai looked at the man who stood speechless before her and saw that he was crying. She waited a minute before asking softly, kindly, “Would you allow me to take her with me? She could help me with my household chores. In a couple of months, if you agree, I will send her to my daughter in Madras. My first great-grandchild will be born before Divali. She could help with the baby.”
Krishna Bhat’s face seemed to be carved in stone, but the tears continued to flow unchecked. After a while, he pulled the towel off his shoulder to wipe his face and spoke with difficulty. “I will leave her in your care. You have always been good to my family. With you and your family, I know she will find a home. She is a good girl. You will not find her a problem in any way.”
Kamala left the sheltered temple courtyard to enter the house of the Nayak family down the road, where she stayed in the kitchen area at the back of the house, unobtrusive but doing the routine chores with quiet efficiency. She spoke little, and could not voice her protest or fear when she was told she was to go to Madras. Where was that? What would she find there? Who were the people she would live with? She knew only Tulsi-mai, and she was the only one she wanted to be with, safe and secure under her shadow.
It was a long journey in the jolting bullock cart, looking back as the village receded, and with it the familiar sights and sounds, rice fields and palm trees, the creak of the waterwheel, the shout of the farmer as he urged his oxen at the plough. It was nightfall when they leached Mangalore and she was dropped at the home of Tulsi-mai’s second daughter, who was married to a merchant and lived in an imposing house on the main street. The bustle of the town and the lights seemed strange, but there was no time to look around. She walked to the well at the back of the house, washed and returned nervously to the kitchen, where she ate on a banana leaf. The family had already eaten. She was told she had to take the next morning’s train to Madras.
Train? There was a moment of panic. She felt trapped. There was no turning back. She hardly slept and looked out of the small window as dawn brightened the sky.
Tulsi-mai’s son-in-law took her in the cart to the station and left her standing on the platform as he looked for the ticket collector. As she waited, clutching her small tin trunk and brass water-container, the noise of the people, the hiss of the steam engine, all heightened her fear. The ticket collector soon arrived, showed her where to sit, and told her escort that he would see that she was all right. He would help her when they reached Madras, he said reassuringly.
Kamala did not remember much about the journey. Kind people offered her food and water, but she shook her head. (A priest’s daughter accept water from strangers? Her father would never allow that!) She dozed fitfully as the train rocked and rattled through the night.
The bedlam at Madras railway station would terrify anyone – the huge shed, several trains, shouting porters and vendors. Kamala sat crouched in the corner of the railway compartment as it emptied. All the passengers collected their luggage and left. The ticket collector came accompanied by a suited, impressive-looking man with a moustache and spectacles. He spoke to her in her language.
“I am Padmavati’s husband, and I have come to take you home.” Joy and relief washed over her, smoothing away the tension on her brows and leaving her limbs suddenly weak and tired. She smiled tentatively and, quickly lowering her eyes, rose slowly and followed him, asking no questions, trusting him and knowing in her heart that everything would be all right from now on. Tulsi-mai had told her so.
1928, 1931, 1932, 1935
Four little babies were born in the house on Harris Road In Madras in the eight years following, and Kamala remembered them all, sharing the joys and sorrows of a proxy motherhood.
Tara’s first baby was a boy, stillborn.Kamala felt the pain and disappointment of the young mother as if it were her own. She stayed by the bedside, wiped Tara’s face that was lined with exhaustion and reeked of chloroform. There was an unspoken caring, and from that day on, Tara came to rely on her for all her needs.
The three babies, all girls, who were ushered into the world in the early 30s were all first bathed and dressed by Kamala before they were handed over to their mother. There was something about the soft, wet newborn baby that filled her with an aching joy, fulfilling her need to hold it close, as she wrapped it in soft cloth. If there was disappointment that they were girls, she never once uttered it. They were babies and they needed her.
I was one of the three girls, the middle one.
We called her Akka (aunt or elder sister). I remember Akka scolding me when I spilled food on my new dress, tugging at my braids as she tied the ribbons at the end of each braid, putting a cold compress on my forehead when I had diphtheria and was burning with fever, standing by the door as we had our music lessons, and walking us to school.
“Where is your ayah today?” asked my friend as we waited for the school bus. “She is NOT my ayah,” I said angrily. “Then what is she?” “She is my Akka,” I said, simply. She was not a servant. She was Akka. Not merely a member of the family, but a mother- figure.
The festivities in India were soon marred by Partition and the riots. My parents were at the Indian Embassy in Moscow. We were alone in Delhi, with only Akka to take care of us. There was violence, curfew and sleepless nights. Akka kept vigil. Locked doors and fear remain etched in my memory. By January, life was quieter in Delhi and we left for Mangalore by train and boat via Bombay, escorted by Akka.
My older sister was married, a traditional wedding in Mangalore. Akka was in the background as all the women of the family discussed the wedding arrangements. She carried the major burden of the work, but it was never obvious to anyone how important she was. She knew her place. She stayed on the dim fringes, not to be seen because she was a widow, and therefore unlucky.
I went away to Madras to college. Akka gave me lots of advice (which irritated me) and lots of food (which didn’t!), especially pickles which were hoarded and shared with my roommates.
I was in Delhi University after completing two years of intermediate science In Madras. I was soon involved in student activities and every time I won a trophy at an inter-collegiate debate or drama competition, I would remember to show it to Akka, to tell her of my success. She would invariably set me down on a wooden seat on the kitchen floor, pick up a handful of rock salt and red chillies and wave it around me, muttering the names of all the people, spirits, and animals who, jealous of my success, might cast an evil eye on me. She would throw the salt and chillies into the coal fire and watch with satisfaction as they sputtered. Then, with her forefinger, she would rub a bit of soot from the edge of the hearth and make a black mark on my forehead to protect me from all harmful forces.
I saw an announcement on the university notice board of an offer of a full scholarship for a woman student to study at a college In New York. On an impulse, I took down the particulars and sent in an application enclosing my biodata. I thought it was a lark – I never imagined that I would go anywhere near the shores of the United States. It was a surprise, therefore to receive a letter informing me that my name was on the short list of candidates called for an interview. With great delight, I showed the letter to my parents that evening. I was not prepared for their reaction. There was disbelief, consternation and lots of questions. Where was this college? What did I plan to study? How much would it cost? There must be expenses that the scholarship would not cover? Above all, there was their concern that a 19-year-old girl was not perhaps ready to go abroad. Graduation and then marriage were part of their plans for me, not study abroad and a career.
My parents discussed the matter, finally agreed and I traveled to New York with a scholarship, returning after two years. There were many events later in my life, and I can remember Akka’s role in all of them. My marriage, my first home and Akka teaching me cooking; the birth of my son, Akka’s oil massage and hot soups.
My son had the measles, but Akka was not there to help me take care of him. She was ill with jaundice, and little did we know that she had cancer. I left my son in my husband’s care to go and visit her. She asked me to write her Will, which I did. She signed her name, the only writing she had learned.
A few days later she died, 35 years after she had entered our home. According to her wishes, my elder sister’s husband lit her funeral pyre.
My mother was inconsolable. As we sat and talked about her, Mother recalled the evening when I had come home with news of the scholarship to study in America.
“ I was so confused and undecided about whether you should go to America,” my mother recounted. ”Your father was reluctant, and I was half-inclined to agree with him. Then I went to the kitchen and told Akka what bothered me. She listened and asked me a simple question, ”If you had had a son, what would you have done?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Of course, he would have studied abroad like his father.” “Then,” said Akka, “be grateful that God has given you a daughter who has the intelligence and the opportunity to study. Why don’t you let her go?” I went back to the bedroom and told your father firmly, “We must give Sharada the opportunity to study in America.”
I wish Mother had told me of this incident earlier, I wish I had said to Akka, “Thank you for your wisdom. Thank you for helping Mother make her decision. Thank you for lighting the way ahead, even if I was only a girl.”
You had no life of your own, no education, no possessions to call yours. No one knew you outside our family circle. But you had hopes for us, your children, and these were given substance by your love. It is over thirty years since you died, and so many successes and failures have checkered my life. But all career opportunities and international awards came my way only because you dared to speak your thoughts. I didn’t know your dreams. But you knew that a woman need not fear the future, and dreams can somehow be made to come true. You knew – even though you had been a woman of no consequence.
Akka had been gone more than 35 years, but there were many occasions when I remembered her; especially when there was a bend in the road ahead – “the road less traveled”- towards which she had pointed me many years ago..
When I received an award at the TMA Pai Foundation in Manipal, I had a written speech about my experience in international education for which I was being given this recognition. With my sisters, my son and his family, I had driven down the road to Udipi and Manipal passing through Karkala, and my mind was crowded with memories of Akka and her home there.
Standing before the microphone on the dais, my speech in front of me, I found I could not read it. It had, to me, lost its importance. Anyway, it had already been printed and circulated to the audience in front me. They could read it later.
In a spontaneous burst of emotion, I told my story of Akka, and how I would not be standing there in front of them receiving this award but for her dream. My family in the front row looked up at me in surprise, tears in their eyes.
At the end of the function a young man came up to me and asked, “What was Kamala’s father’s name?” I told him, he was Krishna Bhat, priest of the Padmavati temple in Karkala. He looked at me, and then looked down at his feet. He said, simply, “I am of that family. I am sorry I did not know her.”