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.