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Even today, many Indian girls have their dreams of an education crushed when they are ‘married off’ at an early age. A short story that speaks of this.
A dainty young girl tucked back an errant strand of hair as she ran behind her college going sister in law who had once again forgotten her lunch box. She looked wistfully at the crisp and starched saree that swayed along with every step her sister in law took. She looked on till her sister in law turned the corner but not for long as the fire in the kitchen needed to be tended to and the cow had to be fed.
Meenakshi was a year older than her sister in law but life for her had gone along paths that were quite different to her dreams. Sometimes she wondered whether she had been married for the sole purpose of being a house help.
Meenakshi beamed with pride as her teacher passed her 8th grade result to her. She had got great marks, she knew Balu had only scraped through his exams and that Achan was not very pleased about it. Meenakshi was two years younger to Balu and was happy to have once again proved that she was more deserving than Balu for her fathers share of love and appreciation. She ran home with a visible skip in her step in time to help her Amma with the preparations for dinner.
Achan liked his fish curry just so and was known to have flung quite a few plates of food if they did not meet his standards. The only person who could weather Achan’s rage was Amma. Probably it came from years of practice and of not knowing life to be any other way.
Her father was a daunting figure for her and a man of few words, his decisions were set in stone and had to be followed by everyone without question. Pleasing him was a personal goal for her. Meenakshi had always been an exuberant girl who had a keen sense of observation. She spoke less but had a sense of humour that took people by surprise.
She lit the evening lamp and took it to the front verandah. She then took a light from it and lit the small lamp near the tulsi in the front courtyard. Her father came home just then. He prayed seeing the lamp and hung her umbrella on the stilts that held the roof tiles.
Meenakshi smiled as she wanted to show him her report card, she hoped that he would give her a ladoo from the glass jar in the cupboard as he gave Balu when he was pleased with him. She went inside and handed him her report card. Gangadharan Nambiar looked at the report card nodded dispassionately and told Meenakshi that she need not go to school anymore as her marriage has been fixed with his distant relative’s son Manoj.
Meenakshi knew Manoj as they met at weddings and had never thought much about him, he was an awarded sports champion who was many years older to her. There were always rumors that he might be having an affair with one of the anglo Indian girls who lived near the church. In Manoj’s eyes Meenakshi did not amount to much as she was a frail looking school girl who trailed behind Balu.
Meenakshi could not show her emotions in front of her father such was her upbringing but she cried her eyes out that entire night. She wanted to study further and as a girl in the 1970’s India her ambitions did not go much further than that.
She wondered why Manoj or anyone from Manoj’s family would be interested in her, but the reasons had nothing to do with her. It had more to do with being able to continue her brother’s education, land being exchanged, Manoj’s life and various other factors – her role was merely to be present at the wedding. The wedding date approached and Meenakshi’s ache in her head kept increasing. No one could diagnose why. It was an ache that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
The wedding was late in the evening and attended mostly by men. The groom’s party arrived with torches in their hand, and the groom wore a silk mundu. Meenakshi was brought out and she was presented a bright yellow saree that sealed the only direction that her life should now go in. The price for her fledgling dreams was a yellow saree which she was asked to change into before she was escorted to Manoj’s house. Manoj’s house was not very far from her natal home but the widening distance from her previous carefree self no one could fathom.
She was brought back to the present by her mother in law who was asking her to scrape the coconuts for the fish curry as Balu was come to visit for lunch, as he was in this part of town and was on his way to college. He looked dapper and had a gleam in his eye which came from being on a path of his own. She looked at the books he had brought along and his name written neatly on the cover. It never ceased to occur to her that this could have been her. After all she was better and much more academically inclined than Balu ever was. It was almost expected that she give up her education in favor for his and many such sacrifices but could it be called a sacrifice if the choice was never hers in the first place?
Balu was having a heated discussion on world affairs with Manoj which they both seemed to be enjoying. Manoj’s biggest grouse against her was that she did not know anything happening in the world and could not hold intelligent discussions with her but how could she ? The words seemed familiar from a previous life but the language was something she had forgotten.
She sometimes wondered if her life would have been easier if was born a daughter in this house than come here as a daughter in law. She would not hold her father responsible but these books could have been hers and the name written on it could have been Meenakshi Nambiar.
Author’s Note: Though this short story has been set in the past, many girls in India still undergo this fate. Their marriage is given more prominence than their education and child marriage is still something India is struggling with. This is based on a true story.
Image source: shutterstock.