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So, to cut a long story short, the much needed paper work somehow brought me to where nobody else in my family had set foot in for almost thirty years.
We clapped in unison, looking up at the sky, awaiting those far away crows to swoop down on the rice balls placed on the verandah. They did arrive eventually, much to the joy and excitement of us kids, only to be reprimanded by the elders. It wasn’t a happy occasion after all, but a ritual to lay the dead in peace.
“Who died?” I asked my mother bluntly. She avoided my query, visibly uncomfortable.
“Shanta Valyamma.” My older cousin nudged me.
“What! She was here at home yesterday, what happened?” The six year old me was petrified.
“She fell in love with a man of a different religion. She was betrothed to someone from our caste, but last night she eloped with her lover. So grandpa and uncles are declaring her dead.”
But of course, she deserved that. I knew for sure, in spite of my age. This wasn’t how women from good families behaved. My mother, my grandmother, all my other aunts had married within the community, to good men their families chose. None of them had wasted time on love and boys, or brought ill repute to the family. I too would grow up to be the quintessential good girl. Traditional, obedient and just simply, homely.
Shanta Valyamma wasn’t mentioned very often in our lives since that fateful day, we were apparently being safeguarded. But one lazy afternoon years later, I happened to browse some old monochrome albums and spotted her. There she was, amidst her siblings, standing tall and elegant, with a confident smile.
My mother caught me staring at the picture, so she decided to enlighten me.
“Shanta now stays close to our ancestral home, childless and in utter poverty. Her husband met with an accident and has a slight handicap now. They were cursed, weren’t they? She hurt her parents, her fiancé, ran off with this man, she carried the burden all these ill wishes on her shoulders, what else could have happened? Now, apart from tending to her husband, she has to work as well, to earn a living. With strange men all around. She could have lived like a queen, but love made her blind.” Mother sighed.
“It’s been almost eight years and she fell in love. What’s so wrong about that? I wonder why Grandpa hasn’t forgiven her and taken her back yet.” That day, all of a sudden, I felt my aunt deserved to be heard.
“Oh, that’s your teenage talking.” Mother barked. “Girls who ruin their family reputation with inter faith marriages aren’t taken back just when they feel like. She’s your father’s elder sister. If she hadn’t been outcast back then, you or none of your cousins would ever bag a decent marriage proposal.”
I looked at her picture again, she looked strong and determined. Why did she do this to herself?
Back in my room, I secretly fished out a piece of paper from my bag and threw it in the dustbin. It was my first love letter, an ode from a boy in my class, who claimed to be in love with me. But I couldn’t respond, couldn’t hold on to it. I feared my parents a bit too much.
“That girl isn’t good enough to be your friend, I spot her with a different boy every day. She’s definitely ending up with no degree, a broken heart, or worse still, pre- marital pregnancy. She’ll persuade you to accompany her on her escapades, and then some relative would spot you with a random boy. Who will marry you then?” Mother barged into my room as I returned from college.
Seriously? My so-called best friend was having the time of her life. Attractive and outgoing, she had boys swooning over her all the time. And for my mother’s kind information, she was better than many of us, be it in academics or extra-curricular activities. I had spent a large part of my teenage years fending off all those who even as much looked at me. I had my own share of crushes and there were times I wished to reciprocate. And deep down my heart I knew love would do me no harm, but then there was my Valyamma, and many other examples cited by mother, which had molded my mind against love and romance forever.
But then, I have to say, my parents kept their word, I entered the Promised Land, my husband’s house, the earliest among my classmates. I was betrothed before my final exams, married immediately after. Gone were all those complaints about my parents’ strict upbringing, now that they had gifted me the perfect husband, a beautiful life. Handsome, loving and most importantly, rich. I was to live my life queen size, in a plush apartment, not having to tire myself working in offices and commuting in public transport. I had the fabulous life of a wealthy housewife, with an army of servants and cooks.
It didn’t take me much time to realize, that marriages too, like clothes and jewelry, lose their novelty over a period of time. To keep the love alive, we had a kid. To keep the elder one company, we had another. I now was a full time mother, he was a part time father. We fought, we made up, we survived. But my life was as mundane as it ever was, with no excitement and nothing much to look forward to, other than the kids and their studies.
The routine was pretty much the same with all my other friends, but then, there was one difference. I was financially dependent, most of them weren’t. Which meant, I met lesser people in a day, I couldn’t always take my mind off the children and humdrum. And I needed permission for almost every decision of my life, there was almost nothing I did freely, I awaited my husband’s approval almost always.
“Keep him happy, don’t nag. And don’t let him dislike you. It wouldn’t be difficult for a man like him to get another wife, but you would never land a fortune like this, ever. Remember, it’s better being a spinster than ending up a divorcee. One Shanta Valyamma is enough for your father to endure.” Every phone call with my mother ended with this advice.
Many of my friends would politely tell me, that they envied me. Well, I had a personal trainer, I had a chauffer, I didn’t need to juggle a job and family, I had the luxury of being a hands on mother. Well, I had hoped for this all my life. My life was beautiful and perfect, then why, as the years passed by, did I feel incomplete all the time? What was it that I was looking for?
Then one day, just like that, my father passed away. Being the eldest among three siblings, he had inherited the ancestral home, which was to be mine now. I loved the house, I had my fondest memories attached to it, but I had to take a decision.
“Sell it off, pay a little something to the rest. I could expand my business here and moreover, what’s the point of harping on to memories and wasting such an opportunity.” My husband suggested firmly.
True, with none back in the village to tend to the mansion, I gave in to my husband’s advice and planned to sell it off.
But then, everyone else involved had to sign certain documents and had to be paid their share. So, to cut a long story short, the much needed paper work somehow brought me to where nobody else in my family had set foot in for almost thirty years. Shanta Valyamma’s house.
The drive to her home was bumpy, the lane hadn’t been tarred yet. I stopped before a small one storeyed cottage, the gate was rickety and the paint was peeling off.
I knocked and she opened the door for me, I met my own blood, she stood there in all glory, albeit old but graceful, nevertheless.
I introduced myself, I could see a tear of joy escaping her eye. She invited me in, a humble but neat living room with a bed on one side. Her husband shifted in his bed, trying to rise. She helped him up and offered me water.
I explained matters to her, she didn’t seem very interested. I named the price and the value of her share, prepared to negotiate if she demanded more or refused to sign. She took me by surprise, she signed on all the documents with no questions asked, even wishing to relinquish her part to the other parties.
“If I take the share, it would somehow bind me to my past again. My own family considered me unworthy back then, I’m content with what I have, we will manage. Thanks.” She smiled.
Perhaps the stunned expression on my face softened her. She walked me outside.
“You know child, my family called him names, uneducated, penniless, worthless… But he let me blossom, I completed my degree post marriage. I was looking for employment before his accident, to make our ends meet. He had always been okay with it. Handicap or no, we have mutually respected each other and our decisions. We couldn’t afford to have a child at early stages and later fate didn’t let us. But that’s fine. We have each other.”
I heard him cough from inside, so she waved me goodbye and rushed in.
As I cast a look on the house again, I realized, I had perhaps found all my answers today, in a house which wasn’t half the size of my plush city apartment. There, amidst zero luxuries or comfort, I could now fathom how wrong my folks were.
I so wished my parents were here, so I could show them.
That perhaps, walking away with the man you love didn’t make you characterless. Holding on to someone who understood and supported you was way better than being bound to a stranger who showered you with riches but locked you up in a walled garden.
That having a child was a choice, not a compulsion. A woman and her life could be complete either way.
That marriage was between two humans who found the love and respect to stand by each other, come what may. How were caste or religion even distinctly related to certain mind set?
As I drove back to the ancestral home, somewhere deep inside, I knew I still wished to keep it, the house was the only string that could perhaps tie us all together. My extended family, cousins, aunts, nieces, nephews, and of course, Shanta Valyamma.
For the very first time in my whole life, I had authority over something, and I wasn’t going to blow it. The mansion would remain, I pledged, as I tore the deal documents into pieces.
Valyamma: Malayalam word for Aunt.
This story had been shortlisted for our December 2020 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: Flickr, for representational purposes only
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