Translated by Deepa Bhasthi. Written more than 80 years ago by a 27-year-old, Gowramma’s stories opened a path for other women writers to follow.
When I was a little boy, my neighbour’s son went to England for an exam and returned after touring Europe. Thereafter, the respect the villagers gave him, his car, his fashionable clothes, the way he walked, the way he talked—everything—made me long to go to England and return like him. As I grew older, this desire formed in my childhood, became stronger, instead of being forgotten. So fierce a longing it was to go to England that right through school I was the class topper: a model student in school. There was no one who did not hold me in high regard in school and at home.
After finishing high school and joining college, my desire to go to England became so strong it overrode everything else.
My father had enough to lead a comfortable life, but he could not afford to send me abroad. I did not know this then.
That year, I had sat for my B.A. exams. The holidays had started. The exam results had not yet come. I did not have any worries over the results though. I knew that I would pass in the first class.
During those holidays, my younger sister’s husband Anantha, who was studying Law in Madras, had come home. We were sitting around chatting after dinner when he said, “Ramu, after B.A. you will come to Madras, won’t you?”
Before I could answer, father said, “After B.A. only B.L. is left, after all. The town is full of lawyers. But nothing else comes to mind. He will come with you. Ramu, what do you say? Will you do B.L. or an M.A?” he asked.
Where is the dream of travelling to Europe, I.C.S. exam, car, etc… that I had dreamt of from the time I could remember! And where is killing time as a lawyer after passing B.L.! I laughed.
“I wish to go to England, father,” I said.
It is natural that every father wishes for his son to sit for an important exam, get a prestigious job, and earn a lot of money. But father did not have the means to send me to England. I realised that the moment I saw the slight hint of a smile on his face disappear.
“I want to send you to England much more than you dream of it, Ramu. But tell me, what shall I do for the money?”
Father’s words exploded the dream I had nurtured for many years and left me dejected. That night I couldn’t sleep. Between the dream of many years and its fulfilment stood the obstacle of money. Money! Money! The whole night I remained wide awake, chanting, “what will I do for money”, “what will I do for money.” I fell asleep at dawn. Even in my sleep, the same question of money, strange dreams.
When I woke it was past nine. But I did not rise from the bed. Instead, I turned to the wall and kept thinking about money. I did not want to get up. I lay in bed for at least another hour. Then, Ratna, my younger sister came and said, “Ramu, father is calling.”
I jumped up, washed my face and went to father’s room. There, father and Anantha were talking. Seeing me at the door, father said, “Come here, Ramu.”
I went inside and stood behind father’s chair. Looking at me, Anantha smiled and stood up. Father saw him stand up and said, “Don’t go, Anantha,” then turned to me and said, “Sit near Anantha, Ramu.”
From the smiles on their faces, I guessed that something was going on.
Once I sat down, father looked me in the face and said, “Ramu, for a few days now I have been receiving letters from parents asking about you as a son-in-law. You are my only son. Your mother is also eager to see a daughter-in-law,” he laughed softly.
It did not seem right to me that father was bringing up the topic of marriage on the very day my dreams had shattered. That apart, I had no interest in marriage—at least for some time. In the realm of imagination, I had thought of the girl I would marry and grown jubilant. That was there, but why bring up marriage on the same day that my life’s main goal was destroyed? I did not have the heart to hurt the feelings of my parents who had never gone against my wishes.
Anantha was looking at me and smiling. Seeing me quiet, father said, “Ramu, I did not want to get you married so soon either. But look, if you get married now, you can go to Europe like you wish. The girl’s parents will finance your education. What do you say?”
I finally understood then why father had brought up the subject of marriage the same day that I had given up on my dream to go to England. I felt a bit happier. But then, during debates in college I had often argued against dowry. I had vowed that when it was my turn to marry, I wouldn’t take a single paisa, and had thus demonstrated my virtue before friends who had taken dowry. I had strongly condemned this social evil so many times!
Now did I have to abandon my dignity, go against my beliefs to travel to England? Do I fulfil my lifelong dream or do I stand by my heart’s beliefs and keep my self-respect? Both were important to me?
Seeing me wordless, father said, “Think about it and tell me later,” and went outside.
The moment father went out, Anantha began to lecture me non-stop. “What is it, Ramu? What’s there to think about? The offer came yesterday. Look now, if you get married, you can go to England this year itself. Till you come back, the girl will be in her father’s house. She is now in her matriculate class. If you say yes, after matriculation they will send her to college too, it seems. She is also learning music. The girl’s father is a zamindar, Ramu; she’s the only daughter; taking money from poor people is one thing. When they are keen to give, why are you hesitating? You are a lucky chap, what do you say? Just say yes,” he went on.
His words did not fail to interest me too. Yet, my heart did not agree immediately. “I will think about it. Give me time till the evening.”
“Do that,” he said, patted my back and left.
I sat alone thinking things through. Even by lunchtime I had not arrived at a decision. In the evening, I was returning after a stroll when Anantha asked, “What have you decided, Ramu?”
I still hadn’t decided anything. But the word “okay” slipped out of my mouth.
“Congratulations, old chap!” he said and patted my back.
“Aiyo, why did the word okay come out of my mouth. Having always trusted in love marriages, why had I sold myself for money? Is it marriage or is it trade…no, for the sake of money why should I spoil a girl’s life…?”
But by then Anantha had gone in and told everyone that I had agreed to the match. Everyone was very happy. Me? Even though I was about to succeed in attaining my life’s goal, I did not feel as happy as I should have felt.
The next day, Anantha asked me, “Don’t you want to go see the girl?”
For someone marrying for money, what was the point in seeing the girl? “No, Anantha. I have said yes anyway, what is the need to see her now?” I asked.
He also said “Your wish” and kept quiet.
It was decided that the wedding would take place at the end of the month. The girl’s house was in Hyderabad. The wedding was to be in her house. Before the wedding, my exam results were announced. I stood first in the university. My father and mother were happy; father-in-law and mother-in-law tobe were happy; Anantha and Ratna were happy; all my friends were happy. But the day I knew my dream would be fulfilled I was not happy.
From the day the wedding date was fixed, no one had time in my house. There was a conflict going on between the duality of wishes and disappointments at the same time in my heart. The days flew by and there was only one week before the wedding. The preparations for our departure began. My uncles came with their wives and children from the village. Some people from the neighbouring houses also came. Finally, two days before the wedding, with great enthusiasm, everyone boarded the train. When we reached Hyderabad the next afternoon, they were waiting with cars to welcome us.
The house we were taken to was huge. The girl’s family lived in the house in front of it. That house was also just as big, three storeys high. The girl’s father, with a zari turban around his head, kept running from that house to this and back, making sure we were well looked after. He was father’s classmate. But this was the first time I had met him.
A group of women from the opposite house came and peeped at me through the doors and windows just as we had sat down after lunch. Last year when father had bought a new motorcycle, I remembered how the neighbours had come to see it. I got up from there, pulled a shawl over my head and slept. But it kept pricking me that I had been sold.
The next morning at ten o’clock was the dhare, the auspicious hour of the wedding. Before that I wished to meet the girl who was to be my wife. But how would I see her? When I was asked earlier if I wanted to see her, I had said no. What would they think of me if I said I wanted to meet her now?
Still, at around four o’clock the previous evening I called Anantha and said, “Anantha, before getting married I want to see Shari once…”
Anantha laughed, “What’s your hurry? You will see her tomorrow,” and silenced me.
At the mantapa, the wedding pavilion, Shari and I were standing opposite each other. Between us was a veil. Through the veil, I could vaguely see Shari. In just five more minutes I would see her directly before me! Still, I felt like those five minutes before the raising of the veil were unending.
Finally, the veil was lifted. Shari was not like the queen from the world of my imagination; her skin was reddish-brown; she was thin and tall.
The priest said, “Place the garland, child.”
She was looking straight at me and standing still. He repeated, “Place the garland, dear child.” She stood like a statue.
Just then her mother came near her and said, “Shari, he is standing right in front of you dear, put the garland on him.”
Her hands holding the flower garland came forward and I bowed my head. She fumbled and slowly put the garland around my neck.
I saw her face again. The two drops of tears that had filled Shari’s eyes fell on her cheeks and disappeared.
I understood then what no one who had come to the wedding from my side had realised.
My wife Shari was blind.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Yoda Press
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta