Friday, April 24, 2015

U – Uchchipillayar kovil, Rockfort - 1971

Four generations: Three continents: Two world wars: One village   
These are tales spanning four generations spread across three continents in between and after the two world wars of people who set forth under different circumstances from one small village called Agaramangudi.   

The story line traverses through different time lines, locations or incidents with no particular order. The only order being the alphabetical one – A to Z meant purposefully for the A to Z challenge. These posts can be read as standalone posts, but would be best comprehended if you read them along with their prelude provided as a link.

Uchchipillayar kovil, Rockfort, Tiruchy  – 1971

Maalu  was in the middle of  her second year of her three year Bachelor’s degree course at Sitalakshmi Ramaswamy College, when this wedding proposal came from a mutual relative. The horoscopes matched and the customary family background checks were done.  The groom and his family were  invited for the ‘bride seeing’ ceremony . On the day, the Groom-to-be arrived with this parents, sisters, aunt, a niece and nephew alongwith with the mutual relative who was brokering on behalf of both the families. After the initial small talk about the travel, weather and the prospects of Groom’s promotion chances in forthcoming  year, Maalu accompanied by her elder aunt, emerged from behind the door to serve coffee to the guests. 

Their eyes met for a microsecond when she glanced at the potential groom who was also trying to make eye contact with her.

After the coffee was served she sat down as was instructed to, and was asked to sing a song.  She was not exactly what one would call ‘musically inclined’.  It took her music teacher a great deal of effort to get her to render the customary songs with some decency so that she could potentially exhibit her musical abilities on the preparation towards the D-Day.  

On this particular day she did what best she could deliver. All went well except for the few strands in ‘Abheri’ ragam which went completely off beat when Maalu was asked to exhibit her singing abilities. The family , was not sure if the ‘groom party’ had noticed the imperfection in the musical rendering by Maalu.  Relief  came through , when they wrote back in a post card mentioning that the boy liked the girl and they would like to proceed further.

The groom’s parents came down the next week to negotiate the ‘terms’.
About 30  sovereigns in 24 carat gold jewellery, apart from two kilograms of silverware , all household utensils including a ‘Sumeet mixer’ and a grinder, some household furniture that included a four poster cot and mattress for the bride and groom  were agreed upon after a couple of hours of deliberations and haggling which involved repeated mentions of the boy’s academic achievements and earning capabilities, including the potential promotion that was expected by the end of the year.   There was also an ask to book a ‘Bajaj Chetak’ scooter which would take about thirty six months on the waiting list to arrive. It would be useful for the boy to take his wife and children around for shopping on Sundays in that alien town,  they had reasoned.  Subrahmanyam worked for a bank and was posted in a small town called Kolhapur, in the northern state of Maharashtra.

‘Maalu is very lucky’ the elder aunt told younger one with a tinkle in her eye. when Maalu was around  ‘ The boy does not look like the knit picking kind’ she added.

 They did not fail to notice that it was his mother who was scrutinising every bit of Maalu’s walking, talking, length of her hair and the realistic  colour of her skin beneath the talcum powder that had been used to lighten it up. The mother-in-law-to-be observed all around to gauge the family’s background especially its current social and economic worth. 

The groom seemed to be detached from all these worldly dealings. Like most eligible bachelors who had some standing in the marriage market, he had left it to the wisdom of his caring and concerned mother to negotiate the deal.

After the wedding, Maalu would set up home  in Kolhapur, some place up-north, far-away from Tiruchy. In a way, this meant that there would not be much of the mother-in-law taunts that all the other women had to go through when they were newly married and settled into a joint family.
That was what made her 'lucky' in the eyes of her aunts.  After all  she would have no one to pick on her if the vegetables that she cut were not in equal shapes and sizes or if the clothes drying on the clothes line on the terrace were not picked up and folded in the middle of the afternoon soon after they had dried.  That is, unless her husband took notice of it . He did not look the knit picking kinds. ‘But you never know’ , the women opined when Maalu was at a hearing distance.
There were things to still worry about. For one, Maalu did not pay much attention to learning household chores from her aunts and grandmother in all  these years . She would have to undergo the crash course  in the next two months, for that was when the marriage date was fixed for.

The ladies of the family were excited. 
The marriage expenses , especially the ‘Sumeet’ mixer and “Bajaj Chetak’ part of it, did look like it would not fit into the budget.  But balancing budgets was the men’s job. The women would get ready for the arrangements, the shopping, the invites, the planning and everything else that would go with pulling off a grand wedding befitting the family’s social standing.

Subbu had arrived the previous day from Agaramangudi.  Susee had sent with him a huge stalk of ripe bananas that had grown in the backyard of Sri Lakshmi Nivas and 108 coconuts from the coconut grove, to the Tiruchy house. 

All the women folk from the extended family along with Subbu and his brother, about nine of them got into the two Ambassador cars that were hired for the day . The Ambassador cars alighted on the foothill of Rockfort.   

They climbed the 365 steps of the Rockfort leading to the Uchchipillayar Temple along with the banana stalk and the bag containing the coconuts.  The banana stalk was an offering to the God of auspicious beginnings. On the way back they broke the 108 coconuts to ward off any evil eye that would come in their way of good times to come.   It was a ritual the families followed, everytime  a marraige was fixed or a baby was born.  It was a form of thanksgiving to the God of auspicious beginnings who reigned atop the huge rock formation in the center of the town of Tiruchy.  

After offering their prayers and the banana stalk at the Uchchipillayar temple at Rockfort, the family went shopping to the Saratha's silk house for the wedding purchases. 

In about four and a half hours, ( although it seemed like eternity to the menfolk), the women had reached a consensus.  They had finally decided upon and chosen about twenty seven silk sarees, seven for the bride and ten for the other close relatives for Maalu's wedding. 

The manager at Saratha Silk house felt it would be good marketing and sales pitch for the future to buy the family some tiffin and coffee.The extended family,  fussed around a little bit and then agreed for the invitation for Tiffin and coffee. A helper boy was summoned to get plates of  idli, vada , pongal and sambar. The green chutney and coconut chutney were complimentary along with the Tiffin. Tumblers of hot filter coffee perched in traditional davaras ( Steel saucer to hold the tumbler) was ordered soon after from the ‘Brahmin Mess’ across the temple tank.

Subbu was the father of the Bride.  As the  father of the bride was counting his huge wads of cash ( In 1971, there were no credit cards ) and was paying at the counter,  the aunts and uncles of the bride-to-be  were letting out loud satisfying burps after the last sip of hot filter coffee had gone in. With a lingering after taste of the filter coffee , the women double checked  to confirm  if all items were packed along with the complimentary jute and cloth bags that came with 'Saratha’s' printed on them.  It was extremely important to make this brand statement during the wedding.    For 'Saratha’s ' were the most reputed brand and leading silk saree retailers in Tiruchy for generations.

With the failing crops and political uprising of the labour class in the Thanjavur- Kumbakonam delta, Subbu was not exactly the prosperous farmer from Agaramangudi that he was,  a few years ago. He consoled himself that it was a once in a life time event for his darling daughter and thus a big occasion for him. 

Maalu, unlike in her music classes, had fared extremely well in academics and had topped the high school leaving exam. She had emerged the State rank holder . She scored a perfect 100 in mathematics which was her favourite subject.

Maalu had protested that her second year exams were clashing with the marriage dates, but the elders saw  no sense in her 'foolish' protests.  Her second year bachelor’s degree exam results would be of no consequence or use to her in the marital life that lay ahead of her. No one bothered to listen to her protests. Instead, she was told that, all a girl needed was some basic education, especially in English so that she could read the sign boards and some basic mathematics  so that she could maintain household accounts and pay the milk man and the dhobi ( laundry man) without getting cheated.

Subbu was well aware that  like in all marriages, the expenses would overshoot the planned budget. He returned to Agaramangudi and  went to meet Mohammed Basha, the bakery shop owner in Ammappettai . He bought some sweets from his bakery and let him know that his daughter’s marriage was fixed.  Last year,  Mohammed Basha had expressed interest in buying a few acres of land. Subbu wanted to sell the  land at the rear end of the coconut groves to meet the marriage expenses.  

Most Brahmins had left the Agraharam in the last decade, in search of salaried jobs in the city. And they were doing fairly well. Some of them leased their lands to other land owners or the erstwhile labourers who could now pay an advance for leasing out the land from the absentee landlords. A generation had now passed among the labour class.   Many labourers sent their sons to work in oil rigs in the gulf from where they would send home enough money for the family to save up and live a decent existence.  

Getting labourers to work on the agricultural lands was in short supply which in turn pushed the cost of daily wages required to pay the labour class. Over time many  families had converted to Islam and Christinaity.  There was an emergence of Muslim landowners who, with the money from the Gulf ,  had a good purchasing power over the fertile and highly  profitable tracts of agricultural land in the Cauvery Delta.

Subbu knew very well that it was not going to be long before his five brothers who now lived in different cities holding jobs in government offices would  start asking for their land to be sold to meet the marriage expenses of their daughters or to educate their son’s abroad

It was only a matter of time when his  time would come to emigrate to the city.  The political turmoil had usurped many of the social structures that his father’s and grandfather’s generation had taken for granted. . He was convinced that it was a wise decision to sell off atleast part of the farm lands that he could not mange on his own, than to get into huge debts to meet his daughter’s marriage expenses. He  would still be left with some land which he could call his own.    

The deals were struck .

One for the land and another one for Maalu. The land did not protest about its sale as did Maalu about her marriage. She was keen to finish atleast the second year of her college if not the entire degree course. She believed that she was undoubtedly the one to get the gold medal if she persisted. 

The bosses at the Bank in Maharashtra were not aware of Maalu’s exam dates , when Subrahmanyam asked for two weeks leave for his marriage, which they sanctioned.  

Maalu continued to go to college every day. As if some miracle would happen that would alter her destiny atleast temporarily so that she could chase  the pursuit of her gold medal.

She was not an impractical girl. She was aware of her father’s financial burden, but was irritated about it all. She was irritated with the entire social and cultural norms that came in her way of pursuing Mathematics. She could not help being jealous of Neelu, her cousin  who was studying Economics in Delhi and had no such stifling family circumstances to deal with.  Neelu’s parents were not so conservative and  would encourage Neelu to go on and pursue whatever she wished to do and determine her own future.

Why had reality got to be so different for Neelu and her ? 

She knew that she would have to come to terms with the reality that was very soon closing in on her.  She was now engaged and soon to be married. She could not run away from reality, try as much as she did.

It was the the day when the extended family had decided to go for the wedding purchases.  That morning Maalu said, she did not care about her wedding Trousseau  - the colour of the sarees or the designs of her wedding jewellery and went off to attend classes at the college.

Thus it was not ten members of the family but nine in all who fitted into two ambassador cars that afternoon to go to Uchchipillayar Kovil and then to shop at the Saratha’s . On the way back they stopped at Sitalakshmi Ramaswamy College , spoke to the Principal of the college and  picked up Maalu along with them.  

Maalu was squeezed into whatever little space there was left in the car. Her aunt who usually picked on Maalu for her clumsiness, her lack of attention to details and her complete disinterest in doing the household chores was suddenly being extraordinarily sweet with her. In the overcrowded car she got the eighteen year old Maalu to sit on her lap and hugged her tight.

Inside the ambassador,  the decibel levels were high. The arguments over choosing the ‘elephant design border’ blue kanchivaram saree in favour of the  ‘peacock design border’ green kanchivaram saree for Maalu’s ‘first night’ ceremony was being heatedly debated by her aunts.

A slightly irritated driver pressed on the accelerator. Maalu turned around and saw the ‘ Department of Mathematics’ building of her college whiz past her and fade away into that far away horizon .

Instinct told her, that day would be her last day in college... and it turned out to be correct.  

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