The Cursed Girl
(This story is set in an era when child marriages were rampant and widow remarriages were rare)
“Life is an exam with an unknown syllabus and no set question paper.”
I loved to hear Chottu revise his lessons. Pressing my ears close to the wall that bifurcates his study from my room, I tried to hear him read.
Exam was something that brought frenzied activities in the house. During those times, Father used to visit Chottu’s study once in the morning and in the evening. Chottu’s mother would treat him with a bonanza of hot samosas whose aroma came piercing through the wall. Some wise words were carefully whispered into his ears. The decibel levels of those precious words were very low to penetrate through the wall and hence I was never able to decipher what she said. Then there was too much excitement as Chottu left for the school in the morning.
Devender Uncle, who was the only person to have qualified till high school, would come and ask Chottu if he had thoroughly revised the entire syllabus. That is when I concluded that ‘syllabus’ was something related to an exam and then after Chottu returned; uncle would check a white sheet of paper that they termed as ‘question paper.’
They said he had some exam called ‘Moral Science,’ the following day.
I got a bit baffled by what Chottu read out just now.
‘ Exams, syllabus and question paper were all a part of some place called school,’ that had been my understanding all these years; but today he was reading of our lives being associated with all this. For someone like me who had never had the opportunity to attend school, it would be difficult to comprehend many things.
The birth of a girl child in the house did not exactly call for celebration and when I was born it called for no jubilation at all because my birth was a curse since my mother passed away upon delivering me, leaving me all alone to struggle in this world outside her cozy womb.
Apparently, my father remarried soon. My stepmother gave birth to three children. Chottu was the eldest one and was two years younger to me. Then it was Lakshmi and Shoba, twin sisters who were born a month after my marriage when I was eight.
My stepmother had nothing other than abhorrence for me. My father who worked for the Panchayat hardly had anytime to see me struggle everyday under her tyranny. My grandparents too seemed to nurture the same idea that I was a cursed child and the sooner I leave the house, the better. However, my grandfather had a soft corner for me, but had to keep his feelings under wraps fearing others’ wrath in the house. Poor man!!!
I remember in trances that while I was half asleep one fine morning, my aunt came and shook me out of the reverie that an eight year old girl was enjoying and put me under a deluge of water that my granny poured. My teeth chattered as the cold water mercilessly rubbed against my tender skin.
“Get her ready. The muhurtham* is at 8 am,” my granny cautioned my aunt and in another fifteen minutes I was draped in a long sari that had to be draped around me to somehow get the edge..the ‘pallu.’
A half sleepy boy was sitting near the sacred altar when I was dragged there. Then some rituals followed. I vaguely remember the boy tying a yellow thread around my neck and ladies blowing the conch. It was actually frightening.
I sat through the ordeal terrified to the core, even to stir. I longed for some sleep, but was asked to touch the feet of every other person starting with the boy who had been sitting next to me smiling sheepishly.
“We are blessed that someone agreed to take her as their daughter in law. This cursed soul ate up her mother no sooner than she was born. Now I have to put up with her for another few years till she comes of age and then send this wretched girl to her husband’s place.” My stepmother looked upwards with folded hands and probably talked to someone up there in the vast firmament.
It all sounded too complicated for my little head and I fell asleep at the earliest possible opportunity. Life, which was even otherwise miserable at the hands of a stepmother had turned horrendous after this ritual they termed as marriage. I was expected to keep myself draped in that nine-yard sari. Neither was I allowed to play nor was I allowed to jump around.
“You are married now, got it? It is our responsibility to make sure that you are handed over to your in laws in one piece so stop running and jumping around. If you break your hands or legs we are doomed for good.” My stepmother found a new way to harass me.
I thought I had been playing and jumping all these years without breaking a bone. May be after what they call marriage, girls have a chance of damaging their bones; I deduced using my tiny logic.
Days and nights were too stretched and never seemed to move. A few times the boy who had sat next to me at the altar came with his parents. I liked them because they got jingling bangles for me that I loved to wear. They also got sweets and the boy’s mother seemed to be an adorable person. She always hugged me while leaving.
“We will take you home soon,” she had said during her last visit.
Three days after that there was jubilation in the house. At fifteen I had attained puberty. It was celebrated with pomp. I heard my granny and aunt discuss along with my stepmother how matters should proceed.
“We should inform them to come and take her. Let them have the nuptials there,” my aunt chuckled much to my amusement as I found ways and means to find out what nuptials mean.
And then hell broke. That very night we had a visitor from the boy’s village who came rushing in. “He is dead, he is dead. A snake bit Vithhal when he had gone for an evening bath in the pond,” he screamed. Everyone in the house screamed.
This gave my stepmother a fresh opportunity to vent her anger on me. It would be an understatement if I said I was subjected to physical and mental torture.
“Cursed girl; now how will they take her? We are doomed, will have to bear with her for the rest of my life. God can’t you have some mercy on me and send the same snake to bite her too,” She ardently prayed as if her prayers would be answered with immediate effect.
Ten days after that, they decided that I don’t deserve to have those long cascading black hair. That is how a widow has to live, they taught me.
The village barber was brought in. I was made to sit on a stone in the backyard while he allowed his scissors to wander over my skull ruthlessly. I stifled my sobs as long tresses of hair kept falling on the ground.
“We will call for you as and when needed.” My father told the barber after handing over some money and food. He looked at me, rubbing his palms greedily. ‘This girl is only 15; my regular income from this household is taken care of,’ he was probably thinking thus.
“No going out from today, you understand?” my father who hardly spoke to me, instructed. “You can have your bath in our house pond, no moving around to the local pond and meeting friends. No one wants to talk to you. The neighbors have already told us to keep you indoors. Better stay home.” Then looking at my stepmother, he said, “Ask her to apply sandalwood on her shaved head and give her those white saris that I have got. And I hope you know at twilight you have to remove the yellow thread around her neck.”
My stepmother nodded, muttering all the while, ‘If the boy had died after she had spent a few nights with him, she would have been their property and they would have retained her there itself. It is my ill-luck that she is now a permanent burden on us.’ she slapped her forehead hard with her palm. It hurt me to see her punish herself thus. What was she up to?
Everything sounded so very weird. However one thing was assured; if life was worse after marriage, it was dreadful after my husband died.
Hours turned into days and days into months and years. However, these transformations in the universe brought no significant change in my life. Chottu hardly spoke to me these days. Lakshmi and Shobha were warned against visiting my room. My life was mostly restricted to this small area, except when I went to the verandah to put my clothes for drying. Here too I had been strictly warned not to loiter around or laze about for too much time. A world bright and cheerful beyond this window had stopped existing for me long ago.
The house’s discrimination was evident because the two girls were allowed to attend school; though there were talks that it would be only for a couple of years, their marriages also had to be fixed. By that time Chottu would be high school pass and well qualified to find a rich wife.
“Only this cursed soul will continue to haunt us,”, my stepmother often chided. My heart bled as there was no one to speak in my favour. Sometimes my grandfather did stand by me, but his voice was submerged in the vociferous echo of the house’s female clan.
Then one day, when I was nineteen, a middle-aged couple came home. They were strangers.
They had come to seek blessings of our village deity whose fame as a benevolent goddess having power to erase everyone’s ill-luck had spread far and wide.
I am not an atheist, but if our village’s Goddess had such powers, why was I being punished for no apparent reason or mistake of mine? Why was She not erasing my ill-luck?
Little did I know that the Goddess had bestowed upon me Her blessings and had probably sent this couple as Her messengers.
The couple said to my father that they had seen me in the verandah drying clothes and had taken an instant liking for me. My attire and shaven head stood testimony to the fact that I was widowed. They had a twenty-four-year-old son who had lost his wife a couple of years ago and they wanted to take me as his wife.
They spoke at length to all the elders in the house, but I, who was the main subject of discussion, was not considered important at all to be present there.
Once they left, mayhem broke in the house, “I had warned you not to allow her to loiter in the verandah,” my father was screaming at my stepmother.
My grandfather’s timely intervention put an end to all apprehensions about what people would say if I was remarried.
“Listen Jayendra,” he boldly told my dad, “Be happy that your daughter has got a new lease of life. Do not bother about what others will say. Will they come to take care of her later? Now she will have a family of her own.”
Grandfather was fortunate this time because my stepmother was on his side of the argument, more so because she wanted to see me off from this house. Grandfather was, therefore, able to press on this demand of marrying me off.
A heated argument followed and a debate that lasted for hours. My stepmother pointed out that Chottu’s marriage proposals were getting hindered because a widowed sister was in the house.
Disregardful of what others would say it was finally decided that my marriage would be conducted in the boy’s house with only close family members.
“What about the horoscope matching?” My grandmother asked much to the annoyance of her husband and daughter in law.
“What did we achieve by matching it in her first marriage?” I think my stepmother had a valid point there; so the chapter was closed. No one asked me what my opinion was. It carried very less or no value whatsoever in this household.
I was once again made to sit at the altar next to the guy.
I was nineteen and far more mature than an eight year old bride. Therefore, I sat through the rituals patiently and touched every older person’s feet meticulously before my husband asked me to accompany him to his room.
With mixed feelings and some excitement, I walked with him to a room on the house’s first floor. He opened the door. A small child was sleeping on the bed.
“This is my son Abhisumath,” he said pointing at the kid. “My wife, Sumati died upon giving birth to him.”
In a flash of a second many hitherto unknown facts dawned upon me. People in my house were aware of this kid but did not find it necessary to tell me that I was crossing a new threshold not only as a wife to a widower but as a mother to a two year old child.
Just then, my in-laws came with some relatives.
“Sumati was a cursed soul. She could not hold her son close to her bosom,” someone passed a subtle remark.
I was termed a cursed girl because my mother had died upon my birth. However here the mother was termed as cursed soul since she died out of child birth, giving birth to the most sought after male child.
‘When will this discrimination end!’ I sighed.
Some lines I had heard few years before reverberated into my ears. “Life is an exam with an unknown syllabus and no set question paper.”
How true! The significance of the lines had failed to influence a small girl, but today at nineteen I was in a position to grasp its complete meaning.
Yes, my life indeed had been an exam with an unknown syllabus. Was I aware that I would lose my mother at birth and be subjected to ill treatment at the hands of a stepmother? Did someone intimate me that I would be married off at the tender age of eight? Was this predicted that I would be widowed at fifteen? And then did I know that I was to be married off again at nineteen to nurture a kid?
Where does the need for a question paper arise? No one ever paid attention to my answers which were by far unsaid words.
Gathering myself I lifted the kid while he flashed a radiant smile living up to his name, Abhisumath, meaning ‘radiance of the sun’. I held him close to my bosom.
The soft touch of the tiny palms triggered the pent-up affection in me. Deep down my heart, I was a female yearning to give and accept Love. Only someone who had gone through the harrowing experience of having been denied the warmth of a maternal hug would understand the depth of its emptiness.
In a way I should express my gratitude to my stepmother for having taught me this bitter lesson in her own resentful manner. It had fortified the female instinct in me today to nurture a motherless kid. That would be my only exam in life now, but I would set my own syllabus to keep him cheerful and nurture him to become a good and honest man, never making him feel the absence of a mother. No one needs to set any question paper for me. I would give this exam unblemished, without one.
I had to tell my husband soon that I did not wish to share my Love and affection for Abhisumath with another child. I was afraid that the advent of my own progeny might dilute my Love for him.
Who says I am a cursed girl? I am blessed to shower my affection on a motherless child.