Twice a day, Prema’s mother would hand her a glass of warm milk. The backdrop for this torture was their tiny flat in Bombay. This constituted Prema’s earliest memory. Her elder brother always finished his milk in a jiffy. But Prema found the very smell of milk nauseating.
That day was no different. Without really being aware of it, the tumbler of milk had slipped from her hand, spilling all over her dress and the floor. Her mother had cursed her, “You are in for a beating! How costly this milk is! No more milk for you today!” Prema was certain of one thing. Amma wouldn’t ever beat her. Nevertheless, she feared her. She also felt some joy at the thought that she wouldn’t have to drink milk that day.
She rose from the chair. “Don’t get up, shaniyanney!” her mother shouted, “There is milk all over the floor. If you step on it and walk around, the floor will get all sticky. Don’t move!” Prema sat there like a prisoner.
Amma returned with another tumbler of milk, “Here. If you drop it another time, I will give you good.” Prema felt cheated. Holding her breath, she drank the milk in one go. She felt like throwing up. But, at least it gave her freedom from the chair!
Amma was saying, “You give me so much trouble just to eat and drink your milk. Just look at your brother. Has he ever troubled us about anything ever? Whatever you serve him, he eats and then sits down to study. He always secures the second rank in class. He is such a smart boy. There he comes, your Anna – elder brother – from school! How smart he looks!” Three-year-old Prema nodded her head in agreement.
In Anna’s class, it was another boy who always stood first. Anna stood second. “That boy must be known to the teacher,” Amma would say.
When Anna was away at school, Prema would sit in the balcony and watch people walking up and down the narrow street adjacent to Balachandra Road. She would keep herself amused by playing with her toys. At a shop one day, she asked her father to buy her a cloth doll.
Even before Appa could respond to her request, Amma had butted in, “All that is not needed! There are enough dolls at home.” Prema had felt very miffed. Amma was right. It was true. She did have many toys – a hen that laid eggs, a circus clown which climbed down the ladder head first, a veena. Three toys in all.
But they were all small plastic ones. Prema could not cuddle them. They were not huggable. She could not possibly sleep with them beside her. But what was she to do? Prema consoled herself by holding the plastic hen and the clown against her cheek and kissing them.
They were all set for the wedding. Just fifteen days to go! But Prema was unsure of her own feelings. Was she happy or not? She had always enjoyed watching romances on the film screen. She had immersed herself – to the point of drowning – in Hindi film songs. But she had never viewed marriage through the lens of romance.
Not one of the married couples she knew seemed to be in love with each other. Appa, Amma…(che, could Appa and Amma possibly make love?)…Rajamani maama, Amma’s brother, used to hit Mangalam maami…
Actually, Prema had no desire to get married. As a teenager back in school and as a college student, she had dreamt of “some man” caressing her cheeks affectionately or patting her to sleep. But that was about it.
When she thought of the man who had come to see her the other day, she felt good. She also felt shy but did not let on. If she showed happiness or shyness on her face, Amma would conclude that she was thinking of her marriage. Her face would turn stern at once. She would scold her for every little thing. For some reason, Amma never liked the idea of marriage. Were all mothers like this?
Amma busied herself with the packing. She stuffed a huge aluminum trunk with all the jewels and steel vessels she had collected for Prema. To guard them, she placed a small idol of Ganesha inside and locked the trunk using two heavy Navtal locks.
This task accomplished, she said to Narayanan, “Dei, everything precious is inside this trunk. When you are on the train, make sure you guard this trunk and don’t fall asleep. If someone walks off with this at some station, that’s it! We are done for!” To this, Narayanan replied, “One needs a crane to lift this. Who will take this and go?”
As it is, Prema found it difficult to keep up with Amma’s impatient and hurried pace. This only got worse now. She felt bad watching Amma toil away but had no idea how she could pitch in. As always, she was racked by feelings of uselessness and by the guilt of not being able to help Amma. But strangely enough, Amma did not scold her. At times, the fair face of the man with the sunglasses who was soon to become her husband would come to mind. She would feel a tinge of happiness. Other than this, all Prema felt was a mild fear.
There were only two days left for their departure to Madras. Amma and Appa had both gone to bed. Noticing that the light was still on in her brother’s room, Prema went in and sat next to him. He put aside the book he was reading, looked at her and raised his eyebrows as if to ask, “What is it?”
She said, “It isn’t as if I have this huge desire to get married. But I don’t know what other way there is. I don’t feel like leaving all of you and going away either. What to do? This is like a surgery that is necessary, isn’t it?” He clicked his tongue as if in assent. Why ever did she liken marriage to a surgery?
Two days prior to their departure, they received a telegram from the groom’s father. “My wife is not well. Please postpone the wedding to the month of thai, the season from mid-January to mid-February.”
Even before the wedding day dawned, all three of them were drowning in anxiety. Prema’s head especially, was fully of worries. Would Appa go bankrupt arranging this wedding as Amma believed? Why was her future maamanaar acting in this manner? He had seemed like a good man, hadn’t he? Even in his letters, he had come through as unfailingly polite.
Prema was confused. As far as Appa was concerned, everyone was a good person. Amma, on the other hand, found fault with everyone except for a few. Which one of them was right? Prema was so anxious that even the handsome face of her future husband was forgotten.
On the morning before the wedding, they set off in two taxis. Prema did not look in the least like a happy bride. Acting on the advice of Rajamani maama, they halted at the Vinayaka temple close to the Mambalam train station and performed a puja. Prema closed her eyes and prayed.
“God, please make sure that this wedding takes place without Amma and Appa having to spend too much. May my maamanaar not trouble us too much during the wedding.” Amma too prayed for the same things. Appa did not ask god for anything. He merely stood there with folded hands, trusting that he would take care of everything.
Excerpted with permission from The Scent of Happiness, R Vatsala, translated from the Tamil by K Srilata and Kaamya Sharma, Ratna Sagar.
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