Hers to Conquer

Priya Nayak-Gole posted under Retrospect Short Stories on 2022-12-01

Chapter 1 The redolence of the marigold garlands adorning the BR Kalyanamandapam sprinkled with the hues of my favourite red roses engulfed the passers-by as they looked up in awe. A huge floral arrangement taking the form of Ananya weds Pradeep with our names dotted with esters and strewn with orchids made everyone stop and look twice. As I watched from my room in the adjoining hotel it reflected my state of mind.  At 34, I was finally tying the knot, breaking the stereotypes of my household; Narsimhan Chadrashekhara Iyer, my archaic thatha’s (grandfather) directives. No girl in my family stayed unmarried beyond 25.  I also had broken another stereotype. Pradeep was 29, a good five years younger and that raised over 500 eyebrows. But the fact that he was a Tam-bam and that my clock was ticking, clinched the deal.  Done with the Mangala snanam*, I was now cleansed and pure in all respects. I turned to stare into the full-length mirror in my room, adjoining the double bed I shared with my mother that now lay occupied by my Kanjeevaram saree spread in its shining grandeur. The breathtaking off-white massive huge red borders embossed with the trademark silver threads marked my foray into the glamour bride world. The adjacently aligned gold bling added a royal touch to my ensemble.  Excitement flowed like the glittering water in the river overlooking the temple town where I was all set to tie the knot. After all, I was the last girl from thatha’s clan to be betrothed. Despite the tranquil voice of M.S. Subbulakshmi playing in the background, I was restless. Did I make the right decision? I wouldn’t know. But what mattered to me was, Pradeep knew everything. Every little detail about my past. He had witnessed some of it too.  My sullen reflection stared back at me as I was propelled down my disquieting memory lane… Chapter 2 “Thathaaaa…” I screamed through the hallway of my ancestral home in Madhurai. “… I passed in Maths this time. I secured the highest marks in English, in the history of grade 1 in the Shankara Nilaya high school…” I was panting by the time I reached thatha who sat on his favorite recliner belonging to my great-grandfather.  He sat up straight smoothening his perennial angavastra *.  “Sita…?” He called out to my amma, who incidentally was his sister’s daughter and he thought he could boss over her more than he did others. Besides she was the youngest daughter-in-law, wasn’t she? Wiping her hands on her saree pallu, my amma rushed out of the kitchen located at the corner of the cul-de-sac we called home. I could see the kitchen stains on her saree, which had discoloured the light purple south cotton to a darker version in patches. She was probably frying my favourite banana fritters if the pleasant sapor wafting out of the kitchen was any indication. “Sita…” His tone had changed and I recognized this one. It reeked of disapproval… an emotion very familiar to me. Everyone at home disapproved of everything I did. “…Why is Ananya still in her uniform? She doesn’t ever say the prayers in the evening puja-time these days. Where are her manners?” By now my other aunts and cousins emerged out of their hideouts called rooms.  My oldest cousin Parshuram anna snickered at me. He was the golden boy in the family. Currently, in the 12th grade, he excelled in studies and thatha always said he would make it ’big’ someday. So did my other cousins, Pammi Akka, Ramya Akka, Ranjith Anna, and Sooraj anna. While the boys exceeded ‘expectations’, the girls were the epitome of modesty and the withholders of the familial virtues. But with me, Ananya Rameshwar, nothing seemed to be right.  “I… I shall admonish her.” Amma squeaked as she dragged me inside her sanctum, my favorite place in the whole wide world. I could just lie in my undies unhindered by the comments coming my way. “Anu-mole…” Amma began by using the endearment she had learned during her growing-up days in Palakkad. “…I am proud of you. But you have to do better in Maths and Science to get a good husband…okay?” While I pondered over the connection between the two, she helped me change into a clean faded pavadai*. I hated it and yearned to wear frocks, considered blasphemous. Later as amma helped me take an extra serving of fritters she had kept hidden from my predatory cousins she said. “Anu-mole, I have good news. Sunil mama will be here tomorrow. He is your favourite, right?”  I nodded crunching the delicacy and relishing the salty spread on my tongue even as the crispy delight melted into my mouth. Sunil mama was the only person besides amma-appa who loved me and treated me well. He gave me the biggest chocolate piece or secretly got me pastries I loved so much. But it had been two years since I last saw him. He had been abroad, amma said. He was now returning for good and would be staying in Madhurai with us for a few days. I was thrilled. Chapter 3 The priest began chanting the mantras for Gauri puja; Gauri, the goddess of purity and virtue. An idol was placed on a plate with rice and Kumkum smeared on it. Ironically, my life was anything but that. I wasn’t ‘pure’… at least I thought so.  I watched the ‘Kashi yatra’ ceremony for Pradeep from the confines of the bridal room. My Appa hunched by the burden of his only daughter unmarried was thrilled beyond measure. Everyone chuckled as he held Pradeep’s hand and symbolically convinced him to choose a life of domestic bliss and not be a hermit. Right then Pradeep looked across the marriage hall towards my room and I blinked away tears seeing that assurance.  Sunil mama made his royal entry and I ran towards him. But he held me away… and didn’t even look at me. What did I do wrong?  Thatha revered Sunil mama so did I.  That evening I walked towards mama who sat reading the newspaper. He wore shorts at home and thatha never said anything… Sunil mama was so cool but why was he cold? “Mama… are you angry with me?” I asked, my voice barely a whisper. “Hmmm…” “What can I do mama?” my innocence couldn’t fathom his answer. “Will you do anything I tell you to do?” Mama asked folding the newspaper. “Yes, mama…” I was excited. Finally, I would get that extra-large chocolate bar. “Anu, meet me at the outhouse in a while…” and before walking away he said. “…and this has to be a secret between us, got it?” he winked and my heart fluttered. I entered the outhouse that was once meant for the servants but now doubled up as a storeroom… It was pitch dark. But mama always said, I was his brave niece. So, I marched on inundated by the pungent combination of talcum powder, hair oil, soap, stinky socks, sweat, and old furniture. In the corner in the incandescence of a tiny bulb, I saw mama. He sat cross-legged on the floor and he had so many chocolates strewn before him.  Wow… I was in for a fortune. “Come Anu, sit” He patted his lap. I bounced towards him and obeyed, my eyes on the colorful sweet bounty. “Do you want it all Anu…?” Mama asked and I nodded. He continued. “…Ok now kiss mama and you will get this as a gift.” That was a small price to pay, wasn’t it? I turned and kissed him on his rough stubbled cheek. “Not like this Anu…” He held my face in his palms. In the glow of the bulb behind him I only saw a ghost instead of mama… was it an apparition? “…You kiss like this… open your mouth…”  I obeyed and mama’s fat tongue made its way inside my softness and arced around mine… I could taste something bitter… he bit upon my lips and I almost yelled, a sense of shame climbing up from the pit of my stomach into my mouth. I was about to retch and he pulled away. “Shhh. Anu. Thatha will know you have eaten so many chocolates. Don’t scream…Ok?” I nodded… not knowing what was happening but something didn’t feel right. Just then he snaked his hand on my chest and pinched my yet-to-develop mound… it hurt but I couldn’t cry. I sat stunned to silence as his hand moved below my pavadai and caressed my thigh. He kissed me on my neck and bit me hard on the shoulder. “You are mine, angel…” He whispered in my ear and… my breath caught and my eyes filled.  The man with whom the sun shined, now lacked radiance. I stood up pushing him with all my might. “I… don’t want… no chocolates…” “Anu, remember, this is our little secret. If you tell anyone about it, thatha will give you a beating….” I ran out my legs trembling and my heart pacing in my painful chest confines. That night I couldn’t sleep. Little did I know that it was the beginning of something more ghastly… more abominable, that could scar me for life. The next morning was a Sunday and Sunil mama called all of us cousins to sit together on the veranda to tell us tales from his exploits in Dubai. He dragged me on his lap as he sat with crossed legs and I didn’t resist. I was deflated… terrified. As he kept talking, he held my abdomen and pulled me back towards his chest. Right then I moved but I felt a fist nudging my hip behind. I looked up to see his other hand, holding a photo. Then what was it that ‘prodded’ me? I didn’t know then… I couldn’t breathe.  A little later everyone dispersed for lunch while mama held my wrist as I left. “Remember our little secret Anu…” he whispered with a smile that spliced his face. I wasn’t aware of what had happened but something had changed. The next evening amma and appa along with the elders in the family had to go to a wedding in the nearby town. It was an overnight trip and mama was given the responsibility to tuck me to bed after dinner.  Why amma? Was I a bad girl? Why don’t you take me along? I wanted to ask but remained a mute spectator. That night after my akkas and annas slept, mama took me to the outhouse. I was sleepy and all I remember was him closing the door. Darkness descended into the room and … my life. I heard the wings of hundreds of crows flapping their wings together when a gunshot was fired. He undressed me even as I stood still in baffled shock, my frail body shivering despite the heat. Beaks, claws, and hungry caws descended beyond my 6-year-old comprehension, mind, body, and soul. There was no escape. When I work up I was in my room. Amma and others hadn’t returned and my cousins were at school. Mama walked in… “Anu I am leaving today. You should remember mama loves you, alright? Keep our secret. Otherwise…” I hated him. I spent so many nights and days hiding below the cot, my school performance even in English remained dismal as ever and my amma, never knew her daughter bled because I never did after that night. I prayed to every God thatha said, helped get rid of trouble. Both Shiva and Ganesha. I hoped one of them would reveal it all to amma.  In the next 4 years, I tried to confide in my mother when my anxiety attacks got unbearable… but it was useless.  Mama came home a few times and the diabolical ritual continued. Chapter 4 The Kanyadanam* was dealt with and I was minus emotions. Pammi Akka heavily pregnant with her third even teased me about it. Muhurtam* loomed large while I had to quickly get changed into the nine-yard saree gifted by Pradeep’s parents. As I stood again before the ornate mirror in the changing room, I saw tears meandering their way threatening to wash away the make-up painstakingly applied to hide my scars… Burn scars. I was fifteen and a shell of my 6-year-old self. I had no friends because I was an introvert, a misfit in school and at home as well. My cousins were well set in their lives. Ramya Akka was married and Pammi Akka was being seeked by prospective alliances.  “And look at Ananya…” Thatha would watch me poking the idiyappam flintily. “…I wonder what sins Sita and Rameshwar must have committed in their past lives to be punished by an idiot good-for-nothing offspring…” I would walk away sulking into my now independent room and latch the door. I spent countless nights crying myself to sleep. I had long given up on the Gods and even amma.   “Amma… Sunil mama isn’t a good man.” I tried telling her once. “What on earth are you saying Anu-mole?” Amma stared at me as if I had grown two horns. She continued with her chores nonchalantly.  “Amma… he did… he…” that was all I could utter without dry heaving.  With the lecherous mama, it was a constant conflict, a survival of the fittest, that finally ended when I was 17. The lady called to dress me up traditionally did a fabulous job of covering all my imperfections. Every blotch, every blemish… every disfigurement was well concealed. I know it didn’t matter to Pradeep. He knew it all. My 17th birthday like all others before that was spent wallowing in self-pity. Thatha was stuck to bed as old age got the better of his ego but he kept ruminating over my shortcomings. “Rameshwara, you should get Ananya married at the earliest. My friend Srinivas Ganesan has a son of marriageable age. The boy wants to study further and I have promised to fund his education if they agree to this alliance. Let’s get them engaged and then after Ananya completes 18 next year, we can get them married…” The old man hadn’t lost his spunk. The only good aspect of turning older was that I was now stronger and Sunil mama couldn’t do me any more harm. At least I thought so when I pushed him hard last time and he stumbled away.  I agreed to the engagement to escape this house and its horrors. I thought my life would now change with the tag of a husband. One evening I was walking home from college when Sunil mama who was visiting my ill thatha intercepted me.  “Call off the engagement Anu…” he sternly ordered his steel grip on my arm tightening. “…you belong to me.” “Mama… let me go” I jerked my arm away. How I loathed this man. “Your shoulder still has my mark, Anu. What do you think your fiancé would say if he found out you were a whore…?” I glared at the imbecilic creature standing before me and right then decided to end it all. A trip to the local ration shop was all it needed.  That night I waited at our usual time in the outhouse. He entered the place late in the night and shut the door.  “What’s that smell Anu?” he looked around, the gentle bulb casting his true monstrous shadow. “I am done, mama. I can’t take this anymore…” I wailed, flicking the lit matchstick on the kerosene-induced logs in the corner. I was a girl possessed. “What… what do you mean…wha… NO…” The blaze soon spread along the walls I had drenched with the inflammable.  Mama screamed as the outhouse turned into an inferno. I felt the pinching heat melting my flesh… Strangely I felt no pain. Probably the slow burn in my heart was graver… The last I saw before darkness engulfed me was mama obscured by the conflagrating embers. We lay on the pyre of my lost virtue, lost childhood, and lost life… Chapter 5 Pradeep tied the Thaali* around my neck fastening the two knots and his sister put in the third “You are beautiful…” he whispered and I beamed, my lip hurting where the skin had fused years ago. But I had relearnt to smile after I got a new lease on life.  After I was reborn.  The hospital burns ward reeked of antiseptic and rotting flesh. The doctor walked in with a worried amma in some kind of costume. Was this afterlife? No, I realized I was alive as the analgesics stopped kicking in. I couldn’t talk.  After a few days… I lost count of how many, I was out of the ICU. I guess I wasn’t lucky to pass away too. What about that rascal… did he pass? Would I go to prison? I would turn 18 in a few months so probably it would be a juvenile court. My doubts were answered later when amma visited me. She held my bandaged hand and I realized she had aged more than I last saw her. “Anu… my darling, why didn’t you tell me?” Wait… what?  “Amma…” I struggled and gasped trying to speak through my smoke-induced voice loss. “…How…?” I couldn’t talk more. “Anu-mole, they saw injuries down there… and got you examined. You should have told me at least dear… Was it… Sunil?” she asked with hope immersed in the emotions shining in her eyes. “Is… mama… dead?” I wheezed.  “No… he is badly burnt though. The police were here… listen Anu…” She looked around and whispered. “…When the police ask you, just say… it was… on your own will. I know you are a minor… but our family honour is at stake. I promise that… I will sever ties with my brother. But one last time, please let it go, Anu.” She wiped her eyes. It was the moment I truly wished I hadn’t survived.  I later got to know, someone had immediately broken the lock; called the fire brigade, and ambulance. I was sent for counseling and I decided to start my life fresh.  My burns were contained and treated well and after a couple of surgeries, I was good enough to go. However, the scars etched on my soul would never heal. I was labelled a wretched young girl with raging hormones who didn’t spare her uncle…  Thatha passed away in shock while I didn’t even ask what happened to the spineless buffoon I was engaged to. My cousins got to know and looked at me with sympathy, which I despised. My family never discussed the topic again and I eventually moved to Mumbai for further studies.  The circumambulations around the sacred fire began with the priest chanting the Vedic mantras. The Saptapadi* is one of the most important rituals in a Hindu marriage. I couldn’t stop my tears and everything around me blurred. I was overwhelmed with happiness… It was then I heard it. The wheelchair rattled its way down the hall as people gave way to the bald old man with sagging wrinkled discoloured skin hunched over his hanging belly. Sunil mama in his wheelchair pushed by his son, gripped the handles, staring bleakly. It was a pitiable sight where he drooled incessantly on his bib. His lower limbs had to be amputated because of the gangrene setting in after the burns.  Amma had a couple of years ago re-established relationships for old time's sake because maami had passed away and mama now had cancer. I wasn’t moved by his plight nor did amma’s decisions affect me anymore. I was a lawyer and worked for the women’s rights wing of a leading NGO.  But today I was getting heckled about old nightmares that constituted my childhood.  Pradeep held my left toe as I stepped over a grindstone symbolizing the solidity of our union. He stood tall and held my shoulders even as murmurs increased around us.  “Don’t worry Ananya… I am right here with you. That weasel doesn’t mean anything anymore.” His deep baritone soothed me. It was Pradeep who had broken open the door that day years ago. Barely 12 he had been brave. He was visiting the neighbours when he saw the emerging smoke.  He found me years later through social media. He is a media professional and we are a great team covering women’s issues. He played a major role in my healing process making me gradually fall in love with him. Mama grunted. His speech was long gone and cancer was eating up whatever was left of him. His son approached us as the wedding rituals came to an end.  “Anu akka…” the young man said joining his palms. “…I recently found out what my father did. It's unforgivable, but I can’t leave him when he is dying. I can only say… ‘sorry’” I nodded and walked out with Pradeep; head held high.  This day, this life was mine to conquer. Author note:
  1. Mangala snanam: a ritual where the bride is smeared with a paste of turmeric, sandalwood and kumkum by the married women of her family, after which she is bathed in holy water to cleanse and purify their body and soul, after which she proceeds to get ready.
  2. Angavastra: a single, rectangular piece of fabric (shoulder cloth) and may have decorated borders.
  3. Pavadai: skirt and blouse worn by young girls.
  4. Kanyadanam: 'giving away of the bride is a popular Hindu ritual where the father of the bride 'gives away his daughter.
  5. Muhurtam:  An auspicious day on which an important event, usually a wedding, can be held.
  6. Thaali: South Indian equivalent of mangalsutra
  Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!