by Vani Rao
1910 – Vellor, South India
The first time she saw her marital home was two days after the wedding. Customarily, the bride is taken to the groom’s house on the same day or the day after the wedding. But the third day offered a muhurtham time so auspicious and rare, that everybody agreed that it would please the Gods to have the griha pravesham on that day instead. So, accordingly the bride, ten year old Chaya, rode in a horse driven carriage sent by the groom’s family along with her parents, grandparents, uncle and aunt. Her younger brother and two younger sisters along with her two cousin sisters and one cousin brother rode on a decorated bullock cart. The horse moved at such a slow trot that the bullock cart could easily keep pace. The mood was light and joyful in the carriages because even though the ceremony marked the formal entry of Chaya into her husband’s house, she would return to her birth home after the ceremony and stay there until she came of age.
It was a beautiful September day. A few clouds softened the heat from the sun and a gentle breeze blew from across the river Palar. Chaya had never been to this part of the town before. She saw verdant fields of paddy yonder and the river itself flowed full and clear, the breeze causing ripples on its surface. Suddenly a peacock walking about on the edge of the fields looked up as if sensing something in the air and spread its plumes wide and started dancing, the colors of its plumes rendered more brilliant by the backdrop of the bright green fields and the clear flowing river.
“Look, the peacock dances! It’s a good omen” exclaimed her grandmother Rukumi from inside the carriage. Chaya turned back and looked affectionately at her grandmother. If they had passed a funeral procession, her grandmother would have declared it a good omen, so determined was she to have Chaya’s life off to a good start. She was no stranger to tragedy, Rukumi, having lost two daughters, one to Malaria and the other giving birth to a stillborn. Her two remaining children, Chaya’s father and uncle had given her seven grandchildren between them, but Chaya was the eldest and the unequivocal favorite.
The marriage itself had been fixed just three months earlier. The children had returned from school, had their tiffin and the girls were playing hopscotch in the compound. Her eight year old brother Krishnamurthy a.k.a. Kittu was playing gilli dhanda with other neighborhood boys in the street. Playing hopscotch with girls was beneath his dignity and would cause him to lose all respect from the other boys. Two year old Pandu was rolling a ball on the veranda, watched by her grandfather Venkobi. The women were in the kitchen and the men had not yet returned from work. A handsome horse driven carriage pulled up in front of the house and a majestic looking man with a flourishing mustache and a regal turban walked through the gate.
“I’m Kadiri Srinivasa Rao from north Vellore. Can I have a moment of your good time?” he asked Venkobi. He glanced at Chaya and smiled but she found the presence of this large man so imposing that she was too frightened to smile back. The children stopped the play and stared as a visibly flustered Venkobi scrambled to welcome the man.
“Kadiri Rao, of course sir, please come in sir. You honor my humble house with your esteemed presence”. Venkobi seemed to know him or at least about him.
The majestic gentleman went inside and the children huddled in the front veranda trying to eavesdrop on the conversation but the voices were muffled and they could not quite make out what was said. When the man took his leave, Venkobi rushed out of the house with a notebook in his hand. Chaya knew that this was the ‘horoscope notebook’ and wondered where he was running.
Later that evening, when the men returned from work, there was excited chattering amongst the adults. To the children who still didn’t understand what the excitement was about, it seemed that everybody was talking and laughing at the same time.
It was at dinner time that they were told that Chaya had received a marriage proposal and would soon be married to Kadiri Gopinath Rao of north Vellore. The horoscopes had matched (that’s where Venkobi was running), Kadiri Srinivasa Rao had insisted that he did not want any dowry and a good date for the wedding was just three months away.
Chaya was told that she will no longer be going to school. The fact that she had managed to stay in school until ten years old, in and of itself was a serious break in convention. Customarily, Brahmin girls either did not attend school or were pulled out by the time they reached seven years of age.
But Chaya had secretly cajoled and pleaded with her father “please bapa, let me go to school. I promise I will stop as soon as you fix an alliance for me. I promise. Till then let me go, please bapa”.
He gave in to her, but it had required complex maneuvering on his part to make it happen. First, he had to deal with his scandalized wife, Parimala, who demanded to know which Brahmin girl in the neighborhood was still going to school and whether he, Chaya’s father, was planning to send his daughter to her sasural without any household training. So he split the difference with his wife, promising to have Chaya home by noon so she could be trained in household duties the rest of the day.
Then he asked his father and brother to accompany him to the school principal’s office. Accordingly, one morning, her father Ranga Rao, senior accountant at the thaluk office, her uncle, Sridhara Rao, junior accountant at the thaluk office and her grandfather, Venkobi Rao, retired accountant at the thaluk office set out to meet the school principal. They walked to the school, their backs ramrod straight, their dhotis crisp and white, the mark of Vaishnavas – the tilak and vermillion – prominent in their foreheads and their kudumis tied neatly and hanging off their shaved heads. They were neither tall nor short, neither fair nor dark, neither fat nor thin. But they made an impressive trio, with their stern visages and brisk walk.
The principal agreed to their request, after all Ranga was a school mate of his, and accordingly arranged for Chaya to sit at the very back of the class with a good two feet of distance between her and the rest of the all-boys class. The boys were further promised not only a sound thrashing but also possible dismissal if they so much as glanced in her direction. So, Chaya had gone to school, chaperoned by her grandfather, who not only accompanied her to school but also sat right next to her the entire time she was there.
Now, with the marriage proposal, to the relief of her mother, her school education was coming to an end.
Over the rest of the evening, Chaya learned that Kadiri Srinivasa Rao was so prominent that he was both the pride of Vellore and the Marathi Deshastha community to which they belonged. He was a professor of English at the prestigious Arts College. Additionally, he was well versed in five different languages and did transcriptions and translations and acted as interpreter to the British, for which he was paid handsomely. He had lands, a few acres of fertile paddy fields with impressive returns. Needless to say, Kadiri Srinivasa Rao was rich – so rich that Chaya’s father could work for two lifetimes and not catch up with him. His son Gopinath Rao (soon to be Chaya’s husband) was an English teacher at the local high school. He also ran a typewriting institute on the side. He was twenty five years old, having lost his wife a few years ago during childbirth.
The family was beside themselves with joy at having an alliance from such a prominent, educated and rich family. The brothers were looking at four more girls to be married off between them and an alliance without any dowry requirements was a boon straight from God himself.
The wedding itself was a grand affair, performed in strict conformance to the shastras. Chaya had seen her husband for the first time three days ago at the wedding – a taller man than her father, with a slender, wiry frame and dark skin. His face was smooth and unblemished and he cut a handsome figure in his silk dhoti, his kudumi hanging off the back of a closely cropped head.
“We are approaching the house” the driver informed them “look, it’s the one with the pandal in front”. Everybody craned to look. The compound was huge with an imposing wrought iron gate which was wide open to receive the bridal party. The carriage drove inside the compound and Chaya saw a sprawling garden filled with mango, guava, coconut and jackfruit trees. Magnolias and jasmine creepers filled the air with their heavy sweet scent. After growing up in a house where exactly four feet separated the house from the street, she was awed by the size of the compound.
The carriage stopped in front of the palatial looking house. Wide steps led up to a broad veranda with wooden railings running along its entire length and breadth. A handsomely carved double door led into the house.
Chaya alighted from the carriage gracefully, in full wedding finery, looking breathtakingly beautiful as only the young can. She was milk white like a British memsahib. Though her mother’s side of the family had lighter skin than most in the community, Chaya still stood out with her extreme fairness. Her long dark tresses and large, limpid black eyes and the ubiquitous vermillion mark of Hindu women on her forehead only accentuated her fairness. Slender and long limbed with sharp features and even white teeth, she was stunningly beautiful. Chaya herself was rather proud of her good looks. But hers was a guileless conceit. She was a good natured girl with an easy smile and quick laughter. Her striking good looks combined with her naturally sweet disposition made her an object of envy bordering on hatred for the girls in the neighborhood while simultaneously the object of admiration bordering on worship for every male with a pulse.
Her mother-in-law, Padmavathy Bai, was standing on the veranda with a whole army of women behind her. Chaya saw Gopinath, who came down the steps smiling. Putting his hand lightly under her arm, he led her to the bottom of the steps. The women came forward, two at a time, held the arathi plate between them and performed an arathi, while other women, came forward one at a time and bathed her feet in milk. She was being welcomed into the house as Goddess Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu and Goddess of wealth and prosperity. The air filled with the beautiful rendition of the song of welcome to Goddess Lakshmi, sung in madhyamavati raaga:
Oh, Goddess of Fortune! Lakshmidevi!
Do come slowly with your anklets making the jingling sound!
Come to us like butter emerging out of buttermilk when it is churned!
Come and shower on us a rain of gold and fulfill our aspirations!
Come with the brightness of countless number of rays of the sun!
Come and bless us;
Oh, Devi, who has taken incarnation as Sita!
Oh, lotus eyed Devi who is the pride of Mahavishnu!
Come and appear before us wearing the shining golden bracelets on your wrists
And the auspicious vermilion mark on your forehead!
Oh, Consort of Purandaravithala
Welcome to You who shine auspiciously in the hearts of great sages!
Oh, Queen of Alagiri Ranga!
Come to our worship on Friday when streams of ghee and sugar will overflow!
After the arathi, Gopinath led her up the steps and to the entrance of the house. On the threshold was a silver pot filled with rice. Chaya lifted her right foot and delicately kicked the pot so that the rice spilled out and into the house.
“Let the wealth in this house overflow with your arrival, just as the rice in the pot has overflowed” her mother-in-law said behind her.
With her husband’s hand under her arm, Chaya put her right foot forward and crossed the threshold into the house.
She was home.