“Dowry is not so common in our community”, said my perima, while biting into a piece of pizza we just bought.
“That is true. It is considered a shame to demand from the bride’s parents. Although there are some people who still ask according to their convenience”, my mother added.
We were reminiscing their childhood days over dinner. Perima had come over to our place for the weekend and we were enjoying the occasional pizza (occasional for them, as they hardly eat junk food) for dinner.
“Who asks for dowry? Is there anyone in our family who did?” I asked.
“Oh I don’t know. But your grandfather had to pay a huge sum to get his sister married. You see, back then, girls used to get married in their early teenage. It was a big deal to the family if a girl is 23 and unmarried”, said my perima.
“I thought granddad’s sister was married when she was eight!” I said.
“Not her. She was the elder one. She got married when she was eight. She left to her in-law’s place like a princess”, said my mom. “This is the younger sister we are talking about. She was 23 and she was still living in your grandfather’s house when your grandparents were married.”
The year was 1921. A cute baby girl was born to Lakshmi and Gopalan in the village Poovambur. They named her Vedavalli. She was the second daughter, next to Kumudavalli. Lakshmi Gopalan gave birth to four more, komalavalli, Senkamalam, Srinivasan and Saroja, over the years.
Gopalan was an accountant who took care of the monthly expenses of the village. Being an accountant did not earn him enough to raise five children but the people in the village always gave the task to a Brahmin as they were considered to be good with numbers. Lakshmi managed to feed and educate her kids with the little money her husband brought home. She never complained about anything nor did Gopalan pave way for it.
Around the time Saroja was born, Lakshmi’s second cousin passed away from long illness and his children were fatherless at a very young age. Lakshmi and Gopalan offered consolation and help to the poor widow, Ranganayaki. Lakshmi and Gopalan took the responsibility of raising her children along side theirs.
Krishnamachari took after his late father and became the accountant in his town, Kadagambadi. He was tall, fair and handsome. He was working part time while studying P.U.C in the city, Madrasapattinam. He was a bright and a responsible young man. He was calculating the expenses of the village temple in the living room when his uncle Gopalan dropped in.
“Welcome uncle,” invited Chari, “please sit. I will call mother.”
Gopalan sat in the arm chair next to Chari’s table.
Rangnayaki came out of the kitchen and offered her greetings to Gopalan.
“Welcome, welcome. How are you? How is Lakshmi?” she asked.
“I am fine, thank you. She is fine. She asked me to pass this jar of pickle to you. She made this for you."
“Please tell her I said thanks. Let me bring you coffee.” She took the jar inside the kitchen.
“So, how are your studies coming along?” Gopalan asked Chari.
“It is going good, uncle. I have my final exams next month.”
“Prepare well. You are head of the family now. All the responsibilities are devolved upon you.”
“Yes uncle. I am preparing well. I am hoping to find a job as a radio technician here. Radio is very popular among the public now and there has to be someone to fix the thing when it fails.”
“Yes you are right. In fact, the owner of the radio shop in this town, Mr. Narayan, is an old friend of mine. I will talk to him into taking you as an apprentice. You can learn the work before you graduate and set up your own service.”
“Thank you uncle”, said Chari.
Ranganayaki came out of the kitchen with copper tumbler. “Here is your coffee.”
“I was just telling Chari that he could get a job as a radio technician with my friend Narayan, after he graduates”, said Gopalan, drinking coffee from the tumbler. “I will sponsor for him and send him to Bombay to learn Radio mechanics engineering. It is a one month course. It will be very useful for him in the future.”
“I don’t know how to thank you for all the help you have done”, she said. “Ever since my husband’s death, Lakshmi and you have been a pillar to my family.”
“Oh come now. Don’t be so formal. We did what we could. It is our duty. We cannot stand by and see you struggle.” He finished his coffee and gave the tumbler to her.
Chari changed the topic, “Uncle, I am sorry but I have to take leave. I have to explain the profit and loss to the temple manager. Please have your lunch here. I will be back soon.” He took his papers with him. “Ma, I am going to the temple. I will be back in an hour.”
“How is your elder daughter, Kumuda? Is her in-law treating her well?” enquired Ranganayaki.
“She is fine. Actually, I came here to talk to you about my second daughter Veda. Lakshmi and I thought we could….”
“What is it?”
“We were wondering if you would marry off Krishnamachari to our daughter Vedavalli.”
Ranganayaki was silent. “Why are you hesitating? Don’t you like the alliance?” asked Gopalan.
“No. It is not that. I was thinking of marrying him to your younger daughter Senkamalam. Since Chari is fair, I thought Senkamalam would be a good match for him.”
“Looks don’t matter. I am sure Veda will be a perfect match for him. She is very patient, homely and cooks very well.”
“All right. If you say so”, she accepted.
“Good. I cannot give her a lot of money/jewelry. As you know, I am not paid that well. But I will send her off with a grand wedding that I assure you.”
“No problem at all. You have done a lot for our family. It is my turn to pay my gratitude in some way.”
“Well, then its settled. Bring some sugar to mark this alliance”, Gopalan said happily.
Ranganayaki brought a piece of barfi (sweet) and gave him. She packed some sweet to give to his children.
“I am leaving home. I have to tell this good news to Lakshmi”, he said.
“Have lunch. Chari should be back in a while.”
“That’s fine. I will see him soon, won’t I? My friend is leaving the town and he said he’d give me ride in his bullock cart. I don’t want to keep him waiting. Give my regards to your children.”
“Sure. Give my best to Lakshmi”, she saw him off at the entrance.
Gopalan entered his house when Veda was bathing the cow in the backyard.
“Lakshmi!”, “Lakshmi!” he called out. “Where are you?”
Lakshmi came out of the kitchen with a tumbler of water. Gopalan drank it. “How was the journey”, she asked.
“It was smooth. Guess what happened? I spoke to Ranganayaki about the marriage and she accepted to take Veda as her daughter-in-law.”
Lakshmi was very elated. “When can we have the wedding ceremony?” she asked curiously.
“First thing after Krishnamachari graduates”, he said.
Veda was informed of this wedding that night. Hailing from an orthodox Brahmin family, she was not asked for her opinion. It was never the girl’s decision. But she did not mind. She lived for this very reason: to get married and serve her husband. She was short for a fifteen year old; slim with a skin tone of coffee bean. She was stopped from schooling after fifth grade like any other girl in the village and helped her mother in the household work. She took good care of the house after Kumuda was married. She woke up early every morning, decorated the entrance with kolam (Rangoli), drew water from the well for her parents to bathe, cleaned the kitchen, bathed the cows, washed the clothes and did the dishes. This was her routine and she liked performing these, day in and day out. She learned cooking and she excelled in it.
The day Krishnamachari graduated, word got out that he was going to be married to Veda from Poovambur. Ranganayaki, although she gave her consent, was not completely happy with a daughter-in-law without money. She felt she was obligated to marry her son to Gopalan’s daughter for all the favours he had done during her grievance. So she did not accept to attend the wedding.
“Uncle supported my education, raised me in his house, sponsored for my radio engineering and got me a job. I don’t care whether the girl is bringing money or not, whether she is fair or not. I owe him a lot. I am doing this for him. My word is final”, Chari boldly faced his mother. Ranganayaki did not attend the wedding.
Wedding arrangements were made in Poovambur and the day was decided. The wedding celebrations took place for ten days. Friends and relatives gathered to enjoy the special occasion, thoroughly.
On the first day, the bride’s relatives helped to prepare the bakshanam (food items mostly sweets and spices). The second day, on Friday, Sumngali prarthana was done to ensure long married life to the bride. Then there was nalangu: the belief was that the bride’s life would be as colorful as the turmeric and mehendi applied on her. The engagement happened on the fourth day. Then there was janvasam, where the groom was invited by the girl’s side. The sixth day was Bramachariya Bhojanam (What we call Bachelor party), the groom took his last meal as a bachelor with his friends.
The actual marriage took place on the seventh day: an auspicious day, with relatives’ blessings, Arundhati star witnessing, after the Kasi yatra drama, Krishnamachari tied the knots and Veda was married for eternity. The wedding food was enormous with all the delicacies. The eighth day was allocated for Grahapravesam, where the girl walked in to her husband’s house for the first time. The newly married couple was given fruits and milk. The next day there was nalangu again but for both of them where they would play games and tease each other.
The last day was Agni Hotram. A homam (fire ritual) is built and a small lamp is lit from it. Veda carried the lamp and stepped into her new house with lots of hopes and dreams to be a happy family. Her parents bid her goodbye and she was sent to her in-laws’ house, with loads of memories, farewell tears and love.