There must be very few people in Pune today who still remember Manjula, the schoolteacher. Although it has not been long since she died, she had not been in the public eye for almost a generation before that. Indeed, even those who remember her, do so because of the scandal attached to her name. Not many people had seen Manjula grow from childhood to youth. The few who had, declared that she had been unquestionably beautiful as a young girl.

However, even they did not know what caste she had belonged to. Some thought she might have been from the washer-man caste. Others thought it could be the cowherd, oil-presser, or bangle-seller caste. The only thing everybody was agreed upon was that she was not a brahmin. And yet, nobody dared say she was not, because everything about her declared her to be so – her looks, her habits, her language. In fact many believed she must be from some minor sub-caste of brahmins at the least. The truth is: Manjula was not a brahmin.

She had studied up to the fifth or sixth grade during the early years of women’s education and become a schoolteacher. It was then that her life had taken a turn and become the subject of general gossip. During those early years of women’s education when it was impossible to find upper-caste women to work as teachers, the education department employed women from lower castes who had managed to get an education.

Manjula was one of these women. Manjula had been married at the very young age of four or five. She had continued to live with her parents as was the custom, and enjoyed going to school. She was always neat and tidy. With the cultural values she acquired at school, she felt a deep desire to refine herself in such a way that she would be mistaken for an upper-caste girl. With this in mind she set about consciously emulating the brahmin lifestyle. Manjula became a teacher when she was about 16.

Her husband, who lived in some remote place like Talegaon or Junnar, had been trying very hard, from the time she had achieved puberty at 13, to bring her home. This too was the custom but she had refused to go. Nor had her mother insisted that she must. Later, when she became a teacher, she began to feel ashamed of her illiterate husband. Not only was he a country bumpkin, but he belonged to one of the lower castes. With the efforts she had put into acquiring upper-caste habits, she found the idea of living with him demeaning and repugnant.

The husband on his part was not about to give up his conjugal rights. And so she consulted a lawyer to find out if she could get out of the situation with the help of the law. The lawyer initially advised her to deny that she was married at all. She could claim that the ceremony she had Manjula been through was engagement, not marriage. It helped that she had continued to use her maiden name at school. The lawyer proposed to use this as evidence to support her claim.

In those days it had become customary for young married girls or child widows to use their maiden names if they were going to school, because they were embarrassed to have people know the truth about them. This custom is still followed in Pune. However, there would have been many hurdles to supporting Manjula’s claim that she was not married. Most importantly, it would have been difficult to prove that her wedding ceremony was actually an engagement ceremony.

The lawyer decided he would have to devise another strategy. In Manjula’s caste a woman could, by custom, discard one husband to marry another. Taking advantage of this, the lawyer advised Manjula to demand maintenance of Rs 500 from her husband for the three or four years that she had stayed in her parents’ home after puberty, and to send him a legal notice to say that, if the sum was not paid within a week, she would marry again. Manjula did accordingly through the same lawyer. As expected, her husband could not pay the amount she demanded; and so he was forced to give up his rights over her.

Manjula had set herself free. Too free as it turned out. Her life now took an unexpected turn. Manjula had always cherished a wish to be part of educated society. She was young and beautiful. So people were very happy to have her come home to tutor their sons and daughters. As it turned out, tutoring was only a cover for carrying on illicit relationships. There were many of these in the years that followed. But it was her relationship with Dr Chintopant that lasted till the end.

Her conduct after she entered into this relationship was blameless. She was true to him all his life. Her children were his children. This relationship had been so unquestionably accepted by society and by his first family that Dr Chintopant’s children often visited her; and if the father scolded them occasionally, she rushed to defend them. One of the children Manjula bore Dr Chintopant was Shanta, Kalindi’s mother.

Manjula worried about Shanta’s marriage. But meanwhile, she did a wise thing. She educated Shanta to whatever level she could so that, in the event that a husband could not be found for her, she would be equipped to earn her living. As we have seen, she did not need to support herself. Way beyond Manjula’s expectations, a young brahmin lawyer, Appasaheb Dagge, married Shanta. In those days, the custom was for men like him to marry young pre-pubescent girls. Appasaheb considered this wrong. He also believed the caste system to be wrong and knew that the only way to break it was through inter-caste marriages. Moreover, he was looking for an educated wife. Shanta fitted his expectations perfectly. And she was beautiful to boot.

Excerpted with permission from Kalindi{Brahmankanya}, Shridhar V Ketkar, translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale, Speaking Tiger Books.