‘Aiyyo1! Akka2, don’t pull my hair too much, it hurts!’ cried Vani. Vanaja, her elder sister would hear none of this. With her teeth dug into a plastic comb, she kept moving her fingers deftly while plaiting Vani’s tuft of hair…right strand on to the left; left strand over to the right, then the centre to overlap the right and so on. Intermittently, she took the comb and straightened the rest of the loose hair. ‘Such unruly hair needs to be tamed, so shut up and don’t move,’ she chided. When the last inch was braided and a string of fragrant white jasmines tucked neatly at the top of the coiled plait, she gave a thud on the back of Vani’s head signaling the job was done. Vani hated this evening ritual. She loved her wavy black hair and the way it bounced when left unoiled and open. On Sundays when amma3 gave her a head-bath with sheekaya (soap-nut) paste, Vani wouldn’t allow her sister to oil it. ‘Please akka, just for this one day. I‘ll come to you the first thing tomorrow morning, I promise.’ But Vanaja was a stickler for ritual.
Vani gazed at herself in the mirror and she couldn’t help admiring her dark, shiny, wavy hair cascading like a black waterfall ending a little below her hips. This was Lakshmatta’s (Lakshmi + atta, aunt)) house and there was nobody here to stop her from ogling at her tresses. Lakshmatta was a second cousin of Vani’s father and lived just two streets away from their home with her husband Prasad Rao and her blind octogenarian mother who was mostly sick. Since Lakshmatta had no offspring of her own, all her maternal outpourings would be directed towards Vani and her younger brother Ravi. For some reason, Vanaja was not the recipient of this generosity as were her younger siblings. Lakshmatta found Vanaja haughty and obstinate. Vanaja too avoided the subtle comments Lakshmatta passed on her looks. There was no love lost between the two. If ever there was a puja or a family gathering at Lakshmatta’s house, Vanaja would make some excuse or the other to not attend. If it was a nagging headache on one occasion, it would be her veena (musical instrument) classes on another. Once she even concocted a story of her periods coming much before schedule and hence prohibiting her from attending the puja. However, Lakshmatta didn’t miss her and so never bothered to probe.
Today was a special day. Lakshmatta and her husband left early for Vani’s home. It was Vanaja’s pelli-choopulu (boy-sees-girl for marriage) ceremony. The prospective groom and his parents, along with his elder sister and brother-in-law were to arrive from Vizag by afternoon. Amma needed help in the kitchen. Besides getting Vanaja bathed, decked and readied for the event, there were many things to be cooked – tamarind rice, gaarelu4, jantikalu5 (savouries) and of course ravva-laddoos6 to cater to the boy’s sweet-tooth as was advised by the match-maker! To Vanaja’s chagrin, on days like these, amma couldn’t do without the expertise of Lakshmatta, whose culinary skills were legendary in the entire extended family. Father also found a docile consultant in Prasad uncle. So, the couple was called in for help and support. Vani on such occasions always felt lost. She was like a paper boat in water – rudderless and drifting aimlessly. Everyone fussed over akka. Amma was busy digging into the steel trunk to pull out her kasulaperu6 and chandra-haram7 (types of necklaces) that would adorn her elder daughter’s neck. Father went off with uncle to arrange for betel leaves and gifts. Her brother Ravi was running errands; the servants were cleaning and dusting every nook and cranny of the house. Mango leaves were being strung together to adorn the doorway. Cow-dung water had been sprinkled in front of the gate and two little girls from the neighbourhood were busy joining the rice-powder dots to form an intricate muggu (design, rangoli) on the open ground. In all this hustle-bustle Vani’s contribution was never asked for. Instead each time there was ‘match-making’ for Vanaja, she would be deliberately sent off to Lakshmatta’s house on the pretext that someone needed to take care of the old lady. Not that Vani didn’t know the real reason for being kept away, but she never protested in the interest of her elder sister. She would be dying out of curiosity to know how the boy looked and what questions he asked Vanaja, but everything had to wait till the guests were finally seen off at the bus station or the railway station.
So, today was the third time in the past one and a half year, when Vani was at Lakshmatta’s house under such circumstances. Her mind kept drifting from her looks to her home. What must be going on in the house, she wondered. The final batch of the tiny ring-shaped chegodi8 must be coming off the hot peanut-oil. Fresh butter-milk, seasoned with mustard and curry leaves, must be ready to be poured into steel tumblers. The heady aroma of the filter-coffee decoction must have pervaded the whole house. Kanakambaram9 flower garlands, wrapped in a wet cloth, must be waiting to be offered to the ladies from the boy’s side. Akka must be looking resplendent in her Banaras brocade sari. Amma preferred the yellow one as it lightened her daughter’s not-so-fair complexion and gave her a special glow. The veena would be lowered from its case and coconut oil applied on its bridges to make it shine. It often occupied the centre of the front room on a day like this and the sofa-set would be lined up on one side.
No one could play the veena like akka did. Each swara10 would turn magical when akka’s fingers pressed and gently caressed the strings. She always played her pet composition ‘sundareswaruni chuchina’ (I saw the beautiful Lord), a Tyagaraja kriti11 in raga12 Sankarabharanam. She could put anyone into a trance with her mastery, so impressive was her art. Then why did boy after boy reject her? Agreed, akka was no beauty but neither was she ugly. Like Lakshmatta said, ‘If only our Vanaja applied some talcum powder and kept her eyes lowered, no one would notice her complexion or squint. She would then resemble a moon! Once married, even a blind girl is desirable.’ But akka went against any such advice and told Lakshmatta point blank that doing so amounted to nothing but cheating. She would make it a point to look straight into the boy’s eyes after she finished playing the veena. And the matter would end there. The boy’s family very politely would say they would get back in a few days’ time. But by then amma knew better and would immediately send for Shastri garu13 to search for another match.
Vani remembered the first time such boy-sees-girl ceremony was held at her home. Elaborate preparations were done. She was so excited while deciding which half-sari to wear for the evening. She took special care to apply perfume and pleaded with akka to let her keep her hair loose. She didn’t forget to apply kohl to her big dove-like eyes. Akka too looked so good that day in a red and green Kanjeevaram sari. All went well till akka looked up. Vani later came to know through Lakshmatta’s mother that the boy’s family had asked for her hand instead, as there was hardly a three year gap between the two sisters. Akka wept for a whole week and father got so furious. Calling them ‘rrr…aaascals,’ he refused even ‘his bitch to those dogs.’ Ever since then, on every ‘match-fixing’ ceremony, Vani was forever packed off to Lakshmatta’s house to avoid any such bizarre repetition. Vani didn’t know how to dangle between pride and guilt, so she accepted her parent’s diktat as a matter of fate.
‘God, please let the boy fall so much in love with akka’s magical veena recital that nothing else should matter,’ prayed Vani. ‘God, let the true path to a man’s heart be through his ears,’ since the one through his stomach was being taken care of by amma! After all, the boy was a doctor from King George Medical College, Madras and who else would know that beauty is only skin deep! Over and above he was a Carnatic music aficionado. She knew that once akka got married this quarantine of hers too would end. She could then muster the courage to tell father about her plans to pursue MA in Telugu Literature from Maharaja Girl’s College, Vizianagaram. But if this proposal failed like previous ones, he would then have an excuse to say, ‘God alone knows how much money I’d have to pour into the groom’s mouth to marry your elder sister. How can I spend it on you before her marriage is solemnized?’ So, although her prayer appeared a bit selfish, nevertheless Vani prayed fervently.
While her mind was figuring out the pros and cons of her situation, she could hear someone moaning. The sound came from one of the rooms in the inner courtyard. She suddenly remembered that she wasn’t alone in this house. There was Lakshmatta’s mother too. The moaning grew louder as she approached the room. ‘Nannamma14! What happened Nannamma?’ she rushed to pick up the old lady sprawled on the floor. Sighting froth from her lips, Vani panicked. She reached for the glass of water kept under the cot and tried pouring some into the old woman’s mouth. All Vani could hear was, ‘Lakshmi, Lakshmi’. Vani shouted for help but no one came. Without wasting another moment she ran towards her home. She ran like a mad woman – bare-footed and with hair hoisted like a fluttering flag in fierce winds. Breathless she reached the gate and without even entering the main door she yelled, ‘Lakshmatta, Lakshmatta, Nannamma has fallen, come quickly.’ Saying so she reached the front room where Vanaja had just finished playing the veena, and her eyes were still lowered. But as Vani burst into the room all eyes including the boy’s riveted towards her. It fell on her displaced half-sari, her smudged kohl, her reddened cheeks, her heaving bosom and her long disheveled hair. There was stunned silence as Lakshmatta, her husband and father rushed out into the street. Vanaja now looked up to meet the boy’s eyes that were fixed on Vani. Vani in turn stared at akka. For a moment akka looked like a raging goddess with a squint.
(Most of the following terms are from Telugu)
1. Aiyyo: Alas.
2. Akka: Elder sister.
3. Amma: Mother.
4. Gaarelu: Donut-shaped non-sweet cakes made of black-gram dough, fried brown in ghee or oil. Gaare (singular); gaarelu (plural).
5. Jantikalu: Macaroni-shaped crisp savouries made of rice flour and fried in oil.
6. Kasulaperu: A golden chain of round coins.
7. Chandra-haram: A golden chain of more than one strand of beads
8. Chegodi: Crisp ring-shaped fried savouries made of rice flour.
9. Kanakambaram: A plant with yellow, red or saffron flowers. Crossandra infundibuliformis (firecracker flower).
10. Swara: Any of the seven Indian classical notes of music.
11. Kriti: Devotional composition in Indian classical music.
12. Raga: Melodic mode.
13. Garu: Garu or Gaaru, an honorific suffix (like Ji in Hindi).
14. Nannamma: Grandma (Father’s mom; Naanna + Amma)