The temple bells had gone silent, just as my marriage had, the chants had stopped and the lamps were blown out by the winds. I descended the stairs that led into the temple tank. The water looked black, it was a moonless night. I dipped myself into it, and then up again, down, up, down, down, down…
“Shanta!” Amma screamed. “Wake up! It’s your wedding day!” I sat up straight. So it really is happening, I thought, as I rolled up my hair into a bun and sat on my bed, looking out of the window at the quivering reflection of the Shiva temple in the temple’s tank. The colours of the gopuram seemed even more vivid with the sun’s beams falling directly into the water. A priest dipped himself in the water – up, down, up, down, up, down and walked towards the temple door. The chanting of eeshwara’s name echoed through the streets. I sat at my window looking at men and women of the agraharam walk toward the temple gates.
In a few hours, this window, the sights, sounds and comfort of my mother’s house would no more be mine.
Amma rushed me out of bed and into the backyard. The women in the family surrounded us, while Amma oiled my hair and yellowed my body with turmeric. “Your long hair should shine and your face must look like the sun,” Amma said. “Sambu should see how we care for his bride.”
Sambamurthy, the mention of his name made my heart skip a beat. “The man is a prodigy,” my father had said, minutes before he came to see me two months ago. “He is a singer and an actor, one of the first in south India, all at 22 years,” Appa had claimed proudly. The latter was considered quite blasphemous, but his cutting his first music record when he was 13 years old sealed most rumour-mongers.
I am 13 years old now, I thought. And what have I to show for it?
Two months ago, when I was asked to sing at the traditional ponnu paakardhu, for the groom to accept me as his bride, I choked right in the middle of a verse in my eagerness to impress this man. But Sambu continued the verse and we sang the rest of the song together, not once removing our eyes from each other. When the song ended, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I will only marry her.”
Our two-storey house was lit up with a hundred lamps. Nothing was as bright but the temple across the street. When the ceremonies were over, the goodbyes said and the tears shed, Sambu grabbed my arm and whisked me into his black Ford, the only man to own one in the entire Madras Presidency. I felt the pride rise in me.
Sambu’s house, its walls and windows felt alien. Our own home was modest, built right at the heart of the agraharam. Amma told me that it was built by my great grandfather. It was an old house and its walls spoke to me about my ancestors, every article in my house had a past. Sambu’s house was new, British influenced and modern. It had shorter walls, fans and lights. The furniture was sleek, unlike our ancient teak wood ones, and the bathrooms were inside the house. How strange I thought.
But, there was nothing to be afraid of. Amma had trained me well. She told me that in the house Sambu’s father was the boss, in the kitchen his mother was the boss and in the bedroom, Sambu was.
After the family elders were asleep, Sambu took me into his room. The bed was decorated with white and orange flowers; its smell reminded me of Amma’s hands, stroking my hair till I fell asleep.
Sambu’s hands reached out to the back of my head. His fingers played around with my bun, until my hair fell loosely over my shoulders. He then slid his hands down to the hook that fastened my blouse at the back and undid it, while his other hand gently removed the sari pallu from my shoulder.
I had never felt pain and pleasure at once, like this, with a man on top of me. Sambu moved like the song he sang with me when we first met, gently caressing me. I closed my eyes and lay still. Amma had not trained me for this, but it was the bedroom and Sambu was the boss.
The melody continued every night.
One morning, I fainted in the kitchen. Sambu’s mother told me I was pregnant. She rushed to her Krishna idol and prayed for a son.
I began growing bigger, but started seeing lesser of Sambu. “My role as Chanakya leaves me with no time for you,” he explained one night. Sambu said he would be the first actor in the south to try shooting outside the studio. “The studio is too artificial for an artist like me,” he said. When Sambu didn’t return at night, I knew it must be his films that kept him away.
After almost two months since that night, I heard his Ford engine roll into the gate. Dressed as usual in his spotless white shirt and trousers, Sambu got out of the car holding a box of 555 cigarettes, and puffing on one. Sambu never smoked! That’s new, I thought. I met him at the door. He grabbed me by my hand and hurried into the bedroom. He did not even pause to greet his mother. “What’s the matter?” I asked him.
Sambu pushed me on to the bed, “Nothing you need to know,” he said. This time, his fingers didn’t bother to play with my bun. One hand tore open my blouse while the other lifted my sari up from my heels. There was no melody this time, no rhythm. There was no pleasure this time, only pain. But it was the bedroom and Sambu was the boss.
His mother woke me up. My head felt heavy. When I sat up, I saw the mattress was soaked in blood. Sambu had left. I heard her mumble, “What sin did you do in your previous birth Shanta!” “Lord Krishna, forgive her and give us a son!”
For two years after the marriage, those painful nights continued. Sambu had begun to scare me. He was becoming an animal! When I resisted, the violence only increased. There was no music left in my head, and there was no love in his eyes.
When I conceived again, I asked Sambu’s mother to send me home to Amma. Amma told me it was his films that worried him; that Sambu was not a changed man. I only wished I could catch a glimpse of the old Sambu.
My window and its view of the Shiva temple made me forget the pain of Sambu’s absence.
In the evenings, as the sun began to set, Amma would take me to the temple. We would sit at the tank; enjoy the chatter of people, the chants of the priests and the smell of camphor. When the gopuram’s reflection in the water faded with the setting sun, Amma and I walked back home.
Indu was born in Amma’s house, in the same room where spent my childhood. She was a beautiful baby. “Aren’t her eyes like her father’s?” “Her hair is like Shanta’s.” “The colour is definitely Sambu’s”… Where was Sambu? Appa was losing patience and faith in Sambu. “What kind of man leaves his pregnant wife uncared for?” Appa said. I sent a prayer to Shiva to bring Sambu home.
It was time to leave Amma again. Sambu had not been home in months, his mother said. But his letters told us he was fine. In one of our replies, after conveying his mother’s messages, I wrote, “If you don’t come more often, you will not see your daughter grow.” I hoped he would be home in time for Indu’s first birthday. She had already begun to take her first steps.
Sambu’s reply never came. Instead, we received a telegram from Sri Perumbudur, where Sambu’s film was being shot.
Car accident STOP Sambu dead STOP Body recovered STOP Come to claim STOP
Amma came home. “Shanta, we are leaving. You need to come.” Sambu’s mother tried, “You must be a good wife.”
I didn’t go. When the cremation was over, the rumour-mongers had plenty to say. “There was another body in the car, it was a woman!” “He was never with Shanta; that explains it!” “What will she do now?”
Was Sambu really with another woman? Wasn’t it his films that kept him away? Why were people talking? How did Sambu ruin my life? He seemed such a nice man when I first met him, even Appa had approved of him. May be there was another woman! How have I been so stupid that I didn’t see it earlier?
Sambu had left so much unanswered that in death, he made me hate him and hate myself. I refused to see his body; I refused to see my own. I threw the mirror out of my window and left Indu with Amma. The voices and the people and their pitiful eyes sickened me! I locked myself in Sambu’s room and covered my face with a black cloth.
I didn’t count the hours or the days. I didn’t realize when I ate. After forty days, when the mourning was over, Sambu’s mother had the door opened. She took me into the backyard, oiled my hair and yellowed my body with turmeric.
She then dressed me in white and called the barber in. “May your soul be one with Sambu’s,” she said. As the barber’s razor touched my head, Appa walked into the house.
“Shanta is an intelligent girl! I will not have you ruin her life,” he said. “I will put her back in school, she will study and she will work and earn. Her place is not in your kitchen!”
Appa took me home. It was six in the evening. The sun was setting and the temple’s reflection had begun fading from the tank’s water. The temple bells had gone silent, just as my marriage had, the chants had stopped and the lamps were blown out by the winds. I descended the stairs that led into the temple tank. The water looked black, it was a moonless night. I dipped myself into it, and then up again, down, up, down, down, down…