“Tell us a story, Grandma!”
Her sons were both out, and the elder daughter-in-law was busy kneading flour for chapati. She gazed at the brood around her and gave a fond glance at her sole grandson who was good-looking, sturdy, and a credit to their family. Her eyes slid past him to her granddaughters, their complexions a delicate peach and eyes alight with anticipation. Her fury slowly ebbed; her grandchildren were adorable. Her anger, though, had not entirely melted; her younger son would always be referred to as the “father of daughters” or beti ka bap. She pulled the girls towards her one by one and started combing their hair; as her gnarled but nimble fingers twisted their locks into tight braids, in a reedy monotone she told them stories of far-off days.
The tales rolled off her lips but her thoughts lay elsewhere. People said that times had changed, but had they? Otherwise, how dare Ganeshi Bai insult her in that manner? So what if the baby was beautiful. That evening she told her sons of the insult to their family.
“We need to decide on a course of action,” she said.
“What type of action?” Kushal said.
“I’ll let you know when I decide. We’ll wait until the mother emerges from her confinement, after the well ceremony.”
Six days went by. On the following day, a procession of women, with henna painted on their palms and long scarves draping their heads and bosoms, escorted the young mother to the village well. The new parent was so shrouded in veils that not an inch of her person could be seen; the baby too, in the arms of one of her companions, was tightly swaddled. The ladies circled the well, singing blessings to the newborn, while the mother leaning against a companion perambulated around the watery opening. She appeared weak and took faltering steps, clinging to the arms of her friends; she knew that any sign of strength on her part would only cause a jealous person to cast an evil eye on her child and had heard of tales where babies had been left lifeless overnight, the blood drained from their bodies through supernatural means.
The women returned from the ceremony and placed the baby in a cot on the front porch by her grandmother. During the next few weeks the household fell into its usual routines, the youngest swinging on her cot by her grandma by day and at night being tucked to sleep by her own mother.
Bursting with curiosity, the village girls and boys arrived daily to look at the newborn. “She is so beautiful,” “Let me take her in my arms,” the children said. Some of them came laden with red flowers while others brought rock-like sweets. Old Bhuri Bai, aghast at the throng of children congregated at the front porch, spent all her waking hours in an agony of apprehension, lest a child poke the baby in the eye or attempt to feed her hard candy. She felt fiercely protective, though in her saner moments she questioned the wisdom of having so many girls. Her immediate extended family now totaled six daughters and a son. Where in the world would they find the dowry for each of them? They were of proud Rajput descent, and to marry into a fine family, the wedding portions for the girls would have to be majestic. Her sons were quite comfortably off, but the dowries were sure to bankrupt them.
Kushal came out to the porch and smiled down at his sleeping month-old niece. “This little child is the most beautiful among them; she is like a lotus flower. We should name her Padmini after the flower, and queen.”
His mother sat at her spinning wheel a small distance away. “You always say that at the birth of each girl. Each one of them is a Padmini to you. For our six Padminis we have to corral six Bhim Singhs. Where do you think you will find suitable mates for them? And how are we going to pay for them?”
Santosh joined them and stood by his daughter’s crib. “We have to protect our Padminis from Ala-ud dins!”
The baby woke up with a cry. Her uncle bent down, cradled her in his arms and rocked her. “Nowadays we need have no fear of Ala-ud-dins.” He turned to his mother. “So what if there are six girls, what does it matter? Why do you keep bringing up the subject again and again?”
The old woman knitted her brow and gave a fierce glare. “You are fond of your niece, she is a darling no doubt, but we will all pay a heavy price for it in the future. You should hear what the people in our village are saying. Why, just the other day at the well, Ganeshi Bai gave me quite an earful. She told the others that I had lied and informed several people that this baby was a boy. That was a complete untruth. You should have heard her taunts at our having so many daughters to marry off.”
The two brothers’ faces turned grave and they looked at their mother in silence.
Kushal placed the child back in her crib with care. “Nowadays, people don’t think of things like that. Why do you even bother to talk to such people? Whether we have sons or daughters is entirely our affair. It is no one else’s business.”
The newborn smiled and gurgled in her sleep.
Excerpted with permission from Behind Latticed Marble: Inner Worlds of Women, Jyotirmoyee Devi Sen, translated from the Bengali by Apala G Egan, Thornbird/Niyogi Books.