1940, Nizamabad, State of Hyderabad
“For two cup of rice, how much water will you add?”
“How much milk does it take for two cups of chai?”
“Very good. Don’t forget the basics. I don’t want any complaints from your mother-in-law!”
Asha nodded her head like an obedient student, with her gaze fixed on the ground. She feared only her grandmother. She was constantly admonished for being clumsy, for playing with the kids in the neighborhood and for dressing up her dolls. She started wearing the traditional half-saree, now that she stepped into womanhood, as her grandmother says so. Most of her half-sarees belonged to her elder sister Durga. She left them behind when she got married and moved into her in-law’s house.
Now, it’s Asha’s turn. Her big day was nearing and everyone in the house was busy with the preparations. The world around her was pacing and running its own race, but her mind was occupied with the new dress that Kamala akka promised to stitch for her doll. She was eagerly waiting for her grandmother to finish her daily schooling in cooking and mannerisms so she could go to Kamala akka to check her doll’s new dress.
Meanwhile, Lakshmi walked in with a load of twigs above her head which was used as cooking fuel. Asha rushed to help her get them down.
“This much should be enough for a week.” said Asha’s grandmother Lakshmamma.
Meenakshi did not respond to that. Her silence was a manifestation of suppressed rage and resentment. She has been occupied with her own thoughts since the time Asha’s father announced his decision to marry her off to the zamindar, as a compensation for the debt he borrowed from him, to cultivate his land. The skies have been merciless this year. There were no rains and severe drought took over.
Mallesha had nothing left except the little money he saved for Asha’s wedding. When he explained this to the zamindar, the opulent, arrogant and insensible landlord that he was, without any consideration for lives of the peasants and their families, he demanded an eight-year-old to be his bride. “Eight years old’ muttered Meenakshi to herself. Her daughter hardly knows what was happening around her. Her adolescence was being snatched away from her, just like it happened to her 15 years ago. She was voiceless then and voiceless now. She was traded like an object from her father’s hand to her husband’s hand and now she sees the same happening to her daughters. Each day was difficult to pull off. The countdown has begun and Asha too was slipping away from her hands. She is going to miss the tenderness of her tiny palms touching her face. She was sure that her little daughter was definitely not ready for this coerced process of growing up.
“Why are you so crossed? You brought this on all of us!” Lakshmamma’s would constantly taunt Meenakshi for not giving birth to a son. Asha followed her mother into the kitchen to hug her while she broke into feeble sobs. Meenakshi held Asha’s face in her hands and looked at her helplessly. Asha was confused. “What happened amma?” she asked in her innocent voice. Meenakshi was taken over by grief and let out louder cries.
Lakshmamma peeped through the kitchen door and raised her voice on Meenakshi. “Is this anything new? How old were you when you came here? Barely seven. Do you know how old was I when I married Mallesha’s father? Five!” Meenakshi sobbed even louder and Asha’s eyes welled up. She began sniffing and rubbing her eyes. The two of them hugged each other while Lakshmamma continued to admonish them
‘Stop your sob fest both of you. Had you given us sons, Mallesha’s life would have been much easier. My son slogged day in and day out to put that money together to secure these girls’ lives. I knew that jyotishya under the banyan tree was right about you when he said that you’d bring the evil shani’s influence into our house. It was my husband who wanted to settle a debt with your father; otherwise, so many of our relatives were ready to give their daughters. See how lucky Asha is. She is going to a zamindar’s house. She will be a dorasani. You should rejoice at your daughter’s fortune!”
“Not a dorasani, she will be caged for life. Women of that house never venture out. Their traditions are very difficult for a child to follow! I will never be able to see my little girl ever again” retorted Meenakshi. Lakshmamma backed off. Muttering under her breath, she went to take a stroll in the backyard.
This was no fortune; it was a curse to be born a girl. Meenakshi only prayed that god gave her daughter the strength to withstand anything that happens behind closed doors of the furnished household. “Will you send me a message with the noukar in that house now and then?” asked Meenakshi with tearful eyes. “I don’t want to go, amma.” pleaded Asha, unable to control herself.
Akka- Elder sister
Amma – mother
Zamindar – Rich oppressive landlord