Mani – Episode 6

Mani – The Woman Of Courage.
Episode #6

She waited. He flashed a broad smile, and her heart raced. She wondered if he noticed, but she hoped he didn’t.

“Ma’am, may I have a word with you, please?” he asked.

Her expression became very serious. She noticed he was getting a tan that suited him. She liked seeing him in khaki shorts and a white shirt.

She hid her feelings and embarrassment behind feigned irritation. “Get on with what you want to say. I’m in a hurry.”

People were watching, and she didn’t want rumours to start.

“I was wondering if you could help me attend an Indian wedding to learn about the festivities, music, and dancing. It would help my work immensely.”

She realized that if she agreed, he would be near her for five days. She didn’t want to lose such an opportunity. Luck was with her. Her sister, Swati, was marrying a distant cousin who was a first-year medical student. She hoped her little sister would be luckier than she.

Swati just finished her matriculation. Three weeks from that day, she would be married with all the fanfare of a five-day wedding. It would be the last wedding in the family.

She would be able to see Monty for five days. She told him about Swati’s upcoming wedding and promised him a formal invitation.

Monty thanked her profusely and felt very lucky. He admired that unusual woman, whose inner personality matched her physical beauty. He wondered why she wore such a stern expression all the time and never dressed up. Perhaps it was necessary in her male-dominated society.

He wished he could learn more about her life, hopefully through long conversations, so he could understand her and eliminate her cares until she relaxed around him. He heard she was a widow.

Poor thing, he thought.

Mani – Episode 5

Mani – The Woman Of Courage.
Episode #5

What would he look like now? How would he have treated her? As a father, what would he have been like?

She looked at her reflection and added one missing item—the round red mark on her forehead. She was in love with herself but feared that Raghu might disapprove.

She was impressed by her own stunning image. Then her thoughts returned to the present. What would Monty say if he saw her like that? Would he openly admire her, draw her to him, and kiss her gently or passionately?

Her cheeks flamed. Trembling, she sat on the bed.

I’ve gone insane, she thought. Imagine entertaining such wild, impossible thoughts.

Her dreams vanished when a gentle knock sounded on her door that sounded like hammering in the silent night. Frightened, she ignored it, pretending to sleep. When the footsteps receded, she glanced once more at her reflection and saw her eyes twinkling and her face glowing.

Quickly changing back into her drab, white clothes, she went to bed. Later, she quietly returned the borrowed items.

Sleep eluded her. She wondered why she had such a glow to her face. Instinctively, she knew it was because of Monty, not the colorful sari she wore. The new feelings that enveloped and thrilled her had to be hidden from the world, or she would face her parents’ anger and lose what she gained for not having a husband. Perhaps that was why Raghu was taken from her so early in life. She achieved what most of her contemporaries could never boast of. She could be proud of her education, freedom of decision-making, and her gradually unquestioned place among the local agricultural feudal lords. One indiscretion, and she would lose it all.

It’s not worth it, she thought, finally able to give expression to her new feelings within the four walls of her own room.

She got up to begin another day, feeling tired, because her sleep had been fitful.

Days passed into weeks. With each day, her listlessness made time drag. She met Monty once or twice at the town hall’s library. They exchanged pleasantries, and Mani, pretending to be in a hurry, always left quickly. Monty wondered if she was ignoring him after he intruded into her fields.

Soon, winter gave way to summer’s grueling heat that sapped everyone’s energy. During the pickle-making season, all worked as hard as grasshoppers storing food for a rainy day.

Much sharing of labor occurred, as each household made its quota of a variety of mango pickles. Mustard, chili turmeric, and rock salt were pounded into fine powder by the female servants in the courtyard, accompanied by old folk songs. Young girls and women pounded pestles. Older ladies and pregnant women cleaned mangoes in water and wiped them dry, separating them into cane baskets according to size. As in previous years, Mani oversaw the picking of mangoes from the trees in the mango grove and ensured they were transported to the house in bullock carts.

As she saw the last consignment of mangoes dispatched to her uncles’ houses, she walked back. Suddenly, she saw a shadow behind her. When she looked back, she saw Monty catching up with her.

Mani – Continued from previous episode….

Mani – The Woman Of Courage.
Continued from previous episode….

Prabha, Kala, and Tanu, popularly known as the Three Musketeers in school, planned a reunion at Tanu’s place in Delhi. It was the first time the trio of inseparable school friends met after leaving school in 1985. They kept in touch by regular e-mail and rare telephone calls on birthdays and anniversaries, but because after school t hey went their separate ways, choosing different professions and settling down where their husbands worked.

After high school, Prabha studied commerce and went through chartered accountancy, following with a management degree in finance. She settled in Toronto when she married Kumar Mithun in 1990. Kala studied law and then changed directions when she got a master’s degree in foreign trade. She settled in London, where her husband, Rajesh, Suraj started his own business. Tanu and her husband, Shan, were both doctors who worked at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.

Prabha joined Kala in London, and both landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi early in the early hours on a cold December morning. Tanu waited impatiently to welcome her friends. She was so excited, she hadn’t slept all night, and her excitement showed in her large, almond-shaped, jet-black eyes that twinkled as she grinned.

The three women hugged and held up their right thumbs, showing they’d made it. They remembered their last day of school, when they said good-bye and cried uncontrollably, feeling their world was collapsing.

Tanu stepped back to look at them. “Prabha, you’re still a bag of bones. How do you manage to be so thin with a six-year-old daughter? Look at me, so plump.”
Prabha laughed, her eyes crinkling. Kala, too, despite a caesarian, was trim.
Holding hands, the three friends went to the waiting car. They reached Tanu’s sprawling, independent house in the upscale part of Vasant Vihar colony of the capital. They put their luggage in the guest room and moved to the electric fire in the cozy family room, chatting like giggling schoolgirls, catching up on the whereabouts of old friends.

Eventually, Tanu changed the subject. “I have an idea. Each of us should choose one event or episode that has considerably affected or transformed our life and share it with the others. That will be fun and will help us know more about how life has treated us.”

“That would be great fun,” Kala added in her husky voice that still had its energy and charm, particularly toward men. Suraj had been drawn to her voice and ringing laugh he first heard over the phone a few times before meeting her. When he saw her looks they were as charming as her voice, he fell in love with.
“Tanu, do you know that Prabha has been quite a Sherlock Holmes?” Kala asked.
“You always were a dark horse,” Tanu told Prabha. “I always marveled at your many abilities and skills. Tell us more about your discoveries that might make you the next Agatha Christie. Who knows? We might be rubbing shoulders with a future Nobel laureate.”

Kala,suggested they return to the story after making hot ginger tea.
“Excellent idea. I second it,” Tanu said. “It’ll be like old times, when we sneaked into the school pantry and made tea after midnight.”
Prabha added, “Yes, those were fun times.”

Kala patted her sentimental friend. They walked into the sparkling kitchen and prepared tea, carrying it into the rose garden, where flowers were in full bloom. After touching colorful mugs together in friendship, they sipped and resolved to meet every year.

“Toronto, here we come,” Kala said. “If our husbands behave well, we might even include them.”
“Sure,” Prabha said. “You’re all welcome.” She became shy. “What I’m about to tell you is nothing big, though it’s something that really happened.

“I decided to get to the bottom of my grandaunt’s life without bias or prejudice, so I could gain answers to a question that bothered me a lot after my doctor grilled me on our family’s medical history. I called the story Mani—The Woman of Courage. Everyone called her Mani. That means a gem. I called her that. Many respectfully added the suffix akka, sister, or attha, aunt, in Telugu, the native tongue. I hope she doesn’t mind if she’s listening. I mean no disrespect.”

“What made you a heroine, Prabha? What is that million dollar question that made you a heroine?” Tanu asked.
“Patience ! Everything will be told in good time. Mani is my father’s maternal aunt. I remember her as a strong, successful matriarch, loving and caring, who gave us gifts when we visited for summer holidays. She also cooked mouth-watering goodies. She looked completely regal in her walk, expression, and mannerisms. She probably cultivated those mannerisms by imitating the heroines of novels she read of the British aristocracy. She must’ve read Daphne du Maurier or Georgette Heyer.

“Mani had long black hair until she died. As a child, I wondered how my grandmother, my father’s mother, who was ten years younger, had gray hair, but not Mani. Years later, I figured out she must’ve dyed her hair.
“She wore sparkling white saris with borders of different colors and designs. They were homespun clothes, because, in her generation, many patriots boycotted foreign cloth during the pre-independence era. Later, it became a lifelong habit, even after we gained our independence.”

Tanu and Kala made themselves comfortable and listened in rapt attention.

“White signified her widowhood,” Prabha continued. “At the age of fourteen, she was stamped a widow!”
“No way! ” Tanu said, aghast.“Poor thing! Life can be cruel and unjust.”

Prabha settled down to tell her story.

In today’s day, she would’ve been considered a child. She certainly would’ve remarried if she lost her husband so early in life, but remarriage for her would’ve meant her entire family being ostracized, which was worse than apartheid.

With the support of her father, she was a generation ahead of her peers. She was educated, had a teaching job, and took over the reins of the family efficiently once her father fell ill and died. However, she lived and dressed like a widow to minimize trouble for her family. Who would marry a widow in the early twentieth century when there were unmarried virgins? It might be a fortune hunter from the lower end of society, a man without education or culture, who was willing to try his luck, or an old widower with six children who was marrying for the fourth time.
Mani was her father’s darling and the pet of her friends, who played with her from the day she took her first steps. Mani was soon old enough to marry. At nine, she married Raghu, a distant cousin. Some believe marriages are made in heaven, but for Mani, at the age of six, her father and Raghu’s father decided the future of their children. He was her protector, provider, lord, and master — a God-like status. Raghu was only nine years old at the time, a little boy who played marbles, climbed mango trees, and learned to swim in a nearby pond. In the modern world, a six-year-old would go to school, have fun on holidays, and explore new things. Mani’s fate was sealed when she could barely write the alphabet in her own tongue.

The wedding was celebrated on the full moon in April, with all the pomp and show befitting a rich landlord. Mani was nine, and Raghu was eleven. The two families, as was customary, exchanged gold ornaments, silver articles, clothing, and cash. The bridegroom and his party of one hundred left for their home without the bride, because she wasn’t a woman yet.

Raghu understood nothing of the significance of what happened, running quickly to Mani to kiss her cheek and promise he would return soon. She smiled innocently and waved to him. A mere child had just been married, but she knew only grand clothes and many pieces of jewelry she received as wedding gifts.

After the wedding, Mani returned to her friends and toys. Her mother made sure she wore the signs of a married woman, like the kumkum on the forehead, toe rings, and chain of black beads called the tali or mangalsutra. Unlike today, a married woman wore that chain as long as she was married. If she lost her husband, on the tenth day, she removed it along with the glass bangles, toe rings, and the red tikka on her forehead.

Close to her fourteenth birthday, she received a letter from Raghu’s father stating they’d come within a month to take their darling daughter-in-law home. Mani knew she would be moving to a new town away from her friends and family. Her parents were sad. They dreaded the time when their darling would leave them and return only for festivals or deliveries.

With mixed feelings, her parents prepared for Mani’s departure. They left nothing to the last minute. Raghu’s family would stay with them for a day, leaving in the evening. They bought clothes and gifts for the groom’s family to distribute among their kin, which would announce the arrival of their new daughter-in-law.

Mani’s mother instructed her on how to conduct herself in her new home. She would give no cause for her parents to be rebuked and feel ashamed of her behavior.

“Will I have new friends to play with, Ma?” Mani asked.

An old, widowed aunt couldn’t resist saying, “Stop playing with toys and children. Those days are over. Now you must think of the babies that will come soon. You can play with them in due course as you raise them.”
Mani, bewildered, ran to her friends to play Hide and Seek.

The much-awaited day arrived, having been determined by a priest, a practice we still have. The horoscopes of the couple were checked, and the first Thursday in November was chosen. Last-minute preparations continued. In the chaos, domestic help was chided for their inefficiency. Mani was told not to be restless and sit in one place in her finery. Aunt Leela was told to keep an eye on the restless child-woman who wouldn’t sit still for a minute.
Mani’s mother was supervising breakfast when a servant shouted, “They’ve come! The royal guests are here!”
The house filled with excitement. Everyone went to the front door, so all could enjoy the fun and frolic for a moment. One look at the faces of the three who arrived, however, showed something was amiss. Was Mani’s family doomed, because false rumors had been spread because of family feuds, such as Mani suffering from infertility?
All questions were immediately put to rest as Mani’s father read the letter sent by Raghu’s maternal uncle. He turned pale, and his heart felt heavy with sorrow. His head reeling, he asked for water, forgetting he had guests.
Mani played with her friends for the last time. Her mother went to her husband and waited for him to share the dreadful news.

Stay tuned…

Mani – Episode 04

Mani – The Woman Of Courage.
Episode #4

After education and taking over as the head of the household two decades later:
Monty continued to occupy her thoughts, and she wanted to be immersed in them. At home, she told her parents all that happened, including the British visitor. She didn’t add her personal feelings or reactions. Those were locked in her heart, to be opened only when she was alone.

She often looked at her mother’s fabulous wardrobe and secretly bemoaned the fact that she was denied such clothes forever. For the first time, she wanted to look at the colored silks and Banaras tissues of her mother’s wardrobe and run her hands over the sheen.

With trembling hands, she felt a tawny tissue and brought it to her room while her parents chatted after dinner. Later, she locked the door, combed out her hair, and made a loose bun at the nape of her neck, tying it with a white jasmine garland with red roses, which she also took from her mother’s room. She gracefully draped the silk sari over herself and looked at her reflection in the mirror, wondering what she would’ve looked like if Raghu lived.

Is this child widow entitled to a second chance or no?
Who decides she or society?
Stay tuned…

Mani – Episode 03

Mani – The Woman Of Courage.
Episode #3

An inner voice said, your daughter isn’t the only one in this predicament. Who are you to change the dictates of society? You’ll be tempting men who are like hawks, waiting to use her youth Remember, she’s uncommonly pretty. You know that. Are you blind?

As his mind grappled with his confused thoughts, he heard Mani’s heart-rending pleas. In that split second, he made up his mind and said, “Quiet!”

After education and taking over as the head of the household two decades later.
Stay tuned…

Mani – Episode 02

Mani – The Woman Of Courage.
Episode #2

Breaking free, she ran to her father. “What are they doing to me? Please stop them. Why have all my aunts suddenly become witches?”

He was trapped between age-old social customs, his personal opinions, and his love for his precious child. He couldn’t bear her misery and cursed the cruel fate that struck them such a deadly blow. Luckily, Mani still didn’t know that without Raghu, she had no life.

She’s a mere child, he thought. What can I do to help her? It’s now or never. He felt he owed her at least a smile, however short-lived it would be. I have to stop what they’re about to do. It’s a heinous crime! This will truly test my sincere love against s misplaced belief in irrational traditions.

What does Mani’s inner voice say?
Stay tuned…

Mani – Episode 01

Mani – The Woman Of Courage.
Episode #1

Mani was widowed at the age of nine in the early 20th century.
Mani understood little. She couldn’t figure out why people spoke in hushed tones when she was in the room. She also didn’t understand why she never visited another city until many years passed.

“It must’ve been a totally shattering experience,” Kala remarked.
“Did Mani have any clue what her life would be or about what happened?” Tanu asked.

“Even if she didn’t have emotional ties with Raghu, she must’ve had some idea what was happening in the house,” Kala said. “There would’ve been no laughter but a lot of crying when people visited.”

“Yes, you’re right, Kala,” Prabha replied. “Mani was blessed in many ways. Her father was like the Rock of Gibraltar. He spared her some of the shame, misery, and indignity. She was blessed.”

On the tenth-day afternoon, Mani had to wear a long, white skirt, long blouse, and long scarf, locally called voni. It was a half-sari and soon became outdated, but it was very much in vogue during the early twentieth century for teenage girls. She didn’t notice anything amiss.

Then a barber came with scissors and knife to tonsure her head. That was done in the belief that it made a girl or woman look unattractive to men without her hair. He was interested in nothing but his payment. Two strong women caught Mani……

What happens next? Stay tuned…

Mani — The Woman Of Courage

Mani – written by Sesh Damerla, is a part of “America’s Finest Short Fiction” anthologies.

maniI knew Mani personally and admired her role of a matriarch in an era when women’s empowerment was unheard off. Naturally no story is complete without some imagination. It is fiction after all. The story line revolves around the e fact that widowhood [normally] in Mani’s era was the end of the world for a woman. But for Mani it was the advent of a new lease to life. Thanks to her father’s encouragement and foresight she was a role model for her peers. While many followed suite, a lot of others did ostracize the family.
Mani was probably a woman far ahead of her times. She was a thinker and a keen observer. She was may be a bit aloof but maybe because she was different to her many of her contemporaries who were less fortunate than her.